It’s Not The End Of The World – Keeping Up Morale Outdoors

Two guys sitting near fire warming themselves
It’s not the end of the world…. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Morale outdoors can be taken for granted. At least, that is, until it starts to wane. Plus, isn’t going outdoors supposed to improve our mood, make us feel more alive and positive?

It is generally agreed that the benefits of outdoor activity and related skills will lead to a healthier and more appreciative citizen. The physical exertions and mental challenges of outdoor-based education can impact significantly upon a person’s intellectual, physical, spiritual, social, and moral development.

A common perception of people who work or like to be outdoors in all weather and terrain is that they are somehow stronger, more mentally and physically able. Although this is true for any fans of the more extreme occupations, for the purposes of this article we are focusing on the mental aspect.

So, the weather is fine and the company is convivial and lively. You have food in your belly and fresh water. You know where you are, where you are going and when you will be home. – It’s all so great!

But what happens when it’s cold? You’re on your fourth straight day of rain, your feet are sore and your head is pounding. Your companions are miserable and complaining and you realise it’s getting dark – It’s all awful!

We asked the Frontier team – what keeps you going? How do you manage any ‘low’ moments? How do you deal with stress and negativity?

For many of our team, being outdoors is a way of life, their chosen life. But they are still mere mortals, and will experience the same daily struggles as the rest of us.

One glaringly apparent trait in all the replies was that these guys know themselves. They all have a good understanding of their own triggers and melting points and can recognise when they need to employ any self-help tactics to manage their mood.

Some of these recognised signals and remedies are based on psychological principles and some are based on experience alone. Discounting any physical or medical reason, i.e.: low blood sugar, allergy, hormonal imbalance etc., a drop in mood can, suddenly, change everything. Here’s what the team offered.

Maintaining Morale Outdoors – From The Frontier Team

Iain Gair Takes A Considered And Systematic Approach:

Controllability refers to things that you perceive you have control over the outcome of – we’ve all heard clients say; “I can’t do this” at some point, and probably all said it ourselves too! If I am trying to do something new, learn a skill, or travel to an environment I am unfamiliar with – then I tend to invest heavily in finding out about what outcomes I can and cannot control for that new task or environment, and what skills and decision-making “algorithms” I therefore need to acquire that would influence the outcome from a “can’t” to a “can”. Translating this into everyday outdoor life, we generally (I hope) have control over where we set up camp, who we travel with, etc. It is important for us all to acknowledge what one persons “can” may be another person’s “can’t”. It is also prudent to have a realistic appraisal of one’s own competencies.

Stability refers to how stable the situation, or problem, or outcome is. This may be temporal in nature, or could equally be spatial. An unstable temporal problem, e.g. the weather – this storm will pass in a couple of hours, or an unstable spatial problem, if I moved my camp into the lee of the hill I’d be warmer. Problematic thinking, and consequent behaviours can occur when problems are perceived as stable temporarily and spatially i.e. no matter what happens things will never get better in time, or by moving.

Globality refers to where something affects everything you do, or just an aspect of what you can do. If, for example, the problem is lighting a fire – it may be that you are in a situation where the lack of fire is only going to affect whether you have a hot dinner. It may be that it affects everything that you do, for example in dry, cold conditions, a fire is pretty much at the top of the list in terms of day to day living.

Universality is a concept that can be quite liberating. It is characterised by “its only me that’s having this problem”, rather than “everyone has this problem at some point”.

If I can realistically assess where I am at on these 4 items, in this order of priority, it gives me a pretty good indicator of how I can expect myself to react to something in the near-term. “I can’t do this, and it’s never going to change – no matter what I do, and it affects everything I do, and no one else has this problem” means that I can expect to find myself in a pretty bad spot very quickly, in terms of attitude/mentality. Consequently, my actions and behaviours follow suit. Contrast this with “I can do something, and if I do it will pass, and it only affects this one aspect of my life, and I’m not the only person who has pulled through this”. It is easy to see that there are going to be opposites in terms of motivation, etc.

