Learning Curve: Backpacking is the Great Equalizer

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Home Forums Campfire Editor’s Roundtable Learning Curve: Backpacking is the Great Equalizer

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    Maggie Slepian
    BPL Member


    Companion forum thread to: Learning Curve: Backpacking is the Great Equalizer

    Maggie Slepian considers what it means to be a perfectly average backpacker in a city (and industry) full of high-achievers.

    BPL Member


    Enjoyed reading this. Well said Maggie!!  I always say, If there is one thing that I am good at and I enjoy doing, its backpacking/camping.  I can walk thru the forest, up and over mountains across streams and rivers, I can carry everything I need to live and I can sleep out in the wilderness comfortably, day after day and night after night, in all 4 seasons. I can be happy doing this too!! It doesn’t matter what pace I go or where I am going, I am doing it my way.  I am good at this and I am happy. It fulfills me every time I step outdoors and is highly satisfying.  I don’t have to compare myself to anyone, the only comparisons I make are to the views and nature surrounding me for every step I take in a new landscape.

    Paul Wagner
    BPL Member


    Locale: Wine Country

    While I agree with the overall point–that backpacking doesn’t need to be (and in my opinion shouldn’t be) competitive, I am always struck by people who say they aren’t competitive–and then list the ways and whys in which they feel that they cannot compete in one sport or another.

    I often find that people who say they are not competitive are in fact the most competitive of all.  Because by saying they are not competitive, what they are really saying is that they absolutely hate losing, and can’t stand to play sports when they don’t win, or at least finish on the podium. And so they say they don’t like competition, when in fact what they really don’t like is losing.

    I’ve played sports my whole life–at least until my body finally told me to stop with big injuries–but I was rarely, if ever, the best player on the field or court.  I almost never cared whether my team won or lost, although I did care whether or not I played as well as I could.  It was often a delight to be one of the weaker players on a good team—in fact, this was true on the most memorable team of my life–not because we won a lot, but because playing on that team pushed me to play better and gave me no excuses for no doing so.  And I also thought it was great fun to play well on a losing team, trying my best, getting beaten, and realizing that they opponent was simply better, period.  At times I would even laugh out loud when someone good made a play that really and truly showed how good they were–even when it meant that I lost, my team lost, or I got beaten.

    Backpacking isn’t competitive.  No need to mention 25 or 15 miles a day.  Or 10. or 6–because fifteen miles a day is still a lot of miles for most people who backpack.  We all hike out there for different reasons, and some even do so with real physical (and mental, for that matter) disabilities.  And we all have fun.  We all enjoy it.

    I also think that is true for a lot of people in a lot of sports…they just find the appropriate level for their skill and condition, and enjoy the hell out of playing the game.


    Todd Raish
    BPL Member


    I am closer to 60 than 50.  Life has shown me that everyone, no matter what your athletic accomplishments are, at some point, has to hang up their cleats, or their ice axe, or their mountain bike, or the 80 liter pack, or stop heli-skiing and return to the blue runs near the base of the mountain.  Even Michael Jordan hung up his high-tops.  It’s inevitable.  Except maybe for Tom Brady.

    However, backpacking is exactly what Maggie says that it is.  Timeless, and for everyone.

    We’ve all seen it on trail:  the young couple hauling the baby stroller up a Colorado mountain while carrying the baby in a backpack.  Or the group of old timers at the base of Pingora, in the Wind River Range, acting like teenagers.  Or the group of middle aged backpackers on trail at 11000FT in Utah who laugh and tell the story that they never played organized sports in their lives.  All of these backpackers are enjoying the outdoors, embracing the difficulty of getting there, in addition to the joy of arriving at the destination.

    We all have backpacking to enjoy until we can’t walk anymore, regardless of ability or athletic pedigree.  I am grateful for the BPL community and the support that they give to each other.  See you on trail.  Thanks to Maggie for a great article.

    Tipi Walter
    BPL Member


    Sadly modern backpackers put endurance athletes high up on pedestals (like Skurka) as if they deserve such recognition.  And there’s also the high applause for Thruhikers vs just regular backpackers.  Norman Clyde used to be a Hero with his 90 lb packs—now it’s the Fast & Light crowd.  Pack Less.  Be More.  etc.

    There seems to be alot of “fat shaming” regarding pack weights and there’s also a tendency for backpackers to fixate on high miles per day—as if a 25 mile day is any better than a 2 mile day.  And of course serious backpackers must sell their “brand”—their names and egos—when identified with the lifestyle of Backpacking—and so they write books and keep backpacking blogs etc.

