Nerd hobby that gets me out there
June 19, 2015 10:46 AM   Subscribe

What is a nerd hobby that will enable me to (a) travel anywhere to enjoy (b) interact with people and build relationships, (c) not super expensive, (d) somewhat DIY, and (e) doesn't require an entire workshop, garage, or wardrobe?

I really like to pick up nerdy hobbies. Exploring food or going on beer tours is fun (but not effortlessly social, and can get pricey and unhealthy). Collecting pens and notebooks is fun (but now I have all this junk, and participation = opening your wallet). I like to walk... maybe there's some sort of "national walking tours" thing that people do? Birdwatching and trainspotting sound cool - but do enough people do that to make it an effortless communications topic? Gardening is probably clutch, but I'm too impatient and can't commit past a single hour or weekend at a time.
posted by rebent to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (34 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
If you like to walk, you might check out your local Sierra Club. In my area there are many different groups who do different types and speeds of "hikes", a lot of which are just walks to cool areas, lasting an hour or two. You usually don't even have to have a membership to participate, though if you want to go on their trips you may have to commit to it.
posted by Temeraria at 10:58 AM on June 19, 2015

Hmm how about getting a Vespa Scooter (Restore a Vintage one?) strap a camera around your neck and go on long road trips.
posted by Mac-Expert at 10:59 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

How about camping? Meets your criteria for birdwatching and walking. You need gear but unless you are going on weeklong treks in the bush, you can get by with a really inexpensive tent, sleeping bag, etc. You can also totally nerd out. Over the past few years as I've gotten more interested and experienced, I've gone down many geek rabbit holes on firestarting techniques, knife sharpening (oh so satisfying, and not hard or expensive), restoring axes (my latest thing is electroetching! Using a 9v battery, saltwater and alligator clips to put designs on metal), purifying water, path finding and trail making (recently volunteered with NYNJTC to help maintain a trail), compasses, maps, tree identification, wild edibles... I mean really you can just go nuts with this stuff. At its core it's about being outside, stretching your legs, and enjoying either solitude or the company of friends and your dog. But if you want to drill way the hell down there are great forums ranging from the hippie to ultralight backpacking athletes to survivalist types who I probably wouldn't have much in common with if not for our shared interest in, say, vintage hatchets and whittling.

Also it's a good one for being able to enjoy anywhere. Obviously it doesn't work as well in a city but I live in NYC and I do day hikes and weekend trips to the Catskills all the time. Bonus is that everywhere you travel has new types of plants and animals and landscapes that let you keep learning and adapting. Couldn't recommend this more highly!
posted by andromache at 11:00 AM on June 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Journalistic podcasting? Find a person you think is doing a cool thing in a cool place, show up with a laptop and a microphone, interview them, etc.
posted by griphus at 11:00 AM on June 19, 2015

Lots of hikers are nerds and a lot of nerds are hikers. Putting one foot in front of the other doesn't require much skill, there is tons of gear to obsess over if that's your thing, and you can do it alone or with other people. When you're with other people you can also be alone for part of the journey. There are lists of peaks and hikes to do (in NH the big list is the 4000 footers, but there are others) or you can just hike whatever you want to hike.

So if there's a local club you may want to look into it. Doesn't require much to start other than a pair of basic boots or trail shoes.
posted by bondcliff at 11:02 AM on June 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

You may need to commit to more than an hour but RPG such as Dungeons & Dragons or Warhammer meet your requirements.
posted by 3dd at 11:04 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Orienteering? It's outdoorsy, moderately physical (actually quite physical at competitive levels), somewhat nerdy, and very popular in parts of Europe and Scandinavia, which opens up possibilities of world travel if you wanted to do that. While not incredibly widespread as a hobby in the US, it's something a lot of people have at least a passing understanding of, or can relate to (basically anyone who has ever been in the military has done a version of it, after a fashion).

There's also geocaching but it's more of a solitary activity. Orienteering tends to involve groups of people, meetups, clubs, etc.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:05 AM on June 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Geocaching might be great for you. At its simplest you look on the map of your local area (or wherever you feel like travelling to) for caches, head to those GPS coordinates, then hunt around to find the cache -- usually a small plastic box contining a note, a toy, etc. Getting more complex, a lot of the caches marked on your local map might require you to solve puzzles to get the actual co-ordinates to the cache, or a note inside one cache might have clues to the location of the next in a series, etc.

