How to Become an Outdoor Writer and Photographer

For almost 20 years, outdoor writer and photographer Aaron Teasdale has carved out a career through smart-assery and pointing cameras at pretty things. He’s not entirely sure how he’s pulled this off, but since lots of people ask, he’s agreed to share his story and advice for aspiring writers and photographers here. He makes no promises for the quality or validity of this advice, and readily admits that it may, in fact, be terrible. But things are working out for him, so maybe there’s something to it.

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Best. Office. Ever. Here I’m writing about fatbiking the Alaska coast from a hammock in a Central American jungle. Who needs job security when you can work from a hammock?

Explore the world
I was a 24-year-old riding my bike alone in the bear-infested mountains of northern Montana, exploring new trails and generally being stoked, when I thought this can’t last. For years I’d been vagabonding around the American West— sleeping on the ground, meditating on mountaintops, and riding my bike up every remote, back-of-beyond trail I could find. I was having the time of my life, but I knew the dreaded “real world” of jobs and sleeping inside and daily personal hygiene was calling. So I reminded myself to savor every minute of my “adventure years.”

I wanted no part of mindlessly destroying the world in the name of profit and nicer televisions, which is what most of the world seemed focused on, so I created a seasonal window-cleaning business in my hometown of Minneapolis, which delivered ladder-based urban adventure and earned just enough money for me to travel nine months a year. By the time I started writing epic, 17-page letters about my adventures to friends, I knew the West like it was my backyard. Without realizing it, I was laying the groundwork for my future.

Then I got a call from BIKE magazine, my bible at the time, saying they wanted to run the story I’d sent, the first I’d submitted to a magazine (and, yeah, a phone call. On a land line. ‘Cause that’s how things got done in 1997.). Once I got over my shock at actually speaking to the real live Rob Story, I realized he was asking me to trim the 6,000-word story I’d written down to 800 words. Didn’t matter. My career was launched.

Be An Expert
The world of core outdoor people—like musicians, biker gangs, sumo wrestlers, or any passionate community of people with too much time on their hands—can smell a poseur. If you want to write for cyclists, skiers, paddlers, climbers, whoever, you’ve got to live it. If you want to capture the essence of a sport, an experience, a feeling, you’ve got to know it from the inside. Yes, you must commit to the craft of writing, but the commitment to the outdoors is just as important, or you’ll never connect with anyone no matter how good your writing is.

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Young Aaron exploring the wild country on the border of Glacier National Park. The next day my friend Brock and I would get savagely lost, giving me the narrative for my first nationally published story, The Journey of Wrong.

I’d been living to ride for years when I wrote my first story. Readers could feel the energy in my writing. So after that conversation with Rob Story, when I landed an internship at BIKE and Powder magazines, I was the embodiment of what they were attempting to capture in their pages—the love of the sport.

Get An Internship
If you live for the outdoors, have a flair for compelling, creative storytelling, and can happily survive as a penniless homeless person, then you’ve got the foundation to be an outdoor writer and photographer. But as in so many things in life, being good and/or voluntarily homeless isn’t enough. You’ve got to know people. This is not elitist, it’s human nature. People simply prefer working with people they actually know. So get known.

For me that meant getting an internship at what I considered to be the best, purest, most creative outdoor publications of the time. Those six months I spent in Southern California at the offices of Surfer Publications, who published BIKE and Powder, laid the foundation for everything I’ve done since as a writer and photographer. Not only did I learn how magazines were created, but the relationships I made with great writers, editors, and photographers are still invaluable to this day. You only create that kind of connection by getting to know people in person.

Most magazines and serious websites have internships. Find a publication that means something to you and get one.

Total Commitment 
After the internship, when you try to create an actual career out of outdoor writing and photography, is when things get real. It will take years and untold peanut-butter-and-jelly tortillas to establish yourself, and those years won’t be pretty. I watched many young writers and photographers abandon the outdoor life. You will only succeed as a freelance writer and photographer if you’re committed to it above everything, including food, shelter, and the respect of vast swaths of mainstream society (it took about a decade for my mother-in-law to stop asking when I was going to get a job).

I knew a higher-paying job wouldn’t make me happy. I knew a nicer television, or furniture, or any television and furniture, wouldn’t make me happy. I wanted to see the world. I wanted adventure. I wanted work that meant something. Even if what it meant was living in my van.

