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A Helpful Guide to Start Planning Your First Thru-Hike

After 6 years of dreaming, I finally was able to hike the Timberline Trail in 2015. Photo by <a href="">Kate Hoch.</a>
After 6 years of dreaming, I finally was able to hike the Timberline Trail in 2015. Photo by Kate Hoch.
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started” Mark Twain

Maps. Gear. Food. Planning for a thru-hike can involve so much stuff and data, it can seem downright daunting.

Before I started my first thru-hike, I obsessed the Pacific Crest Trail, but was scared to actually take the first step to make a thru-hike happen. Friends knew of my dream and would urge me to pursue it, but I kept letting fear and the amount of work involved keep me from doing anything about it. I found excuses to avoid even starting to plan. I didn’t even know if I could find the time and money, so why waste that time dreaming?

Then, in January of 2008, I took the plunge and went in head first. I didn’t know what I was doing, but all I can say is that that decision is among the best things I’ve ever done.

Planning and prep for a thru-hike will look different from person to person. We have different goals, different dreams, different timelines. And no matter how much prep we do, Mother Nature always throws something unexpected at us. But the truth is, regardless of who we are or how we want to hike, our experience in the outdoors is safer and more enjoyable when we take initiative and do some old fashioned planning.

Here are some tips to beat inertia and indecision and to hop on the planning train.

  1. Commit to hike, even if you aren’t 100% sure you can make it happen I can tell there’s a difference between the trails that I’ve planned a year out vs. hikes I cobbled together 2 weeks in advance. The further out I can commit to a trail (even if it’s a slow start), the better off I am physically and mentally when I do hit the trail. Committing to my hike early also allows gives me the time to address my demands at home (work, my stuff, bills, etc.) and to make sure years in advance that the family vacation won’t be scheduled in the middle of my hike.
  2. If you’re not sure you can actually hike (find time and money), research how others have made it happen. People from all walks of life have thru-hiked. All ages, all backgrounds, all sorts of professions. Finding the time and money to do a trip sometimes requires some creativity, but if you want it enough, it can be done! Work with a financial planner and talk to other hikers who are similar positions of you to get ideas and inspiration.
  3. Decide to start planning early….say, now. If you’ve ever thought about thru-hiking, the more time you give yourself to mentally be in the “I’m going on a thru-hike space” the better prepared you will be when that day actually happens. If you’re planning on hiking this summer, in 2017, or after you retire in 5 years, setting your goal now and moving on it is a great way to make sure it happens.
  4. Stop worrying that prep and planning will take away from the adventure. No matter how much prep and planning you do, the outdoors is always giving us surprises, always giving us gifts, and promises to keep us on our toes. On a long hike in remote country, you’ve got a smaller margin of error than you do at home. Planning and prep isn’t about forming expectations. It’s about being willing to take whatever Mother Nature gives us and have the knowledge and skills to know what to do with it.
  5. Don’t buy your gear yet. The temptation to go out and buy the first great deal that you see at the outfitter is great. “Who cares how it works? I’ll figure it out after I take it home!” I’ve declared far too often. But for many hikers, gear is the biggest expense of a thru-hike, so it’s worth doing some research—a lot of research—before handing over your hard earned cash.
  6. Find a mentor. First-time thru-hikers who learn from thru-hiking mentors not only get the information to hike, but also get personal support that a book or listserve doesn’t offer. A good mentor will live by the motto “there are no stupid questions.” Avoid online forums, listserves, and facebook groups with trolls that prey on newbies. Instead, look for mentors who are willing to take the time to “tailor” answers specifically to you and who are willing to invest the time to learn about you to help you come to decisions that fit your goals and values.
  7. Know How to Choose the Information You Use. There is a lot of info on mountaineering, survivalism, and “the right thing to do in the outdoors” out there. But just like if you’re planning to bake a cake, a cooking class will only be so useful, if you’re planning to thru-hike, a survivalism book will also be of limited use. A lot of hikers I meet get caught up in learning skills and strategies that tend to not be useful for most 3-season thru-hikers, like learning to kill and skin squirrels or build ice caves. These people would have better spent their time learning to develop a lighter gear system or plan out their resupplies—skills better suited to long distance backpackers.
  8. Carve out time each week to plan for your trip. Even if it’s only an hour each week, this is your time to re-commit to your goal, familiarize yourself with your trail, and prepare yourself for the challenges of a hike. Whether this time is spent taking a class, watching a hiking movie, reading a book, or going over your dream gear list, regularly making trip planning a part of your habitual routine will make sure your dream can’t slip away.
  9. Break planning into chunks. Planning, research, and prep can be overwhelming, but you don’t have to do everything all at once. For example, a friend of mine committed to spend one month just on finding the best sleeping bag for his trip and saving up for it. You can do something similar by spending one week (or one month if your trip is a few years out) just researching something as silly as salty snack foods. The more time you have before your trip, the more easily you can break up your research and prepping needs and make the process fun. Plus, staying engaged throughout the planning process can help you get even more psyched about your trip.


