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

 

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    

 

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!

Real Life Example: Permit Process

In the previous post, I discussed the general process for obtaining a wilderness or backpacking permit.  I mentioned how it can help to get creative as the process, for most parks, is highly competitive with a very low number of permits issued in advance.

This past week, I obtained a highly coveted permit to backpack the Rae Lakes Loop in Kings Canyon National Park.  This 42 (+/-) mile loop is one of the most popular loops in the Sierra Nevada mountains, crossing roaring rivers and streams, past scenic alpine lakes and valleys and over a 10,000+ foot pass. If you want to reserve a permit in advance, 40 spaces are available for each day (20 clockwise, 20 counter-clockwise).  Forty hikers per day entering the loop might seem like a lot, but it’s not .  The Rae Lakes Loop permits get snatched up real quick as people come from all over the world to hike it and view such iconic mountain scenery.

With regards to planning this hike, the first thing I did was find it! In addition to doing general searches online and regularly reading Backpacker magazine, I also own backpacking books I frequently consult to find future trips.  In fact, I think these reference books are often easier than searching online.  The books lay trips out by region and some also have handy charts that allow you to compare the pros of various hikes.   Backpacking books usually tell you the best time of year to go, too, which is very useful when trying to plan a spring hike into higher elevations (but not too high because of the snow).  A simple Amazon search will reveal a myriad of books specific to your region, state or park.

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Winter at Echo Lake on the PCT near Lake Tahoe – time to start planning for summer hikes!

As I perused my books and online resources, such as Outdoor Project, I also began researching permit information on park web sites.  This trip will occur over the Fourth of July week and I knew Yosemite was out of the question; their permits were all spoken for the day they were released.  Too late to get July permits in advance.  I came across the Rae Lakes Loop hike in one of my books and a quick check of the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks website (the two parks share one website and are commonly referred to as SEKI) confirmed that permits for the entire season would be released in one lump at 12:01am on March 1st.  I still had time!

Once I knew the date they would be released, I put that date and time (3/1/17 at 12:01am) in my calendar with a reminder set for the day before at 6pm. Then I read about their permit process and found applications must be emailed.  Some places prefer fax and it’s important to know what is required at the specific park you are applying to lest your application be denied on a technicality.

Knowing the permit process is highly competitive, I got creative.  This trip will include my husband and possibly two other to-be-determined friends, so we needed a permit for four people.  We were somewhat flexible on our start date and could start on July 2, 3 or 4.  We were also flexible with regard to completing the loop clockwise or counter-clockwise.  As is standard, each permit application form allows you to list your top three options for where and when you want to start.  I completed an application in my name with various combinations of start dates and the two trailheads (clockwise and counter-clockwise).  I then completed a second application in my husband’s name for the same various start dates and locations.  If I had known who our two other hiking partners would be, they could have each filled out an application as well.  Between all of us, we would have had a better chance of securing a permit (remember, you only need one permit per group, not one per person).

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A misty morning training hike in the Marin Headlands of Northern CA

Now, I am generally a rule follower and it always kills me a bit to break the rules or even bend them in any way.  If you ask a ranger, they will tell you not to do what we did because it can create confusion and cause issues.  And this can be true.  I’ve heard of groups whereby more than one person applied for the permit and more than one person confirmed and paid for the permit, not realizing the other person in their group already did that.  This means double the number of spots needed was reserved, meaning someone else missed out.

But I’m super conscious about the possible complications and am diligent about the process.  Don’t get creative unless you are paying close attention!

On Feb. 28th, I got online and found out how to schedule emails for my email provider.  I then drafted two emails, one from me and one from my husband, containing our applications and scheduled them to be sent out at 12:01am on March 1st.   When I woke up on March 1st, the first thing I did was check my sent folder to be sure they got sent.  If I couldn’t schedule the emails to go out at 12:01am, I would have set an alarm and woke up to do it.  Applications are processed on a first come, first served basis and I wanted a permit!  The early hiker catches the worm.

