Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
The pandemic threw a wrench in my thru-hiking plans, as it did for thousands of others. It felt like all I had wasted all those months of planning, my goals replaced with non-stop doom-scrolling. But then, one evening, instead of sitting in bed and reading the endless news, I decided it was time to get out.
Thirty minutes’ drive from my home in Montana, I found a cell-service-free campsite right on the banks of the gently-flowing Madison River. Ducks quacked as I spent the evening reading my book. The next morning, my anxiety was gone, and I was still back at my computer at a reasonable hour. It was only car camping, but it got me thinking: Maybe I could squeeze in a short overnight backpacking trip.
On my first attempt, a short hike up to Lava Lake near Bozeman, I realized it only took a couple of miles to leave everything external behind and be present in the wilderness. I started backpacking in the middle of the week. I could leave my house in the evening, hike a few miles, and have my tent set up and dinner cooking in time for the Montana sunset. The morning light would wake me up in plenty of time to hike back to the car and be back at work in the early morning. It may not have been a social media-worthy adventure, but the simple refresher mid-week was a reminder of how much I value the experience of being outside compared to the accomplishment. It might seem like they would pale next to a night on the Pacific Crest Trail or Grand Canyon, but to me, my little adventures felt just as rewarding.
When you peruse backpacking posts or stories online, it looks like every trip is a life-list adventure or a months-long thru-hike. But your hikes don’t have to be long, difficult, or jaw-dropping to be fulfilling. That brief disconnection from life’s stressors and connection to nature will bring you so much more joy than you would think you could pack into a few hours.
In the ‘90s, my family would load up external frame packs with 60 pounds of supplies and equipment and hike to a small lake for a weekend every summer. The gear list included a rubber raft, spare shoes, multiple tents, and nets to catch crawdads. We would swim, pick out the constellations, and spend hours hunting for cool-looking sticks. These are the experiences that made me love nature, long before I ever thought about thru-hiking or chasing FKTs. Refinding this style has given me a new perspective on what makes a backpacking trip worth it.
It is too easy to look at thru-hikers’ updates with longing, but there are advantages to going small. I always bring a pair of sweatpants, a second dinner, and a dessert—the things that would never make my thru-hiking gear list. I focus on being present and observing nature without any concerns about daily mileage, itineraries, or grinding toward completing a long goal.
Rediscovering the “why” of backpacking has made me much more content with the adventure I’m on, rather than being jealous of what other hikers are up to. In the immortal words of Ferris Bueller: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” That philosophy has carried over into other parts of my life. Now, on a trail run, I will jump in a lake, take a side trip to a viewpoint, or even turn that run into a hike. It doesn’t always have to be about the speed or the distance. And when I do have the opportunity to backpack somewhere epic, my trip is so much richer: I have learned how to immerse myself in the experience at hand without wishing for anything other than what it is.