I feel a bit ashamed to say it, but, I’ve sort of lost steam on planning a long thru-hike for this summer.
But you know what: That’s okay. If I’m lucky, I’ll have lots of years to plan big, gorgeous, and challenging hikes.
My summer plans have morphed as time has gone on. I had planned for a long time to finally hike the JMT this summer. I was finishing up a job, and planned some down time before I looked for a new one. Then, after a challenging new permit situation, and an impending big move to a new state I decided to put that on the back burner. THEN, I thought, “wouldn’t this be a great time to hike the Lost Coast Trail?” But you know what: I just didn’t have the energy to plan it, and after growing up just south of there (and backpacking in Pt. Reyes National Park a few weeks ago), I feel like I’ve been spending a lot of time gazing at our beautiful local coastline.
So, I’ve been spending some time pondering what this all means moving forward, while also fighting a bit of disappointment at my inability to get things together for a big summer adventure (but, I said it’s okay, right?). While I have a lot of moments of feeling like I’ve sort of wasted my much-anticipated backpacking season, I’m also looking forward to getting settled, and getting some solid 2016 plans in place over the next year. Moving is hard. Each time I move, I tell myself “what’s the big deal? Spend a few weeks putting stuff into boxes, and then you’re done.” However, by the end of the whole experience, I am exhausted and drained. In retrospect, it was a wise choice to put off the JMT until a better time in the future, as I think in the long run, it will be a more enjoyable experience to plan, train for, and complete the trail when the husband and I are in a more stable place location-wise.
Tentative thru-hikes I’m researching for next summer:
-Tahoe Rim Trail
-Colorado Trail (I’ve been wanting to do this one for a very long time)
-Section hiking part of the PCT and/or CDT
So, the point of this whole ramble is: Don’t be too hard on yourself. Do your best, don’t get caught up in the “but all these people are doing all these amazing thru-hikes this summer” black hole. It’s all okay 🙂
Also, here’s a photo from my backpacking trip in Pt. Reyes a few weeks ago:
Everyone, big news. At least, it’s exciting to me.
After not sleeping while camping for over 1/2 of my life, I think I’m finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. While I’m fairly certain I will never sleep as well in the backcountry as I do at home, because well, I have a mattress and a memory foam topper at home, I’m definitely seeing some improvement. Let’s have a quick run-down of what some of my findings are, and how this blabbing might help YOU sleep better in the backcountry.
–My overall backpacking philosophy has shifted a bit, a topic I intend to more fully explore in an upcoming post. The short version: As a backpacker, you need to carefully examine your own needs and goals, and shape your gear list and trip planning around that. What do YOU want out of your trip? Do you want a more comfortable evening camp experience, or are you happy with a more bare bones approach? For me, I find that I fall somewhere in between. I don’t need a lot of extra luxuries in the evening, but I also have certain comfort requirements that need to be met for me to get a good night sleep. AND, that involves maybe compromising on my base weight and carrying some extra ounces. But you know what? That’s totally okay, because I’m more rested and I have a better trip anyways.
-I’ve touched on a few of these topics in one of my previous posts (a few months ago, eek!), but with all of this in mind, where are some of my findings:
1. A pillow is a must. For years I did the whole “just put some clothes in a stuff sack, and then suck it up and make it work” thing. But, you know what? I just can’t. So, I tried a few pillows, and I’ve finally found my perfect one. It doesn’t stick to my face, make lots of crinkly sounds, and actually feels kind of cushy.
2. Find a pad that doesn’t make you feel like crap. Sure, I could carry a lighter/thinner pad, but what’s the point if you’re going to feel horrible the next day. At that point, the ounces you saved aren’t really that important if you’re not enjoying yourself. So, my suggestion: Try a lot of pads. I’m not saying you need to carry a 4 lb air mattress, but if you find something that totally works for you, and you can compromise on some weight, it’s probably worth it.
3. Have a bedtime routine. Just because you’re in the backcountry doesn’t mean you have to throw your bedtime routine out the window. Like tea before bed? A good book? You can make that work in the backcountry too.
4. Years ago, I read an article in backpacking magazine that suggested keeping a similar bedtime compared to the one you have at home. I sort of agree with this, to a certain extent. It feels weird to me to go to bed at 8pm, even after a long day of hiking. So, even if I get in my bag early, I’ll generally read for awhile, until I fall asleep at somewhere around my normal time.
5. Again, I say this often on this blog, but you need to TROUBLE shoot. What is keeping you up? Make notes, and the systematically figure out if you can solve those problems. I’ve found that wearing ear plugs has really helped me, since I’ve always been ultra sensitive to night-time noises (I’m definitely one of those “everything is walking around my tent” people).
