China Hole in Henry Coe State Park

Gear Review: MSR TrailShot Microfilter

Over Mother’s Day Weekend (also known on social media as Hike Like A Girl 2017 weekend), I took a backpacking trip to Henry Coe State Park in Northern California.  This was the inaugural trip of my new Meetup.com backpacking group known as the Bay Area Backpacking Bettys.  Three of us spent three days trekking through spring-time bliss.

Gorgeous rocks, water and flora in Henry Coe State Park.
Gorgeous rocks, water and flora in Henry Coe State Park.
Henry Coe State Park is known for being ridiculously rugged and steep, and also very hot and dry.  It’s tough any time of year, and completely unforgiving in the summer.  But in the spring, it comes alive with wildflowers, verdant valleys, and flowing creeks and streams.  If you can stomach the steep ups and downs, there aren’t many more gorgeous and remote areas in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Jessica and Serena pause at the start of a 5 mile uphill slog.
Jessica and Serena pause at the start of a 5 mile uphill slog.
Before leaving for the trip, I was pondering my two filters and lamenting that neither one was what I wanted to bring.  I own an MSR gravity filter, which is ideal for group trips but is very bulky (and annoying to back flush).  I also own a Sawyer MINI, which I really dislike for many reasons despite its popularity.

I was at REI picking up a few essentials when I first saw the MSR TrailShot Microfilter. It caught my eye because it looked … odd.  There wasn’t a lot of info on the box about how it worked, so I looked on my phone and saw that it had just come out, in January 2017, and it was already receiving rave reviews.

I bought it for $49.50 at REI.

The TrailShot is advertised as “pocket sized”, and it is.  At just a hair above 5 ounces, it’s pretty light-weight and small.  The Sawyer MINI is lighter, at just 2 ounces, but that doesn’t include the other equipment you need to carry to use it properly (special Sawyer squeeze bags or a dedicated non-rigid plastic bottle for dirty water and a back flush syringe – Sawyer doesn’t list the wight of those items). The TrailShot is comprised of a hose and a “bulb” filter (think: blood pressure cuff bulb).  The hose wraps around the bulb and is secured with a wide rubber band when not in use.  There are no moving parts to break.

MSR TrailShot Filter
The TrailShot: Small, lightweight, compact and unique.
To operate the filter, you simply place the bottom of the hose into your water source and squeeze the bulb.  Water gets sucked into the bulb as you pump, forced through the filter component and then emerges out of the angled nozzle with cap.  You can spin the nozzle so it angles perfectly for filling a bottle or bladder.

MSR claims you can filter a liter of water in about 60 seconds, and this is definitely true.  The bulb is very easy to squeeze and refills quickly.  I was worried that filling my 3-liter bladder might tire out my hand with all that squeezing, but it wasn’t bad at all.  I did have to experiment a bit with the way I held the bulb for maximum efficiency. I switched hands halfway through, but I really didn’t need to.  Filling up a full 3-liter bladder was quick and easy, especially when compared to the MINI.

The MINI is a pain in the you-know-what.  It requires you to fill a bag or flexible plastic bottle with water, attach the Squeeze filter and then squeeze the dirty water through the filter and into a clean water bottle or bladder (or right into your mouth). So, you need a dedicated “dirty” receptacle at all times.

Sounds easy enough, right?  It’s not.  Squeezing the dirty water through the filter is not only time-consuming, but it is difficult!  You’re going to squeeze the heck out of your plastic bottle or soft-sided mylar bag to filter water.  It takes too long and it’s super-duper annoying and very frustrating. I often worry I’m going to pop the mylar bag because I have to squeeze so hard. I seriously get pissed off at the process.

The Squeeze gets harder to use when it’s clogging up, which seems to happen regularly, even with silt-free water (happened twice on a two-day trip).  Then you have to back flush it, which requires clean water and a special plunger syringe that comes with the filter.  If you just realized the filter has gotten abysmally slow, you’ll need to work hard to filter enough clean water just to back flush it.  Never back flush a MINI with dirty water.

Everything you need to operate a Sawyer MINI
Everything you need to operate a Sawyer MINI
I only filtered three liters of water through the Squeeze one time and I never want to do it again. Just filtering 16 ounces was a laborious task.

With the TrailShot, it takes very little effort to filter water and is much, much faster.  Perhaps the best part about the TrailShot is the back flushing.  If you feel like the filter is slowing down (which didn’t happen to me over three days of filtering in Henry Coe), you simply pump dirty water into the bulb, filling it about half way, and then shake it around for 20 seconds.  Then you detach the hose from the bottom of the bulb and pump the dirty water out.  VOILA! The filter is clean.  No need for clean water.  No extra items to bring with you. No physical effort required. Mind blown.

Another thing I love about the TrailShot is the hose.  You just drop it into your water source (even a puddle if necessary) and pump.  With the MINI, you have to first GET the water into a bottle or bag, which is often very difficult.  Since the MINI threads onto a standard water bottle or one of Sawyer’s mylar bags, this means you have to get your water into the bottle or bag (one comes with the filter).  But with such a small opening, this is challenging.  The Sawyer bags take forever to fill because they are soft-sided and float.  You have to blow air into them first to create an air pocket so that water can even get inside.  If you sink it too deep, the pressure from the water around it forces the air out and then no water can get in.  A plastic water bottle works better IF the water source is flowing and/or deep.  Not-so-easy otherwise.

Good luck if your water source is a puddle!  Yes the MINI comes with a straw so you can suck water up from the puddle in an emergency, but you won’t be taking any with you.

With the TrailShot, you can filter water directly into your mouth, or you can fill any type of bottle or bladder. You can also filter water directly through your bladder’s hose if you want.

