Camping and backpacking – and back again. Our adventurous scribe unveils all—just in time for summer
I’m writing this from inside my tent. I managed to erect it just as the first sprinkles started, and now it’s steadily raining. It’s a new tent, and so far has no leaks. Fingers crossed there.
Bringing this laptop is fairly indulgent, weight-wise, on a backpacking trip. Same with my wilderness survival books. But I knew this weekend was going to be rainy, and my original hike would likely be too hazardous when wet, so I picked an easier destination and figured I could deal with a little extra weight.
Pack weight is one of those things backpackers pay a lot of attention to. Once you’ve spent a day hiking with the weight of all your essentials on your back, you start to reassess just what essentials really are essential. The challenge is to put together a miniature version of your material world without going overboard. Your car is now your boots, your bedroom is a tent, and your kitchen is a small stove. Your power grid is a few batteries and your septic system is a digging stick. The Internet is now a cheap paperback, possibly torn along the binding if you don’t think you can finish it on this trip. You have to make a list of everything you want, and a smaller list of things you need, and an even smaller list of things you really need. Backpacking is a great activity for people who like to make lists.
My typical load when departing for a four-day Sierra trip is around 32 pounds, excluding water. There are people who get down to below half of that, ultralight enthusiasts who think they’re all bad-ass because they can get by without the things wimpier campers think they need. And then there are the human oxen with 60-pound packs who think they’re all bad-ass because they deprive themselves of nothing. To each his own, I say. But I find it mildly irritating that whenever a band of ultralight types passes through my camp they always want to borrow something. For instance, last fall a pair of guys came scrambling down a ridge in Yosemite with what looked like day packs, lost and wanting to see my map. In a crazy bid to lose mere grams of weight, they’d cut their map down to only include the exact area they expected to be in, and had wandered off its edges. In contrast, one of those monster pack guys once brought me a beer while I was fishing. It was just a dented, warmish Bud, but its value and flavor was enhanced by being served 12 miles from the nearest road. And he showed me a neat trick— save the last of the beer, cut off the top of the can, add a little seasoning, drop in a trout (cut to fit), bend the top of the can to fit somewhat snug on top again, and poach that bad boy on the spot. Granted, these heavy haulers of the woods can’t go as far or as fast as the minimalists, but they do seem to enjoy themselves more.
I shave ounces and pounds where I can, but I don’t go nuts snipping the extra inches off my shoelaces and trimming toothbrush bristles. I can buy slightly lighter, and much more expensive, versions of all my gear at REI, but at this point the best way I could lose 15 pounds is to eat less. Unless REI has a back room offering liposuction, and I wouldn’t put it past them, it’s a pretty clever company.
Besides, compared to the backpacking gear I used as a kid, in that age of canvas packs and tents and cotton-filled sleeping bags and unpadded waist belts, my pack feels like a pillow partly suspended by angels. Paradoxically, after doing all we can to lighten our loads, backpackers will often throw in a luxury item or two to share with companions. I might bring some boxed wine, a fresh tomato, or some canned peaches. These things always make a nice surprise when busted out with a smirk on day three, but make sure the cost to your friends hasn’t been days of listening to you bitch about your heavy pack.
For tonight, I surprised myself with a nice hamburger, and it’s still warm, and the smell is filling the small space of my tent as the rain makes little tic sounds on the taut nylon rainfly. If only I had a cold beer … But wait … aha! How did that IPA get in there? That’s so thoughtful; I love that about me.
For me, backpacking is partly a way to connect, in some minor way, to my lifelong fascination with survival stories. I love all those variations on Robinson Crusoe, where somebody is alone so long they construct a whole homestead. And I’m also drawn to the get-me-the-hell-out-of-here-alive stories, my favorite being that of Antarctic explorer Earnest Shackleton. I can never resist a survival training manual, especially old ones. Some are more practical than others. It’s interesting to see how one might catch, skin and eat a squirrel, but you’d burn far more calories catching it than you’d gain unless you’re a squirrel whisperer, luring them into a large pot. Sitting at my campsite sipping coffee, I’ll mentally test my abilities. Have I got the skills and intestinal fortitude to make do for a month or more if my pack was carried off by wolves? Can I start a fire without matches? Where would I build a shelter? How many squirrels does it take to make a rawhide coat? Could I weave a warm hat from my own hair?