    Paul Leavitt
    BPL Member


    Locale: Midwest

    Maggie this was very well written and my experience is similar.  I was the last one picked for the team in middle school too!  Yet I have lived a varied outdoors life hiking, canoeing, hunting, fishing, and backpacking.    At age 64 I continue to walk wherever and whenever I can.  Many/most  trips are solo because I cannot convince my 60 something friends that backpacking is fun.  There are ways than an experienced backpacker can enjoy others company on the trail.   Last year I planned a trip to the beartooths as a fishing trip on and off  “the beaten path” .  I told some co-workers family and friends about it and asked if anyone wanted to join me.   To my surprise I had 2 takers who had never been backpacking before.  One was a triathlete 40 year old RN and one a 63 yr old family member.  We all had different levels of fitness.  I was certainly not the fastest  walker.  The 7 day trip in the beartooths brought us together for a wonderful adventure catching cutthroat trout using Tenkara rods and enjoying the beartooths.  I am proud of leading my friends into the wilds and introducing them to the sport I love.   Planning a trip that was slower paced allowed for time to teach LNT principles, bear safety,  fish, explore off trail, teach navigation skills, emergency fire starting, food dehydration , ultralight equipment and clothing, and managing how much water needed to be carried.   Both of my companions plan  on continuing to backpack in the future.  My way to “Pay it forward”.

    d k
    BPL Member


    I grew up thinking that I hated any kind of athletic exertion, always the last one picked for the team, etc.  It was not until I discovered hiking that I realized it wasn’t the exertion I disliked, it was the competitive nature of everything I’d ever done while exerting myself (and, I suppose, coming in last when it came to anything athletic).  What a revelation it was to actually enjoy tiring my muscles, breaking a sweat and grinding up a hill!

    Dave Heiss
    BPL Member


    Locale: Pacific Northwest

    While I enjoyed playing baseball and basketball in my teens and 20’s, I was never part of an organized team.  Never really felt the urge, and truth be told my talent level wasn’t high enough that anyone ever pushed me in that direction.  It was always just friends and I playing pickup games whenever we could round up enough people.  Our games could get competitive, sure, but winning or losing was immaterial – we were really out there just to have fun.

    I find backpacking to be a similar blend of competitiveness and fun.  As a solo hiker I know the activity brings out some personal competitiveness (such as pushing myself toward a goal) but I’ve been backpacking for over 45 years now and I’ve learned that, most of the time, achieving a goal is optional.  Goals are nice, but having fun is more important.

    There are trips where I’ve decided to turn back or bail out before the end and I still had an absolute blast.  There are trips where I’m climbing to some off-the-beaten-path lake and swearing that this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, yet I’ve persevered and been blown away by the beauty of the place when I get there.  Win-Win.

    It’s impossible to lose if you’re a backpacker.  Everything is a win.  And I think Maggie would agree that the fun of simply being outside in wilderness is the biggest win of all.

    AK Granola
    BPL Member


    Interesting article! Being truly not athletic myself, and truly never having been so there’s nothing to lose (seems like the author actually is fairly athletic?), backpacking has never been about the miles, the speed, or the ticking of a box for me. I don’t even “always finish what I start” as Maggie does; sometimes I quit, which brings disappointment, but not shame. It’s really about the beauty of nature, overcoming the sometimes challenging circumstances, and a time for slowing down and reflecting. The chance to improve my fitness, become stronger, learn more about the world through observation. Time to think more deeply about the people I love and those I’ve lost. With friends it’s about sharing all of those experiences. And of course, berry picking; it’s often just about berry picking. There’s nothing better than that and no reason to make any miles at all when the berries are good.

    With social media though, I’ve found there can be additional social pressure – to get the good photograph, to pose for it, to portray the person we want to show, to tally miles/trails/trips, to participate in the gear competition, the comparisons, the one-upping. I’m glad I grew up and have spent most of my life without social media, even though I use it occasionally now. The world for me was not always about looking in the mirror, and I worry a smidge about the inner peace of those who form their lives around creating a social media persona of achievement; they can only come crashing down as we all do some day. Nothing I can do about it or need to do, except pull myself away and leave it all behind when I’m out in the woods.

    W I S N E R !


    In my experience the most competent, competitive, and driven Cool Sports Kids are actually the most humble. At a certain level, it seems to me that the need to posture often fades away. While it may appear to an outsider that someone relentlessly driven to ride bigger waves, run faster miles, climb harder grades, etc.  is doing so for highly competitive and egotistical reasons, as I age alongside some of these hard-chargers I have come to realize they simply cannot maintain that level of performance without love and passion for what they do. They’re not out of bed to train at 4AM because they want to beat Craig Wisner, that’s for sure. Their goals are a whole lot bigger than me.

