The Year the Outdoors Returned as a Priority: My 2016 in Review

A year spent walking more than 200 miles in three national parks.

By: Scott Kaiser + Save to a List

The outdoors have always been a central part of my life and a large reason for choosing a career in urban planning and watershed management, though in recent years it seemed to slip down the list of life priorities. To be sure, I was hitting the trails every couple of months and would spend as much time outside around town as possible but, in the 7 years since moving to the East Coast I had not camped a single night and extended hikes became special occasions rather then the norm. Towards the end of 2015, I vowed 2016 would be the year I make the outdoors a priority in my life again. I figured it a fitting way to celebrate the NPS centennial and set a goal to hike 250 miles in our national parks and even convinced a few friends to set their own hiking goals too. 

A brief look back as 2016 draws to a close:

  • 211 miles hiked*
  • across 3 national parks (Joshua Tree, Great Smoky Mountains, and Shenandoah)
  • 12 nights camped
  • a 22 mile backpacking weekend
  • 8 bear sightings and encounters
  • multiple 14+ mile day hikes

Favorite camping trip of year?

I kicked the year off in Joshua Tree with some college buddies and it was by far the craziest camping trip I've been on in a long time. What made this trip particularly memorable were a number of things. First, when we arrived at the campground and started pitching tents I realized I hadn't pitched my tent in years. To my surprise, the shock cord in my tent poles was completed shot to hell. Luckily we found a solution but the lesson is always check your gear before you head out (especially if you haven't pulled it out of the closet in several years).

After an afternoon hike and incredible sunset, we chilled around the campfire and caught each other up on life after college. The following morning we got up early as we had planned a longer hiked and wanted to get an early start. We struggled to find the trail head which, of course, will quickly challenge even the strongest of friendships. Luckily we found our way (a few minutes wandering around the desert more and someone was likely going to get punched) and enjoyed a fantastic hike. The winds along the ridge line were unbelievable. Consistent 50mph gusts made for some nerve wreaking traverses across steep terrain.

The winds calmed down enough during dinner but picked up again with such ferocity that we gave up trying to huddle around the campfire and went to bed early. I have never experienced anything like this particular night camping ever. Imagine trying to sleep in the middle of tornado or at the end of a airport runway. Wind gusts that night were 40mph+ and sleep was nearly impossible. At some point just before dawn I must have drifted off to sleep and when I woke up it was dead silent. When I poked my head out of the tent I half expected to be somewhere other than where I went to bed, thinking my tent had been picked up and blown away with me inside!

The winds started picking up again as the sun rose on our final morning. Collectively we had had enough of the wind and packed up the cars as quickly as possible and sought shelter in a Denny's outside the park. It was a trip I will remember for a long time.

Biggest Challenge of 2016?

Gear was an unexpected challenge of the year. It dawned on me as I started using my gear more frequently and for different adventures that a lot of what I own is now 10+ years old. Not that there is anything wrong with that--good gear should last that long! While some things still get the job done others needed replacing. The challenge was figuring out what I could push forward with, what need to be replaced now, and what pieces were missing. Gear that I upgraded or replaced this year:

  • 65 liter backpack
  • Sawyer mini water filter (a new purchase and is now with me on every hike)
  • Sleeping bag (for me and the dog)
  • Bear canister
  • Pocket rocket stove
  • Mess kit

Biggest takeaway from the year?

I couldn't be more grateful for the adventures I had in 2016. It felt great to put hiking and camping back in the center of my life. I enjoyed the times when new and old friends would join me on the trails or for the weekend camping and I especially enjoyed all the hours when it was just me and the dog (and the bears) eager to discover what was around the next bend in the trail. Getting outside in the woods became an obsession again in 2016 and I am eager to start checking off my adventures planned for 2017. Hopefully with fewer bear encounters.

*My initial goal was 250 miles inside national parks. Any hikes outside of national park boundaries didn't count and hikes had to be a minimum one mile. I made a few trips to local national forests outside Washington D.C. during the year so my total miles hiked on the year is probably around 230.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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