Somen wearing a backpack walking along a broad ridge with lightly glaciated peaks on the horizon

Aspects of backpacking, rated

Published 2020-06-23
This is one of my favorite blog posts

For much of my 20s many of my jobs looked suspiciously like backpacking and I lived for weeks or months at a time in tents. So the glamour of all this was kind of lost on me. Then in my 30s I changed careers to indoorsy stuff, so for like a decade I never did it, and never missed it, despite being (in theory) an Outdoorsy Person.

But in the same way that seeing Christmas through your kids’ eyes makes Christmas fun again, having kids makes backpacking kind of awesome. But not uniformly awesome. Let’s consider the many aspects of backpacking, and rate them…


Packing for backpacking

Planning a backpacking trip is exactly like shopping. You have to shop for the location: find a site, guess how crowded it will be, is it appropriate for kids/dogs, do you need a forest pass, etc. And then you also have to actually shop: for food and filters and fuel cannisters and a new pair of socks and surely many wee gizmos you have forgetten about until you decide to go backpacking. This assumes you already own all the big-dollar gear (tents and backpacks and stoves and whatnot), which you probably don’t, so you have to shop for all that too. Shopping sucks. Also: it is weirdly expensive? Shouldn’t something this “natural” be cheaper? We only get a star here because the Internet has made this a lot easier, like it has made all shopping easier. 1/5 ★☆☆☆☆


Packed and ready

You’ll like this one as much as you like those puzzles where you fit three twisted metal pieces together into a ring. My inner minimalist loves the part where you realize you have too much stuff and have to start over and get rid of half of it. I am not being sarcastic. 3/5 ★★★☆☆


On the drive home from Pete Lake

Road cycling has spoiled me on this aspect for sure, because if you ride a bike for fun, the fun starts the very moment you leave your house. But if you want to do Real Nature Stuff (hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, etc.), you have to drive your Climate Change Machine out into the Real Nature (which also somehow always means driving through Tacoma?) I mean, you are driving a fucking car into the woods to walk around in a big circle. If the trailhead were 20miles away it would be haha funny but when you have to drive five hours to start your big adventure, that veers right into farce. 0/5 ☆☆☆☆☆

Setting up/tearing down camp

Ada peeking out of the tent

This actual task is not so awful — kind of fun, actually, like packing — and when I’m solo this is maybe 4 or even 5 stars. But when you camp with other people (especially small people you made yourself), somehow the same one or two people (“Mom” and/or “Dad”) end up doing 90% of the setting up/tearing down while everyone else is bouldering or swimming or roasting marshmallows. I’m kind of hard on my kids here but ya know this happened when I camped with friends in my 20s, too. 2/5 ★★☆☆☆


Orion builds a fire

I am actually kind of…meh?…on campfires. I like having a campfire but balancing the effort (build a fire ring, gather firewood, start the fire, tend it ceaselessly) against the result, it doesn’t pan out for me. Plus it’s twice as hard when you actually need it (i.e in the rain) which in the Pacific Northwest is “always”. I never built a campfire when I camped solo. Luckily my son is good at firebuilding and loves it so now I get all the upside without most of the downside. The best thing about a fire is that you can drink whiskey from a hip flask while you sit next to a campfire. 3/5 ★★★☆☆

Drinking whiskey from a hip flask while you sit next to a campfire

Whiskey and water by the campfire

See above. 5/5 ★★★★★

Wearing the same clothes for n days

Patagonia hat

You will only notice how bad you smell when you pass incoming hikers at the trailhead and notice how good they smell. 4/5 ★★★★☆

Fish/birds/frogs/other nature stuff

Poking at froglets

Technically this is why you’re here, so we have to give this five stars just on principle. 5/5 ★★★★★


Woodsmoke and bugnet

Of course they suck (LOL) but deet works, so do nets, and so do campfires. Also everything in the woods eats mosquitos (or eats something that eats mosquitos) so you can thank mosquitos for fish and birds and frogs and all that other nature stuff. 1/5 ★☆☆☆☆

Maps, compasses, and GPS

Trail 557

Maps are fucking awesome. Compasses are fucking awesome. The whole gestalt of orientiering is awesome. For years I was a snob about GPS and never used it but ya know with an iPhone and a backup battery you can go off the grid for a week, and it is somehow even more fun than maps and compasses which, how is that even possible? 5/5 ★★★★★


