How Backpacking Teaches You Everything You Need to Know About Life

DarrylBrooks by Leslie Cross on Unsplash

For a couple of years, when I was much younger, I spent almost every weekend backpacking when the weather allowed. This usually meant late spring through early autumn. I wasn’t one of those hardy souls that liked to rough it in the winter.

I worked in a bar at the time, think Cheers but with better characters. It was one of the most fun and interesting times of my life, but it was emotionally draining. Working my ass off twelve hours a day, five or six days a week while watching drunks get drunk and do what drunks do was tiresome. So, during the summer, every Friday or Saturday night after closing, I hopped in my VW Beetle and headed for the hills.

I drove to a spot I had found on an approach to the Appalachian Trail and parked. The last seven miles of the midnight drive was very windy, narrow, and somewhat hairy dirt and gravel road. The road is being generous, but with the windows down, creeping along at 10 MPH, it mentally prepared me for the day ahead. This was a time and place where I could leave my car on the side of the road for a day or two, and nobody would bother it.

Somewhere between 2 am, and 4 am depending on when I got out of the bar, I grabbed my backpack and headed up the trail to the top of Black Mountain, where I would spend the few hours until sunrise. Along with the drive, this one-mile hike up switchbacks to the peak became the transition between chaos and tranquility. If I was lucky and there was any moonlight, I did the climb without a light, letting my eyes, ears, and mind adjust.

Get Up Early

A few hours later, after a short nap, I learned my first life lesson. Get up before dawn, and you get a start on the day. If you’ve never experienced a remote and deserted mountaintop at night, you have missed a unique experience. Both sensory deprivation and overload at the same time. Gone is the noise, lights, and furor of the city. At first, it appears to be completely silent and totally dark. But as your eyes and ears, and the creatures around you adjust, the noise becomes a cacophony. And the light! If you’ve never been away from the city, you have never seen the stars.

As the night creeps toward dawn, everything changes. The noises of the night animals dim while those of the daytime creatures wake up. Then the darkness changes. You feel it rather than see it, along with a shift in the wind and temperature. There is no doubt; day has come. I crawl out of my sleeping bag and untie my pack from the tree it has been hanging from. It was hanging from a tree branch based on another life lesson.

Sharing is Caring

Some creatures will share with you; others will take everything you have.

There was another time and place; I was backpacking with a friend. We must have been in the Smokies as we had to camp in designated and reserved sites. Us and the few other campers at that location set up our bedrolls inside the provided shelter complete with a chain-link gate. As we began hanging our bags from the roof, a novice camper asked why we did that.

“We don’t want rodents and other animals stealing our food.”

“OMG, there are mice out here!?!”

We decided not to tell her why the chain-link barrier was necessary. She thought we were being silly and leaned her pack against the wall.

The next morning as we were all grabbing our packs and preparing breakfast, she screamed.

“All my food is gone,” she yelled, pawing through empty wrappers and boxes.

Hoping she had learned her lesson, the rest of us shared enough food to get back to where she started.

Enough is Enough

Back on top of Black Mountain, as soon as I had enough light to see, I pulled breakfast out of my backpack. It may have been an apple; it may have been a bag of trail mix. Whatever it was, it was enough. And that is one of the key lessons you learn on the trail. Enough is enough. Whatever you need, you have to carry it on your back. Up mountains and through rivers. Too much is too much. Enough is enough. Bring everything you need and nothing you don’t.

Purged of all memory of my week in the city and most of the poisons I had consumed, I strap on my pack and head north toward Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. The AT as it is called, winds for about 2,000 miles and ends on Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Dreaming of walking the whole thing someday (a dream I let slip away), I start down Black Mountain and then up Springer Mountain.

Many historians believe the Cherokee Indians discovered Springer Mountain. But I know it was actually found by me and my friend, Frank. The first time I made that midnight ride out of Atlanta into these mountains, Frank was with me. Lacking not only modern conveniences like a cellphone or GPS, but we also didn’t even have a paper map. I navigated by memory. (Another life lesson?) We were trying to find that same place, called Nimblewill Gap, where I would later park my car.

We never made it. At least, not by car.

Sometime around 3 am, pushing our way down a narrow trail, limbs scraping both sides of the car, I ran out of time, patience, and, most importantly, gas. I admitted we were lost and decided to pull over while I still had a half-gallon of fuel. In a ’73 VW, that would get me 20 miles if I was careful.

Home is Where You Are

It was then that I discovered another life lesson. If you are carrying everything you need, anywhere is home. We didn’t need to reach Black Mountain; we could sleep right here. One patch of ground is just like another patch.

At dawn, we rolled out of our bags, had breakfast, and went searching for a bathroom (not very far away) and some fresh water ( a bit further.) We decided we would spend Saturday wherever the hell we were, then Sunday morning, we would retrace our route (hopefully) until we got down to Hwy 52 and some gas.

Maintain Situational Awareness

So, after breakfast, we picked a random direction and headed out through the North Georgia woods. Since we were pretty much lost, we employed another life lesson I had learned in the city but became more important in the woods; situational awareness. There were rats, foxes, and other animals in the city, but out here, they had four legs and could be more dangerous.

