Thursday, August 20, 2015

Top-10 Reasons I Love Backpacking

If you're reading along, you probably see a trend in how my approach to fitness, outdoor sport and endurance is evolving. I'm branching out, and I've fallen in love with a new kind of endurance adventure: backpacking. I give 100 percent credit to my sister for introducing me to this wonderful activity when she invited me on a trip back in March. It's really been life-changing and such a good complement to competing. Backpacking is not an attempt to replace what racing offers, but rather enhance my life experience with new kinds of adventures that test the mind and body in a different way. I'm sure some of you may be thinking (because I did too), "What could be so great and life-changing about backpacking? Sounds dirty and like a lot of work." Well let me tell you from my POV, it's not just another workout to burn calories, and it's not just about bumming it. It's so much deeper. I've attempted to summarize in this top-10 countdown. If you've backpacked and/or still do, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it!

Thanks to my sister, Karlee, for bringing backpacking to the forefront. This was our first trip that ended with a plunge in some darn cold water, and, man, was it refreshing in more than one way.

Top-10 Reasons I Love Backpacking

10) A fresh perspective on performance. There's a time and place when I love geeking on data, variables and performance that comes along with training and racing. I'll be the first one to say I value structured workouts, meeting specific goals, and working with others on the same. But then there's a time and place to just throw all that our the door and be free with your fit-ness. With backpacking, that happens. There's no pressure to follow the "rules" of training, no pressure to hold a certain speed, HR or watts. There may be the goal of meeting a certain distance per day, and you may push yourself to execute it to your ability, but it's different. No one cares how fast or slow you are, nor should you. It's more important to soak up the experience rather than rush through it to be "fast." The finish line is simply having camp safely set up before the sun sets, and no one will be there to take your timing chip and post results. Now that said, I do enjoy having my Garmin and GPS to track my miles, data and stats but for totally different reasons and different vibes.

9) It's not comfortable. Backpacking presents new challenges and risks that I'm digging. You do not have the peace of mind that race organizers and volunteers are taking care of you--there's no one to point the way, or shorten the course if the weather's bad. No aid stations with a full buffet. No port-o-potties, no medical tents, no sag wagons to pick you up if you fall. There's no such thing as a DNF. You're diving into the unknown, paving your own path and totally responsible for your survival and well-being. Like triathlon, mistakes happen along the way and you have to manage yourself and the situation. And you have to work for everything little thing or it's not happening. But unlike a race, it doesn't end after you've done your miles for the day--you keep working. Granted, backpacking technology and supplies are pretty advanced, and that makes it nice with some added comforts. But even with all the cool gear you can get at REI, when you're out there you still get a taste of truly roughing it.

Dirty and even some kind of heat rash after a long day.
8) Get gritty and don't give a shit. Days on a trail without a mirror and without a shower? Yes please. Makeup? What's that. There's no worry about getting dirty, brushing my hair, nor how I look. I'll look how I'll look. If you are with me, you'll appreciate me for the company not how "pretty" I look on the trail. That brings a new level of confidence--try it. Once you remove yourself from our modern culture, and even mirrors, you start to realize how strong of an effect these things can have on our brain and how we feel about ourselves. Even if you're a confident person, which I think I am, there's always going to be an ad, billboard, commercial or someone's hot-body selife sending the message on how you can be better, prettier, hotter, leaner, buffer, sexier, faster, smarter. You can't help but start over-analyzing yourself in comparison and dwelling on your "problem" areas. It's really a shame that a lot of us get wrapped up into comparisons to the point of losing confidence. I think I'm pretty capable of ignoring that noise and being true to me, but even I was surprised how social pressures to look and be a certain way can seep into my psyche. And it took stepping away, into nature, to realize it. So why not just turn off the noise and get back to being natural in nature, the ultimate for improving one's self-esteem. In fact, studies show that going into the forest--even a short walk--helps prevent and/or reduce depressed feelings and negative thoughts about one's self.

