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Lessons from the Diary of a Novice Backpacker

I sauntered up to my sixteen-year-old daughter and inquired, “Interested in having a backpack adventure with your mom?”

“Just us? Not dad too?” she asked.

“Just us. What do you think?” I replied.

“Well. . .” she countered with hesitation, “I would love to join you.  Sure—it sounds like fun!” came the rest of her response with growing anticipation.

Little did either of us know the lessons we would glean on this first-ever backpacking expedition together.

Setting Out

The day itself dawned bright and beautiful. A journey lay ahead and we were both filled with eagerness. While my daughter had experienced her first backpacking trip with her father the year prior, I had not hit the trail since I was a teen. Although I prided myself in the depth of research I had undertaken for this very moment, I knew navigating mountainous terrain and weather could be daunting. A backpacker had best be prepared for whatever arises in nature. Little did I know how my pride would be humbled, and how the truth would be revealed over how much I truly had to learn when it came to navigating through the great outdoors. Many lessons were about to be uncovered through this two-day excursion.

Rolling Creek Trail, Colorado

With the car loaded, we were all set to hike the first segment of the Colorado Trail. Adventure lay just around the bend and we were giddy with excitement to experience the peace that comes from being on the trail and at one with nature.

Detour: Trouble Ahead

But—wait— was that a closed gate to the parking area for the trailhead? As we came closer, our hearts sank as we noticed that, yes, there was indeed a gate closing off the parking area from the public. A young woman stood at the gate, and upon asking her for additional details, she shared the parking area was closed for an upcoming event. When specifically asked about the Colorado Trail, she shared that she was unaware of any details regarding the trail. 

Now, had I simply turned around, I would have noticed the trail itself was indeed closed. However, I did not, and instead, set out to find the additional parking area stated in the Colorado Trail Guidebook. I was determined that we would not be defeated from our backpacking adventure this easily.

Lesson 1: Take In Your Surroundings and Study Them Carefully

Finding the additional parking area, we donned our packs, trekking poles, and hats to hit the trail. With no visible signs marking the trailhead, and knowing we had parked in a different area, my daughter and I both acknowledged that we would have to hike a bit to re-connect with the Colorado Trail. We set off in the blazing sun, confident in our abilities. However, as we kept walking, and the sun bore down on us, my confidence crumbled. Checking coordinates confirmed what my intuition had been warning me of: we were headed in the wrong direction.

We were not on the trail that would connect to the Colorado Trail after all. We needed to backtrack. Upon doing so, we once again found ourselves at the main parking lot and trailhead. This time, however, we looked across the street. Awareness dawned as we saw the visible Colorado Trail sign behind yet another locked gate. A sign on the gate confirmed our suspicions: Segment 1 of the trail was closed for maintenance. There would be no hiking this portion of the trail on this particular day.

Lesson 2: Check Your Pride and Always Have a Plan B

As my daughter looked at me in great expectation, I quickly attempted to piece together thoughts. Never having considered a closed trail, I worked hard to come up with a Plan B. While I went into “think, think, think” mode, my teen daughter was patient, calm, and unruffled in attitude. Internally grumbling over my thorough research of Segment 1 and my awareness of how we needed to hike over seven miles before finding our first camping area, I fought back anxiety. After all, it was nearing midday and we had not yet even hit the trail. I fully anticipated a distraught attitude from my daughter. My lack of navigational ability, or insight to check the current details of the trail, truly had me flustered! I counted my blessings that she remained tranquil and level-headed. She appeared calm, collected, and fully trusting that I would come up with another option.

My anxiety only continued to grow as additional realization dawned. Having lived in Colorado for over five years, I was fully aware that finding a last-minute campsite in the summertime was practically impossible. Due to the influx of tourists and camping enthusiasts, campgrounds fill up practically six months to a year in advance. I was considering finding a tent site for the night, embarking on a new trail the next morning. However, nothing was available in our immediate area.

Another idea formed in my mind and I made the commitment to find the trailhead for Segment 2. My daughter, enthusiastic and eager for another opportunity at making our backpacking adventure a reality, jumped at the idea. Once again, we loaded up the car and hit the highway to find the trailhead for Segment 2.  

Lesson 3: Always Pack a Compass

Locating the trailhead for Segment 2 in the midst of the Denver suburbs is a bit challenging.  Or, at least, this would be our experience. Somewhere in the midst of a trailhead roundabout (where at least three other trails converge) and construction on a highway overpass is the Colorado Trail (not to be confused with the CT-470, a paved bike path!). Following the well-written and descriptive information from the Colorado Trail Guidebook, we found what we thought might be the path’s bridge. However, we could not find any signs officially marking the trail. To add to our confusion, from all we could see, this path traveled east. All our maps told us we should be traveling west for hiking Segment 2 toward Segment 3.

Having a compass in our possession would have been very helpful indeed! Feeling every bit the novice backpacker I realized I was, that honest acknowledgement grated on my nerves. I liked to envision myself a more seasoned backpacker. However, reality and my crumbling confidence were proving me wrong. Not to mention, the concerned and confused expression in my daughter’s eyes, looking at me expectantly, had a way of crumbling my resolve and doubting every step I took. After all, by now, it was well into the midafternoon. We had only hiked a total of two miles, in the wrong direction. In spite of limited miles traversed, we were both feeling the effects of our heavy packs.

