Backpacking, It's Amazing! And Thee Mountains Shall Kick Yr Ass
This past fall my best friend Brandy asked me to meet her in California to hike a section of the Pacific Crest Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains just south of Yosemite.
(If you’re looking for useful backpacking tips, skip to the last section of this post! If you prefer to ramble a bit, start here) ——>>>
While I’d done a few trips in the canyons of my backyard in Utah as a teenager and backpacked for a couple of months in Europe in my early twenties, I’d never really taken a proper backpacking trip (by proper I mean prepared). And by unprepared, I mean that I’m pretty sure I hiked 20 miles in the Pyrenees mountains in Spain one day on the Camino del Santiago, going the wrong way, without bringing water and slept when I fell over in a field of sheep. So I was excited to meet up with Brandy and learn a bit more about real backpacking in BEAR country. I bought a few new things and read a few online forums, got some advice on Facebook and Brandy made a fancy spreadsheet to calculate our weight and how much food we’d need each day. She’s very good at these kinds of things and I trusted her calculations 100%. She’d spent a lot of time in this area and had taken a two week trip in the area the year prior. We had a plan and the trip was going to be AMAZING.
If you've spent any time in the great outdoors, you may understand, nature cares little for our human plans. MOTHER Nature, is without sentiment. She digs in, cracks you open, pours cement into your insides and walks all over it before it’s had a chance to dry. If you’re stirred up inside she’ll present a rock for you to trip on and a cold wind to blow you. If you’re in desperate need for sleep from a long day, she’ll make it rain so hard on your tent you’ll wonder if you’ll make it through the night. And then the night will become so long, you’ll only think of morning. You’ll wait for first light so can get up and be done with not sleeping and at least drink some coffee. But day comes and the rain won’t let up. You’ll be laying there in your tent, hungry and needing to urinate and MORE and the rain and wind will blow so hard you’ll squirm in your sleeping bag, taking deep breaths, trying to lessen the pressure on your bladder by reabsorbing your urine into your system (that’s what i imagine anyway- I don’t think that’s possible but the idea works for me time and time again). At some point you’ll have to brave the cold and good ol’ mother nature will just keep on her perfect course. Finally, when you’re shivering and angry, cursing at the wind; a ray of sun will crack through the clouds, the wind will die down and a damn bird will whistle so beautifully that you’ll burst into tears because it's all just so fucking incredible.
Backpacking though, is an amazing opportunity because you’re really there, in nature. You carry yourself on your own two legs with everything you’ll need to survive on your back. It’s a great feeling. You get to see things you can’t see in a car or just on a day hike. You’ll get worn down and as your brain, lungs and body adjusts, you become totally present because every step matters. And this is where I will say - backpacking is a lot like the rest of life, wha wha. You’re on a path, carrying stuff, trying to survive while mother nature beats on you but unlike most first world living, there’s no soft bed to cry in, no Instagram to space out on, no dumb shit to buy online, it’s just you and the dirt.
And there are things that help you on this path:
1. You need to pace yourself. Take one step at a time. Remember to breathe, (breath deeply when want to just say ‘fuck it” and turn back). Look where you’re going. Stop to catch your breath. Look around, there’s beauty and life and death all around you and it’s enough to make you scream, either for joy or in rage but both are okay.
2. You’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with. In backpacking that means a lot. Your life is in the hands of those around you. Your buddies might catch you from careening down a raging river (this happened to Brandy) on her last long trip in the Sierra. Your trail mate be going too fast and you might slip trying to keep up. ( I was unaware of how fast I was going downhill and Brandy slipped trying to get around some folks). It takes awareness of not just yourself but the people you’re partnered up. We need each other. If you are alone on a trail, you better make some friends- even if they’re only your friends on the trail that day. And if you’re too caught up getting where you’re going, on your solo, rugged individual American journey, you’re going to miss a lot of interactions and moments that make the hike sweeter.
3. Good manners go a long way. There is such a thing as trail etiquette and it matters! (I write more about this below).
4. A good attitude goes even further, (thanks mom). A sunny attitude can get you through tough times or at least fool you into thinking things are better than they are... and if you're like me (foolishly and eternally optimistic), it's helpful to have a friend who can see when it's time to throw in the towel and go eat fish tacos.
