You hear a familiar crunch as your leather hiking boot bursts through a thin layer of orange leaves littering the trail below. You look up for a moment, startled by delicate footprints up and to your left, just managing to catch the tail ends of two deer before they hurriedly prance out of view. There’s a chill in the autumn air, and, if you look closely, you can see your breath manifest into a tiny cloud right before your face as you walk. At the next junction on the trail, a small, weathered sign leans squat against a tree. “Monarch Lake 1.2 miles | Crystal Lake 1.4 miles” – Which do you choose?
My first-ever backpacking trip was kind of a shit show. I carried all my supplies in a broken, black backpack that had been left behind by two Swedish Air BnB’ers I hosted, I smashed my body into a one-person tent alongside my boyfriend at night, and I had no idea what altitude was or how its effects can wreak havoc on the body. As I made my way up the well-worn trail that traverses the summit of Alta Peak in the middle of Sequoia National Park, I found myself gasping for air and stopping every five minutes to sit down or lean my unsteady body against a tree to rest. I fell in love with my first wilderness sunrise, creeping its miraculous pink fingers across the Great Western Divide, but, by the end of the weekend, I vowed to never let my body feel that terrible in the outdoors again. It was time to train.
I was naked, wet, alone, and shivering inside of my down sleeping bag, perched precariously on the banked side of a mud-strewn switchback about halfway up Saddle Peak in the Santa Monica Mountains. “Is it safe to sleep in these conditions?” I wondered. “How long before I become hypothermic?”
Before I knew it, I had packed up my camp quicker than ever before and was bailing from my thru-hike, a jolt of adrenaline coursing through my veins as I slid down the trail and walked along the road until I had enough cell service to call a friend to come pick me up. It was only 45 degrees outside, but my adventure was ruined. And it was all because I didn’t know a thing about fabrics.
The question I get asked most often isn’t, “How many bears have you tackled from behind?” or “What do you do if you get your period on the trail?” No, dear readers, the thing I get asked the most frequently is simple: “What do I need to do to start backpacking?” Getting newbies’ butts into the great outdoors is my favorite thing in the world, so, in the interest of full transparency, I thought I’d create a four part series on how to get started, based on my own experiences and pitfalls.
It’s sunset, and you are watching the last of our star’s orange glow fluoresce against the horizon before it dips out of view. You’re sitting on the stoop of a 400-year-old stucco building in Cinque Terre, Italy, swigging Chianti straight out of the bottle like a college sophomore. A light breeze blows past. Giggling couples begin returning from the rocky shore towards restaurants lit with dancing flickers of candlelight, ready to gorge themselves on fresh seafood. You take a deep breath and exhale proudly, “Now this is living!”
I’m going to level with you for a moment. Sometimes, the ordinariness of day-to-day existence can feel like a big pile of dog poo wrapped up in a sparkly anxiety bow, especially in this current news cycle. When things get overwhelming and you find yourself wanting to quit, sob, or perhaps yell at the next stranger who cuts you off in the grocery store, take a moment to pause, take a deep breath, and try out one of these age-old solutions instead.
Last Sunday, I plopped onto the couch, curled up into the lap of a man I love, and did absolutely nothing but watch documentaries from morning to night while eating ice cream, laughing hysterically, and pausing for extremely necessary sex breaks. It was glorious. I felt happy and dizzy and blissed out. My joy bubbled up from brain stem to crown and left me smiling and slightly lobotomized in its wake. But somewhere, in the pit of my stomach, a familiar twinge of worry began to blossom. A faint notion of guilt for spending a day doing nothing other than resting and being happy crept across my toes and made me shiver.
5:30am – The alarm on my iPhone ricochets against the dark womb of my 2015 Ford Transit. I lift my head a few inches to groggily peer outside at the tall, black spires of towering pines all around, dizzied by the carpet of stars surrounding them. Is it too early? Should I go back to sleep? My boyfriend, Brian, stirs in bed next to me, burrowing his warmth into my legs. I yawn and spread my toes as far apart as I can muster like a cat napping on a sofa in the sun, grumbling like an eighty year old man. Leaving this isn’t going to be easy.
I’m limping again. I can barely walk downstairs. Bruised knee and bloodshot eyes. My life in boxes. My heart in a tourniquet. Used up. Washed out. Pale moon shadow of the girl I wanted to be.
This is a love song to sing to ourselves at the bottom of the blackest pits (the ones we too often choose to leap into willingly).
It’s the question on the tip of everyone’s tongue each time I conjure the courage to spit out the idea for my latest sufferfest. Why climb over 10,000 vertical feet in a day? Why push for a summit in 70mph winds? Why waste a perfectly good Saturday waking up at five in the morning to bloody my fingers on sharp granite crystals?