Katadyn's BeFree Filter

Gear Review: BeFree Water Filter

The Sawyer Mini Squeeze is one of the most popular backpacking water filters on the market. And I hate it. In fact, of all the water filtering or treatment systems I own (seven), it’s my least favorite. Sawyer is a wonderful company, but I’m not a fan of the Mini at all. To learn more about why it’s my least favorite filter, check out my prior blog post about the MSR Trailshot filter. I also refer to the Mini often in this review as a comparison.

I have been on a quest to find the perfect filter since I began backpacking and I’ve finally found it! Water filtration nirvana is mine! Enter: Katadyn’s BeFree 1.0L (the L stands for “Liter”). I had the opportunity to use this award-winning filter on an overnight backpacking trip recently and absolutely fell in love.

The BeFree is simply designed with a bladder and screw-on cap with integrated filter. It weighs 2 oz. and contains a hollow fiber filter 0.1 micron.  The Mini has the same filter and advertised weight, but the Mini requires that you carry accessories in order to operate it properly, which adds to the weight. More on that in a minute. For the BeFree, simply fill the bladder, screw on the cap and then squeeze the bladder to force the water through the filter and out of the cap. You can squeeze water directly into your mouth or into another container. MSRP is $44.95.

A company called Hydrapak – a wonderful company with innovative, collapsible/flexible bottles that I love – makes the bladder, which is much more durable than it looks and feels. I have owned a Hydrapak Stash 1-liter collapsible water bottle for a year now and have used it relentlessly on backpacking trips, with no signs of wear and tear. The flexibility of the bladder on this filter means you can quite literally crumple the whole thing up and toss it in your pack without worry, or roll it up and secure it with a small rubber band.

What I hate most about the Sawyer Mini, and most other manual filters that I own, is the amount of time and work it takes to filter two liters of water, which is the amount I usually carry at one time. The Mini has a very slow flow rate and takes a surprising amount of effort to use.

Katadyn claims the BeFree filters two quarts of water per minute (1.9 liters). That timing doesn’t seem to take into account that you need to refill the bottle to filter two quarts. In my own test, it took exactly one minute and 30 seconds to fill the bottle, filter the first liter, fill it again, and filter the second liter. That’s pretty amazing! That’s faster than any filter I own. Even my Steripen takes 90 seconds to clean one liter of water. The BeFree is also very easy to squeeze and you don’t feel like you are going to pop or break the bladder (unlike with the Mini).

BeFree Filter Flow Rate
Not squeezing hard and getting a good flow!

A common problem with many filters is how you go about cleaning the filter when it begins to clog up with sediment, which causes the flow rate to go way down. The Mini is the most difficult of my filters to backflush. It requires multiple syringes of CLEAN water that have to be injected with force through the filter to flush out the sediment. If you don’t have clean water, good luck. Forcing dirty water through the filter compromises it and renders it unsafe until it can be properly flushed and cleaned out. If it’s pretty clogged up, it’s difficult to get enough filtered, clean water out of it to turn around and flush it multiple times. As I mentioned earlier, their weight of 2 ounces doesn’t include the bladder nor the syringe — just the filter itself.

A growing number of filters on the market utilize much simpler methods of cleaning the filter. Katadyn’s BeFree falls squarely in this group. All you have to do is fill the bottle with water (dirty or clean), screw the cap/filter on and shake it around. Another option is to remove the cap/filter and swish it in any lake, river or stream. That’s it! This also means that you don’t have to carry around the extra weight of a flushing device, like a syringe.

There are a couple of other nifty features and uses for this filter. The Hydrapak bladder has measurement marks on it that are helpful when measuring water for cooking. The high flow rate of the BeFree makes it so convenient to use that, on a recent trip where I had a two-liter hydration bladder full of clean water and the BeFree, I chose to use the BeFree for all of my cleaning, cooking and drinking water needs. Although I had to refill it with non-potable water a few times, it was still easier, more convenient, and less cumbersome to use than the clean water in my big bladder.

While you could use the BeFree as a stand-alone water bottle and fill it as needed, I don’t think that will be convenient for most backpackers.  There is no carabiner attachment point on the BeFree so you can’t hang it from your pack (I hope Katadyn adds this feature onto future models). If you fill it and take it with you, you will need to put it in an exterior pocket of your pack. The flexible, collapsible nature of the Hydrapak bladder makes this option less than ideal. Although it does stand up on its own when full.

Katadyn's BeFree Filter Review
When full or nearly full, the bottle does stand up on its own.

I prefer to fill the BeFree and filter the water into my pack’s integrated water bladder, then roll up the filter and stuff it in the top of my back- or side-pocket. Or I will use it to fill my Hydrapak Stash bottle (which is 50 percent lighter than most hard-sided bottles such as a Nalgene).  You can filter the water into any preferred water container and stash the BeFree in your pack or pants pocket.

The opening of the BeFree is larger than a standard plastic soda bottle-sized opening but not as wide as a wide-mouth opening, as is common on a Nalgene bottle, for example. This is important as the size of the opening effects how easy it is to fill your bottle with water from a lake or stream. Receptacles with smaller openings, especially on a flexible bottle, are more difficult and time consuming to fill.  Rigid bottles with a wide-mouth opening are the quickest and easiest to fill.

The BeFree’s opening is wide enough to make it somewhat easier to fill than many other bottles, but it’s not as easy as a rigid wide-mouth bottle, for sure. In other words, the BeFree is not perfect in this regard but it’s really not a big deal at all. It’s a small tradeoff for such an easy and quick filter to use.

Despite how durable the BeFree’s Hydrapak bladder is, I do worry about it being punctured or otherwise damaged over time. For that reason, I always carry Aquamira water treatment drops or tablets with me as backup (though I always carry Aquamira drops with me no matter what filter I bring on a trip). I think it’s smart to carry drops or tablets as a backup option. They weigh very little, especially the tablets, and I don’t want to get stuck in a situation where I can’t drink clean water.

The BeFree also comes in a 3-liter size (can be used as a gravity filter) and a 0.6-liter size. I don’t recommend the 0.6-liter option as your weight savings over the 1-liter option are negligible. The 3-liter version only weighs 4 ounces, which is pretty light! For a group of two or more backpackers, or for backpacking in arid backcountry where more water is needed, this would be an ideal option.

The filter is expected to last for 1,000 liters or 264 gallons. If I backpack 15 days per year and use 3 liters of water per day, the filter will last me more than 22 years!

All-in-all, the Katadyn BeFree is my favorite water filter of all time (so far). It’s far superior to the MSR Trailshot I reviewed last year (and thought was pretty great). For now, my quest to find a lightweight, easy-to-use filter with an amazing flow rate is over!

Disclaimer: I purchased this piece of gear on my own and all opinions about it are mine. I was not given any product or compensation by Katadyn or Hydrapak (darn it!) in exchange for my review.

Water is life. And clean water means health. – Audrey Hepburn

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Gros Ventre Wilderness

Why I hate Wildflowers: Backpacking the Gros Ventre Wilderness Aug. 2017

The black cone of a petal-less flower smacked me in the face, again.  I felt the sharp spikes of yet another little burr digging into my thigh, my pants seemingly velcro-ed tightly around my ankles.  The two men stopped short in front of me.  Our game trail had come to an abrupt dead-end.  We scanned the hillsides, searching for signs of any other way through the thick vegetation.  But we couldn’t make out any trails, human- or animal-created, because the damned flowers were so tall.


It was the seventh day of an eight-day backpacking trip through the remote Gros Ventre Wilderness area of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. It was August of 2017 and we had chosen this park because of the coming eclipse – we would be right under its path. Each day thus far had been difficult for me, no doubt about that.

I had struggled with plantar facilities for the two months preceding the trip which meant almost no training to prepare me for the grueling changes in elevation each day.  The altitude, which always gives me trouble, had given me more trouble than usual and I had been suffering from high-altitude bronchitis (which scared away every possible animal we could have seen).

