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!
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/
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.
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.
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.
– 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.
– Apples, oranges last up to a week.
Nuts or Trail Mix
A mixture of nuts with dried fruit and/or yogurt chips will last. Chocolate chips can melt in hot temps.
Packets of peanut or almond butter are nice for apples or crackers.
– Starbucks Via worked well. Also have used instant coffee. Powdered milk or creamer mixed with sugar in a baggie.
– 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.
– Pancake mix with powdered or crystallized eggs is excellent. A little maple syrup in a small bottle goes a long way
– 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.
In one of my tall tales, I wrote about a bad encounter with a rattlesnake 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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
– 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.
– 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
– 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 🙂
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.
– 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.
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.
– 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.
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.
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.
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.
We 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.
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……
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.
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.
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.
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.
Next: Pillsbury Does a Handstand at Kearsarge Pass.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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:
- 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
- The Ten Essentials (listed below)
The Ten Essentials-A list created in the 1930s by The Mountaineers:
- Sunglasses and sunscreen
- Extra clothing
- First-aid supplies
- Extra food
Good to have:
- hiking poles
- large trashbag – makes good raincoat
- portable water filter or water purifier tablets
- toilet paper, antiseptic wipes. You never know.
- duct tape
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.
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
– 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
– 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.
– 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
– 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.
– 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.
– 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.
So, this is the real McCoy. My previous blog was written for fun during my furlough.
If you hike long enough in the backcountry, you will inevitably have to do a water crossing. It may be on a log, stepping on rocks, or fording through it. Over the past several years, I have done quite a few crossings and learned a lot along the way.
Honestly, I didn’t know much about the topic beforehand so I researched the Internet, read about it in my backpacking field guide and various articles in Backpacker magazine. I’ll share my experience crossing various bodies of water including an ocean inlet, streams, creeks, brooks and rivers. By no means am I an authority on water crossings – it’s mostly common sense. If crossing over or through water intimidates you, you are not alone – it’s very common. With a little planning and will power, you can conquer this.
My first real water crossings were on the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine. This remote part of the Appalachian Trail has plenty of water. There were two of us and we used the buddy system on some crossings.
Methods for crossing (Fording the body of water)
Always – Put on your water shoes, roll up your pants. Loosen your backpack straps and unbuckle the sternum and waist strap. This may help if you slip. A pack can pull you under.
Solo – Facing upstream, use hiking poles. side step and try to keep three points in contact with the bottom at all times.
Two or more – Couple of methods here. You can face upstream, lock arms and side step your way across. You can also form a single file and face upstream. The person in the front forms a barrier. Place the weakest at the back of the line where there is less resistance to the current.
Swollen, fast current. This is a judgement call. My general rule is if the current is fast, I don’t usually cross if it’s higher than my waist. It’s difficult to keep your footing in a strong current with a slippery bottom.
Obstacles. Never cross upstream close to logs, tangles or debris in the water. If you slip, you may end up getting sucked under the obstacle.
Rapids, bends, waterfalls. Avoid crossing near these if possible. Water flows faster in curves and bends. Rapids are full of hidden hazards. Slip near a waterfall and well, you know…
Temperature. A cold mountain stream will numb your legs and feet within a couple of minutes. It can be shocking and cause you to panic. Move as quickly as possible to avoid cramps.
Some thoughts here. Did you know in Maine (other parts of New England as well) a brook is what most of us would call a stream or creek? A stream can be a large creek or what many out west would call a river.
Crossing over on a log
This is challenging if you are afraid of heights. The sound of rushing water just adds to the fear factor. I find it easiest to hold my poles out like a tightrope walker as it provides a bit more balance. One foot in front of the other and keep moving. If you are with others, it may help to carry the pack of the person who is struggling. That 30-40 lb pack lets you know that it’s there. Unbuckle the waist and sternum, loosen the shoulder straps. If you do fall, roll out of the pack to avoid getting pulled under.
