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Entries in backpacking (4)


cruising in a toyota

My mighty 1994 Toyota Land Cruiser, bouncing over train tracks.In the end of October I realized that I had spent about half the month sleeping in a tent. 

My friend and I walked the bulk of the John Muir Trail. I did my field practical for a search and rescue team I'm joining. I've taken (dragged) my children out to the desert for weekend trips. 

I don't do well sitting around. A good friend of mine and fellow sailor went through a tough cancer fight, of the same variety that another friend passed away from. One of the Air Force PJ's who helped our family died barely a few weeks ago in a training accident. Charlotte and I are getting older. The gray hairs that were once a novelty are now forming a more united front on my head. 

And my children are getting older. Cora is, as normal for a human, turning from a child into a small adult. I talked to her the other day about how the transition is gradual. We don't even let people become a US Senator until they are 30 years old: the more trips you have around the sun, if you play your cards right, the more wisdom you accumulate although I'm sure anyone reading this can attest that plenty of people manage to remain copiously stupid despite advancing years.

A few miles before Muir Pass, John Muir Trail. All of this adds up to a theme that basically drives me throughout most of my life: the end is near. Well maybe not "near", but certainly it's not getting any further away and possibly it's more near than we'd like to think. 

My two wonderful girls will be done with their respective childhoods faster than I can realize, and probably faster than I want. I'm pretty fit and strong, but those will start to fail me too, and before they give out completely I will be consistently slower than before and take longer and longer to heal. 

Spend a couple of hundred miles in the High Sierras to really appreciate "passes" and what they mean to your daily schedule. And so I've found myself pin-balling around lately. In a desperate mad scrabble to do everything in this world I can, I've found success, failure, and much in between. 

In some ways, sailing was easy because of the identity it provides. There's community, there are some clear definitions, and there are well laid tracks in front of you with options for what to do.

Back here on land, it's different. You have to pick between buying and renting. There are Targets nearby. deliveries. Credit scores and prostate exams. 

All of those things hold true on the water as well, but they're less in-your-face. The forced simplicity and hardness of a sea-going lifestyle breeds a different set of priorities. Similar to exercise and keeping your calories in check, it's not always fun, but the ends justify the means. 

Parked out in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, two Land Cruisers, the girls, and our redneck firepit. And so I'm continually treading water. San Diego isn't a bad place to be stuck for a while, but "a while" will be two years this spring which is getting a little much. 

Some of my writing is well formulated and I'm trying to getting a message out. Others, like this, is more on the cathartic side. 

I guess when your previous plan was to sail a boat around the world with your family, second place goals to tide one's self over are miles away from first place. 

Aug282015 - hopefully helping out one day

I'm in the unfortunate position of having some decent knowledge of what it's like to be on the receiving end of a complicated search and rescue operation. 

It's sort like being punched in the face. You basically want to avoid it as much as you can, but there is something to be said for knowing what it feels like. And if that knowledge can help someone else, then maybe the damage you took ultimately helped out in aggregate. 

I built because I wanted to bone up on my MVC and Azure skills. And if you're going to build something, you might as well aim to be helpful in the process.

So what does it do?

0.5) It's free, just to get that out of the way.

1) MyHikePlan lets you file a backcountry plan. When you head off into the middle of nowhere, it's a good idea to write down where you're going. But more than that, if you ask search and rescue (SAR) professionals, they'd like to know more. They want to know what your skills are. What any medical problems might be you started with. They want to know what type of weather and conditions you were expecting, as those are directly tied to how you prepared yourself. They want to know, in your words, what you were thinking.

2) If you're late coming back from a trip, a simple one-pager is emailed to your emergency contacts with instructions on how to notify proper authorities. And that one-pager is perfect for printing off and handing to everyone from chopper pilots to ground search teams. 

3) You can tweak it all from your mobile phone, so if you want to make some adjustments to your route or alert settings, you can do that right up until the last minute.

Example one-pager for SAR teams.I've been slowly adjusting the site, getting little bits and pieces of information from the search and rescue community and plugging in suggestions as I can.

Normally this information is handed over to a friend, but there are some subtle breakdowns that can happen with that. For starters, there's no clear format with required information when giving info to a friend. 

More broadly, it's not your friend's responsibility to ensure SAR teams have the info they need: it's yours. You need to pick a clear photo of yourself. You need to describe your route in your words. You need to describe your existing medical situation. 

Think back to the "telephone game" in grade school. While you or a loved one is dropping further into hypothermia, hours are wasted patching together and passing along information that should have been compiled in advance with nothing lost in translation between you and the people on their way help you out.

And before anyone asks, I registered ... that one's up next. 


going (back) to kennedy meadows

My friend and I clinked our tequila loaded mugs together on the last night of a multi-day backpacking trip in the Sierras. It was a success on many levels. Our kids, both four-soon-to-be-five-year-olds, not only survived the 2-night/3-day adventure but by all accounts had a great time. 

