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Bridge the Gap

Bridge the Gap

I’ve been told time and again I’ll never bridge the gap between the backcountry hunter and the long distance thru-hiker.

It baffles me as to why we go out of our way not to interact with one another when there is a vast pool of knowledge waiting to be tapped into, often just an arm’s length away.

You might agree that the backcountry hunter could never relate to thru-hikers, and vice versa, but I challenge that sentiment. Those who venture into the backcountry laden with backpacks have everything in common. Most obviously, a shared love and admiration for wild places free from the distractions of modern life.

“You might agree that the backcountry hunter could never relate to thru-hikers, and vice versa, but I challenge that sentiment.”

As a long-time hunter, the idea of hiking miles into the backcountry without the excitement of chasing wild game seemed like a waste of time. Backpacking just to backpack didn’t appear to be much of an adventure until I learned of these freak-like thru-hikers who backpack thousands of miles in a single summer. I’d previously seen them along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and couldn’t help but notice they looked no different than the homeless guy standing on the corner downtown asking for my change. It turns out that after hiking for five months straight, you tend to look a little rough around the edges.  

Did I say hiking for five months straight? Fact: it happens a lot and these thru-hikers do it incredibly well. And so, my research into why and how this happens began.

How could anyone hike over 2,000 miles (sometimes 3,000) in a single, sustained outing?! As I researched this subculture, I found myself oddly attracted to the world of thru-hiking. To the point where, in April of 2017, I stepped off from the Mexican border in California with my feet pointed north along the PCT. Destination: Canada. I wanted to find out for myself how someone could cover up to 25 miles per day for weeks on end, through some of the most incredible wilderness in the United States.  

How could anyone hike over 2,000 miles (sometimes 3,000) in a single, sustained outing?!

I remember going into my thru-hike thinking I had it all figured out. I knew how to backpack from my days of hunting and had a well-laid plan. But, in the words of Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

And boy, did I get punched in the mouth by the PCT. Over, and over, and over again until I learned my lessons — far too many to list here. As I made my way north, and with each passing 100-mile stretch, I began to learn how to backpack efficiently. Something I thought I already knew how to do.

By the time I reached the Canadian border in September, backpacking had become a subconscious activity, almost like driving a car. I felt far more capable in the wilderness and my confidence soared. My focus shifted to what mattered most in the backcountry — the backcountry itself. I shed many of my inefficient backpack hunter habits and replaced them with techniques thru-hikers have been using for years. It’s amazing what you can learn when you step outside your echo chamber.

I shed many of my inefficient backpack hunter habits and replaced them with techniques thru-hikers have been using for years. It’s amazing what you can learn when you step outside your echo chamber.”

But I also benefited from my experience as a backpack hunter. Because backpack hunters are trying to come back heavier than when they leave the trailhead, I knew a thing or two about carrying loads. This served me well when, after a few weeks on the trail, my ultralight backpack was killing my neck and shoulders, causing headaches. My knowledge of how backpacks are meant to support loads (while hunting) made me realize that the pack I was using wasn’t working for me. Instead of accepting my fate and being miserable for the next 1,500 miles, I swapped backpacks for one that was better suited to carrying more weight. It worked.

What I had learned from wearing a hunting backpack helped me address the issue I was having with an ultralight thru-hiking pack. For the remainder of my journey, I was comfortable and happy while I watched others struggle with their crazy-ultralight, weigh-nothing (aka often-do-nothing) backpacks.  

I’ve now been on both sides of the fence. I’ve experienced that uncomfortable moment leaving the trailhead toting a rifle next to a perfect little family heading out for a weekend getaway. I’ve also been that tree-hugging, hippy-looking thru-hiker that stumbles upon a father and son out bear hunting along the PCT right after a successful harvest. The look I received from them was awkward and tense to say the least.

I’m sure they expected me to begin stomping my feet asking how they could live with themselves after taking the life of an animal in such a beautiful place. But when I asked how they were doing, how the hunt was treating them, and found common ground, they lowered their defenses and saw me for who I was. We were out there for the same reasons: to escape the distractions of modern life and witness something that can only be seen when you push yourself miles into the backcountry.

I found a way to personally bridge the gap between the world of hunting and long-distance backpacking. These two worlds, that seemingly have nothing to do with one another on the surface, synchronize beautifully once one sets aside their biases and sees the other person for who they are. A real, live person that heeds the call of the wild, albeit differently.

“These two worlds, that seemingly have nothing to do with one another on the surface, synchronize beautifully once one sets aside their biases and sees the other person for who they are.”

The skills I learned while backpack hunting prepared me for the Pacific Crest Trail, and my time spent on the PCT has since served me well in my hunting pursuits. Had I not taken the time to learn about thru-hiking, I never would have learned how to refine my approach to backpack hunting. Had I not had previous experience backpack hunting, I would have spent my journey up the PCT in a significant amount of pain. There’s a lesson here folks.

Hunters have an opportunity to build bridges by reaching out and learning from other backcountry communities. But, the same can be said in reverse.

Hunters have an opportunity to build bridges by reaching out and learning from other backcountry communities. But, the same can be said in reverse.

This summer, I encourage you to find a long-distance trail near your home, camp near it, and question passing hikers on how and what they’re doing. Give them a cold beer, a bag of chips, or a ride to town and you’ll likely find yourself in one of the most brilliant conversations and in the company of a fellow lover of the backcountry.

I believe you’ll find that the similarities far outweigh the differences. Let’s build some bridges.

For more from Emory, check out www.byland.co, a phenomenal cross-community resource for all matters backpacking.