Lessons learned in Big Bend National Park’s Mesa de Anguila

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.

The view was worth the climb. From atop Mesa de Anguila, across the Rio Grande into Mexico.

The view was worth the climb. From atop Mesa de Anguila, across the Rio Grande into Mexico.

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:

The trek began with a mile hike across a dry wash, to the saddle ahead where a rough 700-foot climb over .4 of a mile awaited us.

The trek began with a mile hike across a dry wash, to the saddle ahead where a rough 700-foot climb over .4 of a mile awaited us.

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.

One of the perks of camping sans tent (and of insomnia) -- the view of the Milky Way from my “bed.”

One of the perks of camping sans tent (and of insomnia) — the view of the Milky Way from my “bed.”

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.

The only water we saw the entire time. This is considered a copious amount in Big Bend. It reinforced our decision to schlep four liters apiece.

The only water we saw the entire time. This is considered a copious amount in Big Bend. It reinforced our decision to schlep four liters apiece.

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.

Posted in , , on January 2, 2015


  1. James on January 4, 2015 at 11:45 am

    Interesting observations. I feel that my skills or lack there of are similar. Regarding comfort and a good nights sleep, when possible go with a hammock! After a few nights of adjustments you will sleep better and wake up with none of the back/joint stiffness of the ground sleeper. If you are near the Sacramento Mtns. and want to give a hammock a try let me know and we can spend a few nights in the Mtns. I have plenty of spare hammocks and quilts. Now my quest is to drop a pound from my sleep system and still sleep warmly in he 25-35 *f temps.

    • Russell Johnson on January 5, 2015 at 10:19 am

      James, if I ever camp where I can find two trees, I might just give a hammock a try!

      • Bill on January 11, 2015 at 7:32 am

        Give hammock camping a try before you go. I would love to say that I sleep comfortably in a hammock, but I don’t. I’ve slept warm, but not restfully. Hammock gear can actually weigh more and take up more space than ground camping gear. I haven’t given up on hammocking, but I want to improve my ground sleeping experience as well. Down to 50 F or so, I use the same top quilt for both. I don’t have the under quilts to go much colder in my hammock.

  2. Jake on January 4, 2015 at 8:15 pm

    Exped air pillow has helped me a ton. you can adjust the puffiness to suit how you like it.

    i’ve been working on food amounts too.. for short trips my apatite decreases for the first night or 2.. more snacks and not a ton of lunch has been my solution so far

    • Russell Johnson on January 5, 2015 at 10:22 am

      I have just about settled on the Exped as well. My son has one and really likes it. Regarding food, I’m like you. If I’m out only a night or two, my normally voracious appetite is much less than normal.

      • Jake on January 7, 2015 at 9:31 pm

        Also, if you don’t like the pillow’s texture you can throw a shirt or pack towel on it for a “pillow case”. you can also use a stretchy cord connected to the loops on the pillow and go around your sleeping pad to keep it from sliding away.

        oh and hike long enough miles for enough days and you’ll sleep like the dead. few days-weeks of 18/day… zzzzzzzzzz 😉

        for short trips on food I tend to bring high calorie foods that I will pretty much eat no matter how I feel. pop tarts, pringles..1000 cal per can, pb filled prezels, nutella, “kids” cereal for breakfast (mm golden grahams). Hard to force yourself to eat food that is mehh when you’re not all that hungry but need the fuel.

  3. Matt K. on January 9, 2015 at 10:57 am

    It took my a while to find a sleep system that worked well for me. I sleep on my side and have a bad back (I have fractured several vertebrae), so a little stuff sack with socks and underwear in it just doesn’t cut it for me. I recently tried out several different options, and did a quick write up on it on my blog (http://inyourbonesoutdoor.blogspot.com/). Basically, I took the one I thought was the most comfortable, added some loops to the pillow and my pad, and now I have a really comfy set up.

    It really does seem like I always bring way too much food. I really like food, so it is hard to not throw in some extra snakcks, or a just a few more cookies. Maybe once I have to haul a lot of food (more than 3-days) a really long way (more than 18 miles), I will learn my lesson and not over pack.

    How did you learn your navigation skills? I can get by, but at this point, I wouldn’t want my life to depend on my pin-pointing my location and finding a route out.

    • Russell Johnson on January 13, 2015 at 7:03 pm

      Matt, I learned most of my navigation skills on the two guided treks I did with Andrew. For me, map-and-compass is not like riding a bike and is something I will need to practice a lot more than I currently do to get really good at it.

  4. Steve U. on January 21, 2015 at 4:08 pm

    For what its worth, I’ve used the Flex Air pillow from Antigravity Gear and found it to be a good choice for me. Less than an ounce and under 5 bucks, it does the job. Granted its not as fancy as the ones listed on Matt’s blog, but its lighter and cheaper.

