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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.