2020: Backpacking Lessons Learned

My brother’s pack after a rock chuck decided it wanted a treat during our Weminuche Wilderness trip.

This year I was able to get in three different backpacking trips: Eagle Rock Loop (AR), Weminuche Wilderness (CO), and South San Juan Wilderness (CO). The links will take you to the trip summaries. Each trip was quite unique, and each had lessons to be learned. I have compiled the main ones I can remember below.

Hikes outside the “big mountains” can be quite difficult. I figured, being at lower elevation, and with no huge elevation gains or losses, that the Eagle Rock Loop wouldn’t be too challenging. It ended up wearing me out a lot more than I expected. The ups and downs were pretty much straight up and down (no switchbacks), and the bunches of small ups and downs definitely added up. I’m sure it helped being at lower elevation though. For not being in the “big mountains”, I was actually quite impressed with this hike.

Wear rain gear when hiking through wet vegetation. It rained a decent amount early in the Weminuche Wilderness trip. For some reason it never crossed my mind to put on my rain gear the second day while hiking through dense, wet vegetation until after I was completely soaked. I think part of it was that I didn’t realize we would be walking through so much wet vegetation, and another part of it was I didn’t realize just how wet the vegetation would be. My brother and I learned our lesson pretty quickly, and on the third day we put on our rain gear before we hit the trail since it appeared we would be walking through wet vegetation again.

Bring more toilet paper than you think you need. Probably TMI for some of you, but I’ll explain: For whatever reason, on previous backpacking trips, I would rarely take a poop during the trip. As soon as we got back into town, I would need to go, but during the trip, I usually didn’t. I figured the Weminuche Wilderness trip would be more of the same, so I didn’t pack a whole lot of toilet paper. However, on that trip, I ended up taking a poop every day but the first, I believe. I’m guessing it had to do with the change in food. We ended up running out of toilet paper at the end of the third day. My brother made it back to the campground before he had to go again, but I had to use some natural material to wipe on the fourth day of the trip.

Rock chucks can be destructive. You can read about the destructive rock chuck in my Weminuche Wilderness trip summary. The picture at the top of the blog is just one of the pieces of gear that it damaged. For whatever reason, all the gear it decided to go after was my brother’s. I felt pretty bad for him. We had camped around rock chucks before and never had any problems, so it didn’t even cross our minds there would be any issues. I have since heard of other people having this problem as well. It definitely made us wary of camping around rock chucks in the future!

Filter/bottle freezing prevention. My brother and I changed up how we did water on the Weminuche Wilderness trip (more about that here). I left the cap for my bottle in the car when we hit the trail. After the cold front came through, I was concerned that the temperature might drop below freezing. Normally I would put the filters in Ziploc style bags and then keep them in the sleeping bag overnight, but I realized that I didn’t bring any extra Ziploc style bags for this. I also realized that, without my cap, I couldn’t seal my bottle without the filter on it, which meant I couldn’t keep it in the tent overnight if the filter was in my sleeping bag. Forgetting the Ziploc style bags was an oversight on my part. I knew to bring those and just spaced it out. Leaving the cap was definitely due to not being used to using a bottle.

Write down the parmesan amount (or add it before). For the Weminuche Wilderness trip, I tried several Backcountry Foodie recipes for dinner (more about that here). I believe all the recipes I tried called for parmesan cheese, and they had recommended using single serving packets to help the cheese last longer. Instead of dumping the cheese into the spice packets when I was preparing the meals, I brought along the single serve packets and was going to put the parmesan cheese into the meal when I was making it in the backcountry. What I didn’t realize was that the backcountry instructions for the meals didn’t include the amount of parmesan cheese to include. So I just had to wing it. Haha. In the future, I’ll likely go ahead and put the parmesan cheese in the spice packets while I’m preparing the meals at home instead of bringing the single serve packets with me.

Don’t cinch my pack too tight. On the first day of the Weminuche Wilderness trip, it felt like my pack was riding a little bit too low on my waist, so I cinched the hip belt down pretty tight. After we reached our destination, my right hip/upper thigh/groin area was really, really sore. It hurt way more than it had done on any previous trip. The only thing I could think of was that I had the hip belt a little bit too tight. I didn’t tighten it up quite as much the rest of the trip, and never had that problem again.

Be thankful for trail crews. There were sections on all three trips where I had to deal with lots of blow downs, or the trail wasn’t even existent. It made me realize just how nice maintained trails are. So big shout out and thank you to all the trail crews out there maintaining the trails! After I finished my South San Juan Wilderness trip, I ran into a trail crew in the parking lot that had just finished doing trail maintenance. It was the first time I had ever run into a trail maintenance crew. I would have loved to stay and chat with them for a while, but I wanted to get the “mouse in my car” situation taken care of as fast as possible, so I didn’t stick around. I’m not sure if I’m more mad at the mouse for trashing my car or causing me to miss that opportunity to chat with the trail crew.

