Tips & Tricks | Beginning your Outdoor Adventures

Want to start getting outside but don't really know where to start or what to do or what you need or where to go?! Phwew. It's okay - take a deep breath. There are so many resources at your fingertips for you to get all the information that you need!

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Me on my first ever outdoor excursion. JK this will never be me and that's okay. This doesn't have to be what outdoor recreation looks like for you. Image by Lionello DelPiccolo

No one knows everything, especially not right when they are first starting. We are all beginners in the beginning, duh! There will be a learning curve, embrace it. Hell, laugh at it if you want! One time, we went camping at Inks Lake and the ground was too rocky for me to push in the tent stakes with my hand like I normally did. I didn't own a mallet yet so I tried to find anything I possibly could to get the damn stakes in the ground. Our tent had zero structure without being staked down - it was a one pole tent that didn't stand unless it was staked! We would have been sleeping in the car if I wasn't able to overcome this situation that I wasn't prepared for! I did finally get them in with a rock (after bending multiple cheap stakes) and proceeded to purchase some high quality stakes and a mallet as soon as we got home.

Point being, you're going to have snafus. It's inevitable. It's part of learning. Embrace them and know that they aren't the end of the world. To ease any hesitations you might have, here are some great ways to ease into making outdoor explorations a regular part of your family routine!

START SMALL!

No need to go on a 10 mile hike or week long camping trip for your first attempt. A great way to start getting outside and exploring is to just do it in your neighborhood or at a local park! You can still find birds, bugs, plants, and more without going far or getting overwhelmed! You can find great local parks with a simple Google search of "local parks near _______" and include your location. Local parks are great for bike riding, walking, observing nature, playing sports, and more!

GUIDED PROGRAMS

Another great way to get your feet wet in nature in a safe and controlled way is to attend a guided program! Most Texas State Parks offer some form of interpretive programming - you can look for events on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Event Calendar to find something near you that seems interesting! Many of the listings detail out what you need to bring, what kind of shoes to wear, etc so that you can come prepared appropriately! It's great to start learning about outdoor recreation by being with an experienced person that is literally there to show you what to do, help you, and answer all of your burning questions!

TEXAS OUTDOOR FAMILY

For a long time, working for Texas Outdoor Family was my dream job. Then, I became a parent and it wasn't feasible for me to be away so often, but I am still a huge supporter for this program and what it does! For anyone who isn't familiar with this program, it is a introductory workshop that takes people camping, often times for the first time! If you're sort of on the fence about whether or not you're going to even like camping, this is a great way to figure that out without having to invest in a bunch of gear. They provide the tent, cots, sleeping pads, lanterns, stoves, and cooking supplies! All you have to bring is bedding, any personal items, and food (and your sense of adventure of course!). You'll learn how to pitch a tent, build a fire, and cook outdoors, plus a wide variety of outdoor activities, including geocaching, kayaking, hiking, swimming, fishing.... the list goes on and on! Activities vary in each workshop. Workshops are offered all over the state and at $95 for up to six people it's a pretty affordable way to give the outdoors a try!

WANDER WHEELS

Wander Wheels is another great company that helps you get outside without having to invest in a ton of gear! They've got loads of information on their website AND they offer gear rental  so you can get on the trails or out camping without having to spend hundreds of dollars on equipment! We are considering renting a backpacking tent from their for our first trip. Honestly, we should have rented packs, too, instead of buying them just so we could give backpacking a try without too much money on the line, but we had the REI gift card and felt pretty confident we'd enjoy it so we made the investment.

ONLINE RESOURCES

There are SO many amazing resources online that can help you learn more about nature and outdoor recreation! Some of my favorites are:

If you have any recommendations on excellent resources to add to this list, let me know!

Getting outside doesn't have to be scary or intense or overwhelming! It doesn't have to be extreme or expensive or exhausting. Experiment with some small activities and work your way up, keeping what works and what is enjoyable and nixing the stuff that isn't! And, as always, if you have any questions, my electronic door is always open!


Tips & Tricks | 5 Great Apps for Exploring the Outdoors

While we venture outside to disconnect from the busy world around us, sometimes there are pieces of that world that can help make our outdoor adventures more enjoyable and safer. Here are five apps for your phone that can help you plan your next excursion and have a great time outdoors!

