My dad took me on my first backpacking trip in 1997 when I was 7 and he was 45. Since then, we've logged hundreds of miles together—from short overnighters in our native Alabama to multi-day thru-hikes in more exotic locales, like the Overland Track in Tasmania, Australia.
My dad taught me everything I know about being safe and responsible as a woman in the wilderness: how to string up my food far away from my tent when sleeping in bear country, not to tell strangers where I'm planning to camp, and how to filter my water from a rapidly running stream.
But only recently have I realized that, throughout these adventures, my father was imparting these seven backpacking life lessons that have applications on the trail and beyond.
1. It's Good to Take Breaks
Not only is it okay to rest when you're tired, but it improves your entire experience. This applies whether you're carrying a literal forty-pound load or a metaphorical one.
If you need to stop and rest your feet while backpacking—or step away and take a breath when fighting with your partner, or take a day off when work has you frenzied—you should do it. It's not only acceptable, but it's also admirable—vital, even—to rest when you need it.
Not only is this rest good for you, but it's also good for everyone around you: your significant other, your colleagues, or your hiking partner.
2. Prepare, Then Roll with the Punches
Don't go wandering into the wilderness without a map. Pack your safety gear carefully, every time. Make sure someone knows where you're going and when you're going to be back. Check the weather and bring an extra pair of hiking socks.
But remember that all the preparation in the world can't account for everything. Sometimes, you forget a lighter and have to eat trail mix for dinner rather than the steaming mug of ramen noodles you'd been daydreaming about for the last six miles. Sometimes, you take a wrong turn and add five miles to a 12-mile day. Sometimes, it doesn't work out.
The only thing you can really control—out in the backcountry and everywhere else—is your attitude, so choose to have a good one.
3. Boredom is a Playground
Backpacking is my favorite activity, yet sometimes I find it incredibly boring. The tedium of walking miles on end, the hours of unscheduled, screen-free time at camp—there are plenty of moments that I crave additional stimulation.
This boredom is good and healthy and right and often turns into the most glorious form of entertainment. I once built an entire miniature village out of sticks and stones and leaves during an empty afternoon at camp. Another time, I took detailed, macro-vision photos of every type of fungus I could find, so I could look them up and catalog them later.
Let boredom lead your play! It gives your brain space for great ideas.
4. The Natural World is Fierce and Beautiful—Respect It
The wilderness is full of magic. Ferns can fold up at your touch and mushrooms can grow bigger than dinner plates and lizards come in a rainbow of bright colors. Also, there is lightning and wind and flooding and grizzly bears and moose and avalanches, all of which can kill you rather easily.
Treat the land with gentle reverence, tread lightly, and know that you are a small part of all of this. Let that fact fill you with awe, and make you proud and joyful and careful. We all live downstream, and the earth is on loan to us from future generations.
5. You are Worthy, You are Loved, and You Always Have a Place to Land
Of the many backpacking life lessons I've learned, this one is the most important. A certain friendship blossoms between two people when they spend days in the wild together. My father and I have talked endlessly—about mistakes and regrets, joys and dreams, our favorite foods, and things that make us laugh. Since I was seven years old, the backpacking trips we've taken together have served as a reminder that I am worthy and loved, and I can always come home.
These experiences gave me the confidence that I can not only rely on my family but also on myself. That confidence, that independence, has served me in every facet of my life.
6. If It's a Challenge, It's Almost Always Worth It
My dad could have taught these lessons in other ways. I doubt he knew the magnitude of what he would pass along to me when he took me on my first trip. He still tells the story of that first trip with a certain sense of surprise and delight. He strapped me into a classic, '90s-era, external frame pack loaded with M&Ms, and shortly after we left the trailhead, we got stuck in a deluge. We walked miles in the rain. I whined and complained, even sat down on the mud at one point and insisted I would go no further.
Later that night, as I slept beside Dad in the tent, he remembers thinking: "I've ruined it for her. She'll never want to do this again." But I woke up the next day, bright-eyed and fresh as children do, ready to continue our adventure (see lesson #2). When we got home, I couldn't stop asking when we would go again.
7. These Lessons are Worth Sharing
On Father's Day this year, I hit the trail with my fiancé for his first-ever backpacking trip. He loved it. We got chewed on by mosquitoes from dawn to dusk, and I have blisters on my feet that probably won't heal until fall. But we also swam in the crystalline waters of Lake Superior and spent hours talking—conversations that wouldn't have happened in the same way without the sacred space nature offered to us, the solitude of the trek.
I'm grateful to my dad for teaching me how to backpack in the literal sense—showing me how to plan a trip with easy water access, set up a tent in the rain, and properly load my hiking backpack so my shoulders won't hurt. But more than that, I'm grateful to him for carving out uninterrupted time with me.
I know that, long after he's gone, I'll think of him every time I plot out a route on a creased and stained trail map, light up my MSR stove (with the lighter I will never forget ever again), or open my eyes to light-dappled branches and the cacophony of early morning birdsong. And hopefully, someday, I'll pass on these very lessons to a child of my own.