Adventures in hiking…

Hiking and Camping Tips

How to Lose Your Toenails When Hiking

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Oh, I can relate to this one.  My first year of hiking was almost my last.  My big toes hated me.  Even lost some of my second nails.  Either that or I developed some kind of fungus and they decided to fall off.  By year two, I was down to an occasional black/blue toenail.  Eventually, I learned how to hold on to my nails and it wasn’t because I was producing more keratin.

My problem was simple.  I was losing toenails because my boots were too small.  Of course, they fit when I purchased them, but little did I realize the dynamics of human physiology.  When hiking, you exert a lot of pressure on those feet, especially when going downhill.  For those that are not flat-footed, you arch helps to absorb some of the force – like a built-in shock absorber.  Afte a while, the feet swell and flatten out a bit.  Unfortunately, the toes are on the receiving end of the punishment.  The solution is simple!

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Time to cool off those feet!

Buy your hiking shoes/boots 1/2 size larger than your normal size.  This requires some adjustment.  I typically hike with a synthetic sock liner and a light wool blend hiking sock.  The synthetic sock wicks away moisture and the wool blend will provide some cushion and keep your heel from sliding around.  If your heel moves around, you will normally get blisters.  You can keep the 1/2 size larger shoe from moving by tightening the laces a bit.

Another thing that you can do to keep your toenails is to trim them.  Trim them like you normally do and you should be fine. Don’t pull your black/blue nail off, let it fall off naturally.  If you do let it progress naturally, you may find a fresh, new nail underneath. This process could take several months!  You should also use trekking poles to lessen the impact on your knees and feet.  I use these and they are awesome: Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue

For more tips on hiking or trekking poles, refer to an earlier blog: https://thelatebloomerhiker.com/2013/05/10/hiking-poles-are-not-for-wimps/

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Oh, you knew I had to have a pic of some real toenail damage. Not my feet mind you, but it brings back memories.


Food Choices When Hiking in the Backcountry

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I remember my last day on a section hike of the Appalachian Trail in the Maine 100 Mile Wilderness.  All I wanted was a cheeseburger.  Well, a huge cheeseburger and fries.  After eating mostly dehydrated food for 8 days and losing 14lbs, I was beginning to be obsessed with real food.  Imagine the through-hikers doing this for weeks on end.  When they do exit the trail for resupply, they often have binge eating episodes.

A backcountry trip requires quite a bit of planning and food is a major part of it.  There have been many innovations in the area of dehydrated food.  I’ll discuss some suggestions for other foods that may work for you on the trail and a few that may not.

Dehydrated meals

Mountain House makes quality meals.  My favorites are grilled chicken breast with mash potatoes, lasagna with beef and beef stroganoff.  Backpacker’s Pantry has some good selections too. Rounding out the top three is Alpine Aire Foods.

My favorite: Alpine Aire Foods Black Bart Chili with Beef and Beans (Serves 2)

A good variety pack:  Mountain House Best Sellers Kit

Another good one:  Backpacker’s Pantry Jamaican Jerk Rice with Chicken

When cooking dehydrated meals, you have to account for higher altitudes.  Let it soak longer when you are above 8,000 ft.  Undercooked freeze-dried food is just gross.

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Try cramming 7 lbs of food in a bear canister.

 

Dry Soups

– Ramen is the most portable.  You can put it in plastic baggies.  Add some pita bread or tortillas and you have a meal.  Good when you don’t have much of an appetite.

Some meats and fish

– Foil packed meat like chicken, fish like tuna, salmon do well.  Pepperoni, summer sausage do ok.  Beef or turkey jerky-oh yeah.

Fresh Fruit

– Apples, oranges last up to a week.

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Eggs and bacon, thank you.

 

Nuts or Trail Mix

A mixture of nuts with dried fruit and/or yogurt chips will last.  Chocolate chips can melt in hot temps.

Energy Bars

Energy chews, gels.  My go to bars are Clifhttp://amzn.to/1KKNmLs and for a quick boost these Honey Stinger gels: http://amzn.to/1FOxmId

Spreads

Packets of peanut or almond butter are nice for apples or crackers.

Coffee, tea

– Starbucks Via worked well.  Also have used instant coffee.  Powdered milk or creamer mixed with sugar in a baggie.

Seasonings

– I carry a portable spice container: http://amzn.to/1KKNEli that holds about 8 different spices.  Nice to be able to spice up your meals.

Breakfast

– Pancake mix with powdered or crystallized eggs is excellent.  A little maple syrup in a small bottle goes a long way

– Oatmeal

– A brand name Ova Easy Crystallized Eggs tastes close to real scrambled eggs. http://amzn.to/1KKNN8B  Much better than powdered eggs.

Oscar Mayer or Hormel Pre-cooked bacon worked great, just heat it up for a few minutes in a pan.

Things that don’t work well on the trail:

Soft fruit like bananas, pears, Chocolate, Bread that doesn’t have preservatives, canned food-you have to lug the empty cans around.

Planning Meals, Carrying your food

Before your trip, plan out your menu and carry an extra day or two of supplies.  Lay out your food and pack it as individual meals so you aren’t digging through your canister or food bag for each meal.

Depending on where you hike, bear canisters may be required, check with the Forest or Park Service Rangers ahead of time.  Canisters are bulky and add a few pounds but will keep the critters out of your food.  In non-bear areas, a waterproof food bag will work.  You will still need to hang it to keep the little vermin out.  Those shelters on the Appalachian Trail are hosts to plenty of well-fed mice.

Remember the Leave No Trace (LNT) principles.  Pack-it-in, pack-it-out.  I carry some extra gallon baggies to store the used packaging.  The plastics and foil packaging is not biodegradable and doesn’t burn well in a camp fire.  Please pack it out.

Blacktailed Jackrabbit off the Palm Canyon Trail.

California jackrabbit in the backcountry.


Rattlesnakes on the PCT – Should I be Concerned?

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One of my encounters. This one was in a defensive posture.

In one of my tall tales, I wrote about a bad encounter with a rattlesnake on the Pacific Crest Trail:

 https://thelatebloomerhiker.com/2012/09/24/bitten-by-a-rattler-on-the-pacific-crest-trail/

You may be a potential class of 2015 PCT thru-hiker, or are wondering what your chances of encountering a rattlesnake on the trail are.  Based on my experience, the odds of running across one of these vipers in southern California are high.  The more you hike, the higher the odds.  Should that keep you off the trail? No!   It is more likely that you will be hit in a crosswalk than being bitten by a rattlesnake on the PCT.  I know, not very reassuring is it?

The truth is, by understanding the basic behavior of these snakes, you can reduce your chances of a direct confrontation with them.  First of all, they are not the aggressive human-attacking species that people make them out to be.  They want to avoid you as much as you want to avoid them.

Behaviour: They are a cold natured species and generally are not found slithering about in cooler temps.  Rarely seen in winter and colder days.  Could you see them in the morning?  Not likely, unless you are cowboy camping and one has climbed into your sleeping bag for warmth.  But, you are more likely to get a scorpion in your bag in the Mojave than a snake.  The most common encounter with a rattler is one laying out in the sun on the trail.  The trails are exposed to the sun and relatively close to brush where they can escape.  Most of the rattlers that I have come across are getting sun in the mid-late afternoon hours.   When sunning, they often stretch out to their full length.   Somewhat nocturnal, they have been known to move about at night  while hunting but do not usually travel far.

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Habitat: In southern California and into the Sierras, mostly found in the dry, arid chaparral which pretty much describes most of the state.   In the mountains, usually below 7,500 ft.  It doesn’t mean you will not find them above that altitude, just not very common because it gets cold up there.  Often found around/under rocks or loose pine needles and leaves.