    If I get passed by someone flying up a mountain trail or see someone paddle into waves that scare me and my first reaction is “It’s not a competition!”, that’s very likely my own bruised, competitive ego talking. If I am not competitive, their performance truly has nothing to do with me, I haven’t “lost” anything. So I celebrate their accomplishments.

    After all, the gazelle that just passed me is only doing what it lives to do.

    I find nothing wrong with competition. The problems seem to arise when we cannot square our own relationship with it.

    BPL Member


    Locale: The West is (still) the Best

    Hiking and backpacking is one of those athletic endeavors where it could pay to be more average.  Having done both for decades, I notice injuries tend to increase with speed … usually impatience or being inattentive to ankle rollers, etc..  Accidents happen, then gaining an hour or so becomes can become laid up elevating a swollen ankle or knee.  In my former backpacking club, the leaders would have everyone stop on the last major downhill, take a break and have everyone pull their laces, retighten up those shoes as that’s when injury was most likely.

    It’s worth noting hiker-type FKTers aren’t that much faster, it’s just they tend to start hiking before dawn and end their day after sunset/dusk.  So they are getting an extra few hours of hiking done and minimizing camp comforts to the extreme.  The joke being FKTers can be smelled before being seen …

    One thing about thru-hikes and LASHes is the math.  If going north, at a certain point the snow may become too much and/or the park closes if wanting to take that northern terminus picture.    Not to mention intervening fires and increasing toxic smoke if out west.  Mathematically, at a certain point in summer, a hiker needs to do a certain mpd to be safer and/or legal to the northmost point (assuming a continuous path).

    A weekend trip one is more worried about getting back to town and likely a job the next day.   The reward would be beer and food in town, but it was more savoring the free time.

    Q Smith
    BPL Member


    Locale: Texas Hill Country

    Well written.  This story of yours might help a lot of folks get it.

    I was the opposite I suppose.  Born with a lot of talent.  But, I knew at 10 that it didn’t matter.  Some, maybe most, never figure it out.  I’m glad you figured it out.  Sorry it took you so long… but the great news is that you have lots of years ahead of you.


    PS – Where were you when I was single and young?

    Ben Kilbourne
    BPL Member


    Locale: Utah

    I sucked at every sport ever, so I really relate. Maybe this has something to do with why I ended up hiking too. Something to think about.

    Mike M
    BPL Member


    Locale: Montana

    While it may appear to an outsider that someone relentlessly driven to ride bigger waves, run faster miles, climb harder grades, etc.  is doing so for highly competitive and egotistical reasons, as I age alongside some of these hard-chargers I have come to realize they simply cannot maintain that level of performance without love and passion for what they do. They’re not out of bed to train at 4AM because they want to beat Craig Wisner, that’s for sure. Their goals are a whole lot bigger than me.

    True that :)

    I think it’s all good; any and all folks getting out and enjoying our wild areas is something to be celebrated.


    BPL Member


    Perhaps a little off-subject, but certainly closely related:

    “I don’t even “always finish what I start” as Maggie does; sometimes I quit, which brings disappointment, but not shame. It’s really about the beauty of nature, overcoming the sometimes challenging circumstances, and a time for slowing down and reflecting.”

    In my opinion, therein lies the beauty and simplicity of backpacking solo.  I can do what I want, when I want, for as long as I want without any negotiation or having to address the needs and expectations of others.  If I want to bail I can bail.  If I want to stay in one spot for an extra day I can.  I you enjoy the freedom of backpacking, of knowing that you have everything you need to be warm, dry, fed and comfortable right there on your back…adding the freedom of doing whatever the frank you decide to do takes it to another level.



    Lennox N
    BPL Member


    Some of my favorite backpacking trips have been ones that I did not “finish what I started.” One of my earliest trips was to be into the Cirque of the Towers in the Wind Rivers. I spent months researching it. We are not climbers, so the trip was just to base camp in the Cirque and explore. While we were hiking in, we met a LOT of backpackers coming out and they all said they were leaving early because a bear downed their food bags and ate all their food. One guy carrying a gun said that they tried banging pots together, throwing rocks and he even fired his gun in the air and the bear just looked at him and continued eating. We were somewhat inexperienced at the time and decided to take the right hand trail junction instead, and spent a fantastic few days camping and exploring around and above Big Sandy Lake. That was 30-something years and many backpacking trips ago, but it is still one of my most memorable.