If you have always dreamed of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, John Muir Trail, Camino de Santiago, or any other trail, on January 12th, I will be launching (with BACKPACKER Magazine) a 6-week online course called Thru-Hiking 101 with videos, worksheets, interviews, webinars, gearlists, physical fitness training calendars, and community. It’s an easy to digest, unintimidating guide to help you plan for your first thru-hike and make your dream of outdoor adventure come true. Sign up today

How to Train your Feet for Hiking Season

Altra Zero Drop shoes have quickly become a hiker favorite.
Altra Zero Drop shoes have quickly become a hiker favorite.

If you’ve ever thought about switching to Altra Zero Drop trail running shoes for your backpacking season, now is the time to start getting your foot accustomed to the shoe. I find that switching to hiking in the Altra Lone Peaks has increased my stability, reduced my strike impact, provided comfort for hours of hiking, eliminated long term hiker issues like plantar fasciitis, and increased my efficiency. That being said, hitting the trail with a brand new pair of Altras if you’ve never worn them before may not be the best idea because there is a transition time associated with switching over to a Zero drop shoe.

Lone Peak 1.0 in Escalante. Photo by <a title="Rocky Mountain Ruck" href="">Barefoot Jake Morrison.</a>
Lone Peak 1.0 in Escalante. Photo by Barefoot Jake Morrison.

Fear not, though—the benefits of switching over are HUGE for long distance hikers. Zero drop shoes help align the feet, reduce the impact of each foot step, and increase your stability. The foot shaped toe box—increases balance and efficiency, while reducing blisters and chaffing, maximize shock absorption and allows toes to spread out naturally. What this means for hikers is day-long comfort, increased stride efficiency, and less foot pain.

Baileys traverse in the Lone Peak 1.5s. Photo by <a href="">Barefoot Jake.</a>
Baileys traverse in the Lone Peak 1.5s. Photo by Barefoot Jake.

So, why should you start transitioning to Altra shoes now instead of say, a few days before my hike most thru-hikers (myself included) do the bulk of the trip planning? Because we’ve all spent years wearing high-heel like elevated trail runners, our feet have been trained to be lazy (in scientific speak—has neutralized our Achilles and lower calf muscles). If you hit the trail doing 15s, 20s, or 30 milers in a zero drop shoe when you’ve never worn zero drop shoes before, your Achilles and lower calf muscles are going to feel the burn. The muscles in your feet are going to be confused. It’s best to give yourself at least three weeks to strengthen your legs and feet before your hike.

Bobcat, Malto, and me on the Wonderland Trail in the Lone Peak 1.5s. Photo by Swami at <a href="">the Hiking Life.</a>
Bobcat, Malto, and me on the Wonderland Trail in the Lone Peak 1.5s. Photo by Swami at the Hiking Life.

Pre-hike training schedule:

Before you get your shoes (or during week 1): Walk around barefoot in the grass or the beach or your bedroom for 30 seconds, adding a 30 seconds per day. Week 1: Wear Altras around the office and running light errands (they sell a “work appropriate” show called the Instinct Everyday that has many of the same features as the running shoe, but looks like it’d work with a suit). At first, the Toe Shaped footbox may feel too roomy and weird. After a few days, your toes will start relaxing and will start spreading out naturally.

