Turning dreams into reality can be equal parts exciting and disappointing. The reason for this is that we don’t account for all the externalities when we’re working on the fantasy aspect. I always throw myself into the deep end of the research pool when I become curious about something new, and this gives me a better chance of anticipating and eliminating some of the hassle. Not all, never all, but at least some. The truth is that traveling with a backpack is freeing in some ways, and difficult in others. I am fortunate that I have built a fitness level that allows me to carry my pack and sometimes forget I’m wearing it.
Let’s talk a little about those pesky little laws of physics. I am 5’4” and I weigh 122 pounds. My pack is 65 liters in capacity. Don’t let that little yellow flower fool you. I had 35.5 pounds in there on our trip to Spain. That’s 29% of my body weight. My husband is 6’2”, a hockey-playing former lumberjack, and he was carrying 42 pounds. That’s 18% of his body weight. If he were carrying proportionally as much as I was, he’d be schlepping 70 pounds.
I’ll tell you what else: I can carry 42 pounds as well. When I go backpacking without him, I still have to bring the tent, the stove, the pots, the food, and the first aid kit, even though the capacity of my pack is smaller. I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the fortitude of a freight train.
It wasn’t always this way, not for either of us. We’re both fitter in our 40s than we were in our 30s. Like every last individual athlete I have ever met, we each have our story of illness, injury, and/or low fitness level. I had fibromyalgia and thyroid disease, I’ve dislocated a rib and a hip, I’ve broken my tailbone, and I had tendonitis in my ankle just last year. He had two herniated discs and he has some knee problems. What in the Sam Hill would either of us be doing in heavy backpacks??
(Seeing the world, saving money, getting stronger, not wasting our lives in front of a screen, etc).
We got better. The other thing to know is that we both used to be fat. We’ve lost 100 pounds between us. Something profoundly interesting about our backpacks is that we used to carry around that much extra weight ON OUR BODY PARTS. The first time I stepped on a scale with my pack on, I freaked out. I realized that I used to see that same number right after I stepped out of the shower. It finally sank in that I had been walking around everywhere with the equivalent of a yard sale strapped onto my limbs. There were dozens of items in that pack. How could I have walked around a grocery store or gotten on the bus every day and never realized how much it was for my joints and spine to have to carry?
My hubby has lost significantly more weight than I have. Forty-two pounds is a lot of extra weight for a person to carry. It’s harder when that person is dealing with chronic back pain. Anyone who knew about his herniated discs might try to stop him from putting on a heavy pack. Not a soul ever so much as whispered that he might consider taking off the weight – when it was made of adipose tissue instead of camping gear.
We’ve established that we were both predisposed to carrying extra weight, one way or another. We had amply proved over the years that our skeletal structures could handle it. We never knew we were missing out on a different kind of experience, one that was vastly more rewarding. Now that we’ve tried it, it’s self-explanatory. We can go places that are inaccessible to people in cars. We can climb to heights we wouldn’t have bothered to attempt. We can see things we couldn’t have imagined from back home on the couch. I regret all the years I scoffed at hiking, and all the beautiful places of the world I could have seen. I never cared until I knew.
Once I knew I wanted to travel the world with a tent and a backpack, I set out on a deliberate training plan. I had been running 5-6 miles a few days a week, often on a steep, muddy trail. I suggested that we go out on a test hike, carrying all our gear, and see how we did. We were bone-tired after three miles. The round trip was 12. My calves were so tight when we got home that I could barely shuffle a couple of inches per step. It was obvious we weren’t physically ready yet, but we had four months. We kept up our running routine. I started doing pushups, starting with two and working up to 100 a day. I was also shooting for a pull-up. I would go to the pull-up bar in the park down the street, jump up, grab it, and pull myself as high as I could manage. Then I’d drop to the ground and do it again for ten reps. Eventually, I was able to get my chin over the bar. On my non-running days, I’d put about 10 pounds of stuff in my trail pack and walk 6 miles. We made the most of those four months.
I could barely pick up my pack at the beginning of our trip. I could, though. I could carry it. It got easier each day. I held myself to a higher expectation of physical exertion. I wound up running a marathon. I’m 40, and I plan to be stronger at 50 than I am today. I know it’s possible because we’ve met so many retired couples on the road who are in better shape than we are.
In my chronic pain days, I could never have tolerated the conditions under which we travel. It’s not just the pack. It’s sleeping on an air mattress on the ground. It’s being outdoors in the cold and damp. It’s covering miles of cobblestones and uneven ground. It’s climbing endless staircases. It’s running for a train with the pack on. It’s bending and lifting and hauling and crouching and kneeling and reaching my arms over my head. Quite honestly, I often stop and wonder how it’s possible that my physical vessel could be doing all this. How am I not getting a migraine right now? The reason is that solid nutrition, sleep, and hydration can do about a thousand times more than we give them credit for. I ask a lot of my body, but I give it everything in return. My body is my vehicle, and it takes me everywhere I want to go.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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