Monday, August 10, 2015

Dealing With Hard Times While Backpacking


As I have mentioned before, and often tell new/younger backpackers: it's not all sunny days, great views, and smelling wild flowers while out in nature.  Like any challenging hobby/lifestyle, the rewards come with a price, and sometimes this means enduring some hard times out there so that you can enjoy nature overall.  However if you are a new or less experienced backpacker, don't let any of the hard times get you down!  They are part of the experience, and you become a better person for dealing with hard times and the challenges they present.

The mountain ahead of you may look intimidating, but not when you take it one step at a time.  And while you're hiking up the mountain, yeah it's probably going to be tough.  You're probably going to sweat, your legs will get sore, you might even slip and skin your shin.  And it might even rain or snow while you are going up that damn mountain, and even with good rain gear, at the very least your shoes and socks are going to get soaked, and the rest of you will be a bit soggy from sweat if anything.

But then you get to the top of that damn mountain, and it will be worth it. 
If not for the view, for the feeling of not letting that mountain and/or the rain/snow break you.  The sense of well being, accomplishment, or even empowerment for stepping up and doing something difficult is a great reward, and helps in other aspects of life.  There have been times where I am in a bind, in the middle of a tough challenge, and drawn inspiration from my time out in the woods.  Common stresses of school/work deadlines, traffic, screaming tantrums from your kids, etc. for me have been rendered more tolerable due to life experience, and a big part of that comes from values and lessons learned during backpacking.  

Backpacking doesn't just encourage things like patience, persistence, and being able to improvise/roll with the punches--it demands it.  

So here I will discuss how I deal with some common hard times while I'm way out in the woods with no one to take care of me but myself.  I often find myself explaining how I go about dealing with one demanding/tricky/tough/hard time or another with friends, family, and people new to all this.  Most of my friends and family are not into backpacking, and I will often explain to them how I go about things, and am frequently surprised by their initial reactions to what I now consider very minor inconveniences.  At a pub over some beers, I am introduced to a friend of a friend, interests come up, inevitably I will mention backpacking, and mild looks of discomfort or unease are given by this friend of a friend I just met.  

"I don't understand why people like going camping," I've heard a fair amount of times in my day.  Or, "What about bugs/bears/rain/pain/loneliness/etc. ...?"  The bugs I think are easy enough to deal with, I always say.  It's called bug spray, a head net, and shelter that's fully enclosed.  The bears are not an issue and don't understand why people consider them an issue.  You're much, much more likely to get hit by a car on the way to the trailhead than you are to be killed by a bear.  Seriously, just Google the number of people killed each year or even in the past 100 years.  The odds of bear attacks are absurdly low.

So I suppose this is kind of a continuation of another text I wrote with some general advice and observations for people new to backpacking.  So let's get down to the nitty-gritty of how I deal with some hard times in the woods.  If you are a veteran backpacker, you probably already know how to deal with hard times and may find all this obvious, but I've been asked about these issues enough that I know there are plenty of people that just don't get it yet.  But feel free to offer your perspectives and feedback below in the comments below if you have a good tip, trick, or insight on how to deal with what nature can throw at you.  Or stick around and read the wall-o-text, and perhaps even experienced trekkers might learn a thing or two.

Getting Soaked, Wet, Soggy, Etc.

Okay, so you're wet.  It's usually not that big a deal.  Sure, you should try and prevent this as much as you can.  Have rain gear with you (especially in colder times of the year) and don't wear cotton clothing unless it's very warm out, and even then limit cotton to a few items (e.g. socks, t-shirt) and NOT any insulating layers.  Maybe your rain gear sucks or gets damaged, or you didn't put your rain gear on soon enough.  Or maybe you got wet from the inside out through strenuous hiking that resulted in sweating a lot, or it could be that you fell into some water like a stream or lake.  

