It’s been 4 years since the last time I went backpacking and I’ve been itching to do it again ever since. Three summers ago I had a plan and a permit for a week-long trip to a different piece of the JMT but that year had seen a ton of rainfall and my intended route was still covered in snow late into July. Much as I love sticking with my plan, I recognize that I do not have the skills or experience to navigate without clearly marked trails. The following summer I was deep in the new-to-me experience of parenting a 3 year old and last summer that same small person was only 4 and we did other trips; to Maine for a week and we visited Canada a couple of times.
Now we’re (still! deeply!) buried in Covid, quarantining, and there’s been so much at-home time so going to the mountains with a now-5 year-old is actually one of the lower risk activities available to us. He’s ready for adventure, has strong legs, boundless energy, and has the ability to wear his own hydration pack so it’s on.
This post will outline the (current) plan and preparations for the trip. When we return I’ll share the actual experience as a comparison against what was planned for. I enjoyed thoroughly documenting my big solo trip back in 2016 and I’ll continue to do this for future trips since it might also be helpful to other newbie backpackers and/or parents trying to share the backpacking bug with their kids.
The goal is to have a trip that is a manageable distance for the 5 year old (and anything he can do, the dog can also do) that gets us into the mountains for a taste of what the solitude and beauty found up there can feel like. Bringing a dog already limits the locations and Desolation Wilderness is my go-to for dog friendly backpacking so I looked there to find a good route. When I returned from my bigger trip the Sequoia/Kings Canyon I immediately set out the following weekend to Desolation for a quick overnight as I was missing the mountains desperately. Unfortunately I didn’t plan that trip well and went up a jeep road which turned out to be very actively used by… JEEPS! Me and my low-riding dog ate dust for over 5 miles uphill while continuously crossing paths with the same Trump-loving (there were stickers, I’m not just making assumptions) ATV and 4w drive enthusiasts throughout the day. They’d get stuck, I’d walk past, they’d drive past and get stuck a little further up. The only good news was that once I reached the end of the Jeep trail there was a quick trail past the rambunctious camp to a quieter lake which could only be hiked in to. I got to rest peacefully and I booted it home the next morning bright and early to avoid crowds on the path. One of the many things I learned about on that trip was that Wrights Lake has a great campground that I’d love to return to just to car-camp, and there are better trails along Rockbound Pass that are hiking-only and end up at beautiful mountain lakes.
For this first kid’s trip I have waffled between doing a 1 night or a 2 night trip. If it wasn’t Labour Day weekend we could have done a night at Wrights Lake and a night out in the wilderness but the campground is completely packed so I’ve had to come up with a plan that gives us some flexibility. We’re going to hike from Wrights to Maud Lake on day 1 and, as long as things are going smoothly the next day, we’ll go in a little further to a second location for night 2. If for any reason there’s a need to bail after that first night, we’re less than 4 miles from the car. If things are going great, we do about 2 miles more and have maybe 6 miles max to come back out to the car on day 3. That will be a long walk but I feel confident that I am bringing enough gummy frogs and chocolate drops to encourage a steady pace as well as the promise of getting home to play some Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
First of all, I’m carrying EVERYTHING* for two people and one dog. My pack for what I thought was going to be a 10 day trip back in 2016 was 55lbs. This time I’m aiming for 40lbs which will get lighter as we eat our meals. I have to carry two sleeping bags and that takes up a lot more space than I imagined it would. The kid sleeping bag is not ultralight, it’s not even light! It’s a Kindercone and it weighs 3lbs. I have compressed the shit out of it in a compression stuff sack to make it smaller. For comparison, my sleeping bag for a full grown person is only 2.2lbs. If we do this often enough I guess I should just get him a grownup bag.
Weight: LighterPack is still around (yay!) so I made a duplicate of my previous trip list and am updating that to track my pack’s weight. I haven’t input all our food items yet but I get a sense of where I’m at and also it offers an excellent checklist for making sure I’ve packed everything. Tomorrow I’ll finalize the food, make sure it fits in the bear canister, and do a final weight tally.
Shelter: We did a practice run with all three of us lying in the 2 person tent – this was also an opportunity to test the air mattresses after not being used for 4 years – and it went well. The kid wants me to set up the tent every day now just to chill out in. Shortstack also seems to enjoy tent life.
