Trust your style, trust yourself. Hike your hike.
—Carol Crooker, Backpackinglight.com forum
Instead of asking yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
Central Issues Addressed in This Article
Which of the multitude of styles and ways of being in the backcountry excite you the most? Where do your passions lie for the backcountry? What new style(s) or way(s) of being might capture both your imagination and stretch your comfort zone? Are there any styles of backcountry travel that are inappropriate, should be illegal or are morally wrong?
An Abundance of Backcountry Styles
Much to my amazement, I have identified more than 80 styles of travel (ways of relating, modes of being) in the backcountry. The 80+ styles listed below are mostly self-explanatory, especially when listed next to a contrasting style. After reviewing this list, you will be asked to acknowledge your preferred style(s). Ready or not, let's take a trip into this amazingly diverse land of backcountry travel.
Fair weather hiker
Three-season, good-weather hiker
All-season, all-weather hiker
Casual and occasional hiker
Social hiker (bonding with others with similar interests)
Group hiking; member of hiking organizations
Solo hiker; solitude seeker
Trip organizer; group leader
Youth mentor; Boy or Girl Scout leader
Family oriented hiker and backpacker
Immersion hiking (out most weekends or for long periods)
Itinerant hiker (lives full time out on the trail)
Slumming and bumming in backcountry
Lowest cost backpacking
Lightweight and ultralight backpacking
Extreme ultralight (minimalist) backpacking
Fastpacker (speed hiking; high mileage hiking)
Slackpacker, slow walker (anti-fastpacker; anti-backpacking)
Packless trail running supported by friends
Long-distance, supported, resupplied thru-hiker
Roadless and unsupported distance hiker
Section-hiker on long-distance trails
Bikepacker (combining backpacking and mountain biking)
Packrafter (combining backpacking and rafting)
Commercially supported backpacking
Horse, mule or llama packer
Spot packing (packer drops gear off in backcountry)
Heli-hiking (hike down to trailhead from drop off point)
Equitrekking (backcountry travel on horseback)
Expedition assistant; porter; camp tender
Base camping with many comforts
Alpine loafing (staying in one place for several days)
Camp cooking and feasting
Backcountry gourmet chef
Identifying and eating wild foods
Hunter of wild animals
Wildlife lover and observer
Trail maintainer; trail crew
Off-trail primitive hiking and camping
Map and compass traveler; orienteering
Off-trail routes and traverses
Rogaining (team sport involving long distance, cross country navigation)
Wanderer, explorer, adventurer
Explorer of unmapped and unknown places
Hot springs and waterfalls explorer
Adventure trekker to foreign countries
Barefoot or soft-soled moccasin hiker
Nude or nearly nude hiker
Alpinist; climber; mountaineer; peak bagger
Alpine scrambler; high country rambler
Search and rescue volunteer
Outdoor education specialist
National Park, Forest Service or BLM employee
Backcountry artist (e.g., photographer, painter, sketcher)
Biological scientist in the backcountry (e.g., biologist, zoologist, botanist)
Physical scientist in the backcountry (e.g., geologist, glaciologist)
High lakes fisherman
Wild river runner; white water kayaker
Cross-country skier or snowshoer
Backcountry alpine skier, snowboarder, snowshoer
Telemark or randonnee skier
Extreme skier or snowboarder
Hi-pointer (climb to the highest points in all 50 states)
Climb the highest points (“seven summits”) on all continents
Abandoned trail researcher and preserver
Competition hiker (hiking further, faster, longer, lighter)
Trophy hiker (e.g., completed the “triple crown” — Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail)
Record holder; world-class competitor
Historical reenactments (e.g., “19th Century mountain man”)
Nature writer and commentator
Hiking-oriented author and writer
Wilderness writer, poet, philosopher
Homeless nomad in wilderness with few material possessions
Religious or spiritual seeker in wilderness
Urban (metro) hiking
Rural (para-wilderness) hiking
Gear and gadget addict; state-of-the-art packing
Gear expert; gear tester
Flashpacker (lots of electronic toys)
Gear experimenter, inventor, innovator
Manufacturer of quality outdoor gear
Outdoor recreation promoter; lobbyist
Small-scale “cottage” gear maker
Such diversity and so many different ways of being in the backcountry! Three hurrahs for the privilege of living in a country that allows and encourages such!
