Weminuche Wilderness – July 2020: Gear Changes

At the end of July my brother and I did our annual backpacking trip. This year we went to the Weminuche Wilderness in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. You can read the trip summary here. I changed several things up on this trip compared to previous trips. Below I cover the major changes I made and my thoughts on how they went.

Trail Runners & Socks: Leading up to this trip I had been wearing some Lowa boots, and before that had worn Merrell boots. My socks leading up to this trip were Darn Tough socks. With both pairs of boots, my big toe on my right foot was generally quite sore by the end of each trip. It was so bad after my Eagle Rock Loop trip earlier this year that I knew I needed to try something different. I had discovered that most thru hikers switch to trail runners, so I started doing some research on those. I tried several different pairs and landed on the Brooks Cascadia 14. I have really liked Feetures socks for my running, so I decided to give them a try for backpacking. I was quite pleased with the shoe and sock combination at the end of the trip. My feet felt great at the end of the trip. There were some moments where my feet or toes started to get sore while hiking, but it was never anything that lasted. When I would get them wet, they would usually dry out pretty quickly. The main complaint I had with them was getting small gravel in them occasionally. I definitely plan to stick with these for now.

Sandals: Leading up to this trip I had been using a pair of Cabela’s sandals for crossing creeks/rivers and for walking around camp. They worked fine, but I decided to try some Xero Shoes Z-Trail Sandals since they are less bulky and weigh less. The first thing I noticed about the Xero sandals on this trip was that they were more difficult to take on and off. I also thought the Xero sandals were less comfortable. However, I plan on sticking with the Xero sandals since I feel the bulk/weight savings are worth giving up the ease and comfort of the Cabela’s sandals. Since I’m now going to be using trail runners, I’ll likely start changing into my sandals for creek crossings less and crossing in my trail runners instead, so changing in and out of the sandals will likely be less of an issue.

Maps: In the trips leading up to this one, I had brought along a couple different paper maps when available: a wider view topo map (such as a Nat Geo Trails illustrated map) as well as a much more detailed custom USGS quad map from MyTopo. While doing some research leading up to this trip I came across the Avenza Maps smartphone app. I decided to try that out for this trip. Instead of buying a paper Nat Geo Trails Illustrated map, I purchased the digital version on Avenza Maps, and plotted out several possible routes using the app. While it was a little bit of a pain to plot a path in the app, it was definitely nice to get a mileage estimate once it was plotted. For the actual hike, I still brought a custom USGS quad map from MyTopo, but I also played around with the Avenza Maps app. The Avenza Maps app was super handy for quickly figuring out where we were on the trail. However, I did find myself paying less attention to what we should expect on the trail based on the topo map, and thus not paying attention to what we were actually covering on trail, and thus not comparing the two to make sure everything made sense. Not a huge deal on this trip, but I could see a scenario where it would take me longer to realize I had gone the wrong way if I wasn’t checking the app too terribly often, whereas I might notice it sooner if I was paying close attention to what I was seeing vs what the topo map shows. The MyTopo map was much nicer when I wanted to look at a wider view than what could be seen on the phone screen. Finally, the Avenza Maps app uses the USGS quad maps as is, which could mean your route would fall on several different maps. The MyTopo maps allow you to customize the map so that a single map could include multiple USGS quad maps, which could mean your route may fall on a single map. So there are pros and cons to both. I could definitely see doing trips with only the Avenza Maps app, but it also makes me a little nervous relying completely on an electronic device, so I’ll probably keep bringing along a paper map as backup.

Camp Chair: My brother and I generally don’t hike for the entire day. We’ll usually reach our destination by mid afternoon or earlier. After that my brother will do some fishing, if possible, and I’ll usually try to get some pictures or do some reading. After my Eagle Rock Loop trip, I realized that it would be really nice to have a chair to use for reading or watching my brother fish, so I purchased the REI Flexlite Air Chair. This came in really handy many times during this trip. I wouldn’t bring this if I knew I would be hiking most of the time. But if I know that I will likely be done hiking early most of the days, and I have the space and don’t mind the weight, I’ll probably bring this along.

Bear Bag: On our previous trips, my brother and I have both used a BearVault BV450 for carrying our food. As I started to pack my food the day before we were supposed to leave, I realized my food wouldn’t fit in my BearVault. I could make it work if I didn’t bring along an extra day of food, but I didn’t want to take that chance. I checked to see if I could get a BearVault BV500 locally, but that didn’t appear to be possible, so I made a last minute trip to REI and got an Ursack Major XL. This weighed less than my BearVault, which was a big plus, and I was easily able to fit my food in it, along with some of my brother’s food. Thankfully we always had a place to secure it, but had we been above treeline, that would have been a problem with this bag. I was also pretty nervous about a bunch of water getting into the bag or the bag soaking up water if it rained hard. It never rained hard enough on our trip to see if this would happen. There is an odor-proof/water-proof bag you can get that goes inside the Ursack, so I may purchase that at some point to help ease the worry about water getting into the bag and potentially ruining some food. The BearVault is nice since you can pretty much stick it anywhere and it’s sealed from the rain, but if I know I’ll have places to hang the bag and there are no regulations requiring hard sided containers, I’ll likely bring along the Ursack on future trips.