Food: I’m bringing my Jetboil Flash, dried food, and a bunch of snacks. While it can look like fun on other people’s blog posts to bring more ‘regular’ or even ‘fancy’ food on a trip, I need the lightness of dehydrated dinners and I’ll keep both of us full of calories with a combo of trail mix, bars, and cheese/meat. On trips like this I’m more interested in what’s around us than what’s going into us. Here’s what the menu looks like:
- Breakfast (2)
- Flax & chocolate chip muffins & berries
- Lunches (3)
- no real ‘meal’ but a mix of cheese/salami/crackers and then bars/trail mix and apples
- Dinners (2)
I’ll also bring miso soup packets for me as a warm option, hot chocolate for the kid and then electrolyte tablets, assorted gummies, chocolate drops, and astronaut ice cream for dessert and just the delight of eating real ‘space food’. Finally I need to carry kibble for the dog – 3 days worth. Thank goodness he’s a small dog and we’re talking less than a pound!
Clothing: Not much to say here – we’re going to be wearing the same clothes each day with only an extra set of underwear for me and a few pairs for him in case he has an accident during the day (unlikely, but I’d regret not being prepared). Both of us have wool thermal underwear to sleep in as well as beanies and puffy jackets for warmth at night. We’ll each have a light pair of shoes to slip into at the end of the day and also hats for sun protection.
Gadgets: First, one big ticket item — I invested in my own Garmin inReach Mini for the safety of having satellite communication. Previously I had borrowed a similar but larger unit from a coworker, only had to pay for the activation fee and a month of service, then returned it. Now that I’m a parent and plan to do this more often over the years it makes sense to have one of my own as well as the peace of mind. It’s half the weight, at 3.5oz, and a solid investment. For pictures I’ll use my phone’s camera (airplane mode) and we have a little digital camera with a waterproof protective housing for the kid to capture his own experience. I also have downloaded tons of bedtime stories onto my phone thanks to the library and Hoopla. Because I don’t know the impact on my phone’s battery of reading stories I will carry a battery charging pack with me just to be safe.
Activities: Mostly walking, taking pictures, and enjoying our surroundings but this trip will also introduce the kid’s FIRST POCKETKNIFE. I got him an Opinel as I love mine to bits and the one for kids has a rounded end which reduces the risks of *stabs* and leaves only the risk of *cuts*. I’ll take that 50% reduction in risk and to try and further reduce we watched some kid knife safety videos today. Based on YouTube’s current offerings I plan to make a few videos with him on our trip to increase what’s available since there wasn’t anything with this Opinel knife or with kids his age. I’m torn about whether or not to bring this magnetic chess set I got for us. When I was ordering I didn’t notice how big it was – weight and space are at a premium and we just started playing a few weeks ago. Perhaps we’ll fashion our own pieces from sticks at camp instead. Stay tuned for the report when we return!
* The kid is carrying a hydration pack and his air mattress for a total weight of 5.6lbsContinue reading →
- Breakfast (2)
This is the third and final installment detailing my Kings Canyon/Sequoia first-timer, solo backpacking trip – the original plan was here and here are the first and second posts about what actually happened.
Remember what I said in the original planning post? That part of my interest in doing this trip was that I had heard “once you hit day 4 or 5 your body acclimates to just hiking all day, every day”. Well. It’s true. On Day 4 I was hiking the John Muir Trail, I was going to be climbing a “Golden Staircase” as well as a significant mountain pass, Mather Pass, and yet I was no longer worried about the physical aspects of taking on such tasks. I packed a few too many clothes for the temperature, I would not need the emergency cold hunting clothing I packed.
There are many cute names for badass things on this trail (Devil’s Washbasin, for example) and the “Golden Staircase” is a 1200 vertical foot wall with some 90 switchbacks carved out of it. It was a few miles into my morning walk, which started at 6:40am, and wasn’t that bad – you know why? Because it wasn’t 5400′ of solid ascent!
This was followed by some relatively flat walking along next to the beautiful Palisade Lakes and then by the early afternoon it was time to climb Mather Pass. Around 1pm I started up and boy was I pleased that there were clouds covering the sun during my ascent, as well as adorable marmots, but also the trek up to 12,047′ was no big deal – you know why? Because it wasn’t 5400′ of elevation in hot sun.
