Have you taken a true multi-night backpacking trip into the wild outdoors? The kind of trip where it’s just you (maybe some friends), your pack, some trekking poles, a trusty pair of hiking boots, and a grand sense of adventure?

If you have, you’ve probably experienced the captivating magic of trail life. The range of emotions you feel during and after a big adventure spans from the tough lows up to magnificent highs, but the memory you take with you in the end is truly magical.

In this 4-part series, I’m not going into the nuts and bolts of backpacking or the how-to’s or what to bring, but instead taking you through the mental aspect of trail life and what your senses experience:

Part 1: Trail Life & Magic of Backpacking // Tickle Your Senses
Part 2: Trail Life & Magic of Backpacking // Reset to Simple
Part 3: Trail Life & Magic of Backpacking // The Ties That Bind
Part 4: Trail Life & Magic of Backpacking // Memories That Stick

For those of you who love Gear Lists (like me) and want more detail in what we take on our multi-night backpacking trips:

Check out what we take → Our Current Backpacking Gear List

Backpacking mug smiles with marshmallows

Mrs. Saturday & I crave more time and miles on the trail. It’s a reset of our spirits back to a simple and pleasant routine. While on our way to early retirement, more time on the trail vs. expensive luxury travel can be an effective way for us to take frugal trips. Then once we reach financial independence, the freedom from being anchored to one location will give us the ability to fully immerse ourselves in the culture and richness of local and diverse environments.

Doesn’t THAT sound exciting?

Early retirement and financial independence will give us so many options to live in faraway lands. At the same time, backpacking can provide added flexibility where normally you might book a hotel or AirBnB. But, if home happens to be with you, then you can literally be anywhere you want!

Now, into the magic of backpacking and trail life.


Nature’s Elements Tickle Your Senses

The pleasant sound of my footsteps softly crunching along a woodland path made of leaves or gravel is something my ears could hear for hours on end. When you set out into the depths of an ancient forest or find yourself on the side of an ominous, foggy mountain, or relax near a huge rushing waterfall, your senses are immersed in a spectacle of sensation.

All of your senses buzz from the many inputs the natural world sends to your receptors. Backpacking is a fully immersive experience that makes you feel alive for many reasons. It’s a feeling you can’t quite explain, but you FEEL it and if your senses were doing the talking, this is what they would be saying.

Sights

Orange Sunset from Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park

View on top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park at sunset.

The moment you wake up and open your eyes in your sleeping bag, you realize early morning light is streaming into your pupils through your eyelids. It’s early. Maybe you walk out to the edge of a clearing and see the soft glow of the sky becoming more radiant with colors every passing minute. The tips of trees towering overhead blaze with fire as the rays of early morning sunshine come in at a sharp angle.

Cresting Ten Lakes Pass on trail with storm coming in Yosemite

A storm rolling in fast in Yosemite at Ten Lakes Pass. Bad news, but what a view!

Throughout your trip, different sights trigger many other senses. Squinting off in the distance, foreboding clouds are coming in over the mountain. Is it about to downpour? In the forest, you catch a quick glimpse of something dark off in the bushes. Was it a bear? Intense flecks of color on a spot on a neighboring mountain might be a crimson tree full of fall colors. Oh, wait, no. It’s a fellow hiker in a red windbreaker.

Sounds

Early morning birds at Andrews Creek campsite in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The sounds of the forest are inescapable and immersive. Early morning birds chirp and sing their songs. Mid-afternoon wind gusts cause a muted rustling of leaves. As you meander past a creek or stream, busy flowing water trickles through and around caught rocks and logs with playful splashes. Out on exposed terrain, the sound of the wind changes to a low, howling whistle, daring you to look over the edge. Tackling serious elevation alters your hearing with mild popping to equalize with every handful of meters gained or dropped. Even the trail has its own unique worn, soft thudding with each step you take.

With late afternoon, the wind dies down and sometimes the only thing heard is an eerie silence that seems to have its own sound. Night brings a different chorus of birds, creatures, and the crackling of a campfire as logs burn down to radiant, red embers. In the dark reaches away from the light of the fire, animals crunching through the brush heighten your hearing and activate your imagination.

Touch

A humid forest in SMNP on the Appalachian Trail

A dense, humid forest in Smoky Mountain National Park on the Appalachian Trail.

The air is humid and damp in this stretch of forested, rocky terrain. Water drips off algae growing on a wall. Maneuvering through tight spots of towering boulders, your hands feel the coarse, cold surface of prehistoric rocks. Strategically placed chunks of solid earth dot the path in front of you acting as a bridge across a muddy stretch of thick, wet clay. As you hop from one stone to the next, one wobbles unexpectedly and your foot slides off only to be engulfed in the filthy muck. Protruding tree roots ahead on the trail are now very slippery to step on from the mud under your shoe.

