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What Does Backpacking Mean to You?

9:33 p.m. on October 4, 2012 (EDT)
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Well, I read here a ton, but I don't often post, so I have a question for all of you. What does backpacking mean to you? Why do you do it?

I work for a major outdoor retailer and in the last two years or so that I've been there, I've had a surprising number of people coming in to look at our selection of backpacks, water filters, sleeping bags, etc. You know, basic backpacking gear, which surprises me still because this is in rural Iowa. 

I come in contact with a lot of people who are first-timers or newbies looking to get a start, and I absolutely love to help them because they're willing to listen and they ask a lot of questions on a subject which I'm very passionate about. I love these people.

I also encounter a lot of people who are self described as "experts" or as "trail veterans" and I'll be honest in saying, I don't like to work with them as much? Why, you might ask? Well it's not because they don't have questions or need help, but because they've lost touch with the real reason that they go out.

Obviously the amount of weight you carry (or rather don't) is important to your experience and will greatly affect everything, like say, how far you travel, where you go, what you'll be doing, etc. I place a tremendous value in items that are small or that are lightweight, but those two things seem to have captured a hold on a lot of people. The smallest and the most lightweight items are obviously desirable, but they're not necessary to anyone's experience. You don't need a $350 Marmot sleeping bag or a $500 Gregory backpack to go on a trip. 

I stopped a "helpful" customer who was talking about backpacking with me and a person who came in to buy a backpack and a sleeping bag because he said this: "Backpacking is all about seeing how far you can go and how little you can carry to get there." Some of you may agree, but I'm hoping the majority of you will not. He kept trying to jump back in about how "fantastic" and "the best" his gear was. Whenever the customer and I would start to look at a backpack, he would jump in and tell us how much heavier it is than his backpack, or how with "The North Face you are just paying for the name." and I think it very well may have set the customer off with the wrong idea. I know that many of you are probably thinking that it was just one person, but I see and hear that all the time, both at work, and in leisure. It's an attitude like that that discourages new people from trying to experience the outdoors for themselves. The only things I really see that level of elitism in are backpacking, fly-fishing and golf.

It's not about going 50 miles, it's about seeing 50 miles. Is it about who has the best equipment? No, it's about bonding with nature and being close to the Earth. It's much more learning about yourself than "just walking 50 miles."

I don't think words can adequately describe the stars at night in the desert. I don't think that anything can compare to the feelings of absolute freedom and independence that I get from taking a trip. The sunrise is something that a lot of people take for granted in the morning, but I watch the sunrise with awe. That's why I backpack. To experience the world that other people pass by, and I love it.

Maybe you go to escape the boredom of your day-to-day 9-5 job; maybe you go to spend time with your family or your friends, or maybe you just go out to see new places, push yourself, and feel close to the Earth. Whatever your reasons, just make sure that your focus in backpacking is enjoying your time in nature, and being away from it all. Don't forget to stop and smell the wildflowers, and remember, it's not as much getting point A to point B as it is going A to B. 

So then, that aside, why do you backpack? 

7:47 a.m. on October 5, 2012 (EDT)
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It's kind of sad when a customer at a store gives unsolicited advice to another customer who is checking out gear with a store employee.  

i agree with you.  it isn't about getting to the top, it's about the road you take.  More than half the time I hike in the winter, i can't get where I want to go because the weather doesn't cooperate.  And that is fine with me.  I like that the normal distractions - phone, electronics, tv - are out of the picture.  for me, anyway, except for a phone that's turned off and a GPS that is probably off too.  There is something good and fulfilling about strapping everything i have onto my bag and lugging it around all day, then firing up a small stove and cooking something simple.  

It also isn't about the gear.  so long as it is reasonably comfortable and does what you want it to do, you don't new the newest, the lightest, the most expensive.  you do need the right clothes and gear for conditions, though, and it has to be comfortable.  a backpack that digs into your lower back, or boots that blister your feet, can make life pretty unpleasant, so it is worth finding something that is both functional and comfortable.  in my experience, you don't need to rob a bank to get that.  

great post - thanks!

9:11 a.m. on October 5, 2012 (EDT)
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To me backpacking is just a way to go on foot and live in the woods.  It's been the reality of human existence for the last 100,000 years---living out---until the recent fixation with the indoor life and the consequent war on nature, etc.

