How to Become an Outdoor Writer: My Take

I founded this website 12 years ago {yes, seriously!}, and in that time, I’ve noticed something: the questions I receive come in waves.

Two years ago, I got tons of emails about how to go backpacking with a dog and how to prepare for that endeavor. Last year, I received lots of correspondence regarding women in the outdoors.

This year? It’s all about how to break into the industry as an outdoor writer.

To be fair, I’m not convinced I’m the most qualified to answer these questions. Yes, I do quite a bit of writing in the outdoor arena but I certainly don’t think I have it all figured out. I’m still learning, still growing, and definitely still scrambling to find my next assignment.

But that’s the thing with freelance writing: you’ll likely always be hunting for the next gig. Freelance writing {freelance anything, for that matter!} is not a career where you’ll ever settle into a regularly, semi-monthly paycheck. Perhaps it’s part of the thrill?

Regardless, I understand why I receive all the questions I get. In general, writing is a tough industry to break into and that’s largely due to this perceived shroud of mystery. Everyone tells you to pitch, but who do you pitch? And once you figure out how to pitch, where do you find their contact info? It all seems like a never-ending cycle of questions and confusion.

I can’t promise any of this advice will help you become an outdoor writer, but I’ll give it my best shot. Enjoy!

You’re Not Getting Rich

This is the first thing I tell anyone wanting to be involved in the outdoor industry: don’t get involved if you’re in it for the money.

I’ve had a lot of people scoff at me when I say this, referencing all the money outdoor brands and publications make on a monthly basis. I can’t speak to the cash flow of Patagonia, but I’m sure you’re right: they are doing pretty damn well. But on the writing side? Don’t plan on making your millions.

Outdoor publications simply don’t make a ton of cash. Yes, they are financially solvent but writers {freelance or staff} simply don’t make as much money as people think, and that’s across the board. I continue to be amazed at how well other industries {i.e. the food or fitness realms} pay in comparison to the outdoor industry.

outdoor writer

In fact, I’d argue this applies to anyone wanting to be a writer in general. I think there is an assumption that writing is glamorous and your name splashed across glossy pages and book covers automatically equates to dolla’ dolla’ bills.

You guys know I wrote my first book this past year, right? My entire book advance for the whole thing was $5K, and this is very standard for first-time authors. Sure, I can and hopefully will make more money based on royalties, depending on how many copies the book sells over time, but for the immediacy of the here and now, my compensation was $5000. If I were to break that down to an hourly basis, my payment would literally be close to minimum wage, if not less.

But you know what? I’m not complaining. And that leads me to my next point….

Do It Because You Love It

Of course I need to pay my bills; we all do. But I’m involved in the outdoor industry because I love it and I’m passionate about it. The outdoors are my playground and I honestly enjoy surrounding myself with people who feel the same about the natural world as I do.

If you want to be involved in the outdoor industry, do it because you really love it and want to be there. If you’re hoping for fame or recognition or riches, I’m afraid you’re barking up the wrong tree.

Work For Free

I’m sure I’ll get some heat for this one, but I stand by this statement: plan on doing some free work.

There, I said it.

The creative space has made some progress over the past few years in regards to compensation. So frequently, writers and photographers {in all industries, not just the outdoor industry} are expected to work for free. Obviously, this isn’t fair and it is awesome to see that times are changing and this is no longer the accepted norm.

outdoor writer

That said, if you’re breaking into the industry as a brand-new writer, I’d suggest offering your skills for nothing. Zero. Zip. Zilch. In reality, is this so different than other industries? It’s not.

I’ve run the staffing for our small family business for the past ten years, so I’ve seen a lot of resumes and conducted more interviews than I can even begin to recount. Sure, the landscaping industry is a far cry from the outdoor industry, but the hiring process still stems from the same foundation: you need to have experience to get a second glance.

If I’m an editor looking over two pitches that are both good ideas, I’m likely going to go with the writer who has an established portfolio and proven track record. I know this writer can deliver on time and at least understands the basics of decent grammar and writing style. Sure, the unknown may be able to deliver the same quality of product, but how do I know that? Is it worth an editor’s already over-worked and likely underpaid time to take that risk?

This is why I so strongly believe in working for free when you are starting out. It’s still a gamble for an editor but the risk is much lower and it allows you to establish a portfolio. Use it as an opportunity to prove yourself so that you can be considered the next time a paying assignment pops up. Plus, it helps you establish a relationship too.