Getting to the top of my first significant mountain was fascinating. I really hadn’t thought until that moment that I was going over the TOP of mountains. The word “pass” had conjured in my mind the idea of a valley between mountains, but nope – I went to the tip-toppest rock on that trail and then peeked around to see…
More mountains! And yes, that’s a thunder (and lightning) storm in the direction I’m supposed to head. Thanks for coming up the cloudy side of the mountain, tiny human, now it’s time for a 2800′ descent completely in the open. There’s really nothing else to do but start walking down, so I do. As I maneuver down switchbacks and into the open valley, I end up putting on my pack cover for the first time and also my poncho as it is drizzling on me a bit. Magically the thunderstorm keeps moving away from me as I walk toward it so the rain never got too bad.
That night I stopped to sleep for the night at 5:30pm, a full hour earlier than usual. I set up my tent in the rain with ease, and had time to bathe in the river before enjoying lasagna out of a freezer bag. It was a magical day, actually. The first where I started to feel the fun of the adventure and confidence in my routines & gear getting me through it. I slept well that night and stayed dry.
Once again I was on the trail before 7am. By this time I had become pretty skilled at breaking down my camp (even when wet), my skill with a folding shovel to make a rain trench has vastly improved, having my water treated and my breakfast eaten within an hour of waking so I could take advantage of the early morning’s lower temperatures & less harsh sun. Today there would be another mountain pass, Pinchot, later in the day and my goal was to get to the junction with Woods Creek so that I’d have two easier days of hiking left – maybe 7/8 mile days each – and Sunday I would sleep in before going back to the car. 7 days, 75 miles. I was in the homestretch.
An hour or so into my hiking on Day 5 I started meeting people on the trail. First, a young couple who were friendly and upbeat. Then an older man solo hiker who within 5 minutes of chatting I decided to pair up with for the day’s walking. His name was Dennis and he was doing the JMT – had originally had a partner who bailed out earlier in the month – and he had just turned 64 on the trail. He was a few days out from summiting Mt Whitney and feared that if the weather delayed him, he’d have to pop out for supplies. I told him how I’d shaved my 11 day trip down to 7 and that I had some extra food to spare. It was a match made in heaven. I was very glad to be useful to helping someone else’s journey with my excess. Later in the day we ran into another hiking pair – a young woman and her dad. The six of us ended up at the top of Pinchot at the same time, and got to know a bit about where everyone was from. The young couple were both science teachers in a Sacramento middle school and were on their honeymoon, this was their first major hiking/backpacking experience, they were doing the JMT. The young woman was from Oakland and worked at TJ’s in Berkeley, her dad was from Nevada and they had come in over Bishop’s pass a few days before. She had experience with both JMT and some PCT, but this trip was going to be 7 days for them and they planned to head out at Kearsarge Pass.
This day was a fun change up compared to the previous 4 days of deep solitude. Meeting people on the trail and having short & excited interchanges, having conversations all day made moving the miles towards the goal so much faster. Not only that, we had amazing weather and while there was the hint of another thunderstorm building up in the distance – it never came close to us. We got to our Woods Creek junction camping – which involved going over a cool suspension bridge – at a still-sunny 4pm which was my earliest end time to date. Not only did I get to bathe, I was able to dry my gear out in the sun before setting it up and for the first time I washed my base layer shirt which was very salt & dust impregnated by that stage. Thank heavens for wool though, cause it didn’t really smell bad after 5 days of no washing and constant wear.
That evening I ended up making a plan with Kristen (the young woman from Oakland) to do the next day’s miles all in one go so we could get back to Oakland on Saturday night instead of Sunday. It would mean 15.5 miles in one day, but it would be almost entirely downhill and I sure got excited at the idea of a burger for dinner instead of the freezer bag meals.
You know how my original plan involved about 8 days where I would do more than 15 miles? Well today I learned what 15 miles feels like and I now know with certainty that I’m not going to be one of those backpackers. 12-14 miles is plenty and I had a couple of those days. 15.5 miles, even when almost entirely downhill, left me walking on STUMPS by the end of the day.
I packed up and got on the trail at 7:30am and started booting it toward Road’s End, I was so excited it was my last day. Kristen caught up with me midday and we hiked the rest together. As we got closer to Mist Falls, we were both dying to get in the river for a cool-off. It’s such a tease to hike next to a roaring river for 13.4 miles but not jump in. Passing through upper, middle, and lower Paradise Valley gave glimpses of beautiful, natural swimming pools, but we held out to Mist Falls so we’d be closer to the end of it all. At a certain point in the descent I started to feel like I was returning to being a mere mortal – no longer one up on the mountain tops – and there was some sadness. I was reminded of how I used to come out of the woods in Michigan after a week of hard work in the festival bubble. We’d roll up to do laundry on a Sunday all covered in dirt & bruises, feeling feral and invincible – unreachable by the norms of the regular world. I found that feeling again in the mountains and I didn’t realize it until I started passing day trippers on the trail. People who smelled strongly of detergent. People who didn’t know what I had just seen & been through for the last 5 days. We’d see babies and small children, or people with nothing but a tiny water bottle in their hands and start laughing to ourselves “if they’re here, we must be close to the trailhead”. We were a little bit delirious from sun & constant descent.
