I’m about to do
something a ton of things I’ve never done before. The major features:
- I’ll be hiking 15+ miles a day
- For 11 days
- In the mountains (elevation 7000′ to 13000′)
- By myself
The idea for this trip started when I read (and then watched the movie adaptation) of Into the Wild in 2007 and was further compounded by a slideshow in Yosemite I attended in 2010 where a guy who had done the John Muir Trail twice shared his experiences and tips. I loved the pictures of stunning meadows & mountain passes and was captivated by his claims that once you hit day 4 or 5 your body acclimates to just hiking all day, every day. I wanted to know what that felt like. It sounded exactly like the kind of transformative experience that a person who tends to want to do things only when they’re extreme would be into. Spoiler alert: I am exactly that kind of person. From that moment on, I was eagerly talking up the idea of hiking the JMT someday.
Things have been tremendously challenging for me over the last year. I’ve been struggling through an embattled divorce process and back in the winter when there was no end in sight, I decided I wasn’t going to let the stress and uncertainty of divorcing ruin my summer. I began to plan a big adventure to do alone. It felt like the right thing to do, to renew my confidence in my ability to accomplish big things. Let’s be clear, getting a divorce is also a “big thing” of a different kind. My entry into the JMT permit lottery was unsuccessful and while apparently it’s possible to get walk-up permits I’m not the kind of person (yet?) who can plan a 21 day trip that hangs on whether I can score a permit the day of on a very popular route. A little searching, however, turned up this a very interesting alternative: Big SeKi Loop
At 156 miles, it’s still a challenge and it covers 53 (and according to the authors, the most beautiful) miles of the JMT. I was drawn to it immediately because it’s a loop which minimizes risk of needing to schedule car swaps or transit to be able to get home when I’m done. The length makes the trip take just under two weeks instead of almost a month and that lets me take time off work with less stress about being gone for too long. Someday I hope to do some thru-hiking (AT or PCT) but BSL is a solid warm up for a newbie trying to do long distance hiking without a “quit your job” level of commitment.
Once I decided to do Big SeKi I started researching light & ultralight backpacking strategies. This route doesn’t lend itself to re-supply so I’d have to figure out how to carry 11 days of food – 10 of which have to be in a bear-proof container and that meant everything else would have to be REALLY light. I read a ton of sites about lightening loads, planning meals, and what to bring – these are the ones I got the most useful information out of:
- Erik the Black’s Backpacking Blog
- Ultralight Makeover
- Introduction to Lightweight Backpacking
I also had a coworker’s husband’s spreadsheet from his JMT trip (he was a really good planner!) and learned from him about LighterPack which is a site that does the math on your pack weight (and makes for a great packing list) with support for categories like consumables and stuff you’re wearing instead of packing. Using this tool, I’m able to see that my base weight is only 25lbs when distinguished from my food/clothes I’ll be wearing.
When it came to backpacking gear, there was a lot I didn’t have. I only just bought my first car camping tent this year. My prior backpacking experience had been just a couple of 2/3 day excursions with my ex and almost all the gear we used was hers. I had a backpack and a sleeping bag so big items I had to make decisions on right away were:
- Backpacking tent
- Cooking system
- Water purification
- Bear canister
It was exciting to start building up my backpacking gear. I tested things out with other pieces of equipment I already had on a few car camping trips in the spring/early summer and I’ve spent the last several months tweaking the gear I needed based on what worked & what was too heavy or not ideal for my expected environments. In this process I made several significant changes:
- Lighter weight sleeping pad – I ended up going with the insulated Nemo Vector (has a foot pump built in) after the Nemo Tensor I bought started leaking after only two short weekend trips. To make up for the weight difference, I went down to a regular size on the Vector where I’d had the long size of the Tensor (which was indulgent)
- Thanks to a very experienced friend’s recommendation, I purchased a way better, bigger, and lighter backpack – my old North Face one was 65 liters and almost 5 lbs. I got this ULA 75 liter instead that only weight 3lbs. I love how this bag is designed and just took it out on a trip to Desolation Wilderness last weekend for a trial run. It’s all one compartment inside but has hipbelt pockets, side pockets, front mesh, and an internal hydration bladder bag that help keep things organized and easy to access at all times
- After a trip last Thanksgiving with my 30 degree down sleeping bag where I ended up freezing, I was advised to upgrade to a 10 degree bag which will better suit sleeping in the mountains at 10,000′. I’ve done a few trips now with the 10 degree bag and it’s perfect.
In the month leading up to departure I was mostly focused on food planning. My initial approach was to try and aim for as many calories per ounce as I could in each item of food but I struggled to get 3000 calories each day to weigh less than 2 pounds. My first pass on food looked like it would be impossible to carry. Not only that but it become obvious pretty quickly that I was going to have to bring 2 bear canisters on the trip if all my food was going to be protectable (and meet park regulations). My experienced friend thinks this is funny and I can’t find much information on the web about other people doing it but by the numbers I’m still happy with my final pack weight and I’m using two 3 lb Bear Vault 500 canisters with a little room to spare in one of them for my toiletries. Also, as the one can empties out, I can fill it with other things so that my pack can get more compact.
Last weekend’s trip made me realize I was putting too much oatmeal in my breakfasts (1 cup) so last night I spent a few hours finalizing my food packing with a new approach: what actually looked like enough food?
Once I removed about 1/4 of the oatmeal, and pared down the snacks, each day’s meal fell between 1.7-1.9 pounds per day. This shaved over 10 lbs off my initial food packages. It meant I was able to get 5.5 days food into one canister and the remaining 4.5 days (my first day’s food will never need to be in a canister) into the other.
Having my food packing working was a really exciting milestone in my trip preparation but this next part sealed the deal on increasing my excitement for the trip: My pack fits two bear canisters while still being able to close! I was expecting to have to strap one canister to the outside of the pack and am so grateful that won’t be necessary.
Here’s a photo of everything I’m stuffing in there – and here’s the weight breakdown:
One last item I had to consider for this trip was whether or not to use a personal locator beacon. It definitely didn’t make sense to buy one (yet) since they run $150+, and that’s without data plans, but since I work in a pretty gadget-loving environment I sent out a message to our social email list in the hopes someone might have one I could borrow. This worked recently when I got to borrow a GoPro to take underwater videos in Belize, and it worked again last week when a co-worker volunteered to loan me his DeLorme inReach. The two main locators are the SPOT and the DeLorme. The former requires a $150/year subscription while the latter let me reactivate it for only $14.95 a month. As long as I remember to cancel the subscription when I get home, I’ll have the peace of mind for a very low cost. I hope my mother appreciates that I’m carrying an extra 6.9 ounces just for her 🙂
As of right now my bag is packed, my food fits and feels like enough, and the things I have left to do before I drive away on Sunday are:
- make a pot cozy since I’m doing all my breakfast & dinners in freezer bags it will be good to have a place to keep food warm while it’s cooking
- organize my iPhone podcasts & kindle downloads (I’ve already deleted every single non-essential-to-this-trip app from the phone to maximize photo/video space)
- prepare my dog’s going away bag
- print out an itinerary to leave in my car
I’ll take notes and pictures while I’m away and report back on how the trip goes – hope this info helps someone else take on the challenge of solo backpacking. I’ve added some John Muir essays to my Kindle to really get in the spirit of things while I’m up there. It occurred to me the other day that I was approaching this trip like I do most time off: planning out every minute of how I was going to enjoy the time. Instead of trying to force myself to a rigid schedule or expected accomplishments, though, this time I’m going to push myself to just look at each day as its own time and see what happens.