My Month-Long Backpacking Trip As An Inexperienced Hiker Broke Me, Then Rebuilt My Entire Character

Photo: Courtesy Of Author Allison McGlone
pitched tent in a snowy pine forest

When I was 19, I signed up for a month-long backpacking course in the mountains of northern Washington. 

If I'm being honest, I have no idea why I decided to do this.

I wasn’t exactly in the best shape of my life. I had spent my first year of college getting stoned, sleeping during the day, and subsisting on frosted animal crackers and pints of ice cream. I had gotten a gym membership and used it twice.

I loved hiking and camping, but these were always casual trips with friends. I was terrified of heights. In other words, I was far from prepared for a full-blown wilderness expedition, but I went into it with determination and an open mind.

I learned a lot more than survival skills on that trip.

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I learned the importance of self-care from sunburns and bouts of dehydration.

I learned firsthand that extended, low-level exercise does wonders for period cramps (and that carrying around a plastic bag of your own used tampons is a truly humbling experience).

Without showers, I grew grimy, but my hair was healthy and my skin clear. Without technology, I was bored at first, but I gained time to think, read, and self-reflect without the stress of external judgment.

In their absence, I learned that modern conveniences weren’t as essential as I’d once thought.

But my biggest lesson, by far, was in self-confidence.

Again, I don’t know why I went, but I did. We set out from the NOLS Pacific Northwest headquarters in Skagit county: five students and two instructors, all women.

The trip started off easy. We camped on the shores of a wide lake, and the course leaders taught us yoga poses and how to make pizza over a camp stove.

I submerged myself in the freezing water and felt the thrill of my flesh tightening around my bones. It was warm enough there to lay out on the rocks before sunset and tie up my t-shirt. We took two rest days. Life was good.

Then we moved on into the forest. That was the first rainy day, and with only tents and a plastic tarp, it was impossible to escape the damp cold.

I had to drag myself out of my sleeping bag in the morning. On our way out of the site, we were swarmed by mosquitos, and I watched the bugs gather into small armies on the insides of my elbows.

I was the youngest on the trip, and the least athletic, and at times I got so frustrated lagging behind that I cried as I walked. My backpack straps marked my hips and shoulders with red lines. 

This was more than I’d bargained for. 

Snow started to appear, and staying warm after we made camp required dozens of jumping jacks. I couldn’t sleep without clutching a Nalgene bottle full of hot water.

Our socks never dried and froze so stiff by morning that we had to bang them out on logs to put them back on.

When we got higher into the mountains, a thick white fog closed in. We stopped on the hillside. The visibility was too bad to keep going, but I could still see how the slope below us panned out into a steep drop. I sat on the dirt and clutched my knees to keep from panicking.

All I could think was, “I can’t do this.”

In those days, I wrote long lists in my journal of things I missed: my mom, cream cheese, mattresses. Things I wanted to do when I got home or wanted to be doing, besides slogging through miles of forest with nearly half my weight strapped to my back.

The rest of the trip seemed so miserable that I couldn’t see past it. In the melodrama of my suffering, I promised I would never take my cushy home life for granted again. 

I learned to appreciate things by not having them. 

But my mindset was shifting.

After one particularly rough day, I was shocked at how delicious I found a meal of plain bulgur with tomato sauce. I learned to think of food as fuel, and slept as soon as I laid down on my puffy jacket. Necessities began to feel like luxuries. 

Since I couldn’t listen to music, I sang to myself: on the trail, or while boiling water over the camp stove. One of the other girls on the trip thought my voice was soothing and started asking me to sing to her before bed.

We sipped tea by the ashes, and I felt its warmth in my gut as she started to smile, lulled.

I learned to appreciate the things I still had and the things I could make.

Towards the end of the trip, the instructors left the students behind to test our new skills.

On our second day alone, we found ourselves at the top of a cliff-sheer mountainside. We tossed our packs and watched them tumble fast and hard to flat ground. In the distance, they looked like doll accessories. 

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Reaching the bottom from the jagged rocks on which we stood seemed impossible, short of a fall like that, and we couldn’t tell where every pit or sharp crag lay under the thick coat of snow.

Two of the braver girls attempted the descent. They tried to make footholds in the snow, but both lost their balance quickly and skidded to the bottom with fading shouts. Still sobbing, I said I would go next.

After a few shaky stomps I fell, sliding headfirst towards a red rock jutting out of the snow. 

I flailed my ice ax and skirted around it. I couldn’t stop, but somehow I managed to flip onto my back, burying my hands in the snow to slow down. By the time I reached the bottom they were red and numb.

I spent the next ten minutes silently praising any god I could think of as I stuffed crumbling saltine crackers into my mouth. 

For a moment, at the top of the cliff, I had truly thought I was going to die. I’d thought I would never be able to do anything again, let alone the task at hand. So why had I volunteered for it?

I was learning to believe in myself. 

Or, at least, I was trying to.

There were more events like that one: an off-trail descent so steep I could only ever see a few feet in front of me; a rock scramble I swore would drop me into the valley.

On our last full day, the river we had been planning to cross flooded. We bushwhacked for several miles along the bank, struggling to find our way up the cliff above it, scrambling across steep rock faces and backtracking to the water when they got too vertical.

The instructors finally decided that we had to climb, with our packs, up what looked to me like a dirt wall. I stopped at the bottom and (shocker) started to cry. 

“Do you need a pep talk?” one of the instructors asked. I nodded imploringly.

“Yes. Please.” 

She looked me in the eyes. I wanted her to say it would be easier than it looked, that she knew I’d make it. I wanted to be comforted. Behind her, the muddy stream surged over fallen logs. I already felt like I was falling.

“True grit is not something you are born with,” the instructor began. “It is something you earn.” I stood there, nodding with wide eyes as she went on about building character and strength by facing danger. 

It was the last thing I wanted to hear. 

But when I think back on that day, I know why Kat said what she did. I didn’t need someone to tell me I could climb that cliff. I just needed to do it; to trust myself enough to reach up and grasp at a ledge. Brace my feet, wind my hands into the grass. Climb. 

I am no longer afraid of heights. 

The expedition worked like exposure therapy, forcing me to witness my own abilities: to keep my footing and navigate rough terrain. To stay alive, despite my doubts and fears.

I built the confidence to face everyday challenges: a ten-page essay felt like nothing compared to a thousand-foot high mountain pass.

When I had no choice but to keep going, I learned that I could.

And, of course, it was beautiful! 

Of course, it was.

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Allie McGlone is a writer who covers a variety of topics for YourTango, including pop culture and entertainment.