I grew up a few short miles from a small island wedged between two rivers and the sea, surrounded by the swirl of fast ocean currents and intense rugged winters. The island, of course, is Manhattan. Looking back, it strikes some as odd that I became the outdoor-centric Western conservationist I am, more comfortable identifying birds than subway stations.
When I think about all aspects of the transition from youth to young adulthood—living on your own, moving to a different town, managing your own time and money, and the life lessons learned along the way—one had a special power in teaching me about adulthood: Backpacking.
In in my mid-teens, I made the jump into backpacking deep into the wilderness. It was the ideal age to be moving under one’s own power through a rugged and beautiful but also indifferent landscape. It was the perfect transition from teenage angst into action. I’d been hiking, camping, and canoeing plenty of times, but this was different.
The scale was different. My first backpacking trips were in the rugged mountains of Wyoming, far more imposing than the landscapes of the East. No round forest-covered hills here; these were granite spires complete with lighting storms and grizzly bears.
Carrying everything you need across a landscape is a great way to understand simplicity. Pack the minimum, know where everything is, and bring tools that have multiple purposes. The less baggage you carry, the more you’ll enjoy the experience, and the farther you can go in a day. The life metaphors are obvious.
The Hill Is the Hill
Climbing up a 12,000-foot pass in the Wind River Range, one thing became blatantly obvious: no matter how tired I was, and how much I bellyached or procrastinated, the pass was still 12,000 feet high and I was going to have to haul myself up it. There’s no substitute for persistence. Much of backpacking, like life, is the simple and unglamorous act of putting one foot in front of the other, and no amount of waiting, whining or wondering why will make it happen. Ultimately, it’s just you.
Pick Your People Carefully
I started backpacking in the age before cell phones. That meant if something went wrong, someone was hiking out to get help…which could take days. Trust in the judgment, skill and endurance of your fellow adventurers was at a premium. They also needed to be good companions, the kind you’d be willing to share a tent with if the weather turned bad for days, and whom wouldn’t complain about cooking in the rain when there was no way to just pack up and head home. No wonder outdoor adventurers are so tribal. When I started doing conservation work, I realized the same guidelines applied: find people you can rely on when the going gets rough, who can manage their own issues, and help the group first. Expedition Behavior rules can apply beyond expeditions.
Be an Experience Connoisseur
The other lesson was to value experiences, not things. Things only slow you down when you’re backpacking, but experiences grow deeper and more valuable. Simple food tastes better in the backcountry. Watching shooting stars and listening to coyote pups yowl, even if you’re cold, is an experience to be savored. So is morning coffee listening to the birds, even it’s not the fancy latte you’re used to at home. Days go slowly in the backcountry, as they should.
Things Are Better With Effort
When you’re backpacking, one rule seems contradictory: the harder you work for something, the better it is. That cobalt blue lake that you’re camped at may not actually be any bluer or prettier than the one at the trailhead—but the fact that you hiked two days to get there makes it seem bluer, clearer and better to swim in. Effort makes us treasure things. When they come without effort, we take them for granted.
As I grew older, I realized I’d taken a lot of what I learned as a 15-year-old backpacker and translated it into my adult life. If you want to teach a teenager some fundamental lessons about life, get them to load up their pack and hit the trail for a few days.