Day 1: Campo to Hauser Creek

Miles: 15.4

Cries: 2

Snakes: 0 (1?)
Woke up at 330am and laid in bed feeling surges of adrenaline about starting today. I cried a little thinking about how much I wish my mom were able to be there to send me off, that I would so love one of her hugs. Got up, got dressed, got breakfast. Mark and I were quiet in the car. In a way I don’t think there’s much either of us can say. I’m going. It’s going to be hard. 

Started this morning at around 615. I both didn’t want to stop hugging Mark and my dad goodbye, and I was also desperate to leave. One last hug. And off I went.


The first five or so miles flew by. I was feeling strong and motivated. I chatted with several people. Cathleen. Tommy. Alpo. From the Pacific Northwest. Robert, from Redding. Mike, who was section hiking. Rhino, who has thru-hiked the AT. Jelke from Belgium. Bruce. Amelia. More passed whose names I didn’t catch. I saw a man and a woman both wheeling their backpacks up the mountains on a unicycle-type device. They had dogs. I stopped several times to tend to my feet. By 9am it was warm. There were several streams in the typically dry section. I dunked my shirt, my bandana in the water. I pulled out my umbrella.
I hiked with Mike and he told me about some of his trips to the Sierra, the upcoming terrain. In the heat of the day I started to stop more often. I was chatty. I had to cool off. I stopped and let my body temperature lower. But eventually I stopped and rested for long and invited people to join my “shade party.” From there I hiked with Jelke, whose water filter wasn’t working so I let her borrow mine. 

I got slower and slower – the heat had lifted, but blisters were forming on my pinky toes despite trying three different methods to prevent them, and on top of that I realized I hadn’t done a good job at bringing in calories in the heat. I stopped and ate chocolate hazelnut butter and fig newton type cookies and eventually cooked myself some ramen right on the trail. I am glad to be alone in moments I’m struggling like that. I don’t want to be motivated or encouraged. I want to figure out what I need and then figure out if it’s possible to give it to myself. In that case, it was ramen. So I did.


Still, even after I was no longer bonking, the last miles dragged. At one point I’m pretty sure I heard a rattlesnake but it buzzed several feet after I’d passed it, which was strange. Several reports of snakes on the trail today, but I didn’t see one (I’m happy to keep it that way.) 

My blisters were tender and my spirits were a little low. I’d started the day impressed with my speed and ended the day one of the last people to arrive to Hauser Creek.

At Hauser everyone had already set up tents. There are probably fifteen tents down here. People were sitting in groups and laughing and I felt lonely. Like joining a new school where everyone seems to have all the friends they want. But of course that’s not real. That’s just my brain taking itself in circles. 

Not to mention, once I set up camp I realized I really didn’t want to socialize. I wanted quiet time to myself as I’d run my extroversion to empty earlier, and I had camp chores to do. I filtered water and dug a cathole (it is strange to find a place to poop when there are so many people all in one place) (it was also hard to find a place to pee all day – the space beyond the trail is thick with plants and there were people passing every few minutes.)

What we are doing out here is strange. A singular activity and a group one. Allegiances we abandon regularly. Walking because we can. Going somewhere but far, far away. If I’m honest I’m not thinking about where we’re going. I’m not thinking about how many days it will take or miles there are. I think: I’m gonna go on a 15 mile backpacking trip today. I feel like if I really imagined the scope of what I was doing I wouldn’t be able to go any further.

I’ve touched several things today that might have been poison oak. We’ll find out. 

My Mother and the Pacific Crest Trail

In January of 2015, my mother died of stomach cancer. It took six months from her diagnosis. She spent most of it in a hospital.

A month before her diagnosis, but while we knew she was sick, we took a planned road trip for my birthday to Zion National Park. We drove through miles and miles of empty roads. We drank margaritas and ate Mexican food in Cedar City. We lounged in the pool in Springdale. We hiked through The Narrows.

“We should make a trip like this an annual tradition,” she said. We wouldn’t get a chance.

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My mom and me at The Narrows

I’d first been to the Narrows in high school on a field trip. It was the first time I remember doing something and actually enjoying it while I was doing it. I had a habit as a teen of living in my head. The walls of the canyons, the cool wet of the river, the struggle to stay upright on slick rocks forced me to be there, in the moment. Still, I wouldn’t hike again for years.

