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Advice from a Novice Packer

After I published my post about our visit to Shorty Peak Lookout I realized I had finally gotten to a point where I was actually happy with what I had packed for the trip. I’ve been backpacking about a dozen times now, and I’m sure if you’re a novice packer like me, every trip you find yourself wishing you’d left this, or brought that.

Please note that I am not in any way, shape or form an advanced packer, nor do I invest in expensive or specialized equipment; I have what works and what is affordable for me, and the contents of my pack reflect that.

So here’s my layout of what I bring and why.

Necessities

This includes items that I consider absolutely necessary to backpacking, but my needs may not be the same as yours: our walkie-talkies, a solar-powered battery bank, my fitness band (I wear a Garmin, more on that another time) sunglasses, lantern, headlamp, and first aid supplies. I have to take an inhaler and an Epi Pen because I have ashtma and allergies, but they’re never a bad thing to have around anyway. You never know if someone is going to get stung by a bee or bit by a spider and have a terrible allergic reaction… four hours away from civilization and outside of cell range. I also pack small quantities of Benadryl for the same reason, but all of that should be in your first aid kit. Rather than making your own, a small kit can be purchased for a reasonable price at any major sporting goods retailer.

Clothing

Obviously this will vary for your destination, but here in Idaho even during the summer months we have hot days and cool nights. Just last year we took a trip to Crystal Lake on the Fourth of July weekend, and the temperature ranged from 84° to 39° low. That’s a 45° differential! So we always have to take a variety of clothing, much more than I would have taken during a summer packing trip in California; but instead of packing a different outfit for each climate, it’s best to practice layering wherever you can to minimize pack weight.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that taking jeans is not worth the weight for me personally. I am totally happy wearing leggings (or shorts, or a bathing suit) all weekend long, and especially because I’d consider backpacking a recreational sport, I’d prefer to wear activewear anyway. The benefit of this is that activewear is often much lighter and more effective than your regular everyday clothing. Thus I have opted to pack leggings, thermals, and a variety of tops that I can layer to keep warm (or remove to keep cool.)

Not pictured is my American Eagle down jacket that is easily compactable, lightweight and warm. If you’re not able to invest in high-end packable outerwear a light down jacket or windbreaker is always a good choice.

Socks are a whole subject by themselves and it varies largely depending on the type of shoes you wear backpacking. I always wear hiking boots and bring a pair of flip flops which I tie to the outside of my pack. Bearing this in mind, I make my choice of which socks to bring very wisely. I am familiar with how my boots fit, so I would never take thin cotton socks backpacking; my boots would be loose around the ankles and cause blisters, which is never fun. I need to wear sturdy wool socks with my boots so that is what I bring no matter the time of year (I wear wool socks with boots all summer anyway.) Always make your choice of socks based on how they fit with your hiking shoes and if you’re not sure, try them out at home!

Boots are also an item I could do a whole separate post for, but I’ll keep it to the main point: your hiking boots should be well broken in. I don’t care what kind they are, whether they’re high or low ankle, lace-up or Velcro; you should ALWAYS put at least a few miles on a pair of boots before taking them backpacking. You are carrying a substantial amount of weight, so making sure your feet are comfortable and well-supported can make (or break) an entire trip. Trust me, I know this from experience. A bad pair of shoes can ruin everything!

So take your boots on a couple day hikes before putting them up to the task of backpacking. You’ll be thankful you did!

Also on my list is headgear. I usually bring a ball cap, a beanie and a headband, which may seem like overkill but I used all three. The reason why I like to take a headband as well as a beanie is so that i can layer it underneath my ball cap when my ears are cold but I want the benefit of shade from the brim of my hat.

Toiletries

I’m sure that men could almost skip this section altogether! My husband usually brings just soap and deodorant, so this portion of the post will mostly be for all my mountain-trekking ladies out there.

