Backpackers Tokyo

The first core question I want to ask in this essay is: what constitutes a backpacking trip failure? I can think of several examples but I have reservations about identifying most of them as outright failures, prompting the second core question of this essay: are backpacking trip failures really failures?

I also feel reservations about painting everything with too zen a brush; some things actually do suck. We can learn from these things, but to deny their terribleness would probably be a mistake. I will look at these potential backpacking trip failures and then discuss whether or not they are failures and what has at times allowed me to view them not only as not failures, but actually as successes.

  1. Injury Cuts Trip Short
  2. Poorly Planned Trip Results in Long Term Injury
  3. Unmet Expectations
  4. Gear-Related Failure
  5. Failure from Not Planning Well Enough
  6. Adapting Correctly to Any Circumstances

Most of my backpacking injuries have been minor: scrapes and bruises or a strained IT band that I just tried to ignore. My poor planning has caused trip-ending injuries to others, though. And for this, Michelle, I am eternally sorry.

a woman stands on a frosted riverbank in a desert canyon Michelle probably cursing me inside for planning such an absurd trip.

I thought it might be a good idea to hike along the upper Paria River in December because the weather looked decent (60 F° days and 10° degree nights). I didn’t, however, foresee the challenges posed by the freezing and thawing river. I assumed the river would be so low that we could step over it, or frozen enough that we could walk across it, but neither of these things turned out to be true. The river was very frozen indeed, but every morning as the sun hit a section of it, that section began to thaw and release a minor flash flood of 7-11 Slurpee consistency. This meant that while some shadowed sections were completely frozen and other sections were low enough to step over, other sections were raging ice-flows, and we had to walk through them.

I didn’t know that this particular desert river worked this way, and backpacking through it was both not the best way to find out, and also probably the only way to find out.

a frozen riverbank It was worse than it looks, I promise.

We crossed the river countless times. The feeling that our feet were hunks of cold rubber glued to our ankles never abated all day long. The second day was even worse. We crossed sections of the river that had frozen in thin sheets that reminded me of croissant crust. Our feet punched through these layered crusts descending several feet with each step into the cold, wet mud below. After about 10 miles of this torture, Michelle said her feet were beginning to hurt. We exited the river corridor, road-walked through piñon and juniper woodlands, and then failed to find the route into the next canyon. Admitting defeat, we bailed to the main road and hitchhiked to a state park so we could arrange a ride back to our car at the trailhead.

On the one hand, not finding this route into the next canyon was a failure because we needed to find it to close the loop, but on the other hand, it ensured that we would not be walking anymore, something Michelle’s feet were very happy about. This brings us to the next type of trip failure: Poorly planned trip results in long-term injury.

Michelle developed peroneal tendonitis from carrying a heavy load over many miles on frozen feet. It took nearly two months for her feet to heal. I injured my feet too. When we returned home, I took a few days off of running, opting instead for yoga. When I folded towards the ground, placed my palms on the floor, stepped to the back of the mat, and then pressed into downward-facing dog I felt electricity zing from my heel to my calf. I had pulled my Achilles. The prolonged cold strained and weakened it, leaving it vulnerable to a dramatic movement such as down-dog. This injury put me out of commission for a month. I know this series of events sounds like a run of failures, but the truth is more nuanced.

a man's mud-covered socks and shoes My cold, wet, and ultimately injured feet. I wonder if waterproof socks would have helped.

So… Was This Trip a Success?

I could view the Paria river trip as a failure because we both got injured. I could also view it as a failure because we did not complete the loop that we set out to do. But if I classify the trip as a total failure I would be missing several important things. First, we observed the winter desert in a unique and intimate way which I recounted in my essay Frozen Tracks. Of course, it is true that we could have investigated this canyon in a safer way in April or October.

More relevant to this essay, I believe this harrowing ice-slog along the Paria River was actually a complete success because we adapted correctly to the circumstances at hand. As Michelle later reminded me, “Sticking with the original plan despite many issues for the sake of completing the mission would have been absolutely stupid.” I have to agree. Things could have been much worse for both our feet had we attempted to find a roundabout way to walk all the way back to the car (something we fleetingly considered). In this light, I consider this trip to be a total success. Odd how that works.

a frozen river in a desert canyon The frozen Paria River.

A Trip Was Much Harder than Expected (Type II or III Fun)

Some people might consider harder-than-expected trips to be failures, and I understand that. But these trips sometimes fall into the success category for me. They almost have to because such a large percentage of my trips end up being harder than expected.

In March of 2020, my friend Jesse and I trudged through the Mazatzal Mountains of Central Arizona for several days in flash flood conditions. Our rain gear failed almost instantly; I often had to keep moving just to keep from becoming hypothermic. When we finally reached the trailhead our ride was not waiting for us because the road had flooded. Additionally, my truck was stranded out in the desert because unpassable rivers had risen all around it. This trip was characteristic of Type II fun, with moments of Type III sprinkled in. I wouldn’t choose any of these things again if I could, but at the same time, I’m glad I had the experience and enjoy telling the story. If, on the other hand, experiencing the uncomfortable and unexpected and then carrying the resulting story wasn’t my cup of tea, I might have viewed this trip as a failure.

a confused looking man sitting under a tarp Total bewilderment after bushwhacking all day while completely soaked.

