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

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.

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 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

You’re Among Friends!

John Muir once said (a long time ago):

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.

What he said back then is more appropriate now than ever! People are flocking to backpacking like never before. And if you ask me, that’s a good thing. We have tough lives filled with work, family, friends, Facebook, more work, cities, bustle, crime, politics, more work and an endless bombardment of technology and advertising. Many of us are over-weight and over-worked. Some of us are overly fit but spend every possible moment in a gym, or a yoga studio, or a spin class, or in front of a workout video at home. We NEED the wilderness, just as much as the wilderness needs us!

Thankfully, our country is full of it. Whether you live in Maine or Arizona, there is wilderness somewhere near you! I’m sure if you’re reading this blog, you’ve already seen or read Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild”. Or you’ve seen Bill Bryson’s recent movie “A Walk in the Woods”. Those books and movies have made backpacking mainstream.  Why?  Because backpacking can be enjoyed by anyone. You could be nine or 90 and enjoy backpacking. And somewhere in us all resides an animalistic desire to get into the wilderness and just…be. It has a power unlike most other endeavors. It cures what ails you, both physically and mentally. It’s incredibly healthy. It fosters a sense of community. So welcome to this wonderful world you are about to enter! You will never regret it.