The Truth About Long-Distance Backpacking
It isn’t always fun.
Well… no shit. But there’s a definite difference between saying you understand it’s not always fun and experiencing it not being fun. While I haven’t completed a long-distance trail yet, I have completed the Tahoe Rim Trail in the summer of 2020 and have been on numerous other multi-day trips in variable conditions and learned about the dark side of backpacking.
It isn’t the sexy, adventurous, scenic wanderlust shots you see speckled across Instagram. Sometimes, it’s a grueling, hot, freezing, muddy, arid, “why am I even doing this” time – and I think that’s important to talk about.
The mental game.
Backpacking, especially long distances, is a mental game. Once the initial aches and pains of your body adapting give way, you’re left with the “other” aches and pains. The aches and pains of just not feeling that 20 miles today, or this is starting to feel monotonous, or I’m sick of getting rained on and nothing is drying out, or I’ve been sweaty for four days now and have terrible heat rash. Things that may be tolerable but annoying for a few days, but when you can’t get away from it and you’re living in it, can pile up and cause someone to question why they’d even put themself in this situation to begin with.
Since my less than pleasant experience on the Tahoe Rim Trail (don’t confuse “less than pleasant” with unpleasant, I absolutely loved the TRT), I’ve made it a point to expose myself to more adverse conditions in an attempt to mentally prepare myself for some that things I may experience on the PCT.
For example – on the TRT I brought zero rain gear and it rained quite heavily at some point every day, for the entire 10 days we were out. I cried. I cried every single time and eventually got so desperate that I even rummaged through a pile of garbage for a tarp to use as a poncho (smelled vaguely of coffee and not like piss thankfully, probably would have still used it though).
I learned that I’m a little bitch in the rain, so I’ve taken steps to make it better for next time. I’ve purchased better rain gear and have also gone out in the rain and purposely gotten wet just to feel it.
Another thing I found myself struggling with heavily on the TRT was the elevation gain over passes. Dicks Pass about did me in. Since then, I’ve been peak-bagging more, sometimes doing up to three peaks in a single day and climbing upwards of 8,200 vertical feet in the process.
I hiked the same short trail over and over and over to see how I handle boredom while hiking, I’ve gone out in peak mosquito season, I’ve opted for the harder routes even when I don’t feel like it, I’ve post holed in snow above my knees for miles to see what it’s like, I’ve gone out when it was 105 degrees in exposed arid places, and I’ve gone out when it’s 25 degrees with 50 mph wind gusts.
I know I can’t prepare myself for every condition, but the idea is that I can at least get a taste of how I might handle crazy bad heat rash or dragging myself over a pass when I’m just plain over it, or having frozen wet feet for extended periods of time.
Being comfortable isn’t always best.
Being physically and mentally challenged on a daily basis has a way of breaking people down to their core. It’s important to be challenged and get out of your comfort zone. I think sometimes, people can get too comfortable where they are and not want to change a thing, but for me, personally, when I start to become too comfortable I always go back to how I felt after losing my home in a fire.
I understand that this life is temporary and that comforts can and will be ripped away from you at some point anyway. I also understand that most personal growth usually results from uncomfortable experiences. The PCT seems like just the right amount of discomfort for me, I’m beyond ready to get this ball rolling.
Even during the toughest times, I will do my best to remind myself that I’m choosing to be there. I will be patient with myself and accept that I’m not (nor ever will be) perfect. I will face adversity with an open heart and mind and a willingness to overcome any obstacle that’s in my way.
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Will you marry me !!! Lol ! Your a bad ass girl!
Thanks for the honest article. Most stuff I read seems to glorify thru-hiking, encouraging amateurs to venture when they have no business going. Having done the entire JMT and section-hiked the AT, PCT and CDT, I understand that it is not always a Walk in the Woods!
My worst weather trips and near emergencies always seem to be the most memorable and even satisfying. Totally agree with building up constitution through repeated exposure. In fact it might even be the actual point of my year round outdoor outings – to be better at life in general- the ability to deescalate stress, depersonalize the insults nature throws at us, and be more at peace with the many things that are unplanned.
There is also something beatific in the hardest times. I’ll never forget canoeing the St Croix in a raging rain and snowstorm, battling a river rising feet every hour, taking a planned 5 hour route and reducing it to 45 minutes and running ocean-like swells of rapids, my friend falling into hysterics from days of wetness and cold. But on the third morning the sun broke through the clouds and I made my way out of my iced over tent at sunrise and laid down basking in the sunlight for a full hour. I have never felt warmer and more comforted – like being embraced and hugged by this huge ball of fire in the sky. There is a payoff that can’t be enjoyed if you haven’t run the gauntlet before it. It’s those moments after discomfort has become so normal that you have forgotten that nature can also be loving, gentle, and sublime … when you are reminded that there is joy and comfort too, it can make you want to get down on your knees and kiss the ground. Gratitude. And we’re closer to the heart of everything in those moments.
this is really good post, thank you for sharing with us
Great article. Enjoy the PCT. Later.
Vince aka The Dude
SOBO A/T ’17, ’18, ’22 LASH