Shannon Davis sitting on green leaves and wearing green marmot windbreaker

Shannon Davis returns to BACKPACKER after nine years away.

For most people, the first week of any job entails meetings, paperwork, introductions, a building tour, and lots of administrative details to contend with. But Shannon Davis's first week as BACKPACKER's new editor-in-chief was much more, well, BACKPACKER. The team spent last week exploring Utah's Arch Canyon and testing gear for the spring 2020 gear guide.

Davis said he feels right at home at Active Interest Media (AIM), the title's parent company, not only because one of his job requirements is spending time off the grid, but also because he's worked for BACKPACKER and AIM before.

In 2005, he became BACKPACKER's associate editor and worked his way up to senior editor, leading destination coverage. He also briefly and simultaneously guided on Mt. Rainier with RMI Expeditions before leading Climbing Magazine as editor-in-chief for nearly six years. Between then and now, he developed editorial strategy for REI's startup Adventure Projects and served as marketing director for Visit Estes Park.

Right before heading to Utah for the Editors' Choice trip, SNEWS caught up with Davis about his return, what he learned during his time away, his favorite part of backpacking, and his big plans for the national media platform inspiring readers to get out more.

Did you ever in your wildest dreams think you’d be back on the masthead as editor-in-chief?

In my wildest dreams, sure. But in reality, I thought I might just be a dabbler going forward because I see content not being strictly housed in traditional media platforms. It’s been a lot of fun in my time away from AIM and BACKPACKER to explore how to work on an app, how to engage communities on different platforms, and how to use marketing in really creative ways. I’m excited to bring a lot of that back. 

When you were first introduced to the AIM team, you talked about tight/loose leadership. What does that mean?

Tight/loose is something I definitely ripped off of Teton Gravity Research. My friend who's a guide has done a lot of work for TGR and he introduced me to the idea. You’ve got to keep it tight means you have to do everything well, from copy editing to peak bagging, and not just well, but the best. But you should be able to operate loosely in that, with a swagger and a confidence and still have some fun. Keep it tight, keep it loose. And as an extension, I have some other things I say all the time. Everything matters. Take everything seriously—every comma, every photo, every headline, every point to communicate with every reader. Everything matters. But then at the same time, nothing is sacred. You can blow up anything at any point in time if you have a better idea and you rally the rest of the staff to be part of that. Those are some things I really hope to embody and instill into BACKPACKER.

A closeup of Davis during BACKPACKER's Editors' Choice trip in 2011. Unless he's inside, you'll find him in sunglasses 99.9 percent of the time.

A closeup of Davis during BACKPACKER's Editors' Choice trip in 2011. Unless he's inside, you'll find him in sunglasses 99.9 percent of the time.

What areas of opportunity do you see for the magazine?

Our print product does so many things really well. The gobs of national magazine award nominations and wins in our hallway speak to that. But I want to immediately think about a print redesign and think about what a print magazine means these days and what kind of content is consumed best in that platform. And then I want to think hard about our website—what it does and how it does it and make sure we’re pursuing the grand topics that can inspire people. We have a great opportunity to apply our strong points in print to the website and interesting campaigns, and to pursue really impactful stories that span all of those platforms in ways we haven’t really done to this point. That’s what I really want to grow into and pursue with this crew. 

How has the magazine change since you were there last?

Some things haven’t changed much at all, which I think speaks to how BACKPACKER knows its readership so well and tries really hard to give them what they want. The first thing I would mention is there’s so much great photography from cover to cover. Many of the top-notch writers BACKPACKER has had over the years are still there too. I think gear coverage has evolved in cool ways I’d like to continue. It also features really strong skills reporting and destination reporting, guiding people where to go and what to do.

Cover of Backpacker's 2019 Gear Guide

BACKPACKER's most recent cover.

Your first week is on an Editors' Choice trip with your new staff. It’s like trial by fire. But in some ways that’s the best scenario, right?

I wouldn’t have it any other way. I've met all the staff individually, but yeah, we’ll be thrown into it. Hiking and cooking together and navigating trails and sleeping in tents and telling stories around the campfire. If you think about it, a lot of folks who work in an office pay money to have an opportunity to do something like that. It’s going to solidify our team and gel us in ways that are unique to the lifestyle of backpacking. It’s perfect.

What do you love about backpacking? 

It’s hard to separate work and leisure when you work at BACKPACKER. But if I try to just speak as a backpacker, it would be just me with a handful of friends hiking without a strict agenda in a beautiful country with poorly marked trails. The best parts are the long segments of silence, being away from it all, being immersed in an incredible environment that very few people get to see, letting your mind wander, learning and realizing new things, and having all kinds of conversations with your friends and teammates. And then being able to bring that back to life.

How are you going to talk to that next generation of backpackers?

There’s going to be some route-finding for us to do. We’re starting from the heart. We want to broadly introduce people to the outdoors so they fall in love with it so much they want to fight to save it. Just that simple act of putting one foot in front of the other can be super profound. It can change the way you view the world, such as how you approach fitness and nutrition, and friendships and family. Those things are universal. I think there’s a really rabid audience for that and I’m excited to figure out how we’re going to engage the wide swath of folks who want to know more about the outdoors.

Davis on BACKPACKER's Editors' Choice trip in 2011. Davis is also a snowboarder, mountain biker, climber, fly fisherman, and firefighter.

Davis on BACKPACKER's Editors' Choice trip in 2011. Davis is also a snowboarder, mountain biker, climber, fly fisherman, and firefighter.

How will Dennis Lewon, former EIC, continue to be involved with his institutional knowledge?

I’m so thankful he’ll still be in the building. Dennis is going to work with brands to tell their stories better. I think his role [as director of content across AIM] is going to be really fun for him and really productive for AIM. It’s going to be great for all BACKPACKER partners. He’s been at the wheel for almost the past decade, so his knowledge is going to be invaluable for little questions here and there. He’s been gracious in terms of wanting to get out of my way too because he knows I have lots of ideas. We both want to see the brand evolve in really positive ways.

Is there anything else you want the outdoor industry to know?

I would love to urge anyone who reads the magazine, no matter what they do in the outdoor industry, to reach out to me, pitch me ideas, tell me what they love about BACKPACKER, tell me where they would love to see the brand go. The outdoor industry has been such a fun place to work. Most of my best friends work in the outdoor industry and walk around the halls of Outdoor Retailer. They are some of the funnest and brightest people I know. I don’t have every answer for every question and I would just love to hear from any corner of the outdoor industry about any fun, cool ideas that we should pursue. 


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