I feel very fortunate that I grew up in a place with such easy access to the backcountry. Living in Truckee, CA, it’s absurdly easy for us to get on a trail and get away from town in under an hour. I recognize that this isn’t the case for many, many people out there living in urban areas or places that simply have less access to wilderness areas.
Throughout my teens and now all the way through my 20s, I’ve found so much benefit in getting away from the house and spending time walking, sitting, swimming, and sleeping in the wilderness. In the rest of this article, I’ll share with you some of my favorite health benefits of backpacking.
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Disconnecting From Technology
I’ve placed this benefit at the top of the list because, in many ways, it is the most important one to me. I spend a lot of time working on my computer and, despite my best efforts, reading articles on ESPN or swiping through Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, or every other social media channel. I also have a guide job that constantly requires me to check and re-check my email for updates on guide shifts, equipment needs, and logistics considerations.
As a result, even as someone who knows how important it is to separate from technology on a regular basis, I spend a lot of time reliant on it. And I know I’m not the only one. But by making regular time (at least through the summer months) to get out backpacking and walk into areas where I don’t have cell service and there’s literally nothing I can do on my phone, I find my heartbeat slowing down and my mind getting much-needed space to think about plans or issues that I’ve been pushing under the rug.
In my ongoing evolution, the time that I spend backpacking is vital for me to wrap my mind around why I’m here and what I want my life to look like moving forward. Without it, I feel that I’m at risk getting too wrapped up in my immediate cash flow needs and the requests of my employer.
“Stretching Your Eyes”
I picked up this awesome saying on a recent backpacking trip with a father-daughter combo from Oregon. On the last night of our trip, we got to talking about why spending time out of doors is so important and what benefits we each get from it. The father related this idea of “stretching your eyes” every time you get to spend multiple days (or even multiple hours) on a trail and away from the comforts of home.
Just think about it for a second: how many times have you gone hiking or just walking outside and noticed something that made you squint and wish you could see it up close? Whether it’s a large bird that just landed in a tree 300 yards away or oddly colored mountainside miles and miles in the distance, there’s almost always something that makes us stretch our eyes and wish we knew more about it.
In other words, spending time backpacking and recreating outdoors makes us realize how small we really are in comparison to the grand spectrum of evolutionary and geologic processes that have been going on here for millennia. In turn, this helps us put our own trials and tribulations into much-needed perspective.
Moving Your Body
Nowadays, we almost all have phones or FitBit watches that track our daily steps and activity level. While some of us are lucky enough to have jobs that give us daily excuses to move your body, we can still benefit from intentional opportunities to move our bodies in ways that align with our passions. When we’re working 40+ hours every week, it’s easy to avoid activity on our off days.
But the reality is that I always feel better at the end of the day if I’ve spent at least a couple hours moving my body during that day. I feel better about eating a big, healthy dinner and it’s so much easier to fall asleep when I lay down in bed at the end of the night.
When I was a young athlete, my coaches placed a big emphasis on developing quick-twitch muscles. I primarily played football, basketball, and ran short-distance events in track. So that emphasis made sense for that time in my life. But as I age, it’s more important to me to develop muscles that allow me to continue participating in the activities that I love, like backpacking and kayaking. In other words, I feel that I’m now working to develop more “functional muscles” that make more sense for the lifestyle I desire.
As a result of this lifestyle, I’ve wound up meeting a lot of older folks who have been backpacking, hiking, kayaking, and otherwise recreating outdoors since before I was even born. The common denominator seems to be that these folks just kept on doing the activities they love. They didn’t have any workout secrets or dietary regimens that allowed them to stay fit, healthy, and active. At the end of the day, they just haven’t stopped moving, and that seems to have made a dramatic difference.
Slowing Down and Relaxing
On the other hand, I also feel like it’s really important to take time to slow down and relax when you head out for your next backpacking trip. I have tremendous respect for those folks thru-hiking their trails of choice all over the world. But my preferred method of backpacking doesn’t include crushing 30+ miles every day. This is because I know the toll that this would take on my body and the subsequent decrease in motivation and enjoyment that would come along with it, for me.