This will eventually happen to you out in nature, so you need to face it and accept it as part of the experience: you're going to get wet.  Sometimes, very wet.  How you deal with it can make the difference between a good day or a bad day or trip, and can even be life threatening if you allow yourself to get hypothermia.  So take it seriously if conditions are in place that could develop into hypothermia, and conditions are in place year round (even on a warm summer trip).  It's just a matter of which conditions will give you hypothermia faster than others if you don't do anything about it.

Evaluate the risk of hypothermia.  Is it cold out, and will it get colder out?  How windy is it?  How do you feel?  Know the signs and symptoms.  If you are sure you don't have hypothermia, or that you will soon get develop it, just continue hiking or doing what you're doing, but be mindful of being at risk.  If it's a very warm summer day, odds are you'll be just fine.  If it's hovering around freezing and it's rainy and windy, of course you ought to take things much more seriously and be very mindful of how you feel.  If you feel chilled, start shivering, or any other symptoms of hypothermia, stop and deal with it.  

It's easier to deal with things under shelter if it's raining/snowing/windy, so evaluate your options to get out from under the weather in a reasonable amount of time.  How cold you are should determine how much a reasonable amount of time is.  If you are just a bit chilled, you should be alright to say hike a a few kilometers further to a trail shelter (and hiking will also keep your body temperature up).  Whereas if you are say shivering a lot, are dizzy, and feel very tired, you need to find shelter right away--in one minute or less, e.g. a shelter you can actually see directly around you, or get your shelter out of your pack immediately and set it up right away.

Look around for natural shelter from the rain, like under a big tree or under an overhang of a cliff.  Or check your map for a trail shelter or village/town or other buildings that are close by.  Even if there are no trail shelters around, buildings like churches, community centers, and bus stops often have at least a small area sheltered from the rain like a roofed patio.  Also remember that you can hide from the rain in more improvised temporary shelters, like under larger bridges (like under roads/highways) or hunter's lookout towers/shacks.  Out of the rain, you can wring/shake out your wet layers, put on additional layers like a fleece and/or windshirt, and then put your rain gear back on.  And if it's an emergency, like if hypothermia has clearly set in, it's okay to knock on doors of houses or flag down cars.  Your life is more important than any illusion of pride that you may have.

Below is a great video on backpacking in the rain in general that I highly recommend by Dave Collins AKA Clever Hiker:



If there is absolutely no shelter from the rain around, and you have symptoms of hypothermia, set up your shelter, get inside, and get warm right away.  Put on all your layers, set up your sleep system and get in your sleeping bag, etc.  And remember that before your trip you need to take into consideration your choice of shelter for moments just like this.  If you are going to travel through a lot of terrain that has little or no trees, for instance, it's generally better to take a freestanding shelter like a tent or tarp with poles than say a hammock.  This all brings us to our next hard time situation...

Setting Up Shelter in the Rain

The Clever Hiker video above touches on this subject, but I'd like to elaborate a bit further on some of the nuances of setting up specific shelters--especially my usual shelter of choice, which is some kind of tarp configuration.  I personally think that a tarp shelter in particular is better suited to rainy climates, such as the one I live and hike in, namely Scandinavia.  It rains quite a bit here, and I have learned through experience that a tarp works best for me in these rainy conditions, and will now explain why.

As mentioned above, shelters should match the terrain, and most of Scandinavia is heavily forested, which means lots of trees.  This means this is an ideal terrain (aside from the tundras in the north, mountains, and some small patches of clearings) for tarp and hammock users.  So often this also means that while setting up my tarp in the rain/snow, I gain some cover from the rain due to the canopy above me in the woods, plus the trees and bushes block some wind as well.  Next, putting up my tarp between two trees is generally quick and easy.  I've timed myself on several occasions, and it's usually between 3-6 minutes.  So in a relatively short amount of time, I have shelter from precipitation, and I can go under the tarp, take a deep breath, and regroup before I move on to setting up the rest of camp.

