Backpacking 101

Why Backpacking?

That’s what most people asked when I first mentioned backpacking as a possible thing I might do.

I’d thought for a long time that I might like backpacking. It combines, in theory at least, some of my favorite things: nature, walking, and being alone.


Nature walks were part of my daily life from toddler-hood, stumbling along next to one parent or the other, learning to distinguish the different types of conifers. When I got older, the first thing I’d do after getting home from school was climb the tree into the neighbor’s yard, duck under the fence, and head up the hill into the watershed. In summer, I’d stay up there for hours, just walking around, dipping feet in the water, reading, and writing in my note book.


Walking and nature weren’t really separate, until I went to college where there wasn’t any nature. Not real nature, like I was used to anyway–just rich people’s big yards. I liked to walk around the mansions near my college listening to the same songs on repeat, as a break from studying. It helped me to relax, helped clear my head. I didn’t think I’d keep doing it after school but I did, at each apartment I had, even the really dangerous ones, I developed a couple of favorite routs. It’s a comforting thing, walking and letting the mind go.

Being alone

It’s always bothered me a bit that I spend so much time alone. I have the idea that I should want to be with other people, that it’s anti-social or otherwise weird to be happier alone, that it’s inappropriate use of my time or a failure of social obligation, that I’ll turn into some kind of nutty recluse who makes people uncomfortable with too much eye contact. I’m a slow thinker, slow to react in stressful situations too. I like to have time to adjust, solitude to let things sink in, to make decisions.

Getting started

I don’t really love what all this says about me–that I’m a misanthrope and loner, too sensitive, and too susceptible to environmental factors–but it’s always been true. For peace of mind, for comfort, for serenity, for creativity, for mental clarity: nature, walking and being alone just work for me.

There was one obvious problem. I wasn’t really all that clear on what backpacking would require. For fun, my friends and I go to happy hour, museums, yoga, the spa, coffee, concerts, the thrift store, and the park. I am only very modestly outdoorsy, but I’m still the ourdoorsiest person I know. Which means, I didn’t really have anyone who could show me how to backpack. And no one I knew was going to want to come along. Whatever. I decided to go for it anyway.

So, I made a birthday gift to myself. A really big one. I Googled backpacking checklists and YouTube videos. Armed with an REI credit card, I ordered $1300 of lightweight gear and protein bars.

Then I picked a test hike. One night in the Portola State Park, at Slate Creek (the only trail camp NOT 100% booked) out and back. It would be a dry run. I’d double check that I really had everything I needed, that I knew how to use it. And if I didn’t–well, it was only one night.

Backpacking in Portola State Park

I started out on Old Tree Trail. I’d gathered from the map that it would intersect with Slate Creek Trail, but in fact, it does not. So, I had a quick 1 mile out and back to refine my backpack strap configuration before starting out in the right direction. It was a gorgeous day that still didn’t quite require sunscreen, still Spring in the Santa Cruz mountains, even though it was early May, and iris everywhere.

After winding my way through the redwoods for a couple of hours I passed the camp, but decided to continue on to the end of the trail, just for the miles really. I wanted it to feel like a real backpacking trip, even if I wasn’t actually going that far.

By 5:00 I’d established camp at Slate Creek Trail Camp and  was realizing what I’d forgotten: bug spray. It was bad. Can’t sit still, blink or open your mouth bad.

I considered just slipping inside the tent to wait it out. I was behind on my review assignment for Library Journal. Except it was this tiny little one-person tent, not tall enough to sit up in. Was I really going to spend the next 12-14 hours in there? It was too claustrophobic. I couldn’t even bring myself to try.

So, I pulled down the tent, shoved everything back in my bag, and started down the hill. I was only about six miles from the car after all.

On the way I bumped into some other hikers on the way, a nice couple who asked me if I had spent the night. I should have just said yes, but I admitted that I’d forgotten something and decided to go back. The guy asked me what. I was so embarrassed about my reluctance to deal with bugs that I wanted to lie–but I couldn’t remember the name of any of the stuff I’d bought! The silence stretched uncomfortably.

“Sleeping bag,” I said, finally, and booked it down the hill.

I was back at the car before sunset, but the winding roads around the park were difficult to navigate. Mine became another in the long chain of cars, all lost without cell phone service and looking for Highway 35. Around 10:00 PM I pulled into an Oakland Taco Bell, and by 11:00 I was home.

The blisters!

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