Six days after my mother died, my aunt and I went on a summit hike. I don’t know why that seemed like the thing to do. The weather was nice, I guess. I didn’t want to sit around the house. I’d been on maybe two hikes the year before. I wasn’t a hiker.

We didn’t make it to the top. We hadn’t eaten breakfast. We’d taken on the second highest summit in the valley. We turned around.

Still, I remember thinking: There is something out here that helps. I told myself I’d try to go on one hike a month that year.

I read the book Wild when it was published. I’d been a long follower of Cheryl Strayed’s advice column Dear Sugar and got the book on it’s first printing. I devoured it. I didn’t think I’d ever do something as crazy as the PCT. I wasn’t athletic, I didn’t especially enjoy being outside, I didn’t see the value in putting yourself through so much suffering, and it seemed impractical to up and leave one’s life for several months. But I thought maybe someday I’d go on a backpacking trip. That would be adventure enough for me.

I passed the book to my mom. I often gave my mother books that I’d screened – she didn’t like it when books had sad endings. I wish I could remember what she thought of it. I know she liked it. I wondered if the book had made her think about what it was like to lose her own mother some ten years before. I remember being grateful that I loved my mom so much, that she was healthy, that I would have her for a long, long time. She wasn’t afraid of getting older. She liked to say she planned to live to be 120.

A year before the book Wild was published, my mother had emergency surgery for a burst ulcer. It was scary, dangerous, but they’d caught it. When I saw her after she came out of the hospital, she was weak, frail, thin in a way I’d never seen her, and it scared me. But I also thought: Of course you didn’t die. The universe would never take you from me. I wouldn’t let it.

More weeks passed after my mother’s death. In February I took three days and went north and stayed in a cabin my myself. I read. I made campfires. I went on a short hike to Tonto Natural Bridge, climbing over boulders along a creek. I stopped under the massive travertine walkway and watched other hikers trickle in through the morning and wrote in my journal.

I went home. I got a tattoo, a hummingbird, tied to a memory of my mother. I started painting. I read Wild again. I reread Tiny Beautiful Things. I clung to Cheryl Strayed’s writing like a bible for my grief. Backpacking. I would like to go backpacking, I thought. There was a hike I’d heard people talk about in Arizona that took you to clear blue waterfalls. Havasu Falls. Maybe I’d be a strong enough hiker by the end of the year to go there.

But then it was April, and a coworker posted on Facebook that they were going to Havasu Falls and had an extra permit.

When? I asked.

Friday, she said.

I had three days. My tattoo wasn’t finished healing. I had no backpacking gear. I’d never been on more than an eight mile day hike which had nearly destroyed me, let alone carrying weight. The trip to the falls was 10 miles in, 10 miles out.

I said yes.

havasupai

The hike was the first really hard thing I’d done since losing my mom. On the way out, I convinced myself I couldn’t do it. I was going to take a tourist helicopter out. My group passed me and said they’d see me at the top. But then the helicopter was going to take longer than I’d anticipated, almost as long as the hike itself, so instead I hiked my way out. As I climbed the 1000 feet out of the canyon, I looked back at where I’d come from. I wished my mom could see it too. I stopped in every patch of shade to cry. And then I kept walking.

It was nearly a year after Havasu before I went on my next backpacking trip. I started to warm the idea that I might do the PCT someday. Someday, when I’m stronger. Someday, when I’m more confident in nature.

I went on a few more backpacking trips. I liked the way they made me struggle. I liked the way I so often had to do the thing I didn’t think I could do.

I started reading thru-hiker’s blogs. I followed them on Instagram. I saw something I didn’t expect to see, which was that they were just like me. They had all of the same fears and pains I had. The only difference was that they had decided to go.

A year and a half after I lost my mom, I decided for sure I was going to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I’m a month away from starting at the border of Campo, CA.

Losing my mother was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to live through. A close second was the six months I spent watching her die. It doesn’t escape me that for nearly the same amount of time, I will be putting one foot in front of the other, trying to reach the Northern Terminus.

Sometimes I try to imagine whether I would be hiking this trail if my mother were alive. One answer is no. I wouldn’t have needed to. I wouldn’t have needed to see just how much I could suffer and survive if she’d lived.

