The Backpacker’s Guide To Wealth

Having just returned from a few days backpacking in the Superstition Mountain Wilderness in Arizona, please forgive me for waxing lyrical about the unlikely connection between backpacking and wealth.

The primary goal of backpacking is to survive a trip to places that are often difficult or impossible to get to by any other means than walking, climbing or scrambling. The focus on survival compels backpackers to make difficult choices, jettisoning anything that does not contribute to their survival, and ensuring a rigorous cost benefit analysis between utility and the additional weight that must be carried. This distinction between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ is a familiar one to most of us but the wilderness is a great teacher, and backpackers quickly learn what is really important i.e. water, shelter and food, often in that order. Everything else is secondary. Please don’t pity the backpacker. Drinking water is certainly not the same as drinking wine but collecting water to drink from a mountain stream or a desert spring or even from a natural rain tank, is a profound experience reminding us of where our water comes from and how precious it is. The backpacker’s shelter may seem primitive but he or she is waking up to views not matched by the finest hotels. Similarly, the food is not rich but it is usually wholesome and nutritious, and after a day humping a 40 pound pack with very little else to eat, dinner al fresco somehow tastes better than food from San Francisco’s trendiest restaurants.

Frequent backpackers have usually rediscovered the art of enjoying the simple pleasures in life that are so often ignored in today’s overstimulated world – staring at a clear and beautiful night sky, listening to the sound of the leaves of a cottonwood tree rustling in the wind, watching an Elf owl makes its home in a Saguaro cactus or seeing a diamond backed rattlesnake sunning itself on the trail. I realize that these are not necessarily substitutes for reading a good novel, watching Hunger Games or visiting Las Vegas but they are a reminder that riches are all around us if we would only open our eyes.

Backpackers are not usually asocial types but rather people who have discovered a need in themselves to occasionally seek solitude to recharge their spiritual batteries and find whatever it is they are looking for. Think about solitude a while and you realize how difficult it is to find real solitude for anything longer than a few minutes. Young people today seem to have no desire for solitude, have never heard of it and can’t imagine why it might be worth having. Technology seems to involve a constant effort to stave off the possibility of solitude. However, think of the prophet, the hermit and the yogi and you realize that the act of being alone has always been an essential part of religious experience. More important, for those of us who are not prophets, hermits or yogis, is the fact that, in losing solitude, we lose the propensity for introspection, that examination of self that Socrates placed at the center of a life well-lived. Solitude enables us to explore our own depths so that we can come together with other people confident of who we are and not just as another identical member of the herd.


“We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it, we go to smooth it. We get it rough enough at home, in towns and cities.” G.W. Sears

“My meals were easily made, for they were all alike and simple, only a cupful of tea and bread.” John Muir

“Be a half-assed crusader, a part-time fanatic. Don’t worry too much about the fate of the world. Saving the world is only a hobby. Get out there and enjoy the world, your girlfriend, your boyfriend, husbands, wives; climb mountains, run rivers, get drunk, do whatever you want to do while you can, before it’s too late.” Edward Abbey

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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6 Comments on “The Backpacker’s Guide To Wealth”

  1. Rhea Dorn Says:

    Great discussion.
    Hiking in the Sierras or the Himalayas suspends me in a timeless moment, each step a reverie. The equipment can be simple or quite luxurious, but the act of walking through geological histories can connect me to the ineffable to a spiritual dimension. As a practical suggestion: bring along water purifiers and the 10 survival essentials. Because it usually takes a couple of days to shuck the competitive modern me, I need a few days in the woods to fully feel the moment. When my knee is better I will think about when to return to the Sierras.


  2. aaforringer Says:

    Good stuff, stealing the quotes for my collection.


  3. Hanne T. Fisker Says:

    Solitude, indeed, perhaps not surprisingly, the salt of life for this one. “saving the world is only a hobby” (made me smile) Just thought about this the other day, starting somewhere much more simple; loving the world as it is… ?! There is no doubt the effect it has on a person, to be loved exactly as one is. Is the world and our lives in it much different in this matter? On that note, Malcolm, enjoy the summer and your travels! 🙂


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Hanne, always thinking and feeling so deeply 🙂 Having said that there are few people who have thought about the wilderness as deeply as Edward Abbey. Thank you for commenting on this, one of my earliest and favorite posts. I hope you enjoy your summer travels too.


      • Hanne T. Fisker Says:

        A habit 😉 I can understand it’s a favorite post of yours, it spoke to me all the way through, capturing, I’ve read Desert Solitaire, interestingly not that long ago, a piece of art indeed and much resonance throughout the book that is somehow more than a book; very expanded and sensitive in it’s directness, yet subtle; almost a like a poem perhaps….

        Thank you Malcolm, not much travel for the summer on this end, however much enjoyment of being where I am and the world seems to come in this direction instead 🙂


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