We started out at Kennedy Meadows. Located in the South Sierra Wilderness, a day's travel north will take you (along the Pacific Crest Trail) right into Inyo National Forest. The South Fork of the Kern River runs nearby, and beyond all that it happens to be the first place that I went backpacking myself in 6th grade. 

Eric and Cora hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail.

What was really amazing to me is that the first place we set up camp, north of the first stock bridge, was the exact same location that I had gone to as a child. Perhaps quite literally my tent was in the same location as I slept decades before. Being there with my own child, and being able to share the whole experience with another family, was another one of those torch bearer moments that make the whole mortality thing a little less depressing.

The only thing more woodsy than a titanium spork is eating out of a titanium pot with your titanium spork.

We kept it to a simple out and back course (caltopo details, for anyone super interested). I had some big dreams about a loop but the problem with loops is that if you don't make the distance you need to early on then you have to make up for it in the end. Essentially if you screw up the mileage plans on your loop, you're going to have a death march.

A note on death marches: there's a knife edge on backpacking with kids, and you need to play with "pushing it" vs "at-the-moment-enjoyment". Indeed, these two factors are at work with adults as well, but adults can communicate better, train harder, and (typically, but certainly not always) complain a lot less than small children. Walking up mountains is tough, there's no way around it. That's part of what you're doing and it's important that children understand that it's perfectly fine to not feel comfortable all the time. 

Seneca warned that the optimal position of our lives should be general stress and discomfort. The idea being that comfort and excess stressors are equally toxic for us. One could effectively argue that he spotted the problems of a sedentary lifestyle roughly two millenia before it fully plagued the western world

All photo credits are due to my friend, and fellow dad backpacker, Frankie.

This might sound weird, but I want my kids to be uncomfortable. It's good for them to have a hard time. And not in some t-ball-bullshit-hard-time sense where everyone gets a trophy at the end before the pizza party.

When we walked back to the trailhead, after spending three days in the backcountry, I looked Cora in the eye and said something to the effect of:

Who did you see out there on the trails? Adults. Adults in good shape. People walking the PCT from Mexico to Canada. A generally hardcore group of people that are way higher up the bad-ass totem pole than your average Joe. And you, you do it too. You walked for miles and lived in the wilderness. And you did it well. You did what few people can do, and you can own that now because you earned it.

We don't get better by having an easy go of it. Our lives shouldn't be about exposing ourselves to the least amount of discomfort and danger before we drop dead. Stealing from Nassim Taleb:

This is the tragedy of modernity: as with neurotically overprotective parents, those trying to help are often hurting us the most.

But have no fear, gentle hearted souls. In addition to a healthy dose of stoicism a few fun items were entered into the mix. Every night the kids got dessert, we made stick bread, I retold all the wilderness spooky stories I knew, and they literally spent over ten hours simply throwing rocks and sticks into the river.

Long day of walking + ice cold snow melt river = aaaaahhhhhhhhh.

Aside from the desire for a nice shower, I walked away from this trip with even more desire to get our family back to the sea. Back to a place where, like it or not, the wilderness is right up in your grill. Every day, all day. Reflecting between wilderness backpacking and sailing, I think the biggest distinction is that all backpacking trips end eventually. But with sailing, you can literally do it for your entire life. Years and decades can tick by where you are typically inches from the sea. 

Still, it's nice to be in the mountains and for as long as we have access to the beautiful wilderness in the United States we'll use up every minute of it that we can.


my first backpacking trip with a four year old

It's not a sailboat, but backpacking is actually where I got my first taste of adventure. And it has a lot in common with sailing: 

  • Backpacking is generally uncomfortable. A common thought in both sailing and backpacking is, "Why the hell am I doing this and not home on the couch?" Spoiler: finding the answer is the point. 
  • The equipment can be fairly expensive.
  • The more adventurous you get, the more a mistake will cost you.
  • It's a blend of nature, your skills, and your equipment. No matter how hard you try, if you screw up any one of those three you're going to have a bad time: you can't make up for a lack of skills, you can't do without some essential equipment, and you can't tune out nature. 


My pack, Cora's pack, and all of our junk (a.k.a. expensive equipment).I was lucky enough to go on my first backpacking trip with a friend in 6th grade. His dad extended the invitation, and I really had no idea how fortunate I was to learn such a cool activity. 

Now that we're back on land, we're saving up for a boat, and letting the girls get a few more years of growing up. I'm committed to maximizing that time, and showing my girls how to spend days at a time in the wilderness is squarely on the list. 

So, I scouted out a location and settled on the San Gorgonio Wilderness. Jointly managed by the BLM and Forest Service, it's not my perfect locale but for the purposes of a first-time backpacking trip it would do just fine. Mountain terrain, starting at 6,000 feet, and although in spitting distance of Los Angeles it's legitimate wilderness. 