Crossing on rocks, boulders
Choose your stones wisely. Most rock crossings are on shallow streams and creeks. I often use my poles for more stability and have slipped off many rocks. Your best tool here is a pair of hiking shoes with sticky soles like the Camp Four 5-10’s. Avoid moss-covered ones and test to see if the rocks are wobbly. Boulder hopping with a full pack is tricky. Lean to far and you’re going in. Believe me, I know.
While I’ve done a few, it’s a bit sketchy. Always use a headlamp and test the water depth with your hiking poles.
Equipment: You really don’t need much, but here are some ideas.
Water shoes – A good pair of waterproof shoes provides traction and forms a barrier between your feet and a rocky bottom. Hiking shoes with good soles for rock hopping.
Trekking poles – Gives you that third or fourth leg for added stability. Also can be used to pull you out if you fall.
Paracord – If you need to fasten it to your buddy, it can provide some assurance.
Extra socks – It’s no fun to hike in wet socks.
My hardest water crossing was an unplanned one. On a beach hike, my wife and I crossed a tidal inlet to a lagoon at low tide. On our return, the tide was rushing in and the 10 foot crossing at 1 foot deep became a 50 ft. wide crossing up to our shoulders. We put our daypacks above our heads, locked arms and barely made it across. Before and during the crossing, I briefed her what to do if we lost our footing. Fortunately, the current was coming into the lagoon. If the current had been going out, I doubt we would have risked it.
We’ve run across many solo hikers in the backcountry where there are an abundance of water crossings. It’s all the more important to understand the hazards when you are alone. Find the safest place to cross and never cross at night when you’re alone, it’s just not worth it.
Some final thoughts. Hike long enough and you will have to cross water. With the proper gear and techniques, it’s just mind over matter.
The title should really have peaked your interest. How does a husband convince their wife to do anything? As we say in the military – here’s the Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF): It takes time.
Most things worthwhile take some effort. Typical of our manly ways, we tend to go for the gusto – straight away. Backcountry, or multi-day hikes take a bit of planning especially for someone who has never been. Specifically on the backcountry hiking, it’s easier when you live in an area that is conducive to camping and hiking. Either that or you have enough time and money to vacation in beautiful wilderness areas.
Living in southern California, we are within a days’ drive of the High Sierras which has made it uber-easy to do this outdoor activity. However, every state in the union has locations for hiking. From the Appalachian to the Continental Divide to the Pacific Crest Trails, including the national and state forests – there are many areas where you can get off the beaten path. Imagine Denali in amazing Alaska, or Waimea State Park on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
For me, I was determined to do an outdoor activity with my wife that we could enjoy together. We started by day hiking. I bought a book on trails within San Diego County and we began going out on Saturdays. We would pack a lunch and make a day of it. The more secluded, the better. Eventually, the hikes got longer with more elevation change. While flat terrain is a good break, the challenge of a good cardio workout made it more than a walk in the woods.
We would mix up mountain hiking with desert treks as the seasons allowed. We developed a love of the outdoors and an appreciation for the creation. As believers, we observed God’s handiwork in the land and His animals. We also enjoyed each others’ company as we took breaks and drove to/from our hikes. The time in the car is a great time to talk about your marriage – and life.
You really don’t have to be equals as far as physical conditioning. In our case, she kicks my butt on the trail. However, consider the physical condition of your spouse. Start out with easy, short hikes and make a date out of it. It helps to start out with a trek that has awesome scenery. End with a sunset and/or dinner at a new café. We’ve discovered some decent eateries while out on the road. We also established a tradition of celebrating with a cup of hot tea after reaching each summit.
There were times when I pushed us too hard or it was too hot, but we learned from our mistakes. Once, we were almost swept into a lagoon in a rushing tidal inlet. We often share that story with others and always laugh. Another time, we got off track on a snow-covered mountain in the Sierras and bushwhacked for a couple of hours. Every year, there are new stories to share.
Day hiking presented an opportunity to do some camping. We eventually combined car camping with some hikes. If your spouse hasn’t camped before, car camping is a great intro. It allows for conveniences like coolers, chairs and bathrooms. If your kids are grown, go to campgrounds when school is in session. Much less crowded….