Around 2pm we got to the promised bottom of the falls and rushed to the water, leaving our packs, tearing off clothes and then sitting in the rushing river, in the sun, cooling off and refreshing our feet. Eventually it was time to get back on the trail – maybe 30 minutes later. Those last 4 miles from the falls to the parking lot were the hardest. At 2 miles to go, we were on a wide, flat, gravel trail to Road’s End that was completely sun-soaked. The two of us were zombies by then and our river time felt like a totally different day. Funny enough, I ran into the same ranger I had picked up my permit from a week before (Ranger Sailor!) and had a short chat with him about how I had changed my route. When I said my original plan was overly ambitious for a first time solo trip he expressed that he’d thought so too (even without knowing it was my first time) and it makes me wonder to what degree rangers will interfere with people’s plans…like, how intensive would it have to be for someone with experience to interrupt and say “No, you actually can’t do that”. Doesn’t matter in my case because I found my own way to create a transformative instead of destructive itinerary, but I’m just curious. I took an 11 day, 156 mile plan and reshaped it into a 6 day, 75 mile experience and I learned a ton figuring that out on my own.
We got to the car around 4:30pm and hit the road to Fresno. In n Out burgers were had and Kristen ended up deciding to go to her parent’s place in Nevada so I dropped her at the Greyhound station and then did the 2.5 hour drive back to Oakland alone, with music and a call to my moms.
I think I’ll make a separate post at some point about how I’d adjust my food planning for future trips. I have leftover food and it beckons to be taken out. I’m wondering how late in the season one can still do short trips because maybe in October I can go visit those mountains again…there’s a ‘popular’ loop around Rae Lakes that’s only 42 miles…Continue reading →
Woke up from the stressful fighting with ex dream, checked on food & other things I had left near the bear canisters and everything was fine and untouched. Thank you bears for not destroying my stuff in the night! I stiffly went about preparing myself to try and do a second long day of backpacking – again with a heavy pack and a lot of elevation to deal with. Today’s hike would take me over my first mountain pass (Granite Pass) and then down 5600′. All the work I did yesterday, undone. It was depressing to think about because I worked so hard that first day to lug myself and my 11 days of food UP.
That first morning I did not enjoy the oatmeal I had brought for breakfast and I buried it after one bite. Was able to drink miso soup and a protein powder shake to get some nutrients into my system for the first couple of hours of hiking (I usually get protein at proteinpromo.com/gonutrition-discount-codes/).
Once I was packed up and headed back to the main trail, it was 8am (this would be my latest start of the whole trip) and the older couple from Utah were already gone.
The main challenge with Day 2 was trying to quell my internal fears about getting further and further away from my car, from any sense of safety, and what that would mean if I was to become seriously injured. Traveling in this rocky and remote terrain, by myself, locked my brain into an intense level of survival mode, which comprised of both an overwhelming awareness of how every single step needed to be careful and solid as well as having no additional space for deeper thoughts – my brain kept looping snippets of the same song for hours each. Where was the experience I’d imagined – the one where I was listening to Spanish podcasts and teaching myself a new language while robustly traversing meadows on packed dirt trails? Where were the life-altering ideas that had been dormant, awaiting the opportunity to catch up with me but too suppressed by urban busyness? Not to be found on Day 2. What I found instead (TW: suicidal ideation) is that I got really despondent and there were many times I imagined just letting myself fall over into the rushing river below – even going so far as to imagine putting rocks in my pockets – because I could only imagine how to end this, right here, right now. I’m happy to report that for whatever amount of my brain goes to those dark places, there is fortunately some other part of me that keeps my feet going, played loops of songs, and bombarded my thinking with the mantra “Just keep swimming” from Finding Nemo so that I was able to push on.
Push on, indeed. That second day included an incredibly dusty 5600′ descent, 6.6 miles, with no water, in hot sun, that took 4 hours to complete. I pulled up to the first water source – a small stream – at about 6:30pm that night. I’d passed the Utah couple on the descent and they arrived about 15-20 minutes after I did. All of us were monosyllabic and exhausted. I had set up camp at the first opportunity prior to the creek, they went over to the other side and found a spot, and we both hit the hay early. For me, that was after trying to eat dinner and finding that I could chew the same bite of food for minutes and never want to swallow. A second night of burying dinner.
