Thursday, February 28, 2013

How low can you go?

What is your base weight?

That's your backpack weight without food and water. If you ask a thru-hiker, he or she will say something like 11-15 pounds. On the low end, you have the tarp carriers and those who are just one snowstorm away from disaster. Or the people traveling together who have the luxury of splitting up big ticket items. These are the people who obsess over ounces and pout over pounds. It's easy to get caught up in the madness, even when it makes sense.*

On the JMT my base weight was a startling 22 pounds, which doesn't sound like a lot until you stuff the pack with water and six days of food and start hiking up 13,000 foot passes. While it is a lightweight piece of fluff compared to my wilderness ranger days of 70 pounds fully loaded, it was still too much. I am on a weight reduction program.

If you're interested in shedding weight for a long hike, where to begin?

If you follow my method, you lay everything out in a big pile and then start paring it down...

1. The big three. That's your pack, sleeping bag and shelter. On one end of the spectrum, you have the hammock swingers and the previously mentioned tarp people. We watched many a tarp carrier obsess over the oncoming thunderstorms, enough for me to decide a tent is worth it. Plus, mosquitoes. My tent is 2 pounds, three ounces, and worth every bit of it. Some people snooze under down quilts, reasoning that you don't need insulation where your back meets the pad, but my sleeping bag weighs about five ounces more than those, so I am sticking with it. Packs are always a contentious issue, debated loudly on thru hiker forums. There are plenty of minimalist packs out there, packs without suspension, packs without stays. After I saw my JMT companions suffer under two of these, I am sticking with my lightweight but full suspension Granite Gear pack. The full weight of my big three plus my sleeping pad is seven pounds. Could I go less? Maybe, but everything works.

2. Cooking system.  There are those who cannot live without hot breakfasts, coffee and elaborate dinners. For those people, it's probably worth it to bring the whole set-up of mug, spork, scrubbie, pot, stove. There are homemade stoves out there that you can make from a tuna can and fuel with denatured alcohol (look on Youtube). The downside of these is that basically all you do is boil water. No fancy pasta dinners here. Stoves are one item where there is plenty to choose from. For my section hike this year I am going stoveless. This should cut at least two pounds.

3. Clothes. Most people bring WAY too many clothes. For my three week hike last year I wore one T-shirt, one skort, one set of long underwear, rain gear, one fleece, one sports bra, two pairs of underwear/socks, and one down puffy (no, not all at once.) I brought a long sleeved sun shirt, running shorts, and a tank top that I could have easily done without. For my section hike this year I am dumping the tank top , the fleece and possibly the sun shirt. After all, you hike all day and then get into camp. You aren't going to a beauty pageant. Weight loss=maybe a pound.

4. Electronics. Yep--everyone's bringing them these days. I saw hikers festooned with solar chargers and vainly trying their cell phones on every pass on the JMT. It's easy to go overboard with SPOTs and GPS and Ipods and everything else. Most of the time all you need is a good old-fashioned map. I'm bringing a Kindle because I like to read at night in my tent, but that's all.

5. Food storage/water treatment. The Sierra required 1.5-2 lb bear canisters, but Washington does not. There I am bringing the basics: stuff sack and rope. For treating water, I often watched in envy as my friends filtered merrily away and I was stuck waiting for my aqua mira to do its chemical thing. I ordered a sawyer squeeze filter and will test it out this summer. Weight loss =2 lbs.

6. Misc. Toiletries, first aid, matches. It's a given, you need it. Some people go way overboard here too. Deodorant on a backpacking trip? You can lose a lot of ounces in this arena. I am going to veer into the heavy zone with blister prevention and treatment. Weirdly, I was astoundingly afflicted with blisters on the JMT to the point of a painful hobble. I don't usually get them and was saved by Dana's sterile needle (to puncture the blisters). No weight loss here. I definitely can't forget my passport or my "permission to enter Canada" form!

I can enter Canada!

7. To flip flop, or not to flip flop. Personally if I am just going out for a couple of days, I stick with one pair of hiking shoes or boots, unless I know that there are river crossings. For a longer trip, I like the luxury of camp shoes. Many other people would skip this item. I am bringing slightly lighter camp shoes this time. Weight loss=a few ounces.

What will my base weight be on Washington sections K & L? I'm hoping for 18 pounds or less, with a total pack weight of about 30 at max fullness (I have to carry food for 100 miles before resupply, 7.5 days, that can be a lot of weight). Pretty soon I'll load it up and let you know.