If I am chilled, I can do as described above with clothing and layers and get warm--and I always keep some kind of dry layers in my pack.  After I deal with getting warm if I need to, then I can say cook/eat some food if I am hungry, or set up my net tent or bivy along with my sleep system.  Under the tarp everything is protected from the rain, and generally stays dry, aside from the occasional spray of a bit of rain (which is not a big deal).  Not to mention that if conditions are tougher (e.g. heavy rain and wind), I can set up my tarp in "storm mode" with it pitched directly to the ground, but this is something I rarely have to do.

This moment to regroup and set things up under some protection from the elements is a really nice feature of a good tarp, and combined with good rain gear is great at keeping you and your gear dry.  Plus changing out of wet rain gear is easy under the tarp with all that space, and can be put aside or used as a front/back door to the tarp if so desired, or to cover up your pack or other gear.  If there is moderate to heavy rain or any kind of rain plus a lot of wind, I will use my poncho as a front door (in a classic A frame pitch) and if I have rain pants use those as cover for my pack, which I usually put on the side of my net tent or bivy.

From my experiences, a tent is a bit trickier to set up and get into while it's raining, but with practice it's not that big a deal.  My general routine is to take out my ground cover along with all my tent stuff (tent itself, stakes, and poles), and do this from under my poncho.  Doing stuff under my poncho is actually another great benefit of using a poncho that I don't see get mentioned anywhere.  All you do is duck your head inside the poncho and do what you need to do out of the rain in the small space underneath you created by the poncho.  For instance, checking a map or my phone is something I do often under my poncho while it's raining.  The same goes for digging stuff out of my pack while it's raining.

Next, I will cover my backpack with my ground cover to keep it from getting wet while I set things up (which I do when setting up my tarp as well).  I will set up my tent, and then when it is finished put my pack in the vestibule, remove the ground cover, and then slide the ground cover under the tent.  After I even out the ground cover under the floor of the tent how I'd like it, I quickly take off my rain gear and shoes and stash them in the vestibule, and then sit down inside the tent, perhaps also leaving my hiking pants out there too if they are really wet.  If it is especially wet out or if the ground is a bit muddy/dirty, I will also take out my foam sit pad and put it inside the vestibule so that I can either put my backpack on or use it as an extra clean/dry space to put clothing or whatever while I am in the tent.

Now I can do all my regrouping from inside the tent, though this will be a bit cramped if you have a solo or smaller two person tent (and especially if you are with someone else).  I have also found that getting inside a tent in the rain will leave the inside of the shelter a bit wetter than getting inside of a net tent or bivy under a tarp, but your results may vary.  If it is raining in the morning, I will eat breakfast, get dressed, and pack up everything I can pack except my rain gear and the tent itself.  Then I will exit the tent quickly with my pack on, quickly put on my rain gear, and then pack up my tent as fast and as careful as possible, giving it a good shake before putting it back into its dry bag and into my pack.  I always pack my shelters on the very top of my pack along with my rain gear for easy access to both in rainy conditions.

Keep in mind that even in fairly rainy locations, it's rare that it rains 24 hours a day for several days in a row.  Often on rainy days the rain will stop for several hours and then start up again, and if you are on a multiple day hike, odds are at least one of those days it won't be all that rainy--it could even clear up and get sunny, who knows?  Be patient with rain.  Even on the rare event of it raining say 24 hours straight for three days straight, and those were the days you happened to be out there, you can still have a good time.  It's up to you and how you deal with it.  Appreciate the benefits of rain: the soothing sound it makes, easy/clean water collection from fresh rain pools or just put your pot outside of your shelter (the corners of tarps are a nice spot to collect run-off), less bugs if it's during bug season, less people out if it's peak season (so first choice of trail shelters or good campsites), no need to get all greased up with sunblock, etc.

And finally keep in mind that the rain will--like it or not--teach you to appreciate both the good days out there with the more ideal, sunny weather, or you are likely to appreciate the comforts of home more when you return.  Nothing like a hot shower, clean/dry pajamas, a warm, dry bed, and a good mug of hot chocolate after getting home from a cold and wet trip.  For me at least, these post-trip rituals are all the more gratifying after a very wet and cold trip.

