Beginning Backpacking Post Breast Cancer

Backpacking Gear in the Car

When one is facing an unexpected health crisis, the mind’s descent into some worst case scenario is but a few steps. During breast cancer treatment, I envisioned a number of sobering possibilities for my future, one of which was focused on backpacking. 

To back up a bit, preparations for my last backpacking trip b4 breast cancer inspired me to write an ode to ultralight gear (Bringing Down the Weight). During the spring of 2015, I probably dropped over $1000 as I collected the sort of equipment that would allow an older woman to backpack in, well… more comfort. That summer I spent a fabulous week on the John Muir Trail backpacking with friends. It wasn’t long before I had another trip in the works, this one focused on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. Unbeknown to me, however, a tumor was growing in my left breast. 

Breast cancer treatment threw my life into a tailspin. During those moments when my body felt the weakest, I wondered if I’d ever use any of that expensive gear again. This thought really got to me. It niggled at me. It made me wonder, “Why me?” “What a waste!”

Ringing the "I'm done!" bell in the radiation oncology unit at UCSD Medical.

Fortunately, most of my strength returned after I rang that final bell in the radiation oncology unit. Over time, I began working out again, hiking even. I got in a couple of car camping trips. Then last summer I committed to backpacking for the first time since treatment, a three-night trek along the Lost Coast in California. Yet when the trip fell through because we were all too busy, I actually felt relieved. I also felt guilty over not unpacking that wonderful equipment. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure where all this gear was. I hadn’t touched it in touched in four years.

Entrance to Mission Creek Preserve

Not long after I bailed on the Lost Coast trip, my friend, Pam Kersey, badgered me into taking a class she co-teaches with Robin Balch through the Desert Institute at Joshua Tree National Park: Beginning Backpacking for Women in Mission Creek Preserve. Though I’m not really a beginner, I said yes, thinking I could have some quality time with Pam and some other interesting women. I did spend quality time with these said women, but I also discovered a few things.

First of all, enrollment in this class forced me to track down all the essentials. I found myself hauling my backpack to REI, so they could remind me how it all fit together. I fingered my Big Agnes tent, wondering if I would remember how to set it up. Did my Jetboil stove still work? Did I need a bear canister? (Bear warnings came with the informational literature supplied by the Desert Institute.) Finally, though I had my SteriPen handy, we weren’t guaranteed a water supply out there. When it came time to hit the trail, I saddled up with more than four liters of water in my backpack, pondering one final question: how would I do carrying 41 pounds?

The trip proved to be gentle in some respects. The actual backpacking portion was only an overnight, though we did camp the night before. This gave us a chance to go over our gear, try things out, and discuss what should actually go with us–what should be left behind. Once we started walking, packs and all, we had a tentative goal of covering five miles. Tentative was the word. Robin insisted from the get-go, we would do what made sense for the group. 

The day proved to be pretty warm, yet I felt capable. As I hiked, emotions spiked more than once. I wasn’t wasting my gear any longer. Maybe backpacking would become a regular activity for me. I mulled over that earlier Lost Coast possibility. “Maybe next summer.”

Scenery in the desert

Sometime later, a few people began overheating, so we decided to stop at three miles and set up camp. When our cheerful tents finally dotted the dry landscape alongside an arroyo bed – ten of them – we moved into some additional hiking sans backpack through some striking territory.

I’m proud to say I probably could have completed the original five miles with my pack. Still, I felt pretty rusty with the nitty-gritty things. For example, I had to bond with my Jetboil all over again–I’d forgotten the easiest way to light it. My expensive ultralight pillow developed a fatal leak. I worried about making some terrible error having to do with a snake or a bear. In the thick of things, it occurred to me the beginner’s label was “just right.” 

Feeling strong

That said, I was thrilled when Pam came up to me toward the end of the trip to say, “It’s great to see you looking so strong.” I forgot to mention, Pam is a former oncology nurse. She saw me through my darkest hours on my breast cancer slog, so she had a benchmark. Now I can proudly note I’m a beginning backpacker. This isn’t to say I’m not planning something that will take a few more nights, a few more miles.