'It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it.' Backpacking Prep

12:08 p.m. on May 22, 2012 (EDT)
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Every May long Weekend for the past four years, I've done a little hike called the Backpacking Prep. It's a good time of year - there is the possibility of snow or rain, but usually (like this time) the spring buds are just starting to come out. Not many mosquitoes, and fresh new greenery all around.

A lot of people seem to have this idea that backpacking is 'Me and my little knapsack skipping through the mountains'. The purpose of the Backpacking Prep is for people to find out if they enjoy backpacking, and to get a feel for what's actually involved. This is also a good way to get warmed up for summer adventures in the mountains.

I do the event at a local recreational area which, while it has about 140 km of trails, is close enough to civilization for a help to be available in an emergency, or to walk someone out halfway through if they run into problems. There are also cross-country ski shelters where groups like mine are allowed to camp. Water and firewood is supplied. Each day involves 10-12 km of hiking.

Needless to say, there is a lot of preliminary planning involved, teaming up people to share tents and stoves, and making sure everybody is ready with the right equipment. Only one last-minute dropout this time, leaving me with a group of ten.

We met at the Waskahegan staging area at Blackfoot/Cooking Lake at 10:00AM on Saturday, and got organized.
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I brought my trusty little luggage scale, and the packs all seemed to come in at 35 - 40 lbs. Well, there was one woman who brought an extra tent (just in case??) and a heavy camping chair, but we convinced her she probably wouldn't need them. Then there was one guy, of the old-school hunter/woodsman generation, whose pack was about 45-50 lbs - his emphasis was more on gadgets and gourmet cookery than on going ultralight, but if he wanted to carry the weight, more power to him!

A quick consultation at the trailhead map, then we were off.
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The Cooking Lake/Blackfoot area in an interesting environment. It's mostly aspen forest, but it covers classic post-glacial 'knob and kettle terrain' which consists of ridges and hills amongst deep potholes. Since it's a perfect habitat, the bumps and hollows have been sculpted by beavers, and you can easily see the ecological progression from creek to pond to meadow.


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After about 5 km, I noticed that one woman seemed to be walking a bit strangely. Her pack was leaning more and more to her right and her shoulders were tipping more and more to the left. We re-balanced her pack and made other adjustments, but by the time we were looking for our lunch break, she was in a fair bit of pain. I carried her pack the rest of the way (2 km) to the shelter where we were stopping for lunch. One pack on the front and another on the back actually balances rather nicely, but it was still about 80 lbs in total.


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More pack adjustments when we got there, and I took her sleeping bag and half tent. We still had another 7 km to go, but with her lighter load, she seemed okay to go on. More beaver ponds and some very pretty trails...

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... then we arrived at our first campsite at Winter Shelter. The tents went up and we made supper.BP23.jpg
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Always interesting to see the variety of tents, stoves and other gear that people have. Tents ranged from a 3-person Mountain Hardware to a Marmot 1-person UL Eos, and the stoves included a Jetboil, a couple of Whisperlites, my Trangia, and a Vargo with Coghlan alcohol burner.

Had a nice little walk after supper, but I turned back after just a few kilometres with the woman with the sore back. The rest had the thrill of a young moose jumping out of the bush just a few feet in front of them, but we missed that little adventure. Lots of clowning around in the evening, including some stretching and some dancing.


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Breakfast the next morning while we packed up the tents, bandaged blisters, and split up the injured woman's load among us.With each person carrying one extra bundle, nobody was working too hard, and she was able to continue while her back recovered.BP6.jpg

Another 10 or 12 km to go; more beaver ponds, more leafy trails, and a very nice day.

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Our second stop was the Lost Lake shelter, out on a spit of land between two small lakes. Same drill - set up the tents right away, relax a bit, then cook supper.

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At least when you're only doing 10-12 km per day, you have the chance to add in more relaxed hikes when you're done, so we headed out again for an evening hike. Lost Lake to Islet Lake to Push Lake and back again.
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We got back at about 8:00, and two young people who'd stayed behind, decided they were going to do the same walk. I was of course concerned about the possibility of them getting lost as nightfall approached, but even in May, it's not really dark until well after 10:00. Nonetheless, I reviewed the trail map with them, and made sure they had a cell phone that was turned on and flashlights. I also mentioned the coyote pack that hunted in the area they were heading for, and told them that while they wouldn't have any problems, if the pack came to check them out to yell and throw things until the went away.

About 45 minutes later, we heard the coyotes suddenly burst into song, exactly in the area our two young friends were headed for. This is a large pack with around 12-15 members, and they are quite capable of taking down a deer or elk, but there was no real risk to two healthy young adults. But my cell phone rang, and a nervous voice advised me that they'd decided to turn back. I headed for the turnout to our campsite, just to make sure they didn't miss it in the dark, and waited for them to turn up.

The next morning, it was time for a few hard choices. The injured woman wasn't much better, and I had someone else with a nasty blister and a third person who was struggling with the weights and the pace. One nice thing about a recreational area is that, in addition to amenities like good signage, outhouses and potable water, there are often alternate routes to take.

I opted to send the larger, faster part of the group back out to the vehicles (13 km) while myself and the three casualties took a shorter, easier route out to a different access point. Still a nice walk, and Islet Lake looked very different in the morning light.


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We caught a ride with some nice kids with a truck big enough to carry all our gear, and met up with the rest of the group back at our starting point.
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I tell people that there are three important elements to a backpacking trip besides just the hike itself: preparation, pacing and teamwork. I usually joke that the last mainly involves getting your partner to carry as much as possible without them realizing it! I was glad to see that no one took me seriously, that when we ran onto a problem, everyone stepped up to work as part of the team, to help out the member who was injured.