Getting Soaked/Wet/Soggy/Damp Gear Dry Again

While hypothermia is perhaps the biggest priority when you are wet, keeping gear dry and getting it dry again if it gets wet is also important in the fight against being cold.  So as before, prevention is best: water proof important gear like your sleeping bag and sleep clothing, like keep them in a water proof/resistant stuff or dry sack, line your pack with a waterproof pack liner, cover your pack with your poncho, etc.  Redundancy with keeping certain gear dry I think is important and worth a small weight penalty.  At the very least you can keep your important gear inside of a big plastic bag in your pack.

Yet all this may not be enough.  As outlined before, other things can soak even the most vigilant and experienced of backpackers.  Just sleeping in humid conditions can make your sleeping bag and other gear soggy from your body vapor plus natural condensation around, especially in a tent (another bonus of a tarp is great ventilation).  But naturally there are ways to dry things off, so let's start with some simple fixes to smaller pieces of gear and move up to bigger things like a soggy down sleeping bag.

While you hike you should have either a normal body temperature or a bit warmer if it's warm out and/or you are hiking through demanding terrain.  I've found that even in heavy rain, most of the time the driest part on me (often completely dry) are my pants pockets.  I wear running pants with mesh on the inside most of the year, and they dry quickly and breathe well.  So I will use this to my advantage when I want to dry out small articles of clothing.  Say my scarf/buff or gloves are wet, provided that I'm not chilled or cold, I will put them inside my pockets.  Then after hiking for a few or several hours (depending how wet things are), the warmth of my thighs will have dried or at least partially dried these small pieces of clothing.  This also works great for a spare pair of hiking and/or sleep socks.  These small articles of clothing I can also dry out by putting inside my sleeping bag overnight.  Obviously don't overdo this.  You don't want to get inside your sleeping bag totally soaked with sopping wet clothing, especially if you have a down bag.

Above I've already explained two important factors that aid in drying out gear that are important to keep in mind.  One is that there are either natural or man-made shelters out there you can use to your advantage, and the other is that it simply can't rain 24/7 (and if it does, you need to evacuate the area, because a flood is likely on the way!).  So use both of these things to help you dry things out.  For instance, you have to stop and eat lunch come rain or come shine (or at least you should be eating lunch everyday while backpacking!), so take such a break as also an opportunity to dry out say your damp down sleeping bag.  

Either it is not raining--in which case you can eat your lunch where ever you'd like--or it's raining and you need/want some kind of shelter to enjoy your lunch under.  In the first case, fluff out your sleeping bag (or whatever else), preferably in the sun if possible while you cook/eat; and in the second case, carefully fluff out your bag inside of where ever you're at, like inside a trail shelter, so it can at least dry out somewhat.  And of course you can always strap wet stuff to the outside of your pack while you hike to air it out if it's not raining--but do be careful not to snag your nice down sleeping bag on that damn blackberry bush you might be passing!

If your sleeping bag and/or clothing are totally soaked and you are worried that you won't get a good night's sleep or even hypothermia later on, then break out your map and/or GPS and hike towards civilization.  Health and safety come first, and the trail/nature will be there later, don't worry.  So just take half or a full zero day in town.  For a half day, I've found that fast food restaurants are actually a pretty good choice for several reasons, and I've been surprised that even small villages where I hike have a pizza or burger joint.  For one it's cheap, calorie dense food, if anything.  Two is that the staff are usually pretty laid back about you hanging out there so long as you buy something (and sometimes even if you don't).  Three is that there is often an air drier in the bathrooms.  There are usually air driers at train stations and larger bus stop bathrooms too.  These hand air driers are great for drying out gear, especially sleeping bags and clothing.

For a full day, you can wait out the rain in lots of different places: restaurants, pubs/bars, libraries, etc.  Or you can take the easy way out and stay at a hostel, motel, hotel, etc.  In either case, you will have to spend a little money, but it doesn't have to be that much.  For example, you can find a small cafĂ© and buy a cup of coffee and hang out there for the day waiting out the rain, maybe re-charge your electronics and catch up on current events and such, and hopefully there are free refills.  And all the while you can have your soggy gear out on a chair or table, or see if there is an air hand dryer in the bathroom.

