ditch plan

Top 5 Ways Backpacking Taught Me To Ditch the Plan

I’ve been a hiker for many years. But as of summer last year, I’d never backpacked on my own, carrying everything on my own back. Hiking is just one aspect of backpacking. Just because you’ve hiked doesn’t mean you know everything you need to know to go backpacking.

So, when I decided to backpack the Colorado Trail, the mack daddy of long distance hikes in Colorado and the number one item on my bucket list, I planned like crazy. My goal was to plan so thoroughly, I would be prepared for anything that happened on the trail.

Here’s the funny thing, though. Knowing a lot about something doesn’t mean you can predict how everything will go. And sometimes planning like crazy is just a way to avoid actually doing something you really want to do. Planning my very first true backpacking trip taught me this lesson, a lesson I’m still struggling to learn. Here are the top five ways that backpacking taught me to ditch my urge to overplan and just hit the trail.

1. Start Small

The Colorado Trail is almost 500 miles long and takes around five weeks to hike. I spent a lot of time pressuring myself to do the whole trail at once. I made myself feel like I would fail some imaginary test if I didn’t. Finally, I planned on doing 70 miles in seven days, a much smaller chunk, to see how things went. In fact, I could have gone even smaller. There is nothing wrong with starting as small as possible, like an one-night backpacking trip with only a few miles. You don’t need to do it all at once.

2. Stop Planning and Start Doing

When you stay stuck in planning mode, you’re essentially letting your inner perfectionist and procrastinator keep you from getting started. No amount of planning can replace actually doing the real thing. I made a rookie mistake before starting the Colorado Trail. I went on one 10-mile practice hike with only 10 pounds of weight in my backpack. That in no way simulated what it’d actually be like on the trail, where I’d be carrying around 25 pounds over multiple days. Practicing with my full backpack weight before starting the hike would have been way more informative than planning like crazy. The best learning comes from testing your plan and “kicking the tires” to see how things go.

3. Make Your Own Plan

It’s good to research something new and see how other people did it. You can even ask advise of people who are experienced in the thing. But no one can give you a nicely packaged, perfect checklist and plan that is right for you. You are the best source of knowing what works for you. Only you can know whether you’d prefer camping in a tent or a hammock or cowboy-style under the stars. It’s even likely that your preferences will change over time. That’s not only OK, it’s awesome. Waiting for someone else to tell you how to do something is another way of holding yourself back.

4. Trust Yourself and Go With the Flow

Let’s say you’ve followed all of my advice so far in this article. You’ve created your own lightweight plan and tested your plan in small practice runs. Here’s the piece of advise I struggle with every day. Trust yourself. You cannot possibly predict how everything you will go on this new adventure, when you get started on that new trail. And that’s part of the fun! You’re learning to trust yourself, to know if something unexpected happens, you’ll figure it out. Part of the adventure is to relax and go with the flow, and let the experience unfold naturally.

5. Ditch the Plan Altogether

Emma Gatewood was a pioneer in ultra-light backpacking but not with the intent of breaking any records or becoming world-renowned. Hiking the Appalachian Trail called to her for a lot of reasons, one of which was to process years of beatings from an abusive husband. Grandma Gatewood carried an Army blanket, plastic shower curtain, and a raincoat in a homemade denim sack and wore Ked sneakers. She ate Vienna sausages and whatever she found on the trail. And she hiked the Appalachian Trail three times, the first time when she was 67! My point is, maybe even the lightweight planning I’m advocating here is too much. Maybe there’s an even greater lesson in just going where your gut takes you. Grab your sack and sausages, throw on your shoes, and hit the trail. Let the adventure begin. Trust that your feet will take you where you need to go.

Is there something you really want to try but you’re stuck in planning mode? Start with where you’re at and get going! Let me know how it goes.

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