 

Texas State Parks app

Texas State Parks app

Cost: Free

Offline capabilities: kind of

The official Texas State Parks app has all the park information you could need right at your finger tips. You can filter for whichever outdoor activity you're looking for to find a park that has what you want OR use the map to find parks that are located nearby! The app allows access to park maps, photos, operating information, and more! You can create a list of your favorite parks for easy access in the future, too. One of my favorite features is that you can see up-to-date park alerts like burn bans, closures, road conditions, etc.

Not all features are accessible offline so I always make sure to download park maps, trail maps, and any other things I may need or want ahead of time so I don't have to worry about having cell service to download them when I'm out on the trail or at a campsite with no signal!

 

National Park Service app

NPS app

Cost: Free

Offline capabilities: yes

Similar to the Texas State Parks app, the National Park Service app offers information about all of the NPS sites in one place. While you cannot use it with no connectivity, you have the ability to save park information for offline use. You can save all of the parks that you are planning on visiting so that you don't have to worry about whether or not you can access them once you arrive! This app has great information for each park, including recommendations on things to do, trail information, amenities, nearby attractions, and in-app self-guided tours! If you have service, the app will automatically show you the closest parks to you, which is a handy feature, as well.

 

AllTrails app

AllTrails

Cost: Free; Pro membership:  $29.99 per year

Offline capabilities: yes

AllTrails has been a lifesaver when it comes to planning our trips! I can find hikes in the places that we are going and make our 'to hike' list based on trail ratings and distances. I also read reviews and check out the photos from fellow hikers. It's easy to create lists for separate trips so they are easily accessible once you arrive at your destination.I also love that it has categories for dog friendly areas, ADA accessibility, and biking.

When we are at a trailhead ready to go, I turn on the navigation feature so that I can log the hike in my account, too! It's not only a good way for me to track where we've been and what we've done, but I can also use it as a trail journal and share any insights about the trail that could help other people planning on making the hike. Aaaand, not going to lie, the navigation feature has helped prevent me from getting us too off course when I accidentally make a wrong turn somewhere.

The free version has all the features that we need, but if you want more, the Pro version includes downloadable maps, real time overlays to show weather, air quality, pollen, and more, and a feature that allows friends and family to track you in real time for safety purposes!

 

INaturalist appiNaturalist

Cost: Free

Offline capabilities: no

iNaturalist is a really cool app that can help you identify all the amazing things that you might find during your explorations! The best part is that with each observation you submit, you're contributing to a huge citizen science database! All you need to do is snap a photo of your specimen and iNaturalist will use the location info with the image to help you figure out what it could be!  While you DO need internet connection to submit your observations and get identification suggestions, I usually will take photos along the trail and then upload them at a later time when connectivity is better. It's an excellent way to not only enjoy the beauty of nature, but also to learn more about it!

 

Red Cross app

Red Cross First Aid

Cost: Free

Offline capabilities: yes

No matter how well prepared you are, accidents do happen. While I always recommend having a basic first aid kit on hand, the Red Cross First Aid app can help guide you through some common emergency situations. It's always good to review some of the information ahead of time, too, so your memory is refreshed before heading out into nature. This app can come in handy for more than just outdoor exploration, too! Accidents can happen anywhere and having this app readily accessible can help you to deal with them as they come, even if you forget what to do in the moment.

I highly recommend downloading all of these apps and having them accessible when you need them! They all are free (or have free versions) so what are you waiting for?

Do you have any favorite apps that you love to use in the outdoors?


Tips & Tricks | Beating the Summer Heat

Ugh, I love Texas but I seriously hate the heat. Every summer, I ask myself why I subject myself to this weather. Then the sun sets, leaving a painting of oranges, pinks, yellows, and blues in the sky and I am reminded why.

We still love to get outside in the summers, despite the brutal heat. We just change our activities and routine a bit. We spend more time in the water and less time on the trails. When we do hike, we start EARLY. There is nothing worse than being on the trail when its 100 degrees outside. No thank you. The heat is no joke and people die every year due to poor planning, not knowing their own limits, and not knowing NATURE'S limits. Don't be one of those people! Here are some of the things that we do to stay safe and keep cool in the summers!

