Hey Mom, this is Why I Backpack

A note to Dave’s mom explaining the benefits of backpacking through three recent treks to The Confluence.

Why I Backpack - Dave Sayer in Grand Canyon, TSX Challenge
David Sayer on a lunch rest stop on the Grand Canyon's Escalante Route.

My mother thinks I’m nuts. She doesn’t understand why I backpack. Who would subject themselves to the physical and mental deprivations involved with an intense backpacking wilderness experience? I can’t blame her. There are so many benefits to backpacking, and I have come up short time and again trying to answer that question “why?”

Well mom, I have been thinking about this question a lot over the course of the year and I think I have an answer. So here it goes. This is why I backpack…

Benefits of backpacking

Backpacking is the best way to challenge myself physically, mentally and spiritually in ways that can’t be found in the front country. Facing the elements in remote and unforgiving circumstances allows me to test my limitations, build resiliency and grow as a person.

Let me illustrate these benefits by sharing about my recent backpacking experience in the Grand Canyon. Over the course of 2022 I completed three backpacking treks along the exact same route in the Grand Canyon, but each trip held its unique challenge. The route was The Confluence, an origional guided backpacking experience created by TSX Challenge that I was responsible for scouting, developing and leading. 

I completed one trek as a scout, and two as a backpacking guide with participants. The Grand Canyon is one of the most incredible places to go backpacking, and one of the most unforgiving, prone to extreme heat and extreme cold – sometimes in the same week! Taken together, my three treks on The Confluence perfectly highlight why I go backpacking.

Let me set the scene.

The Confluence route includes 6 nights backpacking over a 55 miles of rough Grand Canyon terrain. The goal is to reach the intersection of the emerald green waters of the Colorado River and the vibrant turquoise waters of the Little Colorado River.  This is The Confluence.

Reason #1 Why I Backpack

I like the physical challenge of backpacking

My first trip out to the Confluence was a hard and fast scout. Part reconnaissance, part training, accompanying me was a potential new guide, Amanda. In order to maximize time and effort we went with ultralight backpacking gear and food. This helped us cover 55 miles in just 3 nights. In early March, the weather in the Grand Canyon is cold and unpredictable. We knew from the start this was going to be a very physically demanding trip

And so it proved to be. Here are my abridged daily log entries from the trip:

Day 1: 10 miles; 4,500 foot descent

A foot of fresh snow on the rim for the first two miles of switchbacks down to the Red Wall. Clear skies with high wind. Temperature in the low 50s. Wind gusting 15-20 knots all day.

Day 2: 16 mile day hike to the Confluence and back

Temperature in the mid 40’s. Driving rain all day. Mild hypothermia danger by end of day.

Day 3: 15 miles from Palisades camp to camp at Papago Wall

2,000 ft of climbing and descent. Clear skies, high winds gusting up to 15 knots.

Day 4: 7 Miles 5,000 feet climb to the rim

Papago Wall (35 foot vertical climb) and Slide first thing in the morning. Clear skies, cold. Previous days rain dumped 2 feet of snow above the Red Wall. Had to break trail through snow last 2.5 miles.

These weather conditions on this particular route are silly. And I loved every minute. The miles were long. The weather was brutal. But we persevered. I was especially impressed with Amanda for making it through this trip with a smile on her face. She probably thought I was as nuts, just like my mom.

We were cold, footsore, soaked and smelly. However, within minutes of having our first bite of pizza back in Flagstaff, we were all smiles. We knew we accomplished something big, and with the benefit of hindsight, realized that we could have handled a lot more. Backpacking forces you to dig deep into your physical abilities and presents opportunities to find that primal confidence to push us on. Knowing how to access it makes future obstacles seem less intimidating. When I backpack, I remember that I can do anything I put my mind to.

Hiking to the confluence in the morning with TSX Challenge in the spring

Reason #2 Why I Backpack

I like the mental problem solving backpacking requires

My second trip on The Confluence was so different than the first. We had four additional nights to complete the same route. This meant more food and heavier packs for everyone. Our pace was slower and the weight made the technical sections of the trail more challenging.

In addition, while my scouting trip was cold, wet and rainy, this second trip was the exact opposite. Hot, dry and sunny. The large dry sections of the trail that we quickly traversed under cloud cover, were now exposed to full sun.

We constantly recalculated our water rations, timing to each break point, and safety considerations throughout each day.

No matter how much preparation you do, life on the trail requires constant problem solving for new elements and challenges. And I love the mental challenge. Small deviations from plan create new challenges at every step, requiring constant problem solving and resetting of expectations. I was learning. I was listening to our participants. One of my favorite parts of guiding is managing the human and emotional challenges of others who join us on the trail, and helping others discover their own inner strengths. These moments not only make me a better backpacking guide but as a person.

Reason #3 Why I Backpack

Backpacking allows for spiritual reflection

After a couple trips on The Confluence route, number three was going to be a breeze! We learn from each experience. Everything ran incredibly smooth. What I wasn’t ready for was how some personal news would impact my experience.

The day before I hit the trail, my wife an I announced to my parents (here’s to you mom!) that we were expecting a child. I had known about the pregnancy for weeks. But we had just crossed the “safe to tell” threshold. I was primed for deep thoughts.

The wilderness is a fantastic way to gain perspective and contemplate your place in the universe. On the trail, in your tent, under the stars and unplugged from email, social media and the news cycle, there is freedom to think. There is time to reflect. There is time to appreciate. Without getting too personal, let me just say I walked out of the canyon after that trip more at peace with myself. Backpacking was the big enabler.

So why do I take on these intense backpacking challenges? Why do I bacpack?

Backpacking delivers confidence, growth and perspective. This is why I backpack.

Lear More About TSX Grand Canyon Backpacking Experiences