Sandstone in Moab in the Superior 2.0s Photo by the <a href="">Tom Gathman.</a>
Sandstone in Moab in the Superior 2.0s Photo by the Tom Gathman.

Week 2: Do a very short hikes (whatever that means to you). Start without your backpack and give yourself a rest day to assess how your feet, joints, Achilles, foot muscles, and lower calves feel. If everything seems great, slowly increase the mileage and add weight to your backpack, being sure to build in days in between for rest and recovery. On a thru-hike, it’s near impossible to take zero days every day, so let your body take advantage of rest days between hikes to build muscles and strength. Let your body also take advantage of the muscle building fuels that you can get from living off trail. Building muscles on trail when you’re living on instant mashed potatoes and ramen is going to be a little bit more difficult.

Escalante in the Lone Peak 1.5s. Photo by<a href="">Barefoot Jake</a>
Escalante in the Lone Peak 1.5s. Photo byBarefoot Jake

Barefoot Jake. Week 3: Up your mileage slightly, being sure to take days off in between. Take note of any excessive soreness or discomfort and rest up more. Week 4-6: Do a few hikes of the approximate length that you would wish to start a thru-hike. Take some days off between. Assess how you feel. Try doing that distance with a full pack of gear.

Glacier walking in the Lone Peak 1.5s in Olympic National Park. Photo by <a href="">Barefoot Jake.</a>
Glacier walking in the Lone Peak 1.5s in Olympic National Park. Photo by Barefoot Jake.

With this training system, your feet will get stronger and reduce the chance of getting bone fractures. Your lower calves will be ready to hit the trail (relatively speaking). And you’ll enjoy the natural alignment benefits of wearing a Zero Drop shoes. Wearing Zero Drop shoes is like long distance hiking: once you start doing it, you’ll have a hard time thinking of life the same way. If you’ve ever thought about it, I highly encourage starting now before hiking season gets into full swing so that you can maximize the benefits when you’re on trail.     (P.S. I’m not a doctor. Legal says that you should consult with your physician before doing anything physical or changing your life in any way).

Rocky Mountain Ruck

ALDHA-W and the CDTC held the Rocky Mountain Ruck on March 14th at the American Mountaineering Center in Golden, CO
ALDHA-W and the CDTC held the Rocky Mountain Ruck on March 14th at the American Mountaineering Center in Golden, CO

Get to the hills! The Colorado hikers are in Ruck! This past weekend, ALDHA-W and the Continental Divide Trail Coalition (CDTC) completed their first Rocky Mountain Ruck attracting 85 people from as far away as Salida, Vail, Portland, and even LA! This all-day event attracted hikers in all stages of experience—from dayhikers to seasoned veterans to the long trails. No matter what level of expertise, everyone walked away having learned a trick or two, and the fellowship, fun, and beer made the event the closest Colorado has gotten to a Gathering yet (besides maybe Lawton “Disco” Grinter and Felicia “POD” Hermosillo’s wedding).

Outside demo
Outside demo

Held at the historic American Mountaineering Center in historic downtown Golden, CO, the event kicked off with speeches by CDTC Executive Director Teresa Martinez and ALDHA-W President Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa. To acquaint everyone to the terms, quirks, and nuts and bolts mechanics of a thru-hike, Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva and ALDHA-W Secretary April “Bearclaw” Sylva presented a funny and lighthearted intro to What is a Thru-Hike.

Pack shake down with Allgood and Annie
Pack shake down with Allgood and Annie

After a break with food and snacks provided by Great Harvest Bakery and Whole Foods Golden, the event jumped into the ever-important ‘Everything that Can Go Wrong on the CDT’—with applications for the Colorado Trail, PCT, and pretty much every other trail. Disco and POD used their humor and wide breadth of hiking experience to present a spectrum of safety techniques for various tribulations of the trail—from grizzlies to giardia.

Outdoor fording demo
Outdoor fording demo

From here, it transitioned to winter hiking teacher Pete “Czech” Sustr’s hands-on (read: powerpointless) clinic on fords and snow travel. The troop of hikers traveled outside to a park outside to enjoy the four surrounding mountains of Golden, the 70 degree temps, and a little lightning safety position practice.