Of course don't be jerk, it should go without saying.  Ask the people working there if it's okay to air out your gear, and that it won't take up much space (which it really won't, if you just hang say your bag on the back of a chair).  Then at the end of the day, if you don't want to spend money on a place to stay or if there are none around, just hike back out into the woods near town and set up camp--here in Scandinavia this is legal, by the way, otherwise this is stealth camping in say the USA.  Even if it's still raining on your way out, you will be warmer/drier, and your gear should be much drier too so you can sleep well.

In the morning if it's still raining, you are close to town and repeat this process if needed before you hit the trail again (though I have never had to resort to this).  And of course if it's fair weather again, just air things out as needed while back on the trail.

The Dreaded Cold Snap

So you checked the weather several times before your trip, and it consistently said it was going to be a low of only X degrees.  And you plan accordingly, adjusting your clothing and sleep system.  Well as we all know, weather reports are often off or outright wrong about their predictions, so always be prepared for things to be slightly colder than the lowest predicted temperatures in the weather reports.  For example, if I see that there will be a low of around 15C/60F out on a typical summer section hike, my OSDCS (Oh Shit Dreaded Cold Snap) outfit will be able to handle lows of say 10C/50F.  And of course you can wear your OSDCS inside your sleeping bag/quilt at night should you need to in order to bump up the warmth as well.

Take for example my most recent gear list, where I breakdown both my base weight and my clothing worn.  It is purposefully flexible so that I can wear a variety of combinations of clothing depending on the weather, and in the event of temperatures that are colder than expected, my OSDCS can keep me warm enough to be safe and get a good night's sleep to around 10C/50F (and I'll survive but will be chilled/uncomfortable/grumpy to around 8C/46F).  But of course this is for weather reports of low temps for roughly 12C/54F and up, ideally for around 15C/60F, and I wouldn't swap out clothing or gear unless the forecast was lower than 12C/54F or higher than 16C/61F.  

And obviously keep the context of this (or any) gear list in mind.  A gear list dialed in for section hiking and/or weekend trips may generally have differences to say a long thru-hiking gear list.  The longer in distance/time and more complex a trip is, the more flexible it will need to be to handle things and cover as many bases as possible.

So using the above gear list as a working example, here's what I would do if I set up camp and felt like a cold snap was on the way.  

After the sun goes down and I'm all set up inside my shelter and about to go to sleep, I notice it just feels colder.  I happen to have a thermometer with me, plus I can also use my phone to check on the weather, to confirm a cold snap is setting in.  The first thing I do before I even start messing with clothing is eat an extra snack, like a few big handfuls of nuts and/or some dark chocolate.  Your body needs more fuel to regulate its core temperature when it's colder.  Then I would put on my base layers, then all my hiking clothing, my insulating layers of course, and then put my foam sit pad under my torso and backpack under my legs for additional insulation from the ground.  I might also change the pitch of my tarp to block more wind, or even gather natural materials (e.g. pine boughs, moss, dry leaves/grass, etc.) to put under my net tent for even more insulation from the ground--though I rarely need to do this, it would have to be an extreme cold snap.

Finally when I am in my sleeping bag I would sleep with my arms and legs crossed if needed.  It may not be the most comfortable way to sleep, but it prevents body heat loss (much like the Heat Escape Lessening Position used to help prevent hypothermia in water).  I have rarely had to take all these steps to stay warm because I try my best to plan properly and have not just enough gear/clothing for the conditions, but slightly more given the conditions, as I explained above.  However, all this being said, yes extreme cold snaps do happen, though they may be rare.  The more you sleep out in the wild, eventually it is going to happen to you, and unfortunately that's just something you also have to be ready for and accept as part of the experience.  

