Some of my best lessons in life have been learned the hard way — thru-hiking no exception. It seems I’m just one of those folks who prefers to live and learn. Maybe you are, too? Fair enough. But if you'd like to save yourself a stumble or two, I give you this list of five ways I've tripped up.
Now, I’ve certainly made more than five ‘mistakes’ (believe me!). But in an effort to not bore your socks off (and keep my ego somewhat intact), I’ve narrowed it down to the ones that have had the biggest impact on my life … a couple of them I’m still working on! Note: I put ‘mistake’ in air quotes because I really only think it’s a mistake if you don’t learn from it. So, for lack of a better word, ‘mistake’ it is.
Bringing Too Much Stuff
This one's a classic and I know you’re smiling right now because you’ve also been there, done that! I’m not sure whether it's because us creatures of comfort have a hard time leaving luxuries behind, or if it was my lack of experience trying to make up for itself?
Either way, it didn’t take me long to realize my knees, hips and back paid the price. On that first trip, as I hiked, I started taking a mental inventory of all the superfluous things I had stuffed inside that 75L behemoth of a bag — and how I would do it differently next time, if I survived this trip.
Yes, Mom, it’s good to be prepared; but it’s another thing entirely to put fear in the driver’s seat.
On that first 10-day thru-hike in mid summer, I brought three pairs of pants and two extra pairs of shoes. Spoiler alert! I didn’t use any of it!
Eventually, I was won over by Gossamer Gear’s slogan, ‘Take Less, Do More’. Downsizing from a 75L backpack to a slim, trim Gorilla 40L was terrifying at first, but it forced me to pair down to what I actually needed.
I realized very quickly that my body felt better and my mind freer. I learned that going lighter is both a life and a limb saver.
Rushing the Miles
Counting the kilometers that lay in front of you can be both exciting and daunting. On more than one occasion, I’ve found myself speeding up my steps instead of slowing them down. In turn, I end up missing out on all those little moments that make thru-hikes so special.
Since I’m pretty sure that life is just one big collection of little moments stacked back-to-back, if I’m constantly running from one task, or trailhead, to another, I might be missing the point entirely. I’m out here to reconnect with myself and my surreal surroundings, and rushing that experience makes me feel out of alignment.
I remember coming upon a threesome of thru-hikers on a warm spring afternoon on the Juan De Fuca Trail (JDT). They had a hammock set up in the middle of nowhere and were watching the salt water waves wash up on shore. A quick calculation had me knowing that they wouldn’t get to camp before dark and after stopping for a minute to chat, we continued to boogie on by.
As we set up camp that evening, with hours to spare before going to bed, I realized that there was no reason to rush the day away. I had plenty of time to stop and smell the saltwater, or rest my legs for a few minutes more. That day I learned to be more like the hammock people.
If I find myself feeling daunted by the task at hand, like I don’t have enough time to complete the journey in the allotted time, I could consider choosing a shorter trail, doing a section hike instead, or simply giving myself more time to enjoy the experience.
Poor Backcountry Bathroom Etiquette
This one will likely lose me points with my LNT friends, but as I mentioned in my QiWhiz Trowel Review, I used to have really crappy backcountry bathroom etiquette. I would use outhouses when available, and always do my doo away from waterways and paths, but I’ve definitely left my fair share of TP flowers trailing behind.
There’s really no good excuse for my behavior, so I’ve stopped trying to find one. I acknowledge that I was prioritizing my own convenience over the consideration of the planet and all other beings.
I can’t be totally sure what helped me change my ways, but I know a proper backcountry bathroom kit (aka a trowel and plastic bag for TP) were key features in helping me make the shift. Life lesson : Be a better person, dig a cathole and pack out what you wipe with.
Capturing For Others Vs. Soaking in the Moment For Myself
Hands up if you’ve ever had this experience: You are summiting some amazing mountain peak that took hours of hiking, and before you even make it to the top to enjoy the jaw dropping view, you find yourself pulling out your smartphone, watching the scenery second hand on your screen while recording the moment, instead of immersing yourself in it?
No? Me neither. *Cough, cough*
Finding a healthy balance with technology has been a challenge for me. Letting my phone addiction interrupt sacred moments in the great outdoors became something that was really rubbing me (and my partner) the wrong way. Didn’t I come out here to disconnect technologically, so that I could reconnect fundamentally? Or did I?
I really had to ask myself what was motivating my adventures. Was it my desire to be in nature, soaking in the beauty and making the most of my limited moments of life? Or was I out there to take pretty pictures to post online, so I could show people what I wanted them to think of my life? Hmmm.
Perhaps the ultimate irony is that what I was trying to capture through my phone was the moment that I was hoping to experience in the here and now. Did I think freezing it in time would let me save it for later?
All we have is this amazing present moment, and so my ongoing practice is to learn to live in it more of the time, both on the trail and off.
Worrying About My GPS Watch/ Tracking
Did I press pause when we stopped for lunch? What if I forget to start it again? I forgot to start it! Is the battery going to last? Do I have enough storage for these long hikes?
These are the sorts of tedious thoughts that I’m embarrassed to admit take up space between my ears.
I was two days into a ten day thru-hike on the Sunshine Coast Trail (SCT) in British Columbia, Canada when my watch battery started to fade. I reached into my backpack to grab the charging cord only to realize I had forgotten it back on my bike. I was bummed. I sulked and whined and wished it was otherwise. I really wanted to ‘capture’ this hike, I kept saying aloud.
After hours of moaning, and missing out on countless memorable moments, my partner took me aside and gave me a good, gentle reminder. “Even though you aren’t able to track this hike, you are still able to capture it, in real life. You are alive, surrounded by incredible majesty and you’re allowed to enjoy it. You just have to choose to do so.”
As it turns out, I didn’t die just because my watch did. How did I lose sight of that? I tucked the dead weight into the side of my bag and gave my head a shake. For the remainder of that trip, I felt far freer, not having those silly contemplations ruminating in my mind, and I was finally able to truly lose track of time.
It turns out that I don’t need to know how far we walked, how long we hiked, or how much elevation we gained or lost, in order to have an amazing, life-changing experience. AND it’s still great, regardless of whether or not anyone else knows I did it.
More Than Mistakes
This list could go on for days — not telling people my travel plans, using my brand new water filter in a mud puddle, leaving my shoes out to ‘dry’ in the rain, and on and on. These experiences have become more than my ‘mistakes’; they are truly my life lessons. They remind me to be more mindful, conscientious, present and connected. So, I plan to keep going out and making ‘mistakes’ so that I can continue to learn, grow and evolve into more of the person I’m hoping to become.
Ali Becker is a freelance adventure writer and narrative storyteller who shares compelling conversations about personal transformations, overcoming limitations, wellness education and adventurous situations. You can follow her rambling adventures on social at @thisisalibecker or at her blog thisisalibecker.com.