Great Western Divide.

7) Exploration. As I mature and am more comfortable with my career and life situation, I see myself starting to crave more travel and exploration, and I usually prefer nature over cities, so backpacking is a beautiful fit. It's funny, though, because I didn't have this mindset as much in my 20s--I would often make excuses as to why I couldn't take off on a trip or adventure. I suppose I was too wrapped up in establishing "my foundation" and also being all-in for triathlon. I think it's a bit like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs--you meet the basic needs and goals then move on to the deeper things that create a well-rounded and fulfilled existence. Perhaps I'm moving up my unique pyramid. Or maybe I've just gotten out of my head of being Type A workaholic. Whatever it is, I'll take it because the things I've encountered, seen and experienced so far with backpacking have enriched my soul. It's a beautiful world out there, and I for one don't want to let life pass by and miss out on these opportunities to explore.

6) Spirituality. I'll admit, I'm not religious, but I do consider myself a spiritual person. Don't ask me to define spirituality, that's a tough one and it's so individual. For me, when I think of spirituality I think of being in nature. It's the No. 1 place where I feel most spiritual, and it's been that way ever since I can remember. As a kid, I can recall memories of feeling something special when I would be surfing or mountain biking or hiking, as if I was connected to a force bigger than just me and was touched in a deep way. Into my triathlon days, early-morning solo trail runs would often elicit the same vibes. Now, with backpacking, I get those same strong spiritual vibes when I'm out there, and I just soak it up.

5) Back to the basics. Everything I need is on my back and nothing more. If a questionable item that I'm debating bringing is heavy, bulky and awkward it's not coming--even if it may make life "easier" out there. With that, you're left with simple tools and gear, and needing to use a lot of your own smarts to get things done, as well as patience in the process. For example, on my first trip--a girl's trip fyi--I remember my sister and I spending time, effort and total focus to build a fire the old school way, open a can with an archaic tool and to find and prepare (filter) our water. Now, you experienced backpackers and campers may be used to this, but it was mostly all new to me and really opened my eyes to how much I take for granted in our modern world--and how fast we often move through our days not stopping to appreciate the simple tasks in life. Even using a real, physical map to navigate--and not Google maps nor 10 other phone apps--feels so good. I love taking the time and effort to do simple, basic things from setting up safe shelter to digging your own hole in the woods to... well... you know what I'm getting at (thank goodness I have a decent deep squat lol).

4) An improved relationship with food. This may sound weird, but I enjoy food in a different way when I'm backpacking, and I arguably enjoy it even more for what food entails and how it nourishes the journey. I consider myself pretty smart with food these days, but I've had my eyes opened to mistakes I still sometimes make at home with food. For example, rushing food, eating while distracted, eating more than is needed just because it's around or because it tastes good--but not because you actually need it. But when backpacking I'm fully present with food--whether a snack or meal--and if it's going in my mouth I'm focused on it.
Also, food as fuel takes on another meaning. I better appreciate the nourishing aspect of food, how it tastes, and taking the time to slowly enjoy each bite--you earned it! I'm also more in tune with how it feels to reach satiation. Obviously food supply is limited out there so you only eat what you need to, and you can't really afford to overdo it--as such, you really start to truly feel how much or how little the body needs and portion wisely. I'm trying to apply these principles back at home in regular life, especially trying to eat slower and less distracted.

... and my top 3... drumroll ....

