New on Sidetracked:

Better Days

Written by Jenny Tough // Photography by Ian Finch // Film by Summit Fever Media
Produced in partnership with Lowe Alpine

We had no idea what was going to happen to the world in the next few weeks. That a deadly force would sweep across our communities, all around the world; putting all of our lives at a standstill, reduced to a mainly virtual existence while we each hide away indoors. Just a couple of weeks before the pandemic, we were driving north through some of my favourite wild places, completely oblivious that it would be my last night of camping for a while.

Rain lashes the windscreen as we drive to the trailhead. We hear on the news that life has changed in other countries, and we worry about our own communities. But it’s not here yet – our only concern is the harsh weather. I crank up the heat and consider never getting out of the car. It hardly seems worth it. The mountains aren’t calling me today; I can’t even see them, shrouded as they are in whiteout. I won’t get any nice photos. It almost certainly won’t turn out to be one of those best-ever days. I wonder out loud: ‘Why bother?’

Park the car. Pull on my warmest socks and coziest boots. Fill the pockets of my backpack with extra snacks to motivate me in the dreary conditions. Gloves. Tuque. Go.

That bit is always the hardest. Leaving the mechanical warmth of the car and walking past the inviting pub next to the parking lot. Beyond the zone of pavement – the land of loud cars, phone signal, noise and temptation – lies the forest. That’s where I need to be. I just don’t necessarily feel like it at this point in time. Green. Silence. Air. All of my skin but the tip of my nose hides beneath layers of clothing to protect me from coming in direct contact with it. One last check that I did lock the car, and I enter the trail leading up into the forest.

When I enter the forest, everything goes quiet. As if a switch was flicked, the land of cars and mobiles has instantly evaporated. My legs, which had pretended to be tired and heavy back in the car park, begin to lighten and I propel myself upwards along the trail. Clean air fills my hungry lungs. My phone loses signal, and I sense a relief. For the rest of the weekend, no buzzing, dinging, pinging, attention demands or bottomless scrolling. Silence.

I reach the edge of the forest, and emerge into the new atmosphere of the mountain. Without the protection of the tall trees, I am exposed completely to the grey wet air. I don’t mind any more. My jacket shields me from discomfort, and I climb higher, towards the invisible peak that has disappeared into the hostile sky.

I fight against the wind to get my tent pegged down, hoping it doesn’t get any worse overnight. With my stove lit and cosy jacket hugging me, I can sit under my canopy and enjoy my view of the Highlands.

As I ascend above the snowline, the clouds descend with equal vigour and the squalls become more frequent and angry. It’s time to make camp – I want nothing more than to huddle in the waterproof cocoon of my small tent, wrapped in warm dry layers with something hot to drink. I fight against the wind to get my tent pegged down, hoping it doesn’t get any worse overnight. With my stove lit and cosy jacket hugging me, I can sit under my canopy and enjoy my view of the Highlands. In the grim weather, it’s impossible to tell where snowy mountain flanks end and the bright, stormy sky starts. It’s as if the earth evaporates into the sky at this time of year. There’s no sunset to watch, just a gradual dimming of the light while gusts of wind continue to harrass my tent.

Steam escapes my small tin pot, the lid elevating on a cloud of bubbling water. Dinner time. I pour the boiling water over a dehydrated balanced-meal-in-a-bag, the staple of simple overnight outdoor adventures. For a moment, I think about those Instagram-worthy adventurers who seem to effortlessly rustle up stunning meals of foraged delicacies cooked over a fire, but as rain comes in sideways against my small home, I don’t care for anything more than the simple sustenance I’ve got. I wait patiently, occasionally squeezing the package to stir my meal. When it’s about halfway through the suggested cooking time, I give up and open the bag, savoury steam rising to my face. The sensation of eating hot food outside on a cold night is perhaps one of my favourite pleasures, and the warmth of the food flushes my cheeks as my body warms up. I shuffle back into my tent a little, trying to keep the rain out of my dinner. It’s nothing fancy, but I’m utterly content with my simple evening outside. I zip the tent shut, switch off my torch, and lie back on my backpack pillow, falling asleep to the sound of howling wind battering my thin nylon canopy.

When I planned this simple hiking trip, I’d dreamed of getting up early to be on top of a mountain for sunrise, but it’s clear that the weather has thwarted my lovely plans when I wake to more drizzle and howling winds. That’s OK – I stay in bed instead, enjoying a slow coffee to warm me up before I crawl out of the dry shelter of my tent. It’s a wrestle against the winds – which seem even stronger today – to get my tent folded up as neatly as I would like it, and eventually I give up and stuff the whole thing, wet and muddy, into my backpack and begin the hike back down to the car.

It didn’t matter that things didn’t go to plan that weekend. It was a break. A bit of silence. I didn’t travel far, and I didn’t do anything impressive, gnarly, or mega. I just dipped my toes into nature for a brief escape. A short hit of the refresh button.

So maybe it wasn’t the greatest day I’ve had in the mountains. But knowing what we know now, I’m so grateful I bothered to get out of the car and take that chance. Because now we know, more than ever, that even those days are better days.

Produced in partnership with Lowe Alpine and featuring the new Airzone Pro ND33:40.
Written by Jenny Tough // @jennytough
Photography by Ian Finch // @ianefinch
Film by Summit Fever Media // @sfm_films