The TrailShot filter lasts for 2,000 liters.  If you filter two liters of water per day when you backpack, that’s 1,000 days of backpacking.  If you always did three-day trips, that would be 333 long weekend trips of water. If you take five long weekend trips per year, this filter would last you 66 years.  Now, the MINI lasts for a truly whopping 100,000 GALLONS, which is 378,541 liters, so there is, truly, a significant difference! But I would rather replace the TrailShot every 50 or 60 years than use the MINI for a zillion years.

Jessica celebrates the late afternoon light inside a canyon.
Jessica celebrates the late afternoon light inside a canyon.
There is a downside to the TrailShot – but just one.  There is no carbon filter built into the filter.  Many filters have carbon inside. The carbon helps to remove the bad taste associated with stagnant pond water, puddles, etc.  But, again, I’m OK with that.  I think the ease of use and versatility of the TrailShot far outweigh this one downside. Still, I do hope MSR adds one in the future.

The TrailShot is my new best friend on the trail.  I’m not sure why or when I would ever break out the MINI again.  The weight difference, when you include the extra “stuff” needed to operate the MINI, is minimal or perhaps even non-existent .  Pumping water is a breeze and quick with the TrailShot. Back flushing is a piece of cake. Lastly, I know I’ll have safe drinking water even if there are only puddles or trickles.

Be still my heart … a filter I can finally love.

Disclaimer: All filters mentioned in this post were purchased by me with my own money. I was not compensated in any way for this review. All opinions are my own. 

Next Up: Backpacking Stoves

In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes; so with present time. – Leonardo da Vinci

Stopping for a poo break in the Boundary Waters of MN

Everybody Poops: Digestion in the Outdoors

In my last post I discussed making your own backpacking food, so it makes logical sense to post about what to do with that food when it comes out!

If you are going to backpack, you’ll need to get over any squeamishness you may have about bodily functions.  They happen and they are hard to hide on the trail.  There are definite, clear-cut rules regarding how the process of elimination should be handled, and then there are personal choices.  I’ll try to cover both.

Peeing is pretty simple, especially if you are male.  There are things to consider, however, regardless of your genitalia.  You should never pee near a water source. Although specific park rules and regulations may vary somewhat, be sure you are at least 200 ft. (about 70 adult steps) away from any water source when you pee.  This protects the water and the organisms and animals that live in it.  Remember – you filter or treat water to drink and you don’t want people peeing in your drinking water!  So don’t pee in someone else’s.  By the way, the 200-foot rule also applies to poop (and bathing and washing dishes or clothes).


Women and peeing

There is much discussion as to how this is best handled.  Most women remove their packs, find something to hide behind, pop-a-squat and let loose.  Me? I rarely take my pack off because I want the extra challenge of doing the squat (and standing back up) with my heavy pack on. Or perhaps I’m just lazy.

Some brave women use a device designed to let a woman pee like a man.  That is: standing up and through the fly.  There are a surprising number of products on the market to make this happen, and women who use them debate as to which is better. I tried the pStyle, and it was not pretty.

I tried. But I failed to pee with this without embarrassing (hilarious) results!

 

Like the box recommended, I first tried it in the safety of my own home. Easy enough.  No problem.  I peed standing up and it all went into the toilet!  I was an expert after just one try …

… or so I thought.  On day 2 of my John Muir Trail trip, I was hiking with two male strangers quite a bit older than myself.  I had to pee really badly, but we kept meandering through open meadows with nowhere to hide.  So I finally used my pStyle.  I ducked behind a skinny tree for some semblance of privacy, unzipped my fly and attempted to replicate my one use of the device at home.

Things seemed to be going OK for about 4 seconds.  Pee was funneling down the pStyle like it was supposed to.  Suddenly, I felt that signature, unwelcome warmth down both legs.  Uh oh! I had only been getting some of my pee into the pStyle!  The rest was flowing down my legs.  Flowing.  Did I mention both legs?  My hiking pants were soaked.  My legs were wet.  I stopped, mid-stream, and resorted back to the tried-and-true squat to finish, no longer caring if my new friends saw me peeing.

Then I did what any self-respecting woman stuck in the wilderness with two strange men would do: I stepped out from behind my tree and announced that I had pissed all over myself.  Oddly enough, they seemed unfazed and we continued on our way. I washed my pants that night and ditched the pStyle in a trash can at Tuolumne Meadows.  I wasn’t going to carry that extra couple of ounces all the way to the top of Mt. Whitney!  I don’t blame the pStyle, and neither should you.  Practice, practice, practice.

My terrible sister catches a photo of me doing the deed.

Wiping is another issue women must decide on.  Some women do a little post-pee ‘twerking’ move to drip off as much as they can, and that’s it.  Others carry a pee rag.  Yes, a pee rag.  This is actually what I do.  Liteload makes these nifty 12″x12″ compressed towels that open up and expand with water. They’re disposable, but durable.  I wet one slightly to decompress it and use it throughout the day to lightly dab myself.  Some women hang their pee rag on their packs to let the UV rays kill the germs and keep it sanitized (which is a legit method but is just a little too “in your face” for me).  I just fold my pee rag in on itself after each use and keep it in my pocket.  I wash it at the end of each day.  On longer trips, I break open a new Liteload towel every few days.

 


Pooping, for both sexes, gets a tad more complicated.  You can’t hide the fact that you are going to poop. Go ahead and try, and good luck to you.  You know what’s up when you see a fellow backpacker wander off into the woods, alone, with a bag of “supplies”.  They are going to poop and everyone knows it.  So get over any worries about privacy real fast.  It ain’t gonna happen.