Mice can get into closed vehicles. On a camping trip a couple years back I had a mouse get into the passenger compartment of my car. I figured it got into some stuff I had laying on the ground that later got put into the car, or managed to jump in the car when the doors were open at some point. After getting a mouse in my car a second time on the South San Juan Wilderness trip, I was a little bit baffled. I was pretty sure it couldn’t have got into anything I left laying around, as I was pretty careful about not doing that. My dad ended up doing some research online, and apparently it’s somewhat common for mice to be able to get into the passenger compartment of a closed vehicle. I had no idea. Definitely nice to know. Will be better about leaving food in the car from now on.

I have a love/hate relationship with thunderstorms. I love the sound of thunder in the mountains, and it’s nice to get the cloud cover in the afternoon to keep it cool in the tent. I’m not a big fan of laying down to rest in a hot tent. However, probably due to my meteorology background, and living in Oklahoma for the last 13 years, I have a healthy respect for what thunderstorms are capable of. I also know there isn’t really a good place to get protected from lightning while backpacking. Thus, I always get stressed when there are thunderstorms while I’m backpacking. If I remember correctly, every day of my South San Juan Wilderness trip involved thunderstorms nearby, so that trip definitely brought this out.

Using GPS has its pros & cons. When I was learning about thru hiking early in the year, I discovered there were apps I could use to show my location on trail maps. I thought this was pretty cool, and decided to give it a try on my Colorado trips. It wasn’t really necessary on the Weminuche Wilderness trip, although it was handy to pull up the maps and see exactly where we were. On the South San Juan Wilderness trip, it came in much more handy. On the second day there was a point where the trail completely disappeared for quite some time, and had it not been for having the GPS to use, I very well might have turned around. Later on there were a couple “trails” marked on my maps that ended up being cross country routes across high plateaus, which weren’t marked very well with cairns. It was really nice to be able to pull up the maps with GPS and see if I was headed in the right direction, which I often wasn’t. Looking at the GPS also made me realized I missed a turn at one point, and had I not looked at GPS, I probably would have gone a ways further before I even realized it. However, I also noticed with using the GPS that I wasn’t paying as much attention to terrain and features to understand where I was. Had I not had the GPS, I likely would have spent more time looking at maps to figure out certain terrain/features along the trail, and then paying more attention to terrain/features as I hiked. In my opinion, that is probably the better way to go. Also, on those cross country routes, I have a feeling they may have been better had I just figured out what heading I needed, and used my compass to follow that heading, instead of getting off the route, realizing it with GPS, heading back to get on the route, and then repeating many times. So while it definitely is a powerful tool, I think there is definitely a place for map and compass skills, and an awareness of what to expect in regards to terrain and features on the upcoming trail.

Leave me a comment about any lessons you learned on the trail this year!

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.

Weminuche Wilderness – July 2020: Trip Summary

Normally my brother and I would have done our annual backpacking trip in the vicinity of NW Wyoming. My dad’s side of the family has a reunion in Cody, WY each summer, so we get in our backpacking trip leading up to that, or afterwards. But as we all know, this year has been anything but normal. When the family reunion got cancelled, my brother and I scrapped our plan to do our second trip in the Wind River Range, and instead decided to go to the San Juans in Colorado since they were a shorter drive. It was the first time doing our trip outside of the NW Wyoming vicinity, so that was a little weird, but it was nice getting to finally do a trip in Colorado. I can finally tell people I have done a backpacking trip in Colorado. Haha. Keep reading for a summary of our trip. I will have some more blogs over the next couple weeks covering some things I did differently on this trip vs. previous trips, and lessons learned, so stay tuned for those.

Trip Summary

If you follow my trips, you know that they rarely, if ever, go to plan. This trip was no exception, but it really worked out for the better this time instead of being a disaster, so that was great.

Day 1: I had an “uh-oh” moment right off the bat on the first day when I realized I forgot the belt for my hiking pants at home (I hadn’t worn them on the drive up the previous day). Thankfully my brother came to the rescue. He had an extra belt with him that he let me use. The first day went as planned. We hiked from the Pine River Trailhead to just south of Little Emerald Lake (~11 miles). The weather for the hike was great. The hike up The Pine to the Lake Creek turnoff was easy. The hike after the turnoff was pretty strenuous. Of the ~2,000 ft of elevation gain, ~1,600 ft of it was done after the turnoff (last 5 miles). We were glad when we finally got to the lakes.