There's a fairly active online community around hiding and finding the caches, solving the puzzle caches, racing to be the first one to find a given cache, finding all the caches in a given area or series, etc. Real-world social events get organised as well, but I know less about those.

I have friends who're quite into it, and it takes them all over the surrounding countryside and into parts of the local towns and cities that they'd otherwise never have a reason to visit. They can talk amongst themselves endlessly about favourite caches, tricky puzzles and hiding places, etc. And, for those of us who aren't into the hobby, they have loads of stories and photos of the hikes and walks they've taken into odd places.
posted by metaBugs at 11:07 AM on June 19, 2015 [12 favorites]

Board games!! My boyfriend has gotten me interested in them over the last year. We have a few two-player games we play together at home, but we also invite friends over and play with family during holidays. We also have a store in town that sells games and comic books and has several beers on tap! They have a collection of open games - try-before-you-buy type setup - and a lot of tables in the back. There are always people playing games there.

Another plus is that you can start small. The game that got me hooked was Love Letter, and I think we paid less than $8 for it. It also travels really well. If you enjoy it, you can delve into more complex (and expensive) games. Board Game Geek is a great resource.

Some of our favorites so far have been Jaipur, Rivals for Catan, Smash Up, and Carcassonne, all of which are pretty casual and easy to learn.
posted by fluffymag at 11:07 AM on June 19, 2015 [8 favorites]

Biking! I'm spoiled because I live in a great city for this (Minneapolis), but it's a great way to get out and explore new parts of the city or just get out and enjoy some fresh scenery. If you want to be social about it, some cyclists around here do meetup groups with slower-paced rides and stop at breweries afterwards.

Also maybe geocaching is up your alley? Not necessarily interacting with people there, but maybe there's a meetup group of likeminded people in your area.

Good luck!
posted by antonymous at 11:08 AM on June 19, 2015

This guy Ross writes good, nonsense-free posts about hiking and camping. Here is his inexpensive gear guide to help get started on essentials (many of which you already have).
From there, you get to just keep getting better/lighter/stronger gear that works best for your style of camping, whether you are doing long hikes or just having a nice time playing the guitar by a campfire. And your old gear that you have upgraded from? Loan it to your pals when you can convince them to come along on your overnight trips!

I'll stop because I'm going to commandeer your thread here, but the last thing I'll say is that you can learn skills like carving a spoon or bowl, cooking on an open fire, hanging a bear bag, setting up a shelter (this is very gratifying, being able to turn a few feet of rope and a tarp into a strong, waterproof roof, especially when it is raining!) And even if these aren't literally transferable to city living, you get a little sense of confidence and contentment from making something yourself or figuring out how to generate heat and light. Ok stopping now for real.
posted by andromache at 11:11 AM on June 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

D&D. Take up DMing and you can build & craft your brains out making ornate dungeons, or building miniature figures then meet people once a week/month to kill them in many horrible ways. It's very social by nature as you have to communicate to play. You can also use all those pens & notepads *grins*.

Take up Warhammer (or one of the cheaper other tabletop wargames Malifaux, Xwing, Warmachine) and you can do the same.
posted by wwax at 11:12 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Square dancing is often described as "dancing for math nerds". If you find a local-to-you "gay"* square dance club they'll be welcoming to you no matter what your orientation, totally fine with you coming without a partner, not have any fancy dress-up requirements, it'll giv e you a chance to move, a good social structure, a bunch of thinking exercises, but teach you everything you need to know.
  1. There are lots of opportunities to travel in order to do it. There are "fly-ins" all over the country that can be a way to go visit that area that gives you an instant social group in that area, and in some of those the local club can help arrange couches to crash on.
  2. It's as DIY as you want it to be. After three years, I'm "DIY" into it enough that I'm writing choreography and calling.
  3. It's not super expensive. Generally runs about $5-8/night, and if you get into calling you might even break even.
  4. One of the nice things about the gay clubs is that they welcome you in jeans and a T-shirt or full-on outfits, whatever you want to wear
* On "gay" vs "straight": Back in the '70s, when square dancing was huge, square dancing echoed the larger society: Gay and straight did not mix. Callers who called for gay clubs were fired by their straight clubs if the straight clubs found out. So although the calls are the same, the stylings and culture between the two groups are very different, and now the distinction is more about the gay clubs having casual dress, more energetic stylings, no needing to come with a partner, and people interchangeably dancing "boy" or "girl". No matter your sexual orientation, you'll have more fun dancing with a gay club.

