There's a joke by Jim Gaffigan that "camping was a tradition in everyone's families until we invented the house". While that's true, even after the house had been around for hundreds of years my Great-Great-Grandparents loaded up a car with gear and headed west to Yellowstone. Subsequent generations have been backpacking along the Appalachian Trail, kayaking in Florida, fly fishing in Montana, beach combing in Maine, and hiking in Oregon.

The Adventures of Tiny Hippo

The Adventures of Tiny Hippo

I didn’t realize you were such an avid backpacker”, I said somewhat surprised.

“Well, I’ve never actually backpacked.”

“Oh…but you’ve camped a lot?”

“I went camping once during college and one time with my family”

“Ok….so….uhm……I guess we’ll start with the basics.”

A friend of mine from a previous job messaged me out of the blue to say that she had just received notice the company was laying her off at the end of February and giving her 3 months of severance pay. While that is never good news for anyone, her immediate reaction was to follow a dream of hers since college which was to hike as much of the Appalachian Trail as possible, starting at the southern terminus Springer Mountain.

Everyone has those days when you wonder, “What am I doing with my life? Am I really happy?”  and for this 27 year old engineer who goes by the nickname of “Tiny Hippo” (long story) was hoping that some time away from everyday life might help her figure that out. Extremely independent, driven, and meticulous, I knew she was capable of doing 3 months on the AT, but there was going to be a steep learning curve since she’d been relatively non-outdoorsy. Before coming to me she had been doing research on her own and talking to anyone she knew that backpacked to try and get an idea of what her dream actually looked like.  

So we sat down several times to talk about everything from gear to philosophy to safety. Other people with a military background had told her to plan on carrying 60+ lbs of gear, that she needed knee high leather boots, and a physique that resembled Rambo. I gave her my view that lightweight, within reason, gear is the best bang for the buck and will help her cover more territory with less injury. She was going to try hiking with light hikers or running shoes instead of big heavy boots, and I helped her cobble together a gear list from various discounts sites on the web so she came in well under budget. Gear is less than half the battle though; the most difficult part was going to be mental so I took the hard edge approach of telling her of hiking for days in the rain, for the times when the trail would break her and she’d want to give up. I told her to start hiking with weight in a pack to feel what it was like, in both good weather and bad. To take short weekend trips to start understanding the day to day habits she would build in setting up camp, breaking camp, and what backpacking actually was. She took all advice in stride but it was other concerns she had which caught me off guard.

“What is the situation you’re most scared of?” I asked, hoping that we could go ahead and confront possible scenarios ahead of time. Research shows that even thinking about a problem before it happens with no further preparedness greatly increases your odds of overcoming the situation. (Side Note: If there is ever a Zombie apocalypse, don’t worry…I’ll have the whole thing under control.) Her concerns though weren’t what I would worry about; I would think of my physical ability, weather and terrain, the logistics of resupply, and whether or not I should carry a Kindle stuffed full of books or go old school and carry actual paper with me.

“I think I’m probably most afraid of getting really sick from some water borne disease or a tape worm.”

“The water issue comes down to good hygiene and making sure you don’t get unfiltered water anywhere your mouth goes: your hands, the lid of your Nalgene, mixing up the input/output lines of your water filter. How would you get a tapeworm? I’ve honestly never heard of anyone being afraid of that while hiking the Appalachian Trail.”

This prompted her to go on a 15 minute discussion of specials she’d seen on National Geographic where in third world countries poor sanitation leads to tapeworms among worse things; she just didn’t want to be ill to the point of not being able to take care of herself and being an invalid. Once I convinced her the odds of tape worms were low, we turned to a topic that, while unpleasant, is a fact of life.

The use of the “facilities” came up and the normal concerns a woman would have of which I was thoroughly unqualified to answer; she kept reiterating a fear of having to use the restroom in the woods because someone might walk up. She spoke about how on her training hikes, when she was miles from the trailhead and had seen no one all day, she was afraid of using the restroom for the simple fact that someone might walk across and catch her in a vulnerable position. Reassuringly, I told her it would get easier the longer you spent in the woods and that it would become old hat eventually.

From there, she started talking about what, at first, I dismissed as a rather naïve fear. She was afraid that, for the first few weeks when she would roll into the shelter at night and set up her tent, that people would watch her and find her unused to her gear and an overall newbie. She would look incompetent and at first I thought it was a pride issue, but she explained that if she looked like she didn’t know the ropes it would make her seem helpless.  And that could make her a potential target to any unscrupulous characters who might be watching.

Fireworks suddenly started going off in my head as I realized I was completely ignorant to an entire cache of fears and dangers that haven’t bothered me since I was 9; that there might be someone who wants to do me harm and even if I fight back with all my strength I still might lose. I’m 6’4” tall, 215 lbs., and have been told I resemble an uglier, very out of shape Tom Brady; I’ve been fearless when it comes to the human element of danger and my concerns in the wilderness have been the natural elements. But for my friend Tiny Hippo, she had all the fears about weather and physical fitness and also having to look over her shoulder every step of the way to see if someone was following her.

Whether you’re a man or a woman, there are skills that everyone should learn and being able to protect yourself is near the top of the list. Whether you go with a conceal carry license and firearms training or a fighting style (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai kickboxing are my styles of choice) give you the confidence and habits that could make a difference if you ever find yourself in a bad situation.

Tiny Hippo is taking precautions for everything from first aid to self-defense, and by the time you’re reading this she’ll probably be on the trail. I’m hoping that during the time she spends on the AT she’s able to let go and enjoy the journey and maybe answer a few of the questions she had. Depending on her pace, I’m hoping to meet up with her for several days in the Smokies to catch up and see how the dream is going; she’ll probably be able to teach me something by then.

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