The Joy of Backpacking

Tracy backpacking in Kahurangi National Park in New Zealand in 2005

Backpacking is miserable, but I can’t get enough of it. If I could spend the whole summer out in nature on the trail, I would. It’s mentally and physically challenging, every day facing:

  • blisters, aches, and pains from your feet to your back;
  • long slogs up steep slopes that demand your mental fortitude to persevere;
  • flavorless food in various textures of mush;
  • cold fingers and cold feet;
  • heavy loads that never seem to lighten;
  • chafing straps and the constant battle to settle your pack comfortably, switching the weight from shoulders to hips to shoulders;
  • the risk of injury or getting lost without anyone to help you, demanding your constant focus;
  • finding and hand-pumping your water (I know, this doesn’t sound like much, but I find it’s a total pain in the ass).

So why take on the misery of backpacking? The challenges are worthwhile for the perception switch to the rhythm of the trail, the simplicity of trail life, the satisfaction of self-sufficiency, the beauty of the landscape.

Rhythm of the Trail

When I’m backpacking, I fall into a zen state, accepting and experiencing the moment as it is. I get lost in forward motion, in the mindless putting down and picking up of feet. Life is reduced to the simple, basic pleasure of walking. I’m in tune with my body, finding a rhythm of movement, paying closer attention to its aches and needs, enjoying the feeling of using my muscles. Conversation dwindles to a comfortable quiet after the first hour or two, and companionship alone is enough. My senses seem to heighten and I find wonder at every turn in the trail.

A Simple Existence

Backpacking is a simple existence, a reduction of life to its most essential needs: food, water, and shelter. You carry only what you need, and you need only what you carry.  Each hiking day repeats: wake up, fuel up, pack up, hike, make camp, make food, sleep. Physical fatigue brings a sense of accomplishment. Success is clearly defined by miles traveled.


Going more than a day deep into the wilderness generally brings solitude, at least for long stretches. Alone on the trail, you must rely on yourself (and your companions) should any issue arise. It’s satisfying to realize that you are prepared and that you can provide for yourself.

In civilization I’m a worrier and pessimist, imagining doom and gloom, the need for a hospital at any moment; in the wilderness my worries subside to peaceful acceptance and I turn optimistic. I prepare for possible accidents to the best of my ability, and take care to avoid unneeded problems. The chances of incident are small, and I am mentally prepared to handle trouble (a healthy sense of humor and perspective goes a long way, coming from someone who’s had their share of “disaster” trips).

The Beauty of the Wild

Photos from my backpacking trips in Washington and Montana since 2006. Scenes from the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness, Alpine Lakes Wilderness, and the North Cascades.

Backpacking is miserable, but backpacking is a joy.

About Tracy Durnell

Seattle-area graphic designer and SFF writer inspired by the Pacific Northwest, crafting a sustainable and intentional life.

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