Pooping in the wilderness is a joy.  Haven’t done it?  Just wait – you’ll see.  The views are frequently incredible and the birds chirping while you squat and do the deed make it sublime.  In case you didn’t know (and why would you?), science says that squatting to poop creates a better, more nature angle in your colon, making elimination easier and more “complete” (Be sure to watch this Squatty Potty commercial for proof!).  Also, your entire digestive system is working like a champ because of all that walking and healthy food (assuming you made it yourself).

My husband is a meanie!

All poop must be buried and you’ll need a tool for digging the hole.  Some people use thick sticks, but what if none are available?  Instead of buying a special pooping shovel (called a “cat trowel” or “cat-hole trowel”), just buy a tent stake designed for snow camping.  They are super lightweight, incredibly cheap and take up very little space. Plus, they just work well.

 

Make sure you dig the hole at least 6 to 8 inches deep.  Make it deeper or wider as needed (only you know how big your hole needs to be).  Your waste should be truly buried when you are done.  In most places, your hole must also be big enough to accommodate your toilet paper, so keep that in mind when digging.

In some wilderness areas, TP must be packed out.  No burying it.  There are several reasons why, but it’s important enough that I pack out my TP on ALL trips, even if it isn’t required, because it’s just the right thing to do.  Where do you put your used TP? In a zip-lock bag.  And then put that bag into another bag.  Want to be super environmentally conscience? Wipe with what the good earth provides – leaves, sticks, stones.

What about biodegradable TP, you ask? In areas where TP must be packed out, that goes for biodegradable TP as well.  No exceptions.  Don’t be the selfish ass-hat who breaks the rules.  Despite all those participation trophies, you’re not special.

Make sure you have hand sanitizer and please – for the love of God, PLEASE – use it every time you go to the bathroom.  Most stomach illnesses on the trail are due to poor hygiene among hikers.  Gross.  Giardia sucks.  Don’t spread giardia.  Read my post on backpacking equipment for a nifty, homemade sanitizer hack.

In some heavily-protected areas, you have to pack your actual poop out, not just your TP!  These areas are rare and usually you are given a special WAG (waste and gel) bag to put your poop in.  Don’t think about this too much (it’s gross).  And it’s rare, so moving on …

Here’s another tip: don’t burn your used TP!  This happened to me once. A woman was running out of room in her zip-lock bag for TP, so she just started burning it on the group’s fire, without telling anyone first!  Don’t do that.  TP “embers” can also drift and start wildfires.

So there you have it! Everything you never wanted to know about pooping and peeing in the wilderness. Life skills, people. Life skills.

Next up: I’ll cover more Leave No Trace principles.

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. – William Butler Yeats

Dehydrating Veggies

Backpacking Food: How and Why I Dehydrate

You may have heard that “food tastes better on the trail”.  It’s true, and there’s a scientific explanation: Our bodies go through a physiological response to being in nature.  Changes in blood pressure, pulse rate, heart rate, salivary cortisol and hemoglobin in the brain’s prefrontal cortex stimulates the parasympathetic branch of our nervous system.  The parasympathetic branch is sometimes called the “rest and digest” branch, and when it kicks in, food tastes A-MAZING.

Homemade backpacking food.
I don’t recall what this was, but it was YUMMY! Photo: Andrea Ou

But food is also fuel, so we should pay close attention to what we stick in our mouths while backpacking to give our bodies their best chance at strength, recovery and adaptability so we’ll feel more comfortable and have less aches and pains (training helps, too).

There are lots of companies that prepare and sell dehydrated food for backpackers.  Some are organic.  Some are labeled as “gourmet”.  Some are all-natural.  And many are pure, ultra-processed junk.  Aside from the quality, these pre-packaged foods are designed using a one-size-fits-all approach.   Almost every offering is packaged for what the company defines as “food for two people”.

But some people are bigger or smaller than others and metabolism is different from one person to another.  My caloric needs on the trail are different than my husband’s or my 10-year-old son’s.  These foods also don’t take into account how many miles you accomplished in one day, or how long your trip is.

When I backpack solo, or in a group of people I’m not sharing food with, I can eat about 1.5 servings of pre-packaged food before I feel like vomiting.  And since I have no Tupperware nor a fridge, I can’t keep the leftovers.  If no one else wants them, then what?  I’ve made myself sick trying to force the extras down.  I’ve had to dig holes to bury what’s remaining in the bag (you boil water and pour it directly into the bag).  What a waste of food – and money!

So I stopped buying backpacking food and set out to make my own.  I found it really wasn’t difficult and in the long run is way cheaper than buying the pre-packaged stuff.  Plus, it’s much healthier.  I once dehydrated enough food for three people for an entire thru-hike of the John Muir Trail (22 days of food for three).

Resupply on the JMT
Dehydrated food and other snacks for three people for one leg of the JMT

When you dehydrate foods, it takes a long time, so you can just set it and forget it! I dehydrate one batch while I’m at work, then a different batch while I sleep.  And so on until I’m done.

First step: buy a dehydrator.  Any dehydrator will do, but if you can afford to be choosy, choose the biggest one you can get with a temperature selector.  Many low-end models have only one temperature setting.  Also, I highly recommend you buy one in the shape of a square.  Many dehydrators are circles, and I just don’t get that.  There’s so much more room when the trays are square! I have the Nesco FD-80A and love it.

Next, make sure you buy the recommended tray inserts, both the mesh kind and the solid, plastic, non-stick trays. If you read articles about using parchment paper instead of non-stick trays, ignore them! It’s WAY easier to use the trays and, depending on what you are dehydrating, parchment WILL NOT WORK.

Now you need ingredients. To save a ton of time and money, buy chopped, frozen veggies – I buy organic.

Dehydrating Veggies
Dehydrating trays of healthy veggies.

I also dehydrate grass fed ground beef and bison, as well as organic chicken.  Two important tips here: 1) All ground red meat must be pre-cooked with breadcrumbs before dehydrating AND 2) All chicken must come from a can.