During this time, we also visited epic locations like Yosemite. Some places just leave you yearning for more. The Sierras are this way. I imagine the Rockies and so many other areas are similar. Eventually, we did a 3 day backcountry trip to the highest peak in our area – San Gorgonio. It was difficult, but rewarding. It really proved that she could hike in the backcountry with a full pack and sleep in the wilderness. We still laugh about being awakened at midnight by the spotlight of a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s helicopter looking for a lost hiker. Wilderness hiking builds memories.
I won’t exaggerate, it took a few years to get my wife into the backcountry on an extended trip. We worked up to it. I made sure that her needs were taken care of and that she felt safe. I gradually built up trust and gained some knowledge on our wilderness treks. Over the years, We’ve been lost a few times, but a handy GPS and some map skills would get us back on track.
I really could have made this blog a lot shorter by stating that backcountry hiking with your spouse (or significant other) isn’t going to happen quickly. Start out with day hikes, progress to car camping and do a short backcountry trip that has awesome scenery. “Now you’re cooking with peanut oil” Phil Robertson-Duck Dynasty, A&E.
After much preparation, our section hike of the JMT commenced. Our plan was to do a 60+ mile section from south-north. We would start around Devils Postpile and finish in Yosemite Valley. There are a lot of logistics that go into an extended backcountry trip. From clothing, food, transportation – the options are numerous.
How much will it cost? It will vary widely depending on your choices for transportation, gear and food. Don’t go cheap on essential hiking gear. You get what you pay for. The $25 tent is not a good idea for a High Sierra backcountry trip.
It started with choosing a time of year to do it. In the Sierras, the previous winter has a lot of impact on trail conditions. This year was a low snow year, so the streams were not very high. Since there was less snow, that usually means less standing water so mosquitos should not be as bad. Well, that’s debatable. To some, any mosquitos are bad. Ensure that you don’t have problems fording streams or walking across logs over rushing water. Late June/early July worked for us. I hear late August/early September is a good time.
Next choice was the distance to hike. This is where you need to know what your limits are. Can you hike 8-10 miles per day with a full pack at high altitude in 80 degree temps? I can tell you as an avid day hiker, there is a lot of difference between hiking 10 miles with a daypack and with a 40 lb. pack. It’s not pleasant to do a forced march just to make your mileage.
Clothing was another choice. What to wear? Best advice I can give is to check blogs and user groups to see what others are doing. Yahoo has a great JMT user group with relevant info. Due to a forecast of high temps, we would take synthetic short and long sleeve shirts, convertible pants and rain/wind jackets. Still, conditions in the Sierras vary widely, so an extra layer or two is a good idea. Those light weight hiking shoes may not provide enough support on a multi-day hike with a full pack. Test it out first.
Food was next. Dehydrated meals are the easiest and they’ve come a long way. Test some out ahead of time and read the reviews for each. There is some amazing innovation in the area of crystallized eggs and pre-cooked bacon. Ensure they you have plenty of snacks like energy bars, trail mix, beef sticks and fruits like apples. My wife found healthy alternatives in the form of grass fed beef sticks and even some gluten free snacks. It’s amazing how many calories you can burn in 6-8 hours of hiking, so do the math. Bear canisters are mandatory in most areas on the JMT, so plan to rent or bring your own.
Transportation. Since we were doing a section hike, we chose to leave our car in Mammoth Lakes, catch a shuttle to the trail and for the return leg, catch public transportation (YARTS) back to Mammoth. It ended up working out great. Have a backup plan in case you miss your ride.
Research and planning was everything on this trip which helped make it successful. I learned so much reading others’ blogs and experiences.
NEXT: John Muir Trail Section Hike – Day 0
I use a Nikon 3000 series camera and have really been pleased with it. It is easy to use and takes awesome pictures. It’s durable and has survived many hiking and camping trips. Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm Non-VR DX Zoom Lenses Bundle
As we prepare for our section hike of the JMT, I am enjoying watching my wife pack, unpack the bear canister. Her frustration mounting, I assure her that it will all fit or we will hang the non-essentials from a tree. Hopefully, by the time we hit Yosemite where bears come to feast, we will have mostly empty bear cans. Whoever created the saying it’s like packing 10 pounds of “stuff” in a 5 pound bag must have invented the bear canister.
