COVID-19. The coronavirus has disrupted the lives of every single person on our planet. Here’s how backpacking has prepared me to endure the pandemic.
I live in New York State, just about thirty miles outside of the city. New York City, one of the earlier pandemic hotspots, became an epicenter that reeled from the effects of an outbreak of historical magnitude with tens of thousands succumbing to the chaotic fallout of the virus.
I’ve learned valuable lessons while backpacking, living in the backcountry for weeks on end, no contact with civilization, and everything I need to survive on my back. I’m grateful for these experiences, which have prepared me to tolerate the pandemic’s unusual circumstances without complaining (too much).
In this post, I’ve applied these experiences and knowledge gained while trekking in the wild to enduring a pandemic.
When thousands of people started getting infected with SARS-CoV-2, later not-so-affectionately dubbed COVID-19, there was not much that doctors and scientists knew about this particular coronavirus. After all, it was a novel virus.
Months of research and study have revealed that we still don’t know all there is to know about the coronavirus.
In the beginning, we didn’t think that children were vulnerable; however, now we are learning that kids too can get very ill when infected. Fortunately, hospitalization rates for children in the United States remain low. However, of those who are hospitalized, one in three ends up in intensive care.*
We still have no idea how long immunity lasts after being infected, or if there is an absolute immunity at all.* There have been a few cases of people getting reinfected, while others seem to be protected from being reinfected.** Scientists have been scrambling to develop a vaccine. Still, we have no idea when an effective vaccine will be approved for distribution. Even if a vaccine is made available, we have no idea how long it will take to immunize everyone to gain herd immunity.
With all of these unknowns, we have no idea how long it will take for this pandemic to end and when we can get back to our lives as we once knew it. We’re all learning to navigate this pandemic, something that most people these days have never had to face before in their lifetime.
One of the lessons I’ve learned over the past few years going on extended backpacking trips is that nothing is guaranteed. You know where you want to go, you know where you want to end up, you have some idea of how long it will take you; however, from my experience, sometimes things just don’t go as planned. You must learn to embrace the unknown and acclimate to your situation.
My husband and I had an experience in 2017 while backpacking through the Sierra Nevada that illustrates what I’m talking about here. I’ve dubbed this experience ‘The Shepherd Pass Ordeal’ (you can read the full story here). We took a detour because we were running behind schedule; we were off our planned route. Instead of continuing north on the John Muir Trail to exit at Kearsarge Pass, we decided to get out at Shepherd Pass instead. After camping a night somewhere along the side trail, we proceeded to the pass. We encountered a dangerously steep, snow-covered chute.
The 2016/2017 winter season was an exceptionally high snowpack year, and snow lingered in high elevations well into summer. Living in New York and New Jersey all our lives, and never having experienced conditions and terrain like that, we had no idea how to safely navigate down. However, we quickly accepted the fact that we needed to face our precarious circumstance and adapt.
We had no choice. It was either do that or find ourselves meeting our demise. We knew that we had to do what we needed to do at that moment to safely make it down the mountain; turning back was not an option we wanted to take. It took us hours to descend the chute. We ended up camping only 1.4 miles from where we had camped the previous night thanks to a nasty hailstorm, and as a result, another day behind schedule. In the end, we got through it and made it safely to our resupply rendezvous.
My husband and I faced a terribly difficult situation and grew from the experience. I’d like to think that eventually, we’ll all get through this as far as the pandemic is concerned. I believe that we all will have learned a valuable lesson on how to adapt to a seemingly impossible situation.
Millions of people were getting sick, and tens of thousands were dying. The rate of spread of the virus caused a shutdown of cataclysmic proportions. Everything was closed; only essential facilities, stores, and services remained open.
Countries’ economies tanked.
Many who weren’t able to work from home found themselves unable to earn an income and pay the bills.
Businesses weren’t able to generate income to pay their workers or pay other overhead necessary to keep the company running.
The pandemic was a disaster that many of us alive today haven’t seen before.
I’m not going to say anything I experienced backpacking on the trail came close to the scale of events the humans of this earth were now confronting.
However, one event in the wilderness came close to giving me a feeling of impending doom—the Ferguson wildfire of 2018. The fire had eventually grown to burn 96,901 acres across the Sierra National Forest, Stanislaus National Forest, and Yosemite National Park in California. The Ferguson Fire was a catastrophe of epic proportions.
We encountered this wildfire during our John Muir Trail hike. At one point, we had no way of knowing whether we were walking into the fire. Smoke filled the canyons, causing us to fear for our lives. (I briefly touched on this encounter in ‘The Imperfect Storm.’)
This blaze was one of a number that year, contributing to some of the most disastrous events in California wildfire history. Fortunately, the only adverse outcome for us was a change in hiking plans. But, in the end, the adjustment contributed to me ultimately completing an unplanned thru-hike (see ‘The JMT – A Series – An Unexpected Adventure‘).