I’m going to address the least pleasant subject of toiletries first: periods. You may think that you’ve scheduled your trip while not in danger of meeting Aunt Flo, but let me tell you – we’ve all been wrong before, and it could happen again! So no matter what type of feminine products you use, always take enough to last you the length of your stay. One time I started my period literally as we were strapping up to hike in to our campsite. Luckily I had a menstrual cup in my glovebox, but had we left the car I would’ve been very ill prepared.

And if you’ve never heard of or used a menstrual cup, get with the program girl! They’re the best thing ever, especially for active women. Instead of taking a dozen tampons with me everywhere I just throw my little cup (in its carrying bag) into my purse or backpack and away we go, worry-free.

Which brings me to my next weird feminine product that I absolutely couldn’t live without: the She-Wee! Once you get over the ew factor, it’s really a wonderful thing to have around. I take wet wipes with me anyway, so when I go to use the restroom I just grab a wipe, use my funnel (no disrobing or squatting required to pee), wipe myself with the wet nap, wipe out the funnel with the same nap and you’re done! I keep one in my car at all times just in case we’re out traveling, at the shooting range, camping or hiking and there’s not a restroom available. They make collapsible models for backpacking as well, which is what I carry in my pack.

Now, on to more run of the mill products!

Shampoo and conditioner, toothpaste and toothbrush, deodorant, and other necessities I buy in travel size. The only non-travel size item I carry is bug spray, and the kind we get I want to mention specifically is a DEET-free spray we’ve been using for years that really does work: Repel brand Lemon-Eucalyptus bug spray. It’s available at Walmart in the camping section and it’s a great investment for your backpack. We take a full-size bottle because, well, sometimes you just need it.

A compact mirror, a flosser, and hair ties are little extras that come in handy, as well as a travel hairbrush. I just can’t use a comb or else I would bring one to kill the extra weight.

Accessories

I’ll put all non-necessity items under this header.

My fanny pack and walkie-talkie are two items I would almost put under the necessity header for myself because we do a lot of day hiking when we backpack, so they’re items I never leave without.

Kindle, playing cards, and knitting are things that I could probably do without but are nice to have because there are lots of opportunities for quiet time when enjoying the great outdoors, and I get bored easily. My selfie stick and Action Cam fall into the same category – not a necessity but I wouldn’t leave them behind because I take a TON of pictures when we go on trips.

My choice of camera focuses (haha) mainly on a weight to megapixels ratio. If we’re going on a short tip and I have extra room, I’ll often bring my Canon Rebel, which I enjoy using. But for this last trip, an extended stay with lots of clothing and food needed, I opted for just my phone and action camera, which I also use my stick for. Many of my pictures I post come off my Action Cam and I love that it has great quality photo and video in a small package. I used to always take my Fujifilm waterproof camera with me, but it’s an older model so it’s about the same weight as my Action Cam but the photo quality is lesser.

A Bluetooth speaker is a recent addition to my pack but we love it! Smooth jazz has been our selection for the last two trips and music always makes the hike in go much faster. We also like to announce our presence to surrounding wildlife and this is a great way to accomplish that.

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Crystal Lake

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First off: I didn’t know how many Crystal Lakes there were in the PNW until I tried to Google our destination just south of Cataldo, ID. If you instead search for Crystal Lake Wilderness Study Area you’ll get a better idea of where you’re going.

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This was the first backpacking trip Aaron & I took in Idaho, as well as our first solo backpacking trip (usually we go with family) so to say we were excited would be an understatement. Having been cautioned about the bears in north country we decided to venture southeast for our excursion and were not disappointed by the location. You can reach the Sheep Springs trailhead from either Cataldo or St. Maries, but our house is a short jaunt on the I-90 from Cataldo, so making the drive from the north side was easier for us. From the highway you’ll travel south for a few miles before the pavement turns to winding dirt access roads. It’s not a terrible drive so I wouldn’t say that a 4WD vehicle is required. It was mostly flat, graveled and well-maintained with no downfall blocking the road in early August.

