15 Outdoor Skills to Master This Year, With Expert Tips and Tricks

Whether you're a beginner or a pro, there are always more skills to learn

two people in yellow beanies enjoying a hot drink while looking out at mountains and fog below
Anupong Sakoolchai / Getty Images

We’re dedicating our May features to the outdoors and adventure. In 2020, we saw more people get outside, eager for a breath of fresh air after challenging spring, taking up new activities and blazing new trails. Now, in 2021, read our features to learn more about 15 outdoor skills you should master, the best state parks across the country, a new trend of hotels opening near formerly remote national parks, and one person’s quest to make outdoor experiences accessible for all.

When you're stressed from work or starting to go stir-crazy from too much time indoors, it may feel like there's nothing better than throwing a few snacks in your backpack and heading out for a long day on the trails. And while that can certainly be rewarding, hitting the trails, heading to the mountains, or getting out on the water without a bit of preparation can be a recipe for disaster. At best, you'll be uncomfortable, and at worst, you could cause harm to yourself, fellow athletes, or the environment. 

That's why it can be helpful to master a few basic skills before going beyond the trailhead. Not only will you have a better time (did you know there's a right and wrong way to pack your hiking bag?), but you'll also be a more helpful resource in case you encounter someone in distress while outside.

From how to protect yourself from the sun to what to do if you see a bear, here are 15 quick and helpful tips to make your time in nature more enjoyable as you venture off the pavement this summer and fall.

How to Evaluate a Hiking Trail

When you first start hiking, it can seem challenging to know how to evaluate a trail. Should you gauge it based on distance or how many feet of elevation you'll gain? Does the type of terrain matter? What if all of the climbing is packed into one steep section?

When evaluating a trail, start with the distance. Hiking is more strenuous than walking, so if you think you can walk no more than 8 miles in one session, start with a shorter hike, maybe something around the 5-mile mark. Hikers will usually cover between 2 and 4 miles per hour on flat terrain, so an 8-mile hike may take a slower hiker four hours or longer. Changing elevation will slow you down, so start with an out-and-back hike rather than a loop hike. If it gets too steep or you move slower than you expected, you can turn around at any time. 

More advanced hikers will want to consider the average grade of potential trails, which you can find in elevation charts on trail mapping websites. Grades are based on a 100-foot distance, so a five percent grade gains 5 feet of elevation for every 100 feet in distance (about 260 feet of gain for every mile.) Find a hike near you around that metric and use it to gauge your abilities. A 10 percent grade will be enough for the average hiker to feel in their calf muscles, and a 15 percent grade will tax even experienced hikers over long distances. 

How to Protect Yourself From the Sun

If you're outside, you need sunscreen. It's entirely possible to get sunburned on cloudy days, and surfaces like water or snow can reflect rays against your skin, quickly causing skin damage.

Is a higher SPF better? Well, sort of. SPF ratings are given by factor (i.e., a sun protection factor of 45 will keep your skin protected 45 times longer than it would be with no sunscreen.) But what's more important than SPF is frequent reapplication: every 90 minutes to two hours, especially if you're sweating. Rub the sunscreen into your skin and leave it on for at least 30 minutes before getting wet. Don't forget to put sunscreen on your eyelids as well as the tops of your feet and ears unless you want some very uncomfortable sunburns.

If you're spending significant amounts of time outside, consider buying SPF-rated clothing. Brands like Columbia Sportswear, Eddie Bauer, Patagonia, and many others make SPF fabrics to add an extra layer of protection to your skin. Make sure to follow the laundry and care instructions to keep their protectiveness effective for as long as possible.

How to Properly Size a Bike

Having the right size mountain bike (or road bike) can make the difference between whether you're able to pedal up trails or have to spend most of your time walking your bike. And according to Travis Ott, mountain bike brand manager for Trek, buying should always be in person. "Bike fit varies by brand and model," he said. "In fact, so many riders fall between bike sizes that Trek provides an 'extra medium' size. Visiting your local retailer will help identify the perfect bike size."

But for more advanced riders, it's about more than just height. Ott says that buyers should consider the reach or the distance between the seat and center of the handlebars (called the head tube.) Being too overextended will make it harder to absorb bumps, but too short of a reach will throw you off balance more easily and make it harder to navigate tight turns. 

What to Carry While Biking or Cycling

Once you've dialed in your bike, it's time to dial in your gear. Both road and mountain bikers should always, always wear helmets. Try to find one with a MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System), the current industry standard in helmet safety.

On your bike or person, you should also carry a handheld bike pump or cartridge refill system, a spare tire tube and tools to change that tire, and a bike multi-tool for tasks like lowering your seatpost or tightening pedals. Brush up on using your tools and consider taking a bike maintenance class, so you don't have to rely on anyone else when you need a quick fix or adjustment.