We had to camp about 1/4 mile south of Little Emerald. The first time we started to walk to the lake, it started raining moderately part way, so we went back to the tent and hung out there until it stopped. Unfortunately, it was cloudy, rainy, and gloomy for most of the time we were there. It was a really beautiful area, but because of the weather we were never able to see it at it’s best. We were able to spend some time at the lakes, but not as much as we would have liked. My brother got a little bit of fishing in at each lake, but never caught anything. I got very few pictures on this day, which was discouraging. When I was getting my bear bag at one point, I slipped off a wet log and somehow managed not to hurt myself too bad. Just a couple scrapes and bruises on one arm. That was quite lucky. I put my bear bag in a different spot after that. Haha. We saw three day hikers up at the lakes, and one person passed our camp headed out. As far as we were aware, we were the only people camped at the south side of the lakes. Just as the sun was setting, the clouds started to clear up, and we were treated to a nice rainbow and sunset. Having that ending to the day was definitely a morale booster.

Day 2: Our second day was a pretty wild day. Haha. This is where we started to deviate from plan. The day started off with great weather. The trail was easy to follow while hiking along the lakes. Once we reached the north side of Emerald Lake, the trail became difficult to follow. I’m not sure if we got off the main trail at some point, but there were points where we were pretty much bushwhacking our way along a very faint path. We finally met back up with a well beaten trail just north of Emerald Lake. The first half of the trail on this day was pretty overgrown in a lot of spots, even where there was a well beaten trail. Since it had rained quite a bit over the previous couple of days, all the vegetation was wet. Unfortunately my brother and I didn’t have the foresight to put on our rain gear, so after a couple miles, both of us were pretty much completely soaked. It was pretty miserable hiking.

As with the first day, most of the elevation gain was at the end of the hike. About 1,200 ft of the 1,600 ft of elevation gain was achieved in the last couple miles of the hike. Not too long after we started climbing my brother noticed a bear across the drainage. It was so far off it was hard to see, so big kudos to him for spotting it. That was the first bear we had ever seen while backpacking, so that was exciting. Thankfully it was a ways off. There were lots of waterfalls during the last couple miles of the hike, which helped take our minds off the difficult hike, if only for a moment. As we started getting close to Moon Lake, we started to hear thunder, and it was pretty stormy to our south. The thunder kept getting louder, and just below Moon Lake I saw a lightning strike that ended up being 3 or 4 miles away. I knew my brother was already worn out, so I was already contemplating camping at Moon Lake instead of going on to Rock Lake. The thunderstorm was the deciding factor to go ahead and stop at Moon Lake. We both pushed hard to get to Moon Lake, stopped at the first campsite we came to, and quickly got camp set up.

Thankfully the storm calmed down after that. There weren’t any more lightning strikes and the storm moved out without raining on us. As we were eating lunch, I noticed a rock chuck headed towards our camp spot. I couldn’t remember if I had left my bar bag open, so I got up really quick and chased it off so it didn’t get into the food. It turned out that the bear bag was closed. It was stormy all around us, but it ended up being a pretty nice afternoon at Moon Lake, so my brother did some fishing and I took some pictures and read. My brother caught several fish, which was good after not getting any at Emerald Lakes. It started looking like it might rain a little after 3:00, so we headed back to our campsite. My brother had left his trekking poles laying on the ground when we left camp, and when we got back we discovered the rock chuck had eaten most of the cork off of the handles. He ended up filing the rest of the cork off the handles. We discovered a little later that the rock chuck had also put a small hole in his dry bag. We were able to fix that with some duct tape. That definitely put a damper on the day.

It started to rain around 3:30, and rained lightly for about an hour, so we laid in the tent for a while and relaxed. After it cleared up again, my brother went to try and catch some fish for dinner. He caught a couple fish quickly. Just as he started to fillet them and I started to get stuff set up to cook them, a cold front apparently came through and the wind got a little bit gusty out of the north. I found a spot somewhat out of the wind and my brother eventually made it over with the filleted fish. The last time we cooked fish on a trip something similar happened. Not sure if that is a sign we should heed or not. Haha. While cooking dinner, I went back up to camp and noticed the rock chuck in camp again, and then quickly noticed he had been eating the mesh used for back ventilation on my brother’s backpack. I chased the rock chuck out of camp and had to deliver the bad news to my brother. Needless to say, we were quite frustrated with the rock chuck at this point.

We eventually finished dinner and hung out around camp the rest of the evening. It started to rain lightly around 7:30, so we started to get ready for bed and then got in the tent. It ended up raining on and off throughout the night. At an elevation of 11,620 ft, this was the highest either of us had ever camped. Our previous high was ~10,400 ft in the Wind River Range. This camp spot is up near the top of favorite campsites, if not at the top of the list. It definitely took a lot of effort getting to it though.

Day 3: The original plan for this day had been to do a day hike from Rock Lake to one or more of the Ute Lakes, but since we stopped at Moon Lake the previous day, we decided to go over the ridge to Rock Lake, spend some time there, and then hike to Flint Lake. It would be a short and easy day, which would be nice after a couple tough days.