I prefer to treat every time that I head out for a backpacking trip as an opportunity for a mini-retreat or vacation. Yes, it’s good to move our bodies while on vacation, especially if we have jobs that keep us sitting for extended periods every day. Maybe it makes more sense to hike 4-6 miles into a lake that you can base camp at for 2 or 3 days rather than trying to push 8-10 miles on the trail every day.
Maybe there’s more to be gained (for some of us at least) by setting up a temporary home base in the woods and settling into the sights, sounds, and smells of that place for a few days. I’m almost always amazed at how much more I notice in my surrounding environment when I truly take an opportunity to slow down. Whether it’s a nearby bird nest or the sound of the wind rustling the tops of the trees, there’s always something that moves its way to the forefront of my awareness that I was previously oblivious too when I was too caught up in rushing around, packing and unpacking, and making sure I didn’t forget anything at the last spot we stopped for a “packs down” break.
Tuning Into YOU!
In addition to helping me become more aware of my environment, backpacking and hiking have always been great ways for me to create space to tune into ideas, issues, challenges, and question marks that I’ve long been grappling with internally. Whether I’m concerned about love, housing, financial security, plans for the future, or anything else I might imagine, backpacking helps me create space to ask myself the hard questions and begin to formulate my best answers to those questions.
I feel like our daily lives are so overly-stimulated by social media, television, radio, and many other mediums of entertainment and communications. Perhaps more now than ever, we are desperately craving opportunities to create space in our lives to truly tune into ourselves. Sometimes this craving is subconscious and sometimes I find myself actively seeking out a better connection to my internal dialogue.
I’m realizing just how much that internal dialogue impacts the manner in which I show up for the people in my life. Often times, it’s a subconscious internal dialogue that I’m not consciously tuned into. But when you spend several hours a day just putting one foot in front of the other on the trail, it’s pretty hard not to start hearing (and paying more attention to) the thoughts that are swirling around in the ole’ noggin’.
One of the best tools I’ve added to my backpacking arsenal is my Rite in the Rain journal. I always keep it handy so that when new ideas present themselves out on the trail I can write them down quickly before they leave my conscious mind (I know they’re still floating around in my subconscious somewhere, but recall from there is still an art I’m working to master). After each trip, it’s nice to go back through my journal and see if any of those ideas are worth teasing out or implementing into my day-to-day routine.
The Health Benefits of Backpacking
I’ve been passionate about backpacking and spending time out of doors since I was 16 or 17 years old. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in terms of route choices, gear packing, backpack selection, and so much more. But these mistakes have taught me countless lessons that I continue to implement in my life. These lessons have made me a better person, regardless of my “skill level” as a backpacker.
When it really comes down to it, backpacking is simply walking around in the wilderness. Sure, we usually put on a bag that’s full of what we hope we need to survive for multiple days away from the comforts of home. But pioneers like John Muir would often walk with just a few pieces of jerky in his pocket and light fires every night to stay warm.
You don’t need to have the most expensive and up-to-date gear to go backpacking. You don’t even need to have all the right gear on your first time out. Even for experienced backpackers, every trip is an opportunity to learn something new, explore our internal and external environments, and unplug from the fast pace of modern society.
If you’re interested in backpacking but you’ve never been before, I highly recommend hiring a guide! As a guide myself, I really love the local knowledge and experiences that you can learn about when I travel to a new place and hire a guide from that area.
If you want to get out backpacking this summer in the Tahoe area (once the snow melts a little more!), shoot me a DM via my social media channels (links below) or send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to chat about getting you outdoors and teaching you what I’ve picked up in 10+ years of backpacking all over California!
What/Who is ‘The Backpack Guide’?
As The Backpack Guide, I’m on a mission to explore the wilderness, create learning opportunities, and connect with nature. These are the objectives that underline all the content I create on this site. I want to inspire others to recreate in their respective wildernesses and to do so in the safest, most enjoyable manner possible. I’m also very interested in the experiences of others in the wild and I want to create a community of people that share those experiences and the lessons they’ve learned as a result.
If my mission resonates with you, you think we may have an awesome opportunity to collaborate, or you simply want to connect, I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to reach out to me directly (email below), or share your adventure by tagging @thebackpackguide on Instagram, which is where I’m most active. You can also find me on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
The Backpack Guide
“In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.”
– Edward Abbey