From your profile, if you're close enough you might check out the Grand River Squares. Elsewhere, check with the International Association of Gay Square Dance Clubs.
posted by straw at 11:14 AM on June 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

The mobile game Ingress will get you out and about in your city and is as social as you want it to be. It's not really DIY but it's collaborative and free.
posted by that's how you get ants at 11:27 AM on June 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Play Ingress, it's like walking with a purpose. Join the Resistance, Agent. We're waiting for you. (I collect pens also! They're cheap, small, and you can write with them.)
posted by Rob Rockets at 11:29 AM on June 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

You could go hang out at your local hackerspace.
posted by the_blizz at 11:35 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

On the active end, running, biking, and hiking are all very good for this. People get wayyyy into all of those, but at minimum you can jump in with a low monetary and time investment, and there are meetups and casual group runs/rides/hikes constantly, everywhere. And usually they don't ask for any money to participate (the exception generally being if there is a ride to/from a trailhead or something). Meetup or your local running/biking/sporting goods store is a good way to find those. I am more of a loner, but I see the groups out on the trails when I'm running all the time.

Also, photography! I just got back from Disney World, of all places, and had a lovely time making some new friends entirely through serendipity because we all set up our tripods in the same spot at the same time to photograph fireworks. It doesn't cost too much to buy a basic camera, it's a hobby you can practice basically everywhere all the time, you can get really geeky with trick photography or post-processing if you want, and there are photo-oriented walking tours of places all the time. If you are taking a lot of photos or lugging a camera around, other photographers in close proximity get interested and chatty. Then you have the satisfaction of having created neat pictures that you can keep and share, and improving at the skill over time. Being the person who is good with a camera is a great party trick, too. If you have any social anxiety (I totally do), walking around getting the awesome Facebook photos at gatherings is a handy way to socialize in a really, really low pressure way and have something to do other than try to make small talk.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 11:50 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Railfanning / Model Railroading

Like to understand history, technology, geography, societal changes, industrial and agricultural production and then build your representation of that in miniature? Learn electronics, painting, machining, fabrication, detailing, weathering, or just buy completed items from stores.

Then model railroading might be for you! It can be a small box, a few feet of shelf, or spend most of your time dreaming of what to someday build. Most cities have modeling / railfan groups who are happy to share notes, experience, and help one another out building things.

Layout Builder with lots of advice and examples for fun small layouts

Shelf layout and experience

Another person's experience in building a shelf layout

Modeling a portion of the Southern Pacific in the 1950's

Micro Layout design gallery

I love going places and thinking about modeling them, and incorporate railfanning into family vacations. I have hiked, driven, and mountain biked any number of Colorado narrow gauge lines. Plenty of current and historic items to explore.
posted by nickggully at 11:50 AM on June 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Start collecting elongated pennies! They cost 51 cents, you get elongated pennies, and you have to find the machines, which leads to fun and socialization because a lot of them are in national parks, tourist traps, and out of the way places. It's a great hobby. And you can make stuff from the pennies like I did.
posted by patheral at 11:50 AM on June 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

Yes, birding! Although it can be a very solitary pursuit it is inherently collaborative in nature (it would be terribly bad form to id a rare bird without putting an alert out about it, for example, as you are expected to let others know what you saw so that they can confirm).

- Binoculars ($125) plus a field guide ($25) are all you need, and they fit in a single drawer.
- You almost certainly have a local birding group near you, and birders are quite friendly with each other (though it does seem to draw an older crowd). It is fun to travel to hotspots as you'll often run into other birders, and locals will be excited to show you good spots. And if you get serious, there's also opportunity to compete.
- There's a huge online community, eBird, where everyone tracks sightings and crowdsources statistics.
- You'll be motivated to travel widely to build your list. There are a ton of bird tours available worldwide, but it's also a great excuse to plan exotic vacations in general, and you can do it anywhere.
posted by veery at 12:03 PM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding photography. The buy-in isn't super high; you can get a decent Canon or Nikon camera and lens combo for under $200 on Craigslist. Then shoot with that until or unless you decide that your gear is holding you back, but that's going to take a while. Once you're done buying hardware, you can shoot and edit to your heart's content, and there is a huge community of photographers out there. It ticks the rest of your boxes too.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:11 PM on June 19, 2015

Kite flying. The American Kitefliers Association and affiliated clubs hold festivals and competitions all across the country (although primarily on the coasts). You can choose to compete by flying or making kites. You can fly kites with one line, two, three, or even four. You can fly solo in pairs or in teams. Indoors or out. You can kite-board, buggy, or surf.
posted by Gungho at 12:18 PM on June 19, 2015

Seconding board games and birding.

