Addressing the Fears that Hold You Back (From Backpacking)

Overcoming fear in backpacking

If you know me, you know that I am all about not allowing fear to hold you back from your dreams. We all have anxieties and intimidations that hold us back from the things that we really want and the things that could help us thrive. Instead of allowing fear to tell me that I can’t do something, I try to tell that nagging voice in my head to shut it (though of course it never listens), and push through the fear anyway.  

During COVID-19, I’ve been in an introspective phase. I’ve been listening to a lot of really inspirational podcasts, mostly created by women (any other Goal Digger fans out there?!), and a theme that keeps coming up over and over again in the discussions is that in order to prosper, we need to identify the thing or things that we’re uniquely good at, and offer this up to the world. I’ve been thinking about this “thing” for months, unable to figure it out. Surely, I must be good at something, I’ve thought to myself on repeat. But there has been no clarity.

Suddenly, last night, out of the blue, it hit me. The thing that I’m uniquely good at is chasing my dreams, and motivating others to do the same. If something piques my curiosity, I investigate it. If something sets my soul on fire, I pursue it.

I recognize that these things can be harder to do in adult life, and especially as we get older. In your 20s, you have all the time and freedom in the world. As you get further and further into adulthood, you have more responsibilities weighing you down—a full-time job with benefits, family responsibilities, the need to put money into your 401K, perhaps a mortgage. But these are simply logistics, not a reason to stay frozen in place until retirement, toiling away the days without truly chasing what it is that you long for. And in many cases, you can follow your passion while holding down a steady job! (Any other weekend warriors out there?!).

If you need permission, I am here to say: do it. Do the thing. Chase the dream. Figure it out. Whatever it may be that’s tugging at your soul—you’re going to regret it if you don’t at least dip your toes into the water. We all have one life to live and none of us are getting any younger and the world is a big and beautiful place that won’t do the work for us!

If you need a little motivation, I’m here to tell you that all of the following things that have had profound (and overwhelmingly positive) effects on my that totally scared the sh*t out of me at the time: learning to rock climb, studying abroad during college (to Madagascar and the Bahamas), moving to Colorado, thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, quitting my job to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, moving halfway around the world to teach English in Korea, trying yoga for the first time, getting up on stage for my first improv show, starting this blog, and many, many more.

After this epiphany, my friend Kelsey reached out with a blog post idea for my website. She’s been on a few short backpacking trips, and wants to do more (Appalachian Trail 2022?!), but doesn’t have many friends with any backpacking gear or experience. She asked if I’d be willing to write a post addressing some common fears of people who might be keen to try backpacking, but are afraid to get out there into the wilderness. Of course I said yes! I want to inspire all of you to experience life in a brave and joyful way, and you know that Mother Nature holds the ultimate key to my sanity and well-being, so if you want to try backpacking but fear is holding you back, I want to help rectify that!

Here are some common beginner backpacker fears, my take on them, and why you should get out there anyway! I’d love to hear your thoughts—what is it that’s holding you back, from backpacking or another dream? What do you need in order to move forward? How can I help? What do you need to hear in order to move forward?

Animal Attacks

This is probably the topic I am asked about the most when people ask about my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. How many bears did you see? How many snakes did you see? Were you afraid of getting attacked? How did you sleep at night?

Let me let you on a depressing little secret, friends. There are far fewer animals in the wilderness than you think there are. And the vast majority of animals that are there are terrified of people. I used to work for World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C., they release a report called the Living Planet Report every two years, outlining the state of the planet in terms of biodiversity, ecosystems, and demand on natural resources and what it means for humans and wildlife. Their last Living Planet Report was released in 2018, and showed that in the last 40 years, we’ve seen a 60 percent decline in the world’s populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. It’s absolutely insane. Obviously, this is not for every place across the board, so there could still (luckily) be places you may be going with a decent amount of wildlife. Defenders of Wildlife estimates that there are about 300,000 black bears living in the United States and about 600,000 in North America. That may sound like a large number, but when you consider that the human population of the U.S. is about 330 million, it’s not quite so intimidating. That means there are 1,000 humans to every one bear. Not so scary anymore, right?

On the entire Appalachian Trail, which I was on for 181 days, I only saw three bears. And all three were running (quite quickly) away from me, in the other direction. Since 1900, only 61 people have been killed by black bears, according to the North American Bear Center. If you want to talk grizzlies, those things terrify me. But there are far less grizzlies in the wild—only about 1,500 in the lower 48, according to the National Wildlife Federation—and more and more are getting killed each year, according to the New York Times.