Food/Water: I started to type this out and realized that there was enough to write a whole separate post, so be on the lookout for that post next week.

My Beginner Trail Lessons: Part 6

For a short background on this series, see my first post.  

July 2018 – Highland Park – Big Horn Mts., WY

View from above Highland Lake.

This was another one of the train wreck trips mentioned in the previous blog. The first couple days went really well, other than leaving the Sawtooth Lakes area sooner than we would have liked due to storms. On our hike the third day, I had planned to stop at a particular lake for a little while so my brother could do some fishing. The map showed the trail going right next to the lake, but it never came that close. We realized pretty quickly that we had missed it, but we decided to keep going. Things just went downhill from there.

We ended up stopping later at a different lake for lunch. My brother tried some fishing, but we weren’t sure the lake even had fish. We kept moving and made it up to Highland Park mid-afternoon, where we decided to camp. It was stormy around, and the wind came up pretty good around dinner time. While the wind was blowing, we went to go get water from a small pond nearby. The wind had caused the water to become quite dirty. After pumping some water, it became quite difficult to pump, but we kept at it and we eventually got our water. The next morning, while taking a break on our hike and filling up with more water, my brother noticed he had “floaties” in his water, at which point we realized our water filter was likely bad. Since our only back up was boiling water, we decided to hike out that day (a day early).

Thankfully neither my bother or I got sick. After this I realized I hadn’t put enough thought into the water filter going bad/breaking situation. While we could have boiled water if it came down to it, once I started really thinking about it, it was not a great option. It would have been very time consuming (small amount at a time, having to let it cool before pouring in our bladders) and would have used a lot, if not all, of the fuel we had with us. After this trip, we both got Sawyer Mini filters to use as back up in case we had an issue again. So definitely put some thought into what your back up plan is if your primary water filtration system has problems. I’m not saying you can’t use boiling, but just know the pros and cons of each method.

My Beginner Trail Lessons: Part 5

For a short background on this series, see my first post.  

July 2017 – Teepee Pole Flats/Emerald Lake – Big Horn Mts., WY

Sunset while camped at Emerald Lake.

This trip, along with three of the following four trips, were pretty much train wrecks. There were lots of valuable lessons learned during this stretch. Haha.

The plan for this trip was to do the purple loop in the map above, starting at the yellow star and going counter clockwise. However, on the first day, we ran into a creek crossing that we didn’t feel comfortable crossing because of the depth and current (roughly in the vicinity of the red star). We briefly looked for other options, then decided to head back to Teepee Pole Flats (pink star) and figure out what we wanted to do. We ended up camping at Teepee Pole Flats, and then hiked back out to the campground at the trailhead the next day and stayed there for a night. After that we hiked to Emerald Lake (orange star) and spent a night there before hiking back out. So what lessons did I take away from this?

First, trekking poles were on my list of gear to get for the next trip. I had never used them since I figured they were additional items to bring along that I didn’t necessarily need, but they would have been really useful for this creek crossing. I have taken trekking poles and used them throughout each trip since this trip. They were a tremendous help for all the creek/river crossings on the Eagle Rock Loop hike I did earlier this year.

Second, I wish we would have taken longer to try and find a spot to cross that we were comfortable with. I’m not sure if we would have found one, but we definitely had some time to look, and I think it would have been worth taking some more time to try and save completing the loop. I’m pretty sure if we had had trekking poles, and had taken some time to find a better crossing, we could have got across that creek.

Finally, a good pack makes a big difference. Up until this trip, my brother and I had used cheap packs we bought at Walmart. I remember after our last trip with those packs my shoulders were killing me. For this trip, my brother and I each got an Osprey pack and had REI fit us. This helped tremendously. The fitting was definitely a good move since there were some adjustments they made I would have had no idea I could have made. So while not necessary, a good pack will definitely make the trips more comfortable.

My Beginner Trail Lessons: Part 4

For a short background on this series, see my first post.  

August 2016 – Titcomb Basin – Wind River Range, WY

Island Lake as we were headed back to the trailhead.

