Footprints in the Paella

Reflection on Backpacking, Trail Running, and Stereotypes

Once upon a time I went for a run. It happened to be a nice very nice run among the giant Sequoias of Calaveras Big Trees State Park. For me running has turned from something I once swore off to something I need to do. This summer I find myself in a lull, having not been able to run at all. How running became a vital part of my lifestyle, I don’t know exactly, but I do know that I can’t just let my mind clear the way I do when I run – or the exact opposite; all those thoughts and ideas I’ve been kicking around mix together as if part of a culinary dish that becomes more complex as it simmers. For whatever reason this week seems like a good week for reflection and reaction to some recent reading and to pick me up from my lull.

Back on that day at Big Trees a thought occurred to me… is backpacking really an activity? Last week I read the essay The death of Backpacking? by Christopher Ketcham and it reminded me I still had this simmering. After boiling it down for a bit I came to a few conclusions…

  • Backpacking isn’t an activity. Hiking is.
  • Running and Hiking have more in common than it might seem.
  • Stereotypes are lame.

A bit of a mixed bag though sometimes though the whole is more than the sum of the ingredients.

There is No Spoon

There is No Spoon!

Like that kid tells Neo in the Matrix – “there is no spoon… it is not the spoon that bends, but only yourself.” Yes, I just quoted the Matrix. Hear me out! Let’s talk about backpacking. What is it? Why would one “go backpacking”? You won’t catch me fist pumping about slinging a pack over my shoulder. Ok – you might but only because I’m fired up about hitting the trail, going somewhere new, and getting away from screens for a while. Once we realize there is no “backpacking” we get right to the substance of what it’s really about. HIKING and all that one enjoys while hiking. Give the pan a stir and let it simmer some more…

Dead or Alive?

Each year around 700-900 hikers take to the Pacific Crest Trail (“PCT”) with plans to hike 500 miles or more (source: PCTA). Many of them will be attempting to do the full 2600+ mile thru hike. Tyler Fox of halfwayanywhere.com surveyed a group of PCT hikers and found the typical PCT thru hiker to be a 26 year old male. Granted it was a small group (n=100) surveyed, but none the less. So year after year hundreds set out to hike (note, we don’t call them “thru backpackers”) the full length of the PCT, and many of them are young bucks. Using the PCT as the sole example I don’t think it would be a leap to say that hiking is very much alive and that young people are still interested in getting out there.

At the same time running is one of the fastest growing activities (source: RunningUSA.org), with niches like trail running and ultra distance leading the way. In fact trail running is so immense that you can start to break it down into sub categories!

  • Trail Running – for the average Jane/Joe runners hitting the trails.
  • Mountain Running – for the more adventurous crowd who want to tackle the tougher and more technical terrain.
  • Fell Running – for the completely masochistic berserker runners who don’t need trails and the steeper the better!
  • FKT – where the lines blur between hiking, trail running, and fast packing.

Do we really need these labels?? I dunno!

Running? Hiking? Yes Please!

Running? Hiking? Yes Please!

My buddy Scott who runs A LOT cracked me up when he was like “I dunno man… hiking is so different”. We were talking about some self supported trail runs I was planning; as with most ultra-distance trail runs, they’re run/hike unless you’re a total elite badass, which is a small percent of those who are able to run the entirety. So yeah, I guess it was fair of him to call my run a “hike” (especially given my pace…) but aside from the lack of aid stations and elbow to elbow runners, there’s essentially no difference from the organized trail events he regularly runs. Trails are trails. But maybe there was more to this “running”, “hiking” thing. Afterall, that running vest I’m sporting doesn’t look a whole lot different from the what you might see someone wearing out on a day hike, maybe some dood making an overnight FKT attempt, or even what some sub-ultralight backpackers would carry on a multi-day trip, given the right conditions.

Label Free

Going back to the Death of Backpacking essay for a second, the author writes about the younger crowd not getting out there with 40-something crumedgeons lugging 40 pound packs and sleeping in the dirt (he writes much worse actually). If we did believe backpacking is dying, which we don’t of course because we all agree now that backpacking isn’t even a thing, but even if it was a thing, there are still plenty of young guys walking thousands of miles to evidence it’s existence, so we know it’s alive but why would anyone want to come along on a trip when painted the sort of terrifying picture that the author lays out? It’s these sort of ideas/labels/stereotypes that work against those who would like to see a healthy part of the population out appreciating nature.