What to Have in Your First-Aid Kit

There's no excuse for not carrying a first-aid kit. Slips and trips can happen just a few feet past the trailhead. According to Todd Weimer, founder of hiking supply kit brand VSSL, it's helpful to think of your first-aid kit as being for other people. "This often makes us more mindful and more likely to carry a first-aid kit in the first place. Being able to help your fellow hiker with something to patch a blister and keep the adventure going is pretty awesome!"

Weimer advises that organization is key, and more experienced hikers should pack their kit to have the most commonly used items at the top. A compact kit will stay organized better than items stored loosely in a bag, which is key to accessing supplies quickly during an emergency.

Mature couple resting while hiking on trail in alpine forest
Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

How to Use Hiking Poles

Younger or more experienced hikers may sometimes scoff at using hiking poles, but there's a reason they're so popular. Hiking poles assist with balance by providing extra points of contact on uneven trails and reducing pressure on crucial joints like knees and ankles.

Correctly sizing your poles is simple. You want a 90-degree bend in your elbow when you're resting the tip on the ground. When hiking through steep uphill sections, you may find it helpful to shorten them a few inches, and lengthening them on downhill sections can provide extra stability.

Backpackers may already know how to use poles, but storing them when not in use can be awkward. However, most backpacking bags have a built-in method to carry poles: make them as compact (telescoped) as possible, and put the handles through the 2-inch-loop on the bottom of your bag. Twist the loop until it's tight, then strap the tips against the side of your bag.

How to Stand on a Paddleboard

If you think paddleboarding looks fun, you're right. But it's a little more complicated than kayaking, and learning to stand up on a paddleboard is usually the most intimidating part (though falling can be one of the most fun parts.)

According to Red Paddle Co.'s executive director George Shillito, new paddlers should "get used to how the board feels and how it turns by starting on your knees. Once comfortable, build a little speed before trying to stand to your feet as the momentum will help you balance."

Once you've got the hang of that, Shillito advises working on the "step-back" turn to build skill. "The step-back turn is a great way to build muscle-memory for skills like using the paddle as a brace," he said. "It also builds confidence and awareness when moving around on your board."

What to Do If You See a Bear

What to do when you see a bear depends on what type of bear it is. Black bears are more common in the U.S. than the larger and more aggressive grizzly. Black bears tend to be skittish and will generally run away from humans unless you get between a mom and cubs. If that happens, back away slowly to show the bear you're not a threat. Give the bears at least 10 to 15 minutes to get out of the area, as the encounter will have them on high alert.

Grizzly bears tend to be a little more defensive, and you should always have bear spray readily accessible when moving through grizzly country. The best way to avoid an encounter with a grizzly is to make noise when hiking or biking through dense bush areas or in areas with poor sightlines. Never try to run from a grizzly bear; instead, hold your ground, but be ready to use your bear spray. A bluff charge can become an actual attack if it views you as prey.

How to Size a Climbing Harness

Whether you're planning to rock climb indoors or out, getting your harness sized correctly is essential. Stores like REI and Eastern Mountain Sports have in-store experts that can help you try on harnesses, and there are a few important areas to focus on. Make sure the harness sits smoothly across the top of your hip bones. Size up or down if doing so maxes out the hip adjustments as you'll want the same harness to fit if you lose weight or wear heavier layers.

A more affordable climbing harness isn't going to be less safe, but pricier harnesses have more features that some climbers may like, such as lumbar and leg strap padding, extra clips for carrying gear like cams, and chalk bags, and double-back buckles.

Mountain Biker Riding Through Boulders in The Southwest Desert
MichaelSvoboda / Getty Images

How to Avoid a Sore Butt When Cycling

While most beginner bikers are more worried about crashing, the truth is that tender glutes and a sore groin are two far more common injuries for bikers of all levels. Sitting on a bike seat, not to mention rolling over rocks, can leave you with sore spots that linger for weeks.

To spare your sensitive areas, Wild Rye co-founder Cassie Abel always recommends a chamois, also known as a "chammy." "I recommend investing in a chammy short that is well constructed and compressive with a premium pad," she said. "Your undercarriage will thank you, though still expect some soreness on your first couple rides of the season." Though it may feel odd, it's best not to wear underwear under your chammy to avoid pinching and bunching, which can cause hot spots.

For some bikers, the bigger problem may be saddle sores, which look like ingrown hairs or pimples. The best way to address this is by switching to a more breathable liner, taking more frequent breaks, or using chafing creams, which can be a lifesaver if your chafing and hot spots are caused by skin-on-skin friction.

Know Some Basic Trail Etiquette

Walking up a dirt path may seem pretty straightforward, but there are some "rules of the road" to know for properly sharing the trail.

