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September to December of 2010

Post date: Dec 19, 2010 4:42:05 PM

It's only fair to provide the other list, as well!

Who’s been nice?

10. Equipment companies who keep making better, lighter, and easier equipment. Yeah, I know they’re in it for the money. And some of this stuff isn’t cheap. But it works, and it does make life on the trail better.

9. Pack train companies that give a wilderness experience to people who might otherwise never be able to enjoy one. And yes, they are also on the naughty list…

8. Anyone else who takes the time to introduce a newbie to the backcountry. Ya done good.

7. Scout leaders, both boys and girls, because of the above. Only they do it for larger groups, and work with kids. Go figure.

6. Any organization that works to help protect or preserve our wild lands, from Trout Unlimited and Wild Rivers to the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society. Thank you. We may not always agree, but we really appreciate the hard work and the passion.

5. Any government official or politician who manages to forget, just for one second, about getting re-elected and does something that helps protect or preserve our parks, national forests, and wild lands. You know who you are…and some of us are keeping score.

4. Our park rangers, forest service employees, and fish and game wardens. You are underpaid and overworked, but at least not unappreciated—not from our point of view!

3. Anybody who takes it upon themselves to clean up after someone else in the woods. Thank you.

2. Volunteer trail crews that tackle big problems on their own free time, and seem to think it is a vacation. I know you get many rewards for this—but let me add one more: our gratitude.

1. Ken Burns, for focusing the nation, if only for a few weeks, on the most wonderful national park system in the world.

Post date: Dec 19, 2010 3:46:25 PM

The Top Ten LNT Naughty kids in the backcountry

Santa keeps a list, and so do we. And the people who do these things in the back country aren’t going to find any presents under the tree from me this year!

10. Micro-trash on the trails. Yeah, I know it means you would have to bend over and pick up that tiny piece of foil. But if you don’t, it will be there for years, telling everyone else on the trail that you were too lazy. Not a good message to send. We collect a pocketful of this stuff on every trip.

9. Horses. If you are going to leave no trace, a horse is a very bad piece of equipment. They damage trails and trample campsites into hard-packed pavement.

8. Fire rings. OK fine, if one is there, go ahead and use it. But please don’t create another one thinking that the person behind you is going to appreciate it. We don’t. If you absolutely NEED a fire, pick a campsite that already has a ring.

7. Denuded campsites…from those same people who need a fire every single night, and will strip the bark off trees, hack off branches, and police the ground until there is nothing left but packed dirt. Sorry, but if you want to camp that way, go to a car campground and have the time of your life. In the wilderness, we’d like you to leave no trace.

6. Cutting switchbacks on the trail…because you are cooler than everyone else, and you get to damage the trails all by yourself? Those trails will now erode into ruin, and somebody will have to fix them, instead of doing something more helpful.

5. Carving your initials (or anything else) anywhere in the backcountry. Please. Write your name in yellow snow…but not on anything more permanent than that. We don’t want to know that you’ve been here. That’s the whole point.

4. Leaving stuff behind. I don’t care if your tent leaks, pack it out. If your fleece has a hole in it, pack it out. There is no fun in getting to someplace beautiful and finding that some jerk decided to abandon his or her garbage in it.

3. Fishermen who think that they are special and can leave monofilament, powerbait containers, or other crap along streams and lake shores. The fish remember this stuff, and so do we.

2. Toilet paper. There is nothing worse than arriving at a beautiful spot and finding the ground and bushes littered with toilet paper the rodents have dug up. Nothing. Pack it out.

1. Habituated wildlife—there is no question about it. The worst thing that can happen to a wild animal is for it to become habituated to humans. A pox on everyone who feeds (intentionally or not---there’s no excuse) or otherwise accustoms a wild animal to humans.

Dec 16, 2010 10:00:59 PM

In this world of mass materialism, there is something very calming about the process of backpacking. After all, if you are going to have to carry it all on your's a good idea to pare down the material goods to a bare minimum. In the end, weight is your enemy. And while we do take along a few minor luxuries, in general we like to think that we keep things pretty simple.

So what are the basics for food, water, shelter and clothing for a week in the Sierra in the summer? A tent and sleeping bag for shelter. A change of underwear and socks. A water filter and a few plastic bottles for water. And tiny gas stove, aluminum pot, and plastic cups and bowls are the kitchen. Add the food to eat, and you are good to go. Everything you need will fit in a medium sized suitcase--maybe even a small one.