My typical load when departing for a four-day Sierra trip is around 32 pounds, excluding water. There are people who get down to below half of that, ultralight enthusiasts who think they’re all bad-ass …. and then there are the human oxen with 60-pound packs …
I’ve also brought, as I always do, a small notebook I take on trips to track important information, like which songs have gotten stuck in my head. I have a real problem with that kind of thing. My hiking gait creates a tempo, and that reminds me of a song, and then the song plays in my head. Well, not the whole song, unfortunately, just a little part of it, looping over and over. It goes away if I stop walking for a while, but my companions usually aren’t willing to set up camp in the dark just because I get songs like “Dream a Little Dream of Me” stuck in my head. For some reason, writing it down often makes it go away. Reading now from one trip in Emigrant Wilderness, I was stuck with such trail hits as “All Day and All of the Night,” “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” and “Minnie the Moocher,” all before lunch. If things get really bad I have to hose the song out with fresh music from my tiny emergency iPod. I try to keep the earbuds inconspicuous; some people get very up in arms about electronics in the wilderness. iPods seem to represent everything they’re trying to get away from. Meh. Purists. Lighten up. You hike two miles humming “Here comes Santa Claus” in August and see how you feel.
Me, I conserve my haughty wrath for those who diminish the wilderness experience for others. A leave no trace ethos preserves for others the sense of isolation that attracts us to the wilderness in the first place, so I’m often shocked to see toilet paper alongside a trail, litter in a fire pit, and fishing line tangled in bushes. I see people tramping through sensitive meadows, building huge fires in areas nearly stripped of firewood, and using shampoo and dish soap in a lake. The worst of them make too much noise, make no effort to camp out of sight, and let their dogs bark all day. I fight the assumption that they know the right thing to do and are being defiantly arrogant about it, but I have to remember they might just be ignorant. Maybe with a few more nights out there they’d start to figure out that maybe the soap scum on the edge of the lake is a bad thing.
Worse, there are people who are simply unprepared to be out there and run a high risk of needing to be rescued by somebody who’s going to have to abort their planned trip. I know some search-and-rescue volunteers, and their stories often end with the same summary of their quarry: What an idiot. I’ve needed help from other hikers in the mountains before, and I’ve given it, too. That’s what people do, right? But it’s a mistake to believe that others are going to make up for your mistakes, particularly if there’s nobody around when you need them.
It’s dark now. There’s a vague smell of skunk outside, and I just heard a scratching noise on the side of the tent. Oh yeah, that’s why they say don’t eat in the tent. Now, interesting problem: how much noise do you need to make to scare off a skunk? Too little, and they keep coming closer. Too much, and they get startled and blast you. I move my sleeping bag a little, making that little shhh sound when nylon rubs nylon, and it scampers off. That’s unusual, I normally think I hear animals outside at night.
Many people don’t sleep so well in the wilderness, particularly the first night. It’s a big change in routine, it’s not all that comfy, and if you’re concerned about the creatures of the night, particularly bears, it’s hard to fully tune out the little noises outside. The imagination is a freaky organ; it can turn the softest rustle of leaves into the approach of a yeti. Yawn … OK I’m finally tired enough that my inch-thick pad is starting to look as appealing as a real bed, so I’m turning in.
Next morning: It’s still raining, not typical for early June, and my brand new tent passed the test. It’s not safe to cook in a tent, so it looks like my breakfast will be the stuff I usually eat for lunch. Nuts, cheese, crackers, and fig bars are pulled from their Ziploc bags (backpacking is all about Ziploc bags—they’re waterproof, light, and see-through). And washed down with some water with dehydrated iced tea mix. Later, for lunch, I’ll cook and eat the oatmeal if there’s a break in the weather. You’ve got to be flexible when the going gets tough.