It probably won't happen as much as say getting soaked, but you should have a plan of action in place and a solid OSDCS outfit; and if worse comes to worse pack up, get moving, and get safe.  If you can, consider gathering some wood and getting a fire going so that you can sleep next to the fire, and it would also be a good idea to put some stones around the fire to trap heat.  Otherwise, pull the plug on the trip and just get to civilization.  Safety first, and hypothermia can kill--it's as simple as that.

I've mentioned this example a few times on my blog and also in forums, but perhaps the most extreme cold sap in recent memory was on a section hike with my buddy Chris on a nice, sunny, April weekend a few years ago.  We set up camp and get all snug in our sleep systems inside of a nice trail shelter.  Then in the middle of the night both of us woke up from the cold--and let me tell you, it got really cold.  After waking up from the cold, I put on all my layers and crossed my arms and legs and such, and was able to sleep, though admittedly not very well.  

As it turns out, after talking to my wife in the morning on the phone and telling her about how cold it got, I asked her to check how cold it got on a weather website vs. what the predicted low temperatures where.  The weather reports the day before said only a low of -2C/28F, but it ended up being an icy -9C/15F--no wonder all of our water in our water bottles was frozen solid in the morning, and there was frost everywhere.  But because I had a solid OSDCS outfit, and thankfully was inside of a trail shelter, I was fine and ended up still having a great trip.

A final word about location, because this can also have a big affect on the temperatures.  Depending on where you sleep, location can make it significantly warmer or colder.  Warm air rises and cold air sinks, so if if you camp out right next to a lake in a valley, it's going to be much colder than if you camp up on a hill in the same area.  Also use the terrain to your advantage.  Sleeping between to small peaks on top of a hill in the woods will not only keep you away from cold sinks, but also help block the wind.

Minor Injuries, Aches, Pains, and Such

First and foremost, I'm not going to get into what to do if you have a serious injury or emergency.  In such an event, call for help right away, do as much first aid as possible, and try and stay calm.  Here is a good introductory video to first aid, again from Clever Hiker, if you'd like to get started on some basic concepts of first aid.  I will repeat here what Dave says in the video, because it is an important point: you're not going to learn everything you need to know about first aid in a short video online.  It's a very good idea to get some kind of training in first aid, read a few books, talk to some health care professionals in person, etc.

However most injuries you are likely to face out wilderness backpacking are going to be minor, as is any discomfort you might feel so long as you take care of yourself properly.  But yes, pain--just like all sports and/or recreational activities that are physical in nature--is a part of the game.  You will get cuts, scrapes, scratches, bruises, and a variety of muscle and joint pain and soreness eventually.  Basic first aid is usually easy enough when it comes to minor wounds, and you can read more about that here. Aches and pains, however, are not as clear cut, and can be quite different from person to person depending on a variety of factors.  Some people don't have any aches or pains after hiking 30km, others have lots of discomfort after 10km.

The key is to find your own personal limits and listen to your body.  Mine is between 25-35km in a day, with my personal record for longest hike in a day being 39km, which I accomplished just last month.  I know that I will be just fine with only minor soreness hiking in my own personal range of distance, and can plan accordingly.  If you push too hard, you are more likely to hurt yourself.  And if you hurt yourself even moderately, like say sprain an ankle, hike as little as possible, get to civilization directly, and go home (or get a hostel/motel/hotel if you are on an extended trip)--possibly get treatment on the way home depending on how bad you are hurt and how available help is.  

But what I want to address is the "normal" and not serious or even moderate type of discomfort and pain.  How a majority of long distance backpackers feel/suffer doing what they do.

Backpacking is a strenuous activity, and many parts of your body are going to hurt at least a little during and after your hike.  Most of the pain and soreness is of course going to be in your lower half of your body, because this is glorified walking, after all.  So if you are putting in longer hikes--I consider long distance hiking to be anything over half a marathon in a day (about 21km)--and especially if you are doing it for several days in a row, know how to recover properly to ease pain and soreness in your feet, legs, and hips.  The best advice I can give you if you have pain and soreness in your upper body, like your back or shoulders, is to go Ultralight.  Since I have switched to only doing UL/SUL backpacking, the pain in my back and shoulders is nothing compared to my heavy hauling days--only minor at worst to hardly any soreness at all at best, depending on the distance and terrain I am hiking of course, along with how much extra weight in food and water I have on me.

