Why Backpacking With a Book Is Always Worth the Weight

Some hikers cowboy camp or dehydrate their toothpaste to save weight. But for Luna Soley, a book is always worth a few extra ounces.

Photo: stock_colors/E+ via Getty Images

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Hemingway thought it was the things left off the page that mean the most. But what about the things left out of your backpack? Sometimes forgetting the rainfly (or being dumb enough to think you don’t need it) ends up being the best part of the story.

Once, on a sea kayaking trip with friends, I forgot a bowl, a spoon, cooking oil, shoes, and fuel, but remembered to bring my book. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. My feet stayed wet. We begged for butter, still clad in our spray skirts, at a seaside lobster pound. At the end of a day of paddling, I ate gasoline-cooked food out of a curry jar with a purple mussel shell. But when I folded myself into my sleeping bag at night, I had something to think about besides my own discomfort.

I’ve had a custom, for a long time, of bringing books into the outdoors. Half of the time, I don’t even start them. They are a burden, a liability, and a complete waste of weight. So why do it? Having a story in my pack, even an unopened one, can be like saving a chocolate bar for the peak. Sometimes the unopened book is the link between events, the reminder that the best story is the one that’s happening to me right now. Taking a book along and shouldering the weight has been a way for me to acknowledge that spending time in the backcountry is less about avoiding being miserable and more about getting good at it. The harder the trip, the smaller my old, everyday problems seem when I come home.

We Took to the Woods, by Louise Dickinson Rich (1942)

When I lived alone on an island in Maine, Louise Dickinson Rich’s book about moving far from everybody with her husband, two children, and a dog named Kayak put my mind at ease. We Took to the Woods is a silly, forthright compilation of chores, mishaps, and treatises set near a river in Maine that reads less like a book and more like a page a friend shared with you from her diary—and then another, and another.

This book was a solace and a justification for me when I spent over a month as the sole resident on a patch of spruce trees so narrow I could see the water from both sides. Growing up on a much larger, populated island, within commuting distance of Portland, didn’t prepare me for just how scared I could get at the sight of my own dry suit draped over a door in the dark. I went because I wanted to trust myself, and because I wanted to write, but I would have jumped ship much earlier if not for Rich’s excellent company and advice. There is value, she counsels, in living in a way that acknowledges life is hard. It didn’t take long for my romanticism to be crushed by cold, quiet, and how nothing ever really dried, but like Rich, I looked up one day to find something much better had taken its place—self-reliance.

Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck (1945)

I’ve given this book away so many times that I felt compelled to write in the front cover of my current copy, “If Luna tries to give this book to you, do not accept.” Along with a threadbare sheepskin, my Penguin Classics paperback version lived with me in a tent in the woods behind the Outward Bound sailing base in midcoast Maine for three months while I paid my “room” and board by working as a volunteer. The volume grew ponderously damper as time went on, but no less valuable to me.

The story of the people who live on a street in California where the sardine ships make port, Cannery Row convinced me that the view out the window, wherever I was, was enough. That summer, all I had was a milk crate full of gear and clothes, a tent, and the bouquets of flowers I brought home nearly every day from my second job at a farm, but I still felt rich. People often talk about the outdoors in terms of thrills, novelty, and pristine beauty, but Mac and the boys taught me that waking up to the same patch of woods through the clear vinyl of a tent wall each day, and after-work escapades with the same group of friends, can be the best adventures of all.

Graceling, by Kristen Cashore (2008)

Graceling is the first in a teen fantasy trilogy starring a woman named Katsa with a knack for wilderness skills and hand-to-hand combat. My best friend and I passed it and its sequels back and forth during the brunt of Covid. By the end of 2021, a copy had traveled with one of us between Maine and Vermont, to the Mexican border and back again in the back of the car, crammed into my sea kayak on a nine-day expedition to Cross, one of the northernmost islands off the Maine coast, and to the deck of a schooner, where it lived alongside my pillow and headlamp in a hammock strung up with NRS straps. The covers wore out but the adventures between them did not. There are no poster-worthy quotes or revelations in Graceling, but it never fails to make me forget about my blisters and not-quite-warm-enough sleeping bag.

The Best of Robert Service, by Robert Service (1989)

This fall, my boyfriend and I went for a weekend backpacking trip in Newry, Maine and packed in a rush. The beech trees were pale with cold and the sunset was like the blood coming back into them. We hadn’t been able to find our headlamps, so when it got too dark to read by moonlight, he recited a poem. It was a rhyming ballad, The Cremation of Sam McGee, by Service describing the trial of a Yukon gold miner, alone in an Arctic winter, who must fulfill his partner’s last request to cremate his remains. Our tarp laid over caribou moss felt like a feather bed, and Sam’s funeral pyre almost kept us warm. When the last stanza was over, we made up a story, telling it back and forth until we were too tired to come up with an ending. We’re still working on this one, and may be for a long time.

From 2023