5 Keys to Successful Backpacking

A lot of people ask me how I can trek into the wilderness for days at a time. They can’t fathom a vacation that involves that much work, and so few amenities. Some of them surely think I’m crazy. And while there’s certainly more work involved than a luxury vacation with pools and room service, the reward more than matches the effort. Here are 5 key things you can do to help ensure a successful backcountry backpacking trip.

IMG_3369Drink a Shit Ton of Water: If there’s one thing that can ruin a backpacking trip faster than you can say, “I’m thirsty,” it’s dehydration. Headaches, dizziness, lack of energy, muscle cramps, rapid heart rate, even confusion, fevers, or fainting; these can all be caused by dehydration, and prevented by drinking plenty of fluids. Remember that you need to drink considerably more water than you normally would, your body needs it. Take breaks, remind each other if you’re hiking with friends.

And make sure you’re replenishing your electrolytes, too. Fruits high in potassium like bananas and avocados, or coconut milk are great, but to save on weight and space, you can always take packets of Gatorade powder to put in your water bottle. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate, people!

img_7992Stretch Like Crazy: In addition to dehydration, not stretching can cause muscle aches, along with stiffness, and potential injury. You’re working the hell out of your body, trekking all over the backcountry, carrying all your gear. Getting a good warmup before your hike can help prepare your muscles, and help prevent injury. But make sure you stretch afterwards as well, to help lengthen your muscles and relieve the tension that builds up throughout the day. Few things feel better after a day of hiking than a nice, deep stretch.

img_8132Learn About, and Be Prepared for the Terrain and Wildlife: Every area is different. Whether you’re hiking in the mountains, the desert, the ocean, or the forest, do some research. Never hike in a new area blindly. Do you need to bring a tide chart? Special gear? What kind of predatory animals are in the area, should you bring bear spray? What about poisonous snakes and spiders? How much elevation change is there? Will you need rain gear? I could go on and on, but the best thing to do is just research the hell out of wherever you’re going, and prepare accordingly.

When Lindsey and I hiked in Washington we knew we’d be in bear and cougar country. In Arizona, Mary and I were watchful for rattlesnakes and scorpions. Washington required warm layers, and rain gear. Arizona required a shitload of sunscreen, shorts, and a bathing suit. That’s the fun of backpacking! You get a whole new adventure every single time!

IMG_3853Get Really Good Hiking Boots and Socks: Don’t skimp on this. Your feet are invaluable. Do yourself a favor, treat yo’self. I’m not a name-brand girl. You’ll never see me carrying a Coach purse, or wearing Jimmy Choos. I choose to spend my money on experiences as opposed to stuff. But those experiences can go to hell really quick when a hot spot on your foot turns into a gnarly, painful, oozing ulcer.

Lindsey didn’t break her boots in before our trip to Washington. After one day of hiking she had small blisters on her heels, and sore spots on the balls of her feet. By our last night her heels were giant, open wounds, and the blisters on the balls of her feet went between her toes, and were filled with goo. It was horrific, and it kept her from climbing the final couple miles to the fire lookout tower at Mt. Rainier. Trust me. Buy the best damn boots you can find, and quality socks with plenty of padding, and moisture wicking, and BREAK THEM IN! You’ll regret it if you don’t!

img_5727Embrace the Simplicity, Let Go of Your Pride: You’re in Mother Nature’s house, now. Respect it. Admire it. Enjoy it. Don’t get wrapped up in things like how bad you smell, how dirty you are, what your hair looks like, not having internet access, the fact that you may have to bury your poop. . . The biggest benefit of backpacking is that you can let go of your ego and just embrace being surrounded by the beauty and majesty of nature. It’s humbling, to be sure. But we could all use a little humbling every now and then.

Luxury vacations may be relaxing, but backpacking, when done right, can free you of all the mental clutter that accumulates in the everyday grind, and give a sense of both mental and physical strength that simply cannot be matched by laying around a pool for a week. Best of all, a night or two in a luxurious establishment is the perfect way to recover from your badass, wilderness adventure. And you appreciate it even more, cause you know you earnedthat shit.

