The pressures of our daily lives can make us feel we don’t have a moment to ourselves, let alone time for vacation. I’ve discovered that sometimes the best vacation is a microescape: a quick plunge into the great outdoors, which requires little preparation, or — better yet — is completely spontaneous.
Such small adventures —lasting anywhere anywhere from a few hours on a weekday morning, to a full day, or even a quick overnight— can leave you feeling recharged and energized, yet those around you barely even notice you’re gone.
What is a Microescape
A microescape is a short, tiny break or vacation, during which you enjoy outdoor activities, unplug from social and electronic media, and immerse yourself in a natural environment.
The realities of modern urban life put tremendous demands on our time and our mental health. We’re increasingly busy, but our busyness almost always involves long hours of sitting motionlessly in front of screens.
We’re stressed out and stretched so thin, that we often yearn for an escape, but we simply don’t see how we’ll ever be able to carve out the time. Consequently, at the end of the day we seek to decompress and detach from the pressures of daily life in ways that also involve sitting motionlessly in front of screens.
A microescape changes all that.
Like a deep breath of fresh air, it is a realistic and doable way to get away from technology, and out into nature, wilderness and simplicity.
Guidelines for Microescapes
You may be thinking (as I have) that to really experience adventure and decompress, you need to wait for a vacation or retirement, or else make a grand exit, leave everything and everyone behind, sell all your belongings, and take off for a world tour with nothing but a rucksack.
A microescape is much simpler and easier to execute. Just follow these five guidelines:
- Go Small. Apply this small scale mindset to your equipment, packing strategy, time allotted, distance traveled and planning process. The less you bring, the less time you spend getting there and planning, the more you can leave to chance and whimsy.
- Go Silently. Microescapes center around nature and non-motorized silent sports, including biking, walking and hiking, paddling, camping, cross country skiing, or simply relaxing or preparing meals in a somewhat remote, natural setting.
- Go Local. From ultra-local out-your-front-door explorations, where you take advantage of small chunks of urban wilderness, to week-long trips that take you off the beaten path, we’ll focus on what outdoor pursuits Chicago and the Midwestern region have to offer. If you live outside the Midwest, you can apply the same principles to your own region.
- Go Frequently. Unlike big expeditions, small outings can be repeated frequently and regularly. Though we may occasionally feature tours and expedition-length trips might require a week’s time or more (which you may only be able to manage once or twice per year), our focus will be on day trips and overnights, which make it possible to seize opportunities for outdoor recreation all the time.
- Above all: don’t wait. Take the next available opportunity: this evening, early tomorrow morning, this weekend.
Is it an Adventure?
While some microescapes should have a sense of adventure –stretching your physical comfort, going against the grain– I prefer the term “microescape” to “microadventure”. Here’s why:
- (A) The word adventure has become a bit overused in my estimation, and
- (B) I think a snooze in a hammock on the side of a dune is a perfectly acceptable microescape, but there’s nothing particularly adventurous about it.
Instead, the idea of a microescape is to seek out and pluck opportunities as they present themselves in you daily life, in order to make that daily life as satisfying and enjoyable as possible. That way, the wishful thinking about some other reality fades, as you find yourself already living a life full of delight and enjoyment, in which you relish the free time you have.
Advantages of Microescapes
Microescapes trump epic treks in many ways:
- Inexpensive. If you bring your own food, go on your own power, and camp, you can easily have an overnight vacation for under a hundred bucks. However, if you don’t quite feel like roughing it, and trade you camping equipment for a night or two at an inn or Airbnb, a local exploration weekend is much more budget-friendly than any packaged 3-day/2-night getaway.
- Doable. Wherever you are, whatever shape you’re in, a microescape is a great way for you to dip your toe into the waters of adventure, even if you have very little experience with the great outdoors.
- Don’t need time off. In true microadventure style, you could be gone between 5pm on Tuesday and 9am on Wednesday, an no one would be the wiser. But you can just as easily fit in a local weekend outing, or Sunday/Monday excursion, with minimal —if any— time off.
