Sierra Club Wilderness Travel Course, Pt 1

Or, what I will call “Pt 1: When do you abandon us in the desert with no water and only a topo map and compass?”


View from Mt. Lowe summit, San Gabriel Mountains

I will start this post by writing one of my most-used phrases on this blog: I’ve been meaning to write about this for awhile, but haven’t gotten around to it. My head is constantly full of swirling ideas (amongst other things) in regards to this blog. I want to review ALL THE GEARS that I’m obsessed with (like that Patagonia Houdini, which is rapidly becoming my new best friend), I want to talk about all the trips I have planned, and the move that is taking place in my life in a few short months.

But, what happens instead: I spend all day at work, sometimes on a computer, and then realize upon returning home in the evening that I don’t want to spend more time on the computer. However, I think it’s important (and fun, always fun) for me to sit down (or stand up) and take some time to write about topics that aren’t related to work or academics. So, here we go: I’ve really been wanting to do a nice summary of the Sierra Club Wilderness Travel Course (or WTC) I’ve been participating in over the last few months. It’s the best. The. Best.

If you learn one thing from this overly long and detailed post, I want you to know this: TAKE THIS CLASS. It’s amazing. You will learn a lot of things. Many many things. You will maybe disagree with some of the things, but a vast majority of them are things you probably either don’t know, or needed to be reminded about.

You should also know these details:
– WTC website:
– When: January-March (I assume this stays fairly regular from year to year). If you really think you want to sign up, do it early! There was a pretty large wait list by the time January came around.
– Where: At 4 locations in the Los Angeles area, read below for more details in regards to this.
– Cost: $335 for Sierra Club members, $370 for non-members. Plus, you will likely have to purchase gear, unless you’re like me and live in a sea of gear. To me, this class has been well worth the money though!


Sure, some of this stuff has always been in my daypack, but now it has new friends (like, an emergency blanket).

When I first heard about this class after reading about it over on Modern Hiker I thought to myself, “Well, you’ve been backpacking since middle school, and have been pretty obsessed with it since that time, how much can you actually learn in a backpacking class?” Well, turns out a lot. While much of the class IS in fact about backpacking, it certainly is ALSO full of information related to more intense mountaineering practices as well (something I love).

Overview of the class:

It happens over a course of 10 weeks, with one evening session per week based on the location you sign up for. There are four sections, each generally meeting on a different night each week: West Los Angeles, San Gabriel Valley, Long Beach/South Bay, and Orange County. As part of the West Los Angeles cohort, I meet the class every Wednesday night at a local elementary school, where we do this stuff:

1. One hour lecture on weekly topic: It could be outdoor gear, conditioning, snow or mountain travel. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of women giving weekly lectures, which has been inspiring.

2. When you first start the class, you are placed into one of four smaller groups. These groups will be your WTC family for the duration of the course. You’ll attend smaller classroom sessions with them every week after the full lecture (all groups attend this), and you’ll go on your outings with them as well.

3. Each smaller group will have numerous instructors, who will guide you in topical education semi-related to the main lecture of the evening. For example, this past week we began the evening with a lecture on wilderness first aid, and then completed scenarios in our smaller groups afterwards. You are assigned a mentor, who is available for you to ask questions, or sometimes even loan you gear.

4. As I mentioned there are outings, you will do a:

Conditioning hike: We hiked Mt. Lowe in the San Gabriel Mountains (about 14 miles, roughly 2500 elevation gain, I think).

Joshua Tree overnight: After leaving early (so, so early) you spend one full day wandering around the desert in small groups with an instructor, practicing with your map + compass and learning how to travel in the desert. The next day, you’ll do a really fun climb of Peak 4377.

You'll get to enjoy this view

You’ll get to enjoy this view

Snow travel day: Spend a day learning how to travel on snow (if you can find snow, this is California, after all).
Snow camping weekend (2 nights): Go to the sierras with your group, where you will spend two nights learning how to not freeze in your four season tent (which you probably rented).

Here is a sampling of the things I’ve learned so far (a bit more than halfway through):

1. Navigation: THIS IS IMPORTANT! I’ll be honest. In college, I carried a mini compass on my backpack, but I had no idea how to use it. I thought it seemed like a good idea. But, now I’m getting pretty confident with a topographic map and a compass. While I’ve always used and liked topo maps (partially because I think they’re beautiful) I’ve never spent any time with them in the field, looking at the landscape around me and understanding how it corresponds to what I see on the map. I always thought, “I’m just on this trail and I follow it to this thing, and I have a trail map, so why would I need to know anything else?” Sure, this is sometimes true. But, I’ve also always really wanted to go off trail more, and this is just the ticket to get me there. (And it’s fun, so so fun). Plus, as we all know, even on-trail trips should be accompanied by some map skills (and hopefully a map).

Topo map, after a weekend in Joshua Tree

2. General Skills: The format of the class is very geared towards beginners, which at times has been a little frustrating to me. I’ve spent years learning the difference between down and synthetic insulation (I mean, I carried that huge synthetic bag for YEARS!), I know about backpacks, and I learned all kinds of things just from trial and error. But, the thing is: There is a lot I don’t know, and this class is introducing me to those things. One of the best things you can do sometimes is relearn some of the basic things, and also take advantage of learning from instructors who have a lot of experience.

3. Rock scrambling: I’ve generally done minor rock scrambling around campsites in the evening, but I’ve never really done anything more off-trail than that. Through this course, I’ve finally gotten to do a class 2/class 3 rock scramble to Peak 4377 in Joshua Tree National Park, and now I’m addicted (ugh, thanks WTC). It’s like a giant playground for adults, full of abrasive rock, cactus, and sweeping views.

4. Snow camp: I haven’t done this yet, so I can’t reflect on my experience at this point. But, this was one of the big factors inspiring me to sign up for this class. I had to think it over a lot (do I want to camp in the snow, after that one time I accidentally camped in the snow in the rockies??) But, eventually I concluded that yes, snow camping seems like it could maybe not horrible if you prepare to actually snow camp, so I should learn how to do it. I’ll be writing a part 2 with more reflections on snow camp later next month.

5. You don’t know everything: While, as I mentioned, I fashion myself a pretty savvy backpacker (HEY, I just bought a TARP! I’m fancy), this class is a much needed reminder that there still so much to learn. It’s also a reminder of how much there is out there to explore, if you have the right tools to be able to safely get there.

This weekend, we have a snow travel day, which will include… Actual snow! Apparently there was some lucky snowfall over the last few days, and we’re due for more over the weekend. So, looks like I’ll get to drag some snow shoes around (I have a love/hate relationship with snowshoeing at this point in my life, hopefully that will change in the next few weeks).

After that: Snow camping (click here for part 2). Fingers crossed, both for snow, and the warmth of my supposed zero degree quilt.

Until then, here are some more Joshua Tree photos:

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