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Backcountry badassery, or an immersive experience?

I squinted at my finger, trying to make out what it was made of. I saw clear, tan, red, gray…maybe some orange in there, too. I pushed my glasses up onto my forehead, training my finger ever closer to my eyeball.


It wasn’t the most extraordinary experience one could have in the outdoors. It was simply an interesting little pebble I had found during a leisurely, 90 minute lunch break during my hike. But it was still cool, worthy of a few moments of my attention for the smile it put on my face.

There’s something to be said for maximizing your travel time, hyper-efficiently filling every available moment with new places to experience. Seeing as much as you can during the limited time you’re free to explore. I love doing that—it’s how I’ve managed to explore so much of the country, after all.

But it’s also hard to compete with the slow, methodically-immersive experience you get while backpacking. Not ultralight backpacking, or fastpacking, or ultra trail running, or whatever the current craze to cover as much trail as humanly possible is being called.

No, I mean the simple and timeless endeavor of walking—slowly—through the wilderness. Of roaming, exploring, investigating. Of making progress towards camp, but not always in a straight path or as the guidebook presumes. Of being attuned to the subtle shift of the wind, the first cricket chirp of coming night, or how that long shadow lays gently across the cliff face.

No tracking one’s time. No calculating one’s average mileage per hour. No worrying about whether you’ll make your next split. Just being present, capturing the moments we have in the wild, far from the daily routines our mostly urban lives entail. Just enjoying the journey, no matter how far or how short it takes you.

Many of my outdoor friends spend their days training to either lower their summit time or to extend their daily mileage. I get it, there’s a certain human competitiveness that pushes us to challenge our physical capabilities…to affirm that we’re still alive, that we’re strong, that we’re an impressive specimen of the species. Or simply that we can achieve something astounding.

Instead, I’m more interested these days in training myself to slow down when I’m outdoors. To strive to experience more—not because I cover more ground, but because I notice more and miss less. The way that bee drunkenly surveys the flower bush. The warmth of the rock as it radiates back the afternoon sun. The way the creek ripples around those rocks.

Call it a walking meditation. Call it an interrogation of the landscape. Or call it an esoteric interest in the wonder of our protected lands. Either way, it can be an incredible way of enjoying the outdoors.

Seeing the Grand Canyon—as fast as possible

The big hike many Arizonans strive to complete is the veritable rim-to-rim trek across the Grand Canyon, often abbreviated as R2R. Most people take a couple of days to do the trip, camping overnight at the bottom before heading back up the following morning. Once you graduate from that, the goal often becomes doing those 21 miles in a single day, something the National Park Service recommends against. Remarkably, the current R2R record holder did it in less than 160 minutes, which is a few minutes longer than Star Wars Episode I, but likely less grueling.

But R2R in a day isn’t enough anymore; many now seek to complete rim-to-rim-to-rim (R2R2R, or R^3). It’s an impressive feat, one that involves more trail running than hiking. The current record stands at an astonishing 5 hours, 55 minutes, 20 seconds, which is absolutely mind blowing when you consider that it involves covering 42 miles and 22,600 ft of elevation change.

While these are fastest known time records by committed athletes and not indicative of the times most people achieve, keep in mind that many, many people are both attempting and completing these types of trips. So many, in fact, that it’s become a problem for the park managers. It’s also a vastly different experience than the more traditional two-day trip.

How I saw the Grand Canyon on my own R2R trip

Several years ago, I decided to finally do R2R—the quintessential Arizona backpacking trip I had never quite gotten around to doing. But my itinerary looked remarkably different than what others were doing, especially the trail runners that I shared the R2R shuttle bus with. Here’s the kind of trip I planned instead:

  • Day 1:  drive to the South Rim, drop off car, take shuttle to North Rim, camp.
  • Day 2:  hike North Kaibab Trail to Cottonwood Campground
  • Day 3:  hike from Cottonwood Campground to Bright Angel Campground
  • Day 4:  free day for exploring
  • Day 5:  hike from Bright Angel to Indian Garden Campground
  • Day 6:  hike from Indian Garden to South Rim, shower, drive home

Yep, I took 6 days to drive 4 hours to the Grand Canyon, hike 21 miles across it, and drive home.

And let me tell you, it was AWESOME. I got to spend almost a week enjoying one of the most iconic landscapes on Earth.

I got to lounge in my tent and watch the morning light pierce the horizon. I took time to just gaze into the distance, pondering those existential questions that often spring forth when you’re surrounded by something so much bigger and timeless than humanity. I scanned ancient rock layer after rock layer while listening to the babbling of the creek that’s slowly eating through them. I spun slowly in awe of the 360° view at Plateau Point and rinsed my face in gorgeous Ribbon Falls. I stared skyward long after dinner, not worried about a scheduled bedtime, to catch shooting stars amid an impossibly crowded night sky. I got to watch the sunset from a different place in the Canyon for five straight days. As I hiked, I stopped regularly to marvel at the majesty surrounding me—not just a quick glance up from the dusty trail like most of the hikers with a deadline to meet. I stopped regularly to take any photo I fancied, without regard for how it affected my pace. I dipped my feet into the chilly Colorado River, waved to arriving rafts from Black Bridge, and enjoyed a beer while people-watching at the Phantom Ranch cantina. I spent far too long giving encouraging high-fives to those wearily approaching 3-Mile Resthouse. I did many other fun and enjoyable things, of course—too many to detail here.

Mind you, I could have completed the trek in a day or two. But why would I want to miss out on the opportunity to savor more time in the backcountry of the world’s greatest canyon? Even six days didn’t seem like enough.

There’s a joke about golf being the only sport in which the goal is to play as little of it as possible. This post is not a condemnation of the trail runners or others who see a backcountry experience as, at least sometimes, an athletic contest against a clock. But I also can’t help but point out that they are celebrated for spending as little time as humanly possible enjoying that same amazing landscape.

What’s my point here?

I want to be clear on a few points. I’m not arguing that you can’t have a legitimate wilderness experience without hiking slowly and taking it all in. Nor am I advocating that you should take more time for your hike. Hike your own hike.

But since so much of the outdoor media I see seems to focus on being faster, setting new records, tackling increasingly insane distances, and generally pushing the human body further than ever before, I wanted to remind you that you can, indeed, hike your own hike.

In short, don’t compare your outdoor adventures to what you see reflected in the outdoor industry or on social media. We all enjoy the outdoors for different reasons, and we all value different things in those experiences. Sometimes we want to go fast and feel like we’ve conquered an intimidating physical challenge. Other times we want to disconnect from modern life or spend some time reflecting in the wilderness. Or we want to experience something new, something intriguing, maybe something that changes us a little bit—or maybe a lot. Or hell, maybe we just want a gym with a view. What experience do you want to have? What drives you to spend time in our public lands? What will be personally rewarding for you? Plan your trip around the answers to those sorts of questions.

It’s cool that someone can run the John Muir Trail in less than three days. And it’s also cool to spend waaaaay more time enjoying the John Muir Trail.

As long as you’re not ruining the experience for others, there’s space on the trail for both of those approaches. Above all, enjoy your public lands.

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