Editor’s Note. Russell has been on two of my guided backpacking trips, and in April will join a third. He considers himself an “advanced beginner” backpacker, getting out a few times per year on trips of 2-4 days each.
In mid-December I did a short trek with my wife and two sons at our favorite place, Big Bend National Park. Because of the confidence I’ve gained from previous personal trips and guided trips with Andrew, I chose a more ambitious destination this time — the Mesa de Anguila. An online guide by Backpacker describes it this way: “Big Bend’s Mesa de Anguila is a remote park’s ultimate getaway: isolated, little-traveled, and packed with stunning vistas. This rugged region is not for backcountry beginners — water is scarce, and good map and compass skills are essential for route-finding — but seasoned hikers are rewarded with limestone formations, desert peaks, and sweeping views of the Rio Grande.” I’d corresponded with Andrew a few times in advance of this trip, and he asked me to let him know how it went. Here are the lessons I learned:
1. I’m getting better at this. I’ve got a good grasp of lightweight techniques, and backpacking techniques in general. Clothing and gear selection I have down pretty well. That said, I can always improve and make tweaks. 2. But I’ve still got a ways to go. I packed too heavy (mostly food – more on that later) and paid for it with sore shoulders after just a few hours. And I still need to improve my map and compass skills (more on that later too.) 3. I’m confident in the backcountry, so long as I pay attention, don’t try anything stupid, or try to exceed my limits. Part of my confidence is trying to make every action deliberate. Trying to “wing it” in Big Bend can get you killed. That may sound like hyperbole, but people do die there — usually from dehydration and heat exhaustion. 4. I love hiking, but can take or leave camping. I’m really a hiker at heart. I love walking around outside. Many of the places I want to hike can’t be reached in a one-day out-and-back. Therefore, I have to combine hiking with camping, thus becoming a backpacker. Not to say that some aspects of camping aren’t enjoyable, such as seeing the Milky Way at night and experiencing total silence and darkness. That said, I’m still on the lookout for one of these as seen here.
5. Backpacking is all about tradeoffs. While there are ways to get close to a balance, in general, more comfort at camp means less comfort on the trail, and vice versa. Supreme comfort in camp and supreme comfort on the trail — at least the way I define them — are mutually exclusive. For instance, I’d love to sleep in a spacious, fully-enclosed tent, but since I’m not willing to carry one I must learn to be content with cowboy camping and a tarp, or a confining tarptent. 6. I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever get a good night’s sleep outdoors. The search for a workable combination of pad, pillow and quilt continues. This is the one area where I’m willing to pack extra weight. Now I’m in search of a dedicated lightweight backpacking pillow, because cramming clothes, empty water bladders, etc. into a stuff sack isn’t cutting it. It’s to a point where a comfy pillow is not a luxury item. For me, it’s a necessity if I’m going to be reasonably well-rested in the backcountry. 7. Choose your partners carefully. Having four people traveling at different paces is frustrating and inefficient. 8. I always overestimate my food needs while backpacking. I still continue to take too much food. And, other than water, it’s the heaviest stuff I take. In addition to being heavy, it takes up a lot of space. If I’m going to be out only a night or two, I really don’t need hot breakfasts or dinners. That’s especially true if I’m in the desert, where water is at a premium. 9. Water is everything, especially where I love to backpack. The need to carry so much water makes minimizing everything else (see: #8 Food) even more important. If I’m out for only a night or two, water should be used for drinking, washing hands and brushing teeth, period. Every amount that I use for something else — cooking, washing cookware, washing clothes, etc. — is an amount that I can’t drink. (Although the amount I used cooking was ingested, so still counted toward hydration.) The tinajas were bone dry, and if we’d depended on them, we’d have been screwed. Backpacking in the desert is a tradeoff. Want to enjoy the desert? Be prepared to schlep a bunch of (heavy) water.
10. The ability to navigate really boosts my confidence. I’m by no means an expert navigator (yet), but I’m getting better and generally had a good idea of where we were at all times. I’m good with the compass and decent with the map. I used the map to pinpoint our location a few times. I then checked it with the GaiaGPS and was pleased to see that I had nailed it! However, unless I’m orienting the map, I’m still a bit weak when combining the two (taking and applying bearings on a map). When trying that, I had a couple of minor misses that, if I’d been fatigued, alone, and/or injured, could have had major consequences. 11. Always have a Plan B and be ready to call an audible. A few members of my group weren’t feeling well, the tinajas were bone dry, and we were rapidly consuming our water. So we came back earlier than we’d intended. It was the right call. We still had a great time and saw sights that 99 percent of park visitors will never see. 12. Backpacking is like childbirth, in that you forget the painful parts and want to do it again. As I was lying on the ground at night, cold, uncomfortable, unable to sleep and waiting for the sun to rise, I was wondering, “What the hell am I doing out here? I could be home in bed. I should really find a new hobby.” But now I’m already planning my next trek. 13. You really do need to get a backcountry permit. I always get one anyway, but this time — unbelievably — we ran into two park volunteers on the mesa, whose “job” it is to explore backcountry trails. We chatted for a while and they asked to see our backcountry permit. This was in the middle of nowhere, in the least-traveled backcountry portion of the park. 14. I know what I want to do when I retire. See #13 above.