Where to start if you want to lose some weight? There are plenty of gear lists posted online at places like You can geek out for days on the different forums like Backpacking Light or

What is your normal base weight? Is it worth it to you to try to go lower?

*This is not about fastpacking, running or record setting. That is a whole different realm of ultralight.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The independent women of northeast Oregon

I skied back to my car after a peaceful slog up the river (why people think cross country skiing is boring is beyond me). As I put away my skis, another woman arrived with hers. We talked, our breaths cloudy in the morning air. Still another woman skied up. We all laughed. "We need to call each other next time," we say.

We always say this, but we hardly ever do. One of the things I love about this place is that there are so many women who feel comfortable going solo. In other places I have felt like a freak, pummeled with questions about why I would ever want to do this, why I don't carry a gun, and made to feel like a social outcast. But there's something freeing about being solo. All you hear is the slide of your skis on the fresh snow. The decisions are all yours to make. There are no excuses, no turn-around times, no adjusting of pace.

I spent years as a wilderness ranger, and this gave me the courage and desire to go solo. When you are solo, you can't have meltdowns and sit sobbing in the trail, waiting for rescue. Going solo forces you to pick yourself up and figure it out on your own. That is a valuable skill to have even when you aren't in the woods.

Here in this county at the end of the road, I have seen women solo trail running on the moraine, silhouetted against the sky. I have seen them carrying packs down from the high lakes. I have seen them kayaking, mountain biking, and skiing. And while a loose-knit social thread binds us all, it's the solo travelers that I feel the closest to. They get it.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Me & the PCT Data Book

Oh, PCT Data Book, how obsessed I am with you.

I pour over your pages as if they were oracles, but I don't understand you. When you say 21 miles without water, is that really true? Or will there be tiny trickles where I can use my Aqua Mira tablets? When you point out the campsites at mile 2445.5, will there be others?

It's easy to get obsessive about maps and daily mileages. Washington Section K is supposed to be the most tough after the Sierras, and the Sierras were mostly a breeze, except for two slogs where we gained and lost thousands of feet in elevation in the same day, 11,000 feet to 8,500 and back up again. Section L, the last push to Canada, is supposed to be less severe. On the JMT there were days when we hiked twelve miles by one in the afternoon.

I pore over the Data Book. Can I hike fourteen miles a day? Fifteen? Will I want to stop at the "delightful cascade" or the "Semi-Clear Reflection Pond"? In the end I will have to ignore my scribbles and just adapt to the landscape. I have an end date--August 23--and a probable start date--August 9, and 190 miles to hike. The first day I will probably only have time to get to Lake Janus (9.2 miles). The rest is a big question mark, and it's good to leave it that way.

The Data Book is just that--data. It doesn't offer more than mileage, water sources and resupplies. It can't tell me how it will feel to walk above treeline on a summer day, how many people I will meet, how long it will take to slip back into the long trail life.

One decision I've made is to go stoveless. I don't eat a hot breakfast or drink coffee, and the thought of cleaning up dishes isn't too enticing. Last summer on the JMT cooking was a chore, especially in thunderstorms. I've discovered that Packit Gourmet makes some freeze-dried food that only needs cold water for rehydration (apple waldorf salad, carrot salad) and I can supplement with cheese, tuna, tortillas and peanut butter. Hot drinks are sometimes nice, but I am willing to ditch them to lose the stove, fuel, and cooking pot. Besides, it's only two weeks.

I'm debating the bear bag issue. I lugged a canister for the 230 miles of the JMT Plus, because they are required. They aren't on the Washington section, and it would be good to lose the bulkiness of it. But the bear bag dance can take a good half hour, locating a tree, finding a rock, and hanging the food so that a) you don't get struck by the rock and b) you can retrieve it successfully. One product I am considering is an Ursack, which is made of kevlar; you knot it in such a way that a bear (supposedly) can't chew it open.

Because I am bringing a smaller backpack, I am going to take the advice of a thru-hiker and carry a small waist pack with camera, snacks, bug repellent, and sunscreen. Yes, I will be carrying a fanny pack on the PCT. Don't hate me because I will be so stylish.

With a snap I put the Data Book away. It's good for dreaming, imagining what these miles between Stehekin and Rainy Pass, between Grizzly Ridge and High Bridge will look like. Dreaming can be the best part of an adventure, the anticipation, the lifting above the ordinary.

I can't wait.