Perhaps some of that will help you find a better nights sleep in the backcountry. I’ve found that with more sleep, I’m a much happier camper (literally), and that is a wonderful thing.
Hello hello readers! Turns out I’m alive, and somehow survived packing up my apartment and moving out of LA. Whew.
I finally got around to updating my gear lists for a bunch of backpacking trips I’ve done in the last few months, which can be found here.
I hope you enjoy, and look forward to more regularly scheduled posts by me, since I’m now fun-employed (and really loving it, I’m ashamed to say). Lots of new adventures on the horizon, and I am unbelievably excited about it.
Until then, here’s a sweet photo from my trip last week through Point Reyes National Seashore:
I said I’d give a little update on my backcountry sleep issues, so I’ll do that now while also imparting a little problem-solving wisdom for all your backcountry woes.
It never ceases to amaze me how strange it is that someone who loves backpacking and the backcountry as much as I do, still can somehow not actually sleep during those trips. I’ve had since middle school to figure this out, but as I detailed in a previous post, I’ve spent the last 15+ years continuing to suffer from sleep deprivation and dead arm, while also spending a lot of money on new things that will supposedly help. New pad? Yep, spent a lot of money on that. Multiple sleeping bag styles tested? Oh yes, I did all that (I’ll never forget the Nemo spoon shaped bag, the quilts!)
Here’s the thing. I have a theory, which is that crux of ANY backcountry conundrum we might face as backpackers might sometimes be amplified by the lack of follow-up to really solve the problem (note: and by issue I don’t mean serious health related problems like acute mountain sickness. I mean the things that just generally make us uncomfortable and the experience less enjoyable). At least, I think this is certainly true for me. When I say “backpacker” in this context, I’m not necessarily talking about thru-hikers, or even those spending multiple consecutive weeks on a trip (though, you thru-hikers are backpackers too, don’t worry). I’m more referring to the type of backpacker I’ve had to become over the last several years, because of school and work commitments, which is namely a weekend/long weekend backpacker with long distance aspirations. Here’s what happens:
1. I go backpacking on a 1-2 night trip
2. I get terrible sleep, and am in a state of sleep deprived madness by the end of the trip
3. Somehow, I drive myself home without wrecking the car
4. I get home, eat all the snacks, catch up on all the sleep, and then I go on with my life as a I unwillingly drag myself to work Monday morning
Sure, while I’m on the trip, and maybe sometimes after, I’ll think, “I should really figure this whole sleep thing out”. But, then I’m home and sleeping in my own bed, and the urgency to actually SOLVE that problem goes away. Furthermore, you can sometimes pull it off on a one to two night trip. Maybe you feel like crap by the last day, but you go home and recover, and go about your business.
I’ve slowly come to the realization that this doesn’t really work in my favor. Why? Because, as much as I love almost everything else about backpacking, I’m starting to just expect the shitty horrible feeling at the end. It’s sort of ruins the experience, and then I get questions like, “why do you do that, if it’s not enjoyable?” And I don’t like that question. So much about backpacking is enjoyable. I love planning routes, traveling those routes, being in camp, AND I really enjoy peeing in the woods. So, it’s just unacceptable that I also continue to associate those experiences with the horrible shitty tiredness that happens by the end. Sure, it’s normal to be tired after carrying 25 lb of stuff up a mountain, but you’re just that much more tired if you ALSO didn’t sleep.
So, in light of this, I’ve been trying to come up with… A list! While for me this is sleep specific, I think it can actually be applied to a lot of troublesome backcountry issues that people might deal with (don’t like your food? Afraid to poop in the woods?). So, here it is:
1. Remember the specifics of what bothers you. If necessary, bring a (small, lightweight) notebook and jot down some thoughts as it happens.
2. Once you’re home, review those notes. Decide if there are some “low hanging fruit” options that you can initially fix. Feet cold? Bring warmer socks. Hungry? Bring more food/different food. Sometimes, you’ll already have the gear and the ability to solve some of those things right away.
3. Troubleshoot the things that are a bit more tricky. This doesn’t always mean that you have to run right now and spend a ton of money on new gear. Do some googling, read through some of the many excellent backpacking books out there. Many places will allow returns of items as long as they are either in new shape, or almost new (for example: I got a new pack at REI last month to try it, took it on a one night trip to Joshua Tree National Park, and then returned it because I didn’t like it). Don’t assume because you bought something that you are required to keep it. If it doesn’t work for YOU, don’t keep it.
