Bio: How I Started Backpacking

On Wittenberg toward Hudson Valley - Started

Backpackers aren’t born that way and it’s not an easy hobby for most people to stick with over time. But if you’ve caught the ‘backpacking bug’, it’s a passion that provides many challenges and rewards for the mind and body. Here’s my story of how I became an outdoors person and steered my life away from chasing money and professional titles to one that emphasized personal happiness and contentment. Everybody’s path is different but this is how I ended up where I am today.

Beginnings

To preface, I had always been a day hiker from my teens on, although casually. I did a little bit of backpacking in high school, and some camping in college and graduate school, but that was the extent of my outdoor recreation until I was in my late thirties. Everything changed after that when I developed a life, separate from my career.

Water Sports

It started with sea kayaking which I did for about 2 years before I switched over to whitewater kayaking. That was the sport that really made me an outdoor fanatic. At my apex, I was paddling 60 days annually, including winter, and driving over 10,000+ miles a year to river put-ins all over New England, including Canada.

I started as a river runner on class 2 rivers and worked my way up to class 4, dabbling a bit in playboating and creeking. I got good enough to become a leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club and an instructor on club courses.

Kayaking In New Hampshire about 5 miles from my current residence
Kayaking In New Hampshire about 5 miles from my current residence

Whitewater kayaking is a great sport that requires a lot of practice, skill, physical endurance, and safety training. When I was really into it, I’d paddle on both days of the weekend, and practice my combat rolls in a pond near my house every evening after work. My car stood out in the company parking lot because there was usually a kayak tied down on the roof.

There came a point, however, where my paddling friends became interested in running harder and harder class 4 and even class 5 rivers. I was more comfortable on class 3-4 water and stopped going kayaking as much since my friends didn’t want to run the easier rivers that I preferred.

Let’s Take a Walking Vacation

Right around then,  my wife and I decided to do something different for our August summer vacation. Instead of heading to the Gunks, a mountain range located outside of New Paltz, NY famous for its hiking and rock climbing, we both agreed that we’d go on a guided hiking trip in the Shetland Islands off the northern coast of Scotland.

Backpacking in Scotland
Backpacking in Scotland

We decided on the Shetlands because we had had a great vacation a few years earlier on Orkney and because I knew of a great guide service called North-West Frontiers that offered a Shetland trip. I had been hiking with them about 10 years earlier, back when Andy Sherman owned the company, in a series of day hikes centered around Ullapool in the Scottish Highlands.

At the time, I was also fiddling (violin) quite a lot and looked forward to immersing myself in the local music. The Shetland Islands have a strong fiddling tradition and we were looking forward to sampling live music in the Shetland pubs since my wife and I enjoy live folk music.

The tour included 6 days of walking with 6-to-10 mile hikes each day. I was prepared for these distances, but my wife needed to get back into shape to complete these walks comfortably. So, every other morning, we’d take a hike before work in the Middlesex Fells, a nearby nature reserve.

Initially, we started walking an hour at a time: 30 minutes in and 30 minutes out. But over time, we graduated to longer and faster walks, as my wife’s endurance increased. These were easy hikes for me, but I started making them more difficult by carrying more weight in my backpack.

The Fells In Autumn
The Fells In Autumn

Doing these walks every other day required that we get up by 6:00 am and hike before work. Waking up early was fine with me, but it was a big lifestyle change for my wife. Still, she was willing to do it and these walks became something we both looked forward to.

I also enjoyed these hikes because I found them mentally and emotionally restorative. So much so, that I started hiking in the Fells by myself during our off days.  Imagine being able to hike 5 or 6 miles every day, early in the morning. The woods were deserted at this time of day except for the birds and the trees. I’d arrive at work around 10:30 am, completely blissed out physically and emotionally with a post-hike buzz. I had a high-tech job so I could rearrange my schedule around the best commuting hours.

I’m never sure whether anyone else has the same emotional reaction to hiking as me, but I found that I could hold the insanity of work off at a distance after these morning hikes, rather than get emotionally drawn into it. I always feel this way after a backpacking trip where all of the trappings of the “civilized world” are stripped away. When I return home, work crises seem relatively unimportant and I’m able to remain unflappably aloof for a few days.