The spouse and I discovered birding almost by accident several years ago when we were desperately looking for some activity to do as a group on his birthday and found a local Audubon staffer that gave guided hikes through a nearby sanctuary. Our lives have been forever changed. Birding has given us that extra level of awareness of and connection to our surroundings, the seasons, etc. that is grounding and rewarding in ways that are hard to describe, but suffice it to say that the world feels like a friendlier place.

Board/card games are great whether you're playing with current friends or looking to find new ones. For the latter, just google "game night" + your town, or find a local game store and ask about open gaming nights.
posted by shelbaroo at 12:34 PM on June 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

In my family this has led to pottery (clay is cheap, makes things, and you use a communal space/kiln) and bikes (bike mechanic, bike hacks, etc). There are drawing groups too, that meet different places to draw together which is free (and uses pens).
posted by jrobin276 at 12:50 PM on June 19, 2015

Ukulele! Michigan Ukulele Clubs.
posted by fings at 1:04 PM on June 19, 2015

Kites are a good value for the geek cred. Everyone's racing 250/260-size quadcopters right now, too. The buy-in is a bit steep ($800 or so ab initio to a race-ready bird) but you'll also get your amateur radio operator license along the way if you do it right. Works best going to big open fields far away from others with a group of friends.
posted by Alterscape at 1:15 PM on June 19, 2015

I have many friends on the West Coast who are super-into playing the fantasy/strategy card game Magic: The Gathering. You can collect a crap-ton of these and store them neatly under a bed -- they're pretty unobtrusive, spatially. As I see you're in Michigan, you also don't need electricity to play, so combine this with camping and you've hit two of your major criteria: it's healthy and there's already a robust player community for you to interact with either online or in person.

It's a great way to meet new people, you can play face-to-face or online (lots of comic book stores, universities and hobbyist shops hold weekly game nights and tournaments), it's highly appealing to collectors looking for something different to invest their cash and time in, and there are national and international conventions and tournaments happening all the time, from what I understand.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 3:02 PM on June 19, 2015

Perhaps a volksmarch?
posted by jgirl at 3:57 PM on June 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Role-playing games
posted by Laura_J at 4:00 PM on June 19, 2015

posted by Iris Gambol at 4:04 PM on June 19, 2015

I'm part of a network of live action roleplaying games IE Larps (more the theatrical end of stuff, not the boffer weapon/nerf gun fighting some games go in for). The one I enjoy is called OWBN ( but there are several others

Almost any major city will have some sort of game, and if it's in your network, you can play the same character there as in your home game. I was in Chicago for a wedding, and attended a local game.

Costuming can be minimal, or you can show up in street clothes if you like. I find it a fun excuse to dress up in a suit, but it's my usual suit. Site fees are 0 to 10 dollars, most are free. Some networks have memberships which are yearly for some amount of money. Bigger events take place at conventions, usually something like 30 to 40 bucks gets you in (though travel + hotel + food expenses are part of it).

I've made a number of friendships through the game.

I'd also say Ingress is fun, depending on your community. Ask your friends, see if they play, pick their team (there are two, Enlightenment and Resistance, aka green and blue... gosh it's ask vs. front page now that I think about it).
posted by gryftir at 4:17 PM on June 19, 2015

Landscape painting.
posted by sebastienbailard at 4:20 PM on June 19, 2015

You say you like to walk, so I feel obliged to talk about hiking. Hiking is a such a beautiful, powerful, spiritual thing but at the same time - it's basically walking. I've hiked all over South America and I can tell you that almost anyone can do it. Bring a camera and it's like two hobbies in one.

Lots of people spend a lot of money on hiking/backpacking and camera gear, but it's not all necessary. Very simple things that have been incredibly rewarding in my life.
posted by saul wright at 12:12 AM on June 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

You can sign up for and browse local meets and join groups and stuff for free. You should check out what is going on in your area -- you'll be surprised at the groups that are out there.
posted by hippybear at 4:55 PM on July 3, 2015

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