But the beauty surrounding us was more than enough to help me forget my woes.  Wyoming is a land of extreme and rugged gorgeousness.  The granite-clad, rugged peaks of the Tetons combine sublimely with the red-hued sedimentary mountains and plateaus and green meadows surrounding them.  Water erupts from the land in springs the size of small rivers, causing waterfalls to spontaneously appear mid-way up otherwise dry mountain slopes.

The company was superb, too.  I was backpacking with two brothers I had previously met and bonded with on the John Muir Trail in 2015.  Dave and Steve have been backpacking together for 12 years and were kind enough to invite me on one of their annual trips.  The trip was designed around the complete solar eclipse we were lucky enough to experience.  In fact, we had watched the spectacle in awe from the shores of remote, hard-won Brewster Lake just a few days earlier.

Despite my coughing fits, a bout of diarrhea and the strenuousness of the trip, I had been completely thrilled, up to this point.


Today was not a good day.  Like most backpacking days, it started out quite nicely.  We had awoken at Turquoise Lake and had a quick, hot breakfast before packing up and heading out.  Turquoise Lake had been a scenic place to watch the sun set the night before, and it was just as lovely in the morning sun.

Turquoise Lake Wyoming
Not-so-turquiose Turquoise Lake before the rain started.

But almost as soon as we headed out for our second-to-last day on the trail, it started to pour.  We donned our rain gear and braced ourselves against the wind and driving rain as we headed up and over our next pass.  The rain came and went, came and went, frustrating us as we struggled to don and doff our wet rain jackets, never sure if we should just leave them on or take them off for good and suffer the wetness.

Rain is always a part of backpacking, but I’ll never embrace it.  I just suffer through it and try to smile anyways.

In relatively quick time, we made it to the start of the main feature for the next two days: a mainly trail-less traverse across miles and miles of wildflower-covered, steep mountainsides.  There were few trees here, mainly due to constant avalanche activity in the winter.  Instead the mountains were covered with glorious blankets of flowers of every kind imaginable.  We were hiking at the tail end of summer, so many of the prime flowers had begun to wither, often times leaving just a tall, thick stem and a cone.  There was still an impressive variety of blooming flowers on display, too.  Picking our way across hillsides of flowers sounded sublime.  Until we got into the thick of it.

These were Jurassic flowers that reached the height of my head!  At 5’6” tall, I’m not a short woman.  These flowers routinely smacked me in the face as we literally bushwhacked our way through them!

That was the first annoying thing – the face smacking.  Dave and Steve are both tall men.  They could see over the tops of the flowers.  But as they pushed and forced their way forward, I would inevitably get smacked in the face by the thick, heavy cones from the middle of the flowers.

Both Dave and Steve wore shorts – smart and perhaps not smart.  I wore pants.  The second annoying thing was the never ending supply of burrs that liked to stick to my pant legs.  Dave and Steve did not have the burr problem, per se.  They did, however, experience some extreme leg “exfoliation” from them!  My pant legs were so covered in burrs that the material folded and twisted over and stuck to itself, secured in place with nature’s velcro.

Wyoming Wildflowers
These two men are at least 6 ft tall! This is the only photo of the “bushwhacking” and this is before it got steep and terrible.

The first break we took, I spent 20 minutes picking burrs off my pants.  That was stupid as I picked up a whole new batch as soon as we started walking again.  From that point on, I left the burrs in place until we made camp, many hours later.

The third annoying thing was the lack of a trail.  Our guide book told us to simply contour along the mountain sides at about the 9,000 ft mark.  OK – easy enough, right? No.  Not easy.

If you didn’t walk on a game path (and sometimes even when you did) the angle of the hillside was so steep as to quickly make walking uncomfortable.  Your ankles are not meant to bend at an extreme angle for hours on end.  A game path was a tiny bit better, if we could find one that lasted more than a few hundred feet.  Once we lost a path, we tried to find another, headed both up and down the steep hillsides in search of something to help ease the level of difficulty.

On one such venture down to a possible path, another storm struck.  This one complete with lightning.  We took cover near a small stream and lonely section of trees, hoping the lighting didn’t decide to hit a tree we were sitting under.  Dave and Steve consulted a topo map, seeking a path either above or below us.  I filtered water and proceeded to pull burrs off my pants, well aware of the futility of my efforts.  I hoped the day would be over soon, but knew there were still hours of trudging through the flower jungle ahead of us.

We decided to go up to seek a possible trail subtly shown on the map.  Up, up, up we went.  Straight up with no path cut ahead of us and no way to check the uneven ground hiding beneath the flowers.  Stumbling was common and I was thankful for my trekking poles.

We found a trail! And it looked semi-legit.  A quarter mile or so later, it was gone.  Easy come, easy go.  We came to a stream that had carved out a decent little trough through the fields of flowers.  Without a trail, we had to push our way through tall brush to get to the bank and then pick our way across.  As I stepped from the edge of the creek  down to a large boulder, my foot slipped and down I went.  First I fell sideways onto a rock, then rolled slowly, almost gracefully, right into the water, my heavy pack dictated my descent into the stream.  As I lay momentarily stunned and embarrassed, I began to curse the day.

It was slow going, bushwhacking our way through mile after mile of tall flowers and burr-filled plants.  As the end of the day neared, I knew there were only a couple of options on the steep hillside for flat camping.  Our book made mention of them, but without trails or signs, they were hard to find.  Every tree-filled spot we came to got my hopes up.  Was this a camping spot amongst the trees?  We couldn’t seem to find the first camping area the book mentioned.

Another concern was that one brother wanted to stop the first chance we got, the other want to push ahead and make more miles.  I could have killed that brother (who shall remain nameless).  I argued that it was our second-to-last day so and it didn’t matter if the next day consisted of 5 miles or 8 miles.  Either way, tomorrow we would be back at the truck and headed to Jackson Hole for beers and dinner.  Today, however, was tiring and miserable and I wanted to be done NOW.  Not three miles from now.

We finally came upon a clearing in some trees.  Clearly this was a camping area!  A beautiful oasis from my point of view – it was perfect.  Sure, the ground was soaking wet from recent rains and there was no stream or other water source nearby.  But it was level, large and had gorgeous views.  I dropped my heavy pack on the ground and got ready to setup camp.  But then, shockingly, I was out-voted.  Both Dave and Steve agreed that the campsite sucked and that we needed to press on.  I was flabbergasted and nearly in tears, but respected our democratic process and hoisted my pack back onto my shoulders, resigning myself to another couple of miles of wildflower hell.

When we finally did find our true campsite, it was quite lovely. Underground springs welled up, creating streams out of nowhere.  I was thrilled to finally setup camp and relax around a fire.  It took over an hour, but I got all of the burrs off my pants (but had to do it all over again after venturing out to find a private bathroom spot across what I mistakenly thought was a burr-free meadow).

As I lay in my tent that night, slowly drifting off to sleep, I felt a moment of panic as I thought about another flower-filled day tomorrow.  At least it was our last….

We awoke with the sun and make breakfast on the trail for the last time.  I was saddened that our trip was ending, but thrilled that the wildflower forest would be behind us soon enough. A local Wyoming IPA was calling my name!  We had about five miles left to hike, so I prepared myself for the distinct possibility that all five miles would be miserable.

I was pleasantly surprised when we quickly picked up a real trail!  We were now close enough to the trailhead that day hikers were a more common occurrence and the trail was more distinct.  We ran into our first two hikers within minutes of leaving camp and they assured us the trail would not disappear on us anymore.  We felt compelled to warn them of what lie ahead for them.

Another blessing? The height of the wildflowers dropped drastically.  Suddenly, they were knee-high instead of head-high.  Suddenly, they were beautiful again.  The burs magically disappeared, too.  And the hikers were right – the trail was obvious and easy to follow all the way back to the trailhead and our truck.  It was a blissful, gorgeous final day with no clouds, no rain, no burrs and very few flowers.

