Balancing a Desk Job with Outdoor Play

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It is a common misconception that everyone you see on Instagram does whatever amazing thing they’re doing—road tripping in an airstream trailer, napping in a perfectly strung hammock, tearing up endless trails—full time. Chances are, they don’t.

Most of the people behind these inspirational, envy-invoking accounts have to find ways to pay the bills just like the rest of us. Fortunately for those still trying to hack it, balancing a nine-to-five desk job with a life of adventure isn’t as hard as it might seem. How do I know? I like to think I’ve done it.

Work Life Balance

Looking over the cliff edge near the Grand Canyon like any good weekend warrior. Photo credit: Bryan Rowe.

Know What You Want

After college I worked as a horse wrangler in the Rockies of Colorado, where I somehow made less than minimum wage and spent every day outside in mud, sleet and snow. When that didn’t seem to be a good use of my bachelor’s degree, I moved on to power my way through 10-hour days in the tech industry, where I could more than pay the bills. But there simply wasn’t any time left over to get outside. I knew I wanted a happy medium, and the hunt was on.

To do it yourself, narrow down your search by industry. Next, tap into your contacts to see what leads you already have. Informational interviews, where you’re the one asking questions, are an excellent way to explore these contacts to learn more and introduce yourself to the field.

Work Life Balance

Crossing Angels Landing in Zion National Park, Utah, off the bucket list.

Love What Keeps the Lights On

After exploring my own network and community in this way, I hooked the perfect role working remotely in Colorado for a travel company specializing in active outdoor experiences. Now my day job and my after-hours activities blend together with ease. When Monday mornings roll around, I meet my inbox with eagerness instead of trepidation—or worse, downright despair. But that doesn’t mean I’m not anxious to hit the road on Friday afternoon for a weekend off the grid. No matter how much you like your job, taking time to disconnect will leave you feeling inspired and fresh at the start of a new week.

Work Life Balance

When it comes to prioritizing, time on the river is always somewhere near the top.

Work Life Balance

Summer traditions are experiences best repeated. The Flying U Ranch in British Columbia is one worth doing every year.

Remember to Get Real

As I’ve well realized, the security of employment comes with a few inherent drawbacks. You don’t get unlimited play! Camping trips and adventures abroad will always eat up vacation time and extra savings, so knowing how to prioritize and be fully present during precious personal hours is key to cracking the code. Start small by making it a priority to spend lunch breaks outside, and instead of using the time to upload a new photo on social media, update your bucket list with old-fashioned pen and paper.

Work Life Balance

Practicing yoga among the tourists at Horseshoe Bend in Arizona.

Work Life Balance

It’s easy to see why Colorado mountains are home.

Make It Happen When You Can

Just can’t stop drooling over those images on Instagram? Me neither. Fortunately, it’s easier than you think to make an experience come to life. When I couldn’t get enough of the images of Havasu Falls earlier this year, I picked up the phone and called to make a reservation. The daunting logistics of flights, car rentals, and gear all seemed approachable once I’d made the firm commitment. I would recommend keeping track of your dream trips, and checking in every few months to see which ones could turn into realities. Our schedules change all the time, so when windows of opportunity arise, grab them!

Work Life Balance

Crested Butte, Colorado, is one of the places where endless trails make it hard to get back to work. Photo credit: Bryan Rowe.

Be a Smart Weekend Warrior

When it comes to weekly fun, there’s no better way to set yourself up for success than being prepared. Have all of your gear organized so that when Friday afternoon rolls around, you can throw it in the trunk and hit the road. The same mentality goes for when you return. Take the extra half hour to get everything cleaned and prepped, so that next time it’s just as easy. Keep a notepad handy while you're out for ideas such as how to optimize your packing and what needs to be done during the workweek, like re-waterproofing your jacket or buying more batteries. Before you know it, the only thing you’ll need to balance is your backpack.

Work Life Balance

Nicaragua made a great finale to a year of paid time off well spent.

How do you make best of a work-life balance?

  • Sara

    Another fun idea is to challenge yourself to reach a certain milestone – like camping 31 nights a year.

    • REI

      Hey Sara, yes it’s a fun to challenge yourself to camp more. Semi-Rad (a.k.a. Brendan Leonard) challenged people to camp between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. Are you up for the challenge? #letscamp

    • That’s what my stepdad does, and then he increases the number every year. Last year he went on more than 65 hikes! Of course, it’s a lot easier for him to make time now that he’s retired, but it’s a great model to start early on with a more doable number.

  • Great write up Whitney. You’re absolutely right! I’m “that guy” you mentioned in the Airstream. As a professional photographer, I travel full-time with my wife and dog. I’ll testify that there’s a whole lot of hustle and hard work behind the scenes of an inspiring Instagram feed. The reality is maintaining a healthy work/life balance is a challenge no matter where you are, and increasingly so there is no line between the two. We chose to move into an aluminum house on wheels so that we could more easily bridge the gap. My wife and I still work just as hard, but at the end of the day the trailhead is much closer!

    • I admire you for living the van life dream, Seth (as do all your Instagram followers, I’m sure). I think a lot of us need to have a home base to come back to and recharge for the next big adventure, but it’s people like you who are the inspiration.

      • Thanks Whitney. Hopefully our adventures will cross paths one day!

  • Tiffany Hensley

    It is definitely possible to live on the road and have a job, I work remotely as an athlete team manager for a climbing company, traveling abroad in a van from time to time, and one of the best parts of the job is hearing about and finding the individuals, couples, even entire families and photographers that live on the road. We tease out inspiring stories about selling houses, working as programmers, and even non-profits making ends meet while driving cross-country. Check out Design Egg, She Explores and Jon MCartie’s family.

  • Julia

    I just need to know how to get a year of paid time off!?!? 🙂

  • Nice summary – I’ve been practicing the desk job/ outdoor balance for four long years now! But am looking forward to soon forgoing the desk job part entirely 🙂 I also love seeing someone else use the term weekend warrior with pride – that’s how I’ve been looking at it too:

  • Josh

    Great article. I’m currently working on a weekly photo album with photos from every weekend outdoors away from the office. It’s great to be able to look back and see all the productive adventure trips completed and knowing a productive work week was also taking place.

  • TheInvisibleWoman

    Nice article- I definitely relate. I’ve tried to find as many places where I can adventure on the weekends that are within a 2-4 hour drive, and I go as often as I can. It can be especially fun to challenge yourself with trips a little outside your comfort zone. For example when we were just starting out doing this, we hiked up to McAffee’s Knob (VA) in the off season when the temps got down to below 10 F. We were geared safely for it and it was really fun. My problem is that I never want to come home. I’d give anything to get the time off to do a thru hike, but I’m probably going to have to wait til I’m retired 🙁 – which will be harder physically.

    • Richard Wright

      Most important part (and sometimes the hardest)? Pulling the trigger and just doing it! You need to make that first step and trust everything will work out – and it will (maybe not perfectly, but it will). My wife and I traveled to Iceland and backpacked. Tremendous experience!! But it all started with buying the non-refundable airfare…everything after was easier to sort through.

  • Erik Jacobson

    I am going to write a follow up article about balancing spending between REI and other life necessities 🙂

  • Eric

    im in love!

  • Eric

    marry me Whitney James

    Nice article by the way!

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