Backpack – Osprey Talon 44 & 33
When I first decided I wanted to go backpacking I spent a long time researching backpacks and then even longer trying them on in the store. I initially went with the Gregory Deva 60, because in the store it was the most comfortable when loaded with lots of weight. I wasn’t excited that it had super thick padding or that the backpack itself weighed in at over 5 pounds but after much debate I got it anyway. I took it out on our first trips and it was okay but I certainly didn’t love it. There were too many pockets that made the whole thing lumpy and weird. Even though the pack was huge, it didn’t fit my 3L water reservoir. Overall I had lots of complaints.
I later picked up the Osprey Talon 33 as a large day pack. I opted for a larger size to try for low key overnight trips. I ended up using it for backpacking in the Hoh Rainforest as well as at Point Reyes. I loved how light it was and it had all the features I wanted. It is simple, light and comfortable, though a touch small for some occasions. When I came across a coupon, I bought the 44L version and returned the massive Gregory pack.
Things I love about this pack: It’s light. There aren’t a lot of frilly features but it still has some bonuses that I like such as a large reservoir and decent sized hip belt pockets. The mesh pocket on the back is great.
I could see myself being happy with an actual ultralight backpack someday, but without the opportunity to ever try one on I’m hesitant to buy one. Right now I’m very happy with the Ospreys, even if they have a little bit of extra weight.
Sleeping Bag – North Face Cat’s Meow Women’s 20
I love this sleeping bag. Mine is over 4 years old (though there are newer versions) and it’s still warm and cozy. It’s synthetic so it doesn’t pack down super small and it’s not exceptionally light either, but it’s one of the lightest synthetics I’ve seen for the temperature rating. I sleep cold so I’d rather deal with the bulk in exchange for the extra warmth. I’ve used this bag in freezing temperatures (along with extra layers) and have been warm. It’s a bonus that Shawn has the Men’s version so we can zip our sleeping bags together to make one big bag for both of us.
Sleeping Pad – Thermarest NeoAir Xtherm
This sleeping pad is so comfortable it’s hard to believe. I’ve gotten better nights sleep on this pad than at home in my bed. It’s really small and light and the insulating layer reflects your body heat back for cold nights. It’s not as crinkly as the other neoairs so it doesn’t feel like you’re sleeping on a bag of chips. I previously had a self inflating thermarest, which certainly did its job for the past few years, but was not always super comfortable for a side sleeper like myself. I would often wake up with my hip bones numb or an arm asleep. I’ll be the first to admit that this pad is pretty pricy (get it on sale!) but pretty worth it if you ask me.
Backpacking Tent – Big Agnes Fly Creek UL3
I can’t take credit for picking this tent, Shawn chose it after a lot of research and testing out some other tents. We went with the UL3 for a few reasons. It’s definitely lightweight (though not the lightest) but still has some bonus features. For one, it is fully freestanding, so you don’t have to worry about staking it down just to hold it up. There’s also enough room for us and our gear. We tried a smaller, similar tent but there wasn’t enough headroom for a tall guy (I didn’t really notice). We’ve weathered a few storms in it and haven’t had any problems yet. It doesn’t have the best ventilation when it’s warm, but it’s nice and cozy when it’s cold.
Car Camping Tent – North Face Double Headed Toad (discontinued)
I mention this other tent, just in case you see it in some photos. It’s a luxurious four person tent. After spending so many nights in our compact backpacking tent, this tent feels enormous. It’s great for longer stays and more extreme weather. It’s held up really well over the past four years and still feels new.
Stove – Snow Peak Litemax
A great little stove. Lighter and more compact than the gigapower. Holds up to wind fairly well. I like hot meals and this makes it easy for me to cook something fast for myself or in tandem with Shawn.