5. If you don’t drink water you’ll die.
6. Eating food is an occasion to celebrate, (always) but especially on the trail. Eating and cooking food is one of the great pleasures in life and should be appreciated for the life and joy it brings.
7. Don’t be an idiot. If you are doing the above mentioned things, it is less likely that you will be an idiot. Idiotic things happen in rushed moments.
I’m sure an entire book could be written on this topic. A book probably has been written about this topic but I will get on with it.
Day 1. (My Rough-ish Journal Entries )
We camped at Upper Lee vining Campground last night, nice campground just a few miles from our trailhead. I had Indian food over instant potatoes for dinner and it was delicious. We strung up tiny, twinkling solar powered lights in the tent and it was festive until we decided they were too bright to be relaxing. We slept soundly except when campers next to us woke up Brandy at 4am huckin’ it up around the fire. Late night for them I guess. Brandy told me today that I giggled in my sleep last night.
Breakfast was a chia oat thing with dates and cardamom (from Outdoor Herbivore) and it was very good. I think I’d like to make this at home. We got on the trail about 8:40. Our packs are way too full. There was a lady in her 60’s or 70’s who we hiked next to and she seemed to have a lot of good cookies to eat, (they looked good). We kept passing her and then resting and then she’d pass us, munching on cookies. She and Brandy had the same backpacks and they discussed this. I didn’t pipe in because my pack was old and overstuffed and not that interesting to me. The lady told us we should be hiking with poles and Brandy explained to her for awhile about why we weren’t carrying them and that a lot of people use them wrong anyway. see “how to hike with poles below”
We got to the summit of Kearsarge Pass at 1:15 it was a good incline! We reached 11,840 something in good spirits and ate lunch up there. I had beef jerky which I promptly spilled all over the ground but picked it out of the dirt and ate it. It was pretty crowded with other hikers, several of whom we’d been passing or been passed by off and on throughout the hike. We might have rest a bit longer but dark clouds were forming over the ragged peaks in the near distance and a cold wind picked up. I hoped it was just a little storm that would pass through quickly.
We headed down into the valley hoping we'd miss the rain or at least set up a tent before it got going. We heard one crack of lighting and it sprinkled a bit but nothing bad. Brandy collected water from the nice stream that was running over little granite boulders coming down into the canyon and filtered it. We should have enough for dinner and for coffee in the morning. We ate our dinners. I had a giant bowl of some vegan quinoa chili, the spices in were really good and I felt satisfied to eat something warm. We’re laying in the tent now because the ground is hard outside and our backs are tired from carrying our packs.
We're camped at the 3 lakes here, each one connects to the next by a little stream. It's so craggy and beautiful I can't believe it. My back is so tired I can't believe it. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to put it on again. As I walked over the pass today tears came to my eyes when I saw the bare granite peaks rising against that perfect blue sky. Each step at the end was labored with so much weight on my back, I counted my breaths in one two out one two and quieted my mind. Just keep walking. I squared my shoulders back so the weight fell on my hips and took small, solid steps because it would be easy to misstep and go careening down the steep, scrim of loose rock. We hiked down into the valley another mile or so and a found a camping spot up above the lake. It's our own little, granite boulder, pine-tree kingdom up here. We have a kitchen area, a dining area, sleeping area - hell, we have couple of dining rooms so far but the place where I sat cross-legged eating dinner (a dehydrated but rehydrated spicy veggie chili) was on a big flat triangle slab of granite looking out to the lake and the huge rock peak rising behind it. It was perfect. Except that my flour tortillas have molded already. (see ideal backpacking tortillas as bottom of post)
I'm sitting here watching the wind blow ripples in the two lakes below us. We moved our site to get out of the wind a bit but it's still pretty windy. We’re higher up, but we have more rocks and trees to surrounding us. I keep saying “the winds going to stop any minute. Ah, the sun will be out soon.” but it seems like the storms just keep coming. Wind seems to be coming from all directions. One minute it's blowing in my face and the next it's coming from the side and then behind. I'm watching the clouds move across the sky behind the peaks and some clouds are moving much faster than others like they are caught in a jet stream.
For a moment the air is still and I am appreciating the silence and warmth. I'm perched on a granite rock that is the just the right height that I can cross my legs below more like I'm on a meditation cushion. My view from here is the two blue lakes surrounded in steep granite walls and backdrop is a seemingly endless wall of tall rocky peaks. Their tops are sharp like arrows pointing towards the sky. A few trees are growing on one face but they are mostly rock with sections of snow since I believe- they are north facing peaks.
