Uncommon Challenge: Go Backpacking Out Your Front Door


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As long as you’re carrying your belongings on your back, does it matter where you go? Our writer heads out for a long walk without leaving Seattle to find out.

July 28, 2019, mile 8.92: I am inside my tent’s vestibule in the front yard of my ex-roommate’s single-story, beige house in the semi-industrial part of Seattle called Georgetown. The thin tent fly separates me from the morning chill, though it does little to drown out the sound of cars flying up the on-ramp to I-90, just 200 feet away. I am squatting, awkwardly (though there’s no other way), trying to aim my pee away from my feet and my now-empty pack without sticking my bare bum into the view of the neighbors. My dog, who has her nose nearly against mine, seems perplexed.

This is new for both of us. The only places I used to pee in Seattle were bathrooms. But two weeks ago, I read in Merriam-Webster, my favorite dictionary, that a hike is “a long walk especially for pleasure or exercise.” Where a hike happens is not included in the definition. And, on that technicality, my editor sent me off on this Uncommon Challenge: to backpack without leaving my home city of Seattle.

4:30pm, mile 0: I am ready for my adventure, with dreams of amusing interactions with passersby, romantic sunsets brightening red-brick buildings and plenty of bonding time with my pup, River. I’m an experienced hiker with thousands of miles under my feet, but still, I’m not quite sure what to expect. 

During my 2015 thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), I experienced a few road walks when still-smoldering wildfires shut down parts of the 2,650-mile-long path. Those miles were tough, as soft shoulders were hard to come by and pounding the pavement made my knees sore. Not long into my thru-hike, I gave up on the road walks and opted to hitch rides whenever I hit asphalt.

Yet here I am, committed to giving pavement another shot at love. My tent is stashed at the bottom of my pack, sleeping bag stuffed haphazardly above and leftover pesto pasta perched at the very top (and I even remember my fork). I dash inside to use the toilet one last time, grab my trekking poles and dog bowl out of my car (where they live, ready for last-minute adventures not quite like this), and snap a selfie. 

5:01pm, mile 1.03: My less adventurous friends and acquaintances often ask me if I’m afraid of wildlife in “the great outdoors.” In fact, once, my partner, wide-eyed in the same tent I will pee next to tomorrow morning, asked me about cougars. They stalk you without your knowledge, I explained, to my partner’s ever-growing horror. “Since I’m not going to see it coming, I’m not that nervous,” I had said.

I recall that conversation today when I tick off my first wildlife sighting. It’s not a mountain lion, which would be deeply worrisome in city bounds, but a round ball of fluff hopping into the bushes right after a bus whips around the corner, jumping the curb and blowing a shot of musty air into my face. The bunny is a savvy city dweller, and I envy its reflexes. Between rogue buses and perilous road crossings, city backpacking seems to require fast-twitch muscles and spatial awareness more than any wilderness hiking I’ve ever done.

5:12pm, mile 1.24: Not long after my first brush with wildlife (and traffic), I have another first for my hike: a whiff of weed (it’s legal for recreational use in Seattle). While PCT thru-hikers are known to partake, the sage-filled desert breezes of Southern California and fern-packed, old-growth forests of Washington disperse the scent quickly. That’s not the case here, where the smell lingers well beyond my passing through the potent cloud.

I wander along the shore of Lake Washington, the second-largest natural pool in the state, and ancestral homeland of the Duwamish people. I have chosen to make my way from my cheery, garden-enshrined home near the Central District to my old place, where my former roommate still lives, via a sidewalk along the edge of the lake. The 9-mile route would take me 20 minutes by car, but I set aside five and a half hours to do it on foot. When I’m not beholden to Seattle’s main veins, I can thread together quieter roads, bike paths and even park trails that offer a better picture of my city. Less than an hour into my hike, I’ve already noticed more about my neighborhood than I have in the past two years I’ve lived here. The disparity between the haves and have nots, for one, is glaringly apparent.

My backpacking route takes me past multimillion-dollar homes perched high on a hill overlooking Lake Washington to 300-acre Seward Park, home to an old-growth forest. Once I reach the park’s bounds, I veer right, heading west through Rainier Valley, America’s most diverse zip code, at least at the time of the last census. I pass tents scattered haphazardly amidst medians and empty lots. It reminds me that while I have the luxury of heading home after my night out, many in Seattle do not.

7:03pm, mile 5.66: I wait for the light outside a gas station in a part of town I never knew existed before now. I can almost taste the red flavor of the sports drink I so desperately want to buy. But I made a promise: This was to be like any other backpacking trip, which (usually) doesn’t involve stops at convenience stores. I press on sans colored sugar water.

9:03pm, mile 8.92: River and I pad across the patchy grass in the front yard of my old place. While I toss my pack down and get to work setting up my Big Agnes Copper Spur, River sprints in circles getting the last of her energy out, shrill barks escaping from her upturned face. As I snap the tent body to the cross poles, a text springs to life on my phone. It is the other person who lives in the house, asking if I am nervous to sleep in the yard, stating they would be. 

Not until this very moment, I think, as city monsters spring into my mind. Visions of gigantic rats, drunk neighbor vomit splashes and empty soda cans whizzing out of passing cars dance through my head. Dreamy.

After inflating my sleeping pad and River’s (although she will insist on sleeping on mine, while I will sleep straight on the lawn, which is better than, say, classic Sierra granite) and eating that pesto pasta (cold, but delicious), we crawl into our tent. Sleep comes quickly—and is disrupted just as fast. 

First it’s the sound of planes regularly rushing toward the airport, less than a mile from the house. Then it’s the physical sensation of a car breaking the speed of light while drag racing up a nearby three-lane street. Finally, it’s a creepy feeling on the back of my neck that a person is outside my tent. 

I wonder how effective ultralight trekking poles would be in a scrum. 

6:27am, mile 8.93: Of course, I never find out. I wake up at 6am, a little huffy at the thought of more miles of pavement, which my knees are already resistant to. All I want is to stop at a diner and get a pile of pancakes and an unlimited supply of coffee. But the temperature is perfect and the early light is ethereal. A bunny, sleek and brown, darts out of a tiny city garden and around the street corner, teasing River, who strains at her leash.

I am walking the streets I normally drive, and 20 mph sounds pretty nice right about now.

8:03am, mile 13.83: River and I arrive back at my house after taking a shorter path than yesterday. Though we’re road weary, there is, upon further thought, some elegance about a journey completely on foot (even if it is entirely on pavement). This is, after all, how all journeys once occurred, although most of mine have been accompanied by gentle birdsong, splinters of light streaming through green canopies and soft pine duff underfoot. 

I deposit River on her throne in the living room, drop my pack and head back out the door.

I usually walk the 0.4 mile to my local brunch spot, but there is no way I’m putting more pavement under my shoes, so I grab my keys. Joke’s on me, though, because finding parking takes just as long as walking would, and is certainly three times as frustrating.

But the pancakes and never-ending coffee are just as I imagined they would be.

Uncommon Challenge is a bimonthly column where we challenge each other to make unusual gear additions, subtractions and swaps. All challenges (and subsequent bouts of suffering) are voluntary and not recommended unless explicitly stated. Have an idea for a new Uncommon Challenge? Leave us a note in the comments.

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