How to overcome your fear and tackle your first backpacking trip
This past summer I embarked on my very first backpacking trip in the Olympic National Park. For my first trip, I chose Seven Lakes Basin/ High Divide Trail. As a born and raised city girl from San Francisco, the concept of backpacking was extremely daunting. I have always been athletic and I love the outdoors, which drove my decision to move to the PNW. But backpacking was an entirely new beast that I was afraid to tackle.
After years of car camping and day hikes, I started to become curious about backpacking. But the idea of having nothing at my fingertips, aside from what I could fit in a backpack, terrified me. Through leaning on my community for support and extensively preparing for my journey, I overcame my fear and even beat my partner to the finish line. Now that I've conquered that initial fear, I feel so liberated and I never say to myself anymore "I can't do that."
My first step was to study up on the trail where I would be doing my trip. The trail clocks in roughly around 20 miles give or take how much you choose to explore around the lakes. The whole trail included about 5120 feet of elevation gain. I knew right off the bat that the elevation gain would be the hardest part for me. So I started my training a whole 6 months before my trip and made elevation my priority.
The first day of our two-day trip covered over 3,000 feet elevation gain over only 6 miles. So I set my sights on day hikes that had around the same elevation gain so that I could practice and build some strength. My friend who I would be taking the trip with, gave me the idea to start doing day hikes with my backpack filled with weight .He suggested that I use gallon jugs of water as weights. That way, if I find myself too exhausted while training, I could lighten my pack and still finish the trail.
This piece of advice was genius- and it was easy for me to adjust my weight and add more gallons as my training went on and I got stronger. For my training sessions, I chose Mt. Si because its elevation gain was even harder than the trail I would be doing on my trip. I figured training somewhere more difficult would give me confidence.
But my first couple training sessions were not a success. I was carrying around 20 pounds in my pack, something I had never tried before, and I couldn’t make it to the end of the trail. With my legs nearly shaking and completely out of energy, I turned around about halfway up the trail.
I was so deflated at this point and consumed with anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to do the trip. As I drove home from the trail, fears swarmed my mind. I could see myself attempting the trip but not being able to finish. This fear of being defeated by the trail stuck with me, but I continued to train.
My next attempt also failed. Around halfway through the trail I let weight out of my bag in an attempt to reach the top of the mountain. But even then, my feet hurt with every step, I stopped frequently to catch my breath, and my shoulders ached under the weight of my pack. I turned around before I reached the top.
Finally on my 3rd attempt at Mt. Si I made it all the way to the top! This first accomplishment helped chip away at the fear that had been building in anticipation of my trip. As I looked down at the valley below, this was the first time I actually believed that I could complete the trip.
I kept doing this trail, each time adding slightly more weight until I got to around 40 pounds. I knew this was way more weight than I would need, but it helped my confidence grow. I wanted to push myself and shake off my lingering fear of not being able to finish the trail.
There were others fears, too, that clouded my mind. I worried about wildlife, the weather, and any other unforeseen dangers that would cross my path. To tackle this fear, I studied the trail extensively and sought out stories from other people who had already completed this trail.
At this point I had acquired all of my gear, but I wanted to make sure I knew how to use everything correctly. So I started bringing my backpacking gear on my usual weekend car camping trips.
Once we finally got to the trail, it was gorgeous and I didn’t have to worry about being out of shape or uncomfortable. Spending those few months before my trip training and researching took an enormous load of pressure off my shoulders and allowed me to actually enjoy the trip rather than nervously taking one step at a time.
My community and friends who helped give me their tips and experiences was so validating. They were excited to see me try something new and they even related to my initial failures. I began to realize that everyone learns new skills and hobbies somewhere. And that process almost always begins with a few hiccups. I was so wrapped up in worrying about failing, that I didn’t realize these small failures are a part of learning something new.
The trail was covered with vibrant wildflowers as we moved along a slim ridgeline. To our right, we looked straight at snow dusted peaks and hidden glaciers. While to our left, we walked above lakes and meadows and even caught the occasional black bear grazing.
I felt so prepared to summit those 3,000 feet on the first day, that I even opted to take a detour that added a few hundred more feet to the trail so that we could see a glacier in the distance. My mind was so consumed by the experience, that the fears I had held onto for so long never even arose.
We descended the ridge to our campsite, which sat alone next to a small lake surrounded by meadows. As we drew closer, we began to see dozens of black spots throughout the meadows become larger. When we finally landed at our campsite, we realized that these black spots were dozens of black bears.
In so many other scenarios, I would have been terrified. I was standing only a few yards away from a black bear. But thanks to reading about other hikers’ experiences, I knew this was a probability as black bears were extremely common in this area. I was prepared with bear spray and tricks for encountering bears such as making loud but calm noises and making yourself known to the bear. These safety tips, plus traveling in a group, allowed me to enjoy seeing the bears up close rather than turning around.
Our first night we set up our tents next to a lake and watched the bears eat flowers and dip in the water to cool themselves off while we ate dinner. The next day, despite my feet aching and my muscles sore, we traversed 11 more miles, saw several lakes and got to wander through some old forest growth. I won’t lie, this second day I was beat, but I was filled with so much pride that I had made it to the end of the trail. I had spent months with a constant fear in the back of my mind that I wouldn’t be able to finish or that I wouldn’t be prepared enough. And yet, there I was, sore, but confidently taking one step after another.
At the last mile of the trial, I turned to my partner and bet him I could beat him to the finish line- and I did.
This was my first plunge into something unknown as an adult and the most valuable thing I gained was confidence. I was forced to be a beginner again and learn to accept failure. As adults, this can be a harder lesson to learn than when we were children. It's challenging to fail at something and pick yourself back up. But now that I have, my mind feels free to wonder what else I can tackle. My next goals are to learn to snowboard and rock climb. Except this time around, I plan to take the learning curve with a smile and laugh off some of my initial failures. In fact, I’m even proud to turn around to someone and say “I’m still learning.”
Dominique’s tips for tackling your first backpacking trip
- Identify your areas to improve and train accordingly
- Study your route
- Research gear and use it before your trip
- Don’t be afraid to mess up- it's all a part of the process
- The goal is to have fun and immerse yourself in nature, don’t lose sight of this!
- Lean on your community for advice and support