Friday, February 15, 2013

What trail running can be like

I don't know about you, but when I travel via commercial carrier I just end up feeling kind of...icky. As much as I try to maintain a positive outlook, I end up annoyed at the inability of Americans to line up at a gate instead of swarming it like a pack of wild dingos. Don't get me started on the size of bag they think should fit in the overhead bin. I don't eat the same as at home, because good grocery stores can be hard to find, and while I can usually do enough cardio, the hotel gyms are sadly lacking in the weights department. Plus there is just something about flying through time zones in a pressurized box that isn't good for the body.

I am very fortunate to travel for work because I have always thought that travel keeps you young and interesting. My work trips have been challenging and informative and get me to places I would never otherwise be able to go. Never the less, there's something about travel that my body does not like.

Today, after a week of airports and meeting rooms and hotel gyms (where I encountered a man in a bathrobe, that's a first) I decided I was going to run outside no matter what. There is a trail system two hours from home that I had never checked out. I grabbed a map and headed out.

En route to the aptly named "Rollers".

A series of multi-use trails cling to the brown hills, dropping off a ridge and down to the Snake River and back up. You can pick your poison--difficult, intermediate, easy. In the summer, these trails must bake. There must be rattlesnakes to hurtle and ticks to avoid. But today they were perfect.

The view's not too terrible.

I ran along in amazed disbelief.  So this is what trail running is like for most people! You can actually look around instead of stare intently at your feet to avoid face plants. You can run along at a pretty decent pace and you don't have to claw your way up 1,000 feet in the first mile. It was so fun that I didn't want to stop. All of my travel angst melted away.

Distance? No idea. Pace? No idea. Fun? Lots.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Running for Sherry

There were a lot of reasons not to run. The trails were shrouded in a foot of new snow. The roads were glazed with a slippery white icing. The sun sulked behind overcast, cloudy skies. I was only going to be home for ten days total this month. Running lately has been combat style, draped in layers and skidding on ice. It has been slow and perilous. For a long time, that feeling of effortless motion has been lost to me.

But Saturday was the second annual run in remembrance for Sherry Arnold, the Montana runner who was grabbed off the street only a mile from her house and brutally killed. It was a run to remember her spirit and to take back the trails and streets for women everywhere, to say: we are not afraid.

So I went running, climbing the hill that eventually drops down to the frozen lake. It's stories like Sherry's that make me sometimes believe that I want to shut myself away in  a snowbound cabin far away from people forever, and it's running that allows me to believe that a spark of goodness lives on. As I ran I thought about how Sherry and the other missing and lost women will never be able to go running again. How we get all tangled up in our own insignificant problems when Sherry will never come home from a run, ever.

My run yesterday won't bring Sherry back. It's meaningless. But all over the world hundreds of women were running, alone and with others, in memory of someone they never knew. I imagined that we all ran shoulder to shoulder, an army of women, just asking for one thing: freedom to run where and when we want.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

running below zero

I step outside, geared for battle. That's what it feels like when you run at temperatures this cold. Today it's about minus ten, the snowy road stretching out ahead of me. I know people who run in temperatures much colder than this, but when I am doing an out and back run in a little-traveled place, far from help, it always feels right on the edge. I don't know that I would run outside in temperatures colder than this.

There are things that only happen below zero. The squeak of my shoes on the ice. Frost painting my eyelashes like white mascara. A cold that slips in like steel and forces me to try to run faster, my breath a pale smoke. Nobody else is out but a truck passes, the occupants staring out at us with curiosity. What makes people this crazy, they seem to be wondering. It's true that there's a heated gym a few miles away where all the treadmills have televisions to keep your mind off each passing minute. When you run outside below zero, the minutes can tick by with a slow regularity unbroken by anything but white snow and heavy-burdened trees.

It makes you tough, this below zero running, in a way that running through a rain forest winter also does. Sometimes I remember the Florida winters, a jog bra and shorts on the beach in January, when your pace can match your heart. It's hard to run fast below zero. Your body struggles to get warm. Your feet slip. It is, instead, survival.

It is also a beautiful bubble, a place many people refuse to go. They retreat instead, dreading the layers and frosty lungs. I don't blame them, because there are days I retreat also. The ice spikes, the scarves, the pushing a sofa feeling--all that is not really necessary when you are only training for life, not for an event.

But then there's the gradual warming of hands and toes, the triumphant feeling as I return to a heated place. The shiver in the core that can only be alleviated by a shower turned up as high as it will go. The silent partnership between me and the road.