I’ve read Wild by Cheryl Strayed more than once. I follow many adventure, backpacking accounts on Instagram. I even LOVE hiking and being outdoors in the daylight… but nighttime in the woods… it’s never been a high priority for me. It’s scary and cold and what possible good could come of staying in the woods overnight? A hotel with a gorgeous mountain view, yes. Out in the dirt with the insects and snakes and frog friends, no.
Then my 13 year old asked if we could go backpacking for spring break. Not just camping, but backpacking. Leaving the protection (and escape hatch) of my car in a parking lot and heading off into the woods to make our home there for a few days. He is often yelling, “adventure awaits!!” even when we do mundane things like pop over to the grocery store or walk over to place books to the little free library down the street. He has taught me so much as we have navigated lockdown, both my boys have! They have been patient and willing participants in a routine that is nothing like what they thought their 13th and 16th year on earth would. So when he asked, what could I say? But “adventure awaits!” even though in my head I was yelling, “HOW? Where? ME?!”
Another piece to this anxiety puzzle is that I guard and protect my sleep fiercely. My body doesn’t tolerate caffeine so I have to get my energy the old fashioned way. This means, the right wind down routine, the right pillows and cases, the white noise whirr in the background, and so on. So off we go to REI to investigate all the tools and supplies we will need and I ask the seasoned expert sales associate, “What about pillows? What does a backpacking pillow look like?” and he slapped my shoulder and said, “You’re carrying it! Just lay your head on your backpack.” I looked back at him horrified, hoping he was about to crack into laughter at his joke, but he didn’t. “Or you could use your rain gear?” he replied to my still confused face. Oh this is going to be so much harder than I’d thought.
We whittled down the “necessities” to a tiny camping stove (the tiniest, cutest thing you’ve ever seen, like a little robot insect from Pixar’s Wall-E) a small can of propane that would offer us 9 boils, a first aid kit (that included a mirror for checking ALL the cracks of your body for ticks), rope to tie our dehydrated food into a tree, dehydrated food, a multi-tool, some hiking pants for Grady (because kids only wear athletic shorts these days) and good waterproof boots for us both. I did some googling while in the store and decided to rent the more expensive items like tent, sleeping bags, bear canister and water purification pump. Oh my gawd, are we actually doing this?
Another concern I had was the campsite. It sounded like backpackers just walked until they were done for the day and pulled over onto the trail berm and popped up the tent. This didn’t seem reliable enough for me to feel safe taking my child into the woods, with just a hope that a place would present itself so I discovered that in State Parks they have “primitive” camping sites. These are hike-in campsites that you can reserve ahead of time, check! Being that all maps on the internet are flat, I randomly picked a site that was a 2 mile hike from the parking lot and hit reserve, $12 bucks total for the two nights! I was starting to get excited and feel more confident. Food was sorted, water was pumpable, shelter and sleeping bags were rented! We were ready.
The departure morning had come, we dropped Wyatt off to go with his pals to the beach and loaded up our provisions. I decided (due to my frugality) that we didn’t need to rent big ol’ backpacks, we could use our normal sized backpacks and a wagon that I’d used for our shows and markets. We could just throw everything in there that didn’t fit in our packs and pull it the two miles. Grady laughed and said we were inventing a new way called “wagoneering.” Again, always looking on the sunny side! Gotta love that kid.
We drove over to the state park, got our maps, took our last flush pee and asked 43 questions of the ranger before lugging our wagon out of the back and setting off. Remember me saying that all maps are flat on the internet… well, our 2 mile trail was anything but flat. We struggled up the steep inclines of the mountain, one of us pulling and one pushing and then switching jobs when our muscles needed a break. We giggled and remarked about our learning all the way up! When we finally crested the top and we saw our sweet little campsite below, I almost cried. Nested into a turn in the creek, was our site, a firepit, an outhouse and a bear safe garbage can. The last two were surprises, so i was overjoyed.
We unpacked and made camp. Then proceeded to hike to an 80 foot waterfall that evening. It wasn’t until we had made our campfire (y’all, Grady is great with a hatchet!), cooked our meal, washed up and settled in for sleep that i realized the real underbelly of my fear. I am responsible for our safety and my only line of defense is a can of pepper spray. I have to keep my child safe and we are SO very exposed and vulnerable. Every sound make me jump a little and wonder, but I finally fell asleep for a little while, on a pillow i’d crafted out of my stash of clothes in a trashbag, removed from my backpack, and wrapped in a flannel pillowcase. (just lay your head on your dirty ass backpack… ummmm, no thanks.)
When we woke to the early morning sun, the birds singing, the creek babbling, I thought, this! This is why people endure the nights! The morning felt SO connective to nature. It felt as though we were 1000 miles from the daily grind world. I hauled myself upright and built a small fire to heat water for our next food hydration experiment. Grady wandered around and got some sticks and pumped some water.
It was simple.
We weren’t striving, but just being.
We weren’t looking at a clock for guidance but to our bodies.
We hiked and tootled down the creek. We napped in our hammocks and ate Clif Bars.
We just were… for three days, and it was glorious.
It is worth the fuss to feel this way.
HOT TIPS for FIRST TIMERS:
Rental Gear is awesome! We rented from Lower Gear, you order all you need and put your trip date, they guarantee shipping by that date and then you clean it off and put it back in the box (return label included) and off it goes back to them. I was grateful not to have to buy everything to make this possible! Certain REI’s also have rental programs.
Bring a hatchet AND a foldable saw. I went with just the hatchet (again, frugal) and wished i had splurged for the foldy saw too. Some sticks are just too bouncy to hack through.
Put your clothes in a plastic bag inside your backpack. This keeps everything from getting damp overnight.
Bring a headlamp. We chose to only have headlamps and not extraneous flashlights and that was a good call. As it got dim, we put the headlamps around our necks so as soon as we needed the extra light we were ready, not digging around in our stuff for the flashlight just to set it down somewhere and go hunting again each time we needed it.
Bring the extra if it really counts. I had to make an almost real pillow, it was worth it to me to pack the pillowcases even though that may sound silly to most backpackers. I also didn’t realize how much peppermint gum is a part of my wellbeing. It settles my usually volatile tummy, it makes my mouth taste clean and good, and i love it. I didn’t bring any as i didn’t know we’d have a proper trashcan and I regretted it about every 15 minutes. If there are things you need to stay being you and feeling good, bring them. You’ll be glad you did.
Bring a book. Grady read half a book and I read a whole book, in the hammocks, fireside, just chillin’ on a log… there’s more downtime than you think when the day starts at sunup.
Bring several bandanas. It isn’t just because I make bandanas, they are so useful while backpacking! We used them our heads to keep ticks out while hiking, dusting off a log to sit or lay lunch on, drying dishes after clean up, laying over our eyes when we napped midday, tied around my wrist to wipe sweat out of my eyes and as a little tablecloth for trail mix and marshmallow prep. They also came in handy to tie around our nose and mouth in the outhouse. It was positioned in the sun… need i say more? Also, I was very grateful not to have to use it as a tourniquet or sling, but you can!
Let us know if you are planning an adventure and need any advise! We have more seasoned hikers and adventurers than me on staff!! We will always shoot you straight as well as root you on!