This summer, I was asked to join Truckee-based guide service Tahoe Trips and Trails on an ultralight hike in the Sierra. Our goal was to show a couple of journalists how to do the seemingly impossible—how to go on a backpacking trip in the rain when we’re carrying less than 10 pounds of gear.
I showed up Saturday morning in the gear room of Tahoe Trips and Trails and met Ben Spillman, a journalist based out of Reno, who came equipped with a backpack full of what he thought was some really light gear. Tearing his pack apart was none other than ultralight backpacking guru and founder of Gossamer Gear, Glen Van Peski, who systematically was weighing and then sidelining most of Ben’s gear while presenting offerings of much lighter equipment. Glen has a streamlined pack shakedown system, but Ben asked me questions—somewhat incredulously at first—about whether this system actually works. San Francisco-based journalist Bill Fink came on the trip prepared to take whatever Glen handed him. I was there as evidence that these ultralight systems work for thousands of miles of hiking without killing their owners.
We were joined later by someone with a lot more miles than me, the super accomplished long distance backpacker currently tackling the first PCT winter traverse, Justin “Trauma” Lichter, fresh off a soccer game. Led by Jeff Baird from Tahoe Trips and Trails and his border collie, Baxter, our now ultralight crew of hikers set off to our trailhead.
We started at a trailhead off I-80 and climbed the backside of iconic Castle Peak. The moderate elevation gain didn’t seem to deter our party, though the weather kicked in and we all started grabbing our rain jackets. This route kept us above treeline through wildflower filled fields—well, what managed to still be around after a droughty spring. Trauma pointed out a rare flower growing along the bank of a beautiful creek.
To avoid the bugs, we decided to dry camp in a large flat spot above Warren Lake—an idea novel to our journalist friends. Trauma and I collected water for everyone in the group while Glen and Jeff instructed the reporters how to set up ultralight shelters. Given the weather, we all spent time in our respective tents sitting out the storm, but when it cleared, we gathered to cook our dinners.
In every good ultralight demonstration, there is usually a line like, “I pack ultralight gear so I can afford to carry a luxury item.” For most people, that luxury item is a nice camera or a book, but on this trip, I packed out a Pat’s Backcountry Beer kit and mixed up a Pale Ale and Black IPA for our guests! For those unfamiliar with Pat’s Backcountry Beer, his system is essentially dehydrated beer. Just add clean water, do a bit of mixing and shaking with some powders, and you’ve got beer. Glen presented us with chips and rehydrated salsa our first course, then whipped out some wine served in plastic wine glasses. Clearly, our goal was to show these journalists that just because we went ultralight didn’t mean that we weren’t going to have a good time.
The next day, we traveled up the backside of Basin peak and walked the prominent ridgeline to the base of Castle Peak. This was an awesome mile of exposed, above treeline ridgewalking on grass—not rock, like is common in California. I love this type of walking and the views of the Northern Sierra area were phenomenal. Despite the altitude getting to all the flatlanders, because our packs were light, the climb did not feel bad.
The ridge hooked us up with Castle Peak, which has three summits made of a composite rock (hence the name as each peak looks like a turret). The area around that peak is on crumblier rock than the rest of the trip, but the lower peak can be walked up easily. Trauma and I hopped over to the high Central Peak, which can be climbed via an easy technical face or chimney climb up the backside (which I accomplished, amazingly, in my Purple Rain Adventure Skirt).
The way down from Castle was steep and on loose dirt until we crossed the PCT at Castle Pass. From there, we continued on down via a cross country route that spit us out on a Forest Service road and at a trailhead, where one of Jeff and Patty’s employees was slated to pick us up with sandwiches—it doesn’t get any better than that for a hiker!
Jeff, Patty, and Trauma all live in Truckee and are super knowledgeable of the hikes in the area. Despite growing up not much more than an hour away, I felt lucky to have these locals show me the sites and share their knowledge of the natural history and human history of the area. Before coming out on this trip, my knowledge of hikes in the Truckee area was limited to the PCT-North and PCT-South. Now, I’ve got a new scenic, easy hike to share with others.
Similarly, I think we may have been able to convert a few new people to ultralight hiking that weekend. Heavyweight backpackers often worry that without all their extra gear, they won’t be able to stay dry and warm when the weather turns gnarly. But even though we took Ben and Bill out on a cold and wet summer day, we all stayed relatively dry and happy. It turns out a rainy backpacking trip may just be the best way to teach others than ultralight gear works just as well—if not better—than heavy gear, even in less than optimal conditions.