Backpacking is easy. All you do is figure out every single piece of food, clothing, and equipment you might need in order to live in an environment and lifestyle entirely unlike your daily life at home, then pack it all into a backpack and head off into the unknown. No pressure there! If you get nervous or overwhelmed, just think that once you’re backpacking, you’ll have the bright sunlight and fresh air to brush all that excess stress off your shoulders. Of course, you’re trading all that metaphorical weight for a very literal one–backpacks are really heavy. But you’re outside and living with nature! Life is easy when it’s close to nature.

It’s also cold. And hot. And not actually very easy at all. The sun can be fierce and the nights brutal. Cooking is a totally different animal than in a normal kitchen, and cleanup becomes a running joke. Each mile hiked requires a lot more energy than normal, due to the backpacks, but don’t worry: they’ll get marginally lighter as your food supply runs low in the middle of the wilderness. Indeed, it’s hard not to relate to those runners who brag that they routinely run in a day routes that take backpackers up to a week. The freedom and agility of mountain running can seem particularly alluring when you’re loaded down with a big backpack full of gear.

The thing about runners who say that stuff, though, is that they’re elitist pricks. I’ve said something along those lines maybe three times in my life, and every time afterward have felt like a total loser. To be fair, I’m certainly proud of my ability to run far, but it doesn’t mean running is better than backpacking. It’s not like most of those backpackers couldn’t do the kind of running I do. A lot of them, in fact, are probably out there in such style for a specific reason. While I may be able to run long distances in just a few hours, in the evenings while I’m back home checking my Instagram account, the backpackers are still out in the wilderness, doing… something. What are they doing? What am I missing out on?

So I went backpacking. Last week P and I drove to the desert and spent a few days hiking and camping. We took big packs (for runners) because it’s winter, and we brought just enough equipment to be comfortable without excessive: stoves, spices, knife, lighter, tent, sleeping bags, and pads. I brought a book and a journal but didn’t bring them out the whole time. The rest was food and clothing. I quickly found that the reason I thought backpacking was as I described it above was because I sucked at backpacking. People who know what they’re doing have their routines down to a science and move through each step with practiced exaction. P and I quickly picked up several tricks that made life a whole lot easier: put the heaviest things as far down in the pack as possible; the hardest part of a whisperlight stove is simmering; on cold nights, layers are a good idea even in sleeping bags; a little water can go a long way when cleaning dishes; and never forget hand sanitizer (we did.) By the end of our short trip we had pretty well mastered the daily tasks associated with making camp life comfortable.

Backpackers envy runners only for their lightness. But backpackers could never be truly as light as runners without being forced to return home at night as well. So the goal must be to go as light as possible while still maintaining a backpacking style. This, I believe, is called fastpacking, if you need to differentiate between two ways of doing the same thing. The goal is to move fast and far, but to still make your home out of what you carry each day. This kind of activity will not cultivate the fitness required to win races, but the concept of racing is anathema to the purposes of spending time in wilderness. Fastpacking can be racing, but not always. Fastpacking is a backpacker’s attempt to bridge the gap between running and backpacking; it sacrifices certain comforts but still allows for the possibility of overnight trips. It’s backpacking lightened, or running extended.

The hard parts of my very-much-backpacking-not-fastpacking trip last week were the times between when we had things to do, like when we were done hiking and had eaten dinner and washed up. Then we had simply the sky and the canyon walls and the fire to look at, and this was harder than I expected. The earth and the air hung with a sort of emptiness that felt eternal and to which I am not accustomed. I couldn’t describe why. I can only describe the things that made me feel this way. The darkening evening sky and encroaching cold. The wavering fire and pure silence broken only by the occasional birdsong or tree branch. The stars seemed disconnected and lonely. I’m supposed to be comfortable in the wilderness. I want to be at home among the silence and the rocks. But I was distressingly out of place in that environment. My mind is attuned to distractions and the lack of activity was difficult to come to terms with. I realized that aside from a three-week trip climbing in Alaska two years ago, I haven’t really backpacked at all since I took an Outward Bound course in 2007. I’ve been a runner ever since high school, and the runner’s style is generally to be home by nightfall. But nightfall means really engaging with an environment, and it makes different demands on a person’s psyche which I wasn’t used to. I was almost afraid of it.

Afterward, of course, now that I’m not backpacking anymore, I’m proud of being down there and going through what I did. I feel it was good for me and I grew some as a person, but I don’t know if anything really changed. I’m back to looking at my Instagram account and the only difference now, really, is a new subtle relief at being home each evening. A relief tinged with regret, though. I guess the only thing I can really say for sure is that the people who brag about running whole backpacking trips in a single day are not so much elitist pricks as they are simply ignorant. To brag about missing out on such a meaningful experience is a shame, and I’m ashamed of myself for being among them.

But then I get all worked up about what really constitutes a valuable experience, and I think the only thing that really makes sense is that a truly valuable experience is not recognized until a long time after. Too often I try to take in the moment only to realize that instead of having an experience, I’m experiencing myself having an experience. And that one step farther away from the reality of an experience separates me as fully from the world as a house does from the cold at night. Yet I know I wouldn’t be able to have these thoughts while my mind were split by distractions, so I must be on the right path. But my backpack still weighs me down.

P.S. Outward Bound was the greatest thing that happened to me as a teenager, and you should all send your kids on their courses.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you backpack? What similarities and differences do you find between trail running and backpacking?
  • As Dakota said, backpacking allows you to not only get out but stay out, for a night or many more. How does that change the way you interact with and relate to the natural world?