- Very little planning. If you plan to camp overnight, you will need to do some route planning and lay out your gear, but that’s about it. For a single night, your gear does not need to be supremely technical, and you can cut some corners. If you’re OK with a motel stay, you can even pick a completely spontaneous route, and dispense with any gear except your phone or map, bike, flat repair kit and wallet.
- Get to know your region. In the last five years I’ve discovered many unsung natural treasures, easily accessible within a reasonable drive from Chicago, including caves, canyons, quaking bogs, carnivorous plants, massive bird migrations, natural arches, springs and primeval forest. You discover train lines, country roads, forgotten towns and rivers you didn’t know existed. Or pelicans. Did you know there are pelicans in Illinois??
- You speak the language (but you may still feel like a foreigner). Have you even noticed how a small town in Michigan has a completely different vibe than a seemingly identical town in Wisconsin? A warm “Hello!” breaks a lot of barriers, though the response you get in Wisconsin may be quite a bit more hearty than the one you get in Michigan. If you’re open to cultural nuances (and stay away from chain restaurants), you can learn a lot about regions that may seem similar on the surface, but have their own native and irreplaceable character, complete with food, beverages, architecture and vocal inflections.
- Cook whatever you want. If you’re only going on a day trip or overnight, there’s virtually nothing that will spoil, even in the heat of summer. In many cases, even for two self-supported days on the road you can mostly bring pre-cooked tasty food you would normally consume, instead of relying on prepackaged freeze dried meals or pasty energy bars.
- You can shower at home. Sure, if you’re riding your bike in sweltering summer heat, you’ll want to rinse off after just an hour or two. But if you’re on an overnight trip, you will not die from lack of hygiene. You may be able to cool off in a nearby body of water, skip suspicious looking public showers, and take a proper one when you return home.
- Spontaneity. You can decide to microescape almost on the spur of the moment, or quickly adjust plans in case of inclement weather or other unforeseen circumstances.
- You can go alone. Of course it’s fun to travel with your partner, friend or even in a groups. But rather than waiting for everyone’s schedule to align, day trips and overnights are a fantastic opportunity for solo adventures, giving you a chance to disconnect, clear your head, and maybe a way to push yourself to become more self-reliant.
- Not irrevocable. You don’t have to commit to cycling 5000 miles, wandering solo across dusty plains, hauling all your belongings on your back, and going without regular showers. I get that there are some people who need to cut loose like that to feel whole, but many of us enjoy having a place to call home filled with people we love. When you microescape, you can return to that every time.
- Refreshing without being overwhelming. You don’t have to worry about things at work or at home imploding while you’re gone for 48 hours or less. And yet those hours can do wonders for your mental state, especially knowing that this escape is available to you pretty much whenever you wish. Which bring us to the last point:
- Microescapes are Repeatable. Because of minimal planning, expense and time commitment, local overnights or weekend trips can be done a couple times a month or even weekly. Because they are so easy to execute, you can enjoy tiny escapes as often as it makes sense to you. I sometimes talk about weekly escapes, but that’s really just to illustrate that it’s possible to enjoy such outings frequently. In actual practice it might be better not to think in terms of a regular schedule, and allow for spontaneity and serendipity to play a role.
Examples of Microescapes
I used this inspiration from Alastair Humphries, the godfather of microadventure, to start coming up with my own brief trips.
Here is a sampling of my favorites:
- Wolf Lake. Exploring the intersection of nature and industry just outside Chicago.
- Great River Trail. Bike camping overnight on the great Mississippi River.
- Skokie Lagoons. Mid-week birdwatching paddle (with beer).
- Bullfrog Lake. Solo bike camping overnight by Brompton.
- Mystery location. Winter guerrilla camping.
- Kalkaska Area Trails, Michigan. Fall bikepacking overnight on fatbikes.
Once you buy into this philosophy, you’ll be shocked how quickly you can come up with a year’s worth of quick escapes.
Imagine knowing you don’t need to save thousands of dollars and wait months for your next getaway, and instead looking forward to taking your next adventure literally tomorrow, or grinning at your co-workers, because you just got back from one.