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Backpacking Through Harvard

Backpacks are going out of style.

My keen fashion observations tell me that brightly-colored messenger bags have replaced the classic L.L. Bean-initialed backpacks we all toted in sixth grade. And to the dismay of our scoliosis-wary vertebrae, girls today sling two-tone Harvé Chapelier bags stuffed with books and papers over one shoulder, instead of evenly distributing the load with two straps.

But the First-Year Outdoor Program (FOP) believes in the power of the backpack.

I admit that the 5,000-cubic-inch backpack might be overkill for the ID card and notebook I carry to class. But when 10 Harvard students are hiking through the New England backcountry, we need every bit of that space. So although I cannot take my pack to class unless I plan to camp out in the Science Center, there are other lessons that I—along with 350 other FOP leaders and first-years—did take back from the woods when we returned, smelly and rumpled, to fair Harvard.

In the woods, you have to carry all the essentials of life with you: food and water for sustenance, clothing for warmth and tarps for shelter. For that reason, carrying extraneous items—such as more than two pairs of underwear for five days—may be hazardous to your back. Out there, you’re independent. Everything you could ever need to survive is within arms reach as you trek down the trail. I feel independent and sturdy because I am supporting what I need to live with my two feet and the strength of my body.

Making it through Harvard requires that same self-sufficiency. There are no parents to watch out for your needs, and although your proctor or entryway tutor may throw good study breaks, you need to make sure you eat, sleep and take care of yourself in our collegiate forest. College is not only about autonomous living, but also about learning how much weight you can carry. Self-sufficiency does not mean taking all the extra group gear or heaping on the extracurriculars. It is about knowing your limits and bearing the weight that you can handle—no more and no less.

After a long day carrying a pack stuffed with the bare necessities of life, coming into camp seems like arriving at home after a long trip. It is a little strange and uncomfortable at first, but in time it feels as if you’ve been there forever. It is almost inexplicable, but the woods seem to be a catalyst for community. Bonding moves at lightning speed, and the FOP group becomes a surrogate family, recapping the day’s events while laughing and joking over macaroni and cheese.

Harvard is like a new campsite, only the sleeping bags and plastic tarps are replaced by extra-long beds and red brick facades. Just as Annenberg fare is more or less equivalent to backcountry food cooked in bulk, the Harvard community is comparable to a FOP group on a larger scale. Your entryway, your tutorial, your Expos class and even Justice are places where you and your fellow students can come together over a common goal. There are opportunities at every turn to make Harvard your home. It is tough to find a niche in a group as big as the undergraduate population at Harvard, but if a FOP group can come together over five days, then surely a class can do it in four years.

And when you are backpacking in the woods, you have to be ready for anything. It can start to rain buckets in an instant, and even tough hiking boots cannot protect you from roots, stones, slick trails and steep ascents. Trying to make it to camp—hours from a phone or an ambulance—and persevering through tricky terrain, the group has to calmly accommodate the unexpected.

Flexibility is a virtue for even the most goal-oriented student at Harvard. Classes may change times or semesters, you may get to the dining hall just as it closes and, sometimes, there is just no way to finish that 200-page reading assignment. It took me all of last year to realize that all those things are all right. There is always a flurry of activity on campus, but try not to let it overwhelm you. Just take the detours in stride, and as long as you have an open mind and sturdy hiking boots, you’ll survive the change.

Now, a disclaimer: for those of you who did not go on FOP, worry not. The woods are a facilitator for these kinds of lessons, but not the only place where they can be learned.  The environment just helps the process along.

As it says in the FOP handbook: “If anyone asks what FOP was like, you can tell them: ‘We were organized, thorough and prepared. We took care of ourselves in basic ways. We entrusted people with our lives, learned to do without and persevered at different things. We learned to use new tools and we took care of what we had with us. We lived simply.’ And if they are perceptive, they will say, ‘You don’t need the mountains to do that.’”

Hana R. Alberts ’06, a Crimson editor, is a history and science concentrator in Mather House.

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