This was a trip that actually went pretty much as planned with no big hiccups. We (my brother and I) got incredibly lucky on the second day though. We had stayed at Barbara Lake the first night, and on the second day we hiked to Island Lake. As the hike to Island Lake progressed, it looked like it was getting stormy behind us. I wasn’t 100% sure it was headed towards us, but I figured we better try to get to Island Lake as soon as we could in case it was coming our way. We usually stopped for lunch each day on our hikes, but if I remember correctly, on this day we just took a short break for snacks and water and then kept going. I’m sure my brother wasn’t too happy with me by the time we got to Island Lake. By the time we got to Island Lake, the storm appeared like it was pretty close, so we grabbed the first suitable camp spot we found. As we were finishing setting up the tent it started to sprinkle, and not too long after we were in the tent, it was a full on downpour with some very small hail/grapuel included as well. This still holds as the most intense storm I have been through while backpacking. After the storm moved through, we overheard several stories of people getting caught in the storm in Titcomb Basin, which is not a good place to try and find shelter from a storm.

Since I’m already a weather nerd (my degree is in meteorology), I’m probably more tuned into the sky than a lot of people while out backpacking, but this was a great reminder to pay attention to the sky throughout the day. This storm was a great example of how quickly conditions can deteriorate. However, we had plenty of warning the storm was coming. Enough so that we were able to push hard to Island Lake, and got lucky enough to beat the storm. If you’re tuned into the sky, you’ll almost always have some warning that storms are coming and can take appropriate action. Had we not been paying attention to the sky, we likely would have taken our time on the trail and been caught in the storm on the trail somewhere.

Also, know how to set up your tent so in a situation like this you can get it set up quickly, and have your rain gear in a spot where you can get to it quickly in case you are still on the trail when you get caught in a storm.

My Beginner Trail Lessons: Part 3

For a short background on this series, see my first post.  

August 2015 – Paintbrush & Cascade Canyons – Teton Range, WY

View from our camp spot on night two of this trip.

My first takeaway from this trip was that I wasn’t a big fan of backpacking in Grand Teton National Park. Why? In the park, we were only allowed to camp in designated spots, and we had to have a permit for the specific spot we were staying at for that specific night. Had we been able to reserve these a little bit ahead of time, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. But we weren’t, so we had to go to the visitor’s center the day we wanted to start our trip and see which camp spots were open on which nights, and then try and figure out a trip that worked with the camp spots available.

I will point out that if you can commit to the trip early in the year, you can reserve backcountry camp spots in advance (this year the reservation system was open Jan. 8 through May 15). So if you are able to set your trip in stone that early, then this can work for you. Also, there are probably a couple hikes I could do where I could camp just outside the park and then do day hikes into the park.

Thankfully we were able to figure out a way to do the loop we wanted. However, I hesitate to go back to the Tetons for backpacking since I really don’t want to take a two day road trip (one way) only to find out the route I want to do isn’t available. It’s also a bummer since it doesn’t allow any flexibility. If you get part way into your trip and decide you want to change plans, you’re out of luck. I’ll probably be back at some point, but if I’m not able to get reservations made ahead of time, I’ll likely choose somewhere else to go. Just keep this in mind if you are planning a hike in a national park.

Second: if the trail disappears, take some time to evaluate and see if you can find it. We came to a spot on the trail where it seemed to disappear, except for a faint path going up a steep hill with loose rock. I really wasn’t a fan of following that path, but I didn’t see another route, so my brother and I took it. It put my brother and I in a dangerous position, and a couple hikers behind us started to follow us as well. It turned out the actual trail did go a different way that was much safer. Thankfully someone further down the trail who knew the correct route started running towards us and yelling, and the two hikers behind us ended up taking the actual trail. But had I just taken a minute longer to try and find the actual trail, I likely would have found it.

Third takeaway was that I really missed having my DSLR. I only took my cell phone on the Cloud Peak trip and on this trip. My cell phone got some decent pictures, but I could have got much better pictures with my DSLR. So, although a pain, for each trip from this point forward I have lugged around my DSLR.

My Beginner Trail Lessons: Part 2

For a short background on this series, see my first post.  

July 2014 – Cloud Peak – Big Horn Mountains, WY

Lake Helen on the hike into Cloud Peak.

This was the first true backpacking trip for my brother and I. Two main lessons came from this trip.

First, mosquitoes can be downright awful in the mountains. I had grown up with mosquitoes in Wyoming, but never had I been swarmed by as many as we were on this trip. I remember being in our tent and we could hear the hum of all the mosquitoes outside. I can’t remember if we brought bug spray or not, but this trip definitely moved bug spray to the essential list of items to take on future backpacking trips. 

