Backpacking First-Timer: Dos and Don’ts…

Entering the Cloud Peak Wilderness on my first solo backpacking trip.

Entering the Cloud Peak Wilderness on my first solo backpacking trip.

Weighing 280+ pounds, several years ago, I took my first backpacking trip up into the Big Horn Mountains. I went with my husband, and I remember an unrelenting trail. I fell backwards once and needed help getting up like a bug who could not turn itself over. We never made it to our original destination, Big Stull Lake–a regret I had until this year.

This summer, 100+ pounds lighter, I took the same backpacking trip; this time solo but not without my trusty dog, Nikko. My destination was 3.7 miles to Coney Lake with a short stop at Big Stull Lake. Things didn’t quite go the way I had planned, so I thought I would share some of the lessons I learned on my first solo backpacking trip.

#1 Don’t overestimate the amount you can carry. Chances are when you’re hiking, you aren’t going to need a lot of clothing. One pair of shorts, one short sleeve shirt, one long sleeve shirt, rain gear, thermals, and a jacket for high elevations is probably enough. On my first backpacking trip, I ended up with too many clothes and as a result, I could barely lift my backpack. At one point, I tripped on a tiny stump in the middle of the trail and ended up face first in the dirt. With a smaller pack, I could have kept my balance.

#2 Do pack and repack. If I had followed this simple rule, I would have realized I didn’t need 6 pairs of underwear, three shirts, and two jackets for my two-night backpacking trip. Repacking and packing can help you stick to the minimum requirements as well as give you practice packing. Make sure to try on your backpack so you’re not stuck with a too-heavy bag when you get to the trailhead, and it’s always a good idea to consult an expert about what you should or should not bring.

Stull Lake Campsite#3 Do know where you’re going, and have a contingency plan. Experts say not to hike alone, but I knew the trail, I let people know where I was going, and I had a contingency plan. I planned my trip based on the previous hike my husband and I had taken years ago. We had not planned well, so we found ourselves stuck searching for a camping spot in the dark during a thunder storm. It turned into a pleasant camping trip, but without good luck, it could have been a disaster. On this solo trip, I planned ahead and had a contingency plan. I wanted to make it 3.7 miles to Coney Lake with a short stop at Stull Lake, 1.6 miles from the trailhead. I ended up staying at Stull Lake and hiking on to Coney Lake the next day without my pack. I would not have made it through the steep, rocky switchbacks with my super heavy pack. Instead, I had an easy hike and more “me time” next to quiet Stull Lake.

#4 Don’t forget the mole skin. No matter how much you think you’ve broken in your new hiking boots, there is always a chance of chafing. I put several miles on my hiking boots before this trip, but the rocky terrain and up- and down-hill hiking took its toll on my feet. Thankfully, I had mole skin in my first-aid kit, and I managed to cover the hot spots before they developed into giant blisters.

#5 Do pack water shoes or sandals. I was grateful to have my water shoes. They had nice traction for walking in the lake and on the lakeside trail, and they are nice to have if you have to ford any deep creeks. Luckily, my hike was in late summer, so the creeks were dry enough to expose rocks for crossing. Look for shoes that can be easily attached with a carabineer to the outside of your pack, and pick shoes that are light…again, refer to Rule #1.

#6 Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t think you’re going fast or far enough. Yes, there are hard-core hikers out there who count their miles, and you may or may not cover as much ground. Who cares! It’s about your ability and about taking time out for you. Take time to relax and enjoy the scenery. Focusing too much on your speed or the miles you’ve covered can leave you forgetting why you wanted to backpack in the first place. Remember that it’s not a race. If you plan your time accordingly, you won’t have to rush to the campsite and you can take time for breaks, pictures, and bird watching.

Most of all, be proud of what you accomplished. So what if someone else went farther or faster. The point is that you got outside, you had fun, and you experienced something new.

Happy Hiking!

~ K

Stull Lake


Towards the end of an 8-mile hike through slot canyons.

Towards the end of an 8-mile hike through slot canyons.

Cleaning out my computer files, I ran across this journal entry titled “NOT Forever Fat”:

I have been fat for so long, it’s hard to imagine that I can ever be thin. I stare at my body in the mirror and I see layers of fat, stretch marks, and floppy skin. Can it ever be that my body will be svelte and “normal” looking again? 

