River Trips: The Express Route to Being Present
How the simplicity of a multi-day river trip can be the reset our minds need
How long had it been since I sat down? Maybe 30 minutes? Maybe two hours? Dabbing my paintbrush into a $1.99 Crayola watercolor pan, trying to match the hue of the ruddy canyon walls, I realized I’d been deeply focused, working—playing, actually—in a blissful state of flow for I had no idea how long. The kind of play I lost myself in as a kid. I don’t consider myself a painter—it’s just something fun for me, like reading a book or knitting or fishing. But it’s something I hadn’t made time to get lost in for years; it’s just too hard to make time for playing. (Even though I somehow seem to find plenty of time to scroll through Instagram each day.) I knew it only happened that day because I was on a river trip.
We all know time spent in nature—away from our phones, computers and daily stress—is good for us. So we eat our lunches in the park, or maybe ride our bikes to work. We read blogs about productivity, batch e-mails and resolve to be present as much as we can in our daily lives. We do our very best to contain the “busy,” and not let it devour us. Sometimes, though, it takes something more forcible—like a week away from it all—to remind us that less is really more, and that happiness usually lies far away from the bustle and stress of meeting deadlines or acquiring more stuff. Happiness is those moments when everything else falls away and you actually feel like you’re playing again. So when you do make plans for your vacation, here are seven ways to make sure you get the very most out of those days off.
1) Go someplace with no cell service.
The easiest way to come home from a so-called vacation feeling unrested and like you never left at all is to leave your cell phone on and check e-mail the whole time. Sure, cell phones allow some freedom while we work—they’re amazing tools. But if we never take the time to turn them off for a few days, we’ll never enjoy the brain-changing experience of truly living in the moment. And personally, I even find it difficult not to check my phone even when I’m camping—that’s why I especially love river trips: More often than not, river canyons simply do not have cell service, so I’m not even tempted with a “quick check.” It literally forces me to be present.
2) Don’t worry too much about the gear.
It’s easy to get carried away wondering if you need the newest, lightest, fanciest outdoor gear. Each year gear companies introduce new models of their tents, jackets, sleeping bags. Sure, there might be small improvements here or there. But generally, if you have the basics, you’re golden. Vacations are about the views you’re looking at, not the gear you used to get there. Spending money on experiences instead of things has been proven to increase happiness. And people have been climbing mountains and running rivers in wool and cotton for centuries—if you need inspiration, look no further than Katie Lee and John Wesley Powell.
3) Make time for down time.
It’s what we think of when we think of vacation, right? Sitting on the beach, or lounging in camp. Simply swimming or floating or strolling like you don’t have a care in the world. But camping still takes some effort—the getting from point A to point B, pitching tents, cooking. That’s the perfect reason to go on a guided trip, where someone else is taking care of the transportation, cooking and cleaning. All you have to do is show up, slow down and enjoy what’s around you.
4) Take off your watch.
News flash: You can tell the time by the sun. Well, as much as you’ll need to tell time on vacation. Even if it’s symbolic, embracing the gesture of tossing your watch in the bottom of a dry bag for a few days is a way of busting free of the constraints of scheduled life. You’ll start to notice the changing light, and gauge your day by the angle of the sun on the canyon wall instead of the digits of a watch. Even if it’s just for a few days, that freedom can have a deep psychological effect. Waking with the sun and going to bed by campfire—instead of the blue glow of an electronic device—is a refreshing reset.
5) Don’t be afraid to fly solo.
I had a personal breaking point in my late 20s. Single and working in an industry where few people took time to camp or enjoy the outdoors, I became frustrated that I couldn’t find anyone to take a trip with. I’d had enough, and decided I wouldn’t let lack of a partner keep me from doing the things I wanted to do—like go camping. I packed up my stuff and spent my first night out alone—it turned out to be the first of many. Since then, I’ve made lots of friends and gained a partner who’s down to play outside, but I’m so glad I took that first step in that direction.
Friends and family make life special, and if you can share the outdoors with them, even better. But if you don’t have someone to go with, don’t let the fear of going alone come between you and taking the trips you dream about. Group trips always have room for individuals, and it’s a great way to have a multi-day wilderness experience without having to go completely solo.
6) Pack something for your mind.
Maybe it’s to help clear your mind, maybe it’s to allow flights of imagination. But it should be something you might not normally feel relaxed enough to enjoy. Like a journal to write in, or that novel you’ve been dying to dive into. Or a fishing rod. Or sketchbook and pencils. It’s easy to spend our whole lives telling ourselves we’re too busy for those little things we enjoy. But a multi-day trip affords quiet moments without online distractions, so you can go deep. It’s the perfect time to let your mind simply relax—to zen out casting a line. Or to get lost in the book you packed. You might even find whatever you’re doing is so enjoyable, it’s worth carving out a little more time for it when you get back to your daily life. For example, I so enjoyed the flow state I experienced painting on the Yampa riverbank that day, I’ve been making more time for little painting breaks to unwind in the evening lately. I would never have thought of that if I hadn’t enjoyed it so much on the river.
7) Follow your whimsy.
Do you like having precious moments all to yourself? Get up early to watch the sun rise in solitude. Love sleeping in? Savor those moments in your sleeping bag while the guides make coffee and breakfast for you, and then enjoy the freedom of not having to shower, style your hair or put on makeup. Maybe your jam is getting to know others around the campfire. Maybe it’s quietude with a fishing rod. Either way, scheduling a multi-day trip allows for all types of personalities to find what they need to be rejuvenated.
If you haven’t noticed, the theme here is simplifying, and tuning in—to what your soul is saying to you, and what nature is doing around you. The beauty of a multi-day trip in the backcountry is that all the trappings of modern life fall away, leaving the most pure of joys and the deepest rejuvenation.