Another answer is yes. She would come with me. She would make friends with every hiker and trail angel we passed. She would insist we splurge in town on good food and a comfortable bed. She would probably pack wine. She would snore. She would be slow but steady. She would make sure we called home.

Before my mother died, I’d always seen her as a completely different species to me. We got along well, but we were different. Where she was positive I was critical. Where she relaxed, I planned. Where she schemed, I played by the rules.

When she died, an image came to me without asking for it. I imagined that she had shrunk back into a fetus and implanted herself inside my literal, anatomical heart. This essence of my mother would leech out particles of vulnerability when I wanted to be closed, compassion I’d never had capacity for, love for every ounce of my fear. It was as if she’d decided: I can’t be there to help you become this person anymore. I’ll have to show you how to do it on your own.

I don’t get to know what my mother would think of me hiking from Mexico to Canada. I don’t get to know if I’ll make it to the Northern Terminus, or if my pack will be too heavy, or if I’ll wither in the sun or sink in the snow. But I hope to spend as much time as I can being the woman I believe my mother knew I could be. More brave than afraid. More free than secure. More wild and alive.

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Mom holding me at the Grand Canyon

The last of the lazy Sundays – pre-trip, Battleship Mountain, AZ

Today is one of my last “lazy” Sundays before the trail. Three Sunday after this one I will be hiking through the desert barely having scratched the surface of 2600 miles. The last Sunday where I can imagine soreness and stiffness as a temporary condition. 

Yesterday I hiked Battleship Mountain with three other people who are all doing the Oregon Coast Trail this summer. Our challenges are going to be different. They’re hiking 400 miles, but only have 3 weeks to do it, which means they will have to average 18 miles a day with little time to acclimate. I’m hiking 2600 miles but have the freedom of taking time and having patience with my body for the first few weeks. They will be cold. I will be battling the sun. They’ll be sleeping in hotels and yurts and designated campgrounds much of the way, eating hot meals and drinking beer, and I will not be. 


Still, Battleship Mountain was a challenge for all of us. Long (5 miles before reaching the base), steep, bushwacking, trail finding, scrambling (some of which could be called low grade rock climbing). 


We started giving each other trail names. When I slid my hand across a cactus that was hidden in a bush while we were bushwacking, I became “Cactus Whacker.” When my blistered feet and overtired legs made me slow for the last two miles, I became “Willie” – “because you’re moving by sheer force of will at this point.”

“So you’ve named me Cactus Willie Whacker?”

We got a kick out of that. I won’t be taking it with me on the PCT.


We didn’t make it to the very last summit of Battleship Mountain. That’s okay. We were tired, and the exhaustion was making the eroded granite that gave the “ball-bearing slope” its name especially treacherous. We called it and turned around.


Today I am hobbling around. I threaded some string through my blisters last night to much success, but my feet are still tender. I’ve decided to take it easy today. I took myself to brunch, read a book. I am trying to revel in the fact that in three Sundays, I won’t have the choice to put my feet up and drive to breakfast and watch hours of TV. I won’t get to cuddle with my dogs or wake up next to my husband. I will be choosing to be sore and exhausted every day. I will be choosing to walk on anyway. 

It is also strange to think that however long I’m out there – hopefully five months, or however long it takes me to reach Canada – when I come back I will be coming back to a life that won’t quite fit me anymore. Too loose or too tight. Too sharp or soft. I will be stepping into a phantom life that I recognize and yet won’t quite seem alive anymore. Or that’s what I imagine. That’s what happens in small doses when I come back from long, hard hikes. I see my daily life and it seems to be, however slightly, sized to someone else. 
I am nervous and afraid and excited and hopeful. 2600 miles seems too long and also totally possible. 5 months seems too hard and yet within my grasp.

The only way to do it is to do it I guess. But hopefully without feet filled with blisters. I have four pairs of shoes I’m testing out. Wide feet are especially hard to protect on the trail, it seems. I will find a way. 

The Point of Suffering – Reavis Falls + Reavis Ranch overnight

This weekend was 25 miles of backpacking in 36 hours. Approximately 5000 feet accumulated elevation gain, 3000 of it in a 2 mile distance. The destination: Reavis Falls and Reavis Ranch in a day with my friend Dominic. Holy crap, what a trip.

