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


I love raspberries, so I have several raspberry bushes against my house. We started with one lone bush purchased from a nursery, but over the years, friends have added to our collection with different varieties. Now they cover nearly one whole side of the house. Some are wild raspberries and produce small leaves and fruit; some were from nurseries across the country and have larger fruit and leaves. Either way, they are all just as sweet and delicious. Every year, we can’t wait for raspberry season–forgetting the time and effort it takes to gather the fruit.

At first, the raspberries were easy to pick because there were not that many. Of course, now, it can take an hour. Frustratingly, I’ll pick what I think are all of the ripe raspberries on one bush; then I’ll move away to the next section and start picking those, only to look at the section I just finished and see more ripe raspberries on the other side. I often fail to see every ripe raspberry from a single perspective. It takes moving around and examining every inch of the bush to see them all.

This seems to be true about life and its many facets. We see an issue, an experience, and even a person from one perspective and think we understand it, but as we approach it from another angle, our perspective changes and so does our view. I’m sure most of you have seen the image of the duck/rabbit as a lesson in perspective. It depends on how you look at the picture (or an issue) as to what you see.

Because of this, it always amazes me at how many people think they know the “right” answer about something despite not understanding the whole picture. Most recently, I see this in the Wisconsin shootings over this past Sunday.

Wade Michael Page allegedly killed 6 people and injured 4 people in the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. Just like in the shootings in Aurora, CO and in Tucson, AZ last year, gun control debates have ensued.

Nothing demonstrates the intricacy of an issue such as gun ownership. Consider the complexity of the Second Amendment:

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Try diagramming that sentence. Which of these phrases connects to the verb phrase? Which right “shall not be infringed”? Should it be a “well regulated militia [that]…shall not be infringed”? Or is it truly the “right of the people to keep and bear arms…shall not be infringed”? There are those who argue that the Second Amendment allows for gun control (“well regulated”), and some who argue that nothing should “infringe” on a citizens’ right to “keep and bear arms.” However, can one really argue that the public needs to own semi-automatic rifles? Or machine guns? What is the purpose? And if, in fact, the Second Amendment does not allow for gun control, how do we stop these killings? How do we stop the violence?

Most of all, it’s sad that this week has turned into a time of mourning rather than a time of national celebration as the Olympics near the end and as another rover lands on Mars. At a time when we should have some national pride, people are grieving and lamenting over the anger and intolerance that still exists in our country. Maybe it’s because I’m paying more attention these days, but it sure seems to me that there’s less tolerance for differences and disagreement. Instead, everyone is clamoring to be heard and arguing that they are right.

But where are these arguments getting us? Do they teach us to be more tolerant? Do they teach us to listen? Do they teach us to understand all perspectives on an issue? I don’t think they do. Instead of arguing, we should be listening and simply talking. Ask questions. Discover where fundamental beliefs come from. Find common ground. Solutions must come from the common ground, and if there is no common ground, then we’re not listening to all perspectives.

~ K

(This sign displayed at a chiropractor’s office provides the best advice: “change the way you look at things, and the things you look at will change.”)

Got Nature?

Lupinus perennis near the Sinclair cabin

I first read about Nature Deficit Disorder shortly after my second son was born in 2005.  I was living amid an urban circus along I-95 in the D.C. corridor.  My sons were babies and not yet able to decide how we spent their time.  Sleeping was our singular priority.   I read about Richard Louv’s book, “Last Child in the Woods” as I wondered if I would ever get out of the house with two boys under two.  Louv coined “Nature Deficit Disorder” in response to concepts he uncovered as a reporter – he’s not a scientist or a doctor.  He makes it clear that his idea is “not [a] medical diagnosis, but… a way to describe the price we pay for alienation from the natural world.”  Seven years ago Louv wormed his way into my sleep-starved brain.  I started hauling my kids outside every day.  I pushed my stroller around the Chesapeake Bay in every season and dumped my life-jacketed toddler in the bay at the Piney Point Light House.  We played in the dirt and ate grass.  I was determined to keep my kids outside.

I hadn’t thought much about Louv’s theories again until this summer.  My boys are grade-schoolers now.  We get to spend our summers together – lazing about, bickering about chores and bedtimes, running through the sprinklers, and eating watermelon.  We left the city when they were still toddlers.  Their Wyoming backyard is huge, full of holes perfect for forts and bug collecting.  They have the run of the block and are happy to spend their days outside biking and running with the other neighborhood kids.  I think Louv would approve.

But this year it is really hot.  Our grasslands are burning up and we are growing used to 100 degree days.  Summer came early to the mountain west and it drove my family inside to the cool basement – to the T.V.  While I’m not willing to stick my kids with an NDD label, there is little doubt that our idyllic summer afternoons are changed by the boob tube.  The bickering seems to intensify and there is now a well-worn path to the pantry from the T.V. cupboard in ManLand.

And so like we often do in the summer, we unplugged and drove up the mountain.  It is always cooler at 8,000 feet.  On a good day a breeze blows through the trees outside my husband’s family cabin.  We need sweatshirts and a fire in the evening and the kids run themselves tired every night. It’s a cliché, but life does slow down on the mountain.  We sit.  We read.  We hike.  We fish.  And sleep is once again a priority.

Boy #2

Richard Louv continues to write about the human connection to nature.  His latest book calls on adults to cultivate time outdoors.  His claims are big, almost crazy.  He cites studies that suggest that “time spent in nature can stimulate intelligence and creativity, and can be powerful therapy for the toxic stress in our lives, and as prevention for such maladies as obesity, myopia, and depression.”

Boy #1

My family is outside because we want to be outside. We go to the mountains to escape the heat and the smoke settling in our valleys.  We like to be dirty and to eat trout fresh from the stream.  We like to hike until we are tired and zip into a sleeping bag at dark. We spend our free time in the mountains because we are Westerners and we cannot separate ourselves from the giant landscape around us. Louv’s claims seem huge, but my kids do have more energy on the mountain.  Maybe it is just the cool air, but it seems there is a chance that being outside is magic. It seems possible that we all need to be outdoors, doesn’t it?

– S