The Things They Carried

(And Wished They Hadn’t)

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On my recent two-week solo backpacking excursion on the Appalachian Trail, I asked one survey question to 67 people with whom I crossed paths: “What’s the least practical thing you’re carrying?”

Five backpackers wished they hadn’t brought towels. Six people named a book as their least practical item. Twelve of the survey responses were related to electronics. Four backpackers admitted to carrying alcohol, two said they brought candy, and one said tobacco. Four said the A.T. was more shaded than they expected, so they regretted bringing sunglasses or sunscreen. Once, I got the same answer from two people for opposite reasons: a sleeping pad too big and one too thin.

Some people described items I considered completely necessary for myself—such as tent (two people named this), sleeping bag, bear spray, and water bladder. And of course several people named objects I found laughably absurd, such as a big glass jar of jam, a two-pound wax pirate, a large makeup bag, a razor with shaving gel, and heavy foods like non-dehydrated salsa, almond milk, pickles, and applesauce (all four of these food items were carried by one person).

Very few of the answers were sentimental: a few people, like me, carried a notebook or a journal, but only one woman described a gift from a family member. This woman, who called herself “Meemaw Bobbie,” carried a stuffed owl toy her granddaughter gave her. In parallel, my least practical item was a watercolor painting and letter from my sister.

Like Henry David Thoreau, we go to the woods because we wish to live deliberately. Backpacking represents maximum simplicity in a time when life is often overwhelmingly complex. My survey was perfectly suited for the Appalachian Trail because backpacking makes you think about what’s really, truly important to keep with you—knowing that each item has a price in weight. In a world of disposable everything and a constant push for more-more-more, backpacking stands out as a unique opportunity to distill your life into what’s essential.

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