The inaugural Ultimate Hiking Course was held last weekend in Yosemite National Park. If you missed this one, don’t worry: I’m offering this same course in five other locations this year:
- Pisgah National Forest (June 2-4)
- Shenandoah National Park (June 9-11)
- Rocky Mountain National Park (August 17-19)
- White Mountain National Forest (August 24-26)
- Porcupine Mountains State Park (August 31 through September 2)
- See the complete 2012 trip schedule and locations
Ultimate Hiking courses are billed as learning-intensive trips for beginners and “curious intermediates” (i.e. veteran backpackers in need of formal instruction or a refresh) who want to rapidly develop their backpacking know-how. The learning starts weeks before the trip, when we assess likely environmental & route conditions, discuss and select gear, plan food, and arrange logistics. Once we are in the field, we focus on hiking efficiency, on-trail and off-trail navigation and route-finding, campsite selection, water quality and purification, and much more. See the full curriculum. The trip is also an excellent opportunity to test out different gear — I have a closet of packs, shelters, quilts, and cooksets available for loan.
My goal with these trips is to save you time and money by helping you avoid “learning the hard way” through trial-and-error. In three days you will learn what takes most backpackers thousands of miles, thousands of dollars (in the form of regrettable gear purchases), and many trips that should have been more enjoyable and less difficult.
Below are a series of images that are representative of our trip. Special thanks to Rob Timko and Doak Jones for taking many of these images.
A screenshot of my gear list. Download the gear list as a PDF. In the weeks before the trip, all members of the group fill out a similar list using a shared Google Docs spreadsheet.
The group met at 8:30am at the Big Oak Flat Entrance Station. There, we distributed group food and performed a gear check, to make sure everyone had everything they needed and nothing they didn’t. Most kits are nearly flawless, thanks to the Google Docs gear list, but a few refinements are usually in order — for example, Bill didn’t take his camp shoes (bottom center) and he only took three liters of water capacity (not five), among other small changes.
After hiking a short distance south from Tioga Road we had a map and compass clinic. Each group member received a National Geographic Trails Illustrated map for Yosemite National Park (1:80,000 scale), which we used as an overview map, plus a custom mapset I created using National Geographic TOPO! software (1:24,000 scale), which we used for navigating. Map skills are some of the most important to develop and I’m regularly surprised how even experienced backpackers don’t have a solid understanding of contour lines, map scales, and the difference between true north and magnet north.
Near the natural arch on Indian Ridge we got our first good view of several Yosemite Valley landmarks, including Half Dome. While the primary objective of this this course is to learn, I think everyone really enjoyed the spectacular scenery too.
It’d been an early-morning for many members of the group –for example, “Flyin’ Brian” Robinson, the other guide, had departed his home in Monterrey at about 3:30am — and everyone was happy to take an hour-long break near North Dome. In general, this was not a physically intense trip: everyone was there primarily to learn, not necessarily to hike, and our daily mileages were only about 5, 10, and 5 miles, including some off-trail travel.
We intentionally arrived at camp early on Day 1 in order to discuss campsite selection (tip: find soft, porous, and flat ground that is next to a natural windbreak and under a natural radiant barrier) and to practice pitching different shelters and using different cooksets. Among our group, we had two tarp + bivy systems, two tarp + nest systems, one hammock, two poncho-tarps, and two double-wall tents. This diversity allowed everyone to see first-hand the pros, cons, limitations and tradeoffs of possible shelter options.
Brian was almost done with his pasta & pesto (BTW, yum!) by the time I had boiling water. His original Cat Stove (made by his father, Trail Dad) clearly was faster and lighter than my wood stove, and he wasn’t covered in soot after each meal either. But, if we’d been on a multi-week trip, my stove might get the upper-hand. Again, this was a great opportunity for group members to see different systems in action and to determine the options that work best for their typical trips, without having to buy anything too.
Yosemite Creek was already down from its Spring peak flow and wasn’t a difficult ford, but it gave the group an opportunity to read the currents, select a fording spot, and to practice technique (e.g. using trekking poles for support and walking downstream on a diagonal in order to reduce drag).
After just a few miles on Day 2 Jason noticed a developing hot spot on his forefoot, which is a very common blister point and a very hard spot to treat. A moleskin donut and a few strips of Luekotape solved the problem completely.
Jason, Frank and Flyin’ Brian look over the 1:24,000-scale maps prior to a 4-hour off-trail segment, which was one of the highlights of the trip. Off-trail navigation and route-finding is very different than on-trail hiking: you need to consider likely vegetation, to use backstops and handrails, to take bearings in low-visibility areas, and to rely more heavily on your watch in order to dead-reckon and check your elevation. Off-trail travel makes for a more taxing, but ultimately more rewarding, backcountry experience, IMHO, and it’s comforting to learn how to do it in the company of more experienced navigators.