Why Everyone Should Backpack Solo

Why Everyone Should Backpack Solo

I used to live in Portland, Oregon, and have been camping and traveling around the Pacific Northwest for three years now. Its mountain ranges, the Pacific Coast Ranges (officially the Pacific Mountain System), and the Cascades are carpeted by boundless forests. I know a few of the lakes and rivers, but there are countless. Sparsely populated, the Pacific Northwest had been creating a call-of-the-wild effect on me.

The more I discovered the vast North American natural landscapes, the more I wanted to shed anything that didn’t strictly sustain my body and mind’s basic needs. How would I perceive the surrounding environment? How would I feel with minimal or no human interaction? were the questions constantly running through my head. Backpacking alone was the answer. It allowed me to have alone time, to discover foreign lands, and live frugally while enjoying physical effort and inner reflection.

I have been camping since I was a child. My family of four used to camp and hike the Italian Alps, especially the Dolomites, with a big two-bedroom, one common-room tent. Several years after I moved to Portland, my girlfriend and I started tent camping again.

I still travel to Austria to St. Lorenzen im Gitschtal a few times a year and hike in the area. But I am never really alone or far from people. I am a very outgoing young man, but I treasure time for myself. I enjoy and embrace solitude, physically and mentally, but I live in the city. I craved, for once, alone time while immersed in nature. I moved back to Europe and at the time I had never visited Alaska. Backpacking there mid-July for four nights and four days seemed like the right choice.

The first taste of the grandiosity of the Alaskan landscape was on the southbound Alaska Railroad train from Anchorage to Seward. The railroad followed the highway and was immersed most of the time in the wilderness along an old telegraph line. Its crooked wooden poles were still visible in stretches, though sometimes a single pole would stand out among the dense underbrush.

The train rode along valleys with views of glaciers and, on the edge of river, gorges and the ocean shore. But as stunning as the scenery was, I was surrounded by tourists. My real travel finally started when I left Seward and headed south towards Tonsina Beach — the first leg of my adventure — on foot.

A light drizzle started as soon as I exited Seward, walking on the unpaved road linking Seward to Lowell Point, halfway to my first destination. I didn’t mind that drizzle — it kept the dust down. Sixty-six pounds of equipment on my shoulders didn’t feel heavy. To satisfy my basic physical and intellectual needs, I had nothing but the strictly necessary: essential food and cover for the body, books, and a journal for my mind.

From the very beginning, I would just observed my surroundings for long periods of time. The landscape was pristine, wild, and majestic. The second leg of trail, from Tonsina to North Beach, consisted of the free beach at low tide, and I had to walk over pebbles and huge slippery rocks alike using my hands to stable myself.

I spotted bald eagles and river otters and found signs of bears, although I’ve never encountered any. On the other side of the bay, towering mountains and sweeping glaciers stood immobile over the fjords’ calm waters, their colors changing according to the sun. The sun lit most of my days, as well as the nights, since I was near the Arctic Circle. At South Beach the view opened towards the Pacific Ocean. The landscape was silent, except for the intermittent buzz of the water taxis traversing Resurrection Bay.

I engaged my senses when it felt right. I tasted the creeks’ running water, touched the roughness of the bark, listened to the waves, squinted to look in the shadows of the thick undergrowth, filled my lungs with the forest’s smells of decay and rebirth. I dove in the cold ocean at North Beach, right under Caines Head, and lied down on the grass in the sunshine.

I dug my bare feet into the damp ground and plunged my hands beneath the pebbles at South Beach on the other side of Caines Head. These simple actions created a link between the land and me. I let nature flow, unfiltered, through my senses. It was a delicate but filling sensation. It was how I wanted to feel the natural environment. My time was mostly paced only by the rhythm of my walking.

I have complicated thoughts daily, but there I realized my thinking was deeper yet simpler. I would hover for hours without noticing my considerations over the details of a sun-bleached silver piece of driftwood or the head movements of a bald eagle perched on top of a tree. But after every consideration I would think of sharing the events with people close to me. I know a deep relationship doesn’t require many words but that words should not be spared. The way I would picture the elegance of the eagle flying to the nest or the size of Porcupine Glacier over Thumb Cove was fundamentally connected to my relationships.

I would play in my head how I would describe the scenes to my brother, my family, my girlfriend, or my closest friends about what I experienced and, as importantly, how I experienced it. Sharing is one of the fundamental and essential pillars in my relationships, but having someone understand my experiences is intimate. It’s what makes that person feel truly close to me and me close to them. Backpacking by myself for those days and nights made me appreciate company. I longed for the moment to share with people what and how I felt.

Photos by: author

Richard was born in the US, grew up in Italy, recently moved to the UK after few years in Oregon. Architect by day, but also athlete and photographer, he alternates sports to reading and writing. Find his work in The Dreams' Chest.