Gros Ventres Wilderness
FINALLY! The flowers are back to normal height as we ended our last day.

I finished my 85-mile trek through Wyoming in late August of 2017.  I look back on almost all aspects of the trip fondly.  For me, backpacking struggles, trials and tribulations always seem less painful after the fact and the beauty I witness on the trail each moment of each day drowns out any small amount of negativity I felt at the time.

Not so for this trip – that particular day will always be horrible in my memories.  When I think back to that day of crazy traverses across, up and down the mountain sides, bushwhacking our way through a jungle of tall wildflowers over steep and uneven terrain, I don’t have any fond memories at all.  I never thought any human could dislike wildflowers.  But I do.  I don’t like any wildflowers that are over knee-high.  I don’t like them at all!

Even the tiniest of flowers can have the toughest roots. – Shannon Mullen

Bridger-Teton National Forest

Trek, Trek Trekking Poles: Top 5 Reasons to Use ‘Em

I adore my trekking poles.  I can’t imagine any backpacking trip without them.  I don’t always use them on day-hikes (unless the hike is very long and very hilly), but I would certainly shed more than one tear if I forgot them at home during a backpacking trip.

Not all backpackers agree about poles. Some backpackers find them to be an unnecessary, useless item.  I think that’s either an ego thing OR it’s because the nay-sayers don’t actually know how to use them properly.

There is a right and a wrong way to use poles. They have wrist straps and I see those straps dangling and unused more often than not.  Or I see them causally looped over the hiker’s wrist as if to just ensure they won’t somehow drop a pole without realizing it.  When used in such a way, yes – trekking poles are pretty useless. And dangerous.  If you fall forward and use your hands to catch yourself, having the wrist straps on wrong can actually cause you to break or dislocate your thumb.  Right is right.  Wrong is wrong.

But when used properly, with the wrist securely “locked” in to the wrist strap with the strap properly tightened, poles become part of your body and assist you in many ways.

Another thing I see somewhat commonly is ONE pole.  Using one trekking pole will ensure that your body eventually becomes unbalanced.  Sure, it might make you feel more confident going down steep terrain, but only on one side!  Is it better than nothing, sure, but in order to get the full benefits of poles, your left side and ride side both need one.

Top 5 Reasons to Use Trekking Poles:

  1. So that you can still be hiking and backpacking when you are 60 (or 70, or 80): Backpacking is tough on your joints, especially if you are backpacking in hilly or mountainous terrain.  Remember, it’s not just your body weight putting stress on your knees, it’s also the 30-40 lbs of extra weight in your pack that your body isn’t used to. Even if you are young and strong with no aches or pains in your joints now, think long term.  Trekking poles will increase the life of your body.
  2. So that you can still hike tomorrow: Backpacking can be so strenuous and tough on your joints that you can get an injury suddenly.  One minute you are galavanting down a mountain, singing the Sound of Music soundtrack in your head (or out loud).  The next, it hurts to tack a single step.  Or, you have a great day going up and down, up and down, only to wake up the next morning wishing your trip was done already and dreading the hills ahead.  Trekking poles not only protect your joints for the future, they protect them now! When I abandoned my JMT thru-hike attempt at mile 105 due to smoke, a strong, fit, young man in his 20’s was experiencing knee pain and was using KT tape to wrap them each day.  He had no poles.  I sold him mine so that he could actually finish the trail. Which he did, thanks to the poles.  He later told me he didn’t think he would have made it without them.  I’m such a hero 🙂
  3. Efficiency: When used properly, trekking poles actually assist you on the uphill sections by allowing you to “push off” with the poles behind you as you walk.  When going downhill, the poles are out in front of you, taking on substantial weight as you head down steep terrain.  You will be able to hike longer and more comfortably if you use poles.  It’s not cheating, you young folks, it’s just smart!
  4. Water Crossings: When you use trekking poles, you essentially shape-shift into a four-legged animal.  You have three points touching the ground at all times as you walk.  When crossing rivers, streams and creeks, this four point system can literally save your life.  You are more balanced and have more points securing you to the creek bed.  Without poles, each step you take means you have literally one foot on the ground, and nothing else.  You could easily get swept away, even in water that doesn’t seem that strong.  But with poles, each step you take allows for one foot and two poles to continually, securely keep you facing upstream.  If you are crossing on rocks or a fallen tree, you can use the poles to help balance you by finding a secure place for them to dig in on the river bed before taking your next step or by using them as balancing poles as you walk the seeming “tightrope” of a log high off the river.

    Using poles for balance on a creek crossing.
    Using poles for balance on a creek crossing.
  5. Tents and Tarps: Some lightweight tents and most tarps allow (or require) poles for setup.  While I don’t recommend that new(ish) backpackers forgo a tent in favor of a trap (think: complicated and less “homey” at night), I do highly recommend the Henry Shires Tarptents for beginners.  These tents work with tent poles and stakes, like traditional tents, but also can work with tent poles and your trekking poles! Last August, I left my tent stakes behind at a campsite.  Ten miles later (most of them uphill), I realized my mistake as I wearily went to setup my tent for the night.  Thankfully, I had two spare stakes in my Ten Essentials Kit and my trekking poles, because going back wasn’t an option! I was able to erect my tent each night of the trip using my trekking poles and my two spare tent stakes.  Some people like bringing a dining tarp with them backpacking.  A dining tarp is a small, ultra-lightweight tarp used for cooking/eating under when it’s pouring rain.  Or just as an easy-to-setup dry place to sit while waiting for bad weather to pass.  These dining tarps require trekking poles.
  6. Bonus Tip — Safety: In a pinch, a trekking pole is a weapon. ‘Nuff said.

Want to SEE how to wear your poles properly?  Check out this informative video from the knowledgeable (and handsome!) Chase Tucker.

So, now that you’re convinced, what poles should you buy?

If you’re backpacking, you want them to be STURDY!  Yes, you want lightweight poles, but sturdy is most important.  Ultra-lightweight poles (carbon composite) were designed more for fast-packing (going as fast as possible or even running with very little weight in your pack or no pack).  Backpacking poles need to hold your weight with your pack should you stumble (and you will).  They need to get you cross that raging river.  You need to be able to accidentally drop your pack on them and not have them bend.  So look for durable poles.  Aircraft aluminum is best.

You also want them to be adjustable and collapsible so that you can lengthen and shorten them as needed based on the ascent or descent and so that you can collapse them down and stow them away in or on your pack when you don’t want to use them.  There are two main types of locking mechanisms that allow you to adjust and collapse your poles: twist locks and lever locks. I prefer lever locks.  I know too many people who have had their twist locks fail.

And what about the grip? Cork? Foam? Rubber? Unless you plan to backpack in the snow, don’t get rubber.  Stick with cork or foam.  Each has their advantages and most backpackers would be happy with either.  Cork tends to be more expensive and can “form” to your hand shape.  But some foams are becoming more “advanced” and claim to absorb sweat better.

Either way, I highly recommend sun gloves!  Sun gloves protect your hands from the sun and absorb sweat and prevent chaffing from your pole grips.  If you visualize using poles all day long, you’ll realize that your hands will have constant exposure to UV rays.  Do you want to apply and re-apply gross, slimy sunblock in SPF 1,000,000 five times a day? Sun gloves will protect your skin beautifully and are fingerless, since you don’t need the material on your fingers.  There is something so gross about sweaty hands on sweaty grips, even if the grips are cork and are supposed to absorb all that sweat.  Sun gloves wick all that moisture away from your skin and it evaporates out of the gloves quickly.  I recommend Outdoor Research’s ActiveIce Spectrum Sun Gloves, but any glove meant for the sun will do (especially if it has little grippy bits on the palms to help you grip your poles).

