I was at a friend’s birthday dinner party recently, and a young whippersnapper asked all of us older folks for advice on getting older. I let the chatters hash it out for a bit, and then dropped this nugget of sage wisdom: when you get older, you realize that every morning is a new adventure, a new chance to explore, to meet new people, to laugh, to help one another…and this realization becomes more precious, more important, more affirming with every passing day.
Deep, right? This of course earned me the entire table’s admiration and reflective silence…for about a heartbeat, and then everyone went back to talking about what a pain it is to get older, taxes, the World Cup, bills, and, yup, more taxes.
They don’t backpack. Ever. Not alone, not with each other, and not even with their kids. They don’t even camp. And while they have great, normal lives, I have to say that they are MISSING OUT.
Backpacking is an Adventure
It took six months of checking Meetup websites and researching locations to finally decide to join a trip. Ultimately, it boiled down to my rationalization that technically there would be a 95% chance of my survival stranded in the Shenandoah National Park without anything at all. So, hey, why not try this backpacking trip?
I had an old backpack that I had gotten for super cheap a few years ago when I went with friends (so I wasn’t completely inexperienced), and a sleeping bag (because, really, who doesn’t own a sleeping bag). Checking out the supplies lists that were posted, my backpack filled up pretty quickly. I loaded up my car and the next morning did something pretty crazy. I drove to the nearby Walmart parking lot.
Bravely, I got out and greeted a petite lady who held a coffee cup and looked at me carefully. Not too critically, but not too approvingly, either. Just carefully neutral. I was wearing a USA t-shirt with a glittery flag and basketball-running shorts. My appearance did not scream “experienced backpacker.”
When it came time to head out, I climbed into her backseat and, as we all started talking, it just felt completely comfortable, completely right.
At the trailhead, everyone quickly checked gear, used the restroom, and indicated they were ready to go. That’s when I noticed the poles. They all had poles.
Huh, I scoffed. They must need poles because they aren’t strong enough to carry all the gear.
Hmm, I worried. Am I strong enough to carry all of this gear?
Looking like she had just stalled in from a sweet, fun, family barbecue, a mom with a kind face and brown, sensible, shoulder length hair topped with a fringe of brown, sensible, solid bangs adjusted her waist belt, nodded, and smiled at me reassuringly.
Calmly, she informed me the last time she did this hike she lost all of her toenails. Ughhh. And, uhn, no thanks. I like my toes and I like my toenails. I did not want to lose any of them.
But I was out of options. Unless I went completely ape crazy and insisted on staying with the vehicles, this toenail destroyer of a backpacking hike was going to happen.
It was hot. It was sometimes intense. I was out of shape.
Climbing up a rocky-ish, steep-ish trail with an at least 35-lb. backpack was hard. “It’s this cast iron pan I brought along,” I told the others at one section. “Really?” asked the sweet lady, looking concerned. “Just kidding,” I reassured everyone.
Note: never, ever bring cast iron anything on a backpacking trip.
But it was beautiful – green trees everywhere and sunlight filtering through leaves, a safe, around the rocks bear sighting, and a long sloping stroll that led to a campsite by the river. Hanging out after setting up camp is the best. It gets cooler, and darker, the stars come out, sometimes lightning bugs come out, and on really good evenings, an owl can be heard.
Sure, I survived an evening in the woods, but I did so much more than just survive. I learned a lot. I learned that long pants are very helpful for fending off poison ivy, that freeze dried meals are preferable to canned spaghetti-o’s, that a tent OR a hammock is probably the best way to go (not both), that choosing your shoes is very important, and that hiking poles are AWESOME. Best of all, I met amazing, inspirational people who have a wealth of knowledge and who love to share it while hanging out around a campfire eating dinner.
Every morning is an opportunity to find adventure, and a backpacking morning is a beginning to one of the very best adventures that life has to offer. Plus, if you go on a few trips you’ll make backpacking buddies, and if you have the foresight to bring a backpacking buddy with you on a dinner party to help regale everyone with tales of the wilderness, you will never, ever, have to hear about taxes again.
Quick Tips for the Beginning Backpacker:
- Try on backpacks and rent them locally. It may take some time to find the perfect one. On a budget? Scour ads…people constantly buy gear and then get rid of it. A new backpack will sit on your hips and will lift the weight off your shoulders – this can make for a much more comfortable experience.
- Poles! Poles are great. Make sure they are the right height. Check online – you need to measure. Also, make sure they don’t collapse or pull apart too easily if they fold down.
- Sleeping is important. Make sure you know how you are going to sleep (pad, mattress, hammock, etc.) and try out your gear beforehand. If you don’t get any sleep or if you are super uncomfortable, you’ll be ok – it’s only one night – but you won’t enjoy the trip as much.
- Eating is important. First, everything tastes awesome when you are outside. Second, there’s a lot to hiking, climbing, and carrying a pack, and you need to refuel. Consider the fact that you can’t really refrigerate and that all trash needs to be carried out. Many backpackers use a backpacking stove and buy freeze dried meals. Also, bring lots of snacks – hard boiled eggs, trail mix, protein bars, gummy candy. It’s really not possible to have too many snacks, and it’s a good idea to have enough to share.
- Think about weight. Pack weight can make a huge difference. Carrying a 50 lb. pack will feel exponentially different than carrying a 35lb. pack. Choose carefully, and consider the weight of everything.