Swimming

I mean, obviously swimming is the first thing on this list. Lucky for us, Texas is full of great places to take a dip to get some relief from the summer heat. Here are some of our favorites:

These places get busy in the summer, understandably so, so be sure to make reservations. I also recommend visiting during the week instead of weekends if possible!

Hike Early

If you've ever made the mistake of hiking on a summer afternoon (cough - ME - cough), you know how miserable it can be. Chugging down water to no avail as your thirst cannot be quenched, hot skin, pounding head. It's not fun. Don't be stupid like me and get yo ass out of bed and on the trail early in the day! Not only will you avoid the horrible Texas heat, but it's a great way to start the day and will put you in a good mood, almost guaranteed!

Hiking in the evening is another option, but the residual heat of the day is generally still radiating off the ground so it's not quite as cool as the mornings.

Hippie Air Conditioning

Googling 'hippie air conditioning' didn't give me any results so I wonder if this is a name we just made up back in the day... nevertheless, hippie air conditioning = a wet bandana around your neck. This has gotten me through many a music festival, beach sea turtle patrol, and long hike. Of course you can purchase the hi-tech cooling wraps, but why bother when a $0.50 bandana can achieve the same thing? If I'm hiking near a body of water, I will just dunk the bandana in as we pass by and replenish as needed with my water bottle if we don't pass by said body of water again. It really helps to cool you off and it feels amazing.

Another thing I do is dunking my cap in the water and plopping it on my head. I'm pretty sure the water dripping off of it makes me look like my fat ass is sweating horribly and on the verge of death, but that's okay because I feel nice and cool.

Wear Good Clothing

I'm guilty of wearing just plain old cotton tees when I go hiking, and that can be okay, but really in the summer it's preferable to wear something a little more breathable! You want something that is kind of loose fitting and light. Clothing made of technical material is a good choice, as it helps to wick moisture away from your body. Also, color can play a role in your temperature, too! Remember that black absorbs light and white reflects it, so lighter colored clothing helps to keep you cooler by reflecting those sun rays. In the heat, it's easy to assume that short sleeves are the way to go, but long sleeves are actually a better choice because they protect your skin from the harsh summer sun!

Stay Hydrated

Drinking plenty of water is important on those hot summer days, especially when you're active and out on a hike. A good rule of thumb is to carry a liter of water per person per hour of hiking. Don't forget water for your pets, too! Hydration packs, like Camelbaks, are easy to carry and convenient and typically hold enough water for about three hours of hiking. We usually stick with our Nalgenes. When we bring the pups, we also carry collapsible bowls for easy drinking on the trail.

Know Your Limits

I cannot emphasize this enough. Knowing your limits is so important. Working for state parks, I hear about a lot of the search and rescues that happen around the Texas Hill Country in our parks, many of them completely avoidable. Be honest with yourself about what you are physically capable of in terms of weather, length, terrain, and level of difficulty. If you're a little out of shape and haven't been doing much exercise, don't try to go climb Enchanted Rock at 2PM in July. I mean, really, I'm not sure I'd even recommend that for someone in great shape.

There is no shame in opting for an easier route, a shorter trail, or modifying a hike to meet your own needs. Safety is the most important thing and you'll still feel great that you got outside. Plus, your local park rangers will thank you for being smart and safe while exploring the park!

 

Pedernales Falls State Park overlook

And of course, it's always nice to have a special treat when you reach that hard earned view at the end of the trail. For us, it's a cold Rambler - this is not sponsored by them or anything (but hey Rambler - hit me up!), they are just super refreshing, a Texas company, and they support Texas State Parks! Plus, even Lily loves them! Kid tested, Texas approved!


Tips & Tricks | How to Start Planning

As I am in the midst of planning my second big road trip of the year (more on that soon), I've found myself taking stock of my methods and processes of planning a successful, streamlined road trip. I know a lot of people who can fly by the seat of their pants on trips. I am NOT that kind of person. I definitely have room for spontaneity and flexibility, but setting out on a big, expensive trip without a tentative plan would stress me the fuck out. I like structure and I like to be prepared! Here are the top five things I do when planning a big trip.