Down the path a little farther, water thinly streams across large slabs of bedrock with hints of green algae. Very carefully, you shift weight onto your front foot and are shocked as it immediately slips across the slick surface. You react quickly and keep your footing, but are more careful and deliberate in your motions across the wet rock. Thankfully, you make it to dry gravel on the other side.

The altitude has gotten much higher now as you switchback across the steep, craggy landscape. The cold, piercing wind makes your eyes water as you round exposed corners. A large field of boulders with a spot of white on top is in view in the distance, but to reach it you have to cross a treacherous-looking vertical path of loose scree. You lean hard to the side to keep your weight close to the ground and concentrate as the path gives way and tumbles down beneath you as you scramble. Your heart is pounding, but you made it!

Trail to Black Lake at Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky & snowy trail to Black Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

It’s almost payoff time. At the top of the field, you realize the white you were seeing is the start of a large snow field! Your footsteps silently crunch down a few inches with every step. You feel like a kid taking a handful of soft white and pat it into a ball of needling cold. A snowball fight breaks out and as one thuds against you, some tingly snow slides down your shirt sending a chill of exhilaration through you. The path goes up and as you toe-step your way up through the narrow path, several feet of snow closes in on both sides. Every step you make compacts the path further into a slippery slide. The way back down should be interesting!

Narrow hiking on snow on Timberline Falls Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

Hiking in snow up Timberline Falls Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park.

At the top, you throw on your rain jacket as cold, wet raindrops tickle your skin. Your eyes adjust and you realize you’ve made it. A huge black lake is hidden on top of the mountain with a backdrop of dark, jagged peaks shrouded in thick, quick-moving fog. Lord of the Rings and hobbits come to mind and you’d swear you’re in a land where fairies frolic and elves are born. You can’t stay long since the weather is moving in fast, but you take in as much as you can of this unseen forbidden world. Later in the night the memory lingers as you feel the warmth of the campfire soothing your aches and pains.

Campfire sparking embers at night on Appalachian Trail

Smells

The scents of the forest are immediate and overwhelming. Fir trees abound and fill your lungs with the fresh, sweet scent of pine needles and Christmas. Pungent, almost pleasant odors fill the forest with decay of rotting wood. Blooming flowers swirl their pollen throughout the air and immerse your senses in hypnotizing ecstasy.

Daisy flowers on mountainside at Fundy National Park

Daisies on the side of a mountain in Fundy National Park, New Brunswick, Canada.

Out in the open air on the mountain you think to yourself “Does cold have a smell?” and you’d swear it does, but maybe it’s the complex scent of the ominous weather rolling in over the far mountain. As the monotony of the trail wears on and your mind begins to wander, your olfactory system becomes hyper-sensitive and suddenly the smell of something foreign hits you. You would never notice it in normal life, but out here it’s alien and doesn’t seem to fit. The scent of perfume is intense and then you realize you’re catching up to someone in front of you on the same trail! One not-so-pleasant thing you notice is that there’s an odor you can’t seem to get away from until you discover IT’S YOU, reeking from sweat and exertion until you can freshen up in an ice-cold stream.

Again, later that night as you reflect and muse over the memories of the day, you’re filled with the satisfying scent of burning wood that seeps into everything. The campfire mixes with the gratifying aroma of your hard-earned food bubbling away on a butane stove and after you’re satiated, you turn in for the night.

A pot of dehydrated & rehydrated indian curry dinner

Tasty indian curry on the trail after a hard day is heaven.

 

Taste

Flavors are intensified as your body is hard at work, burning calories to provide you much-needed energy as you put one foot in front of the other. You have a never-ending hunger. Every salty snack just barely quenches the craving for sodium on your taste buds as you’re constantly cycling sweat through your pores. Even pure filtered water isn’t enough to satisfy the urge for minerals but the hydrating quality of fresh, icy-cold mountain water is beyond compare.

In areas where water is more scarce, beggars can’t be choosers as you filter murky pond or stream water into your bottle. Even through the filter, it retains its green or brown tint. The bitter flavor of tannins can only be choked down with the help of flavored drink powders.

With all of the salty foods you’re craving, to balance it out, you end up switching back and forth from salty to sweet to fatty in a never-ending rotation. Chocolate becomes a heavenly staple.

Salty & sweet snacks for backpacking

Indulge Your Senses

Nature excels at stimulating the senses and you’re naturally hardwired to engage and experience it fully. If you had the choice of doing an activity that only temporarily stimulates a couple of senses like watching TV (sight & hearing), or playing on your phone (sight & touch), you could do so much better by treating yourself to the buffet of stimulus that the outdoors has to offer!

Is it any wonder why when some people who visit magical places like Yosemite National Park, that one of their first reactions is to have tears well up in their eyes? Overwhelm your senses with the wonder of nature and you will be rewarded with truly immersive, unforgettable magic.

Next up in this series is Part 2: Trail Life & Magic of Backpacking // Reset to Simple

Do your senses come alive in the outdoors?