3) Get off the grid*. Ahhh. Let's talk about this. As much as I love being connected with others around the world on a daily basis, and as much as I love coaching and podcasting and yapping, I equally love getting off the grid and quieting down. It's all too easy this day in age to be too plugged in to everything all the time and that creates a mind that's cluttered, lacking focus and often stressed and overwhelmed. Going off the grid and back to simplicity is the perfect cure--and it's cheap too, way cheaper than therapy. Interestingly, shutting myself off the world and having no cell service is not something I would have desired even a few years back, for reasons like FOMO, and to this day FOMO--in a serious sense--is sometimes a real concern, but I certainly have evolved and understand the importance of disconnecting and taking extended breaks. It's no stretch to say that taking these breaks certainly makes me better at what I do for a living. At first I would think the breaks showed weakness and that I wasn't working hard enough, or my clients would think I'm lazy and not paying attention in enough detail. But that couldn't be further from the truth. Going off-the-grid re-energizes me so that I'm more focused, engaged and productive upon return (and happier too vs. being a zombie who's always nailed to the office). There's research to prove I'm not crazy for saying this; less really is more, and it's time we stop trying to work hard 24/7 thinking that's the only way to reach success.

2) Be present. As I begin my journey in studying and practicing more mindfulness and meditation I've really started exploring my ability to be present--and how easily I can fail at being present in everyday life. Like I said above in No. 3, it's all too easy to get incredibly distracted, and even though I know I don't have ADD it sometimes feels like it with how conveniently we're connected to a million things with constant notifications of new emails, texts and tweets or whatever it is. I'm actually working on a separate set of posts on a related topic--getting over my multitasking habits and letting go of busyness as a goal, both of which completely take away from the ability to be present. But I digress (see? lol). Bottom line: Backpacking keeps me in the moment, focused and engaged. It just does.

1) Feel strong, alive and empowered. That's exactly what my mind and body need these days. Backpacking is one way I can carry out the idea of being fit for life as I've talked about, and it's also the easiest way to get back to primal living. It complements the style of fitness and "training" I enjoy these days--functional and badass. There's just something about being free in the wilderness and putting to use raw physical and mental strength and endurance. I've worked hard to build a tough body and mind over the years, and I want to continue doing so. It's funny, and I'll admit, my first couple trips involved a pathetic amount of over-packing and our packs were heeeavy, like 50lbs or maybe more. Carrying those bad boys 20-30+ miles was not easy feat, especially when the terrain would get dicey, but I loved every bit of the challenge and feeling my body perform under a load like that. I think I can certainly revise my packing list because I don't think it's a contest about having the heaviest pack, but the idea of it is empowering. It makes you feel truly alive and strong--super durable, adaptable and utilizing dynamic strength. Oh, and this can't be replicated in the city and modern life--that's not the right setting to get the primal essence.


*I have a question for you. Do you enjoy and embrace being off the grid? I know this concept may not be for everyone, but maybe it's because you haven't given it a chance. What do you think when you imagine multiple days of no people, no traffic, no electronics, no phones, no email, no social media, no "typical" interactions with the modern world? Does that give you the heebie jeebies or does it sound exciting. If it terrifies you, why not try it out? You may be surprised at how refreshing it is. In fact, assuming a lot of you reading are endurance athletes/triathletes, I think you are more likely the type who would embrace being off the grid and alone--considering endurance sport entails a lot of that. In fact, I think I originally fell in love with triathlon for similar reasons as I have backpacking--as much as there's a strong community and plenty of people with whom to interact in sport, triathlon is also about solitude and being alone in your head with the goal of continuing to move forward. Food for thought....

Big Sur, Salmon Creek Trail


  1. It's interesting to read about your discovery of hiking and backpacking.It does sound a bit candid at times, but maybe that's just because I made the journey the other way. I got into traveling/backpacking (and even "expedition-style" travels) in my early 20s, and now 10 years later I moved to ironmans and ultrarunning. Just as you said, what I keep from my adventures in the
    wild is the ability to embrace the unknowns, content oneself with the basics, and be able to be self reliable.

  2. My wife and I were backpackers for several years after we got married in 1987 (small kids put a crimp in our ability to do backcountry trips, but we are working on it...), and I think your top 10 pretty well nails it. The only thing I might add is a feeling of connectedness to folks like mountain men and other historical wilderness explorers. The gear may be a little different (and allows you and me to leave almost no trace of our passage), but the activity is essentially still the same.