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Five Ways to Strengthen your Resiliency Skills in Detroit's Outdoors

Grit. Tenacity. Resilience. Detroiters take pride in these attributes when applied to our work ethic, sports, and generational "we will overcome" spirit. Better yet, Detroit's outdoors provide the perfect arena for acquiring and sharpening our resiliency skills.

Midwesterners - and especially Detroiters - are tough. This statement doesn't reflect a biased opinion from a homegrown writer. This is an all but universally-recognized fact, and the supporting evidence is overwhelming. Revitalized neighborhoods. Transformed downtowns. Reclaimed green spaces. Enterprising entrepreneurship. Undying fan bases.


And most importantly, our intangible-yet-undeniable approach to all of life's challenges and opportunities. A "screw the conditions, let's get after it" ethos that has provided the bedrock for our region's global leadership in innovation, productivity, and resilience for a century.


A recent article from Ski Magazine reinforced this theme. In an article aptly titled "Skiing Needs More Midwestern Vibes," the author notes that midwesterners have developed a "toughness that is impenetrable to the cold and sound decision-making." The article further defines midwesterners as the most "no frills" contingency on any mountain. Regardless of the conditions, "folks are skiing for skiing's sake . . . they only need to go downhill, anywhere, with snow." Amen to that.


We at Expedition Detroit are immensely proud of this "hard work heritage" that our region has inherited. While applying these traits to our operations, we've found ourselves caught in a serendipitous productivity cycle: the more that we lean into exploring our outdoors for value creation opportunities, we've returned to the office taking far more lessons away from the experience. Stated differently, our forests, trails, beaches, and waterways constitute the supreme sensei on all facets of life.


A wilderness experience provides the ultimate masterclass on ingenuity, creativity, tenacity, self-care, and resiliency - a core skill that applies just as much to setting up camp as launching a new enterprise, strengthening a marriage, or recovering from a major setback in life. A skill that we should all actively seek to incorporate and strengthen within our daily lives.


A skill that you can sharpen in Detroit's outdoors through these five resilience-building ways.

1. WAKE UP EARLY

Goal: Rise before sunrise on a regular, if not daily, basis.


Rationale: Studies have consistently supported the physical, mental, and other personal benefits of rising early.


Application: For roughly two years, Robin Sharma's best-selling book The 5AM Club collected dust on my bedside table. For anyone who knew me pre-2023, this scenario was predictable - I was a notorious night owl, including regularly going to bed at 4AM during my college years. While I occasionally harnessed the solitary hours of midnight through 4AM for undisturbed productivity, I always knew that this unorthodox lifestyle was unsustainable. Getting married, joining the legal profession, and developing my interests in outdoor recreation further drove home the hypothesis that a regular circadian routine - including rising early - would strengthen each of these core interests.


Spoiler alert, this hypothesis turned out not only to be correct in my personal life, but also a scientifically-verified practice. As stated in The 5AM Club, rising early - especially when coupled with exercise - produces the physiological benefits of cleansing the stress hormone cortisol from your body, increasing your dopamine and serotonin levels, elevating your metabolism, and releasing "brain-derived neurotrophic factor" which repairs brain cells damaged by stress and accelerates the formation of neural connections. The cumulative benefits of these micro-processes include increased and sustained focus, productivity, creativity, energy, fitness, and longevity, coupled with decreases in depression and stress.


As anyone who has ever slept in the field can attest, spending a night in a tent, shelter, or under the stars will certainly strengthen this life-giving, resilience-building habit. The symphony of bird calls coupled with the gradual increase in daylight will trigger nature's circadian alarm clock to go off in your neurobiology, thereby kick-starting the other benefits listed above. No backpacker, hunter, or rider has ever complained about boosted levels of focus, energy, and creativity while on the trail - nor has any corporate associate, artist, or other professional in their workspace. These benefits translate A-to-A from the field to the desk, and the outdoors provide a perfect environment for cultivating this early-riser habit.

2. SLEEP OUTSIDE ONE NIGHT EACH MONTH

Goal: Spend one night each month sleeping in a tent, shelter, or under the stars.


Rationale: Sleeping outside improves sleep quantity and quality, increases cognitive function, reduces stress, and improves your immune system.


Application: Alright, so now we know the benefits of early rising - as well as that camping alone facilitates acquiring that resiliency habit. However, science further defends that "tent sleeping," or really any outdoor overnight sleeping method, provides a litany of additional physiological benefits beyond realigning our circadian methods. And yes, the benefits actually increase during the colder months.


To begin with, simply sleeping outside throughout the year has proven to improve immune system functionality and speed up metabolic rates. Scientific research has demonstrated that when sleeping outdoors, you expose your body to helpful microorganisms that give your immune system a test drive and help you prepare for more dangerous viruses or bacteria. Additionally, research supports that spending more time outside will increase the white cells and protein levels in your blood, thereby protecting you from life-threatening diseases like cancer.


