Have you ever had the urge to enter the wilderness with a backpack, but dismissed it as an impossibly silly dream, because you felt too old and out of shape? I am here to tell you that you can do it! You don’t need to be young, thin, athletic or tough. Here is my story.
One day, as an already aging woman, I woke up and felt the desire to immerse myself in the woods. To walk as far as I wanted, then to go to sleep and wake up and walk again. Vaguely, I knew this vision had a name and it was called backpacking.
I am a 66-year-old Jewish psychologist, five feet tall and overweight. I was raised in the city, I hated gym class, and our family vacations involved staying in nice hotels. I always loved the outdoors, had a small garden and took walks in the neighborhood. But this powerful urge was like a call of the wild.
I wanted to be in secret, hidden spots, 5 or 10 or 20 miles from a road; places not available to mere mortal hikers or car-campers.
But wasn’t backpacking for lean young men who carried massively heavy packs into the mountains? I just wanted to walk and sleep among the gentle woods and lakes of Michigan, carrying tea fixings and a good book.
So, like everything else in my life – from pregnancy to being a therapist – I researched. I learned that it was possible to have a wilderness experience if you could carry 25 pounds on your back.
Thanks to modern technology you don’t have to carry a metal fold-out stove, army mess kit or heavy sleeping bag – there are lighter options.
As an out-of-shape older woman, my starting point was clear – could my senior body, with its occasional aching knees, back and neck, carry 25 pounds?
Nervously, feeling like an imposter, I drove to REI and bought a backpack – a special, symbolic, exciting event for me. Then came the moment of truth. I loaded it with 10 pounds of books and tried walking a mile.
I thought I was going to collapse. My shoulders and feet were killing me. Determined, I decided to be scientific about it and hoped in time I could build muscle. I scaled back to eight pounds for half a mile. Then I made a chart, and slowly, over three months, I built up to five miles carrying 25 pounds!
I thought endlessly about how I would furnish my backpack. To me, it’s like a doll house – all mine and the ultimate in self-sufficiency. I found the cutest, tiny stove, with miniature pots.
Then I added:
On a hot August day, I left home and my doubting teenagers, and set off alone for my first backpack trip.
I hiked eight miles that day and stopped every mile or two. I brewed tea on the trail and read my new paperback. I even took off my boots and dangled my feet in a stream. I managed to doze off for a little bit, enchanted by the magical forest sounds.
I didn’t really care where I ended up, but I did get to a beautiful pristine lake with no one around. I set up my tent and made it all cozy inside, then cooked beans and rice for dinner.
Years later, this is still the way I backpack. I hike slowly, luxuriously, like a hobbit not a soldier. If I come upon a beautiful creek five minutes from my starting point, I take off my shoes and wade and dream.
I nosh on yummy things I don’t allow myself at home, like my homemade trail mix of granola, cashews, and m-and-m’s. I always take popcorn. Sometimes in the summer I leave the cooking supplies at home and eat rice cakes with peanut butter and jelly, paring my pack weight down to a blissful 20 pounds!
In 16 years of solo backpacking, I have never had an injury or a scare.
Really, why do I do it? So that I can do whatever I want: Read a book cover to cover, uninterrupted. Write to my heart’s content. Spend the day in the hammock. Do nothing. Lie staring at the sky for hours, until the stars come out.
Fall asleep under the stars if I feel like it, outside of my tent, snuggled in my sleeping bag. Become a part of the woods, so the birds and squirrels circle fearlessly around me. Let go of time, and worries, and other people’s needs. Just me and the forest.
Do you love to hike or go camping? What does backpacking mean to you? What is your usual hiking preparation? How often do you go backpacking solo? Please share any tips that our more hesitant sisters would find useful.