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How One Backpacking Trip Completely Changed My Life & Understanding Of The Outdoors

Emily Pennington
contributing writer By Emily Pennington
contributing writer
Emily Pennington is a health and outdoor writer. When she’s not sleeping in the dirt or researching health trends, she’s frantically working on a book about visiting every U.S. national park, slated for release in November of 2022.
emily pennington change moment
When was the last time you had a change moment—an "aha" realization that set you down a new path? This April, in honor of Earth Month, mindbodygreen is hoping to inspire these moments through thoughtful storytelling about our planet. Welcome to The Change Moment, where you'll find personal stories, expert-backed tips, and thoughtful primers that will change the way you think about what sustainability really means and how to put it into practice.

My first backpacking trip was a burly 12-miler that left me gasping for air as I crested the granite slabs on the summit block of Alta Peak in Sequoia National Park. I was 28, hopelessly in love, and carried with me an assortment of all the wrong gear. Among the sundries inside my pack were a bohemian leather jacket, a full-size towel, and a child-size sleeping bag I'd rescued from the sale bin at a suburban H&M. I was a mess.

Unprepared would be an understatement.

David, my boyfriend at the time, didn't know that I had never been backpacking before, and I didn't know that he didn't know. So, when he selected a high-altitude trek up one of Sequoia's most iconic mountains, I shrieked out an emphatic "Yes!" assuming he had done his research and picked something suitable.

I donned a threadbare pack that had been left behind by Airbnb guests at my Hollywood apartment and laced up a pair of navy trail runners I had only purchased a week before at REI. My pack didn't have a chest strap, so when I lifted the colossus onto my back at the trailhead, its 40-pound heft tilted backward, and we scrambled around to find an old piece of cord to tie across my chest, securing it in place.

David's gear was questionable, too. Being out of practice since his high school Eagle Scout days meant that he only had a 30-liter climbing pack for the excursion, which meant that my 60-liter behemoth was crammed full with our bear canister, food for two, all my clothes, my toiletries, and my sleeping bag. My pack hung heavy like a limp gorilla draped across my torso, but I was excited for what lay ahead.

The beginning of the trail was mellow. Manageable. I squealed as we saw an adolescent black bear scurry out from behind a bush just 3 miles in, and we strolled past towering trees that rose high overhead like the impossibly long fingers of some underground giant. My eyes were wide with the cheeky glint they get when I know I've been gifted more than my fair share of the world's magic.

There was something about the simple, repetitive motion of moving my body across a landscape and sleeping in the dirt that left me forever altered.

At the junction for Alta Peak, we stopped to pump water from a nearby stream and stared, slack-jawed, at a trail runner who was casually sprinting up the side of the 11,207-foot mountain. Already slowing down in the thin air, my mind did somersaults trying to understand the fitness it must take to run in this environment.

I don't think I knew what altitude was or at what elevation the air's oxygen would noticeably decrease until about a month after this trip. As we continued to ascend, I found myself terribly out of breath, moving at a snail's pace, and hunching over to bear the weight of my enormous pack. I had to stop every five to 10 minutes to gulp whole mouthfuls of air and lean conspicuously against a tree or a nearby rock to catch my breath before moving on. Once we got above 10,000 feet, I was a girl crumbled.

I heaved my way up the rocky steps cut into the side of Alta Peak, inching my way forward for what felt like forever, until, at last, David and I stood at the edge of a small saddle with an enormous vista of the deeper wilderness of Sequoia National Park. I was too tired to drag myself up the final 20 feet to the summit block proper. This view was reward enough.

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Through the challenge, I found magic.

Bonking from exertion but energized by our accomplishment, we traipsed downhill the way we had come, taking a quick left at the junction for Alta Meadow and setting up camp in a clearing that overlooked the Great Western Divide, a panoramic assortment of 12,000- and 13,000-foot craggy granite peaks. My stomach moaned for a proper meal as David twisted a fuel canister into the rungs of his small backpacking stove.

Click… Click… Click. The stove wouldn't light. After a sizzle of loose air and a strange sputtering noise from the fuel can's dispenser, we realized that David's stove was broken and set out to create a plan B: bribe the neighboring camp with chocolates so they'd let us use their stove. Otherwise, we'd be supping on a dinner of cold, watery mush.

Luckily, they were happy to help, and soon I was scarfing down my first dehydrated Backpacker's Pantry meal and taking swigs of scotch from a huge water bottle our neighbors had brought. One of the women pulled out a ukulele, and, since campfires weren't allowed above 9,000 feet, we gathered around a circle of glowing headlamps, giggling and belting out the choruses of familiar tunes. 

"What impractical magic is this?" I wondered to myself. There was a camaraderie to the woods that I had never before encountered. One that seemed enhanced by our wild surroundings and the fact that there was no civilization around for miles.

Suddenly, statistics on the news felt alarmingly personal...they were trees, hillsides, and rivers that I had actually seen disappearing before my very eyes.


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Dazed from the afternoon's exertion, I shuffled back to our shared one-person tent. At the time I didn't own a sleeping pad, so my bed for the night was a too-thin and too-small purple sleep sack covered in paisley print and peace signs. I slept with my face smushed against the thin nylon wall of the shelter and my head propped awkwardly atop my makeshift pillow: the balled-up leather jacket I'd brought. Even wedged sideways and spooning me, David took up the lion's share of the space. I don't think I slept more than two hours.

I tossed and turned against the comical cocoon of my circumstances, listening for insects and frogs and bears trying to steal our snacks in the night. As soon as I saw the pale lilac fog of morning creeping over the higher peaks of the Great Western Divide, I shot out of the tent and tossed all of my layers on to watch the sunrise. I had never considered myself a morning person, but this felt important. Watching our nearest star blink the morning into being felt ritualistic and timeless and necessary—a thing so often forgotten in the concrete jungle.

After a breakfast of oatmeal and camp cleanup, David and I set off down the same trail and back toward the car. Though my calves ached from the previous day's summit, my mind felt fresh and reborn; the trail had lit a fire inside the deepest part of my being, and I had no idea how quickly it would engulf my entire identity. It's amazing how quickly a life can change.

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After that backpacking trip, my whole world shifted.

At the time, I was a casual hiker. I was not the prime demographic of an outdoor gear shop or the kind of woman you'd see traipsing around in a Patagonia hoodie, but there was something about the simple, repetitive motion of moving my body across a landscape and sleeping in the dirt that left me forever altered.

Suddenly, statistics on the news about massive wildfires or rampant drought in California felt alarmingly personal. They weren't simply numbers scrolling across a screen anymore; they were trees, hillsides, and rivers that I had actually seen disappearing before my very eyes. I couldn't stand by on the sidelines anymore. I knew that this mattered too much.

At the end of 2016, I quit my desk job and started writing full-time about the national parks, public lands, and how climate change is ravaging the wild places so many of us hold dear. It is now my mission to stand on the front lines of people working tirelessly to showcase and defend our outdoor birthright.

A lot of people have a rare and poetic transformation in the woods. They find God or something like it and emerge reborn. While I'm not sure if I believe in wandering deities, I do believe in the dogma of the wilderness. The scripture etched into granite walls after millenniums of erosion. I'm ready to fight to protect these lands so that future generations can find the same uncommon magic and emerge reborn.

*I managed to not take a single photo the entire trip, so the image you see above is from two years later, when I returned to solo backpack the same route as a sort of homecoming.

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