backpacking lessons
story: gabaccia moreno

I've been backpacking for a while. But I hadn't backpacked by myself, and I hadn't backpacked any trail over forty-some miles, ever. Until this year.

No trail comes without a lesson. The 75mi section of the Collegiate West I decided to hike this summer would be no different. Spoiler alert: I conquered my goal of hiking the entire miles I set out to. Although it wasn't a smooth path, it allowed me to check in with my ego, my skillset, and my idea of wilderness. Here are a few examples of things I learned, a few that I hope you'll ponder on before your next adventure.

lesson one: ego
When would you do something that goes against what you know you should do?

I saw a body of water that wasn't on my maps, and the mere surprise inspired me to make an impromptu fishing stop. When I realized I had overstayed, I panicked and rushed to get back on the trail. My abrupt attempt made me slip off the rock where I was standing and plunged half of me straight into the water. Because now I was "behind," I took no time to dry, didn't change my wet sock (which I knew I should), and just started hiking again.

Would it surprise you if I told you I, in turn, got the most massive blister I've ever seen? It didn't surprise me either, and I would carry its pain through my remaining four days on the trail. Will I ever let my ego get in the way of me doing what I know I should? Probably yes. But not in the backcountry, sir.

lesson two: skillset
Trusting your memory could mean forgetting.

When I started packing, I first made a list of everything I needed to bring (smart!). But because the weeks and days leading up to my hike were very busy, my to-pack list got misplaced, and I didn't care to make another one. I "knew" everything I needed to bring.

On day 4 of my 6-day trip, I woke up in the middle of the night with an unbearable itch on my hands. I added some moisturizer and went back to sleep, thinking they were simply too dry. A day later, I noticed my hands looked decades older, and dead skin was coming off of them. I forgot to pack my sunblock, and my melanated nature was pushed past its own limit. My hands and the lower half of my face were the only parts of my body exposed fully to the cloudless sky for the past few days, and they were suffering the consequences.

lesson three: wilderness
The wilderness is this pristine place, seldom visited by people, far away from people.

When I first set out to hike this long trail, I knew I would see people due to it being a popular hike. Being part of both the Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, allegedly also one of their best sections for its breathtaking views, the Collegiate West would live up to that reputation. I didn't realize until later that the way the wilderness is managed (and also just how it is) in such a popular trail is exceptionally different from how it's handled in at least most every other place I've ever backpacked to.

First of all, I was near a road almost every day, and even had to hike on them or cross them. I heard cars and off-road vehicles at least every other day. While I first found it annoying, I quickly adjusted my expectations, and it stopped bothering me.

Second, many sections of the trail are heavy duty day-use areas. Meaning, I had to share "campground" with a group of already loud teenagers who had also brought along their speakers to blast some top 40s all evening long.

Third, my Leave No Trace (LNT) ideas of camping away from the trail and at least 200 feet away from lakes and streams was a NO-GO. Apparently, most campsites are next to the path in this particular trail, often stream-side, and that's just the way it is. For me to follow my LNT principles literally would've meant to impact new areas and, therefore, a failure to my LNT principles nevertheless.

This brought me back to the narrative of several Indigenous activists whose work I follow and how they taught me that the idea of wilderness itself was created by white men to remove Indigenous folks from their land. Today, it seems like too many white men use what we call wilderness, and their own attempt to make it pristine and void of humans has not succeeded. But I couldn't help wonder how different things would look if the Ute people, the Indigenous people of this area, would be the caretakers of this land today.