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by Dan Soeder | 2006

Leading Outings Isn’t Just for John Muir Wannabes. You Can Do It, Too.

The success of an outings program doesn’t require an enormous amount of effort, but it does require sustained effort. We have a good program, and it’s getting better, but attendance on outings, even across the country, can be described most charitably as “uneven.” Jenny Egan, the outings chair of the Delaware Chapter, recently told me that she had to cancel almost half of their planned outings last year due to lack of participants. Deborah Holt in the Massachusetts Chapter has had similar problems. Few things are more disappointing, and turn off new leaders more quickly, than to put significant effort into planning an outing, only to have no one show up. Membership in the Maryland chapter is in the tens of thousands. Surely someone out there is interested in outdoor activities.


Outings Aren’t Just for Athletes

Some people think that Sierra Club outings are only for those extreme athlete guys who free-climb Half Dome at Yosemite, or those outdoorsy women who run the New River Gorge in little plastic boats. The exaggerated way in which outdoor activities are often portrayed on TV or in popular culture is enough to scare off all but the most adventuresome.

For the record, I think that extreme outings are a great deal of fun and an important part of our program. Strenuous activities appeal to a group of athletic, enthusiastic outdoors people. I am glad that a subset of Sierra Club outings leaders are dedicated to leading such trips, even though my knees would probably give out halfway through one of their hikes. But the outings program also offers nature walks, birding, conservation trips to National Wildlife Refuges, service trips to fix trails or remove invasive vegetation, flatwater canoe paddles, family camping trips, dog-friendly hikes, and bicycle rides. Indeed, there is something for everyone.

Please consider participating on some outings. You can go on any outing offered by any group listed in the newsletter. You don’t have to be a Sierra Club member to participate (in fact, outings are a good way to recruit new members). Find something that appeals to you, contact the leader for details, and come on out. If you are an outdoor neophyte, we’ve got some easy outings scheduled. If you prefer more moderate to strenuous challenges, we have those as well. And if you have been holding back because you don’t know what equipment you might need, check out our equipment workshops, or simply ask the trip leader. You’d be surprised how far you can get with just a good pair of hiking boots and a modest pack.

I believe that outings should be for everyone, not just people who are prepared to survive a week in the wilderness with little more than a pocketknife. The Sierra Club needs three things to have a successful outings program: 1) more participants, 2) more leaders and 3) more relevance to the rest of the club. Increasing the variety of outings will increase the appeal and relevance of the outings program. Variety will bring out more participants, grow more leaders, and make outings a more integral part of the club’s activities.


Almost Anyone Can Lead an Outing

Almost anyone can lead an outing. I always tell people to lead an outing for an activity they would be doing anyway. If you go on walks, or you like to ride your bicycle or paddle a canoe, why not do it as an outing, and invite some Sierra Club people to come along? And if no one shows up, hey, it was something you planned to do anyway.

I’d enjoy seeing more new outings leaders like Helen Daniel. Helen told me about a wonderful bike trail she likes to ride. I convinced her to become an outings leader and plan the activity. She took the OLT101 training, got certified in first aid, and planned and scouted the trip. About a dozen people turned out, including several long-time Sierra members who had never been on an outing and several non-members who expressed an interest in joining the club. We rode from Bethesda to Roosevelt Island, a beautiful, nearly wild island that Rep. Pombo was talking about selling-off to raise money for the National Park Service. I doubt that anyone left the island thinking that turning it over to the developers would improve it. The participants ranged from 13 year-old Natalie Bezerra to Wil Chase, who at age 86 stayed with the group the entire way and then rode home.

There is an old German saying that the most difficult part of any journey is going out your front door. The Sierra Club outings program is competing for attention against cable television, DVDs, satellite TV, video games, computer games, e-mail, web surfing and the 1001 other diversions in modern society. We need to convince people to go out their front doors and onto outings, at least some of them with the Sierra Club. Those who do seek out outdoor activities are beset by a zillion other trail clubs, outdoor activity groups, and commercial outfitters vying for their attention. If the various groups cooperate, rather than compete, they can build on each other’s strengths. This is why we have some joint outings with the DC Canoe Cruisers, the Delaware Chapter of the Sierra Club and others.


I Want People to Be Inspired

I want people to be safe, have fun and enjoy the outdoors, but I also want them to be inspired. Love and respect for nature is why most of us joined the club in the first place. John Muir started the club outings program in Yosemite over 100 years ago to show others the magnificent landscape he was trying to protect. I think the conservation or “environmental” aspect of Sierra Club outings provides us with a niche that a lot of other outdoor activity programs don’t have.  Sierra Club outings are not just outdoor recreation. People expect our leaders to be knowledgeable about the environmental issues in a particular place, and to discuss them during the outing. This is one of our strengths as an organization, and we should use it to help improve the outings program.

Some have argued that the outings leader standards established last year by the Sierra Club make it more difficult to recruit leaders. Sure, there are a few hoops to jump through, but having outings leaders who meet a set of minimum standards puts Sierra Club a notch above many other outdoor activity groups. Most of the outdoor leaders in any organization will be safe, knowledgeable, and equipped to deal with problems. In Sierra Club, it will be all the leaders.

See you outside!

Dan Soeder is the MD Chapter Outings Chair.

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