3 Things I Learned From Backpacking

Desert Reflections

“Wow! Look at all the stars”, my girls kept saying as they craned their necks towards the sky to look up at the Milky Way. It’s amazing how many stars you can see on a moonless night.

There’s something empowering about the desert. At least, that’s what you tend to think after spending a week backpacking through Utah with a group of your 7th-grade students. It’s unforgiving but beautiful. The weather can change at a moment’s notice, forcing you to tap into those instincts: the ones we only tend to use during when we feel that fight or flight feeling. On this night though, there was no need for that. We all just gazed up at the vastness of the sky and its infinite stars.

The Great Outdoors

During the first few years of my life, my parents took us to all sorts of wonderful outdoor spaces: Yosemite, Sequoia National Park, the Grand Canyon. The truth is that I was too young to remember any of it, but it must have left an imprint because for as long as I can remember, I’ve had this yearning to spend my time out in the wilderness. As much as I love the vibrant feeling of city life and the energy that surrounds me there, there’s something about the tranquility about the outdoors that I know I need.

The end of my first backpacking trip

The end of my first backpacking trip

When the school I worked at was looking for chaperones for the weeklong backpacking trip our students took every year, I jumped at the chance. Mind you, the most I had hiked up until that point was probably the day my coworkers and I naively decided to do an ‘easy ten-mile loop’ hiking to the top of Mt. San Antonio, what most people know as Mt. Baldy. IT WAS NOT EASY. Despite being unsure of whether or not I would be able to survive a week out in the canyons of Utah with nothing but a 40 lbs pack on my back, I decided to go for it.

How to Apply the Lessons Learned Outdoors

Two years later and many hikes and trips in between, here are the main things I learned that I’ve applied to my life:

1. Fear versus Danger

One of the biggest lessons NOLS taught us on our week-long trek through canyon country was the ability to distinguish between fear and danger. When you’re backpacking, this is one of the most important things to understand. The way you distinguish between the two is assessing the situation in a rational and logical manner. On my second backpacking trip, we had to climb out of the canyon onto a mesa, but we were doing it in the rain and the trail going up was very narrow, only about a foot and a half wide. At a certain point, we were going to have to scramble, which meant using our hands and feet to climb up and over some rocks and boulders.

After the climb; the mesa

After the climb; the mesa

Naturally, this did not sit well with a group of 7th-grade girls. They were scared. Shoot, I was scared! The instructors broke it down for us in a sort of play-by-play. We would have to hike in a straight line for most of the way. At a certain point, we would start passing our backpacks to the front of the line in a sort of water brigade style. The instructors would be at the front to pass the packs up to the mesa, freeing up our hands so that we could scramble one by one, with the help of the instructors. There was no danger there, just our own fear holding us back. The look on the girls’ faces when we all got to the top is one I’ll never forget. It’s that look of triumph, that look you get when you accomplish something you didn’t know you had in you.

2. Power of Observation

This is one that tends to kick in only when it needs to, living out in civilization. You look both ways when you cross the street, wait to see if you’re parents are in a good mood before you ask them if you can borrow money, or check for the signals that the person you like likes you back. This is one that most people lose. I hate to sound like a broken record, but much of it has to do with our dependence on our phones. I’m going to date myself here, but I remember my parents using a Thomas guide as a kid whenever we would drive somewhere new. When I got my driver’s license, I still had to use the power of observation because Mapquest SUUUUUCCKKKED. Though, to be honest, it was a skill I had honed early on in childhood.

In Utah, the girls and I had to use our observation skills to read a topographic map and look at the surrounding landscape to make sure we were going the right way. The girls would scout the area for a safe, flat place to set up camp, which required being near a water source and have enough room for our tents and our kitchen. On my first trip out there, we found animal prints. On my second trip, we found petroglyphs, created hundreds of years ago by the people who lived in these canyons. Honestly, there was a bunch of cool stuff to see, but the power of observation was most useful when walking. Twisting your ankle while stepping over a loose rock is no joke. Luckily, no one in either of my groups experienced that, but I've seen it happen. The power of observation happens to be one of my superpowers.

Our campsite in the Utah canyons

Our campsite in the Utah canyons

Being an introvert, I spent most of my childhood interacting with just a few close friends and observing everyone else. In middle school and high school, going to the movies was the best. Everyone would try and get there early so they could climb up to the second floor and see who was arriving with whom. Days were spent people watching at the malls. It was fun to us then, but as I’ve gotten older, it’s become quite essential to me. Starting different jobs, living in a foreign country, and traveling to different places would have been incredibly difficult had I not used my observation skills. It’s what has allowed me to understand the work culture at a new job, the vibe when I date someone new, or when I feel one of my friends is going through a hard time. Out in Utah was no different.

3. Intuition

When you strengthen your power of observation, your intuition kicks in more and more. This is the third step in the process. Without the first two, it’s difficult to have a heightened sense of intuition. Your fear subsides, you observe all around you, and you let your internal compass lead the way. On our last day before heading back to civilization, we were all packing up our backpacks and sweeping the camp for any trash. As I packed, I felt as though someone was staring at me. I looked around to see the girls all busy, helping each other gather their belongings. No one was looking at me. I still couldn’t shake the feeling though. That’s when I saw it: a lizard the size of my hand in a crevice in the rock right next to where my backpack was leaning against. I started LAUGHING. Some of the girls came over and I gave a dramatic reenactment of my intuitive moment. They all laughed too. The lizard did not look pleased.

Giving me that side-eye!

Giving me that side-eye!

Whether or not you want to believe it, your intuition is always guiding you. It’s the voice in your head that tells you to take an umbrella, even though there’s no rain in the forecast. It’s that gut feeling that tells you maybe you shouldn’t go down that street. There have been MANY times throughout my life where my intuition has guided me that I'll share in another post. I’ll tell you this: the more I listen, the more intuitive I become. You can too. It comes in handy. Sometimes it sounds like your mom telling you to grab a jacket because you’re going to get cold… oh, wait… that is my mom telling me to grab a jacket. (You should probably take it; you know she’s right).


Lessons learned

It’s hard to know whether or not the girls realized these what the takeaways were. In the moment, I know they learned a lot, but much like when I was a teenager, some things take a few decades to sink in. What these experiences taught me more than anything is that more often than not, we need to believe in ourselves the way we believe in our children. The girls were convinced they wouldn’t make it through the week and would want to go home, shower, be in the comfort of their warm beds. I knew that wouldn’t be the case. They forged friendships and created memories that will last a lifetime. Most importantly, they realized that more often than not, the ability to overcome most difficult situations lies in the power of their own mind.