Don’t pay attention in the city, and you get gum on your shoe. Don’t pay attention out here, and you walk off a cliff, get eaten by a bear, or both.

After a while of hacking through the brush, we came to a hill. What do you do when you come to a mountain in the woods? Climb it, of course. See what’s up there.

What was up there was more hill. You’ve heard the expression, make a mountain out of a molehill? Yeah, that. Plus, there was still no semblance of a trail. Just more brush to hack through, clearing most with a machete we had brought and the rest, we pushed out of the way with our arms.

And faces.

At multiple points, one of us would ask the other, should we keep going, or go back. We weren’t go back kind of people, so we pushed on. We hoped we would find someplace level enough to sit down by lunch. Or dinner. Or the bear’s dinner. A compass would have come in handy. Or a sense of direction.

And we finally found the top. The slope leveled off, and the underbrush thinned. We made it to the top of K2 without the aid of a Sherpa. Our canteens were empty, so we decided to look for a stream or spring before we sat down to eat. A few hundred yards through the trees, we finally spotted a sign. We hoped it was a Wile E. Coyote looking sign that said Water with a big arrow pointing down.

No such luck. This one said:

Elevation 3820 (no kidding)
Southern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

And an arrow pointing toward Maine.

We hoped there was water closer than Maine.

Drink When Thirsty; Eat When Hungry

And there was, just a little way down the path. And there was another life lesson, which may or not be valid any longer. Any water source on top of a mountain was probably pure. Over the next few years, we tested that theory many times.

Spoiler alert: I’m still alive.

But the fact was, that we two hardy explorers had discovered Springer Mountain. It was a joyous experience equaled too few times in the years since. We had our lunch and all the water we could hold and started back to our car and camp. Since we now knew where we were, we also knew how to get back. At least, we thought we did.

We took the trail we knew would take us over Black Mountain and down to the Nimblewill Gap road. After a few miles, a thought occurred to us.

What if this isn’t the same road we parked off of.

Know Where You Are. And Going

Life Lesson #87. Always have a map. Yes, kids, there was a time when colored lines drawn on paper were all we had. I think it was paper. It may have been tree bark.

We drew a rough vector in the dirt road, the estimated direction of travel, elevation, and time to extrapolate our point of origin from our current location.

We also decided since it was the only road in town, we might as well take it. At least it was going down. And one of the 180 directions it curved seemed to be generally the right one.

And it was.

We got back to camp just before dark, ate the last of our food, and drank the last of our water. Then we passed out.

I hiked many dozens, perhaps hundreds of miles over the next few years, and learned everything you need to know about life. The most important of these was learning exactly what you needed and what you didn’t need.

Food and water. Someplace to sleep — shelter optional. Knowledge of how to get where you are going and back again. This last one was frequently tricky, and I didn’t even have orcs, trolls, or those pesky goblins to deal with.

Mostly just mosquitos. Big, hairy, dragon-sized mosquitos that could carry you off while you slept. I only beat those guys once. It was the end of my longest hike, from Black Mountain to Hawk Mountain. According to the signage, about twenty miles. I can tell you that twenty miles through the mountains is a long day. I got to the top of Hawk Mountain and discovered an old observation platform at the top.

And I mean platform. A flat surface. Very high up. With no walls, railings, or other things to obstruct the view. Tired as I was, I couldn’t resist, so I climbed the rudimentary iron ladder to the top and took off my pack. I figured I might as well eat dinner up here.

The first thing I noticed was the spectacular view. People that haven’t tried it think that hiking through the mountains is one view and vista after the other. Mostly, you see trees and a hundred yards of trail. Views are rare and treasured. So I enjoyed this one.

The second thing I noticed was the lack of mosquitos. I guess I was too far off the ground for mosquitos. I was pretty sure I was too far off the ground for humans. But I had an idea. Why not sleep up here and avoid the mosquitos all night?

I didn’t say it was a good idea. Looking around, I failed to find anything to tie my rope to. As another famous explorer once said, “Sam, what about a bit of rope? You’ll want it, if you haven’t got it.” I always carried a small piece of line. Just in case I wanted to tie myself to the top of a precipice somewhere.

In the end, I looped one end of the rope around my wrist and the other around my pack. My thinking was, if I rolled over, the weight of the pack would wake me up.

This might be a good time to refer to the previous spoiler alert.

Freedom Comes From Having Less

The final lesson was one we already discussed. If you are carrying everything you need, then wherever you stop is home. I used this lesson dozens of times back in those years, but very seldom since. And that’s a shame. There is a sense of freedom that comes from carrying your whole world on your back.

If you need perspective. If you need balance. If you need tranquility. Grab some basic camping gear and a backpack and head out into the woods. The places I described are still there. (Well, not the observation tower. Some idiot probably tried to spend the night on it, so they took it down.)

But wherever you live, there is someplace similar within a few hours’ drive.

Go there. Take everything you need and nothing you don’t. Spend a night or two looking at the stars in a sky so black you feel you can see forever.

And come back with your own life lessons.

Comments / 0

Published by

I am a writer with over 16 years of experience and hundreds of articles. I write about photography, productivity, life skills, money management and much more.

Alpharetta, GA

More from DarrylBrooks

Comments / 0