A Fretful Hiker Rediscovers Backpacking's Aches and Gains
By Debra Jones
Lake Genevieve, in the Sierra's Desolation Wilderness
I have a confession: Even after working for the Sierra Club and other environmental groups for a decade, I hadn't been backpacking since my teens, some 30 years ago, and my sweetheart, Bob, never had.
We weren't alone. National Park Service statistics show that backcountry camping visits declined from 2.4 million in 1994 to 1.7 million in 2007; backpackers now make up less than one percent of our able-bodied populace.
But the citified masses don't have my job, which means they don't have to work with alpinists who sashay up Himalayan peaks and regard rehydrated Stroganoff as a delicacy. So, to stop coworkers from mocking my fetish for clean sheets, and to prove that an old goat can relearn forgotten tricks, I set off to be rechristened in the wilderness.
Don't get me wrong. I love the outdoors; my sanity hinges on runs and hikes through the forested hills near my home, and on vacations Bob and I inevitably gravitate to national parks. Problem is, I tend to worry, and the wilderness swarms with things to worry about. I'd heard too many stories of clueless hikers who'd died after heading into the mountains with great Brie but no foul-weather gear, and these tales inflamed my anxious tendencies like propane on a campfire. What do I bring in case the weather changes or skeeters attack or I go flailing down a ravine? Where do I find drinkable water? What if I get lost? And how, I brooded, would my middle-age back fare without a pillow-top mattress?
An Internet search yielded scores of survivalist boot camps promising to help me rekindle long-lost instincts for tracking animals and grubbing roots. My needs were more genteel, like avoiding such numskull moves as pitching a tent on an anthill or in a flash-flood zone. So I took a weekend of classes from Becoming an Outdoors Woman (BOW), a nationwide program teaching basic camping and wilderness-survival skills.
Now I was primed to flex my BOW muscles--even though I still worried that the strain of a backpack would sap the fun out of any mountain adventure. I beefed up my exercise regimen and began researching maps and trail descriptions, seeking a route with neither a death-march climb nor hordes of like-minded hikers. I pored over wilderness-area rules and struggled to get through campsite-reservation lines to overworked rangers.
After countless conversations about gear, survival skills, and possible routes, Bob teased: "You have more frets than a guitar." I shrugged and headed to REI.
"You have perfect hips," the grizzled staffer said while fitting me for a backpack. Standing taller, freshly enthused, I flashed a big smile. "If you were my old lady," he continued, "I'd have you carrying all the weight." Seems he had been referring to the perfect load-bearing width of my hips. Men, on the other hand, cursed with scrawny haunches, are forced to literally shoulder the weight. Despite this new bit of information, I managed to persuade my chivalrous partner that his studly six-foot frame could lug more weight than could my girlish physique.
In an attempt to become wedded to the outdoors, we assembled our equipment: something old (well-worn boots and a rented backpack and bear canister), something new (a lightweight stove and pots, plus the latest self-inflating pad and trekker chair), something borrowed (another backpack and a sleeping bag), and something blue (a featherweight Adrenaline 20-degree sleeping bag GoLite had sent me to evaluate). Bob agreed to haul weighty milk and veggies--a rash beginner's decision in hindsight.
We chose an easy hike near Lake Tahoe. The six-mile jaunt into Desolation Wilderness climbs 1,300 feet to a string of granite-backed lakes--a payoff that would be well worth the effort. We could head there after work Wednesday evening, overnight at one of the many lodges, and show up at the permit office early Thursday, before the daily trail quota was filled.
From left: Giddy in a trekker's chair; who needs a GPS?; mastering the art of the one-pot meal; rooms are cozy and cheap at the Hotel Sierra (Wi-Fi not included).
Driving to the trailhead, I'm still dogged by fears that I won't be able to pull my weight. But once we hit the well-marked trail, heading southwest from Lake Tahoe, my nerves evaporate in the 90-degree heat. As I stroll into the wild, Tilley hat shading my face, pack seated comfortably on my "perfect" hips, I settle into a familiar rhythm. Oh yeah, I remember: I know how to do this. I feel my cells perking up, thanking me for taking them back to the woods.