If you follow these 5 simple steps you’re well on your way to a successful and amazing journey! Be sure to check out my other posts for more tips and stories of our Ladycation adventures. Thanks for stopping by!

~Steph

Waterfalls and Rescues: The Descent to Mooney Falls

There are some things in life that, though painful or terrifying, we choose to do more than once, because the payoff outweighs the discomfort: childbirth, tattoos, the cost of Foo Fighters tickets . . . Time heals all wounds, after all, and climbing down to Mooney Falls was, for me, one of the “wounds” that had healed.

Mary was excited and had no idea what to expect. I’d told her about it–explicitly–but she either didn’t believe me or wasn’t paying attention. So, when we set out for Mooney Falls Mary was bursting with excitement. I, on the other hand, was mentally psyching myself up the entire way, because I was starting to remember exactly how terrified I was the last time I’d done this climb. It’s kind of like when I got to the hospital to deliver my second child. I knew I’d feel unimaginable joy when it was over and I had my son in my arms, but also I knew what I’d have to go through to get there.IMG_5386

Mooney Falls is a 200 foot waterfall, half a mile past the campground. The trail follows a “natural staircase” down the side of the cliff to the bottom of the falls. The first 100 feet or so are gradual, and relatively protected, finally passing through two narrow tunnels in the cliff side to a small observation area. Once you pass that point, however, shit gets real. The last half of the descent is virtually a vertical drop, climbing down old wooden planks, small jutting rocks, notches in the rock face, and a series of chains and rebar leading to the bottom of the canyon. The massive spray from Mooney covers everything in its fine mist, making the climb slippery and somewhat treacherous.

 

It was when we reached the first tunnel that Mary and I switched moods. I’d sufficiently pumped myself up and, upon seeing Mooney, was even more determined than ever to make that climb my bitch. Mary, on the other hand, was looking at me like, “are you effing kidding me?” She went from excited curiosity to horrified silence in a matter of seconds.IMG_5400

We made it to the halfway point and, though nervous, I was excited. Mary, however, looked like she wanted to die. I remembered all too well that paralyzing fear, debating whether or not you’re even willing to attempt it, and deciding you’ve come too far to turn back, even though you’re scared shitless. I was so proud of her when she kept going.IMG_5395

Despite my excitement, my body was physically manifesting the fear I’d been fighting to keep at bay. My knees were shaking so badly I had to stop several times to allow it to subside. One foot at a time, very slowly and carefully, we made our way to the bottom. When my feet finally hit the ground, knees still trembling, I had so much adrenaline coursing though my veins that I screamed like a lunatic, just to release some of it.IMG_5409

I turned around to watch Mary take the final steps, and when she let go of the ladder she burst into tears. “Why didn’t you tell me we were gonna have to do that?!” she cried. “I did tell you! Multiple times. With pictures.” I laughed back. I hugged her while she let out a few sobs, and then we both sat down for a second while our bodies calmed down.IMG_5415

The rest of our group arrived and we all dispersed, taking our time and exploring as we made our way to Beaver Falls. Mary and I stopped for a snack and a swim, and when we started moving again, we were met by Mark, who was coming towards us. His face and the urgency of his gait told us all was not well.

While we were having fabulous time splashing around in the river, Heather, a member of our party, had slipped while stepping into the water, and rolled her ankle. She’d barely made it a mile downriver, and she couldn’t walk. Mark was going for help. Fuck.IMG_5447

We reached Heather to find her sitting on the riverbank with an ankle that was purple and swollen. She’d brought a splint, but even with it on, she was unable to bear weight on the leg. The commotion had started attracting the attention of other hikers, including a nurse and her friend.

We sat with Heather for a while, until she insisted we keep going to Beaver Falls. There was nothing we could do for her at that point. Her friend, Randi, was going to wait with her. I think having all of us standing over her was making her feel worse instead of better, so off we went.IMG_5462

The hike to Beaver Falls took longer than I’d expected, but was absolutely gorgeous. We hiked through a valley that was covered in green foliage as high as our shoulders, climbed up and down hills, and through the river. At one point, we even saw two rams staring down at us from high above on a rock outcrop. I wasn’t sure if they were real until one of them turned its head, and I felt like he was looking right at me. They were so beautiful, and so intimidating. We kept as much distance as we could, avoided eye contact, and slowly continued down the trail.

