How Backpacking Healed my Relationship with my Body

Expert Hannah K. shares the story of how her first backpacking trip helped her start rethinking her approach to taking care of herself—and her body.

A woman with a backpack stands on a rock and looks out at a clear lake. The lake is reflecting a mountain range

Photo by Oleh Slobodeniuk

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My name is Hannah Kaufman and I am 5’5” and weigh 125 pounds.

It is scary to type that out—but no regrets about it.

My name is Hannah Kaufman and I grew up in a society that pays a lot of attention to the female body. Not sure why. Numbers seem to be very important too, which is why I listed some above for you. My mom never could explain that to me growing up, but she did a lot of other things. Although she did not introduce me to the world of backpacking, she put me in piano classes and guitar classes and I was a girl scout for a year and she enrolled me in karate classes with my twin brother.

In my experience, the few months of karate I did as a kid taught me a really great lesson: my body is powerful. As I grew up, I quickly forgot that lesson, and it wouldn’t be until my first backpacking trip as a teenager that I would re-learn that lesson.

I was maybe five or six at the time, but I loved karate. I felt powerful and strong, and I loved the idea of being able to protect myself (cue John Mulaney screaming “street smarts”). Then my brother punched me in the face and I punched him back. My parents did not enjoy that experience so they took me out of karate and instead enrolled me in a ballet class. I’m curious what our lives would be like if they had put my brother in ballet and I was allowed to stay in karate, but who knows. And anyways I’m grateful because I’ve been dancing ever since, recently got my BFA, and now work as a freelance contemporary dancer—as well as your favorite Curated expert.

A group of young girls in ballerina outfits smile at the camera

I’m the cutie in the back. Photo courtesy of Hannah Kaufman

Growing up as a dancer was hard, and it was so different then karate. I wasn’t learning how to use my body to protect myself anymore, but rather create stories and images and portray a feeling even. I was taught to look pretty. Ballet is strict. I quickly learned to focus on what my body looked like and what I could not do rather than what I wanted to feel like. Karate made me feel strong, ballet did not—or most of the time it didn’t. There were moments where a student or teacher would praise me and I would flourish with happiness because something “looked” good. “Looking” good was above all else the most important thing—to be beautiful and elegant.

I never had the traditional “ballet body” either. A mean student used to ask me if I was pregnant, and my mentor told me she was going to get me a waist trainer for my birthday. She would call me “marshmallow” if I looked “soft” to her—whatever that means. Years later, and I still don’t really understand that. Now, I’m not here to bash the ballet world (although I do feel that there is so much wrong there). I love ballet—I do. And I love dancing.

Contemporary dance really saved me from ballet, I think. I could move more freely, and the focus was on sensation rather than the physical form. We focused on how to move efficiently and use what our bodies can do to create work—not fit our bodies into someone else's idealistic and unrealistic forms. But the pressure of having a dancer’s body was always in the back of my mind. Staring in mirrors all day and comparing yourself to others around you is so toxic. In university, I became so insecure that even after taking dance classes or being in rehearsals all day, I would go to the gym and hit the rock wall. It was a lot, but I loved to push my body and work hard.

And I’m all for pushing boundaries and working hard—in fact that is one of the many reasons why I love backpacking. But after eight hours of dancing a day and getting minimal sleep and not having time to eat enough, was going to the gym really necessary? Not sure, but it’s what I did.

I was over doing it. I was. I was doing all of this because I loved it, I loved dancing and climbing and I still do. I loved moving my body and pushing past my boundaries, but in a healthy way! In the back of my mind, all of this was to help me lose weight, get stronger, and change the way I looked. I felt like if I changed how I looked, I would be a “success” or be happier or find the true purpose of my life.

There is nothing wrong with the way I look. But I didn’t really believe that until after I started backpacking. Backpacking! It is a magical concept. Carrying everything you need for a certain amount of time on your back—a wonderful form of minimalism. On the trail, it doesn’t matter what you look like. There are no mirrors to pick out everything you hate about yourself. As long as you’re having fun and enjoying yourself, you are backpacking right my friends. Or at least that’s how I look at it.

A photo of the Santa Monica Mountains. They are green and covered in brown scrub brush

Santa Monica Mountain Range. Photo by Ron Atory

My first backpacking trip was a three-night, four-day extravaganza through the Santa Monica Mountain Range in Malibu, Calif. We hiked a peak or two and ended up beach camping our last night where midnight skinnydipping may or may not but definitely did take place. It was a fun night of swimming under the stars with only the waves and our laughs were heard. But that is not something I would normally do, to let people (even though they were my best friends) see me in such a vulnerable position. During those four days, a lot changed in the way I think about my body.

I went from staring in mirrors and nit-picking every part of my body to not even thinking about what I “look” like but how I felt. I focused on when I felt strong or when my pinky toe was probably forming a new blister. I wasn’t thinking “my arms could be slimmer or my waist is too big” but rather “wow, I hiked ten miles already and I only have three blisters!” It wasn’t until I got back into a studio that I realized how my thought process had changed. I realized that instead of destroying my self-esteem, I was excited for how much I realized my body could do.

Woah, four days to change everything about how I think and love my body? Okay okay so not that simple. To this day I still have a lot of body insecurities and it may be something I always struggle with (I’m going to blame American society for that). But when I lace up my boots, pick up my pack, and head out on a trail, all the negative thoughts go away (I’m going to chalk that up to the transcendentalists). Friends also help with that.

A group of hikers silhouetted against a blue sky

Photo by Tobias Mrzyk

And I definitely didn’t think that all of what I just said would happen on a four day backpacking trip. I expected it to be challenging, see some epic views, and share lots of laughs with my best friends. Of course all of that did happen. We also saw a few scorpions (and made sure to walk the other way). I expected to be tired and hungry and sweaty and then force myself to set up camp when all I wanted was to sit down and eat. That also happened. But I got so much more out of this trip than memories—I learned to appreciate the positives instead of focus on the negative.

Like I said, hiking isn’t about how you look. It’s about how you feel. Backpacking gave me the profound sense of independence I craved growing up and helped me to feel strong again. I woke up every morning in my tent knowing that my body was going to get me to my next stopping point. I never doubted that. And that thought made me want to thank my body for all that it has done for me and continues to do.

Our bodies do a lot for us. They digest our food and give us nutrients. They allow us to sit and stand and do some cool yoga poses after practicing for a bit. They allow us to do what other animals on this planet simply cannot. And most importantly, they allow us to put one foot in front of the other many times in a row—which is very important for those of us who like to do that.

Backpacking forces you to listen to your body, which is the motto of the century and something I am still trying to get better at. While I am very aware of my body, how it feels and how it moves—thanks to all my physical practices—I often ignore what it is saying. So I guess the motto should be listen to what your body is telling you and then take proper actions.

Don’t let the blister get worse. Stop walking, take off your pack, find the tape, and tape up your blister. Drink some water. Eat another Clif bar. A great teacher of mine once said that we shouldn’t work through the pain, but to the pain. Help take care of your body so that you can continue to put one foot in front of the other as many times as you want. You’ll be grateful in the end. And finally, if I could tell my twelve-year-old self anything, it would be to get out from in front of a mirror and into the trees.

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Although I've been hiking for most of my life, I didn't start backpacking and camping until college when I joined the University Outdoors Club at my school. My first backpacking trip was ambitious, the Batona Trail in the Pinelands in New Jersey done in two days. To do that, we had to walk a maratho...

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