If you happen to come upon a rattler on the trail, my advice is to give it a wide berth.   If you prod it with your hiking pole, it may get into a defensive posture (coiled up) and can strike up to 3/4 of its length.  Sometimes, a gentle coaxing with you pole may work, but it depends on the mood that it is in.  Be careful when detouring around a snake because they do nest in the brush and chaparral.  Bushwhacking increases your chances of being bitten.

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Oh, we have tarantulas in SoCal too.

 Rattlesnake Avoidance:   Your best defense is to be aware.  This is hard when you’ve been hiking all day and your eyes are focused three feet in front of you.  In my opinion, snake gaiters or leggings are not worth it unless you do a lot of bushwhacking.  Hiking with pets?  Dogs are frequently bitten by rattlers and it is often fatal to smaller breeds.  Larger breeds survive, but the bite can cause intense swelling and permanent tissue damage.  Use caution when taking your dogs on hikes.  While the idea of your dog roaming free sounds like fun, a leash could save them from getting bitten.

If you are bitten:  I am not qualified to give medical advice but can tell you that you will probably not die from a rattlesnake bite.  The bite is very painful and your limbs may swell extensively.  If you carry a GPS locator or beacon, now is a good time to activate it.  If you are with someone, have them get help and stay calm.  If you can walk, make your way to get help.  And no, don’t slice into the snake bite area with a knife and suck out the poison.    The Mayo clinic has some good first aid advice here:  http://www.mayoclinic.org/first-aid/first-aid-snake-bites/basics/art-20056681

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A well camouflaged Pacific Rattler in the San Bernardino Mountains. My hiking poles protected me.

 

My closest encounter: Less than a foot.  While hiking with my wife I often provide a safety brief like what to do in thunderstorms  or first aid, and today I mentioned that a rattler can sound like bacon frying when it is warning you.   Around 7,000 ft near the beginning of our hike, I was walking and unwrapping an energy bar when my wife suddenly sprinted ahead and told me to stop.   The sound was unmistakable and very close.  To my left, was a large boulder and a Pacific Rattler was coiled underneath.   I slowly backed off and gave this critter a wide berth.    Afterward, she mentioned that “the sound of bacon frying was very accurate”.  Moral of the story, eat bacon and you can avoid rattlesnakes.

A good handbook with lots of info for the backcountry hiker:  The Backpacker’s Field Manual, Revised and Updated: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills

Disclaimer:  I am not a herpetologist and can barely spell it.   My observations of rattlesnakes are based upon my experience hiking in California.  Being aware on the trail is your best defense against snakes or any other wildlife that could harm you.  Never go out of your way to kill a rattler – they serve a good purpose in the food chain.  There are fewer rodents out there because of them.


Water Crossings – It’s About the Risk

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A frozen creek crossing near Upper Cathedral Lake, Yosemite.

Have you ever crossed a rushing stream or creek?  I’ve read many a tale from hikers crossing rain-swollen streams up to their chests in the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine.  Obviously, they survived to tell about it but was it worth the risk?  This could be a very short blog and I could say – use common sense.  If you hike in the backcountry long enough, water crossings are inevitable.  Most of the time, it will be safe to cross to the trail on the other side.  Sometimes, the choice could be the difference between life or death.

I’ve crossed streams, creeks, and rivers and have never been swept away.  Crossed frozen creeks and have never fallen through.  But, what would you do if you got swept under, fell off the log or broke through the ice?  Here are some ideas.

Assess/Prepare

– Assess water hazards.  Most well-established trails cross water at a location that is fairly safe.  However, rainstorms and snowmelt can turn any crossing into a treacherous ordeal.  Never cross:

1.  In front of or immediately after a waterfall.  Only a Darwin Award contender would do this.

2. Where there is debris, logs, branches that you could get entangled in.  The water pressure can force you under the debris.

3.  Rapid water above your thighs or waist.  Even if it is below your knees, fast-moving water can trip you up.  Assess the risk and look for a safer location.

4. Where there is a sharp bend in the creek or river.  The water speed varies greatly here and it may be hard to climb out.

5.  Where the bank is steep.  You may not be able to climb out.

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A creek crossing in Glacier National Park.

– Night crossings are not recommended unless you are familiar with the crossing and the water is very shallow.  Do you know if there is a waterfall or some other water hazard downstream?

– Remove your socks and boots, strap them to your pack.  I tie the socks in a knot.  I carry a carabiner, tie my shoes in a knot and clip them in.

– If you have trekking poles, extend them to where the handles are above your waist to account for holes in the creek bed.

– Loosen the various harnesses on your pack.  Unbuckle the sternum and waist straps.  This allows for a way to shed the pack if it pulls you under.  Often, the weight of the pack will pull you head first going downstream which is bad.

– Ziploc  or waterproof bags should have been on your supply list.  Put all electronics in those and stow in your backpack lid or high up in your pack.  Depending on the depth of the water, might be a good idea to move your sleeping bag and strap it to the top.  Same with your food supplies.

– If you have two or more people, face upstream and link arms.  As an alternative, you can face upstream and form a conga line with the strongest person in the front.  Hold on to the person’s waist in front of you.  Shuffle feet sideways as you cross.

– If you perform the crossing alone or one at a time, use your hiking poles and face upstream.  Always have three points in contact with the bottom.  Shuffle or take small side-steps.  Some crossings have rope or guy lines.  If you feel comfortable with those, grab on and shuffle across.

– If hiking in a group, there may be someone who has a fear of being pulled under.  Offer to make an extra trip and carry their pack.  The extra weight of a pack while crossing a log or in the water unnerves some people.  You can also tie a rope to their waist in case they trip or fall in.

– Cold water.  Find a shallow spot.  Icy cold water  can cause you to lose feeling in your feet and legs and possibly cause debilitating muscle cramps.   Cross as quickly as possible.  Use a safety line if you are with someone.

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Pretty, but not a good place to cross.

 

Equipment

– River shoes or water shoes with a thick rubber sole.  Some people use waterproof sandals or clogs.  Most waterproof hiking boots still allow water in over the top.  If your hiking shoes get wet, you are just inviting blisters.

– Trekking or hiking poles provide you with additional stability.  Put your hands through the straps in case you drop it.

– If you have convertible hiking pants, unzip the legs and stow them in your pack.  If you are wearing cotton, you might want to cross in your tighty-whities or swimming trunks.  It’s not great to hike in wet clothes.

– Carabiners, rope or paracord to tie loose items or as a safety line.

These work great and are lightweight: Black Diamond Neutrino Carabiner – gray, one size    and strong paracord – Military 550 Paracord from Our School Spirit – Made in the USA (Black)

– Waterproof gear bags, bear canisters for food and ziploc baggies.

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Don’t be a Darwin Award Nominee. Nevada Falls, Yosemite.

 

What to do if you fall in:

– In rushing water: If you followed the previous instructions about unbuckling the backpack harnesses before crossing, and it begins to drag you under,  roll out of your pack and point your feet downstream to protect your head from rocks and debris.  Try to navigate to the creek or river bank and grab on to overhead branches or anything along the bank.

– Once you crawl out of the water, assess your situation.  If it is daylight, look for your pack downstream.  You may see it washed up on some rocks or caught up in a tree root.  Be careful when pulling it out., it would suck to fall back in.   If a friend has a carabiner and rope, someone can attach it and pull it out.

– Falling through the ice:  If your pack pulls you under, roll out of it.  Frog kick and try to propel yourself onto the ice.  If you are with someone and still have your hiking poles, extend one so they can pull you out.   A rope and a branch can come in handy here too.  Once out on the ice, spread your body out to increase the surface area and crawl toward the bank.  Don’t stand up until you are at the bank.  If you have a change of clothes, it would be a good idea to get some dry ones.  Hypothermia is the real enemy now.

