Backpacking is not that badass

I’m no stranger to ruffling a few feathers on the subject of backpacking. I’ve had a good time over the past couple years reflecting on some of the commentary of other backpackers criticisms of some of my decisions in the backcountry. While nothing I’ve ever done has directly affected anyone else on the trail, some of those choices have created some impassioned critiques and alternatively strong supporters.

It probably started with my choices of diet on my attempt at the Appalachian Trail unsupported thru-hike record a few years ago. My spreadsheets of my diet were rife with candy, corn chips, cookies, and other common ‘junk’ foods. And my only change that I would’ve made after the fact, no joke, would be to carry more candy. Self-described health experts condemned my choices as causing the torn calf that inevitably ended my hike. They recommended I eat more chia seeds and switch to organic food and I replied that I had wished I had more skittles. I friggin love skittles.

And don’t even get the old timers started on hiking long miles each day. It’s blasphemous that someone might try to hike 40 miles in a day. They always exclaim the painful contradiction that I don’t see as much. I’m ruining hiking for the rest of them somehow.

But where the conflict really began was over my tiny 3.5 pound 10 liter backpack. Besides the issue of being uncomfortable, several people treated it like it’s downright dangerous to walk into the woods with anything less than 80 liters.

I think the conflict stems from our frame of reference and background. Hiking and camping are often the first steps for people getting into outdoor adventures. The thought of simply driving a car up to a dirt patch and building a tent and camping for the night is mind boggling to a lot of people. The thought of packing all that into a backpack and walking into the backcountry and sleeping is on par with volunteering for a real-life remake of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The first time I realized that not everyone shared this perspective on backpacking was up on Longs Peak a few years ago. As I was descending along with a few other climbers, the subject of hiking the Appalachian Trail got brought up and one of the mountain guides commented that it sounds incredibly boring. To some, an adventure of a lifetime, but to this guy, it sounded like a chore. I thought it was a pretty douchey comment at the time and still do so I have to tread lightly to not come off as he did. But to mountaineers, backpacking is a task; it’s a means to an end.

Truth be told, mountaineering is like 90% backpacking, and it’s about as tedious as adventures get. But it really put things into perspective when I started having a go at the big mountains and was simply using backpacking as a tool to get me to the summit. I wasn’t backpacking for sport anymore and in that light it started seeming somewhat monotonous. To maintain my excitement, I upped the ante and started logging big miles with nearly no gear and it revitalized the sense of adventure that backpacking used to bring me.

The reason I say all this isn’t to crap on backpackers and say it’s boring. I love backpacking. But the fact is, as with any hobby or passion, our reasons for engaging in it are very personal. Some people are out there solely for solitude, others to makes friends, some to take a break from the chores of the real world, others for the technical aspect of it. And some use it as the primary objective, and others use it as a way to get somewhere.

The fact is, backpacking is very exhilarating to some but utterly routine to others. These cliques of groupies often pat themselves on the back so much about their hobbies that they lose sight that it’s often not that righteous or not that badass. The facebook and reddit pages for the hiking, mountaineering, ultralight backpacking, climbing, competitive crochet, etc. are loaded with back-patting and self-aggrandizing posts. But the fact is, to someone somewhere what we do is totally lame, no matter how badass we think it might be or it might look to someone who has never done it.

I try to not encourage anyone to cut weight or play it conservative unless I know their goals and comfort level. Does the thought of having a mouse walk across your face in the middle of the night make you cringe? Or would camping in a wet quilt in sub-freezing temperatures send you running home? Then you probably should be more conservative. Does running through the woods with hardly anything on your back excite you? Having to improvise to stay comfortable or alive? Then have a go at a 3.5lb pack. I understand the need for discouraging insane goals but I’m tired of people’s failure of imagination keeping others from having a real adventure.

Grayson Cobb

Grayson Cobb

I am a long distance backpacker, triathlete, adventurer, climber, kayaker, and lowly medical student currently living in Norfolk, VA attending Eastern Virginia Medical School and getting out for adventures on weekends.
Grayson Cobb

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