One of my favorite Scout leaders passed away last month. He could be a little gruff – in a good way. If the troop hadn’t been backpacking in a while, he’d notice that the boy’s discipline on campouts would start to break down a little. They’d take a little longer to get going in the morning. “We haven’t hiked them in too long,” he’d say.
He was right, of course. There’s a lot to be said for summer camp and you can learn quite a bit at a Scout meeting or a campout. But there’s something about a backpacking trek that just can’t be duplicated anywhere.
Backpacking experiences are life-changing. When you get back you see the world differently. You see yourself differently. There are things you can learn on the trail, and nowhere else. These are things that can’t be taught. They have to be experienced and learned. I can tell you about what it’s like to put your foot on the summit, but until you actually do it for yourself, you can’t understand.
Backpacking teaches Goal Setting
Mountains are wonderfully clarifying things. When you set off to climb a mountain, the summit is an easily identifiable goal.
You know you have to keep hiking until you reach the summit. Getting to the summit is a success, anything less is a failure. And you’re not competing against anyone but yourself, and I suppose, the mountain.
But you can’t climb a mountain in one step. It’s a series of little victories. Get to the end of each section of trail. Pick a tree in the distance, and hike to it, and when you get to it, pick another tree – until there are no more trees.
Then go for the summit.
Getting to the summit always gives you an amazing feeling of accomplishment. You’ve set yourself a goal, and you’ve met it – and you’re literally on top of the world.
When I used to be an instructor for Camping Merit Badge, we’d always make the last requirement the one where the scout would have to “Hike up a mountain where, at some point, you are at least 1,000 feet higher in elevation from where you started.”
When they reached the summit, I’d shake their hand, and congratulate them on completing the badge.
And when I proposed to my now-wife, I did so on the summit of Mount Cardigan in New Hampshire. Because while the summit of a mountain is a goal, it lets you see for miles, and lets you see all the other goals you have still in front of you.
I live in Eastern Connecticut, which I think is one of the prettier parts of the globe. It’s hilly, but not mountainous. So you don’t get the amazing views you get from summiting a mountain. You don’t get to look down on a cloud. There’s a perspective about the world you can only get from a mountaintop, where you can see for hundreds of miles in every direction, and see the curvature of the Earth all around you.
You can see the trailhead you started from, and you realize that even though it’s a great big world, you can get just about anywhere if you keep going forward, and don’t give up.
The temptation is always there to stop. To find a comfortable spot on the side of the trail, and take a nap. (I must admit, some of the rocks on the Appalachian Trail are extremely comfortable, napping-wise.)
But you aren’t going to get to the summit by napping. You aren’t going to get to your goals in life by taking constant breaks and hoping something comes along. Nobody’s going to carry you to the summit, and there’s never a bus when you need one. You need to rely on yourself and prove to yourself that you can keep going.
And you have to keep your stuff together. You only have so much daylight to get from where you are now to where you’re sleeping tonight, and if it’s 15 miles, you’d better get a move on. No time for messes. Dawdling in the morning doesn’t cut it.
When hiking alone, or in small groups, you wind up with a lot of quiet time. The distractions are all gone, and you’re left alone with your thoughts. It’s a wonderfully clarifying thing, especially for young people in an age of nearly constant stimulation. Hiking leads pretty naturally to reflection and self-contemplation.
I find, even now, that my best life choices aren’t made sitting on the couch, but on a hiking trail.
You also learn that you if you’re quiet, and you pay attention, you’ll see a whole lot more. As Yogi Berra once said, “you can observe a lot by watching.”
When I was a kid, I was always amazed at how my dad always managed to see so many animals while we were walking in the woods. Now that I have kids of my own, I find myself pointing out the animals to them.
Backpacking teaches Planning and Self-Reliance
What do you really need when you go camping? How do you pack your backpack for efficiently to make sure you’re as comfortable as possible, whilst keeping your pack under 70 pounds? Do you need three magazines? How many pairs of socks do you actually need?
When it comes to life, the specifics are all different, but the thought process is the same. A wise man once said, “planning is the art of living the experience in advance.”
Another just said, “Be Prepared.”
Perseverance and Character
Hiking is difficult. It’s challenging to carry 40 or 50 pounds on your back up a mountain, even for the fittest among us. And the only way to get there is to keep going, keep moving, keep pushing forward. Whatever happens in life, like on the trail, you have no real choice but to keep moving forward.
You learn a great deal about yourself by challenging yourself. I honestly think that if I hadn’t completed my first 50-miler through the White Mountains of New Hampshire as a teenager, I would have dropped out of college during my sophomore year. But if I could survive on the trail with a 50-pound pack, that I knew could manage in Boston.
Of all the great treks I’ve ever done in Scouting, my favorite may have been the one in which everything went wrong. We were climbing a mountain in western Connecticut. We’d done it a few years before, so we thought we knew the trail pretty well. Unfortunately, the school that owned the trailhead had cut a few more trails in the intervening years – and our maps were outdated (ah, the time before Google.)
A little while after lunch we reached the mountain’s summit. We took out our maps to see how much further we had to go to get to our campsite. To our great dismay, we noticed that none of the landmarks seemed to be where they were supposed to be on our map.
We had climbed the wrong mountain. And there was no trail between us and our campsite.
So the 12 scouts and four leaders had to navigate through a few miles of dense, even undergrowth. It was hard work, but none of the kids complained. They worked together, helped each other, and were even making jokes along the way. I’ve never been prouder of a group than I was of those boys that day.
And this group of teenagers was all asleep before 5 pm.
Once you get past the initial shock of backpacking and it starts to become fun, trails become puzzles. How are you going to get across this stream? Where do you put your feet on this rocky part of the trail?
How do you react when your equipment breaks? What do you do someone in your group breaks an ankle?
All manner of unforeseen challenges come up on the trail. Being prepared isn’t just about having the right stuff in your pack, but being mentally ready when everything goes to seed.
Of course, the biggest challenges in life don’t come when we’re backpacking, but in our regular lives.
It’s what we learn on the trail that gets us ready for them.