The Allure of Backpacking

My first backpacking trip - Oct 1995
My first backpacking trip – Oct 1995

Years ago I was telling a lady that I was going to spend a week’s vacation backpacking.  She was intrigued as we talked about my plans.  Then, it suddenly dawned on her that I was going to spend a week in the woods without taking a shower.  She stopped me at that point.  She explained that her idea of a vacation was relaxing on a beach somewhere, not sweating it out going up some long hill.  And, she pointed out, it also meant taking a shower every day!

At first glance, backpacking may seem like a fun adventure to anyone.  Who wouldn’t want to breathe fresh air, take in some nice vistas, or relax at a bubbling brook?  The problem, however, is that the journey to get to some of those places can be an arduous one. It is almost always one filled with discomforts, and often includes challenging physical pain.

So, what is the allure of backpacking? Why do we do it?

I’ve asked myself that many times since my first trip in 1995.  Most often, that question surfaces while I’m ascending some rocky hill in the hot sun as my blood sugar is starting to drop.  My feet are hurting, and something has shifted in my backpack, causing some severe discomfort in muscles that I hadn’t previously been aware of.  It’s then that I think about that lady I had spoken with who was probably sitting on a beach somewhere, sipping a piña colada.  Yeah, what am I doing here?

Not all backpackers will have the same answer to this question.   However, I think we all will have an answer.  If we don’t then we should probably be thinking about getting off of the trail.  As the old adage asks:  if we don’t know what we’re looking for, how will we know when we find it?  When the pain tips the scales and outweighs the benefits, then it’s time to go home.

But many of us stay.  Still, many of us come back.  The allure of backpacking can be strong.  The discomforts of carrying our belongings everywhere we go, the constant thirst, and the toe-jambs fail to disorient us from our goal.  In some twisted way, sometimes we even welcome those difficult sensations.  If nothing else, they make the cool drink, or the campfire-rest at the end of the day more meaningful.

Now, I don’t want to make something that is very simple into something too complex, but I’d like to offer a simple mental exercise that may enhance your own trip to the woods.  Before you leave, ask yourself these two basic questions:

  1. What is drawing me to this trip?
  2. What do I hope to gain?

The answers you come up with don’t have to be deep, philosophical ones. They just have to be true.  Maybe you’re testing some gear. Trying to lose some weight.  Needing to unplug.  Perhaps you’re drawn by the autumn colors or by another hiker who you’re hoping to ask out.  Whatever you come up with is your reason and is good enough.  Forming answers to those questions helps form goals in our minds.  When we have goals we tend to stray less.  We tend to remain more focused. We readily accept the challenges and move forward.  We reach our end. We know why we’re there.

I don’t believe we remove the allure out of backpacking by contemplating what it is we hope to accomplish.  If anything its mystery may deepen as we discover more about ourselves and the trails we walk.



Dane Cramer is a backpacker, Christian blogger, jail chaplain, amateur filmmaker, and author of two books: Romancing the Trail and The Nephilim: A Monster Among Us




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