Cookware – Snow Peak Trek 900mL titanium with Four Dog Stove lid
Love this pot! Great for one person. You could probably go a little smaller, but a full size fuel canister fits perfectly in this one. Also the frypan lid is the perfect size for grilling veggie burgers. I added on the Four Dog Stove lid for when I’m not planning on frying anything. It’s slightly more compact and easier to manage and great for straining noodles.
Utensils – Snow Peak Titanium long tined spork & Sea to Summit Long Spoon
I don’t love sporks but Shawn found me this special long tined spork that is great for ramen. Most everything else I use my long spoon which is great for stirring your pot and eating out of those instant meal bags. I love that it has flat sides which are useful for scraping every last morsel of food out of your pot.
Water Filter – Saywer Squeeze
This filter is very easy to use and super lightweight/compact. The squeeze bag that comes with it isn’t super big and doesn’t fill very easily unless you have fairly swiftly running water. I’ll probably add another platypus as a dirty bag for longer trips.
Water Reservoir – Platypus 3L
Having a reservoir is great. It makes a major difference in how often I drink water and therefore how hydrated I stay. The 3L is also great when you know you need to carry a lot of water. This reservoir doesn’t have a strong flavor with is great and I haven’t had any problems with leaking. I have had a lot of issues with the bite valve. Nothing catastrophic but sometimes I find I’m getting a lot of bubbles with my water (annoying!). It also tends to drip a little from the valve. I’ve only used it for water but did find some questionable build up in the hose which I was able to remove after some disinfecting. I should probably just replace the hose and valve altogether. I also have a bonus 2L Platupus water bag that’s really great as an add on.
Trekking Poles – Black Diamond Ergo Cork Poles
I just got these recently so I’ll probably have to update this when I’ve used them more. I’m still getting used to them really. I like that they are fairly light weight and can pack up small. They were definitely a big help when climing some steep hills with a heavy backpack. I think they do increase my pace a little. I do like having something to do with my arms. Good for balance during river crossings. I don’t see myself using these too much on regular hikes but they’re great when you’ve got a heavy backpack. I got these with a dividend so they were basically free, otherwise I don’t know if I would have spent the money.
Shoes – Brooks Cascadias
I feel like these are the hipster shoes of the hiker world but I love these damn shoes. While some will opt for more heavy duty hiking boots, I’m much more sensitive to my feet overheating than anything else. These shoes breath really well, have great traction and dry quickly. I pair them with some Dirty Girl Gaiters to keep sticks and stones out since they are lower than traditional boots. I’ve noticed there some sections of wear around the top that are probably more from design flaws than actual use, so I’m guessing these aren’t meant to last forever. For now they’re super comfortable and have served me well.
Jacket – Arc’teryx Atom LT Hoodie
I had been searching for a packable insulated jacket for months when I was pressured into buying this one. I thought it was too expensive, but a big sale came up and I had to jump on it. I’ve never regretted it. It’s the most comfortable and warm jacket. I want to live in it. It feels like you’re wearing a cozy sleeping bag. Though I was skeptical about the stretchy side panels, they do make the whole thing more versatile for activities. Definitely requires another base layer for extra cold weather. I’ve slept with it on in my sleeping bag on exceptionally cold nights. I think the stretchy wrist sections are maybe a little too tight, but they definitely keep the cold air out and don’t really bother me.
We went on a wildflower scouting excursion to Joshua Tree a few weeks ago. The backcountry camping is great because you just have to hike over a mile away from any road, find a spot you like and set up.* We arrived just before sunset, hiked into the darkness and made camp. We woke up to a beautiful sunrise and, after breakfast, spent the day searching for wildflowers throughout the park. There were lots to be seen in the lower elevations and some were just sprouting in the higher areas. Getting a campsite can sometimes be tricky at this park since it’s so close to Los Angeles. Knowing you can just head out into the wilderness makes me want to visit every weekend.
*There are a few other rules, so check out the National Park site for details.
