On Christmas morning in 1969, I opened a large package to find a new light-blue Jansport backpack, sized just right for a second-grader. I wasn’t too excited by my present then, but on its inaugural outing the next summer — a gentle 5-mile round-trip along the Baker River in Washington’s North Cascades — I began to discover the gifts that wilderness camping could bring.
Now, 30 years later, I’m setting out with my own family of four on our first backpacking trip, chagrined that my husband and I have somehow waited until our kids are 16 and 12, but hoping they’ll make the same discoveries we did years earlier, which still await backcountry travelers today.
Less adventure-inclined friends wonder what propels us to shove five days’ worth of compact provisions into packs that we’ll carry 20 miles round-trip in order to sleep on the ground in bear country above treeline where lightning is also a hazard. (We’re headed to the Wind River Range in Wyoming.) Other friends marvel at the ability — let alone the choice — to go five days without a shower. Some who might have joined us in their 20s now gravitate to luxury lodges — or at least car-camping with 10-inch air mattresses.
So why are we going backpacking? Here are five answers to that question that I hope my kids will come to echo:
1. To meet nature, unadulterated
While you could, I suppose, hike in on trails shared with dirt bikes and ATVs, the whole point of carrying all that weight is to be able to escape evident human impacts on the natural environment and commune with peaks, streams, wildlife and flower-filled meadows — without a vehicle in sight or earshot. Backpacking allows the closest encounter with wilderness, when you fall asleep surrounded by it with only a thin layer of nylon between you.
2. To encounter genuine quiet
How rare is it these days to spend even a few minutes in a space that’s truly quiet? Even in a house in the country where the din of traffic may be nonexistent, there’s still the hum of the refrigerator, the ring of the telephone, the drone of the TV. Backpacking gets you into places where the only sounds beyond human voices are bird songs, wind in the pines and the lap of waves on a lakeshore. It can be unnerving at first, but the peace seeps into the spirit to do healing wonders we never realized we needed.
3. To escape our digital tether
For those who find it hard to resist the ability to be online anywhere at any time (and I confess I include myself here much of the time), it is a valuable discipline to leave the laptop behind, lose cell reception, focus one’s perpetually divided attention and calm one’s mental pace. As with opening up to silence, we serve our souls by slowing down and contemplating what is immediately at hand, whether it’s shifting clouds in the sky, the myriad shades of green carpeting in the temperate rainforest, casting a fishing line into a river or just sitting down with an old-fashioned book.
4. To experience self-sufficiency
I feel a sense of satisfaction when I complete any tough hike, even if it’s just a trail on my town’s mountain backdrop. But there’s something especially rewarding about carrying everything I need to exist for a few days, and finding that I can do just that. Backpacking teaches us how little we really need to get by in relative comfort, and that’s a freeing recognition. It also offers a sense of adventure that’s becoming rarer in our safety-obsessed culture. What if we meet a bear? What if we take a wrong turn on the trail? What if we get hurt and need to break out the first-aid kit? In all likelihood, none of these things will happen. But if they do, and we address them ably, we’ve just upped our sense of what we are capable of. That’s empowering.
5. To tread lightly on the Earth
As much as I like to explore other countries and cultures, I know that jet travel is the most profligate form of carbon emission. I like the fact that backpacking uses no energy other than that which I must generate myself to reach my destination (well, in addition to the car we’ll be driving to the trailhead and the white gas our small stove uses). As vacation options go, backpacking can be one of the most environmentally sensitive, as long as one takes care to hike and camp gently and sustainably. And there’s the added benefit of serious calorie-burn: On a nine-day trek in Nepal, I dropped 7 pounds while eating ravenously.
Want to try backpacking, but feel like you need some pointers? There are plenty of good books that offer coaching on how to choose a hike, what equipment to take, how to pack, what food to take and lots more. Browse the shelf at your local REI or independent bookstore, or search “backpacking” on Amazon and look at all you come up with.