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The History of Section Hiker

Blogging is a Journey
Blogging is a Journey

One of my readers, Michael Howard, asked me to write a post about the history of Section Hiker and the lessons I’ve learned about blogging. Michael is thinking about starting his own outdoor blog.

In the Beginning

Section Hiker isn’t my first blog. I’d started a few others previously in the hosted web  community software that eventually turned into Blogger. I can’t remember what it was called now, only that I had an “address” in Silicon Valley.

I started learning WordPress for work in 2007. After that project finished, I decided to set up my own backpacking site to write about my Long Trail hike in 2008 and my preparations for it. I started by writing trips reports, reviews about gear I owned, and the new backpacking skills I was learning.

Starting a Blog

I started writing Section Hiker because blogging helps me learn and retain new skills and information. At the time, I was just getting back into hiking and backpacking after a long hiatus. Writing about my Long Trail experience and my preparation for it gave me a way to replay it in my mind, in a richer level of detail than photographs or videos. Reading old posts still brings back of flood of memories for me. It’s like time travel.

Community

In 2008, these was a very small group of bloggers writing about backpacking and hiking, mostly outside the United States, but they quickly discovered me and helped me grow my audience. People like Chris White, Frank Wall, Martin Rye, and Sara Kirkconnell. We are still great friends and communicate frequently.

Early on, most of the articles I wrote were read by other bloggers. But as my hiking interests expanded outside of lightweight hiking, I found myself attracting a much larger audience where bloggers are a minority. This has taken me in a much different direction than a lot of my blogging peers. If you start a new blog, writing for other bloggers makes sense, but if you want to go big you need to diversify and write for other constituencies.

I love it when people leave comments on my blog and I go out of my way to respond to them. I love the interaction and view every correspondence as a way to learn something or help someone become more self sufficient. Discussions, even if they are confrontational, are a really important part of blogging, and it drives me crazy when people blow me off on their blogs by not responding.

Becoming a Writer

When I started Section Hiker, I was a hiker who liked to write about hiking. About 2 years ago, writing became as important to me as hiking and backpacking. I write 5 posts a week for Section Hiker, but I also write for other publications too.  Writing full time has become my passion and my main source of income.

A Labor of Love

Writing Section Hiker is a labor of love. I don’t do it for money, that’s for sure. I blog because it gives me an excuse to think about hiking and backpacking all day long, day in and day out. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy. My wife doesn’t mind because I’m a better husband when I am a happy one.

Post Frequency

I’ve been posting 5 articles a week on Section Hiker for nearly 2 years. I fell into  the habit as a means of escape during a stressful time at work, but I grew to like the rhythm, and it gives me the opportunity to satisfy the varied interests of the people who read my site.

Constantly coming up with new topics to write about can be challenging, but every time I go hiking, I can usually come up with 3 or 4 substantive posts to write about. You have to hike to write: that’s OK with me.

Some Lessons Learned

If you want to make money by starting a blog, don’t write about hiking and backpacking. The audience isn’t big enough. Write about cameras or how to organize your closets. You need a huge audience to scale any kind of predictable revenue.

If you aren’t committed to maintaining a blog for 5 or more years, don’t waste your time. Audience loyalty and size takes a long time to build and scale, and if your objective is to grow a big site, you need to stick with it for the long haul. The time investment required has also gone up with the emergence of social media. You need to invest in twitter and facebook, almost as much as blogging, to keep your readers engaged.

If you want to start a blog because it’s a way to get free gear, you might be disappointed. It’s hard to get the really goof stuff unless you have a big audience or you are a pro athlete. Personally, I avoid writing about the same new wood burning stove that all my peers are writing about. If you want to stand out from the crowd, you need to be different.

If someone contacts you and offers you “visibility” on their site in exchange for free blog posts, turn them down. These visibility arrangements don’t usually result in an audience acquisition benefit and you are better off writing a post for your own web site.

Having a great blog is a great resume, and even if you don’t make money off of it, it’s a great way to prove to an employer that you know what it takes to be a blogging or social media guru. I get all kinds of inbound contacts and new writing opportunities because of Section Hiker, and the time investment it takes to run it  pays for itself many times over in new opportunities

Blogging is a Journey

Blogging is a journey that changes day by day and year to year. If you want to try your hand at it, I say go for it. It’s easy to set up a blog on Blogger or WordPress.com without spending any money. You’ll get back what you put into it, and maybe more.

23 comments

  1. I had the feeling you were a writer as much as a hiker. I agree with what you say, although I’m still a newbie. Blogging, indeed, seems to be a journey. Keep on hammerin’.

  2. Thanks for the post. Very interesting insite. I started blogging a little more then two years ago for the wrong reasons, to get free gear. I discovered quickly what you said, it’s hard to get the good stuff. But since then I have grown to love blogging and interacting with my audience. It is a very satisfying feeling to have people engage your content and I look forward to new posts all the time. I agree that the long haul is the key to building audience. Due to work I have had to take a few breaks from blogging for months at a time. I’m always amazed to see how my audience has grown even while I was gone. The more content you have out there the more people are going to find it. Thanks again

    • Spot on. Writing for my readers and interacting with them is so satisfying, and gives me a way to talk to people I’d never come across in person. I’m glad to hear that you keep coming back to your blog after taking breaks.

      Work can really interfere with blogging regularly, but it can also provide a good reason to set boundaries around your work. I found blogging to be very helpful for weaning myself off the excitement and social ties of my job, and transferring that energy to a hobby and community that I really love.