Our initial plan had been Reavis Ranch, but I’m not sure when I’ll get a chance to backpack in that area again, so I wanted to see as much as possible and Dominic was down for a big mile push. The map said the waterfall plus the ranch would be a 15 mile day. I’ve managed 16 with less daylight before, and the ranch’s elevation gain seemed gentle (I didn’t look at the elevation gain for the waterfall – whoops) so I figured we could handle it.

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View from Reavis Trailhead

We camped at the trailhead the night before and were on-trail by 6:45 am. The first ~3 miles was gentle uphill climbing in the cool morning air which made us overconfident. The flowers were blooming – one species smelled strongly of, ahem, semen (?!? I know there’s a tree that smells like this there weren’t any trees in this section) – and the mountains were gorgeously green and rolling. We could scarcely believe we were hiking in the Superstitions. It wasn’t like anything we’d seen in the Tonto before.

When we reached the turnoff for the unmaintained waterfall trail, it was a steeper up, but nothing too treacherous, and then started going relatively gentle downhill. Dominic and I passed a campsite where someone had left bottles of booze, a pair of pants and a torn up sleeping bag. “People are awful,” we moaned. “Maybe we can carry it back to the turnoff on our way out? And if it’s still there tomorrow, we can carry it out!” Ha ha. Our adorably sweet intentions.

Then the trail got decidedly less friendly. Steep downhills with loose soil and eventually eroded granite that acted like marbles under our feet. The mountain was a large garden of prickly pear cactuses. We’d only just started the big descent when I slipped and fell into one very large prickly pear plant. Dominic turned around and said he was sure he’d be pulling spines out of my back, but I managed to miss everything but a splinter in my finger.

As we continued down (and I fell on my ass several more times) we started voicing our concern for the trek back up: “That is going to be one bitch of a climb.” “And we still have six miles to get to the ranch afterward.” “But: Waterfall!”

After a full mile or so of treacherous footwork, we reached the creek at the bottom. Backpackers who’d camped overnight pointed us up the creek. “The waterfall is that way.”

There was little to no trail, only creek and boulders. Dominic seemed to be having a relatively easy time making it across the boulders and through bushes, but my pack kept getting caught on branches, yanking me back. I overheated quickly and told Dominic to go ahead while I sat by the creek and ate and cooled down. He didn’t get much further before finding a rock to catch a quick nap on and a half an hour or so later we met up and pushed forward.

My pack continued to get caught and eventually I decided to leave it on a boulder. I was more worried about forgetting where it was than someone stealing it. If someone wanted to haul that back up the mountain, more power to them.

And then, not even 20 minutes later, we were at the falls.

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Me at Reavis Falls.

Dominic made a quick fire and cooked some potatoes, yams and onions he’d packed in tin foil and we had a hot, delicious lunch while resting our feet before heading back. My pack was where I’d left it. As I put it on, I noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye and spotted a silver frog/toad. I called out for Dominic, who is really into herping (he’d brought along a hook-type thing to scout for snakes, I was sending out all of my anti-rattlesnake vibes.) He caught it and took a picture with it and we moved on. The trek back through the creek was easier and we stopped at the trail turnoff (easy to miss if you’re looking for campers like I was – it’s marked by a cairn that blends in if you’re not paying close attention) to filter water.

Sitting there filtering water I realized just how hot it still was and how easily I was overheating just going through the creek. We’d planned to try to be at the top of the hike up by 4pm so that we could get to Reavis by sunset, but I couldn’t imagine hiking up 3000 feet in 80 degrees and direct sunlight. I knew I’d be miserable and have to stop every few feet at best, and that I could get dangerously overheated at worst.

“What if we wait here until the sun backs off and night hike the rest of the way instead?” I offered. Admittedly, I am not a night hiker – the only other time I’d done it was on the day I met Dominic on the top of Piestewa Peak. But that hadn’t been so bad, right?

Dominic would have definitely preferred to push for it because he wasn’t as bothered by the heat, but he’s a great backpacker and knows heat affects people really differently, so he acquiesced.