 

One of the nicer log crossings on the JMT. Most were a single, narrow log with a torrent of water below.

 

Do you have any tips for water crossing based on your experience or something you’ve read?  Please share them with us in the comments section.

A great guide for backpackers:  The Backpacker’s Field Manual, Revised and Updated: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills

I like this guide in paperback form, but is also available in Kindle format.

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Lastly, a true story and lesson learned from one of my crossings:  Hiking on a southern California beach with my wife, we crossed a 10 foot inlet where the Pacific fed a lagoon.  Up to our shins, it was easy.  On the return leg 4 hours later, the inlet was 60 ft. wide and ultimately up to our shoulders as the tide rushed in to the lagoon.  We made it, but it was scary.  The salt water also caused a chemical reaction with my magnesium fire stick and almost caught my pack on fire.  Whew!

Good, affordable trekking poles:  Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue

Disclaimer:  The information in this blog is for informational use only.   There is no guarantee that following the recommendations will protect you from harm.  Use common sense when hiking.  Most seasoned hikers are not competing for the Darwin Award.


Where You Pitch Your Tent Matters

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Big Pothole Lake on the Kearsarge Pass Trail

It was a quiet night in the San Gorgonio Wilderness.  Saxton Camp filled up with a Boy Scout troop, so we retreated a few hundred feet downhill in relatively flat clearing .  Leary of camping near big groups, they actually were well-behaved and turned in at a respectable time.  Surrounded by conifers, our home for the evening was barely visible from the trail.  This would serve as our base camp for our hike up to the tallest peak in Southern California.  We stowed our bear canisters and hung our packs from nearby trees, unzipping the pockets so the little vermin didn’t chew through them.  Settling in for a decent sleep, I was awakened by a bright light shining into the side of the tent.  What the heck?  Thinking that someone was wandering around our site, I listened for the footsteps.  Nothing.  The light continued to shine, barely moving.  Maybe I left a flashlight in my pack and it came on.  A few minutes later, I gathered enough courage to unzip the door and peek out.   The fullness of the moon lit up our tent as it crested the mountain to our east.

Terrain matters when it comes to pitching your tent.  Setting it up in the wrong spot could be the difference between life and death.   That beautiful spot near the lake could be where the water drains during a downpour.

If you are on a multi-day trip on an established trail, chances are you have a trail guidebook or maybe you’ve read a blog that provided mile markers and campsites.  Those are valuable resources.  Prior to our section hike of the JMT last year, I picked up John Muir Trail: The essential guide to hiking America’s most famous trail.  It is an awesome resource.  I was able to set waypoints on my Garmin 401 and get fairly close.  Or you can live life on the edge, just hike until it’s dark and plop down near the trail.

Many locations in the national forest and parks require you to camp at least 100 ft. from the trail and 200 ft. from water sources. Most of us make half-hearted attempts at this rule.  I mean, the sound of rushing water makes for a great night of sleep.  Hikers are generally good stewards of the land and really try to minimize the impact.  You do this by camping on established sites and avoid vegetation like grass.  Rules vary in each area, so check online or with the local ranger if appropriate.  Camp too close to water and the mosquitoes will torment you.

Once, I was solo hiking in the eastern Sierras and started looking for a site.  I found a granite slab that was 25 ft. from a cliff that dropped off about 200 ft. into a lively creek.  The view was amazing, but then I thought about getting up in the middle of the night when nature called and stepping off into the abyss.  So,  rocks are not a good idea for a tent unless it is far away from drop-offs and you have a way to stake the tent down.  Rocks also are good lightning conductors!

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200 ft down to North Fork Creek. I almost camped here. No, really.

When looking for a site, envision what it would look like in a raging downpour.   Will the water funnel through your site like a drainage ditch?  Will that Fiat sized boulder up the hill come loose and roll over you like a bowling ball?  In the Sierras, those granite covered slopes shed water quickly during rain and can create flash flood conditions.

Widow-makers:  Those dead trees that are still standing.  Pitch your tent under those when a strong wind hits and you won’t know what hit you.   If you do pick a site under trees, make sure it’s not  under the tallest group of trees, nor the shortest.  Go for the medium stand, you will be less likely to get struck by lightning.

Common sense, but find a site that is relatively flat without roots or rocks.   A good sleeping pad helps knock the edge of those little rocks that feel like boulders at night.   If you must sleep on an incline, your head should be at the highest point.  Even the slightest hill may cause you to gravitate toward your tent-mate in the middle of the night. That may be good, or bad.  If you have to pitch your tent on a hill, have your door on the downhill side so water doesn’t come rushing in.

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Camping on the AT in Maine.

Some other tips:

Don’t cook or eat within 50-100 ft. of your tent.  Stow the bear canister or bag the same distance.  If not you may get some late night company looking for food.

Align your tent so the smallest surface area is facing the prevailing wind.  This isn’t always possible, especially if you have a square tent.  🙂    At a minimum, place your opening away from the wind to avoid the parachute effect.

For backcountry camping, shop around and spend the money on a quality tent.  The $20 one in the discount store will not hold up during a gusher.  Use a tent footprint.  It’s like a light weight tarp that fits under your tent.  It is slightly larger than the floor of your tent and will protect the floor from damage due to rocks and roots.  I know, if you are a thru-hiker, ounces count.

Invest in a good set of tent stakes.  Most low-end tents come with lousy stakes that bend easily.  There are a couple of brands like MSR GroundHog Stake Kit that are light weight and sturdy.  These are virtually indestructible.  I usually find a rock and bang them in.  I also carry extras in case they get damaged or if it’s really windy.  Carry some extra para-cord or nylon line in your tent bag in case you need to tie on some extra guy lines.

Klingers:  People who camp right next to you, even though there are other places to camp.  Don’t be a Klinger.

Lightning:  No tent can protect you from 150,000 volts, but it can keep you dry.  During bad thunderstorms, you can do the following:  If you believe in God, pray and minimize your body contact with the ground or sit on your pad, sleeping bag or backpack.  If you are an atheist or agnostic, just curl up in the fetal position, put your headset in, crank up the volume and close your eyes.

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Near a glacier fed stream and under some aspens. Works for me.

In the morning, the tent may be wet from dew or the overnight shower.  If you don’t have time to dry it out before hitting the trail,  use your camp towel to wipe it down.  If you are camping in Washington or Oregon, just resign yourself to the fact that it will never get dry.    Never stow a wet tent at the end of your trip.  It is guaranteed to ruin it with mold and mildew.  It’s a good idea to vacuum out a tent and wipe it down with a mild soap.  I treat mine along the seams with a waterproof sealant that I got here:  Gear Aid Tent Sure floor sealant with foam brush, 8-Ounce.

I like positioning the door of our tent for easy access if you have to get up during the night.  Hey, you’ll understand when you get old.  But the most important thing is a site with a view.  You will know it when you see it.

 

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Thousand Island Lake, John Muir Trail

Do you have some tips or lessons learned about setting up your tent?  Please share them in the comments!   Most importantly, don’t be a Klinger.


I Always Get Blisters When I Hike – What Can I Do?

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No, really I always get blisters on multi-day hikes.  I’ve tried different shoes, socks, band-aids, tape, lubricants, on and on… I have managed to reduce the number of blisters, just can’t get away from the heel.  It must be a result of my days as a tap dancer.   Here are some suggestions to help you reduce the occurrence of your blisters using a common sense approach.

Let’s talk about what a blister is.  In the hiking realm, it is your skin reacting to heat and abrasion.  If the rubbing and heat continues along with some moisture, the damaged skin forms a small pocket of fluid under the first few layers of skin.  This fluid is your body reacting and trying to protect the skin underneath it.  Rarely do blisters form quickly.  Usually, you will start to get a hot spot.  Detected early enough, you may be able to prevent the mega-blister.

