8 Lessons Learned from a Week Backpacking in Patagonia

This past March I opted outside – really outside – by choosing to do a six-day backpacking expedition through a NOLS program with nineteen other MBA students over our spring break. It’s worth noting that as far as NOLS programs go (usually month-long treks), six days is a walk in the park, but as a total backpacking (and camping) newb, I found six days p-l-e-n-t-y long.

Patagonia backpacking lessons

All non-iPhone pictures in this post are with credit to the talented Konstantin Wachs

Now, before I really get into this post, I want to preface it by saying that I sat in front of a blinking cursor for an embarrassing amount of time wondering how to present a story about life lessons learned on a six-day backpacking trek through Patagonia without sounding like an over-privileged snob. I realize I’m incredibly lucky to have taken this trip; know that I am thankful to have experienced something that few others will get to do. That said, I hope others – especially those that would have otherwise never considered backpacking – are open and able, maybe even inspired, to experience something like this after reading this post.

Before signing up for this trek, I knew next-to-nothing about camping, backpacking, and Patagonia. It’s embarrassing (but honest) to admit that the extent of my pre-trip Patagonia knowledge was that I had been inside a Patagonia store before (note: retail Patagonia stores and actual Patagonia are very different). When I looked over the trip itinerary and suggested packing list a week out before the trip (#teamprocrastination), I realized I didn’t even own actual hiking pants.

If I’m honest, I did not realize what I was getting myself into until about one hour into day one, when I learned how difficult it is to cram a week’s worth of food and essentials into a 48-pound backpack.

Cass with her backpack in Patagonia
The portrait of a young woman who has no idea how heavy this backpack is going to feel on day three

And while I could write an entire post on how unprepared I was, I’d rather spend time telling you about what I got out of it. Without further ado, these are my top eight takeaways from the trek.

1. The hiking isn’t the hard part

In preparation for the hiking trip, I was mainly worried about staying active to get my steps in and keeping my cardio up. In truth, we generally covered somewhere from four to nine kilometers per day (admittedly, most days were on the lower end of that spectrum), so distance was not the difficult part.

I did not account for the stamina it took to set up and take down camp every day, the strength it took to haul a hefty backpack around for several hours at a time, the focus needed in choosing the right path to take (as there were no more trails to follow after day one),  the teamwork it took to cook for each other, and the energy it took to keep the mood positive on days when it got a little tough.

2. I don’t smell *that* bad

I’m going to say the first of several things that will likely gross you out about my hygiene on this trip, and it is this: I didn’t pack deodorant. Well, I did pack deodorant, but it didn’t make the final checklist into my bag as it’s an “unnecessary item.”

I know, I never would define deodorant that way myself. But, thanks to layers and my body adapting over the week, I was surprised to discover how much I didn’t smell. I have been used to the luxury of daily showers and perfume my whole life, so I was as surprised as you are to realize I can go without and survive (and smell) just fine.

3. I can live on much less

Since deodorant didn’t make the final packing list, you can be sure to bet a lot of other “essentials” didn’t either. As someone who typically packs about five outfit choices and two weeks’ worth of underwear for a weekend trip, this was a bit of a shock to me. Everything I wore, ate, drank, cooked with, and slept in for six days had to fit in my backpack. This does not leave a lot of room for options (or makeup and skincare routines, for that matter).

This also meant I was very efficient: I knew exactly what I was wearing every day and where everything was located within the backpack should I need it (e.g., rain layers were on top and accessible – but thankfully not used much!). I learned to appreciate the few items I did pack. Changing into dry, clean socks at night was a minor, luxurious ritual that I came to savor after a long day of hiking.

patagonia trip

Though I have spent time getting rid of a lot of excessive stuff over the past few years, this trip made me realize I can cut much deeper during my next decluttering phase. It also made me realize how much anxiety I have around making choices every day on silly things like what to wear, and how much easier life is without having to worry about those decisions.