    Daniel Lee
    BPL Member


    Locale: Colorado

    Thanks, Maggie! I’m not a stellar athlete but appreciate the personal challenge of getting over a pass or long hike and totally agree that it’s a personal perspective. I was on the Four Pass Loop, Colorado, and came upon a dispersed group of older gentlemen backpacking… Probably a mile or so between the first and last party member.  Average age was probably 75 with enormous packs!  I asked one of them “When do you stop backpacking?” (I know kind of  a silly question) to which the wizened gentlemen simply replied, “When you stop.”  One of my bucket list items is to take my grandchildren backpacking… That seems to a long way away considering my kids aren’t even married yet so I better not stop!  Thanks again!

    Eric Blumensaadt
    BPL Member


    Locale: Mojave Desert

    I hear you Maggie. The old saw HYOH is true. Three years ago at 74 I backpacked the Grand Canyon from the North Rim to the South Rim in the usual 3 camps and 4 days. It was tough but still enjoyable. My hiking buddy Len was 71 so I named it “The Geezer Hike”.

    Len had definitely trained more for this hike than I had but had knee problems so things evened out. On the downhill part (North Kaibab Trail) I went slower for Len and coming up the last day to the South Rim Len would take “photo breaks” while I trudged slowly uphill.

    It was a memorable trip and, like Camelot, it only rained at night and that was only on on the first day.

    This was my 2nd Grand Canyon backpack, the first when I was 65 and more fit. So you have to learn to forgive yourself for the depredations of age and just enjoy the hike at your own pace. For a former XC racer who always had lots of backpacking energy I have learned about gaining some humility and insight into why we Really backpack.


    Daniel Linquist


    Maggie, this is SO great! I think this is maybe why backpacking has always been such a big part of my identity… I maybe can never (or could never) compete with my high-performing athlete friends, but I COULD (and can) get into amazing remote places that make memories and experiences of a different kind. We are now introducing our daughters to the same ideals, and the understanding that you never have to be best, you just can’t give up.

    Dan Madden
    BPL Member


    Having backpacked since the late 60’s when you were considered ‘beyond weird’, i.e., “why would anyone want to sleep on the ground, walk in the rain for hours and possibly get eaten by a bear?”. Back then there didn’t seem to be competition but rather the simple enjoyment of the beauty that surrounded you and more importantly, being far away from the deafening crowds, aka ‘the rat race’. Having spent most of my working life in the outdoor industry, I find most of the comments about outdoor gear highly amusing, especially when the nitpicking gets down to measuring mere grams or reliance on lab test numbers, e.g., MVTR, HH, etc., to prove that your gear is better than the other persons, when in fact the numbers from the lab tests are typically used for internal quality control of a specific product and have no correlation to actual field use.

    IMHO, most of the ‘competition’ comes from ‘gear envy’, not necessarily one’s physical abilities – though that’s part of the equation also. It’s as if not having the ‘latest/greatest’ gear for the next trip means the trip is already doomed to mediocrity or worse… heaven forbid you run into someone while on the trail and they have the brand new tent/pack/sleeping bag you have been trying to justify by doing mega hours of research on the web – and never mind you already have four tents, five packs and three sleeping bags sitting at home in the closet.

    So, if you enjoy hiking at your own pace and have quality outdoor gear which provides safety, comfort and reliability, all of which is designed to enhance your outdoor experience, then where’s the competition?

    Eric Blumensaadt
    BPL Member


    Locale: Mojave Desert

    Dan M.,

    I can quit buying backpacking gear anytime I want. I’ve done it hundreds of times.

    Tim Cheek
    BPL Member


    I have two hiking speeds: slow and slower.


    Tom K
    BPL Member


    “For when the One Great Scorer comes
    To mark against your name,
    He writes – not that you won or lost –
    But HOW you played the Game.

    ― Grantland Rice
    Backpackers, take note.  :0)

    Denis D


    maggie  enjoyed the writing…Backpacking to me is the outdoors the personal adventure one looks for and gets…I played team sports and was a very good runner…So I just enjoy trips for self containment and peace of mind…I enjoyed planning them and just going..Therea other hikers faster than I am. That doesnt bother me..To each their own…But wished more people would see how healthy backpacking is…..

    Curtis Carmack
    BPL Member


    I love how flexible backpacking can be. Almost 50 years have gone by since that first trip and I still love it as much as I ever did. Sometimes it’s a group trip where we make very average miles, but get wrapped up in wonderful conversations amidst indescribable beauty. After a group trip I am socially renewed and the world seems bright. The times when I do long miles and fast pace are solo trips when my mind needs a break. When I’m pushing myself hard and not speaking to anyone, the only things I can focus on are my steps and the incredible surroundings. I come back from those trips mentally refreshed and ready to work again.

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