For so many years, I have followed diets, worked out to the point of injury, dieted to the point of starvation, and still, my body was lumpy, over-sized and unhealthy. It’s really hard to imagine that there is hope. I’m afraid to hope. So many times I have hoped and so many times my hopes have been dashed. I have gained and lost enough weight for four people. Is it really possible that I can once again be a healthy weight? Is it really possible that I could be a size 12? A size 10?

I wrote this one month before undergoing Gastric Sleeve Resection surgery for weight loss in October, 2012.

As of today, I have lost 107 pounds, and I am a size 14.

With 50 pounds more to go, I still have “layers of fat, stretch marks, and floppy skin.” Some of that will never go away, but losing the weight so far has helped me feel comfortable in that floppy skin. My confidence grows with every hike and with every pound I lose.

What helps is a club I joined over a year ago: TOPS. It’s a support group for people losing weight. I spent this past weekend in Casper at State Recognition Days where we celebrated people’s successes. As part of that success, I shared my story, which is reprinted here for you to read:

For as long as I can remember, I have had a weight problem, and for as long as I can remember, I have been dieting. Like countless other dieters, I have lost and gained hundreds of pounds. I have been on every diet and spent who-knows-how-much money on weight loss programs. I lost some weight, but it always came back, and I never reached my goal. Finally, exhausted and hopeless, I gave up.

In 2010, I was forced to take my health seriously when I was diagnosed with stage-3 breast cancer six weeks before my wedding. Desperate for a silver lining, I told my doctor, “at least I’ll lose weight!” My doctor shook her head: “You’ll gain weight with all of the steroids we’ll be pumping into you. Don’t diet. You need your strength. You can eat whatever you want.” At first I thought that was the silver lining, but honestly, I didn’t feel like eating much at all. My appetite vanished, and food I love, like chocolate, no longer appealed to me. Despite having no appetite, my weight ballooned to 315 pounds.

Dealing with cancer was difficult, but I finally found the silver lining: cancer forced me to examine my life and make health a top priority. After treatment, and with my doctor’s permission, I began dieting again. I lost some weight, but I needed help.

Help came when a friend gave me a book called My Choice. I read the book from cover to cover, and that was my introduction to TOPS. I tried the program on my own—even purchasing an online membership. I realized, however, that I could not and I did not want to be alone. Finally, I took the step and found TOPS, Chapter 20, in Sheridan. My first TOPS meeting scared me. I sat in my car for several minutes working up the nerve to walk in. I did go in, and immediately, I felt welcome. I felt like I had found my place.

Finding my place helped me, but it didn’t make losing weight easier. I still struggled. The scale yo-yo’d up and down week after week. The hardest part of losing weight was dealing with my emotions. After cancer, my hormones and emotions fluctuated wildly (just ask my husband!). My metabolism also changed. Losing weight was nearly impossible. Granted, I had lost 26 pounds in a year, but still, every week, I felt more and more helpless. Despite following my doctor’s program, the weight would not come off. My doctor told me that if I didn’t lose weight, the cancer would return. I didn’t want to give up. I didn’t want to die. TOPS helped give me the courage to face reality: willpower was not enough. I needed more help.

In October of 2012, I decided to have weight loss surgery. Many people think that weight loss surgery is the “easy way out.” It is not. The surgery gave me a tool to help lose weight consistently. I still struggle daily with what to eat, when to eat, how much to eat, and when to exercise. I also struggle with emotional eating. The difference is that, for me, it is physically impossible to binge on unhealthy food. If I do, I become ill. Surgery has forced me not just to deal with my physical health, but also my emotional health. Instead of turning to food for emotional support, I deal with my emotions, and my TOPS family helps. From February to December 2012, I lost 48 pounds. Since January, I have lost even more. I did not do this alone. I had help from several entities: cancer, friends, family, surgery, doctors, and TOPS. Without this help, I believe I would not have been this successful, and I look forward to continuing my journey with their support.

Hiking a steep trail in the Big Horn Mountains

Hiking a steep trail in the Big Horn Mountains

I share this not to trumpet my own success, but to help others who may be struggling with such a journey.

Weight loss, no matter how you go about it, is like climbing: it isn’t easy, but getting to the top is worth every struggle, ache, and pain. It just takes one step at a time.