We weren’t entirely sure where we were going. We knew we had to follow the river, but there were a couple different ways to do that. The route we took led us to a couple small ladders (though I’d promised Mary there would be no more ladders. My bad) that spit us out high above Beaver Falls, at a makeshift Ranger Station. To get down to the falls would’ve required another harrowing descent, so we opted to take a snack break and enjoy the view from the top.IMG_5501

Beaver Falls was beautiful; a series of cascading falls, surrounded by red rock canyons and lush green trees. They looked like the perfect falls to jump off of, if only we could reach them. I still can’t figure out how we ended up where we did.

On the way back, we’d barely walked past the spot where we’d left Heather when we came upon the rescue operation in progress. She was being carried out on a stretcher by two Havasupai tribesmen and several members of our group, all taking turns, and pausing for frequent rest breaks. We’d hiked for hours and poor Heather had barely made it a quarter of a mile back. This was going to take a while.IMG_5524

They’d inquired about a rescue helicopter. It’s the only way to access the village if not on foot or horseback, and one made daily runs to the Hilltop. Apparently it was, indeed, available . . . for $80,000. Talk about a good motivator to get out on your own.

The tribesmen helping carry her out were wonderful. I’ve never seen people more determined, more calm under pressure, more positive and upbeat in the face of countless obstacles, as Frankie. He was cracking jokes the whole time and totally confident that we’d get her back up to the top. It took 4 hours get her back to Mooney Falls, alternating between the stretcher, hobbling on a makeshift crutch, and floating her upriver, and he never once lost his can-do attitude or his sense of humor.IMG_5530

Mary and I went ahead and began making the ascent back up the cliff. I was more nervous about going up than I’d been about going down, simply because of how difficult it had been the last time (Uncle Mark had been above me, pulling on my backpack, while my dad was below me, literally pushing my butt just so I could climb up). When I took those first steps I expected it to be difficult, but it was a breeze. I was in great shape, and going up was nowhere near as frightening as coming down. I began to giggle, it was actually fun. My knees were steady, my body was strong, and I climbed up that cliff so fast I blew my own mind.IMG_5547 (2)

Mary still wasn’t loving the climbing, but she did better on the way back up. When we got out of the final tunnel and onto more stable, flat ground, she was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief and feel pride in having just conquered such a huge challenge.

Randi had come up ahead of Heather and was running back to camp to get her a change of clothes and something to eat. Meanwhile, members of the tribe had brought rope and harnesses, and after some logistical maneuvering (and the help of a fellow camper who happened to be an expert climber), they began to hoist Heather up the mountain.IMG_5559

A large crowd had gathered at the top of the falls to watch this all go down. Mary and I talked to a dozen different people, all of whom had seen parts of this rescue at one point throughout the day, and all of whom felt invested in the outcome. I was approached by a woman who told me she was a photographer, and that she’d gotten some really great shots of the event. She gave me her phone number and said she’d be happy to send them to Heather once she was able to laugh about it. The nurses from earlier were there, they offered pain meds once she made it to the top. There were even tribe members watching, just because they heard about it. I was amazed by how many people were coming together to offer help, or even just moral support.IMG_5566

After eight long hours, countless people helping, and an ATV waiting at the top to drive her to the village (where Mark, not wanting her to have to get in and out of her tent on a torn up ankle, had rented her a room at the lodge). Cheers went up when she finally emerged, and after gathering a few things from camp, Heather safely arrived at the Lodge, where she, I assume, slept like the dead.

