Define Backpacking

“I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it.”

-Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Have you ever felt that some words fail to encompass the meaning of the thing they represent?

Take “backpacking” for example. Alone, it is a very simple word for a not-so-simple activity. It would be like trying to contain the grandeur of the Himalayas in a snow globe. You get the idea, but it just isn’t the same thing.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s pretty sensible to smash existing words together to make something new. It happens quite frequently, so whoever decided to smash “back” and “packing” together wasn’t a genius. It was just a logical conclusion.

Also, it was probably provided a nice conversation to keep everybody’s mind off of how much their feet hurt.

The optimist: “Hey, it’s really cool that we have everything we need on our backs! We should call it something.”

The pessimist: “I just feel like a pack mule. Walking here.”

The optimist: “What about…backpacking? You know, because we pack everything on our own backs!”

The pessimist: “That will never catch on.”

Or at least it probably went something like that.

That said, there are actually two kinds of backpacking.

#1: when you pack a bag and travel internationally from city to city or country to country. It frequently involves staying in hostels, getting lost, and being in wonder of everything around you. If you forget something, it’s likely you can find it when you arrive or you learn to live without it.

#2: When you pack a bag and head to nature (either nationally or internationally). It frequently involves staying in tents, getting lost, and being in wonder of everything around you. If you forget something…well, maybe just DON’T forget anything on this one or you will have to learn to live without it.

There are enough blogs out there to both help and overwhelm the newbie backpacker…myself included on occasion. I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert on either, however I can say that I’ve dabbled in both. A little taste was all it took to get me hooked.


Yading Nature Reserve, Sichuan, China

(Photo taken by Alex P.)

Backpacking across western Sichuan is among the most formative experiences of my life (thus far). It made me realize that I am far more capable than I ever gave myself credit for. However, on the opposite side of that coin it forced me to admit that I am not the easiest person to travel with. If cold, hungry, or tired I am unpleasant. Especially hungry…

Most notable of Backpacking #1:

  1. Language: Of course, traveling abroad doesn’t always mean that you will be speaking another language, but that is part of the fun. If you’re feeling adventurous it’s a challenge I would recommend taking! That is not to say that I was boss-travel-lady rocking Mandarin all across China. I wish! Although, I am one of those poor fools that will try to speak the language wrong until I’m blue in the face, and in turn fail to notice body language. However most people were very gracious about my limited language abilities. Still, I’m glad I knew what I did or we wouldn’t have gotten a single place to stay or a ride in between.
  2. Culture: I feel like this point just deserves a  “duh.” BACKPACKING ABROAD IS ALL ABOUT THE CULTURE. You go because it’s something different! I’ve never met someone who came back from another country and said they went because they love 10+ hour plane rides. (If I ever do you’ll be the first to know…) You go for the people, the food, the art, the religion, the festivals, the – anything that is different from your home. Western Sichuan had a tremendously rich Tibetan culture that the rocks themselves seemed to embody. Everything from Sky Burials to the hot springs to the yaks reminded me that the world is so much bigger and more wonderful than I can ever compute.
  3. Friends: This point may be last, but it is not the least. Backpacking brings you in to close contact with people from all over the globe for a brief time. It may be five minutes or five months. I know there are many travelers out there that lament the friendships that are not made because interactions are so short. It’s true, but I must say my experience was unique in that the people I traveled with most I do still talk to. In fact, I have even traveled with one individual since being back State-side. That to me, is a reward in and of itself. As for the people you meet only briefly, they have a way of lingering with you.
Yading Nature Reserve, Sichuan, China



Ozark Trail, Missouri, USA

Let’s just rename this one right now. We’ll call it “backtracking.” It’s rhymes so that’s easy enough, right?

Most notable of Backpacking #2:

  1. Trail: Speaking of backtracking…when I think “trail” I used to imagine a thin line of dirt that is clearly identifiable on the ground. Oh how wrong I was. Even with a map (or perhaps because of it) I managed to send us (China travel buddy and I) in the wrong direction on our Kora of the Ozarks in Missouri. We stayed on the trail itself, just not the way we wanted to go. Even so, there were numerous occasions that required us to stop and find the next trail marker. The distance goes so much slower and the exhaustion is on another level completely. That said, the vistas are totally worth it.
  2. Tent: This is one of the most obvious differences between my experiences. In Sichuan I only ever stayed in hostels. If I had had access to a tent at the time I might have considered using it, but alas I did not. Compared to a hostel, a tent seems like a very inadequate form of shelter, but once the sun has set it suddenly seems like the most welcoming place in the world. Unless ants invade, in which case it is not welcoming at all.
  3. Seclusion: While on the trail we only encountered two other people, otherwise it was just us and hundreds of silent trees for miles. There were of course little towns in any given direction, but most definitely not within walking distance. I remember my first thought as I stepped away from the registration board being, “Here we go, just us. Alone. Into the woods.” And so it was. The first night I had to tell myself over and over I wasn’t scared. And the second. And even a little the third. My brain, trying to tune in to any sign of danger may have worn itself out at night, but during the day the isolation was a welcome change. To just be two people in the woods – no work, no rent, none of those meaningless things. Just free and outside.

    Bell Mountain Overlook, Ozark Trail, Missouri, USA


  1. Your backpack is your world. Everything you need is inside. You simultaneously love and hate the thing. I will say that traveling on busses with a pack is much more irritating than being on the trail. In China I had to hold it on my lap to keep other passengers from barfing on it, whereas on the trail I could throw it down anywhere when it got to heavy or irritating. From beginning to end it does not change. Your hair grows longer, your heart and soul subtly shift, yet your pack remains the untouchable foundation that allows you to experience such changes. It is there time and time again. Unless you knock it off a cliff, or it gets stolen of course. It’s a backpack after all, not a god. 😉
  2. “I’m not cut out for this.” I’m not gonna lie. On both trips that thought went through my head more times than I care to admit. Mostly it coincided with bad attitudes brought on by the tyrants of cold, sleep, or hunger. However, backpacking does require a lot of thinking on your toes, making wise decisions, and most importantly packing a good attitude. Oftentimes there are inconveniences you can’t plan for and if you can’t learn to roll with them they can drain the life right out of an experience.
  3. Leave nothing to regret. Not that I’m encouraging anyone to do anything stupid, but there are definitely things I wish I had had the courage to do and not worry about how I would look or what others would think. A moment’s discomfort is not worth passing up a wild opportunity! Like inner tubing on a frozen river, or washing your hair in a lake during a thunderstorm. As I said…I’m NOT encouraging anyone to do anything stupid!

Until next time!


P.S. Dear North Face, our packs are practically begging to be poster children here.

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