Sun gloves and my trusty poles.
Sun gloves and my trusty poles.

Now you know everything there is to know! Get your poles and get out there – you won’t be disappointed.

In skating over thin ice safety is in our speed. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

 

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

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    

 

St. John, USVI

New Project: Launching ‘Roars Outdoors’

If you’ve read the “about me” section of this blog, you know I’m not a professional guide, nor do I have any special training when it comes to backpacking.  I started this blog because I felt there was a need for useful, everyday advice for people new to the hobby.  Plus, it’s fun for me and I look forward to helping the backpacking community grow!

What I didn’t realize was that writing this blog would, in part, unleash within me a pent-up passion for the Great Outdoors that is powerful and intense.  This blog, combined with other factors in my life, led me to make the decision that I no longer want to work my normal 9-5 desk job.  I have struggled to find passion in every career I’ve had – and there have been many – but I’ve always felt that pull to do something different, and something more meaningful to me.

Boundary Waters Backpacking
An idyllic spot canoe packing in the Boundary Waters wilderness of MN.

I ignored that pull time-and-time again, and waffled in various unfulfilling careers and jobs that made me money but did nothing for my psyche.  I am tired.  Tired of trying to be someone I’m not and tired of trying to conform to what, I believed, was expected of me.

And so I launched Roars Outdoors.  Roars Outdoors is my new blog and the platform I will use to reinvent myself and launch a new career(s) – and you all are invited to watch!

As fellow adventurers, I’m sure some of you have also felt that pull toward something … different.  Something outdoorsy and adventurous and dynamic.  But, let’s face it: these types of career moves can be really tough, so tough in fact that we often declare them “impossible”.  Not to mention, the older you are, the harder it gets.

I’m turning 39-years-old next month, May 2017.  I have a husband, a young stepson and a mortgage.  I work full-time and bring in almost half of my household’s money.  The idea that I could drop everything that I know and embark on an entirely new path … that I could reinvent my entire professional being and completely re-jigger my life … seems next to impossible.  But I’m not getting any younger and my creative juices are flowing like crazy!

St. John, USVI
It’s hard not to be exuberant in the Caribbean!

I truly have no idea what I’m doing or exactly how I will get there.  I’m not even entirely sure it will work – but I’m more than willing to try.  I want to become a life coach, a part-time wilderness guide and a writer.  My hope is that these three endeavors will, eventually, sustain me spiritually as well as financially.  It’s going to be tough.  I’m going to have many ups and downs.  But I know I can do it if I work hard and continue to fuel the passion I have right now.

I invite you to join me.  I invite you to watch as I build and reconstruct the new “me”.  I also invite (and plead for!) your encouragement and support as I struggle, learn and grow.  I’ll share how the process affects not only me, but those around me.  I’ll be open about what steps I’m taking, what works and what doesn’t.  And I’ll provide outdoorsy inspiration to those of you pondering similar pathways for your own life.  Please follow along in three ways:

I appreciate your support and hope I can inspire some of you to take that leap and do something different, or to embrace the more creative side of yourself and tackle that project you’ve always told yourself that you’ll tackle someday!  If nothing else, I hope you get outside more and enjoy that “nature effect” we all know and love.  And if none of that is up your alley, fear not!  I’ll keep posting in Beginning Backpacker as well.

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious. – Albert Einstein

Women in Backpacking, Part VI: But, I’m a Man!

If you are of the male persuasion and follow my blog, you may have ignored my Women in Backpacking series. Or perhaps you read the posts and thought to yourself, “Hmmmm – what can I do to help the situation?” If so, then Bravo! If you have not read the five-part series, I encourage you to do so now.

Today I want to focus on how men can be a part of the solution. That’s not to say you are part of the problem, because, for the most part, you are not.  Many of us women have been conditioned over time to fear strange men, especially if we are all alone in an isolated place.  That’s not YOUR fault, but the fault of society, our culture, poor parenting, prior experiences, the one-in-a-million really bad guy and more.  No matter how you slice it, though, many women fear striking out into the wilderness alone because they might run into, well … you.  After all, how many female rapists and serial killers have you heard of?

Stanislaus national forest
A lone male hiker. Also my husband!

There are things you can do (or not do) to help ease your female fellow backpackers’ fears. I’m not suggesting your run up to the nearest solo female and explain that you aren’t a rapist, because there are subtle ways to show the women you run into that you are who you are: a kind, like-minded compadre out in the wilderness for the same exact reasons as women are.  Some helpful tips:

  1. Do not hit on her! At all. Ever. She doesn’t want that and it will creep her out. This might seem self-explanatory, but it’s not.
  2. Do not compliment her appearance. This will also creep her out. You certainly may compliment her gear choices, though!
  3. Don’t be overly pushy about trying to make camp with her for the night. You yourself might be feeling a bit lonely or apprehensive about backpacking solo, but be sensitive to her feelings.
  4. If you are going to be setting up camp in the same area, make sure you place your tent as far from hers as you can to give her space and privacy. If you get there after her, ask her if she minds you setting up camp there. Just asking first shows a level of respect and politeness.
  5. Try to gauge her feelings and read her cues. Does she basically say hello and then move on to making camp and cooking dinner? She is probably not interested in companionship. Or is she chatty and conversational? Then she might be more willing to hang out for a bit around the fire or eat a meal together.
  6. Watch your body language! Don’t be a close-talker. Do not touch her in any way, even if that’s just the kind of guy you are. Even a simple pat on the back from a stranger can be off-putting to many people.
  7. Do not tell her you are hoping to find a woman out on the trails! I know that male backpackers often times would like to date female backpackers – and vice versa – but this is neither the time nor the place.
  8. Don’t ask overly personal questions, like, “Do you have a boyfriend?” Again … creepy.
  9. Do not take pictures of her. Also falls into the “creepy” category.
  10. If you are with a group of men, all of the above pertains to each of you individually, and as a group.
Arroyo Seco River
Forming groups in the wild.

Women account for over 50 percent of backpackers now, and we are entering the wilderness solo more often than ever before. A modicum of extra sensitivity and empathy for how your fellow female backpackers might perceive you would go a long way towards alleviating those fears! The problem of women mistrusting strange men is often due to misconceptions and myths, but sometimes reality, too.  A perception problem is a problem, nonetheless.  The good news is that it can be increasingly combatted by men being cognizant of their actions and how they might come across AND by women checking their overblown fears at the door.  My favorite encounters with other backpackers while out solo have primarily been with men – men who either naturally or purposely made me feel safe in their presence.

Next Up: My Big Announcement!

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

Women in Backpacking, Part V: But, I Might Feel Lonely!

In the last post, I discussed the fear of getting lost or injured while backpacking alone in the wilderness.  Today, I tackle my own personal fear – the fear of loneliness.

Yes, you will probably feel lonely from time-to-time while backpacking solo.  If you’re like me, it’s the biggest challenge of them all and I rarely end up solo, even though I may have started that way.  My purpose with this post isn’t to try and convince you loneliness won’t happen, but rather that it probably WILL happen, and that you shouldn’t let it stop you from getting out there.

There are levels to loneliness, ranging from extreme, depressing feelings that no one in the world understands you, to just a minor feeling of wishing your friend was available to have a movie night when she already has plans.

IMG_0596.jpg
A tired selfie on a solo stretch of the John Muir Trail.

The type of loneliness one feels when backpacking solo is not the deep, scary kind (Note: feeling alone is somewhat different from feeling afraid of bear attacks or being assaulted, which tend to elicit strong fears).  For most people, myself included, it’s more of a longing to share stories at the end of an amazing, but tiring day.  It’s a manageable feeling.  For most people, it’s entirely beneficial to spend some quiet, quality time alone with your id, your ego and your superego.