Backpacking in the Western Catskills
Backpacking in the Western Catskills

Summer rolled around and we were both ready for our Shetlands trip, but then the unthinkable happened. There was a terrorist incident at Heathrow Airport and British Airways canceled our flight from the US to London. This completely screwed our travel plans and we were forced to cancel our trip. Luckily, I had taken out travel insurance and we were able to get a refund for the bulk of our expenses.

Community

After that, my wife stopped hiking with me every morning, but I was hooked. I started looking for other opportunities to hike and started to go on overnight backpacking trips with the Appalachian Mountain Club.

Trail adopter training - White Mountains
Trail adopter training – White Mountains

Although I lived in the Boston Area (at the time), I started hiking with the NY/NJ Chapter of the AMC which does a lot of hikes in the Catskills. This is an area adjacent to the Gunks, which I had day hiked extensively during several preceding summer vacations. I fell in with some kindred spirits who lead hikes for the NY/NJ chapter, hiking with them in New York, Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire.

I also sampled some hikes with the local Boston AMC chapter but didn’t find leaders that I really clicked with. The size of the Boston-led day trips, felt immense, with 20 or more people attending the hikes. I didn’t enjoy hiking with this chapter and stopped signing up for trips with them.

That changed when I got involved with the Boston chapter’s Winter Hiking Program, which is a lot more hardcore. I soon became a 4-season hiking and backpacking leader for the AMC, although I always kept my trips small, never exceeding 6 participants.

Winter climb of Mt Washington in 2008
Winter climb of Mt Washington in 2008

There came a point where I was spending equal time backpacking and kayaking on the weekends, alternating activities just about every weekend. I realized that I couldn’t keep switching back and forth and that I had to commit myself to one sport or another.

The Long Trail

Around this time, I can remember a weekend kayaking trip on Maine’s Dead River where a paddling buddy of mine told me about his end-to-end hike of Vermont’s “The Long Trail.” I can still remember that trip vividly – we were staying at Webb’s Campground at The Forks and I was camping for the first time in a Hennessey Hammock. That was when the idea of hiking The Long Trail was first planted in my head.

After that summer, I stopped whitewater kayaking and dedicated myself to getting ready to backpack The Long Trail. My wife insisted that I spend a year preparing by going on a lot of backpacking trips, which I did.

The Long Trail - nr the Vermont- Canadian Border
The Long Trail – nr the Vermont- Canadian Border

After a year of preparation, the rest is history. I section hiked The Long Trail in 2008 (before I started working for myself) and remain a hiking and backpacking fiend to this day. Since then I’ve section hiked about 1400 miles of the Appalachian Trail, backpacked coast to coast across Scotland twice, and I’ve hiked and backpacked over 7000 miles throughout the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Southern Maine, where I now live. I love the White Mountains, which I now call home.

And that is the story of how I got into backpacking.

See Also:

About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 8500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 2500 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip is the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He lives in New Hampshire. Click here to subscribe to the SectionHiker newsletter.

16 comments

  1. This was great. Hat-tip to you for making this kind of life change. It’s inspiring, even if I have several years before I’m able to do something similar.

    And I too find backpacking to be a spiritual experience. Even though I only get out on a few trips a year, I return from each a different (and more enlightened) person than when I left.

    • It was a big change, no doubt about it. But the outdoors and the outdoors community proved to be a force, far more powerful than the money and corporate prestige. I probably add 10-20 years to my life expectancy by removing the stress of working for others and the fact that I can get outdoors, almost every day for at least a few hours. Just thinking about all the conference calls and idiotic meetings I avoided, brings a smile to my face.

  2. Great read, I always enjoy hearing peoples stories and this is a good one.

    I can totally relate to starting off in local woods/trails as a total ‘head clearer’, then graduating to day hikes and now doing my first overnight this weekend actually. That said, it’s all new to me as my kids are now grown leaving free time to do these activities not be limited to the gym and or time bound.

    I also totally appreciate the comments around group size etc. part of appreciating all of this to me is the ‘quiet’ part. My wife enjoys the day hikes and some of the NH 4ks but I am on my own for the winter hikes and bigger adventures, which is a bit problematic from a safety perspective…

    Living in NH your content is always so applicable and helpful, thanks for that.