That's the STUFF. But that's only half the story. The other half of the story is what you do with it.

There is a kind of rhythm to backpacking. Each of us hikes to our own cadence, and at our own pace. Doing that for a few hours is certainly a good way to get rid of any urban anxiety you may bring to the trail. And we've camped together now for 45 years. That means that when we stop, we have a very clear idea of what needs to get done. The tent gets set up, and the bags and pads installed inside. Somebody usually needs to filter some water. So those items are always the first to come out of the pack.

M usually likes a quick rinse in the local body of water--to freshen up. P usually waits for that, and fishes instead. After that, we have time to set up the kitchen and decide what we're going to eat that night. But there is relatively little that really needs doing, and what does need doing is relatively simple and easy to do.

Which means that there's not a lot of wasted motion, or unnecessary fretting. Colin Fletcher compares it to a kind of feeling of peace with the world, each action following the previous one simply and directly. The first day on the trail it all comes back. And by the second day, you really wonder why the rest of your life is so complicated. By day three, you can't remember the rest of your life.

Which is, after all, why we backpack in the first place!

Post date: Dec 14, 2010 11:19:14 PM

We're always just a little amazed at the way some people approach backpacking routes and itineraries: as if they were written in stone, and must be obeyed to the letter, come hell or high water. Yowza, that's a bad idea! Particularly in the case of high water...if the water looks too dangerous, go somewhere else!

Of course, if you are trying to do the whole PCT in one season, you better keep moving, and in the same direction. But otherwise, we're big believers in taking it as it comes.

We start every trip with a clear idea of how we'd like to start...and maybe where we'd like to go. But we always know, in the back of our minds, that we don't really have to follow the plan. In fact, we've had some of our best trips when we decided to do something different. And we look for ways to get off the main trail just for a little adventure.

Heck, in some cases, we didn't have a choice. We ended up exploring Cherry Canyon and the Boundary Lake area of Yosemite (you'll find that in our favorite lake section!) because our initial permit was for the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne--and a major forest fire there closed the area for weeks. So we went to plan B. We had to buy a couple of extra maps at the wilderness center---and then had a great time. That's Boundary Lake at the top of our website...

This last summer we decided to hike the generally trail-less lakes of southern Emigrant Wilderness: Pingree, Big, and Yellowhammer Lakes. We didn't have a strict day-to-day plan, and we thought we'd just play it by ear, and see how far we'd get. First day, to Resasco Lake, was a tough climb but a great hike. And the second day we found the going so easy (and the route-finding so clear) that we made it all the way to Big Lake by lunch, and Yellowhammer soon after that.

Perfect! Who knew it could be this easy?

Except that Yellowhammer Lake wasn't our idea of a great campsite, for lots of reasons. So we looked at the map, and decided that we could probably climb right up the ridge to Leighton Lake from Yellowhammer. An hour later, high on the granite cliff with our water supply dwindling quickly, it became clear that we weren't going to make it to Leighton Lake. It was hot, dry, dusty, and we were discouraged. We didn't want to go back to Yellowhammer, and we couldn't make it to Leighton.

But below us, like a blue-green jewel in the forest, was little 5 Acre Lake. We slithered down the cliff through the Manzanita, and set up camp at what turned out to be our favorite spot of the whole trip. The lower photo at right is the photo of 5 Acre Lake, taken from up on the ridge towards Leighton Lake.

And the next morning, after more work with map and compass, we found another, easier route to Leighton Lake that worked perfectly.

And if it hadn't, we had a plan B for that day, too. Now THAT'S good trip planning!

Post date: Dec 12, 2010 2:15:50 AM

A hot topic on the news and on some of the backpacking discussion boards these days is the interaction between humans and bears. It seems that a lot of people are concerned about running into a bear in the woods...and they seem to base most of their concerns on the recent news stories about bears invading homes, cabins, and the like. So we thought we'd clarify a few things.

1. Wild bears in the woods seem to avoid people with astonishing ease. Over the past three years we've hiked over 500 miles in the Sierra, and seen exactly two bears on the trail. Both immediately moved in the opposite direction when they saw people. And in talking and writing with loads of other backpackers, we hear that same story over and over again. Truly wild bears avoid people.