When I backpack, my magic formula is hiking alone most of the day, but meeting up with people for lunch and also to make camp at the end of the day.  I’m extremely extroverted and enjoy storytelling over lunch and dinner.  I like hearing what others saw during their hikes and marveling at their stories.  I also like being with others to watch the sun set and the moon rise.  A refreshing dip in an icy alpine lake is more fun, to me at least, if there are others there enjoying it, too.

But other times, I head out into more of a no-man’s land; places where I know I will likely be entirely alone.  It’s not creepy, per se, but time seems to drag a little slower after I set up my camp and sit down to eat and wait for night to fall.  The first night is the toughest, although “tough” isn’t really the right word.  It’s more that I’m a bit bored.  And yes, the strange sounds of the forest do somehow seem louder when it’s just me out there.

Camping in Ventana Wilderness
Just me, myself and I camping before a solo trip in search of lost hot springs in the Ventana Wilderness.

It’s worth noting that there are plenty of people who find that they absolutely love being solo – entirely solo – for days on end.  That might be you! But you won’t know until you try it.

No matter how you think you’ll feel about backpacking solo, you shouldn’t let any concerns stop you.  I’ve rarely heard of a woman who backpacked solo and regretted it.  I’ve written in other posts how to do your first solo trip: start out short; stay close to home; pick a place with cell coverage; try listening to music, etc.  Those tips apply here.

But other tips also apply:

  • You can choose trails that are known for being popular.  Sometimes you can tell a trail is going to be popular based on the permit application process, if there is one.  Permit processes usually indicate a trail is popular enough that the park has limited the number of people who can go in each day to minimize damage to the areas on and around the trail.
  • You can do research online or in books to see how popular a trail is.  Most resources will list that information.
  • Call a park ranger and ask!

Once you’ve chosen a more popular trail, you can at least camp in the vicinity of others if you want.  But more than that, you will likely meet people and make fast friends along the way.  This is a phenomena of backpacking that is widely known: making friends is easy and happens fast.  One day spent with your fellow backpackers on the trail can feel like an eternity and bonds can become very strong in a short amount of time.

Lower Cathedral Lake
Amongst new friends met on the John Muir Trail. Photo cred: David and Steve Szmyd

Case in point: I met two brothers on my second day of the John Muir Trail in 2015.  I was solo and had just had a very scary bear encounter as I was packing up camp that morning.  Needless to say, I was feeling a tad stressed and very alone (and very small).  I met these two brothers just after I set out from camp for the day and they invited me to hike with them.  By lunch, we were fast friends.  By dinner, we had made a lasting bond.  By the next morning, when we parted ways, we were practically lifelong friends!  Fast forward two years – we’ve kept in touch and I’ll be joining them for their annual brothers’ trip to Wyoming this August.

Even though I was supposed to be solo for parts of the John Muir Trail, I never once spent a night completely alone.

Another tip is to bring books or podcasts.  These give your mind something to do if it’s feeling restless and lonely, and they help pass the time.  You could also do guided meditation or bring along a deck of cards for a game of solitaire.  Try bringing a journal and writing down your thoughts as they happen.  If you have cell coverage and feel extra lonely, call a friend or loved one for a quick check-in!  Consider exploring the area you are camping in (if you aren’t too tired).  Walk the perimeter of the lake or climb up that close peak.  Lastly, go to bed! Backpackers need lots of sleep, so don’t be afraid to hit the sack way earlier than normal.

As with everything, preparation is key.  You can’t rely on anyone else when you’re solo, so be prepared with the necessary gear and essential items.  And consider carrying a satellite messenger like a Garmin InReach (formerly Delorme InReach).  If you have the right mindset, are prepared to confront minor to moderate feelings of loneliness, and understand that’s not a bad thing, you’ll have a wonderful time filled with scenery and adventure that is all yours, and only yours.  Try it!  You just might like it!

Women in Backpacking, Part IV: But, I Might Get Injured or Lost!

In the last post, I addressed the fear of animal attacks in the wild. Today, I cover the concern of getting injured (or lost) while solo backpacking. This is not a concern borne just out of the female mind; men fear getting injured or lost, too! We are all only human, after all. But, anecdotally, women seem to let that fear bother them more. And they seem more likely to let it prevent them from doing the things they think they might love (like backpacking solo).

Fear is not a bad thing! It helps us, literally, to stay alive. It keeps us on our toes and helps us recognize danger. But the level of fear can easily get out of control when we allow our imaginations to run wild. And we sometimes allow that fear to dictate our actions, even when we know those concerns are blown way out of proportion.

Backpacking isn’t inherently dangerous, but it isn’t inherently NOT dangerous, either! Something bad, like falling off a cliff, could happen – but it’s not likely. Twisting an ankle, however, could happen very easily and could be quite serious. If nothing else, it will likely ruin your trip. Getting lost also isn’t super common, but it does happen!

Henry Coe State Park
My sister walks carefully, especially given the heavy pack!

Battling the fears of getting injured or getting lost comes down to simple preparation. If you are going to enter the wilderness alone, you need to be ready and have a Plan B. Being prepared means being physically able to tackle the trip you’ve planned. It also means you carry the important essentials and you know how to use them. You need to have researched your route and have exit strategies should you need to get back to civilization using the quickest route possible.

I carry a wilderness splint when I backpack, solo or otherwise. Some people think this is silly extra weight (it’s only a couple of ounces!). But when you consider that ankle injuries are probably the single most common injury, having a splint makes sense. If I’m alone and suffer a sprain, I’m not going to call 911 for a helicopter rescue. Instead, I’m going to slowly, painfully, limp my way back to my car. Perhaps I’ll find some people to help me along the way, but perhaps not. The splint will help ease the pain substantially.

For the same reason, I also carry KT tape, antibiotics and pain narcotics. If I need to get off the trail due to a simple injury or common illness, I want to have some items to make things easier and more comfortable!

John Muir Trail Bridge
My friend walks carefully across a rushing creek.

I also carry a compass, a good map and a whistle in case I get lost. I’ve taken classes on reading topo maps and how to effectively use my compass.   This summer, I’ll be practicing those skills for real as I head off-trail for some cross country backpacking in the Gros Ventre Wilderness Area of the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

For most injuries, if push comes to shove, you could self-rescue and get yourself out. It might not be fun and painless, but it’s usually very doable and beats the $100,000+ fee for being rescued.

But what, you ask, about serious injuries? What about the proverbial I’ve-fallen-off-a-cliff-and-there’s-no one-around type of injury? That’s where technology comes into play.

I carry a Delorme InReach two-way communicator. Much like a satellite phone, my device uses satellites to communicate with other people. But unlike a sat-phone, I can’t make phone calls. I can, however, email and text with it. When I backpack – solo or with others – I always take my Delorme. First and foremost, it will summon help if I have a major emergency. It doesn’t just summon the help, though; I can also text back-and-forth with the first responders to provide information about my condition and help them find me. Additionally, the device will keep pinging my exact location to the responders, so if I’m on the move, they can still find me. This would happen, say, if I got bit by a rattlesnake and needed to be rescued, but continued to hike in the direction of civilization because A) I physically can, and B) it puts me closer to where the first responders are coming from.

I can also use my Delorme to text or email with friends and family! And it even synchs with my Facebook account. When I hiked the John Muir Trail in 2015, I texted back and forth with my husband at least once a day to let him know where I was and how I was doing. Peace of mind for both of us. I also sent at least one Facebook message each day telling my wider group of peeps what I was up to. The cool thing was that people could actually see exactly where I was on a satellite map when I sent the message. They could actually follow my trip in almost real time – pretty cool!

Boundary Waters Canoeing
Photo taken just before we capsized in frigid waters. But everything worked out fine!

At the halfway point of the John Muir Trail, I decided I had to get off the trail and go home. The fires were horrendous that year and my lungs were decidedly not happy with all the smoke, and they were getting worse each day. I was able to use my Delorme to coordinate with my hubby exactly how and where I was going to exit the trail and how and where he could meet me. Without it, I’m not sure what I would have done.

