KAUFMANN: Lessons from backpacking on Isle Royale

Published 9:27 am Monday, August 12, 2019

What is an outdoor activity that you love? Before reading any further, I invite you to take a moment and consider what you really enjoy. 

Maybe you like the quiet of early morning fishing; the feel of the wind as you bicycle down a hill; the smell of freshly turned earth as you garden; the crackling warmth of a campfire; or the sand between your toes at the beach.

Can you remember the first time you experienced this? How old were you? Conversely, when was the last time you participated in this activity? How did it make you feel?

Being outdoors is good for our health. However, we spend most of our time in what I call “big boxes” — up to 90 percent of our lives, according to one government estimate.

The more items we put on our out-of-doors “happy list,” the more ways we can enjoy being outside. The more time we spend outside, the more of these health benefits we can soak in: increased Vitamin D production, a happier mood, better concentration, more natural exercise, and even faster rates of healing.

“Green” exercise — exercise in nature — has special mood-lifting benefits. I experienced a new level of green exercise-induced euphoria recently when our family backpacked in Isle Royale National Park.

Backpacking (carrying your provisions for several days on your back) was an intimidating prospect for me. Never having done it before, I doubted whether I could make it.

With lots of planning (and lots of encouragement from my husband!), we set off with our two teenage sons to beautiful places only reachable on foot. Now, I am so glad that I was brave enough to attempt something new.

This epic adventure gifted me with some lessons that I would like to share with you. These can apply to any new activity, not just to backpacking.

Learn from an expert. Before leaving, we talked with friends who had backpacked recently on Isle Royale and asked them for advice (Thanks, Nate and Renee!). We also did research online and spent time planning and preparing supplies.

Expect it to be challenging at first, but keep trying. The first day of hiking with my pack did not feel normal (Seriously, it was difficult.). The second day, it felt easier. By the third, I had found my hiking rhythm and felt like Wonder Woman (Also, I had lightened my pack by eating two days worth of food by then…). 

Bring friends to make it more enjoyable. With four sets of eyes, we were able to spot a lot more wildlife. With four backs, we could divide up the weight. We could encourage each other through the low points, and rejoice together in the mountaintop victories.

A wise friend once told me, “The more things you know how to do, the more fun you can have.” Whether we try something new or choose an old favorite, let’s step outside and get happy and healthy in our green spaces.

Chrissie Kaufmann is a group fitness instructor at the YMCA of Southwest Michigan.