Spring is here which means it’s time to get serious about outdoor adventures. It’s already starting to get terribly hot here in Southern California, so we’re trying to take advantage of the local trips before summertime. One of the trips on my ever growing list was Catalina. The island is just an hour ferry ride away from the South Bay, making it easy to visit for just the weekend (or even the day really). Besides just a general interest in visiting an island that is just off the coast, I was very curious about the Trans Catalina Trail as a multi-day backpacking trip that was close to home. We decided a weekend visit was in order and opted to stay at the Parson’s Landing campground.
Parson’s Landing is about about six miles from Two Harbors, the southern bay where you can take a ferry to from the mainland. Unlike Avalon, which is a bit more developed, Two Harbors feels like a sleepy beach town. Now the thing about camping in Catalina is that besides making site reservations (camping is only allowed at designated campsites), you also have to buy locker keys to get water and a bundle of firewood. There is limited water on the island so filtering water isn’t usually an option, particularly in summer. Even though the whole thing feels a little bit like a scam, I just decided to look at it as a luxury to have our water and firewood delivered to our campsite.
The forecast for the weekend of our trip, booked months in advance, called for rain of course. This also meant that there was particularly stormy weather at sea, making for a bit of a wild ferry ride out to the island. The skies held while we hiked out on to the Trans Catalina Trail. The trail itself isn’t so much of a trail as it is a dirt road that rises steeply to the top of the island. Once at the ridge line, you can enjoy views of both coasts of the island. I could imagine this hike being not so pleasant during the summer months when it is warmer, there is no escape from the sun and the island grasses have dried. And of course, what goes up, must come down which is where you may find yourself inching down the fenceline trail. This trail is steep and rocky and all around a drag. There is probably some efficient way to hike this section but I certainly don’t know what it is. A few hikers passed us, as I was going really slowly, and they of course both wiped out on the loose rocks.
After finishing the fenceline portion, we found ourselves on one of the hiking only trails which was quite lovely and my favorite part of the hike all together. Being on a road the entire time was a bit dull. A single track trail, winding through open fields was a relief. And just like that we were at our campground.
Parson’s Landing is really spectacular. We snagged site two, which is one of the more secluded spots. All the sites are directly on the beach (unlike in Point Reyes for instance where you are on a cliff above the beach). There is a giant salt water container at the site though, evidently for fire safety, which is a bit of an eyesore. There were several fire rings set up around the camp with rocks stacked high to block the wind. We made our dinner and started a fire just as the sun started to set. We sipped hot cocoas by the fire before it started to rain pretty heavily and we jumped in the tent and spent the rest of the evening there, cozy and dry.
Magically it stopped raining by morning and we at breakfast on the beach. Normally we start hiking home just after breakfast as we often have a drive at the end of each trip. Being so close to home, even with the ferry ride, we were allowed a few hours to relax. I dug into a book (Nobody Is Ever Missing which I really enjoyed and recommend) and just listened to waves crash on the beach. It was perfect.
We hiked back via the coast road. This road is about a mile longer but as the name suggests, it runs along the coast, rather than over the top of the island. It was a leisurely hike with no elevation gain really at all. Though this route is not as secluded (you pass several camps along the way) I enjoyed it a lot more than the Trans Catalina Trail. I’m glad that we did both trails in the end but the best part about this backpacking trip was the camp itself by far, so might as well go with the easier hike. While waiting for the ferry we ran into several other hikers who had just completed the whole trail. None of them seemed particularly enthusiastic about it to be honest.
I really wanted to see buffalo on our visit but didn’t realize they are contained to another area on the island. If you don’t already know about the buffalo, they were brought to Catalina for use in a movie and then left behind to fend for themselves, and have multiplied over the years. Upon returning home, I learned the buffalo do a fair amount of harm to the island and aren’t in particularly good health. There have been several efforts to reduce the herd size (they’re now on birth control) but the conservancy that manages them has stopped short of removing the herd altogether. You can read more about the effects of the buffalo here. It is fascinating.