2. Tame bears are a different story. And this is where it gets interesting...and sad. Because bears that live near people, either in campgrounds or inhabited areas like ski resorts, quickly learn that people have a lot of food. And like most wild animals, easy food is a big attraction. So bears that live near campgrounds or resorts quickly learn to leave the wild food alone, and base their diet on human food. Which is a huge problem. That food is much higher in calories, and so the bears grow bigger, have more cubs, and generally become a much different animal---including one that is not so afraid of humans. And then it gets ugly. Cabins get invaded, bears get shot, and everybody loses. Especially the bears.

3. Some things seem to work to limit the damage. Bear boxes--big sturdy steel ones--protect the bears by making human food inaccessible. And since they have been installed in campgrounds and parks, bear issues have really gone way down. That's a good thing. But how do you to that to a house or cabin? Do we need to enact new building codes that insist on steel doors on all cabins in the woods? That seems excessive, but there doesn't seem to be any easy answer. And nothing seems to protect bears from really stupid people who leave food outside the boxes.

4. We do have one easy answer. If you want to avoid problems with bears in the woods, avoid people. Go where there are few people, and you will find no problems with bears. And there are other benefits as well--like the fishing is better, and the sunsets are quieter...and well, you get the idea.

Post date: Dec 7, 2010 5:52:05 PM

If you've read this blog much, you know that we spend a fair amount of time trying to pack light. Lighter packs mean happier hikers in our book, and we definitely enjoy the benefits of leaving heavy items at home. On a recent 8 day trip, our packs weighed a total of about 58 pounds---that's for TWO people. P carried about 35, and M another 23. And the good news is that each day they got even lighter!

But we have a bit of an ethical dilemma. We use a very light (3ml) ground cloth under our tent as a vapor barrier. It keeps the tent drier, and also keeps it a lot cleaner. And usually it lasts for a season or so before the holes get large enough that we trade it in on a new one.

But that means we throw out the old one---and that isn't exactly sustainable hiking. Leave no trace? Every year we leave a sheet of 3ml plastic in our garbage can at home. And we're not happy about it. So this year we are looking at a slightly heavier ground cover--one that would last for more than one season. Maybe forever? That would be perfect. But it will weigh a bit more. hmmm.

Anyone else fighting these battles out there?

Post date: Nov 2, 2010 5:54:33 PM

We've been backpacking for quite a while now, and we have to admit that there has been a general improvement in the quality of freeze dried food over the years. When P first started backpacking in the 1960's, he used to take a lot of pasta and instant rice, and a series of sauce mixes. He'd catch trout every night for dinner, and mix it with the sauce over the pasta. Ever had Trout Stroganoff? Trout Cacciatore? Trout Goulash? Those were the days...or not.

But these days you can get some pretty exotic menus right off the freeze dried shelf, from Salmon Diavolo to Katmandu Curry and everything in between. We're not convinced this stuff is great, but it is edible, has some flavor, and seems to contain enough calories to keep us alive. We add a bowl of Miso soup to start, and fill out the menu with some dried fruit, an energy bar or two, and maybe some dark chocolate M&Ms for dessert. That's dinner

And we tend to select these for their calories as much as for their flavor--although we were very happily surprised by a recent Biscuits and Gravy meal that had well over 400 calories per serving and tasted...pretty darn good.

But a few months ago we bought a food dehydrator. We didn't really know how it would work, or how well, but we'd thought we'd give it a try. And the first thing we dehydrated was a burrito from our favorite local taqueria. We sliced it thin, laid it out on the trays, and left it overnight. Unfortunately, we didn't take the trouble to weight the thing beforehand, so when it was dry, we didn't have a good idea of how much water to add later

But that didn't stop us. We took it along on our last trip and were just a little hesitant about how well it was going to work. When we found a lake with fish, we decided to try the burrito--that way, if it didn't work, we had a backup plan. We boiled the water, tossed in the shredded burrito, and let it sit. Fifteen minutes later, we opened up the pot and started eating.

Ay chihuahua! This was the best meal we ever had backpacking! Wow ! Rich, flavorful, and yummy! The tortilla had turned into a kind of pasta, but the rest of the thing was pretty much as it had been made by Tania's Taqueria. It was delicious.