I can hear the creek flowing below that connects the first lake to the second and if I walk just around the bend from our campsite I can see a small trickling waterfall coming off of a huge slab of granite. It’s made a streak of black down the rock where it runs. I washed my hands under it earlier and it was very cold. The bristlecone pines that grow here are very old. They seem be one with the rocks in places, theirs roots sucking up small chunks of granite and taking hold and growing around anything nearby. The sun came out again and i have to take off my coat.
Sleep was hard last night. It was raining pretty hard when we fell asleep and I was a little worried that our camping spot would turn into a river bed if the rain kept up. It stopped raining at some point but the wind whipped against our tent so hard all night. It was loud and hard to sleep. I did sleep though.
Since this pass is part of the Pacific Crest Trail we have seen many “thru-hikers”. The Pacific Crest Trail is a 2,500 ish mile long trail that starts near the Mexican border in California and goes to British Columbia Canada. People that hike the whole thing are called thru-hikers. Most of them start in the south and head north. and it takes about 5 months. They are easy to spot. They are usually moving quickly and they are darkened from the sun and worn from the wind. Some seem very happy because they are going to get more food supplies at the pass and some seem a little cranky and dirty. There is such a thing as trail etiquette and those going up always have the right of way but people all say hello and many ask how you're doing, some of them tell you you’re getting close to the top but the more you hear this and the more tired you get, the less you believe any of them. Every now and then a sort of rude person comes flying by without a glance but they are a minority. Backpacking (especially on the Pacific Crest Trail) has increased since the movie with Reese Witherspoon, WILD- which is based on the story of Cheryl Strayd’s solo trek on the trail. She found herself you might say, battled her personal demons, and then wrote a New York Times Bestseller, based on her experience. It’s interesting to me that this is bringing more folks out onto the trail. The extremity of spending months in training and months on the trail mostly without cell phone service and under great physical duress is sure to bring things into focus. It just makes me think life is too busy and people feel like they have to go to extremes to find peace.
There aren’t any bathrooms up here so you have to dig holes. They have to be at least 100 feet from water. I dug us holes to poop in with B’s shovel first thing when i got up this morning because I thought it might take awhile and I wanted to be sure they would be ready (and deep enough) for the glorious morning poop. The ground was rocky and i had to find a spot near some trees where there were tons of layers of pine needles.
I had instant chia oatmeal from Trader Joe's with a packet of coconut oil and dried blueberries mixed in and one of Brandy’s miracle creations which was a Via instant espresso with cocoa and instant coconut milk and then l drank black tea. Yum. We refilled our water at the creek above the lakes and filtered it and then we moved our camp. I did a bit of yoga on the rocks to warm up my spine and neck because yesterday was hard on my body. My hips are bruised from my pack and I just hope they feel a lot better by Wednesday when we hike out. Activity is just a bit harder at 10,000 feet and we get light headed sometimes. We keep cursing at the wind. It’s really blowing.
For lunch I had a gluten free penne pasta with a creamy tahini sauce and it was tasty. B had some ramen in a peanut sauce. I rinsed out my shorts from yesterday and they are drying on a rock, held down by other rocks. Brandy is in the tent reading. I think she is too cold to be outside for long.
I laid in the tent and read the count of Monte Christo last night until about 10. We got in the tent around 7 because it was too cold to stay out and we couldn't start a fire.
It was a long night, I couldn't get comfortable but the wind wasn't hitting our tent as hard in our new spot.