The trip was brief, relatively easy and a perfect escape. I can’t stress enough how lovely Parson’s Landing really is once you arrive. It’s a wonderful place to just totally unplug and get away. It really does feel different being on an island, being able to look back at the big city you live in and be completely separate from it. When we returned, even though we had done a fair amount of hiking, I felt entirely relaxed and refreshed. I’d like to return and check out some more of the island and perhaps go kayaking or snorkeling.
To celebrate our recent wedding anniversary (4 years! huzzah!) we headed out for an overnight backpacking trip in the Eastern Sierras. With the drought here in California persisting, there was minimal snow even at higher elevations. We left early, only to be halted somewhere in the desert when my car started shuttering and belching smoke out of the exhaust. Halfway between home and our destination it seemed as though our trip might come to an end before it had even begun. Not ready to let the adventure we had planned go, we managed to rent a car and several hours later we were on our way again, now quite a bit behind schedule.
When we arrived at the trailhead it was already late afternoon. In preparation for the colder weather, I had brought a zero degree sleeping bag with me and its bulk was packed awkwardly in the side of my pack. At the last minute I shoved our bear canister in the top of my bag, just barely cinching the top closed. I was anxious to get hiking as the sun headed downward, so it was with this uneven backpack that I started up into the mountains.
As we set out, the climb was gentle and my pack was relatively light but for some reason it was particularly unpleasant. The sun was shining in my eyes, somehow managing to creep around my sunglasses entirely. All of my excitement for the trip seemed to drain with every step. I was no longer looking forward to trudging up into the snowy mountains and testing my limits. It could have been the stress of the day, dealing with my car and how to get where we were going, or the altitude having an effect on me (we were already at 8,000 feet) but something dark started to drape itself over me. But I trudged on, trailing a ways behind Shawn.
At some point the trail turned and we were brought into the shade of the mountains. I was relieved to be able to see again but the ominous sadness still lingered. I searched my mind for where this melancholy could be coming from and what might be the cure but I could find no answer. I was hiking in beautiful scenery, with someone I love. I was not hungry or weary and I did not long to be somewhere else. The more I thought about it, the more I longed to be exactly where I was at that moment. With this realization my thoughts floated into a vortex of existential dread.
What am I doing with my life? Why am I not doing the things that I love? Why am I constantly plagued by daily stress? How can I be the person I want to be?
A wave of emotion washed over me. Something caught in my throat. I gasped, holding back tears and I suddenly couldn’t breathe. I stopped walking, pulled off my pack and struggled to catch my breath.
When I was in my early twenties I went backpacking in Europe. A different kind of backpacking clearly but still carrying all my possessions on my shoulders. I had graduated college earlier that year and had little idea of what direction I was headed in next. I had studied through the summers to graduate a year early and hadn’t stopped to figure out any sort of plan for my future. What does one do with a degree in fine art and student loans to pay? So I set off for Europe on what I hoped would be a grand adventure. Besides, planning the trip gave me focus, where I otherwise felt adrift. I don’t know that I was looking to “find myself” but I probably was in some sense, following the mythic ideal of self-discovery in far off places. I had made plans with friends to travel with me in different countries but at the last minute no one could actually go. So I went alone. Years later I remember one of my bosses saying how brave I was for going by myself, but more than anything I just felt lonely.
I arrived in Florence one morning after taking an overnight train and managed to get on a bus headed the wrong direction. I spoke no Italian at all and when I realized my mistake I panicked. I got off the bus with no idea where I was and started walking in what I hoped was the right direction back to the train station. The streets were empty and tears streamed down my face as I walked. I could not hold them back. I was just overwhelmed with this sense of being utterly alone and having no place. It wasn’t the only time I cried on that trip, feeling entirely lost even when I wasn’t lost at all. I kept questioning why I had traveled across the world to feel so intensely sad and lonely when I was perfectly capable of feeling sad and lonely at home.