As I sat there continuing to filter our water, another backpacker showed up. He was an older guy and he was sweaty and breathing hard. “I don’t envy you hiking down in that sun,” I said. He put his pack down and chatted with us. We advised him to leave his pack to get to the waterfall and traded hiking suggestions and I filtered some water for him because he hadn’t brought his own (he planned to bum a filter off of other hikers or boil water if he ran out.) He told us about trying to navigate Hell’s Gate up north and took my suggestion for an easy trip to Horton Springs.

Eventually he moved on and Dominic and I found a rock to lay back on and close our eyes for a few minutes. Around 4 we started heading back up the mountain. It was hard, but I was immediately glad we’d waited until the sun went away. Still, as we climbed, I let out many a “fucking seriously?” and “you have got to be kidding me” as I looked up at the trail in front of me. Meanwhile, Dominic’s knee was cramping up. I stopped every few steps to catch my breath.

At one point I turned to Dominic and said, “This is making me feel like I’ve never hiked before.”

But that kind of hiking is both what I live for and what I detest. It’s the point of suffering in a hike. That used to come quickly in a hike for me, and I could easily reach that place in a 3-mile hike in town. Everything about hiking was new to me – if my hands were swelling I thought I might be dying, if I needed a break when other people were passing me I told myself I was terrible and should quit, if my muscles burned I thought it was the end of the world.

I still don’t love those things. They aren’t fun. But when you’re done with them, your experience of yourself expands. You go from “overwhelmed, bit off more than I could chew, what was I thinking?!” to: I did that. I didn’t think I could, but I did.

The more I hike, the more I’m able to manage that feeling of suffering. Instead of, “this is a disaster,” instead I think: This is hard as hell, but I’ll get there eventually. Admittedly, on the climb out of Reavis Falls, I was definitely thinking, Hey, if Dominic wants to call it quits and just head back to the trailhead, I’ll be totally cool with that. If Dominic doesn’t want to try to push to Reavis Ranch, I won’t argue.

(But I also wasn’t going to offer.)

When we passed the trashed campsite again, we both looked at each other wishing we were better (and less exhausted) people and left everything, the pants, the alcohol bottles, the sleeping bag there.

Shortly thereafter we were at the top, and the sun was going down.

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Sunset from the saddle above the waterfall climb

Ah, yes, the top! Dominic was ready to get as close to the ranch as possible despite his knee. Still, we figured we would be alright. We were back to the promised land of minimal, gradual elevation gain before a relatively flat smooth-sailing to the ranch. The sufferfest was over! (This is the lie my brain likes to tell itself to induce further agony.)

We quickly start cruising along the trail and the temperature is wonderful and we’re finally not moving at a snail’s pace and I’m like, night hiking is great! But my headlamp, I’m realizing, isn’t super great. My eyes are working hard to make sense of the trail, which so far has been pretty smooth but occasionally tosses a bunch of rocks at me that my ankles have to work quickly to correct.

And then we started hiking on a ridge, with a sheer cliff to the side.

It’s fine, I tell myself. The trail is smooth and wide enough and I haven’t died yet ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha?

“I don’t love this cliff,” I say out loud, and my voice is shakier than I anticipated.

“We’re fine,” Dominic says. I’m doing my best to keep my anxieties at bay and not imagine my body tumbling down the mountain.

A few minutes later I hear him say something.

“What?” I ask.

“I said, that really is a cliff.”

And then my brain goes wild. It goes something like this:

*imagining body tumbling down mountain –*

Me: NO! Don’t think about that! One step at a time. One step at a time. One step at a…

*imagining twisting an ankle that sends me off-balance and tumbling down the mountain*

Me: I wonder who should be carrying the emergency Personal Locator Beacon? Is it better for it to be on the body of the injured, or in the hands of the safe?

Me: NO! Don’t think about that –

Me: What if DOMINIC is the one who falls?

Me: I said don’t —

Me: Dominic walks faster than me, maybe that means he’s in even more danger?!

And so on, until we’re at a saddle looking at a camp site. “Did you want to just camp here?” I ask. But Dominic doesn’t. He thinks he can squeeze a few more miles in before his leg gives out, and he’s sure there will be more campsites along the way.

“I’m just really freaking out about the drop off,” I tell him. I can’t really see well with my headlamp and it’s scaring me. “I hate to ask,” I say. “But can I use your flashlight instead?”