    • Have a great trip and dress warmly (if in NH)!

    • I was in a Scottish organisation called the Boys Brigade. We did a lot of 2nor 3 day hikes aš well aš hillwalking so I guess I started in my early teens.
      A friend and I used to get the bus into Galloway with a Saunders tent and ex army gear and go over the hills for a few days and the back to another village to get the bus. Scotland is and was so easy to go stravaiging and I’ve continued it ever since.

  3. Thanks for sharing. Us hikers/backpackers are a special breed.

  4. Fantastic journey backpacking has taken you on.

  5. Nice article, thanks for all the info and tips.

  6. Great story!!!! Did not know you were a fiddler. And then when you mentioned the Fells, it was right after talking about Scotland, so I thought “They have a Fells, too?” Haha. And there is a tiny seasonal waterfall in the Fells, too. Not this summer, with this drought, though. The waterfall is not too far from the Oak Grove terminus of the Orange Line. Keep these stories coming!

  7. I was born in Houston, Texas but moved to Calgary, Alberta when I was four. Our parents told us something fell out of the sky called “snow” and it piled up on the ground but we thought they were pulling our leg. On the way to Calgary, Dad drove us up Pikes Peak. On that trip, I saw my first mountain, snow and waterfall and I’ve been a mountain freak ever since.

    When we lived in Calgary, there was a purple wall just to the west and every weekend, we’d go explore in that wall, places like Banff, Yoho, Takkakaw Falls, the spiral railroad tunnels, Lake Louise, the Kananaskis, Moraine Lake (still one of my all time favorite places), etc.

    Then we moved to the Denver and I had a different purple wall to explore every weekend. After a year in Denver, we moved to the Dallas area and my purple wall was now hundreds of miles to the west. Dad started taking us on an annual trip to Big Bend National Park in west Texas where the purple wall still stood.

    Dad took us on many car camping trips and also lots of canoe camping trips but I didn’t start backpacking until I was in my teens. At that time lightweight equipment meant we carried loads slightly less than our body mass. Dad had some army surplus jungle hammocks and Mom had army surplus mummy bags stuffed with feathers–definitely not the down we’re used to now!

    Until I got intruduced to true lightweight gear, I thought backpacking was just something that had to be endured to get to beautiful and noble surroundings. The introduction came as my brother and I struggled with 60 and 65 lb. (27-30 kg) packs on the CDT in Montana. One of his customers a few days earlier said his pack was 35 lb. (16 kg) and we debated whether or not he’d actually said 45 lb. (20 kg), since the lower weight seemed an impossibility. On the last day of our hike, as we ate breakfast with our gear spread over about three and a half acres, a thru hiker showed up with a 25 lb. (11 kg) pack, which he never took off the entire time he visited with us, whereas my brother and I shed our packs at every opportunity.

    We took notes on our maps for the next two and a half hours as Geert explained how he managed to hike with such a light load. When we hiked again at Big Bend a few months later, our packs weighed well under 30 lb. (14 kg), although there was one point when I carried a couple gallons (8 L) of water uphill for a mile and a half (2.5 km). For some reason, my brother always manages to get me to haul the water! Maybe it’s because he’s younger, slightly bigger, and obviously more intelligent than me!

    Section hiking on the AT with my friends Larry and Kevin has helped me considerably in honing my skills and cutting weight. I’ve also worked on cutting belt weight and weigh less with pack than I did without pack on that CDT hike with my brother in Montana.

    When people ask why I’m hiking the AT, I tell them the Appalachians run through Dallas but unfortunatley are 3000′ (1 km) underground when they get there. I’m a quarter billion years too late to enjoy them in Dallas so I have to go east hike them.

    That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

  8. Hi Phillip. I know what you mean about too many people in a hiking club. I used to go hiking with a few meetup groups based in Sacramento Ca. and sometimes there were 30-40 people on a hike. One time I was hiking in a large group in the Sierra and two hikers had pulled over to let us pass and one person said to the other, “does this group ever end?” I was so embarrassed and didn’t go with large groups after that.
    Now I mostly go by myself or with 2-3 other people

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