Outdoors/Adventure

Backpacking in the Arctic would be so much more delightful if it didn’t involve packing

A few years ago I went on a guided trip to the Arctic. The morning of our flight, I showed up at the airport to join five others making the trip and what immediately struck me was the size of my bag.

My fear was confirmed when we each hefted our backpack onto a scale, one at a time, so the crew could figure out how best to load the small plane.

Mine weighed 10 pounds more than anyone else’s, excluding the guides. Of course, I had a little audience for the weigh-in and I saw them take in the information about my heavy backpack and subtly size me up at the same time. Was I up to hefting this behemoth around in the Arctic? Would I hold everyone back?

What was in there, anyway? Was I a novice at this?

I made some kind of a weak joke about my snack stash and pulled my bag off the scale.

The truth is, what was in my bag was generally pretty normal. It was a heavier, older backpack. I didn’t have a fancy lightweight tent. But the clincher was, I’d printed out a long article I’d always wanted to read about the Arctic. I figured I’d pass it around and then maybe burn the pages as I finished them. But when I hit “print” I forgot to select the double-sided setting. What should have been a 50-page printout was 100 pages.

I remember gazing down at the thick stack of paper and thinking seriously about recycling it. But I couldn’t square the idea of taking this wilderness trip and this piece of writing espousing the virtues of the place I was going while also needlessly slaughtering yet another tree due to my careless existence.

I found a large binder clip and stuffed the document into my backpack. It’ll be good for me, I thought grimly. And, I should remember to auto-select double sided on my printer.

Now, I’m getting ready for another Arctic trip. This one isn’t guided.

I’ve been thinking about my packing strategy, and slowly implementing it. This time, there’s no long document I’ve been meaning to read, so that part is easy.

Instead, there’s just the usual gaping, endless hole of what-ifs as I think about packing all I need for 10 days onto my shoulders.

I am usually surrounded by a house that more or less supplies my needs, supplemented with weekly re-ups at the grocery, hardware or automotive store. In the Arctic there are no such stores. If I’m out of my weekly medication, or if it falls into the river, that’s that.

As someone who seems to generally have her act together (even if it’s basically held together by a web of dental floss and my Google Calendar), I think I come off as a born planner.

My weeks are booked out; I carefully think about logistics. I have a list going at any given time with check boxes next to my to-do’s so I can have the satisfaction of checking them off.

The truth is, I have all of this going because let me tell you, it is a junkshow in my head. That’s a less polite way of saying chaotic. My brain doesn’t think in bullet points, clauses or in any other logical fashion.

I get really, really scared about preparing for something like an Arctic trip. It’s not the kind of thing I can just wing. I wouldn’t want to, because I’d find myself pretty much literally up a creek without a paddle. That’s a pretty straightforward way to die, especially in Alaska.

So my packing strategy is as onerous and meticulous as the rest of my carefully constructed house-of-cards life. And, it starts really early.

One of the mistakes I always make early in the packing process is conveniently forgetting about the state of my gear. I superimpose positive experiences I’ve had outdoors and imagine that surely I have exactly the right assemblage of things to make that happen again.

The truth is, that backpack is still old and heavy. My old sleeping bag is losing loft and warmth, and I still don’t own a sleeping bag liner for some reason. I can choose between a lightweight plastic spoon for all of my meals with or the heavy metal spork, but I don’t have a middle option.

And, my tent. Oh, my tent. It’s old (are you sensing a theme here?), heavy, 2-person, 3-season and unspectacular. It’s really not the best option for schlepping around the backcountry when it comes to warmth, weight and, after 15 years, waterproofing.

I find myself in the daunting position of staring down the mountain of my aging, heavy gear and thinking about where to start. Typically, it starts with prioritizing and treating myself to one replacement (for this trip, it was the sleeping bag). And from there, I figure out what I can beg off friends for loans. Enter: my borrowed backpack, sleeping bag liner, several dry bags and so much more.

Then starts the real list. On the same yellow note pad where I keep the groceries and work to-do’s, I start my pack list. This is the Master List. This is the final thing I’ll double check before I am out the door.

About a week before the trip, I start assembling things in the corner in a pile. Again, maybe you assume this is because I have my act together, but I assure you it starts this early because I am exactly the opposite.

The neuroses quickly start piling up.

Maybe I’m running and considering the weather, and my mind punches me with a “you could try consolidating those two containers into one to save space! Remember to do that!”

Or maybe I’m falling asleep and I think about how it would be really nice to pack Stroopwaffles for a fun, interesting snack versus the Fig Newtons that are already crumbling apart in the bottom of my bear barrel.

Somehow, at the very end, I trust that it will all come together. Along the way, I remind myself that thing I brought to the Arctic the last time was actually a pretty great read. The others enjoyed it too. I kept up the pace with everyone just fine despite carrying some extra weight, because my body is in good shape.

This trip will be worth all of the effort and stress, because it means 10 full days in the Arctic with only that backpack and everything in it. I trust I’ll survive the adventure and forget all about the onerous packing process when I plan the next one.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.

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