So now we're hooked. We're trying all sorts of things, and not all of them work. But we've started to look forward to dinner on our trips in a whole new way. And that's a good thing!

Post date: Oct 23, 2010 2:41:19 AM

We've been hiking, backpacking, barbecuing and camping for the last fifty years, and we've always used matches to light our fires and our stoves. Cigarette lighters were for smokers, and we've never smoked. It never even occurred to us to buy a lighter. We bought matches, kept them dry, and sometimes struggled to light them in damp or windy conditions. But that was all part of the adventure.

And then, one day, P suggested that we just buy a couple of cheap BIC lighters at the store---because we were having trouble finding matches.


Simple, effective, and much more efficient. No wonder smokers use them! Now, so do we!

Post date: Oct 19, 2010 5:00:36 PM

Just back from a wonderful three days in Yosemite, where we had a lovely time taking hikes that we would normally avoid. Yes, these were trails that had been worn down over the summer by hordes of tourists, but in October we saw only four people a day on these trails. How nice is that?

Our first hike was to Elizabeth Lake, which is just over two miles from the Tuolumne Meadows campground. You might expect that this trail would very popular, and it is in the summer. But on this trip we saw only two people, and had the lake to ourselves. (This is also a fall-back route to get into the back country via Nelson Lake, for those of you who may wonder about last minute wilderness permits.) Lovely hike--a nice climb for the first mile, then an easy stroll up the valley to the lake, which sits underneath the imposing Unicorn Peak. And yes, there were some nice brook trout in the lake.

Since we had time, we also climbed up to the top of Lembert Dome...and saw a total of four people on that hike. We shared the stunning views of Tuolumne Meadows and the surrounding peaks of the Yosemite high country with a young German couple...and nobody else!

The next day we hiked part of the Pohono Trail, from the trailhead at Glacier Point Road down to Dewey Point and back. We saw a total of six people on this amazing eleven mile hike until we got back to Taft point in the afternoon, where we finally saw about twenty people who were marveling at the fissures and Taft Point. But Dewey Point has some of the best views in Yosemite, and we ate lunch there in splendid solitude. It was a magical day.

On the way back we really enjoyed the various fungi that came out after the recent rains...a real show!

Finally, on our last day. we drove up to White Wolf (closed for the season) and took the short hike to Lukens Lake. Again, this is a trail that attracts a ton of people in the summer, but on this day we met only one other couple--they were on their way in as we were hiking out. And yes, there were fish here too.

The only downside to the trip was our lodging in Curry Village. We agreed to try this as an experiment, and would have to rate it a full-blown failure. Too many people, too close together. The tent sites in the campground have far more privacy...and when a drunken guest kept us up most of the night with her retching and heaving, we knew it was not our kind of crowd...

Next year, we'll just go camping.

Post date: Oct 9, 2010 4:08:57 PM

The days are shorter, and the temperatures are lower, but that's no reason to stay home this time of year. Some of our best hikes ever have been in the Fall. And now the leaves are turning color, which just adds to the show. Of course, we make a few allowances for the weather, and we don't generally plan long trips far from the trailhead, but that still leaves lots of wonderful hikes to enjoy.

For one thing, we won't usually backpack for more than a couple of nights in a row during the fall. We are not fans of getting caught in a major storm far from our car...and ever since we read about the Donner Party, we've been a little careful about snowstorms that turn into full blown winter.

But the Sierra is just about abandoned this time of year. It's too early for skiers and snowshoers, and most hikers stay home. That leaves a lot of open trail for us. Over the past couple of years, we've had some lovely adventures:

>> We car camped in Yosemite and did a series of wonderful day-hikes from that base, including a memorable hike up Tenaya Canyon. That's a trail that you don't want to do in the middle of summer, because the roaring creek in the gorge is really dangerous. But in the fall, it dries to a trickle and that makes the hike a lot more manageable.

(Just an FYI--the Park Service doesn't recommend this hike, and we've never taken it all the way to Tenaya Lake. Please don't take this hike, get into trouble, and then blame us!)

