Posts Tagged 'Backpack'

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.


Marmot Pass

We went up to Marmot Pass for one night of backpacking this weekend. Neither I nor my husband had been there before, and it was great. This is one reason I love living in Washington: it is chock-full of amazing places to go hiking and backpacking. After five summers of exploring, I keep discovering mind-blowing new spots. Where else can you find that in the U.S., except Colorado, Alaska, or Montana? And we have fewer grizzly bears than Alaska or Montana (though apparently at least one), and more ocean than Colorado.

wildflowers on the trail

Marmot Pass was breathtakingly beautiful. It also possesses the advantages of being relatively close to Seattle, good for a day hike as well as an overnight, and sunnier and drier than surrounding areas. This weekend, it was almost snow-free, in contrast to many other parts of the state that are still covered in snow above 4,500 feet.

The hike to the pass is a mellow 5.3 miles and 3,500 feet elevation gain. For the first few miles the trail passes through forest. At about 4.5 miles, there is a collection of campsites known as Camp Mystery. The sites are close together and in the trees, and this weekend it was crowded. We filled up our water containers, having read that there was no water above Camp Mystery, and continued up the trail, hoping to find a nice campsite with a view up higher.

Marmot Pass from above

Just before the pass lies a wide meadow-y bowl. By the end of the evening, a few groups had set up camp in different spots throughout the bowl.

The views from the pass are great, but there is enticing ridge-walking to either side. We turned left at the pass and headed up a footpath on the ridge to the south. Two or three hundred feet up, the ridge flattened out and we found two established campsites, of which we chose the first and set up camp. We had 360 degree views and a nice flat area, dotted with wildflowers, to explore. A goat wandered through our campsite but we didn’t see any other wildlife. We enjoyed mostly sunny skies, though clouds had set in in the valley we had come from and gathered in the mountains (Deception, the Needles, Mystery) to the west and south.


In the morning, our campsite and Marmot Pass remained in a pocket of blue sky and sun. We packed up and headed down to the pass, where we ditched our packs for a walk up Buckhorn Mountain, about 1,000 feet above. The trail begins with a steep uphill climb but then levels out to an easy walk along a high ridge with great views all around. Reaching the summit requires a bit of easy scrambling. The same mountain goat that had walked through our camp the night before followed us nearly all the way to the summit before it finally found a shady place under some rocks to rest.

partial view from Buckhorn summit

We went back down to the pass, donning our packs and tackling the 5.3-mile walk to the car. As we descended, the sun became fog and mist, which then became heavy drizzle.

Here is the Washington Trail Association’s description of the hike, including directions. A tip on getting there: several miles in, Forest Road 27 takes a sharp left, while a dirt road continues straight uphill. That way lies only confusion and, on Saturday, unnerving swarms of bees. Turn left and stick to the paved road.

From the prehistoric savanna to my parents’ living room.

Campsites on Mt. Adams

When I was a kid, my sisters and I built tiny dwellings out of any material available to us: leaves, snow, couch cushions, moving boxes.

Then I left my parents’ house and lived in a succession of dorms, houses, and apartments. I moved a couple of times on my own, from city to city and state to state. I lived in a tent.

When I was 23 I had my own apartment, all by myself, for the first time. I entered full of glee because it was all mine. For the six months I lived there, it contained only two pieces of furniture, a futon and a couch rescued from the trash and draped with a black sheet.  I spilled red wine liberally on the carpet, cooked black beans and rice,  and luxuriated in my autonomy.

At some point in my twenties, I decided that the kid’s instinct to build forts was about wanting to be an adult. Wanting that autonomy and control over your life and the space in which you lived it. I thought the fort I built in my parent’s living room from couch cushions and sheets was a mock-up of my first solo apartment in a charmless apartment complex in Austin, Texas.

Now I’m 33, and being an adult is old hat. But I still want to build forts. Not inside my apartment, anymore, but in other ways that feel the same.

I love backpacking, and I think the best part is choosing a place to camp for the night and settling in. The apex of this for me, so far, was on the windy and treeless side of Mt. Adams, in Washington, where people have built a collection of rock windbreaks and shelters resembling the ruins of an ancient city. On trips, I often prefer sleeping in the back of my car–I have a cozy setup involving an air mattress and a double sleeping bag–to staying in a hotel.

So now I wonder where this comes from. Is it from reading fantasy books, which almost as a rule include a quest on foot or horseback and at least three scenes of finding a good place to camp for the night?

Or does it go farther back? I’ve read about a study suggesting that all people, no matter where they are from, prefer depictions of landscapes similar to an African savanna over other landscapes. Maybe my love of building forts is a similar evolutionary artifact, a Pleistocene instinct finding expression in my modern world of gore-tex and high-rise apartments.

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