4. Experiment. Don’t assume that because you made some changes that they will magically be the solution. Don’t go out for a weekend, sleep terribly, make a few changes, and then assume that you’ve now solved these issues for your month long JMT hike. If you have to, sleep in your backyard or go on a short overnight trip. Do this as often as you need to!
5. Try your best. Sometimes, you’re just not going to have things be perfect (you’re sleeping on an inflatable pad after all, not at home).
Back to sleeping. Here’s what I’ve noted:
–Not managing cold drafts with quilt
-Neck is hurting from inadequate pillow
-Light sleeper easily awoken by outside noises (especially wind blowing on the tent).
-Feel really crampy waking up at night, even after using what I consider to be a pretty darn comfy air mattress on some trips
Some successful solutions so far:
-I’ve started actually using the quilt pad attachment straps (HUGE help). It really keeps all that hard earned warmth inside the quilt. I don’t know why I just thought of this
-Wearing a balaclava when it’s cold, and utilizing the neck cinch on the quilt
-Wearing ear plugs is a huge help. I slept through part of a night in Joshua Tree, where the wind was making a lot of noise, and I didn’t even notice it (that being said, I didn’t sleep well because of other other issues I mentioned above).
-At home I sleep on my side, with an extra pillow in between my arms for support. So, on my last snow camping trip, I used my down pants + stuff sack as a mini backcountry hugging pillow. It wasn’t fantastic, but it was way better than having nothing. In theory, I don’t usually bring these on 3 season trips, so I think I’ll have to come up with something better for next time.
-I somehow fell asleep on my BACK. YES, MY BACK. And, I actually slept so much better after that happened. So, I need to see if I can somehow get myself into that habit more….
So, there you have it. Be proactive. Don’t let something that might be fixable ruin what is suppose to be a great experience.
I’ve been hinting here and there about a few possible long-ish trips in my future. And by “hinting” I mean I’ve been thinking about where I can realistically go in between a big location move, without totally abandoning the idea of actually finding a place to live by the end of the summer (or maybe even before). Whereas my original plan was to finally hike the entire JMT this year (which clearly didn’t work out), my other backup plan was to instead do the High Sierra Trail, which is roughly 70 miles long, also ending at Mt. Whitney.
However, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to realize that perhaps this isn’t the right year for a long-ish Sierra hike. While anyone who knows me knows that I LOVE the Sierra, it was turning into a logistical nightmare. You may be tempted to ask, “But why? If you really want to hike in the Sierra, you should do it!” That’s a great mentality, one that I usually support. However, with our summer schedule, it’s too far out of the way to be a good option, BECAUSE we are spending almost a whole month living in Northern California, in my home town, where I will be de-stressing from LA traffic, hiking/running, going to farmers markets, and generally sleeping after my job ends in May. This is great! Really really great. Unfortunately however, this town is roughly 4 hours north of San Francisco, over at least an hour of small curvy roads, which lead you to the awesomely gorgeous (and oftentimes foggy) Mendocino coast. So, that’s pretty far from the Sierras, and I can’t say I feel like making the 7+ hour drive to get there, or somehow getting someone to drop us off in Sequoia National Park. It’s just not the year. However, it IS closer to the…
Lost Coast Trail! I’m finally doing it! Little backstory: I grew up playing at the beaches in Mackerricher State Park, with its (cold) gray waters and sweeping views of the lost coast towards the north. It wasn’t until I was much older, and addicted to hiking, that I realized there was a trail up there (heck, I didn’t realize there was anything after West Port). However, since learning about the lost coast, it’s been on my list of trails not to miss, and this is probably my best shot of finally doing it (since after all, I’ll be spending a month living roughly an hour from the southernmost trail head).
A little about the Lost Coast Trail:
-Its split into two sections: the north section is 24.4 miles long, traveling through the King Range National Conservation Area, from Mattole Beach to Black Sands Beach. The south is 28 miles, and runs from Sinkyone Wilderness State Park from Hidden Valley to Usal Creek.
-The north section of the trail seems to be mostly a beach walk, requiring you to time your travel with low tides (it’s very dangerous to try and cross some of these areas during high tide). The south section travels up higher ridges for the most part.
-While it initially seemed like a semi easy 52 miles walk along the beach, the few accounts that exist online note that it’s a deceptively strenuous hike, with a lot of elevation gain and loss, especially in the southern section
-It looks beautiful, and from my research, seems to take you through many different coastal environments, from beach to grassy bluffs to redwood forests.
-Its really remote! While highway 1 goes through places like Big Sur, it never made it through the King Range. Instead, it turns, going inland and bypassing this area. As a result, this is one of the most remote areas in the whole state.