Thru-hikers have gotten blisters every where you can imagine, but most are on the heel, toes and balls of the feet.  As a hiker, if you put enough miles in and have prolonged periods of flat terrain or downhill – you will get a hot spot or blister.  Calluses are usually the result of a hotspot or blister in the same location.

Here are some tips to reduce the number of blisters:

– Pick your shoes wisely.  The heel should be snug, not loose.  Your feet will swell so you need a little extra room in the toe-box.  Don’t wear the new pair of boots on your week-long backcountry trip.  Break them in on some day hikes first.  If you have bunions, talk to a healthcare professional to see additional considerations when choosing shoes.

– Socks.  I wear a synthetic liner with good quality wool socks.  The liners wick away sweat and the wool socks provide some cushioning.  I’ve also used the synthetic socks with toes to cut down on the toe blisters with some success.

– Take a break after a few hours of hiking, remove your shoes, socks and air those feet out.  Bonus:  Stop near water and dip those puppies in there.  Awesome!    Use this opportunity to check for hot spots.  Keep some moleskin in your first aid kit and apply it to those spots.  It may prevent a full-fledged blister.

– When crossing streams, recommend you change out your non-waterproof boots for river shoes or sandals.  Hiking in wet socks and shoes is asking for trouble.

First aid for blisters:

– There are different types of blisters.  If you see blood, keep an eye and use some Neosporin to ward off infection.

– Don’t pop blisters unless they are too painful.   The fluid is protecting the skin underneath and may keep it from bleeding.  If you have to pop it, use a sterilized needle or safety-pin.  Hold the needle under a flame to sterilize.   You can actually run thread through the blister so the fluid drains out.  I have done this as a last resort and don’t recommend it unless you have the blister from Hades.  Again, use an antibiotic ointment.

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No blog about blisters would be complete without real pics. I ran thread through this Godzilla size blister to help it drain. Yuck.

– In your first aid kit, keep moleskin, scissors, waterproof medical tape (duct tape will work) and even a needle and thread.  Use moleskin for smaller blisters.

– For your heels, you can apply duct tape to keep a hot spot from developing into a blister.  I wrap duct tape around my hiking poles; you can peel off what you need.    You can use a lubricant like Mueller Lube-Stickª for Runners Skin Barrier – 0.6 oz Stick – Each # 420206N . It helps to cut down on abrasion.

Oh, I really wasn’t a tap dancer, but I can hike like a billy-goat.  Do you have some tips for keeping the blisters away?  Please share them.DSC_0089


How to Win the War on Mosquitoes When Hiking

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Camping near a stream is great. Notice the head-net and long sleeves?

Hike in the backcountry long enough and you will understand the saying “I’m being eaten alive”.  Eaten by mosquitoes that is.  Some of the most beautiful vistas in the U.S. are also the most infested by those pests.  Actually, you may find mosquitoes anywhere there is an abundance of water and mild-hot temperatures.  From sea level to over 10,000 ft. they will find you.  While the risk of West Nile and chikungunya viruses is there, those illnesses will not kill you.  Chiki-what?  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chikungunya  To my knowledge, yellow fever and malaria aren’t that common in America.

I remember the time we met a family near Devil’s Postpile, on the John Muir Trail.  They had passed through Lyle Canyon and bore the bites of many, many mosquitoes.  It was a bit scary to see their skin covered in itchy, red bumps.  They all had shorts, short sleeve shirts and no headnets. Ok, I could end this blog on bugs right here.   One could probably eliminate 75% of bug bites by wearing a headnet, long sleeves and long pants.

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Thousand Island Lake on the JMT. Beautiful, yet heavily infested with mosquitoes in the spring, summer.

Do some research on why mosquitoes in particular are attracted to humans and you will see that it has to do with our movement, carbon dioxide that we exhale, body odor and body chemistry.  According to one researcher  “One in 10 people are highly attractive to mosquitoes,” reports Jerry Butler, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Florida.  That might explain why some are eaten alive and others barely get bitten.  When hiking, it’s hard to avoid the attractants mentioned above.

However, any good mosquito abatement plan has multiple layers.   This will even work for other bugs like gnats and flies.  Let’s start with your clothing.  When on an extended trip in the backcountry, less is better.  The less weight you carry, the better off you will be.  Make your clothes count.  Bring convertible pants that zip off at the knees and long sleeve shirts that can be rolled up and fastened.  Layer your top with a t-shirt that wicks sweat.  I’ve been bitten by mosquitos through a t-shirt, so layering may help.

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So many mosquitoes that we had to eat in our tents. 😦

Prior to your trip, consider treating your clothing with a bug repellant like Permethrin.  It works amazingly well and may last for 5 or 6 washings.  It dries within a few hours and is not known to irritate the skin.  It is highly toxic to cats, so be aware and apply outside or in a well ventilated area.  In my opinion, Permethrin is more effective than spray on repellents and less of an irritant. It is effective on most other bugs including ticks and flies.   This is a good brand that I use: Sawyer Products Premium Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent Trigger Spray, 24-Ounce

Do spray on repellents work?  I believe they do, but will only last for so long.  If you sweat, it tends to wash away the repellant.  It also can get into your eyes and on your food.  We carry it, but use it sparingly.  DEET is still a common chemical and very effective, but in higher concentrations it can melt plastic like sunglasses and synthetic clothing.   Scary, huh?  Here is a lotion that works very well, but be careful around the eyes: 3M Ultrathon Insect Repellent Lotion, 2-Ounce

When camping, mosquitoes are the worst, especially if you are near water.  Set up your tent quickly and zip the screen closed.   Wind is your friend when it comes to these insects.   It’s harder for them to fly and find their prey.  Set up your tent where there is a breeze if possible.   Many a camper has pitched their tent near a beautiful lake or stream and are forced to eat dinner inside their tent because of the swarms.  At night, minimize the use of bright lights or use the red lens if your lamp is equipped with one.

This might seem a bit extreme, but when nature calls and you are in an infested area, it may be a good idea to put some bug repellant on your backside.  You are an easy target during this time and it might prevent you from toppling over because you were swatting them.

The $5 I spent on our head nets was probably the best money spent.  You can even run your hydration tube underneath the net.   The nets are not fashionable, but it’s only a matter of time before someone invents some that are.  When not in buggy areas, I usually roll mine up and over my trail hat.  I can pull it down when they start to bite.  This inexpensive one has served us well: Coleman Insect Head Net

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I never said rolling the head net over the hat was stylish. Nevada Falls, Yosemite.

Some last thoughts.  According to the same researcher mentioned above, female mosquitoes do the biting.  They need your blood to fertilize their eggs.  Supposedly there are new inventions coming to aid in the battle including pills and wearable patches.  I’ll try anything once – as long as it’s safe.   So friends, don’t let those Culicidae  keep you from venturing into the backcountry – hike on!  Any ideas for repelling mosquitoes?  Please mention them in your comments.


Kearsarge Pass – A Thru Hiker Highway

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Ask any Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru-hiker about Kearsarge Pass and they will confirm that it is a main resupply route.  We would run across more PCT and JMT hikers than ever before.  Generally, they are the most laid back people you will meet.

After a restless nights’ sleep near Pothole Lake, we decided to leave our camp set up and venture out west of the pass.  A nice breakfast of bacon and eggs got us going.  The crytallized eggs are real and when mixed with water, scramble up perfectly.  The pre-cooked bacon is trail ready and is good to go.  We lightened our packs and carried enough supplies for our day hike.  The plan was to drop down into the Kearsarge Lakes area and grab lunch next to the water.

