A favorite refrain among ultralight backpackers is ‘Don’t Pack Your Fears!’ While the idea behind this phrase certainly holds weight, it also misses consequential nuance. Because … we all pack our fears, in some ways, some of the time.
What hikers are really getting at when they use that phrase is, figure out which fears promote health, happiness and survival, and which fears are baseless. Then pack your pack accordingly.
I just returned from a soul-fulfilling, one-night, solo backpacking trip in the Wind Rivers. On trail, I played a mental game of parsing out the fears I did and didn’t pack, and why. I thought it would be fun to share my lists with you here.
Importantly, these lists are specific to this trip, for me personally. My line between tolerable and uncomfortable will be different than yours. And, weather, time of year, location, fitness, and many other factors will always change the makeup of these lists.
The Fears I Packed
Fear of Giardia
I’ve been fortunate enough to never experience giardia, but that doesn’t mean I’m not scared of it. That’s why I always pack and use a filter; to manage what I consider to be a pretty valid fear of water-born illness. Pictured below is a gravity water filter system using the Cnoc 2L bladder paired with the Sawyer Micro Squeeze water filter and a Smart water bottle. Helpful hint: unscrew the Smart water bottle slightly, after tightening, to de-pressure it, helping to create flow.
Fear of Rain
Getting soaked to the bone isn’t exactly how I like to experience the backcountry. That’s why a lightweight rain jacket and shelter, at minimum, always make it into my backpacking kit.
Fear of Cold
The close cousin to my fear of rain is my fear of cold. This fear is disproportionately large for me — and, frankly, I’ve reached a place of acceptance around this. I don’t like to be cold. Period. End of story. Mostly because once I’m cold, I never ever ever warm back up. My hiking friends call me “The Onion” because of how many clothing layers I wear — always two deeper than anyone else in the group. I’m perfectly OK with stopping 10 minutes into a hike to pull off a puffy jacket. And, I long ago determined that I much prefer a full fledged sleeping bag to a quilt.
Fear of Bears
The need to consider bears (there are now grizzlies in the Winds) cost me as much weight in my backpack as my sleeping kit. Even going ultralight, an Ursack paired with an Opsak, along with bear spray, easily adds a couple of pounds.
Fear of Hunger
Now, this is an interesting one, and probably best gets at what hikers mean when they say, ‘Don’t Pack Your Fears.’ Food is heavy. Even dehydrated and freeze-dried meals quickly weigh the scale down. But, of course, hiking hungry is obviously also a no-go.
Thus begins, the interesting, calorie-counting balancing act of asking yourself, just exactly how much is enough food, but not too much? And … What exactly will I find appetizing after hiking all day under the blazing sun?
For the longest, longest, longest time I erred very heavily (pun intended) on the ‘bring the extra food just in case’ side of the equation. And, then would stare shamefully at just how much I’d overpacked at the end of each trip.
So, on this most recent Winds excursion, knowing that bringing far too much food was my Achilles heel, I challenged myself to be more intentional. I first made the brave move of deciding to give cold soaking a whirl, ditching my Vargo BOT, stove, and fuel canister, for the first time ever.
I then parsed out my dinner, breakfast and lunch carefully, putting each into their own Ziplock bags. I examined every calorie, along with the overall nutritional profile of the food I was choosing to bring, taking into account my particular food tastes.
In the end, it worked, nearly flawlessly (I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the 3 string cheeses accidentally left behind in my cooler), and also fairly magically. Food for the Sole’s cold-soak salad was a wonderfully satisfying way to end the day (paired with a rice crispy treat for dessert), and I enjoyed my cold instant latte in the morning much more than I was expecting.
I ended my hike craving a chicken burger, with a reasonable amount of just-in-case, emergency calories stashed away. At the first town, I indulged in that chicken burger along with a large soft serve ice cream, feeling pride in having come close to figuring out what’s the right amount, and right type of backpacking food, for me.
Fear of Sun
Record-setting temperatures during this particular trip had me scrambling for my sun sleeves, lightweight hat, neck gaiter and hiking skirt. A notable ‘oopsie’ on my part was forgetting my travel size sunscreen. However, I was able to get my nose, ears, cheeks, etc. reasonably protected with my 15 SPF lip balm. I also wish I had had the wherewithal to pack some electrolyte salt tabs, which I lean on heavily when trail running.
Fear of Blisters and Chafing
Fear of an Emergency
Both a First Aid Kit and Personal Locator Beacon made it into my pack.
Fear of Pain
A herniated disc in my spine more or less sidelined me last summer. It’s been a long road to recovery, and I was plenty nervous about donning a pack once again. In addition to keeping the pack as light as humanly possible, I brought a Rawlogy cork massage ball to roll out my muscles and feet at camp, and I used trekking poles when hiking to help with posture and impact to my body. I also pair a Goosefeet medium-size, medium-fill down pillow with the Klymit X pillow to support my neck at night.
Now, The Fears I Didn’t Pack
Fear of Bugs
After living in Alaska for several years, my fear of bugs is plenty healthy, so much so that I waited until September to venture into the Winds, when the range’s notorious mosquitoes have largely made an exit. Thus, I felt confident bringing a floorless, trekking pole-supported shelter, sans bug net.
Fear of Snow
Before you laugh, I’ve experienced snow while backpacking in the region on a previous Labor Day weekend. But the forecasts this particular year left me feeling confident that sun exposure would be the mean issue to contend with. And, my route choice excluded snow fields — so the microspikes stayed home.
Fear of Not Being Able to Get the Perfect Photograph
I recognize my privilege in having a phone capable of taking beautiful photographs. And, in leaving the tripod behind, I missed that perfect shot of the Milky Way arching irridesentally across the sky, framed by towering granite walls on all sides. I have no regrets. (Also not pictured: me admiring said Milky Way while dry heaving from altitude sickness in the middle of the night).
Fear of Tangled Hair
My hair is very long, but I’m now fine dealing with a shambled bun for a few days, leaving a brush behind. This wasn’t always true. The old me clung tightly to my UL brush ; )
Fear of Boredom
On this trip, no headphones, nor book, for me.
Fear of Being Thirsty
With plentiful water along the trail, and no particular agenda other than my own, I carried only one water bottle, and then stopped to filter more water whenever it was necessary.
Fear of Being Uncomfortable
Creature comforts I left behind include: a stove, a camp chair, camp shoes, and a change of clothes. I will say that after this trip, I’m definitely upgrading to an Exped Ultra Sleeping Mat before my next outing.
Fear of Being Alone
This one almost foiled my entire trip. I’m not sure why actually. I’ve done any number of solo trips before, and as an introvert, I deeply enjoy time with myself. But for some reason, on this trip, I first had to get over myself before I could get on with it. Once I did, however, a solo trip turned out to be the perfect way to decompress from the whirlwind of the summer and reconnect with myself. I’m so glad that I decided to just ‘go for it’ when I felt that inner calling … the mountains are calling, and I must go!
In Closing ...
I think it’s interesting to look at the gear that makes it into our pack through the lens of needs and purpose. The act of scrutinizing each and every ounce can easily be game-ifyed, making packing and planning almost as much fun as the trip itself.
What fears do you pack, or leave at home? How does route choice, length of trip, and time of year change that for you? Leave a comment below!
Amy is the co-founder of GGG. The thing about GGG that she loves most is the community. When not tapping away at the keyboard, she can be found belaying her 10-year-old daughter at the local rock gym, trail running with her partner, or building clay creations on her pottery wheel. She's also obsessed with all things 1970s, from the era's political history to its design and architecture.