The logistics of a section hike in the backcountry are significant. Permits, transportation, food, clothing, checklists, on and on…. Watching her pack, it’s obvious that organized people can get more in their canisters than the rest of us. If you’ve ever crammed a bear canister into an ultralight backpack, you realize that you may be wearing the same clothing all week because it’s either food or clothing.
Keep in mind the pack-it-in, pack-it-out rule. While I agree that we should be good stewards and not leave our trash in the wilderness, it literally stinks to carry your garbage around for a week. I would advise that you rinse out those foil tuna packs after you empty them or your apples will smell like Chicken-of-the-Sea by day three.
Should you pack your bear can with each day’s meals? Like day 5 on the bottom, day 4 above that and so on. I guess if you are OCD then yes. Otherwise, it’s fun finding your food, kind of like the treat in the bottom of a Crackerjack box.
When I got our bear cans, by the way I picked two different types, a Garcia and a Bearvault, I got some reflective tape and made smiley face designs on them. That way, if we need to find a bear can in the dark after Yogi rolls it away, it will be smiling back at us. Along with my phone number, I added a little graffiti like “eat me” and “sorry Yogi” on the reflective tape with a Sharpie. If I have to use those darn things, I will make the best of it.
The old standby canister used by the Park Service: Backpackers’ Cache – Bear Proof Container
BearVault BV500 Bear Proof Container Bear Vault – This one is my favorite, roomy and you can see your stuff.
Always stow your bear canisters between 50-100 ft. away from your tent and wedge them between rocks or trees. Never place them around a cliff or near water unless you plan on fasting for a few days. Enjoy packing them, practice or watch others pack a bear can for cheap entertainment. It’s better than watching Duck Dynasty.
Most of our hiking is in southern California with a desert climate that is arid and dry. From the Colorado Desert in the Anza-Borrego region south to the San Bernardino Mountains, we can go for months without significant precipitation. Water is one thing you can’t scrimp on. The mind plays tricks on you if deprived of this vital liquid, especially since the brain is made up of approximately 75% water.
It’s really important to understand the area that you hike in. On longer day and section hikes, you should know where there are water sources or carry a boatload with you. At over two pounds per liter, it adds up quickly and can make up the bulk of your pack weight. Hydration really is a common sense thing-especially if you’ve ever run out of water. On multi-day and section hikes, it’s a good idea to research trail conditions and water availability. During low snowfall years, many streams are dry by early-mid summer.
How your body loses water
On the trail, the most obvious ways are 1. perspiration (evaporation), 2. breathing-especially if you’re a mouth breather, and 3. urination.
Let’s talk about the symptoms and effects of dehydration on the body first. Dehydration simply put is “deficiency of fluid within an organism” Ha, I like that one. Deficiency is lack of and the organism is your body. When your body lacks the fluid, it’s like running your car with no water in the radiator. You can only go so far before the engine shuts down from overheating. Your body can only go so far because your blood plasma needs water and your organs need the blood.
Symptoms of Dehydration
Dehydration doesn’t occur instantly, there are stages and warning signs along the way. The most obvious symptoms may be thirst, dry mouth, dizziness, headaches and nausea. Urine is a great indicator of your hydration state. Dark or yellow pee is an obvious sign that you need more water. However, in some cases people in a dehydrated state don’t even urinate because there isn’t enough fluid in the body. As your body loses water through dehydration, it can reach a point where it starts taking fluid from the organs, which is a very bad thing.
I am the master of the obvious. Prevent dehydration by taking in more fluids than you lose. If you start out with a deficit, and you exert yourself on a tough hike, you never catch up and put your health at risk. We always try to “tank up” and drink 16-32 oz. of water before a hike. Doctors say it’s always good to start your day that way. The two cups of coffee don’t count either. On the trail, we ward off the thirst by frequently sipping from our water bladders. Drinking a few sips every 5 minutes or so while going uphill barely keeps us ahead of the curve on a hot day. Some people use water bottles like a 32 oz. Nalgene or Camelbak, but use whatever works best. We prefer the 100 oz. Camelbak bladders and I carry a spare liter of water in a bottle.
