The Call of the Mild
Who says adventure has to be agro?

By Sarah Tuff Dunn August 21, 2015

Meet the microadventure: No need to go extreme or hire a Sherpa. It’s about scaling down and gearing up for one of these around-the-corner outings, whether that means stand-up paddleboarding in Missouri or scuba diving in Denver. 

It’s 5 p.m. on a Thursday evening, and my kids and I are squealing with glee as we push off from the beach at the Basin Harbor Club, eager to explore Lake Champlain in a way we’ve never done before: on a paddleboat. Sure, it’s paddleboating, not BASE-jumping. But since I’m untethered from the land and from technology—cell service is spotty, and I’ve left my charger back in Shelburne, a 45-minute drive—I’m able to see my home Green Mountain State from a new angle. The water, the Adirondacks, even my children all glow just a little differently.

This experience is hardly unique to Vermont, where, admittedly, we’re blessed with a backyard bounty of adventurous activities. Nor is it unique to resort’s like Basin Harbor Club. Across the U.S., outdoor companies—from bike shops and climbing equipment manufacturers to science centers and nonprofits—are manufacturing microadventures that take consumers out of their comfort zone in a very comfortable approach. Retailers establish authenticity; charities gain credibility and community.

Across the U.S., outdoor companies—from bike shops and climbing equipment manufacturers to science centers and nonprofits—are manufacturing microadventures that take consumers out of their comfort zone in a very comfortable approach. Retailers establish authenticity; charities gain credibility and community. 

Go Small or Go Home

Take the Alpine Shop in Missouri, for example, whose stores offer a veritable smorgasbord of sporty get-togethers. There are Wednesday night cycles from April through September; stand-up paddleboarding classes in St. Louis; kayaking races on River’s Edge Lake and overnight backpacking trips. For those who prefer more of an, er, paddleboating pace, the Alpine Shop’s Escargot Club tones it down even more, promising “We may be moving at a snail’s pace, but we are moving.” And thanks to social media, customers can instantly interact through Facebook comments.

Upping the social media ante, meanwhile, is Mountain Equipment in the United Kingdom, where “Wildnight: A Mountain Equipment Microadventure” invites Facebook friends to post photos of themselves slumbering under the stars (without pitching a tent). The entrants are entered to win prizes, but just as rewarding are the online albums of mountain peaks and desert sands; of beaches, bikes and tiny stuffed bears crammed inside a kid’s sleeping bag. You don’t need captions to understand what’s happening in each photo: The smiles tell the story of a small transformation triggered by the simple undertaking of a microadventure.

 The smiles tell the story of a small transformation triggered by the simple undertaking of a microadventure

“It helps us share what we do and also helps others engage in the care and protection of their trails and backcountry resources,” says Amy Kelsey, the executive director of Vermont’s Catamount Trail Association of its microadventure program, Ski Cubs. Since 2011, the club has been introducing Vermont kids to cross-country skiing for free, bringing the sport to population groups that might not otherwise have the chance to play outdoors in the winter. “Ski Cubs helps us share what we do, and also helps us engage others in the care and protection of their trails and backcountry resources,” explains Kelsey, adding that the participants fuel the association in other ways, too. “They learn quickly, show an amazing sense of adventure and are remarkably resilient. They give us energy. They laugh a lot.”

Catamount Trail Association Cubs Club

A young Ski Cub experiences cross-country skiing for the first time with the Catamount Trail Association

No Ocean, No Problem

Eliciting another form of water-based fun—the liquid kind—is Denver’s Downtown Aquarium, where microadventure in the Mile High City means swimming with the fishes. Guests get to jump right in the tanks with moray eels, 400-pound Queensland groupers and more, snorkeling or diving through the Under the Sea exhibit. Certified divers can check out the Sunken Shipwreck exhibit to swim with saw fish, guitar fish, barracudas and Pacific green sea turtles. And sharks—zebra sharks, brown sharks and sand tiger sharks.

For those sinking their teeth into microadventure, however, the real hook is seeing the sea or the mountains or the forest, in a way that allows them to take the next strokes or steps toward embracing an outdoor lifestyle, and all that comes with it.

For those sinking their teeth into microadventure, however, the real hook is seeing the sea or the mountains or the forest, in a way that allows them to take the next strokes or steps toward embracing an outdoor lifestyle, and all that comes with it. 

“Gaining a level of comfort and familiarity with—and love for—your own backyard over time provides a home to which you can always return,” says Kelsey. “Learning the local trails, hills and hallows; connecting the dots and understanding the landscape not from the perspective of the roads you drive, but from the paths you have worn by foot or boat or bike or ski, and the people you’ve befriended along the way—this is a cumulative experience that builds our connections to people and to place, and an experience that shouldn’t be missed.”

“Learning the local trails, hills and hallows; connecting the dots and understanding the landscape not from the perspective of the roads you drive, but from the paths you have worn by foot or boat or bike or ski, and the people you’ve befriended along the way—this is a cumulative experience that builds our connections to people and to place.”—Amy Kelsey, executive director of Vermont’s Catamount Trail Association

At Basin Harbor, my husband and I put our kids to bed in our aptly named cabin, Whitecaps, where Lake Champlain lapped quietly against the deck. Through our microadventure, we not only learned new trails, hills and hallows, but that night, also connected the dots—of all the constellations we saw from our new angle.