Why Do We Go to the Woods?

When I first started backpacking, I didn’t have the Internet.  I didn’t have any decent gear.  I didn’t even own a backpack – I borrowed one.  GPS wasn’t available, and, the only fabric I had ever heard of was cotton – which I smothered myself in during all seasons.

In spite of these “handicaps,” I backpacked.  I went to the woods and I enjoyed my time there.  I still do.  But, the world has changed; it’s no longer the same place.  Not only has technology changed the way we hike, but the way we think in regards to our time in the woods has also been altered.

When Earl Shaffer became the first person to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail in 1948, he carried a World War II rucksack, wore a hard-shelled hat, and walked in army boots.  By today’s standards he was ill-equipped and ill-prepared.  Since no information was yet available on how to thru-hike the AT, he could do no research (most thought it couldn’t be done).  Yet, Earl Shaffer gathered what seemed right to him and went his way.  He hiked because he had a burning desire to do so.

Now, I’m not against technology.  In fact, I’m a bit of a geek.  I love a good gadget.  But, I wonder if our attitude toward being in the woods hasn’t been changed by our baptism into the exciting waters of technology and social media.  Are we more focused on getting and talking about the perfect piece of gear than we are in actually using it?

All backpackers love to talk gear. We have our favorite brands, designs, and pieces.  Yet, there appears to exist an almost cult-like following in some areas of the gear world.  I have visited hiking forums that have left me wondering if some hikers actually love their gear more than being in the woods.  Come on, it’s a piece of fabric, a hunk of titanium – just go use it.

I also believe that social media has also affected the way we hike.  Now, once again, I’m pointing fingers at myself here.  I enjoy social media, posting pictures of my hikes, and looking at the photos of other people’s hikes.  But, being inundated with these postings and images has caused me to ask myself if my reasons for going to the woods hasn’t changed over the years.  Am I going to the woods to “reconnect,” and if so, to whom am I trying to connect?

When I first went backpacking we carried no electronic devices. We truly “went dark” for the week.  Nowadays, going dark means I’ve turned off my phone until morning.  Has that changed me?  Has that changed my reasons for being out there?  Have those advances distracted me on my hike, or do they enhance my time in the woods?

Why do you go to the woods?  Have you ever felt that your hike is being exploited by gear, technology, and social media?  Or, do you feel that you exploit these for a deeper walk in the wild?

I don’t have the answers to my own questions.  But, asking them is important.  I don’t want to feel like I’ve lost sight of why I go to the woods.  I want my gear and my technology to contribute to the experience of being on the trail.  I don’t want to fall into the trap of feeling like I need the lightest, smallest, most technologically advanced piece of equipment to be there.  After all, I just want to walk, right?



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




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