Introduction to Backpacking: My Fears, Therapy, and Friends

A Change of Plans

I originally planned to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 2018. I spent most of 2017 planning, prepping, and purchasing gear for the trip. In August 2017, I learned that my husband’s job was relocating to Nashville, Tennessee, and my dreams of hiking the PCT were put on hold. I experienced conflicting feelings about our new circumstances; I was excited to live in and explore a new place, but was mourning the loss of my family, friends, and the mountains I called home.

My Nature Therapy Ritual

Hiking had become a ritual for me. Every week, I strapped on a day pack and headed out to a nearby trail for nature therapy. Some of my hikes were midweek, but the majority were on weekends. To spend more quality time with me, my husband started joining me. At the beginning of the week we would discuss trail options for the upcoming weekend. We usually selected day hikes six to nine miles in length. On a few occasions, we were ambitious and selected a 14-mile trip.

Post hike I was always tired, dirty, and filled with a sense of peace I never experienced anywhere else. My anxiety symptoms melted away when I spent time hiking in nature.

It’s Always Better with Friends

I was working at AAA as a domestic travel agent when I met Janelle. She had lost 100 pounds before we met, and was fitness focused, a triathlete, and up for any physical challenge. During conversations at work, Janelle learned about my dreams to hike the PCT and offered to join me on training hikes. She regularly joined me and became interested in backpacking. In February 2017, I shared with Janelle my plans to book a backpacking trip with REI Adventures to Mount Shasta. She looked over the itinerary and a few minutes later was making plans to book the trip and join me! We would end up going on two backpacking trips together that year.

Facing My Fears

I didn’t have backpacking experience and wanted to know exactly what I was getting myself into. I figured the best and safest way was to take a guided trip. So I booked a trip with REI Adventures, and started to research and acquire the gear I would need to take the trip.

Since this was my first backpacking trip, everything was unknown to me. I needed resources to guide me, so I did what most folks do. I read blogs and watched YouTube. It wasn’t a perfect method, but It led me in the right direction. Later I’d learn that testing my gear in the correct environment was the most effective lesson.

As the date of my first backpacking trip got closer, my anxiety grew, and I wanted to cancel. It’s was a good thing I’d paid for the trip in advance or I may have allowed my anxiety to talk me out of going. All those negative “What IF” thoughts were running wild in my head.

What If…

I can’t keep up with the group and I hold them back?

I can’t carry the weight of my pack that distance?

I get separated from the group?

I am too out of shape and everyone else is fit?

I have issues trying to poop in tiny hole in the ground?

At this point, I wasn’t worried about encountering wild animals or sleeping alone in a tent. I knew I’d be with a small group and I had a tent mate, and that gave me a sense of security.

My First Backpacking Trip

Janelle and I spent most of the summer hiking in preparation for our trip in early August. We went on an overnight shakedown at a local state park to test our gear; and we carried our loaded packs on day hikes.

I was so nervous the day we arrived at the location to meet our guides. Our guides were friendly and encouraging and it didn’t take long for them to ease my anxiety and I began to relax.

It was a short hike to our base camp, and to my relief all the preparation made the hike to camp an easy one for me. We finished setting up camp and set out on a day hike. The trail system in the area is extensive; we had several options to choose from. That afternoon we looped around a nearby lake before returning to camp and starting dinner. The next morning is the first time I stepped foot on the PCT. We hiked for most of the day, heading south on the PCT, enjoying expansive views and a forested stretch with tall pine trees. The following morning, we set out to summit Mount Eddy, the highest summit in the region at 9,037 feet. I could feel the difference in altitude as we hiked to the top of Mount Eddy; my lungs burned, and I felt slightly lethargic. When we reached the top, we were rewarded with the most amazing view of Mount Shasta. In that moment, I knew backpacking was something I wanted to try again.

Backpacking in the Desert

My biggest fears about hiking the PCT revolved around hiking in the desert. I had fears about lack of water, heat stroke, sunburns, and desert wildlife. I’d considered skipping this section altogether to avoid them. I decided to try desert hiking before embarking on a long-distance hike.

After having such a positive first-time experience with REI Adventures, I booked my second backpacking trip with them. This time, Janelle and I, were headed to the Superstition Mountains in Arizona. In early November 2017, we boarded a plane headed for Phoenix, excited to start our next backpacking adventure. Many of the fears I experienced prior to my first trip had dissipated and I was more relaxed.

We met our guides at the local REI the night before our trip for an introduction and overview of the trip’s itinerary. The next morning, we loaded our gear into van’s and drove out to the trailhead. I was in awe of the landscape! I loved the rich colors and textures of the rocks and vegetation. We climbed out of the trailhead parking lot to expansive views of a colorful volcanic landscape littered with saguaro cactus and a view of Weavers Needle. We hiked to a campsite nestled in trees and hiked to a pond nearby to filter water. The next day after an amazing breakfast, we packed up camp and hiked through a valley with incredible views to an area called West Boulder Canyon. It looked like a dry riverbed with large, smooth round rocks lining the canyons base. We set up camp nearby and explored the area before starting camp chores and preparing dinner. The next morning, we ascended out of the canyon. and enjoyed expansive scenic views, before descending to a parking lot where the van was waiting to pick us up.

My Fear Subsides

It turns out all my fears of desert hiking were not an issue if I planned and prepared properly. I arrived home feeling confident about my ability to hike in the desert; and I had a newfound love for hiking in desert terrain. As I prepare for my 2020 thru-hike of the PCT, I find myself most excited about returning to the desert to explore its unique microclimates and expansive views.

How are you managing your fears and expectations? What steps are you taking to conquer those fears?

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Photos courtesy of Janelle Warner.

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