This is my first trip of the season, and the winter was long enough for me to forget about the little annoyances and inconveniences of backpacking, though they’re dutifully listed in my journal: Trails ground to fine dust by pack animals that seem to only poop on uphill, sunny sections of the trail. Tiny insects with gigantic teeth. Soreness. Squeaky boots and packs. An utter lack of couches.
I don’t mean to scare anybody away from taking up backpacking, but it’s tempting. The wilderness is too crowded already. But I can tell you’re cool, so I’ll say that backpacking is a relatively easy way to get away from it all, physically and spiritually. It takes some time and effort to learn about how to choose equipment, plan meals, use a map, and deal with emergencies, and the book I recommend to beginners is the Sierra Club’s classic guide “Walking Softly in the Wilderness.” Once you’ve got a good overview, head out there with somebody who knows what they’re doing. Before you know it you’ll be sitting around the fire arguing about the best way to do things, a classic camp activity.
Amazing trips can be planned that accommodate a wide range of physical abilities, and the start-up cost is significantly lower than any vacation involving planes and hotels. As a bonus, all that gear may serve you well in an emergency situation. After an earthquake, your water filter and little stove may come in handy. Or, when the zombies come, you’ll be able to flee to the woods while the urbanites are under attack (Don’t take Spam, zombies can smell it for miles).
Backpacking demonstrates how little you really need to get by. And when you get back you’ll be grateful for things you take for granted but are actually quite luxurious, most of which involve furniture, plumbing, and fresh food.
My hiking journal does read like a catalogue of the challenges of backpacking, but it’s also about solutions. The part of me that loved Gilligan’s Island so much as a kid also loves the idea of overcoming adversity with creativity, and the journal is full of recommendations, inventions, and things to add to the packing list for next time. Recent improvements include super-lightweight nylon pants for trails covered in poison oak, soft earplugs to minimize yeti-made wakeup calls, a tiny tube of silicone for squeaks, reflective tape on my bear-proof food container so I can find it in the dark after Yogi kicks it down the hill trying to open it, a mini LED light on my tent to help me find it after I’ve wandered off to stargaze, a black trash bag for a solar water heater, and a two-ounce piece of ripstop I can use with scrounged sticks to fashion a kind of hammock chair. Hey, it’s not “Swiss Family Robinson,” but it’s not “Lord of the Flies” either.
The rain is tapering off, and it’s time to pack up and get out of here. First, though, I could use a quick dip in the hot tub. Sleeping on the lawn makes a guy stiff. It was nice of my friends Jenna and Gavin to let me use their yard to test out my new gear, but next weekend is looking sunny and I’ll be back to Plan A, hiking high up in the Ventana Wilderness, always a good place to go while waiting for the snow to melt in the Sierra. After years of backpacking, I know where all the best places in California are, even that secret place you know about. Don’t believe me? Just email the specific location to me and I’ll let you know if I’ve been there. If not, I’ll send you the secret of the hammock chair for your trouble.
See you on the trail. I’m always happy to stop and chat, if only to get the song “Teddy Bear’s Picnic” out of my head.
Trip Tips . . .
Next time you order take-out or go to your local fast food place. Save those little packets of mustard, ketchup, soy sauce, or vinegar. They are great for adding to freeze-dried food.
Stuff lint from your dryer into the compartments of a paper egg carton. Melt candle wax and pour a thin layer over the lint and let it set. To use break up the sections and light. Depending on the mixture this will burn from five to 15 minutes.
Wear Proper Footwear: Invest in a good pair of hiking boots. Your feet have to get you in and out again.
The Axl Rose
Bandanas: These are very versatile. They can keep the sweat out of your eyes. Used as a sling or bandage, they prevent sunburn, fend off bugs, or can be used as a potholder. Take two with you, you’ll be glad you did.
Reflective tape on my bear-proof food container so I can find it in the dark after Yogi kicks it down the hill.
Super-lightweight nylon pants for trails covered in poison oak.
Soft earplugs to minimize yeti-made wakeup calls.
A mini LED light on my tent to help me find it after I’ve wandered off to stargaze.