If you recognize symptoms of dehydration in yourself or a fellow hiker, take a break and drink as much water as is comfortable. Other health issues like heat stress or acute mountain sickness are made worse if you are in a dehydrated state. Remember the car radiator analogy…. Your body regulates itself better when it has plenty of fluids to work with. On a challenging hike, a liter of water lasts me 2-3 miles. Figure out your usage and plan accordingly.
I have used some of the following products for water filtration and highly recommend them:
Sawyer mini-filtration: http://amzn.to/1FDDL48
Katadyn Vario Water Filter: http://amzn.to/1cDgkRd (the absolute best)
Platypus Gravityworks 2L: http://amzn.to/1JtIWee (for several people, good for group camping)
1. You don’t need as much water in the winter time. Actually, you may need more as cool temps provide a false sense of hydration. It’s typically drier in winter and you may lose more through perspiration and respiration.
2. You can get fluids from other drinks like soda, tea. Some beverages actually act as diuretics and can cause increased fluid loss through urination. Water is always best. You can add flavor or add electrolytes if needed. Alcohol and hiking? Niet.
3. I can drink water from that stream. Sure you can. Be prepared to get a classic case of diarrhea due to giardia and cryptosporidium, two bacteria that can probably only be eliminated with antibiotics. You should always filter or treat water from a stream or lake. The animal that pooped upstream just didn’t know any better.
Hiking and good hydration practice go hand-in-hand. Never hit the trail without enough water. Bless you friends, enjoy your walkabout – where ever you are!
P.S. – I often use my Nikon 3300 series camera on the trail. Durable and takes amazing pics. http://amzn.to/1F0F38L
You can usually tell the experienced hikers from the rookies on the trail. With only 3 years of hiking under my belt, I’m no longer a rookie you see, I’ve moved up to a novice. Not that I don’t make rookie mistakes on the trail now and then. Like the time I almost lit my friend’s JetBoil with the little foam koozie thing still on. Man, I might dedicate one of my future blogs to my rookie mistakes.
So back to the subject at hand – hiking or trekking poles. Almost every seasoned hiker uses them. Early on in hiking, it was with a single pole. Not sure why I started using one. One pole was ok, but it didn’t seem to make much difference. Either that or I wasn’t using it properly. After some research, it became obvious that I could have gotten by with less knee pain with two poles.
Most people will tell you that they use poles to lessen the impact on the knees. The knee is an amazing feat of design by our creator. It absorbs repeated pounding and tremendous weight over and over. The compressive force exerted on the knee going downhill is significant. One study revealed that the typical runner’s knee absorbed between 2-4 times the bodies’ weight. for a 150 lb hiker, that’s approximately 500 lbs each time! The average person’s stride is 2.5 ft. So, in a 10 mile hike, you take roughly 20,000 steps. So here’s some numbers that will blow you away. That’s over 10,000,000 pounds of force or 5,000 tons absorbed by your knees on this particular hike. Good golly, check my math on that one. No wonder my knees ache sometimes. Supposedly, a 1999 Journal of Sports Medicine study revealed that used properly, poles reduce the stress to the knees by up to 25%.
I bought my single trekking pole a partner and that’s when the benefits became obvious. With two poles, I developed better balance going downhill, didn’t slip as much, moved faster and even learned how to “spider” with them. Yes, I know arachnids have eight legs, but someone came up with the name for the technique. The poles even gave this boy some rhythm, where there was none before.
One of the reasons I took up hiking was to get some exercise. Using the same math as before, imagine lifting your trekking poles even 5,000 times on a hike. At an average of 10 ounces each, that’s over 3,700 lbs of lifting. Wow, who needs a Nordic Track? Back to the balance discussion – poles provide the stability when carrying a heavy pack on those extended backcountry trips. They are invaluable when you have to ford those fast-moving streams. Think about it, having 3 points on the ground at all times when crossing over those slippery rocks.