In the morning it was cloudy and cold again and Brandy asked me if i thought maybe we should pack out a day early and drive to Tuolumne meadows to camp our last night or two in Yosemite. When she mentioned stopping to get the fried fish tacos at the restaurant at Mono lake, I started packing. We ate breakfast. Our backs weren’t nearly as heavy, since we’d eaten a lot of the food and we decided to carry less water on the way out too. As we were heading up the steep switchbacks on the way up the pass we stopped to let an old man come down the trail. He must have been in his eighties. He was so wrinkled, sun-worn and healthy looking. He came slowly down the mountain, taking his time with each step and he smiled at us as he passed by. His teeth white and glowing against his tan, ancient skin. I hope I’m on a mountain like this when I’m 80, 85, 90. Life is so long, if it is. When I think of all the life I still have to live, I’m filled with happiness. I started crying thinking about it and I cried all the way to the top of the pass, sniffling as a steady stream of tears just kept coming. The hike out was fairly easy and took less time than the hike in which was a relief. We found big, flat rock to sit on and we stopped for a snack as we came down the other side of the pass. We talked a lot about life and when it started to rain we sped up and talked less. When we got to the car we immediately went for our crunchiest, saltiest snacks that we’d stored in a bear can in the trunk of the car and promptly ate every last crumb. We drove back down the winding pass and drove the 1.5-2 hours to Mono Lake. We stopped at the mono lake mobile station (where they have a full kitchen and good food), picnic tables and sometimes, live music)
There were a lot of people eating there who I could tell had been climbing or backpacking for long periods of time because everyone looks unkempt, un-showered and happy. Seeing all the groups of just returned to civilization climbers and hikers reminded me of climbing and snowboarding when I was younger and the sense of comaraderie and community I felt in those circles. We were silly and carefree but also serious because we depended on one another for safety and encouragement.
Yosemite is on fire. The whole park is filled with smoke and the burning smell is really strong. We drove from Mono Lake into Yosemite and the smoke from a fire was so thick it was hard to see. We began to wonder whether we'd be able to camp in the park or if we should even try. We dipped our feet in a lake and cooled our blistered and tired feet and kept driving. We thought maybe another section of the park would be less smokey and we’d find a spot to camp but the smoke was everywhere. Wed rove on to Oakdale and decided to get a cheap motel room. We checked into the Oakdale Motel and the room was pretty old. There was a tiny old tv, terrible lighting, floral bedspread, whatever. We kind of wondered about our decision to stay there was a sound one and for $100 it seemed like a ripoff but we were too tired to move. I made some hot cocoa and we sat on the porch and drank it, showered off and went to sleep.
End of journal entries
Thanks to my dearest Brandy Hartley for taking all the great photos and for taking me on my first real backpacking trip. And for being my super best friend and the toughest, smartest lady. I love you. (When she reads this she'll probably inform me very kindly of any misinformation...)
The Details and Other HOT TIPS!
WHERE WE WENT:
Kearsarge Pass in the Inyo National Forest and down into the Kearsarge Lakes in Kings Canyon National Park.
The pass is about 11,700 feet. It’s a 4 mile hike from the trailhead but it’s steep! There are a lot of little spots to camp at Kersarge Lakes, but there were 3 or 4 other groups camping when we arrived, so it’s a good place to to get to early and set up camp so you can get a good spot not too close to the lakes and with some trees and boulders for protection from the wind.
If you’re backpacking in bear country , (which we were) you’ll need a bear can- which isn’t really a can. It’s a plastic barrel with a special lid that bears can’t open and that depending on how far you’ve hike, you might also have a hard time opening sometimes… but the bear can will be your best friend after 24 hours in the wilderness. You’ll always want to know where that baby is. It’s where you’ll store anything scented, like lotions, baby wipes, chapsticks and most toiletries. You will also store any garbage you have here ( other than your tp, which you will bury). If you don’t want to buy one, you can rent them from outdoor retail stores. That’s what i did. I think it $20 for 12 days.
Backpacking food should be light (in weight) but calorie rich. Read all the nutritional info on the labels to get most out of the food. Knowing how far you’ll be hiking and how hard the days will be will help you consider how many calories you’ll need each day. Brandy came up with this handy calorie tracking spreadsheet and I thought it was fabulous.
Trader Joe’s is a great resource for relatively inexpensive backpacking friendly foods. They have:
- Packets of coconut oil which you will want to put in everything, small packets of nuts and seeds and things that have the calorie count on them which will help you to figure out how much to pack for each day and help you ration your food.
- Instant Quinoa chia oats are pretty good, especially when you add a packet of coconut oil and some dried fruit. A satisfying and nutritious meal.
- Dried fruit, nuts, seeds in portioned packs.
- I ate a lot of the meal bars that they sell there for lunches along with jerky and almond butter.
- Beef jerky
- Tiny packets of super greens!
Dehydrated refried beans (buy organic, i hear that whatever they put in some of the non-organic beans will give you some mean gas) are very light and nutritious.
I bought organic flour tortillas which was a mistake because they molded immediately. Buying some cheap corn tortillas with some preservatives in them and they’ll last a long time on the trail. They’re versatile, you can eat them with peanut butter, beans, cheese, whatever-you can even heat them up by the fire if you want!
