Michael Lanza is the author behind the family outdoor blog The Big Outside. He is a veteran freelance outdoors writer and photographer. He used to work for Backpacker Magazine as a contributing editor and a gear reviewer for many years. During those times, he explored numerous national parks and wilderness areas across the United States and all over the globe including the Swiss Alps, Scottish Highlands, Italy, New Zealand, Patagonia and more.
He created The Big Outside with a simple mission, and that is to offer stories, photos, and expert trip-planning advice on the best outdoor adventures, not just for solo thrill-seekers but also for families. Since he launched his blog, Michael got included in various famous travel lists such as the USA Today’s Readers Choice List of Top 10 Hiking and Outdoors Bloggers, The Adventure Junkies Top 25 Hiking Blogs, Top 100 Outdoor Blogs from Feedspot, and one of the best blogs on hiking in the Southwest.
A primary goal of mine is to inspire and inform other parents to take their own kids on outdoor adventures—and especially to believe that their family is capable of stepping out a little beyond their comfort zone. As I have done with my kids, I want other families to discover the powerful emotional payoff and bond achieved through sharing outdoors experiences.
1. What inspired you to create your blog “The Big Outside” and what makes it different from other outdoor adventure blogs?
I was an outdoor writer for almost two decades, including Northwest Editor for Backpacker magazine for a number of years, when I decided to launch The Big Outside in 2010 as a sideline to my other writing. After a couple of years, I realized my audience was growing and started putting more time into it. I find that my readers like my blog because of the authoritativeness of what they’re reading—I write about trips that I’ve done, skills I’ve learned over 30 years in the backcountry, gear I use hard. And some readers like my stories about adventures with my family. I have a background as a professional photographer, and my photos are also a big draw.
2. You’ve been a hiker for a long time. Can you share with us your most unforgettable hiking experience?
I get asked that question quite a lot, and it’s honestly impossible to say. I’ve backpacked in most major national parks, from Yosemite to Glacier, Tetons to Grand Canyon. I’ve been fortunate to travel all over the world: Patagonia, Nepal, New Zealand, Switzerland, Italy’s Dolomites, Norway, Iceland, and other places. I just trekked the Tour du Mont Blanc this summer with my family.
Instead of trying to pick one favorite trip, I have lists at my blog that include My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips, My Top 10 Family Outdoor Adventures, and My Top 10 Adventure Trips, as well as 25 favorite backcountry campsites and 25 most scenic days of hiking ever. Those lists and the photos and information in them give my readers much more than just one favorite trip ever could—if I could pick one.
But on a personal level, I find that the most enjoyable trips, for me, are those that blend three elements: world-class natural beauty, an adventure that involves some level of challenge, and good friends and/or family. Those are the experiences I look back on most fondly.
3. What is the best piece of advice you can give to first-time hikers?
Do a little homework in advance and understand the environment you’re entering, so that you can be prepared for it. Have it in your mind that you may need to change plans at some point if weather or circumstances demand it, and know your alternatives. But also, don’t be intimidated or discouraged if it doesn’t go quite as planned—you’ll learn and get better at it, and this activity can change your life. It changed mine.
4. It’s great to see that you take your family along in your awesome travels. What are the best places you can recommend for parents who want to take their kids for a memorable outdoor fun?
That really depends a great deal on each family’s skill level and comfort zone and the ages and abilities of the kids. Ever since my kids were young, I’ve thought about which trips we could take that would be fun for all of us and appropriate for their ages. In general, though, most national parks have activities and hikes for all ages—any family can be thrilled visiting parks.
And one last piece of advice: Don’t wait until you think the kids are “old enough.” The older they are, the more you have to convince them. Start taking them outdoors before they’re old enough to remember, and it will be normal to them.
5. We heard you have an award-winning book titled “Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks” Can you tell us more about it?
Thanks for asking. My book, which received a National Outdoor Book Award, tells the story of 11 national park adventures my wife, Penny, and I took with our kids in one year, when they were nine and seven, in parks which are all undergoing somewhat unique and radical changes due to global warming, and will likely be very different places by the time my kids are my age.
We backpacked in several parks, from Grand Canyon—where it’s already hot and getting hotter, threatening the few water sources for plants, wildlife, and hikers—to Glacier, which is expected to lose all of its glaciers. We sea kayaked in Alaska’s Glacier Bay, which has seen the fastest glacial retreat on the planet. We paddled canoes in the Everglades, about two-thirds of which could disappear under rising seas.
For my family, and especially our children, these trips were wonderful, formative experiences that have helped shape the fantastic young adults they’re growing into now. But the parks also illustrate the devastation being wrought by our dependence on fossil fuels and reluctance to make changes as quickly as we need to—a problem only magnified by our current president. I have to ask: Won’t we do what’s clearly necessary to ensure a healthy future for our parks and our children?