Pristine Gem Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness

Leave No Trace Principles

We go into the wilderness for many reasons, but one of them is for the pristine, unspoiled beauty of it all.  That is, until you see a bright orange peel on the ground, or a trail of pistachio shells, or a cigarette butt.  Sure, banana peels are biodegradable, but that doesn’t mean they belong in the wilderness.

Since 1994, the Leave no Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, commonly referred to as Leave No Trace (LNT), has been educating people about their recreational impact on the environment, as well as seven key ways they can prevent or minimize their impact.

Here’s an example of how our love for nature can cause inadvertent harm (which, ironically, completely undermines that love we have).  Mt. Whitney is the highest peak in the contiguous United States.  It’s not a technical climb and, as such, is extremely popular.  To protect the mountain and its environment, there is a stringent lottery-based permit system in place to control how many people can climb to the top.  But even with that control in place, the human impact on the environment was – in the not-so-distant past – “grossly” obvious.

Most people climb Whitney over two days.  Guitar Lake is the main staging area for a second-day summit attempt.  Almost everyone who climbs Whitney camps there.  At 11,460 feet up, Guitar Lake is in a difficult environment.  Not much lives or grows at that elevation, and what is there struggles to survive.  You won’t find bears or deer or many raptor that high up.  It’s a harsh environment for living things and houses a sensitive ecosystem.

Just a few years ago, you could smell Guitar Lake before you could see it.  Why?  Poop.  Poop everywhere.  At that time, backpackers were required to bury their poop.  But with the throngs of people calling Guitar Lake home for one night, and given its sensitive environment, the poop was piling up.  Little “flowers” of toilet paper could be seen poking out of the ground from improperly dug poop holes.  The stench was thick.  NOT what you expect when heading deep into the mountains.

Now, if you visit the Whitney zone you are required to carry and use a WAG bag for your poop and toilet paper.  WAG stands for “waste and gel”.  The military invented it, but it works great for Whitney and places like Whitney.  Yes, it’s a little gross to have to collect your poop in a bag and carry it with you, but the gel neutralizes the poop and, let’s face it, it’s better than smelling other people’s stink.  Problem solved … except it’s not.  Idiots who don’t belong in the wilderness will use the WAG bag, and then ditch the WAG bag behind a rock or tree.  WTF?!?!

WAG Bag
In super sensitive areas, poop goes in here.

That’s but one example of what we humans inadvertently (or purposely) do to our environment.  LNT principles are a guide, if you will.  They instruct us on living, temporarily, in the wild, and ensure that the wild areas stay wild for the next people.

There are seven principles of LNT, but some people live by way more than just these seven.  These basic tenets are critical to protecting the beautiful spaces we all love so much.  It’s your responsibility, née, your obligation, to do your part.

  1. Plan ahead and prepare.
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
  3. Dispose of waste properly.
  4. Leave what you find.
  5. Minimize campfire impacts.
  6. Respect wildlife.
  7. Be considerate of other visitors.
© 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: http://www.LNT.org.

I’m not going to go into all the points and sub-points for each of the Seven Principles.  For detailed information, please visit the LNT site.  I will mention a few key points I see many hikers and backpackers ignore or disrespect, either on purpose or due to ignorance.

Food waste: It might be biodegradable, but you probably don’t realize just how long it takes for a banana peel to degrade: TWO YEARS!  It’s also annoying to see that yellowish/brownish piece of waste in the middle of our pristine wilderness. And guess what? Animals don’t eat banana peels! Nor orange peels.  Nor sunflower seed shells.  It’s litter.  Here are the rates at which some commonly littered items degrade:

  • Paper bag – 1 month
  • Apple core – 8 weeks
  • Orange peel and banana skins – 2 years
  • Cigarette butt – 18 months to 500 years
  • Plastic bag – 10 to 20 years
  • Plastic bottle – 450 years
  • Chewing gum – 1 million years

    Hmmm...something does not belong in this photo.
    Hmmm…something does not belong in this photo.