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Typical permit application.

Later that same day –  BINGO! We heard back from SEKI.  Both my husband and I received permits for our first choice date and trailhead!  Even though we only needed one, I felt oddly proud of myself!  I got TWO Rae Lakes permits!  But, I immediately contacted SEKI to let them know we didn’t need one of the permits and they could release those four spots back into the pool for someone else.  I did get a lecture about not having two people in one group applying for a permit.  I felt a twinge of guilt for breaking the rules, but….I had my permit and my trip is a definite go now!

Next Up: Top 5 Reasons to Leave Fido at Home

It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end. ― Ernest Hemingway

 

 

Permits: Love ‘Em and Hate ‘Em

Backpacking permits….sigh.  I have such a love/hate relationship with them.  To be clear, I really do love them and I know how important they are.  But, MAN, are they frustrating!

Backpacking (AKA: backcountry or wilderness) permits are important.  They regulate how many people can enter the backcountry on any given date, which, in turn, minimizes the impact to flora, fauna and the general ecology of the land.  They also serve to limit what could become crowds of backpackers in popular areas.  There are other, fringe benefits to the permitting process, such as enabling parks to have face-to-face time with you when you pick up your permit so they can provide information about rules, current trail conditions, potential dangers, etc.

But the process of obtaining a permit can range from relatively easy (i.e., walk into a ranger station and ask for one) to downright impossible (i.e., spend years trying to obtain a permit to summit the incredibly popular Mt. Whitney).  Either way, it’s important you know what the process is for the area you want to backpack into, and you need to know way in advance. By the way, if you are in a group of two or more people, you only need one permit that lists all of your names.

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Pristine wilderness along the John Muir Trail

Here are some common ways you might obtain a permit, depending on where you want to go:

  • No permit needed.  Just go hike!
  • Walk into a ranger station on your way to the trailhead and ask for one.
  • Reserve a permit in advance.
  • Enter a lottery for a permit.

If you are just now (in the Spring) thinking about a backpacking trip into a very popular, permit controlled area this coming summer, you might be too late to obtain a permit.  For example, at the time I am writing this, most every trailhead in Yosemite National Park has already hit the reservable quota for every single day this summer.  For the days whereby the website says there is still room left, it’s almost always because they have exactly one spot left for that date at that trailhead.  Great for solo backpackers, but not-s0-great for groups of two or more.  If you want to backpack in a place as popular and as protected as Yosemite, you’re going to have to plan way in advance and preferably be flexible on your dates.

Yosemite is tough, but it’s not the toughest.  Just go ahead and try to get a permit to hike Mt. Whitney in the summer months!  Mt. Whitney is on a lottery system.  People might try for years before they finally “win”.

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Permits help protect this gorgeous part of Henry Coe State Park in CA.

Many places offer reservable and walk-up permits.  They will offer, say, 60% of the permits in advance through their reservation process and the other 40% are available on a first come, first served basis at the ranger station the day before your hike starts.  You can request your permit a certain number of days before you want to start.  In Yosemite, you can attempt to reserve a permit exactly 168 days (24 weeks) in advance.  Which means you need to precisely count backwards 168 days from your anticipated start date and apply for your permit on that day. In Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, March 1st is always the start of the permitting process.  Some parks do the counting for you and list a handy chart online that shows start dates and associated permit request dates.

If you can’t manage to secure a permit in advance, or planned your trip last-minute, you can simply show up the day before your start date (sometimes the day of) and there will be a certain number of permits available.

But there’s a process for that, too, and it’s not exactly comfortable.  Those permits are also going to be very desirable and you will not be the only one looking to secure one.  That means you’ll have to research exactly when the walk-up permits become available and then you’ll probably want to be there many hours before that time.

