The day before I sat down to write this article about backpacking, the city I live in held their annual Capitol City Marathon, a 26-mile run through the neighborhoods of Olympia, Washington.
I happened to be out walking my two dogs, Maggie and Toby, while the marathon was being held. It was gray. It was raining. It was miserable, and the runners reflected that misery . . . bedraggled, soaked, and physically-spent.
Make no mistake about it, running a marathon is difficult. This writer has run a half-thon, thirteen miles in length, and I was seriously tired at the end of that madness, so doubling that distance, running the full twenty-six, is a physical accomplishment worth being proud of, a means of travel not for the weak of mind and spirit.
Also, at the time of this writing, my wife is out training for her 2,650-mile backpacking trip on the Pacific Northwest Trail, a man-made, singular trail which stretches from Campo, California, on the Mexico-U.S. border, to Manning Park, on the Canada-U.S. border. Again, I have some experience, having backpacked the Wonderland Trail, a 97-mile stroll around Mt. Rainier, and I can say, without hesitation, that I have never been so physically exhausted as I was at the end of that adventure.
To draw a parallel, then, I would say that running a marathon is to jogging what undertaking the PCT is to normal, daily hiking. It’s a whole different ballgame.
What is backpacking?
Backpacking is often mistaken for hiking. I have heard both words used as though they mean the same thing which, of course, they do not.
Backpacking means everything you need on your adventure is in a pack on your back. That includes clothes, food, personals and of course camping gear. Backpacking also means that there is at least one overnight in the plan, but can stretch to days or even weeks.
Hiking, then, is a form of backpacking, but a much shorter version, and may or may not include the use of a backpack. Tens-of-thousands of people go hiking daily in the U.S., out for a few hours, enjoying nature, and back home in time for dinner.
Backpacking has changed greatly since I was a young man
Technology has taken great strides in the production of backpacking equipment. Sleeping bags once weighed between five-to-ten pounds. Now they weigh under two pounds. Tents, the same thing, great weight reduction. For my backpacking trips, thirty years ago, it was necessary to carry a pack with approximately thirty-to-fifty pounds of weight. Today, carrying the same equipment, a backpacker facing a long-distance journey will carry, on average, 15-20 pounds, not counting food and water.
It makes a difference. There is a world of hurt involved with hefting fifty pounds around all day long. While there is still pain involved with carrying twenty-five pounds today, it is manageable pain and can be done over longer periods of time.
Still, whatever the weight involved, backpacking is not for the weak of body or spirit. It is grueling, whether we are talking about a three-day trip, or a three-month trip. It will test your mettle and make you question your sanity.
So why, then, do people go backpacking?
I can only speak for myself in answering that question. There is a joyous freedom in living outdoors for days and weeks. I totally understand if people think it sounds like misery and inconvenience, but I found it to be one of the most peaceful activities I have ever undertaken. I was in harmony with nature, and it was magnificent. There were no distractions. It was me, my body, and my mental toughness against the elements and the struggle. It was quiet moments, at the end of the day, when I could revel in the knowledge that I had met the challenge. It was golden sunrises and golden sunsets. It was the sound of nature all around me. It was the ability to spend quality time with myself, to take a look at my life, at the wonders of life, and to challenge myself to be a better person.
It was all of those things, and more, and quite frankly I am supremely jealous of the backpacking journey my wife will undertake in 2023, the Pacific Crest Trail. She will experience the wonder of it all, and the quality of life, for her, will improve drastically.
Why do people go backpacking? To me, a better question is this: why do people NOT go backpacking?