When deciding what to bring backpacking, it’s easy to underestimate the price you pay for a pound. On paper, a solar charger, portable speaker or pocket knife may seem like necessities. Once you start hiking over a pass or lugging these items for longer than a couple of days, they will likely weigh on your body and mind. For this reason, you’ll aways find an assortment of unnecessary, heavy knick-knacks in the hiker box at the start of any long trail.
One item that many hikers shouldn’t leave behind, however, is a good book. Good books are heavy, but like beef jerky their dense, meaty nourishment can help in times of loneliness, boredom or when you’re plain sick of hiking.
As most thru-hikers will tell you, the hardest part of completing a long trip is finding the mental fortitude. Your legs get stronger and blisters turn to calluses, but homesickness often lingers through the entirety of a trip, bubbling to the surface on taxing days.
Why take books on your next backpacking trip?
Books provide the perfect escape from the trail on zero days or when you’re waiting out a thunderstorm. Many people struggle to devote time to read in their everyday lives. On the trail, there are fewer distractions. Reading in the wilderness is often quieter. It’s as simple as picking a tree and sitting down.
It just so happens that many of the greatest stories feature epic journeys. Instead of dreaming about Christopher McCandles’ journey into the wild while stuck at work, or reading The Odyssey, in high school english class—when all you really want to think about are Mediterranean beaches—you are living the journey. Sure it’s cheesy, but who cares.
Stories have provided humanity sustenance for centuries. When you hit a low point, a good book might prove more effective at replenishing your morale than re-listening to your same playlists or loading your Smart Water bottle with double shots of Mio Energy just to get out of your sleeping bag.
Other hikers worry about when they finish a book. Some like to tear pages out as they go. They lighten their load. While tearing pages can make great kindling and might feel naughty, books are too valuable a trail currency to waste. Once you finish a story, it’s easy to trade your book for your next read or leave it for other hikers and earn some trail karma.
Paper books vs e-readers when backpacking
The first thought many hikers have is to use a Nook, iPad or Kindle. After all, you can carry boatloads of books at the same time. I discourage hikers from going this route, not because I’m a Puritan, but because it’s impractical. The need to carry extra batteries or cords to charge your device eats away at the initial weight savings tablets provide. It’s too easy for rain to soak your device, sand to corrode its charging port, freezing temps to lessen its battery or to crack the screen on a rock. The technology behind paper books is far more advanced for reading outside. Instead of spending money on a new device or subscription, invest in cheap, used paperbacks. Used books are easily available online, but spending an afternoon perusing your local used bookstore will likely be more fun.
Used book stores
If you’re in Colorado here are a few places to try:
Capitol Hill Bookstore 300 E Colfax Ave, Denver, CO
4620 E 23rd Ave, Denver, CO
12 E Bijou St, Colorado Springs, CO 80903
3918 Maizeland Rd, Colorado Springs, CO, 80909
Book Lover’s Emporium 2925 S College Ave #8, Fort Collins, CO 80525
What to read while backpacking?
The idea or reading Whitman or Thoreau while in the wilderness may sound appealing, but make sure you’ll actually read it. At the end of a long day, I would much prefer a beach read to a textbook. There’s no shame in John Grisham or guilty-pleasure romance novels.
Like when traveling, I love to find books for backpacking trips that take place in, or relate to, my destination. Here are some of my favorite books that unfold in the West.
Best books about the West to read when backpacking
The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols
John Nichols tells the story of a water-rights revolution in rural New Mexico. José Mondragon and a hilarious cast of characters become unlikely protagonists. Nichols provides detailed backstories for every person in the complex web of his story. The book is full of underdogs and magical realism.
Rain of Gold by Victor Villaseñor
Rain of Gold is a vivid family history about two families from Mexico and their paths coming to the United States. The family histories intersect as the bootlegger son of one family chases after the smart and gorgeous daughter of the other family, Lupe. The story begins in a box-canyon in Mexico but takes place across the west in Montana and Los Angeles.
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
Perhaps I like this novel so much because I’m partially named after its author. Cormac McCarthy’s descriptions of the West and young cowboys, who go days without eating, will make you thankful for the comforts of civilization.
The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Save America by Timothy Egan
Timothy Egan combines history with novel-like storytelling in his wonderful story of the Great Fire of 1910, which roared across Western Montana and Idaho. The peculiar Forest Service pioneer, Gifford Pinchot and President Teddy Roosevelt are central characters. This book is a page turning account of disaster and how certain leaders managed to conserve so much land in the West, even as industry tycoons pushed fiercely against conservation.
Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty edited by W. L. Rusho
This collection of letters, journal entries, photographs, and art tells the story of Everett Ruess. In the midst of the Great Depression, teenager, Everett Ruess, set out to witness and capture the beauty of the high desert of the southwest. Alone with his burro, Ruess’ history of the Southwest and its inhabitants is a fascinating tale of forgoing comfort to pursue passion.
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
Edward Abbey’s chronicle of his time working and living in the Utah desert is quite famous. He provides many wonderful landscape descriptions and vivid characters. Reading his narrative and arguments for public lands will make you rethink conservation.
Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner
|“The Creation of Sam McGee”
By Robert Service
“There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee…”
If you’re looking for non-fiction, Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert is the bible when it comes to understanding water in the West. Reisner traces the history of the Colorado River, its development and why it’s one of the hottest issues in the region.
“The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service
Every year, my aunt, who once lived in Skagway, Alaska read aloud the poem “The Creation of Sam McGee.” This short story is fun to read around the campfire on a cold night and will make you eager to climb into your sleeping bag. Read the start of the poem in the box to the right.
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