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Our camp was within sight of the pass so the last 400 ft of elevation gain was easy-peasy.  There was one other hiker taking a break and we dropped our packs to soak in the vista.  The views to the west were beautiful.   In the Sierras, one will run out of words to describe the scenery.  There were several lakes below;  one I recognized from the map as Bullfrog Lake.  We wanted to explore down below so we ate a snack and chatted with a thru-hiker going back to town for resupply.  Like so many other long distance hikers we’ve seen, he looked like he was in need of a bath and some good food.  We started down, the slope steady with what appeared to be pulverized granite rocks for the trailbed.

We ran into a few day hikers huffing their way up and stepped out-of-the-way.  Trail etiquette being what it is, the uphill hiker has the right of way.  We ran across a lonely stream making its’ way down to the lakes.  The source of water appeared to come out the side of the mountain.  A bullfrog could be heard croaking steadily.  We never saw it, but heard that sucker for the next 30 minutes.  We made our way down some switchbacks to a trail junction.

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Wishing that we had more time to hike to Charlotte and Rae Lakes area, we hiked another 1/2 mile or so to the Kearsarge Lakes area.  The trail is fairly well-defined and meandered down to the first lake.  It was warmer now, around 75 degrees and other than a few people fishing on the other shore, very quiet.  The only other sound were the streams emptying into the lake.   We took off our shoes and stepped in to the cold, clear water.  After a minute, the bones in my legs started aching.  Well, probably not but that’s what it felt like.  It was brisk and felt good on our hot feet.  The trout were jumping every few seconds.  The Golden Trout Wilderness is aptly named.  We discussed getting our fishing licenses and gear before our next hike into this area.  I can taste the fresh trout cooked in a pan with just a touch of lemon and garlic.

 

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After eating our lunch and filtering some water, we reluctantly started back up the trail.  The climb out was less strenuous than it would have been with a full pack.  We ran into a PCT hiker who had lost the cap to his water filtration chemical bottle.  It was tiny and we struck up a conversation and he eventually found it.    As I was taking a breather on a bend in a switchback, another hiker was coming up behind.  I usually ask hikers where they are coming from or where they are going out of curiosity.  She was a PCT hiker, who had recently gotten back on the trail.   She passed me and struck up a conversation with my wife who  (as always) is ahead of me.  They immediately hit it off and continued talking as we slowly made our way up to the pass.  Conversation is a good diversion when you are in a steep climb.  Of course it helps if you’re not out of breath.

The women continued to chat and it was a nice experience to meet a thru-hiker who took the time to relate their experience on the trail.  PCT hikers run the gambit from those that are on a sabbatical to modern-day hippies.  Sometimes I believe that long distance hikers are a sub-culture within our Americana.  Her trail-name was Pillsbury,  and she was quite the character.  Before long, we reached the pass where we hung out with Pillsbury and the other PCT hiker who went my the moniker Dances with Bacon.  He was a nice guy and we chatted for a bit.  Heck, with a trail-name like that, he couldn’t be bad.

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Pillsbury  wanted to take some fun pics, so she climbed an outcropping and asked me to take some pics with her camera.  She got up her nerve and did some hand-stands.  The blustery wind was a bit much and I was glad when she finished.  She was heading into town to resupply and had another 4-5 miles to go.  While it’s mostly downhill from here, the town of Independence is about 13 miles from the trailhead in the Onion Valley Campground.  We enjoyed our time with Pillsbury and parted ways when we reached the part of the trail where our camp was located.

We had time to enjoy our camp this time.  It was nice at the site and we didn’t rush through dinner.  The Black Bart Chili tasted great.  It’s one of our favorites.    As we settled in for the night, the wind was not as strong so the water from the lake was not lapping the rocks as loud as the previous night.  Did I mention that the first night, the sound of the water was like footsteps? We were sure that someone (or some thing) was walking around our tent.   Freaked us out for a few minutes until I stuck my head out of the tent around 2 a.m. and discovered it was the sound of wind-driven water against the shore of the lake.

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No AMS symptoms tonight, we were fully acclimated.  Slept soundly and awoke to a crisp Sierra morning.  Not wanting to cook breakfast, we had some snacks and departed our hidden campsite on Pothole Lake.  We took a different route out and had to do some boulder scrambling.  Not sure that it was a wise choice.  A fall here would have hurt.

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Our walk down was fairly quick and the scenery nice.  The coolness of the air as we went in and out of the forest was refreshing.   The lakes that we had passed going up looked so different.  Still lots of jumping trout though.  We took a break near a cascading creek, the breeze and sound of rushing water enough for one to desire a nap.

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This hike was a good one for many reasons, but it turns out to be our best way in for our JMT section hike next year.   The JMT is a short trek from Kearsarge Pass.  Mt. Whitney, here we come.

Some lessons learned on this trip:

– We experienced mild Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) symptoms on our first night.  Our symptoms were headaches, nausea and a bad nights’ rest.  While we have camped around 10,000 ft. before, on this trip, we left San Diego in the morning from an altitude of 500 ft.  Ten hours later, we were at 11,400 ft.  Our bodies didn’t have a chance to acclimate.  Recommendation:  When hiking at high altitude, camp at a lower altitude on the first night to give your body a chance to adjust.

– Dehydrated foods take longer to cook at high altitude.  In our case, the normal 12-15 minutes of rehydration took almost 30 minutes.

– If given the opportunity, start a conversation with fellow hikers.  You will meet the most amazing people from all walks of life.  Many have funny, interesting stories from the trail.  You won’t find many creeps out here – they’re mostly back in the cities.

– Take the time to kick your shoes off and enjoy a dip in the water.  Next time, I’m up for a swim. 🙂

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Hiking With Children

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As young grandparents, 🙂 we look forward to the time when we can take our grandchildren on the trail to experience the beauty that we’ve seen.  Perhaps you are parents and are wondering if it is safe to take your little ones out on the trail.  Should you strap on the child-carrier and head to the backcountry?  It depends.  Here are some things to consider.

What is the earliest you should take a child hiking?

Well, you can pack an infant into a child carrier if you are comfortable with that.  Toddlers may not do so well in carriers. We’ve heard a few toddlers crying their way up the trail in those things.  It didn’t look like much fun either.  Toddlers also can’t walk very far so the 5 mile hike may be a bit extreme.

In my opinion, the ideal age to introduce a child to hiking is around 6-8.  One idea is to start out car camping and combine it with day hikes near the campground.   The earlier the better, you’ll get less whining that way!  We have seen children as young as 7-8 on long backcountry trips.  Just remember, those little legs have to take twice as many steps as we do.  On a 10 mile hike, an adult takes approximately 20,000 steps.

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Kids will never forget views like this.

Safety:  

– Many trails have wild animals that can present a real hazard to children.  While mountain lions are rare, coyotes are not.  A child who startles a female bear with cubs is in real trouble.  Heck, if an adult surprises a bear, it means trouble. Rattlesnakes are common out west and often do not provide much warning.  Back east you have rattlesnakes, moccasins and more.  The venom may be more potent on a small body, so  consider the risks.  If you take the little ones into the backcountry, keep them close at hand.

– Terrain can present significant challenges to children.  It may be too risky to take them where a fall can cause serious injury.  Start out with easy treks to build up their trail legs and confidence.  Stream crossings can be dangerous – use common sense here.

– Hydration is critical.  Water is heavy, so plan your hike accordingly.  The hydration bladders that fit in packs work best because kids can sip as they walk.  Monitor their water intake to avoid dehydration or heat stress.  Avoid sodas or drinks with a lot of sugar.

– Nutrition is important too.  A good breakfast and plenty of snacks for the trail.  Trail mix, energy bars and food with protein like beef sticks. Sturdy fruits like apples and oranges are great on the trail.

