backpacking

Sierras in Deep Snow

Ignoring the strong warnings of the National Park Service—including my partner, who is a ranger for the Park—I organized an all-women backpacking trip to the Yosemite High Sierras for the weekend of July 4. Normally the Sierras are passable by early July, but record-setting snowpack this past winter meant many areas are still socked in with 6+ feet of snow and ice. Streams that are normally passable by now are violent, uncrossable rivers. Trails aren’t visible. And unfortunately, none of us had any experience backpacking in winter conditions on this scale.

The three of us walked, slid, postholed, stumbled, climbed, and—during one particularly difficult spot—crawled from the Cathedral Trailhead at Tuolumne Meadows to the top of Half Dome and then down to Yosemite Valley over the course of three days. It’s a trip that I believed would be on the easy side of moderate when I first planned it, a trip that would have been fine on a normal year, but which turned into the most physically challenging and dangerous backpacking trip of my life.

I got through it with the help of two brave women backpackers who persevered even in conditions far worse than we could have imagined. I learned a lot about how to cross sun-cupped snowy fields, search for firm footing on snow bridges over rivers, navigate the countless snow dunes of snow-choked forests, and stumble up and skid down icy mountainsides. I learned to find the ghost of footprints among the contours of ice-edged snow, and how to avoid the edges of trees and rocks, where snow collapses.

But more than that, I learned that friends who can keep their heads in a bad situation are the best gear you can possibly take into the backcountry in winter conditions. Well, tied for best with a GPS device and a set of crampons.

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On Solo Backpacking

Sometimes when I talk about backpacking, I pretend I’ve got it figured out. Yep, that’s me: expert backpacker. Ask me anything.

But I’m a huge fake, and the knowledge burns in my throat. Because for all the backpacking I’ve done over the years, I’ve never once in my life spent a night in the woods alone.

Nearly all of my trips to the backcountry have been with my partner. Who is, you know, a certified Wilderness First Responder and a Yosemite ranger. He literally teaches people—including me—how to backpack.

When we’ve backpacked, he tends to pick the route, figure out the resupply plan, consult maps and the weather forecast. He even looks up and identifies flowers and trees we’ll see on the trail, and he’ll provide little anecdotes about how John Muir felt about such-and-such type of pine tree and explain why these flowers don’t grow at lower elevations.

Basically, I’ve coasted along as the less experienced half of a backpacking couple. And it’s been lovely but I know I’m missing something huge. I want to learn what backpacking means to me when I’m totally on my own, when I wake up in the middle of the night in the woods or I’m looking down a stretch of trail I don’t recognize and I know to my bones that there’s nobody around to save me but me.

This summer, I’m leading an all-women crew on a three night backpacking trip in the Yosemite High Sierras which will include—with some luck—ascents up Half Dome and Clouds Rest. I planned to do a quick training trip with a friend last weekend, but a sudden bout of springtime flu meant she had to cancel.

So this was my chance: my first solo backpacking trip.

I picked a route I’ve day-hiked before: Snow Creek. Snow Creek is my favorite climb out of Yosemite Valley. The views are spectatular, and few Yosemite visitors venture up this path. When the Mist Trail and Yosemite Falls are choked with tourists, Snow Creek remains practically empty.

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It’s also the steepest route out of the valley. The trail climbs 2,700 feet over 2.5 miles, and has over 100 switchbacks and sparse shade. It’s an exposed, sunny trail, which means it’s quite warm in the winter and brutal in the summer. I started a few miles away from the trailhead and planned to go a couple miles beyond the top of the switchbacks before I camped, so altogether I was going to hike 6 or 7 miles one direction, spend the night, then retrace my steps in the morning.

Hiking up Snow Creek was fun in a totally masochistic way. Even at 9 AM when I hit the switchbacks, it was hot as a Russian banya and incredibly steep. I’ve lightened my backpacking gear a lot since last year, but with water and a bear cannister and food, I was still hauling over 20 lbs.

The bugs were ferocious. Whenever I found even an inch of shade on the switchbacks, they swarmed in front of my face, divebombing my eyes and ears. I coated my legs and arms with DEET, dabbed it on my neck and ears, but I hate putting it on my face. So instead I twirled a bandana in front of my face occassionally, wishing I brought a head net (even though every time I’ve ever had a head net, I didn’t wear it). I bumped into a baby rattlesnake who found my bandana twirling scary, and we had a bit of a staring contest before he slithered off the side of the trail.