Traipsing Through Alpine Meadows (Julie Andrews style): I already mentioned that high-elevation areas are fragile.  Alpine meadows are no exception.  They have a very short growing season and the grasses and other plants struggle to grow in the thin air.  Are alpine meadows gorgeous? For sure!  They are also critical and sensitive components of the entire mountainous ecosystem.

Don't be a Julie!
Don’t be a Julie!

When you walk across a meadow, you are contributing to its death.  One person walking across a pristine meadow isn’t so bad, but when hundreds of people do it every season, the damage can be extensive.  Stay on existing trails.  Do not be that jerk and stray off the trail for that perfect photo of a flower.  And do not sleep on meadow grasses! Many meadowy areas have already-ruined spaces where campers repeatedly set up tents over the years.  Those are the only areas you should use for camping – they are already dead.  Don’t ever create new camping areas, no matter how soft that grass looks.

For more detailed info about meadows and their critical importance to the health of the mountains, check out this informative article on the Yosemite National Park website.

Cairns: If you don’t know what a cairn is, think again — you likely do. It’s a pile of rocks, with the biggest on the bottom and smallest on top.  Ring a bell? People, for some reason, LOVE to make cairns. Cairns do have an important, viable use: they act as directional markers, helping us to navigate in areas with no trail or where the trail disappears over large swatches of rock.  Recently, I was backpacking through a snowy area and the only way I knew where to go (without using my GPS) was through the placement of cairns.  Super helpful (and perhaps life saving)!

But cairns with no purpose violate principles #4 and #7.

No, no, no, no, no!
No, no, no, no, no!

Leave what you find includes rocks.  Rocks provide shelter and homes for small bugs and critters. Leave them be!  And when I’m in the wilderness, I prefer not to see anything made by humans — and that includes senseless cairns.  Why do so many humans feel the need to leave their mark on our wild areas? Must we “decorate” these pristine places?  Non-directional cairns are an irony.  Don’t do it.  Don’t let your kids do it, either.

Audible Music: I don’t want to hear your music in the back country.  ‘Nuff said.

Biodegradable Soap: Just because it’s biodegradable does not mean it’s good for the environment! These popular soaps have no business in our wilderness streams and lakes.  In fact, they cause a whole host of problems, including increased levels of nitrogen and death to aquatic creatures (especially the tiny ones).  If you actually take the time to read the fine print on the back of soaps such as Campsuds, it tells you as much.  If you use soaps on the trail, don’t let it get into the waterways.  Wash/clean at least 200 feet from any water source and bury or disperse the soapy water.

The instructions matter!
The instructions matter!

These are just a few examples and tips, but there are so many more.  We are so lucky to have amazing, pristine, beautiful wilderness areas to enjoy.  But with that access comes responsibility.   Each of us needs to do our part to protect these sensitive environments for ourselves, for each other and for our children.  Please always do your part or, better yet, go above and beyond.  Educate yourself and others (LNT offers classes and workshops!).  Pick up trash when you see it.  Carry out your toilet paper, even when you aren’t required to.  The earth (and others) will thank you!

A good traveler leaves no tracks. – Lao-Tzu

 

A small pond partially flooded out our trail for a bit, but so beautiful!

Adaptability Is Critical: Trip Report

Every day I checked the weather, usually more than once, and every day, it changed — sometimes it changed multiple times per day!  It was still three days until my trip would start and I couldn’t keep up with the changing forecasts.

Two weeks ago, my husband, dog and I backpacked in the Stanislaus National Forest.  It was warm and gorgeous.  But now, the weather was calling for cold temps and potentially rain and/or snow.

This was problematic in that I was taking a group of women from my Meetup.com group backpacking for two days and one night and it had been planned for weeks now.  I had seven other women coming with me – the trip had to happen!