Pick Your Destination

Duh, right? It's easy to plan when you have one destination in mind. It minimizes the number of things you need to research. But on a big road trip like the ones that we like to do, our "destination" could cover a huge portion of a state. What I usually do is pick a general location to focus on - west Texas, southern/central California, New England, etc. Once I have the general location pinned down, I then pick my top locations that we can't miss while we are there. For California, I knew that no matter what, Yosemite would be on our list. For west Texas, I knew Big Bend would be a stopping point. Simple enough, right? This will help to frame the rest of your road trip as you build around your 'must sees'.

Create a Budget

Where you go and what you do all depends on how much money you're willing to spend. Personally, I like to feel guilt free and within budget when I spend $80 in gift shops. I also prefer to not spend my money eating out at restaurants all the time while traveling. All of your preferences will be very personal and you have to decide what is important to you in a trip and what you are willing to shell out money for! You want to be able to enjoy the things that you enjoy, so budget appropriately!

For me, my big trip budget is generally about $1,200. That varies depending on if we are flying to a location, renting a car, how long we are traveling for, etc. Also, I should clarify that $1,000 generally covers from the actual start of the trip to the end of the trip. Since I am a planner, all of my lodging/camping costs are spread out in the months prior to the trip as I make my reservations and pay ahead of time. As I do that, I just ensure that those fit in with my standard monthly budget allotted for travel. Total for a trip with airfare and car rental, I'm generally looking at at least $2,000, but about half of that is budgeted into each month prior to the trip as I make my reservations ahead of time and the other half I save up for and have on hand for the trip for food, gas, souvenirs, etc.

Note: I realize I am really fucking privileged to be able to spend money on traveling like this. But also please know that I am a single parent on one income and I work hard to save and budget so that I can do these things because travel is important to me. 100% of the time I will pick spending money on travel over spending money on stuff. And the beauty of outdoor focused travel is that it will just about always be cheaper than a trip to Disneyland.

Do Some Research on Surrounding Areas

Okay, so once I know where I am going and how much money I want to spend, I start to look at areas around my primary, must see destinations. A lot of this involves me looking at maps of National Parks to see what is close by. If I know I want to visit Yosemite, what else is 'nearby' (I use that term somewhat loosely) to visit? For us, it was Sequoia/King's Canyon, Death Valley, and Joshua Tree. We wanted to pack Channel Islands in, as well, but it didn't work out in our planning for that trip. New Mexico - I knew we wanted to go to White Sands, so we looked at other sites in the general area and added two BLM sites to our route. Utah - we knew we'd be heading south to Zion to see an old friend, so we hopped on down to Grand Canyon and then to Page, AZ as we headed over to Moab. You get the point. If you need any help or advice on how to find things, don't hesitate to holler at me!

Build Your Route

Alright, we're making good progress. Now we have a list of places that we would like to visit. It's time to put them all together into a route. I think this is my favorite part of the process. Finding the best route and order of destinations is like a puzzle to me. Here are the main things that I look at as I am trying to piece together my destinations:

  • Where am I starting from?
  • How far am I willing to drive in one day? (For us, our general rule is no more than six hours per day. Kids + sitting in a car for extended periods of time = no bueno.)
  • Where am I ending? Same place as I started?
  • How flexible am I with my destinations? If one that was on my list just isn't working with the flow of the route, am I willing to drop it or swap it out for something else?

Create Tentative Itineraries

Woohoo! You now have your road trip set and you know where you're going and when. The biggest hurdle is over. Now, it's time to do a little more research on those places. I like to look up different hikes and make a list of ones that fit with our distance capabilities. Are there any iconic scenic drives that you can take? Guided tours you'd like to do? Restaurants you'd like to eat at? These lists are not set in stone, merely just some notes of things that you may want to do. You can solidify them further as the trip gets closer if you'd like. I like to leave them tentative, though, to give room for other things that may pop up, delays in travel, etc. Additionally, I like to have Plan B's set up in the event that a first come, first served campground is full or something happens to be closed while we are there.

So, those are the basics of how I approach planning a trip! I usually keep a word document that lists my destinations for each day and the tentative itineraries. That makes it easy to copy and paste if I need to rearrange some things. And seriously, if you need help planning your road trip, get with me. I love this kind of shit. It combines my love of travel and the outdoors with my love of spreadsheets, lists, and my Type A personality.


