Gaining Confidence and Empowerment Through Backpacking

I was 12 when I went on my first big backpacking trip. I was with my dad, a friend of his, my younger brother, and a few other boys around his age. We hiked up through the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.

I carried my own pack including personal items and my sleeping bag. I complained a lot. It was hot and uncomfortable mid-day and every step felt like torture. My dad slowed down to encourage me step by step. I sat down at one point feeling like I was going to cry. “It’s ok, you can stay here and rest as long as you need to. There’s no hurry, just start walking whenever you feel ready to and we will get there.”

7 miles & 2,000 feet later I was exhausted but extremely proud of myself. I had done it. I jumped into the freezing cold river to celebrate. For the next few days we ate over a campfire, encountered bears, and I nested in my tent with my book. 

When we returned home I felt different. I knew something about myself I hadn’t before. I discovered my ability to push myself past a point I didn’t think I could. I had an experience that not many people, let alone a girl my age, ever had. 

I wanted to do it again. And I did.

We did another family trip a few years later with my uncle and cousins. It felt good to have familiarity with what it was going to take and could feel the thrill of the adventure knowing a bit more about what was coming and what to expect. Being more experienced, I could offer tips and leadership. I encouraged others when things felt difficult. I was about 15 when we did that trip. This was my new happy place. Again, I felt changed afterward.

I began asking for camping gear for Christmases and birthdays. I collected all I needed: A small propane stove, first aid kit, good waterproof boots, a backpack, mess kit, water filter, headlamp, sleeping bag, a beanie, long underwear, wool socks, sleeping pad, and a lightweight two-person tent. Knowing I had everything I needed to survive and knew how to use it was exhilarating.

When I could drive I discovered Big Sur. I found out there were waterfalls and hot springs up in the Ventana Wilderness and that trails were pretty manageable with very little altitude gain compared to the Sierras. 

I asked friends to go with me and though they’d never been backpacking, I prepared them the best I could. We encountered poison oak and ran into hunters here and there. I found sacred Native American sites and swam in sacred pools. I learned a lot. Most importantly, my independence and sense of self grew. 

My longest trip was 8 days in the Sierras with over 10,000 feet of elevation gain. On my way down, I became extremely tired. We made camp early so I could eat a warm meal and rest. When I returned home, I found out I was over 6 weeks pregnant with my daughter…

When I had my daughter, her father and I took her backpacking at 6 months up in Big Sur. We had the ambition of making it to some hot springs and ended up settling for the first river crossing camp halfway up. She got dirty! She gnawed on sticks and other things she found around camp. No matter how often I changed her outfit, she was constantly a ball of dust but she had a constant smile on her face as she crawled and explored her new terrain. We dipped her feet in the river and she would squeal with delight. Some may think taking a baby out in the wilderness is crazy. It was an exceptional feat and it brought me such pride and joy I have no words to share completely what it meant to me.

When my kids were 5 and 7 I took them up to the Sierra’s. My dad, my brother, and a cousin helped to carry the gear we needed for the trip including bear canisters and all the food we would need for the next 4 days. We did a route that included part of what I had backpacked before as a young woman. On our initial walkout, just about a mile from the trailhead my 5-year-old sat on a wasp nest and was stung several times all over his body. We had to decide: do we turn back? Did he need more tending to? Would he be ok as we walked deeper into the woods away from civilization and cell service? We carried on.

We picnicked on a river that afternoon. The kids splashed in the water while we enjoyed salami and cheese, fruit and nuts… everything a bear would love. A couple came stomping through warning us they had seen one just up from where we were and it was headed our way! We quickly packed up and got back on the trail. We never saw him but I became more and more familiar with their smell. I could tell he was close. We had a wonderful trip. My kids had to be carried the last 2-3 miles of our 14-mile round trip 4-day trip and it was amazing to have them with us experiencing it all.

Two years later, we did it again. This time their dad was with us and my brother had his own baby in tow. His wife had never been backpacking. Thank goodness my dad was with us, too. We hit a lightning storm. We saw a bear family traveling across the far bank of the lake we camped on. We traversed over 10,000 feet and I had a proud mama moment when my kids both threw down their packs to dip their bandanas in the river along the trail and wrap them around their necks to cool off. They were 7 and 9 years old at the time. They still remember that trip today.

I love the outdoors. Something about losing time and being away from cars, mass media, a soft bed, ice cream, and hot showers. Having to dig a hole to relieve oneself. Being around the same people by the fire each night and having challenging experiences together. It bonds in a particular way. 

I’ve upped my game along the way, taking Wilderness First Aid courses and outdoor training with BAWT to take groups out. I’ve done trips with groups of women and young teens. My next endeavor is to go on a trip with my daughter. I’d love to take my 11-year-old stepsons out with my husband, too!

Backpacking has become a reminder of my resilience and abilities. My confidence and self-assuredness were built on that initial knowing of how to take care of myself from the ground up. It is a rite of passage in a lot of ways. It changes people. It has them know a part of themselves that can only be experienced in the outdoors away from everyday controlled environments. Upon returning, we appreciate conveniences in a new way. Pizza tastes extraordinary. Hot showers feel like heaven. Soft beds, sedating. Driving in a car after taking step after step to travel days on end becomes an unfathomable comparison. Perspective offers gifts that change one forever. I will always seek those places outside my comfort zone for my own growth and expansion of my capacity to Be in the world with all its unpredictability and challenges. I know myself in deeper, more authentic ways when I do.

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