I emailed the women and let them know what the weather conditions would be like.  I asked them to be sure their sleeping bag and pad were rated to handle freezing or near-freezing temperatures, and to remind them to bring rain gear.   Almost immediately, one woman changed their RSVP to “no”.  Perfect.  I don’t want people coming who don’t have the proper equipment or who wouldn’t be comfortable.  That would be bad for everyone.

The next day, another woman dropped out.  She had called the ranger station and was told the route I had planned was impossible due to massive amounts of snow, frozen lakes and blocked roads.

I knew this was a bunch of B.S. given that we had heard the same misinformation from rangers two weeks earlier and had actually come across almost no snow below 8,000 ft. and no frozen lakes anywhere.

Besides, I always have a Plan B for situations like this: hike in a different area! Specifically, if we really couldn’t go the route I wanted to go, we would just switch over to the same route I took two weeks ago.

My husband and dog on our Memorial Day trip to the same general area.
My husband and dog on our Memorial Day trip to the same general area.

I sent another email out to the women letting them know rangers frequently had outdated or erroneous information and, surprisingly, could not always be trusted to have the latest info.  I let them know I had a Plan B (and C and D) in any case, and asked them to simply be flexible and adaptable.  Adaptability is pretty much a requirement for backpacking.

Four of us arrived at the Pinecrest Lake campground on Friday afternoon.  We had agreed to share a car camping site so we could be ready to go, nice and early, Saturday morning.  The other two women, incidentally, were no-shows.  Such is often the case with any Meetup.com group.

On Saturday morning, we learned that one member of our group was too cold overnight.  Knowing it would be even colder on the trail, she was ready to call it quits and go home.  But, instead, we convinced her to stay by having her share my tent for extra warmth and adding a warm water bottle to her sleeping bag before she got in.  Problem solved (we hoped).

The four of us marched into the ranger station and told the ranger we wanted our trip to start at the Crabtree Trailhead.  We were given the same info: the roads are snowed in, the trail is covered in snow and the lakes are frozen (spoiler alert, most of their info was wrong).

Armed with the info I had from backpacking in the area two weeks previously, I politely and respectfully let the ranger know I thought he had outdated info.

He was not swayed but let us know we could certainly give it a try, and he would be appreciative of updated info about the conditions out there when we were done.  The only hitch: the road was actually gated about 2.5 miles from the trailhead.

We four ladies had a quick chat.  We all agreed we preferred to have a bit of an unknown adventure rather than go to the same trailhead I had just been to two weeks earlier.  LOVE these ladies! Everyone was willing to be flexible and adaptable.

We set off and parked on the side of the road where it was gated.  A new problem popped up — one of the women’s water bladder seemed to have a small leak and had soaked the bottom of her pack.  We ditched her bladder and she brought a 2-liter water bottle instead.  Problem solved.

We hiked the 2.5 miles on clear pavement to the eerily empty trailhead parking lot and campground.  The road had no downed trees, only tiny patches of snow and no other obstacles.  Could have been opened for vehicles probably weeks earlier.

We
We “hike” the road amongst the giant trees and swirling fog. Photo: Jessica Cortes

We hit the trail and found it clear but certainly damaged from the brutal winter storms California had suffered in the very recent past.  There were a few downed trees across the trail here and there, and areas where unexpected streams had wiped out small sections.  But nothing was difficult to get around.   Water was everywhere!  Not only were the creeks flowing crazy fast, but the seasonal streams were roaring and there were countless streams and waterfalls in places where there shouldn’t have been.  It was beautiful and nothing was too difficult to get across.  Plus, snow was basically non-existent.

For sure, it was COLD!  Not miserably so, but just just cold enough to make layering problematic.  We would wear extra layers, but then the sun would decide to come out and we would quickly overheat.  We would remove layers, but then the sun would disappear or the biting wind would pick up.  Layers back on. The going was sometimes fast, sometimes slow as we found safe ways across crazy creeks or made our way around fallen trees.  Every one of us was a trooper and we enjoyed the remote feeling of it all — as if we were exploring uncharted areas.

