Ryan Wichelns on Becoming a Freelance Outdoor Writer

The sweat was mounting on Ryan Wichelns’ brow. His breath was labored, his hands tiring, his vision narrowed. Like his summit push to Mt. Brooks in Denali National Park in whiteout conditions, what lay ahead was unknown. 

He talks calmly about it now, but he probably gulped a few times before sending. It being an email to the editors of Backpacker Magazine containing his first ever story pitch. He says he dashed the submission off for fun, an inconsequential story idea that he didn’t expect much of. 

As happens with unexpected pursuits, that throwaway email changed the direction of his life.

I don’t buy his telling though. Ryan seems like the kind of meticulous person that would carefully analyze each word to make it sound just right; that plans week-long excursions to Alaska to undertake a “technical first that links five peaks in a remote part of Denali National Park.” He strikes me as a planner with an affinity for spreadsheets.

Either way, as with many of his climbs, he’d end up scaling this new trajectory with quick progression: He’s the editor of Eastern Mountain Sport’s goEast blog, has written for Outside Magazine, Backpacker, and Alpinist, and he’s fully supported himself through writing for over a year.

That’s not a normal course for a young freelancer. 

Ryan in his element. Photo source: ryanclimbs.com


It started with a trip to Arcadia… Rhode Island. 

“Arcadia is probably the only place you can backpack in the state,” he chuckles. Rhode Island being all of 37 miles wide by 48 miles long.

Backpacker bit. Ryan was now a writer.

“It taught me a valuable lesson, that you should focus on a niche. Certainly, not a lot of people were writing about obscure trips in RI.” His idea stood out and they took a chance on him.

One small trip, one small act, one big life-altering outcome.


Ryan is at the dawn of his writing career but is already one of the rare species to make a full-time living off it. 

As my editor at goEast, I was curious to learn more about his own path, and to see what advice I may be able to glean from someone a few years ahead of me on this journey. In our call he shared some tips for breaking into freelance writing.

Advice on How to Become a Freelance Writer

Find a niche: 

“This might be the most important thing,” Ryan declares. “There’s a lot of competition and it’s not easy to dive in if you’re pitching yourself as just another writer,” he says.

Anyone can be just another writer. What makes you stand out? What can you write about better than most others? What special angle can you provide? Find your expertise and make yourself valuable with it.

A niche can often be identified by thinking creatively. Start by considering what you already possess, such as local knowledge (which tends to be overlooked), a combination of distinct perspectives (maybe via your upbringing or education), or a particular interest you have.

“For me, it was somewhat accidental and somewhat forced. My niche was in the Northeast. Backpacker didn’t have a ton of people writing about that, but they needed the content,” Ryan offers.

Know the publication you’re pitching to:

You need to understand the publication in order to appeal to the editor.

How does the story you want to pitch fit into what they publish? What is the format or structure of their stories? Are there any gaps in their content? 
Familiarize yourself with their articles, try to understand the reader, and think like an editor.

Ryan at Pico de Orizaba. Photo credit: Lauren Danilek


Write about what interests you:

Ryan studied journalism in college and was the editor of the school paper, yet it wasn’t until he started writing for Backpacker that he saw a future in the pursuit: “The thing is, I never enjoyed writing all through high school… and while it was rewarding to work on an investigative piece [at university], I had more fun writing about the outdoors,” he shares.

Now when he considers potential articles, he evaluates whether it is interesting to him personally. If he’s excited by an idea, it will likely come through in the pitch and the piece.

Relationships matter:

“My first editor at Backpacker took a chance on me. I give her credit for a lot of my success,” Ryan says from the onset.

“After awhile she was giving me assignments, put me up for a job with the [Outdoor Retailer (OR)] Daily. She recommended me for all sorts of press trips.”

The relationship they developed, the trust, and Ryan’s ability to deliver led to an abundance of future opportunities. 

Network. Or, go where the people are:

In a digital world, face time (not the app) matters.

“Going to OR and working for the Daily was the best thing I did for my outdoor industry freelance career,” Ryan notes.

Outdoor Retailer is a beacon for the industry in the U.S., attracting gear companies, athletes, media, and others involved in the space. As a reporter for the daily paper that runs during the duration of the show, Ryan was able to meet editors and writers at other publications, gain leads for stories or pick up products to test, and receive invitations for press trips.

Pitching:

The bread and butter of getting in the door of a publication is the pitch, an “elevator style” presentation of a story idea with the hopes that it intrigues an editor.

The aim for a first story is just that, get a story. Any story. Ryan suggests pitching something more formulaic, such as a a round up or a short interview—in a magazine, look to the beginning sections (often known as the “Departments”) and shy away from pitching a feature.

From an editor’s perspective, it’s easier to take a chance on a new writer with something simple. It’s uncommon for editors to accept a big feature idea from a new writer without a demonstrated history.

