On Frozen Socks: Backpacking Reflections on Wild and A Walk in the Woods

On May 17 of this year, I woke up to frozen socks. I was prepared for a lot of things on the trail–mosquitos, hunger, a broken shoelace–but I hadn’t anticipated frozen socks. A winter of heavy snow and frigid temperatures coupled with a late spring where I was hiking in Minnesota meant for a very wet trail, so my socks were going to be wet no matter what. I needed to keep my second pair of socks dry in case of hypothermia, so I warmed up a little water on my camp stove, poured it into a Ziploc with my frozen socks, and waited for them to thaw out. Putting them on that morning and getting my feet into mostly frozen shoes was a most uncomfortable sensation, but cold, wet socks became part of my daily routine over the next weeks as I thru-hiked the 300-mile Superior Hiking Trail in northern Minnesota.

A Wild Walk in the Woods

Every backpacker has heard the questions. “Have you read A Walk in the Woods? What about that Wild book?” Maybe you’ve read them, too, and have been thinking about heading into the woods yourself, but those books won’t give you a great idea of the day-to-day life of a backpacker or prepare you to go into the woods, especially alone. A quick look at those books will show you that most pages are about something other than backpacking. Like any good book, those books are about people–their dramas, their emotions–but there’s relatively little actual backpacking in either book. They do, however, speak to the power of words to motivate action. With both Wild and A Walk in the Woods coming out as movies in 2014 and 2015, respectively, backpackers on the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail are anticipating even more people on the trails after their release.

Know Before You Go

If you’re thinking about becoming one of those backpackers or even just a day hiker, here are a few more practical bits of advice that you won’t find in those books.

  1. Communicate your plans. You don’t want to end up in a situation where you have to cut off your own arm because you didn’t tell anyone where you’d be or when you were expected to return (See Between a Rock and a Hard Place or the film version 127 Hours).
  2. Stay within your physical capacity. If that means starting off with a 2-mile hike, then do that. You’re probably capable of more, but being conservative and staying well within your physical capacity means that you’ll have some energy left if you do get into a bad situation or end up having to go farther than you’d planned. This is especially true if, like me, you hike alone.
  3. Carry what you need. The Ten Essentials is a good list of basics that will help keep you safe. I carry these things even on short day hikes because you never know when a sprained ankle will keep you in the woods far longer than you’d planned.
  4. But don’t carry too much. If you’re planning an overnight trip, your pack weight will have a lot to do with your happiness on the trail. That doesn’t mean that you should go out and buy the latest and greatest ultralight gear (although shopping for that gear can be fun!). The lightest things you carry are the things you leave at home. You don’t need a different outfit for each day or a full set of pans or an extra pair of shoes or a whole bar of soap or an 800-page novel. Leave those things home to lighten your load.
  5. Train. If you’re planning a longer trip, your body will thank you if you train. Get some miles on your legs and some callouses on your feet before you head out for a long trip. You’ll enjoy yourself more if you aren’t fighting blisters or sore muscles every mile.
  6. Finally, moderate your expectations. Most people who head out on trails do so as a way to escape everyday life. The trail can definitely help you get away (I told more than one person that my trip was an escape from my email), but no matter where you go, there you are. If you’re dealing with personal issues, those aren’t going to magically go away just because you are outside. Some people find mental clarity on the trail, but in my experience, you’ll spend most of your time thinking about the location of your next water source, how much food you have left before your next resupply, how to keep mosquitos and ticks away, and how much daylight you have to get to the next campsite.

Reading and Writing in the Woods

Walking, eating, and sleeping will take up most of each day, so if you want to spend time reading or writing, you may have to schedule them in just like you do in your regular life. However, there are a few additional logistical complications. For reading, I decided not to carry a book because of weight, but I did carry an extra battery for my phone so I could read using the Kindle app. I ended up reading about one book per week on the trail this way. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks had been on my reading list for a while, so I worked my way through it during the first few days on the trail, but I soon moved on to three books by Minnesota author Ken Nerburn based on a quick flip through the pages of Neither Wolf Nor Dog. I liked the idea of reading an author whose work had been written near where I was walking, and the themes of nature that thread through his books on Native Americans were an appropriate accompaniment to my Minnesota hike.

For writing…well, I didn’t really write while I was on the trail. I took a pencil and small notebook and took a (very) few notes here and there, but I didn’t do any concentrated writing. After so many years of writing on a computer, I find it difficult to write long-hand. While I did think I’d want a written record of the trip and have compiled such records in the past (most extensively for a cross-country bicycle trip in 2006), I recognized that this particular trip was about me experiencing the trail without significant reporting or reflection in the moment. In some ways, backpacking is simply less interesting than bicycle touring in terms of immediate storytelling potential because I met very few people. Also, since I wasn’t dealing with any intense personal drama like Cheryl Strayed, I just had little to write about in the moment.

If you do plan to write on the trail, I know some backpackers get an external keyboard to use with their phone, but I didn’t think I’d use it enough to make it worth the extra weight and thought it would use up too much battery anyway. If you want to write a lot, a keyboard may be worth it, but remember that you’ll mostly be typing in your tent, so try out any set-up sans table before you commit to carrying it on the trail.

While I didn’t write a lot, I did take a lot of pictures. You can see the best here!


By Joy Santee/@Circumtrektion

4 thoughts on “On Frozen Socks: Backpacking Reflections on Wild and A Walk in the Woods

  1. Thanks for hosting my reflection! I liked the backpacking even more than I thought I would. Minnesota is gorgeous in the spring, and the cold kept the mosquitoes at bay for a while longer than usual. Best part? No work email!

    There’s a family-friendly (flat) 4.5 mile trail in Highland on Silver Lake if you want to get started. There are mile markers at one and 1.5 miles if you want to do a shorter out-and-back walk. Go for it!

    Liked by 1 person

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