A few years ago, I decided to build a boat in my apartment and row from the Hudson River to the Gulf of Mexico. To many of my friends and family, this seemed like an odd choice for someone who lived in a one-bedroom apartment, not to mention someone who’d never camped alone before. The idea had come to me as far from the wilderness as a person can get — in an office building in the middle of Manhattan, where I was enjoying the culmination of my species’ efforts to get comfortable. Safely tucked away from wild animals and wild weather in my cubicle, I killed time (like millions of others) by plunging into virtual wilderness. I Googled my way across remote terrain, carefully arranging the imagined predators, strangers, and boat-crushing whirlpools into a kind of Venn diagram of adventure, hazard-orange at its heart, that thrilled me and kept me up at night.
A few months later, there I was: camped out alone on a gravel-bar island in the Allegheny River, listening to a black bear sniff around my rowboat during a lull between thunderstorms in the middle of the night. (I’d rowed past a better campsite earlier in the day to avoid a trio of men drinking beer in the back seat of a sedan that had been sawed in half and towed to the riverbank.) Venn diagram achieved! I was sitting upright in the dark, heart pounding, listening to the bear and watching the river — which had risen nearly to the door of my tent — flow past in swirling shallows that seemed to freeze then spin out again into the darkness. But my real problem was that my hands had inflated into rigid hand-shaped balloons thanks to a half-dozen infected blisters. I couldn’t make a fist or even comfortably bend my fingers, things bound to become important if my little island went underwater. It’s easy to romanticize outlier dangers, like boat-crushing whirlpools, and fail to anticipate the little miseries that have the power to bring us down.
And yet, that night stands out as one of the happiest of my life — as vividly, incomparably fun. How could that be?
Transitioning from comfort to being in that state of survival and execution in the mountains ... that’s also when everything falls into place.
I was having what rock climbers call Type 2 fun. The “fun scale,” which first circulated in climbing books and media in the 1980s, divides outdoor recreation into three major categories. At one end of the scale is Type 1: You expect to enjoy yourself and you do (a day at the beach). At the other end of the scale is Type 3: not even remotely fun, catastrophically bad, something never to be repeated (shipwrecked). Somewhere between those extremes is the perfect fun, the kind of fun that pushes you past yourself and (hopefully) delivers you back to yourself in better condition — stronger, happier, full of fresh gratitude for comfort and company.
“Suffering, whether it’s physical or emotional, is obviously not the goal,” says Matthias “Super Frenchie” Giraud, an athlete who has spent most of his life going after huge, difficult goals in the mountains, setting record after record by combining big mountain skiing with BASE jumping — climbing to the top of some of the highest peaks in the Alps only to ski off them into a parachute-assisted glide back to Earth. “Transitioning from comfort to being in that state of survival and execution in the mountains, that's when you go through that big emotional roller coaster, but that's also when everything falls into place.”
Giraud, who grew up in France and now lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and 9-year-old son, says that while he has lots of great memories of “perfect powder days with blue skies, landing 60-foot-long backflips,” one miserable day of skiing 22 years ago particularly stands out. “It was one of those days in the Alps when it just rains on top of the mountain. But what was I going to do, stay home and watch TV?” He was first on the mountain that morning and the last to head home, despite being soaked to his underwear, cold, and alone. “It was miserable,” he says, “but then I started actually noticing the texture of the snow. I remember making these big turns and little runs out of bounds and laughing — maybe because I just pushed myself to a point of extreme discomfort where you don’t really care about the discomfort anymore. But it just felt so good to ski, let’s face it, this sh*t snow, but with good technique. That’s what’s great: learning to find accomplishment in misery.”
It’s a mindset that Giraud is encouraging in his son, who at 9 is already a skilled skateboarder and skier. (He’s always game to ski moguls with his dad in the rain.) You teach kids the skills they need to persevere in the outdoors, says Giraud, and those are the skills they can bring to almost anything in life.
In the past two years, record numbers of us have stepped decisively out of our former comfort zones and into the natural world. In its annual survey of camping in North America, KOA discovered that some 10 million of us slept under the stars for the first time in 2020 — a trend that continued last year, with millions more choosing to camp even as other kinds of travel and recreation open up again. America’s pandemic-era turn toward the outdoors has blossomed into a full-blown outdoor renaissance.