For example, people looking for same-day permits in Yosemite will usually get in line at the ranger station the evening before and “sleep” in line.  Sleep is in quotation marks because you can’t actually set up camp and go to sleep in front of the ranger station (people try)!  You can have chairs.  You can take turns with your fellow backpackers sleeping in the car and man the line in shifts.  When the doors open the next morning, you hope you’ll get a permit.  If not, you had better be flexible with your dates because you’re going to have to repeat the process that night!

Thankfully, you pick up your permit the day before you want to start; if you stood awake in line all night long, you have a full day and night to recover before you start out.  And most parks have a provision allowing for a free night of camping the night before (and sometimes after) your start date.  So you’ll have a place to set up camp and rest.

Sometimes there are other, ancillary permits you will need or forms to fill out.  In California and many other states, you will likely need a campfire permit, even if you only plan to use a stove and not make any fires.  If you have a service animal you plan to take with you on your hike, most parks will need you to fill out a form. If you want to bring a pack animal, you’ll need to fill out different forms for that, or perhaps a different permit. The good news is that most of these secondary permits or forms are easy, guaranteed and often can be done online.

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This graph from the NPS shows the increase in permit applications received by Yosemite over 5 years.

In order to find out permitting information, you’ll need to go to the individual park’s website and look for a link to backcountry or backpacking permits.  Some websites provide a ton of helpful information, such as trailhead quotas, maps showing trailhead locations, alternative trailheads for popular trails, etc.  Some even provide a daily update of which trails are full so you know which dates not to ask for.  If your trip spans multiple parks or wilderness areas, you usually only need one permit from the park where you will start, but double check that, too.

If you decide to try for a walk-up permit, make sure you know when you need to be there to request one and then plan accordingly to get there earlier than that.

Tip: call the rangers! They can give you an idea of how the season is going.  Are people starting to get in line at 4pm?  9pm? Not until early the next morning? Is there a less busy trailhead you could start at whereby the permit will be easier to get?

If you want to backpack into one of the most scenic/popular areas, get creative! If you have four people in your group and you want to hike a 40 mile, popular trail, see if you can apply for two permits starting from two different trailheads that lead to the same main trail.  Two people in your group start in one spot, two in another spot, but you meet up on the first or second day on the main trail and hike together from there.

Try starting on different days.  If you are doing a lengthy trip spanning many miles over many days, consider staggering when people in your group start.  For example, when I hiked the John Muir Trail, I managed to obtain a permit for one person starting at the proper beginning of the trail in Yosemite Valley.  My two hiking partners got a permit for two starting four days later in Tuolumne Meadows.  Sure, they missed the first 20-something miles of a 220 mile trip, but it’s better than nothing!  If they had managed to get a permit for the proper start, but four days after me, we could still have made it work if I had done very few miles the first few days until they could catch up with me.  Or I could have taken a couple of “zero days” (days where you don’t hike at all).  In other words, there are ways to make it work…sometimes,

Generally speaking, you’ll want to start looking at the permit processes for the places you are interested in a year in advance.  Then you’ll know what you need to do and when.  Put important dates on your calendar so you don’t forget!  Be sure to read all the fine print of how to apply for a permit.  Email the permit or fax it? Important to know as some parks will only accept one or the other.  Some parks will let you send your permit request in starting at 5pm the day before you are actually looking to obtain the permit.  They close at 5pm, so they don’t mind if the fax machine starts spitting out applications to be processed the next day at that point

God never made an ugly landscape.  All the sun shines on is beautiful, so long as it is wild. – Atlantic Monthly, January 1869

Next Up: Permits, Part 2 – See How I Just Secured One

 

 

 

Trail Runners and Day Hikers and Boots, Oh My!

Talking about hiking footwear can be exhausting.  Trying to find the right shoes for you and your trip can be downright frustrating.  But it’s probably the most critical piece of equipment and can make or break your hike. Get it right and your tootsies will thank you after putting in some grueling miles over rough terrain.