Pre-cooking ground meat allows you to break it into tiny pieces.  Otherwise, you would be trying to dehydrate chunks.  The bread crumbs don’t alter the taste and are included to absorb and rehydrate the meat when you add water on the trail.  Regular chicken just doesn’t dehydrate well.  Canned chicken is pressure-cooked in the can, and for reasons way above my pay grade, it dehydrates perfectly.  When you re-hydrate and cook it on the trail, you won’t notice it was ever in a can!

I also dehydrate herbs and leafy veggies like kale and Swiss chard.  I love adding dehydrated onions to my recipes, but make sure you dehydrate those when you aren’t at home because your whole house will stink (I actually have some dehydrating in my garage as I write this!).  Many people make their own beef jerky, but I haven’t done that yet.  Not enough time!

You can dehydrate pasta sauce, salsa, cooked/blended beans and even enchilada sauce.  When dehydrated, these can be broken up and added to recipes.  Try dehydrating mashed potatoes instead of buying the store-bought, processed crap.  My sister once made me Mexican mole sauce and that dehydrated well, too.  Watch the fat content of your meats and sauces – oils and fats don’t dehydrate easily and can spoil.

For pasta and rice dishes, cook them like normal and THEN dehydrate them.  Dehydrated brown rice cooks up on the trail in just a few minutes.  If you brought un-cooked brown rice on the trail, it would take forever.  Try other grains like faro, barley and wild rice, too.  Again, always cook first, then dehydrate. (Try cooking in chicken or beef broth for added flavor when re-cooking on the trail.)

Look online or buy a book for recipes and inspiration.  I buy powdered whole milk (the extra fat is good and it tastes better), powdered coconut milk, curry powders, spices and other flavorings to make my meals. On Amazon, you can buy bulk powdered cheese sauce (like the kind in a box of mac-and-cheese).  When combined with powdered milk, and perhaps even some powdered butter, you can make an amazing beefy mac-and-cheese on the trail! My favorite meal ever is mango chicken curry with veggies and rice.  It’s amazing!  The enchilada sauce one-pot meals are great, too.

Powdered Milk
NOT cocaine! Powdered milk for backpacking breakfasts of muesli.

If you like to eat packaged ramen on the trail, give it some actual nutritional value by adding some dehydrated meat and veggies.  You can also buy powdered eggs (this link takes you to the only tasty brand), add dehydrated veggies and/or meat, sprinkle some powdered cheese on top and have an amazing scramble in the back country (this requires a stove that allows for a simmer and a small pan as a pot doesn’t have enough surface area)!

Packaging the food is a bit of an art and you should follow your recipe’s instructions for how-to’s.  For small things, like a pine nuts or flavorings you want to add at the end of the cooking process, cut snack-sized baggies in half and tape up the cut end.  Write cooking instructions on a piece of paper towel or napkin and slip that inside your main bag.  Now you have instructions and a napkin! Remember: you’ll need to pack out your trash so bring a large bag for that purpose or use the bags your food was packed in.

One potential downside to cooking your own food is that you’ll need to cook it in your pot, thereby requiring you to clean the pot after each meal.  You may meet backpackers who insist you can pour boiling water directly into your zip lock bag of dehydrated ingredients.  Please don’t listen to these people!  Time and time again, scientists have proven beyond a shred of a doubt that this practice is dangerous and unhealthy.  You can actually buy special bags designed for boiling food, but they are rather thick and bulky, which make them tough to pack into a backpack or bear canister.

I store my ingredients in mason jars or freezer-type plastic bags in the freezer until I’m ready to make meals out of them.  Many people buy a vacuum sealer and package their trail food that way.  I haven’t made that investment yet and find that plastic baggies work just fine.  I use freezer bags because they are thicker and less likely to puncture from some sharp piece of dehydrated food.

Jars of dehydrated food
Mason jars and freezer bags for storing dehydrated ingredents.

When I’m on the trail, my meals are the envy of everyone I meet!  They are nutritious, delicious and satisfying and help me perform at my best.

A crude meal, no doubt, but the best of all sauces is hunger. – Edward Abbey

Bear Country

That One Time I Fended Off a Bear

From time-to-time, I like to break away from practical tips and advice and, instead, exercise my creative writing skills.  This is a 100% true story from my time on the John Muir Trail in 2015.  Sadly, both the bear and her cub were put down at the end of that season.  No one to blame but ourselves. 

 

“Have you been warned about the bear?” the ranger asked after we exchanged pleasantries?

“Yes,” I said, “the ranger at the wilderness office told me all about her.”

“Did they tell you she targets solo female backpackers?”

“Yeah, that’s what they said,” I replied.

“Did they tell you to put pots on top of your bear canister at night and to find other people to camp with?” Yes, and yes, they had.  The ranger imparted a few more tips and continued on his way.

As I continued to catch my breath while munching on my GORP, I started to get worried.  Everyone was so concerned about this bear and making it clear she targeted female backpackers.  Was I actually going to run into her?  And what would I do if I did?


I had just started out that morning for a thru-hike of the John Muir Trail and was inching my way up the grueling trail from the Yosemite National Park valley floor to the top of Nevada Falls when I ran into this ranger.  But, I had first heard about the she-beast bear when I picked up my coveted permit the day prior.  The ranger in the wilderness office had walked me through the park rules and regulations for wilderness backpackers, checked to be sure I had my bear canister and then asked where I planned on sleeping my first night on the trail.

“Here,” I said, pointing to an area just east of the base of Half Dome on his worn out map.

“Find some others to camp with,” he said.  “We’re having a bit of a bear problem in that area.”

