Packing Self Care
When I first started backpacking, I excelled right away. Not because I was particularly knowledgeable or athletic, but because I was really good at enduring pain.
Childhood trauma and lifelong mental illness taught me the art of self-denial from an early age. This skill, honed through years of perfectionism and achievement addiction, proved very useful at overcoming the challenges of hiking. Blistered feet? Wet clothes? Hungry belly? Suck it up and walk, sister! I could disassociate on command, leaving my aching body to march on like a zombie while my consciousness retreated into the recesses of my psyche.
Not only was I good at suffering, but I was even sort of proud of it. I’d relish in how effectively I could do it, what comforts I could deny myself from having, what weight I could bear. I wore my trail wounds like a badge of honor. As if I was somehow purified by that pain. As if self-flagellation would somehow whip away my sins and make me (finally!) good enough.
The ultralight fixation
I soon discovered that the dominant culture in backpacking also celebrates self-negation. The hikers that are idolized within the community are almost always the ones going for FKT, carrying barely enough to survive in order to prove to the world they are the fastest.
To be clear, I don’t think that ultralight hiking is bad. It makes a lot of sense to get your pack as light as possible, and if you have the knowledge and experience to live in the wilderness with the bare necessities, go for it! I certainly plan to remain mindful of the ways that I can drop a little weight when I can.
But I do think that our unilateral fixation on hiking big miles with ultralight packs has a lot of unintended negative consequences.
For one, it creates a form of peer pressure that pushes people to drop base weight, even when weather conditions or lack of experience warrant more/heavier gear. It also reinforces a subtle form of gatekeeping (the only “right” way to hike is the way I hike!) that favors able-bodied, affluent hikers, and invalidates hikers who don’t meet this phony gold standard of hiker cred.
This social pressure is POWERFUL
I recently saw a gear shakedown video where the hiker, who has recently recovered from a major illness, sheepishly admits his med kit is “a little heavy” because he has to carry life saving medication. Another first-time thru hiker exclaimed on social media that she was willing to spend $400 on a new sleeping bag because she was “just not happy with (her) baseweight.”
I, myself, recently noticed feeling a lot of shame around bringing a sleeping bag that’s warm enough for me. Despite being a cold sleeper who knows from firsthand experience that my 15 degree bag is not warm enough for April in the desert or May in the Sierra, the mob mentality of the PCT has deemed a 10 degree bag to be the socially acceptable limit for temperature rating. I caught myself denying my own opinions on what to pack (formed through 10+ years of backpacking experience) because the echo chamber of PCT hikers told me my way didn’t match the paradigm.
I felt like bringing the things I needed to feel safe and comfortable on trail were at the expense of my credibility as an outdoorswoman. The temptation to forgo my needs in order to preserve my social capital scared me.
What is this really about?
I can’t help but feel like this pressure to be ultralight is a symptom of something deeper. Something closer to our sense of identity on trail. I know tons of people who successfully carried heavy packs the entire length of the AT. While obviously less comfortable than carrying a lighter pack, it certainly won’t end your trip, and could very well be more comfortable than shivering in the cold or getting giardia from not wanting to carry a filter.
So why does the thru hiking community fear ounces more than physical suffering? What’s so wrong with moving slow while on the adventure of a lifetime? Why are we bringing the real world’s obsession with efficiency and competitiveness with us onto the trail?
Normalizing self-compassion on trail
For me, hiking this trail isn’t just a challenge or a conquest, it is a pilgrimage. My intentions for the PCT are to spend time with myself, with God, with nature, to be healed and find a deeper sense of peace with myself and the world. Part of my work includes learning how to honor and respect myself. Learning how to care for and love my body. Learning how to feel my own feelings and trust my gut instead of confirming to someone else’s standards.
Seen this way, thru hiking presents a beautiful opportunity to stop denying my basic needs and practice being kind to myself.
To that end, here are some things I’ve unabashedly chosen to bring along the journey as a self care toolkit:
- Healthy, home-cooked and dehydrated meals
- 1 oz each Arnica and CBD oils for massaging sore feet
- A sleeping bag warm enough to keep me cozy in below-freezing temperatures
- A pillow
- A tiny prayer altar
- Prescribed medication
It may not seem like much, but for a person who built an entire identity around my ability to go without, this feels downright revolutionary. I am really proud of taking this first, tiny step towards caring for and trusting myself enough to hike the trail my way, and I can’t wait to see where this journey leads!
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