Getting outside at Outessa

As I gear up for this year’s Outessa (an all-woman outdoor adventure retreat), I keep having dreams about the last time I was there. It was an amazing experience for me—an empowering, challenging weekend where I tried new things, pushed my body to the limit and made amazing new friends. It came at the exact time I needed it. I wrote this piece for USA TODAY on my experience last year—and on how so few people (especially women) get outdoors. I can’t wait to head to Mt. Hood in a August! (If you’re lucky, there might even be spots left!)

The wind whistled, shaking my tent noisily back and forth. It didn’t matter, I wasn’t sleeping anyway. In three short hours, I’d be rock climbing — shortly after that, I’d be mountain biking. And mountain biking petrified me. Flying down a mountain dodging rocks and trees? There’s a reason I’d never done it. “If you don’t try it now, when will you?” I asked myself as I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag. Now was the time.

But for too many people, that “now” never comes. Without a friend with outdoor experience or access to equipment, trying outdoor adventures for the first time can be expensive and intimidating.

Less than half of the U.S. population —  48.4% — participated in an outdoor activity at least once in 2015, according to the Outdoor Foundation’s 2016 Outdoor Participation Report. Women who do participate in outdoor activities are most likely to do so between ages 6 and 30 and then outdoor participation declines steadily year over year, the report shows.

That’s why Julia Stamps Mallon, a national record-breaking runner, and her business partner Bart Davis co-created the Outessa Summit, a women’s-only outdoor retreat supported by dozens of REI instructors. For 300 women, she wanted this weekend to be their now and for nothing to get in their way. The only expectation for attendees? Try something new — and cheer each other on. For me, that new thing would be mountain biking.

“I don’t want anyone to miss an opportunity because they are afraid,” Mallon said to me, smiling and wiping her brow as we hiked up a steep section of the mountain. Mallon had her young daughter’s best friend in mind when she crafted the weekend. If you haven’t grown up camping, rock climbing and mountain biking, trying is harder than it sounds. And everyone, Mallon feels, should have a chance to fall in love with the outdoors.

Why aren’t people going outside? 30% of the Outdoor Participation Report’s participants said they are not interested, 23% said they don’t have the time and 20% don’t think they have the skills or ability.

Skills and ability matter when you’re taking on something that might be dangerous if done wrong.

It’s been almost a year since I made my move from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco — a place surrounded by mountains and trails — and I’ve done very little to take advantage of it. Why? Because I didn’t know where to start.

Luckily for me, Outessa offered three levels — beginner, intermediate or advanced — of classes for popular outdoor activities as well as dozens of wilderness survival classes like intro to backpacking, bike maintenance, how to pitch a tent, map and compass basics and women’s wilderness survival. I signed up for beginner everything and as many outdoor skills classes as I could cram into three days.

As I packed up my tent after three days of outside festivities and headed down Utah’s Powder Mountain, back to my metropolitan reality, I reflected on the many things I wish I could say I habitually did — but haven’t even done once. Backpacking? Ice climbing? I’ve never done either. And after I left college and settled into my adult life, I figured the time had passed for me to start. “I am just not that kind of person,” I thought, watching rock climbing documentaries on the National Parks Service 100 year anniversary.

At Outessa, I was surrounded by women of all ages, background and body types. Most of us didn’t know where to start — but we knew we’d support each other as we found our way. Not everyone can get away for a three day weekend in the mountains — and you don’t need to. There are more than 84 million acres of national parks in the United States and resources galore to help you explore them. REI has an entire outdoor school dedicated to taking people — at every skill level — into the outdoors. The Outdoor Project has an online library of free field maps and guides to help you pick an adventure.

There are businesses, like Outessa, that will package an adventure for you at a cost. Depending on you lodging selection, Outessa costs between $800-$1,000 for three days, food and lodging included. REI offers all-inclusive 5-11 day trips around the world for $2,500-$7,200. The World Outdoors, an outdoor adventure company, offer trips for up to 15 days between $2,000 and $5,200.

As for my mountain bike ride? I spent three amazing hours of my life learning that I really didn’t like something. Expert mountain bikers and REI-certified guides taught me about safety and lead me on my first ride up and down beautiful Powder Mountain in Utah. I didn’t love it, but at least I tried it. The world is beautiful and there are many ways to explore it. You just have to get out there.

Mountain biking? Not for me. Adventure? Sign me up. It can’t hurt to try. And I’ve got plenty to see.

This story first appeared in USA TODAY

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