Someone told me once that “adventurer” is a French word that means, “crummy planner.” I’m not 100% sure about that translation but I am pretty sure that “adventure” is just a shortented form of “misadventure” – an old word that referred to uncomfortable, unpleasant, unexpected deviations from a plan.
Another adventure guru told me once that back in the old days, real explorers would do everything possible in their power to avoid ever having an adventure because unexpected, unpleasant deviations from the plan were often fatal.
Nowadays people crave “adventure” but I don’t think that the common definition carries the connotations of unexpected, unpleasant, and uncomfortable. I suspect the modern meaning is something more like “novel” or “interesting” or even just “involving effort.”
Since I began trying to be more adventurous a few years ago, I’ve had my share of miserable misadventures – mostly brought on by a lack of planning and preparation. Most of these were merely inconvenient or uncomfortable. But we read nearly every day where simple bad luck combined with lack of preparation can turn into a life-threatening situation for some hapless hiker or clumsy canoeist.
On the other hand, many of these misadventures ended up being extremely educational, and to some degree I suspect that this is the only sort of learning that most outdoorsmen are really capable of. It usually takes direct experience of consequences to make people think, “Hmmm, I wonder If I could do that better next time?”
Here are a few of my most miserable misadventures…
- Mosquitoes at Black Creek – On a multiple-day canoeing trip at Black Creek wilderness in mid summer, I forgot to pack insect repellent. The mosquitoes were not bad during the day while we were moving on the river, but at dusk the bugs attacked and I had to retreat to a stifling hot tent instead of hanging in my nice, cool hammock. Fortunately we had planned for a Hudson Bay Start – an old trick for canoeists in which you only canoe a short way the first day so that you’re not too far out into the wilderness if you have to go back and get something you forgot. In our case, we had someone bring a case of bug spray to us on the river. As bad as those mosquitoes were, I bet this guy had it worse!
- Frozen leader at Black Creek – Another time, we were backpacking alongside Black Creek and I deliberately chose to leave my sleeping bag and take a hammock and a light blanket to save weight in my pack. It was a glorious decision for the first 3 days because the temperatures were perfect (low 70’s) at night – but the last night the temp dropped to 36 and one of my party woke up that morning to find me wrapped in the blanket inside a mylar emergency tarp. Saving weight on a backpacking trip is important, but not freezing to death is also important!
- Broiling at Vicksburg – Hiking at Vicksburg Battlefield Park in June was the other extreme of miserable temperatures. Because it was a 14-mile hike in 100 degree temperatures, we were advised by the rangers to take 1-2 gallons of water per person. We didn’t want to carry 17 pounds of water each, so we each took about 3 quarts (half the amount we needed) and planned to resupply at the USS Cairo (the halfway point). The first half of the hike went fine but at the Cairo I handed my water bottles (re-purposed Gatorade bottles) to my son to refill and he threw them away, thinking they were trash. Then when I asked him where he threw them away he couldn’t remember. I finished that hike on about 1 quart of water, hallucinating about sweet tea!
- Broke down on the way to Vicksburg – Another time we’d planned a glorious compass hike at Vicksburg, and the weather was perfect and everyone was prepared and all the gear was checked – and the vehicle broke down halfway to Vicksburg and we had to call for evac!
- Wasps at Percy Quin – Percy Quin State Park has a very tame nature trail – at least, the first third of it is tame – mostly boardwalks. We got out on one of the boardwalks over the swamp (read that as no way back) and we were attacked by red wasps. The folks in the lead stirred the wasps up as they passed so that they thoroughly stung 2-3 people in the middle of the group. When we realized what was happening, half the group ran one way and the other half ran the other way, so that we were separated by the wasps and half the group was cut off from the trailhead! Fortunately we had no severe allergies and the medic that was with us applied a chaw of tobacco to the stings (IKR! It’s gross, but nicotine is a powerful vasoconstrictor that is good for stings). We let the wasps settle down then ran 1-2 at a time past them until the group was back together (on the far side) and continued our hike (we marked the boardwalk so that we wouldn’t blunder into the nest again on the way back).
That is just a tiny sampling of the unexpected, unpleasant, uncomfortable things that have made some of my outings into adventures! For those of you who actually can learn from someone else’s experiences, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from my misadventures.
- Get a packing checklist and a list of outdoor essentials and go through it religiously and repeatedly before any adventure.
- The remoteness of your adventure determines your tolerance for misadventure. In the front country, like at a developed campground in a state park 3 miles from your home, you can tolerate more unexpected deviations from your plan – but in the wilderness with no cell reception, hundreds of miles from home or help, you cannot. Try to account for the possibility of misadventures in your trip plan, and try to restrict your misadventures to front country as much as possible.
- Temperature ratings on camping gear are very approximate. For instance, a 30 degree sleeping bag will probably keep you alive on a 30 degree night – but you’re not likely to be very comfortable or get any sleep. In fact, before the sun finally comes up you might wish you were dead.
- After each outing, ask each of the participants to name one thing they wish they’d had but didn’t and ask each person to name one thing that they had that they wished they hadn’t had to carry. Write these things down on your packing checklist and take them into account next time.
Misadventure is a major part of the fun of adventure. You can’t completely eliminate it, and you probably wouldn’t want to because if you did, you would insulate yourself from the most educational parts of the activity.
So embrace the misadventure – but plan and prepare!