There’s something almost calming about climbing Snow Creek. My body fell into a steady rhythm and I zoned out. I don’t even remember what I was thinking about for most of the trip, only that I was just a couple hundred feet from the top when I suddenly needed to stop and rest for a moment, drink water, look around and feel amazement at the beauty of Half Dome staring back at me from across the Valley.

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I ate lunch at the top of the switchbacks, watching the rushing creek and stretching out in the shade. My shirt was so soaked with sweat that sitting in the shade made me shiver, even though it was over 80 degrees out. Somehow, there were no mosquitoes by this rushing stream, and I stayed in that perfect cozy stretch of dirt by the creek for over an hour.

I finally scooted on a couple more miles until I got to the snowline, and then I set up camp next to a thundering waterfall. Last winter was one of the biggest snowfalls ever recorded in California, and that’s why the high elevation trails are still blanketed by snow. Meltwater has turned Yosemite streams and waterfalls into violent torrents. I found one flat campsite that wasn’t underwater, and set up even though I knew I was too close to the trail. I heated water, ate dinner out of a ziplock bag, and lay on a rock to read by the waterfall.

Years ago, I camped with my dog for a month. Not backpacking, just car camping. And even though I had a brave and somewhat ferocious-looking pit mix to cuddle next to me at night, I occassionally found myself freaked out by rustling outside of the tent at night, by being so far from anyone who knew me. It didn’t help that my mother had told me repeatedly while I was planning the trip that camping for a month was a sure fire way to get raped. (Thanks Mom.) And even though I’m more comfortable in the woods at night now, there have been plenty of times when I’ve backpacked with my partner and stepped out of my tent into the darkness and felt a sudden tension in my belly, a sharp moment of unreasonable and illogical fear.

I set up the tent and crawled in to read around 7 PM, and without realizing it I dozed off and didn’t wake up until almost 9 PM. I crawled out of my tent in the blue and grey twilight to snack and brush my teeth. I wedged my bear cannister tight under a log because the local Snow Creek bear is known for throwing cannisters off cliff edges to break them open. Then I slipped back into my tent and zipped away the outside world.

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I wondered if I’d feel that twinge of fear, if the thought of being completely alone and miles from home in the dark with a curious bear wandering around would make me feel vulnerable. But it didn’t come, and I felt relieved that I wasn’t afraid. Mostly I felt very sleepy, and calm the way I only feel when I’ve been away from my work email long enough for the worries about work to loosen their stranglehold on me.

I slept through the night, and didn’t scramble out into the cold morning until 6 AM when sun was hitting the edge of the tent. I ate quickly, packed up, and hiked down the mountain.

I’ve spent so much time on relationships with other people—with coworkers, with my family, with my partner. I will drop everything I’m doing to help a stranger who calls me on the phone at work. I’m in the process of wedding planning now, and I spend hours wondering how to make dozens of far-flung relations and friends feel comfortable and welcome. But I don’t really spend any time on the relationship with myself.

And honestly, that relationship has always been a little rocky. Somewhat strained and judgemental on a better day, neglectful and resentful on worse days.

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Solo backpacking is like couple’s therapy for the relationship with the self. It’s a way to walk quietly in the woods and practice just being okay. To practice every part of being okay. Not panicked, not anxious, not threatened. Not fearless, determined, generous, or impressive. Just quiet, plaid-shirt, baseball-cap, mud-coated sneakers okay. To find a little piece of my brain that isn’t anything other than fine, and let it stretch out and fill every part of me, and then walk and feel that for a few hours.

And also itchy, because the bugs are so bad this year.

I left my first solo backpacking trip without any great insights or adventures. No emotional highs or lows. Just a few hours with myself and no one else, aware of my own brain and body without any sense of needing to fix or justify anything.

 

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Oh, and here are some photos from the Valley when I got back down, just because.

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Gear Review: 3 Ultralight Backpacks from Gossamer Gear, Hyperlite, and ZPacks

Comparing Gossamer Gear’s Mariposa, Hyperlite’s Windrider 3400, and ZPack’s Arc Haul

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My old Gregory pack, which I bought 6 years ago before my first backpacking trip.

I hate my old Gregory pack, so I’ve been looking to upgrade to a lighter, better fitting pack for a while.

But making the decision about which backpack is so hard.

After hours of research, I ordered three backpacks online and tried them all out.  This article compares the Gossamer Gear Mariposa, the Hyperlight 3400 Windrider, and ZPacks Arc Haul.

Rough stats:

Mariposa: Weight: 32.4 ounces. Volume: 60L. Max carry: 35 lbs.
Windrider: Weight: 33.5 ounces. Volume: 55L. Max carry: 40 lbs.
Arc Haul: Weight: 24 ounces (unconfigured). Volume: 62L. Max carry: 40 lbs.