There are times when poles are a nuisance or even a hindrance. Bouldering or rock scrambling is not the time to be using your poles. Hand over hand climbing or bushwhacking through dense vegetation may be some other situations where they are best left strapped to your pack. Lash them down and stow them with the tips down to avoid skewering yourself in the neck or head.
If weight is an issue, then shelling out the money for lighter high-tech carbon poles may be for you. Expect to spend $150 or more for those. I remember a time on the A.T. where we ran into a fellow with 1 – 1/2 carbon fiber poles. We saw the other half of his pole 20 miles later in a swamp with thigh deep mud. The brittle carbon fiber pole was no match for the Maine muck. On the other hand, my $25 aluminum poles were going strong 200 miles later. Even something as simple as this comes with accessories. Rubber tips are more eco-friendly, mud and snow baskets will keep them from sinking down. Some have compasses and thermometers built into the handle. Handles are typically plastic, rubber, or even cork, with straps to prevent flinging them over the ledge when you point out the awesome scenery or mountain lion. I prefer cork handles since it is comfortable and doesn’t cause as much sweating.
Some other uses for trekking poles:
– The make great spears for self-defense.
– You can wrap duct tape around the shaft which can be used in emergencies.
– You can make a huge cross symbol for those trail vampires
– Use them to make noise so that you don’t sneak up on a bear or to scare away mountain lions. No, really.
– Sword fights or fencing around the campfire. Rubber tips on of course. 🙂
So, like anything else in hiking gear, you get what you pay for. If you’re not sure about the need for poles, borrow some from a friend or spend a small amount on an entry-level set. Your knees will thank you.
You ever heard of the adage “you can learn something new everyday”? Well, maybe it’s not an adage, but it should be. A couple of years ago, some young Marines taught me a valuable lesson on a backcountry hike. The lesson was one that I’ve taken to heart. Disclaimer: The observations that follow are based on my experiences and are not medical advice.
When you think about which part of your body takes the most abuse on the trail, what comes to mind? For me it is the feet. Your tootsies can really take a beating out there. If you’ve been hiking for a while, you have probably suffered from some of the maladies that I’ll discuss. My first cardinal sin of hiking was buying shoes that fit. In other words, I got boots the same size as my everyday shoes. They worked great on short hikes on varied terrain. However, my week of hiking in Yosemite demonstrated the flaw to my thinking. After a long hike, the downhill stretch hurt my toes. You see, the feet can swell and the arches tend to flatten a bit on long hikes. The result can be a foot that is up to one size larger than normal. Since the toes have nowhere to go, they bang up against the toe box in your boot. The result may take a few days, but the toenails turn black and blue and eventually fall off. Lesson Learned – Buy hiking shoes/boots that are at least 1/2 to 1 size larger than normal. You can make up the difference with thicker socks.
Blisters, unavoidable – right? Not always. While the primary cause of blisters is friction, moisture (sweat) is a key contributing factor. Reduce the rubbing and moisture and you will typically get less blisters. After your toes, the heels take the most abuse on your feet. You can reduce heel rubbing by a shoe that fits well. You can also use a lubricant made especially for runners which is somewhat effective. Shoes that are too wide in the back allow for excessive movement and will rub those seven layers of skin off by lunchtime. Some tips to reduce moisture – use synthetic sock liners followed by the appropriate thickness of wool socks. The merino wool works well for me. Together, these socks wick away moisture where it has a chance to evaporate. Lastly, as far as blisters go, dirt in your shoe – it is an abrasive that increases the risk of blisters. The solution is to pick up some gaiters to slip over your shoes. There are many varieties from simple synthetic pullover to heavy-duty trail blazers that resist cactus. They do a great job at keeping debris out of your shoes.