Does this mean you will never have a run in with a bear? Of course not. But what it does mean is that if you do have a run in with a bear, you’d have to be very unlucky to actually get attacked by one. And of course there are some things you can do to prevent this, such as putting all of your delicious smelling snacks and toiletries into bear canisters or hung in trees away from your tent and campsite, picking up after yourself at camp as to not give bears a reason to stick around and pester other hikers, making a little noise while you hike as not to sneak up on one (I do a lot of humming, myself), and avoiding getting in between a mama bear and her cub(s).

As far as snakes go, they don’t want to hang out with you either. Bites do happen, but they happen when the snake feels threatened, mostly when people step on them or pick them up. According to the CDC, only about five people die in the U.S. per year from venomous snakebites. Rocky Mountain National Park alone gets 4.5 million visitors per year. So again, you’d have to be extremely unlucky (or very careless) to be one of those five people. To avoid getting bitten, the CDC suggests not handling or touching snakes, avoiding tall grass and piles of leaves, and avoiding wood piles and rocks where they may be dwelling. On the entire AT, I saw four rattlesnakes, zero copperheads, and zero water moccasins (plenty of harmless garter snakes though, all slithering hastily away from me). It’s the same as for bears—use caution, be smart, and you’ll be fine. My friend Head Chef, by the way, did almost step on a rattlesnake on the AT. The reason? He was Tindering while hiking. Don’t be like Chef!

As far as other animals go, you are more likely to get pestered by a mouse, mosquitos, or ticks than anything. To avoid mice, get your snacks and smelly goods out of your tent! To avoid mosquitos, bring bug spray or wear long pants or sleeves. And to avoid ticks, spray your tent, shoes, socks, and pants with permethrin ahead of time. It helps keep them away.

Don’t let fear of the creatures stop you from backpacking. Most of the time, they’re far more afraid of you than you are of them! And personally, I love seeing them (from a safe distance).

Human Attacks

This is honestly one of my bigger fears, especially as a single woman who frequently hikes alone. However, I have probably been hiking 1,000 times in my life, and never have I ever felt truly in danger while doing so. (Creeped out a time or two, but it’s been rare). Of course, the sad reality is that there are bad people in the world and bad things can happen, but I think just like avoiding animals, you can take precautions, remain alert, and greatly reduce your risk. To put things in perspective, I’d like to note that in all the years of the AT’s existence, only 10 people have been murdered on trail. I could not find a single case of murder on the Pacific Crest Trail. The year I left Washington, D.C., there were 159 murders in the District. Just saying, the wilderness is comparatively a much safer place.

On the AT, I carried a big knife that my dad bought for me. I had a few friends laugh at me about it, but it gave me a lot of peace, especially on nights when solo camped away from my tramily. On local hikes in Colorado, I always carry pepper spray. Again, it just gives me peace of mind.

Always tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to be back. Bring an external battery charger for your phone in case yours dies. Use your intuition. If you feel that something is off, get out of the situation. Don’t worry about being polite. It’s much smarter to be safe.

An Instagram acquaintance of mine just wrote a post on how to stay safe as a solo female hiker, so check that out if anyone is interested! Many of the tips apply to hiking solo as a man, as well.

Carrying Your Gear on Your Back

Admittedly, carrying all your gear on your back is both incredibly freeing and also incredibly inconvenient. For those not used to carrying around an extra 30 pounds or so, this can be tiring, frustrating, and sweat-inducing. However, I encourage you to look on the bright side. With the items in your bag, you can survive anywhere. You’ll need to replenish your food and water, of course, but you pretty much need the same items for a weekend in the woods or six months in the woods. I pack pretty much the same gear for a weekend out in Colorado as I would for a thru-hike. It’s freeing, realizing how little you need and how independent you can be.

The most important lesson that I learned about backpacking on the AT was to pack light. I threw items in hiker boxes, sent items home, and bought lighter gear along the way, and I still had a heavier pack than most of my friends! But I’m learning. I’m slowly overhauling my gear in favor of lighter stuff in preparation for my next thru-hike (which will likely be in a couple of years). Even dropping five pounds can make a huge difference in how it makes you feel. You can get used to carrying any number of weight on your back, but it’s going to be a lot more comfortable for you if you can lighten your load as much as possible.