During the winter, leading research supports the notion that these benefits are further enhanced by the colder air. Studies show that winter camping helps reduce inflammation, improve our brain's cognitive functionality, and increase metabolism as the body burns more fat to keep you warm. In summary, since we have the blessing of recreating in a four-season environment, why not harness winter's benefits while also improving the resiliency of our physical and mental capacities?


Quick word of caution here: you need the right equipment to maximize the benefits of this outdoor resiliency method. Yes, sleeping on a deflated air mattress, in a warm-weather sleeping bag, over exposed rocks, and in 15ºF conditions will undoubtedly build "resiliency" (if that example sounds oddly specific, let's just say that my back is still sore). It will also greatly increase the likelihood that you will never want to sleep outside ever again. Especially for winter camping, make sure that you buy - and "backyard test" - the right winter gear BEFORE heading out into more isolated locations.

3. LEARN ONE NEW (SURVIVAL) SKILL EACH YEAR

Goal: Every year, pursue at least one particular skillset that you are not proficient at but would greatly benefit from mastering - especially in the outdoors.


Rationale: Developing a lifelong habit of learning not only will equip you with new and valuable skills, but also augment your cognitive capacity.


Application: Always Be Learning. If there's one key takeaway from the inundation of "self-optimization" audiobooks and podcasts that narrate our commutes and workouts, then that's it. Just as Isaac Newton's First Law of Motion states that "an object at rest remains at rest," we further theorize that a "mind at rest remains at rest - and therefore atrophies." The inverse of our theory as that a "mind in motion remains in motion - and therefore grows."


When it comes to the outdoors, the single best skill, gear, or other utility that you can bring into the field is a sharp mind. The simplest method of sharpening your brain is by improving your cognitive capacity via regularly "exercising your brain." An exercised brain is a challenged brain, so learning new skillsets - especially those geared towards equipping you for experiences in the outdoors - will have a compounding benefit of improving your memory, focus, reasoning, processing, problem-solving, technical, and outdoor skills.


Wondering which outdoor skills to start with? We recommend starting right at the basics: read a survival skills book, practice building a shelter and/or contained fire, learn about wilderness first aid, and regularly practice with your camping or backpacking gear. Beyond the outdoors, you can also great improve your cognitive abilities through enrolling in community educational classes, learning a second language, practicing a musical instrument, and regularly dancing. As an extra benefit, scientific studies summarily agree that an aggregate resiliency effect of lifelong learning includes diminishing the onset of dementia, Alzheimer's disease, and other memory-affecting ailments.

4. ADD 1% TO YOUR PURSUITS

Goal: Plan your ideal duration for training runs, paddling mileage, hiking treks, or other physical pursuits - and then add 1% more to that duration.


Rationale: Adding incremental increases to physical endeavors cumulates in sustainable, consistent, and significant growth in the aggregate.


Application: At the end of a long run - especially those monster 10+ mile runs as you're getting closer to your half-marathon, marathon, or ultra race day - the tendency to glance at your watch to hit your target distance becomes more and more tempting. Harsh conditions or rapidly declining energy levels can further allow an appeasing voice to whisper into your ear; although gently at the beginning, soft nudges towards ending a run early can snowball into screaming demands for the experience to end, numbers on the watch be damned.


No, giving into such demands does not equate to weakness. This voice that we all hear simply means that we're human, and therefore we naturally lean into our innate survivalist state to take the path of least resistance. Which has collectively served us well over the course of human history...but in our bloated 21st century lives, this tendency has also led to skyrocketing figures of obesity, complacency, and lack of resiliency across every sphere of our lives.


In other words, our contemporary comforts + survivalist nature = decreased drive to venture into the realm of discomfort.


What can we do to combat this? Quoting long-distance runner and former special operations solider David Goggins, "The reason it’s important to push the hardest when you want to quit the most is because it helps you callous your mind." A calloused mind is a trained mind, which sometimes requires some harmless manipulation in order to train properly.


The 1% Rule, as captured in the best-selling book by Tommy Baker, is a simple, time-tested means of such beneficial manipulation. The core concept of the rule is that by consistently and persistent increasing the intensity of physical pursuits by just 1%, you will make significant and successful progress over the course of a year, decade, and lifetime. For me personally, I typically apply this concept at the start of my runs - if I'm scheduled to run 5 miles, I set my watch at 5.05 miles. That way, when that tempting voice starts to creep in towards the end of my run, I already have the extra distance hardwired in. Now, at the end of that run, I have not only completed the required 5 miles, but added a little extra mileage on top of resisting the urge to ease up on my workout. A win-win for both physical and mental resiliency.