4. Be kind to the earth

NOLS practices the Leave No Trace principles, which are essentially a set of guidelines to use in order to minimize our impact to protect nature. In practice, this meant that we had to take out everything we brought in (including any waste like food wrappers), we split up into hiking groups of five during the day, used biodegradable soap to wash our dishes, and, uh, properly disposed of any human waste.

I am thankful to be back in the land of indoor plumbing, but there are some principles of Leave No Trace and sustainability initiatives that I am trying to incorporate into my life beyond this trip. For me, this includes using more towels and less paper towels, reusing food containers (including Ziploc bags!) whenever possible, and carrying a water bottle with me whenever I leave the house.

5. Life is better with less screen time (but kinda hard to adjust to)

As part of the full backcountry experience, we were told to leave our phones behind. While there were practical uses that I missed (e.g., checking the weather before crawling out of my tent every morning, checking in with loved ones and using the camera), it was a nice excuse to completely disconnect from screen life.

While I didn’t necessarily miss checking my e-mail inbox, I was surprised how instinctively I reached around for my phone to listen to music or check social media – only to realize I didn’t have it with me. It took at least four days to stop grabbing at my pockets in search of a phone that didn’t exist.

I know I’m stating the obvious here, but not having a phone meant I actually connected with the other students who opted into this trip. These students, like me, decided to take a risk and do something entirely different, new and challenging for the week. They were undoubtedly worth getting to know, and not having phones as a crutch helped us get beyond surface-level conversations.

patagonia backpacking trip

6. Having a good attitude is half the battle

The thing about backcountry hiking is that no one *really* knows what they are doing, so sometimes we accidentally choose the more difficult route, need to backtrack, or have to bushwhack our way out of unfamiliar territory (…for over an hour and a half). As someone who has never bushwhacked before, let me tell you: it is not necessarily an easy or enjoyable experience to get slapped in the face with tree branches over and over (and over) again with no visible way out (but I’m a stronger person now, right?)

If I was surrounded by negativity, this would have been a completely different experience for me. Instead, I was surrounded by people who were willing to try new things, encouraged each other, and fearlessly forged their way through unknown terrain. We empowered each other to get out of our comfort zones and (literally) climb mountains, and we wouldn’t have been able to do that without staying positive.

7. Sometimes it’s a good thing to not know what you are up against

If I knew all the details of what I was about to experience on this trip (at least as they would be written on paper), more specifically: I am not sure if I would have signed up for it. I’m not sure I would have believed I could do it or would want to do it. But I’m here to tell you, it was all worth it – if for nothing else but seeing these stars every night.

patagonia trip

8. You had to be there

Since getting back from the trip, I’ve had a hard time explaining it to people. I’m not even sure I did a good job of truly explaining it in this post, ~1,500 or so words later. The trip was a series of beautiful moments, tiring moments, and holy-shit-I-just-did-that moments – and those experiences cannot be perfectly packaged with words. They are our own memories; experiences that are felt and fleeting.

I hope you get to experience a trip like this. I hope you will get to let go of the chaos of modern living for a little while and experience the joy in simplicity. I hope you experience something that makes you feel so small and insignificant and find relief in that. I hope you’ll get to feel connected and lucky and strong.

I hope you already have felt these things, and I hope you get to again. I hope I do, too.

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About Cass Gunderson

Cass hails from the southwest suburbs as a proud White Sox fan and a graduate of University of Illinois. By day, Cass is a full-time student at the University of Chicago's Booth Graduate Business School. Before deciding to throw away all her money to go back to school, Cass worked for a private equity firm that buys technology companies. Raised as the youngest in a family of older brothers, Cass grew up a tomboy and remains active in sports. To her mother’s satisfaction, Cass learned how to embrace her feminine side in college and has developed an interest for fitness activities that require spandex as opposed to knee-length basketball shorts. In her spare time, she runs a lot because it is cheaper than paying for real therapy. Cass has completed four marathons and one ultramarathon (she claims she'll never do this to herself again, but that's TBD). She can still be found on the basketball courts in Lincoln Park wearing knee-length basketball shorts.