Having a device like the Delorme provides incredible piece of mind in the event of a true emergency. Combine technology like that with all of the preparations you undertook before you left and you can feel downright safe! Don’t let the fear of injury or getting lost prevent you from backpacking solo. Neither is likely to happen, and if you are prepared, you can handle pretty much anything thrown your way.

Next Up: Women in Backpacking, Part V: But, I’ll Feel Lonely!

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all. Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature. – Helen Keller

Women in Backpacking, Part III: But, An Animal Might Eat Me!

In the last post, I discussed the fear of rape and how to put those fears in perspective.  Today, I address another common fear: animal attacks!  For some reason, we women feel that there is safety in numbers.  And when it comes to animals, that notion is partly true, but also quite incorrect.  Let’s be clear here, when we talk about getting attacked by animals, we aren’t talking about squirrels and raccoons.  We are clearly talking about the predatory big guys – bears, wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, wild boar, rattlesnakes and moose (should I add Bigfoot to this list?).  If you fear squirrels, I can’t help you!

All too common in my neck of the woods.

In all reality, animal attacks are extremely rare.  I think we all know this; we just seem to lose sight of that fact when thinking about lying awake at night in the woods, alone and hearing “weird” noises.  When was the last time you heard of a human being ripped apart by a pack of wolves?  And has a coyote EVER maimed a human?  Most people living in mountain lion territory go their whole lives without ever actually seeing one.  Bear attacks, although sensationalized in the media and by Hollywood (have you see The Revenant yet?), are also ridiculously rare.

To understand where our irrational fears come from, you first have to remember that we, too, are animals! Like all animals, we have a fight-or-flight response.  But unlike other animals, we rarely use these responses anymore because we live in relative comfort.  Heck, for many people, their most likely association with fight-or-flight arises when they are about to do some public speaking! How nice is it that, as THE apex predator of the world, our biggest collective fear is the fear of speaking in public!

Worth it to wake up to this in the morning.

When we are alone in a tent in the dark of night and we hear strange noises, that old, dusty, fight-or-flight response kicks in! And that’s not at all a bad thing.  It’s our best survival instinct.  It tells us we are alive.  It feeds our bodies with necessary adrenaline should we need to fight.  But just thinking about it starts to make it happen – shallow breaths, sweaty palms, panicky feelings.  Even when we are sitting in our living rooms, just contemplating backpacking solo, our fears can start to trigger that response.

A classic fear but not likely to happen.

“But”, you protest, “animals are a legitimate threat!”  True…ish.  Animals may be a real threat, but not to the extent that we shouldn’t enjoy the outdoors on our own terms.  Here are some stats the may ease your fears:

  • Bees cause more deaths in the U.S. than any other creature.
  • Mosquitos kill more people world-wide than any other creature.
  • Bears kill LESS than one person in the U.S. per year.
  • Mountain Lions kill, on average, one person per year (and unfortunately it’s often a small child, not an adult)
  • There hasn’t been a wolf-related death in the U.S. since 1888.

So, how do we keep these fears in check and prevent them from determining how and when we enter the wilderness? One way, many assume, is by backpacking in groups of two or more people and staying on well-travelled trails.  But this plan provides a false sense of security.  Traveling in groups and sticking to busy trails can actually attract the big predators!  It is well known that black bears in the Sierra Nevada Mountains frequent the places with the most backpackers. More backpackers = more delicious smells. More delicious smells = more chances for free food.  The bears tend to hang out along the busiest trails and most-frequented camping areas.

While it is true that you are more likely to survive an attack of any kind if you have others to help you, it is also true that your best chance of avoiding predators is three-fold: don’t travel with others, avoid the most popular routes and practice stealth camping!  Additionally, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to always follow best-practices when it comes to your food and general safety.

Practicing food safety in bear country.

Another way to get over those fears is to just do it.  Plan an overnight trip to an area not far from civilization where you can still get cell service.  Make it an easy, quick hike not too far away from your car.  Bring a knife and pepper or bear spray if you want (know your local laws or park rules about these things first!). Heck, if it makes you feel better, bring a small hatchet! Another tip: load a guided meditation app on your phone so you have something to lull you to sleep.  If there are others at your camping area, do not give in and join their group – in fact, camp as far away from them in the camping area as you can. If it won’t bother other campers in the area and you have a backup battery for your phone, play music on your phone all night if you must.

As nighttime falls, your fears will probably start to surface.  Squash them!  Remind yourself of the unlikelihood of an attack and simultaneously remind yourself that you will NOT let your fears dictate your relationship with the wilderness.  Do not let your mind wander down a road that ends with you being ripped apart by a group of ravenous mountain lions.  You are stronger than your irrational fears.  You can control them.

If you do this, chances are you will come out of it not only alive, but also feeling a real sense of accomplishment!  Each foray into the solitude of solo camping will increase your comfort level.  Before you know it, you’ll be setting off solo on the regular.

Next Up: Women in Backpacking, Part IV: But, What if I get Injured or Lost?

You can never leave footprints that last if you are always walking on tiptoe. – Leymah Gbowee

Women in Backpacking, Part II: But, I Might Get Raped!

Women don’t usually articulate this particular fear with these exact words.  It’s almost always stated in more “washed out” terms, like, “What about strange men?” or, “What if I get attacked by a man?”  But what they are really worried about is getting raped.  It’s a sad fact that many women fear men, or some men, when they are alone.  All women fear the worst-case scenario.  And those fears are exploited via shows like CSI, Cold Case Files and Podcasts like My Favorite Murder and Somebody Knows Something. And don’t forget the news!  These nightmarish crimes really do happen on occasion, and so the news feeds our fears as well.   Add a dash of social media to turn things into viral fear-storms.

Finding peace and solitude is easy in a place like this.

Now throw in extreme solitude.  Feeling like you’re all alone in the world.  Being far from civilization where no one can hear you scream.  Vulnerability.

It’s no wonder so many women have concerns about being alone in the wilderness.  We also know that at least half of backpackers are men, so running into them is pretty inevitable.

But how realistic is this fear of sexual assault?  How do we put things in perspective so that this fear doesn’t hinder our ambitions, goals and joys?

You’re never REALLY alone on the trail!

I was a sexual assault/domestic violence detective in California in the past.  Stranger rape* is so incredibly rare! If you don’t include date rape, rape is rarer than even murder.

*The vast majority of rapes are either a “date rape” or an “acquaintance rape”.  In both cases, the victim knows the attacker in some way, sometimes quite well, and is with him by choice before the assault occurs. Stranger rape is when someone you do not know on any personal level suddenly attacks you. I want to be clear that I am not minimalizing the trauma that date rape victims experience, but rather trying to minimize the debilitating fear that many women have about stranger rape.

Our wilderness areas are incredibly safe.  Take a look at crime stats and you’ll notice an obvious trend: the higher the population, the higher the number of crimes.  Think LA, NY, Chicago, Miami – these big cities experience more reported rapes because there are so many more people.  So many more opportunities for an attacker to find a victim.  So many places to blend in and go unnoticed.  So many women carrying on with their business and paying zero attention to their equally-busy surroundings.

Not many people and not much going on. Peaceful!

Put yourself in the mind of a serial rapist.  What are rapists looking for when they stalk their prey? They’re looking for an easy target.  They’re looking for someone who isn’t paying attention to her surroundings.  They’re looking for a woman who appears weak, and perhaps meek.  Someone who doesn’t have the confidence to make eye contact with strangers.  They’re looking for someone who they think won’t fight back.  Or will succumb easily.

Now think about what rapists want to avoid.  They don’t want to attack a strong, confident woman.  They don’t want to attack someone who they’re relatively certain will fight back – and fight back hard!  They don’t want someone who exudes confidence.  They don’t want someone who appears to be athletic and strong.  THIS type of woman is their worst enemy.