Tips & Tricks | Camping Must Haves

Since we are beginning to prepare for our upcoming camping trip to Colorado Bend State Park, I thought I would share five items that I never leave behind when we adventure into the great outdoors. These items are essentials for us regardless of whether we are camping in the teardrop or roughin' it in a tent. *Note: this post contains affiliate links & I make a small commission off qualifying purchases.

5 Camping Essentials

Cast iron skillet

This is an essential for me both at home and while camping. There is nothing like a good, well seasoned cast iron skillet. Lodge is a trustworthy brand. I have three of them, the smallest of which is my dedicated camping skillet. It lives in my teardrop camper, but it'll get pulled out and put into our kitchen tub for the upcoming trip since we're tentin' it (first time in our brand new tent, too! More on that later). Cast iron is the ideal cooking tool while camping because the clean-up is so god damned easy. You don't need water or soap or a sponge to clean it. So long as it is seasoned well enough to be fully non-stick, I just wipe mine down with a paper towel after I have fried up my eggs and it's good to go! If you've got some gunk that won't come off with a paper towel, have some coarse ground salt and steel wool on hand to scrub it off.

Fire starters

So, here's a confession: I suck at starting campfires. I know, I know. I'm the worst park ranger ever. It's just really hit or miss for me whether or not my fire dies out sadly, leaving nothing but thick, eye burning smoke, or it successfully catches and turns into the beautiful inferno that is intended. So to better my odds, I always carry around a pack of fire starters. They're easy to use, don't take up a lot of space, and (almost) never fail to get a great campfire going. We won't talk about our camping trip to Huntsville where we struggled with wet wood and went through a whole pack to no avail. Don't chance it - bring some of these bad boys because camping just isn't camping without a campfire! *Note: please always check with the park or area that you're in to ensure that ground fires are allowed and the area is not under a burn ban!

Wool socks

My dudes, if you have not yet experienced the joy of a good pair of wool socks, you have not lived. Having grown up in Texas, I was late to the game in discovering how wonderful and cozy these things are. My time spent in New England opened my eyes and I am a changed woman for it. Wool socks are perfect for sitting around the campsite on chilly evenings to keep your feet warm. Pair them with a good set of moccasins and you're golden. If it's really cold when we're camping, I will even sleep with them on (sometimes doubled up). I also wear wool socks while hiking because they help to wick moisture away from your feet, which is helpful when you're on a long hike with gross, sweaty feet. They're just so versatile and comfortable... get yourself a pair or five!!!

Backpack

When you go camping, you don't just sit at the campsite all day - you get out there and get hiking! You're going to need a backpack if you want to do any hiking with young kiddos. Snacks are an essential for them (and water, too, obviously), so load up your backpack with water bottles (1L per hour per person on a hot day), some granola bars or mandarin oranges, fruit snacks - whatever floats your boat. I also will throw my cell phone in so I have it for those perfect photo ops or in case of emergency. Bonus - your backpack can act as a trash can, too. Pro-tip: please don't throw fruit peels or rinds on the ground. You may think they're 'natural' so it's okay to toss 'em, but it's littering, plain and simple. And when food related items are left close to a trail, it attracts animals and can lead to increased animal/human interactions. Just put it in your backpack, please! If it's messy trash, bring a plastic grocery bag to pop it in. Pack it in, pack it out!

Quality Cooler

Fuck, there is nothing more annoying than a shitty cooler. I hate when I put a package of sliced cheese in my ice chest as we are departing for a trip, and then less than 24 hours later, melted ice (also known as water) has infiltrated the packaging and turned my cheddar into a wet, slimy mess. It's annoying to have to strategically place items in the cooler - drinks and airtight containers on the bottom, fruit and permeable containers precariously balanced above, just hoping that nothing falls into the ocean of ice melt and gets ruined. Have you ever tried to eat soggy carrots or moist cheese? It's not fun. After years of tolerating a crappy cooler, I recently invested in a Yeti. It hurt to spend that much money on a cooler, but we will certainly get a lot of use out of it and the peace of mind (and food) is worth it.

 

So that's our list of things we never leave on a camping trip without! What are your essentials when you go exploring?