Reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild propelled me in a whole new direction in terms of physical challenges. I’m captivated by the idea of the relationship between physical endurance and mental/emotional strength. I joined a local hiking group and went on two fairly rigorous hikes before I signed up for a weekend backpacking trip in northern Michigan.
I was a virgin backpacker.
Sheer excitement carried me through three weeks of planning. I bought a lightweight tent – costing $250 – a hefty investment for a new hobby. Boots I’d already acquired, along with a Camelbak hydration system. My Boy Scout son agreed to let me borrow his winter sleeping bag and I snagged his backpack as well, the heavy-duty kind with a frame.
Two days before the big adventure, I searched the internet for ideas for backpacking meals. I found my breakfast, lunch, and dinner recipes at Wild Backpacker, intending to cook oatmeal with dried cherries, slivered almonds, a dash of brown sugar and a couple tablespoons of dried milk each morning – adding boiling water to the mixture in a Ziploc freezer bag. My Saturday dinner would be another freezer bag and boiling water added to angel hair pasta and mixed with two pouches of tuna with olive oil. I added ¼ cup parmesan cheese, and 1 teaspoon each basil and oregano. Lunch would be a whole wheat tortilla spread with cream cheese and a pouch of salmon.
Clothing was simple. I planned on wearing the same shirt the entire weekend, adding a long sleeve layer along with my son’s outgrown zip-off Boy Scout shorts. Toiletries were even simpler: a travel pack of facial cleansing cloths, a sample tube of moisturizer, toothbrush and toothpaste. And deodorant.
With a full three liters of water, my food, clothing, tent, sleeping bag, and the book I insisted on bringing, my pack was at 30 pounds. Thirty pounds is on the verge of getting heavy – there are many backpackers who are closer to 20 pounds, and that’s when every ounce is weighed for necessity. I still didn’t have a water filter or camp stove as I was planning to depend on the group instead of making the financial investment.
My son insisted that I set up the tent on my own at home.
Friday night we headed north to the High Country Pathway. I didn’t admit to being nervous. I just wanted to blend in and not look like an amateur. Hiking in the dark? Sure! I stretched my headlamp around my head, tightened my pack and followed the leader. I quickly realized I have much less depth perception in the dark, even with my light. Our narrow trail had tree roots, rocks and even a fallen log to climb over. I repeated my personal mantra, created from three years of marathon training and refusing the fall. I remain upright. I remain upright. Chatting on the trail, I found I wasn’t the only person who hadn’t previously hiked in the dark. Now we were all officially night-hikers. After a mile and a half we found the perfect spot for all nine of us to camp for the night. My tent went up without a hitch.
Alone with just the flicker of my headlamp, I changed into my fleece PJs and wool socks, wriggling down into my sleeping bag, thankful for my camping pillow and sleeping pad. Sure enough, after a couple hours I awoke and wondered if I could last the night or if I should get up for a squat in the dark woods. After an hour of trying to sleep, I knew the answer. Unzipping the bag and pulling on my cold hiking boots was the worst part. Once outside and facing away from the rest of the tents, I flicked on my headlamp and headed to the nearest tree, hoping the underfoot crunch of leaves and branches wasn’t too loud. Returning to my sleeping bag, I curled up and slept like a log, not waking again until I heard the hiss of my neighbor’s camp stove.
Ready for my first Ziploc bag breakfast, I pulled out my food, found the oatmeal mixture, grabbed my plastic cup and a teabag. Looking around as I ate, I realized there would be no lingering. Tents were already coming down and getting folded, campsites disappearing once again inside the pack. Yikes! The last thing I wanted was to be struggling with my gear while everyone watched. I chewed quickly then dove inside my tent to dress and get packed.
I silently thanked my son for making me take down the tent two days earlier.
Packed up once more, boots tied, hair braided, teeth brushed – I’d finished my first official backpacking overnight stay. Now all I had to do was hike.
What have you done for the first time? Were you nervous? How did you prepare?