UK backpacking club builds bonds through unexpected adventures

Ansley McElroy, founder of the Backpacking Club, enjoys the rewarding view after a hike.

Emily Baehner

Lack of running water and cellphone service doesn’t often bring people together, but for members of the University of Kentucky’s Backpacking Club, that’s sometimes just how they like it.

“Seriously, when you’re in the middle of the woods without showers or deodorant or cell phones for multiple days, you’ll bond quickly,” said Ansley McElroy, a senior public health major, and founder and co-president of the club.

McElroy founded the Backpacking Club in the fall of 2016, after taking Lee Morrow, a current senior computer science major, as her little in Alpha Phi Omega and bonding over their mutual interest in backpacking. The two enlisted Kate Clowes, also a member of Alpha Phi Omega and a current senior chemistry major, as a third officer for the club, and found an adviser through the environmental studies program to officially register as a campus organization.

In the two years since, the club has grown to include more than 500 students on the email list, 200 individuals on the Facebook page and 100 club members who participate in a trip at least once during the school year.

Club members vary from experienced backpackers to beginners looking to try a new outdoor experience. The backpacking club seeks to be open to all skill levels and, as such, focuses on teaching safety and sustainability to new backpackers.

“If you have backpacking experience, the Backpacking Club is a great way to get in touch with other people who share your interests and find groups to hike with. If you are new to backpacking, the Backpacking Club is a great place to learn new skills, meet new friends and explore some of the beautiful natural places in and around Kentucky,” said Clowes.

The club offers information sessions, mainly in the off-season, on specific topics such as “How to Pack a Backpacking Backpack” and “How to Use a Backpacking Stove.”

The Backpacking Club also focuses on accommodating students who are interested in participating but may not have the necessary equipment.  Backpacking gear is borrowed from the Johnson Center free of charge for interested students hoping to participate in any of the hiking trips.

“Our founding vision statement was to provide opportunities for students to learn backpacking skills who might not otherwise have had the opportunity due to financial concerns or lack of opportunity,” Morrow said.

The Backpacking Club offers both day hikes, usually with 30 to 40 participants, and smaller overnight group trips of eight to 12 backpackers. Day trips go to nearby locations like Red River Gorge or Sheltowee Trail, and hikers will cover five to 10 miles. Overnight trips are one to two nights, varying from 10 to 25 miles of trail. Spring and summer break trips can cover more distance over three to five nights.

“No trip is the same, and often the most memorable ones are the most difficult in the moment,” said McElroy. “The trip where ‘everything goes wrong’ really is the most memorable and the most fun. The unexpected parts are what make backpacking an adventure.”

Club officers hold preliminary meetings before each trip, where participants can pick up their borrowed gear, learn about the trail they will be hiking and discuss basic trip information.

“We explain what to pack, what to wear, and how to properly pack and wear your backpack. This way, they can feel prepared and confident before they begin their first trip,” said Clowes.

Students interested in joining can sign up for the club online or join “Uky Backpacking” Facebook group to get information about upcoming trips and information sessions.

Morrow urges students to get involved because of the friendships developed and the pride felt while on the trails.

“It brings me a sense of adventure and physical accomplishment that I have never experienced through anything else, and to share that with others and introduce them to the backpacking community is a privilege. There are few groups with the camaraderie that I see every day among backpackers,” Morrow said.