The World on Your Shoulders: The Joys of Backpacking

How to live life with everything that you need strapped onto your back.

Here is the peak of Mount Baldy, as seen further down along its ridge. The peak stands at an elevation of 12,441 feet.

Is city life bogging you down? Imagine being immersed in the natural world, without the worries of school, society, and responsibility weighing on you. A combination of camping and hiking, backpacking draws appeal from newcomers and veterans alike by giving you the chance to get off the grid and see unique natural views. During the quarantine period of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people picked up new and creative hobbies, such as baking sourdough bread, knitting, or making origami. Others found their solace in the expanses of nature, hiking new trails and maintaining their physical fitness. In a city as large as ours, it is often easy to forget what the world looked like before paved roads, mass transit, and skyscrapers. For this reason and more, it is important to get out into the backcountry and experience the world as it is meant to be seen.

Backpacking lets us witness firsthand the wonders of the natural world. Teddy Roosevelt once said, “There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm.” Climbing to new heights can give you a bird’s-eye view of the world that makes for a wonderful moment of introspection. There are also many wonderful species of flora and fauna to learn about and see firsthand. 

New York State is home to the fastest bird in the world, the peregrine falcon, which nests high in rocky cliffs. Out West, you can find the ponderosa pine tree, which, besides growing to heights of over 200 feet tall, smells like butterscotch. For those less interested in birdwatching, backpacking is an excellent way to stay active and healthy.  Simple aspects of our world such as these often go unnoticed as people remain occupied by urban responsibilities. Why stay cooped up in a gym when you can get a workout exploring the great outdoors? 

As a backpacker, you have an obligation to conserve the ecology around you. John Anderson ’23 recommends that people “cut back on logging, protect more areas, and teach the next generation LNT principles.” Leave No Trace, or LNT for short, is a series of seven steps that you can follow to reduce your impact. Plan ahead and prepare because you cannot enjoy your trip if you are hungry or hurt. Travel and camp on durable surfaces so that you do not disturb or destroy the ecosystem around you. Dispose of waste properly to prevent wildlife from being harmed by your garbage and so the next person can enjoy a trash-free hike. Leave what you find, so that the next visitor can see the same natural features that you enjoyed. Minimize campfire impacts: if you choose to make a campfire, follow all local regulations and make sure it is never left unattended. Be respectful of wildlife for your safety and theirs. Lastly, be considerate of others, because you are not the only one traveling and everyone deserves the same opportunities and respect. We have a responsibility to protect the environment and preserve its wonder for generations to come.

There are some dangers in the outdoors, however, as you face the elements, wildlife, and your own limitations. One of your highest priorities should be packing for the weather. Proper rain gear, including a jacket and backpack cover, will help you stay warm and dry in the likely event of rain. Dress according to the weather, with proper combinations of under, middle, and outer layers as needed. A lightweight under layer can help keep you warm in cold temperatures, especially when combined with middle and outer layers such as a fleece and light down jacket. In hotter temperatures, synthetic, moisture-wicking fabrics are a must-have. Hypothermia and heat stroke are two ways in which you do not want your trip to end, and they are simple enough to avoid, so long as you dress appropriately to the climate.

 If you come across larger animals, a good rule of thumb is that they will not bother you if you do not bother them. Bugs on the other hand, are a nuisance that can only be solved by using a healthy amount of bug spray. All animals, large and small, are attracted to the smell of food, making proper food storage essential. When you set up camp for the night, make sure your food is properly stored in bear bags or bear canisters, which are containers that prevent animals from gaining access to your smellables. Smellables include food, soap, toothpaste, duct tape, and pretty much anything that animals can smell. 

Choosing a proper backpack is reliant on a few factors, including how long the trip is, how tall you are, and how much weight you can feasibly carry. A well-fitting bag can make or break your trip, so it is important to try on your backpack (filled with your gear and water) before you head out on trail. After getting your backpack the next step is filling it, which requires careful budgeting and consideration of what you really need. Always keep in mind that you have to carry everything that you decide to bring. Choosing lightweight, tight-packing items is a good way to keep your bag light while leaving space for other things you need to pack. After deciding what you want to bring, you should go over your list and cut anything you realize that you may have no use for. Must-have items include your methods of navigation (GPS, map compass), sun protection, flashlights or headlamps, a first aid kit, as well as extra food, water, and clothes beyond the bare minimum. 

One main complaint about backpacking is that there are no places to backpack near New York City. Anderson said that his favorite part of backpacking is “the views and the wildlife. You can’t get to experience nature in New York City like this.” Though we are in a highly metropolitan area, have faith, because there are many extraordinary places to backpack that are close to the city. The State Line Lookout in Alpine, New Jersey, is a nice place for a day hike or to go cross-country skiing in the wintertime. There, you can see peregrine falcons and other birds of prey in action during the Autumn season. Not too far upstate, Harriman State Park is another scenic place where you can climb the foothills of the Catskills and camp out on top of small mountains. There are an abundance of places to enjoy the majesty of nature, if you choose to take the step to go outdoors and see them.

Teddy Roosevelt once said, “There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm.”