I’ve been covering gear for Backpacker magazine since 2014 and as a result, I’ve attended Outdoor Retailer for them too. But that didn’t just happen when they stumbled across my blog and saw how amazing I am {insert sarcasm here!} I wrote for various websites for free all through 2012 and early 2013. Then, in late 2013, a different {and much, much smaller} online website asked me to cover three categories for them for Outdoor Retailer: sleeping bags, backpacks, and footwear. For anyone who covers gear, you will likely laugh at how absurd that request is. Covering three huge categories like that is literally impossible, especially if you want to do a good job.

outdoor writer

The kicker? That small digital publication was only paying me $600 + my media badge. Technically, that isn’t free work, but they also were not paying for my airfare or lodging once I arrived in Salt Lake City. Once I deducted those costs, the entire trip was easily in the red.

I remember sitting in my office, evaluating whether the whole endeavor was worth my time. The assignment was literally going to cost me money, and that was certainly not something I took lightly. I asked Will for advice, and he suggested I do it anyway. “Build your portfolio, establish those relationships, and look at the entire thing as a learning experience,” he told me.

That husband of mine. So wise.

I did it, and he was right. The next year, Backpacker asked me to pick up a teeny tiny section based on the writing I did for this small digital publication.

Always Be The Hardest Worker

Y’all, I will be honest: I am amazed at how sloppy and kinda-sorta lazy some people are in regards to their work.

The bottom line is this: if you want to prove yourself and your abilities as a writer, you better be prepared to be the the hardest worker in the proverbial room. Don’t compare yourself to others; don’t question why someone is getting this and you aren’t; don’t try to explain away a late deadline with excuses. Or, even better, don’t miss a deadline!

So often, people feel that something is owed to them and as a result, they spend more time complaining about what they aren’t getting rather than over-delivering on what they have already been given.

It all comes down to proving your value. You know your value but how can you show your worth to someone else? Work your ass off.

The best {albeit biased} example I can think of is my husband, Will. He is gonna kill me but he is easily the hardest worker I’ve ever met in my life, hands down. He is a full-time video producer for Deloitte Digital which is a time consuming job in itself. But in addition to that, he is a contributing editor at Backpacker along with a freelance photographer in the outdoor industry.

outdoor writer

Will’s start with Backpacker is one that will make anyone smile; he won a reader contest. Seriously! Back in 2009, BP put out a call for readers who wanted to be gear testers, and Will thought it sounded like a lot of fun. He entered the contest and was named one of the winners. He spent the entire summer hustling and over-delivering on the asked-for content. At the end of the summer, the magazine asked him to stay on for another season, doing much of the same. Eventually, this rolled into small {somewhat humiliating!} digital assignments involving flesh-toned onesies that eventually led to bigger stuff. The rest, as they say, is history.

Take a Class

To be fair, I haven’t taken this course but I was interviewed for the curriculum, so there is a good chance you’ll hear me yammer on a bit if you decide to invest in it!

AIM, the parent company behind Backpacker, Climbing, and Ski magazine, put together a six-week course to help writers learn the ins and outs of the industry. Kristin Hostetter, the now-Editor-in-Chief of SNEWS, is the former gear editor of BP and the woman who gave both Will and me a shot. {She is also responsible for sending Will on the press trip where he and I first met so obviously she holds a soft spot for us!}

outdoor writer

I’ve heard from a few online followers that the class is very helpful so if you’re truly interested in becoming a writer, it may be worth your time!

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4 Comments

  • Reply Danielle L September 18, 2017 at 7:06 pm

    You were a huge source of inspiration for me when I decided to start my blog this year! The work you’ve done seems to be tireless, and I appreciate your honesty on the subject. I decided to open my scope up because I don’t fit just perfectly into the outdoor niche, but since I have written for adventure blogs and the like for little to no compensation other than building my name and putting my work out there. I think my aim is for this to help enable me to live the kind of life I want, knowing that it can’t be my only source of income.

  • Reply Patrice La Vigne September 18, 2017 at 9:14 pm

    Sage advice!!!!!!

  • Reply Ioanna September 19, 2017 at 4:18 am

    Thank you for this post, Heather. I don’t have any great ambitions but I wish I could supplement my regular job (hopefully half-time soon) with writing a blog so I could travel and hike more. There is a lot of learning I have to do!
    Happy hiking 🙂
    Ioanna
    A Woman Afoot

  • Reply Mary September 19, 2017 at 4:59 pm

    Bwahaha. I just sold my second book and didn’t get anywhere near $5k for an advance. I’ve made…. $800…on book 1. You sure don’t do it for the money.

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