Second, it is very easy to get lost. From what I had read prior to the trip, the hike from Mistymoon Lake was pretty straightforward, and my brother and I made it to the peak without any problems. The approximate route we took is reflected by the blue line in the image above. However, on the way down, we somehow managed to take a slightly different route. I believe it was something like the red line the screenshot above, although I’m not sure where we actually got off our original route. We were following cairns on the way down since most of the route was boulder/rock hopping without any trail, and the cairns we followed took us a different route on the way down. We had no idea we were going a different way until we eventually realized we were somewhere we hadn’t been on our way up. That was not a good feeling. Based on our map, I was pretty sure we were headed in the same general direction, so we kept going and thankfully we met back up with our original route, but it could have been pretty bad if that different route had taken us in a different direction. So don’t think just because you made it to your destination that the trip back will be no problem and you can let your guard down.

My Beginner Trail Lessons: Part 1

Intro

Almost 10 years ago, back in August 2010, my brother and I did a day hike to Table Mountain in the Teton Range in Wyoming. Little did I know what that would lead to a few years later. It took a few years due to my job situation, but in July of 2014 my brother and I did our first true backpacking trip. We have done a backpacking trip each year since, and each of the last couple years I have been able to do a solo trip as well. Back in early May a thought crossed my mind that it would be fun to put together a blog series about lessons learned on trips so far as I get ready for my two big trips this year, and thus this blog series was born. There have been lots and lots of lessons learned, but this series just tries to capture the main ones from each trip. I hope you enjoy, and hopefully at least one of these will help you out on your backpacking journeys. 

August 2010 – Table Mountain – Teton Range, WY

Picture of me with Table Mountain and the “Grand Tetons” in the background. The backpacking seed was being planted.

This was a pretty straightforward and short day hike that went off without any big problems. I have since learned to be very thankful when hikes go to plan, as I have had several that have not. My main takeaway from this trip: a simple day hike may very well plant the seed that eventually grows into the desire to get into backpacking. I don’t think I had given backpacking a whole lot of thought before this trip, but I credit this trip for being a big part of getting me into backpacking. It is similar to what happened to me with running. I started out doing sprints for track, got convinced to do cross country in high school, ended up eventually doing a half marathon, and then finally did a full marathon. Haha. If you are interested in backpacking, day hikes can be a great way to “get your feet wet” and see if it’s something you would like to pursue. 

Also, if I remember correctly, I gave my brother grief about how he was crossing a creek on this trip, and then I ended up being the one to fall in. Haha. So be careful about what kind of advice you dish out.

The Importance of Maps

Not just a map, but maps. As in more than one.

When my brother and I started doing backpacking trips, I took along a National Geographic topographic map. The National Geographic maps gave us a general idea of where trail intersections should be, which is all we really needed to know. We weren’t doing any off-trail excursions. And luckily we never ran into any instances where we needed any sort of other map.

This past summer I took a navigation course through REI, and learned about the custom USGS quad maps on mytopo.com. With mytopo.com, you can create a map that merges several USGS quad maps into a single map, possibly eliminating the need to carry multiple USGS quad maps. I tried one of these maps out for the first time on our hike this past summer in the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming. It was so nice to have the detail of the USGS quad map. I rarely looked at the National Geographic map that we had during that trip. I was definitely glad I had learned about these maps, and they were something I was going to use going forward.

Fast forward a couple months to September. I took my first solo backpacking trip out to the Uinta Mountains in Utah. Just like the trip in Wyoming, I had a custom USGS quad map from mytopo.com and a National geographic map. Once again, I loved having the detail of the USGS quad map, and for most of the trip, that was the only map I really needed. But if you read my trip report post, you know that I ran into some issues on the way back to my car. Some strong winds had kicked up a wildfire and was blowing the smoke across the trail. I knew the fire was relatively close to the trail, and the smoke and ash was thick enough that I didn’t feel comfortable hiking out on my first attempt.

This is where having both the USGS quad map and the National Geographic map was important. With the possibility that I may not be able to hike out the way I had come in due to the wildfire, I knew that I needed to look for other potential ways out. However, due to the zoomed in nature of the USGS map (relative to the National Geographic map), it didn’t show any other trailheads. I could find other trails on this map that went other directions, but I would have no idea if they led to other trailheads. This is when the National Geographic map came in handy. It wasn’t as detailed, but since it showed a larger area, I was able to see other trailheads and map out a secondary way out if it was needed. It definitely wasn’t ideal and I wasn’t looking forward to it, but it at least gave me relief that I had another option.

Thankfully I didn’t have to use that secondary option, but it made me realize the importance of having (at least) two maps: one with detail of the area I’m planning on hiking, and another that shows a broader area just in case something goes wrong and I have to find another route.

And while we are on this topic, I would highly recommend taking a navigation course if you are going to be doing any sort of hiking/backpacking. My brother and I took several trips without either one of us having taken a navigation course. You may be able to get by without those skills, but you never know when you’ll run into a situation when you’ll need those skills, and they could save your life.