I spent a year working as a backpacking instructor and ecology educator shortly after college. In other words, I got very dirty on a daily basis and regularly didn’t shower for a week or more at a time. I also spent a lot of time with teenagers—many of whom had never been backpacking or camping before. I owe some big lessons to those kids and that year, and more generally to countless days spent backpacking through forests and nights spent sleeping in a tent.
The woods offer a special reprieve from daily life at the same time that they present unusual challenges, and it's this combination that makes camping such a wonderful avenue of growth. What's more, virtually everything I've learned in the woods has influenced my life outside of them. Here, in very short summary and no particular order, are a few of the lessons I’ve learned.
1. No person is an island (but seriously).
You will never feel as close to someone as when they're helping you remove a tick that's embedded itself in your inner thigh. Odd and embarrassing hurts crop up in the woods, and it's an amazing thing to witness the ways in which outdoorspeople come together in support of each other. It's taught me that in many cases, our own vulnerability is what allows relationships to grow.
Don’t think you can get away with claiming to be an island if you camp alone, either. You will be affected by living things in this world no matter what. You will be bitten by mosquitos and black flies and, if you go camping often enough and in the right places, you will most likely encounter a bear someday. When you do, you will realize there is no magical bubble between you and that giant, sharp-toothed creature 10 yards down the trail (and all you can do is hope there aren’t any babies in between you and mama bear, either).
2. Your individual actions affect a much bigger whole.
Every time you make a campfire, you kill off most of the organic matter on, and even several inches (or more) below, the surface. It will take a long time before anything can grow there again, so choose carefully when deciding if and where to start burning things down.
We all smell sometimes. We all poop. Grab your trowel, dig a little hole, and get to it.
On a more positive note, I have on occasion wandered away from a campsite, deep into the neighboring woods, only to encounter several miles into the walk that someone else has been to that seemingly wild place—and that they took the time to kneel in the dirt and, using twigs and leaves and moss, build a tiny house for fairies. That individual’s actions will affect you in a special way that I can’t put into words. I believe there is a clause in the “Leave No Trace” principles stipulating an exemption for tiny fairy houses.
3. Take care of your sh!t.
The unfortunate truth is that you need to be responsible for yourself at all times. It doesn’t matter if you’re tired, or soaked, or hungry. If you reach a campsite by canoe and fail to tie up the canoe properly, you’re going to have a bad time. If you neglect to look up while choosing a tent site and pitch the tent under a widow maker (i.e., a dead or broken tree limb), you (and your tent mates) will be in danger in the event of a large storm or even, depending on the branch, a slight breeze. Pay attention, and act when action is needed. Don’t assume that someone else will do it. They’ve got their own shi!t to take care of.
4. You’ve gotta be comfortable with you (and that means every part of you).
If you’re camping for more than 12 hours (or at all), odds are good that at some point you’re going to have to poop in the woods—maybe even without toilet paper, depending on who was in charge of remembering supplies. And if you’re camping for multiple days at a time, there's a good chance you will smell pretty potent by the end of it (more likely by day two). These things are OK. We all smell sometimes. We all poop. Grab your trowel, dig a little hole, and get to it.
5. Problems without solutions are just facts.
If you get caught in the rain while backpacking and your clothes and gear get completely soaked, then… them’s the facts. There is nowhere for you to go to dry off, no dryer into which you can toss your sleeping bag. It’ll be a whole lot more fun for everyone if you accept the present for what it is. The good news is that you and everything you’re carrying will be dry again eventually. The other good news is that raincoats and pack covers exist for the very purpose of keeping people and gear dry(ish) in the rain.
6. Pack light (but know that you can always go home).
Heavy baggage will slow you down and make everything harder and more tiring. (This is true, of course, on both physical and emotional levels.) Carry only what’s essential, and remember that most things aren’t essential.
That said. You will go home eventually, and it’s OK if you still keep a Teddy Bear there and genuinely love your queen-sized bed. We all need comforting, and we all learn to lighten our baggage in our own good time. Just know that sometimes, it’s OK to leave it all behind.
7. Playing is of utmost importance.
Say “Yes!” to a rousing game of fallen crabapple toss; to throwing down your pack and splashing into a swimming hole on a hot, sweaty day; to epic games of silent hide-and-seek in the dark woods (But remember to bring a headlamp, just in case.). Stopping to pick your first wild blueberry is always encouraged (For evidence, see photo at right). On a related note, watches are overrated.
8. Be grateful.
You will never value food as much as the dry, undercooked rice and beans boiled over a tiny stove at 10:30 p.m. after hiking for twelve hours and pitching a tent in darkness. Gratitude is relative. Spread it around with lavish abandon.
9. You are your greatest helper.
And sometimes, you’re the only available helper for someone else—so pitch in. Self-sufficiency and resourcefulness are important. Everyone should be trained in basic first aid. And bandanas, strong rope, and duct tape are three of the most versatile tools on the planet.
10. Your mind and body can withstand more than you think.
It is possible that you will get pneumonia a week before a big backpacking trip, and that you will choose to go on said trip anyway because you care so much about your co-leader and the kids you are leading. (This is not advisable, but it is possible you will do it anyway.) It is also possible that one of those kids will injure themselves and, through a series of unfortunate events, you will find yourself needing to sprint several miles with a 30-pound pack on your back after having already hiked a whole lot. Your lungs will be on fire. You may be mildly concerned that you are going to die. But all else being equal, the odds are good that you’ll make it through.
11. You need to be brave.
Like me, you may have a fear of crossing moving water more than ten inches deep and two feet across. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean trails will avoid traversing bodies of water in excess of said specifications. Case in point: Every other week for an entire summer, I needed to forge a river (much deeper than ten inches, and about 20 feet across) in order to get back to camp. So I did it. And I was scared every time. But making my way across that water—heavy breathing, embarrassment, shaky knees, and all—is what allowed me to get to where I wanted to go.