“Once I see someone can do [a simpler piece], it becomes far easier to take the reigns off and let them do something more from their own judgement,” Ryan shares. After you have established a relationship with the editor, try pitching a slightly larger idea, then build from there. 

I’ve found Tim Neville’s, The Art of Travel Writing ebook from World Nomads, to be a wonderfully helpful beginner guide that features a detailed “how to pitch” section.

Ryan and pals on their Mt. Brooks expedition in Alaska. Photo source: ryanclimbs.com


A long and bumpy road:

Of course, a word of caution: This path takes time. 

From most accounts I’ve read, years of dedication are required before freelance writers are able to fully support themselves from writing alone. Often this path begins as a part-time thing, they have savings, or there is a very supportive spouse.

But if you can make it work, you can achieve creative flexibility, get paid to go on trips, and work from wherever you have internet access (at least intermittently). 


Ryan has earned his career, step by step, much like his increasingly technical climbs after years of training.

And where one person goes, another is likely to follow; seeing an example acts like a green light for others. If you are pursuing a freelance writing career, or thinking about it, good luck–and consider doing what Ryan did, just keep moving forward.


You can learn more about Ryan Wichelns and read his work at ryanclimbs.com.


Feature photo of Ryan on Mount Rainier, from his website.

We Seek Suffering (Suffering is Optional)

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.” ― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

The floorboards creaked and bowed under my weight. I stopped to move the turned over paint bucket–masquerading as exercise equipment–to the side, and hopefully to more stable slats. The soft thud of foot-up-and-foot-down became muted. I resumed stepping. 

Up and down. Up and down. Up and down. For 45 minutes.

This exercise is known as step-ups, and the beauty lies in the self-explanatory name à la description à la simplicity of action. The purpose is to prepare your body for uphill walking with a weighted pack (i.e., if you don’t have easy access to a mountain or you like the convenience of working out at home).

It’s a mindless task really. For the first 15 minutes or so it’s palatable. Then it becomes brutally boring. It’s nothing like walking or hiking or running in the woods. There’s no beauty to fall into, no change of scenery or rock or roots to keep our attention focused. It’s just you and a step. It’s self-contained, repetitive, and grating on the will.

In this Facebook group I’m a part of, some of the mountaineers will do step-ups for two, three hours. They say they go a little mad.

Why? For what end?

Because they’re a little off the rocker? Probably. (I hope to join them in that madhouse someday soon, though.)

But there’s more. 

This is about what the act represents: Literal steps towards mountain dreams. Because you can’t always be in the mountains, but you can train for when you do get there. Because you need to.

It’s about pain re-framed. It’s about defining your suffering, not letting it define you.

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

― Haruki Murakami quoting a runner from a International Herald Tribune article, in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

Suffering is our relationship to pain. It’s meaning making. We can choose to relate to the pain with purpose, even find enjoyment in it, or let it become misery.

For example, I choose to stay in shape because I know in the long-run it will be better for me. I certainly enjoy running, lifting, and climbing but not always. Some days you don’t want to be active–no way, hell no–but that long-term vision gets me out there more often than not because I’m pretty sure my future self is going to thank me. And lo and behold, usually after I get going I fall in rhythm and enjoy the activity. 

Let’s clarify a bit further about the companions of pain and suffering.

Pain is the physical and mental stabbings, the body breaking down, the mental fatigue. It is an inevitable part of life, especially if you’re into long distance running (as Murakami is) or have any sort of human relationship ever.

(For example, I’ve had a few parents now tell me a similar narrative, “Your children are your greatest love and joy, and they are guaranteed to break your heart.” You don’t get one (love) without the other (heartbreak)).

Suffering on the other hand is the story we tell ourselves about the pain. This narrative very quickly usurps the discomfort and frames the entirety of the experience. 

Photo by asoggetti on Unsplash

Pain Is Temporary, Suffering Can Last a Lifetime. 

Therein lies the crux of it: How we relate to suffering matters more than the pain itself because it becomes the experience.

Nothing Lost, Nothing Gained. Or Rather, Never Really Lived.

We like to think that one of our primary drives is to reduce pain. But what do you make of all the people that actively go seek it out? 

Ultra-runners, mountaineers, triathletes… These are long and grueling activities that no one describes as “fun” during the event itself. Only afterwards, upon reflection, does satisfaction permeate. Their pain is reframed into an appreciation of a project completed after a whole lot of work, and it brings a smile to one’s face.

These athletes often talking about feeling most alive during their events.

Why is that? In part, pain evolved to bring you to your senses, to make you acutely aware of what’s going on inside and around you. Pain helps you to live in the present.

What does this say about our values hierarchy as a species? 

For one, maybe we care more about accomplishment and personal growth than mitigating pain.

