Over a recent weekend, I spent my Sunday night packing in my garage. My list felt somewhere between outdoorsy and apocalyptic as I checked off two days’ worth of food alongside rope, a bear canister, a stove and fuel, a map, a compass, a jacket, a tent and pepper spray. The next day, driving to a trailhead an hour and a half away, I was filled with anticipation and nervousness. The approaching connection I would have to nature and my own physicality felt perfectly apt for the times we are currently living in.
The self-sufficient nature of backpacking and the connectedness it builds between a hiker and their trail is a sort of emotional balm for the stress I — and many others — feel toward the state of the Earth. By taking an opportunity to explore away from the confines of society and civilization, carrying all one needs in a simple pack, one can both free themselves from the fear of an impending climate catastrophe and remember why it is so important to do all we can to protect nature’s beauty.
Backpacking can encompass a huge variety of flavors and genres. The recent popularity of “thru-hiking” has led to a boom in the appeal of ultra-light backpacking kits, sometimes skimping on warmth but piling on the speed. “Glamping” veers in the opposite direction, sacrificing weight and pace for creature comforts such as a camp chair, real food and a book. Between these two extremes lie hundreds of permutations, ranging from solo expeditions deep into the backcountry to jaunts with friends up to local landmarks. The common denominator is found in two key traits: self-sufficiency and self-propelled adventure.
It is relatively common knowledge, especially among those of my generation, that the world is approaching an ecological tipping point. Warming oceans, rising seas, dying species and burning forests threaten humanity with an existential and immediate force powerful enough to cause not only physical harm but also emotional damage. Waking up to red skies, news of natural disasters and warnings of impending devastation is a daily toll that weighs on the mind, and a chance to feel any power over these events is welcome.
Entering the woods with the knowledge that one can survive on their own is admittedly somewhat terrifying — holding your own life in your hands and on your back can be stressful — but more than that, it’s empowering. Whether real or not, the perceived escape on foot, from asphalt, climate change or any other stress, is liberating. The pack I carry as I hike toward a lake miles away does not weigh me down but instead lifts me up from existential wallowing. The afterglow of the woods protects me from the fear of their demise.
Backpacking is enticing not only due to its ability to distract, but also to inexplicably connect disparate moments. Throughout my life, toward the end of long hikes, backpacking trips or bike rides, I almost unfailingly hear a snippet of song float through my head: “Take me outside / Sit in the green garden / Nobody out there / But it’s okay now / Bathe in the sunlight / Don’t mind if rain falls / Take me outside / Sit in the green garden.”
Whether I’m in the desert, mountains, forest or coast, with each step the song is drilled into my head. Whenever it is brought to the forefront of my mind, I am teleported to the moments before the end of a trip; my bag is lighter than it was at the onset and I am nearly jogging to reach the bathroom at the trailhead. Backpacking and the song bring me back to the post-wilderness afterglow that lasts for hours or days.
The pack’s ability to provide solace and give rise to this sort of mental teleportation is aided by its simple opening up of the world. When day hiking, cycling, road-tripping or overlanding, there are basic restrictions on either the distances or locations one can travel to. A person can be cramped by the restraints of a day hike’s mileage, prevented from accessing wilderness areas by bike or impeded by the absence of asphalt streets.
A myriad of outdoor adventures are faster and more comfortable than backpacking, but none allow the same level of unfettered access to the outdoors. Backpacking may be slow and ponderous, but a backpacker is almost never faced with difficulty in finding places to go or roads to take them there. All that is needed to begin a journey is a pack, sleeping gear and a trail to hike along.
Backpacking, hiking and other outdoor activities have seen huge increases in popularity over the past few years. Although there are dozens of explanations, the few that have struck a chord with me center upon how apt it feels for the moment we live in. Backpacking scratches the survivalist itch that comes with dire times. The self-confidence it instills is reassuring in moments of environmental crises, and the emotional release it gives through exposure to beauty provides a sort of natural solace and post-wilderness bliss.
Furthermore, thanks to its fewer licensing or trail-access concerns, backpacking is oftentimes more convenient than other forms of adventure, making it the perfect activity for beginners to try.
Although strenuous and at times stressful, the allure of backpacking has only increased with the stressors of modern life. Between the impending terror of climate change and the general weight of life, there is a need to extricate oneself from the burdens we have lived and will live through. Ironically, many people find loading up a 40-pound pack and venturing into the woods to be the perfect balm. Sometimes, to leave one’s weight behind, it is necessary to pick up another, and the physicality of carrying one load can be exactly what we need to drop another and not look back.