The ranger explained that a mother bear with a cub had started targeting backpackers for their food.  She would leave the cub behind to do her dirty work, and she was smart!  She was rolling bear canisters over cliffs in an effort to crack them open and would swipe food from right under backpackers’ noses in broad daylight.  Furthermore, she had figured out that solo, female backpackers were more likely than groups or solo males to give up their food and run away.

The problem had grown so bad that the National Park Service decided to station a ranger in that area at all times to educate unsuspecting backpackers and provide assistance should the bear make one of her almost daily appearances.  Because she was no longer foraging for her own food, her cub had only learned how to steal from backpackers and could not survive properly in the wild.  Both creatures would be put down by the end of the summer.  Apparently relocation would not work as they were too conditioned toward humans and our scrumptious smells and foods.

I asked the ranger what to do if I became the bear’s next target.  He told me to stand my ground.  He told me to look as big as I could, make a lot of noise and throw pinecones or small sticks at her.  He also told me not to give up and not to let her have my food, UNLESS she was already on it.  Then, he said, run like hell!

Other than running like hell, I wasn’t sure I could do the other things he suggested.  Throw things?  At a bear?  That just sounds like you’re inviting trouble.  What if she gets pissed?  I know I would!

After receiving my marching orders, I headed out.  As I began my thru-hike on the famously scenic Mist Trail, I pondered this bear.  I knew that her problem was our fault.  If we humans practiced better food safety, weren’t complacent and didn’t give in quite so easily, she would live past the summer and a cub would grow up.  After all, we were in her territory and she was simply being resourceful.

I also got angry at the women who had hiked before me.  This bear had learned to target women because, from her point of view, women were weak.  She was statistically more likely to get her free food from females.  Why had we women allowed that to be the case?  Shouldn’t men and women be equally afraid of bears?  And why should women be any more or less likely to back down in the face of fear?  Then I thought of all the women who can’t even be in the same room as a spider.  When it comes to critters, are we perhaps the weaker sex?

As I lay on a cool rock in the shade in a pointless attempt at cooling off, I decided I would not be one of those women.  I would stand my ground, if it came to that.  I was not going to make this bear’s problem worse, and I was not going to be weak.  She would not get a free meal from me!


The next morning I awoke with the sun alongside the tents of my newfound friends from the night before.  I took the rangers’ advice and found a group headed the other direction to camp with.  As the morning progressed, they each packed up and left.  Finally, it was just me and a man from South Korea who had hiked the John Muir Trail from the South.  Today was his final day.

The night before, as we discussed this bear, the Korean man had made it clear, with his heavy accent and limited English, that he was very afraid of bears and was thrilled not to have seen one on his entire 220-mile trip.

In a state of complete unawares and enjoying a false level of comfort, having made it through the night without incident, I spread my food out on the ground to plan the day’s rations.  I turned around and there it was: She-Beast.

The bear was about 50 feet away.  She was beautiful, really.  Kind of like a really big dog.  She looked kind.  She wasn’t growling or reared up on her hind legs.  She was just standing there, looking at me.  Sizing me up, almost inquisitively.

“Bear!” I yelled, as loudly as I could.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the South Korean man flee with his pack half dragging on the ground.  Great.  Now I was truly solo.  And last I checked, I was female.  So much for men being the stronger sex in the face of a bear encounter!  Chivalry is dead.

As the bear stood there, watching me, I looked down at my food, splayed out across the pine needle forest floor, and then back up to the bear.  I knew instantly I couldn’t’ possibly gather up all my food, shove it into the canister, and get the heck out of Dodge with her so close by.  I immediately assumed the most ridiculous position you could imagine. Half samurai warrior, half cartoon character.  I karate-chopped the air, did some ridiculous high kicks and started growling and making guttural noises.  It seemed like the best response at the time.

The bear, clearly undaunted by my tactics (antics?), started slowly walking towards me.  OK, I thought, what’s my next move?  I raised my arms over my head, my hands shaped like claws, and squared my shoulders to her approach.  I screamed.  I yelled.  She continued walking toward me.

I picked up a pine cone and hurled it at her.  A miss! I was never any good at baseball.  I picked up another one and threw it at her.  Dead hit, on the shoulder.  She didn’t pause.  She didn’t flinch.  She just crept closer. I picked up a stick, and not a small one, either.  I chucked it at her and it nailed her right in the face!  Nothing.  No effect.

Now Miss Thing was about 10 feet away from me.  Nothing I had done had stopped her approach.  Then, the smell hit me.  Dear God!  How can a creature born from Mother Earth smell so bad?!?!  It was like a toxic mix of musk, shit and decomposing animal combined into a bomb of odor.  The blast of it invaded my nostrils.  I could actually taste her smell, and I almost wretched.  Never had I desired to know what a wild bear smelled like.  I mentally added it to, and then crossed it off, my bucket list.

Now she was only about five feet away. She could have reached out and swiped me if she wanted.  It became clear to me that she was not going to stop.  She would just continue taking steps forward, knowing that, at some point, I would give up.  It also became clear to me that she might be right.  I had a breaking point, and she was about to find it.  How close could one get to a wild bear before one got attacked? Three feet? Two feet? At what point do you transition from brave to stupid? I didn’t want to be a statistic.

Just then, my hero arrived.  A woman who had camped in the same spot the night before hadn’t made it that far down the trail before hearing my banshee screams and crazy grunts.  She ran down the little side trail into the camping area, flinging off her pack as she came.   We made eye contact and knew what we needed to do, without speaking any words.

We stood, this unknown woman and I, shoulder to shoulder.  We screamed, we yelled, and we both threw whatever sticks and pinecones we could grab off the ground and hurled them at the hulk of a bear.  It began to work.  The bear started having second thoughts now that one had become two.  Just like in some cheesy movie scene, she actually took a few steps backwards.  This emboldened us.