September 01, 2015
Best car/house I ever had, somewhere in America.

Actually I loved living in my van. That internship paid exactly zero dollars, which left me approximately jack shit for rent. So I kept it real and lived in the Surfer Publications parking lot. After leaving, I intended to continue living the van life—installing solar panels to charge my laptop and vagabonding in perpetuity—when everything changed.

A couple years earlier I’d met this shockingly down-to-earth girl with a radiant smile at a Rainbow Gathering in New Mexico. After knowing her for two weeks, I invited her to South America on a harebrained trip I’d been planning. Amazingly, she agreed. An excellent sign. But then, shortly after the internship, came the call. Jacqueline, now in Prague, was pregnant.

I had no money, only the slightest hint of a career, and I lived in a van. This is the point at which some people would start filling out job applications. Instead, I doubled down and pitched stories to BIKE about exploring unridden Inca trails in Bolivia and riding as a bike messenger in Minneapolis in January. Which leads to the next point…

Bad-Ass Stories
If you want to make it as an outdoor writer and photographer you need to pitch unique stories to editors. Being rad is not a story. Being rad and doing sick shit with your rad bros is not a story. You have to seek out extraordinary places and new ways of exploring them. You have to find people doing groundbreaking things and profile them. You have to do deep research, find new angles, and tell stories that haven’t been told. This is your job.

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Bombing scree fields at 17,000 feet down Mount Chacaltaya in the Bolivian Andes on hardtails with rim brakes. Yeah, that was fun.

There are untold people who want this same job, and plenty of talented people doing it already. Don’t let this dissuade you. As John Kennedy once famously told his cab driver, then struggling actor Leonard Nemoy, “There’s always room for another good one.” Nemoy, of course, went on to become world-famous as Star Trek’s Spock. If you’re talented, work hard, and develop compelling story ideas, you too have the potential to achieve the outdoor media equivalent of starring in a low-budget but hugely influential science fiction series. Just make sure you’re a dyed-in-the-wool dirtbag, ‘cause that’s not going to change for a while.

After having my first son, I supported my family on a whopping $11,000 a year for several years while my wife stayed home to care for the boys (we added another son a couple years later ‘cause you just can’t keep virility like this in check). So, yeah, we didn’t eat out much. But we’ve always strived to live simply regardless, and what we lacked in money we made up for in freedom. We could head for the mountains whenever we saw fit. I took “trips of a lifetime” several times each year. I studied writing and photography and worked damn hard on honing my craft. The foundation was being laid.

Learn to Shoot Photographs
David Reddick, the legendary photo editor of Powder and BIKE, sold me his old Nikon film camera and a couple lenses during my time there. His guidance was instrumental in getting me started, but it still took me years of hard work before I could consistently produce imagery that didn’t suck. Now my photography stands alone and I’ve shot every story I’ve written for the past decade. I could be surviving purely as a writer, but I love the creativity of photography, and it helps me get outside more, which is why I stuck with this career in the first place. My work captures the beauty in this world, and photography gives me another way to do that.

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Dodging whales while paddling the threatened Great Bear Rainforest on the northern coast of British Columbia.

Broaden Your Scope
Mountain biking was my first love, but after moving to the Rockies from Minneapolis, backcountry skiing became my new mistress. Then I got hooked on strapping ultralight camping gear to mountain bikes and became a pioneer of modern bikepacking. Today I’m enjoying the hell out of multi-day, self-supported wilderness trips on standup paddleboards.

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Skiing off the Montana/Alberta border down to Cameron Lake in Waterton Lakes National Park.

But the biggest evolution of my work came about because of injury. After only a couple years of freelancing, when we were still living somewhere on the wrong side of the poverty line, I had a nasty skiing accident that severely damaged my hamstring. For almost three years I couldn’t bike, ski, or do much more than walk about a mile. On flat ground. With a tail wind. I was a gimp, and it wasn’t clear if I would ever regain the full use of my leg. Losing my athleticism was tough, but then I began looking more closely at the world around me on those short walks. I became entranced with birds. I studied wildflowers and ecology and animal tracks. I went from adventurer to naturalist, and it turned out I loved it just as much.

