On a recent vacation, my sister and I set out on our first backpacking trip together. I, having dabbled in the activity during college (shoutout to first VanReken!), served as the guide, though admittedly inexperienced myself. We learned a lot, laughed a lot, and slept really well when we got back to our own beds. Here I chronicle a few of our most memorable lessons. 

  1. If it’s “flat enough,” it’s not flat enough. 

At the end of a long hike (ten miles of climbs and descents through the Allegheny National Forest), it’s tempting to pitch your tent on the first flat-ish spot you find. This is a mistake. We spent most of our first night kicking each other while we scooted back up to the top of our sleeping pads. 

2. Take time to optimize the little things. 

In most of our lives, and certainly in mine, the finer points of our physical comfort are sacrificed on the altar of expediency. Meals are skipped, coffee is chugged, and those uncomfortable shoes stay on because we’re still at the office. Backpacking makes our list of priorities very small: walk, hydrate, eat, sleep. That shortened, simplified list challenges me to care for the small needs of my body: changing into dry socks, adjusting my pack, using chapstick. On longer excursions those things are actually essential to success (and sometimes survival). While not as dramatic on our three-day trek, it’s a practice of attention and self-care that I’ve tried to bring back with me. 

3. Yes you can. 

Halfway up the mountain pictured below, I told Bria, “Just leave me here—they’ll find my body on the side of this trail.” We tackled some ambitious mileage for active but relatively unconditioned hikers, and at multiple points, I was sure that my legs were going to crumple beneath me. This trip gave me the repeated, meditative opportunity to encourage myself. Breathe, keep walking, you can do this. 

4. There aren’t as many bears as you think there are. 

In preparing for the trip, my chosen obsession was bear safety. There is no documented preponderance of bears in the Allegheny National Forest, and those wiggle-butt black bears that do wander the woods mostly frequent campgrounds, not primitive tent-sites. Regardless, I proudly purchased a bear canister: the Bear Vault 500. My enthusiasm was such that our bear canister became something of a trip mascot, being hailed each time it was ceremoniously lifted from the pack. Each night I picked a spot at least a hundred yards from our tent and then listened, obsessively, for the sound of mischief. Each morning I was relieved to find the BV500 undisturbed, and decided that next time I probably don’t need to carry it so far. 

5. Don’t let the internet steal your wonder. 

I noticed around mile eight of day two that Bria and I were starting a lot of conversations with the phrase “I wonder.” With almost no service on the trail, the instant education normally at our fingertips was replaced by lingering curiosity and creative hypotheses. It was both uncomfortable and refreshing to feel my mind puzzling through questions about fungi and natural history and wildlife. It made me feel like a kid again, in a good way. Growing up in the woods with ample time outdoors gave me practice enduring and enjoying the thistle of curiosity. On my return to urban living, I’ve decided to sit in that wonder just a little longer before initiating an internet quest for knowledge. 

6. More beef jerky. 

As with backpacking, so with life. Always bring more beef jerky. 


  1. Joe Mineo

    Such a fantastic adventure. I am so happy that you could share this trip with your sister. What a truly wonderful bonding experience! I’m sure the memories that you created together will last a lifetime!

  2. Vickie Wheeler

    What fun you 2 sisters must have had! I hope you can make this a yearly goal every summer.


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