We made it to Camp Lake, which we had been told was frozen solid.  Nope.  Wrong again.  The lake was completely thawed and there was very little snow anywhere.  Just water.  Water everywhere!  We found a dry campsite on the cliffs overlooking the lake and setup camp.

Aptly named Camp Lake where we made camp for the night.
Aptly named Camp Lake where we made camp for the night.

Being still early in the afternoon, three of us decided to ditch our heavy packs and do an out-and-back hike to Bear Lake — another 1.5 miles past Camp Lake.  The fourth woman decided to take advantage of the early quitting time and take a luxurious nap — smart woman!

The three of us set out and quickly started running into much larger patches of snow ranging from just a few inches deep and a few feet in length to depths of five feet spanning a few dozen feet.  The snow was hard packed and slippery, which made staying on the trail impossible at times.  But some other hikers had been out there and there were footprints to follow much of the time.

More problematic than the snow was the water.  The creek had completely swollen over its banks and had essentially flooded out the entire valley we hiked through.  The meadows were covered in water trying to flow to a legit stream or creek.  There were waterfalls coming off the cliffs into the valley, not into any kind of water way.  Tiny, unmapped ponds sometimes swallowed up our trail.

This is our trail...and also a seasonal creek.
This was our trail…and also a seasonal creek.

In many places, the water had smartly found the path of least resistance – our trail.  At times, the trail was under three feet of water and it was difficult to tell what was trail and what was a seasonal stream criss-crossing our trail. On more than one occasion, we had to use GPS to figure out where we were in relation to the trail.  But, eventually, we made it. It was all very doable and not too difficult.

Bear Lake was frozen! The rangers got one thing right.  The edges were clear of ice, but the majority of the lake was still solid.  For the life of us, we couldn’t figure out why.  We had only gone up maybe two-hundred feet in elevation since Camp Lake.  Bear Lake had full exposure to the sun for most of the day.  Why was it still so frozen when Camp Lake, roughly the same size and less exposed, was fully melted?

The rangers got this part right - Bear Lake was frozen!
The rangers got this part right – Bear Lake was frozen!

We enjoyed the stark beauty and the contrast between the lush greens of spring and the bright whites of winter.  After some time, we trudged back to Camp Lake, getting temporarily “lost” and breaking out the GPS more often than I care to admit.  That three mile out-and-back, sans packs, was more taxing than the six miles we had done to get to Camp Lake!

Back at our campsite, we cooked our dinners, made a fire (which was difficult since most everything was damp) and relaxed before bed.  As night fell, the temps dropped significantly.  For two of us, bedtime came early just to escape the cold!

Taylor and I soak up the warmth of our fire. Photo: Jessica Cortes
Taylor and I soak up the warmth of our fire. Photo: Jessica Cortes

When I went to change into my wool base layer (my PJs), I found that I had made an egregious mistake.  Back at the Pinecrest Lake car camping campground, I had two identical, orange ditty sacks — one held my car camping clothes from the overnight at Pinecrest Lake and the other held my base layers, gloves, warm hat and sleeping socks for backpacking.  Apparently, I had put the wrong ditty sack in my backpack and left the correct one in the car back at the trailhead!

Time for another Plan B.  For my torso, I slept in my t-shirt, fleece pullover and down puffy jacket.  For my legs, all I had were my thin hiking pants, so I added my rain pants.  Lord knows rain gear NEVER breathes as well as the manufactures would have you believe. Wearing rain gear when cold is a classic trick to beat the freezing temps.  I felt stuffed into my sleeping bag, but I was warm and cozy as the temps plummeted.

We woke up to dark, ominous looking skies and below freezing temps.  We all quickly agreed to forgo making breakfast in favor of packing up and heading out; we were too cold to sit still and eat!

My PJ's for the night as well as my clothes for hiking through hail.
My PJ’s for the night as well as my clothes for hiking through hail.