Backpacking is buried in there with our mammal brains and part of the Neanderthal and Cro magnon mindset.  We are mammals and animals after all.  The real question is, why the hell would anyone want to permanently live indoors?


To assuage the important women in our lives we have to spend a modicum amount of time indoors.  It's called Placation.  My partner is Little Mitten and she's a loner at heart like me and so we arrange 15 or 20 days of separation w/o torque.  She knows I'd go Ted Kaczynski on her if denied my nature fix.

Left alone and to my own devices though, and w/o someone in my life, I would most certainly find some land and return to the woodstove heated tipi life.  It's a life where you're intimately involved in your own survival, directly involved in getting water and staying warm.  Backpacking is a sort of play-acting at living out on a permanent basis, but it's better than nothing.

10:54 a.m. on October 5, 2012 (EDT)
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For me it's being able to get outdoors, enjoy the scenery and go places where most folks will never go or see in their entire lives. An added plus is being self reliant enough to do it alone.

12:54 p.m. on October 5, 2012 (EDT)
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I liked Leadbelly and Walter's posts.  I go out to  unplug and get in touch with habitats, critters. rhythum and cycles.  Repeating familiar patterns.  The quiet.  Equipment and mileage are mostly unimportant, although I do associate some old equipment with previous trips.  My backpacking friends are some of my best friends.

12:56 p.m. on October 5, 2012 (EDT)
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I backpack simply because it is something I enjoy doing.  It is simultaneously challenging and enjoyable.  I enjoy the solitude of the trail and the time I have to think about everything or think about nothing at all.  At the end of a long hike, I feel satisfied and I am overwhelmed with the feeling of accomplishment.  I like the opportunity to see and hear things as simple as the trees responding to the wind and the whisper-like sound that the wind makes as it passes through the forest.  On clear nights it's nice to see the stars from a darker perspective.  And I honestly like the feeling of sleeping outside on the cool ground.  All of these things combined make me feel more attached to the natural environment and better aligned mentally and spiritually.  

1:44 p.m. on October 5, 2012 (EDT)
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It's called The Bag Night Quest.  It could be considered an affliction.  You know you have it when you're invited to stay in a motel with your parents and you have a good visit and all but decide to sleep out in the bushes next to the back of the building.

Or you visit a friend and end up sleeping on their outside deck in the winter at 0F.

Or you have a permanent tent camp in the backyard at home.

2:26 p.m. on October 5, 2012 (EDT)
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I agree with every reason I see above. Being outdoors and staying in touch with nature, being self-reliant and learning my limits and challenging myself to accomplish a bit more, being free from the trappings of  civilization and replacing them with something more real. They're all valid.

Solitude was mentioned, and it's nice to be alone sometimes, but I don't go hiking to escape from people. Rather, I go to escape from the shallow, vapid people I see in the city and enjoy the more interesting company of the people I usually find myself hiking with. I'll add the joys of showing people new places, and watching them succeed at challenges they wouldn't have thought they could manage.

I go to the mountains a lot, but only get to go backpacking a few times every year. For me, whether it's a short dayhike or a longer backpacking trip, the reasons for going are the same.

This:

"The real question is, why the hell would anyone want to permanently live indoors?"

gets right down to the nitty-gritty. Thanks, Tipi.

2:48 p.m. on October 5, 2012 (EDT)
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I agree with most of what is been mentioned so far. I get a deep satisfaction from roaming around with my house on my back and reducing my concerns. I work in a big company with too much people interaction for my liking. I too like to escape that.

However, I feel inclined to point out that my motivations aren’t static.

I have honestly come to enjoy endurance exercise and have adopted a fitness lifestyle that I feel really helps me combat my Crohns disease. I also just like being fit. I get a real charge out of hiking long distances and exerting myself for extended periods of time. My love of the outdoor natural world dovetails beautifully with my desire to stay fit and push myself physically (within reason ).

Some days, I won’t be satisfied if I don’t climb a steep trail or mountainside; or maybe trudge forward for 20 miles.

And sometimes I want to see just how far I can go or maybe what’s around the next bend.

Other days I want to be still and quiet and alone.

Some trips my pack is pretty light, other times it may contain a watermelon or some such.

