Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Anxiety Of An Empty Backpack

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASpring is the season of rebirth, but as any mother can tell you, birthing comes at a painful and messy cost. Although slightly warmer temperatures, longer days and the return of some feathered friends occur early on, the potential of the season unfolds slowly. Yet, the spring remains the harbinger of summer and for most a more active backcountry exploring season.

Spring is a chaotic month with many extreme conditions, as waning winter and waxing summer fight for dominance, a battle that summer has historically never lost (except on the backend, where it has never won). The uncertain weather conditions make it a challenging season to pack for any backcountry adventure, as one day requires shorts and the next a parka and hat. Too bad no outdoor manufacturer has created a line of clothing with modular amounts of insulation for such occasions.

In winter, the choices are usually quite easy, a well-insulated sleeping bag, enough fuel for melting snow, an assortment of heavy clothing and a larger backpack to hold all of the bulky equipment. While during the warmer months, the essentials are simpler, and quite lighter, such as lighter clothing, rain gear, an alcohol stove, etc.

Regardless of the season, but especially during the spring, the notion of fitting all that gear into an empty backpack is daunting. Although this apprehension is present before any backcountry trip regardless of season, the unpredictable weather of early spring makes choosing gear (e.g. clothing, food, stove, sleeping bag, etc.) much more difficult, and thus induces a greater amount of anxiety than usual.

The myriad number of questions presented by an empty backpack causes this sense of trepidation. What clothes should I bring? Which stove? The lighter sleeping bag, or the heavier, warmer one? Down or synthetic? How much food do I need? Is the backpack going to be big enough? It can be so overwhelming that often I feel like throwing in the towel and just staying home and writing about the outdoors instead.

This backcountry packing anxiety has never been formally diagnosed, or described for that matter. Yet, it is very real. I know, because I feel it during the preparation stage before every backcountry trip. In fact, the prospect of an empty backpack, emaciated and waiting to devour a pile of outdoor gear can cause as much anxiety as a blank screen facing a blogger hours before an article is due. Not that that has ever happened to me before though.

If you expect this article to cure this anxiety or provide a step-by-step instructional guide on how to efficiently pack for a backcountry adventure then you may be greatly disappointed. There are no easy answers; if I had any, I would be a very wealthy man, enjoying a cool drink on a beach in some exotic locale. The standard wisdom of packing the heaviest gear closest to one’s back and centered within the backpack, with things needed while hiking in an easily accessible place fails to elevate this anxiety since it does not indicate WHAT to take, only how to pack once the decision has been made.

I recently faced this dilemma once again while packing for my first backpacking trip in about a year. It was only an overnight trip, but it still filled me with a great deal of anxiety, such that I had not felt since the spring before. These early spring trips always require more time and effort because of the uncertain weather conditions, and thus causing more anxiety than usual.

Soon, weather and health permitting, I shall become reacquainted with exploring the Adirondack backcountry as well. There my absence has been even longer, as my last visit occurred mid-summer of 2011. I am certain that the black flies, mosquitoes and their allies will show me how much they missed me upon my return.

Perhaps the Adirondack Almanack readers can come up with a name for this anxiety, or more importantly, some methods to try to alleviate the apprehension of packing for a backpacking trip. Such methods may ease the transition from winter to summer, at least for those few of us planning backcountry adventures during this turbulent season.

Photo: Packed, and non-anxiety inducing backpack on the Sand Lake Trail in the Five Ponds Wilderness by Dan Crane.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

6 Responses

  1. Tim says:

    Not sure what to call it, but I experience the same thing. One thing that has helped me over the years of getting ready for a trip is practicing packing my backpack. I will now start early packing and repacking so the anxiety lessens – I mainly started this process to try and eliminate old gear for all the new gear I purchased over the winter months!

  2. Curt Austin says:

    Oh, boy – you’ve hit on a good topic here. I feel your anxiety.

    I like the “big table and imagine doing it” approach, which I developed for a much higher anxiety – photographing weddings. Put everything you might need/want on a table, where you can see it all at once. Then close your eyes and imagine going through your trip chronologically, using your equipment as you need it, worrying about problems. You won’t forget your spoon if you imagine eating your porridge. It all takes care of itself if you do this well, arranging things according to their priority, tracking down missing items, putting stupid stuff away, filling ziplock bags (do not use opaque bags!), developing your food plan, imagining how you’ll pack it. Sleep on it (very important), reconsider it all the next day. Then you put the stuff on the table into your bag and go.

  3. Curt Austin says:

    More: For me, the most frequent error is removing something from its usual place for some unrelated purposes. For example, I used my headlamp to fix my furnace last week – I wonder where it is now. So, whatever you do, always do zero-based packing – a completely empty pack, empty ziplocks, no assumptions.

    Another common error stems from divided responsibilities. “I thought you were bringing the spoons!” The solution to this problem is as complicated as your relationship with your hiking partner(s). But a big simplification is “Everyone bring their own spoon!”, etc.

  4. Paul says:

    Dan, it is an adrenalin “HIGH”, you know that, so enjoy until it goes away, it’ll be back for your next trip and the one after that 🙂

  5. Brad says:

    Or do what I have been doing for years – get a larger ‘backpack’. That became a 17′ canoe then when I got tired of that, a 17′ sea kayak…lets me have my fun and bring the ‘cake’ too!

    Forget pre trip anxiety – how about the post trip let down when you see all the good stuff you were sure you needed ,and never used or remembered you even had along w you?!

  6. Evan says:

    I checked WebMD and the consensus of the medical community is that drinking a six pack while choosing what to pack produces significant and tangible results in reducing the above discussed anxiety.

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