Again without communicating, we both knew we needed to go on the offensive.  We began to step toward the bear as we carried out our theatrical display of toughness.  She turned around and trotted off, quite casually.  And so we chased, now overly confident.  And then, finally, she ran from us.  Hooray!  High-fives all around, and my mystery co-warrior then slung her pack on her back and took off, never to be seen again.

As frantically as I could, I began throwing my food and gear into my bag, to be unpacked and reorganized later.  Suddenly, the man from South Korea reappeared, looking chagrined.  Furious, I didn’t want to talk to him.  How could he leave me alone like that?

He smiled slightly, looked down at his feet and in a heavy accent said, “You are so brave!”  Miffed, I sarcastically yelled out, “Thanks a lot!”  The sarcasm apparently didn’t translate well as he replied, very seriously, “You are welcome.”  And then he, too, disappeared, never to be seen again.

Yeah, I fended off a bear.  I did that.  I had some help at the end, but she was also a solo female, not some burly man. I stood my ground and then we stood our ground.  I didn’t give in.  I didn’t make that poor bear’s problems worse.  I proved to her, myself and anyone who cared to listen (which was everyone I came across for the next two weeks) that women are strong enough to take care of business.

Only problem is, I can’t squeal and flee the room when I see a spider anymore – seems a tad ridiculous after standing my ground for a bear.

Lots of Backpackign Gear

Essential Gear Guide, Tips and Hacks

Simply put, backpacking gear can be hard to get right! In the world of backpacking, there is this triangle often referred to with regards to gear.  The three sides of the triangle are cost, comfort and weight.  Here’s how it works: things that are cheap tend to be either uncomfortable or heavy/bulky (or both!), while things that are very comfortable and/or very light tend to be very expensive!

Only you know the gear strategy that will work best for you. If you can afford it, get the very lightest, most comfortable gear you can find.  Assuming you are like most people and can’t shell out that kind of dough all at once, you’ll need to strategize.  If sleeping in comfort is of utmost importance to you, invest in a better, thicker sleeping pad and perhaps go cheap on a tent.  If having an incredibly lightweight tent is important to you, perhaps your sleeping bag can be a bit bulkier and heavier.  Does anyone really need a sub-3lb backpack for just weekend trips? And do you really need 850-fill down or will the cheaper 600-fill work just fine?

Tequila and Juice on the JMT
Some of the best “gear”! A gift from a trail angel on the JMT.

Bottom line is that most “wrong” gear decisions will not ruin your trip (unless you let them). Most people get what gear they can afford and upgrade over time.  Of course, buying used and on clearance is always an option, too.  Please see my “recommendations” page for more information on where to research and buy gear.

As someone who’s devoted more time to researching backpacking gear than I care to admit, part of the “problem” with backpacking gear information is that there is just SO much out there! It’s hard to know where to start or who to trust.  Sometimes we need to take things down to their most basic parts, and then go from there.

Here is a (very) lengthy list of essential gear items you need to experience successful backpacking trips. I’ve included some of my favorite gear as a starting point, and only if I truly love it, but what works for me is not necessarily right for you!  There are huge variations on all of the below, but I’m sticking with the mainstream basics here.

  • Backpack: First things first – go to REI or a similar store and get sized and fitted for free! This is crucial. A poor-fitting pack will ruin your trip, and there is a science to correctly adjusting all those straps. While there, try on a bunch of brands and see what you like, even if you don’t buy it there. TIP: Most regular backpackers (i.e., not ultralight thru-hikers) opt for the versatility of a 60-70 liter pack.
  • Rain Cover for Your Pack: Some packs come with this as an integrated attachment. I would cut that off as the cover might be heavy and it definitely wont work well. This doesn’t mean you need to buy a fancy rain cover; in fact, definitely don’t buy a fancy one. TIP: Instead, buy either a trash compactor liner bag OR a heavy-duty landscaping trash bag (Gorilla Glue Company makes the best ones and this is what I use). Use the bag to line the inside of your pack (a bag inside a bag!). Sure, your actual pack will get wet on the outside, but everything inside is going to stay dry.
  • Shelter: I recommend a regular tent. Go for a 2-person tent for a bit of extra space or if you will backpack with others. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE my Henry Shires Double Rainbow Tarptent, but you have to pay him extra to waterproof the seams or learn how to do it yourself from info online. TIP: Do add in the extra condensation barrier for a few extra $$.

    Double Rainbow Tarptent and NeoAir Pad
    My fabulous Double Rainbow and using my sleeping pad as a lounge chair.
  • Tent Footprint: This goes under your tent and protects it from damage from little rocks or sticks. In some situations, it may not be necessary, but why risk it? It also helps during rain. But do not get suckered into buying one of those expensive footprints that is matched to your specific tent! TIP: Instead, for just a few bucks, buy a piece of Tyvek from Amazon and cut it to size (a footprint should always be slightly SMALLER than your tent’s dimensions). Tyvek is amazing and has multiple uses in the event of an emergency on the trail.
  • Sleep System: This includes a sleeping bag or quilt (research the difference) and a sleeping pad (commonly inflatable). There are a zillion options out there. Know that the temperature rating of a bag is never going to be accurate. If the sleeping bag claims it is warm down to 30° F, don’t count on it! I hate sleeping bags and will be upgrading to a quilt. I really like my Therm-A-Rest NeoAir inflatable pad, though, because it’s super thick and very light (admittedly, it’s also expensive and a tad noisy, but still worth it). Camping pads and backpacking pads are very different. Camping pads are way too big and bulky for backpacking. TIP: Need a pillow? You can just use your down puffy jacket or other clothes. Or buy a pillow designed for backpacking.  I splurged in cost and got a heavenly, but bulky Nemo.
  • Cooking system: This includes a backpacking stove, gas canister, cooking pot, lighter and spork. I also carry a tiny, plastic, liquid measuring cup (1/4 cup) and a lighter. The main consideration here is: do you want to be able to simmer, or only boil? Most backpacking food simply requires boiling water and pouring it into the bag. I usually dehydrate my own food and like to simmer sometimes, so pay attention to what you’re buying as many cooking systems don’t allow for a simmer. I use the MSR Micro Pocket Rocket stove (cheap and reliable) and I love it. TIP: For pots, some finishes stick, some don’t. If you are boiling water, who cares, but if you are cooking food in the pot then a non-stick finish is critical!