Unlike what I’ve been used to seeing for the JMT, there are very few “guides” available online that cover the entire trail. I really like this aspect of planning, even if it’s slightly more complicated. Most of the information I’ve found on websites seems to only cover one section of the trail (mostly the northern), such as the guide written up on Appalachian trails or Jeff Hester’s write-up on Socal Hiker (note: Socal Hiker has the Lost Coast Trail as only 25 miles. This would only be the northern section. As noted, it continues south!). Years ago, I also found this write-up on Summit Post.
We will be doing the entire 52 miles in 8 or 9 days starting around June 23rd and possibly ending on July 1st, which adds up to only about 6 miles a day. Why take so long for something we could do in less time? Because we can. My brother will be joining us (yay!) and wants to spend some time fishing and wild forging for plants, and I’m in no hurry to get home. The only issue we will have is how to keep 8-9 days of food in bear canisters (which, BY THE WAY, are recommended, but maybe not required), but I think we can do it.
As I plan, I’ll continue to write posts about the process. Who knows, perhaps someday you’ll make the long trek up to Northern California and hike this amazing trail 🙂
(Until then, next big challenge, which is overwhelming complicated: How to get my car to the Southern trailhead, and start at the northern. without paying $400+ for a shuttle. Somehow. Sigh).
Okay, bear with me on this one. I said I was going to write my next post about my continuing sleeping issues. While I’m still going to do that for my next, NEXT post (I’ve figured some things out, maybe), I’ve been thinking a lot about doing a post in regards to some of my backpacking goals. Goals you say? Like, what trails you want to hike? Sort of. I’ve certainly been making my short (actually, long) list of trails I’d like to tackle. They are going to be awesome. More broadly though, I’ve been spending some serious think time pondering how that hiking fits into the greater scheme that is my current life.
To frame this, let’s talk about life. Non-hiking life. We all have those lives, the ones that happen off the trail, that requires you get up, go to work, get health insurance, be a functioning adult, etc. I’ve been thinking about the relationship that my daily life (specifically, work life) has to my backpacking life, and it’s sometimes a tense one. I’ve also spent a lot of time recently reflecting on what kind of backpacker I want to be. While you may be reading this thinking, “just go backpacking for a weekend, it’s not that complicated”, for me it’s slightly more complicated. So, let’s have a conversation about these two topics: work and how I envision myself moving forward in the world of semi-long distance backpacking.
To start, let’s quickly go over a little about me and my job (though obviously you’ve read this in the about me section of my blog, right??):
-I work full time at an amazingly prestigious museum. That’s pretty cool. It’s a nice place to work.
-I’m an archivist, and while I often get the “oh my god, I bet you have the best job in the world!” reaction, it can also be a lot of tedious work on a day to day basis. Sure, sometimes I get to work with super old materials from the 1800-1900s, but a lot of what I work with is newer (think: 1995), and like any type of record, it’s not always fascinating.
-A lot of being an archivist is office work. It’s working on spreadsheets, it’s cataloging folders into a content management system, which we can then use to aid researchers or scholars to answer questions. While this is absolutely a vital service that we provide to our society, it also involves a lot of full time desk sitting and indoor time on my part. I certainly don’t take this duty lightly: we provide the materials that people use to make our world better.
-I’ve always struggled a lot with full time jobs. I know that working a full time, 40 hour work week is sometimes part of life. But, I’ve always hated it. Oftentimes, I wander out of my office, look out at the mountains, and think “I wish I was climbing one of those”. By the end of working at my desk for 9 hours, I sometimes feel a little nuts, muttering to myself “what am I doing with my life”.
I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time in my life assuming that I’d settle into the 40 hour “sit at your desk” work week, once I found the right career. I just needed the right job, the right masters degree, and something would CLICK. I just had to figure out what “my thing” would be. Well, I’ve spent a lot of time and have obtained a lot of degrees in my pursuit to figure this out. However, I’m starting to think that maybe my personality just isn’t suited for a full-time office job. I actually think a lot of people aren’t suited for this, and you know what? That might just be okay. Why have I always assumed that this was the only route in life? I’ve always felt that if I couldn’t somehow fit into this model, that I was failing to be a full fledged adult, one that is self-sufficient and successful.
I don’t regret the time I’ve spent exploring careers, jobs, and the fact that I have a masters degree. This is all super great. I’ll always have that masters degree, and I fully intend to apply it in a way that feels right for ME. However, I’m starting to also realize that maybe I’m just a loose cannon, a wanderer, who’d rather have the ability to pick up on a Wednesday to climb a mountain, and then come home and work on my own schedule. What I’m getting at, is that instead of trying to fit yourself into what you think we need to be, sometimes maybe you have to embrace what you know to be true of yourself, and try and mold a life that works for YOU (and not someone else). Maybe I’m spontaneous and I don’t like to sit at a desk, but, that could be something I can work with. I’m still working this all out in my head, but I like where it’s going.
