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?!?!

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:

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


Dehydrating Veggies

Backpacking Food: How and Why I Dehydrate

You may have heard that “food tastes better on the trail”.  It’s true, and there’s a scientific explanation: Our bodies go through a physiological response to being in nature.  Changes in blood pressure, pulse rate, heart rate, salivary cortisol and hemoglobin in the brain’s prefrontal cortex stimulates the parasympathetic branch of our nervous system.  The parasympathetic branch is sometimes called the “rest and digest” branch, and when it kicks in, food tastes A-MAZING.

Homemade backpacking food.
I don’t recall what this was, but it was YUMMY! Photo: Andrea Ou

But food is also fuel, so we should pay close attention to what we stick in our mouths while backpacking to give our bodies their best chance at strength, recovery and adaptability so we’ll feel more comfortable and have less aches and pains (training helps, too).

There are lots of companies that prepare and sell dehydrated food for backpackers.  Some are organic.  Some are labeled as “gourmet”.  Some are all-natural.  And many are pure, ultra-processed junk.  Aside from the quality, these pre-packaged foods are designed using a one-size-fits-all approach.   Almost every offering is packaged for what the company defines as “food for two people”.

But some people are bigger or smaller than others and metabolism is different from one person to another.  My caloric needs on the trail are different than my husband’s or my 10-year-old son’s.  These foods also don’t take into account how many miles you accomplished in one day, or how long your trip is.

When I backpack solo, or in a group of people I’m not sharing food with, I can eat about 1.5 servings of pre-packaged food before I feel like vomiting.  And since I have no Tupperware nor a fridge, I can’t keep the leftovers.  If no one else wants them, then what?  I’ve made myself sick trying to force the extras down.  I’ve had to dig holes to bury what’s remaining in the bag (you boil water and pour it directly into the bag).  What a waste of food – and money!

So I stopped buying backpacking food and set out to make my own.  I found it really wasn’t difficult and in the long run is way cheaper than buying the pre-packaged stuff.  Plus, it’s much healthier.  I once dehydrated enough food for three people for an entire thru-hike of the John Muir Trail (22 days of food for three).

Resupply on the JMT
Dehydrated food and other snacks for three people for one leg of the JMT

When you dehydrate foods, it takes a long time, so you can just set it and forget it! I dehydrate one batch while I’m at work, then a different batch while I sleep.  And so on until I’m done.

First step: buy a dehydrator.  Any dehydrator will do, but if you can afford to be choosy, choose the biggest one you can get with a temperature selector.  Many low-end models have only one temperature setting.  Also, I highly recommend you buy one in the shape of a square.  Many dehydrators are circles, and I just don’t get that.  There’s so much more room when the trays are square! I have the Nesco FD-80A and love it.

Next, make sure you buy the recommended tray inserts, both the mesh kind and the solid, plastic, non-stick trays. If you read articles about using parchment paper instead of non-stick trays, ignore them! It’s WAY easier to use the trays and, depending on what you are dehydrating, parchment WILL NOT WORK.

Now you need ingredients. To save a ton of time and money, buy chopped, frozen veggies – I buy organic.

Dehydrating Veggies
Dehydrating trays of healthy veggies.

I also dehydrate grass fed ground beef and bison, as well as organic chicken.  Two important tips here: 1) All ground red meat must be pre-cooked with breadcrumbs before dehydrating AND 2) All chicken must come from a can.

Pre-cooking ground meat allows you to break it into tiny pieces.  Otherwise, you would be trying to dehydrate chunks.  The bread crumbs don’t alter the taste and are included to absorb and rehydrate the meat when you add water on the trail.  Regular chicken just doesn’t dehydrate well.  Canned chicken is pressure-cooked in the can, and for reasons way above my pay grade, it dehydrates perfectly.  When you re-hydrate and cook it on the trail, you won’t notice it was ever in a can!

I also dehydrate herbs and leafy veggies like kale and Swiss chard.  I love adding dehydrated onions to my recipes, but make sure you dehydrate those when you aren’t at home because your whole house will stink (I actually have some dehydrating in my garage as I write this!).  Many people make their own beef jerky, but I haven’t done that yet.  Not enough time!

You can dehydrate pasta sauce, salsa, cooked/blended beans and even enchilada sauce.  When dehydrated, these can be broken up and added to recipes.  Try dehydrating mashed potatoes instead of buying the store-bought, processed crap.  My sister once made me Mexican mole sauce and that dehydrated well, too.  Watch the fat content of your meats and sauces – oils and fats don’t dehydrate easily and can spoil.

For pasta and rice dishes, cook them like normal and THEN dehydrate them.  Dehydrated brown rice cooks up on the trail in just a few minutes.  If you brought un-cooked brown rice on the trail, it would take forever.  Try other grains like faro, barley and wild rice, too.  Again, always cook first, then dehydrate. (Try cooking in chicken or beef broth for added flavor when re-cooking on the trail.)

Look online or buy a book for recipes and inspiration.  I buy powdered whole milk (the extra fat is good and it tastes better), powdered coconut milk, curry powders, spices and other flavorings to make my meals. On Amazon, you can buy bulk powdered cheese sauce (like the kind in a box of mac-and-cheese).  When combined with powdered milk, and perhaps even some powdered butter, you can make an amazing beefy mac-and-cheese on the trail! My favorite meal ever is mango chicken curry with veggies and rice.  It’s amazing!  The enchilada sauce one-pot meals are great, too.

Powdered Milk
NOT cocaine! Powdered milk for backpacking breakfasts of muesli.

If you like to eat packaged ramen on the trail, give it some actual nutritional value by adding some dehydrated meat and veggies.  You can also buy powdered eggs (this link takes you to the only tasty brand), add dehydrated veggies and/or meat, sprinkle some powdered cheese on top and have an amazing scramble in the back country (this requires a stove that allows for a simmer and a small pan as a pot doesn’t have enough surface area)!

Packaging the food is a bit of an art and you should follow your recipe’s instructions for how-to’s.  For small things, like a pine nuts or flavorings you want to add at the end of the cooking process, cut snack-sized baggies in half and tape up the cut end.  Write cooking instructions on a piece of paper towel or napkin and slip that inside your main bag.  Now you have instructions and a napkin! Remember: you’ll need to pack out your trash so bring a large bag for that purpose or use the bags your food was packed in.

One potential downside to cooking your own food is that you’ll need to cook it in your pot, thereby requiring you to clean the pot after each meal.  You may meet backpackers who insist you can pour boiling water directly into your zip lock bag of dehydrated ingredients.  Please don’t listen to these people!  Time and time again, scientists have proven beyond a shred of a doubt that this practice is dangerous and unhealthy.  You can actually buy special bags designed for boiling food, but they are rather thick and bulky, which make them tough to pack into a backpack or bear canister.

I store my ingredients in mason jars or freezer-type plastic bags in the freezer until I’m ready to make meals out of them.  Many people buy a vacuum sealer and package their trail food that way.  I haven’t made that investment yet and find that plastic baggies work just fine.  I use freezer bags because they are thicker and less likely to puncture from some sharp piece of dehydrated food.

Jars of dehydrated food
Mason jars and freezer bags for storing dehydrated ingredents.

When I’m on the trail, my meals are the envy of everyone I meet!  They are nutritious, delicious and satisfying and help me perform at my best.

A crude meal, no doubt, but the best of all sauces is hunger. – Edward Abbey

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.

    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 [email protected]

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.

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!

Black Diamond Mines

Backpacking with Fido: Top 5 Reasons to Bring Your Dog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My BEST hiking partner!

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

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

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

But I rarely take him backpacking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

File Apr 03, 12 52 37
Happy backpacker!

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

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



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.

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).

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.

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 8.19.58 PM
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.

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”.

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.

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.

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 (

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.

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!

training for backpacking
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.

backpacking training city
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).

training backpacking
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.

training for a backpacking trip
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.

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


Plan Your First Trip: Find Your ‘Wa’

Time to start planning your first trip! But there’s so much to think about, where do you start?  For newbies, I suggest you start with the (seemingly) simple process of choosing how many days you will backpack as it is an important decision worthy of much consideration.

Many experienced backpackers will suggest that your first trip should be quite short, maybe one or two nights, max. I believe it’s a very personal decision and there are pros and cons to longer vs. shorter trips. It all depends on you.

Backpacking Henry Coe State Park
‘Wa’ and backpacking in Northern CA

Shorter trips give you an opportunity to get your feet wet (perhaps literally!). You aren’t committing to anything too lengthy or strenuous. After all, you don’t even know if you’ll like backpacking yet! Short trips are the way to go for many reasons and there is nothing wrong with planning a two-night trip. Plus, let’s face it – with our busy lives, that might be your only option. And finding friends to backpack with is sometimes challenging (more on that in a future post). Many people backpack alone, which has its own set of perks, so don’t count that option out for yourself!

BUT – Short trips don’t give you much time to adjust to the life of backpacking to see how you really feel about it. Just as you are starting to get used to that sleeping pad, you are back in your own bed. Just as you begin to feel you’ve mastered packing and unpacking your pack every day, you’re unpacking it at home and putting it all away.

Have you ever gone on a big vacation and noticed that it takes almost three days to really settle into it? That first day, you are usually overly excited and also tired from traveling. The second day you feel gung-ho and attempt to plan out or think through every single waking moment ahead. What beach are we going to today (you ask as soon as your eyes open)? What about tomorrow (you ask over breakfast)? Where will we eat dinner (you ask while eating lunch)? You can’t wait for tomorrow and that is detrimental to ‘living in the moment’. But right around Day 3, something called “wa” sets in.

Sunsets can induce 'wa'
Sunsets can induce ‘wa’

Wa is a Japanese cultural concept that generally means harmony. My parents taught this concept to us kids growing up when we took family vacations and my own family utilizes the concept now. Wa is what you should strive for on any vacation and Day 3 is notoriously when it seems to sink in. You know you’ve hit a state of wa when you feel settled into the day-to-day of your new (if temporary) life. You stop wondering what’s around every next corner and cease to act like a five-year-old kid in a candy store. I describe it as “sinking in”. Wa is the best part about any vacation. And wa is where you want to be when you backpack.

My dog and I find ‘wa’ by a river after a day of backpacking.

Heather and Josh Legler of the awesome podcast “The First 40 Miles” named their podcast after their shared belief that it’s not until you hit 40 miles for the first time (in one trip) that backpacking begins to feel transcendental instead of feeling like a somewhat uncomfortable chore. I agree.

After a certain point, whether it be Day 3 or 40 miles in, backpacking is revealed for what it truly is: simplicity, beauty, rejuvenation, adventure. The only way to fall in love with backpacking is to hit that point, and for most newbies it take some time to get there. Once you become an “expert”, you will fall wa faster; it won’t take three or four days anymore. Many experienced backpackers hit wa when their feet first hit the trail!

If you can swing it, I suggest a trip of more than three days. Like I wrote up top, though, it’s very much a personal choice that likely depends on a lot of factors. There’s certainly nothing wrong with choosing to do a weekend trip so you can get those feet wet. HYOH!

Next up: The WHEN and WHERE of your first trip.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. – Mark Twain