5. COMPLETE A SOLO AND GROUP TREK EACH YEAR

Goal: Complete at least two overnight camping trips per year - one by yourself and one with at least one other person.


Rationale: Actively developing both your self-reliant and collaborative skillsets while in the wild will equip you with the experience to successfully handle the broad spectrum of life's challenges.


Application: "Survival Shows" are truly having a moment right now in the media spotlight. For several years now, "Alone" has been my personal favorite show: a "last person standing" contest where several survival experts are dropped off at dispersed locations in a wilderness destination, forced to live off of the land in complete isolation from one another. Then, just this past March, Netflix flipped the survivalist concept on its head with its groundbreaking "Outlast": a "last team standing" show where contestants must collaborate with at least one other person or else face elimination. Collectively, these shows demonstrate the core skillset required to survive and thrive not only in the wilderness, but also back home: an ability to successfully operate both independently AND in team environments.


Where should one go to test and hone in on such skills? Grab your pack, and then a buddy or two. You're headed to the woods.


Okay...so why two trips? Well, for starters, camping is not easy - regardless of how many hands are available around a campfire ring to assist with seemingly basic tasks. With a group trip, while you will have strength in numbers for gathering firewood, filtering water, running your camp stove, setting up tents, and other "home base functions," the lethal combination of sore feet, inclement weather, incessant insects, and - most dangerous of all - clashing personalities, can all but nullify the benefits of a group. In order to successfully camp with a group, the group must be willing to leave their egos at the trailhead, allocate responsibilities equitably, and collectively agree to maintain positive vibes regardless of what the trail throws at them. For example, I was lucky enough to join a group of 15 backpackers that traversed one of Colorado's most challenging trails last summer. Maybe the altitude affected my memory, but I do not remember a single argument within our group despite the mileage, climbs, different backgrounds, and weather.


To summarize this point, as author Yvonne Prinz famously penned, "If you can survive camping with someone, you should marry them on the way home."


On the other end of the spectrum, you have the ultimate test in resiliency: solo camping. Don't get us wrong, while is an undeniable beauty in the unrestrained freedom that solo backpacking provides to those daring enough to embark on it, there is also an unrelenting uncertainty regarding the "What ifs." On a personal note, despite my decade+ of group backpacking experience, my stomach was in a knot as I took my first solo steps on my thru-hike of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail last month. My trusted companions were not available to share in transporting the gear. My small med kit was the only true professional medic on the trail (I have the luxury of typically hiking with an E.R.'s quantity of doctors). Solo backpacking or camping means that you are truly alone, along with the responsibility of addressing any and all variables that the trail may throw at you.


That may sound scary, but now imagine fast-forwarding to the end of your solo trip. You have just completed 24 hours+ by yourself in the elements, a completely self-sustaining machine of an outdoor enthusiast. You have embraced and conquered every challenge without the assistance of another. You have definitively answered the questions of "Can I do this..." or "Am I capable of..." in the affirmative. Yes, you are capable. Yes, you have what it takes. And yes, this newfound confidence translates to other realms of your professional and personal life, further boosting the benefits of the first four aspects of this article.


To summarize this two-for-one outdoor resiliency method, taking time each year to develop your ability to work successfully with others AND by yourself might be the single greatest skill that you could meaningfully develop. A successful, resilient life incorporates both of these elements flawlessly: acquiring the skills that you need to survive alone, while also recognizing and delegating certain responsibilities to others.

 

In honor of #MentalHealthAwareness month, we wanted to share these five outdoor ways of building resiliency during a time when our "indoor culture" is reeling from a mental health epidemic. A perfect storm of oppressive work commitments, poor dietary and sleep habits, insufficient time to exercise, and an increasing dependency on technology for cognitive stimuli is undeniably eroding our culture's ability to obtain and sustain peace, joy, and productivity. Unfortunately, all indicators point towards this "mental health crisis" remaining a turbulent force for the foreseeable future.


Please, friends - don't toss in the towel on this issue. There are a wealth of mental health resources available to us all, but ultimately each of us must be willing to implement daily practices towards building our fortitude against this crisis. Fortunately, the most potent AND accessible resource is waiting just outside your door. Our great outdoors provide an idyllic sanctuary for healing and strengthening our core resiliency skillsets - and our sincere hope is that these 5 methods will provide an initial framework for embarking on this lifelong expedition.


We can't wait to see you out there.

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kim Cooke
kim Cooke
May 09, 2023

Great article, not just for the sake of out-doors- man- ship, but for life lessons. Bravo!

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Dan Cooke
Dan Cooke
May 09, 2023
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Thank you sir!

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