Lacking confidence in finding Segment 2 trailhead, we trekked back to the car. Venturing onward, we lifted our spirits by placing hope in our third attempt. We dreamed of arriving at something perfect and magical.  Imagine our elation and joy when this actually proved to be true! 

Lesson 4: Pack Lightly

As we drove more deeply into the mountains, away from the Denver suburbs, we found ourselves at the trailhead for Segment 4. Never were we more excited to see visible signs for the Colorado Trail! That one sign confirmed we were on the right path! The thrill of finding the trail fueled our energy to don our heavy packs again, and seek after the adventure we were confident waited up ahead. 

lessons from a novice backpacker

Peace enveloped us as each boot-clad step was taken deeper and deeper into the forest. My daughter tromped through the forest effortlessly and exuberantly. I, however, took time to savor every moment on the quiet path. Although, with each step forward, I did find myself beginning to sweat profusely. I quickly realized how there is great value to mind, body, spirit, and soul when one learns how to travel lightly. It became abundantly clear to me how I had yet to learn this valuable lesson. My pack was heavy and I felt like an overburdened pack mule!

Upon deeper reflection, I considered the benefits of learning how to pack a lighter pack.  Energy is saved, comfort is gained, and pain is minimal.

 For instance, less energy is used to traverse the trail when a pack is light. Conserved energy means more ground can be covered. Also, the beauty of the surrounding environment can be more readily enjoyed. Comfort is gained when muscles are not having to overcompensate for each other. All in all, a lighter pack equals a lighter load, offering more freedom to savor the joy found in the moment while on the trail. Personally burdened with a heavy pack, I was finding I was more focused on the pain from each step than the joy in the moment. Alas, what sweet surrender to let it all go and remove our packs when we found our campsite for the night!

Peace Enjoyed

The peace, serenity, and solace my daughter and I had been in search of during our backpacking adventure were unfolding before our very eyes. As we set up camp for the evening, we found ourselves tucked into a beautiful outcropping of boulders and pines. As we found level, pine-needle-cushioned ground on which to set up our tent, we also located a fallen tree trunk to sit on. We dined on our freeze-dried dinner as we found laughter with one another over trying each other’s meal, sharing about the day, and discussing the need for finding our shovel/spade for digging a hole (and leaving no trace!).

During our time at camp, we found moments to connect and savor our mother/daughter relationship. All the prior mishaps seemed to melt away as we reveled in this time together. I discovered a depth of knowledge that I was unaware my daughter possessed until this night of camping with her. She had listened well to her father’s teaching the year before and was acutely aware of how to set up our tent, attach the rain-fly, and hang our food in a tree (preventing the attraction of animals overnight). As darkness enveloped us, she opened up and shared about details of things going on in her life. With the business and constant activity within our home life, I had been unaware of these things until this very moment. Truly a bond was deepening between us. This mother’s heart was relishing every moment.

Lessons Learned

While our backpacking excursion had its fair share of ups and downs, I wouldn’t change one moment. I know growth stems from our experiences, and learning comes from our failures. Although I may lack navigational skills, and was unprepared in coming up with a backup plan; I now realize the value in seeking knowledge for growth in these areas. It is a choice to remain in a state of wrestling with inferiority, or choosing to continue to get out there, gaining confidence and experience. I recognize growth cannot occur if I don’t put myself out there.  While some of these lessons in backpacking are common-sense, I understand how it is all part of the experience in learning. I comprehend the depth and importance of all lessons learned, and I plan to put them into practice later this summer.

After all, additional segments of the Colorado Trail await us. I am determined to carry a lighter load—and pack a compass.  

Bonus- While I focus on Rolling Creek Trail, there are many other amazing trails in the Denver area to enjoy. Check out this link to read over one of our bloggers, Kristen Beatty’s, suggested favorites!)

Stacy McClelland

Stacy is a woman with Texas roots, who, as a lover of mountains, camping, and hiking, is over-the-moon to call Loveland, CO her current home. Stacy holds a degree in Elementary Education, having spent many years in the classroom as a Special Education or Substitute Teacher. As wife to her pastor-husband for over twenty years, and mother to their three daughters, Stacy has been blessed with the opportunity to manage their home and focus on raising their girls. Partnering with her husband in ministry over the past two decades, she is armed with experiences of walking through the hardships of life with many. However, she has also had the opportunity to embrace beautiful moments of joy, grace, and overcoming with others, as well. It has been her honor and joy, as of late, to serve and teach within Bible Study Fellowship as a Substitute Teaching Leader. Coming alongside other women to read, study, learn and grow in their understanding of the Bible and how it applies to their everyday lives has been where Stacy has discovered her “sweet spot” for teaching. Having traveled many parts of the world, she yearns to come alongside, support, and edify others in and through their circumstances. She hopes another avenue for finding connection with women will be found in and through her writing. For, it is her joy in life to encourage, uplift, and connect with youth and women in navigating “this thing called life.”

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