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Heather and her Supai rescuers

Thanks for stopping by and reading about our Mooney Falls adventure! I hope you’ll come back for the next chapter in my 40th birthday Arizona Ladycation. And be sure to follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips, and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

~Steph

Grand Canyon: Going Over THE Hill to Turn Over The Hill

The day after my 40th birthday was going to be amazing. I’d traveled all the way from Cleveland to the Grand Canyon to turn 40 the right way: literally going “over the hill” at my favorite “hill” in the world. Having that adventure awaiting made getting out of bed at the ass-crack of dawn a little bit easier.

I was only slightly hung over when I woke up in the morning, which was surprising considering the astronomical amount of vodka and wine I’d had the night before. Between that and the fact that I was now in my 40’s, I sort of expected to wake up feeling like death (combating a killer headache, needing to vomit, questioning my life choices). What a pleasant surprise to only feel sort of crappy! 40 wasn’t looking too bad.IMG_4845.JPG

We had a big breakfast at a kitschy diner in Williams before we headed towards the National Park. I was so excited by the time we finally got there that I felt closer to 4 than 40. I was practically skipping across the parking lot, unable to fully contain myself, when I got out of the car. As we approached the rim, the magnitude and majesty of the Grand Canyon came into view. My breath caught in my throat and my heart skipped a beat; it was even more beautiful than I’d remembered. The enormity of the Grand Canyon is stupefying. It can’t be fully captured in photographs. There’s just no way to appreciate this tremendously massive place without seeing it for yourself. It’s impossible not to feel small when you’re staring out at landscape so spectacular. I can’t emphasize enough how amazing it is, it’s awe inspiring.

the Grand Canyon National park

Since Mary had never seen it before, I was almost as excited to see her reaction as I was to see it again for myself. She has such an energetic personality. I’m not sure if it’s her youth (she’s only 25), her seemingly endless optimism, or if she’s just more full of life than most people, but Mary has this incredible ability to make every situation fun, to turn the most mundane task into an adventure. Add to that the fact that she’s easily impressed, and I couldn’t wait to see her face when she saw the it for the first time.

Mary enjoying her first trip to the Grand Canyon

There’s something interesting, and quite lovely, that happens to people when they’re at the Grand Canyon. It’s as if everyone understands its natural sanctity, knows it’s a place to be revered and respected. Everyone gets a little quiet, like they’re in church. So, instead of freaking out, Mary, like so many others, was speechless; but her expression spoke volumes.

After admiring the view, we walked towards the gift shop and purchased some prickly pear margarita mix before  heading to the Bright Angel trailhead. Although we weren’t looking to get any serious mileage in, as we wanted to be fresh for our ten mile trek the following day, we did want to get our legs warmed up. We only hiked about 3/4 of a mile before deciding we were ready for lunch, taking a few pictures, and hiking back up to the top.IMG_4890.JPG

We got our over-priced hot dogs at the Visitor’s Center soda fountain and enjoyed the sunshine as we ate. There were plenty of other tourists roaming around, but despite the number of people, the area is so open that it never felt crowded. I’m sure that’s not always the case (especially in the summer months), but I was pleased that, on this particular day, it wasn’t too packed.

After finishing our lunch we decided to try out another trail on the South Rim, the South Kaibab trail. We moved our car and parked along the main drive, near the shuttle bus access road that leads to the trailhead, and began walking. IMG_4945.JPG

Though I’d done some serious backpacking in Washington only a couple months earlier, I wasn’t sure how well I’d fare on the switchbacks in the Canyon. Going uphill for that long, at that elevation, was intimidating. I didn’t want to hike too far down the trail and wear myself out for the next day’s big hike.IMG_4977.JPG

We hiked down to Ooh Aah Point which, as the name suggests, has one hell of a view. It’s a great spot to stop, catch your breath, and really appreciate your surroundings. Mark, however, being the Pro Grand Canyon Hiker that he is, wanted to get a few more miles in, so he kept going while Mary and I had a snack and smoke break at Ooh Aah. We chatted with some Australian tourists, and admired the breathtaking view, while we waited for Mark to return.IMG_4987