  5. Brian on May 13, 2015 at 4:08 am

    If you pack a light weight down jacket for chilly nights, try this trick… One of the pockets has a zipper pull on the inside (this nis true for 99% of the outdoor gear manufacturers jackets/rain jackets, etc.. if its stuffabler and has zip up pockets…

    This is for turning the jacket inside out and stuffing into the pocket.. presto… down pillow….

  6. Dylan on September 17, 2017 at 12:18 pm

    Hey Russell, Since its been two years since you wrote this, have you been back to the Mesa? If so have you done the trip to the point at Santa Elena Canyon. I want to visit the Mesa but want to go all the way to Santa Elena Canyon.

    • Russell J on September 18, 2017 at 6:14 pm

      Dylan, my oldest son and I went back in mid-February this year to try to make it to the point. Long story short: Because of the intense heat – way above seasonal averages – we consumed our water at an unsustainable pace and found only enough water in the tinajas to use in an emergency. I also developed gigantic blood blisters on both feet that made walking almost unbearable.

      We only made it about a half-mile or so off the “trail” toward the point before we camped the first (and only) night. It was eight miles from the trailhead with another six to go to reach the point.

      We will be there again in December and may try again. Making it to the point has now become bit of an obsession of mine. I’m not entirely sure of the route … would love to see a GPS track.

      • Dylan on September 19, 2017 at 12:54 pm

        Is there any way to shoot you an email? I had to enter mine to leave a reply. Don’t know if you can see it or not. I have some resources that may help you including a GPS track.

  7. Ruben M Salazar on June 14, 2019 at 6:58 pm

    My backpack was hurting my shoulders by the time I reached the Saddle. Use the waist strap to hold the weight instead of your shoulders. Best tip I have for anyone. There were 3 hikers in our party. 2 seasoned vets and me. A first time. This isn’t a beginners trail. They ran up the saddle like mountain goats while I huffed and puffed and took breaks. 2nd mile into it and I was slowing them down. The view from mesa at the top was worth the hike. Wow!. We hiked for 2 or 3 more miles. The water was the heaviest thing in my pack. My hip began to hurt. At 50 years old I figured something might. My boots were way too casual for this trail so I tightened them up well. Glad I did. I was cold at night in Novemeber. We set up camp and ate a hot meal. My hip was still hurting the next morning and I told my friends to go on without me. I gave them most of my water supply and they gave me a water purifier. There were several tinajas around me. I stayed the rest of the day exploring and at 4pm I made the decision to stay the night alone out there. It was the night of the supermoon in 2017 so the desert was lit up well. There are no camp fires allowed. No weapons allowed. I had a small pocket knife and I used it to sharpen a octillo branch. Best I could do. There is not a single tree out there. I posted turning 360° because I was worried a bear or a mountain lion might leap on my back when my guard was down. Seriously. I was worried some drug traffickers would stumble upon me. I saw only one other hiker while alone the day before I slept alone out there. I was off the main trail and hoped he wouldn’t notice me but he did and dropped by. You never know what people are capable of and I was concerned he would come back at night. I was freaked! Talk about desolate. When the sun came up I literally threw my tent and everything into my backpack and began hiking toward civilization aka Lajitas. All I could think of was getting the hell out of there and a greasy cheeseburger. There are cairns that mark the trail. Some areas have no visible trail and you have to carefully search for the stacked rocks aka cairns that mark the way. I had to double back once because I lost the way. You can still see your destination when on top of the many culverts that the path dips on and out of so it wasn’t like a life or death situation if I had lost the trail. It would have been a harder hike than it was because the cairns show you the easiest way thru. It was rough country. Hard to write in words just how rough. I reached the saddle peak. What a view looking back down and the mile across the dry wash to the golf course where the trail head parking lot was. I slowly went down knowing that if I injured myself I could be in deep trouble all alone. When I got to the bottom I passed a couple hikers head up. Got in the car and found that cheeseburger at a great dinner in Terlingua. Found a great diner spot at La Kiva in Terlingua. A must see for any visitors. A cave like bar and grill. Spent one night at Chisos Mining Company motor inn. About $80 a night for the very basics. Took 2 hot showers the first day there. Went back the next morning and my friend were right on time. Picked them up and had lunch then off to HWY10 east to Austin. Home. This hike is dangerous. If you are a beginner try a hike at Big Bend park. Mesa de Anguila is part of the national park but you have a drive out of it to get to the Saddle. Mule Ears will be what I want to hike to should I ever return which I hope I do one day. It was a very beautiful park. Good luck

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