Why backpacking is harder than running (because you might fall off a cliff)


As you may know, the past year has been very difficult for me because I have spent the last year recovering from a blood clot in my left calf and left lung. The blood clots came out of nowhere – I thought I was dealing with pulled muscles – and almost ended my life before I turned 30 years old. Getting back to running has been slow, hardly steady and more painful than it was to even begin running the first time.  My return to running, while still rewarding, has felt different this time around and I have found I miss the profound feeling of accomplishment that comes with achieving a difficult physical task. I felt that feeling when I ran my first half marathon about four years ago and when I used the bathroom on my own in the hospital, but haven’t felt that returning to running thus far. I thought I would feel that with my second first 5K, but I didn’t to the extent I had before. While it is still one of the greatest accomplishments for me, I needed to do something hard, physically hard – that tested my limits again and proved I could still live.  I needed a physical challenge like none other and I found it last weekend when I also discovered why backpacking is harder than running a race (because you might fall off a cliff).

My husband is an avid woodsman and while he enjoys a physical challenge, he doesn’t enjoy running or traditional workouts. He does enjoy backpacking, canoeing and hiking for miles on end, all which require great physical stamina, which he can seemingly muster with no official training. I’m not that lucky. For years, we’ve been having the debate over which is harder – backpacking or running? I’ve maintained its running because you have to maintain some sort of consistent pace, over long distances, especially in a race, where I perceive backpacking as a walk in the woods. He has maintained it is backpacking because yes, you are walking, but over difficult if not treacherous terrain carrying your gear on your back. My retort? “You can trail run too.” We pretty much semi-agreed to mostly disagree that backpacking and running are different beasts and each are difficult in their own right, a statement that still holds true to some extent.

My husband took me to Zaleski National Forest this past weekend to try an overnight backpacking trip and naturally, I couldn’t help but compare it to running a race as we went. Having tried it now, I have to concede here, backpacking is harder than running, at least for me. In fact, besides attempting the Goofy Challenge, it is the hardest physical thing I have done. I’m serious. It might compare to training for my very first half marathon so I am sure a lot of the difficulty has to do with being a first, but it’s just plan hard – like anything, I think training and time will make it easier, but it starts harder.

Zaleski sign

The Zaleski forest is the second largest forest in Ohio and features a 23.5-mile backpacking trail, extremely rugged terrain with elevations ranging up to about 1100 feet above sea level and even more miles of uninterrupted wilderness. You can literally go all day without seeing another human being depending on when you are there. While I might not recommend it to first-time backpackers due to the difficulty of the terrain, it seems as good of a place as any to start and helps to answer, just why is backpacking harder than running a race?

Because you carry everything you need on your back

It’s not anything like a race or fuel belt. My pack was about 30 pounds (light, I know) and I struggled. We carried only the bare necessities – food, water, blanket, hammock, stove, a change of socks and underwear and a few other small items. Ultra-light? It’s still heavy.

Because you have to think about every step you take

This trail was difficult from the beginning, as are some race courses I’m sure, but race courses aren’t hard in a do or (literally) die way. The course was easily less than a foot wide in some spaces, where you are hugging rock face with a sheer cliff on your other side. Mostly, you could see the bottom of the cliff, which ended in flat rock or a lot of trees. Not only was the trail narrow, it was full of rocks, sticks and roots. I stumbled a few times and had to catch myself. Since I apparently have recently developed a fear of heights, there were some hair-raising almost mishaps along the way. Do not ask me what you do if someone is coming the opposite way in these areas, I do not have a clue.

Because you can’t walk off the course

In backpacking, much like in racing, you are trying to reach some sort of goal – a camp or finish line. In a race, if something happens or if you have to cut a training run early, you can usually walk off the course or walk back to your house or car without too much incident. In a race, there might even be people to help you or you can call for a ride. You can’t do that in backpacking. There is nowhere to go. I realized this about a quarter-mile in (when I also realized that every step carried me, plus another 30 shaky pounds) on rugged terrain when I was already hurting, it was kind of like reaching the point of no return after we decided to keep going – once you’re in, there’s no easy or quick way out.