Guess who's pack is who's.The first thing to realize about backpacking with a small child is that it's literally all on you. I managed to get a sleeping bag in her pack and a couple of colored pencils. Other than that, every item (including the water, since we'd be without a reliable water source), is on my back. I'm not complaining, and honestly the influx of ultralight backpacking has made a huge difference. My water+two-people's gear pack weighs as much as my first solo load out back in the late 90's. 

It's a fine line because unlike an ultralight purist, you don't have the option of telling your small child, "Relax, champ, if you get cold at night just do some crunches." (That really is a common piece of ultralight advice). 

But also, because you're going to be carrying so much crap, if you don't pay ridiculous attention to weight then you'll either be under far too much load or simply unable to do the trip. You basically need to care as much about weight as an ultralight fanatic but you don't get the payoff of a light pack. Such is parenting.

A friend and coworker of mine has correctly drilled into my head that the last thing you want kids to do is have a bad time with something that you want them to engage on. Especially with something like trekking around for days in the wilderness. You can't control all the variables, so I was constantly scanning for problems in advance and trying to think up ways to make things fun. I even had to change the dates to skip a storm that came through during our original departure window. I learned that lesson from sailing: skip as much bad weather as you can. Garbage conditions are eventually inevitable, but avoid as much of it as possible. No one's handing out trophies because you got the shit kicked out of you on a mountaintop somewhere, and they're certainly not handing awards if you drag your children with you on the escapade. 

I'm quite proud of this kid. For other parents out there, I'd recommend a few things. Initially, go car camping with them first to evaluate. This is the classic campground environment where you have your car, a bunch of heavy stuff, a campfire, bathrooms, etc. The main thing I was looking for here was discipline. Can she stay away from the stove when I ask? Can she keep herself (safely) entertained for a few minutes while I do something else? 

I know there is a current generation of parenting that doesn't put an emphasis on discipline, but a lack of self control limits what you can do as an adult and likewise as a child. 

Then there's the whole hiking-with-a-pack thing. Cora's pack weighed in around 5 pounds (including the pack), and consisted of the biggest and lightest thing we had: her sleeping bag. 

To be honest, I don't really think there's a material difference between a kid with a lightweight pack and no pack. It's not like you're going to get an extra mile out of them without the pack, so I personally wanted to know in advance that she could walk comfortably for an hour with no breaks. 

Plus, you're not a race car driver without a race car and you're not a backpacker without a backpack. My philosophy, to each their own.

The speed translated to an hour on the trail with breaks every ~10 minutes that lasted a couple of minutes, coupled with some bathroom stops, checking out wildlife, and general poking about. 

I think we managed maybe 1.5 mph, and we had a decent gradient

One thing I learned Cora can't carry is her own water. Water is heavy, and with the amount of breaks it was easier for me to just keep a small canteen clipped to my belt and keep offering it up to her. 

One of the deals that I made to myself is I would greet all bathroom breaks with cheer (so I got a chance to be quite cheerful), and that I would be getting her to drink up like a wino who just got dumped.

Breakfast with a cup of hot apple cider. Tents and packs in the background, kitchen in the foreground.

Another tip I would give a fellow parent (remembering that advice is free and you get what you pay for), and that I'll remember myself, is that at this age it really is about them. I think about my friend's dad who took us out in 6th grade, and I can only imagine the patience he had. I still remember him walking around silently picking up trash I had dropped: I'm still embarrassed by it. I realize he could have plowed through miles and gone onto routes that would have been much more rewarding for him personally. But the real reward he got was in transferring a tradition and set of skills to the next generation. He put up with our constant complaining, our constant rambling, and our foul breath and armpits. 

Cora at the trailhead, ready to take off.

Every time I go out into the wilderness, be it sea or land, I feel a little smaller and a little bigger at the same time. I feel smaller knowing that I'm nothing more than an evolved life form living on a turbulent planet in between ice ages, with most all of my (and your) accomplishments and cares being forgotten rather quickly in the march of time. 

But I feel bigger knowing that although I'm just a small link in a rather large chain, I am at least a link. I can connect the things that I've learned down to the next torch bearers. I have the opportunity to filter out the bullshit the best I can, and focus on passing down the better aspects of our world as I know them. A sense of adventure, the courage to do what you think is right, and a warm heart in a world that can often seem capricious at best and malevolent at worst. 

Back at the trailhead, our first official backpacking trip a resounding success. With that, dear reader, I thank you for your attention and will stop being long in the tooth. I'm doing the John Muir Trail in the fall with some friends, and have several daddy-kiddo backpacking trips lined up this summer. If you're interested in heading out with us or me at any point, please drop me a line. If we bump into you on the trail please feel free to go around us, we'll be walking slow and looking at the flowers.