As we were packing, the hail started.  All we could do was be thankful it wasn’t rain and enjoy the special beauty it brought the forest.  The bright greens of the mosses and grasses were accentuated by the fog and lack of sun.  The tree tops were shrouded in a dense and drifting fog.  The hail tapped the ground, sounding more like rain on a tin roof.  It was cold and our plans were changing again, but we were energized by the unique beauty and feeling of adventure.

Our hike back to the cars was fast and it hailed on-and-off (but mostly on) for 2.5 hours.  I ripped my Frogg Togg rain gear climbing through downed trees and scooting my way across a river on a wet, slippery fallen tree, but we four ladies loved every moment of it (for the most part).

A hail
A hail “downpour” on the hike out.

Back at the cars, we changed into warm, dry clothes and shoes and got the car heaters going full blast.  A stop for burgers at a pub finished off the trip perfectly.

I don’t mean to imply that park rangers aren’t trustworthy – you should probably always listen to them.  But my experience two weeks earlier let me know they don’t always have the correct info. On this trip, they got one thing right: Bear Lake was frozen!  But we had alternate plans and a group of people willing to go with the flow.  Adaptability is the name of the game here.

You can, and should, plan your trips out as best you can.  But you must always be willing to be flexible.  Missing a piece of equipment? Improvise.  Need extra clothes? Wear everything you’ve got!  Worried about the trail conditions? Have a GPS app ready on your phone and know how to use a map and compass.

Don’t be rigid.  Don’t count on everything going according to plan.  In fact, it most likely won’t, and that’s OK!  It’s not a real adventure if everything goes perfectly and nothing unexpected ever happens.

Wherever you go, no matter what the weather, always bring your own sunshine. – Anthony J. D’Angelo

 

 

 

 

 

Backpacking Stoves: Which One is Right for Me?

Why, oh why, does selecting backpacking gear always require sifting through so many choices? There are so many companies with so many offerings, and just as many opinions.  Of course, backpacking stoves are no different.  Analysis paralysis can easily set in when you start learning about your options.

For this post, I’m going to briefly outline the types of cooking technology out there and then make a firm recommendation.


The first thing to decide is if you need a stove at all!  Some backpackers choose to go sans stove and eat only cold, processed or pre-cooked foods.  But these people tend to be pretty hardcore and they aren’t in the majority.  Still, it’s worth mentioning because perhaps it’s a viable solution for some people on short, overnight trips.  But assuming a hot meal at the end of a long day is important to you, you’ll need a cooking method.

Alpenglow on distant mountains.
Alpenglow on distant mountains.

Another pretty radical (but simple) method is making your own stove out of a cat food can or tuna can.  These homemade stoves include a cat food can (duh) and liquid fuel (denatured alcohol or HEET).  Although cat can stoves aren’t entirely uncommon, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume this method isn’t for most beginning backpackers.  Incidentally, you can also buy a stove designed to burn denatured alcohol if you don’t want to make your own.

Solid fuel tablet stoves are another option worth mentioning, but they’re also not very mainstream.  With this method, you purchase tablets of solid fuel (commonly made by Esbit) that fit into a little stove frame.  These stoves are very lightweight, but it takes a long time to boil water and there’s no simmer option.  Plus, the tablets STINK for some reason and leave a residue on your pot.

Small wood burning stoves are becoming increasingly popular, but these tend to be unrealistic (like, in the desert) or illegal (like, at higher elevations) in many backpacking locations.  And good luck finding a dry fuel source in damp or wet weather! Plus, they are generally bulky and heavy.


Swollen river in the Emigrant Wilderness.
Swollen spring-time river in the Emigrant Wilderness.

That leaves canister stoves and liquid fuel stoves.  These are the most common options, but I’m going to eliminate liquid fuel stoves from the equation.

