What you'll find in this article:
The first time I went backpacking, it was by myself.
That makes me sound a lot more brave and badass than I really was. The truth of the matter was that I was struggling with my personal life — just getting over a divorce, raising a teenager, dealing with a job I hated — and I just needed to get the hell out of town. I’d been researching backpacking online, because I firmly believed (and still do) that the answers to all the world’s biggest questions can be found either on the trail or in a book.
I wanted to go. I needed to go. So I picked a local popular backpacking loop and I went.
Mistakes I Made
Looking back, there were clearly mistakes I made: I didn’t understand the gear I needed, and so I borrowed some from friends, and bought the rest at Wal-Mart or thrift shops (more on this later). I packed way too much food. I decided to use my phone as a map, and I didn’t check my tent poles before I went.
As it turns out, all these were all huge mistakes.
But I did a lot of stuff right. I brought my dog Howie, who proved to be the best backpacking companion I’ve ever had. I didn't overpack my pack (despite all the food), I didn’t panic when I got lost, and I got to see a porcupine close up and a black bear far off.
And I came out the other side a different woman.
That’s what I want for you. To be able to hit that balance that so many of us women strive for: to be prepared, but brave. To take risks, but measured risks. To get outside — and not hate it.
This guide is for women everywhere who ever wanted to sleep outside, beyond their backyards and go for an adventure. Women who wanted to prove to themselves (and possibly their social media followers) that they could do it.
This guide is for you.
Women Who Backpack: Why We're Different
But before we talk about how women backpackers are different from other women, I first want to talk about what traits women backpackers share. Of course we are all basically built with the same parts, and many of us share similar cultural and environmental upbringing.
But women backpackers also tend to be strong (in more ways than one), smart, driven and in search of something more. Generally, we value nature and its positive effects on our moods and psyches. We are cautious, but we're willing to take measured risks. We’re brave, yet conscientious.
In short, women backpackers are the best kind of people.
Women who backpack have unique personalities
Anecdotally speaking, we’re different from other women in our personalities — we tend to be open to learning new things, and often have grown up being told we could be anything we wanted (somehow the word “outdoorswomen” wasn’t really on our parents’ radars back then). We want to be the valedictorian of the backcountry!
Intellectually we know we’re supposed to accept failures as learning opportunities, but in our heart of hearts, we just want to be good.
It’s often overlooked that Cheryl Strayed, who wrote the quintessential woman-on-the-trail-memoir Wild was actually a fairly accomplished outdoorswoman before she set out on her famous Pacific Crest Trail trek.
She’d grown up in a house that didn’t have indoor plumbing, and had been on plenty of camping and hiking trips, both as a child and as an adult. She wasn’t fresh out of the day spa, looking for some fresh air — she was just desperate for some healing, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
Maybe you’re desperate too. It’s a quiet desperation, but it’s there. You want to experience the thrill of doing it yourself. You want to know what it’s like to watch the sunset over a campfire you built yourself. You want to walk through the woods, and not worry about work, family, relationships or any of that bullshit you left behind.
That’s why we backpack.
Mental Preparation for Women Backpackers
If you take nothing else away from this post, it’s this: Backpacking is 75% a mental game. You have to have your head in the right place in order to both enjoy backpacking, and stay safe.
Lots of women assume that backpacking is going to be really dangerous — they have visions of falling off cliffs, getting attacked by wild animals or bad people, or just experiencing bad weather.
Let me be totally clear: All these things are EXTREMELY unlikely. EX-TREME-LY UNLIKELY.
Animals tend to leave you alone (unless you have food, and there are plenty of precautions that you can take to avoid that situation). Generally bad people like to prey on people who are easy targets — hiking 10 miles out to the middle of nowhere so you can rob a likely-badass lady just isn’t worth it for them. And bad weather? Well, I like say there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad preparation.
So how do you overcome these obstacles?
You get intellectually and physically prepared. This means that you decide that you’re going to work hard at getting to a place that feels comfortable for you. You can’t prepare for everything that might go wrong, but you can prepare for a lot. Research the hell out of what you need to bring, where you’re going, how you’ll travel and what you’ll do in an emergency.
In fact, you’ve already taken the biggest step of all by reading this post.
So what should you do if you’re one of those people who screams when a twig snaps and pictures rabid grizzly bears tearing you limb from limb?
Remember these three points:
Steps to Take To Prepare Mentally for Backpacking
First, take a hard look at your real fears and take steps to remove their power. Do you watch too many crime shows? Stop.
Start watching nature shows instead. I like movies like Wild (though the book was better), Mile, Mile and a Half and The Way as inspiration. Read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. Change your thinking, change your life. It turns out that you are a backpacker!
Imagine yourself free of any obligation other than getting to your next campsite! No work. No family. No email, TV or news shows. Eventually your “city senses” start falling away and you return to a state where you can hear things, smell things and see things you couldn’t before. You start to remember that you are part of something bigger, part of the natural world. You are nature.
I cover this more thoroughly in another section, but just know that the physical training helps with the mental training. The stronger and more fit you feel, the more mentally prepared you’ll be to deal with anything the trail throws at you (though don’t wait until you’re in perfect shape to go backpacking — that day will never come!).
First, start small. Celebrate your small victories when they come, and set bigger goals.
Next, think hard about what a bad day on the trail might look like. What if it rains all day? What if it’s cold? What if you get lost? What if your gear doesn’t work? Every single one of those problems is workable — you just have to anticipate what they might be and then actually prepare for that possibility.
Finally, imagine what it will feel like after you’ve completed this feat. What pictures will you bring back? What stories will you tell? How will you feel about yourself — stronger? More confident? More relaxed? How will you feel when you're sucking down that shower beer you've saved just for this occasion?
So if you’ve never thought of yourself as “outdoorsy” or a backpacker, it’s time to start changing your thinking. Prepare, then take the risk. In fact, that’s pretty good advice for anything new you do in life.
Jill Hinton Wolfe,
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