By far, the most comforting thing that you can do on extended treks is to occasionally stop and take your shoes and socks off. This is especially true on those warmer hikes, but the feet perspire on those winter hikes due to the thicker socks. A 5 minute break cooling your jets will go a long way in warding of those blisters. Massaging the bottom and ball of your feet is very therapeutic. Be careful, as I’ve read of hikers losing a boot over a cliff. Can you imagine hiking out in your socks?
On extended backcountry trips, it is imperative that you baby those feet at the end of the day. I usually break out the wet or antiseptic wipes and give my feet a good cleaning. It’s always a good idea to apply some triple antibiotic ointment to any open blisters or abrasions. It is possible to get an infection from an open blister or raw area on your feet within days, especially if you fiord a few streams. Afterwards, I’ll rub some foot lotion or ointment (like Gold Bond or Kerasal) to moisturize, before putting on a clean pair of socks at bedtime. Your feet will appreciate it and the socks will keep your feet comfy. Like many of you, I’ve logged hundreds of trail miles on these feet and they haven’t failed me yet. Take care of them and you’ll be amazed where they can take you. 🙂
Do you remember the first time you hiked in the dark? Was it unplanned? Many, if not most of our day hikes end up at dusk or near dark – mainly because we frequently start late. We do it to avoid crowds on our local/regional day hikes. Having done a few backcountry trips, I can tell you that we try to finish before dark. However, there was this one backcountry trip……
The allure of the Appalachian trail was enough for me to fly out to the east coast from sunny San Diego. While hiking the entire A.T. is a dream, my friend and I would settle for a 7-8 day section hike. Decidedly, we would make this interesting and hike one of the hardest sections of the trail-The Maine 100 Mile Wilderness. In previous blogs, I’ve written how it was the one of my greatest challenges. This section of the trail was unforgiving. At 12 miles per day, we could easily make it out in time. A miscalculation of the terrain caused us to fall behind schedule. Well, my friend was doing fine. At half my age and a Marine, he was like a darn gazelle on the African plain. We had to make it out by a certain day to meet family and for me to catch a flight home. Anyhow, by the end of the first day, I experienced night hiking with a full, no – overloaded backpack.
I learned many things on that trip. Mainly, if you bite off more than you can chew on a backcountry trip, you just suck it up and go with it. The first night hike wasn’t extreme by any means, just different. As night fell, I broke out the headlamp and concentrated on the trail beneath my feet, occasionally looking up front for my friend – who must have had built-in night vision, because he wasn’t using a headlamp. I was starting to think that the government must have put night vision implants in their Marines, but as I would learn later, your eyes will adjust to the dark with pretty good acuity. Fortunately, after a couple of hours we stumbled on an empty campsite and settled in using our headlamps. Sleep came quickly after a long day on the trail.
With each passing day and night, the novelty of nocturnal trekking wore off and at times became drudgery. Much of the trail in the Maine Wilderness is composed of obstacles. For the duration of the 100 miles, every other step seemed like I was stepping on a tree root. Navigating a trail made of roots with the 40lb pack was tough. Even with my acquired “trail legs”, the root jumping ritual gets old quickly. By the way, the A.T. is fairly well-marked with the white blazes on the trees or rocks every 100-200 ft. – during the day that is. At night, the supposedly bright blazes get absorbed by the darkness. Often, my partner would hike ahead to find a campsite and I would trudge along through the darkest forest east of the Mississippi. I was usually so tired, that I didn’t give the darkness much thought. Thinking back, it was probably downright spooky. In Maine, the forest canopy is so thick that you don’t see many stars at night. Sometimes, the trail is only 2-3 ft. wide and the forest so thick and dark that it seemed to close in on me.
Did I mention that a good portion of the A.T. in Maine is built out of logs and cut lumber? The trail is often surrounded by water and much of it passes through creeks, streams and swamps. The “bridges”, many of them built by the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, provide a way to navigate these watery areas. At night, the bridges seem narrow, loose and rickety. One slip and you could end up knee-deep in muck. Looking back, I can’t say that it was enjoyable. Fortunately, the swamps in Maine are not home to anacondas or gators. But, as you make your way over these logs late at night, don’t let your imagination wander too far. Occasionally, I would stop and scan the swamp with my headlamp, hoping that I would not see a pair of green eyes looking back at me.
