Motivation for those wanting to travel
Confident but self-deprecating explorer Erin Sullivan is the first to tell you she’s not an expert kayaker, certified climber or professional athlete. It’s that refreshing honesty among a sea of social media imposters that endears the adventurer and travel blogger to her followers and brands alike.
In fact, despite her growing success as an adventure trip leader, Erin still holds down a part-time job. Her source of extra income is pretty cool, though: she works at a Colorado brewery and she admits she’s doing it more for the love of beer than anything else.
Erin’s degree in Visual Arts and Environmental Studies from State University of New York didn’t provide a sure route to a career involving traversing glaciers in Alaska and kayaking through Europe on someone else’s dollar. But she’s still determined to prove to would-be adventurers everywhere that, like social media success, living one’s dream doesn’t happen overnight. While her Instagram pics are solid and often stunning, it’s her extra existential musings that have won her some 45,000 followers and counting.
THE RED BULLETIN: Erin, you’re being paid to do adventures, but why don’t you consider yourself an expert?
ERIN SULLIVAN: I’m not a bad-ass in any one sport, I just kind of dabble in a lot of different things. I don’t have any notable experience that allows me to live the way I’m living, and I don’t think my stories are all that important or any different from anyone else’s. I’m just trying to live an honest and adventurous life, and share it along the way. I’m not an expert by any means. I want my audience to know that this lifestyle is attainable, but more than that, I want them to know that living purposefully is completely within their reach.
Up until the age of 18, you’d barely been hiking before – let alone been paid to lead trips.
I’m from Connecticut originally and I was in Girl Scouts growing up. But the moment the outdoor component came up, I dipped! I was out. I was like, ‘I’m good, I don’t need to be doing that.’ [laughs]. My mom makes fun of me all the time because this isn’t the path anyone expected for me. I’m from total suburbia. I mean, I went to liberal arts college in New York. Then one summer I decided I wanted to get a job at a summer camp. I was 18 and that was my first time really hiking and doing outdoorsy stuff.
So you enrolled at the National Outdoor Leadership School.
I had spent one summer in the woods and loved it, so I thought maybe NOLS was a good next step. I had a lot of confidence as a young woman and you could say I was overconfident. [Laughs.] I totally bit off more than I could chew with a 30-day backpacking and flyfishing course in the Wind River Range. It was really difficult and extremely challenging. That was my first time truly outside my comfort zone and learning that I don’t know what I’m doing and I don’t know everything. You deal with all the physical tasks, communication tasks and problem solving – then you wake up in the middle of the night to pee and the zipper on the tent is frozen shut. That was my first time being humbled like that.
When did trip leading and a life outdoors become more than a hobby?
It was after I studied abroad in Portugal and completed university that I became sort of a full-time trip leader while looking for what I thought was a ‘real job’. I truly believed that in order to be a credible human I had to have a PhD or have a notable title or something. This was my time to figure it out. Well, that summer leading trips in Spain, Italy and Greece turned into three years. From 2012, I’d ask myself what country I wanted to go to and then try and find an adventurous job leading trips or tours there. After leading trips and traveling in China, Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asia, Alaska and Guatemala, I decided to take a full-time job with a company in Colorado who I’d led trips for previously.
That’s when @erinoutdoors came about?
It was Christmas 2014, at my parents’ house, and I’d had enough people asking me for travel advice and how to be a trip leader that I decided to start a blog. I decided to not tell anyone about it at first, and I started writing and posting pics on Instagram with my cheapo Motorola smartphone. A few months in, I started writing more reflective pieces about life, and people started writing to me – people that weren’t my mom! I started writing more about life and what the search for meaning means, and I always did it under the lens of the outdoors and what my experiences were, with the overall theme being to live your life with purpose.
Two years later and you’re getting paid to be a freelance adventurer.
Well, I got fired from that full-time job seven months after I started it, so I was presented with the option of going for another full-time job or trying to start an unconventional freelance career, and I decided to take the hard one. There’s been a lot of trial and error, a lot failure and a lot of learning, and I’m still hanging onto my part-time job at a brewery.
What advice would you give to people looking to follow in your footsteps?
There’s a misconception that it happens overnight. You’re not going to wake up one day and have 5,000 followers. It takes time for that to grow. You have to network and get in front of people doing what you want to do. Make yourself known and step into the power you create for yourself. I used to find people I admired and ask them if I could work for them for free, or come along on a trip and model a product for them – whatever they needed. I would hold an umbrella if someone wanted me to. It’s about being creative and hustling, and being open to listening and learning.