At some point in the middle of the night, I decide that there’s a very real possibility that I’m going to lose at least one of my toes. Maybe more. That’s what happens with extreme cases of frostbite, after all. The wind is howling through the tent, there’s 14 inches of snow on the ground outside with more falling, and I’m wearing every piece of clothing I have to keep warm. The last time we checked, the temperature was hovering at a balmy 5 degrees. Beautiful night to go backpacking, right?
Most of my body is warm, but my toes are 10 tiny icebergs. I envision the moment tomorrow when I finally peel off my socks to reveal 10 dead, black digits. You hear about this sort of thing happening to climbers on Everest, or lost hikers in Alaska, but I’m camping on the edge of the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina. Not 20 miles from the nearest Waffle House. To lose a toe to frostbite here would just be embarrassing.
And yet, a severe case of frostbite is exactly what I expect from one of my backpacking trips. Regardless of how well I plan, inevitably, something goes terribly wrong every time I spend the night in the woods. The near-disasters are so reliable, that they’ve become almost comforting in a way. Like how you know your mother’s cooking is terrible, but you love it anyway because it tastes like home.
There’s a common saying among travelers, that if you’re comfortable and having a good time, you’re not traveling. You’re vacationing. I have a similar philosophy for backpacking. If it’s going well, you’re not backpacking. I’ve spent countless nights tucked into a tent in the woods, far from civilization, but I only remember half a dozen backpacking trips, each of which was painful, scary, or painfully scary.
There’s the time we had to make a dozen knee-high water crossings in the middle of the night…in the dead of winter…barefoot…because we forgot our water shoes. There’s the time I spent the night clutching a fold-up axe listening to an all-night revelry of bullets, screams, and laughter. Apparently, we chose a campsite about 100 yards upslope from the premier party spot for the toothless set. Then there’s the time we chose the absolute driest ridgeline in the Southern Appalachians for our multi-day trek and had to sip hot Dr. Pepper and rum to stay hydrated. Not even a puddle along this trail! The time I chose an old meth lab site for our campsite and was asked to move in the middle of the night by rangers was memorable. The time we almost got lost 50 yards from our car because the combination of heavy snow and high winds formed whiteout conditions during a night hike that was only exacerbated by our headlamps. I could go on.