I have been backpacking for around ten years. Almost every year I have gone out into the wilderness of Montana, with all the gear I need to survive for 3-5 nights. There is no comfy bed or cabin waiting for me on the trail, and the weather can be unpredictable.
In most cases, I feel like half the time I am miserable when I go backpacking. The other times I get caught up in the isolation and natural beauty of each location. The pristine mountain lakes and the massive mountains are awe-inspiring.
I've been thinking about why it is hard for me to enjoy the outdoors. Am I just not an outdoors person? Or are there other things going on?
Whether we realize it or not, we are all a part of nature. But we tend to surround ourselves by human-made creations: homes, cars, theme parks, electronics, etc. All of these have allowed us to push technology and innovation forward.
But even considering the incredible inventions we have created as humans, there is something more powerful and incredible about our natural world.
Going to Vegas, I'm amazed at the grand scale of things. But when you look closely, all of it is fake. It is meant to display a feeling of luxury and greatness. But when you go to a place like Glacier National Park, the natural beauty destroys anything mad made. It's like we are trying to do better than what nature has done, but we still can't compete. Unlike Vegas, where everything is designed to make you want to spend more money, nature has no desire or use for our money. It just “is”.
All of this has led me to dig deep into why there are times when I struggle with enjoying the outdoors.
Not Being Able to Turn Off My Mind
I have a busy job, and it takes time managing our business (salon). On top of that, I am a father to two active girls that always have something going on.
In other words, my todo list is continuously growing and evolving. But when I'm out backpacking, I can't work on my todo list. I have to focus on the next step or task at hand.
When you go backpacking, you have to plan your meals, routes and make sure the group has the necessary gear to sanitize water, start fires, and stay warm at night. You also need to keep a clean campsite and make sure you are always aware of what the weather is doing.
And not to mention the fact that we always have to be cognitive that we are in bear country. Grizzly bears, to be exact. Not that they are a considerable risk, but you are now in their territory and need to respect their space.
When I go on backpacking trips, it isn't like my todo list goes away. In fact, it probably is going to grow while I'm on my trip.
I mention this because all of these things enter my mind in some way, even when I am backpacking.
Avoiding the Present Moment
I'm always thinking about how to avoid the mistakes of the past, and improve the future. This passion has allowed us to pay off our consumer debt and pursue our financial goals.
But I do a horrible job of enjoying the present moment.
Being deep in the backcountry, where sometimes you are 20 miles from the closest road a vehicle can go on, is in a place where few people have gone. You don't have the bustling streets of a city, and the only thing you can access is what you can carry on your back and what is in the environment.
And the natural beauty of the environment is much different than what I experience during my day to day life. It is like nature works the exact opposite. They don't have any todo lists. Their focus is on surviving as best as they can. At times nature can be unforgiving and brutal, and yet its raw existence and sheer beauty are breathtaking at times.
I don't know when I will take my last breath. No one does. But if we can't learn to stop and enjoy the present moment, we are missing out on the bounty of blessings in our lives.
Disconnecting from Electronics
Looking at my life, I'm pretty much constantly connected to some electronic device. It is either my phone, my composer, or the TV.
There is a place for all of these things, but if we are constantly driven by the electronics we use, we probably aren't paying very much attention to the physical world around us.
The majestic beauty of the untamed Montana wilderness is breathtaking.
All of our electronics are designed to distract us from reality. But being in nature forces to you to face the physical world. You can't hike up a mountain without noticing the mountain. By the time you get to the top, you are rewarded with incredible views and getting a glimpse at the size of the area.
Connecting with People
One thing that has been constant throughout the years is hanging with people around a campfire has fueled my soul. There is nothing like smoking cigars around the fire and talking with my dad and our friends.
Do we all agree on everything? No. Do contentious subjects come up on occasion? Yes. But we still enjoy each others company in the solitude of our campsite.
There is no way I would enjoy backpacking if I were alone. Some people do it, but it is just not something I would enjoy as a solo activity.
And connecting with people is essential for me. I work at home, and so I don't see a ton of different people, outside of my family. So this is an opportunity in building relationships and making connections.
On top of that, my dad loves to backpack. And this has brought us closer together over the years. He has always been physically fit, and I enjoy seeing how much he likes taking photos of the backcountry.