“Of course,” he says. So he puts on my headlamp and pulls out his secondary bike light and I turn on his flashlight and it’s suddenly like the night isn’t quite as scary anymore because I can actually SEE.

So, on we go. Over more rocky rocks, across more ridges. There aren’t, unfortunately, more established campsites to stay at, and Dominic’s knee is only getting worse. We’re shining our lights around a slightly slanted meadow when in the distance is what sounds like a high-pitched, guttural “helllllllllllp.”

“Fucking birds,” I say out of reflex.

Wait, I think.

It’s night time.

I don’t think that was a bird.

“What was that?” I ask. On second thought, it kind of sounded like a dying deer.

“I don’t know,” he says, but I can tell he probably knows and just isn’t excited about telling me.

Oh my god, I think. It’s a mountain lion. There’s a fucking mountain lion and it sees us and it’s making noises at us and —

“It’s a bobcat,” Dominic says.

“That’s like a mountain lion, right?!”

“No.”

“But it eats people like mountain lions!?”

“No. They’re barely bigger than a house cat.”

“And you’re totally 100% sure they don’t eat humans?”

“Yes.”

I choose to believe him. But then I also tell him we won’t be camping for a few more miles because I won’t sleep a wink if we stop anywhere near that noise.

Which turns out to be fine, because there aren’t any established campsites. Eventually we’re far enough away that I relax, and Dominic gives up on the established campsite route and instead finds a tree in a meadow to set up camp underneath. We stop at 10pm. We’ve hiked 14 miles. We’re only about a mile from the ranch, but when it’s quitting time, it’s quitting time.

We eat. I pass off half my lentils and rice to Dominic, and then half my cheesecake. I’m hungry but not.

“I’m sleeping in tomorrow,” Dominic says. I can hear him snoring a few minutes later. I text Mark from my PLB and let him know we’re safe and at camp.

The next morning we don’t get up until 8:30. We pack our bags with only food and water and leave our tents at camp and go explore the ranch. It occurs to me pretty quickly I should have read more about what there was to see at the ranch. Mostly it’s a big, open field with remnants of farm equipment. Dominic was interested in some of the rusted machinery out there, trailers and axles and an old Buick transmission (?).

We puttered around and then filled water at the creek and got back on the trail at 12:30. I pulled out my umbrella for the first time and sang it’s praises for the first 3 miles. After that, the wind picked up, and I kept switching between putting on a hat and long sleeves or using the umbrella. I felt like I was constantly adjusting where the umbrella was sitting so that it would cover the whole top half of my body, and in some instances it felt like I was obstructing my view when the sun was in front of me. I want to give it a few more chances, because I definitely like not having to wear long sleeves and have a hat on, but I also don’t want to be putting my bag down every mile or so to readjust.

The last 3 miles seemed to last forever. I kept telling myself that the trailhead was just around the corner, it had to be, we were going down hill, it was only three miles, the time should fly by. No such luck. At one point we ran into a group of hikers hiking in. “We’ve been hiking for about an hour,” they said.

“Are you joking?” I asked.

“No…” they said. “Ha, has he been lying to you about how far there is to go?”

“No,” I said. “I’ve been lying to myself.”

Dominic said the look they’d given him when we said we’d done both the Falls and the Ranch in a day made him puff up a bit.

I have a habit of trying to push to the end at the end, and becoming grumpy and tired and unpleasant. So around the next curve I plopped down in the dirt and let my feet rest in the shade for a minute. I wanted to get to the trailhead, but I didn’t want to have a constant stream of expletives running through my head every step of the way there.

40 minutes or so after that break, we got to the car.

The drive back I felt pretty delirious. I could only half-have a conversation. I found things ridiculously funny.

It’s a weird feeling post-hike. Even at the end of the day at camp. I spend much of the second half of the day agonizing over how far we’ll make it, over my fears, over phantom aches in my body. But then I get to camp, or the car, and it’s done, and I see the fruitlessness of my anxieties.

Not to mention, once I’m home and I’ve had a good sleep, my brain rewrites history. It wasn’t really that hard, was it? You could do it again. Of course you could. No problem. How about next weekend?