I am also mindful to stay confident. How I do this is by addressing, sometimes quite frequently when things are tough, my previous “performance accomplishments”. That is, stuff I have done in the past that has gone well, or stuff I have done in the past that I didn’t think I could do, but succeeded anyway. I also look to others if I am in a group of people of perceived similar ability (this perceived similar ability is significant), and when they have a breakthrough in something – however small – I tend to find myself extra motivated (lesson here is never underestimate what your own achievements will have on others, even if you don’t necessarily consider them achievements – others might). I also like to use “verbal persuasion”, I give myself a good talking to, which on occasion would shock my own mother. I do my best to constantly background monitor my own internal dialogue in this respect.

Iain Gair in shelter with fire
Iain Gair in an improvised winter shelter. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Some good solid questions to consider:

The “Evidence” Questions; What is the evidence that supports this idea? What is the evidence against this idea?

The “Alternative Explanation” Question; Is there an alternative explanation or viewpoint?

The “Decatastrophizing” Questions; If it happened, how could I cope? What is the best that could happen? What is the most realistic outcome?

The “Impact” Question; What is the effect of my believing the thought? What could be the effect of changing my thinking?

The “Distancing” Question; What would I tell a friend or family member if he or she were in the same situation?

The “Problem-Solving” Question; What else could I do?

Also, re-reading tales of survival, it is interesting to see how people have focused themselves within this framework, and it has worked, and when others have failed. For example, focusing on keeping a fire going (which is something within their control) rather than on when they are getting rescued (which they would have no control over) has in some anecdotal accounts, been most advantageous.

James Bath Is Pragmatic:

You are in charge of your emotions no matter what. Hunger, tiredness etc. Don’t snap at someone unjustly because you have had a wobble and lost control. One stupid word can really affect another’s mindset and lead to division or mistrust.

I try to laugh at bad weather. Not sure if it shows but with a group in bad weather I become even more of a berk. It’s tiring but it is sometimes needed to boost others.

Identify what the problem is. Can I solve it? Is it just getting dark and there is no firewood? I can solve that! So, do something about it! Don’t waste energy or time moaning. Crack on. It’s raining. Can I solve it? No. Laugh and enjoy the challenge and the fact you are outside and not stuck in front of a computer.

I really believe in owning your mistakes. We all make them every day. Best to learn from them in whatever occupation. I always try to learn from them but sometimes give myself a bit of mental kicking when I get stuff wrong. Some people think it’s a bit harsh but I know that I respond to that brutal honesty with myself.

If it’s a hard but easy physical task like a steep slope with big pack just switch your head off. Every journey, no matter how large, is made up of little steps. So, head down and take little steps. There is a lot written about the 40% rule. It depends what ‘scientific paper’ you read but basically it says your mind gives up on you well before your body is anywhere near done. There is a lot written on/around the subject by US navy SEALS. Whatever your feel on military/politics/specifics of the actual % we all know how powerful your mind is.

If it’s a simple, but maybe scary task that needs no thought, I find it best just to go. For example; jumping from height. You’ve checked everything loads of tines and you know all the rigging etc., is safe. No countdowns/ time to talk yourself into any doubt. Just go. Never ever give up at anything and remember the saying. “Can’t be bothered? Better had do, then.”

James Bath with fire and Finnish marsh mallow
Can’t be bothered to get yourself sorted? In this environment, you better had do… James Bath in the arctic forest. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Paul Nicholls Relies On Emotional Bonds:

For me, it depends on the situation I’m in and who I’ve got around me. Sometimes just having a cup of tea, a biscuit, and a cigarette by myself can do the trick. We all, sometimes, just need a break from everyone. Ten minutes of peace and quiet to collect my thoughts. I try not beat myself up too much. I’m not perfect and I make mistakes sometimes. So, forgive yourself and learn to move on from it. The same applies for your team mates. Talk to others if you’re feeling down. l know that all the team take the micky in one way or another but at the same time I know that if I needed them to talk to, they’re there for me.