Czech demonstrated walking on a not-snow-covered hill and then gathered everyone to Clear Creek where he and a lone brave volunteer forded the creek. Passerbys from downtown Golden stopped to witness the crazy.

The view of the ford from the bridge over Clear Creek. The downtown passerbys were gathered on the bridge watching these two.
The view of the ford from the bridge over Clear Creek. The downtown passerbys were gathered on the bridge watching these two.

The morning concluded with backpacking gear presentation by expert and ultralight guru Glen van Peski. Throughout the day, hikers had the opportunity to explore manned booths and touch, try on, and otherwise drool over gear from Montbell, Gossamer Gear, Katabatic Quilts, and the CDTC. Lunch outside transitioned into pack shakedowns with experienced hikers and trail Q&A in breakout groups. Those who brought their backpacking gear for one-on-one consultations were stoked at the level of attention, helpfulness, and insight the hour of gearheading provided.

Dirtmonger heading up a pack shakedown. What a nerd!
Dirtmonger heading up a pack shakedown. What a nerd!

Corralling people back to the classroom on such a sunny day was a chore, but well worth it. Paul “Mags” Magnanti gave a highly informative presentation on navigation on the CDT with a robust Q&A. Mags proved a hard act to follow, but Allgood and I came on stage to discuss serious business: pooping in the woods. We discussed Leave No Trace trail ethics and Trail Town Etiquette—two very important topics that to-be hikers need to know before stepping foot on trail. The session concluded with a cathole digging competition with participants using their shoe, hiking poles, sticks, tent stakes, rocks and potty trowel to dig the best hole they could in 45 seconds. Needless to say, the trowel got the job done.

Cathole digging competition
Cathole digging competition

The evening ended with a killer presentation by Junaid Dawud, who thru-hiked all the Colorado 14ers as a continuous hike. A minor Front Range celebrity, as well as a seasoned thru-hiked himself, Junaid’s photos were jaw dropping and his description of pioneering a trail and the suffering that actually doing it entailed somehow just made me want to hike it even more. Junaid told us during Happy Hour that it was the first time he had given a talk about the 14ers Thru-Hike. Everyone who heard that could not believe it—his talk was so well-polished that we had all assumed he had given it to numerous clubs around the Front Range. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure Junaid has an opportunity to give his talk again sometime soon.

Cathole competitors put on their game face.
Cathole competitors put on their game face.

The night ended with a raffle of gear valuing thousands of dollars including backpacks from Gossamer Gear and others, numerous pairs of Altra Zero Drop shoes, DVDs of the Walkumentary and Embrace the Brutality, downloads of Guthook’s trail guide apps, Sawyer filter, a Montbell jacket, Katabatic gear bivy, a Hennessey Hammock, and much more. Nearly everyone walked away with some schwag (and everyone who came to the event walked away loaded down with giveaways from Probar, Whole Foods, Tecnu, and Dr. Bronner’s). We all gathered for a Social Hour and Q&A with beer provided by Colorado Native Lager.

The Gathering is about food, fun, and fellowship.
The Gathering is about food, fun, and fellowship.

It’s the end of Ruckin’ Season. Soon, hikers will hit the trail. But with the help of the Rocky Mountain Ruck, we hope that everyone will set foot on trail—whatever that trail may be—feeling more prepared for the journey ahead.







Grocery store resupply like a champ

Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa resupplies at a supermarket on the Chinook Trail
Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa resupplies at a supermarket on the Chinook Trail

Long distance hikers have to go into town and get new supplies every few days, but after being in the woods, sometimes going into a grocery store can be overwhelming. Here are a few tips to make the most of your town time and make the resupply process a bit easier.

  1. Plan out your attack first: I usually start planning out my resupply on trail a few days before hitting town. This not only gives me something to think about while I’m hiking, but also gives me time to be strategic about my nutrition. Walking into a grocery store from the woods can be overwhelming, so know what you’re looking for beforehand—make a shopping list. It helps qualm the surrounded-by-food-lots-of-people-and-noise anxiety that plague a just-to-town hiker.
  2. Wash your hands: You just got out of the woods. You’re gross. Go do it before you start pawing at your snack.

