Backpacking 101: New College’s biggest adventure

Backpacking 101 by Sydney Kruljac
Newman backpacking in Colorado.


“As Freud put it in ‘Das Unbehagen in der Kultur’ (1930) ‘Civilization stinks,’” John Newman said in his course description for the popular and sought out class, Backpacking 101. The course intends to teach knowledge of theory, equipment and techniques when traveling through the wilderness. Originally, the class had no pre-requisites or cap until Monday, March 30, when Newman sent an email informing one hundred students were already enrolled in the class, and it absolutely had to be capped.

One hundred students for a single class is the biggest New College of Florida has seen to date.

“Even during the mini class, it was a good representation of just how big Backpacking 101 would be,” first-year Annie Rosenblum said. “There were at least 30 people standing, which is strange to see because typically there are anywhere between 10 to 40 students in attendance, due to their interest in the class.”

On top of his two regular classes, Indian Buddhist Thought and Cultural History of Tibet, Newman decided to overload his schedule to instruct Backpacking 101 simply for the love of it. He explained he learned to backpack on his own as a teenager before there was any formal, textual instruction. The syllabus is broken into a six-week schedule with topics ranging from safety, strategies, navigation, backpacks and footwear, etc., while requiring the reading of Karen Berger’s “Hiking Light Handbook.”

“Over the last five years or so, I thought, ‘Why not transmit a bit of the knowledge and maybe some wisdom about the subject to the students here?’”

What Newman was not prepared for was to have the biggest class New College has seen.

“I was shocked when I got this avalanche of people enrolling,” Newman said. “I should’ve known from the mini-class when it was packed, but I naively didn’t realize how many people might be interested in this.”

Originally, Newman had planned his class on Wednesday’s from 7:00 to 10:00 pm. However, to accommodate one hundred students, Newman had to break his class of one hundred into two separate sections of fifty; students whose last names begin with A to L attend class 7:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. and those whose last names begin with M to Z attend class 8:10 p.m. to 9:10 p.m..

The decision to cap the class was only a recent development for Newman who originally believed the amount of interest would fizzle out after the excitement of mini classes ceased and module two began.

“Some students mistakenly told me that would happen, saying ‘there are a lot of people in the mini course, but they’re just shopping,’” Newman joked. “Then I checked the enrollment, once it all went through the SES and,” he gasped, “One hundred!”

Newman explained how during the mini-class he intended to not cap the class and said he would just get a bigger room. It was not until the high demand for the class that he realized there was not a room big enough in which to lecture one hundred people at once.

“When it hit one hundred, I thought ‘oh, I need to do something about this,’” he said. “My solution was to cap it, and I had to be pretty draconian. People came to me with pretty sad stories, but once I told some people they couldn’t get in, then I had to apply the same standards to everybody.”

For those fortunate enough to get a spot in the class, Newman hopes to inspire his students to venture out of their safety zones and put their backpacking knowledge to good use. When asked if he would consider teaching Backpacking 101 again, he responded sternly, but with a laugh, “I will think about it.”

Perhaps not the typical class one can expect to encounter at a college, but certainly one that can provide adequate knowledge for those interested in escaping a technological, fast-paced world.

“It’s kind of goofy, you know, a little bit offbeat, but it’s serious too – I consider this something I take very seriously,” Newman said. “When you get out in the wilderness, you’re a day or two away from a road and you don’t see any people, apart from you or your hiking partner, for days – it’s special.”

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