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.
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.
I’ve been posting 5 articles a week on Section Hiker for nearly 6 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.