    Never resupply on an empty stomach
    Never resupply on an empty stomach
  3. Don’t resupply on an empty stomach: How many times have I let my starving belly dictate a resupply only to either a) end up with waaaay too much food for the next resupply b) discover on trail that my entire resupply is cookies and chocolate? A snack before you shop can calm your belly and prepare your mind for the difficult decision of what food is worth carrying on the next leg of your trip. Favorite simple satiaters are: a yogurt, a few pieces of fruit, chocolate milk, Ben & Jerry’s, a couple pieces of fried chicken, a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, a slice of pizza (but NOT a whole pizza!)

    Grab a drink
    Grab a drink
  4. Grab a drink: Sure, you’ve spent the last few days thinking of nothing but how you’re going to eat the entire grocery store, but unfortunately, your budget isn’t going to allow that (your stomach also will prove to have limitations). 80% of people can’t tell the difference between whether they are hungry or thirsty and I’m willing to say 80% of hikers are dehydrated coming into town. A drink will fill you and help rehydrate you for peak performance on some important decision making: what to eat!
  5. Use your time indoors to warm up/cool down: Take advantage of the heating/cooling system to get your body temps back to normal before hitting the trail again. If your rain gear needs some drying, this may be a time to get creative…
  6. Weigh your food on a produce scale: Now that you’ve loaded half the grocery store into your cart, it’s time to check whether you really need all that food to make it to the next town.Head back to the fruit and veggie area and weigh what you’ve got on a produce scale. You’ll probably want around 2 pounds of food per day until your next resupply. Account a little for the weight of the packaging, but be honest. If you carry 20 pounds of food for the two days until your next resupply, you’ll be hurting!

    Eat a luxurious treat or two!
    Eat a luxurious treat or two!
  7. Grab a luxurious treat (or two!): I often do my resupply by sending boxes of pre-packaged food to myself, but when I resupply from a grocery store, I go out of my way to buy things the post office would rather not keep in the back mouldering until I pick up my box.  When resupplying, I like to grab cheese, a sandwich, baked goods (cinnamon rolls are my favorite), ice cream, or a few fresh fruits and veggies to bring on trail. Garlic is lightweight and feels like a real luxury in camp. Ice cream doesn’t pack out that well (I’ve done it before…), but man, does it feel great to eat a tub of Ben & Jerry’s a few miles in!
  8. Charge your phone quickly: This is my best discovery ever. Most supermarkets have washing-machine style plugs outside for their vending machines. You can usually find one that is unoccupied. These plugs charge super fast so you can sometimes get your phone up and running in the time it takes to eat snacks and sort food.
  9. Don’t forget water: I never leave town without getting more food, but I often forget to resupply on water, only to find the next water source is really far away. Fill up your bottles and top off your Platy, even if it means having to buy a bottle of water to do it. You’ll thank yourself several hot miles later.

    Be respectful…both to the people in town and to yourself.
    Be respectful…both to the people in town and to yourself.
  10. Be respectful: Remember: you look and smell like a hobo, so having good manners is especially important. Try to get in and out of the store quickly and to not scare the other customers. If management asks you to stop cooling yourself in the walk-in freezer, you best not argue. Your actions not only affect you, but also impact all future hikers who walk in that store for resupply. Think of yourself as an ambassador for all hikers. A really smelly, hungry ambassador.

How to Turn Holey Socks into New Socks aka the Darn Tough Warranty Works

Darn Tough socks hanging out Angel’s Rest at the eastern terminus finish of the Chinook Trail
Darn Tough socks hanging out Angel’s Rest at the eastern terminus finish of the Chinook Trail

Whenever a hiker asks we what type of socks to wear on a long distance trail, I always steer them to Vermont Darn Tough socks. First, I believe that the tightly knit weaving keeps out trail grime and leads to a better fit—which helps prevent blisters. Second, I really like that they are made in the US. Lastly (and perhaps the most important for long distance hiker) there is an unconditional LIFETIME GUARANTEE.

Wait—did you hear that right? Yes! If you get holes in your socks, Darn Tough will replace them for free. Darn Tough is so confident that the average user won’t be able to put a hole in their well-built construction, that they actually will give you a new pair if you ever manage to get holes.

