This fall, I witnessed the lives of 20 people change.
They became backpackers.
On the way to their initial goal of extending their day on the trail into night, they found much more. They dispelled irrational fears. They learned to be be self-reliant. They escaped the electronic world and they discovered that carrying your world on your back is not a burden but a blessing.
Last year, we launched the GetHiking! program, initially in the Triangle, later in Charlotte and the Triad. The goal: to introduce more people hiking by: a) assuring newcomers they wouldn’t get left behind; and, b) showing folks great trails locally and throughout North Carolina.
I had a hunch there were a lot of hikers-in-waiting out there and I was correct: today, the three hiking groups and a corporate wellness affiliate have more than 2,200 members.
Backpacking: A hunch
As our hikes progressed, I developed another hunch: that more than a handful of those hikers weren’t content to leave the trail at day’s end and drive home. Frequently on hikes, I’d sidle up to someone and ask if they’d done any backpacking. The typical response: a look of bemusement followed by wonderment over why on earth anyone would willingly venture into the woods carrying 80 pounds of gear, including a leaky tent, cans of beans, hefty cast-iron skillets and who only knows what other Medieval tools of survival.
Then I would explain how backcountry travel has evolved since the days of King Arthur. I’d talk about fast-drying ripstop nylon tents, ultra lightweight titanium cooking gear, sleeping bags and pads on par with any feather bed, and nightly meals of pasta primavera and turkey tetrazzini. I’d also mention that the typical load weighed closer to 30 pounds than 80.
Their interest was piqued.
GetBackpacking! Dispelling myths and fears
So this fall, we launched GetBackpacking!, a five-week program intended to turn the curious into the capable. Four weeks of training hikes, each focusing on a particular skill (gear selection and packing, setting up and breaking camp, cooking and endurance) followed by a graduation trip of three days and two nights at South Mountains State Park.
Nearly everyone who began the program entered with a significant … concern.
Elizabeth Lulich of Raleigh had never slept in a tent before, let alone in a tent in the backcountry. The notion was unnerving.
Her first night she quickly embraced one of the joys of backpacking: drifting to sleep serenaded by the sounds of the forest.
“I had all kinds of irrational fears going in and none of them came to fruition,” says Lulich, who completed her first Ironman this summer. “I learned that … stepping outside my comfort zone will open up many doors to me.”
Susan Levy of Cary had a similar concern — and also emerged with a different perspective.
“The best part was sleeping in the woods,” says Levy, who is semiretired. “I liked sleeping in the fresh air, feeling the darkness falling around me slowly instead of the instant darkness made by flipping the light switch. I liked the sounds of the night and the sounds of the morning.”
Life on the trail is a life of simplicity, of focus. Food, water and shelter are your basic concerns — your only concerns — yet the essence of survival.
“Backpacking is a great skill to learn in order to enhance self-sufficiency under less than ideal conditions,” says Robert Armbruster of Raleigh, “which can help us all to be more helpful in the ‘real world,’ when these skills might be called upon to help or save others.”
Being immersed in nature can connect you with the world in ways unexpected.
“It was odd to see how quickly the sun went down,” says Julie Shirah. “I now know what it meant in books like ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ when they couldn’t wait for the sun to come up.”
There were pleasant surprises.
“I was very surprised at the water,” says Levy. “I had it pictured as dirty, brown and smelly, with icky floaty things in it and there was no way I wanted to drink stream water or cook with it. But it was clear!”
Clear, maybe, but not drinkable directly from the stream, right Susan? (Think back to training hike No. 3, on cooking.)
“I was very skeptical of all filtering systems, but I drank the filtered water and cooked with it and didn’t die.”
All for one
Some discovered that it wasn’t all that hard to spend 60 hours straight with relative strangers. Besides, on a backpacking trip you don’t stay strangers for long.
“I was really impressed that a bunch of strangers wanted to make sure I had an easy, successful trip,” says Lulich. “I’m pretty sure I’ve made some good friends from our group.”
Indeed, the disappearing American tradition of borrowing a cup of sugar is alive and well on the trail — sugar in this case being everything from filtered water to extra GORP to a place to stay should your tent not work out.
Becoming self-sufficient is one of the big payouts of backpacking. Another: reaching places you can’t on a day hike. Technically, you could hike the entire 13-mile Black Mountain Crest Trail in one day, but it would be a very long day — and not nearly as much fun minus a night or two atop the Eastern Seaboard above 6,000 feet. Remote stretches of the Slickrock Wilderness, or Shining Rock, or portions of the Nantahala National Forest are likewise best enjoyed where they are least accessible in a day.
“I like being able to visit areas that are too far on a day hike,” says longtime car camper and hiker Eileen Francis, who is 50. “I’m excited about visiting places previously not “available.” (A week after her graduation hike, Francis backpacked on Bear Island, a remote destination when the ferry cuts back its runs from the mainland.)
A tent door opens
To most of these newly minted backpackers, their South Mountains State Park trip was a revelation. Yet in the North Carolina and Southeast scheme of backcountry adventure, from the Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia, to Mount Rogers and Grayson Highlands in Virginia, to our own vast Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests, to the Great Smoky Mountains and the Appalachian Trail, South Mountains is a baby step into the woods.
“I like hiking and this allows me to extend my time outdoors,” says Susan Levy. “I may get to hike to places I wouldn’t see if I didn’t have a tent on my back.”
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Take the first step toward becoming a backpacker — or at least learning more about it — by attending our GetBackpacking! information session in January. The details:
What: GetBackpacking! information session, covering what backpacking is about, how our program works, our first two sessions of 2015 (January/February and March/April), and backpacking opportunities in North Carolina.
When: Thursday, Jan. 18, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Great Outdoor Provision Co. in Cameron Village, Raleigh.
To sign up: Visit our GetHiking! Triangle Meetup site, here.