Let’s talk about backpacking. Why does it get the reputation it gets? Why has it been demoted to the bottom-of-the-ladder rung of outdoor sports? Within the privileged outdoor bubble I am a part of, I have heard people call backpacking all sorts of things, from “boring” to “an activity that requires zero skills.” I have fallen into this trap myself — skipping out on a weekend of backpacking in pursuit of something more “intense” or “badass.”
Whether backpacking serves as a gateway to other adventures, or as the apex of one’s outdoor experiences, we should all respect each other’s choices. The same should be true for any type of engagement with the outdoors. Some people like to summit peaks, others like to paint them, and some prefer to partake in some variation or blend of the two. I personally admire those who are able to appreciate the beauty of the outdoors without being swept into the cascade of social pressures to achieve, summit, and conquer these spaces. Let’s value and appreciate every type of respectful connection to the outdoors.
I spent this past summer working at a camp in Colorado, which entailed leading backpacking trips for children and teens. Leading and learning from these humans was a humbling and refreshing experience. Through their curiosity and joy, I was able to recall my initial connections to the outdoors. I remembered my first moments of feeling completely awestruck in a mountain range in Montana. I remembered smiling under the weight of my pack and before a vista of lakes speckled among gray rock falls.
This semester, a couple of my friends organized a three-day backpacking trip down in Southern Utah and invited me to join them. It had been a while since any of my friends had planned such a trip. At the time, I had been trying to organize a more multifaceted, higher mileage adventure. However, after only a brief moment of hesitancy, I dropped my plans and told my friends I was in. I immediately felt a wave of relief and excitement.
On our trip, I took in the curving canyon walls and blue-green water, 2 colorful sunsets, a surreal wave of fog that enveloped the rock formations and swept into the distance, and the most stunning rainbow I have ever seen. There were many times throughout the trip when I felt a sense of ease and contentment I hadn’t felt in a while. I also felt more connected to my friends as we shared sighs over the beauty of the land.
When I am hyper-focused on a line or path or am merely exhausted on a trip, it’s easy for me to overlook everything. It can be hard to find and cease moments that lead to feelings of interconnectedness with the land. I become fixated on impressing myself or others and lose sight of what’s important.
There is something beautiful about the simplicity of backpacking. Everything you need is on your back and you can literally walk away from the social and material clutters of society. Rather than depending on a piece of equipment to travel, your body is doing the work. You are literally grounded in a way you can’t be on a bike, boat, or pair of skis. You’re also likely to have more time to enjoy your surroundings than you would during other outdoor activities, even if you’re covering a lot of ground. Trekking outside can allow you to simultaneously connect with nature and physically exert yourself. Backpacking can also create the space for unique reflective experiences. You may find yourself weaving in and out of conversations with others or delving deeper into your own thoughts.
At the very least, I believe we should never diminish the positive outdoor experiences of others. Whether you’re a current, retired, or aspiring backpacker, what matters is that you respect or continue to respect your fellow outdoor appreciators. For those of you who are thinking about going on your first backpacking trip — try it. Just be safe and mindful of your impacts on the land. For those of you who haven’t been on a backpacking trip in a while — try it. You might rekindle a love for the outdoors you hadn’t realized you lost.
I have thought extensively about different factors of toxicity in the outdoors — from gear obsessions to land gatekeeping. The degradation of backpacking is yet another product of elitist outdoor culture we should tackle. The more entrenched I have become in a privileged outdoor world, the more I have noticed myself competing, instead of supporting, creating bucket lists, and embracing present moments. I believe that most elitist outdoors-people are guilty of buying into the need to accomplish in the outdoors. By setting lofty goals for ourselves and attempting to strengthen our skill sets, we often trivialize simpler forms of outdoor connections. Perhaps if we all relaxed a bit, we’d be able to remember why we’re so drawn to being outside instead of spending all our time in gyms. Let’s rethink our attitudes towards backpacking and put on our hiking shoes.