It was starting to occur to me that maybe this trip wasn’t supposed to be about miles per day. Maybe I was supposed to figure out how to have a good trip, a trip that would leave me wanting to do this again. I had joked with a friend back home “sometimes I do these extreme things and then I never want to do them again” – like running the half marathon, doing a triathlon, or cycling a century. I never wanted to do any of those again after doing them once (though currently the idea of a triathlon has been circulating and I’m tempted). She said “don’t do it then!” very concerned, I guess, that I would never want to backpack again. In the 13.5 hours of hiking 13+ miles that day, I had started to wonder if I should consider shortening my route so that I would be able to enjoy it more.
That night I put in earplugs to sleep because I was finding that the sound of running water and random bird noises was not calming or sleep-inducing. They helped me sleep deeper but I woke up a few times in the night, yanking them out, feeling like someone was speaking to me. At least I didn’t dream about fighting with my ex again, or dying.
I never got their names, and I never saw them again after this day, but boy am I grateful for the existence of the Utah couple – practically my only points of human contact on those first 3 days. I got up at 5:30am (which was now the norm) and was packed and boiling water for breakfast at the creek by 6. The man came to the river to get water for his breakfast & prepare for that day’s travels so we had a chance to talk a bit more – both of us now rested, hydrated, and able to form complete sentences. I confessed to him that I was scared, this was my first big trip, and I might have scheduled a more intensive itinerary than I could do. He shared with me that he had done the JMT, that he hiked 500-600 miles on average per year, that he and his wife had just completed the PCT over the course of 39 years of doing segments, but how even for them yesterday had been a supremely challenging day. This helped me immensely. I needed to know that I wasn’t weak for finding the last two days so hard. Our conversation turned to what their plan was – 75 miles in 7 days, turning back towards Road’s End at Woods Creek Trail. When I suggested that I was torn between turning back or going forward he spoke of some people he ran into yesterday who did turn back and how he felt that going forward was actually the less difficult option.
I’d still been turning over the idea of retracing my route back to the car, it would mean another day of going up 5600′ – this time with no water – and then at least another day of going down…though I could maybe stretch it into two smaller days. It felt so defeating to think of going backwards though. The Utah couple’s itinerary sounded good to me and so that morning I decided that I was going to do it too, and that decision enabled me to move forward with curiousity about what lay ahead and removed my dread at the thought of having to go back.
Once I got moving and changing scenery, a lot shifted. I wrote in my journal that night “I didn’t think about suicide today” and that felt like a huge accomplishment. On this day I passed the Utah couple on their first break in the morning and then never saw them again. I made good time towards my next goal (I was still on track for the third day of my original itinerary and was in fact going to go further than planned). I started to take electrolytes at each of my timer-alerted 2 hours breaks, was able to down snacks, and my body was beginning to acclimate to a full day of hiking. I felt more energized and able to take on anything, even more elevation. The slow-going uphill treks were just taking the time they took and I didn’t dissolve into a puddle of self-doubt anymore. I started noticing a feeling of being grateful for how strong my heart & lungs are and that my legs and feet were doing a good job of tackling the various trail compositions. From chunky granite rocks to stone stairs to packed dirt to gravel. My toes were a little numb but otherwise everything was functioning pretty well and while I would have little moments of noticing new ways that injury or death could occur in this environment, nothing overtook my thinking as in the previous days.
I intersected with the John Muir Trail at around 4pm that day and I’ll admit I had a moment of fan excitement.
My other human encounter on that day was a young woman who was doing the JMT Northbound solo (for the time being). She said she’d just finished grad school and this was her ‘treat’ to herself but she had to laugh at calling it a treat. I was inspired to hear again that this type of experience was challenging other people, not just me, and I happily pressed on beyond my expected day’s goal (8.5 miles to the junction). Now that I was planning to do the 7 day loop, i needed to hit at least 10 miles that day, but I knew I could and it was still early. I had started at 7am that morning and by 5:30pm I had set up camp beside the river. That night, for the first time, I enjoyed the hot dinner (beef stroganoff) and tucked myself into bed feeling excited for my first full day of hiking on the John Muir Trail.
Stay tuned for one more post that will cover the two days on the JMT and the day getting off the trails.Continue reading →