It was only after my thru-hike, and we drove through Yosemite that we were made aware of the disaster’s widespread scale.
The pandemic the globe is now experiencing is quite a different catastrophe. However, I’ve gained a different perspective. I can look at what’s happening in the world and be thankful for the things that are not going to hell. (As I write this, California is on fire. The numbers and acres of loss due to wildfires make 2020 the largest wildfire season recorded in California history.)
Lockdowns implemented during the pandemic’s early days caused disruption to services, retail operations, and supply chains. To say these disruptions were an inconvenience is putting it mildly.
It seemed that everything came to a grinding halt. People weren’t able to go where they wanted and when they wanted.
Restaurant patrons could not dine out, and going out for a drink with friends or co-workers was out of the question.
People quickly started to go stir crazy, not able to leave their homes for recreation.
All of the restrictions were annoyances for sure. However, for those privileged enough (including myself), we could bide our time by binging on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and every other subscription streaming service.
I didn’t particularly mind the isolation, though. In fact, I sometimes prefer it when I don’t have to interact with people. I used the time to self-reflect and take stock of things that I should be grateful for.
I recalled the time we hiked down off Muir Pass in Kings Canyon National Park and endured a barrage of rain, hail, and lightning. We pressed on, walking through the inundation; we didn’t have any other option. There was nowhere to hunker down and shelter except for a boulder that we stood behind to escape the stinging hail coming at us sideways.
Having to endure these conditions was definitely an inconvenience. However, what was more inconvenient was when we finally were able to pitch our tent for shelter, the storm continued to rage for over an hour. This ultimately resulted in our tent becoming saturated with water. When your tent floods and your sleeping pad becomes a raft, that’s inconvenient. (Another tale of when it rains inside your tent can be found in the post ‘Reiteration or Routine?‘)
So, having to alter my lifestyle to accommodate coronavirus restrictions didn’t affect me much. After all, I had a comfortably warm bed to sleep every night, without fear of floating away.
My previous point touches on some of the discomforts that we humans had to endure through a lockdown.
However, there is one item of contention that many Americans can’t seem to come to terms with—masks.
Masks are annoying, cumbersome, and outright uncomfortable.
It seems that some people don’t like being told what to do. They would rather risk infecting everyone else than being told ‘by the man’ that they can’t freely breathe fresh air because everyone else lives in fear.
I gladly wear my mask for the benefit of everyone else. I don’t mind doing my part to ensure that others won’t become infected by spittle that may come out of my mouth. I’m grateful for others who join in the fight against the coronavirus and choose to prevent their mouth missiles from entering my respiratory system.
Thankfully, most of us do what we collectively can. As it’s been said so many times before—and now clichéd—we’re all in this together.
Discomfort. Plenty is going on when you’re out on the trail, lugging a 46-pound backpack up and down thousands of feet of elevation changes and unforgiving terrain.
There’s a feeling of misery when you feel like you’re carrying a small person on your back wherever you go. In addition to that, there’s the sweating, cramping, fatigue, filth, and sickness that ensues when you’re hiking miles upon miles, day after day.
Some of the most wretched days I’ve had were on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2019 when I had become sick with diarrhea and constant vomiting. My insides had retched as if they were trying to escape. And every time I had to exert myself to climb up even a small hill, I would fight nausea all the way up before heaving up anything that may have been left in my gut.
It would be at least five miserable days of continuing on this way before we could exit the trail. Once I felt better, we resumed our hike only to find that the sickness continued as our trip progressed. I endured another seven days of suffering to the next exit. This cycle continued for four weeks when I finally decided to call it quits. (One of my more absurd experiences with sickness is told in ‘The Naked Sickness.’)
Now, when I feel any pang of unpleasantness, whether they be physical or mental, I remember those days when there was no relief in sight. I remember those times when I was days away from any contact with civilization to seek medical care.
In addition to donning a mask, experts concluded maintaining a distance of at least 6-feet apart is another way to curb the spread of COVID-19.
This new phenomenon—social distancing—has become a trend marked with visual cues such as arrows and lines drawn onto almost every establishment’s floors.
Humans have become contactless germophobes. We avoid close proximity to our fellow beings. We douse ourselves with sanitizer after touching objects when running water and soap are absent.
Handshakes and hugging have become extinct, and we walk around as if some invisible force emanates from our bodies, ready to overcome our fellow mortals. This is now our reality.
These behaviors are reminiscent of our days in the backcountry. Coming off the trail, we tried to avoid people like we were carrying the plague. In some cases, that didn’t take too much effort, because anybody who would come near us would smell the stench wafting from our unwashed clothing and bodies. The population of the washed, who didn’t understand the concept of the extended hike, would pass us by with screwed up faces as if scrunching up their noses would alleviate the aroma of foul-smelling backpacker funk.
