20 Feb A Month in the Backcountry
How a 30 day Adventure in the Wilderness Will Change your Life
By: Kimball Stewart
(For more details, visit Yosemite Leadership Expedition.)
A short backpacking trip is often enough to instill delight and gratification beyond what many other activities can offer. By simply stepping into the wilderness for a few days—and leaving the routines of your day-to-day life behind—it’s possible to experience an overwhelming sense of relief and rejuvenation. And for most people, a few days is all it takes. But to remain in the wilderness for an extended period of time can multiply these effects. To anyone who is allured by the idea of embarking on a long backcountry trip, I suggest you do it!
My first such experience came when I was 16. I flew to Wyoming from Boston (my first time leaving the East Coast) to participate in a month-long backpacking expedition with a dozen other kids my age. Until that point, I had only ever spent two or three consecutive nights camping in a tent. As you can imagine, signing up for a 30-day excursion was a plunge into the unknown.
What transpired during that month deep in the Wyoming backcountry was something so profound that it has since shaped the trajectory of my life. Beyond the passion for being outside that the trip imbued in me, I came away with four lessons that will surely remain with me for the rest of my life.
First, I learned to cherish simplicity. Backpacking is all about shedding unnecessary burdens. I realized very quickly that everything I needed to live comfortably could fit into my backpack. As a group of 15 (twelve students and three instructors), we carried only the things that were utterly necessary. Some might argue that a daily hot shower, cold soda, and a hairbrush are utterly necessary—and they truly might be to a select few—but when you have to carry everything on your back, you realize what you can do without. For 30 days I remained fully satisfied with the three polypropylene t-shirts I had brought. I gave each one ten days of vigorous use before moving to the next. Odor was a negligible concern since we all smelled equally atrocious. I had five pairs of socks (which were my most prized possession) and remember realizing how luxurious that seemed. Five whole pairs of socks!
The second lesson that I gleaned was the value of camaraderie. Despite being starkly isolating, the wilderness has the unique ability to bring people closer together. Hiking, cooking, laughing, and snoring with 14 other people for 30 consecutive days is grounds for tight social bonding in any environment—but especially in the backcountry. The success of our entire expedition depended on the cohesion of the group. Naturally, whenever twelve 16 and 17 years olds are tossed together for an extended period of time, heads will butt. Personalities will clash. Dramas will ensue. But living together in the mountains ultimately taught us how to work through these tensions—and the value in doing so. Our lives depended on each other, sometimes quite literally. It was crucial that we learned to trust each other (primarily with not burning the mac & cheese, but also with more sobering tasks like fording a strong-flowing river). The expedition was an intense experience that each of us contributed to and could share together. As a result, life-long bonds were cemented. I’ve seen a number of the folks from that trip over the past eight years and whenever I do, we smile.
Beyond the remarkable social lessons I learned during my trip, I also developed an unshakable knowledge of my own capabilities. I pushed myself hard during those 30 days. I vowed not to complain about the crippling weight of my pack or the bulging blisters on my heels. During a multi-day rain storm I forced myself to remain chipper, despite being soaked to the bone. Sometimes, the discomfort and fatigue seemed unbeatable. But that’s an integral aspect of extended backcountry travel. Things aren’t easy. And that’s why such experiences have so much potential to be impactful—especially to a 16 year old. After realizing I was capable of conquering discomfort, I felt glorious. After the trip, back in the comfort of my living room, I vividly remember feeling like there was nothing in that land of suburbia that could defeat me.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson of all, however, was how to competently and confidently travel in the backcountry. The month-long expedition had a rigorous structure that taught me the essentials of outdoor leadership and risk management. I credit much of my current hazard-awareness and safe backcountry practices to that original trip. After that month spent in Wyoming, I immediately starting organizing personal backpacking trips for myself and small groups of friends. In the eight years since that trip to Wyoming, I have developed and honed those skills I learned. As a result, I now have the ability to explore the wilderness frequently—and each time I do, I am exposed to the profound and lasting impressions those experiences offer.
If you are trying to decide what to do this summer—and the thought of not showering for 4 weeks days doesn’t make your knees buckle—then consider joining Lasting Adventures this July for our 28-day Yosemite Leadership Expedition. For more details, visit Yosemite Leadership Expedition.