(Also, on the plus side, my position at big museum is up in May, and it might be the perfect time to make a change).
Okay, we’re done with some of the deep, questionably ridiculous big life topics, for now.
Still with me? Next topic is sort of related: I’ve been heading towards the topic of thru-hiking for awhile, both in my writing and in my general life. I have always loved the idea of thru-hiking, ever since learning about the PCT in 2007 or 2008. If, in some magical world, I decide I’m not going to be chained to a desk all day, does that mean I’m going to pick up and go hike for 6 months straight? I don’t think so. For a lot of reasons, I don’t really want to do that. Why not?
-I’ve never done anything longer than 5 days (gasp, I know, it’s crazy), but I think knowing myself, I’d be pretty darn happy with a trip lasting up to a month or so. I don’t have a deep urge to spend 1/2 of the year hiking a super long trail in one go.
-I really really love spending time with my husband and my family. I’d really miss them, so I don’t want to be gone for huge stretches of time (note: I’m sure that everyone who thru-hikes the PCT has someone they dearly miss. I don’t doubt that.)
So, after much thought and consideration, I have determined: I’m a long section hiker! (Or, a hiker of trails taking around 1 month or less to finish*). Sometime, I’ll post the short-list I’ve been making of hikes I’d love to do. They are long section hikes of big trails and shorter thru-hikes (think the John Muir Trail, if the permit situation improves in the next few years). I know it’s silly, but it feels great to say this. I’m a section hiker, and it’s exciting. I want to hike lots, see lots of places and do a lot of writing about those experiences.
This post has already gone on way too long, and my lunch break is almost over. Until next time!
*I’m sure there are lots of definitions “section hiker” but this is how I apply it.
Last week was the final classroom course for the 2015 Sierra Club Wilderness Travel Course. This is sad. Very sad. What will I do with my Wednesday evenings, if not nerd out with 20 other people about which backpacking stove is the BEST backpacking stove? (hint: it’s made from a cat food can).
Now, as my husband will attest to, I went back and forth (and BACK AND FORTH) on whether or not to take this class. What if my knee was shitty and not cooperating? What if people found out that I’ve transformed into a fat ball of archivist who sits at a desk all day desperately eating snacks, who also can’t hike 14 miles?? (Turns out, this isn’t quite accurate, I am very able to hike 14 miles, and in fact it’s fun). Thus, it was with trepidation that I signed up, telling myself that I still had time to drop it. Well, it’s good I didn’t, because it turns out that I learned a ton, some of which I covered in my a previous post. Instead of writing another long winded post about all the awesome stuff you’ll generally learn in WTC (I think I covered a lot of this already), this post will take you through the wild ride that is snow travel day and snow camp.
(Overview of the next several paragraphs, in case you can’t get through all the prose: traveling on snow is fun, and it’s isn’t as “wild” as I thought it would be. In a good way).
When I first signed up for the course, I very thoroughly read through the course overview on the website. I also looked at the schedule and noticed that there were outings titled things like “snow travel day” and “snow camp”. I’ve definitely spent some quality time in snow and up until this point, wasn’t terribly sure how I felt about it. Was it fun? Maybe? I recall renting snow shoes in college and thinking how it felt like I was carrying cumbersome weights on my feet. Was that fun? Maybe not. I thought, “we’re in Southern California, in a drought. What is snow? What is rain?” I spent some serious time reading other blogs posts about what to expect, particularly in relation to all the snow travel. A few people have written about their WTC experiences, similar to the way I’m now reflecting on my own. For example, Shawnté Salabert wrote about taking the class a few years ago, over on Modern Hiker.
By the time March 1st came around for our snow travel day hike I was feeling really excited, and in fact found myself HOPING for snow (yes, that’s right, HOPING). Fortunately, we got really lucky, and spent the day experiencing all types of precipitation, including snow, hail, sleet and rain. After meeting very early at a McDonalds, where many of our group attempted to drink cheap coffee, we headed up towards Mt. Pinos in the Frazier Park area north of Los Angeles, in the Los Padres National Forest. What awaited us was a very cold and beautiful winter wonderland (our thermostat showed 23 degrees!). It was an excellent opportunity to practice what we had learned about venting, water freezing and staying warm.