The thing is though, looking back, much of the sadness I experienced on that trip is dampened by memory. At some point I figured out how to talk to people, to spend days with other travelers. I remember the highlights, the exciting moments, not the endless searching for where I should be and how I could fill my time. It took a while for me to shed the person I had been at home and get into a rhythm of transient life. I did not have any personal revelations but I found that I was capable where I initially I had thought I was not.
I think of this trip often when I am having a hard time on a vacation or adventure. That the bad times, though not entirely forgotten, recede into the background. Sometimes, even the most difficult of situations are still better than sitting around letting your life pass you by. At least there is some sort of experience there, not just a couch and a tv and the comfort of the familiar. Sometimes the hardest parts become a sort of talisman, a notch on your belt, to say you got through this even if it was just wading through the swamp of despair in your own mind.
When backpacking in nature these moments of struggle can be compounded. There is some level of real risk, even if it is usually low. It is hard for me a lot of the time. I don’t feel tough. I feel slow and easily affected by things like low blood sugar and elevation. My fears can get the best of me. I hate this but it also enhances things in a way. I get such a feeling of accomplishment when I face the parts that are hard for me and get through them. I love car camping but I don’t get the same sense of satisfaction as when we go backpacking, it’s just easy and fun and a welcome change from our everyday life. The key is finding a balance between the parts that are actually enjoyable and the parts that are challenging.
So there I am, sitting on the side of the trail, struggling to catch my breath. Shawn stops and I tell him I’m okay, but in telling the tears come. No way to hold them back now. Why am I even crying? It seems too big a question to answer. The answer doesn’t make sense. I want to be here, outside, having these experiences, even the hard ones. I want to have the freedom to be the creative person that seems to have been buried under the rest of me that gets through the day, that pays the bills and does the dishes. I don’t know how to solve these things. I just know that they are there and at this moment I cannot hide from them. So I just sit and cry in the mountains over nothing and everything while Shawn waits patiently for me. Soon crying does that magic thing it does where it makes you feel better and I put on my pack and continue on.
We hiked another few miles until it started to get dark and very cold and the elevation a little too much for me. We set up camp and I forced myself, somewhat unsuccessfully, to eat dinner. Why do things taste so intense at high elevations? Why does it feel so impossible to put food in your mouth and swallow even when you are hungry? Finally we huddled up in our tent and though I did not feel good, I felt safe. I was warm in the zero degree bag, even though it was probably 20°F. I still woke every few hours though with All of the Lights blaring in my head. It wasn’t just stuck on repeat, it had the distinct quality of being loud, despite being physically silent. Plus I was starving, having not eaten much dinner but unwilling to go out in cold to retrieve any food from our bear canister. Still, there was something pleasant about being in that tent and suffering (a little), not with the sort of anxiety and fear that makes the night unbearable.
The next morning I was feeling better. We ate breakfast (oatmeal is my savior), broke down our camp and hiked into the snow. We passed a few other campers on the way but had the trail mostly to ourselves for the morning. The snow was soft and packed down on the trail from previous hikers. With the sun high in the sky, it felt more like an early summer day than winter still. When we finally reached higher elevations still we were treated to views of snow covered lakes and rocky peaks. It was a strange mix of the snowy beauty of winter and the warm temperatures of later season hiking. We set up another camp in the snow and cooked lunch. From our perch we could see others walk out onto the frozen lakes. The views and solitude were the reward for the struggle that came before. We made it.
As we hiked down I asked Shawn, half joking, if he thought our trip had been romantic. I had a breakdown on the way up then spent most of the evening feeling nauseous. True romance! Still, it sort of was. Not traditional roses and chocolates romantic, but an experience together. We both felt so lucky to have someone who wanted to do these wild trips together and still understood that it is often hard and sometimes not fun. It still feels so worth it though and I feel so fortunate to get to do what we do. It’s like a clean slate every time we head into the wilderness, sometimes that wiping clear can be a bit more jarring that others.
