I was crying as I clawed at the slick, wet rock. My friends pushed my behind as I grasped at the side of Mount Washington, unable to hoist me and my heavy pack over the boulders. I was 15 years old and embarking on my first backpacking trip. We were making our way across the Presidential Mountain Range in New Hampshire. Back when packs had bulky, external metal frames and gear was impossibly heavy, my bag weighed a whopping 50 pounds. (Full disclosure, I may have snuck a Discman in there.)

For many people, this is an adventure of a lifetime. But, for my 15-year-old-punk-rock-urban self, this was hell. Although the pictures boast beautiful scenery, I remember feeling utterly spent and miserable at the end of each day. My legs were unable to carry me any further. But, every night I would crash onto my Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad and get some much-needed rest for the next grueling day. I can’t say that there was a big “ah-ha” moment from that trip, in fact, it was quite the opposite, I’m pretty sure I swore never to sleep on the ground again.

Rediscovering the Outdoors

Flash forward 13 years and I was in a bit of a crisis. I woke up in my late 20’s and realized that I wasn’t fulfilled with my current life path. All of this time I had been working to build a life that everyone else wanted from me, not what I wanted for myself. As a world traveler and adrenaline junkie at heart, I found it difficult to live a life not expressing myself in the outdoors.

I had let go of a lot of things that were at the core of who I was and I needed to get back to adventure. So, I decided to systematically change everything about myself in an attempt to reconnect.

After seven and a half years, I left my fiancé that didn’t understand or support my need for adventure. When I moved to Colorado, I hoped to give the whole outdoor lifestyle thing a try, but I had no one to get outside with.

After the breakup, I began dating someone new, who also wanted to get outside but, like me, didn’t want to go alone. My new partner wanted to try backpacking and asked me if I would be willing to show him the ropes. I shuddered, thinking about the epic slog-a-thon up Mount Washington all of those years ago. “Well, this could end in a total disaster,” I mused, but I didn’t want to tell him no. It was a summer of new love after all. Despite much hesitation, I decided to give sleeping in the wilderness another try.

Hail, Sleet, and Holes, Oh My!

Of course, we didn’t have much in the way of backpacking gear. I had an enormous 70-liter pack I had taken overseas with me, an ancient sleeping bag with a hole cut in the bottom of it, beat-up cotton shorts and t-shirts, and my old Therm-a-Rest pad. After borrowing a few essentials from friends, I strapped my trusty Therm-a-Rest pad to my pack and hit the trail.

On night one, our rickety, $20-dollar tent endured a sleet and hail storm at 11,000 feet. My sleeping bag was practically useless in the freezing cold temperatures and I woke in the night to put on all the clothes I had brought with me. With the wet tent slapping in the wind, I snuggled up next to my dog and partner for warmth, thankful to at least be well insulated from the ground by my trusty Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad.

The next morning, we awoke chuckling about the weather. As I greeted the warm, mountain sun, I quickly fell in love with the beautiful scenery of the high alpine. Fortunately, the weather cooperated and we spent another night under the stars, sleeping soundly as a new-found adventure team. The trip left me feeling eager for more nights in the mountain.

It wasn’t long before I was out backpacking every weekend. Before setting out to hike over 120 miles of the Colorado Trail, I decided to upgrade my Therm-a-Rest to a newer model, keeping the old, now well-worn pad for sentimental value.

New Adventurous Horizons

Falling in love with backpacking catapulted my outdoor adventures. I started climbing Colorado’s famed 14,000-foot peaks. I learned to scramble rocky ridgelines, travel without a trail, mountaineer, and trad climb. I even started taking my outdoor exploits overseas.

However, despite my many weekend adventures, I still felt a void in my everyday life. I couldn’t shake this feeling of dread every morning during the week to go to my soul-sucking job as an architect. In order to dedicate so much time to a career, I needed a sense of joy with my work. Instead, I was spiraling into a black hole.

The trouble was, I had spent 11 and a half years getting my architectural license and I wasn’t sure what to do. I wanted more out of my short time on this earth, and most importantly, I yearned to share that feeling of being able to find joy and peace in the wilderness. My goal became to empower others to get outdoors and find what they needed to feel whole. Although I had been saving to take a gap year, I decided to instead invest that money in starting something new.

About a month after I returned from a trekking expedition in Nepal, I quit my job and started my own freelance business as a writer and photographer. Suddenly, everything in my life began to click and the simple joys of day-to-day life came back.

Thanks to my old Therm-a-Rest pad, I was able to find a purpose in my life. Much of my work revolves around teaching others how to get outside, even if they have nothing but a pair of shoes and a smile.

Being outdoorsy doesn’t mean being decked head to toe in the latest outdoor gear. It doesn’t require you to go on a conquest to do the most difficult objective you can think of. Being outdoorsy means one thing: you enjoy getting outside. Period.

If I hadn’t allowed myself to try something that seemed a little scary then I would have never found my true calling in life.

The outdoors has this incredible way of course-correcting our lives. The experience leaves us better able to process the things that bother us and we come to learn more about ourselves. Each and every time we are outside there is the opportunity to learn something new, to grow as a person, and to have a few smiles along the way.

Despite my traumatic first experience in the outdoors, that sun-baked sleeping pad got me back outside. To anyone who has trepidations about sleeping in the wilderness, just go for it. You never know where your adventure will lead you.

Related Posts:

Updated. Originally Published September 11, 2019.