The simplicity of backpacking has always intrigued me. To carry everything you need to survive on your back is an enlightening and beautiful experience. Truly nothing gets me more excited than to be fully self supported. But when I, with a bulky pack on, look at an animal foraging in the backcountry, I am envious. They carry nothing; they do not know where or when their next meal or drink will come from and yet they are entirely self-sufficient. And when I see men clambering into the woods with pots and jackets and bottles hanging from their fifty plus pound packs, I want to cry. Backpacking is not about carrying everything in civilization into the woods in a lighter form. It is about simplifying, about freeing our minds to observe and enjoy life without the distractions of modern convenience. I want to make a case for a paradigm shift in how we backpack and how we perceive backpacking. Instead of this idea of retaining our comfort and convenience, I want to see people abandoning inessentials and venturing into the woods without distractions.
It always amazes me the unjustified reputation that lightweight backpacking has acquired. Lightweight backpacking should be the norm, no matter what the goal. I have always been a lightweight hiker, even when travelling only for a couple days over a couple dozen miles. I simplify everything and carry only the essentials. While the goal is not specifically comfort for me, that is a result. Why be miserable hiking so that you can have those extra shoes when you arrive at camp? Additionally, being more mobile is safer. Among other reasons, with less risk of sprained ankles, a lighter pack is the only sensible option. But the main reason I enjoy carrying the absolute minimum is because it allows me to better enjoy the reason why I went out there in the first place. I think most people squander the beauty of backpacking with their excessive equipment.
Backpacking is naturally an uncomfortable adventure. It seems strange why anyone, after humanity has advanced so far, would want to return to so little. This attitude and idea is propagated by the belief and misunderstanding that such simplicity has nothing to offer. But solitude and the backcountry have more to offer than I could possibly summarize in a single post and potentially more than I could ever translate into words. Instead, I challenge you to discover the awe on your own, free of unnecessary technology, blaring music, or even literature to pull you away from the adventure you yourself are partaking in. The majority of the population misunderstands backpacking because all they can see is the loss. And unfortunately, I am seeing that the majority of the backpacking population is beginning to lose sight of its beauty as well. This I believe is due to some cultural changes within the community. With advancing technology, instead of choosing to carry the same gear at less weight, people are capable of carrying more and more of civilization with them into the woods. While a pack may have used to alone weigh say six pounds, the lightest packs are now coming in at just over a pound. Instead of this being a blessing to back pain, people are adopting new gear to replace the weight. I don’t think this is a harmless change. While this misguided concept does often free the backcountry for me to enjoy, I cannot guiltlessly keep this beauty a secret. This modern style is a distraction from the simplicity and beauty that has always been the main attractor of man to the woods.
My first issue lies in the use of tents. I have slept nearly a year of nights of my life without a roof and some of the most fascinating nights have come in open air. The Appalachian Trail has an incredible system of security that has allowed me this convenience of not carrying shelter. A series of lean-to’s along the trail guarantee that I never have to worry too significantly about an impending storm. These shelters are great for stormy nights. In a tent I would have to endure high humidity all night, then have to pack up a heavy piece of plastic meanwhile getting soaked by the rain that I sought to avoid. But on beautiful nights, still nearly everyone whips out these nylon blinders. Honestly, why go into the woods simply to hide from exactly what you came for? On clear nights, plastic roofs only act to conceal the beauty of a starry ceiling. When a backpacker sleeps in a tent, they lose the modern convenience of heating and a king size bed and all they get in return is humidity and discomfort. Sleep outside and you get an overwhelming beautiful display in return for your sacrifice.
Another piece of equipment that I find absolutely baffling is the use of GPS on a trail system. Some of my most enjoyable experiences in my life have been when I had absolutely no idea where I was. Hell, maps can even kill this and is one of the reasons I am leaving them at home for my next trip. There is no experience more exciting than to be standing in a forested valley with no civilization in sight. I imagine when I am in these places that I am the only one. I imagine that I may be in a post-apocalyptic world or maybe in some primeval forest in ancient North America. With moss covered tree trunks and towering boulders and rock faces, in a dense evergreen forest with a cover so tight, the sky barely slips through, I cannot help but smile in awe. It helps me understand that this earth was not made for us. The timelessness of those forests make me feel like I can look into the past. These may seem like silly imaginations, but they are absolutely thrilling to me. I have found when I abandon constant human stimulus for a time, I come back that much more intrigued. To stand in a forest and set up camp in a mountain gully where only a few people have ever stood is an incredibly humbling experience. For a moment, I don’t blend in with the mass of seven billion people. For a moment, I feel I am doing something special, something spectacular and unique. That is an experience that you cannot get when you know that just beyond the ridge is an expansive city and a buzzing interstate.
In my endeavors, I also choose to abandon elaborate meals and cookware. I opt for simplicity in every way and this includes my nutrition. Backpackers often have adopted this idea of bringing five star dining into the woods. I honestly feel that absurdly complicated meals only act to detract from why we are out there. There is no more amazing feeling than to crouch next to a stream and snack on a simple treat. People have seen the challenge of backpacking as a reason to construct even more elaborate meals instead of a suggestion towards simplicity. In every way I try to safely emulate my wild counterpart that roams with no pack, unaware of where the next meal is, often even choosing to carry less calories than I know I will need.
When I see someone bring these modern conveniences into the woods, it seems that instead of escaping civilization, they are only acting to bring it with them and shape the woods like they did their home. I challenge everyone to truly discover backpacking, to adopt simplicity and embrace the beauty. Don’t try to blunt the power of the wild but try to learn what it has to offer. Your lightweight pack will make the hiking experience much more enjoyable, and the abandonment of inessentials will allow you to experience the beauty the backcountry has to offer.