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With temperatures in the 80’s during the day, the hike was warm but not unbearable (especially considering our history of summer backpacking in Northern California, the land of ungodly temperatures). The terrain varied quite a bit, so the short hike was very interesting. Nearly the entire trail switches back and forth along a prominent ridge, which makes for lovely scenery, and the landscape ranged from dense forest to shale quarry. About a quarter mile into the hike we realized we had forgotten our dinner in the ice chest in the truck, so Aaron dropped his pack, hiked back to get it and ended up running into a large bull moose! Thankfully he made it back with our dinner intact and we continued on our trek.

Upon our arrival to the modest 5-acre lake we were immediately disappointed to see other campers before we even laid eyes on the crystal clear water. We are typically the type of people who backpack to get away from civilization, so a crowded camp is always a slight nuisance to us, personally. Regardless it ended up being a fun trip, even with the dozens of day hikers and other campers trailing the edge of the lake like human ants.

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Anyhow, the first couple of hours were really pleasant – we pitched camp and settled in to cook one of the best backpacking dinners we’ve had to date – two wonderfully rare steaks cooked over the campfire paired with mashed potatoes, coffee and tea.

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After this lovely meal we attempted to wash our dishes with a package of Coleman camp soap sheets we purchased, and this was one of the things that nearly ruined our trip. They don’t work AT ALL. Not on dishes, hair, body, or clothes. I wouldn’t even wash my dog with that stuff, so FYI: don’t buy it.

On the second day we took a trip to Reed’s Baldy, a short uphill hike from the lake to a great overlook and a surprise patriotic monument. There was no marker of any kind but it made for a memorable day! The feeling of accomplishment after finishing the hike was compounded with pride upon seeing a pretty sizable American flag blowing atop the peak in quiet solitude. ‘Merica!

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Aaron got to do some fishing and through some (highly amusing) experimentation discovered that dragonflies make the best bait for the elusive trout that inhabit alpine lakes.

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After a lot of hard work gathering up grasshoppers, crickets and even a cicada, he gave up on these unsuccessful baits, wielded his fishing pole in what struck me as a ninja-like fashion and proceeded to swat the dragonflies right out of the air! It paid off, because he hooked a nice 12″ trout which he immediately released.

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What ended up being the big kicker for this trip was that even in August, the hottest month of the year in our part of the state, it was so cold at night that even with freezing-weather rated bags we got next to no restful sleep. The first night wasn’t so awful that my extremities were cold. But the second night I literally chattered my teeth till morning and even then didn’t emerge from my hammock until I’d had enough sun to warm my fingers and toes fully. Aaron had gotten up in the middle of the night, built a fire and fallen asleep propped up on a rock in front of the fire pit.

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Needless to say it was quite an adventure but not a place we’ll be revisiting anytime soon.

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Shorty Peak Lookout: Cabin in the Clouds

What a weekend we had at Shorty Peak Lookout! Standing in solitude atop Shorty Peak in the Cabinet mountains of far northern Idaho, this primitive cabin is a special treat for those who have the gumption to reach it.img_20180925_140722

To begin, I’d like to stress that fire lookouts are a wonderful getaway, but are EXTREMELY hard to book. Six weeks after the booking window opened I was only able to reserve a mid-week stay at the tail end of the season – in fact, we were the last reservation of the year and were on our way out of the lookout when the Forest Service lockup crew arrived. So if you are planning on booking a lookout in 2019, be sure to be online at midnight on January 1st to get the days you want at the location you want!

That being said, it was an adventure as unforgettable as they come.

20180924_215700Day 1 – It began to rain as we suited up to hit the trail. Before we hit the quarter mile mark we had to stop three times and take refuge beneath the massive pines that stand tall and proud alongside the trail. They made for dry shelter while we waited for the worst of the storm to pass. After that it continued to sprinkle all the way to the lookout – and when I say ALL the way, I mean it in the nicest way possible. While the trek is relatively short at only 2.5 miles, it is a moderate one, and a long-winded journey with fully-loaded packs. Our stay would cover the better part of four days, so me with my 35lb pack and my husband with his 37lb pack, took almost 2 hours to reach the top. Although I do have asthma and require frequent stops to recover my breathing rate I still feel like we pushed through at a pretty good pace. Even hiking unburdened it takes over an hour to reach the top – but more on that later.