I’d recommend buying (or renting) lightweight gear, only bringing the amount of food you think you will need plus one extra half day to day of rations (for safety reasons—in case you get lost, are slower than you think, or eat more than you planned), not bogging yourself down with tons of water if there is plenty of water access along your route, cutting the tags off your clothing and gear, and only bringing two pairs of clothes (one for hiking and one for camp).

If you need tips on the types of lightweight backpacking gear to get, take a look at my gear list. It may give you some inspiration.

Pooping in the Woods

This one takes some getting used to, but it can be a very pleasant experience! First of all, make sure to bring along a trowel or some sort of digging tool with you. Second, familiarize yourself with Leave No Trace Ethics and etiquette for going number two in the great outdoors. Third, relax and have fun with it. When’s the last time you got to go with a view?!

Joking aside, the basics are as follows. As long as there are no wilderness regulations saying you must pack out human waste and toilet paper, all you do is find yourself a nice private spot, preferably with a nice tree branch to hold onto, at least 200 feet from trails, campsites, and water sources. Dig yourself a nice little cat hole that’s at least four inches wide and six inches deep. If you’ve forgotten your trowel, it’s okay, just use a sturdy stick. Drop your pants, do your business, and fill in the hole! Personally, I like to put a rock or a stick on top to discourage others from coming along and accidentally unearthing the bads. Sanitize your hands and you’re good to go! Note: some places require you to pack out your toilet paper. Know the local regulations before you go.

If you want to learn more about this, please consider reaching out to my friend Moss. She can not get enough of talking about pooping in the woods. I am serious.

Where Will I Find Water?

Do not worry, you do not have to carry all the water you will need for your trek with you all at once! Well, maybe if you’re hiking in the desert, but this is generally not the norm. Get yourself a water filtration system. I like and use the Sawyer Squeeze, personally. It’s easy to use, gets the job done quickly, and doesn’t take up much space in your pack. Do some research on your route, and figure out where you can expect water on the trail (be safe about this of course, do not just assume every water source will be running since some are seasonal, but often if you’re using an app like Guthook you can find this information quite easily). A general rule (again, aside from in extreme environments like the desert), is that you’ll need about a half liter of water per hour of moderate activity. If you know that you’ll hit a water source about two hours in, that means you may want to carry a liter plus a little extra in case that water source is dry. Water is heavy, weighing in at about 2.2 pounds per liter. No need to torture yourself.

What If I Don’t Own Any Gear?

If you want to try backpacking but don’t own any gear, do not fear! (You see what I did there?). Borrow from a friend or rent from an outdoor outfitter like REI. These places will often have full backpacking kits that you can rent!

And if you love it and decide that you want to purchase your own, check out my gear list for inspiration on things you may need.

What if I Forget Something?

You’ll figure it out! I often find that conveniences I feel are totally essential in the “real” world are totally unnecessary in the backcountry. I also find that we as humans are innovative, and hiking in nature helps the creativity flow in our brains, which could help you find a solution to your forgotten item. And on top of that, hikers are among the absolute nicest and most helpful people that you will ever meet! If you find yourself in dire straits, odds are there will be other people within that wilderness area to help you out.

Happy backpacking, friends! As always, if you enjoyed this post, don’t forget to follow me on Instagram and join my email list! And if you have any other fears (about backpacking or otherwise) that you’d like to discuss, drop me a note below in the comments!

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Published by Audrey

Hi! My name is Audrey, otherwise known as Glowstick on trail. I've always been into hiking, adventuring, and the outdoors, but these things took a backseat as I worked on my career in public relations for several years in Washington, D.C. In 2018, I decided that I was discontent with city life. Instead of working on my career, I needed to work on my happiness. So, I reprioritized. I quit my (amazing) job at World Wildlife Fund, thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, and relocated to beautiful Boulder, Colorado, where I work in climate communications and climb mountains every chance that I get.

2 thoughts on “Addressing the Fears that Hold You Back (From Backpacking)

  1. It’s so awesome to see posts like this about all the reasons you SHOULD follow scary dreams instead of reasons you shouldn’t. Some of these topics have been on my mind lately too because I have done a lot more solo camping and hiking during quarantine. At first, it felt scary, but ultimately getting out there and doing it helped me face my fears and be able to take a more objective view of the risks and benefits of going adventuring alone. I actually wrote a post about it called “Am I Afraid of the Dark?” that definitely relates to this.

    Liked by 1 person

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