We love the oxymoronic beauty of a good bad idea.
Walking the entire length of the White Rim Trail, a route that is pretty much only done by motorized vehicle? Yes, please!
Hiking the 42-mile stretch of the Maryland portion of the Appalachian Trail in one go? Backpacking in the rainiest confines of a Colombian rainforest? Yes and yes. These kinds of outings may not always be fun while you’re doing them, but nothing provides a greater sense of victory—and perspective—than braving (and respecting) the elements better than a successfully executed bad idea.
But how can you know if your “bad” idea is a good one in all the right ways, or if it’s just flat-out BAD?
We’re here to help, with a series of questions and answers that you should weigh before heading out into the Wild:
Are you going it alone?
If you understand that misery loves company, and you’ve found a few willing participants to share in your discomfort, that’s a solid thumbs-up. But if you’re the sort to claim that Aron Ralston’s fate doesn’t scare you (the solo hiker who freed himself from rockfall by sawing off his arm with a pocket knife), then at least be sure to leave a detailed description of your plan and possibly also buy a satellite-friendly communication device, just in case this bad idea goes from good/bad to really, really bad.
Has it been done before?
If breaking new ground is the sole purpose, think it through carefully. The world of “firsts” that remain unconquered is shockingly slim and packed with sometimes-absurd caveats (the first solo ascent of the tallest peak in New Hampshire while wearing a baby backpack and carrying two bowling balls in your hands, arms extended from the body at 90-degree angles—no one’s done that yet).
And often times it can push you into very comfortable (and sometimes deadly) circumstances, like climbing a mountain in the dead of winter.
But if others have done it—or done it in slightly different ways, traversing a route by car that you aim to hike—it doesn’t make the bad idea lame. It actually helps you plan for any eventuality. And yes, even if it’s never been done before, please plan ahead.
If it won’t generate a story you’ll tell in the future, chances are the epic idea ain’t good/bad.
Do you have the gear you need?
This one’s a no-brainer—and really, half the time our embrace of a bad idea just gives us an excuse to score even more gear. But if you’re content to hit the trail with nothing more than a roll of duct tape—thinking you can MacGyver your way out of any situation—think again. Planning for eventualities you never anticipate will keep the bad idea on the good side of the experience scale.
Are you traveling distances of more than 20 miles under your own power?
This one isn’t a straightforward bad-vs.-good answer. If you think long distances are made for buses, autos, and electric-powered mountain bikes, then your bad idea could still be a good one—provided you’ve baked in some legit suffering beyond enduring a long transport in a bus with no air conditioning. But if you answer “yes and yes” to the concept of traveling seriously long distances under your own power, you’re well on your way.
Does sleep deprivation come into play?
Serious sleep deprivation can lead to hallucinations and really, really bad decision-making (the bad kind of bad, to be clear). But handled in moderation, losing sleep is often the inevitable consequence of executing that perfectly good bad idea, in large part because—at the end—you’ll cash in on all that lost slumber. It’s not a bad idea requirement, per say, but it does up the ante.
Does it include high-altitude environs well over 10,000 feet?
Elevation makes everything trickier—the air is thinner, the weather is more unpredictable, and exposure can be a real threat (especially when you’re gasping for breath during a hail storm). If you’re going high, chances are you’re heading in the right direction.
Does it include extreme temperatures?
“Extreme” in almost any context layers nicely into good bad ideas, but if you’re only a fair-weather athlete, chances that your idea will be kinda bad (in a good way) is pretty thin. But if you’re up to (responsibly) testing the limits of your suffering (as well as the tech benefits of gear designed to help mitigate that suffering) proceed. Unless you’re idea of “extreme temperatures” include walking on active, volcanic lava. If so, re-evaluate your thought process.
Is unpredictable weather expected?
If unpredictable simply articulates the respect you give to mother nature, especially at high altitudes or during the rainy season, you’re set. If “unpredictable” is implied, like if you’re planning on chasing funnels through Tornado Alley—we suggest re-watching the flying cows pulp of Twister and re-evaluate.
“Extreme” in almost any context layers nicely into good bad ideas.
Are you fighting gravity?
This one’s a bit of give-away. If you think gravity is your friend, and your outing plays with the many thrills in using it to your favor—downhill mountain biking, skiing, rock climbing, even paragliding, then there’s no initial conflict. If you think gravity is your bitch and you aim to conquer it, proceed with caution….for now.
Does it involve ropes or a harness?
A simple yes or no here….
Here we beg for honesty. Tackling a bunch of boulder problems in the Yosemite Valley? You’re good. If, however, you think that wearing a harness would defeat the purpose, then chances are the idea is really, really bad. Solo climbing looks easy, but you never see the years of training that proceed those hair-raising ascents. Back away slowly.
How can you know if your “bad” idea is a good one in all the right ways, or if it’s just flat-out BAD?
Will it make a good story?
This one’s a no-brainer. If it won’t generate a story you’ll tell in the future, chances are the epic idea ain’t good/bad. Because arguably one of the best things of a good bad idea is finishing the damn thing, and then looking back on it with the renewed perspective the experience affords, which is the stuff of solid story-telling. But, please, do so with a degree of humility. No one wants to hear how you totally kicked a$$ doing some obtuse thing that no one would ever really do. Tell the story that way, and your good bad outing just became another exercise in naval gazing. But if your tale includes the insights all that suffering afforded, congrats. You’re set.