DSC00305-01We reached the antique cabin by about 4pm, and while we brought two half-full bladders of water for the hike it wasn’t nearly enough to get us through the night, so we dumped our packs and headed back down the hill to the “spring” to pump water. I use that term loosely because while there was relatively fresh water to be had – barely more than a puddle – we were lucky it was there at all. Another hiker told us that some years it is completely dry, and while the USFS web page does mention either to A.) pack in your water or B.) bring equipment to purify, it does NOT in any way state that there’s a possibility of no water supply. That being said, I strongly suggest you make this determination prior to departure to avoid a hike back to the trail head to find another water source and haul 4 gallons of water back up to the peak.

By the time that was all said and done we were swiftly approaching the first sunset of our trip, shrouded unfortunately by thick, ominous-looking clouds rolling in from the west. We quickly changed out of our sopping wet clothes before retiring for what would be a minimally restful night.

On a side note, when Aaron attempted to hang a clothesline for our damp clothes he learned the hard way that there was a map hanging from the ceiling on a piece of painted particle board. Upon stretching the line tight it unlatched the map which swing down with incredible force and struck him straight between the eyes. He wrote a warning on the map but he suggested I mention it here just in case – it did leave a nice shiner and a pretty good ache on his forehead.IMG_20180924_113238

I snapped some pictures of the storm breaking just before dusk which was a surreal thing to watch. You could see the rain coming down in sheets starting half a mile a way, then creeping steadily toward the cabin with what seemed like alarming speed for weather. I’m sure the improved visibility made this seem more abrupt than it really was.

20180924_215449Luckily there wasn’t any thunder or lightning, so we didn’t have to get out of bed in the middle of the freezing night to stand on the glass-bottomed chairs that inhabit the cabin in case of a storm. It was a cold and windy night but we stayed relatively warm bundled up together in a double sleeping bag, and Cookie settled into her kids’ mummy bag nicely.

Day 2 – We awoke to the wonderful warmth of sunshine on our faces on the morning of the second day, and we probably would have done some exploring had our shoes dried out at all. After the rainy hike in our feet were swimming in their socks, and although we laid them out to dry overnight, none of the moisture had left them in the freezing temperatures. Aaron built a fire in one of the pits below the cabin in an effort to dry them out, and after a day of hard work, we came away with dry shoes and some toasted socks! Luckily he had a few pairs to spare.IMG_20180924_163354

Spending the day tied to the cabin (there was no way I was going hiking around in socks or bare feet in that weather – can you say frostbite?) gave me a great opportunity to photograph the interior of the lookout and get some fantastic photos of the panoramic views we came for. I had made the decision to leave my Canon at home this trip because with a four-day pack, our longest backpacking trip to date, I knew I’d need to cut ounces wherever I could, and given the quality of my cell phone camera and my Sony ActionCam, I decided the weight wasn’t worth the reward. Regardless I managed to capture some breathtaking shots with my Google Pixel phone camera and my ActionCam, a Sony product similar to a GoPro, although a much better product in my humble opinion.

 

The day indoors also allowed for me to lay out and photograph everything I like to take backpacking, which I will discuss in a later post. I am very particular about what I pack and I’d like to offer an in-depth explanation for other backpackers who have struggled with the ever-changing luxury-to-necessity ratio that plagued me as a novice packer.

20180924_214547The latter part of the day became overcast once more, and after some light showers we were able to enjoy not just one vibrant rainbow, but two! I managed to capture a panoramic shot of one before it faded into twilight and we retreated from the biting wind into the cabin for dinner and card games. That evening was slightly warmer on this night than the first, undoubtedly due to the sunshine that graced the tar roof of the lookout during the day. An overcast but colorful sunset closed out a relaxing day spent at the cabin in the clouds.PANO_20180925_185343

Day 3 – After breakfast and some knitting we set out for our only excursion away from the lookout – a hike back to the trailhead, over to Red Top Mountain Trail to find West Fork Cabin, a seasonal hunting cabin maintained by the Forest Service and open for public use.