4,000 miles later
4,000 miles later

I’ve talked to people who hike every weekend and have had the same pair of Darn Tough socks for 10 years without getting holes. But as a long distance hiker who is known to wear the same pair of socks everyday and as someone who puts miles into my socks that far exceed the average user, I have managed to get some holes in my Darn Toughs.

So here’s what I’ve done to get a free replacement:

  1. Wash my socks. If I’m going to return them, at least I should have the courtesy to bring them back in good shape. I’ve heard that sometimes, the Darn Tough team takes used socks to help aid in design and construction improvements. I could be helping to make a better sock!
  2. Seek out my local gear store: A lot of independent gear stores will take holey Darn Tough socks and replace them for free on the spot.
  3. Find Darn Tough at festivals and outdoor gatherings: Darn Tough booths at outdoor events like PCT Days are happy to switch out socks on the spot
  4. Mail them in!

    Packaged up and ready to go
    Packaged up and ready to go

Below is a documentation of my process of mailing in my Darn Toughs. I’ve only ever had to do it twice, but had a great response each time I did.

  1. After washing my socks, I packaged them up in a manila envelope. They’re plenty safe in there and it weighs less than a padded envelope or box (less expensive for shipping)
  2. Fill out this simple Warranty Form, print it out, and sign it.
  3. Mail it all off to:


Warranties Department

364 Whetstone Drive

Northfield, VT 05663

  1. I used first class mail instead of priority mail to ship out the envelope. It cost me $2.50 to mail three pairs of socks from California to Vermont. For new socks, that seems like a deal to me!
  2. Wait about 10 days and you’ll get some brand new socks mailed to your door with Priority shipping in a padded envelope. Hooray!


The lifetime warranty actually works!!!

Brand new socks arrived in the mail!
Brand new socks arrived in the mail!

Ultralight Gear list: late season Wonderland Trail


The Wonderland Trail circumnavigates Mt. Rainier
The Wonderland Trail circumnavigates Mt. Rainier

After the ALDHA-W Gathering, I was lucky enough to hike the 93 mile long Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier with Swami, Malto, and Bobcat.

I was expecting some colder temperatures in bad weather because: 1) we were hiking late season 2) Mt. Rainier is high altitude 3) Mt. Rainier is relatively north 4) it’s Mt. Rainier.

On the other hand, I was trying to keep my pack as light as possible because 1) my three hiking partners are really strong, world class hikers and I had to be able to relatively keep up 2) I knew their packs would be very light 3) the Wonderland Trail has a good deal of elevation change and I wanted to make going uphill as easy as possible.

With these concerns in mind, here is the gear list I put together for a late season Wonderland Trail trip.

Download the PDF file .

Coffee in the backcountry

Heating up some water for a mid-morning Cup O’ Joe on the Colorado Trail
Heating up some water for a mid-morning Cup O’ Joe on the Colorado Trail

On a three thousand mile backpacking trip, bringing a percolator or French press along isn’t always the easiest thing. Sure, there’s “lightweight” backpacking versions of both of these café essentials, but they typically weigh in the same ounces as my shelter—and keeping dry in a storm is a more pressing matter.

I’m all for on-trail luxuries, but getting in my morning bean can be easier than lugging around the kitchen.  Starbucks Via made headlines in the hiking world a few years back by providing a decent cup of caffeine for only a few grams weight penalty. It comes in a small pouch the size of Crystal Lite packages (another hiker favorite) and despite what the box says, is pretty good hot or cold. Starbucks’ less pricey counterpart Nescafe sells flavored versions in the same size packets for about half the cost. In the morning, I add a pouch to 6 oz of hot water and have instant morning comfort. During the day, I’ll pop a pack into a water bottle, shake, and enjoy it iced.


