Backpacking is the Sport of the Average (or Below-Average) Athlete

The trail is for everyone, even—especially—those of us who always got picked last in gym class.

Photo: Klaus Vedfelt / DigitalVision via Getty

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I was a weird kid in middle school and high school. Not only did I dress strangely, I was also incredibly unathletic and embarrassing at sports. I dreaded the one-mile run and was chosen dead last in gym class, a cringe-worthy experience usually reserved for fictional sadsack characters on network television. 

Even in college I declined all intramural sports invites. To this day, I don’t even like playing pickup volleyball at the park, because I’m bad at it and I live in a mountain town surrounded by elite athletes.

The one sports-and-recreation instance where I’ve never felt inadequate or left behind? Hiking and backpacking, the activity for the average (or below average) athlete. 

I was halfway through college when I discovered how much I liked hiking. Before long, I was spending every weekend I could driving two hours north to New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The combination of physical exertion, time outdoors, and the fact that it didn’t take much skill to walk up a rocky trail made me feel, well, good. It was a world of difference from the inadequacy I’d felt in all other athletic activities. 

The joy of breaking treeline was a relief after years spent flinching away from the ball as my teammates watched, or cringing as my parents reassured me it was ok that I’d smacked into the lane line during my swim meet. There was no audience on the trail, no technical skills to master, no teammates to disappoint, and I could go as fast or as slow as I wanted. All pressure dissolved, and I was left with the joy of exercising outdoors. 

I’ve always felt that being athletic and being fit are two different things. I’ve never been athletic, but I can gain fitness for something like backpacking and hiking—activities that require little complex coordination and no teammates. There’s obviously crossover between being athletic and being fit, but natural athletic abilities aren’t necessary to succeed or enjoy something like carrying a backpack over mountains. 

hikers on beach
(Photo: skynesher / E+ via Getty)

Hiking was the first time I felt like I was on par with other people during any kind of physical activity. I didn’t hesitate before accepting an invitation, and it was also the first time I organized activities without fear of inadequacy or holding people back. 

Hiking had a simple baseline skill level and a low barrier to entry for gear and clothes. I carried my school backpack and ancient Nalgene, and I had running shoes and enough layers to safely hike in spring, summer, and fall. 

Everyone hiked at their own pace, and I realized I could enjoy myself with other people doing a shared activity. I saw my fitness improve, and with more time spent outside, other parts of my life improved as well. I made friends with people who had similar outdoors interests, and my confidence grew the more I learned. 

As my experience increased, my desire to explore more did too. I found a wider network of hiking friends—a large part of the reason I moved west after college. Backpacking was a natural next step, and the trajectory was similar.

Even when you begin taking extended trips or thru-hikes, the increase in distance and complexity comes naturally. You don’t have to learn complicated new skills, the gear stays essentially the same, and it’s an easy activity to fine-tune based on where you live, how much time you have, and how much effort you want to put forth on each trip. 

When I tell people about my history, they sometimes push back; I discussed this topic a few years ago with a different publication, and they argued that it was offensive to claim backpacking was great for “below-average athletes.” I disagree. Saying that an activity is accessible for participants regardless of their athletic abilities isn’t demeaning, I think it’s empowering. 

I still struggle with feeling inadequate, and I don’t know if I’ll ever outgrow that. I have a decent baseline fitness, but I’m still not even remotely athletic. My friends are adept on skis and bikes, and my boyfriend is even a backcountry ski guide. In contrast, I felt clumsy and unskilled on a recent mountain biking trip, and I’m a total doofus on skis. But I’m good at one thing, and that’s walking.

As winter drags on here in Montana (don’t remind me that it hasn’t even technically started) I find myself thinking of summer hikes and backpacking trips, where I won’t need to cram my feet into ski boots and go sliding sideways down the mountain, or dread invitations where I know I’ll hold up the group or get into territory I can’t navigate. 

I look forward to the familiarity of strapping my backpack on, knowing exactly what layers to pack and the gear I need for my sleep system. I know, above all else, that the physical skill level involved in my hike or backpacking trip is minimal, and my level of fitness, not other people’s expectations, will determine how fast and how far I go. It’s a freeing feeling. For an average (or below-average) athlete who loves to be outside, there’s nothing better. 

From 2022