– Sunscreen is important as is a good first aid kit.  If your child is allergic to bee stings, the epi-pen is the first thing you pack.  If not allergic, a credit card is a good way to get the stinger out.  Just scrape with the edge of the card-it works better then tweezers.  It’s good to keep a topical cream for bee stings in the first aid kit.  Just ask my wife, it works within minutes.  Ticks can be a real problem.   Be careful if you use bug repellants like permethrin on small children.  Otherwise, light clothing is best.  Always check the kids at the end of the day for those pests.  Ticks will gravitate to the head, armpits, groin.  Have some tweezers in the first aid kit and ensure you get the critter’s head if you pull them out.  Use an alcohol pad to clean the bite area and watch for any symptoms like fever, spotted rash and lethargic behavior.  If you remove the tick before it gets too embedded, it should be ok.  By the way, ticks freak me out, I hate them.

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Water crossings can be a challenge

When nature calls:

– Keep a baggie with some single ply toilet paper, hand sanitizer or handi-wipes.  Carry a cat-hole shovel if appropriate.  Teach kids early about leave-no-trace (LNT) practices and how to properly bury waste.  Don’t bury the handi-wipes, they don’t degrade easily.    Believe it or not, they will adapt quicker to going outdoors than most adults.  Keep them in sight for safety reasons.

Equipment:

– A pair of trail shoes, small backpack, hydration bottle and a hat are a good start.  As you progress, a set of trekking poles and maybe some gaiters on those dusty trails.

Skills:

Hiking presents amazing opportunities to teach young ones valuable lessons on wildlife and being good stewards with our beautiful land.  You can talk about survival, navigation, meteorology, geology and so many other life lessons.  Give it to them in small doses or you will bore them quickly.

Hiking is a great way to spend time with your children or grandchildren.  It can lead to an appreciation of nature and our national parks.   It can teach young people how important it is to be good stewards of our environment.  So, take a hike! – with your kids.

Hot Wheels 9-Car Gift Pack (Styles May Vary)

Either way, these are tough miles.

Either way, these are tough miles.


San Jacinto Wilderness – Devil’s Slide to Tahquitz Loop

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It’s been over a year since the Mountain Fire consumed over 27,000 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest in Riverside County.  As a result, some of the trails in the San Jacinto range and some of the Pacific Crest Trail are closed indefinitely.  The cause of the fire was attributed to electrical equipment failure on private property.  Fortunately, no lives were lost.  Since last fall’s hike on Fuller Ridge, we haven’t been back in the San Jacinto area.  We love to hike up here in the summer because you can usually escape the hotter temps in the valleys below.

Today, we would venture out on Devil’s Slide and hit Saddle Junction  From there, we would see which trails were open.  On the weekends, this is a popular trail so the recommendation is to come early or start late (around noon).  Humber Park is a popular area to picnic and the Earnie Maxwell trail is a 2.6 mile one way shuttle hike for a nicer walk in the park.   Parking in Humber Park requires an adventure pass.  For the Devil’s Slide trail, you will need to pick up a permit at the ranger’s station in Idyllwild.

I usually check the weather forecast when we hike. Now, a tropical storm off the Baja Peninsula was pumping in moisture to the desert regions east with subsequent scattered thunderstorms in the mountains.   One thing about hiking, the longer you do it, the better you get at understanding the weather.   The cumulus clouds were definitely about, but were spread out and not building into thunder-cells.

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Well now, looks like the cumulus clouds got together.

The trail up Devil’s Slide is well maintained, wide – with a mix of dirt, granite and some sand and scree.   It gains a steady 500 ft. or so for the first mile and then you get switchbacks that are around 700 ft. per mile.  It’s a steady climb with nice views of Suicide Rock and Lily Rock, both favorites for local climbers.  You can hear them calling out to each other as you head up.

Unfortunately, this has been a low snow year so the trail is totally dry.  If you want to find water sources in the wilderness, watch for bees.  They seek out moisture and will actually pull water out of moist dirt that usually has a water source underneath.  They often will take the water back to the queen to cool her down.  I love nature.

After 2.5 miles, we reached Saddle Junction and most of the trails were roped off by the USFS.  The Mountain Fire did impact a large area, but many mature trees survived because the fire was not as intense.   Some species of pines in this area have bark that is 3-5 inches thick.  It’s like armor and protects the conifers from the heat.

We took one of two available trails toward Tahquitz Valley, hoping that we could work our way toward Law’s Camp a few miles away which has decent views of the desert.  After a half mile or so, we would run into some volunteer ranger’s and I automatically gave them my permit.  The people who volunteer are usually locals that love this area and are a big asset to the Forest Service.  They check permits, clean up trash and seek out illegal campsites or fire rings.  Often, they assist with search and rescue.  We had a nice conversation with them and were on our way again.  We came to another junction and unfortunately, the trails to the north were closed so we went into Tahquitz Valley toward Tahquitz Peak.

IMG_3117We were rewarded with a display of colorful ferns.  Some were orange and yellow, probably due to the lack of rain, but it seemed like fall foliage to us.  We had the trail to ourselves for the next few hours as most people stopped at the junction or went straight to the peak.  The trail meandered through the forest passing a couple of remote campsites.  These would be nice if there was water around.  Otherwise, you’ll need to bring it in like a camel.

One of the volunteer rangers mentioned that thunderstorms were due in around 3 p.m.  We pushed up the last 500 ft. just past the Tahquitz Peak junction and wandered out to an outcropping for views of Lily Rock and the valley where we would take a late lunch break.  Good thing too, because I hit the classic wall where I was out of energy.  Many long distance hikers experience this frequently where they just run out of steam.   For them, trying to stay ahead of the calorie deficit is the key.  For us occasional day hikers, it’s a matter of eating a decent breakfast and snacking along the way.

We heard one group pass on their way to the peak and then the first rumbles of thunder.  I looked around to see the source and the cumulus clouds were gathering to our south and moving north towards us.  We finished up and began a fairly quick retreat down the mountain.  Unfortunately, the first mile or so was parallel to the storm so we didn’t make much headway, but ended up getting out of harms way fairly quickly.  I found out later that the storm dumped several inches of rain with hundreds of lightning strikes to our south and east.  Did you know lightning can strike 20+ miles away from a storm?  We took the opportunity to talk about lightning safety and what actions we would take.  Feel a tingling on the back of your neck or arms?  Drop those poles and squat near the ground ASAP.  Don’t touch the ground though.

Anyhow, hike long enough and you are bound to get wet and/or experience lightning.   Be prepared and have a plan.  Pack a rain-pancho or raincoat – you can get hypothermia even in the summer.  Avoid peaks and summits in thunderstorm conditions around the noon to early afternoon hours.

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In summary, the Devil’s Slide trail to Saddle Junction is fairly limited for the time being due to the fire, but take the loop to Tahquitz Peak as it is a worthwhile trek.  The views from the peak and the Lily Rock canyon are stellar.   You’ll log around 9.5-9.7 miles on this walkabout.  Take at least 2-3 liters of water with you, there’s none to be found this time of year. Hike on……


Kearsarge Pass – Mind Over Matter

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Big Pothole Lake, Kearsarge Pass

 

Ask any hiker that ventures into the backcountry what the hardest part of the experience is and many will say “the mental part.”   Up until we logged hundreds of miles on the trail, I’m not sure if this would have made any sense.   Our recent journey off the path reiterated the mental part.  The fun began after we arrived at the Onion Valley Campground parking lot, fifteen miles or so from the tiny town of Independence.