Just add coffee and you’ll feel back at home. Found on at Appalachian Trail in Virginia
Just add coffee and you’ll feel back at home. Found on at Appalachian Trail in Virginia

The penny pinching and potentially higher quality (not to mention environmentally and socially responsible) alternative is bringing your own ground beans out with you. As described by Mike Cleland in Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips: 153 Amazing & Inexpensive Tips for Extremely Lightweight Camping, cowboy coffee requires nothing but your usual camping cup and some patience. Made similarly to Turkish coffee, where you let the ground beans sink to the bottom of your cup and drink the liquid on top, it’s a way to drink your beans from your favorite hometown roaster even when you’re in the backwoods. On a winter backpacking trip, I packed out my local coffee shop’s roast and got a cup of home in the woods. Just set your home grinder for the finest grind it can handle. Or tell your bean supplier to make it Turkish.

If only I could bring this along with me on the trail…Yurt on the Continental Divide Trail
If only I could bring this along with me on the trail…Yurt on the Continental Divide Trail

The only drawback with the cowboy camping style is packing the grounds out. Leave No Trace Ethics tell us that dumping the spent beans in the backwoods is not cool—we don’t want any hyper caffeinated squirrels out there. At home, I usually slap my cup against the compost bin and get out the bulk of the goop at the bottom, and then rinse with faucet water to get the rest out. Similarly, in the woods, I can dump out the bulk of the beans into a trash ziplock, but something is always left at the bottom of the cup. One method is adding some water to the cup, swishing, and drinking the rest. It goes down rough, but I tell myself it’s the same as eating chocolate covered espresso beans… sans chocolate.




Getting to the John Muir Trail

What makes the Sierra so special is its wildness–no roads, no cars, no problems, right? Wait–but getting to the trail is kind of a problem in a place so wild.

I spent an insane amount of time trying to figure out permit regulations for the JMT and how those corresponded to ease in getting to a trailhead.

I decided that for people attempting to get a JMT walk-in permit (without a reservation), starting in Yosemite Valley/Happy Isles is the easiest way to go.

Getting to Happy Isles

Amtrak runs a train and then bus to the Valley from S.F. and Sacramento (both nearby airports). The buses only run once a day in either direction which means if you don’t get the permit you want, you also likely won’t get a campsite in the park, which means you have no where to legally stay that night and no way out of the park to a legal campsite.  Essentially, you are in big trouble with no way out. Ouch. Sometimes you can get around that situation by getting a different permit. Really, because the American outdoors is not designed for public transit, the best way to get to the trailhead is with a car. Big frownie face.

Leaving from Whitney Portal

After a triumphant summit of Whitney, you can hike 11 miles down to Whitney portal where there is a store with giant pancakes and a giant parking lot. Expect no public transit here. Your best bet is to hitch hike from the parking lot a few feet down, or better yet–talk to some people and explain how you just finished the JMT. I’ve had best luck with climbers. Whitney Portal attracts a lot of dayhikers or people who just want to drive to the parking lot–sometimes, these people won’t help you out. Everyone leaving Whitney Portal *has* to go through Lone Pine to get pretty much anywhere, so every car is going to your destination.

In Lone Pine, the bus station is at Stratam Hall by the fire station on the corner of Bush St and Jackson St (turn east from Hwy 395 on Bush when you see the Lone Pine drug store). The Eastern Sierra Transit Authority will take you from Lone Pine to the Reno Greyhound station. You can catch a plane from Reno.

If you need to go back to Happy Isles to get a car, the Eastern Sierra Transit Authority runs a bus to Mammoth Lakes where you catch another bus, the Yosemite Area Regional Transit, to Yosemite Valley. I hear you can get to your car from Lone Pine to the Valley in a day now.

If none of this works out for you, the Eastern Sierra is a pretty good place to hitch hike. Lots of hikers and climbers respect what you’re doing and everyone is headed north or south on 395 for long hauls. But don’t hold me responsible if it doesn’t work out. Hitchhiking is dangerous and risky and that’s why I put together this page to figure out how to do it without.

Dealing with Bears

A few years back, I worked at a research station outside of Yosemite by myself, with the nearest person being 30 minutes away. One night, I woke to see a bear outside my window, opening my car door, inside my car, biting a giant chunk off my head rest, and otherwise, being the scariest thing ever. I wouldn’t want this happening to my backpack. Thus, Reason #1 to carry a bear canister.