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Still in my comfy shoes after a long day of hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

You’ll find a ton of advice suggesting you should wear trail runners on your backpacking trip.  You’ll find an equal number of experts saying you should wear hiking boots.  Others suggest day hikers. Still others suggest barefoot hiking!  You can read as many articles and listen to as many experts as you like, but the bottom line is: you simply won’t know what’s right for you until you start trying out the options.  And don’t think, for one second, that whatever you hike in normally is guaranteed to work.  It quite possibly won’t once you factor in many miles over a period of days AND a heavy pack.

Let my story be the perfect example.

I wanted to backpack in trail runners.  That’s what I hike in and they are comfy.  I had read so much about the joys of backpacking in trail runners.  I even researched the most popular trail runners amongst successful Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers the previous year. I ended up with a pair of trail runners that came highly recommended by one of my favorite gear review sites (outsidegearlab.com).

The next weekend, I packed my backpack with 25 lbs of gear and out I went.  And within six miles, I knew the shoes were going to be terrible.  The bottoms of my feet were so sore from a lack of cushion and support whilst carrying weight.  I promptly returned them.  From there, I tried a pair of day hikers that offered more support and rigidity.  But with a heavy pack, I still felt like my feet were too sore by the end of a long hike.  Returned.

A lovely sales person at REI suggested I get real hiking boots.  She said what I needed was to NOT feel the trail beneath my feet.  I needed shanks and lugs and support.  And I did, indeed, love those boots.  Sure they felt kinda heavy compared to the trail runners and day hikers, but that was a small price to pay for happy feet at the end of the day.

But then I began to developed a heat rash of some kind around my upper ankles every time I hiked, where the top of the boots touched my legs.  No amount of creams, lotions or spiritual tonics stopped it from happening.  So I returned those, too.

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Hiking in sandals due to an ankle rash in Henry Coe State Park

By that point, I knew I needed a shoe that would act like a boot, but not be a boot.  My quest continued through a total of NINE pairs of footwear before I got it right.  Thankfully, REI has a very user-friendly return policy for reasons like this (and amazing used gear sales!). All that testing and returning was worth it.  My feet did not suffer one bit during my first long trip.  I watched other hikers desperate to get their hiking shoes off at the end of the day while I was happy to just loosen the laces and wear them around camp at night.

So what did I end up with?  Oboz.  I love my Oboz.  A shoe that is built like a boot.

Fall seven times, stand up eight. – Japanese Proverb

Next Up: The Dreaded Permit Process

training for backpacking

Get in Shape for Backpacking!

You’ve selected the when, where and length of your first trip. Now the REAL fun starts! While there’s lots to do before you set out, your immediate step is to start training now.

The good news is that you are about to embark on an activity pretty much anyone can do, regardless of age or experience. The bad news is that carrying a pack that weighs over 30 lbs. is tough on your body, and you need to train.

The pleasure you experience on your backpacking trip is directly related to what kind of shape you are in. In other words, the better physically prepared you are, the more comfortable your trip will be, which translates into more joy, happiness, elation, etc.

You don’t need to be an Adonis to enjoy your trip – I’m currently a little overweight and still backpacking like a champ – but like all other aspects of backpacking, you do need to be prepared. Specifically, your joints and muscles need to be capable of handling the physical demands of hiking multiple miles over multiple days, all with a heavy pack on your back.

There are countless articles, blog posts and websites dedicated to providing elaborate, detailed, intricate exercises to prep you for your trip. If you want to investigate them, by all means, knock yourself out! It certainly won’t hurt and can only help.  But many people simply don’t have the time to go all-out like that, and you don’t have to!

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Training hike with a half-full pack.

The simple fact is that you need to be able to walk long distances with a heavy pack on your back, so get out there and do as much hiking as you possibly can.

You should alternate between long, short, strenuous and easy hikes.  Change it up frequently.  If you like to jog, trail running is a great cross-training activity (it utilizes some different muscles and works the lungs harder).

