Five Ways to Make the Most of Your Limited Time Outdoors

A few years ago I was living in Southern California. Winter, even in that mellow climate, had a tendency to keep me inside. The short days, chillier winter temperatures, and the snow up in the mountains make outdoor activities less appealing than they might be at other times of the year.  So when the forecast for a mid-March weekend was absolutely spectacular, I felt the pull of an early season, low-elevation trip to the southern High Sierra. Unfortunately, it was a five-hour drive from San Diego, and with the short notice I could only get away from work for a weekend. I had to figure out how to get the most out of the limited time I had to work with

Spending time outside is great for your mind, your body, and your social life. You want to spend as much time as you can outside. But you’ve got a job, and you need to keep those paychecks coming. Here are a few suggestions to help you get the most out of your time outside.

1) Keep It Close to Home 

We all want to do that epic, immersive, multi-week backpacking trip through a remote, splendid piece of wilderness. Or even better, take the entire summer and thru-hike one of the longer trails. But life doesn’t always allow for that. So to get your outdoor fix throughout the year, you’ve got to make the most of your weekends.

One trick to help with this is to stay closer to home. Find a wilderness that feels like it’s within a comfortable striking distance and delve in.  Sure, it may not be as stunningly beautiful as that national park that’s an eight hour drive away, but the health benefits of spending time outside are still just as real.  As a bonus, you’ll likely have fewer crowds, permit restrictions, and regulations to deal with.

2) Completely Disconnect

We all have smartphones, and many of us get work email on our phones wherever we are.  Often there is an expectation that we’re always available, even on the weekends or during travel.

In order to really enjoy time outside, it’s important to completely disconnect from the office. Live in the moment and enjoy what you’re doing. Set the expectation ahead of time at the office that you’re going to be out of cell range for the weekend.  When you get to the trailhead, put your phone in airplane mode and leave it there.

The advantages of disconnecting are real. You have limited time in the wilderness, so it’s important to really be all there, to savor it and enjoy it to the fullest. Distractions from work and outside life can impinge on your enjoyment, diminishing the pleasure and benefits that come from spending time outside. 

3) Drive Overnight

Make the most of your time away by driving while you might normally sleep. This accomplishes a few things. You can avoid any traffic that you might hit leaving town on a Friday afternoon, which can be a pretty significant problem in urban areas. You’ll also save the good daylight hours for hiking, rather than wasting them sitting in the car.

On the surface it may seem unwise to start a hike on a sleep deficit. But once you hit the trail and your blood starts to flow, your energy will surge. You’ll feel great just being outside and moving your body. Starting out a little tired may also help you sleep better in your tent on that first night, which can be a challenge for some people.

There have been many nights when I’ve arrived at a trailhead at 1 a.m. on Saturday morning, slept for a few hours, and woken up exhausted, wondering why I was torturing myself.  Then I had an unforgettable weekend. I remember the joy, but I can barely recall the unpleasantness of a late-night drive or the tiredness resulting from little sleep. Suffering fades, but those good memories are forever.  

4) Use Your Vacation Days/Holidays

In 2018, more than half (55%) of workers said they left some vacation days unused. In total that year, 768 million vacation days went unused. While some of these were saved and rolled over to the next year, 236 million vacation days were forfeited completely. Those are days you can use to make even shorter backcountry trips more satisfying.

Use your vacation days, even for shorter trips.  Squeezing a backpacking trip into a two-day weekend is certainly possible.  But if you can increase that to a three- or even a four-day weekend, many more possibilities begin to open up. You’ll be able to plan a longer route with the extra day or two of hiking time. You’ll be able to spend a day or two completely immersed in the wilderness, without having to worry about the added stress of driving to or from the trailhead. For the cost of a single vacation day, you can greatly expand your enjoyment of a weekend.  

5) Plan in Advance 

Spur-of-the-moment trips are great, but there are advantages to planning a time-crunched getaway in advance. If you have the flexibility to arrange your schedule, you can avoid scheduling meetings on Friday afternoon, or first thing Monday morning, to give yourself a little scheduling wiggle room.   You can also let your coworkers or boss know your plans well ahead of time, which tends to give your plans a little more gravitas and makes people less likely to trivialize them. Telling your boss on Friday morning that you want to cut out at 2 p.m. that afternoon to beat traffic may not go over so well, but give her a heads up a week ahead of time and she’ll find it much more palatable.

Planning in advance also gives you the opportunity to make sure everything flows more smoothly.  The more detailed your plans are, the less likely you are to be slowed down by unforeseen problems popping up.  While just going with the flow and letting an experience happen is a great approach sometimes, it has the drawback of potentially leading to wasted time.  Go-with-the-flow types of trips are best saved for when you have a lot of time and a delay won’t substantially impact a trip. For trips when the schedule is tight, having a detailed plan will help you maximize what you get out of your time away.

There are physical benefits from exercise outdoors, as well as mental and psychological benefits from spending time in nature.  By spending time outside, you’ll return to work refreshed and ready to face new challenges, to come up with creative solutions to problems, and you’ll generally be a happier person around the office.  While you may feel a little groggy the Monday morning immediately after an intense weekend outing, you’ll more than make up for it throughout the rest of the week with the mental benefits that come from spending time outside. 

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Comments 3

  • Beckie : Jan 16th

    Middle of the night rides to trailheads may be forgettable to me, but late night drives home after a huge hike can make you memorable to the nice officer who pulls you over. So we make sure to plan for a spot at a campground, etc

  • Mike : Jan 18th

    Well written, Mike! I’ve been backpacking, hiking, climbing, etc., for 40 years, and am living too close to a major metropolitan area these days, making those longer getaways harder and, yep, the immediate places to go to not that exciting. Your five points give me renewed hope to see through a different lens, as it were, so it’s a trip this weekend! Thank you, Sir, amble on! 👍🥾🏕🏔

  • Effie Drew : Jan 19th

    Love this! Couldn’t agree more. Sometimes we have to shift our expectations of what time outside looks like finding a way to make it happen is *always* worth it.


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