Pack weight and equipment choices are often fun to talk about and I’m almost always able to learn something from others I meet out and about.

But sometimes I wonder: Why do people care how much my pack weighs? I’m the one carrying it.

3:20 p.m. on October 5, 2012 (EDT)
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Patman, you bring up a fringe benefit of backpacking and living in the woods---Exercise With Meaning.  I can't stand to do some pointless exercise like jogging.  Backpacking means I have to exercise if I want to return home.  It's a great motivator.  Otherwise I'd just sit around and rot at home, retirement and all.

5:21 p.m. on October 5, 2012 (EDT)
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My outdoor pursuit motto:

"I get dirty on the outside so I can get clean on the inside."

Being outside is purifying.  The junk of my everyday world falls away out there.

It's a heavy physical challenge. I cannot compete on the sports court anymore, but  outside is still a place where I can "test myself". It's not about going a bazillion miles in a day, but how much day I can fit into the miles. 

It's about spending time with whomever I am hiking, as those great "moments" happen when we are "out THERE."

Part of me wishes I could hike further/faster/harder, only so I could see "more" while I was doing it, but I find the stuff I see satisfies me.

It's about the challenge of living in nature like our ancestors did, of getting in synch with the rhythms of the day, of watching the sun set, of listening to the birds wake up the day, of sitting by the babbling brook, of taking in that broad view.

The pursuit of the adventure is the bag that holds the wonder of the moment.

Why do I go? Because it is there.  I go outside, get dirty, and clean up the ol' emotional innards.

11:42 p.m. on October 5, 2012 (EDT)
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There are some great answers here. I knew I liked this site above all others for a reason :) I guess I'll add my bit, even though I'm not sure how to articulate it, but apparently there aren't many of us female solo long-trippers, so I'll 'represent', as the kids say.

While I do enjoy long scenic trails, most of my trips are...a bit different, and for those, 'backpacking' is just my transportation; it gets me where I want to go. I grew up in a culture that expected children to get by outdoors from a very young age, a fishing, hunting and gathering culture that I only later learned was rare and getting rarer. "Nature" was so much our everything that we didn't even use the word. It's hard to explain it without sounding flaky, but there was a kind of deep spirituality that went with that, though never spoken of. A sense of holiness all around, that we were small parts of an immense living thing. And when I go out, that's where I'm going. In the terms of conventional religion, it would be my church, I guess.

I go as quietly as I can. I stop often, to watch and listen. If I start on a trail, I may stay on it for a day or several, but I usually end up leaving it. I'm looking for places full of life, places people don't go, where the birds and animals are, while wary of this strange new animal, not frightened of me. When I find them, I stay still, until they go back about their lives.

I may stay a week or more in places like this, quiet and watching. My sense of time changes, becomes like theirs, I think, so that five minutes or five hours can feel the same; events matter, duration does not. Maybe the fact that I am small, calm and female has something to do with it (of course I don't feed them!), but they seem to accept me. I have had fawns nursing within a few feet of me. Invitations to play from red foxes. Moose reaching over my head to eat branches. Young lynx sniffing my toes. After a few days, deer will startle at a sound I make, then recognize me by look or smell, and relax.

And that whole time, I'm not really a 'person' at all. Just another creature in the woods, with nowhere to go but where I am, nothing to do but what I'm doing. Letting time be.

11:19 a.m. on October 6, 2012 (EDT)
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T Walter,

Good observations.  I used to count the number of nights per year I used to spend in a sl bag.  I have always liked sleeping outside, like on a porch in a rainstorm when visiting friends.  Recently my Mom reminded me of the nights I used to spend sleeping in the backyard in high school.

We have a permanent site behind the house referred to as the "campsite."  It is a great place for winter tent parties.  I don't use it much in summer due to the fire danger.

4:31 p.m. on October 6, 2012 (EDT)
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IanJRider said:

[...] Whatever your reasons, just make sure that your focus in backpacking is enjoying your time in nature, and being away from it all. Don't forget to stop and smell the wildflowers, and remember, it's not as much getting point A to point B as it is going A to B. 

So then, that aside, why do you backpack? 

I happen to agree with your viewpoint, IanJRider - but putting it the way you did seems very restrictive, and maybe even a tad judgmental.  After all, people hike for different reasons and with different attitudes.  There's a saying you may have heard, or if not, you're about to :) ... it's "hike your own hike".