    MSR Micro Pocket Rocket
    Love my MSR Micro Pocket Rocket!
  • Water: The essence of life! There are lots of great options for filtering or purifying water and I still haven’t found the perfect one for me. I have an MSR gravity filter (best for groups but bulky and heavy) and a Sawyer Mini filter (not good for filtering a bunch of water at once). I also have used just Aquamira purifying drops or tablets in the Sierras since the water isn’t gritty. My next purchase will be a UV purifier – super simple for one liter of water, not so good for a big bladder of water. TIP: I ALWAYS carry water purifying drops or tablets as a backup and insist you do the same! Safety first.
  • Rain Clothing: This is a tough one. Do NOT believe the hype – nothing is waterproof AND breathable. Not even Gore-Tex’s latest creations that claim otherwise. And rain gear is insanely expensive. I use Frogg Toggs. Crazy cheap, and they work (though it ain’t pretty). They aren’t very durable, however, but at this price, oh well! Fact is, you’re going to get wet if it’s pouring, there’s no way around it. TIP: Many thru-hikers wear rain skirts. Yes – skirts. The skirt allows the air in from underneath and can, therefore, be impenetrably waterproof without making you sweaty. I’ll move to this one day or perhaps make my own!

    Frogg Togg rain gear on laundry day
    When you do laundry on a thru-hike, this is all you have to wear! Frogg Toggs rock.
  • Footwear: I recommend you only shop at a place like REI with a very forgiving return policy. Footwear is a very personal, very subjective choice and, if you haven’t backpacked before, you’re liable to get it wrong! Many thru-hikers hike in trail runners. Great for them. They also carry tiny packs and very little gear. And if they hike the PCT, trail runners work great for the soft desert and then many hikers make the switch to something more durable/stable in the Sierras. I tried nine – literally nine – pairs of shoes and boots before I found the right ones for me (sorry, REI!). I ended up with a pair of Oboz and they’re the best (for me). Contrary to what you might think, you do NOT want to feel the trail beneath your feet when you are carrying 35+ lbs over long distances and rough terrain. My feet rarely hurt at the end of a day of backpacking. TIP THAT I CAN’T EMPHASIZE ENOUGH: Always buy your backpacking shoes at least one full size bigger than you normally wear! This will prevent your toenails from falling off when hiking downhill and as your feet swell – trust me.
  • Camp/River Shoes: You will likely have to cross streams and you don’t want to do that in your hiking shoes or boots. Going barefoot is sometimes too dangerous or slippery. Some people wear just socks for extra grip and it washes your socks at the same time! But depending on the stream bed, this could cause a twisted ankle. I carry Keen’s for water crossings. As for comfort, I love my Oboz so much I rarely feel a need to take them off around the campfire. TIP: Most people carry a pair of hiking sandals for water crossings and/or comfy camp shoes for the end of a long day.
  • Socks: I recommend you always wear two – a liner and a hiking sock made of a wool blend. The liner prevents blisters in two ways: 1) the liner wicks all that sweat out to the outer sock, keeping your feet dry(er) and 2) the liner creates a barrier between all that friction going on between the shoe and the outer sock. My absolute favorite liners are the Injinji toe sock liners. Can’t say enough about these weird socks. It’s all I wear anymore. Wool blended, outer hiking socks rock! Wool really inhibits bacterial growth, so they don’t smell (or don’t smell as bad). Wool also dries very quickly so washing them is a cinch. Never wear cotton or cotton blend socks because cotton doesn’t dry easily and doesn’t wick away sweat. TIP: I always bring three pairs of socks and two pairs of liners. One pair of socks is dedicated for sleeping. I wash a pair of socks and liners each night.
  • Sun protection: Always important, but especially if you hike at higher altitudes where the sun’s rays are stronger. This could consist only of sunblock, but I’m not a fan of slathering that goo on day-after-day with no shower! I generally opt for protective clothing, and I most frequently wear an SPF, long sleeve, wicking button down. It really doesn’t make me any hotter than I would be. I also have one of those caps with side and rear flaps. Again, none of this is pretty, but who cares? TIP: I recommend sunglasses with polarized lenses because they’re better for appreciating nature’s impressive array of colors and seeing deep into alpine lakes!