Because it never ends

Everything takes longer in backpacking. I always thought I had been on runs that never ended, but it was different with backpacking. It really never ends. Every tree, every rock, every cliff looks the same after about a half hour and you can easily lose track of how far you have gone or how far you have to go. There’s no easy out and back I-am-halfway-now moment of triumph. You start to rely on things like the sun, your shadow (if you can see it) and how much water you drank to know about how far you have gone. A run will eventually end and you can return home, not in backpacking. You keep going. And going. In backpacking, there are also trail detours which you may not know about until you get to them. Once you reach one, you just have to go with it and hope you can continue on – detours are always longer.

Because people don’t exaggerate about how far you have to go (or what’s up ahead)

We did run into a few others on the trail. One guy was leaning against a tree, chugging water and looked like death. We asked how far camp was and he said, “You’ve got several miles to go yet and a pretty steep downhill to boot. Good luck with that, it’s brutal out there.” In my mind, I immediately thought he meant ‘uphill’ because he had just come ‘downhill’ and forgot to reverse it to tell us about it. I would find out in a mile or so, I was wrong, very wrong. He looked awful, I even told my husband once we passed. About a half a mile later, we ran into some Boy Scouts who zipped by, but their trailing leaders said in passing, “Man, I don’t care who you are, that hill is unbelievable. Good luck.” I asked, “How are you?” to one and he said, “I’m barely hanging in there.” No more, “You’re almost there!” even if you really have 6 miles to go, you know where you stand on the backpackers trail.

Because there are no water stops

You carry it on your back. All of it. So you better plan to have enough water. We each took a reservoir full and a water bottle (there was a water source to fill up at the camp). We also took packets of GU Brew to mix in for energy on the hike. Backpacking takes a lot more preparation. My husband is good at it and knew what we would have to take, but I would struggle to figure it out on my own, I think. I wouldn’t have wanted to be out there without the possibility of water or finding it in a hurry. It wasn’t going to happen.

Because darkness matters

With such unpredictable terrain, you have to make camp by nightfall or you could risk hurting yourself. If you’ve slowed down for any reason, it matters. Daylight only lasts so long and we were watching ours very closely. Slow is not really an option out there. If you have to go slow, plan for more time, but the problem becomes with trail detours, rough terrain and unplanned stops, you just can’t always predict how long it will take you. You know your neighborhood after the sun goes down on an after-dinner run – you don’t know the woods.

Because the trail is unforgiving

If you are out of shape, you will know within moments and struggle for the whole trip. Think about it, you are asking your body to perform cardio, strength (every step you take is you, plus your pack) and not to mention use all of your mental faculties to not fall off a cliff and die – that’s a lot of stress on your body and mind. As the day goes on and you become fatigued, it gets harder. There’s no way around that. If I am going to continue backpacking, I need to get in a lot better shape.

Because you might fall off a cliff

I was tired when we came to a major trail detour that involved a treacherous downhill and cliff edge. That was the first problem. I also had no choice but to keep going on. There was nowhere to turn around to. Once you’re out there, you’re out there. It was steep at about a 60 percent incline and the soil beneath my footing was loose. My original plan was to shimmy between the few trees that were there, but after slipping almost immediately, I sat down and slid downward. The hill was steep enough that even sitting down, I was moving forward without meaning to. I made it to the first tree and stood up to catch my breath. Braced against the tree, I noticed we were actually on a cliff shelf, as I call it, with one smaller shelf below us and a cliff edge just beyond that. I put it out of my mind and prepared to sit down to slide to the next tree. I was tired, hungry, frustrated and sore. All I wanted to do was make camp before nightfall.

I don’t know what happened next. All I know is in one instant I was standing against that tree and the next; I was tumbling head over heels down the shelf, barreling towards the cliff edge. I briefly remember seeing my husband turn around to say something and I remember my ankle twisting behind me in a way I was pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to. I remember feeling 30 extra pounds pushing me faster and I remember trying to determine which way was up. Once I did, somehow, I dug my fingers into the soil and tried to do the same with my feet. Too much pain in my right ankle. I felt my wrists being bent backwards and then, I felt myself start to slow down. Just as abruptly as it started, it stopped. I was on the second cliff shelf and my pole went over the edge. I didn’t see where it landed – but it was out of sight. The woods were deathly quiet.

The first sound I heard was my husband making his way to me, asking me if I was okay. I don’t remember if I answered. I remember I was lying on my side/stomach, fingers still in the dirt and my right ankle sprawled awkwardly in front of me. I tasted dirt in my mouth and spit out sticks. It suddenly occurred to me to check my teeth to see if they were all there, and they were. I didn’t move. I couldn’t move. I remember staring at my ankle, not sure of what I would find under my pants. It seemed like several moments passed before I felt it – pain surging from my ankle to my leg and back down.

