A Conversation with Katie O’Reilly of Sierra Magazine

Katie O'Reilly of Sierra magazine on TravelWriting2.comKatie O’Reilly is Sierra magazine’s Adventure + Lifestyle Editor. She develops, commissions, edits, and writes print and online articles about human-powered outdoor adventure, sustainable travel, food + ag, wildlife, eco-centric books and film, and science. Katie joins us this week to talk about her career, some of her favorite articles, and how working for an eco-focused publication affects her on a personal level.  

What inspired you to follow the path to journalism? 

Honestly, I can’t remember ever picturing myself doing anything else! (Which is weird, because in fifth grade we did a “Balance Your Checkbook” assignment and all had to pick a career, look up salary averages for our region, and figure out groceries, car payments, and rent from there, and I remember thinking, “Geez, reporters must not care all that much about being comfortable!” and here I still am.) Ever since I was little, I’ve found nothing more glamorous than magazine stories.

Katie O'Reilly of Sierra magazine on TravelWriting2.com

Your current role as Adventure & Lifestyle Editor for Sierra magazine focuses on human-powered outdoor adventure, sustainable travel and all things eco-friendly. What are some of your favorite stories on these topics? (Note: I LOVE your Green Reaper story!)

Thank you for the kind words on the Green Reaper story! I’ve particularly loved editing a hiking story about Yosemite National Park’s Chinese-American legacy, an essay about a climber’s identity and how it changes when she’s no longer living near mountains, a profile of a nontraditional outdoor pioneer who’s getting more hikers out there, a sweet essay about getting to know one’s new city via foraging, this dispatch about glacier cave explorers, a roundup of craft ciders that are helping to preserve biodiversity, and this wild piece about a magically appearing lake. I’ve loved reporting on backpacking with my dog, learning to make sustainable vodka from fogbeekeeping tourismgreen beergreen death, and animal personalities.


Katie O'Reilly of Sierra magazine on TravelWriting2.com

What tips do you have for writers interested in breaking into Sierra magazine?

Think beyond being “entry-level green”—our readers already visit eco preserves, love hiking, think about food waste, and know you should compost. We’re interested in stories that’ll truly surprise readers, give them hope, or change their thinking about how to save and improve the world. And I love a story that can strike that balance between beautiful narrative and “news you can use” service journalism.

OK,  we have to know: worst query letter ever? 

You’d be surprised how often I get letters that begin, “You know one of the best ways to reduce plastic pollution? Reusable grocery bags!” Readers need to remember that our readers have already taken “Environmental Living 101.”

The topics covered in Sierra are so important to our planet. How does working for a publication that focuses on these topics affect you on a personal level?

Hugely. Because I care about all the issues we cover so deeply, it can be hard to let work go. All those thoughts of carbon footprints and waste can make traveling a little more uneasy, but at the same time, I’m more aware and in awe of all the incredibly passionate people and innovative technologies that are providing fascinating solutions, hacks, and new ways of thinking. It’s not a “chill” job, but I absolutely love it.

Katie O'Reilly of Sierra magazine on TravelWriting2.com

You have a month to travel and an unlimited budget: where are you going and what will you do?

Oh man, I have so many bucket-list adventures to cross off the list. Bike touring and vineyards/ craft breweries are always a go-to combo…. I’d love to spend a month biking the western coast of Ireland and stopping at the neatest pubs and Celtic ruins along the way… and if there’s time left over I’d skip over to Scotland and pub-crawl my way down the John Muir Trail.

Katie previously worked as an editor for Ecotone, a place-based literary magazine, a general assignment reporter for an NPR affiliate station, and for DAYSPA, a trade pub serving the spa and wellness industries. Her writing appears in Atlantic Science, Buzzfeed Ideas, Bitch, Narratively, Runner’s World and more. She has an MFA in creative non-fiction from UNC Wilmington, and a journalism bachelor’s from Northwestern. When not at the office, Katie’s typically out exploring the trails of Northern California with her two pit bull mixes. You can follow Katie on Instagram.

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