Crossing the fear threshold

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To get more people outdoors, we must overcome mental barriers


The first time I walked into a rock climbing gym, I was 19 years old and determined to learn to climb. The space was bright and unfamiliar. Fit-looking people, mostly male, geckoed up walls spattered with plastic blobs. Gear clanked. Grunts and shouts echoed. In a back room carpeted with shredded rubber, a guy clung to the ceiling like Spiderman.
Everybody but me seemed at home. Something akin to the fight-or-flight instinct roiled my guts. In spite of my determination, I nearly walked away.
Turns out there is a term for that witches’ brew of intimidation, anxiety and out-of-placeness: “threshold fear.” I learned it the other day in a post on the blog Museum 2.0 ( The author reported similar feelings when she visited a boxing gym.
It is hard to overstate the psychological magnitude of threshold fear. I like to flip the term to “fear threshold” because it evokes the image of a tangible obstacle. It might as well be. Outdoor-related thresholds vary from person to person, but could be anything from going camping for the first time to braving a new activity to taking a current passion to a higher level.
As outdoor communicators, we have the power to beckon people to their thresholds and guide them across. This is both an honor and a responsibility.
If we want to increase the number and diversity of people playing outside, we need to make sure those thresholds aren’t any scarier than they have to be. That is, we need to make outdoor activities welcoming and accessible to newcomers, even those with zero experience or family tradition of outdoor recreation.
Reaching out to outdoor newbies is a professional passion of mine because I used to be one of them. Unlike, I would guess, most outdoor communicators, I didn’t grow up camping or hiking or hunting. The closest my city-dwelling family got to nature was a paved path in a suburban marsh preserve.
So when I was 17 and got a wild hair to go on a trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, I faced a level of ignorance best described as “breathtaking.”
My grandma fretted that I was going to get eaten by a bear. (I was more concerned about wolves.) I didn’t know what kind of clothes to pack or how to pitch a tent, light a stove or wield a paddle. Every night noise sounded like an ax murderer. Were I less stubborn and less prone to leaping with both feet, I might never have learned to love the outdoors.
Here’s where you come in.
Whether you are a writer, photographer, editor, producer, host or PR person, you can make the outdoors more appealing and less scary to newcomers. You can also help train said newcomers to be safe, responsible outdoor enthusiasts. Newbies are tabulae rasae; write on them carefully.
How you can entice new people outdoors:

  • Support and promote youth mentoring, introductory workshops, and programs that get underrepresented populations into the wild.
  • Share your firsts: first river, first buck, first solo trip. Be honest about your worries and errors.
  • Cast a net for beginners. Try penning a “[Your Outdoor Activity of Choice] 101” article for a general-interest publication and include ways that readers can get involved.
  • Let your passion show. Convey the satisfaction of finishing a tough hike or the elation of landing a trophy-size bass or sending a 5.11.

I walk my talk, by the way. For my column, “Miss Guided,” I try new outdoor activities — being a beginner over and over again, chronicling the attendant embarrassing mistakes. I’ve written “101” articles on birding and trail running and practically everything in between. As an editor, I always include neophyte-friendly content. I speak about fear and entry-level adventure at events like the Midwest Mountaineering Outdoor Adventure Expo.
(My first time speaking in public, I gave a presentation called “Facing Fear.” I was, ironically, terrified.)
Even the most rarefied outdoor expert was once a beginner. Somebody taught you how to bait a hook and load a pack and, more importantly, why you would want to do either of those things in the first place. As an outdoor communicator, you can give that priceless gift many times over to people who might otherwise never receive it — and grow our community at the same time. ♦
—Shelby Gonzalez recently joined the Cook County Visitors Bureau staff as marketing manager. An OWAA member and former rock climbing instructor, her work has been
featured in the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners” and dozens of publications. This article originally appeared on her blog, found at


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