Other Unmet Expectations

For most people, the windows of time in which a backpacking trip can take place are small and precious, resulting in the sometimes desperate hope that everything will go according to plan. Often we are disappointed.

We pick the wrong crew, for example; they are too ambitious or not skilled enough. Maybe our worldviews don’t align. Several times I have invited too many people on a trip which slows the overall pace of the trip because no one’s morning schedules match up.

There are also landscape expectations. In this era of unprecedented climatic change, landscapes are changing swiftly and dramatically, squashing backpacking expectations at every turn. Familiar springs dry up, green forests burn, and birds we listen for are eerily absent.

There are countless other examples of unmet backpacking expectations, some of which I hope to read in the comments below. On the one hand, I want to plan for every possible scenario in order to keep a trip out of the failure category, and on the other, I should know that I can’t plan for everything, and that knowledge could allow me to view unmet backpacking expectations as just the way things are.

Gear can affect trips in a few ways, some of which result in outright trip failures, while other outcomes are more nuanced. A gear failure such as a popped pad or torn tent fly could end a trip. An uncomfortable backpack could make every step uncomfortable. The brain of the gearhead could remain fixated on the minutia of gear-tweaking instead of on the sandstone minarets, buttes, and domes silhouetted against the lilac dawn sky.

Gear Failure or User Error

Let’s start with complete gear failure. One of my most dangerous gear failures was my raingear failure in the Mazatzal Mountains. My 2.5-layer rainpants failed almost instantly and my 3-layer, highly breathable jacket failed within a couple of hours of heavy rain. Jesse’s 2.5-layer pants and jacket failed just as quickly. This put us in an extremely dangerous situation; we had nearly 25 miles to hike in nonstop rain and temperatures ranging between about 40 and 55 °F. The situation did not deteriorate, however, because we stayed moving in the rain and had dry sleeping clothes and sleeping bags to crawl into when we stopped. We hiked to the trailhead shivering and blue-lipped and (possibly misguidedly) swore off waterproof-breathable fabrics from then on out. Maybe this Type II fun trip wasn’t a failure, but it came close because of sub-par gear, user error, or outstanding conditions, it’s hard to say which.

Jesse was soaked and cold but somehow not too miserable to enjoy the beauty around him. Jesse was soaked and cold but somehow not too miserable to enjoy the beauty around him.

Poorly Performing Gear

For about three years I used a very uncomfortable backpack. It didn’t totally ruin any trips, but it stole my attention. When I should have been focused on the land around me I was thinking about how my neck hurt, how I couldn’t turn my head to the side. The pain left me one step removed from the experience of being in the wilderness, and then the problem-solving that ensued thereafter left me yet another step removed. Choosing gear that performs well for me is one way to simply enjoy a trip, remaining attentive to the landscape through which I walk.

Fixation on Gear

Fixating on the minutia of gear-tweaking is a potentially neverending process. I, for one, have created and solved gear-related problems simply to feel a sense of control when the rest of my life is crumbling around me. After doing this enough, it starts to enter addiction territory, and becomes a sort of crutch. And at that point, the habit is hard to kick, so when I’m backpacking and all is well in my home life, I’m still wondering if there’s something better out there or if I could shave 4 ounces from my shelter by cutting things off of it. Fixating on gear in this way may not turn a trip into a failure for some folks, but for me it does. If I cannot remain present while walking through the mountains, I’m doing something wrong.

A few weeks back, I half-heartedly tried to go on a trip. I did not pack. Instead, I took the pile of backpacking gear that I had deposited on my living room floor after my previous trip and shoved it all into the back of my truck again without even sorting through it to see if everything was there. I bought food but I did not pack it. Instead, I just loaded a bunch of paper bags into the truck in hopes of piecing meals together at the trailhead. I finally started planning the route at about 1 AM the night before leaving. These things were signs that I did not really feel like going on a trip, and I probably shouldn’t have tried.

I drove the six hours to the trailhead anyway, and then just sat there staring at the pink sandstone. My life at home had been fundamentally defined by doing things, and I suddenly realized I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t want to problem-solve or route-find. I didn’t want to have any goals. So I read for a while, went for a pretty goal-less eight-mile run, and drove home. It was a waste of gas, for sure, and arguably a waste of time too. I attempted to embark on a trip I didn’t want to do, and this has the appearance of being a failure to me. But is it?

Backpacking is partly defined by expecting the unexpected and being prepared enough to adapt to changing scenarios. In most cases, adapting with humility will result in successes even if trips are cut short, routes are altered, or discomfort is tolerated for days on end. To revisit Michelle’s commentary on our painful Paria trip: “Sticking with the original plan despite many issues for the sake of completing the mission would have been absolutely stupid,” she said. In my opinion (and Michelle’s too), adapting correctly to the circumstances at hand will keep most backpacking trips out of the failure category, and firmly planted in the success category.

Got a backpacking failure (success)? Share it with us in the comments!

Related Content

  • More by Ben Kilbourne
  • Knowing when to turn around and go home is a difficult skill for a backpacker to learn
  • Explore all of Backpacking Light’s Culture articles
  • One of Ben’s trip failures revolved around cold and uncomfortable feet. Check out our Minimalist Footwear Trailhead for a curated list of Backpacking Light content that can help you mitigate those kinds of issues

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