The hike to the cabin was very relaxing compared to the hike up to the lookout, so it made for a nice, peaceful walk. We stopped to play in the creek before greeting the occupants of the cabin, a group of hunters, joined by a single traveler on vacation from city life on the East Coast.

I didn’t manage to get any pictures of the cabin so I’ve borrowed one from the Forest Service website.11_west_fork_cabin_1

The day was relatively uneventful until the hike back to the truck. On the return trip from West Fork we ran into a black bear! Luckily Cookie barking scared it off, but it was a close call nonetheless. We barely saw the tail end of it before it sprinted down the mountain, leaving us startled and wielding our bear spray. Surprisingly enough that was the only major wildlife we saw on the entire trip! It seemed like the entire area was devoid of any indigenous wildlife. I say that because there was a large number of cattle roaming the national Forest, but these obviously were working visitors.

After making it safely back to the truck we headed up Shorty Peak once more for our last night of relaxation at the lookout. This was the best sunset of the entire trip and it was absolutely breathtaking. It dawned upon me that I could take a video of the whole sunset, which was only about 30 minutes worth of film, and speed it up into a neat fast-motion video.

It also made for some fantastic pictures, the below one of my personal favorites.20180925_212020

It was this night that we decided to make a fire and try to roast marshmallows, but due to the high wind at that elevation the heat quickly blew off the fire and hardly made for a relaxing night. We were both bundled up next to the fire and were still cold!

Soon after our dessert the wind began to blow snow flurries at our faces, with no sign of letting up. We took the hint and headed inside.

IMG_20180924_122746Day 4 – Again we awoke to the sun shining but the last morning spent at the lookout was a somber one. I put our entry into the logbook, one of my favorite parts of staying at lookouts. I always love to read the stories of guests who come to the same place on vacation or as a tradition, returning year after year. We drug our feet at the prospect of leaving, stretching breakfast out as long as we could before packing up and tidying the cabin. One of the things I love most about my husband is that be likes to fix and improve things. He used a sharpie to label many of the more obscure items at the lookout, as well as tightening a screw or bolt here and there. I organized the pamphlets and games and swept before we locked her up, just in time for the Forest Service board-up crew to arrive for end-of-season closeout. We were the last guests to stay at Shorty Peak for the 2018 season!

The hike out was much less strenuous with most of our food and water used up, but was a good workout anyway. Hiking downhill with a pack is always hard on the thighs and calves! It was a beautiful day to hit the trail for the pack out, sunny and clear and with the wind at a comfortable bellow.DSC00295-01

I am torn on whether or not I would return to Shorty Peak. On one hand, the experience was unforgettable. We had a wonderful time and made some great memories this trip. But given the number of lookouts in Idaho, I think I’ll be trying a few others before I consider returning here. Here’s why:

The wind was so cold. I think even in summer it would make the nights too brisk for comfort. And I’m not sure I’d want to pack up there in summer because there aren’t any bodies of water close to this lookout for swimming. We always like to be able to swim if we backpack in the hotter months. Aside from the chill, it made it difficult to have a fire.

There wasn’t a ton of stuff to do. Once you reach the lookout, that’s pretty much it. There aren’t any major hikes to be taken from the lookout, which for the day-hike kinda people (like us), requires hiking back down to the truck to take a day trip, which makes it almost not worth it. If you plan on staying put for a few days to relax, this is a great trip for you. Those who have children or who are high activity/adventure-seekers, find a lookout that’s on a major trail system. This is not the place for you!

There was next to no wildlife. Aside from some chipmunks and a pair of grouse, there wasn’t as much as a songbird as far as the eye could see – and that’s for miles! We like to spot mammals and birds as well as fish when we can find them, so this was disappointing.

