What camping in a snowstorm taught me about knowing when to quit

We returned home from our disastrous hike along the Bruce Trail feeling sheepish and defeated. But sadly, it wouldn’t be the last time an outdoor adventure forced us to tap out early. Because eight months later I’d be lying on a woodpile, as cold-induced convulsions wracked my body and a large branch jabbed me in the ribs. 

It was late at night and I finally worked up the courage to remove my hands from the warmth of my armpits. I crawled out from beneath the pile of thin blankets and added a piece of wood to the fire. It needed it. The feeble flames struggled to stay lit under increasing bombardment from fat flakes of wet snow.

Looking around, I started to seriously question the wisdom of our March break camping trip. Two other shivering bodies encircled the pitiful fire: my brother Nicholas (of course) and our cousin Matt. At least they had sleeping bags. There weren’t enough for everyone, so I ended up bringing a bunch of threadbare blankets for my bedding.

Earlier that afternoon, we had set up camp in the woods next to a farmer’s field a few kilometres from home. The day started out unseasonably warm — we’re talking T-shirt weather — which inspired the decision to go on the impromptu adventure.

But this is March. In Canada. In the ’90s, before smartphones with weather apps. And as the day wore on, Mother Nature flipped us the bird and sent temperatures plummeting.

Of course, Mother Nature wasn’t the only one to blame for our current misfortune: our own carelessness also played a role. The shredded remains of our tent, flapping in the wind, were evidence of that.

Before the sun set, Nicholas had been gathering firewood and found a dead tree nearby. Grabbing the sizable trunk by one end, he started dragging it through the long grass back to camp. Unfortunately, he failed to notice the jagged branch jutting out on one side, which snagged our tent and sliced the entire side open.

With the tent no longer offering any sort of protection from the worsening elements, we decided that our best bet was to sleep as close to the fire as possible in an attempt to stay warm. We crowded around, and I chose the woodpile so I’d at least be off the wet ground.

By now we realized what a colossal mistake we had made. But the “I told you so” waiting at home made us dig in our heels and refuse to pack it in — especially after the whole duct tape fiasco. Instead, we lay there shivering in the woods as the snow piled higher.

It took far longer than it should have, but eventually the very real possibility of freezing to death won over our stubborn pride. Thankfully, Dad had loaned us his massive brick of a cellphone to use in case of emergencies, and we begrudgingly made the “please rescue us” call.

After a glorious sleep in a warm bed, we returned to the ruins of our campsite the next day to collect our belongings. My blankets and pillow were frozen stiff, and I shuddered to think what would have happened to us if we had stuck it out. Going forward, we decided that perhaps March breaks were best spent indoors playing video games and watching reruns of Darkwing Duck.

And if we did go camping, taking Nicholas off firewood duty was a must.

Knowing when to quit can be hard. Nobody likes the idea of giving up, especially when it’s something you’ve invested a lot of blood, sweat and tears into. No surrender! Tough it out! These are common refrains in a hustle culture that trumpets success at any cost.

And don’t get me wrong: perseverance and commitment are wonderful qualities. But I also think it’s important to have enough self-awareness to know the difference between healthy and unhealthy resolve.

For example, during my cancer treatment, I was determined to do everything myself and had a hard time asking for help. I had no intention of giving up my independence and self-reliance. But the more the chemo took its toll on me, the more I realized I needed a helping hand. Accepting Mom’s offer to come down from Ottawa to help out meant swallowing my pride. But like calling Dad that snowy March night, putting aside my ego was the right decision for my health.

Ditto for taking a leave from work, recognizing that trying to stick it out at the office while going through chemo would wreck me.

For some things, the benefits of quitting are obvious. Few would argue with someone who wants to give up smoking. Other times though, it’s not as clear. Emotions, personal investment and societal pressures complicate letting go. 

But whether it’s an abusive marriage, a soul-sucking job or an unworkable business idea that’s sending you spiralling into debt, there are times when giving up is exactly the right thing to do.

It boils down to understanding your motivations. Ask yourself why you’re clinging to something. And if it’s out of stubbornness, pride, hubris, fear or concern over what others will think if you give up, then it might be time to let go. 

After all, leaving a frozen corpse on a pile of wood because you were too proud to go home is a sign of stupidity, not admirable stick-to-itiveness.


Next: Chapter 20 — The snowy gauntlet: What an idiotic bet taught me about redefining success

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Chapter 1 — The coin flip: What a cancer diagnosis taught me about life exploding into a bazillion pieces

Chapter 2 — The slip-up: What a puddle of puke taught me about asking for help

Chapter 3 — The Great Burning: What a million paper monsters taught me about things going up in smoke

Chapter 4 — The crayon candle: What the lamest science project ever taught me about putting in the extra effort

Chapter 5 — The Christmas concert: What starring as a tree taught me about finding my voice

Chapter 6 — The “Super Something:” What blood and glue fumes taught me about vulnerability

Chapter 7 — The dare: What wearing a clay helmet taught me about bad habits

Chapter 8 — The cannonball: What Meghan in the mud taught me about letting go

Chapter 9 — The fireball: What a flaming tennis ball taught me about nurturing imagination

Chapter 10 — The frying pan: What towel-snapping taboos taught me about pushing your luck

Chapter 11 — The haybale: What a tough day in the barn taught me about having someone to watch your back

Chapter 12 — The babysitting gig: What banshee babies and buttered butts taught me about failing forward

Chapter 13 — The sledgehammer: What a construction job taught me about using the right tools

Chapter 14 — The cement truck: What a misguided act of heroism taught me about good intentions

Chapter 15 — The valet: What a parking disaster taught me about overconfidence

Chapter 16 — The growl: What a wolf in the woods taught me about knowledge and responsibility

Chapter 17 — The shortcut: What a hike through stinging nettles taught me about cutting corners

Chapter 18 — The backpack: What a giant duffel bag taught me about band-aid solutions

Chapter 19 — The big freeze: What camping in a snowstorm taught me about knowing when to quit

Chapter 20 — The snowy gauntlet: What an idiotic bet taught me about redefining success

Chapter 21 — The Christmas tree: What a holiday hunt taught me about overkill

Chapter 22 — The BB gun: What my dad getting shot in the eye taught me about owning up to our mistakes

Chapter 23 — The toboggan hill: What sledding battles taught me about approaching problems from different angles

Chapter 24 — The train: What a trip to the big city taught me about self-sabotage

Chapter 25 — The mushy cauliflower: What dinner in France taught me about the power of words

Chapter 26 — The shopping cart: What an unusual ride to the bar taught me about control

Chapter 27 — The butt clay: What a muddy gully battle taught me about karma

Chapter 28 — The president: What Bill Clinton getting in my way taught me about adaptability

Chapter 29 — The Taipei middle way: What a hostile hostel taught me about moderation

Chapter 30 — The refugee camp: What volunteering in Ghana taught me about digging deeper

Chapter 31 — The bus ride: What a long drive through the mountains taught me about patience

Chapter 32 — The barn: What a Christmas sleepover taught me about keeping your fires stoked

Chapter 33 — The list: What farts and sandwiches taught me about gratitude

Chapter 34 — The birthday: What a surprise celebration in the hospital taught me about self-care

Chapter 35 — The goodbye: What a man named Frank taught me about luck

Chapter 36 — The bloody transformation: What going from negative to positive taught me about change

Chapter 37 — The school of hard knocks: What life’s misadventures taught me about blunderful resilience