Rangers in Yosemite and along the JMT will ticket you and fine you for not carrying a bear canister. On the PCT, there was a rumor that the fine was $5,000 and an escort off the trail. Luckily, a ranger corrected me and said it was more like $500. Reason #2 to carry a bear can.

Yosemite the puppet blackbear will scout out your food! Real bears don’t need red-eyed binoculars to find your edibles–their noses can smell tasty stuff for up to 2 miles.
Yosemite the puppet blackbear will scout out your food! Real bears don’t need red-eyed binoculars to find your edibles–their noses can smell tasty stuff for up to 2 miles.

Here is a list of approved bear canisters for Yosemite. At the permit office in 2012, the rangers were renting bear canisters out for $5 a week—a total bargain–just to encourage people to use them. Now you don’t need to buy them or even hassle with putting one of those suckers on a plane. Hurray!

Food is safe from bears and rangers’ tickets as long as:

  • It is in a bear canister
  • It is in a bear locker (also called a bear box)
  • It is within your sight and you are awake (like when you are hiking with food on your back)

Here are some tactics ultralighters trying to avoid carrying the weight of a bear canister can try:

  • Send your bear canister to Tuolumne Meadows and dayhike from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne. The goal here is avoiding carrying a bear canister for the first big climb out of the Valley. Just get to the Post Office by 4 pm, and you can have your canister for the night. Lately, the really nice postmaster at TM has been staying open later if you call to say you are a thru-hiker needing to get a package.  You can also pick up your bear canister at the Post office the next day at 10 am when they open—there is plenty of food for dinner and breakfast available at the Tuolumne Meadows store–you don’t need your canister that night if you use the bear lockers in the campground.
  • Dayhike from Happy Isles to Tuolumne Meadows, eating dinner at the Tuolumne Meadows store. Buy snacks for the next day and store them in a bear locker. Dayhike to Reds Meadow and pick up your bear canister (which you’ve mailed to yourself) at their Resort Store. Two days without the bear canister! Hurray!
  • Get a map of all the bear lockers in Inyo National Forest. By using bear lockers and doing big miles, it may be possible to go without a bear can legally. I really haven’t looked into it, but I think it may be possible
  • The lightest bear canister on the market is the Bare Boxer 101–which has a very small food capacity but awesome locking system. There are also carbon fiber ones on the market.

For more on real bear regulations, check out Bear Information from Y0semite’s website.





How the hell does a thru-hiker get a backcountry permit to start the CDT?

On the Canadian border
On the Canadian border

I hopped on the 11am shuttle from East Glacier to Waterton, Alberta not really sure if Waterton would really be the start of our hike. We didn’t know conditions of the Highline Trail (starts at Waterton) or Chief Mountain (starts on the border), but hadn’t been able to get to a ranger station to talk to someone who knew.

The shuttle ride to Alberta cost 100 bucks, which seemed hefty, especially for two hikers who didn’t even have their backcountry permits yet. It was the best we could do, though. We tried to get our permits the day before, but apparently, the East Glacier backcountry office is actually in Two Medicine–10 miles away in the park. We couldn’t hitch there in time the day before, so decided to take our chances and see if we could get our permit in Waterton.

The weather turned brutal and we didn’t arrive in Waterton until 3 pm. Our driver was a great commentator–she also works the Red Bus Tours, so we almost got a free guided bus tour of the park. At Waterton, a Canadian-French accented ranger called the Apgar ranger station (apparently, all the backcountry permits have to be phoned into Apgar) where the ranger told me very nicely and not pushingly, that the Highline Trail was going to be brutal. Many CDT thru-hikers had started the Highline Trail only to give up on it. Some thru-hikers had been caught with “avalanches in front of them and behind them.” We had been pretty set on the Highline Trail, but decided Chief Mountain might be a better start place.

Our shuttle driver agreed to drive us back through Chief Mtn where we’d come through before. The problem was that the closest campsites to Chief Mountain were full for that night. We had to stay in Waterton that night and take the next shuttle back to the States. As soon as we learned this, the rain became brutal and the wind insane. My “impossible to turn inside-out” umbrella turned inside-out. The rain, though, stopped surprisingly quickly and the sun came out. We would be one day behind on our hike.