After our experience walking through the wet vegetation the previous day, we decided to put on our rain gear for the first part of this hike since it looked like we would be hiking through more wet vegetation. It was a short hike from Moon Lake up to the ridge, but it involved another ~800 ft of elevation gain. There wasn’t much of a trail between Moon Lake and Half Moon lake, but the hike up to Half Moon was pretty straightforward. Once we got close to Half Moon Lake, we took the rain gear off. We made it to the top of the ridge around 9:00 A.M. We were both really glad we had waited to go up and over the ridge. The sky/light was great for pictures and we weren’t in a rush to get up and over due to thunderstorms. The view from the ridge was incredible. It was definitely worth the difficult trek to get there.

We spent some time on the ridge getting pictures, and then headed down to Rock Lake. We spent some time at Rock Lake (my brother fishing, myself taking pictures and reading), and then headed on to Flint Lake. We got to Flint Lake around 11:40 A.M. After getting camp set up we headed over to the lake and spent some time there. I came really close to jumping in the lake, but couldn’t quite get the courage up to do it (I really hate getting in cold water). My brother caught several good sized cutthroats. I eventually headed back up to camp while my brother continued fishing. I tried laying down in the tent for a bit, but it was too hot in there, which was a change for the trip. My brother had a bull moose walk quite close by him while he was fishing. After eating dinner we went back down to the lake for most of the evening. It ended up being a beautiful day all day, and was the first day of the trip we didn’t get rained on, which was really nice.

Day 4: Our plan for this day was to hike down Flint Creek to The Pine, and then find a camp spot somewhere along The Pine. We had two separate people warn us the previous day about blow downs on the Flint Creek trail, so we were a little worried about what we were getting ourselves into. At some point along the trail there was a dry stretch of trail, and we both got excited since that was the first dry trail we had seen up until that point. It’s the little things. Haha.

Between blow downs and overgrowth, the trail was definitely in need of some work. The trail was easy to follow the whole time though. There were parts of it where it felt like what I imagine a rainforest to be like due to the dense, lush green vegetation. It was a lot different than what we were used to hiking through in our previous trips. At one point we were walking through some dense vegetation and three large birds took off right in front of my brother, which I’m pretty sure almost gave him a heart attack. It gave us both a pretty good laugh.

We reached The Pine just before 1:00 P.M. and took a break for lunch. We then headed down The Pine towards the trailhead. At one point we found some raspberries along the trail, and we each grabbed a couple. They were so good! I’m sure we both could have eaten a whole bush full, but there weren’t that many fully ripe, and we wanted to leave some for others. For the last couple miles or so of the day we could see an incredible waterfall coming down the mountain to the left of the trail. It was neat to be able to see that as we were hiking along. The first three established camp spots we passed were all occupied, so I started to worry we might not be able to find a spot. Thankfully the fourth spot we saw was open, so we stopped there for the day. Using the Avenza Maps app, I calculated we had about 8 miles left to get to the trailhead.

We hung out around camp until dinner time. Both of us let our feet soak in the river for a few minutes. That felt great. After dinner my brother tried some fishing in the river just upstream from camp. He caught one small fish. I read while he fished. After a while of that we came back to camp and hung out there until bedtime. It was another beautiful day without any rain, which was much appreciated.

Day 5: Nothing too exciting to cover about this day. We hiked out to the trailhead, and in the process saw lots of people hiking in and saw a couple snakes. We reached the trailhead around noon. The trailhead was packed, which was quite the contrast to when we started the hike. I’m assuming the main driver was the weather (bad when we started, great when we finished).

Overall Comments

Wildlife: We saw more wildlife in this trip than several of our previous trips combined. That was exciting. We saw pika, rock chucks, turkey, several deer, a bear, a moose, and a bald eagle.

Vegetation: As mentioned earlier, there were parts of this hike (particularly at higher elevations) that seemed quite rainforest-like. There were many, many parts of the trail where we were walking through dense vegetation even though there was a well beaten trail. That was a lot different than what we had hiked in previously. It was really neat. The wildflowers were fantastic, especially in the higher elevations. It seemed like we kept running across flowers that we hadn’t seen before. Finally, the hike along The Pine contains a lot of Aspen trees. I kept thinking how awesome that hike would be in the fall with the Aspen trees changing color.

People: The Pine was a fairly busy trail, but away from The Pine we really didn’t see too many people. It wasn’t as isolated as some of the hikes we have done in WY, but it wasn’t crowded either. The weather may have helped with that some.

Trash: I was actually quite surprised with how little trash we found during the trip. That was encouraging. We found a sock, some fishing line, an empty bug spray bottle, and some other small bits of trash. But all in all, it was quite clean, so kudos to everybody using those areas for keeping them clean.