So my birthday is coming up soon, and as always around birthday time, I started thinking about life and stuff. This year, my mind drifted towards camping probably because camping is on my mind most of the time, but also because for me, our trips have long outgrown the definition of a hobby and become a necessity, as essential to my existence as breathing. Camping is no longer something we do but rather a way of life. After ten years of hiking, biking and canoeing through the wilderness of Canada and the United States, we’ve accumulated endless amounts of photos, memories, skills, experiences, wonderful and terrifying moments that define us and shape our life both in and out of the woods.
Here are some of the things we learned in the great outdoors.
The less stuff you have, the easier it is to travel
When we first started camping, we had a huge tent (big enough for at least ten people), a screen house, air mattresses and tons of other gear that seemed so indispensable. As we started going on longer trips, we quickly realized that the less gear we lug around the easier it is to set up and pack. And the less stuff we put in our backpacks, the easier they are to carry.
I must say the idea that everything you need can fit into a backpack was quite revealing and liberating. As we simplified our camping routine, we applied the same logic to our everyday life getting rid of unnecessary possessions, thoughts and habits. Trying to live ‘out of a backpack’ teaches you to be more resourceful and creative, too. Instead of running to the store every time we need something we look for ways to use stuff we already have at hand. Because there are no stores in the backcountry, you know.
Slow is good
We live in the age of glorified busyness and multitasking where skipping meals and working overtime has become something to brag about and desire to get some rest and take things slowly is seen as a vice. New advances in technology continue to push us to do thing faster and faster until the world around turns into a series of images flashing by. As we rush from one meeting, project or activity to another, we forget that some things can only be learned or understood at human speed.
When we started spending more time in nature exploring our surroundings on foot or in a canoe, we learned that slowing down our pace allowed us to notice more, feel more and have more time to process information. Now instead of trying to get from point A to point B as fast as possible, I plan my trips through parks and ravines including as many active transportation options as possible even if it takes me a little longer. After years of camping, I’ve finally learned to slow down and embrace the concept of idleness.
Time isn’t money
‘No time’ is such a common refrain these days. We can say time has become the most valuable commodity. Everyone complains about the lack of it. There is never enough time to go outside, exercise, eat properly, play with kids, meet with friends, ___________ (fill in the blank). Our time is measured to the second neatly divided between meetings, jobs, commutes, extracurricular activities.
When we go camping, away from distractions and schedules, time becomes fluid, it doesn’t march but flows. When we come back, we try to bring some of that feeling back with us. We discovered that if we get rid of mindless things (for instance, we don’t have cable anymore) and stop saying ‘yes’ to every invitation and engagement, all of a sudden we find time to go for walks, play board games, talk to each other and even sleep more.
Remote places offer the best connection
I am not talking about technology, of course. There is no WiFi in the woods (yet) and quite often no phone service either but there are plenty of opportunities to talk to people face to face rather than through texts, emails and Facebook posts. Thanks to the constant presence of mobile devices, these days we spend more time in the virtual world than we do in the real one. The recent photo of a man on a boat looking at his phone and completely missing a whale a couple of metres away is the poster picture for our smartphone obsessed culture. Everywhere I go, I see people clinging to their tiny plastic rectangles completely oblivious to the world around them.We don’t have cell phones. When my husband tells that to his students, they have trouble wrapping their minds around it. “How do you communicate with your family?” they ask. His reply: “I actually talk to them.”
However, even without phones, we sometimes find ourselves overwhelmed by technology, emails, social media. So recently we introduced electronics-free Saturdays. Our younger son was hesitant at first but after a day of bike riding, a three-hour walk around the neighbourhood, puzzle solving, fort building and even napping, he proclaimed it a huge success.
Home is where you pitch it
There were days when I dreamed of a big home with a huge fireplace and tons of rooms. After years of camping, I realized that home is a feeling and not a physical space. It has nothing to do with the size of a house or the number of bedrooms but rather the sense of peace and being yourself. The place where I feel most at home is a little over 55 square feet in size and is made of a piece of nylon stretched over aluminum poles. It only has one room that functions as a bedroom, recreation and living rooms all at once. But the views are always new and breathtaking. And it does have an outdoor fireplace. Sometimes I get told that my own house would give me a feeling of being rooted. But I feel like I am already rooted in myself, my family and all those wonderful places we visit.
Planning and flexibility go hand in hand
When you are heading into the wilderness, planning is key. You need to plan your route, what gear to bring with you, how much food you will need, what clothes to pack. However, sometimes things don’t go to plan: weather, detours, sprained ankles. So flexibility and readiness to adjust plans are equally important. These rules serve us just as well in everyday life as they do in nature.
Choose your camping team with care
When you are in the wilderness, you need to be able to trust the people that are coming with you. Also enjoy their company. Same applies to life. Quite often we surround ourselves with people with whom we have nothing in common simply out of habit or because we are afraid to break the ties. At some point, I decided to only spend my energy on people that are close and important to me.
The city can be exciting sometimes but quite often it’s also overwhelming – a cacophony of sounds, lights and colours. Nature provides a respite, a place to breathe, to see the stars, to hear the birds. So we try to carve out some nature time into our daily city life, whether it’s going for a walk in our neighbourhood park, visiting a farm or digging up some dirt in our balcony garden.
We are nothing but specs
Our experiences are increasingly constricted to the man-made world which results in exaggerated feelings of self-importance. By removing ourselves from the natural world, we have forgotten that we are part of it and have developed a mass delusion that we are special and omnipowerful, that this planet is ours for the taking, that we are masters of the universe put on Earth to harness its powers and abuse its resources. A trip into the wilderness quickly puts those delusions to rest. Hiking to a mountain top, paddling a lake the size of Superior, watching a star-strewn sky in the middle of August or living through a violent storm in a tent are very humbling experiences. You start to realize that you are nothing but a small speck in an enormous Universe, that we can be easily erased by nature’s whim. I know this may seem like a depressing realization but I find it exhilarating and inspiring. Knowing that I am made from the same stuff as the distant stars in the sky, remembering that I am related to all the beautiful wild creatures that roam our woods, realizing how tiny the chances are of me being born on this planet the way I am, all these things make me work extra hard to fill my life with meaning instead of possessions, ranks or accolades.
It’s ok to be alone
There are many reasons why I enjoy camping so much. I’ve written about them in this blog on numerous occasions so I won’t go through them again. Yet the main reason I travel is to connect with myself and to hear my own voice away from the hubbub of the city. It sometimes seems that there is no place for an introvert like me in a world so full of noise and loudness. With so much value placed on outgoing personality, presentation skills and ability to communicate in any situation, I often find that fitting in is hard work. When I am hiking in the woods or paddling a canoe, I know that I can be myself. That’s why I like to photograph sunrises so much. When everyone is still asleep, I feel like I am the only person around, the sole witness of the world being reborn.
*I took the picture below a few years ago over Lake of the Clouds at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. Read more about this experience in my Globe and Mail essay.