Many trails are mixed-use trails, which means they welcome hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and sometimes motorized bikes ("motos"). There's a clear hierarchy: everyone yields to equestrians, and mountain bikers/e-bikers yield to hikers. When it's two of the same, the uphill traveler has the right of way.

Once you hit the trails a few times, you'll realize that these rules aren't always followed. It's often much easier and quicker for hikers to step off the trail when mountain bikes are passing, and many uphill mountain bikers will yield to downhill bikers that are moving faster and can't stop as quickly. Once you navigate passings a few times, you'll start to get a feel for when to let others pass. No matter who passes whom, it's helpful to let the person you're going by know how many bikers or hikers are in your group, so they know when it's okay to step back on the trail. 

How to Choose Hiking Footwear

Do you need specific hiking footwear for a hike? Nope, most athletic shoes should be enough for a short stroll in a state park. But for longer hikes, and especially backpacking trips, you'll want a few features common to hiking shoes and boots: a grippy outsole to give you extra traction on loose and uneven terrain and stiff ankle and heel support. Wear your hiking socks when you try them on to get the proper fit.

Many shoes come in waterproof and non-waterproof versions. If you hike in the desert or mostly arid terrain, you can save yourself some money by opting for the non-waterproof version. Waterproof shoes are a lifesaver in stream crossings, but they're less breathable, which can make you sweatier and more uncomfortable. You can always buy a pair of lightweight hiking sandals to carry for water crossings or hike in lightweight shoes specifically made for water crossings, like Astrals.

night sky portrait with a woman standing in silhouette in front of a sun set

Justin Majeczky

How to Take a Night Sky Photo

Camping isn't just about hanging out during the day; remote campsites are some of the best locations for night sky photography. But taking a good night sky photo is about more than just pointing your camera at the sky (oh, and you'll need an SLR camera, too.)

Beginners should know that they'll need to carry some extra gear. "You have to use a tripod to stabilize your shot," said professional photographer and videographer Justin Majeczky. "You need to do long exposures to get the best sky images. You cannot shoot stars handheld."

But once you have the proper camera and tripod, you need to dial in your camera settings. Practice at home so you're not doing trial and error in the dark while camping. "Know the basic camera settings to get the shot," said Majeczky. "Use a full-frame camera and a wide-angle lens (14-18mm.) Set the shutter to 25 seconds, focus the lens on the stars, set your ISO to 3200, and shoot the widest aperture your lens allows (f2.8 or smaller is preferable). That should get you a decent result." 

How to Dress for a Hike

It can be easy to think you need a whole new wardrobe for hiking, but the truth is that many new hikers probably already have all they need in their closets already. The key is wearing quick-drying fabrics that don't absorb moisture. Choose synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester or naturally moisture-wicking materials like Merino wool. Avoid absorbent fabrics like linen and cotton.

You should always carry a backpack for your supplies. While nearly any backpack will do for a short hike, more frequent hikers would be well-served to upgrade to a hydration pack. Hydration packs have a soft reservoir for water and a drinking tube that runs through the bag and clips to your shoulder, making it very easy to stay hydrated on long hikes. These bags also tend to be made with similar moisture-wicking fabrics, which help eliminate sweat on contact points like shoulders and low back. 

How to Treat a Blister

A bad blister can derail outdoor adventures, so make sure your shoes fit well by wearing them as much as possible before you hike in them. And according to Taylor Feldman, outdoor programs manager at the Mount St. Helens Institute, you should prep your feet if you frequently get blisters. "Put smooth tape (such as duct tape) on areas that may be blister prone, such as the heel. This smooth surface allows socks to slide over the area friction-free," she says.

If you manage to develop a blister anyway, treat it quickly. "Popping blisters in the wilderness can be dangerous and lead to infections of an open wound," Feldman says. "Protect the blister using raised foam "donuts" or blister pads until it can drain naturally. If it pops on its own, treat it as an open wound."

How to Properly Pack a Hiking Backpack

Believe it or not, how you pack your bag can significantly impact your comfort while hiking. Think of your backpack as a stack—it's better to pack your bag up than out. Start by putting items you won't need until the evening on the bottom, like your sleeping bag, pillow, or sleeping clothes. Next up are your heaviest items, which you want to sit closest to your back, like a camp stove, bear bin, or dinner food. Then use your soft items like socks, a beanie, or a down jacket to fill in the gaps, ensuring that you have a firm pack and gear that doesn't shift.

On top, put items you'll need during the day, like trail snacks, a rain jacket, and your first-aid kit. Use your side pockets for items you'll constantly be accessing during your hike, like water bottles and a camera. Cinch your bag tightly after it's packed, and try to keep the weight balanced. If it doesn't sit upright when you take it off, it's probably unbalanced. Remember that you should always clip bear spray to your belt or shoulder strap if you need to use it.