The first mile and a half meanders through an exposed meadow. Just as we start to wilt from the beating sun, we come to the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail, which leads us uphill into welcome forest shade. The grade seems designed for tenderfeet like us, and I savor mixed woodlands, fern-laden glens, and rocky overlooks--terrain that feels like home. Soon the trail parallels Meeks Creek, and we get our first taste of iodine-purified water. Despite recent studies showing that many backcountry intestinal infections may be caused by campers' poor hygiene rather than contaminated water, we aren't taking chances. Before long our ears are tuned to the sound of running water--not just as a pleasant backdrop, but as a necessity--and I realize how hard-wired our appreciation of this must be.
We stop often to rest, take in the views, and dig into the snack pantry on Bob's back. Already food tastes better, as if we've earned every calorie. And even on this short-range venture we rejoice at the sight of Crag Lake, our home for the next two nights. We find a level clearing, and I go through my checklist: no anthills, no dead trees that might crush us in our sleep, no sign of Noah. We quickly pitch our tent (which we'd given a test run in the lodge's parking lot), roll out our pads and bags, and hustle to our next priority before it gets too cold: swimming.
Bob splashes ahead, happily free of his 50-pound pack. I take my time, squirming to balance on granite and tree roots. The water is bracing but pleasant in the warmth of the late-afternoon sun, which ignites sparkles across the rippling surface. Schools of fish inspect my submerged legs. Silt envelops my toes like pudding.
Rejuvenated, I select a massive boulder as our kitchen table--one that's about 200 feet from our tent to keep hungry bears at a distance while we sleep. I'm bowled over by the size of the tiny, collapsible Brunton stove I've agreed to test, and I fire it up using the granite as a windbreak. The stackable pots are big enough to whip up a dinner of pasta, vacuum-packed tuna, and soybeans. Food scraps are animal magnets, so proper portion estimation is vital. To compensate Bob for trucking the food, I volunteer for cleanup duty while he gets a second wind and scampers off with his camera to shoot the sunset. I repack the bear canister, scrub our cookware with sand, and sterilize water from the nearby stream. Chores take longer out here, but the setting makes up for it.
Finally I can just sit and unfret, soothed by the lack of walls. Spruce and fir put on a show, their intricate branching and erect green cones silhouetted in the soft rosy light. Squirrels and chipmunks, more skittish than I'm used to, dart between boulders, offering only glimpses. Then the flying daredevils appear: bats! One, two, then dozens, darting above my head, showing off their bug-gobbling aerobatics.
Just as I start to wonder whether Bob has fallen into a sinkhole, he reappears in his dapper long-johns-and-shorts ensemble. I drag him to a rocky shelf to gape at the full moon looming over the ridge. It's so bright that we cast moon shadows, but Bob spares the local wildlife by cutting me off before I can launch into the Cat Stevens classic. Instead, we compete for goofiest shadow shape, and soon we're dancing around the clearing in our thermals, spotlighted by the moon, until we're laughing so hard we can't move. Exhausted, we crawl into the tent.
The quiet surprises me. I thought we'd be kept awake by a snuffling parade of curious critters. But the forest sounds--whistling birds, even the brush of wind through the branches--fade with the light. I suspect we scared off the living things with our Dancing With the Stars (and Moon) routine. We take a cue from the wildlife and drift into sleep. I'm awakened by a bright light shining in my eyes. A nosy neighbor? Dawn already? Nope. The moon has snuck around the trees, dazzling me through the screen roof until I drop off again.
It's not hard to rise early the next day, between my complaining back and the fact that there was no way I was going to venture into the chilly night for a midnight bathroom break. The painfully slow, clogging coffee filters test my patience, but when I wash my face, my senses click in. I notice a delicate yellow flower inches away. I hear life all around. Chipmunks rustle in the leaf litter. Nuthatches warble nearby, calling across the clearing. After we down a hearty breakfast and add to the buried treasure behind the bathroom boulder, we load sandwiches into a daypack, ready to explore.
But as the heat ratchets up, we decide ambition is overrated. Maybe next time we'll make it to the pass the wilderness ranger suggested. For now, a nearby lake makes a lovely lunch spot. We satisfy our trailblazing urge by testing our map and compass skills, returning via a different route. We discover a pond spiked with reeds, each adorned with a jewel of sunlight. We also learn that our navigation know-how is not up to snuff, and we bushwhack through brush and cross a creek before finding our way back.