When you ask families where they’ve had transcendent experiences, says Jolina Ruckert, Ph.D., a researcher who studies how we relate to wild environments, “they tend to happen out in nature.”
When Ruckert was an infant, her parents uprooted their lives in the city and moved to a deserted island off the coast of St. Martin, living at first in a cave until a sea turtle moved in and laid her eggs there, and then in a tent on top of the island. “You know, I went back to visit,” says Ruckert, “and the locals were like, ‘That wasn't an island. That was just a rock.’”
Type 2 fun gives us a chance to open up our senses, to feel our vulnerability to forces outside of our control, and to tune in to what wild environments — and other people — need from us.
By day, her parents would sail to St. Martin to take people out on snorkeling tours and give windsurfing lessons and then sail home to the rock to sleep. “We were out in this wild place, and my parents from the beginning just decided: this matters.” Post-separation and back in Florida, Ruckert’s mother took her on new adventures — from driving an hour out to the beach every morning before school to see the sun rise over the water to kayaking in the company of 14-foot alligators — that sometimes pushed her well outside her comfort zone. Ruckert’s mother wasn’t thrill-seeking — she was seeking peace — but it was Type 2 fun nonetheless. “I didn’t always enjoy it or want to do those things,” says Ruckert, “but those experiences made me who I am.” Type 2 fun “gives us an awareness that our bodies don’t always have to feel comfortable and that we can navigate that discomfort. And if we’re doing that together, it can be powerful.”
For kids, it’s a little different — they tend to struggle with the complexity of awe, says Ruckert. So it’s up to parents to reframe that discomfort as something positive and potentially profound. “They can trust that you’re going to guide them through this hard time, that you’re going to be with them. They can adventure and explore, but they’ve got you as a safety net.”
Although the term originates in the world of extreme sports, you don’t have to climb Mount Everest to experience the Sublime. A family taking shelter under a tree at the local park as the purple billows of a thunderstorm roll in, whipping everything into the air and turning the sky dark, may come closer to transcendent, Type 2 fun than some adventure addicts ever do. Wherever they happen, “wild events” are uniquely good at getting us out of ourselves.
Because Type 2 fun is less about extreme itineraries and more about the spirit in which we make sense of the vicissitudes of the natural world. Whether it’s rafting rapids on the Colorado River or planting a garden in the backyard, it’s about acclimating kids to that mix of high and low emotions, helping them learn how to push through and navigate temporary discomfort toward the huge rewards on the other side. And long before kids are capable of an adult sense of awe, they benefit in a multitude of other ways when they are able to access the outdoors.
Solving problems on a camping trip can turn kids into great problem-solvers everywhere, teaching them to be resourceful and adaptable. Type 2 fun, when we’re fortunate enough to be able to experience it, tests and strengthens our better judgment and tends to make us more compassionate and resilient in the process.
Why should parents, who are already maxed out on complexity, go to great lengths to layer in more uncertainty, more stuff, and more logistical stress by planning big outdoor adventures with kids? To give them a chance to experience the beauty of the world, of course, but also because the unknown comes for us, no matter how well we plan. Living in a state of overstimulation requires us to filter and deflect, while Type 2 fun gives us a chance to open up our senses, to feel our vulnerability to forces outside of our control, and to tune in to what wild environments — and other people — need from us.
“We want kids to fall in love with and want to protect the world,” says Ruckert. “Socially and culturally, that means being there to guide them, to point out the beauty but also the knowledge and scientific value.” Ruckert’s research is focused on what Indigenous cultures have long held true: that when we form sustainable relationships with the natural world, sustainable relationships with one another follow. “Nature has the quality of an automatic reciprocal relationship — when we tend to nature, it tends to us.”
I’ve been enjoying a new kind of Type 2 fun since my wife and I welcomed our first child in January. Caring for an infant requires a degree of physical stamina and reliably serves up the highs and lows of emotional risk and reward. It goes without saying that I hope our daughter will always be safe from harm. I also hope she’ll have lots of adventures in life, and that at least some of those adventures will take her outside, where the opportunities to build a joyful self-reliance are abundant and free. I hope she’ll have that sense of connection, that at-homeness in the natural world that makes it all but impossible to feel alone.