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Don’t Pack Your Fears

For years, I assumed that with my scoliosis, backpacking wouldn’t be for me. I felt I needed to carry far too much stuff to make backpacking feasible. I simply couldn’t let go of my extra cushy sleeping pad and other accoutrements. I love the outdoors, so the idea of Not Backpacking didn’t sit well with me. But for years, I accepted it as a reality.

The night before my husband, our friends Robin and Emily, and I were set to leave for a four-night backpacking trip in the Sierras, we were packing our bags in Robin and Emily’s living room. I had borrowed some “ultralight” gear (read: not super-cushy, and therefore, not super heavy), and I was worried.

I worried that I would be in pain, that I wouldn’t sleep, that I couldn’t keep up.

I worried about this trip like it was my job.

What about extra warm clothes or those extra snacks? Those couldn’t come with us. What would happen to my poor spine without all the comfort? It was a mystery.

At one point, Robin quoted out of one of our ultralight backpacking guides:

“Don’t pack your fears.”

It’s one of the tenets of ultra-light backpacking. And it shook me.

It means: don’t put things in your pack based on the worst-case scenario. Take what you need, but don’t let fear motivate you. Don’t pack based on everything that could go wrong. Unburden yourself in the first place and you’ll need less.

Even more simply? Those horror stories playing out in my mind aren’t real.

It clicked. I can let go of thoughts preparing for backpacking the same way I can let go of thoughts on my meditation cushion. The thoughts come and go, and we don’t need to base our plans on them. The story of what my back, my sleep pattern, my ability would do on the trail was an unknown.

Packing doesn’t have to be about all of the what-ifs and boogey-men.

It’s about non-attachment.

We can pack and prepare and fret. But that doesn’t change the outcome. We should prepare, work our hardest, and then let go of what happens next. We cannot control the results, so there is no need to worry about what they might be.

When you pack only what you need, it is liberating. Working within the confines of only what is in your pack, you rely only on yourself. You surrender to the land.

This particular non-attachment practice is an actual weight off your shoulders.

When I decided not to pack all of the heavy things that my fear told me I needed, I was able to trim my pack down to a breezy 16 pounds. Without the extra weight, my back felt really well the entire weekend. Without the extra stuff, I was actually better supported and freer than if I’d brought all of my comfort items.

As a result of not carrying as much weight, I didn’t need the thick sleeping pad. My back was well enough that a lighter one would do. And because my pack wasn’t weighing down on me, I didn’t need the heavy-duty hiking shoes. Which in turn made me lighter on my feet. I needed less comfort at camp because I hadn’t beaten myself up on the trail.

The less we have, the less we need.

I am finding this in other areas of my life, as well. But it is never truer than when backpacking.

As a result of embracing non-attachment and joining what followers call “The Church of the Ultra-light”, I have seen places on our planet I never thought I would. Open alpine meadows with endless seas of wildflowers and boundless, cloudless skies. A young seal in the wild, basking in the sun on a rock.

Views of the Pacific Ocean and the high Sierra are worth it.

It makes me wonder what else we hold on to, based on fear. What is weighing us down that we are afraid to release? I’m starting to live a simpler and simpler life, not because I don’t love beauty or abundance. But because I love freedom. I love sweetness, which rarely has to do with things.

Because I don’t want my fear ruling me.

I chose to trust, and took very little. It was great.

Now, that initial story of “I don’t backpack” isn’t even true anymore.

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