It was a tough trek. We don’t normally attempt difficult hikes with fully loaded packs, and this being our most extended trip to date, I think if I was to return here I would take a shorter trip to lessen the load on our backs. Even the trip down was a fair workout.

All in all, Shorty Peak was a rewarding experience like no other. I’m so glad to have taken my husband here for his first lookout experience. it definitely did not disappoint!42576528_2161021243943236_1965424768916127744_o

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Triangle Lake

Although crowded during the 4th of July weekend, Triangle Lake is a family favorite in my neck of the woods. An easy hike with lots of campsites makes a great weekend getaway for you, the kids and the dogs!

Located in the Caribou Wilderness within Lassen National Forest, Triangle Lake is just 2 hours east of Redding, CA. The trailhead is well-marked and the path is usually well-maintained, and being just shy of 3 miles long, makes it great for kids or first-time backpackers. As a teenager with severe asthma this trip was not only attainable as a novice packer but incredibly rewarding. Ten years later this was mine and my husband’s first backpacking trip together with family as well as Cookie’s first extended camping trip, and needless to say great fun was had by all!

While there are fish in this lake, they are shy and sly, so after spending the first day fishing with no reward he decided to spend a more productive day building a log raft (from downfall, of course) and a stone jetty at which to dock it. The maiden voyage was one of success and much joy. I wonder who has been able to enjoy it since we’ve left!

 

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Tangle Blue Lake

Possibly my favorite backpacking destination so far, Tangle Blue is a secret treasure hidden in the Trinity Alps Wilderness of Northern California. But this breathtaking mountain lake can’t be taken freely – it has to be earned with blood, sweat, and possibly tears.

First of all, I’d like to mention that the dirt road to the trailhead is BARELY MARKED! If we hadn’t had the exact GPS location of the road pinned on my phone, I doubt we would have found it given the lack of cell service in the area. The only indication that the service road leads to anything is a laminated 8.5×11″ piece of paper with the trail name faintly printed on it and stuck to a tree. It’s on the outside (left) side of a right-hand curve. I hope this helps anyone reading this prior to venturing to the lake!

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Anyhow – the “moderate” hike (as rated by AllTrails, my go-to trail app) is a strenuous one with a full pack on a hot summer day. It begins on a dry, rocky dirt road that crosses over a trestle bridge and continues for the first few miles before any good treecover or running water are reached (read: bring water, sunblock and a hat!). From there it’s beautiful forest and flowered pastures with excruciating steep trail legs in between. The latter come in short bursts but they are leg-killers!

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Once you finally reach Tangle Blue you have your pick of campsites around the shore. Our pick was a site on the far side from the trail, backing up to the east edge of the granite bowl that the lake is situated in. Once you have successfully refueled, tanked up on water, and set up camp (impromptu hammock nap optional) you’re ready for one of the most relaxing, tranquil stays of your backpacking career.

The lake itself is gorgeous, crystal clear, and delightfully refreshing. To my husband’s delight, it boasts its fair share of trout – perfect for roasting over the campfire when Mountain House starts to get old. We spent most of our trip swimming, sunning ourselves on the massive boulders littered along the shoreline, and reading from the comfort of our hammocks.

For those of you who want to venture away from the serenity of the lake there are multiple other day hikes to be taken in the surrounding area. Our jaunt of choice, although there was not a trail leading to our destination, was to the top of Scotty’s Peak on the very edge of the aforementioned granite bowl. The hike was essentially an extended scramble up the granite mountainside but the bird’s-eye view was absolutely worth the 3,000ft hand-over-foot elevation gain.

As far as wildlife goes we saw next to none. Aside from the fish my hubby caught we had a very large toad venture into our camp, and that was it! I think there’s enough foot traffic to keep large mammals away during the summer months. Although it was memorial day weekend we only saw two other groups of people, and they were pretty respectful of other campers.

So if you’re ever in the Trinity Lake neck of the woods and you’re looking for a healthy hike with great reward, Tangle Blue will always be my #1 recommendation!