Should she have come at all? She knew she had a bad back, but she'd been doing a lot of hikes with a dayback just to see if she felt she could keep up. Everything seemed fine beforehand. Instead of buying a pack that was the right size for a three-day walk, she borrowed an 85 litre Osprey expedition pack. It was too big for her, and she didn't know how to set it up properly for herself. By the time anyone realized there were problems with the fit and the balance, she was already hurting.

And to her credit, she stuck out the whole trip, which meant that while the rest of us could carry on without changing the mission. And of more importance, the Backpacking Prep is intended to uncover any problems in a safe location, near to help, rather than halfway up a mountainside or halfway through a week-long trek. From that perspective, it did exactly what it was supposed to do.


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12:27 p.m. on May 22, 2012 (EDT)
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Very nice journey.  Looks like a great place to be.

1:33 p.m. on May 22, 2012 (EDT)
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Good lunch time read..thanks Peter!

1:34 p.m. on May 22, 2012 (EDT)
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It's great that you do this for folks wanting to know whether backpacking is for them or not.

In 2-3 weeks I've got a smaller group going out, just 3 of us. My plan is the first day hiking 4 miles along the Pacific Ocean (easy). Then heading inland over some large sand dunes to a lake. That 1.5 miles will be rough on them. The next day, if they are up to it, will be a 10 mile hike on well maintained trails through wooded lands. I figure this would be a good change of scenery. Now the kicker to this is that the second campsite will only be about 2 miles from the first, making the 3rd day trip back to the car an easy 6 mile trip on wet, flat sand.

As you have done this with newbies before. I would like to know what you think of the plan. I want this to be fun and show them that you don't have to go far out to alone out here.  

2:49 p.m. on May 22, 2012 (EDT)
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Hi. Mike;

Sounds like a very good plan. One thought comes to mind - I'm talking in the TR about 10 km each day, which is about 6 miles. That means our longest day of hiking was about 4 hours, including rest stops, late starts and injuries.

It sounds like you have two harder days planned. 1.5 miles on sand is nothing to laugh at, but even at 1/2 mi/hr, that's only three hours. The 10 mile hike sounds like a full day if you assume an average speed of 2 mi/hr, but again you'll want something to do after you're finished.

Add an hour when you get to your campsite to set up tents, and you're still going to have a lot of empty time on your hands. Are there dayhikes you can do from the campsites, or do you have anything else planned to fill in a few hours?

I think it's always a good idea to have a half-day hike as the last one, just because people are more tired, and they usually need time when they get home to do laundry or get ready for work the next day. The short walk out sounds like a good idea.

I think you've got a nice trip planned. Just remember that if you're doing it as a 'leader' you're assuming responsibility for them, too. Carry the maps and first aid kit and cell phone, and always have a 'Plan B' that you can initiate at any stage. And know when to back down and go for something easier.

Sounds like a lot of fun. And no snow! How nice!

5:04 p.m. on May 22, 2012 (EDT)
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Boy, that sounds like something I should sign up for.

5:39 p.m. on May 22, 2012 (EDT)
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If you're ever in the neighbourhood, Tollermom, you'd be welcome to join us.

Or just go with some of the experienced people on this forum. I think that for most new people, the best thing they can do is hook up with someone who has already made all the mistakes, and who has hopefully learned from them.

'It takes a wise man to know he is a fool'.

6:16 p.m. on May 22, 2012 (EDT)
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One of my problems will be dealing with others. I have never been with anyone on the trail before. I'm strictly a solo guy. I'm happy and very much at peace with myself and the nature around me. For me that's good enough entertainment. I will be forcing myself to teach and entertain others.

Anyway, The last dune we have to climb is a 250 footer. That's allot to ask of these guys. But at the top of it there is a clear lake that is 3 miles long with a white sand beach. Surrounded by second growth forest. 4-5 good areas for tents. I will be pumping the water. Show them good areas for their tents. Putting up the bear bags, gathering wood......as you know there is much to do before relaxing. I think the sight of the lake will over take them so that I might not have to be entertaining. At this point we could just stay here as base camp. That will be up to them.

If they want to continue we take a trail though the woods. It is well marked and leads to a trail head. At this point we take the creek trail. At some point we will cross the creek near the ocean and make camp in some small sand pines. And the ritual of pitching camp starts again.

I'm always amazed by the scenery and how fast it can change. And I'm hoping that they do to. My goal is to open their eyes to what this area has to give. And if all works out I might invite them on a trip out of the dunes, up to the Three Capes down to Pacific City ending at the Pelican Brewery.

Gee maybe having hiking buddies would be kinda fun after all. 

9:44 p.m. on May 22, 2012 (EDT)
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Are you really forcing yourself, Mike?

I don't know about you, but I very much enjoy sharing what I love with others. On one trip, I remember taking a whole bunch of people from many different countries (Iran, China, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany and England) up into the mountains and starting off the day by telling them I was going to show them MY Rockies.

I realized that day that I wanted them to see what I saw in the way that I saw it, to understand why I do what I do, to understand who I am, too, and maybe hope that they'd pass it on to other people later on.

Bottom line: If it wasn't fun for you, you wouldn't be doing it.

I think your plan sounds good, and you've taken that important step of mentally rehearsing the trip to help you plan it. You'll be in a different role, since you'll be taking care of them instead of just yourself, but that has its own rewards.

Have a good time.

11:49 a.m. on May 23, 2012 (EDT)
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Looks like a crazy time

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