I bought a few meals from Outdoor Herbivore and they were delicious. The Chickpea Sesame Penne (gluten-free) was rich and satisfying. The vegan Chunky Chipotle chili was really filling and the spices in it were so warming. It was pretty spicy, which i like but if you’re sensitive, to spice it’s not for you! I ordered one go their breakfasts and it was really flavorful and satisfying.
Brandy brought packets of Justin’s Almond butter, maple syrup and chocolate and plain and those were consumed throughout the day! A lot of people told me about dehydrated peanut butter which seems like it would make sense for a longer trip where you need more light food but for a shorter trip, these are gooood.
Via instant espresso is a treasure. Brandy premixes it with cocoa and dehydrated coconut milk and it's reeeal good.
Dehydrated potatoes seem to go with everything and they are bland but add some coconut oil and salt and you’ll feel pretty happy after eating them!
We used a two Jetboil stoves for all of our food. These work best for boiling water and are a little sketchy for say, boiling pasta, which i accomplished by holding the boiling pot in the air above the burner…not very safe but it worked!
Brandy has some dietary restrictions that make buying pre-made backpacking food impossible, so she cooked and then dehydrated some kind of amazing buffalo dish which she ate over dehydrated potatoes and I will get her to share some of her tricks and recipes in the near future! Look out for that post!
WATER: The heaviest thing you’ll carry and the most important!
There were plenty of cold, clear streams for us to get water from but not every trail will have water! If it does, you’ll need a purifier if you plan on staying more than a day. Brandy brought this one, the Grayl Ultralight Water Purifier Bottle, which was very easy to use and quick to filter water.
There are tons of options out there and you can read more about water in this article …
Obviously you'll need to read more than my post if you plan on doing any eral backpacking but THIS site it an excellent resource!
These are Facebook comments from my friends who’ve done A LOT more backpacking than I have:
“I just take nuts, hummus, Asian bowls, ramen, carrot and celery, oranges, chocolate, oatmeal.”
“Couscous. Cooks in literally one minute and I never get sick of it. Definitely bring salted meats and definitely hot sauce. 4 year old gouda will hold fine for 4 days. This might sound weird but you can also bring a jar of nut butter of some kind. Scoop some out for later or whatever and add nuts/dried fruit/ trail mix/whatever and eat it with a spoon on the trail. It will hold as long as you kill the jar in a couple days(probably way longer but it will probably be unappetizing after a few days. Backpacking is tricky because you want to eat almost more calories than usual but you also want to be conscious of your weight. Have a main supply of normal water but make a bottle of electrolyte/sugar solution for those gnarly steeps.” ( gnarly steeps)
“I buy dehydrated foods from bulk from WinCo. Last summer I went backpacking for 11 nights and bought the majority of my food from Winco. They have dehydrated soups, chili, and refried beans. I love the refried beans and then I dump crushed corn chips into the refried beans to make a fibrous and energy producing meal. I would get all my backpacking food from Winco and TJs”
“I like the dehydrated black beans from the bulk bins. Depending on how much space you have, you can bring the shelf style tofu. I preseason the beans (there's a pea soup version, too), and put them in your cup. Cheaper than the REI buddies.”
“I like backpackers pantry if I don't feel like carrying regular food. My favorites are beef stroganoff and lasagna. Otherwise I carry quinoa and then use any number of things from there. I've gotten little tubes of tomato paste, I've dried my own veggies to mix in the quinoa and sometimes just bring a carrot and shredded veggie bags from TJs. I also love Mac and cheese is great too. I'm a big fan of pouches of tuna(not cans) and Salami for protein in lunch and dinner. Grin plastered all the way for breakfast. Also my big top secret is getting these refillable tubes made by Cochran's (REI should have them) and filling with almond butter (cheapest is TJs or Goicery Outket) and then I just put that stuff in anything whenever I want ... even just a squirt on the tongue when I want some good sustained energy!”
“I would invest in a dehydrator. That is what I did for my trip to Mt. Kenya and it was awesome. That way you get to pick what you will be eating instead of having to choose between basic and more basic. I made sesame noodles, pasta with homemade sauce, veggies and rice, etc.”
“Miso soup for a hot snack”
“for breakfast add protein powder to your instant oatmeal or granola”