Part of the reason I want to write about the adventures we go on is not to say “oh look how cool this thing we did was” but rather to hopefully inspire some people go outside, to get out there and see the beauty and magic that is out there. I am not religious or even spiritual but there is an undeniable energy in nature that can have a great effect on you. I want people to experience that. And I want to be honest that it is not easy, that I struggle and that is part of what makes it special. You don’t have to be a hardcore hiker to accomplish something meaningful.
We went backpacking in the snowy mountains, I cried, I wanted to throw up and still it was awesome. I recommend it.
In keeping with our new tradition of going on adventures for any celebration we can, we recently went on an excursion to the Mt. Baldy Ski Hut for Shawn’s birthday. Though we had hiked to the summit of Mt. Baldy over the summer, we thought staying at the hut would be a perfect winter trip. Mt. Baldy is fairly close to Los Angeles and though the hike is steep, it is relatively short (about 3.5 miles) giving us a lot of time to hang out in the cabin.
We set out on an early January weekend in the rain. After so many dry months it still feels novel to have any sort of precipitation here in Southern California. The air was cool and damp and perfect for hiking. I imagine many people don’t like hiking in the rain and I can understand in certain circumstances it would be unpleasant or dangerous, but I personally found it particularly relaxing. It’s much nicer to have a soft chill in the air when you’re hiking up a mountain than the oppressive heat and sun that is the norm here. The clouds and mist moved up and around the mountain so we often found ourselves enveloped in fog while other times you could see far into the Inland Valley.
As we hiked up in the late afternoon, many of the other hikers were heading down and seemed excited that we were spending the night in the ski hut. The hut is run by the Sierra Club and is open most weekends for day visitors or overnight. You have to bring some regular backpacking supplies with you, such as a sleeping bag and food, but much less than you would need for a regular backpacking trip. When we arrived, we found several other hikers staying there along with the cabin hosts. It was a lively and festive crowd and though we kept mostly to ourselves, being the introvert crew that we are, it was was fun to be there with others.
I really fell in love with this little hut and the cabin lifestyle. There are two wood stoves, one in the living area and one in the kitchen, always burning, keeping the cabin toasty. Each had several kettles of water boiling and perfect for making tea or hot cocoa whenever you you might want. The water in the cabin is piped in from a spring and is continually flowing through the kitchen. While purifying water is easy, having a fresh flowing stream was a luxury. It took awhile to get used to the idea that the water was forever flowing through the sink as my instinct is to turn off any wasted water.
Now I have to say, I’m in the habit of going pretty simple with food when we go on adventures as to not have to carry additional weight or cook complicated meals. Some of the other guests really went the extra mile though, making chili with fresh cornbread and chocolate chip cookies. Knowing how easy it is to cook up there, coupled with a relatively short hike, I’d definitely bring more exciting fare next time. We did, on the other hand, bring a cookies and cream cake which we assembled on site. The whole cabin joined in singing happy birthday to Shawn. We passed the evening playing cards and games, while others played guitar or just chatted.
We slept in the bunk beds upstairs. Even with one of the windows open it got terribly warm until the early morning when the fires started to burn out. At 8,200 feet, I was a little worried about how the elevation would affect me as it can sometimes make me quite ill, but I didn’t seem to have too much of a problem, I think mostly due to drinking lots of water and perhaps a midnight snack. When I woke in the morning, I looked outside to see that it was snowing. I went downstairs to find that even in the faint morning light, there were already a few hikers that had made it to the hut on their way to the summit. The snow lasted only awhile before turning back to rain, then to snow again. It was still terribly exciting.
Shawn cooked up his signature breakfast of tofu scramble and vegan maple sausages and we were off down the mountain. It was raining quite a bit more than the prior day and we only encountered a handful of hikers going up, mostly folks hoping to do some mountaineering at the summit. The descent was fast and it wasn’t long before we were on our way home again. A perfect winter weekend adventure.