4 Backpacking Lessons Learned on my Couch

It is no secret that I am happiest when on a backpacking trip. However, it wasn't until a period of down time that I saw some of backpacking's deeper benefits, and how they can help my every day life.

Injuries can be a real thorn in the side to all of your fun outdoor plans, but they can also provide an interesting opportunity to get back to the drawing board and re-think your indoor lifestyle. Recent foot surgery to treat a lingering sports injury has left me with much more sedentary time at home than I prefer.  I have spent a lot of it thinking about how much I would like to be hiking and enjoying the last few weeks of fall color here in Georgia rather than sitting on my couch watching Netflix.  It did not take long for me to realize that my problem was not my inability to be active outside, but rather the difficulty I have to finding satisfaction in my every day life at home.

If our weekdays are always spent looking forward to a weekend in the outdoors, then maybe this is an indicator that we are not utilizing our experiences in the outdoors to their full potential.  The value that the wilderness holds for us is not limited to the time that we spend directly surrounded by it.  After a bit of thought and reflection, I have identified four ways to incorporate a lot of the greatest lessons from backpacking and just being outside, into my every day life. 

Backpacking in Iceland

Lighten Up Your Load

Every backpacker knows how much of a pain it can be to carry around excess weight on endless miles of trail.  We obsess over the weight and necessity of each individual product we use just to save a couple ounces.  The payoff is clear: Your legs are less sore the next day and it is easier to go further distances at a faster pace than you would with a heavier pack.  If this mentality benefits us so directly on the trail, then why do we toss it to the side so frequently in our day-to-day lives?

“I love having random things in my house that I never use and just take up space.” –said No One, Ever

If we looked at our homes as very large capacity backpacks that we had to lug around everywhere, we might actually have homes that we enjoy living in a lot more.  Sometimes our cherished living spaces are reduced to storage units for all things old, irrelevant, and unused. Even though keeping things around does not cost you anything in cash, it just might cost you in sanity.  Princeton Neurologists even found that a cluttered environment could directly restrict your ability to focus.  There is a very good scientific reason why your best ideas probably come to you when you are outside!

If you make this downsizing a regular habit, you will find yourself with more livable space, less clutter, and an environment more conducive to productivity.   Don’t be afraid to apply the old backpacking principle to your home too: “Set out what you think you will need, and then pack half of that.”

Backcountry Camping on the Bartram Trail, Georgia

Embrace the Burn

There are very few things about backpacking that have the appearance of a comfortable lifestyle.  Sleeping in the dirt, burning legs from hiking for miles with a heavy backpack, and eating freeze-dried meals are all things that fall very low on the physical comfort scale.  However, this deprivation of physical comfort forces us to seek comfort from our surroundings in other ways.  For example, many people talk about experiences of deep emotional connection or even spiritual revelations when spending time on the trail.  A good backpacking trip will always serve as more than just an escape from the norm, but will also provide moments of clarity and present opportunities to grow as a person.  One of the direct causes of this is the radical shift in comfort that you will face, which is more or less an essential part to enjoying an epic experience in the wild. 

Clearly, what makes us happiest is often not the same thing as what makes us comfortable.   So if happiness is the goal, then why is our daily focus so frequently based on comfort? The guilty party is usually the short-term gratification that lies in all things within your comfort zone.

Your personal comfort zone is defined by patterns, routine, familiarity, and minimized risk.  These are all factors that play a role in decisions as simple as what route you will take to get to work, to those with more complexity, such as asking your crush out on a date.  Although everyone’s comfort zone is different, it is clear that you cannot grow as a human by sticking to your comfort zone.  If there is one thing that backpacking should teach us, it is that we shouldn’t leave stepping outside of our comfort zone just for backpacking trips.  When things in our every day lives start getting a little bit hairy, maybe we should just welcome that initial discomfort, learn from it, and embrace the burn.  You will learn a hell of a lot and be a much happier person for it!

Backpacking on Medewi Beach, Bali

Set Daily Objectives

When setting off on any backpacking trip, daily objectives are usually pretty clear.  Cover a certain amount of distance, find a suitable camp, replenish your lost calories in the tastiest way possible, and simply enjoy being outside and surrounded by nature.  These objectives are loosely structured around your most basic needs of food, water, and shelter. Removing yourself from the comfort of your own home on a backpacking trip forces you to strip yourself of the guarantee that you will have these needs met.  As plain as these objectives may sound, when camp is finally set up and a warm fire is burning, there is a certain level of gratification that comes along with achieving your goals for the day. 

On the contrary, at home I find myself going through my normal routine at home without knowing what I actually want to accomplish.  Even if my day was crazy busy, if I do not associate each task with an end goal, then I find myself wanting when the day is done.  Unfortunately, my very productive day holds much less value than it actually should, simply because I have not attributed productive tasks to more encompassing goals.

It may be true that since all of our basic needs are pretty much guaranteed to be met in the comfort of our homes, our goals become inherently more complex. However, this does not shift the fundamental importance of having goals in the first place. 

Backcountry Camping on Emery Creek, Georgia

Reflection

There are few things better than sitting at a scenic overlook with a cold beer in hand, reflecting on the days achievements.  You packed up your car, drove to the mountains, hiked a never-ending stretch of terrain, and then set up camp at a spot with surrounding scenery that falls nothing short of epic.  I would find it very difficult to not be extremely satisfied with the outcome of the day.  Sure, this might sound like an ideal day for anyone, but that does not change the fact that what we do in the outdoors almost always requires us to reflect about how things could have possibly gone even better.  I often mull over about mistakes I made while hiking/camping/backpacking, and those times have helped me out tremendously.  I used to have an issue losing important gear while on long backpacking trips, but thankfully, some hard thought has inspired ideas on how to pack and track my gear much more efficiently and effectively. 

However, when it comes to our every day lives, reflection often does not make the cut of the busy schedule.  We are often too frenzied carrying out miscellaneous tasks, when we should be busier thinking about what we are doing.  According to philosopher, psychologist, and education reformer John Dewey in a research paper published by the Harvard Business Review, “We do not learn from experience ... we learn from reflecting on experience."  It is critical to take time throughout each day to ask yourself questions such as “Why did that happen the way it did? How can I improve? What would an improvement mean to me?”  This simple process will help you find gratification in your positive actions of the day and also learn from mistakes you made or tasks you could have avoided.

Reflection that may seem to come easily in a backcountry setting should be encouraged in your home and work settings as well. 

It took over a month of being injured for me to see some of the deeper benefits of my passion for backpacking and a lifestyle in the outdoors.  I realized that we should live every day like we do on the trail.  If we eliminate clutter, welcome the long-term benefits of discomfort, set goals, and reflect on our actions, we can dramatically improve the quality of our lives. I hope you can take these four lessons that I have learned, and find a way to incorporate them into your own life.

Published: December 16, 2016

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Christian MurilloExplorer

Atlanta

My love for natural landscape photography is what first got me outside. Now, I can hardly stay indoors. My sense of adventure has led me to travel all over the US (mostly in the SE), and also drove me to complete a ...