Photo: Kristian Mollenborg
On my first camping trip, my dad brought an air mattress and a raccoon ate our eggs. I was two years old and my dad had decided that it was time to finally indoctrinate my mother, and me, into the world of the outdoors. Growing up in Delaware, the closest thing to a hike she’d ever been on was walking to church, but my dad wanted to be able to share his love of the woods with his children and if it took an absurdly large tent, an air mattress, and a cooler, that would be a small price to pay. I don’t remember the trip, but ever since the mountains have felt like home. From living out of a van for two months to hiding in Northern Vermont for the winter, I can’t imagine a life without hiking boots at the ready.
I’ve grown up with the feeling that the world is my playground, and while I’ve learned more from my outdoor experiences than I will probably ever understand, there are four lessons that have most guided me towards surviving as a fully-fledged adult.
1. Perseverance pays off.
It wasn’t until I was a camp counselor that I remembered how hard it is to scramble up rocks with short legs, weak arms, and already scraped knees. At eight, a large log or mossy rock seems like an insurmountable barrier, but having to figure it out on my own helped me develop confidence in my abilities and taught me to believe that, if I think hard and work smart, I can find a solution to almost any puzzle. What I came up with when I was eight was probably not the same as what I would come up with today, but looking elegant is less important than discovering that perseverance pays off.
2. Some things take time.
Camping is not an activity that caters to the impatient. A beautiful view will almost always be preceded by a series of frustrating false peaks, your stove will never boil water as quickly as you’d like, and hiking with a group can mean a lot of waiting around. When I was younger, these things infuriated me. Why couldn’t we hike faster? Why wouldn’t the peak come quicker? And why did dinner always take so long? It took me a while to realize that maybe the reason I had so much energy was because the adults were carrying most of the weight, or maybe the stove was taking its time because it wasn’t smart to burn unnecessary fuel. Accepting false peaks took me a while longer, but the idea that practising patience improves everyone’s experience manifested early.
3. Know when to step up (and when to back down).
I’ve never had trouble speaking my mind, so it took me a while to comprehend that leadership isn’t about talking the loudest. Camping is a team effort, and for everything to go smoothly everyone has to have a role to play and responsibilities to follow through on. Something as simple as not packing the trowel in the bottom of your pack makes a big difference when someone needs to go number two, and every job is worthy of respect. I’ve been on trips where I’m the most experienced and on one’s where it feels like I have no idea what I’m doing, and I’ve come to accept that just as there are moments for me to lead the line, there are times when taking up the tail, or signing on for the small tasks is what truly makes a difference.
4. Strive for self-sufficiency, but don’t be scared to ask for help.
No matter how well you’ve planned or how carefully you’ve picked your route, things will find a way to get bungled up. From 2 to 24, I’ve had to deal with everything from the weather deciding the perfect time for a rainstorm is right after I’ve set up camp on low ground to leaky fuel bottles and ravenous bears. Each hiccup has made me more confident in my ability to find solutions, but they’ve also reminded me of how important it is to know when to ask for help. An extra set of hands makes a huge difference when tying down a rain fly in the middle of a storm and getting a spare O-ring off of a fellow camper can save a trip. Through years of ridiculous mishaps, I’ve learned that knowing when to look outside of yourself is the greatest sign of self-sufficiency.
I owe a lot to the woods, lakes, mountains, and plains that have worked my body; tested my soul, and cradled my mind — all of which is only cheesy and overdramatic if you haven’t spent a night staring up at the stars. I know I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t had to rough it overnight in the woods.