I tested these packs three ways (since I couldn’t take them backcountry and still return them):

  • With the Bearikade. I used my partner’s Bearikade Expedition—the biggest bear canister we have in the house—and threw 10 pounds of dumbbell weight into it. Then I loaded all my backpacking gear and the Bearikade into the backpack, with a brimming 3L Camelbak. I saw how it all fit, tried it on, and walked around my house for a bit.
  • With a smaller bear canister. I then repeated the exercise with all three backpacks, only replacing the Bearikade with a slightly smaller Garcia.
  • Without a bear canister.  While I do most of my backpacking in the Sierras, I hate the bear canister and occasionally go places where the amazing, lightweight Ursack is allowed. So I tried all three packs again without a bear canister, keeping the 10 pound weights, and all my gear including 3L of water.

Note: 10 lbs is about how much weight I would carry for 6 nights/7 days of food.

Things all these packs had in common:

  • All three packs could handle the Bearikade bear canister and all my gear.
  • All of them were well-constructed and seemed durable.
  • All of them transferred weight to the hips.

More details:

Mariposa

The Mariposa is super cushioned and rests close to the body. The weight balances low, so that there’s no sense of sway from a too-tall pack. The pockets are incredible. First, the hip pockets are a great size for my iPhone, a headlamp, snacks, chapstick, etc. They may even be too huge, as I only use poles on descents and the rest of the time my hands swing by my hips and would likely graze these big awesome pockets. There are a total of 7 external pockets, and they are stretchy and strong and fantastic for organizing.

The Mariposa has a squishy back panel that can be laid on the ground as cushioning for your bum during rests. Alternatively, it’s possible to put a short, folded up sleeping pad here. I’d need to cut my Z Lite sleeping pad to 8 squares, which would be enough for my head, shoulders, back and hips but not my legs. Alternatively, I could find a way to strap my whole sleeping pad to the bottom or outside.

The shoulders of the Mariposa were great for my frame, and the chest strap fell just above my breasts. I felt like this pack had been made with women’s shoulders and chest in mind.

My problem with the Mariposa was actually in how cushy it is. The wide belt felt like it would trap in heat and sweat. When I get too hot on long, midday hikes, I often find myself getting nauseous. The first thing I do in those circumstances is unhitch my hip belt, and sometimes I’ll put a damp bandana against my stomach to cool off my body. I was worried this hip belt, while cozy, might actually trap in too much heat.

Here’s me on the top of Mt. Elbert, hip strap off because of nausea:img_2720

I also worry about the back padding. The pack is comfortable and rests softly against my back with a wide panel of cushy padding. This makes for easy carrying, but I again worried about the summertime heat and how this pack would feel against my sweaty back for hours on end.

I was also somewhat concerned about the 35 lb weight limit. It’s very unlikely that I’d go over 35 lbs on most of my trips. In the Sierras, I have to carry more weight with the bear canister, but less water. In the desert, I carry more water but no bear canister. But on long desert treks, carrying 15 lbs of just water, I would easily be getting near and perhaps passing the 35 lb weight limit. Winter camping in the Sierras would also be problematic.

My partner tried on the three backpacks and he strongly favored the Mariposa. He said it was the most comfortable by far, and looked like it fit my frame better than the other two.

I wore the Mariposa in the house weighed down with 34 lbs of gear for about an hour, and it continued to stay comfy.

Windrider 3400

This pack is tough. The waterproof material seemed incredibly durable, the type of material I’d happily drag through brambles without fear. It seems significantly more substantial than the Mariposa, for all they are similar in weight. I loved the roll-top closure. There was more airflow between my back and the pack, with was nice. The padding was perfect.

Unfortunately, it was really hard to fit all my stuff in when I used the Bearikade. Without a bear canister, the pack excelled. With a bear canister, it was wobbly to walk in and the weight sat too far back on my shoulders. With the Bearikade, these problems were exacerbated. Filled to the brim, it towered slightly over my head and would sway a bit as I walked.

I think this would be an excellent pack for someone who rarely needed a bear canister. But for someone who uses a bear canister more often than not, this pack didn’t quite have the volume I wanted.

Note: There is actually a larger version of this pack, the Windrider 4400, which holds 70L and up to 65lbs. That version would likely fit a Bearikade and all my gear much better, but it’s honestly got a little more volume than I need and it weighs over 2 lbs.