  3. I began blogging to motivate myself for an upcoming trip to Big Bend National Park. I was a long time backpacker but had drifted away as I moved into my 60’s. The blog proved to be enjoyable and helped me chronicle my journey for a year. I find myself wanting to get back into the blogging again not for monetary gain but for self-expression. Thanks for the motivation.

  4. great post!

  5. I like your post and all that you share with us is really informative, I would like to bookmark the page so I can come here again to read your articles, as you have done a wonderful job. Sharing for this nice information with us is definitely a great help for us who are not so very familiar with the topic. I myself is an amateur in blogging but I totally agree that it is a journey. I love this post.

  6. Bill,

    Did you make it to Big Bend? I’ve been there a half a hundred times in the last 45 years. I have lots of favorite places there and still have many on an ever increasing bucket list that I haven’t gotten to yet.

    Family and friends love my write ups about our trips and keep encouraging me to write seriously. A trade journal has also asked me to write a column for them and I have a year’s worth of outlines made up. One of these days, I’ll get organized enough to actually do so.

    • I did make that trip to Big Bend and it was great. I have not made a hundred trips like you Grandpa but I have been there about 20 times. I have backpacked most of the trails but I am still going to keep going back. A very special place.

      • My eight year old grandson and I backpacked to South Rim a couple weeks ago, for the fourth time there together in three years. It’s his favorite place. We’d have had another trip to the Rim under our boots but for the fact our RV broke down near Rio Grande Village a couple years ago and we had to be towed 87 miles to Marathon ($738.00 tow bill–ouch!) the night before our big hike. That hike would have been special–there was 6″ of fresh snow on top, a full moon, moderate temps, no wind, and we’d planned on spending two nights up there. Oh well, when I think of the real troubles other people have dealt with, we just had an inconvenience.

  7. Thanks for the historic perspective! I love your blog, and I’m so glad that you love to write it. As a medical resident, I spend a lot of time indoors under fluorescent lights. Sectionhiker is a wonderful source of escapism…not to mention a lot of very useful information for a relative newcomer to hiking.

    • I appreciate you saying so – I started writing more for beginners about a year ago and really enjoy it because it helps me remember how I learned things (some amusing stories there) and because it helps me relate and teach people who I meet in person.

  8. Great post. I started blogging in 2002 as a means to keep in contact with some internet friends and family and then it blossomed as I turned into gardening and then further when we started hiking and exploring Florida…then came the AT. I don’t have a wide following but I also write for myself too. Blogging has become a scrapbook but I also like to be educational too because many of the places I write about I can barely find much information on to begin with.

    Love reading your blog even if I don’t comment much.

    • Keeping in touch with family is a great reason to start a blog – I like the scrapbook analogy you use. I’ve had blogs that were temporary collaborative projects or purely personal journals. There are lots of reasons to write them and they don’t have to be commercially oriented.

  9. @Earlylite Where else do you write, magazines, website, etc? and what topics?

    • I mainly write about outdoors stuff for the web but I’m already branching out into print this year. Let’s see. I have a couple of book chapters coming out this year. I write blogs and articles fairly regularly for Trailspace.com about all kinds of different outdoor activities (kayaking to mountaineering), gear roundups, manufacturer profiles, and backpacking/hiking, I write for a couple of other web sites either monthly or on spec. Some of my blog content is syndicated. I also have a side business that specializes in content marketing for outdoor companies which is going gangbusters. It hasn’t been a boring year!

      Also – many thanks to my professional editor – who proofs my paid material. She is wonderful and Iooking for more clients.

  10. Appreciated this post. Blogging and hiking are both journeys–unique and special in the different ways. And both are so good for one’s soul. :)

  11. I’ve loved the SectionHiker blog from day one, and it’s probably the only outdoor blog that I make a point of reading on a regular basis. I’m continually astonished, and very much in awe, of the volume of content (which sacrifices nothing to quality, moreover).

    The latest helmet tip in your direction is the review on the Neo-Air All Season mattress. I was lucky enough to pick one up in the Black Friday sales, and have just spent five nights on it during the latest ice climbing trip. I’ve never slept so well!!

    • Chris – great to hear from you! I am moving slow this morning after another winter climb in New Hampshire yesterday. At this rate, I might as well move up there! Great to hear that you are getting out too. Winter rocks!

  12. Hi Philip,
    you have a nice Blog and I´m happy to see that you have fun by blogging about your passion. For me it doesn´t matter the frequence of postings or the audience of any blog. I like to see when people have fun by sharing their thoughts about my hobby.

    Thank you very much ;-)

  13. Again, great post…one of the better blogs about hiking I’ve come across! Though I hike only in the Midwest area, I’ve taken away some of your tips & like to read of your exploits in the Whites as well. Your gear tests are great too. Thank you very much, I’ll be reading as long as you’re writing!

  14. I’ve read your blog for a year or two now. Beyond all the great hiking info, I love the general tone and vibe of the writing. Always curious, never preachy, very accesible to beginners yet detailed and informative for advanced hikers too.

    I also believe that you are a powerful model for someone connecting with their passion and turning their hobby into a fulltime pursuit, especially later in life when many people have settled for a day job they hate because they don’t believe anything else is possible. I think this is one of the most universal and accessible parts of your story, beyond the niche of hiking. It’s inspired me to keep at my own dreams and I believe moves others too.

    Keep up the good work!

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