I’m only 5-foot-3. My pack is about half of my height and feels like it weighs about as much as I do. I’m not sure how that’s possible when I’m carrying mostly granola bars. Also, why are packs measured in liters? I imagine the amount of water that could theoretically be splashing around in my 52-liter backpack and the thought of that much weight makes me a little faint. The fact that I haven’t tipped over already is a miracle.
These are the realities of backpacking. People have romantic ideas about backpacking across Europe, gallivanting across southeast Asia and spending a hot summer traveling around Australia. One look at those bulging backpacks and the first word that comes to mind is adventure.
I’ve spent the past two weekends doing both kinds of backpacking: the kind where you spend several days hiking carrying everything you could ever need in your pack and the kind where you explore a new city, check into a hostel and pride yourself on finding free things to do. I’ve also met plenty of backpackers along the way and they will tell you that this unique way of traveling is no walk in the park.
Hiking with everything you need to survive for a couple of days was one of the hardest things I have ever done. My back and shoulders ached for days. My legs strained at the thought of going uphill. Then I found out going downhill is similarly painful when you’re trying to fight the momentum from your heavy pack to tumble down the hill. I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for four meals in a row because I didn’t want to add a camping stove and pot to my load.
Backpacking through cities isn’t always glamorous either. I’d overhear kids making phone call after phone call trying to find some seasonal work. They eat pasta every night to save money on food. Some hitchhike and some take buses to their next destination, and neither are really that reliable. One German girl I met was going home in a week and she said she couldn’t wait to open the cupboard and see it full of food and have the relief of knowing she didn’t have to worry about where she would sleep that night. She always carried a tent with her, in case the hostels in town were full.
She said that part about the tent with a huge smile on her face. Despite all of the hardships of backpacking, she was so proud of herself for consistently finding a way to survive, no matter what town she was in or what obstacles were thrown her way. She was adaptable and resourceful in a way that none of her friends sitting around at home would be. It gave her this confidence that she could thrive anywhere and she could do anything.
I wish more Americans did the whole backpacking thing. It’s a huge rite of passage for many Germans, Canadians and British kids. They spend several months or a year traveling to new places, and often, they come back ready to face adulthood or university with a better understanding of themselves and what they’re capable of. Meanwhile, Americans are in this rat race to get into the best colleges and then start their careers and somehow make the Forbes 30 under 30 list. We’re taught to keep moving through these milestones, but after my long weekend of backpacking, I came away with a new appreciation for having a place to set my pack down.