On one night, I was in a particularly thick part of the forest near Joe-Mary Lake and lost the trail. My friend was probably 15 minutes or so ahead of me scouting out the campsite as usual. For a minute, panic set in as I couldn’t see the next blaze. I gathered my wits and focused on what appeared to be the trail and scanned the trees and rocks with my headlamp. A faint blaze appeared 50 ft. ahead on a tree. Was it a blaze or a faded piece of bark? Eventually, the trail became more apparent and 20 minutes later, I would find my friend setting up our home for the evening.
Summertime brings out the bugs on the trail and they love lights. One night, we were taking a break on a boulder and we had our lamps on. We scanned the area around us and saw something moving about 20 ft. away. Suddenly, it flew at us and thumped my friend in the head, me in the chest. It was the largest iridescent moth ever. It continued to dive bomb us and we would run away screaming until we realized that we just needed to turn our lights off. After sneaking away in the dark, we would turn our headlamps on hoping that Mothra was long gone. As the adrenaline faded, we continued to be hounded by smaller moths until we made camp.
By the 6th or 7th night, we would be putting in 12+ hour days and able to hike well into the darkness without headlamps. You really do gain confidence and your eyes seem to gather in every bit of light possible. We even braved a river crossing at night. Fortunately, the water was only to our knees so it wasn’t too bad.
Near the end of this trip, I was a seasoned night hiker. Did I enjoy it? No, not really, it was done out of necessity. On the A.T., the “green tunnel” really makes the night seem darker. I never realized how pitch black it gets in the woods. I think it comes from just being a city dweller. However, many thru-hikers absolutely enjoy night hiking and can knock down some serious mileage. Is it risky? Yes, you just have to know what the acceptable risk is.
Some tips for night hiking, based on my limited experience:
– Have a backup headlamp or flashlight, plus spare batteries
– Know the terrain and assess the risks of hiking in the dark.
– Water crossings at night can be dangerous. Have an idea how deep the water is. Always loosen or unbuckle your backpack straps.
– If you lose the trail, stop and gather your wits. No need to panic. GPS works in the dark too.
– Don’t let your imagination wander too far. You probably aren’t surrounded by alligators.
– When moths attack, turn off your light
I will do night hiking again, perhaps next time it will be under the wide open sky of the John Muir Trail. 🙂 Hike your own hike my friends, and don’t forget the headlamp.
The last series of blogs journaled a trip from last year that helped me realize we often set limits on what we can do. Thinking back, there were several times that I wanted to shoot up the red star cluster and give up. The reward for persevering was scenery that will never be forgotten, camaraderie with others and an appreciation for our natural parks. The 5 day trip raised the bar for me as far as physical challenges.
Too frequently, we get caught up in the rat race, you know the requirement to put food on the table and survive. Backpacking has become a release. A release in the sense that the cares of the world seem far away when you are miles away from the nearest road. Understand, as a believer in Christ, I have a firm foundation on where my hope is. It is not in our government, nor any other person, place or thing. My hope rests in Him and what He has done for us. The salvation offered through grace, is all-sufficient. Backcountry hiking for me is an opportunity to reflect and appreciate the majesty of his creation.
There is something neat about carrying everything that you need to survive on your back. Others, the minimalist backpackers, learn to survive with even less stuff. It makes sense after I carried an extra 15 pounds all week. I noticed that once you get home after spending a week on the trail it becomes apparent how much stuff you have. Needless stuff in boxes or in closets. Things that you haven’t worn in a year or junk that takes up space. The gypsies of old had it right. Take what you can carry.
Ten Lakes area, Yosemite
It doesn’t matter where you live. We just happen to live in an area where it is easy to get out and experience the adventure. Just ask my family, wherever we have lived or traveled – we have gotten out. From the beaches in Nags Head, NC to Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon or a huge boulder field in the Lehigh Valley, Pa. Whether it’s the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, or the Rockies – just go.
I need to spend more time in the backcountry. Maybe it will help me get rid of stuff.