On that same trip we raced snow flurries to Wapama Falls near Hetch-hetchy and climbed up the trail to Snow Creek Falls, reaching the top of the ridge and watching an approaching snowstorm begin to filter down from above. We met a lot of backpackers going up that trail, hoping for the best. And we met on guy coming back down who had seen enough of the snow and cold to want to get back to the Valley.

>> Last year we stayed in relative luxury at Kirkwood ski resort and day-hiked the trails around Carson Pass.

The first snowstorm of the season had left its traces on the mountains, and the hiking was lovely. On one of the hikes, we didn't see another soul, and on another one we only saw people within a mile of the trailhead...the other ten miles were in splendid solitude.

That's Round Top Lake at left...and yes, it really it that beautiful.

Yeah, we take an extra layer of clothes this time of year, and usually a bit more food. And we are careful not to bite off more than we can chew for the day. This is not the time of year to get caught out on the mountain after dark!

But we always come back with our minds refreshed, and with more memories and photos than we can possibly mention here.

Get out there and hike!

Post date: Sep 24, 2010 4:55:29 PM

Since posting the directions on how to pack your bear can, we've received a few extra tips from readers...

"Don't forget to sit on the lid as you are packing the can. This not only compresses everything tighter, but can also break the threads of the can. That means you have to buy a new (and bigger!) bear canister."

"You left out the most important part--how to use a hammer to mash all that food into the smallest possible space."

"Forget the hammer, I use a 2X4 for leverage!"

And this from M: "We don't need to take less stuff. We just need to get bigger bear cans."


Post date: Sep 21, 2010 6:22:14 PM

It's not a science, but more like an art.

Step One: First you have to get all of your food together: the freeze-dried dinners, the soup packets, the instant oatmeal and cocoa, the energy bars and the gorp, the dried fruit and salami, bread or crackers. It all has to go into that little plastic barrel.

Step Two: Take everything out of its prepackaged wrapper. Pour the freeze-dried dinners into zip-lock bags, so they take up less room. Open the dried fruit packages, squeeze all the air our of them, then re-seal them with their finger seal. Remove all extraneous paper wrappings, cardboard, etc. If you are taking bread, squeeze it down into a much smaller dimension, and then put it in the freezer over night. It will take up less room, and stay fresher that way.

Step Three: take the first night's dinner and set it aside. It doesn't have to go in the can, nor does the first day's lunch or snack. Whew! That makes it a little easier.

Step Four: imagine all of this fitting into that little plastic can. And imagine how you are going to use this stuff. Start by putting a couple of days' breakfasts and dinner down into the bottom of the can. You won't need these for the first few days, and it's better to get them out of the way.

Step Five: Now stack all those energy bars around the side of the can. This is the most efficient use of space for these bars, and this way they are more or less easy to grab. As you stack them in there, use more breakfasts or dinners to hold them in place.

Step Six: now it's time for the stuff in the middle. Take your salami, cheese, and anything else you are going to eat for lunch and pack it in the middle of the can. You'll need to access this stuff every day, so there is no point putting it in the bottom.

Step Seven: Toss in the last breakfast--that's what you'll need first thing in the morning on the second day, and it makes sense to put this on top. Hooray! It all fits perfectly!

Step Eight: Inform your wife that the bear canister is now packed for the trail. She asks if you want to put the toiletries in there as well.

Step Nine: Take the sunscreen, moisturizer, insect repellent, toothpaste, and face cream from your wife. Go back to the bear can and start shoving it in. With a little bit of luck and some brute force, you'll be able to wedge this stuff in between the salami and the cheese, and maybe shove one down the side with the energy bars. That last tube of face cream is just going to get mashed on top...and let's hope it doesn't jam the lid when you try to unscrew everything

Step Ten: Inform your wife that the bear canister is now packed for the trail. She asks if you remembered the bread.

Step Eleven: Take the bread out of the freezer. Unpack the entire can and start again, shoving things together even harder. Forget trying to keep the noodles in once piece. Sacrifice the crispy crackers and turn them into powder to gain more space. Mash the bread into a solid ball, then shove the final toiletries on top and jam the lid in place. Slowly screw the lid down, listening for structural failure in the bear can.

Step Twelve: Inform your wife that the bear canister is now packed for the trail. She asks if you remembered to put the soap in.

Step Thirteen: Put the soap in a side pocket of your pack, along with the last two energy bars, a tube of neo-sporin, and the raisins your wife just bought at the store.

