I was caked in an unknown quantity of sand, dirt, sunscreen, deet, and sweat. Every time I splashed water on my face, a brownish liquid ran off. As I looked in the mirror, my skin appeared darker by a few shades, with a reddish tinge. I had little doubt that I was developing a burn. Bug bites occupied nearly every part of my body — from head to toe. Three days in the Great Sand Dunes National Park had turned me into a mountain man with overgrown scruff. I was ready to try out to become the next Brawny man.
In this beautiful, alien landscape, I sat crosslegged with a book, ran through the sand, and generally paused to reflect. Life’s busyness faded momentarily, and the only nerves present centered on lightening and bears. These were real threats — everything else was illusory.
With my brother along for the ride, we entered the park with some essentials. There was the two-person tent, camp stove, water, food, matches, and our books. The agenda was two-fold: relax and adventure. I’m proud to say we succeeded on both accounts. We took a long night hike amidst the sand dunes, and relished in the opportunity to read along the river.
As I reflected on the trip, I couldn’t help noticing the takeaway: living simply is restorative.
Many consider camping to be rejuvenating, as people can reconnect with the world. But how can that be if we were missing many of our creature comforts? Heck, my brother and I practically slept on gravel! If we can somehow make do without superfluous items while camping for few days, why do we suddenly need them when we get home?
In regular society, surrounded by others, it’s hard to resist indulging. We buy the shirt that’ll be a “tremendous” addition to our wardrobes. We fantasize about the cars and homes we’ll buy and live in. We eat at the classy restaurant. We dream of contentment that we might have with just one more purchase.
Ironically, the beauty we experienced was because none of these options existed. The campground is magnificent because it’s void of the trappings of mainstream society. There aren’t any big screen TVs, billboards marketing unnecessary products, or commercials penetrating this isolated area. Most of the time, the park is immaculately cleaned and people tend to respect each other. There isn’t a discontent cultivated to encourage spending. They live by a “pack it in, pack it out” mentality. Competition is non-existent here. Everyone’s just trying to take it easy and slow down.
Back in the “real world,” people fight to change lanes — cutting each other off, jump over other shoppers for Black Friday deals, and amass gigantic McMansions with stuff in every nook and cranny.
After spending a few days in this separated world, part of me struggled to return. The essentials are simple: shelter, food, and water. And yet, we fight to make more, buy more, and sell more. Maybe there’s a happy medium, but as I returned home there was a culture shock. I wanted to stay, but obviously couldn’t.
Fortunately, the simple life needn’t end when the busy, city streets come into view. I needn’t regress to this unlearned state. As I transition back to society, I cannot help but wonder what camping taught me about living simply and minimally.
1. Pack light
Pretty simple right? When camping, you can’t bring or carry everything. The solution is to pack light. Get the tent you need, not the bigger one you might want. Don’t be afraid to wear the same thing day after day. In life, packing light means only bringing, buying, and holding on to that which sustains life.
2. Pack it in, pack it out
Whenever people go camping, they should pack up all the trash and mess they make and throw it away appropriately. Camping ethics says that you should leave a place better than you left it. If you brought disposable plates, bring them out of the park. Don’t pollute and litter amidst this beautiful place. Back in society, this helps remind me of my impact on the world around me. We can’t take our purchases into the afterlife. What we buy has a lasting consequence to the environment.
3. Seek out adventure in moments, not things
Nothing is better than free. Although there’s a nominal entrance fee, national parks make this lesson easy. Hours, days, and weeks can be spent exploring and learning. But that fun, adventurous spirit doesn’t need to stop when leaving the park. There are moments everywhere to look, go, and discover — it’s all about the attitude. When I first moved to Iowa, I struggled to occupy my time and spent more money trying to create fun. The best decision I made was to buy a bike and ride everywhere. There’s adventure out there, and money shouldn’t be the necessary variable.
4. Find ways to relax and reflect
There are always moments when camping where the wind blows through my hair and I breathe easy. My brain seems to take a pause, and everyday concerns evaporate. Relaxation is essential to a long life; even more, to creativity. It was on a drive to Burning Man that Elon Musk brainstormed the idea of creating a solar energy company with his cousin. And it was in music that Albert Einstein manipulated complicated physical concepts in his mind. Relaxation is only evil in a corporate world that asks its workers to do the same motion over and over again; there, creativity is shunned. Camping is a reminder that relaxation helps cultivate a diverse, capable mind. Whether in the wilderness or weirdness of home, relaxation and reflection are vital.
5. Respect the environment, each other
Camping in national park changes your appreciation of the environment. The research has repeatedly shown that when people connect with the outdoors, they learn to respect the world around them. When people go out into the wild, a togetherness is cultivated. By staying in a small, two-person tent with little room for more than a book, light, and sleeping bags, it was impossible to ignore the world around the camp site. Bad weather shook and stirred the tent. Rain pelted the lining and attempted to enter the tent. Quickly, I learned to appreciate the weather as the natural state that we must respect. The world has been around for billions of years before us, and is a powerful keeper. But we also must respect and take care of it in return.
Our daily lives offer up countless opportunities to consume more than we need, at great cost to our environment. If we focus on the essentials over the extraneous, we will greatly slow our contributions to climate change.