The Pandemic Survival Skill You Didn't Know You Learned In The Outdoors

By the 34th mile, every bend in the trail hid what I expected to see just ahead: A glimpse of the trailhead register. The shimmer of a vehicle in the parking lot. Laughter or noise floating from the campground. Yet minutes—nearly an hour—went by, in continued stoicism set from the sounds of the old-growth forest.

Hope carried my swollen, dragging feet through every twist of the North Fork Sauk River Trail, which seemingly had no end. We’d hiked 10 hours the day before and were on the 12th hour of our second day, after a brutal 4am summit push of Washington’s 5th highest peak, Dakobed (Glacier Peak). I was spent, and I was ready to be done. I’d tried holding my breath, counting steps to the finish line. I’d tried wringing my hands anxiously around each trekking pole. Finally, I ditched the desperation. I resorted to distraction, to peacefulness, and to patience.

Gradually, things got better. My feet hurt less. The sun shone brighter. The noises, smells, and details of the forest appeared with demanding beauty. I forced myself to breathe, and to wait with purpose. I tolerated my suffering and embraced the uncertainty.

This moment is what the world is experiencing right now. In quarantine, we are trapped in a place where hope hangs like a carrot, tempting our instincts to set deadlines. Provoking our compulsion to make plans. And with so many stay-at-home orders beginning to lift—or under discussions about lifting—we regress to unbridled, reckless hope, when what we need is patience.

The truth is: We have intimate familiarity with patience. People who recreate outdoors are better suited for the current challenge that COVID-19 presents us specifically because of this patience. We just need to adapt the frame of mind we employ when we’re on adventures to the global crisis at hand.

That hope you feel fluttering in your chest when you scroll through your newsfeed is the same feeling that drove me to tune out the trail and enjoy my surroundings. No, this isn’t our instinct. That’s why they call it “practicing” patience: It takes work.

When time itself feels distorted, embracing uncertainty isn’t an easy ask.

We don’t know when offices will invite employees back to work, or when bars and restaurants—the hubs of our community and culture—will open. We don’t know what this “new reality” that everyone keeps talking about is going to look like. Nearly none of us will go back to the “normal” we’re used to.

If gripping your phone and breathlessly scrolling, tapping, swiping through news articles isn’t helping you cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, what will? What have you learned from the great outdoors that you can apply to these times, to this day?

We’ve spent hours approaching a climb, days approaching a base camp. We recognize that running 20 miles on a trail takes time and discipline, and the training it takes to get there doesn’t happen overnight. We walk for weeks at a time carrying our lives on our back—for fun, for our mental health, and in search of simplicity.

Remember that we repeatedly choose activities that demand patience, in order to escape from hectic, emotionally demanding lives. Situations that aren’t too different from the one we find ourselves in now.

A woman stands in the rain next to a tent in the mountains.

We got this. We know how to do this. So why is it that the outdoor community is having some of the greatest trouble of all, staying inside, and weathering this storm.

Our new reality is not predictable, and this forces us to readjust our expectations day by day, sometimes hour by hour. And this, this act of pivoting, is not so different from the way we already prepare for the worst case scenario in the outdoors.

In wilderness first responder courses, we’re trained to remain calm in the shock of an accident. When something goes wrong, responding to emotional trauma comes first. Only after that, we must analyze, act, and in worst case situations, practice patience while we simply wait for help.

Many of the remote locations we travel to carry the uncertainty of not knowing how quickly that help may come. Exercising patience becomes a matter of life and death. Our ability to have a calm composure can keep our patient’s heart rate and vitals at a healthy level, and it will keep our own mental fortitude as sane and together as able under tremendous stress.

It’s not so different now.

In the outdoors, we’re taught that failure isn’t an obstacle, it’s a learning opportunity. Bailing on an objective isn’t the loss of a summit - oftentimes it’s the smart, safe call to make. Each of these experiences humble us over and over again, which is why, during this worldwide shared experience of complete and utter chaos, we have a little more give. A touch more understanding for not expecting the worst but being okay with it.

Remember this. Embrace this familiarity. We’ve trained for this, we just need to apply what we know about surviving the outdoors, to surviving a pandemic.

Storms have kept us at home before, they’ve trapped us in isolation, tentbound. The truth that we know about storms is that, no matter how brutal, how terrifying, and how long they last, we know that they pass.

2020 is a storm that requires patience. It’s just about the wildest, most unpredictable weather front that our forecasters couldn’t sufficiently warn us about. It’s not their fault, and quite frankly, assigning fault and blame doesn’t get us any closer to a solution.

There are ways to make storms more bearable.

  • Lean on your tentmates. You choose your adventure partners with care in the case the worst should happen. Use the people around you during this time to lean on, whether that’s virtually or physically within your household. Connection in chaos will strengthen our resolve to get back out there, however weakened by the storm, in search of our strengths.
  • Find your outlet. Maybe you’re voraciously consuming content—books, television, movies, music—that’s a healthy, natural response to crisis. You could be producing, whether writing, painting, baking, or picking up long forgotten instruments. Everyone’s outlet is different, find one that alleviates whatever stress you’ve adopted, and keep up habits that make you feel better.
  • Exercise patience. We need to reset our expectations of how long this storm may last. Accept reality within your own capabilities to exercise patience - the type of patience that allows you to endure pain, fear and uncertainty. Patience that can bring compassion and understanding to things beyond our control. And patience that you can share with loved ones, and show them that their endurance is felt, and reverberated, through the global community experiencing the same trauma at the same speed.

The greatest difference between outdoor catastrophes and the worldwide pandemic is that today, we are not alone in this experience. Hold onto those learnings, that hope, and the people who help you feel like your best self during this time. We will see the other side of this together.