Think about how a serial rapist finds their prey.  Would they hike 13 miles into the wilderness to find a victim?  Or do they stand outside of a bar and watch for solo, intoxicated women to come stumbling out?  Does the rapist hike for days just to find ONE solo woman, or does he cruise around the most marginalized areas of a major city in his car to find down-on-their luck street workers?

Strong. Capable. Confident. And armed with an oar!

Think of who you are, as both an outdoor adventurer and backpacker.  You are strong; you carry a 35 lb pack on your back for miles and miles!  You are remote; you’re off the beaten path and away from the masses of people.   You are confident and independent, and even if you don’t feel that way, that’s how strangers will perceive you.  To get to you would be difficult.  Taking you without a massive fight would be impossible.  You are probably armed; hiking poles make great weapons and most backpackers carry a knife of some sort, not to mention that massive bag you carry around (it’d be like swinging a massive purse at a bad guy’s head!).  You, my friend, are the opposite of what a rapist would be looking for!

With all this in mind, here are six steps you can take to lessen your risk and increase your own confidence:

  • Get out there!  Just doing solo trips increases your confidence.  Start small.
  • Always be aware of your surroundings (easy to do in the wilderness).
  • Make eye contact with every stranger you come across and say hi (if you are new to backpacking, this is also basic trail etiquette – we are a friendly bunch!).
  • Be aware of possible weapons you have, like hiking poles, folding knives and tent poles.
  • Take a self-defense class.
  • Always keep your fears in perspective.

Listen to any woman who has done a solo hike and she will tell you the experience was entirely worthwhile.  She will also likely tell you that the first one was a bit tough, and it got easier from there.  It’s hard to find like-minded people to backpack with, and when you do find a crew, coordinating schedules can be next to impossible.  So take matters into your own hands!  Become one with nature, and with yourself.

Next Up: Women in Backpacking, Part III: But, An Animal Might Eat Me!

I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t done.” – Lucille Ball

 

Islesboro Maine Coastline

Women in Backpacking, Part I: Lions and Tigers and Bears (and Men)!

*Note for male readers: Sure, this post is geared toward women, but you can definitely learn something, too! It’s a reality that most women have a least a little bit of fear of men while out backpacking. Simply being aware of these fears and understanding them can make you a more empathetic, female-friendly stranger out on the trails!  I encourage you not to skip these posts. And pay attention, because my final post in this series will be geared toward you!*

At the half-way point of the John Muir Trail is Muir Trail Ranch. It’s a very remote outpost accessible only by foot or on horseback.  It’s a haven for weary backpackers who can resupply there, as well as soak in their hot springs, sleep in a REAL bed, do laundry and have amazing meals cooked for them, but only if they are willing to shell out a pretty penny.  And shell out those pennies I did when I was there in 2015 (trust me, it’s worth it)!

Muir Trail Ranch on the John Muir Trail
Muir Trail Ranch: A needed respite for weary thru-hikers on the JMT

In the ranch’s library is a whole host of old books. In one of those old books I found a chart listing how much weight men, women and children should carry in their packs, respectively.  Women were instructed to carry less weight than an eleven-year-old child! I almost snorted when I first saw it.  But that was how we women were viewed back then.

1950's recommended pack wieghts for women.
A 1950’s book showing recommended pack weights for men, “wives” and children.

Women were not historically big backpackers. John Muir didn’t exactly have women shouting, “Pick me!  Pick me!” when he was putting together his exploration groups (though he frequently explored alone).  And even in the 1950’s, when women did go backpacking, they were often considered meek and weak. A double whammy!

Fast forward to today, and women are now dominating the entire outdoor arena!  Don’t believe me? Just check out the latest issue of Outside Magazine (May 2017 issue), with all those strong, independent female icons on the front cover. Women like Melissa Arnot Reid are not just killing it “for a woman” but killing it across genders!

May 2017 Outside Magazine Cover
What an inspirational group of women!

Women are now taking over backpacking. Well, maybe “taking over” isn’t the right term, but our numbers are growing at astronomical rates. We make up 51% of the outdoor industry consumers now.  More and more companies are making women-specific products. We still have a ways to go, but we’ve made huge strides since the 50’s.

But I still can’t believe how often I hear women say they could never backpack solo. Or that they constantly worry about men and/or animals attacking them if they are alone.  Every time I hear these statements, I practically shed a tear.

And you know what’s worse? When I tell non-backpackers that I’ll be heading out solo, I get WAY more statements of worry and concern from women I know than men I know. Seriously? Men are less concerned for my safety than women?  Oh, the irony.

Perhaps it’s because I was formerly a sexual assault detective and have a firm grasp of the realities of sexual assault, or perhaps it’s because my parents raised me to be entirely unafraid (or maybe it’s even genetic, who knows?). Regardless, I’m unafraid to backpack alone.  Of course I have fears that occasionally enter the picture, but they never get in my way.  I’m also not oblivious when I’m out there and I take precautions and work hard to stay safe.  I remain aware of my surroundings and I make a point of looking strong and confident when faced with an unknown man on a remote section of trail.  But isn’t that the picture of a backpacker anyway? Aware, strong, confident; that’s what we backpackers are!  So why do we let ourselves forget it so often?

Solo Selfie
Entertaining myself on a solo backpacking trip.

Here are the concerns I hear most often from women on the topic of backpacking solo:

  • I might get raped (they don’t always say it exactly this bluntly, but this is what they mean).
  • An animal might attack me in the middle of the night.
  • I’ll be too lonely.
  • I’ll get hurt (or lost) and no one will be there to help me.

To help combat these fears, I’m going to do a series of posts tackling each one of these concerns individually. None of them should prevent us from chasing our dreams, accomplishing our goals and enjoying the Great Outdoors on our own terms.  But we also don’t have to be complacent, and there are things we can do to boost our own confidence and make the chances of any of the above ever happening even more remote.

Next Up: Women in Backpacking, Part II: I Might Get Raped!

Marry an outdoors woman. Then if you throw her out into the yard on a cold night, she can still survive. -W. C. Fields

Black Diamond Mines

Backpacking with Fido: Top 5 Reasons to Bring Your Dog

In my last post, I listed the top 5 reasons to leave your dog at home when you head out for a backpacking trip.  This week, I play my own devil’s advocate and discuss the top 5 reasons to bring Fido along.

(Wo)man’s best friend.  Many dogs accompany people on their backpacking trips and they are, frankly, much better at it than we are!  Those four, strong legs, agile bodies, natural athleticism, supreme balancing skills….I’m always jealous of my dog’s endless energy and always-sunny disposition.  Bringing him along when I backpack always brings me much joy, especially when I’m alone.

Backpacking wit my Dog
A selfie with Furley on a solo trip.

As long as you always put your dog’s needs first, have prepared him for the rigors of your chosen trip and have complete control over him from a training standpoint, bringing your pooch on your trip can really be an amazing experience, for both of you.

Without further ado, here are my Top 5 Reasons to Bring Your Dog Backpacking (in no particular order):

  1. Dogs make the BEST backpacking partners! OK, so your dog can’t help you plan your trip or set up a tent, but he is guaranteed to enjoy every second of it and never complain!  He won’t bitch about the trail you chose.  He won’t force you to carry on a conversation when you don’t want to.  He provides someone to talk to (at) when you do feel like talking.  And best of all, he will happily keep your warm at night without it being…awkward.
  2. Dogs help you feel protected and secure.  Backpacking alone can be a tad intimidating, especially at first.  Fear is a common emotion when out alone, especially at night when your imagination can get the best of you.  But fear no more when Fido is there! Perhaps it’s not realistic, but having a dog with you makes you feel like no one and nothing will mess with you, and nothing bad can happen to you.
  3. Having a dog combats loneliness.  When I hike alone, I rarely feel afraid, but I DO feel lonely sometimes.  Especially during meal breaks and at the end of the day, as the sun begins to set and I am relaxing.  I love having Furley with me so I can chit-chat with him.  Dogs are great cuddlers and companions. Furley and I eat our meals together, relax by the river together and watch the birds together.  I talk to him, and he listens!  Lastly, Furley helps me meet other backpackers if I want company, because he is so damn good looking and personable.

