Dream vs. Reality: Backpacking

Dream vs. Reality Backpacking

Spending a night in the woods.

Many intrepid outdoor explorers get their first taste of the wild on a backpacking trip. Maybe it’s a simple overnighter, but it inspires bigger and better excursions to come. And indeed, venturing into the unknown with nothing but boots and a pack can be quite the experience. When done in solitude, it’s a chance for introspection and growth. With a friend, it’s an opportunity to forge new bonds over triumph and trouble. So how does the idyllic summer backpacking trip stack up to the reality of a couple nights in the woods? Let’s find out.

It’s all mapped out: the whole weekend, nothing but you and the wide-open wilderness. You leave work early on Friday to find the trailhead parking lot empty, a nice surprise and a good omen for the weekend ahead. Lacing up the boots never felt so good! You take it all in for a moment—no need to rush, it’s just you and the hills now. Once on the trail, your backpack feels lighter than usual. But you triple-checked your trusty packing list; you’re certain that you haven’t forgotten anything, nor brought anything unnecessary. Your legs feel strong. The air is crisp and clean, the scenery meditative. In a few hours of pleasant walking, you reach your destination: a beautiful alpine lake. It’s even better than the photos suggested, and you’ve got it all to yourself. Brook trout rise to bugs on the water, but no insects are biting you. A lunker is easily hooked, cleaned, and sizzled over a crackling fire, seared to a mouthwatering crisp. After an ice-cold beer that you packed in and placed in the water while fishing, you snuggle into your sleeping bag with a good book and a small flask of whiskey. No need for a tent; the skies are crystal-clear. Stars shimmer overhead, mountains tower on all sides, and the air is still among the timber. Tranquility occupies your very being. This must be how a monk feels after years of meditation—and it only took you one night. Why bother with Buddhism when you’ve already reached nirvana?

After a few drinks with a new acquaintance, a plan is hatched: next weekend, you’ll hike to an alpine lake and sleep under the stars. What better way to build a friendship? Saturday morning, Avery shows up an hour late, shouldering a huge expedition pack. It’s slow going on the trail: the sun’s hot, the bugs thick, your damn shoulder straps are digging in, and a blister’s forming. At an intersection, Avery insists on the right fork, despite your map illustrating otherwise; after an hour, the mistake becomes clear and you backtrack. Finally, just before dark, you reach the lake. The shore is dotted with brightly colored tents. You find a spot near some rowdy college kids, hoping they’ll turn off their music soon. Setting up the tent, you discover that you forgot the poles. Meanwhile, your companion is resting in a plush, oversized camp chair, taking selfies and drinking your whiskey. A dark cloud drifts in from the west. You fire up the stove, which sputters out just as the rice reaches a boil—shouldn’t have banked on that half-full canister. Your new frenemy offers up a few bites from an army-surplus MRE, which you choke down. Raindrops start beading up in the dirt, so you stuff your sleeping bags into the flaccid tent and wriggle inside. The wind picks up and nylon beats the air like a bullwhip. You hear a tree snap—crack, crash, boom!—and curl into a fetal position. Avery snores and flatulates, filling the tent with the acrid stench of half-digested cheese tortellini. It’s gonna be a long freakin’ night.