Here's an example:  this summer I thru-hiked the John Muir Trail.  I took 30 days for the 220 mile trip.  Many others do it in far less time.  While on the trail I encountered a number of people moving very quickly, in some cases literally running.  As I glanced at their faces while they flew by me, with the look of urgency they expressed, I couldn't help but wonder - "are they really enjoying this?".  And at one point on my trip, I was on day 7 - and chatted briefly with a guy while I filled my water bottle.  He asked me where I'd started, and how long ago.  When I told him I was on day 7, his response was, "oh, wow, I'm on day 3".   Clearly he had been moving very quickly.  Did I find it a little odd that anyone would go out to those magnificent places and literally run through them?  Yes.  But were they wrong to do it that way?  No way.  Each person has their own reasons for doing things the way they do.  And one great thing about hiking is that there's no one "right" way.

While we may have a certain view of how WE think it should be done, we need to remember that people doing it in other ways, or for other reasons, are not "wrong".

Actually the same applies to most activities in life, not just hiking.

BTW, I don't mean to sound like I'm lecturing :), just expressing my view :-P.

4:36 p.m. on October 6, 2012 (EDT)
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I go to get out there. sometimes backpacking, sometimes carcamping in the desert. I go to get away from the hustle and bustle, to enjoy the natural world. I wish I could go more often...

2:23 p.m. on October 11, 2012 (EDT)
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Wilderness and loud silence teaches a person the answers to questions we have not yet learned how to ask. Hiking at night without a flashlight teaches you to use your rods and cones and see in the dark and become sensitive to the ecosystem and organisms around you. Walking on a glacier is different from walking on dry soil, a frozen lake, meadow, mud and talus. You become acutely aware of your senses. You observe things that you otherwise would ignore.

I very much appreciate attending the University of the Wilderness in the Great Lakes, Rocky Mountains, Cascades, Sierra Nevada and coastal archipelagos of Channel Islands, Salish Sea; southwestern deserts. It is especially important to revisit areas you traveled in summer, in winter. It is wonderful siting on a peak where silence is so loud you can literally hear yourself hearing and hear your own heartbeat.

2:43 p.m. on October 11, 2012 (EDT)
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Scott, welcome!

Excellent point about revisiting an area in a different season. Recently I was totally surprised by hiking a trail in late summer that I had previously only done in snow cover. It was completely different and new!

2:52 p.m. on October 11, 2012 (EDT)
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There is a stirring within me that cannot go unanswered for very long.  To borrow a phrase from Colin Fletcher, I become a "surly bastard" if I have been away from the trail too long. 

The rewards are earned out there.  I love the allure of that path in front of me.  Often when I come to a split or intersection in the woods, I am tempted to follow it for a while, sometimes I do. That freedom is precious to me. 

Sometimes there is pain, and fleeting questions of "why?...etc" come to mind, but they are only fleeting and I know I do not want to be anywhere else at that moment, in the rain, soaked feet, soaked clothes, but a high and dry spirit compels me up the hill. 

The joy of space and trees, and rocks, and plants, and creatures, and possibilities incubating under foot.  Often I will pull out one of my topo maps and "dream" those contours, much the same way I "dream" campfire. 

I like waking up to a nature call on a cold crisp dark night, and looking up at those countless stars through the bare tree tops in the silence answered by the beating of my heart and the mist of my breath.  This experience is worth the considerable effort of leaving my warm bag!

With the intimacy I have in the rain on my tent, the closeness to the soaking rain, yet warm and dry, I experience a true and simple joy. 

I could blather on even more randomly here, but I have done enough damage!


image.jpg

10:07 p.m. on October 11, 2012 (EDT)
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Goodness, what a poetic group!


But yeah, I guess some of our reasons for hiking are the reasons why people write poetry.

