You might have thought backpacking was just a straightforward way to unplug and connect with nature, but no! It is a lifestyle rife with controversy and seething with scandalous misinformation. OK, so maybe I’m overstating things a bit, but still.
Nearly every backpacker has gnashed their teeth over these pervasive misunderstandings about the way we do things out here. (“No, Helen, I do not think I should bring a Bowie knife up Half Dome this time around, but thank you for the suggestion.”) Here are six of the most maddening backpacking myths that we would very much like to kill with fire.
6 All-Too Common Backpacking Myths That Need to Die
1. “You’re killing your joints with all that walking!”
When I talk about my passion for long-distance hiking, people sometimes express concern for my health. Surely all that walking—with a heavy pack no less!—is hell on your joints, they worry. About three minutes into the conversation, they’ll start dropping subtle hints that I should probably drop the whole backpacking schtick altogether. For my health. Maybe take up a safer hobby, like knitting*.
While backpacking can be rough on your muscles and joints (injuries were the most common reason hikers got off the AT in our 2021 thru-hiker survey), modern ultralight gear and judicious use of trekking poles help take the pressure off. The key is to ease into hiking and listen to your body. Don’t be afraid to slow down, take a break, or change up your gear if you’re hurting. And for the love of whatever god you pray to, be cautious on steep downhills.
Backpacking is great exercise, which, contrary to popular belief, is actually good for your health. Studies suggest that load-bearing exercises like hiking with a pack improve your bone density in the long run, to say nothing of the muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness you’ll build.
With proper footwear, trekking poles, lightweight gear, regular stretching, and the ability to exercise restraint, there’s no reason backpacking should be detrimental to your long-term health. Quite the opposite, in fact.
*Disclaimer: No offense to knitting! I love a good, clean stockinette stitch as much as the next guy.
2. The trail is dangerous for solo women.
I read a listicle of solo female hiking safety tips the other day that had me half-convinced that my next solo effort would lead to my inevitable, gory demise and brutal axe murder. Could something terrible happen to a woman alone on the trail? Of course it could. Sadly, that possibility always exists, which is why situational awareness is vital.
Even so, I feel far safer hiking alone than walking the streets of a crowded city alone at night. When people talk about dangers to solo women hikers, they often are talking about dangers from fellow humans. In reality, most of us come into more frequent contact with two-legged varmints in our day-to-day lives. Encountering fewer people on the trail means you are statistically at much lower risk.
And while the dangers of getting lost or injured or running afoul of wildlife are real (often overblown, but definitely real), solo women are at no greater risk in this department than any other singleton hiker.
Moral of the story: Of course you should weigh the risks to your safety when you’re considering hiking solo, regardless of your gender. But I would encourage you not to let fear hold you back from the life you want. Put your fears in a reasonable context, take steps to adequately plan and prepare for your journey, pack your pepper spray, and go have the time of your life.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has a great list of sensible hiking safety tips, most of which can be applied to any trail.
3. You have to be rich to backpack.
So, yeah. Backpacking gear is expensive, and even if you have it, you probably need a car, a plane ticket, or some other means to get to the trailhead. Not to mention time off work to peace out to the woods. There is undoubtedly a certain amount of privilege involved in being able to go backpacking in the first place, and it shows in the demographics of most long trails (for instance, our 2021 AT survey respondents were overwhelmingly white and college-educated).
That being said, it’s very possible to thru-hike on a shoestring budget by purchasing used gear, opting for a minimalist setup that foregoes expensive luxury items, making full use of hiker boxes, and avoiding the expensive “town vortex” of hotels and restaurants. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t the hike everyone would choose, but it certainly can be done.
If you don’t have the flexibility to take six months off, you may still be able to squeeze in a few overnighters and long weekends around your work schedule. For those who don’t own cars, accessibility to remote trailheads is a major issue for which I can’t offer a perfect solution. Many communities have outdoor clubs that sometimes carpool to trailheads in exchange for gas money—less than ideal, but a place to start looking if you’re determined to get out there.
Interestingly, the people who often struggle the most with affording a long-distance hike are actually often those with more resources in the civilized world. If you have few possessions or financial entanglements, it’s relatively straightforward to abscond to nature for a few months. The challenges multiply if you have a mortgage and a car payment to keep up with while you’re out of work for six months.
4. All backpackers are minimalists.
In direct counterpoint to everything I just said in the paragraphs above, one has to admit that backpackers can be pretty dang materialistic. I am a self-described minimalist who takes aggressive pleasure in judging people who love to shop and accumulate stuff. I am also one person who owns three of every Big Three item, four different sun shirts, and burns through two to five pairs of trail runners per year. But who’s counting?
I’m not saying every backpacker is closeted consumer scum like me, but there’s no denying that the outdoor industry is an unstoppable money-making machine, so I can’t be the only one. And in light of the ultralight gear craze, hikers are forking over more cash than ever on gear that’s designed to save you mad weight for a few years before snapping, tearing, melting, or otherwise disintegrating and going to the landfill.
What can we (OK, fine, what can I) do about this? Quit obsessing over the latest and greatest gear upgrades, take better care of the gear I have, and when I do need to replace it, favor brands that balance weight savings with durability (because UL does not have to be fragile).
READ NEXT – Zero-Waste Thru-Hike of the Appalachian Trail
5. Backpacking Is SO MUCH BETTER than Car Camping
But is it, though? I remember hiking through Lewis Mountain Campground, a front country campground in Shenandoah National Park, during my AT thru-hike and absolutely burning with envy over the spacious tents, elaborate meals, and general good hygiene of the car campers there.
I love backpacking, but honestly, car camping is pretty amazing too. You still get to sleep under the stars and day hike every day if you want, but you also get to change into clean clothes occasionally and eat a hot dinner that includes actual fresh vegetables. When you wake up in the morning, you get to linger over breakfast, and if you don’t feel like hiking that day, you don’t have to! Amazing.
I’ll never give up backpacking, but to all you day hikers and car campers out there: I applaud you. You guys have clearly cracked the code.
READ NEXT – Car Camping Gear for Every Budget
6. Thru-hiking is a vacation.
I mean, yes, thru-hiking provides an extended break from the working world for those lucky enough to attempt it. But while it’s certainly a volunteer activity, I just don’t think “vacation” really captures the spirit of the endeavor.
OK, sure, it’s tough to argue with the vacation-y barbecue vibes of a really excellent hiker feed, and anything other than laundry that happens within town limits is generally a party, and yes, there are some hostels on the AT that offer massage therapy and the like. But other than that, it’s very grueling stuff, honest.
Completing a long trail is a major undertaking. It requires planning, commitment, and a high level of grit. It’s hard work and not always fun in the moment.
Many thru-hikers list their long trail achievements on their resumes during job applications. Not only does this explain long absences from the world of paid work, but it says something about the person’s character.
So while thru-hiking is (for many) a once-in-a-lifetime chance to take a step back from the routines of the working world, “vacation” is a bit of a misnomer. Maybe we should coin a new term. “Trek-cation?” “Endurance sabbatical?” “Character-building walkabout?” I think I’ll just stick with “thru-hike” and let the term speak for itself.
READ NEXT – Why “Embrace the Suck” Needs to Die
Until you hit the trail for your first backpacking trip, it’s difficult to know what it will actually be like. And once you do get out there, it might be completely different from what you were expecting. Ultimately, everyone’s experience will be unique: the only way to truly distinguish backpacking myth from fact is to get out there and try it for yourself.
Featured image: Graphic design by Chris Helm.