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Why do I care what I wear in the woods?

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One of the most fearsome villains of my childhood was Meredith Blake, the villain of Parent Trap. When Meredith joins our most down-to-earth California heroes (played by Lindsay Lohan and Lindsay Lohan, respectively) on a camping trip in the third act, she dons a spandex outfit with a small zipped sports bra, matching leggings and a comical large bottle of Evian water.

Meredith, we’re led to believe, looks stupid! Her outfit shows that she has it all wrong for Nick Parker. At the end, our daughters, dressed in denim and flannel, push her air mattress—while she’s still sleeping on it—over the lake.

Lesson? Taking care of what you wear in the backcountry woods is stupid. If only it were that simple.


Emma Gatewood, the first recorded woman to hike the Appalachian Trail solo, led her hikes with little more than a pair of converse and a shower curtain that she used as a tarp. Photos of “Grandma Gatewood” show her in pants and 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’m more of a Meredith Blake than an Emma Gatewood. It’s so dumb to admit that you want to look sexy, and even more embarrassing to admit that you want to look cool, while sleeping on the floor or hoisting your sweaty body on your side. a mountain. Guilty as charged.

Unlike many of my Midwestern friends, I didn’t grow up camping, hiking, or mountain biking. My grandfather was a geographer and our vacation was spent driving to viewpoints on the highway to view rocky outcrops eroded by ancient glaciers. It taught me 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 loops of fruits.

I never camped seriously until I moved to rural Indiana and met my husband. He knows it all – he’s been backpacking solo since high school. He’s the kind of person who can start a fire in 40 seconds and know which identical-looking mushrooms will taste good in a frying pan and which will probably kill you.

On our first camping trip together, I’m pretty sure I was wearing Frye motorcycle boots. I am 100% sure that I was very wet, cold and miserable. It was clear that I was out of my element. But even still, I knew I was surrounded by immense beauty.

I watched the tawny, laid-back men and women who populated my extended social orbit. People with dogs (usually working breeds, who might follow their adventures). People who owned tents, wore hiking boots that had been relaced and resoled, who really knew what to do when they walked into a climbing gym. I remember watching in awe as a friend unpack her well-stocked camping kit, each light dish sticking out of the other like a nesting doll.

There seemed to be a right way to participate in this, but I suspected it was just as dumb to care. So I pretended to know what I was doing, that I was part of the culture.

Like all sports or subcultures, hiking and camping have their totems, their signifiers and their uniforms. I was a long-distance runner in high school, and I vividly remember when a new runner joined the team and wore knee-high socks, instead of the little no-show socks everyone else on the team wore. Everyone on the team noticed his high socks.

I took note of the signifiers of the outdoor lifestyle: the telltale white slash on a tanned foot of a Teva sandal. The Nalgene water bottle, with National Park stickers peeling off.

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 equipment lying flat, like a tablescape from a Real Simple catalog. I studied it like a textbook. A homemade quilt. A small hammock packed in a satisfying pocket the size of a paperback book. A tie-dye sports bra. A beaten nylon sports bag.

I wanted to be the kind of person who owned these things – and by transitive property – a person who belonged outside with people like her.

Shortly after graduating, I found a real job and, for the first time, had enough money to buy my own equipment. I took note of the signifiers of the outdoor lifestyle: the telltale white slash on a tanned foot of a Teva sandal. The Nalgene water bottle with the stickers and for some reason tape attached around the bottom.

Some of this is marketing nonsense. But also: Nalgene water bottles are fantastic, and they make perfect cocktail shakers in no time. My Keen hiking boots got me to the top of the mountains better than my Fryes. I will always be an ardent lover of the Teva Hurricane XLTs.

And I have to admit that I enjoyed watching the play. As I became 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 right outfit.

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


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

Between then and now I’ve camped and hiked dozens of times. I probably built my own version of this ideal camping bag, but I also did a gravel bike ride in shower slides, a bad hike in Lululemon leggings that I had to hold with one hand and a camping trip gone wrong 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 right outfit.

Last summer, a group of friends and I traversed the Missouri Ozarks on the hottest day of the year, swimming in the granite entrenchments and losing gallons of sweat. This was the last hike I did with our dog Ginger before she died, and I will always remember her big paws slowly paddling her through the cold water.

At the end of the day, finally back at the remote campsite, I took what I call a “tap shower”. When no proper bathroom is available, I take my biggest, most ridiculous bottle, clear my head, soap up, and throw it away again.

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