Arc Haul

As soon as I put this pack on, I realized I’d ordered a size too big. I had ordered the Medium, since my torso is 19 inches long and the website highly encourages buying the Medium when in doubt. But this was a mistake: the pack was too big for me, and my head kept banging into a metal rod right behind my skull.

That said, the construction was really interesting. Of the three packs I ordered, this one handled the bear canister best. It felt tougher than the Mariposa, even though it was significantly lighter. It didn’t feel quite as durable as the Windrider.

The ZPack frame design is unique. You press down on the top corner of the pack until the external metal frame starts to bow, then you tighten straps to hold it in place. ZPacks recommends about a 2.5 inch arc. This arc transfers weight to the hips and keeps the pack away from your back, creating air flow. It also removes the need for much or any cushioning on the back, since the pack actually isn’t touching your back.

I loved the belt on the Arc Haul. It adjusts from the top and bottom separately, so it’s possible to create the perfect angle to cradle your hips. It’s also significantly more slender than the Mariposa belt. My partner said it dug into his waist and that they had reduced weight at the cost of necessary padding. But I actually really liked the lightweight feel of the belt.

I had a few big concerns about the Arc Haul:

  • The chest strap lands right in the middle of my breasts. My first thought was These packs are not designed for women. But then I realized I’d bought a size too large, and that I could get a shorter version. Hopefully the chest strap on the short version would sit more comfortably.
  • All but one of the reviewers on the Arc Haul website are men. I became a little concerned about the pack when the chest strap fit so awkwardly, and so I went to the ZPack website to see if other women had similar difficulties. I noticed that there were tons of reviews at the bottom of the page, but all of them were from men except one woman. And when I read her full review, I realized she’d had some big issues with the hip belt and had to create her own lumbar support. That made me concerned, but I also found more women who favorably reviewed the Arc Blast and Arc Zip (which are very similar to the Arc Haul).
  • The backpack relies on tight vertical straps holding the rest of the backpack bowed and away from the back, but the vertical straps themselves rest close to or against the body, which I’m worried could rub or become uncomfortable.
  • With an external metal frame, I found I could tip my head back into the metal rod at the top of the pack. However, again, I think these things could be addressed by getting a smaller size.

Of the three, I thought this pack handled 34 lbs of gear the best. It felt lightest on my back, transferring weight efficiently to my hips for a light feeling.  

My partner tried it on and immediately disliked it, feeling like there was no padding at all. He could feel the edge of the bear canister against his back. He said he wouldn’t want to do a long distance thru hike with this pack.

But I was intrigued. I felt like the clever design transferred weight well and kept me cool, and that it could handle a big bear canister or 7 liters of water or snow camping in the Sierras better than the other two.  It’s also configurable, with external pockets available for the hip belt.

Verdict

In case it wasn’t clear, these are all fantastic backpacks. Light, tough, and well-built, I think that I’d be happy with any of them. 

My specific use case (carrying a lot of bear canisters in the Sierras, lots of shoulder season backpacking) and body type (5’3″ and curvy, with a 19 inch torso) impact the kind of pack that will work well for me. I truthfully think all of these are packs that I could be happy with, and that would work well for lots of other people.

But, based on everything above, I’m planning on returning the Windrider and Arc Haul Medium, then ordering an Arc Haul Short. If the short size can address some of the issues I was having (with the chest strap hitting me in the middle of the breasts and the metal bar right behind my head), then I think there’s a high likelihood I’ll keep it. If not, the Mariposa is a very comfortable, well-made backpack.

I’ll update this once I’ve tried the Arc Haul Short.

Have thoughts to share about backpacks? Leave a comment below please.

Publishing my journals from the Colorado Trail

I just finished uploading the last of my trail journals from hiking the Colorado Trail. I included an explanation of why I was publishing a journal in spite of my ambivalence, some thoughts about backpacking as a woman, and an overview of my medical kit.

The daily journals are far more detailed than most people would need or even want to read, so it’s designed primarily for other thru hikers—especially first time thru hikers. The journals include a lot of the nitty-gritty details—yes, including the gross daily realities of backpacking for that long—but it’s the level of information I found valuable before my hike. It’s also a way for me to look back, whenever I want, to remember the trip.

There was a lot about the Colorado Trail that was hard. Many days were deeply physically challenging: nausea, blisters, pain, and often brutal cold. It was also mentally difficult—some moments of fear and self-doubt, and the stress it placed on my relationship.

It was also beautiful. Stark, epic, awe-inspiring, a bit transformative. I was more than a little heart-broken to leave, but I also remember what my partner told me on one of the last days we were hiking: that the trail will always be there, and we have our whole lives to walk it.

Check out the trail journals.