If your transition from riding a bike with coaster brakes to riding one with hand brakes was anything like mine, your family still probably enjoys bringing it up. Excited to progress to the style of bike that all the big kids rode, I confidently walked up to the edge of our steep driveway and prepared to launch. I picked up my feet and let potential energy, paired with my new ride, do the rest. Halfway down the driveway, (it was a very short driveway) I was at a point of complete panic. I didn't know what I had gotten myself into, but I wasn't prepared to stop. I pedaled backwards. I put my feet on the ground. I tried turning, and I ended up stopping "sort of" under the bumper of our car parked on the street. I say, "Sort of under the bumper" because I nearly missed it. That's how my pride tells the story, anyway.
My first attempts at any activity follow a similar theme to my first bike ride down the driveway. I attempted my first backpacking trip without a sleeping bag, as you already know. My first experience skiing has plenty of stories attached to it, too. In fact, I can tell you a story of how I've embarrassed myself in every activity I've tried for the first time. My first experience going on a solo winter camping trip is no exception.
The first time I went winter camping was with my college buddies. I had a 0 degree synthetic bag and that was enough for a great night camping. Just last year I thought I would try going on an overnight winter backpacking trip by myself. The only thing that changed from my first winter camping trip was that I had a new -15 degree down sleeping bag, and I would be going alone. This trip was when I learned about ALL the differences between down and synthetic bags. Prior to this trip, I had never brought a sleeping pad on a camping trip and I never needed one. Synthetic insulation doesn't pack down as much when you lay on it and therefore provides insulation from the ground. Down does not. I needed the insulation that a sleeping pad has to offer. I found myself rolling over until one side of my body got cold. Then, I'd roll over and repeat. I essentially became a rotisserie chicken, only I wasn't getting warmed up. About 11:00 at night, I made the call to go back home. I packed up and hiked back to my car. My car wasn't that far away, because I wanted to ensure that hiking out was always a safe option.
I came back weekends later and tried the trip again with a sleeping pad. I had a great time. I continued to go on enough solo winter camping trips that I didn't think twice about it anymore. I decided that I wanted to push myself even further, so I planned and completed a 3-day, 45-mile, solo trip this winter. My trip took me through the Snowy Range Mountains in southern Wyoming and temperatures dropped below zero. While I'm certainly proud of my personal growth over the past year, I'm really trying to encourage you to fail forward. Had I never taken my first short trip down the driveway, hiked several miles in to camp without a sleeping bag, or "forgotten" my sleeping pad, I wouldn't be where I am today.
I always ask myself at the end of each journey, "Having started here, where can it lead?" If you ask yourself this question, you'll start to fail forward. Failing forward means that you don't dismiss an opportunity simply because you might not be the best or that you might make a mistake. It also means you don't jump into a situation that could be really dangerous. It means you set out purposefully so that you can learn when you need to. Failing forward is the concept I used when I camped close to my car the first time winter backpacking so that I could turn back if I got too cold. Eventually I learned enough so that I didn't have to turn back.
I'm someone who loves the idea of being great at an activity right away, but I've found it rarely (if ever) happens. There are plenty of people who I look up to and they sound so extreme. To be fair, they are, but I'm sure they didn't get to where they are without making a single mistake. At the same time, we can all feel more extreme at something than someone else, because we are. To get to the, "next level" we have to set being extreme to the side, though. We have to open ourselves up to failing forward (which means making mistakes with a safety net in mind). I have a feeling that when we set out to do something we've never done before, we'll make a few mistakes. I hope we do, and I encourage you to share your experience with others when it happens.
Getting out to try something new and figuring out how to improve is the most extreme thing any of us will ever do. I'm confident of that as I look back on my first ride down our driveway. You can't tell my 5-year-old-self that my ride down the driveway wasn't extreme. Now, I just look back at all of it, shake my head and smile.
Failing Forward: How I've learned About the Outdoors
By Chris Martin
April 30, 2014
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