I’ve always figured that my love of slogging through the hot, buggy woods all day followed by sleeping on the cold, hard ground made me a little different from most other people. But thanks to social media and a bestselling book, that may no longer be the case at all. Backpacking might finally be in vogue.
For a long time, friends have told me that a hotel without room service is as close to roughing it as they want. They just aren’t that interested in carrying their house on their back, even for a few hours — or dealing with such sticky issues as bedding down in proximity to mammals that have sharp teeth and claws.
I always figured, to each his own. For me, nothing is quite as sublime as starting a day in a tent in the forest. What I’ve wanted to keep as a little secret, though, is that while backpacking requires a certain amount of planning, a bit of knowledge about gear and a modicum of physical and mental fitness, it’s not like climbing Mount Everest or dog sledding to the North Pole. Anyone can do it, really, if he sets his mind to it.
But if backpacking appeared to the uninitiated to be harder than it really is, so be it. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Then, however, social media took hold — and all of a sudden the veil was pulled back.
Social media allows backpackers to easily post stories, photos and videos recounting their adventures. For Minnesota backpackers, the main repository for this sharing is the 4,000-member Facebook group devoted to the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT), the 310-mile footpath that runs along Lake Superior from Duluth to the Canadian border. Overwhelmingly, the trail is the favorite destination for backpackers in Minnesota.
For a long time, my assumption was that Facebook posts about backpacking trips were meant to send a message to the curious, at least subtly, that said, “Look at this — I can do this, and you can’t (or at least don’t).” And maybe they were. That would follow the concept of “true self,” identified in a study published a few years ago. The contention is that people possess qualities for which they’d like recognition but that they don’t normally express to others — except in places like Facebook.
But then Cheryl Strayed wrote the book “Wild.” The bestseller, which became so popular it was made into a big Hollywood movie, told how Strayed embarked on a backpacking trip without a clue how to do it, and despite making pretty much every mistake possible, completed a 1,100-mile journey on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Suddenly, a lot of people thought backpackers might be their true selves, too. Now, the curtain wasn’t just pulled back but completely ripped away.
“Wild” may have provided the spark, but a lot of people started looking for information on how to do this backpacking thing correctly. In Minnesota, aspiring backpackers turned to the Facebook SHT page. Heretofore admirable, the posts became inspirational, and the adventures they described something to emulate.
An example is Trevor “Fronkey” Rasmussen’s series of videos about his SHT thru-hike. Rasmussen, who lived in Minnesota when he made the videos but now resides in Oklahoma, said he produced and posted the videos mainly for himself. He was a bit surprised that “people actually started to watch them.” He was even more surprised when they started asking him questions about how they could do the same thing.
Inspired, Rasmussen began making videos that leaned more toward the instructional. “Group members really started digging it when I offered campsite reviews, where to find water sources, what kind of gear to carry,” he said. “Digging it” might be an understatement — one of Rasmussen’s videos on reducing his pack weight has nearly 100,000 views on YouTube.
Ryan Viney of Eagan also makes videos about the trail. “I’ve seen firsthand how social media, the SHT group in particular, not only helps people who are already avid outdoor types, but also inspires many to get outdoors and try new activities,” he said.
Alison Heebsh, who lives in New Brighton, is one of those who read “Wild,” found the trail page on Facebook, and watched the videos. What she saw, she said, “told me that backpacking was something I could do.”
Last winter, Heebsh made plans to hike the entire SHT in sections, and in 2015 completed five trips totaling about two-thirds of the trail. Before she knew it, Heebsh said, she was not just absorbing knowledge and experience from others, but providing it, too, making a series of detailed posts with photos.
“Before I went on my first trip,” she said, “I was wondering all sorts of different things about what life was like on the trail — like ‘what are backcountry latrines?’ And I wasn’t sure what I would find in the campsites along the trail. You can read about it, but it doesn’t necessarily make sense. So I took pictures and described things, and that’s what I posted.”
There is a difference between learning about backpacking and doing it, of course, but Heebsh doesn’t seem to be an outlier, said Gayle Coyer, executive director of the nonprofit Superior Hiking Trail Association, which builds, maintains and manages the trail (and manages a Facebook page separate from the trail group).
“Trail usage is way up. Our trail maintenance workers see more hikers and backpackers on the trail, and we know that it can be trouble finding parking at some of the trailheads,” she said. Newcomers are not just using the trail, but joining the association as well, she added, resulting in a membership jump of about 20 percent in the past two years.
In addition, a lot of people also want the official take on the trail; Coyer said the SHTA sold about 3,000 copies of its trail guidebook in the past year and distributed some 25,000 sets of pocket maps.
So, I guess the little secret officially is out. But that’s fine. Welcome to the club. There are plenty of mammals with sharp teeth and claws for all of us.
Jeff Moravec is a Minneapolis writer and photographer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.