I guess that’s why I go back there again and again. Overcoming my anxieties in real, tangible ways. And a little bit of amnesia.

 

14 things I wish I’d known before my first backpacking trip

My first-ever backpacking trip was to Havasu Falls, Arizona, a three-day, two-night trip. I was invited less than a week before the trip, had zero gear, and had only ever hiked 8 (miserable) miles in a day. I gathered all my gear from REI rentals and Amazon and ended up with a pack that I struggled to lift onto my back. I had no idea how to secure a backpacking packs, so on the mile down the canyon the pack swayed side to side and repeatedly pushed my pants down. I slipped and fell three times or so, and I moved about as slowly as someone could without reversing back up the mountain. I arrived to camp two hours later than everyone else in my group. At camp, I gave away a bunch of extras – a fuel canister, books – to my group so that I wouldn’t have to carry them out.

On the way OUT of the canyon, the sandy uphill that comes directly out of camp ruined my morale (I’d woken up early to get a head start) and I stood in line for two hours to take the tourist helicopter out ($80 fee) before learning that I’d have to wait for another four hours. I furiously called my husband, had him drive four hours to meet me (knowing my group would have left by then) and hiked my way out of the canyon on pure self-hatred alone. I had eight blisters on my feet when I reached the top.

Here are a few things I wish I’d known.

 

1. Your pack is (mostly) as heavy as you make it

Ounces add up to pounds. Step on your home scale without your pack, and then with your pack. Decide if all that “just in case” stuff is necessary.

2. Somebody else will likely have packed all that “just in case” stuff

Borrow it if you need it, which you probably won’t.

3. That 2lb sleeping pad you brought slept on for two nights that just seems like a useless flat piece of plastic? 

It’s inflatable.

4. Your hands will swell while hiking/backpacking

You’re not gonna die.

5. If your shoes give you blisters, any at all, return them

Finding the perfect hiking shoe is an adventure all of it’s own.

6. You’re a slow-average hiker

Your pace is pretty much your pace, and there’s not much you can do about it. Luckily, this is not a race, so stop comparing yourself to everyone else.

7. Don’t sit down or take off your pack when you need a breather.

Save these moments for when you’re going to stop and eat lunch, or need to take care of your feet. Actually, someone probably did tell you this, and you probably cursed at them. They were right.

8. Tighten all of the straps on your pack.

This helps make your pack into one solid mass, which you can then do your best to secure to your back so that it 1) doesn’t wobble and throw you off balance and 2) transfers the weight more effectively to your hips.

9. Snaaaaacks.

Eat them regularly and as you walk. Don’t “wait for another 10 minutes” or “’til you get to X miles.” Eat and drink when you’re hungry. The delay between energy dip and energy crash is shorter than you think.

10. Don’t pack “healthy” food.

Remember that time you packed celery and carrots and cucumbers for a day hike? And the whole universe laughed at you? Bring easy fats and carbs, friend. Fats and carbs.

11. Fit as much as you can IN your pack, not on it

This will help keep the weight in your hips, which do not lie.

12. You don’t have to put your tent poles inside your pack

You can put them in a side pocket, strap them on top, etc. Just make sure they’re secure..

13. Context matters

If you’re having a hell of a time, ask yourself: Why? Maybe you’re walking uphill in sand for two miles, and it’s not that you suck, the trail does. Maybe you didn’t have enough for breakfast. Maybe you’re carrying 5 liters of water. Remind yourself that the suckiness doesn’t last forever – both your mental state and the terrain are subject to change. Then keep going.

14. You will be okay (probably)

Common sense and paying attention go a remarkably long way. Don’t let fear of the unknown keep you from trying something new.

Here’s a photo of my pack on the first trip I took to Havasu Falls compared to my pack 18 months later on the same trip.

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**Admittedly, being able to evaluate and purchase your own gear helps a whole lot – REI doesn’t have a particularly great light-weight selection for rental (or it didn’t at the time. Not that I would have known to ask.)

 

9 tips to make hiking more enjoyable

1. Use your feet/ankles/toes. When hiking uphill, think of the way you get “up” the mountain as coming from your ankles, feet and toes propelling you, rather than your thighs/quads doing all the work. Another way to think of this is: Imagine your back foot pushing you forward rather than your front leg standing you up.