But yes, even if you are in great shape, and even if you only do SUL weights, your bottom half is going to feel it after doing day after day of long hikes.  I have not taken any pills for pain relief for my aches and pains for... I can't even recall the last time I've done that, actually.  My best guess is at least a decade ago.  My recovery process is based entirely on diet, pacing myself, getting a good night's sleep, and a few little tips and tricks.  I think the most important aspect is diet, and science seems to confirm my experiences.  I eat three big meals a day that are rich in carbs, protein, and fat; plus I eat two or three snacks a day, depending on how cold it is out.  So I eat rich foods and regularly, and this is documented to be effective at helping reduce muscle pain and soreness, as long distance runners are well aware of.  

In this article from a running website, several scientific studies are discussed that suggest diet is very important in reducing recovery time.  It also mentions a few other good tips, such as eating foods high in omega-3 such as nuts, which is a staple in many of my meals and snacks on my hikes.  Foods high in antioxidants are also suggested, and dark chocolate (which is jam packed with antioxidants--more than blueberries or Acai berries, FYI) nearly always finds its way into my pack.  Dark chocolate is also rich in minerals, such as iron and magnesium (see: previous link), which can also help in recovery--again something many long distance runners are well aware of, and you can read more about minerals and recovery here.  Plus chocolate has a bit of caffeine as well.

And another little secret is caffeine, which is also mentioned in the above running text.  In addition to the nice energy boost a cup of tea or coffee will give you, it appears to also help with recovery; and I drink at least two cups of tea a day on my hikes, in addition to any coffee I can score in villages/towns that I pass on the way.  Finally, anyone that has been following my blog will know that I am a big fan of stopping for a swim when it is warm out (and even if it is not-so-warm out on occasion).  I love a good swim in a lake or river, and turns out there is also science behind recovering faster after taking a swim, as the same running website cited above also discusses in another article

Existential Angst

I've mentioned this in a previous text directed at new backpackers, but it is worth repeating: ask yourself why you are going backpacking.  Seriously.  Do it before--well before--you go on your trip.  And really think about it.  I will cut to the chase and tell you what is out there waiting for you in nature: nothing.  The woods are the woods.  There are trees, birds, lakes, etc.  The deserts are the deserts.  There are cacti, birds, sand, etc.  Nothing you see out there you can't see on your TV or fancy phone.  But are you defined by some kind of essence, or are you defined by your actions?  Are you a backpacker because you say you are, or bought fancy backpacking gear?  Or are you a backpacker because you go backpacking?

A fool can go anywhere and remain unchanged.  The circus.  University.  The woods.  It really doesn't matter where the fool, or you, or anyone goes.  I'm not even a Queen fan, but Freddie Mercury (and Albert Camus, and others) was right.  Nothing really matters.  So don't think that going backpacking is magic or supernatural.  It clearly is not.  It is, well, exactly what it is.  It's walking and continuing to exist in nature for more than 24 hours or so.  Maybe even several months, if you are lucky.  You eat, you drink, you sleep, and yes of course more than anything (if you are a long distance backpacker), you walk.  

There is no beginning to any backpacking trip, and no end, other than death.  Nothing happens when you get to the end of a stage, or the end of a trail.  You may or may not be a different person than when you were when you began.  The trails themselves are arbitrary lines we've drawn and marked through nature.  I respectfully disagree with Robert Frost.  If he really wanted to take the road less taken, he'd be bushwhacking and/or off the road entirely.

Is it beautiful out there?  That is for you to determine.  Is it fun out there?  I don't know.  It is beautiful to me.  It is fun for me.  In spite of and perhaps because of all the hardships.  And I love it, and there is little else I'd rather do with my free time.  I could do anything with my free time (at least in theory), and so can you, right?  If you don't like it out there, I suggest you go home right away, and do something else.  Do something you really want to do.  Sure, give it a solid chance--a 2nd chance even.  But don't suffer anymore than all of us are already forced to.  If there is something within yourself that you feel pulling you back out there, go.  If it is something you are just going through the motions with, perhaps you should question why you are going again, or question yourself for the first time.  Why are you doing what you're doing?

