Brooklyn Wild: Meet Dave DiCerbo, the founder of Destination Backcountry Adventures

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Dave DiCerbo, founder of Destination Backcountry Adventures, takes New Yorkers on day and overnight trips to the Catskills. Photo courtesy of Dave DiCerbo.

This must be quitting-your-desk-job inspiration week at Brokelyn. For the second time this week, here’s a story about a guy ditching his corporate job to follow his dream. There is hope for the rest of us!

Dave DiCerbo, the 41-year-old founder of Destination Backcountry Adventures, used to work as a sales manager at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the educational publishing house. (Dunder Miflin? we joked.)

“Believe me, the number of times I was doing that analogy is part of what made me decide to quit,” DiCerbo says. “I was like come on, even Michael Scott is telling me that this is a nightmare!”

While DiCerbo had been fantasizing about quitting his job for years, he stalled because he didn’t have an exit plan. In 2008, when the company was bought, DiCerbo was offered a two-week severance package and the opportunity to reapply for his job under the new ownership. But when he did the math, he realized the severance package was the equivalent of five and half months pay.

“I was a 33-year-old single man in NYC who wanted nothing more than to be out of a job. It was a no brainer, I took the severance package and I went hiking for five and a half months and when I got back to NYC I said, I’m never working inside again. These last five months have been the most alive I’ve felt in the last twenty years, so there’s gotta be something to this.”

The Danbury, Conn., native got licensed as a New York state outdoor guide and in 2011, founded Destination Backcountry Adventures, which is based in Park Slope, where DiCerbo has lived for 19 years. Now, along with his team, he leads New Yorkers on day and overnight trips to the Catskills nearly every weekend, weather permitting, for his job.

“It’s the closest wilderness to NYC, and it constantly blows the minds of people that can’t believe there’s this much green and this many trees two and a half hours from New York.”

They’ll go to off-trail places DiCerbo gives mystical names, like “The Secret Land of Trout and Berries,” in the Big Indian Wilderness near Balsam Lake Mountain in the Western Catskills. Day trips start at $89, and weekend overnights at $199.

DiCerbo is the focus of today’s Brooklyn Wild, our new series where we tap the more rugged residents of Kings County and ask them to share some of the adventure. For our first installment, we spoke to John Bingaman, the Fort Greene resident who takes city dogs on Doggie Day Trips to hike upstate. After that, we profiled Michelle Cashen, who quit her desk job to become the rooftop farm manager at Brooklyn Grange‘s Navy Yard location.

We spoke with DiCerbo about the exhilaration of a career change, the joy he gets from taking New Yorkers out into the wilderness, and why camping cuisine does not have to suck.

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Photo via Destination Backcountry Adventures

Photo via Mo Skel Photography

You offer day trips and overnights to places that are off the beaten path. A recent trip incorporated foraging and fishing! Tell us more about what people can expect from the adventures. 

In a nutshell, we’ll take you in small groups to pristine places that you really won’t be able to get to. Some places, while it may be on a map, there’s no trail to it, so unless you had experience with a map and compass, it’d be pretty difficult to find.

Most of the trips are hiking and camping, with canoeing from May through October. The Catskills are great for brook trout fishing, one of the best destinations in the country. This time of year is great for berries—raspberries, late season strawberries, blueberries. We also offer holistic retreats, with meditation and yoga. 

We are full service: We provide tents, all you have to bring is a backpack, a sleeping bag and a pair of boots, maybe a headlamp, and we’ll take care of everything else. We do a gourmet menu — I always love surprising people by telling them what we’re having for dinner. Half the time they think I’m bullshitting them, and then we’ll break out steaks and squash and zucchini and peppers to roast on the fire, and they’re like, “whoa.” 

It’s pretty cool to see that, and people really appreciate that. That and the driving. (Editor’s note: DiCerbo transports hikers there and back via a 15-seater van.) People will say, oh I can go hiking on my own, but I’m paying you to drive me back. When you spend all day hiking, the last thing you want to do is spend the rest of the day fighting Sunday traffic on the way back to NYC. I always joke, we don’t earn our pay when we’re in the woods, that’s the fun part; we earn it when we’re prepping the meals, when we’re driving back.