2. Take smaller, slower steps when hiking uphill. You want to push yourself to the point where you can keep a steady breathing pace so that you don’t have to stop to gulp for air every few steps. The way you do this is to take smaller steps, which means you might move a little slower. That’s OK! That’s how you get up the damn mountain. If it gets particularly steep, check out this video on a technique called a “rest step.” I haven’t quite figured out down hill yet, although I try to use my hips to take some of the impact off my knees (like so) and when all else fails, I have gotten pretty talented at falling.

3. Bring (a little) more water than you need. I always bring 3 liters, more like 4 (usually in the form of a gatorade/vitamin water) if I know I’ll be out for more than 5 hours, or if it’s especially hot out.

4. Bring SNACKS. In my opinion, hiking – especially backpacking – is not a dieting exercise. Your body wants fuel and it will demand it. Bring hiking bars (like Lara Bars, Kind Bars, etc) for shorter trips, and if you’re going to be out more than 3 hours, bring lunch (which you may end up eating early in the trip.) 90 percent of the time when I am grumpy and every step I take feels like the end of the world, it’s because I am low on fuel and need a snack (and probably a brief break.) Pay attention to when these things happen so with time you can learn to catch them before they make you hit a wall.

5. Start a mindfulness practice. Hiking is mostly mental. Certainly mental positivity can be easier when your calf muscles are used to the endurance of uphill hiking, but it’s still mostly a mental game. When I first started, my internal monologue was often: “I am so bad at this. I am so out of shape. Everyone is passing me. I’m never going to be as fast as them. I look like a joke. Everyone can tell that I’m new at this. I’m not meant to be outside.” Once I could *see* that I was saying those things, rather than just letting them keep talking, it’s easier to practice not believing them. I can say, “Huh, that’s not very nice,” or “That doesn’t sound entirely true.” Being able to recognize those thoughts means I’m a lot less likely to quit, turn around, or stomp along miserably for the next 3 miles.

6. Mess around with gear that’s within your budget. Although it would be nice to think that we could just find the top-rated gear online and know we have the best of the best, the truth is the best gear is the gear that works for YOU. If the top-rated shoes are giving you blisters, or they just feel weird to you, take advantage of the return policy and try something different. If all the other hikers on the trail go out there in tank tops but the sun makes you want to shrink into a hole, play around with long-sleeved options or a sun umbrella. Hiking can be made extremely cheap by hitting up Goodwill to find synthetic hiking clothes, hats and sunglasses. I’ve seen hiking and backpacking backpacks there. But if you find that the gear isn’t working for you – whether you paid $1 for it or $100 for it – give yourself the permission to try something different when you are able to afford it. You don’t know that it doesn’t work until you experience it not working. That’s OK.

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7. Stretch. Admittedly this is something I’m still trying to make a habit, but it makes SUCH a difference. There are a bunch of different opinions on when to stretch (should you stretch beforehand? during? after?) and you’ll have to figure out what’s right for you – but if nothing else, stretch AFTER the hike, and then maybe even a couple of hours after you’ve stretched (like, before you go to bed.) I’m not a scientist, but it seems to remind my muscles to relax after a hike so that they’re not still clenching through the night, and that leaves me with much less soreness the next day. Here are a few good stretches specifically for hikers and backpackers.

8. Accept that sometimes hikes suck. Too hot. Too cold. Too uphill. Too rushed. Too brown. Too green. Too many people. Too lonely. Too bad an attitude. I don’t walk away from every hike with an untouchable sense of wonder, even if Instagram sometimes looks that way. Learn from the less-than-ideal hikes and tailor the next one to be a little different.

9. Hike your own hike. Do everything you can not to compare yourself to other hikers on the trail. There is no prize for being the first person to the end or for taking the shortest breaks. And when you go hiking with a friend, there’s no rule that says you have to talk the whole time or stay within a few feet of each other. As long as you’re both safe – plenty of water, low risk of hypothermia or heat stroke – let yourselves hike different paces and find a routine you’re both comfortable with to check in on each other. It can be a real fun-killer to constantly be trying to keep up with the person in front of you or wait for the person behind you. Don’t let something like different hiking speeds kill your fun.

What other tips have made hiking more fun for you?