Imagine you are on top of a snow-covered mountain pass in the Goat Rocks Wilderness in Washington. (If you haven’t been to the Goat Rocks, picture soaring, jagged peaks contrasted with vibrant meadows of wildflowers, alpine lakes, and never-ending vistas of surrounding mountains like the 14,411-foot Rainier and 12,280-foot Adams.) You feel a mix of giddiness, friendship, fear, and maybe slight nausea. Looking back across the pass, you see a snaking line of footprints covering the snow leading to where you now stand. You’re tired and sweaty, but the world feels right. That crossing was stressful, but you worked together with your group to get yourself and your pack across a steep snow field, and it may have been one of the most challenging things you have ever done.
Moments after gazing at your surroundings in reverence, you’re laughing uncontrollably because you and your friends are pretending to be penguins sliding around on a tiny rise in the snow. You’re enveloped in euphoria, and it hits you how much you care about the people around you—and how beautiful, powerful, and quiet the landscape around you is.
Congratulations—you just had a brief moment as a student on an Adventure Treks backpack. This activity is, hands-down, the best activity we do during the summer.
That scene is one of many wonderful moments I have experienced while backpacking as an Adventure Treks instructor. I was 28 years old at the time of that particular memory, and I was acting every bit of 7 at the top of that hill. Everything felt so fun. We had done it. We had covered challenging terrain, and we were steps away from having solid ground back under our feet. It was a real turning point for our group, and I felt an unbreakable bond with those students for the rest of the trip. There is something about backpacking that brings people together. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why, but I think I can boil it down to three things: shared challenge, lack of electronic distractions, and what I am going to call “shared humanity.”
Backpacking by nature is not always easy. In fact, backpacking sometimes can be the perfect recipe for a serving of humble pie. Take a few parts weather (rain, cold, or heat), mix in a cup of insects (the dreaded mosquito), separate the river crossings from the elevation gain, and don’t forget that special dash of getting slightly lost at the end. Bake that for five days, and you have yourself some shared challenge. Taken at face value, this does not sound like tons of fun. However, there is magic in overcoming challenge, and even more so when you do it with your friends. It creates opportunities for group members to take on many roles they may not normally fall into. You may get to step up and lead, or maybe you’re the person that cracks a joke at just the right time to lighten the mood. Maybe you get to experience the feeling of being genuinely supported by your friends. At the end of it all, you did it. In a world of instant gratification, backpacking always delivers. There are few feelings like coming out of the woods after a trip. You smell bad, and you’re tired, but you feel like you’re part of something. Sharing that challenge with your team builds a bond that is hard to break.
Things are simple while backpacking. You only need to focus on a few questions: Where am I going? Do we have food? Where is the water? Other than that, you just take it all in and talk with your group. There are no bright lights, loud noises, ringers, vibrations, email alerts, television premiers, or sometimes even books to read. This lack of distractions allows you to focus on what is around you. At Adventure Treks, that equates to nine other people and nature. I’ll admit that I love the views, and the feeling of being alone in the woods, but what really makes backpacking fun at AT is the creativity. When you have that much time on your hands, all kinds of wonderful things can happen. I’ve played countless games, searched for wildlife, written group poems, taught constellations, had long, deep conversations, made nature art, and I even once spent an afternoon acting out a beloved book series (for several hours… it was Harry Potter). I’ve watched one-person plays, and I’ve created a different persona that I kept for days. You have time to talk about everything while on trail. What food do you love, tell me about your family, do you have pets, what would you do with a million dollars, if you could freeze time for four hours how would you spend it, if you could ride any creature to battle, what would it be?
Lack of electronic distractions
I often leave the woods knowing the people around me on a deep level, and it only took four or five days. I’ve had students tell me they are closer with their AT friends that they have known for 21 days than friends at home they’ve know for six years. With no distractions, you focus on what is important: your friends and creating memories of laughter and fun.
The final piece of magic that comes with backpacking is what I’m calling “shared humanity.” What does that mean? I believe being on a backpack at Adventure Treks breaks down barriers that separate people into groups. Do you go to private or public school? Do you love sports? Are you really into video games? What state are you from, or even what country are you from? Sometimes questions like this can make us gravitate toward different people or groups. Living in the woods out of your pack has a way of making all of that go away. Those differences just don’t matter. Again, the simplicity reminds us all of the things that we share, not the things that make us different.
Backpacking reminds me that we are all the same. We all get hungry, we all get sore, we all love snuggling into a sleeping bag when it’s cold. These things subtly break down differences between us and help the group come together. At the end of the day we are all people, and once you have one thing in common, you can find more. Once you find more, you find a friend. We are all human, and that shared fact brings the group together in a powerful way.
Our trips are filled with amazing activities. I will admit that mountain biking, climbing Mt. Shasta, or rock climbing sound more appealing and exciting on paper than backpacking. But time and time again, I most look forward to going into the backcountry with students every year. I would argue that the first backpack of an Adventure Treks trip is the very best part of the summer. I get to watch a group of strangers become a group of friends who will overcome challenges, create their own fun, and realize that their differences don’t really matter. Watching that process is truly one of the most rewarding pieces of being an AT instructor, and the only thing that tops it is being a part of that process and a member of the group. Some of my closest friends in the world have been forged while backpacking, and that is why I believe backpacking is the best activity we run at Adventure Treks.