Thanks to backpacking, social distancing is nothing new for me.
With the threat of COVID-19 also came the Great Toilet Paper Crisis. Suddenly, everyone was amassing vast amounts of the cherished paper product in anticipation of spending weeks cooped up with nowhere to go.
It was apparent that everyone’s fear of poop became frenzied. Stores couldn’t replenish the precious commodity fast enough. When they were able to stock the product, purchases required policing to prevent individuals from single-handedly exhausting the inventory. Otherwise, everyone else in their wake would be left exasperated with their misfortune of arriving at the store too late.
In addition to toilet paper, usually readily plentiful, other paper products were now scarce. Shelves were pillaged, devoid of paper towels, tissues, and napkins.
No worries for me, though. I’m accustomed to exercising leave-no-trace practices in the wild. I don’t need toilet paper; I have my backpacking equipment at my disposal. Joyfully, my trusty travel bidet, Kula Cloth, and access to running water are all I need to avoid the anxiety of leaving the paper products aisle empty-handed.
Hand soap was another endangered item, leaving everyone to wonder, “Weren’t people washing their hands before this pandemic?”
Food variety suffered a grim fate as well, adding insult to injury. During one of my pilgrimages to the grocery store—a triweekly event (meaning every third week, not three times a week)—I decided to get ingredients to make chili. I approached the meat section only to find it deprived of ground beef. The entire meat section was pretty lean, and I don’t mean the amount of fat in the meat. The only ground meat that was to be found was Kobe beef, so I grabbed a couple of packages. I lamented that my chili would cost the same as a surf and turf dinner at a posh restaurant.
When hiking, food variety is something, especially in my early inexperienced backpacking days, that I’m not unaccustomed to. When planning to go on an extended trek, food planning and preparation are fundamental. You need to be sustained during intervals where access to a town and stores is a week or more in between (sometimes two weeks). Usually, I’m ravenous at the end of a day of trekking and eat what I have allotted with gratitude, even if I’ve had it for the fourth time that week. When you’re suffering from ‘hiker hunger,’ everything (for the most part) tastes good, even foods you would never consider eating when you are not on the trail.
Rationing food is necessary if you find that you’re running behind schedule or realized you didn’t bring enough food to satisfy your voracious hunger. This is something that I’ve had to do on a few occasions.
In addition to food, you can’t possibly bring everything you need with you on the trail. You must pick and choose what you carry and make do with what you have. Sometimes, you need to be resourceful and use items designed for one purpose and creatively use it for another (duct tape and dental floss are infamous multi-purpose trail items). And suppose you forgot to bring something you would usually deem essential. In that case, you consider it terrible lousy luck, and you go without, you don’t have a choice.
These experiences have conditioned me to do without. Even though the pandemic has caused some irritation regarding the availability and variety of products, I take what’s available to me and am appreciative.
Backpacking has provided me with valuable exercises in adversity, endurance, and subsistence. I was able to apply these lessons to overcoming whatever COVID-19 had to throw at me, aside from becoming infected, which thankfully I have not.
I have learned to appreciate what I have, manage without those items I don’t have, be grateful for my health, and gained a heightened empathy for those around me.
I’ve learned that working together benefits everyone, whether during a backpacking trip or during a pandemic. Rising to a level of mutual understanding is the key to overcoming hardship together. After all, the actions we take as individuals affect others, either adversely or advantageously, especially when we depend on each other.
Pushing myself outside of my comfort zone has helped prepare me for real-life scenarios where I have no control. And right now, none of us have any control over many aspects of our life. Although we can try to create the illusion of control, let’s face it, what’s happening in the world right now is bizarre. I’ve learned to accept things I cannot change for what they are and put more effort into the elements in my life that I can alter or make a difference.
My backcountry adventures have prepared me to withstand the pandemic and thrive in extraordinary conditions that have not been seen since generations before me.
If you want to learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, try long-distance backpacking.
* – ‘Seven months later, what we know about COVID-19 — and the pressing questions that remain’ by Andrew Joseph, Helen Branswell, and Elizabeth Cooney (August 17, 2020) – https://www.statnews.com/2020/08/17/what-we-now-know-about-covid19-and-what-questions-remain-to-be-answered/
** – ‘Coronavirus Immunity and Reinfection’ by Brunilda Nazario, MD – https://www.webmd.com/lung/coronavirus-immunity-reinfection#1
Stories of Misfortune
- The JMT Series – Story 1 – The Deluge on The Mount – A tale of danger and stupidity.
- The JMT Series – Story 4 – Cloudy with a Chance of Breakdown – An account of some unpleasant surprises, unfounded expectations, fear, sheer panic, and an almost epic breakdown.
- When Things Go Wrong – No matter how much you plan, sometimes things just don’t go your way.