Backpacking is Physically Hard
Hiking 8 miles with a heavy pack, where you have to climb 3,000 feet of elevation is not easy. Even if you are physically fit, it is going to take time to get up the mountain.
On top of that, what is dead simple in civilization becomes much harder in the backcountry. Relieving yourself in the outdoors take planning and preparation. You don't have a toilet you can flush. And if you wake up in the middle of the night, you are going to have to walk in pure darkness (hopefully with a light) to relieve yourself. And hope that you don't get attacked by a bear!
I've been on challenging backpacking trips where I did not do a very good job preparing my body for the physical aspect of backpacking. And in 100% of those cases, I was miserable. Every part of my body would ache, and by the time I got to our campsite the FIRST NIGHT, my body would be screaming at me from ten different spots on my body.
There is nothing that will make you as miserable as having foot issues on a backpacking trip. You can't plop your ass on a couch and relax. Everything in the backcountry requires work: getting into and out of the tent, sitting on the ground to eat a meal, finding a place to gather and filter water, etc.
And when it starts raining, hailing, or snowing, things quickly ramp up from being annoying to potentially being life-threatening.
If I'm going to be honest, the part that I hate the most about backpacking is the hiking. I love the scenery, I like the company, I love the lakes, and I like to fish. But spending 6-8 hours per day of hiking? Not my favorite activity. The more out of shape I am at the time, the more miserable I become.
I don't think I will ever 100% find hiking enjoyable, but I do want to enjoy the outdoors. And moving my body is healthy. So the more I can prepare my body to handle the trail, the more likely I will enjoy the scenery and being around people.
Slowing Down and Enjoying Nature
It's strange being in my mid-30's and getting homesick. I miss Andrea, my kids, and my dogs.
I don't travel away from my family very often, but even when I am gone on a business trip, I miss my family tremendously. Part of it is realizing that more work and stress will be put onto my wife's back while I'm gone, and I would hate for something bad to happen when I am not there.
But the older I get, the more I realize that learning to enjoy the outdoors will help me become a better person. It allows me to slow my mind down and learn to enjoy the moment, without the distraction of my day-to-day electronics.
There is no point in letting your mind focus on everything you are worried about. It saps the joy you can experience at that moment. And when you are out in the wilderness, you are in a place that is so unique and pristine. Why would you not take as much in as you can?
There is going to be a point where I am physically unable to go backpacking. As hard as backpacking is, I'm going to look back on these days and remember the magnificent scenery and the relationships I've built during these times.
Preparation and Planning is Key
Knowing where my mind is tempted to go, the more I can prepare for a backpacking trip, the more I increase my chances of enjoying the trip. And I am not just talking about planning for what to do or bring on the trip, but setting myself up to increase the chances of me being able to enjoy the trip as much as possible.
The way I've learned to do this is the following:
- Make sure I am physically prepared for the trip.
- Giving myself a day off before the trip, to provide time to wrap things up at home.
- Giving myself at least two days off after the trip is done, as recovery days before work. That way, I'm not anxious to get back home because of a tight schedule and feeling like I have to go back to work immediately.
- Making sure Andrea and the girls have their schedules ironed out and have flexibility in doing fun things while I am gone.
The more I can do the above, the easier it is for me to control my thoughts during a backpacking trip.
I've learned that getting in shape is one of the most important ways for me to enjoy these trips as much as possible. It has the added benefit of increasing my overall health and wellbeing.
Confronting my Anxiety
My anxiety makes me constantly on edge. And I'm realizing that learning to fully enjoy nature while backpacking is one way I can tackle my anxiety problem.
Fear and worry can cause us to put things out of proportion. Small problems appear as though they are volcanos waiting to explode.
By learning to control my thoughts and what I dwell on, I hope to get a better handle on not letting my anxiety take over my life.
As hard and challenging as backpacking is, it is one way I can teach my mind and body to calm down and enjoy nature. There are times where it is going to be difficult, and I will be tempted to retreat to what I feel is safe. But I need to remember. Life is not about focusing on what makes us feel comfortable. It's becoming the best version of ourselves. And backpacking is one way I am motivated to do that.