Photos (click to see bigger):
We had a great day practicing navigation, snow travel tricks, and trying not to freeze, followed by a quick group dinner at a local Mexican restaurant. It turns out, snow isn’t scary! It’s pretty and fun, as long as you know how to take care of yourself (which is what you are suppose to be learning in this class).
Up next, we headed into the Sierra Nevada Mountains for 2 nights and 3 days of snow camping. Now, of all the outings, I like many others, was very skeptical of camping in the snow. One time, at around age 19, I did that. It was an accident. I was camping in Rocky Mountain National Park in the spring, not realizing it could snow, and from what I can remember the experience was not entirely pleasant. However, your instructors do an excellent job of preparing you to deal with cold, snowy camp conditions, and by the time the outing rolls around, you’ve been talking about snow camp for over 7 weeks. In fact, you are oddly excited for it.
We left relatively early on a Friday morning, meeting at a Park and Ride and piling onto a bus. We headed up the east side of the mountains, taking a quick break at a rest stop with a lovely view of Mt. Whitney.
After getting back on the bus, we drove for another few hours towards Bishop, at which point the bus headed into the mountains (note: not all WTC groups and sections go to the same place. While I believe that snow camp always happens in the Sierras, there are many locations within the mountains where groups go). Our destination was Table Mountain Group Camp, a campground (closed to cars during the winter) on the way to lovely South Lake. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) snow camp wasn’t exactly as snowy as we’d hoped. After all, this is California, and we are still deep in a 4+ year drought (click for bigger images).
Despite that, we had a really great weekend. We spent the evenings chatting, sharing food, and participating in group activities like a fire starting contest (it’s harder than you think) and a knot tying competition. On Saturday, we packed up our snow shoes and headed up the road (and a trail) to South Lake, where we were able to actually find some areas of snow to practice snow travel AND have a snow shoe relay race. We used our snow shovels to reveal the new and old layers of snow while discussing avalanche safety, and practiced using avalanche probes to find “missing hikers” (or, a plastic bag of random things).
On Sunday morning, we had the option to go on hikes or relax next to the stream running through the campground. I opted to go on a shorter off-trail hike near the campground up a ridge where we found cactus, a dry lake and gorgeous views. We took turns navigating using our maps while practicing snow travel (mostly kicking steps). We left camp at around 1pm, returned to the bus, and stopped at the Pizza Factory in Bishop before returning home (Pizza never tasted so good).
I could go on and on about snow camp. It was fun, educational, beautiful, and only a little cold. While all WTC groups will have their own style for snow camp, overall you spend quality time working on skills that any hiker should have, especially those venturing to high mountains where cold and snow is a distinct possibility at any time of the year. However, I think the experience would have been slightly different had we had to deal with deep snowy conditions. Regardless, the instructors did their best to impart snow camp knowledge.
In the end, I’m positively enthusiastic about WTC. I’m a CONVERT. I’ve met some great friends, who I’ll continue to hike (and backpack) with and I feel more confident about my ability to navigate off trail and deal with adverse conditions when they might appear. As a fairly experienced backpacker, I found so much in this course to learn.
Bottom line: Take the WTC! It’s well worth the money and peace of mind.
Next time: I’ll keep lamenting about my sleep troubles, and I’ll tell you about sleeping on my back for the FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE.
I will admit something terrible: I hate camping. More specifically, I hate trying to SLEEP while I am camping. Up to that point, I love everything. The tough climb up a pass, the joy of eating a warm rehydrated meal, watching a sunset with good friends, peeing in the woods under the stars.
However, once the sun goes down, all of that changes. Inevitably, I will climb into my quilt, thinking to myself “Wow, this is pretty nice” before eventually succumbing to madness for the next 8+ hours as I slide in and out of a semi awake/semi sleeping state. The result? When 7 am eventually comes around I will have maybe slept 2 hours, and feel like I’ve been hit by a truck. This becomes especially fun when I have to immediately drive home on the last day of a trip, requiring me to drink all the caffeine in the world while ALSO maintaining supernatural attention to stay awake.
Basically, it’s bad. I’ve had this problem since I started backpacking in middle school, so one would think I would have solved it by age 30. Apparently not.
So, what is the solution? I’ve read this article in Backpacker magazine, I’ve spent countless hours obsessively searching for the perfect sleeping pad with the right price to weight to comfort ratio. I’ve dealt with my compulsive need to roll around while falling asleep (quilt, attached to pad with straps, it’s the best). I use a pillow these days (Exped air pillow). I take melatonin, use ear plugs, wear a hat, drink enough water not to feel dehydrated throughout the night.
