5 Ways Backpacking Prepared Me for Startups

When our kids were young, my wife and I did family trips into the Yosemite high country for a lot of summers. I call it backpacking but for most of these trips we rented a burro to carry the gear since the kids were so little, so only two of us, me and the burro, actually carried packs. You see some pictures of us here. These are all from the 1980s. We started that decade with three kids, ended it with five.

Looking back on that, and building a business, here’s how starting and growing a business is a lot like backpacking:

1. It’s mostly about the people

I love the high Sierra and mountains in general and I can understand, on the bad days, how some people turn to the mountains for peace and solitude. Not us. It was about family vacations. It was about being together with our kids. It was always a lot of work, too: get up, breakfast, pack the burro, hike, unpack, pitch the tent, dinner … but it was work we did together.

That’s a lot like starting a company. Ideally, you gather the right people around and work together on something you like. Or something you believe in. It’s work, for sure, but it ought to be more than that. And it works a lot better with the right people.

2. You compromise, improvise, and make do

Try putting everything seven people need on the back of one dad and a burro. Not easy. You settle for fewer clothes, stuff you can use for various purposes (jackets become pillows), less food (and way less tasty), a one-portable-stove kitchen, no sink (cold hands in the creek), no mattress, and so on.

Not hard to figure how that’s like starting a company. Right?

3. You have to plan very well

To make this high-country stuff work you really have to plan the route, meal-by-meal food including snacks, what you need to stay warm on freezing nights and to be comfortable during the hot hikes. Good luck if you forget the can opener for those canned tuna lunches, or moleskin for blisters, or salt and pepper. Do you have enough fuel for that super light stove? Rubber bands to repair tent problems? Rope to tie food up so bears don’t get it?

And then there’s the business plan: product, market, team, milestones, steps, objectives, startup costs, financing, sales, cash flow… absolutely essential.

And that is despite the next point.

4. You also have to revise plans quickly

We had bears eat our food overnight. We had late snowfall so we couldn’t get over the pass. We had an unexpected freeze, an unusually late in the season mosquito problem, a burro, stung on its ass by a bee, kicking all our stuff off its back, and I-don’t-remember-how-many other reasons to change plans mid-trip.

The time the bears got our food (and yes, we had it tied up, but these were professional-thief bears, the George Clooney and Brad Pitt of beardom) we had to change from a six-day to a three-day route and have breakfast for lunch and dinner (the bears didn’t get to our breakfasts bag).

And in business, bears are always either eating your food or are about to, and passes are constantly threatened with snow. You just can’t obsess about the plan. Having a plan makes changing it possible. And without a plan, there’s no starting point, just chaos, guessing, and hoping.

5. You don’t get downhill without some uphill

In backpacking, you plan your route carefully. Downhill is easier than uphill, and occasionally you can manipulate a bit, like when we’d take the 50-mile bus ride from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows, so we had a 27-mile mostly-downhill trail back. Even then, you have to go up some hills.

That’s hard. Walking uphill, pack on your back, 10,000 feet elevation, you have to focus on taking just one step at a time, get patient, and keep going. You keep your objective — the top of the hill — in view, and that’s motivating. But the work is one step at a time.

And at the end of the day, you’ve done the uphill and the downhill, you settle back to the tasks of pitching tents and spreading sleeping bags and making dinner. With another good day behind you.

And of course, in business as well, you need the motivation of the long-term goals, but you really do it one step at a time. One day, one year, one problem at a time.


  • Chris Stanley says:

    Hey Tim,
    Where did you rent the burro from?
    Found you with google, looking for burro rental for a back country hike…

  • Nathan Beckord says:

    Hi Tim, this is great!

    It’s funny– I wrote a blog post with almost identical themes (e.g. advanced planning + being flexible is key, team is critical, it’s going to be both really good & really bad, etc.) but with the metaphor of sailing.

    Here’s my post: “What Startups Can Learn From Sailors”:

    I guess we all tend to draw parallels between what we enjoy and what we “do”…I use sailing metaphors constantly when explaining concepts to new entrepreneurs.

    Nice job, Nathan Beckord http://www.venturearchetypes.com

    ps– looking forward to seeing you next week at Moot Corp.

  • Mark Washburn says:

    As a backpacker and an entrepreneur, I really enjoyed this post. While I completely agree with your reasoning, I also think that managing start-ups is great preparation for a long hike!!

    After working non-stop for 12 years on three consecutive start-ups, I hit the trail for a 270 mile thru-hike on the Long Trail from one end of Vermont to the other. Definitely a great way to unwind and clear your head. For anyone considering a long thru-hike, you may want to check out my online journal: http://markwashburn.wordpress.com/

    Thanks for the great post about hiking and start-ups.

  • Steve says:

    You have a wonderful way of getting at the truth via apt analogies. Thanks for another thought provoking post.

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