After several moments it seemed, he helped me up and I gingerly put my right foot down. It held my weight, even though it hurt and I knew it wasn’t broken.

“We have to get you down,” he said, which was when I realized I didn’t even fall all the way down the hill. You have got to me kidding me. I nodded my head took a deep breath and prepared to slide down the rest of the way when the extreme terror overtook my body. I stared shaking from head to toe and I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I was done. I looked around me wildly – I couldn’t go up, I couldn’t go down and no one could do anything to help me, but me!

Somehow, I made it to the bottom of the hill, sliding on my butt, without further incident.

Because if you’re injured, you’re screwed

I’m extremely lucky, let’s get that straight. I managed to walk about another mile on a tender ankle and was able to elevate it when we got to camp, but I might not have been that lucky. If I had broken it, or fallen off the cliff ledge and landed at the bottom, there was no help. NO HELP. No first aid tents, no people, no medics, no cars. My husband said we would have been looking at extraction if I fell all the way and that would hopefully happen if we had cell service or would happen depending on how long it took him to hike to a place that did. It you’re injured, you might have a very, very big problem in the woods.

Because you can’t go home to a nice soft couch, warm bed or favorite meal

In running there is a definite, “Ah, thank God that’s over for now” moment when you have had a tough run. Not so much in backpacking. Once you are done walking, you usually have to walk some more if no other reason than to find a vacant campsite or in our case, trees. We set up our hammocks just before it got dark. You cook your own food, collect your own water and make your own bed. There is no dinner at your favorite restaurant, tap for water, hot shower or warm, cozy bed just how you left it that morning.

Hammocks Collage

Because you have to collect sticks – and when you think you have enough, collect more – three times.

Bending up and down to collect sticks after backpacking up and down hills all day felt like torture, but guess what? If you don’t collect sticks for a fire, you don’t eat. I thought I had enough sticks twice before my husband said, “More sticks.” I kept collecting, hobbling around on my ankle, before vowing to start poking his eyes out with them if he said “more” one more time. He was kind enough to set up my hammock for me, though so I collected sticks in the meantime. Backpacking can be done alone, but if you are out there with a partner, each person really has to pull their weight. For as much as I wanted to get off my leg, I just couldn’t. Not with approaching nightfall and an unmade camp.

Because depending on where you are, you may not have a peaceful night’s rest ahead of you    

I fell asleep quickly, exhausted and in pain. The hammock allowed me to naturally elevate my leg, which helped. I woke up around one or two in the morning to some very loud singing and chanting somewhere off in the distance. I don’t know what it was; I don’t want to know what it was. I thought I was dreaming, but the husband heard it too. Sometime after that, a large stick fell on top of my husband’s tarp and I heard him yell an obscenity much louder than I thought he could out of a deep sleep. I couldn’t stop laughing long enough to fall back asleep. The top end out our hammocks also shared the same tree – he moved, I felt it. I assume the same went for him.

Because you have to walk back out in the morning (after cooking again and tearing down your camp)

The finish line is not the finish line. When I woke up in the morning, my first thought was, “How are you going to get back out of here?” Not like a race when you’re done, you’re done. While I was determined to walk out after what I had accomplished, we decided it would not be in my ankle’s best interest to take the trail. We hiked the access roads back out. I thought this was the easy way out to begin with, but I clearly kidded myself. It was still hard – and hilly and my WTF?! race shirt never seemed more appropriate.

Will I do it again? Absolutely! The sense of accomplishment I felt at the end of this trip was amazing and I know I made my husband proud to try something new and way out of my comfort zone, which is a pretty awesome feeling. There is something undeniably liberating about placing your belongings on your back, lacing up your boots and walking into the woods. You have to rely on your own instincts, your own abilities – and not to mention your own strength, of which I really need to work on to make backpacking an even better experience. The thrill of the unknown and danger that comes with such an activity creates a pretty huge adrenaline rush that I really enjoyed and fully intend to feel again.

Me and Michael at the end of the trip

What about you? Have you been backpacking? Would you go backpacking? Do you think it is (or would be) harder than running? What is the most physically challenging thing you have accomplished? What would you like to accomplish testing your physical limits? Have you camped in a hammock before?

Until the next mile marker,

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