The drive up from the town is an experience.  The road starts with a gradual climb out of the valley and the 180 degree switchbacks made it an exciting ride in our old BMW.   We saw mule deer along the way.  Be careful of the occasional rock in the road, especially at night.  The campground isn’t much in itself.  It’s pretty much a tent-only camp tucked away in the small valley where summertime temps creep into the 80’s.  At over 9,100 ft.   Independence Creek flows nearby.  We would park in the hiker’s lot and noticed a few hikers finishing their trek.  It was mid-late afternoon and some were looking for rides into Independence or Bishop.

The parking lot has a double vault toilet and cool creek water through a spigot.  In the summer, there is always someone coming or going here.  We started up the path sans hiking poles and my wife found a nice wooden hiking stick that another kind soul left near the trail-head.

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Little Pothole Lake

 

The Kearsarge Pass trail is a steady climb, averaging approximately 600-700 ft. per mile.  Well maintained, it gets a lot of traffic during the summer.  About half are day-hikers and those fishing.  The mild winter was kind to the trail and it was in good shape.  Since this was a 3 day hike, we packed extra food and enough clothing to change out.  Our packs were light compared to our previous JMT hike, but I might as well have been carrying a couch on my back-that’s how it felt after a couple of miles.

For me, hiking is one of those activities that demands everything you’ve got.  Unless you are a thru hiker or able to do this every week, it pushes you.  That’s part of the reason we do this – it is a mental and physical challenge.  Do this, and you can handle anything life throws at you.  My takeaway is “mind over matter”.

This hike starts out with typical scrub and manzanita.  Expect a warm one in the summer unless you start early.  Around 1.5 miles, you’ll pass next to a nice cascade fed from the lakes above.  Within another mile, we passed a couple of lakes, teeming with trout.  Experienced our first mosquitoes around 10,000 ft., but not too bad.

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The terrain gradually changes into a sub-alpine with a mix of pine and deciduous trees.   There is ample shade as you pass the 2-3 mile mark and the climb gets a bit harder with stepping-stones that test your endurance.  The wind picked up and it started to feel cool.  As long as we kept moving, it was ok.  Stop too long and it got cold.

We pushed through and around 6:30, began looking for a campsite.  The trail map showed a couple of more lakes within two hundred yards of the trail.  Nice, or so I thought.  The first one – Heart Lake was a disappointing 5-600 ft. descent so we passed it up.   My goal is to almost always camp near a water source.   Only one more lake on the map before the “summit” so this was it.  I took a GPS reading and compared it to my Tom Harrison map.  I confirmed there was a lake below when I asked a passing hiker.  He was young and had his earphones in so, I asked a couple of times – “Hey is there a lake down there?”  He nodded yes, so we began to look for a way in.

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Looking down on Big Pothole Lake.

It was after 7 p.m, and getting colder so we began our way down crossing through a talus field of assorted boulders.  About two hundred feet in, I spotted a primo campsite.  Flat, sandy and large enough for our little Eureka tent.  We settled in quickly and had dinner going within 20 minutes.  At 11,400 ft.,  the air chilled as the sun settled behind Kearsarge Pass.  I scrambled 200-300 ft. down the slopes of Big Pothole Lake to filter some much-needed water.  Six liters later, I slowly climbed back to camp.  Much of this water was for our base camp. We try to “tank-up” before hitting the trail because water is so heavy.

There was a strange phenomenon up here.  Moths, thousands of them inhabited the little pines.  At dusk, there were bats.  They would swoop in, emitting their sonar like squeaks.  It was quite the feast for them.  Never knew there were bats this high.

It was a chilly night, windy with temps in the 40’s.   Not bad, but the wind chill made it seem cooler.  This close to the pass, a stiff breeze was inevitable.  We snuggled into our sleeping bags, each of us with persistent headaches.  The thought of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) was at the front of my mind.  We were camping at the highest we’ve camped yet.  A couple of motrin helped to knock the edge off.  If the headaches persisted or other symptoms like nausea and dizziness occurred, we would have to descend.  Neither of us slept well.

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Sunset. Our talus backyard in the foreground of the eastern sky.

 

Next:  Pillsbury Does a Handstand at Kearsarge Pass.

 


Kearsarge Pass – Trip Planning

Matlock Lake, Kearsarge Pass Trail

 

When I asked my wife of 32 years what she wanted to do for our anniversary, she said “a backcountry trip.”  Men,  I know many wives will want to be pampered on this special day, and rightfully so.  Rare is the woman who will endure a trip into the wilderness to endure calf burning,  boulder scrambling, fending off mosquitoes and chilly nights to celebrate a wedding anniversary with her husband.

Even with a 3 day trip, there is a lot of preparation.  I pulled out the gear and checked  everything out.   The cats love it when I set up the tent in the living room.  Five tough miles from your car is not the time to find out your water filter pump doesn’t work.  Checklists are always great, but as you will see – not foolproof.

The eastern Sierras offer miles and miles of trails, most with ample supplies of water – even in the terrible drought that California is going through.  I’ve heard of Onion Valley, one of the more popular entry/exit routes by PCT thru-hikers.  Many will go through Kearsarge Pass to the Onion Valley Campground and hitch a ride into the little town of Independence to pick up a resupply, or catch a ride into Bishop.

The drive from San Diego County is around 4-5 hours through the pain-in-the-butt Riverside/San Bernardino area.  Mostly a pain because of the weird road patterns and traffic congestion.  Going up, we missed the Hwy 395 turnoff and kept going to take Hwy 58-E to Bakersfield.  It was actually better; while longer in mileage, we missed the 395 construction and endless traffic lights in/around Victorville.

Eastern Sierra Visitor Center

Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center

Oh, before I forget I’ve learned some tips on getting permits for your trail of choice.  Many trails in the California wilderness require backcountry permits issued by the state or feds who manage the areas.  After researching the general area you want to hike, you can go to www.recreation.gov and register for an account.  Most decent trails have a quota system for overnight stays to minimize the environmental impact.  Typically, the recreation.gov website will issue 60% of the permits online, the other 40% for walk-ins at one of many locations-depending on where you want to enter.  Here’s the rub:  If you reserve online, there is a $5 per person and $6 processing fee.  If you do a walk-in it is free.  Reserve early, the popular trails fill up quickly.  I actually wanted to reserve Kearsarge Pass, but all the permits were issued so I applied for a nearby trail – Golden Trout.  Once I paid the $16 fee, I confirmed the day prior and locked in the reservation.  On the day of our arrival, I checked in at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center and asked if I could obtain a walk-in for Kearsarge Pass.  Sure enough, there were permits available and the Forest Service ranger changed our permit-free of charge.

Looking down at Independence, Ca. through a talus field.

So, if you want to lock in a trail permit, do it online for a fee.  Otherwise, if your plans are flexible, pick out a few trails ahead of time and do a walk-in.  The visitor center in Lone Pine handles most of the permits for the Hwy 395 corridor.  It is the busiest on Fridays during the summer.    Arrive early to get your trail of choice.  It’s a nice facility with tons of information and a nice touristy shop.  They have decent trail maps, so stock up!

A little more on trip planning.  Be prepared for a variety of weather when camping.  In our 5th year of hiking, we’ve experienced snow in June.  The puffy jacket, knit cap and gloves are worth the extra pack weight.  Rain gear is good and will ward off hypothermia while hiking in the wilderness.  Bear canisters are often mandatory in much of the Sierras.  Sure, you can still hit the trail without one, but I’ve talked to many who have had their campsite visited by the wandering Yogi.   You can try hanging your food bag from a tree, but it’s known that mother ursines teach their young how to knock down the yummy treats at an early age.  Besides, the trees above 10,000 feet are pretty short.

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Kearsarge Pass

So, preparation and some common sense backcountry lessons learned are key to an enjoyable trip.  Oh, even using a checklist the hiking poles were hanging in the garage where I left them.  My knees hate me.