[Note: I am grateful to the late Harvey Manning (Backpacking: One Step at a Time, 4th edition, pages 92-93) for his suggestion to define your own style of backpacking especially before beginning to collect a lot of gear. With his trademark acerbic humor, Manning uses phrases like “fancy packer,” “Neanderthal packers,” “tech-man,” “minimum packers,” and “state-of-the-art packing” to define various styles.]
Why are so many styles practiced? I have no real answer except to speculate that it must be tied to several complex forces operating in contemporary culture (e.g., high value placed on the individual and individual freedom, discretionary income, countercultural influences, advertising and media influences). When it becomes possible, it will likely happen.
Additional Issues for Reflection
Here are several additional issues for your consideration. These issues are only stated, but not explored, in this article.
1. Is the act of labeling different styles (as in this article) a positive and constructive exercise? Should I think of myself as following clearly labeled styles?
2. What criteria should I use to decide which styles to follow? Those that are the most fun? Those I can afford? Those that are most comfortable? Those with which my friends and loved ones feel most comfortable? Those that push me out of my comfort zone? Those that consistently provide new challenges?
3. Do I practice my chosen styles in a competitive manner? Is competition in outdoor recreation a good or bad thing?
4. Am I an achievement and goal oriented person when in the backcountry? Or can I be quite satisfied, at least at times, with just being in the backcountry without any real goals to achieve?
5. Are some of my preferred styles superior to other styles? If some are superior, what criteria have I used to make this judgment? Are those styles that focus on giving back to others superior? Those that emphasize being independent and self-sufficient? Those that use a minimum of the world's resources or have minimum impact on the Earth?
Hikers are often eclectic in practicing many different styles, sometimes focusing on multiple styles during a single trip. Some styles focus on competition and achievement; others on getting away from goals and achievements. Some see their style(s) as part of an integrated philosophy of life, encompassing both the front and backcountry. What is your overall focus?
Reader Participation: Acknowledging Personal Styles
One purpose of this article is to assist you in seeing a bigger picture and acknowledging that humans are complex creatures, living diverse and fascinating lives. But the primary purpose in listing these 80+ styles, however, is to encourage you to think deeply about your own style(s) of backcountry travel. To think more deeply, consider the following exercises.
1. Circle those styles with which you have some experience (don’t hesitate to rephrase some of them in your own words).
2. Mark through the styles of backcountry travel you think are totally inappropriate for you, should be made illegal or are morally wrong for some reason.
3. Go back over the list and indicate those styles that interest you enough for research and future experimentation.
4. Write down the unique behaviors, skills, values and attitudes that define your highest priority style(s).
Right and Wrong Styles and Ways of Being
With only a few exceptions (e.g., human predators, polluters, smugglers, arsonists, those leaving much evidence of their travels behind them), there is no right or wrong way of being in the backcountry, only different preferences and styles.
Even though there are generally no right or wrong styles, it is desirable to become as proficient as time, money and energy permit in a few chosen styles rather than superficially trying to experience a whole bunch. Becoming proficient in a particular style means acquiring the appropriate equipment and developing the requisite skills, knowledge and attitudes. I encourage you to take your chosen style(s), whatever they are, to ever higher levels of skill, understanding and excellence. More succinctly, I encourage you to raise your level of passion. As Zig Ziglar, American author and motivational speaker, says "It is only when you are growing in something that is important to you that you feel alive and in touch with your world. Remember that excellence is not a destination, but a life long journey."
Decisions About Backcountry Styles
I suspect that most outdoors people just “fall into” their styles after satisfying experiences rather than consciously choosing them after researching and experiencing many alternatives. For myself, I “fell into” my primary styles (e.g., lightweight backpacking, mountaineering, alpine scrambling, high lake fishing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing) after many pleasurable experiences. I did not use a conscious decision process. Consider rationally choosing your styles from an understanding of the many options, opportunities, limitations, etc. Do as I say, not as I have done (though I have no regrets over my choices). Having said this, I acknowledge that many experienced hikers have already gone through some sort of process in choosing their styles and are not about to make any real changes.
A conscious decision process, such as I am recommending, is somewhat like making a marriage commitment after going with the flow of a developing relationship. A marriage commitment, following a careful decision process, will often result in the relationship moving to a higher level. The same is true with committing to a specific style of being in the backcountry. A careful decision process with an attendant commitment could easily move your chosen backcountry style(s) to higher levels.