Seven reasons to go backpacking.

I go backpacking a lot, but sometimes I wonder why. It involves a number of things that aren’t fun or pleasant, including boredom, discomfort, dirt, exhaustion, and fear.

On a typical weekend trip, we wake up early Saturday morning. We start by walking up a hill for hours with heavy backpacks on. Even the most comfortable pack is uncomfortable compared to no pack. My back is sweaty, my collarbones hurt where the shoulder straps rest, and the waist strap pushes my pants down and makes my shirt bunch up.

Walking uphill with a pack sometimes just sucks, especially at the beginning of the season. A mile and a half or two in I demand that we go home, because I’m not having fun. My husband pretends to agree, and I keep going.

I’m often worried (because worrying is my specialty) that all of the good campsites will be taken due to our late start when we reach our destination. Don’t even get me started on the one time this was kind of true, resulting with a mild altercation with some other campers in which we were most definitely in the right. That’s a story for another post.

There’s snow and mud. There are also bugs, though in Washington bugs are less of an issue than in warmer climes. I can only recall one time when the bugs were stay-in-the-tent-and-cover-every-inch-of-bare-skin unbearable. By the time we reach our destination, I’m sweaty and dirty.

The food is awful. At home, we eat like the most decadent of Roman patricians, aside from the vomiting. We live within 10 blocks of every type of food you could imagine, and I’m an excellent cook, if I do say so myself. But when we are backpacking, we eat freeze-dried food, trail mix, dried fruit, and energy bars—all decidedly boring and unsatisfying.

It’s cold. Year round. Even in August, when I’m camping in the mountains I end up wearing long underwear, a wool hat, and a down jacket.

Sleeping is really just taking a series of unsatisfying naps. I’m unduly scared of bears, so I tend to spend a lot of time listening for them. I find myself getting annoyed that my husband is sleeping and I have to be the one listening for danger all night long. This is ridiculous because a) there is no danger; b) he is probably awake too; and c) I’m not very good at it—the last time we went backpacking, he informed me in the morning that a mountain goat had spent much of the night licking up the urine I had deposited earlier just outside the tent. I had no idea, and he didn’t tell me, knowing it would make me nervous. After years of sleepless vigilance, all I have saved us from is one mouse that was burrowing into our food bag, and some waves on the shore of a lake that sounded a little like a bear.

Even without listening for camp intruders, it’s difficult to sleep. The ground is hard, and if it is below 35 degrees out I’m too cold to sleep well even in my warmest sleeping bag. I have to put my whole head inside the bag to stay warm, which makes me suffocate, at which point I take my face back out and get cold. It’s an annoying cycle that lasts all night long.

So we wake up with gritty eyes and aching heads, down some instant coffee, pack up our camp, put on our packs, and walk some more. Now it’s downhill, which is easier on the lungs but rougher on the knees and feet.

So, why do I go back again and again? Why do I spend March daydreaming about walking along snow-free ridges, and anxiously watch the weather in October to see if I’ll be able to squeeze in a last weekend before snow starts to fall?

 1. It makes small pleasures shine. Like a shower, or a cup of bitter but hot instant coffee, or the faint lightening of the air that signals dawn. One summer, I lived in a tent in Alaska. It was a fancy tent, but I had to walk a few hundred yards to get to the bathroom. When I was nearing the time when I would go back to living in a house, I was deeply excited about the fact that there would soon be a bathroom just across the hall from where I slept. I’m pretty lucky: comfort, pleasure, and entertainment are easy to come by in my life. It’s somehow reassuring to know that even simple things can still, at times, make me really happy. Or maybe it’s the other way around, and I’m so jaded that I need to purposely deprive myself to really enjoy anything.

 2. Even backpacking food tastes amazing when you’ve been hiking all day. Maybe not energy bars. But cheese? A tortilla and peanut butter? Dried cherries? Jelly beans? As delicious as a Don Juan breakfast taco in Austin, Texas after a night of drinking. Nothing in my life has ever tasted so good as the Gatorade and bag of potato chips I consumed at the end of a five-day backpacking trip, standing in a creek, underneath a bridge, in my underwear.

3. It’s good exercise. And exercise is healthy, and makes you live longer, and all of that. I also like to get plenty of exercise so that I can continue to eat all of the food I like to eat without having to invest in a new wardrobe. And, I want to stay fit so that if I get dragged into an Indiana Jones-style adventure, I will be prepared.

 4. It’s cheap. Once you have the gear you need, all backpacking costs is gas to take you to the trailhead and a forest or park permit. It’s much cheaper than going to visit a different city for the weekend, or even staying home. There are no $12 cocktails, fancy restaurants, or spa treatments available in the mountains.

5. It’s beautiful. The mountains, the water, the sunsets, the snow: seeing all that beauty just suffuses me with joy. I literally get choked up sometimes when I’m hiking. I can’t explain why this is a good thing, I just believe it is. There is this idea of flow: the state of being absorbed in and wholly focused on an activity, so that you lose track of time and yourself. Many people believe that spending more time in a state of flow makes you happier. I think experiencing the natural beauty of the world can be a shortcut to the same state, even if only briefly. It’s a way to let go of yourself and, for a moment, be immersed in something big and amazing.

 6. It’s fun to make a home in the wilderness. My favorite part of backpacking is finding a campsite. It’s fun to assess the options and thrilling to find a real gem: a comfortable spot with shelter from the wind, a convenient water source, good places to sit, and a view. Then, with just the pack on your back, you make a temporary home. You are a pioneer or a character in a fantasy novel. It’s greatly satisfying, and, as I’ve written about before, I think it speaks to some kind of primal instinct, developed when our ancestors were hunters and gatherers.

 7. The thrill of discovery. This is the best of all. You’ve been walking for hours, you’re tired and muddy, your pack is uncomfortable, and you were ready for dinner two hours ago. But it’s time to climb the final ridge on your journey, and you scramble to the top in a last burst of energy. Then, like

Stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

 —you get to see what is on the other side. Maybe it’s a lake, or a pass with mountains ranged before you. Maybe it is awesome, maybe disappointing, but it is worth all the discomfort just to find out. Even if thousands of other people have been there before you, it feels like your own discovery.

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