Laughing and joking and even singing is the way I mostly keep my spirits up. This also helps lifts other people’s moods. I’ve found and seen this happen a lot. One person starts laughing, then another, then another and before you know it you are all in a much better place.

Probably the thing that brings me up the best is just having a chat to the wife. Asking how the dogs and rest of family are, just talking to a loved one is sometimes all I need.

Alison Delaney Diverts Negativity:

For me, I always acknowledge the thing that’s making me feel rubbish, whether it’s the cold, rain, tiredness and accept that it’s valid for me to feel a bit rubbish in some situations. Once I’ve recognised and accepted it, I make a concerted effort to re-focus and ignore whatever’s bothering me until I forget it was ever a problem. Also, trying to shift the focus from the negative to positive helps. For example; if it’s wet and cold, thinking about the smell, sound or feel of rain is more pleasant than dwelling on the discomfort it might bring. I think mind over matter really applies in these circumstances.

Morale From The Sound Of Your Own Voice…

Another suggestion from more than one team member was to sing! Even if you can’t. As a mood enhancer, singing is one of the best and more social activities but can work solo too. It releases endorphins and draws more oxygen into the blood which will, in turn, alleviate the more negative effects of stress. It will take your mind away from whatever is troubling you and can boost a group dynamic significantly.

And Breathe

It has been mentioned that being outdoors can nourish us. Certainly, increased Vitamin D from sunshine is good for our bones and skin (when protected). Fresh air is good for our respiratory system. Being immersed in nature can have a restorative and often calming effect on us. So, we must embrace these benefits and accept that the good generally outweighs the bad. And everything is temporary. Appreciate the little things like warming your feet by a fire, listening to bird song, feeling rain on your face.

And finally, the sagest advice comes from Jeremy Ray:

“Really, the most important thing is a readiness to stop and be enchanted by whatever presents itself”.

Do you have any self-help tricks? Let us know in the comments!

“The only thing that’s the end of the world is the end of the world.” ~President Barack Obama, farewell press conference, 2017 January 18th.

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Frontier Team blogs are literally a team collaboration, bringing together the collective experiences of members of the Frontier team, from the most junior to the most senior.

4 Responses

  1. Jamie Evans
    | Reply

    I’m reading this whilst holed up in a warm dry youth hostel having escaped from a very wet, very cold traverse of Knoydart and Kintail en route to Cape Wrath. Whilst trudging through 60mph gusts and -20C wind chill temperatures whilst carrying a 15kg pack, I suffered from a couple of dips in morale. I’m a believer in cheerfulness in the face of adversity however so I make sure that I concentrate on the positives e.g. how well my dachstein wool gloves were keeping my hands warm as opposed to how much water was in my boots. Boiled sweets and mini- babybel’s were also a big help.

  2. Craig
    | Reply

    Vital topic, & good article. Came across it at important juncture in my life. Thank you, more than words can say.

    • Paul Kirtley
      | Reply

      And thank you Craig. Hope all is well.

      Warm regards,


  3. Nigel Gregory
    | Reply

    Hi Paul,
    Another great article with a serious undertone, what to do when it goes wrong.
    The army have a saying, if it ain’t raining it ain’t training, train yourself for the bad times, go out in the rain and wind, try to overnight with just a day pack, only do this where it is safe, close to the car maybe, if you manage the night great, your kit works, if not get in the car and think about adjusting your kit, then if you do have a problem you know your kit works and the panic is reduced and less stress, I now carry a foil sleeping bag as well as an emergency bivvy bag, a small piece of kit that makes a huge difference.
    Hope this can help your followers to be safe and make the most of a bad situation.
    Many thanks once again,

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