Next: Kearsarge Pass – Mind Over Matter

 

 

 


One Foot in Front of the Other

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We were thirty miles away from civilization.  The lightning was getting closer and it started to rain.   We were climbing out of Thousand Island Lakes, in the middle of the Ansel Adams Wilderness.  Our 65 mile section hike of the John Muir Trail had been uneventful and amazing thus far.   Looking for a level spot to put our rain gear on I could hear the water rushing close by.  Leveling out, I noticed a good place to drop our packs on the other side of a cascading creek.  The only way across the watery chasm was on a 6 inch wide log.

There must have been a downpour upstream because the creek was running fast with a lot of sediment mixed in.    This wasn’t our first water crossing on a log, but the logs seemed to be shrinking in width.  It brought back memories as a kid crossing logs in the woods.  The first one to fall off would be eaten by “gators”.  Only now, we had 40lb. packs and the gator was a rushing current of frothy liquid.

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The backcountry is where ones’ phobias can emerge.  Acrophobia, aquaphobia, most of the phobias seem to start with “A”.  The wilderness is where you go to deal with those fears.   So, combining two of those fears – height and water is met by crossing streams on a log.  The loud rushing water underneath you, the distance to the water and the dead weight on your back can be a recipe for disaster.

Enough of the melodrama, if you are really afraid of your shadow, then car camping may be a starting point.  If all else fails, you can just lock yourself in the car.

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In reality, the challenge really becomes mind over matter.  The amazing scenery coupled with the experience of accomplishing something you’ve never done before makes it worthwhile.  Sure, at the end of the day you will ache in places you didn’t know existed.  You may even get wetter than Saturday’s laundry from a cloud burst, but chances are you will emerge unscathed.  What I lacked in experience from my early wilderness trips was remedied by common sense.  Barring any traumatic experiences of being swept away in a rushing torrent of ice water, you may come away with a love of the outdoors and a desire to share it with someone else.

Thinking back several years ago on my first backcountry trip, I estimated the nearly 25,000 steps I took one day.  Picking my way over, under and around obstacles, I was really just putting one foot in front of the other.

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What Equipment Do I Need to Hike?

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You don’t need a pack mule for a day hike

After logging a few miles day hiking on various trails, we have come to understand why some people get into trouble while hiking.  From wearing flip-flops on rocky trails to not having any water on a hot hike,  many people think trails are a walk in the park.  I wonder how many people who went out on a day hike ended up spending the night in the wilderness?

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If you venture out more than a few miles on a day hike, it doesn’t hurt to bring along some “necessities”.

Here’s our short list:

  • Daypack
  • Hydration bladder or bottle
  • A good pair of hiking shoes or boots
  • Sock liners and merino wool socks
  • Synthetic shirts and pants.  Anything but 100% cotton
  • A hat with a brim
  • Sunglasses
  • The Ten Essentials (listed below)

The Ten Essentials-A list created in the 1930s by The Mountaineers:

  1. Map
  2. Compass
  3. Sunglasses and sunscreen
  4. Extra clothing
  5. Headlamp/flashlight
  6. First-aid supplies
  7. Firestarter
  8. Matches
  9. Knife
  10. Extra food

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Good to have:

  • hiking poles
  • GPS
  • large trashbag – makes good raincoat
  • neckerchief-synthetic
  • portable water filter or water purifier tablets
  • toilet paper, antiseptic wipes.  You never know.
  • duct tape
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Keep going higher…

Generally on day hikes, we take more than we need.  More water, more snacks and a portable stove to brew that cup of celebratory tea at the summit.   For those extended backcountry trips, every ounce counts so we use a checklist and carry only what we need with a few backup items like lighters, batteries and spare socks.  Some gear buying tips-spend the money on shoes and a good pack.  Research the gear on the web and read the reviews.

This is a nice GPS locator that I use: SPOT 2 Satellite GPS Messenger –

Bottom line, start with the ten essentials, you can’t go wrong.    


Backcountry Tips and Lessons Learned

DSC_0463 Take it from this novice, if there are mistakes to be made in the backcountry, I will make them.  Here are a some of the most obvious, take em’ or leave em’ but consider how the simplest oversight will change your backcountry experience.

– Not using a checklist.  Oops, not enough toilet paper.   (Leaves are single-ply though)

– Check available water sources ahead of time:  Ranger station – Oh, sorry they’ve been furloughed! ,  online blogs.

– Check trail conditions at ranger station – Don’t forget the permit.  You can be a renegade and stealth camp.  That just sounds like fun.

– Bring a water filter or purification tablets.  Results from failure to do so will take 7-10 days.

– Take the proper clothing.  Cotton is almost always a no-no as it retains moisture.

– Bring a backpack cover or large trash bag for rain.

–  Enough food and a 1-2 day backup supply

– pre-cooked bacon is like manna

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Leave food in your backpack and this may happen to you.

– Bringing too much stuff – Setting your tent up on uneven ground or in a drainage area

– Not using a footprint under your tent and finding out there were sharp rocks there.

– Camping far from a water source

– Not bringing a mosquito net or bug repellant

– Not having adequate land navigation skills or maps makes for a longer hike

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I came too close to this critter.

– Not having important spares like flashlights or matches

– Wearing shoes that fit just right and then finding out your feet swell another size and a half.

– Everyone smells bad after a few days in the backcountry

– Bees like Dr. Bronner’s lavender soap. Alot.

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Don’t pass up an opportunity to cool those jets. It’s the little things…

– Learned how important sock liners are.  They cut down on moisture and abrasion.

– Permethrin sprayed on your clothing ahead of time repels bugs.  This stuff works very well: Sawyer Products Premium Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent Trigger Spray, 24-Ounce

– Long sleeves, convertible pants and a headnet work better. Columbia Men’s Bahama II Long Sleeve Shirt

– Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap makes you feel all tingly.   Be careful where you use it.
DSC_0089 – Hiking in dark clothes in southern California is like wearing a solar panel.

– Light-colored clothing makes it easier to see the ticks.

– Leave the perfume and cologne at home and off of your skin.  Unless you want to attract bees, bears and moose’s in mating season.

– Take extra batteries.  Lithium ones last the longest but are expensive

– Learn the international rescue signals in case you need to signal the rescuer.  It would be bad if you needed help and gave the ok signal.

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This will lift your spirits.

–  Hiking poles save the knees These are highly rated: Pair of Pace Maker Flip Lock “Expedition” Trekking Poles with Vulcanized Rubber Feet and Attachments

–  Rattlesnakes can blend in with the leaves.  Use hiking poles, chances are a rattler may strike the pole instead of your leg.

– Slow down, stop and take it all in.  You’ll be surprised what you can see and hear.

– Most wildlife doesn’t want anything to do with silly humans.

– I’m a tick magnet.  (not chick)

– I don’t fear most bugs, except ticks.

– Ticks almost always end up near the groin.

– Always let someone know where you are hiking, and for how long.

– Consider getting an emergency beacon or GPS locator, especially if you do a bit of solo hiking.  Read my blog “Bitten by a Rattler on the Pacific Crest Trail”

– If you have pets at home, especially cats – check your pack before you leave.  They like to leave presents or hide inside things.

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Slow down and you’ll be amazed at what you see.

– Bear canisters can be hard to open when its cold or wet.  Try opening one ahead of time for practice.  When camping, turn them on the side to keep rain-water out.

– While in the backcountry, if you pack it in, you should always pack it out.  Except for poop and used toilet paper, that’s where I draw the line.  If you hike Mt. Whitney, take care of your “business” ahead of time or you must use the wag bag.  Yuck.

– Campfires are great for morale.  Sadly, many areas out west in the backcountry prohibit them due to the risk of wildfires.

Bottom line,  life’s lessons are better learned from others’ mistakes.