10:59 p.m. on October 11, 2012 (EDT)
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"Hike your own hike". I need to get outside occasionally, more now than when I was younger. I learned how to backpack proper in my late 40's with my boys in Scouts. I find I don't like the long mileage or the tough inclines as much as I used to. I love the quiet beauty of the Mountains, the lovely sounds of the waves on the beach and the crunch of the frozen snow under foot during a bright moon lit midnight stroll. Backpacking has taught me to be more independent and self confidant. I carry an old external (freebie) pack, a $20 tent and the best boots and rain gear that I can afford. Because my boys (now young men) love to backpack, I find we make time to spend time outdoors together, it's always a good time. I now always "hike my own hike" and I find that I can't go too long without the "loud silence" that nature offers. Backpacking is "peace of mind" to me.

7:14 a.m. on October 12, 2012 (EDT)
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Welcome to Trailspace Deb S!

Communion with nature is bread for the soul in a beeping, honking, hurried, mad dash world.

When I wake up and fix a morning cup of coffee in the middle of the wilderness it's like time has slowed and my body & mind are relaxed with nothing to do that day except what I alone decide to do.

It is a rare and pure form of freedom for me.

Of course if you lived out full time and had to be self sufficient there would be a lot of work involved, even so, I would enjoy it more than living in the city I think.

9:07 a.m. on October 12, 2012 (EDT)
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"Backpacking is all about seeing how far you can go and how little you can carry to get there."

One of the activities that I love as well as hiking is scuba diving.  You slip into the water, slowly sink down, and just take in what is around you.  On the dive boat there is always some one trying to keep score, I went deeper, farther or more often.  I think we need to accept that some activities are about seeing and experiencing not competing.

I'm a trail runner and I race over peaks and down steep slopes to test myself and see how I compare but I know not everything is a race.  I like to go back to some races and just hike the trails to see all that I missed.  

For me hiking, camping and backpacking are not about the quest for a superlative to brag about it is about seeing something, doing something and living in a different way than is typical to a cubicle dweller.

11:41 a.m. on October 12, 2012 (EDT)
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We hike mainly in the Inland Northwest so the beauty and grandeur which come with that area is a given. I like to have the lightest gear we are able to afford mainly because I don't like to listen to my husband complain that his pack is too heavy when we hike. I spend a lot of time trying to whittle off ounces, but still keep us comfortable. If he carries a big pack, he will fill it up with crap we don't need or never use. Our max load is never more than 35 pounds apiece due to the status of our knees and backs and we can go at least five days. On the other hand, there is nothing better than watching him fly fish on a remote lake at say Glacier National Park, so that extra weight of his fly rod, homemade carry case, and little stuffsack of fishing gear is priceless.

IanJ we have multiple outdoor stores here in our community. We like the ones the best were knowledgable staff spend time helping us. My husband buys most of his gear there because he likes to interact with the staff. I prefer to look at things on my own, compare prices, compare weights, compare reviews. I also like to talk to people we meet on the trail and ask them about their shoes, gear, food choices. To me this is all as much a part of the experience as watching a moose browse in the water's edge in the early morning quiet. As with shopping. I like to take my time when hiking. Stopping often to listen and look and rest. Moving quickly your're likely to miss a Mountain Jay hopping through the trees or you won't notice the different kinds of fungi growing on deadfall.

We often meet people are  quickly headed for a "destination" on the trail, but who might miss seeing how many different kinds of hair are caught in the wire of a hairtrap. An excellent book I recommend is The Wolverine Way by Doug Chadwick. It captures the spirit and wildness that the backcountry respresents.

11:34 a.m. on October 15, 2012 (EDT)
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  I work for a major retailer too ... retirement job ... and I've backpacked for over 50 years now.  I was never one that felt that making big miles was important.  My idea of a good trip is to backpack in a few miles, set up camp, then do an exploration/roaming day hike or two and then backpack on to a different site a day or two later. 

  When I come across the distance hikers, heads down, earbuds in place, striding down the trail, I just shake my head.  It's fine with me if they do this however.  No harm to me.  I feel the same about trail runners.  Would they jog through the Louvre?

  Agreed that there's no "best gear" of any kind.  Good gear is important to be safe and good gear can be had from garage sales, REI used gear sales, Craigslist, and so on.  In my job I do run into those pedantic types who are sure that unless a person spends big bucks on their gear then they aren't serious backpackers.  Absurd!  But I'll sell them the gear.  Why not?

   I like it when 2 or 3 customers get into discussions about gear.  Most of the time it's a good thing.  Newbies like to hear the views of others if those views are gently and respectfully stated, and they usually are.

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