I repeat: there is nothing out there.  Backpacking is meaningless.  All of us are already all alone no matter what we do.  Some people will feel it more around their friends and family at times, still others will seldom feel it or not feel it at all in the middle of the woods, in the middle of nowhere, with no one around for miles and kilometers and worlds apart.

Happy trails :)



*Update 13/08/2015: I fixed up some typos, formatting, added a few more relevant links, and also added the section on cold snaps.

3 comments:

  1. I think the hardest part of long distance solo hiking is just being alone with my mind, with no distractions. We can toughen up to cold, wet, sore, hungry conditions, and develop the experience to prevent or minimize these discomforts.

    But I don't think most of us were taught about basic mental and emotional awareness. If I'm in a terrible mood, we go for a run, watch a movie, do some yard work, talk to someone or journal. These are great distractions, but they do not address the core issues, causes and solutions. So we learn to ignore deep rooted anger or depression.

    So on a solo long distance hike, alone and isolated for weeks without those distractions, I find my mind more prone to emotional flux. On good days, life is amazing and I hardly notice sore legs or bad weather. But then I wake up in a terrible mood, maybe stuck fixating on a past problem, and those days are hard, and I actually notice the physical discomforts more. I try to force my thoughts to positive things, but so long as the emotion is there, inevitably the thoughts return to the stressful subject until the emotion runs its course.

    In a way, more than even existential awareness, long distance hiking has been a therapeutic process of self awareness. But also a very frustrating one, realizing how little control I have developed over my thoughts and emotions. It's a constant work in progress, and with each trip I understand my mind a little better, and get closer to knowing the root causes (and thus solutions).

    Sorry for long comment. So much attention paid to hiking weights, gear, techniques and physical comfort, was just excited to see someone talking about the mental challenges of it, which outweigh the physical/technical challenges imo.

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  2. I appreciate the lengthy feedback and your own personal insights. Thank you. I can relate to you about being alone and afraid of yourself. I think anyone that would deny this is either lying or has lived an incredibly boring life. And everyone is distracted in one way or another. In this regard, we have very little if any choice. I mostly go solo hiking. I have learned to take things on head on. In the past I bottled things up, even alone. I was simply unaware of things within my own self. Call it Bad Faith, sure. But a lot of it was simply being unaware, lacking perspective, not being able to see something significant yet invisible to us.

    Fish, it has been famously stated, don't know about the water. Now when I am alone and backpacking I send any emotional issues charging to the surface if I feel I need to. But there are limits to venting and emotional exploration too. Some problems have no solution. Some issues you will gain no closure from, ever. At times there is only acceptance of existence--acknowledgment of how things are. The illusion of choice. Of free will. Not to be confused with freedom. Above I say we could do anything we want. But can we really?

    When I reach a personal or metaphysical irreducible point of contemplation, I know it's time to let go. Embrace the nothingness that is behind and inside it all. This is not a sad or tragic conclusion. Nothingness is infinite potential. This is when I am present--or at least as present as I am capable of. This is active meditation for me, which I discuss at length in a video on my Youtube channel if you are interested:

    https://youtu.be/U5q-33Rbyts

    I encourage you to look into meditation. Science is also behind it. It appears to be something intuitive and/or inherent to the human condition considering all of the fascinating evolutionary biology going on with meditation. Google the benefits of meditation and be amazed. Try just being present on your next hike. Like anything else it takes practice, and I suggest to at first "clear your plate" so to speak of emotional baggage as best you can before diving in and doing your best to be in the moment. To be devoid of expectation and of the illusion of yourself, even if for a few fleeting minutes.

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  3. Great video and advice! Nice to meet a kindred spirit via the interwebs.

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