Liquid fuel stoves include a low-profile burner with a separate canister of liquid fuel (usually white gas, but also kerosene, diesel, jet fuel or even auto gasoline).  The fuel is cheap and the stoves work better at high elevations and in freezing conditions, but they have MANY moving parts that need to be maintained and cleaned, the fuel spills easily, the stove has to be primed and pumped before you can use it each time and they tend to be heavy.  So, unless you do a lot of winter backpacking and intense elevations, this is probably not to best option or you.

Canister stoves are the most common type of backpacking stove, and for good reason!  They are easy to use, lightweight, can’t spill and are easily maintained. Canister stoves screw onto a gas canister.  The canister acts as the base with the stove on top for your pot.  You light them with a match, lighter or piezo-igniter (sometimes built right into the stove) and you’re ready to cook.

So now you know: you’ll want to buy a canister stove!  Great – but which type?

There are three main subsets of canister stoves on the market today: the plain old canister stove; the integrated canister stove; and remote canister stoves.  Let’s knock remote canister stoves off the list.  They are more expensive, may require more maintenance, and are bulkier and heavier.  The one big benefit is that some of them work better than regular canister stoves at very high elevations.

Integrated canister stoves are super popular right now.  The best-known brand is JetBoil.  These stoves screw onto a canister and have an integrated pot that screws onto the burner, with a built in wind screen.  So, instead of your  pot resting on the stove’s arms, the pot really becomes one with the burner.  This means that water boils FAST.  In fact, that’s what these stoves are designed for: super fast boiling times.  And since most backpackers simply boil water to pour into a bag of pre-packaged backpacking food, this is a popular option.

But there are downsides to integrated stoves.  They are heavier and tip over easily. They are designed to boil water, which means many models do not have the option to simmer.  Switching to a larger pot to accommodate a group of backpackers means buying an expensive attachment designed for their system.  I know a few people who report that their JetBoil stoves seem to lose power after a couple of years of use.  And they are quite expensive.


Furley peeks out from our tent.
Furley peeks out from our tent.

Lastly, we have the plain old canister stove.  These are my all-around favorites.  They’ve been around for a very long time and are well known for being reliable year after year after year.  These stove systems include a collapsible, lightweight stove that simply threads directly onto the canister of fuel.  Once lit, you adjust the flame, which allows for rapid boiling or slow simmering.  These stoves tend to be inexpensive compared to JetBoil/integrated stoves ($20-$40 vs. $80-$200).

The stove itself has arms that open up and hold your pot.  Some come with a built-in piezo-igniter, but that’s really unnecessary, in my opinion, and they break frequently.  Why pay extra for that when a regular, small lighter or match will always work (waterproof matches should be carried, in case it’s pouring rain).

I own a MSR PocketRocket stove, and I love it.  The advertised boil time for a liter of water is 3.5 minutes (as a comparison, the Jetboil models hover around 3 minutes or a tad less), but I find it’s often quicker than that, even up in the Sierra Nevadas.  It simmers like a champ and your can turn the flame down to practically off if you needed to.

MSR Micro Pocket Rocket
Love my MSR Micro Pocket Rocket!

Some people become concerned that the arms of the stove won’t accommodate a larger pot and, since the pot isn’t integrated with the stove, it might tip over easily.  Not so.  I just used a large, 4-person pot on a trip with no issues.  Of course, we placed it on level ground and we were careful not to bump into it, but it was fine.  The JetBoil models usually have stabilizers that get added to the bottom of the fuel canister because they are so top-heavy!


I don’t understand the hype around integrated canister stove systems like the JetBoil.  Whether my water boils in 3 minutes or 3.5 minutes doesn’t really matter to me.  What does matter is reliability, durability, versatility, price and weight.   I want the ability to simmer and to use other pots I already own without buying expensive attachments.

For me, the clear winner is the regular canister stove, and that’s what I recommend for all new backpackers.

Laughter is brightest where food is best. – Irish Proverb

Next Up: Leave No Trace Principals and Why They Matter