However, nothing seems to work. As someone who is NOT a fan of sleep aids such as Advil PM or Ambien, these aren’t good options for me. In order to trouble shoot this problem, I’ve started to examine some of overarching sleep themes I’ve seen throughout my life that seem to occur both on and off the trail. This is what I’ve realized so far (and maybe you, dear reader, also experience some of this):
1. I’ve always had problems sleeping in new places that I’m unfamiliar with. This happens to me in hotels too.
2. It’s always been hard for me to sleep when I’m anticipating something, whether it be a good thing or a thing I’m not looking forward to. I get really excited/happy when I backpack, and I think maybe this doesn’t add to my general ability to just relax and slip into a restful sleep.
3. Finally, in order for me to fall asleep, even at home, that stars must align and everything must be perfect (that is: I must have the pillow in the exact position I want, the blankets must cover just enough of me to create the perfect temperature at the moment that I nod off). I’ve always been envious of people who can fall asleep mid sentence or be holding a book and suddenly BAM, SLEEPING.
As mentioned, I’ve spent an absurd amount of time and energy developing a sleep system that should, in theory address some of my sleep needs.
I’ve been using this Exped Synmat UL 7, which feels pretty good. Compared to the old, heavy and thin thermarest I used all through college, this feels like a DREAM. While it’s heavier than I’d like (roughly 15.4 oz), I’m sadly never going to be one of those ultralight hikers who can get away with a thin foam mat. I sleep on my side, and while this pad doesn’t entirely save me from dead arm, it’s a vast improvement. (Admittedly, when I’m going extra light, I sometimes use a Gossamer Gear Airbeam torso pad, which is actually pretty great for the weight/size!)
As a side sleeper who constantly turns over all night, I’ve found a quilt system (with straps attaching it to my pad) to be a big improvement over mummy bags. Before using a quilt, I experienced over a decade of being uncomfortable and tangled in mummy bags, while the “hood” never actually acted as a hood but rather something that never quit lined up with my head. In a bag, I felt that every time I needed to switch sides I also had a to spend a lot of time realigning the hood, which was a fruitless endeavor. Not so anymore, since I now sleep in the sweet sweet cloud that is either a Hammock Gear Burrow 20 or (since I received it in the mail yesterday) an Enlightened Equipment Enigma (0 degrees, for snow camping). Now, when I turn over, the quilt stays put without me getting tangled.
Finally, in terms of gear, I’ve come to the point where I’ve finally accepted that I can’t sleep without a pillow. Not a lumpy stuff sack full of clothes, but some kind of pillow. I usually use an Exped Air Pillow OR more recently, I’ve started to experiment with a Zpacks Dry Pillow Bag, which is basically a cuben fiber dry bag with an inner micro fleece lining that can be turned inside out to create a pillow. I simply stuff my down jacket inside, and it makes a reasonably comfy pillow. However, the cuben fiber can be crinkly, and I’ll need to experiment more to see how I deal with the sound.
If it’s cold out, I’ll wear cozy socks, some merino leggings, and a base layer top.
To me, this seems like the best possible setup I can imagine for sound sleeping in the backcountry. However, it doesn’t seem to be doing the trick, so I’ll be spending some time devising some ways to improve the situation.
One thought: If the issue is “newness” when sleeping in a different place, perhaps I can at least start by spending some nights at home using my backcountry setup. Sometimes, due to a full time job and life, I can only get out maybe once per month to go camping. As such, when I finally get to go, I’m not only sleeping in a new and weird nighttime place, but also using gear that I don’t use very much, increasing the discomfort I feel in that situation. This is something I’ve heard about for years from different online communities, and while I always thought it was a bit silly to acclimate yourself to your sleep system while still at home, I’m starting to realize there might be some truth to this.
Finally, while I’m sure I’ll continue having more thoughts on this topic, I’ve also realized that it might be beneficial to bring a more homey feeling to my sleep setup. As much as it pains me to add extra ounces, this could mean a familiar pillow case.
Finally, I learned this AMAZING backpacking hack during my Wilderness Travel Course last week, and it’s blowing my mind:
I always have issues measuring water for backcountry meals (i.e the “add one cup of water” type of meals, where adding too much or too little can ruin your warm dinner, if you’re inclined to be cooking). I never seem to have a cup that uses any measurements that I need (eh snow peak). In case you can’t tell from this amazing photo (I mean, it’s so professional and clear), this is a ziploc bag with lines on it marking both 1 cup and 1/2 cup lines. To make these, I simply measured out the water using my home measuring cup, poured the water into the bag, and then marked where the water came up to on the bag. BAM, backcountry measuring cup. One thing to keep in mind: make sure you always hold the bag the same way when adding water (i.e don’t squeeze it).
