Lessons Learned as a Baby Backpacker
Stepping Out of the Comfort Zone
Just a few months ago, at the end of spring, my friend and I decided to go on our very first backpacking trip. We had been hiking for many years and been camping several times, but we wanted to do something different. At this point, I was just starting to toy around with the idea of attempting the Appalachian Trail. Carrying everything we would need on our backs while walking through the woods had always felt oddly intriguing. I wanted to give it a shot. It would be a challenge for sure, but nevertheless, an adventure worth taking.
With our eyes wide and spirits heightened, we bought some cheap gear at Walmart and drove a couple of hours away from our homes in St. Louis to the Bell Mountain Wilderness of the Mark Twain National Forest. The internet said this was a good hike for beginner backpackers. Why not give it a go? My friend and I, accompanied by my hefty, Texas Toast loaf of a dog, Scooter, set out on the trail that slowly wandered up the mountainside.
Not even half a mile in, the ridiculous weight of our packs became an issue. Stuffed to the brim, our backpacks were bursting at the seams with heavy tents and bulky sleeping bags, not to mention our carabiners attached to the outside that held our food. The entire ensemble had to have been 40 to 50 pounds each. “How in the world are we going to make it through the 11-mile loop like this?” I thought each time I took a step and my shoulders cursed in protest. I didn’t know, but we were fiercely determined.
That night, we barely cooked our dinner over a fire the old-fashioned way because the surrounding sticks and twigs were damp from previous rain. It was supposed to storm a little the next day, so we planned to wake up early and pack up camp before then. “No big deal,” I thought to myself. With it being a warm mid-May temperature, we weren’t too concerned about the air getting much colder. However, us baby backpackers were very wrong. I shivered all night in my puffy 55-degree bag while Scooter slept, pleasantly snoring and twitching beside me.
In the morning, we pushed onward to Bell Mountain. The tiny rain cloud on our weather app had been correct after all. There would be sporadic downpours throughout the entire hike. We tripped over the slick tree roots jutting from the earth and fell into mud puddles, drowning the socks inside our boots within seconds. And then, of course, we struggled to stand again because our packs were so heavy (think of the most pathetic turtle ever). It was perhaps my first experience hiking under such undesirable weather conditions.
When we got to the top of the mountain, the breathtaking view our guidebook promised us was completely cloaked in the early morning fog. However, as we peered over the misty landscape, something within us shifted. Sure, we were wet, cold, freezing, and looked like a disaster, but that didn’t matter. After all, we were there, facing the crisp air on this incredible mountain overlooking the rugged Missouri wilderness. We made it! Despite our shitty gear, foggy glasses, and scraped-up legs, we had made it. We screamed against the St. Francois Mountain range signaling our triumph. We screamed because we could do hard things even if they are uncomfortable.
Takeaways from the Trail
This trip taught me that each hike is a learning opportunity and should be seen as such. My friend and I could have chosen to see this Bell Mountain excursion as a rookie mistake, given our oversized packs and failure to appropriately prepare for the elements. I know this hike was so much more than that. Sure, we learned to research gear before making purchases and that we shouldn’t stuff everything but the kitchen sink into our packs (which are valid lessons!). But we also learned hiking isn’t perfect.
In preparation for the Appalachian Trail, or really any thru-hike, it’s important to realize hiking isn’t just walking through the woods on a bright, sun shiny day. Hiking is nature, and nature is wild. Each day on the AT will not be a pretty Instagram worthy picture. Hiking is gorgeous, but it’s also real. Real doesn’t always look glamorous. And therein lies the beauty.
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