When my leg finally healed (praise all the gods!), my new passion led me to a job as a skiing carnivore tracker on a wildlife study in Glacier National Park. The things I learned that winter, and during those injured years, continue to inform my work to this day. Being limited physically forced me to find a new side to my passion, but it never diminished my love for nature and adventure, and I’m all the better for it. Now I can do super useful things like smell scat and tell you what animal it came from. Which is awesome. Unless it’s mountain lion scat. That stuff is nasty.

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Dancing with wolves in Glacier National Park means finding the heads of their victims laying in the middle of frozen lakes. Which is awesome. Look for the story in the November, 2015 issue of Sierra magazine.

Get Smarter
When you’re a writer, you are your work. Your mind spills onto the page. This can be messy; your job is to keep it entertaining. To keep things interesting for your readers—your ultimate responsibility—you have to constantly deepen your own thinking. Besides books on writing, field guides, and backcountry skiing guidebooks from the 1970s and ‘80s, which are the coolest things ever, my bookshelves are full of history, philosophy, science, and a diversity of great writers from the past century. All of this contributes to my writing, and has the added benefit of tricking guests into thinking I’m smart.

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There is no finer place in this world to sit around looking smart than in fire lookout towers.

Be True To Your Values
Throughout my career, from the early days as a gonzo mountain bike writer to today’s more philosophical and decrepit adventurer, I’ve never veered from my focus on celebrating the natural world. I’ll always promote conservation. I’ll never use motors in the backcountry. I’m selective about who I work with and the businesses that benefit from coverage in my stories. That said, you can never get so wrapped up in a cause that you forget your first priority: the reader. If you start preaching or bore them for even one minute, they’re gone.

Diversify Your Work
Everything you do in this life builds on itself. Rather than, you know, plan, my general life strategy has been: do cool stuff and the rest will work out. (“Cool” meaning one of three things: adventurous, edifying, or helpful. Ideally all three.) It’s a follow-your-passion strategy that continues to work for me. After years of only doing “core” adventure work, I became a writer for Sierra magazine, where I could let my eco-geek flag fly. I sold essays and photos to gear companies who made products I believed in. I worked with conservation groups and nonprofits, sometimes donating imagery and communication advice. Suddenly, after fifteen years, I’d become an expert.

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Packrafting British Columbia’s Flathead River, which at the time was threatened by a mountaintop-removal coal mine in its headwaters. For my story, we slept atop the endangered mountain the next night. The mining plans were thankfully shelved soon after.

The Future
So this is all fine and good, you might be saying, but you got your start in the salad days of magazines when one good pitch could get a free flight around the world. What about someone trying to get started today, where tossed-off, user-created content rules, people don’t pay for quality storytelling, and publications won’t even cover your lunch, much less plane tickets?

These things may be true, goddamn it, but getting started as an outdoor writer and photographer has never been easier. There are no more gatekeepers to publishing, or there are so many that as long as your work doesn’t totally suck—okay, even if it totally sucks—you can find a digital home for it. But earning a living, and actually being able to buy food and stuff, is harder than ever. The good news is that, like vinyl records and photographic film, magazines aren’t going away. A backlit monitor can never replace the tactile beauty of print. Tossed-off blog posts (ahem…) can never replace the quality of professionally written, photographed, and edited stories. Most magazines still pay real money, money you can live on. And increasingly websites do, too.

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My wife and son paddling on Lake Nicaragua from the island of Ometepe, Nicaragua. We lived on the island for one month and this shot was later used on an NRS catalog cover.

In many ways, brands are becoming the new magazines for freelance writers and photographers. Outdoor companies—gear, travel, tourism, etc.—can now speak directly to their consumers and they’re increasingly realizing that authentic writers and photographers can set them apart from the flood of user-created mediocrity. There are pitfalls—many companies have no clue what they’re doing, and every good writer (and reader) deserves a good editor, something this business model doesn’t support—but opportunity abounds for people with a proven track record of quality storytelling.

Most importantly, whether you’re writing for magazines, gear companies, your own website, or your mom and a few stalkers, all the principles above still apply. You have to be good, you have to hone your skills, and you always, always have to keep your reader in mind. Keep it up long enough and you might even get asked to write about it someday.