With about 1,000 pounds of very important gear stuffed inside my pack—including a full-sized bed pillow and a Tupperware container filled with plums (yes, plums, those hardy backpacking staples)—I felt well prepared. About twelve years ago, I stood with a pair of friends at the Chilnualna Falls trailhead in Yosemite National Park, excited to embark on my very first backpacking trip. But I felt sort of nervous. How exactly was I going to walk uphill for miles and miles with the kitchen sink lashed to my back?
Ascending the granite steps alongside the waterfall, sweat beaded across my forehead, produced by both anxiety and my body’s overburdened inner A/C. By the time we reached camp hours later, my feet hurt, my muscles ached, and my bowels signaled it was time to get acquainted with the trowel shoved in my pack’s stretchy side pocket. After a bear quite rudely interrupted my very first cathole session, I thought—you know what, maybe I should stick to day hiking.
I thought—you know what, maybe I should stick to day hiking.
But then the magic kicked in. We camped on top of a granite bluff, and as we devoured what tasted like something out of a Michelin-starred kitchen, the sun descended, leaving a pastel sky in its wake, followed by the most brilliant starlight I’d ever witnessed.
The view was just as lovely the next morning. I practically floated down trail, flush with the high of not just surviving, but deeply enjoying my first slumber party in the backcountry. It felt like my soul had completely refreshed in that scant 36 hours. I was hooked.
Since then, I’ve become somewhat of a backpacking evangelist. If I’ve ever seen you walk more than a few paces on trail, I’ll do my very best to encourage you to shoulder a pack and join me for at least one night in the middle of nowhere. Or—I’ll just talk incessantly about how much I love backpacking while showing you beautiful photographs of the backcountry until you relent.
It’s not that I’m a sadist. It’s just that I know how transformative the experience can be. Backpacking gives us access to places we may never reach during a day hike, plus the opportunity fully immerse in the beauty of those places. Your body resets to the rhythms of nature, while your basic needs are reduced to figuring out where to pitch camp, eat meals, filter water, and, um, relieve yourself—with or without the company of otherwise nice bears who do not understand boundaries.
It felt like my soul had completely refreshed in that scant 36 hours.
Thanks to a delightful (or, for some, anxiety-producing) lack of cell service and internet access, you learn to instead focus on the moment. Which is why I often think of backpacking as a sort of walking meditation. The solitude can be absolutely incredible, an opportunity to spend time not just in nature, but also with yourself. (True story: I made the decision to leave a solid career in the music industry in favor of becoming a freelance writer during a two-month stint on the Pacific Crest Trail.) Of course, if you’re not quite ready for backcountry alone time, popular destinations usually come with ample opportunity to meet likeminded folks.
In addition, studies show that time spent outdoors benefits our mental and physical health—and backpacking is nothing if not a whole lot of time spent outdoors. Plus, backpacking can actually shift how you think about your body—and yourself. The challenges of shouldering a heavy pack and grinding out miles (especially uphill ones) help build resilience, but also boost your self-esteem and reframe what you’re capable of, both on trail and off. When the going gets tough at home, at work, or in relationships, I need only to look to my time on the trail before I realize that if I can poop five feet away from a snorting bear, then I can truly do anything.
So, do I have you convinced? Here are some tips for planning your first backpacking trip so that it—hopefully—won’t be your last.