“What is your favorite thing about backpacking?” Reflections from a Long Trail thru hiker


Altemose, Rouwenna

Dates of Trip: 

July 20, 2019 to August 13, 2019

“What is your favorite thing about backpacking?”

My husband asked me this question when he joined me for 5 days of my thru hike of the Long Trail in Vermont. I couldn’t give him a short answer. I think I first said, “That’s a hard question.” And then was silent for a bit. There’s no one thing. And what I do love is not all that profound.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, a bit of background on my trip. I learned about the Long Trail (LT) and the Appalachian Trail (AT) when I was a kid at summer camp in Vermont. My first backpacking trip was a 5-day trek through the Presidentials of the White Mountains in New Hampshire when I was 11 (a trip usually reserved for 14-15 year olds, but I guess my pleas to go were persuasive). I loved it and I decided that someday, I wanted to hike the 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail (AT) from Georgia to Maine and the Long Trail spanning the full north-south length of Vermont. Now, I’m in my 30s and taking 4-6 months off to hike the AT isn’t as desirable as it was when I was a kid (at least not for now). Instead, I decided that I wanted to hike the Long Trail in Vermont when I finished graduate school last summer...but then I got shin splints and couldn’t go. So this year, even though the timing was suboptimal from a professional standpoint, I decided to make the dream a reality and hike the Long Trail.

My trip started on the hottest day of the summer - that day when it was over 100 degrees in Boston and the humidity was about 100%. I hiked the first weekend with two friends who had never been backpacking before and were preparing for a 10-day trek in Alaska. It was fitting that my MITOC-supported trip started with sharing my love of backpacking with new folks and answering their questions about living in the woods. Over the course of 25 days, I hiked the LT, the country’s oldest long distance hiking trail, constructed from 1910-1930 by the Green Mountain Club. The trail spans 273 miles, from the MA-VT border in Williamstown, MA to the VT-Canada border in North Troy, VT, over the peaks of the Green Mountains. It inspired the creation of the AT, which was completed 7 years later.

My trip has 5 phases in my mind: (1) the hot, humid starting weekend when my 2 newbie friends joined me from MA to Bennington, VT; (2) the super social LT/AT section, ~100 miles from MA to Rutland when the two trails are the same and there were a ton of AT thru hikers entering into their last 500 miles going north; (3) the solitary middle section from Rutland to Lincoln Gap where I hiked alone for about a week, on much less well-maintained trails, saw lots of wildlife and learned how much I love being alone in the woods; (4) the BEAUTIFUL Lincoln Gap to Smugglers Notch section, with the best views in short succession and the steepest, rockiest climbs, where my husband joined me, and finally; (5) the final 65 mile stretch from Smugglers Notch to Journey’s End, with more lovely views, though mostly tamer trails, much of which I hiked with a friend who did the LT ~5 years ago herself.  

Ok, so now back to my husband’s question, “What do you love about backpacking?”

I love that I notice the way the forest changes as I move up and down a mountain. And I can get an estimate of how close I am to a summit or valley from that change. I love that what I pay attention to is the sound of water in a brook I can’t see yet, or the leaves that have changed color prematurely, or the bird song that’s different from the one I heard yesterday. I love that I see animals: a moose in a beaver pond on day one (my first moose!!), a groundhog I almost stepped on coming off of Killington, peregrine falcon in the Breadloaf Wilderness, a snake who thought me stepping on it was less of a risk that it moving and revealing itself to its next meal - a frog. I love the sense of accomplishment I get as I climb a steep, rocky slope, where every 5 steps I look out and feel like I can see my progress against the next ridge over. And of course, I love the views: the horizon filled with mountains, the valleys with rivers, the view of Lake Champlain, looking into another state from a mountaintop... and eventually the very exciting view of Canada, which looks just like the United States from the trail - a continuation of mountains and water with no visible boundary (until you get to Journey’s End where there is a marker and clear cut section of the forest indicating the international border).

People also sometimes ask, “What do you think about on the trail?” asked as if they expect an epiphany. I have a similarly unprofound response. On the trail, I think about how much water I have and where the next stream is. I estimate how many hours it will take me to get from one point to the next and then see how close I am. I think about what awesome fresh food I’m going to eat when I get to the next town. And I think about when I think it will rain and whether or not I’ll make it to the shelter before then. I love that on the trail my decisions are reduced to really basic ones: Should I have pasta or lentils for dinner? (Answer: pasta because it’s heavier). Should I stop here for lunch or wait for the view? (Answer: wait for the view, unless I can’t find it because it’s covered in trees, in which case, eat now.) Should I sleep in a tent or in the shelter? (Answer: If there are a lot of bugs or smelly thru hikers, a tent. If it’s going to rain tonight, the shelter.)

In short, I love that on the trail, it’s just me and the woods. Life is simple and beautiful.

My story of my trip could end here, but I have one more reflection to share. I remember when I studied abroad during college, it was a lot harder to reacclimate to the United States when I returned than it was to adjust to living in Mexico. I’ve discovered that in this way, the trail is like a foreign country. After carrying everything I needed on my back for nearly a month, when I got home, I immediately noticed how much stuff I own, and how little of it I need. I notice how easy it is to get sucked into doing multiple things at once, like looking at my phone while walking or working while eating, and how that makes me not appreciate what I’m doing or seeing around me. I notice how the sound of cars driving by makes me feel like I need to be busy - as busy as those drivers must be, rushing to their next destination.

I guess now I’m onto a new challenge: one focused on bringing simplicity into my city life and taking time to notice the beauty that is around me in this very different world. Wish me luck!