Step Fourteen: Inform the ranger at the trailhead that all your food and odorized items are in the bear can.

Step Fifteen: Start hiking. Hope for the best. Inform your wife that next time, we'll have take less stuff.

Post date: Sep 13, 2010 7:04:26 PM

Llamas? Maybe that's the solution! But they won't let you ride them!

OK—we’re going to say this right out loud: We’re not big fans of horses on the trail in the backcountry. And you’ll quickly understand why when you compare the impact of a pack train with the impact of a few hikers on a trail. It’s hard to argue in favor of the leave-no-trace philosophy and then suggest that horses should be allowed in the wilderness. They destroy trails and trample campsites. And they don’t really watch where they put their feet, which is why they kick so many stones into the trail, where we have to step over and around them.


A single 1400 pound horse with pack puts about 70 pounds per square inch when it steps on a trail, and that weight is concentrated in a narrow band of steel. A 200 pound hiker with pack puts about 4 psi on the trail…and that weight is cushioned by socks and Vibram. And around the campsites, this traffic is even worse. One way to look at it is that a single horse, even if it were wearing socks and Vibram, would have the impact of 35 hikers. And a pack train of eight horses is about the same as 280 hikers. Think of that, the next time one goes by!

But we’ve also got to say a few words about the people who run these horses. Because we’ve had some really good experiences getting advice from people who run pack trains into the wilderness. And they’ve been very gracious about how they gave it, even though they knew that we were backpackers, and not likely to use their services.

This summer we ran into a pack train early in the season, where the rivers were still quite swollen with run-off. The driver from Leavitt Meadows Pack Station gave us a great tip on where to ford the West Walker River…and the encouragement to go for it. And we had a great trip.

And the Aspen Meadows Pack Station in Emigrant Wilderness also gave us some great trail advice on a lesser-used route through a series of back country lakes—also leading to a great trip there.

So when we see these guys on the trail, we’re always cheerful and friendly. But we’ll still try to limit how many horses they take into the backcountry, and how much that impacts our wilderness.

Post Date September 10, 2010 4:34:40 p.m.

Despite the fact that we have to carry everything on our backs, on every pack trip, we take a few things that aren’t absolutely necessary. But over the years, there are a few things we’ve really come to appreciate, even though they add a bit to the weight of our packs. What are they? In the Sierra Nevada, you can forget your American Express card, but don’t leave home without these!

Well, the first one we’d mention is a tiny little set of folding plastic feet that open up to give our stove canister a little broader base on the ground. It probably cost about $10, and weighs about two ounces. And we’ve come to love it. Heating boiling water on a tiny stove in the mountains is hard enough without having to worry about the stove falling over…and this little gadget solves that problem perfectly. It fits right into our cook pot with the stove and adds a good two inches on every side of the stove for stability.

Then we’d add our closed-cell foam seats—two 8 X 16 inch rectangles that P cut from an old sleeping pad. We just wedge them in the bungees on the backs of our packs and pull them out every time we sit down, on the trail, or in camp. And you wouldn’t believe how nice it is to have these to kneel on when you have to spend some time over the stove, fixing the tent, or any number of other things that require a little humility in the mountains. At night, P uses these as the base of his pillow, too. Cost? Free. Weight? Two ounces. There's one underneath P at left...

And our mosquito headnets weigh only one ounce. We almost forget they are in our packs, until…well, you know when. And when we need them, they feel like the difference between life and death by mosquitoes.

The last item weighs a bit more, but over time we’ve also come to really appreciate the Crocs we bring along as water/camp shoes. They are great for wading streams, keep our feet protected a bit, and dry very quickly. And around camp it is lovely to get out of your boots (and sometimes your socks, too) and just loll around in comfort. Why not just go barefoot? Because the last time P did that, at Benson Lake in Yosemite, he managed to get a pine needle stuck in his foot and it took a fair amount of digging and pain to get it out again. These weigh about 11 ounces, but we jam them in the bungees with the seats above, and every time we come to a stream, we just slip them out and slip them on. P's got them on his feet in the photo below left...pure comfort in the backcountry, even fishing along a snowbound creek!

Creature comforts aren’t such a bad idea in the wilderness, as long as they don’t weigh too much

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