Next up: snow camping this weekend. I guess I’ll get to test out some of my backcountry sleeping theories. Oh dear.
Over the last several years, I’ve spent a lot of time, a ridiculous amount of time, thinking and/or mentally planning for a John Muir Trail hike. If you don’t know what the “JMT” is, it’s a 211 mile trail that runs from Yosemite National Park, starting at the Happy Isles trail head, and finishing at Mt. Whitney, in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park. It is, what I consider, a “greatest hits” trail for the Sierra Nevada mountains, passing through some of the most beautiful and iconic landscapes in California. As such, it turns out that I’m not the only one to have JMT aspirations, considering that permit requests have gone up 100% since 2011. This is in large part related to the current boom that is occurring in long distance hiking, where many trails are experienced unprecedented popularity due to movies such as Wild and Mile, Mile and a Half.
(On a related note, Mile, Mile and a Half was a completely lovely film, and certainly contributed to the urgency I’ve been feeling to do the entire JMT NOW).
But, plans change, and we’ve decided to shelve the JMT idea for a few years, an idea that I entirely support (and something I concluded myself a few months ago). This is disappointing for a lot of reasons. I’ve dreamed about the opportunity to hike and explore for an entire month. It’s a time of transition for me career-wise. With a job is ending in May, I’ve been eagerly looking forward to finally having time over a summer for a long thru-hike, without the need to worry about vacation time. Added to this, is my complete and utter fascination with thru-hiking, something I’ve been consistently frustrated by for the last 5+ years. On TOP of this, I’ve had a special relationship with the JMT since interning in the Yosemite National Park archives during the summer of 2013. Throughout that time, I did countless hikes throughout all areas of the park, and many of those occured on sections of the JMT. In particular, I vividly remember taking a great 10 mile day hike through Lyell canyon one Saturday, and looking south towards Donahue pass desperately wishing I could keep traveling in that direction.
There are some great reasons we’ve decided to wait:
1. Permit changes: Yosemite has not only decided to restrict which trail heads JMT thru-hikers are allowed to use, but there is also now a 40 person per-day limit on Donahue pass, the exit point for the JMT in Yosemite National Park. While it’s frustrating to many, I think this was a great move by the park, as I worry that growing popularity will lead to more overuse of the trail. In the future, if I ever do the JMT, I think I’ll use an alternate pass out of Yosemite.
2. It’s more popular than ever. As mentioned above, there has been a 100% percent increase in permit requests in the last 4 years, with over 3,000+ JMT hikers during the summer of 2014 traveling south. My guess is, this year is going to be nuts, especially considering the huge influx of people now hiking northbound because they have been unable to secure a prized southbound permit from Yosemite. While some have noted that this won’t result in more people on the trail since there has ALWAYS been this number of permits available from other trail heads (and with new limitations on numbers from Yosemite), I have my doubts. I have never before encountered so much discussion on the various online JMT communities in regards to alternate entry points and ways to avoid Donahue pass. While these are perfectly legal and legitimate to do the JMT, I strongly suspect this might change the total traffic one will encounter.
3. With these changes, there is very little chance that we will be able to obtain a permit for 5-6 people.
4. This isn’t the experience we are looking for. Sure, we’d love to experience places on this trail, because they are undeniably amazing. But, we’re also not feeling comfortable with the idea of bigger crowds and more pressure to obtain prized permits.
5. We’re moving to Oregon! This is great and exciting, but the idea of moving AND planning a JMT hike at the same time was becoming daunting/overly stressful.
It’s disappointing. Really disappointing, even though it was partially my idea to wait it out. Being in grad school, I had long been anticipating a brief time without school or job (but then, fortunately for me, I got a job right out of grad school, pushing my summer plans back a year). While I’ve been very attached to the idea that I MUST do a 10+ day trip, I’m not entirely sure it’s realistic with our move out of California. However, not all hope is lost! And HERE is perhaps the point to this entire post: Do the best you can, and try and take advantage and appreciate what you can do without judging yourself for not being hard core enough right this moment. If I’m luck, I’ll still have years to long distance hike. Also, I’m planning to take full advantage of my summer in the best way possible right now, and here’s how I’ll do it:
1. We’ll do lots of short trips, regardless. We have lots of potentials plans for this, which I’m sure I will discuss soon.
2. We’ll take more time to explore our new home in the pacific northwest.
3. In the future, if I can’t do a official “thru-hike” of an established long trail, I’ll certainly be working on piecing together my own route. I love maps, and I’m obsessed with the unlimited possibilities that exist to link together established and non-established routes into something big and magical.
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?”
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: http://www.wildernesstravelcourse.org
– 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!
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.
– 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).
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: