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    


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

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




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