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

Adaptability Is Critical: Trip Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sent another email out to the women letting them know rangers frequently had outdated or erroneous information and, surprisingly, could not always be trusted to have the latest info.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

My BEST hiking partner!

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

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

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

But I rarely take him backpacking.

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

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Furley is in incredible shape, but I rarely take him backpacking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Happy backpacker!

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

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

 

 

backpacking planning big sur

Planning that First Trip: Next Steps

If you are just starting to plan your first backpacking trip and have been following my blog, you’ve chosen the length of your first foray and now you’re wondering what to do next.  After you decide how LONG your first trip will be, the next step is to pick WHERE it will be and also WHEN.

Where and when you hike is important for obvious and not-so-obvious reasons.  The most obvious consideration is the weather.  If you live in a cold environment, backpacking in early spring will be very cold and potentially snowy. Probably not your cup of tea (just yet)!

Another consideration is your current physical fitness level.  If you aren’t exactly in the best shape of your life and you don’t have much time to train, hiking in the Colorado Rockies, for example, might be a tad much.

backpacking planning
Planning out a recent trip.

Your first trip needs to be planned for an environment that will be comfortable for you. I live in Northern California and just completed my first trip of 2016 in March.  I don’t do snow. I knew the Sierra Nevadas and their foothills would be too cold and snowy, so I headed out to the coast of Big Sur.  The weather was quite comfortable for me there.  I also hadn’t been hiking much at that time, so I picked a trail that wasn’t too strenuous or hilly.

Backpacking beginner Ventana Wilderness
My dog carries his own pack!

I’m starting to think about my second backpacking trip of the year for in May. That one will also NOT be in the Sierras as it can (and does) snow up there through May.  I will likely pick a place more inland or perhaps further south. I can probably get away with the Sierra foothills, but I’ll need to check historical data for overnight lows to be sure my gear (and my skin!) can handle the temperatures.  And since I’ve been training a lot the past few months, I know I can handle more hills, so that will factor into my decision, too.

When it comes to backpacking locations, there are many types to choose from, from national parks and national forests to state parks and county parks as well.  There are also Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas, federal and state wilderness areas, recreation areas, etc.

For many first timers, a national park is ideal because of the awesome facilities and consistent maintenance. National parks tend to have well-maintained, well-marked trails and lots of information available online and by calling.  Alternatively, BLM areas are often more remote with less information available online and trail systems that may or may not have been maintained any time in the last 100 years.

If you are a dog owner and want to bring Fido, national parks tend to be your enemy as they are decidedly not dog-friendly and most don’t allow dogs on any trails, period.

National forests, on the other hand, are usually incredibly dog-friendly and even allow for off-leash backpacking! Always check the rules while planning your trip – don’t find out the hard way that your trip with your dog has basically been ruined.

Also, don’t hesitate to call your prospective park and talk to a ranger or other representative. I have gotten wonderful advice by calling national parks and forests for information. The people who answer the calls tend to be very friendly and have a desire to help you out. It’s not like calling the DMV!

Last year I was planning a trip for my sister and myself for May. We originally wanted to backpack out to some popular hot springs in the Los Padres National Forest, but by calling and talking to a ranger in advance, I found out it would be way too crowded and unenjoyable for us; solitude was our big priority. Without talking to that ranger, we probably would have just gone to the springs and been let down.

Backpacking Henry Coe
Solitude at Henry Coe State Park! Just what we wanted.

In addition to park websites, searching for online trip reports is a great way to find information about trails in your area.  People write trip reports after a specific trip to help inform and educate others about that trail at the exact time they hiked it.  In addition to describing the trip, they also include things like the trail conditions, water supply, hazards, difficulty, etc. To find them, simply search online for ‘trip reports backpacking [your state]’. If you already know you want to hike in a certain park, you can do the search that way – ‘trip reports backpacking [name of park]’.

Another great resource is YouTube.  There you can see videos of the places you are considering. As an example, try searching ‘Evolution Valley‘ (part of the famous John Muir Trail) on YouTube – you’ll see a ton of videos. I also like using Google Images to search for photos of places in which I’m interested. One word of advice – don’t overdo it with the videos and photos; you want some of where you are going to be a surprise!

You can also seek out local backpacking clubs and organizations in your area and consult with them. For example, the Albuquerque, NM, chapter of the Sierra Club offers weekly hikes with an experienced leader. If you live in that area, those people would probably be good to know!

Next up: Finding Fellow Backpackers!

All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware. Martin Buber