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Looking for the Shortcut to Inner Peace? Try Backpacking.

Regular hiking trips are the key to contentment, as one outdoor journalist discovers on a trip in his backyard.

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I can feel the cool air coming off the lake as I exit my tent. The morning light is soft and inviting, casting reflections of pine trees on the water as I walk along the shore gathering sticks for another fire. 

Last night I was grateful for the heat of the flames, content to just stare into their heart. Later, I lay out beside them and looked up at the stars. I slept well, with hot soup in my stomach and a hot water bottle on my belly. 

Wise folks have told us that less is more for centuries, but nothing drives it home like a backpacking trip. And boy, did I need the reminder. 

I recently bought a house in Palisade, Colorado. I moved here from Honolulu to get closer to the mountains, but lately life stresses have had their way with me. The vortex of being a new homeowner is indeed real and seductive. The list of things you “need” to do never ends, and everyone has an opinion or suggestion that adds to it. I love my family and friends, but sometimes the people closest to you cause the most frustration. Every time they come by or call, they ask about my house as if it’s a patient in the ICU. What are you doing about the backyard? And the kitchen? Any plans to fix the bedroom? 

This way of interacting is pretty normal for society—I’ve done it to friends myself—but it drives home an unpleasant message: What you have is less than ideal and you can’t possibly be settled, fulfilled, or happy until you change it. 

I took everyone’s critiques to heart and set my mind on “fixing” everything in time for the housewarming party. I made a huge list of projects: Redo all the landscaping and garden boxes; patch up the backyard fence; put in new screen doors; sand and stain the kitchen cabinets—the list went on. 

I made diligent, humble progress, and things were looking up. But then, just a week before the party, a phone call. Home Depot. The stain I ordered was delayed, and wouldn’t be in for another week. The cabinets—the centerpiece of the kitchen—wouldn’t be done in time. I felt the thought of it in my chest. All the built-up stress came flooding out. I’m embarrassed to say I had tears in my eyes after hanging up. I placed so much pressure on myself; I felt unsettled in my own home, stressed and overwhelmed, all because of what? Appearances? Pleasing everyone else? How did I become this person? 

Now I’m camped out at one of the 300-plus backcountry lakes atop the Grand Mesa, the largest flattop mountain in the world, far from even the thought of an unstained kitchen cabinet. I have a new home, and this is my new home away from it—a place to remember that, at the end of the day, a simple life is a happy life.

In the backcountry, it’s easy to appreciate the little things: A clean, sturdy tent. A hot drink. A simple meal. Today, a morning fire. No distractions or temptations, and no such thing as a time-wasting task. I easily perform skills like tending shelter and preparing food with gratitude. Ironically, the wilderness is a place where I feel like I have it all, despite actually having very little.

Here, my indoor living space is small, but I have a huge yard, and the grass never needs cutting. When the weather is nice, I cook my meals outside beside the lake, and I don’t worry or complain so much about chores like organizing my gear, starting the fire, cooking the meal and filtering water. I reap the benefits immediately in the moment—no delayed gratification or buyer’s remorse here—and in the backcountry, function rules over fashion. Appearances are meaningless. 

That’s why I’m here: To bottle up the feelings of fulfillment I get in camp and bring them back home with me, to feel restored and remember that I already have everything I need.

I spark a tinder ball and my morning fire bursts to life. I feel the heat grow, and close my eyes to soak in the feeling. I’m grateful for the small things in this moment: I was warm last night, and now I can sit by the lake and make coffee.

It’s startling to compare this simplicity to back home, where despite all of my supposed luxuries and ease, contentment and happiness often feel like moving targets.  

Present in the moment, I know that I should be proud of everything I’ve earned, regardless of what anyone else thinks. Out in my new backcountry haunts, I find myself stumped and confused by the house-mad renovator I’ve become. When I’m home, I’m surrounded by everything I think I want, but bogged down by wanting more; when I’m sleeping here in an uncomplicated tent in the wilderness, I’m grateful for the bare minimum.

I pour my coffee and look up at the trees. I feel calm and centered enough to go home and put on a good face for the housewarming party in a few days, stained cabinets or not. But I can’t solve all my “problems” with one camping trip. The projects will still be there, with some other arbitrary date looming on the calendar, and I know it’s only a matter of time until I’m sucked back in by society and its expectations.

That’s where my commitment to consistency comes in, my plan to visit the backcountry with regularity. With enough time in the mountains, I can learn to balance my “needs” and “wants” with gratitude for what I already have, to live in town the same way I do when backpacking: with simplicity, responsibility, thankfulness, and contentment. 

I’ll do my best to remember how I feel right now by this lake. But when I forget, whether it’s in a few weeks or a few days, I know I can always come back to the source and refill. 

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