Why Go Into the Wilderness? - A Cacophony of Voices Merge Into a Grand Symphony


Second Movement: Familiar and Recurrent Themes—Thumbnail Sketches

In researching this subject, it quickly became clear that humans have many different reasons for going into the high country/back country. However, they also have a lot in common. In this second movement of our symphony, I attempt to capture the more familiar and recurring themes. Even though there is no way to fully capture the different perspectives in words, these sketches should provide some tantalizing hints.

The conductor is back on stage and ready for the second movement of this symphony. Let’s tune in.

Indescribable Beauty: I go to the high country for the sheer beauty. Seldom are cameras able to capture what I see and feel there. Sometimes it is being overwhelmed by the scope and ruggedness of the mountain ranges. Sometimes it is a particular place or a special moment. More often it is the overwhelming beauty of the whole scene.  Sometimes it is a stark and austere beauty that seems foreboding and unfriendly. This motivation is expressed in a quote an unknown author, “The quality of life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”

Titillation of the Senses: Besides the visual beauty of the high mountains, there are the more subtle titillations of other senses: the smell of fresh air, the taste of pure untreated water, the musty smell of rotting and fermenting plants, the sweet smell of wild strawberries, the sounds of water bubbling and crashing over rocks, the wind in the trees, the buzz of the insects. Sometimes my senses get overwhelmed. Sometimes my emotions get overwhelmed as well. With some solitude and silence, the immediacy of my experiences comes in loud and clear. Buck Tilton (Trekker’s Handbook, page 9) expresses this motivation in the following way: “The goal is to be here and now, and here and now is the only place I am. To trek, for me, has come to be synonymous with living [in the here and now]—and there is my motivation.”

Wilderness Experiences: I go into the backcountry for quality wilderness experiences, to get in touch with nature up close and personal. Put in a negative way, I go to get away from civilization and the hassles of everyday life for a while. I thrive where there are few rules, regulations or restrictions except those provided by Mother Nature. But what really is a quality “wilderness experience”? There turn out to be many answers on this question, answers that are explored in detail in the article titled, “What are true wilderness experiences?” One unique expression of this motivation is the following: “You feel a connection to Mother Earth. Call it nature; call it relaxation. You simply feel at home. Kinda funny when you think about it, because it is wilderness and wild. We feel free there. Home.” (article "Call of the Wild" by an unknown author)

[Plus 30 more reasons and motivations for going into the wilderness (with extensive supporting quotations) in the complete article.]


 The above paragraphs provide a preview of the complete article (approximately 23 pages) available as a free download.  Click on the following to download in either a Microsoft Word or PDF format.

Why go into the wilderness?—A Cacophony of Voices Merge Into A Grand Symphony – Word Format 

Why go into the wilderness?—A Cacophony of Voices Merge Into A Grand Symphony – PDF Format

The sub-topics listed below are developed in this complete article:


First Movement: Tongue-in-Cheek Motivations

Second Movement: Familiar and Recurrent Themes

Third Movement: Highly Philosophical Motivations

Reader Participation: Priority Motivations and Reasons

Final Thoughts

Additional Issues for Reflection

I’m content not to fully comprehend the joy I find in the wilderness; to try would be a fruitless task, like chasing the end of a rainbow; and the goal, if ever realized, would only disappoint.

      —Chris Townsend, The Backpacker’s Handbook, page 2

"Perhaps it does not matter much the why at the start of the trip, but it will matter at the end. And then you can sit contemplatively and answer for yourself."

      —Buck Tilton, Trekker’s Handbook: Strategies
To Enhance Your Journey
, page 9

Philosophical Questions Addressed in This Article

Probably the most philosophical question that can be asked related to hiking and backpacking is that of “Why?” Why go into the wilderness (mountains, high country,  backcountry)? Why expend the extra effort to get off the trails and onto the high ridges and summits?

Even more philosophical are these phrasings of the same basic question: What kinds of meanings do you give to your experiences in wilderness? What motivations underlie your passions for hiking and backpacking? What subconscious drives might be operating in choosing this form of recreation? 


I have no intention of looking for universal answers to these questions that might be true for everyone. In fact, it is just the opposite. As you will see, there is much diversity, individuality and variety. In this article, there are pages and pages of different answers—enough to make one’s head swim. Hence, the title phrase, “A Cacophony of Voices” in the title.

But also consider that what first appears as a cacophony of voices and disconnected answers and motivations can easily be seen as a movement toward one harmonious chorus of feeling: a true joy and passion for hiking and backpacking. This feeling would be obvious if we were to meet the speakers (“philosophers” might be a better term in most cases) in person. Hence, the other half of the title, “Merge Into a Grand Symphony.” Let’s begin listening to the multitude of voices expressing their motivations: a symphony in three movements.

First Movement: Tongue-in-Cheek Motivations

The conductor of this symphony has come on stage. The applause dies down. Let’s tune in to the first movement—a lighthearted and mostly playful piece.

  • Build roaring fires and drink lots of booze.
  • Track down and kill the wildlife.
  • Practice my survivalist skills.
  • Show Mother Nature who is boss.
  • Have great stories to tell my kids and grandkids.
  • Provide memories for my old age.
  • Jump-start my physical conditioning program.
  • Eat what I want, when I want and not gain weight.
  • Justify my craving for that big, greasy meal on the way home.
  • Prove that I can still keep up with the young bucks.
  • Prove that I am the biggest and baddest of hikers.
  • Prove that I am superior by hiking the most miles, climbing the most summits, carrying the biggest loads, and so on.
  • Get a good night’s sleep.
  • Cell phone coverage sucks out there and there is no Internet servicee.
  • Sort out my crazy and mixed up life.
  • Get away from family members.
  • Impress my girlfriend or boyfriend.
  • Impress my friends and family.