By the same token, those of us who self identify as UL, SUL, or XUL backpackers sometimes tend to paint a certain picture that in itself may not sound all too appealing to the un-initiatied. I mean, we all know that the whole “lugging a 40 pound pack thing” is far from fun, granted, and we value the merit of scrutinizing our gear, boiling it down, and skimming off the fat. Sometimes though it’s to miss the forest through the trees with the out-of-control spreadsheet analysis, gear obsession, and in certain cases borderline extreme kits. I hesitate to use that word (“extreme”) but in a context, ibuprofen as part of the sleep kit… yeah that sort of thing. It doesn’t exactly ring of inspiring the youth, much less anyone, to get out on the trail.

UL? SUL? Don't worry about it, just keep things simple and comfortable.

UL? SUL? Don’t worry about it, just keep things simple and comfortable.

Could it be that the best (read: most logical, and free from labels) course of action is not to identify our respective backpacking/hiking/running personas, but instead to focus on our goals trip by trip? Some things in life are unforeseen, like Yeti attacks, but it’s slightly impossible to plan a trip without considering basic goals such as how far we want to go, how fast, and how long that’ll all take.

Andrew Skurka, who happens to run and hike long distance stuff, wrote about a goal oriented approach to backpacking in his post What Inspires You to Backpack?, almost two years ago now. My thoughts echo his very closely in that you plan for the trip, rather than just generalizing “I’m a UL backpacker” (or whatever) etc etc…. That post was around the time that the whole Death of Ultralight Backpacking thing was going around the interwebs… well suffice to say it didn’t die afterall – but maybe it should have to give way to a new approach of goal oriented hiking & running. I was once proud of my transition to “ultralight”. Now I’m happy to blur the lines and let the labels fade away. If I can blur them even further by not distinguishing between going for a run or hike (or worse “going backpacking”), all the better!

There was a semi-related point that John Abela of HikeLighter.com brought up in a comment he left here sometime back – when will we recognize hikers as athletes and refer to them as such? Well, for me this is another label that we don’t really need, but I think John means it more in a sense of showing respect. Respect given where deserved, but I’ve never met a hiker who referred to their self as an athlete nor desired to be called such. The word itself is derived from the Greek athlos, which means contest. Hiking is not in the realm of competitive events for me. An athlete will no doubt have re-prioritized their lifestyle to put training and competition before all else. Even Sandra D, having gone through a life changing major surgery and then competing in several triathlons wouldn’t call herself an athlete; that’s not the reality of her lifestyle even though she has completed some athletic feats. I don’t really know any hikers who train… we just hike a lot (or a little, or whatever) which is just fine!

A Bright Future

As a child my parents took me out often and that seems to be a common thing with other hikers whom I call friends. As a teen and into my early twenties I lost interest in light of having more adrenaline pumping distractions, but not long after I found a rekindled interest in getting back outside. Where I once hated running, I now love it. All these things start when we are young, and return to us at some time maybe because of our natural curiosity with the outdoors and desire to explore. As long as people are around and the wilderness exists for us to enjoy, that’s where I expect people to be. By continuing the cycle that our parents have shown us, and by keeping our philosophies about being outside simple, inclusive, and inviting we have all the ingredients of a bright and diverse future of outdoors culture. Maybe today I’ll go for a run, or a walk. Will I come home tomorrow or the day after? I’ll just go… and what will I find? Something worth going and finding, I’m sure. Hike It. Like It.


2 comments to Footprints in the Paella

  • Hey Jake. Wonderful read and I really like the concept of ‘goal orientated’ adventures where you emphasize planning the trip and not on what someone else might label it. As a funny example, I recently ran The San Francisco Marathon (July 27th), a USATF certified and measured course complete with chip timing, aid stations (AS) nearly every other mile, spectators, bands, etc, and was ogled because I wore ‘trail’ shoes, mesh calf sleeves and my OrangeMud backpack/quiver. I was asked ‘Hey, where are you hiking too?’, ‘Are you a trail runner?’, ‘Why would you wear a hydropack when there are ASs every other mile?” My goal for that days adventure was to get a 26+ mile training run in, take in some beautiful SF scenery and yes share and socialize with some of the other 26,000 people. Fun day, dispensed some electrolyte tabs and bandaids from my pack and only used ASs twice to refill my 23 oz bottle. Of course I brought my own food for the trip. Signed Trail Runner/Hiker Scott

    • Hey Scott. Yeah people like to put labels on things I guess, sounds like you had a nice run anyway. I caught a little flak for wearing shorts over my tights once… but I’m like hey, I’m about to run/scramble across some gnarly terrain in the cold and I don’t want to shred my $100+ tights, ya know? Pack for the trip and all. Well, for maybe on that one I wouldn’t care if I was sponsored and had a channel to unlimited gear :)

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