What if I Introduce My Friend to Backpacking and She’s Better than Me?
I’m an experienced solo backpacker, but she’s a marathoner and a natural athlete
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My friend has told me that she wants to be more outdoorsy, so she’s asked me to take her on a backpacking trip, since I’m an avid backpacker. We’re currently planning a four-day trip for late September. However, I’m feeling anxious about it for a reason that’s kind of personal.
My friend is incredibly athletic: she’s literally a marathon runner. The thing is, I’m not traditionally athletic at all. I hated gym class, was bad at it, and always found it embarrassing. I’m also plus size and didn’t find any exercise that felt good to me until I started hiking and backpacking in my twenties. I discovered that I really enjoyed moving my body when no one else was watching or judging me, and I feel strong and at peace in the woods. For that reason, most of my backpacking trips are solo. The longest I’ve completed was a three-week solo trip two summers ago.
My friend doesn’t have any backpacking experience, so I’ll be showing her how to set up camp, cook, filter water, and that kind of thing. But despite the fact that I have a lot of confidence in my backpacking skills, I’ve been feeling like an impostor as we plan the trip. After all, we’re doing something athletic, and she’s much more of a natural than I am. I’m worried that I’ll be the one holding her back, and that I’ll feel self-conscious in a way that I usually go into the woods to get away from, which is something that she probably can’t imagine. How can I have the confidence to lead her on a backpacking trip when, in my mind, she’s already better at it than me?
Backpacking is a fundamentally physical activity, in the sense that it’s about using your body in the world—but it’s also fundamentally about self-sufficiency, connecting with nature, learning to sleep in the wilderness, adjusting to weather, and being creative with limited supplies. You know what doesn’t define backpacking? How far you go, and how fast. You could travel a quarter-mile each day at a naturalist’s pace (read: stopping constantly, moving from one interesting plant or animal to the next, sketching in your notebook, spying on bugs), and as long as you set up camp and slept outside, you’d totally be backpacking. Your friend could run an ultramarathon on a mountain, and though it might be an awesome adventure, it wouldn’t be backpacking at all. That’s why she approached you—for your expertise. And it sounds like you have a lot of it.
A three-week solo backpacking trip is a wildly impressive accomplishment. Seriously. Can we take a moment to appreciate that?! You spent almost a month alone, carrying your world on your back, facing solitude, animals, bugs, rain, blisters, cold, and heat—and with a trip that long, I imagine you had to do some serious on-the-fly problem-solving, too, with no instincts to lean on but your own. You completed something that only a tiny percentage of people will ever dream of trying. And while I don’t want to rank achievements against each other, I think it’s fair to say that if your friend has any sense at all, she’s as wowed by your backpacking experience as you are by her marathon running—just as both of you should be.
I know that gym-class scars and body shame run deep. Much like you, it took me a while to figure out that I liked moving my body, mainly because my California phys-ed classes were outdoors, in 100-degree temperatures, and students weren’t allowed to shower afterward. I’d spend the entire hour trying to move—and sweat—as little as possible. (It also didn’t help that I was also afraid of balls and dismally bad at running the mile. Rather than humiliate myself by coming in last, I preferred to refuse to try). When I figured out that it was heat, not exercise, that I hated, it felt like a revelation. So I can imagine, a little, how you might have felt when you discovered hiking and backpacking. Being deep in nature, away from expectations and judgment, moving through the world on your own power. I’m so happy for you that you found a place where you feel free.
I in no way want to dismiss the difficulties that come from existing in a larger body in our society, particularly for women. That’s something that you know acutely, and that your friend may never understand. But I do want to push back on your assumption that she’s never felt the kind of self-consciousness that the woods can help to heal. Thin women can hate their bodies, sometimes viciously; the suggestion that things are always otherwise seems like an idealization of thinness that’s rooted more in propaganda than fact. It’s highly possible that the work you’ve done to find peace and joy in your own body is something that she hasn’t managed yet. Our greatest skills aren’t necessarily the ones that come naturally, but the ones we’ve fought for, and earned.
Speaking of skills, as you noted, you’ll have a ton to teach her: everything from how to pack a backpack to how to make camp and get through a pitch-black night without freaking out about bears and Bigfoot. There is absolutely zero question that you are the expert here—and she knows that, which is why she approached you! The only place I’d anticipate a discrepancy is that, when you’re actually walking along the trail, her natural pace might be faster. If that brings up fear or shame for you, you might want to talk to her about it beforehand. For all you know, she’s been anxious about a different element of the trip, and by modeling openness and vulnerability, you’ll make space for her to do the same. Since different paces tend to separate on uphills in particular, you could also seek out a trail that’s mostly flat, so that any speed differences are less likely to come into play.
Worst-case scenario, you’ll have an awkward four days, and can promptly go back to your solo travels. Best-case scenario, you’ll have a new backpacking buddy—someone who appreciates your expertise, loves being outside, and can plan adventures with you. Either way, I know you’ll be giving your friend a powerful and possibly life-changing experience, and I hope you’ll have one too. I’ll be rooting for you both.