Why Do I Care What I Wear in the Woods?

In Hiking


One of the most formidable villains of my childhood was Parent Trap baddie Meredith Blake. When Meredith joins our more down-to-earth California heroes (played by Lindsay Lohan and Lindsay Lohan, respectively) on a third-act camping trip, she dons a spandex outfit with a little zip-up sports bra, matching leggings, and a comically large Evian water bottle.

Meredith, we’re made to believe, looks stupid! Her outfit shows she is all wrong for Nick Parker. In the end, our girls, clad in denim and flannel, push her air mattress—while she’s still sleeping on it—out onto the lake.

The lesson? Caring what you wear in the backcountry woods is dumb. If only it were that simple.

Emma Gatewood, the first recorded woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail solo, famously conducted her treks with little more than a pair of converse and a shower curtain that she used as a tarp. Pictures of “Grandma Gatewood” show her in slacks and a visor, with what looks like a laundry bag thrown over her shoulder. She’s like your great aunt on her way to play mini golf.

Unfortunately, I am more of a Meredith Blake than an Emma Gatewood. It’s so dorky to admit you want to look hot, and even more embarrassing to admit that you want to look cool, while sleeping on the ground or hauling your sweaty body up the side of a mountain. Guilty as charged.

Unlike many of my midwestern friends, I did not grow up camping, hiking, or mountain biking. My grandfather was a geographer, and our vacations were spent driving to highway overlooks to observe rocky outcrops eroded by ancient glaciers. This did teach me how to read maps and use a compass, but at the end of the day we went back to a Holiday Inn so my sister and I could enjoy an indoor pool and tiny, free boxes of fruit loops.

I never camped seriously until I moved to rural Indiana and met my husband. He knows everything—he has backpacked solo since high school. He is the kind of person who can light a fire in 40 seconds and know which identical-seeming mushrooms will taste great in a frying pan and which will probably kill you.

On our first camping trip together, I’m almost certain I wore Frye motorcycle boots. I’m 100 percent sure I was very wet, cold, and miserable. It was clear I was out of my element. But even still, I knew that I was surrounded by tremendous beauty.

I looked at the tawny, chilled-out men and women who populated my extended social orbit. People with dogs (usually working breeds, who could keep up with their adventures). People who owned tents, wore hiking boots that had been re-laced and re-soled, who definitely knew what to do when they entered a climbing gym. I remember watching, impressed, as a friend unpack her stocked camping mess kit, each lightweight dish popping out of the next like a nesting doll.

There seemed to be a correct way to partake in this, but I suspected it was also dumb to care about it. So I pretended to know what I was doing—that I was part of the culture.

Like every sport or subculture, hiking and camping have their totems, signifiers, and uniforms. I was a high school cross-country runner, and I remember vividly when a new runner joined the team and wore tall socks, instead of the little invisible ankle socks that every other team member wore. Everyone on the team noticed his tall socks.

I took note of outdoor lifestyle signifiers: the telltale white slash across a tanned foot from a Teva sandal. The Nalgene water bottle, with the peeling national park stickers.

I still have a screenshot saved in my camera roll of an Instagram post from an acquaintance who regularly camped out west. Before a kayaking trip, she had taken a picture of her gear laid flat, like a tablescape from a Real Simple catalog. I studied it like a handbook. A homespun quilt. A tiny hammock that packed into a satisfying pouch the size of a paperback book. A tie-dyed sports bra. A beat-up nylon duffel.

I wanted to be the kind of person who owned those things—and by the transitive property—a person who belonged in the outdoors with people like her.

Soon after I graduated, I got a real job and had, for the first time, enough money to buy my own gear. I took note of outdoor lifestyle signifiers: the telltale white slash across a tanned foot from a Teva sandal. The Nalgene water bottle with the stickers and, for some reason, duct tape fastened around the bottom.

Some of this is marketing nonsense. But also: Nalgene water bottles are fantastic, and they make perfect cocktail shakers in a pinch. My Keen hiking boots got me to the top of mountains better than my Fryes ever could. I will forever be an ardent lover of the Teva Hurricane XLTs.

And I have to admit that I liked looking the part. As I became more of a lover of the outdoors, I relished wearing that love on my body. Look at me! Look at the kind of person I am!

If you love the outdoors, nature always finds you, even on days when you’re not wearing the correct outfit.

As I built my collection, I became more competent and self-sufficient. I learned to stake a tent, not to panic when I found myself off a known trail or when storms flooded my campsite, and how to build a fire without crying in frustration. I learned nothing tastes better than Easy Mac after 12 hours of paddling, and that if I walked far enough into the woods by myself, I could fall into a trance that drained all thoughts from my head.

When my husband and I were hiking near the Fiery Gizzard Trail in Tennessee, we hooked up with fellow campers at the next site. As we sat around the fire, I realized, with fascination, that we were all wearing the same outfit: a Patagonia fleece, leggings, a Petzl headlamp, and Keens. Whereas many years ago I would have beamed with pride, I inwardly shrugged. Of course this is what we’re wearing! It’s the uniform.

In between then and now, I’ve camped and hiked dozens of times. I’ve probably built my own version of that ideal camping duffel, but I’ve also completed a gravel bike ride in shower slides, a bad hike in Lululemon leggings I had to hold up with one hand, and a camping trip gone awry where I was forced to sleep in street clothes in the front seat of my car. If you love the outdoors, nature always finds you, even on days when you’re not wearing the correct outfit.

Last summer, a group of friends and I tramped through the Missouri Ozarks on the hottest day of the year, swimming in the granite shut-ins and shedding gallons of sweat. It was the last hike I did with our dog Ginger before she died, and I’ll always remember her big paws paddling her slowly through the cold water.

At the end of the day, finally back at the secluded campsite, I took what I call a “spigot shower.” When no proper bathroom is available, I take my largest, most ridiculous bottle, dump water over my head, soap up, and dump it again.

As the sun set and the stars of the Summer Triangle appeared in the sky, I felt the water, still warm from the ground. Smoke rose from wood fires, the cicadas screamed. I was outdoors, and I wasn’t wearing anything at all.

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