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The group fjords a stream on the way to summit Balsam Mountain in the Catskills. Photo via Destination Backcountry Adventures.

A recent group fjords a stream on the way to summit Balsam Mountain in the Catskills. Photo via Destination Backcountry Adventures.

How did you learn your outdoors skills?

That’s when I was wearing a suit and tie as a sales manager. While I was doing that, I started hiking. I managed New York state, and I got to see all these beautiful areas—I started driving through the Catskill and Adirondack mountains on my way up to meet superintendents in Rochester and Buffalo. I had 12 accounts in New York state, each had their own district. When I went up there to work with them on high level accounts, it got to the point that I was like well, I’m gonna pack my hiking boots along with my suits.

I learned a lot through trial and error. You know, a lot of people take an outdoor bound course; I just went old school, I was like, I’m gonna go out in the woods … I read books, I talked to experienced people that have done this before, but mostly through trial and error — more trial, less error.

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Destination Backcountry Adventures also leads wholistic trips, which incorporate yoga at scenic locales. Photo via DBA.

Destination Backcountry Adventures also leads holistic trips, which incorporate yoga at scenic locales. Photo via DBA.

What’s your favorite part about your job?

It took me about two years to decide to go into guiding (after quitting Houghton Mifflin). I looked into a couple things, like being a forest ranger, or getting an environmental education masters and teaching, something like that, but what it really came down to, is that what I find most rewarding about being in the woods is seeing the look on other people’s faces and seeing the way they experience it.

I don’t know if you saw, there was recently in Brooklyn, a DUI driver, an off-duty cop ran over like five pedestrians. The assistant DA that was on that case came out on a trip with us the weekend after — she was almost in tears by Sunday, she was like, I can’t leave this place, I feel like a human being again, I’ve been stretched to my limit all week, I can’t believe what 36 hours in the woods did to my soul and psyche. And I said, that’s why I started this company.

Even if you’re successful (as a guide), your best compensation will be getting to work outdoors and getting to see what the woods do for people. It’s just amazing, bringing people to places I’ve been to 50, 60 times, that you’d think at this point would lose some of their charm for me; they don’t, because when I see somebody experience the view from the top of Mount Wittenberg for their first time, it’s like I’m seeing it for my first time.

You know, it’s sharing that sense of wonderment and discovery. It’s very rewarding. The hours are absolutely brutal, a typical day for us starts at 5:45am and ends around 11pm at night. It’s 10 miles of hiking, 300 miles of driving involved, and every one of the guides that we have is just very very happy to be doing this, because seeing the look on people’s faces, it sounds so cliche, but it really does keep you going, it inspires you.

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DiCerbo is a whiz at all the caveman stuff. Photo via Destination Backcountry Adventures.

DiCerbo is a whiz at all the caveman stuff. Photo via Mo Skel Photography

Do you have any advice for New Yorkers who want to get out there more? 

Just go. There are so many places, like where we travel to, you need a car to get to, but if you want to get outside, there are plenty of places you can just literally hop on a train and get there and hike and hop back on. There are a number of great resources for hiking trips, if you check out the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, they’ll show you how to get on a train and go to places like Harriman State Park or Bear Mountain.

Obviously, once you’re interested, I’d say, (selfishly), hire a guide. But you know, even looking back on my life, there’s points when I’m like, you know what? When I first started winter hiking, I should have gone out with a guide just once and learned everything over a weekend instead of learning by shivering trial and error for an entire winter season. Pros can always teach a ton, just make sure they’re into it, you want someone who wants to have you learn.

My best advice is don’t be afraid. Do your research, and get out there and try. 

Wanna get out there? Check out Destination Backcountry Adventures for info on their next trip. DiCerbo also leads sessions of Survival School, which teaches wilderness skills like starting a fire without matches and reading a compass, at select locations in NYC.