The next day, on the trail home, we're feeling chuffed and find ourselves dispensing advice to incoming hikers. After two nights out, I'm ready to share our tips:
Easy does it. Your first backpacking trip should be short to give your gear a reasonable tryout.
Get in shape. It goes without saying that you'll have more fun if you're not in pain while hiking (and if you can still walk the day after making camp). But prepping your two-legged engine needn't be a chore. Load up a daypack and, when possible, walk instead of drive to your destinations. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. And be sure to break in your boots before trusting them on a multiday trek.
Learn outdoor skills. Before you set out, practice navigating with a topo map and compass. On the trail, fold your map to the section you'll be hiking--you'll be much more likely to refer to it and therefore less likely to take a wrong turn. Take a basic first aid class, practice a few simple knots so you can erect a crude rope-and-tarp shelter, and learn ways to start a fire to signal for help.
Lighten up. Seize the opportunity to strip down to the basics: food, water, shelter. When we were packing, I couldn't conceive of several days without a change of clothes--or my neck-saving memory-foam pillow. No matter how fresh they are in the morning, clothes will be coated with dust and sweat by midday and then clean again after an afternoon dip in the lake. But do bring a pillowcase--you can stuff it with clothes for a lightweight headrest--and comfy long johns and a beanie for sleeping.
Opt for dried. If allergies don't prevent it, as they did for us, carry food that's dried, not fresh. You will spend a lot more time carrying it than eating it.
Watch your back. If you've got a creaky back, consider bringing an extra sleeping pad--especially if you have bony (albeit "perfect") hips.
Fuel up. The nice kid at the outdoor-gear store assured me that a 3.5-ounce can of stove fuel would be ample, but he was unaware of my morning coffee jones. I made do with cold cereal the last day (because no coffee is not an option).
Stay hydrated. Bring plenty of iodine tablets or water-filtering equipment. We used Potable Aqua's effective flavor-neutralizing pills. (You don't want to feel like the hatless, sweating father and son we met, dragging and thirsty early in their trip.) Water purifiers, which strain nasty microbes, are also a great option.
Be a mooch. Borrow from friends and coworkers. Backpacking gear can be expensive, even to rent, and you'll want to try it out before you invest.
You can poop in the woods. Just bring a light spade to dig a hole six to eight inches deep, at least 200 feet from any water source, and either bury or carry out used toilet paper (regulations vary by location; check the rules for your area before you go).
Debra Jones, Sierra's managing editor, is currently on leave to indulge her travel jones in the Himalayas and Patagonia.
ON THE WEB Becoming an Outdoors Woman offers classes throughout North America. REI has several classroom locations, plus much online advice. The Red Cross gives first aid classes, and Leave No Trace has information about reducing your impact. Sierra Club Outings offers introductory backpacking trips every year, but they fill fast, so register early.
Workshops in the Woods
The 50 attendees at Becoming an Outdoors Woman's Whiskey Mountain Conservation Camp near Dubois, Wyoming, ranged from a Midwestern mom who takes her sons hunting because her husband doesn't like the outdoors to a rookie who received the trip as a Valentine's Day gift. My roommate, a vibrant young grandmother who teaches middle school in Casper, was returning for her third weekend of workshops. One young mom, who spends summers cooking at an Alaskan hunting lodge, wanted to hone her skills after her wilderness guide husband was killed in a car accident.
The classes offer women a safe, fun place to learn without the macho pressure that sometimes surfaces when men are included. It's OK to admit you don't know how to do something, and no one barks at you if you ask how to tie a fly or aim a gun. In two short days, I learned outdoor survival tips and backpacking basics from National Park Service veterans and rugged wilderness experts. I also tried my hand at fly-fishing (don't worry, no fish came close to being harmed in the reporting of this story, though I did manage to catch a few big 'uns--logs and branches, that is) and canoeing. Torrey Creek, which runs through the camp, looks pretty tame from shore, but steer a long, rigid canoe perpendicular to the current, and, well--a big shout-out to Terry for being such a good sport when I unceremoniously dumped us in the drink. Even in June, that mountain water goosebumped us right up. The BOW classes were brimming with helpful tidbits, many of which are mentioned above.
Photos by Robert Ankrum; used with permission.