There is an unfortunate line of thinking, in what I will unscientifically dub the “American camping consciousness,” that backpacking should be an ascetic experience.
Car camping? Buddy, load up the ice-cold beers, cram your whole queen mattress into the rig, and bring an adult-size bouncy house. But backpacking? A quick scan of your local gear shop will tell you that surviving days outside with only what you can carry on your back requires ruthless streamlining. You must not only use ultralight gear, every superfluous gram of foam eliminated, but also eat nothing but tasteless, dehydrated astronaut food. I am here to tell you that this is nonsense!
Over the course of the 14 or so years I have spent backpacking in Northern California, I have packed in such indulgences as a bunch of steaks, a Ziploc bag full of shrimp skewers marinating in lemon juice and garlic, several beers, a small cast-iron grill plate to cook up the said steaks, a copy of the 928-page novel 1Q84, a French press, half a dozen eggs, and a family-size bag of tortilla chips. And guess what? My legs are still attached to my body.
I have also endured my share of sad ramen noodles and assorted freeze-dried “dinners,” and I have found that compromising what you can do or cook at your destination in the name of meager weight savings on the trail is not worth it. If you’re going backpacking for fun, and you’re already going to hike in a small garage worth of junk with you, why not reward yourself instead of performing outdoors penance?
Now, there is absolutely a time and place to consider every ounce that you put on your back. If you’re embarking on any sort of longish trek, it is not necessarily the best idea to burn weight and space on an overly hefty sleeping pad or a brick of cheese. A pal who did the Pacific Crest Trail had to straight-up drink olive oil to get calories, since it was the densest food he could fit in his pack. The theories advanced here pertain to weekend trips, and while I have never gone on an unsupported trek longer than three nights, I imagine that a couple pounds of fresh vegetables would be a hindrance on such an expedition.
However, even in the case of a three-night trip, there might still be room to pack for one luxurious dinner. Yes, the hike out to your campsite will be marginally more difficult on day one, but if you plan correctly, you will earn the reward of a truly delicious meal in a place that seems beyond the reach of such opulence. Also, most foods that seem unsuited for extended time outside of a cooler will still probably be good on the first night. Food tastes better when you’re out in the woods, a fact that is doubly true when you’ve backpacked all your stuff in.
There’s a case to be made that appreciating the outdoors properly requires suffering, that the most authentic way to be at one with the mountains is to feel small by avoiding worldly pleasures. This line of thinking not only trades heavily in the Thoreauvian idea that nature is a pristine, untouched land of purity entirely apart from humans, it belies the blunt truth that you are really not going to get out into the wilderness without, say, driving a car or using a hyperlight camping stove. And that’s fine! You are allowed to enjoy yourself. Pack in a satchel of chicken cordon bleu, strap an oversize pillow on top of your backpack, make space for a hilariously oversize mancala board. Let yourself indulge, and you’ll love backpacking even more.
Support Outside Online
Our mission to inspire readers to get outside has never been more critical. In recent years, Outside Online has reported on groundbreaking research linking time in nature to improved mental and physical health, and we’ve kept you informed about the unprecedented threats to America’s public lands. Our rigorous coverage helps spark important debates about wellness and travel and adventure, and it provides readers an accessible gateway to new outdoor passions. Time outside is essential—and we can help you make the most of it. Making a financial contribution to Outside Online only takes a few minutes and will ensure we can continue supplying the trailblazing, informative journalism that readers like you depend on. We hope you’ll support us. Thank you.