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You’re Still a Backpacker Even if You’re Not Thru-Hiking

Backpackers have a habit of glorifying the big adventures. But the little ones can be just as sweet.

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A few weeks ago I received a message from another would-have-been 2020 Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker: 2021 permit applications were opening on January 19. I froze, phone clutched in my hand. My PCT plans had come to a devastating end last March, after my plans were set and the gear shopping was done, when Covid forced me to cancel my flight to California just weeks before I was supposed to depart.

Hearing there was an opportunity to get another “golden ticket” brought back the feelings of disappointment from 2020, along with an anxious pang: should I apply for 2021? I’d spent little time on long trails recently, and felt so disconnected from the community that I wondered if I even deserved to call myself part of it anymore.

I didn’t end up applying for a 2021 PCT permit. The Covid-19 numbers in California are staggering, and flying to Southern California in the next three months to hike 2,650 miles up the west coast during a pandemic still feels too dangerous for me.  And, deep inside, a little part of me still feels guilty that I’m not going

The Triple Crown trails sit on a pedestal—hike one of them, you start to feel like the elite of the backpacking world. Hike two of them, ascend another step. To be a Triple Crowner puts you at that top tier. 

“It bothers me every day that I haven’t hiked a Triple Crown trail,” a friend said recently. He’s worked in the backpacking industry for years, and like me, his PCT hike was cancelled last year. He hiked the Colorado Trail instead—an epic 486 miles. But he, too, felt like a faker for not having done one of the major-status long paths.

It’s easy to dismiss this as self-inflicted paranoia, and it’s true that most backpackers are happy to let each other hike their own hikes. But like many activities, that seems to change in the upper echelon, where progressive tick-lists get more important and where there’s a small but vocal minority that does question the validity of other people’s outdoor adventures. This can be to your face, in comment threads, or in whispers behind your back. 

You can point fingers at social media, which has helped make adventures public and quantifiable, or at the competitive nature of many dedicated hikers. Wherever it comes from, the pressure to go bigger, farther, and harder is real.

Sometimes, it’s well-meaning. At a (pre-Covid) industry networking event, a new acquaintance asked me what trails I had hiked.

“Just the Appalachian Trail,” I’d mutter. I was an editor for a backpacking media company at the time, and the guy was surprised at my answer. 

“Oh really,” he said, “I thought with your job you’d hiked the Triple Crown.” 

I write full-time in the outdoor space, but my “only” Triple Crown trail is the Appalachian Trail, way back in 2015. For me, the PCT wasn’t just 2,600 miles of backpacking. It was a way to gain credentials in the outdoor world. If that sounds messed up, it’s because it is. It’s taking something that should be an adventure and turning it into a toxic brew of FOMO and impostor syndrome.

It’s natural to be interested in the Triple Crown: Each leg of it is an epic, continent-spanning adventure. But volume isn’t the only way to judge an adventure’s worth. This past year, shorter trips and local adventures became the norm for me—as they’re the norm for thousands of backpackers whose finances, families, or health won’t allow them to take three months off to hit the trail—and they proved their value. There’s much to be said for discovering your local treasures and for having miles of trail to yourself, even if that trail doesn’t slot into your lifetime bucket list. 

Paradoxically, letting go of my worries about how others see me is letting me get back to the reason why I really wanted to thru-hike in the first place: for the joy of it.   I still have work to do to unravel my hangups about looking “valid.” But I’m learning a lot about creating my own self-worth in the process—and finding a lot of little, unfamous trails worth treasuring, too.

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