Getting Outside My Comfort Zone

The Never-Ending Gift of Backpacking

It was just before midnight when my wet tarp slapped me in the face, waking me abruptly from a deep sleep. I was snuggled up in my quilt, nestled a little too close underneath my shoddy tarp shelter. After a moment of orientation, I began to laugh as I realized that the condensation was from my breath on the tarp above my face. I was sleeping too close to the roof of my shelter. This was only my second night sleeping in the backcountry without a tent and my shelter building (and apparently using) skills were novice at best. 

That afternoon, we hiked adjacent to a river at the bottom of a gentle canyon. We stopped in the evening to eat dinner and fill up our water, before we departed the river to find a good place to set up our shelters for the evening. Over my years of backpacking I have slowly moved toward lighter and lighter gear, but with an approaching 700 mile section-hike I have been eager to refine my setup to make it as light as possible. So, I turned to some seasoned ultralighters to teach me their ways! I’ve learned ultralight means less layers and equipment and requires a more deliberate selection of where you set up your shelter. Unfortunately, the nice campsites with rushing rivers are almost always at the bottom of a canyon where cold air sinks at night. My first time constructing a tarp shelter the night prior had quickly turned into cowboy camping after my shelter blew down shortly after bedtime. We slept at the top of a ridge and the temperatures were relatively warm, but the wind shifted just after sunset highlighting the importance of site selection. 

We approached our stop for the evening, a flat(ish) spot in a downsloping canyon about 400 yards upslope from a dry creek bed. The site was also at the confluence of multiple smaller troughs in the hillside.  I was going through my rudimentary knowledge of changes in atmospheric conditions to figure out which way I thought the wind was going to blow at night. “Is it going to come down the slope or down the canyon? Or both?” “I’m totally constructing a wind tunnel!” I was rushing to complete my shelter before nightfall, shifting my plans at the last minute.

That night, I had tried to construct something a bit more sturdy. So, when the wind started blowing up the canyon directly into the sail I had conveniently created, I was naturally a little suspicious that my shelter wouldn’t make it through the night. To prevent it blowing down, every time a gust of wind blew, I would reach out and grab the edge of the tarp.


Naturally, I didn’t get much sleep that night. So, I sat there, my face only a few inches from my wet breath holding onto the edge of my tarp with some unexpected time to contemplate one of the things I love about backpacking: it can force you to get outside of your comfort zone in a wonderful way. Every time I go into the backcountry, even if only for one night, I learn something new about myself, about the weather, topography, knots, whatever! Usually, it’s as a result of doing something uncomfortable or needing to deal with an unanticipated problem. I can’t just go back to my car and seek creature comforts, or look it up online. I have to take the challenge in front of me and find a solution. If I make a (non-life threatening) mistake, I just have to laugh it off and learn from it. 

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