By: Christian Sarna
This weekend I took a trip to Crowder State Park in Trenton, Missouri, for a beginning backpacking class. We traipsed through mud and scampered over streams for a few hours before settling into camp. Though the class was small with less than 15 people, there were clear divisions in wilderness preparedness and physical stamina levels. A few male students took the lead, looking for opportunities to bushwhack any twig that crossed our path. With them was our instructor, Brett Gerling, and some female students of equal stamina with notably less giddiness about using knives.
Following by about 10 yards was me, snapping pictures of every suspicious piece of moss and usually one or two other students. Twenty yards behind us were our three slowest students, an unenviable position that still finished strong and covered in mud like the rest of us. We stopped at intervals to allow everyone to catch up and shed another layer of clothing in the muggy, 70 degree heat. I was only wearing a hoodie and a tee-shirt, so I ran out of options pretty early.
We got back to camp and set up tents ranging from coffin-size to full family. Some students went for minimalism and used hammocks. I set up a $25 Walmart tent that definitely wasn’t waterproof but luckily didn’t need to be. A modest fire was built, and we began to roast whatever we had in our bags and cars, which ended up being peanut butter crackers, banana bread LÄRABARs, beef jerky and s’mores flavored Pop Tarts. Everyone kind of thought someone else was bringing s’mores. The trip was all good fun and a welcome break, but it brought out uncomfortable attitudes from some – probably well-meaning – outdoor enthusiasts.
While I didn’t witness any outright rudeness to anyone’s face, it wasn’t uncommon to hear comments from pros looking forward to laughing at the ineptness of the novices. Whether it was setting up the tents or packing the bags, you knew at least one person in the group was watching you and praying you’d do something stupid.
We had several self-identified scouts and outdoorsmen in the group. They made it well known that this wasn’t their first rodeo despite being in a class literally titled “Beginning Backpacking.” By the time it reached nightfall, everyone except the outdoorsiest of backpackers went to bed at 7:30 p.m., partially because they were tired of watching the strange flex of men eating MREs three hours after leaving civilization.
I’m not angry at these people, and I don’t think they were necessarily doing anything bad, but it brought to the surface some feelings I had forgotten about camping. While many people just don’t like existing in nature, another portion of the population is interested but feels completely out of their bounds. Outdoor recreation often has an established culture where people are shamed or laughed at for not knowing how to tie a knot or get a fire started. I would be a shill if I didn’t acknowledge that a lot of this dismissive behavior usually comes from men who feel like they have something to prove.
The woods are no place to exclude people or make them feel small. There’s room around the campfire for first-time hikers as well as master scouts, transgender and gender-nonconforming backpackers and our friends with differing abilities. There’s no race to the top and backpackers who don’t stop to let their trailmates catch up will reach the end of the trail alone.
Shaming someone for being a novice at outdoor activities is a great way to make someone never want to go camping again. At the end of the day, you can’t teach a man to fish if you laugh at him when he casts his rod.