Until last spring, I had never been backpacking — and never felt a strong desire to hit the trail with all of my belongings strapped on my back (yes, even after reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed!).
But, come last March, things changed. Like many of us post-pandemic, I was in a rough spot. I was struggling to find my “new normal” and feeling a bit cooped up. So, in a moment of sheer spontaneity, I booked a solo backpacking trip.
Ahead of the trip, I didn’t know what to expect. I consulted a friend who had taken on the trail months before, and I explored a few blogs for insight on what to pack and what route to take. I was nervous about the weight of my pack, and I was unsure if I had enough actual hiking training since I booked the trip just a few weeks out.
Regardless of my nerves, I was excited to be out in nature and to unplug from daily stressors, work, and social media. I was looking forward to listening to podcasts and my favorite Spotify playlists while checking out the beautiful scenery.
And, while I expected that the trip would have an impact on my life, I didn’t expect the type of impact this backpacking journey would have on me.
Let’s Back Up
As many women do, I’ve struggled with body image for most of my life. I grew up in the era of thin-bodied models gracing the covers of fashion magazines, crash diets, and low-calorie/low-fat labels dominating shelves.
In tune with the culture of the time, I was teased relentlessly about my thick ankles and lack of thigh gap in high school. I stopped wearing shorts for years and instead, I obsessed over everything I wore and everything I ate. While I’ve learned and grown from my 16-year-old self through hard work, the memories have a hard time fading, and it still felt like an ongoing mental battle more than fifteen years later.
And, with the uncertainty of the pandemic and with months of endless social media scrolling, I felt myself returning back to the unhealthy obsession, wondering why my body didn’t look like my friends’ bodies, wondering if I was strong or skinny “enough” and wondering why I couldn’t meet my own warped expectations.
I was unhappy in my body and felt like it never felt “right” no matter what I tried.
Off We Go
With all of this in mind, I set off on my journey, stepping onto the dirt trail with my new backpack in tow.
With each double-digit, heavy elevation day on the trail, I felt my legs screaming as I took on steep hills and felt my feet aching with fresh blisters. My shoulders were sore from a pack I wasn’t used to toting around, and my knees and ankles braced in anticipation of each scary-looking downgrade. But, with each new vista I reached, I started to realize — I was doing it. I was backpacking, and my body was indeed strong enough to meet the challenge.
Nearly forty miles on my feet later, I wrapped up my final day. When I reached the trail end sign, I broke down in happy, proud tears. I took on what had turned into a bucket list item and could check it off the list.
As far as expectations go, I did enjoy the incredible scenery that’s only accessible with backpacking. I loved having time to unplug and be with myself. I enjoyed listening to interviews and learning with hours of podcasts.
What I didn’t expect: my body image shifted on the trail — and so did my self-talk.
As I soaked up every breathtaking trail view, I started to realize: bodies are made for living, not looking. My body was able to get me to each view and each summit, and my body was the driving force behind this trip that inspired me to unplug more in the future. My body facilitated a life-changing experience — and it didn’t matter what it looked like. By removing thoughts about how I looked on the trail or if I was fit enough to wear the shorts, I was able to use my energy to live more fully and experience the activities that fulfilled me.
I also realized that bodies are meant to change in size and shape.
If I was the same size I was in high school, I wouldn’t be able to have conquered the steep hills. My legs and shoulders couldn’t have supported me without some extra muscle. Our personalities and interests grow and expand and shift and narrow with life, so why can’t our bodies too? They are meant to adapt and grow with different seasons of life.
Mostly, this trip taught me how to be proud of and thankful for my body.
I cried at the end because I wasn’t just proud of my mental capacity to survive on a trail alone for a few days despite some tough situations, I was also proud of my body. It supported me along the way, and it felt good. For that, I am thankful and will continue to be thankful for my body, rather than shaming it. I won’t take for granted the things my body is capable of — whether that is backpacking a challenging trail or supporting me while standing over the stove cooking a meal or helping me jump and down at a concert with my favorite band.