“How to Suffer Outside” by Diana Helmuth is a backpacking guidebook jam-packed with advice and rich with anecdotes. By the author’s definition, “Backpacking is an eight-hour leg day that ends with no shower, a sunburn, and sleeping on the ground.” With the help of her book, you’ll learn how to layer your backpack, which fabric you want your clothing to be (and why it should never be denim), how to bandage your foot to avoid blisters and where to find the best trails for you. You’ll discover how to plan your route (by “Estimating How Much This Is Going to Hurt”), why you won’t be bringing deodorant even if you’re hiking with a romantic partner (“In the wilderness, at best, it’s a toy that costs precious ounces. At worst, it’s a chemically scented beacon for bugs and bears.”), how to use a topographical map (“looks like a regular map somebody doodled on while they were bored during math class”) and find extensive examples of the Leave No Trace rule. There is also an entire (very enlightening) chapter dedicated to pooping in the woods.
What makes this backpacking guidebook unique is its approachable, realistic and conversational tone. The introduction informs us that while there is no “right” way to backpack, this book will teach you the “probably good enough” way. I often found myself smiling and nodding at its pages, frequently chuckling. It’s a joy to read something so educational that is filled with so much humor! Even the footnotes and complementary illustrations are helpful and often provide cheerful inside-jokes for readers.
This is not an everything-guide; you will need to read other backpacking books. The author, Helmuth, regularly directs you to research issues of interest online or suggests resources on a topic she won’t cover in detail (preparation-heavy, diet-specific meals, for example, because Helmuth brings mostly boxed mac-and-cheese, Swedish fish and powdered mashed potatoes on her hiking trips). The advice offered in this book is so practical it’s almost shocking, which is honestly a relief and adds to its overarching sense of “Oh, I could actually do this!”
“How to Suffer Outside” is the literary equivalent of having read many serious informative texts, and then finding a fantastic YouTuber who films their real-life adventures — or having a long coffee date with a friend of a friend who has backpacked for years. You’ll learn the real stuff you need to know: which stores offer refunds even after you’ve worn or wrecked ill-fitting hiking boots, how much things should actually cost you and the true differences between water filtration systems — complete with numerous references to millennial culture.
I wasn’t sure how much I would glean from this book — I’m a disabled freelance writer of color who has several chronic illnesses, very little disposable income and no exercise routine to speak of — but I love being in nature (for short periods of time, at least) and learning more about what people do when they disappear “out there in the wilderness” intrigued me. Being stuck indoors after a year of lockdown absolutely contributed to my interest in perhaps taking up this new hobby.
When I think of backpacking, I think of young, wealthy, white students traveling for long periods of time and escaping the day-to-day reality with which I am familiar. I did not expect for the author to acknowledge and challenge this perception at all — and certainly not with such relatability, authenticity and wit. There were very real issues I wondered if she would explore: the financial barrier to entry, the whiteness of it all, the privilege of taking extended time off from work, the safety aspects of being a woman outdoors alone, the fact that people die out there! Helmuth addressed them all and even raised some I hadn’t considered: unlearning beauty standards away from society, dealing with the perplexing “culture shock” of coming back to civilization after an extended period in nature, seeing yourself in a mirror for the first time since you left for the wilderness. The author uses inclusive language like “all genders” and advises on hygiene protocols (lower your standards; use baby wipes and soaped-up bandanas) with a sensitivity that disabled readers will find completely relatable.
Early in the book, Helmuth provides a list of organizations to look up for connecting with backpackers of diverse ethnicities and races. There is an entire section titled “How to Hike with A Vagina” which provides details on menstruating outdoors and goes on to recognize troublesome aspects of backpacking for marginalized genders. While Helmuth specifically mentions risks known to cis and trans women, I would have liked more tips for managing them, as I still can’t see past my fears of the violent reality.
While acknowledging her whiteness, lack of disability, mortgage or kids, the author clarifies that she writes from the perspective of someone who has “never been skinny” and “grew up kind of poor.” A consistent message throughout is that there is no reason to spend money on everything. Helmuth always makes a point to recommend that you borrow gear, use clothing that you already have and visit second-hand stores. She’s honest about the equipment even she doesn’t have; what a surprise to read a guide from someone who also can’t afford the custom shoe inserts and fancy water filters that would making hiking easier but is successfully backpacking in extraordinary places anyway! Helmuth is very detailed in sharing why it’s not necessary to purchase new or buy the more expensive version of most items, providing many affordable alternatives.
In Chapter 4, the author shares a memory where the wrong shoes caused a tremendous amount of pain, enough that she battled to walk at all. Helmuth struggled with the fact that she had spent all this money to get there, and now the trip felt wasted. The way she describes bearing the pain, weighing up options, being frustrated with her body and bargaining with it felt very familiar, even triggering, for me as a chronic pain sufferer, particularly when she had to decide whether her pain was “worth” calling for an airlift. What the experience prompted for Helmuth was a feminist response to a familiar emotion: At the time, she believed that the pain was an inescapable part of wearing hiking gear. Knowing now that the situation could have been avoided with the right advice on footwear, she reminds us that women are trained not to prioritize the truth of how our bodies feel in any given situation. “Why did I insist that the problem — the reason I was in pain — was my body, not the boots? Well, first of all, I am a woman,” she writes.
Helmuth explains that growing up shopping for clothes, we are taught that “the wearable item is a standard, and we are a failing sap if we can’t squeeze our bodies into it.” Another example discussed in her guide is the fact that wide-legged pants are an impossible myth for people with “huge legs” like herself. She preaches about leggings for many reasons: They’re practical, comfortable and available for bodies of all sizes.
“How to Suffer Outside” is fun and fascinating, whether you’re looking to go backpacking this weekend, later this year or not at all. It’s like those delightful documentaries you stumble upon while watching TV (or scrolling Netflix) and then don’t leave the couch until they’re over, laughing along with the host’s amusing comments and peculiar struggles in breath-taking outdoor settings. While I may not be going for a weeks-long hike into the mountains, I would love to take a day trip soon and share my newfound highly-specific hiking “did you knows?”
Andrea Marks-Joseph is a South African freelance writer of color. More of her writing is at https://stargirlriots.com.
Read more of the Sept. 1-7, 2021 issue.