Think of it this way, the only time you don’t experience pain is when you’re dead. Maybe if you’re not experiencing pain you’re not really living.

Photo by Dino Reichmuth on Unsplash

Be Mindful of What You Spend Your Energy On

In this day and age, we say we want an easy life, but the irony is that we don’t really give a shit about something that comes without effort. What we spend our time on inevitably has meaning for us, and the harder we work, the more it matters.

Psychology backs this up, the Sunk Cost Fallacy suggests you are more willing to commit to something you’ve already invested in. The more energy you dedicate to something, the more devoted you feel towards it.

Perhaps in some small way that’s why people choose to spend so much time in their job. Because it’s the easy, most obvious thing to commit yourself to (wrongly or rightly).

The questions you might want to ask yourself: Are you clear with what you are trying to achieve at the end of this hard work? Is this something worth experiencing pain for? How are you framing your relationship to the pain?

One Small Step at at Time 

“Man, the bravest of animals and the one most accustomed to suffering, does not repudiate suffering as such; he desires it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche 

The room heats up and there’s a heaviness to the saturated air. The weathered light from the hanging bulb casts long shadows about the room. Sweat pools on my back where the backpack sits. In a short while I take a quick break to crack open a window. 

In the cool breeze I think of the pain and boredom, then of the majesty of mountains, and go back to take the next step. 



Photo source: Mountain Life

Where to Get Cheap Mountaineering Gear: The Beg, Borrow, and Steal List

Series: How to Start Mountaineering Cheaply



“The mountains are calling, and I must go [cheaply].” *

– John Muir


Mountaineering is an expensive sport. And I’m poor. 

Or that was the excuse I told myself. Have you ever wanted to try something but gave up before you really got going?

Some excuse or another always seems to pop up: It’s not practical, you don’t have the time, you might look like an idiot. You know the drill.

Frankly, the prospect of exuberant cost has held me back for years. Buying all brand new gear, just for the essentials (boots, crampons, ice axe, puffy, hard shell top and bottom, gloves), you could easily clear $1,500 by purchasing top-of-the-line products. 

So I hemmed and hawed and let the sticker shock stop me. It became an exaggerated impediment, like making a Mont Blanc of a molehill, and I needed to recalibrate this mental hurdle in order to move forward.

This past year I got into sports climbing (and progressively bought a harness, draws, a rope,) and realized what everyone else already knew: You should build your kit over time.

And also, you can do this the expensive way, or the “keep an eye out for deals” way.

Photo source: elvesandmagic

What was different between climbing and mountaineering?

Honestly, I just started climbing and got hooked.

Now, because gear has been a crux, this post will focus on ways to get gear cheaply. 

We’ll talk about what gear you need in a future post. And yes, I recognize that focusing on gear first is starting out of order. Bear with me.

In the end, this will be a series about “How To Start Mountaineering Cheaply” covering topics such as scoping out beginner-friendly mountains, affordable guides and courses, requisite skills, training, and more.

Let’s take the first step towards our high-altitude goal.




Photo source: wer.ena

Beg & Borrow

The best place to start is to have friends that mountaineer.

Shit out of luck on that front? Join local mountaineering clubs or seek out forums like Mountain Project to partner up. The clubs might have a gear depot (university programs typically do), and people who are into the sport likely have extras of things.

You can also rent equipment (better to spend $100 for two days of rental gear to try things out before dropping the big dollars).

North America

American Alpine Club
Established in 1902, the AAC is the premiere high-altitude outdoor club in the U.S. Membership provides discounts at major retailers and brands (such as Outdoor Research, Rab, and Backcountry), at climbing gyms, and guide services. With an introductory membership cost of $45, this is bound to pay for itself in no time.

The Mountaineers (PNW)
A nonprofit outdoor community of 13,000+ active members in the Pacific Northwest. They offer trips, courses, events, and have lodges. They are the publishers of the renowned, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills.

Mazamas (PNW)
A nonprofit mountaineering education organization based in Portland, Oregon. They were “founded in 1894 on the summit of Mt. Hood,” and offer outdoor education and organized activities for every skill and fitness level.

Colorado Mountain Club
There are over 15 regional clubs that offer ways to meet potential partners through courses and group events.

Appalachian Mountain Club (East Coast)
Founded in 1876, the AMC manages the well known trails of America’s Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions (such as the Appalachian Trail). They have ample member-led events that make it easy to get outside and meet partners.

Mountain Project Partner Forum (U.S.)
There are 21,626 climbers in the Partner Finder as of this post. Search away, reach out, post and do your darndest to be charming.

Europe

I’ll save my breath here.

The Chamois Mountaineering Club (UK): They have compiled an extensive list of over 439 mountaineering clubs from across Europe and beyond.

(Is that cheating?)




Photo source: rirofal

Steal*

*In the, “it’s so cheap it’s like stealing” sense.