Alone at Spectacle Lake

No matter how hard you try, there will be other people on the trail. And the harder you work for solitude, the more you will resent the people you meet. You can take your lumps and camp four miles from the trailhead with a dozen other people you mildly loathe, or you can hike fifteen miles and hate the fuck out of the only two other people on the lake. 3/5 ★★★☆☆


Storm rolling into Pete Lake

Weather and solitude are inversely correlated. The cruddier the weather, the greater the solitude. Besides: do you feel the rain or are you just getting wet? unrateable


Sunrise on Diamond View Lake

There is a whole essay in this one. Like weather: inversely correlated with solitude. But the harder you work for it, the more beautiful it is. unrateable

Bear cannisters

Kuma with bear cannisters

Cons: They weigh a ton, make packing a nightmare, put all the weight in the middle of your pack if you’re lucky, and are a bitch to open when its 40 degrees and raining.

Pros: No matter how good you think you are at hanging your food in a tree, bears are probably better at getting it down. Forget bears though, seriously I have never had a bear get into my food stash and supposedly the Pacific Northwest is lousy with black bears. The real culprits are chipmunks and jays and crows, who hold advanced degrees in Tearing Into Your Food Bag. Waking up to a pile of half-eaten food will ruin your trip worse than rain or mosquitos or insert favorite gripe here.

Also: totally waterproof, so if you fall in the river at least you still have food2/5 ★★☆☆☆


Boiling water in Eagle Cap wilderness

I guess this all depends on how committed you are to cooking, as like a hobby or whatever.

I used to resent the hell out of cooking while backpacking. Why did I drive 100 miles and then hike 20 just to boil spaghetti? Plus you have to carry wet weight in the form of ingredients, and a lot of extra fuel because it takes hours to prepare. And you have to babysit it the whole time or it will burn. Forget that, of course it will burn, because you’re trying to fry bacon over a blowtorch in a pan with the heft of a beer can. And it never tastes as good as you expect it will — assuming you actually cook it correctly and you aren’t left crunching on half-cooked potatoes. Don’t even get me started on scraping burned food off dishes in a fucking river. Still, I thought, this was better than paying $7/meal for freeze-dried food, right?

Yeah, no. Jenny only does the freeze-dried stuff and I cannot underline how much better backpacking is when none of that is an issue. It takes 5 minutes to boil the water and then you wait 15 minutes for your meal to fatten up, and then you eat it out of the bag. “But how does it taste Paul?” It tastes reliable and easy, that’s how it tastes.  0/5 ★☆☆☆☆ (from scratch) or 4/5 ★★★★☆ (freeze-dried)

Water filters

Water filters at Camp Ellis

How badly do we need these, really? When I was a kid we just drank right out of the river. I am a skeptic but also a worrier so of course I filter our water. In my 20s (i.e. the 1990s) this meant carrying a big ol’ filter around with you and pumping it like a goddamn bicycle tire. Jenny has one of these squeeze filter thingies which is significantly easier, so much so that I strongly suspect my skepticism is warranted. Nothing this easy could possibly be effective. 2/5 ★★☆☆☆

Instant coffee

Camp coffee

Does it taste like burnt dog shit? Yes. Is it awesome because your lizard brain associates it exclusively with camping? Also yes. 3/5 ★★★☆☆


Asleep in the tent

I’m a lifelong insomniac so I’m pretty much used to sleeping like shit regardless. But I have to knock a few stars off for having insomnia when I can’t watch TV. 3/5 ★★★☆☆


Primitive toilet

Supposedly, squatting is good for your bowels. But on the other hand have you ever actually dug a 6" or deeper hole in the woods for this? I’m 50% on using leaves instead of toilet paper just for this reason. 2/5 ★★☆☆☆

Hiking, but with 40 pounds on your back

Loaded packs

Not as bad as you expect it will be, and like anything it gets easier the more you do it. In my 40s I started hiking in running shoes with really thick wool socks and the hiking aspect became much more enjoyable. So much so that I wonder how boots became so popular in the first place. I mean, I know most people hike in boots, and they look awesome, but you lift the pounds on your feet much more frequently than the pounds on your back. (Caveat: I have strong arches, knees, and ankles.) 4/5 ★★★★☆

The first shower after you get back to civilization

Dirty feet in Bull of the Woods

OK, truth: this is why I go backpacking. 5/5 ★★★★★