    Relaxing with my Dog
    A girl and her dog. End of the day on a solo trip.
  4. Dogs provide natural encouragement.  Struggling to make it up the final incline of the day? Look up ahead and check out Fluffy!  She is still cruising happily and keeps looking back, seemingly encouragingly, to make sure you are on your way.  Dogs provide natural encouragement just by being so athletic and so damn joyful all the time!  It’s tough to feel discouraged when you’ve got a Fluffy happily licking your face!
  5. Dogs remind us of the simple joys of backpacking.  They stop to sniff the flowers (literally).  They are exuberant about every single body of water you come across.  They stare in awe at the bald eagle (or blue jay) soaring overhead.  They help us to slow down and savor the moments.  It’s also simply wonderful to watch the very real happiness our best buddies feel when they are out, unencumbered, in the natural world.  They clearly enjoy backpacking even more than we do!  And that’s pretty intoxicating.

Backpacking with your dog can truly deepen your bond while building some serious trust and enhanced loyalty.  Having a dog around always seems to make everything more fun, and they obviously enjoy it.  Just be sure you read my previous post before you embark on a trip with your dog so that you are at least aware of the potential cons!  Do your research, be safe, be prepared and ALWAYS put your dog’s needs first.

Next Up: The Women’s Edition – Getting Past Fears and Misconceptions

We are two travelers, Roger and I. Roger’s my dog—come here, you scamp! Jump for the gentleman—mind your eye! Over the table—look out for the lamp! The rogue is growing a little old; Five years we’ve tramped through wind and weather, And slept out-doors when nights were cold, and ate and drank and starved together. – John T. Trowbridge, The Vagabonds

My BEST hiking partner!

Backpacking with Fido: Top 5 Reasons to Leave Your Dog at Home

Hiking with your dog can be incredibly rewarding, so surely bringing Fido backpacking will only amplify the rewards even more, right? Maybe.  Or it could end in disaster.

I hike with my dog religiously.  We both love it, although presumably for different reasons!  I also take him car camping with me any time I go.  Again, we both love it.  I especially enjoy his company when I am camping alone, sans the rest of my family.

But I rarely take him backpacking.

My dog “Furley” is a 70lb English Cream Golden Retriever. He is in excellent physical shape, is highly trained and is perfectly stable and comfortable in the outdoors and strange environments (which means if there is an “ideal” dog for backpacking, it’s him). But still, I rarely take him.  And I caution others about bringing their dogs along, too.

File Apr 03, 13 11 45
Furley is in incredible shape, but I rarely take him backpacking.

I don’t think dogs should never backpack, I just want the owners to have thought through the endeavor thoroughly.

Here it is.  My Top 5 Reasons to Leave Your Dog at Home (in no particular order):

  1. If he gets injured, you’ll need to be prepared to carry him long distances.  Paw injuries are the most likely occurrence on the trail – think broken claws, torn pads and cuts. Your dog’s feet take a real beating when backpacking.  Most dogs can’t – or won’t – wear doggy hiking boots, and some hiking boots can cause injuries themselves! Realistically, there is little-to-nothing you can do to prevent a paw injury. Hiking on rough granite or loose scree? Definitely leave Fido at home! And what kind of strength do you have? Can you carry your gear and your dog all the way back to the trailhead if he can’t walk? Emergency responders probably won’t respond to your dog’s emergency.

    A badly cut paw pad is a deal-breaker!
    A badly cut paw pad is a deal-breaker!
  2. You’ll likely carry your dog’s supplies.  Let’s say you’re taking a trip into the high country.  Fido will need way more food than usual.  He will need copious amounts of water.  He might need a jacket and should have some sort of bed to sleep on.  He most likely needs a bowl.  And don’t ever forget first aid supplies for your dog! Do you really want to carry all that extra weight? My dog carries his own backpack with water, food, his fleece jacket and a few odds and ends, but I still have to carry his piece of a foam sleeping mat and extras that don’t fit in his pack.  And in bear country, you’ll need his food to be in your bear canister at night. Do you have room?  And is your dog conditioned to carry his own pack?
  3. Poop! Many people think dog poop is “natural” and doesn’t have to be buried or carried out.  Not true.  Dog poop is actually quite problematic in the wilderness.  Dogs primarily consume meat, which means that their poop has a lot of meat in it and is a magnet for bacteria.  It’s not a “fertilizer” and isn’t good for the plants.  It’s also problematic when it gets in the water sources.  Dog poop attracts predators and increases their risk of contact with humans (or the dogs themselves).  It’s also disgusting to have dog poop lying around on a pristine wilderness trail. On day hikes, one should bag the poop and carry it out.  On backpacking trips, having a dog means having to bury all poop according to Leave No Trace principles OR collecting all of it and carrying it out.  Either way, not fun.

    Too rough for Fido to wade through.  A little risky to jump it.
    Too rough for Fido to wade through. A little risky to jump it.
  4. It’s hard to relax with a dog.  When you hike with your dog, he is most likely off leash.  How is his training?  Be honest!  Does he come when called every single time?  Does he have a high prey drive and like to chase anything that moves? Will he come back to you if he is chasing a bear?  Let’s face it, dogs scare the crap out of most wild animals.  Wilderness areas are meant to protect wild animals.  If your dog chases a deer off, perhaps you should feel badly; if your dog chases a bear, however, be afraid.  Be very afraid.  What about bobcats and mountain lions? Allowing your dog to harass the wild creatures is not fair to them, and is potentially very dangerous.  Also, water-loving dogs have a tendency to misjudge water flow.  Will your dog launch himself into every swollen stream or river with zero regard for swiftness or hazards downstream? How will you even get him through water crossings?  Will you need a flotation device for your dog? Be prepared to either watch your dog like a hawk 24/7 OR have him on leash (which means you’ll probably need to forgo hiking poles).
  5. Dogs limit your choices. Backpacking with your dog will severely limit your options, both from a legal standpoint as well as a practical one.  National Parks don’t allow dogs on the trails.  So that wipes out a zillion options.  Many state parks also ban dogs from most trails (this is certainly the case in California).  There goes another huge chunk of options.  Practically, you don’t want to take your dog to a place where a paw injury is all but guaranteed.  And you’ll need to avoid places with crazy water crossings or steep, icy sections.  In other words, you are (rightfully so) severely limited in where you can safely go when you bring Fido along.

    These rocks are too rough for bare paws!
    These rocks are too rough for bare paws!

These are the main concerns you’ll need to think about and prepare for if you want to take your pup backpacking.  Or, you could do what I do: hike with Fido, camp with Fido, but rarely backpack with Fido.

If you DO bring your pup backpacking, be prepared to change your plans given your dog’s safety and happiness.  In 2016, I took Furley backpacking in the Ventana Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest.  Our goal was to reach the famed Sykes Hot Springs.  But, alas, the winter rains had made the river a tad crazy and getting to the hot springs meant a dangerous section through the river.  As we progressed and spoke to other backpackers, it became clear the river would not be safe for my dog (and perhaps not for me, either).  We had to turn around and abort the original mission.  But it was worth it to protect my dog and we still had fun accomplishing Plan B!

File Apr 03, 12 52 37
Happy backpacker!

Disagree with me or just feeling really bummed? Have no fear!  I’ll play devil’s advocate next week with my list of Top 5 Reasons to Take Fido Backpacking.

Trails are like that: you’re floating along in a Shakespearean Arden paradise and expect to see nymphs and flute boys, then suddenly you’re struggling in a hot broiling sun of hell in dust and nettles and poison oak…just like life.Jack Kerouac