Speaking of cross-training: cycling, stair climbing, elliptical training and rowing are also great supplemental exercises.  And if you can find the time, weight training is also super helpful and I highly recommend it.  But if all you can do is hike with weight on your back, that’s enough.

What if you live in a place without accessible hiking areas nearby?  Then walk! Walk your favorite neighborhoods, along city streets or through local parks. Find hills and walk those. Will people look at you funny if you are walking the streets of Chicago with a 35 lb. pack on?  Yes, but who cares? Most people will be curious about what you are doing and will provide you with tons of enthusiasm and support once they find out.

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Training hike in the city with a buddy includes the Golden Gate Bridge!

What if you live in a place that is too rainy/snowy/cold/hot/humid right now to train properly? Get a gym membership and spend time on the treadmill, stair climber and/or elliptical machine – and wear your pack at the gym! No excuses.

The bottom line is you can train anywhere in the world and it doesn’t matter if you don’t have access to big mountains.  The beauty of this hobby is that you can strap on a pack and go walking anywhere, which means training properly is always an option.

Here’s a general set of guidelines* for total newbies with little-to-no recent hiking experience and for those whom may not currently be in the best shape of their lives:

  • Start out hiking or walking just a couple of miles three times per week with little-to-no weight on your back (i.e., carrying a daypack with water and snacks is fine).
  • Every two weeks, up your mileage by one single mile.
  • When you can comfortably hike six miles at least once a week (with shorter hikes at least once a week as well), start adding weight.  Start with a 15 lb. day pack.
  • Up the amount of weight your carry by 5 lbs. every two weeks.
  • Get to the point where you can successfully carry 35 lbs. on a six mile hike at least once a week.
  • How many miles per day do you plan on hiking during your trip? Start building to where you can comfortably carry at least 35 lbs. for that many miles (i.e., if you plan on averaging ten miles per day on your trip, make sure you are semi-comfortable carrying 35+ lbs. for at least ten miles once a week or more).
  • In a perfect world, each week includes at least three hikes: one longer, but easy; one short, but strenuous; one long AND strenuous.  Be able to carry 35+ lbs. on each hike.
  • If you already know your pack is going to weigh more or less than 35 lbs., adjust your training plan accordingly.

You do not need to train every day. People sometimes think they must hike 10 miles every day, with a pack on, in order to be prepared and that’s simply not true. I don’t know anyone who has a lifestyle conducive to hiking 10 miles every day! The truth is that your body will have to do some of the adapting and strengthening out on the trail during your trip. If you can fit three days of training in per week, that’s pretty awesome!

Lastly, consider some of the helpful smartphone apps out there to help you track your progress.  Pay attention to your distance for each hike, how long it takes you to do certain distances over time (e.g., are you getting faster at that nasty, mountainous 4-miler?), and also keep track of elevation gain/loss (make sure you are doing lots of ups and downs as Mother Nature is rarely flat).

I prefer Runkeeper because it specifically includes hiking as an activity and is simple to use with tons of features (and free for the basic version, which is all you really need).

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Resting during a HOT training hike!

When I trained for the 220-mile John Muir Trail, I started training the second week of January for an August start date.  By the time May rolled around, I was hiking anywhere from 2-5 days a week.  I carried my pack filled with all my gear (35+ lbs.) on most hikes.  One hike each week was 10 miles long or longer, and about once a week I would give my body a break and hike without the pack.

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Feeling good on the JMT thanks to proper training.

By the time August rolled around, I was more than physically prepared for my trip! My body handled the demands of that strenuous trail much better than most people I met, regardless of the fact that I was still a little overweight.  My muscles and joints could handle it and my body and mind were used to it. Success!

Training in your running shoes is fine to start, but soon you are going to need some real hiking shoes or boots. Next up: my personal shoe shopping horror story!

*I am not a doctor nor a personal trainer! You should consult with your physician before starting any exercise program. Everybody is different and you should tailor your training program to fit your specific capabilities and needs.