Once it was time to hike back up, I got serious. I took a long drink of water, a deep breath, and up we went. I’m not sure how far I’d gone when I realized I wasn’t struggling, but there was a moment when I thought, “I should be out of breath by now,” but I wasn’t. That’s when I really started to feel empowered. All the hard work I’d put in: running, yoga, new eating habits; a complete lifestyle change, had paid off. Mary wasn’t quite as in love with the uphill trek, and was going a bit slower. I was so grateful to Mark for staying with her so I could keep pushing. I couldn’t stop smiling! I was having the time of my life.South Kaibab Trail

Getting to the top was a wonderful feeling. It made me more confident for the big hike in a few days. I was still a little nervous about a ten mile hike out of the canyon, but I knew I could do it. And even better, I knew it would test my limits, push me. I do love a challenge.

We went to refill our water, but were greeted by an elk who’d decided his thirst trumped ours. He was going to town on the leaky spigot, and was not about to move aside for some dumb, thirsty humans. We were sitting at a picnic table waiting out our long legged friend, when we were approached by a chatty teenager. I was instantly annoyed. He seemed to have either undiagnosed or untreated ADHD. He was all over the place, just being around him made me anxious.

 

The kid explained he was on a road trip with some friends from college, and that they’d wanted to hike further than he did, so he was waiting for them to come back. He wondered if he could hang out with us for a while. After he explained his situation, I kinda felt like an ass for being irritated by his very presence. This poor kid was alone, with no way of contacting his friends, and he was starting to freak out a little. I think he just wanted to be around a grownup. However, he was also very awkward and annoying, and I just wanted him to go away.

We planned on watching the sunset, but it was starting to cool down and we’d left our hoodies in the car. Although we felt bad leaving Mark alone with our new, chatty, young friend, Mary and I set off to return the trekking poles and retrieve some warmer clothes . . . and smoke a bowl, cause that kid, and all his nervous energy, was stressing us the hell out.

Thirsty elk at grand canyon national park
Thirsty Elk

Walking along the access road seemed to be taking forever, so we decided to take a shortcut by cutting through the forest. We thought we had a pretty good sense of where the car was parked, so we took a diagonal path, and were feeling like a couple of trailblazing badasses, when we started to notice all the snake holes in the ground. Like, everywhere. Dozens of them–and we were in rattlesnake country. I thought I was going to completely lose my shit. We took off running like we were being chased by a swarm of angry bees, no longer caring where our car was, just wanting to get the hell out of there. We must’ve looked like a couple of lunatics, but I was not about to ruin what was left of my trip with a snakebite. Hell. No.

We emerged from the woods nowhere near our car. I’m not sure if that was due to our panic-stricken dash after realizing we’d wandered into downtown Snakeville, or if we just had no idea where we were going to begin with, but we had a bit more walking to do before reaching warm clothes and cannabis.

enjoying the view at grand canyon national park

We stuck to the road on the way back to the rim (learning from one’s mistakes is so adulty, I was already good at being 40), and found Mark playing cards with Boy Awkward when we arrived. I had the thought, if we’re stuck with this kid for sunset, with him prattling on like that, when I just wanna find some freaking zen, I’m throwing his ass over the edge of this canyon. Obviously, I wouldn’t actually do that, but I was beyond relieved when his friends finally emerged from the trail, and we were off the hook (and no one would be arrested for murder: bonus).IMG_5122

The sunset was as breathtakingly beautiful as I imagined it would be. We sat and watched the shadows float over the canyons, as the sun sank below the horizon, setting the whole world aglow. It was so peaceful I felt like I could almost hear the sun going down, as if it was whispering goodnight. IMG_5120

With the sun went the heat. The temperature was dropping and we were chilly even in our hoodies. We walked back to our car, stopping so I could take pictures about a dozen times, along the access road as the crescent moon rose in the sky before us.

Once back in Williams, we hit up the Route 66 Diner (so. freaking. delicious.) with Mark’s newly arrived friend Peter, before heading back to the hotel to get a good night’s sleep. Morning would be upon us before we knew it, and with it came the big day: Hiking to Supai!IMG_5196

Thank you for stopping by! Be sure to come back for LadycationSunday when our Arizona adventure continues!

Follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips, and tales. Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

~Steph