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Backpacking Books

Over the years we've looked high and low for good books on hiking. (This tends to be during the winter months, when we can't get out on the trail and are desperately looking for some kind of escape...) But all too often, what we've found is that the people who hike don't write very well, and the people who write well don't necessarily understand the beauty of backpacking. But here are a few books that give joy both for what they say and how they say it.

Going Light with Backpack or Burro--a delightful book from the Sierra Club back in the 1950's. It's quite out of date on a lot of topics, from bear cannisters and sunscreen to drinking water, but it captures that wonderful sense of getting out into the wilderness. It's a fun look back at the way things were, and it still captures a lot of the joy of how things are today. Besides, any book that encourages you to wear the same shirt for two weeks straight can't be all bad!

My First Summer in the Sierra--John Muir's tale of working as a kind of shepherd ( he isn't really responsible for the sheep ) is a trip back even further into time, and into the mind of the great conservationist. It shows a bit of how Muir, trained as an engineer, approached the issues of life in the mountains...but it also is a fun read as a travelogue. If you've ever driven from Modesto to Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows through the Big Oak Flat entrance station, you've basically followed Muir's path.

The Mountains of California--Muir's stories about the geology, flora and fauna of the Sierra. You can't read this without thinking that he is an odd man--given to massive amounts of anthropomorphism in the worst way--but also full of such joy for the mountains. It makes you wonder how he was happy anywhere else...yet he lived the life of a farmer in Martinez for most of his years.

Equally good, and with a considerably better sense of humor, is Clarence King's Mountaineering in the iIerra Nevada. King not only has wonderful and hair-raising adventures in these mountains in the early days of California; but his character sketches of the people he meets are priceless. This one is fun to read, even if you don't like mountains, just because of those sketches. And if you do like mountains, his tales of climbing some of the great peaks of the range in hobnail boots with only a lariat for a rope are unforgettable.

Thousand Mile Summer and The Man Who Walked Through Time, both by Colin Fletcher, who also wrote The Compleat Walker. hmmm. Lots of books to talk about here.

The Compleat Walker is a superb guide, although the latest edition is so thick and so full of details on just about anything that it has become unwieldy. That's a problem. And Fletcher has recognized his traditional approach, and invited a younger, more up-to-date contributor to join him in offering advice...which gets to be quite overwhelming most of the time. Frankly, I think they would have been better off avoiding a lot of the technical equipment talk, and spend more time on philosophy and concept, which Fletcher does better than anyone, by far. There are simply too many new developments in too many different directions for this book to keep up. In our opinion.

But Thousand Mile Summer and The Man Who Walked Through Time are the two best books ever written about hiking in North America. In some ways, the first one (a log of his trip along the Pacific Crest Trail through California) is a great introduction, because Fletcher so obviously learns as he goes. And while there are some painful sections (he kills the first few rattlesnakes he sees, for no apparent reason) the learning process is perfectly documented and the end result is lovely. And NOBODY gets the trail life the way Fletcher gets it. His description of falling into the habits of being on the trail in The Man Who Walked Through Time is a perfect glimpse into that world. In that book he walks the length of the Grand Canyon, even using an air-drop at one point to re-supply. I doubt you could do that these days, but the tales of his appreciation of the hiking life are superb. He is not afraid to confess his fears (and we all have them, from time to time on the trail) and yet he also beautifully conveys the sense of wonder and accomplishment with each mile hiked. Great stuff.

A Walk in the Woods--Perhaps the best of all, Bill Bryson's story of his adventures on the Appalachian Trail has humor, history, and great writing. On the other hand, his notes about the Black Bear have somehow turned our oldest daughter into a completely terror-ridden camper, sure that she will be eaten. Go figure. But the book is a delight, and Bryson makes it clear that anyone, even an out of shape writer, can not only survive but have a wonderful time in the woods. No, this isn't about the Sierra Nevada, but it is about backpacking! If you haven't read any Bill Bryson, you have a treat in store.

Sierra North and Sierra South--our favorite trail guides for our trips. These are classics (we have one set from the 1960's) but the more recent editions have much better maps; well worth a second purchase. The trails cover every part of the Sierra Nevada, and are explained, charted, and graphed. And we like the general tone of these books. A ten-mile day is considered to be a long one, rest days are scheduled every 3-4 days on the trail, and you are encouraged to take time, see the sights, and enjoy the trip. These are the best hiking guides for backpackers in the Sierra. Between the two of them, you have 170 great trips to take. And not nearly enough time each summer.

California Hiking--Tom Stienstra's great collection of trails throughout the Golden State. It's a huge book, and most of these are day-trips, rather than overnight backpacking trips. But it's a good book to have around, and many of the longer day hikes can also be overnighters. If there is one nit we have to pick with Stienstra, it's that he seems to have a slight case of testosterone poisoning. Apparently a certainly amount of suffering and hardship adds to his enjoyment of the wilderness...and he seems to spend a lot of time there in the company of other manly men. Makes you wonder how often he's been on a backpacking trip with his wife. And why. By the way, his other books in this series, California Camping and California Fishing, are also great guides, with the same caveat.

Just about any of the books by Jeffrey Schaffer: Yosemite National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Tahoe Sierra, and Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. These are great guides, and have everything from history (both natural and man-made!) to details on fishing, campgrounds and everything else. Very helpful as a way of getting yourself oriented towards a longer stay in any one of these areas. It's hard to read one of these books and not start planning your next trip.

For winter adventures, we like Best Snowshoe Trails in California. Mike White has done an excellent job of collecting everything from short hikes to longer expeditions in the winter. If you have done all of these trails in snowshoes, then you can really call yourself a pro.

And now let's go a bit further the realm of fiction...

We have to start with our own murder mystery in the Sierra Nevada: Danger, Falling Rocks, by Val de Grace books. Here's a link to where you can find it, either on-line or at your local bookshop, depending on where you live. And here's what a local reviewer had to say about the book: 

"Clever and captivating. Wagner pulls readers along on a trail through the mountains, keenly observing a world in which the greatest threat, of course, is humans... An excellent excursion for armchair mountaineers."


Sasha Paulsen, The Napa Register

OK, Nevada Barr has written a whole series of crime novels that take place in National Parks, including ones in Yosemite and Lassen. We're not huge fans of Barr. The plots get to be a bit formulaic, and as one member of a discussion board once posted, if any ranger got into as many physical confrontations as Barr does, she'd be collecting unemployment, not getting promoted. Some of the descriptive language is excellent, and makes you wish you were in the mountains. And then the plot (and some of the very silly decisions made by her heroine) make you very happy that you don't have to meet any of the characters. For all of her experience with the National Park Service, Anna Pigeon seems to avoid protocol just about every chance she gets. How can someone so smart be so dumb? please.

On the other hand, Tony Hillerman is really something special. His novels about the Southwest are simply stunning combinations of writing, plot, character and love--love for the whole region and everything it has to offer. And while none of them take place in the Sierra Nevada, his Skeleton Man involves a backpacking trip down into the Grand Canyon...and we challenge anyone to read this section and not want to put on a pack and start exploring that park. Great writer, great writing.

Go ahead! Start reading!

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