Used gear

Because there are plenty of enthusiasts who use their stuff a handful of times and never again. Conserve people, conserve!

Mountain Project: For Sale / For Free / Want to Buy Forum
MP is a U.S.-centric resource for finding routes and partners, sharing beta, and selling used gear. Used climbing shoes seem to be overpriced for some reason, but most other equipment tends to offer deals.

MEC Gear Swap
MEC is a retail co-operative (with over 5 million members!) based in Canada. They are kind of like the Canadian REI with a used gear section.

OutdoorGearLab ebay Store
The OutdoorGearLab’s mission is to create world’s best outdoor gear reviews. They are my favorite resource for gear reviews because they aim to be truly objective by avoiding the conflict of interest that comes with receiving free gear. Instead, they buy everything they test, and then put it up for sale on ebay.

Outdoor Gear Exchange (Burlington, VT)
Gearx offers an online discount outlet and has an extensive used gear section in their physical store (most of which is consignment). 

Outdoor Gear Exchange UK (Facebook group)
Mostly U.S. focused and a grab bag of gear. You have to search for deals but they are there. 

Backpacking Gear Flea Market (Facebook group)
The largest used gear exchange group in the UK.


Outdoor Gear Exchange (Burlington, VT)
Gearx offers an online discount outlet and has an extensive used gear section in their physical store (most of which is consignment). 

Outdoor Gear Exchange UK (Facebook group)
Mostly U.S. focused and a grab bag of gear. You have to search for deals but they are there. 

Backpacking Gear Flea Market (Facebook group)
The largest used gear exchange group in the UK.

Pro-tip: “I found most people sold their stuff at the end of the season, so you can get good deals then if you don’t mind it sitting in the cupboard till the next winter comes round like I did.” – u/connor2210 on reddit




Steeply Discounted

(WeighMyRack searches from a long list of retailers to source the best deals)

WeighMyRack
This should probably be your first stop when you start searching. They began because “we were super frustrated researching gear and sick of getting suckered into buying the ‘on sale” gear,’” Their frustration is your gain.

CamelCamelCamel
An easy to use, price tracking tool that provides price drop alerts and price history for products sold by Amazon. Unfortunately, they had a major “uh-oh” recently and their database server had three hard drives fail. Major catastrophe. It is unclear when the will be back online (but it is worth bookmarking for if/when they get back online) 😦

Backcountry.com
A major online retailer in the U.S. It’s best to wait for their bi-annual sales in February and August. This is usually accompanied by free shipping for orders over a certain amount.

Sierra Trading Post 
Free shipping when you sign up for their newsletter, which often includes coupons.

REI Outlet
If you poke around you can find some good deals in the 50% off section. On occasion they offer 70% off promotions and send 20% off coupons to members.

Pro-tip: A Super Duper List of Gear you can buy on Amazon
u/Jickled on reddit has compiled a fantastic list of gear you can buy at affordable prices. Many of the tips and gear configurations are well thought out “hacks,” such as using 3 season boots with a waterproof outer and boot liners for your (lower-altitude) mountaineering excursions. Well done, sir.




Manufacturer Outlets and Physical Retailer Sales

REI Garage Sale
The somewhat legendary sales–in which it is not uncommon for people to show up hours early–occur at the discretion of each store, but generally about once a month. Items are priced to sell and all sales are final. This is only available to members, but you can usually just buy your membership at checkout ($20). It is best to have a plan.

Pro-tip: “Best time to grab winter stuff though, is around July. Lots of warehouse sales from La Sportiva (check out their factory store), Scarpa, Sea to Summit, etc.” – Long Ranger on Mountain Project




Photo source: natebbrown

Bonus Option – Be in College

College Outside
The organization was started to help more students get outside. One of the perks is special discounts on outdoor gear.

Extra Bonus Option – Prodeals

I first learned of prodeals while attending Outdoor Retailer as a buyer for The Grommet.*

For personal reasons, I was scoping out the backpack section and started talking to Osprey. I was hoping to buy a showpiece bag for cheap during the closing hours of the show. That didn’t turn out, but the rep gave me a prodeal code which let me buy a bag online at ~10% below wholesale price (the price manufacturers sell their gear to retailers). In other words, about 60% off retail. In other other words, cheap.

Anywho, there are a variety of ways to qualify for prodeals. You can be a mountain guide, a ski patrol, an outdoor educator, an active member of the military, a fire and rescue professional, and many more options.

ExpertVoice and OutdoorProlink are options to try and access prodeals.

*(As an aside, the best way I’ve found to get cheap gear was to get free gear; The companies would give us their product to test, and usually let us keep it too. Jackpot).



*Author’s note: “Cheaply” added in, but Mr. Muir did walk from Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico (A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf) with little more than a small backpack, a wool blanket, the bible, and a walking stick.


Feature photo source: amanda.be