    Sun protection on the trails
    No skin cancer for me!
  • Hiking poles: I honestly don’t know how or why anyone would backpack without poles! Even with a perfectly-adjusted pack, your center of gravity is a bit off. Poles are an essential piece of safety gear for me as they have saved me from rolling an ankle more times than I can count. And when I have actually fallen, they allowed me to break my own fall and fall slowly (elegantly, if you will). Also, poles help immensely on strenuous uphills and prevent knee pain on steep downhills. TIP: There is a very specific way to hold and use poles, and it’s not intuitive. Ask someone at REI or look on YouTube. Improper use renders them useless and makes you look goofy! (By the way, hiking poles also double as a weapon and add versatility to some tents, including my aforementioned Double Rainbow.)
  • First aid kit: YES! Consider the basics plus any medication you need. I also bring an antibiotic, Diamox (altitude medication) and Hydrocodone (or a similar narcotic). Next time you see your doctor, tell your doc what you are doing and ask what type of prescription he or she recommends, and then request a prescription. TIP: Start taking the Diamox two days before you reach elevation – do not wait for symptoms to start!
  • Poop: Shit happens. And when on the trail, you must handle it properly. In most places, poop and TP can be buried. In some places, TP must be carried out. You need a device for digging a hole, but instead of buying a poop shovel (yes, there is such a thing), just buy a single tent stake designed for snow camping. Snow stakes are very durable and much cheaper than a special shovel. And lighter, too! Bring biodegradable TP and scent-free sanitizer (you don’t want to attract bears!). If packing out your TP, like I do, bring good quality Ziploc bags. TIP: Sanitizer hack: buy 70% isopropyl alcohol. Regular alcohol evaporates too quickly to kill germs, but 70% is perfect. No scent. Super cheap. Buy a tiny spray bottle to put it in.
  • Headlamp: Nothing fancy needed here. TIP: Do buy one with a red lamp, though – much better for night vision and it won’t kill your fellow campers’ eyes!
  • Clothing: Less is more! You can really save weight here. TIP: For a three-day weekend, I only have one main outfit, two pairs of underwear and two sports bras. And my socks as above.
  • Jackets: This depends on the weather where you are going. Lightweight, puffy down jackets are all the rage for a reason – they provide exceptional warmth at a very low weight, and they’re compressible. But they are useless in wet weather. Fleece jackets are also wonderful for trapping heat and keeping you warm. TIP: As mentioned before, both types of jackets can double as pillows at night (unless it’s so cold that you need to wear them!).
  • Long underwear/base layers: Most backpackers pack base layers for both sleeping and for layering on cold days. Go for a wool blend set! They aren’t itchy, don’t smell, wash and dry easily and are versatile. They aren’t cheap but are worth it and can easily be found on clearance online and in stores. TIP: I like a 250 weight layer so I can be sure I’m warm when I want to be.

    Expiring the Tuolumne in my base layer
    It ain’t pretty, but I’ll explore in my base layers! Photo by Andrea Ou
  • Duct tape: You have to have this. Duct tape is good for blister prevention, but it’s also great for repairing holes in everything from your inflatable sleeping pad to your down jacket to your rain gear. Also a zillion other uses. TIP: Wrap plenty around your hiking pole or a water bottle instead of carrying a roll.
  • Mosquito “stuff”: In addition to repellent, consider a head net (requires a brimmed cap underneath) and/or mosquito repellent clothing. TIP: You can actually buy Permethrin to treat your clothing at home!
  • Map and compass: Always. TIP: A compass only helps if you actually know how to use it (in other words, take a class).
  • Essential/Desirable miscellaneous items: Safety pins, waterproof matches, cotton balls with Vaseline on them (best fire starter), emergency blanket, KT tape, etc. TIP: Search online for something called a “ten essentials” kit for ideas.
  • Bear “stuff”: Depends on where you are going. There are specific regulations for certain areas prone to bears. Bear canisters are required for lots of places. There are different types, the most popular (and my favorite) being the Bear Vault BV500 or BV450. You can usually rent bear canisters, too. There are also bear-proof sacks for hanging made by Ursack, but they aren’t allowed in some areas (usually because hanging food isn’t allowed). Bear spray is not permitted in many places, including the Sierra Nevadas, but bear spray is usually used in grizzly country, not black bear country. TIP: Some hikers wear bells while in bear country but, again, it’s more of a concern in grizzly areas than black bear areas and the sound can really be a buzz-kill.

    img_0450
    Tons of food and gear for the JMT. BV500 Canister.
  • Knife/Multipurpose tool: Take your pick. Make it a folding knife so as to not violate certain states’ laws. TIP: I carry a multipurpose tool so that I have little scissors, a knife, a toothpick, tweezers, etc., all in one.
  • Pack towels: I carry a small, microfiber towel for scrubbing myself at the end of each day. I also carry compressed, coin-shaped, reusable towels made by Liteload that expand in water. I carry at least one Liteload towel on every trip and use it for when I pee. This is a topic that could take up an entire blog post, but suffice it to say, I like to wipe so I don’t get an infection. I buy the hand towel-sized Liteloads and dab throughout the day and then wash the towel each night. TIP: I fold the towel in on itself after each use to keep it “fresh” for the next pee session, or attach the towel to the outside of my pack to let the UV rays sanitize it. Kinda’ gross, I know, but very common and it’s worked for me and many of my friends. (I once tried a ShePee device with VERY EMBARRASSING results, which is a story that I’ll tell another time!)
  • Whistle: Why not?

    pStyle female urination device
    I tried. But I failed to pee with this without embarrassing (hilarious) results!

This is a long list, but it’s by no means definitive and I’ve likely forgotten something. You’ll find variations all over the internet and people debating vehemently about this piece of gear or that piece of gear.  It’s a lot to consider and a significant number of things to purchase, which is why some people make their own gear!  But think of the cost of a one-week vacation, with flights and hotels and all that comes with traditional trips.  Once you buy your gear, the world is your playground and every trip you take is incredibly cheap compared to traditional vacations.

Questions? Use the comments section below to ask and I’ll answer as best I can or point you in the right direction.  Want to ask something private? Email me at bugbehiking@gmail.com.

The old school of thought would have you believe that you’d be a fool to take on nature without arming yourself with every conceivable measure of safety and comfort under the sun. But that isn’t what being in nature is all about. Rather, it’s about feeling free, unbounded, shedding the distractions and barriers of our civilization—not bringing them with us. – Ryel Kestenbaum, The Ultralight Backpacker: The Complete Guide to Simplicity and Comfort on the Trail