When I was 20 years old, I went on a month-long backpacking trip with an organization called NOLS. NOLS stands for the National Outdoor Leadership School, and they lead a variety of trips in the outdoors that teach people how to live in the backcountry (wilderness) and cultivate leadership skills. It felt a bit scary to sign up for a 30-day trip in the Wyoming wilderness. I had never backpacked for that long, and the idea of not having a bathroom or shower for a month seemed daunting. I knew that the trip was going to be tough and that it would test my limits physically and mentally. However, what I didn’t know was that it would teach me how to love and appreciate my body.
My Struggle With Self-Love
I, along with many others, have struggled with body image issues since I was young. I can remember spending hours in front of the mirror picking apart my reflection. My hair was too curly, my breasts were too small, and so on. When I became a young adult, my self-image issues only seemed to increase. I found myself hating my body and obsessing over parts of it that I deemed were my “problem areas.” I incorporated a few different tools into my life to try and alleviate this self-hatred. These tools included things like:
- Limiting time spent on social media
- Getting into my body through physical exercise and yoga
Overall, while these practices were helpful, they didn’t stop me from obsessing over how I didn’t like my body.
Hiking Is Healing
It was around this time that I started spending more time outside in nature. When I wasn’t in class or working, I would put on my hiking shoes and get outside. It was on my long walks in the redwood forest or along the Pacific Ocean that I realized how nature helped quiet my mind. In fact, some of the only times that I was able to let go of my negative self-talk was when I was hiking.
Soon after, one of my best friends told me about a 30-day backpacking trip she did with NOLS. It sounded like just what I needed. I felt apprehensive, but I decided to take the leap and sign up for a course. It wasn’t long before I was on a plane heading for Wyoming.
Hard On My Body, Good For My Mind
I won’t lie, the first week of the trip was pretty brutal. Hiking 10 miles a day with a 40-pound pack over rough terrain was not easy. Additionally, although the program had suggested that I train for the trip, I hadn’t. My legs were sore, I was sunburned, and I was hungry all the time. But something magical started to happen as well.
A few days into backpacking, I noticed that I hadn’t thought about my appearance at all. I was too busy focusing on how I was going to put one foot in front of the other and reach my destination for the night. I found myself feeling proud of my body instead of resenting it. It seemed like the hardships my body was enduring were actually benefiting my mental health.
Focusing On Strength, Not Beauty
One of the most important things I learned over the course of 30 days was to look at my body in terms of strength, instead of beauty. Instead of putting my self-worth in terms of how I looked, I began admiring my body for what it did. I was amazed by my legs’ ability to carry me from mountain to mountain and valley to valley. I was grateful for my lungs in adapting to the thin air at such high elevation. I was proud of my ability to make delicious meals with limited ingredients. Day by day I fell more in love with my skills and abilities – letting go of my body insecurities.
Bringing This Awareness Into Everyday Life
Coming off the trail was bittersweet. I was ready to see my friends and family, to shower, and to eat all the foods I had been dreaming of for the past month. However, I was also nervous about losing the sense of self-empowerment and self-love that I had cultivated. I wanted to find a way to bring the joy and freedom that I found backpacking into my everyday life.
So, I continued hiking and spending time outside at home. At the same time I began reducing the time I spent in front of the mirror, and instead invested more time into hobbies that fulfilled me. I made art, wrote poetry, played the guitar, and cooked. I focused my attention on my different talents and creations instead of the way I looked.
I am extremely grateful for my time spent backpacking in Wyoming. Throughout those 30 days I learned how to live comfortably in the backcountry, but more importantly I learned that my body is amazing and capable. I grew stronger with every difficulty that I faced, and I now love my body because I am proud of all it does.