HEAD FOR THE HILLS
appeared in Methow Valley News Summer Guide 2019
Talk to any veteran backpacker and their reasons for loving the pastime are almost uniformly similar: Life seems more simple on a backpacking trip. It gives me a break from the relentless pace of life at home. Things look brighter, more vivid. I feel more alive when I’m in the mountains.
The mountains call us, just as they called John Muir and other early adventurers, and we must go—not because the mountains demand it of us (they do) but because we feel like the truest and happiest versions of ourselves when we are in them. “Going to the mountains,” said Muir, “is going home.”
Unlike home, however, the mountains don’t come stocked with furniture, a stocked pantry, clothing, and a roof. To travel comfortably in the mountains we must make the mountains into a lightweight version of home, complete with food, water, and shelter, all of which must be carried on our backs.
Backpacking is a minimalist experience and gives us a glimpse into a radically simplified life, but paradoxically, there is a certain amount of equipment you need to own (or borrow) in order to do it. Fortunately for those of us living in the modern era, since the first great waves of people began to backpack for pleasure backpacking equipment has been getting lighter and more effective. The canvas wall tents of the 19th century have become the ultralight freestanding nylon tents of the 21st century; Muir used a woolen bedroll while modern adventurers snuggle into goose down mummy bags; the headlamps we used in the 1980s and 1990s look like coal miners’ lanterns compared to the tiny LED lamps that now illuminate our nighttime activities in the backcountry.
Gear innovations have come a long way since Muir’s time, resulting in equipment that is lighter, longer lasting, and more effective than ever before. In the Methow Valley, you can find a wide variety of such products at Goat’s Beard in Mazama and Winthrop Mountain Sports and Cascades Outdoor Store in Winthrop.
The three biggest and heaviest things you’ll need are your pack, your tent (or tarp, if bugs aren’t an issue), and your sleeping bag. Coincidentally or not, these are also likely to be your three most expensive purchases, so shop around, test things out, and make sure you’re investing in equipment that fits you well, is light enough, and is built to last.
Amy Sweet of Cascades Outdoor Store says “The whole point of backpacking is to have fun, right? If people’s packs are too heavy, they’re going to be miserable and never backpack again. But if their packs are reasonable and they have fun, they’ll continue to do it.”
With this in mind, Sweet advises backpackers to “focus on the big systems first.” Ideally, your pack will weigh about 3 pounds empty, your 3-season sleeping bag will be about 2 pounds, and your 2-person tent will weigh 3-4 pounds. With the explosion of gear manufacturers serving increasing numbers of backpackers, these target weights should not be difficult to achieve.
Rita Kenny, co-owner of Winthrop Mountain Sports, advises backpackers to select gear not based solely on weight, but also on expected use. “It doesn’t make sense to use a 2lb pack if you’re loading it up with a 3lb stove and 15lbs of food,” she says. Similarly, she says, make sure you understand what comfort features are being sacrificed in the name of weight. If you’re a mainstream backpacker who is happiest in a pack with padded shoulder straps, a molded waist belt, and back support, the most lightweight packs on the market are not going to satisfy you.
But there are mid-range options, says Sweet, noting “Sierra Designs stopped innovating for a while, but they came back this year with one of the most compelling products I’ve seen.” Describing a 2.5lb backpack with cushioned shoulder straps, lumbar support, and waistbelt, Sweet says that the Flex Capacitor ultralight backpack converts from 60L to 40L through the use of big compression straps. The pack flexes to suit your needs, from quick overnighters to multi-day trips.
Sweet points to another of the most innovative products on the market: a 3.75lb 2-person tent from Sierra Designs, called the Clearwing. The tent is surprisingly affordable, and interestingly enough is only available through independent retailers like Cascades Outdoor Store, not large retailers like REI. “It’s part of the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance’s effort to support independent retailers,” Sweet says.
For Kenny, who came of backpacking age in the heavyweight gear era, the continued innovations in lightweight backpacking gear are truly inspiring. “It’s just incredible to do a trip of up to a week with a 30# pack,” she says. Noting that Baby Boomers are a large portion of marketshare for outdoor recreation equipment, Kenny says “Nobody is slowing down. The gear keeps getting more comfortable and lighter, which eases the strain on the body. We all use lightweight foldable trekking poles. We can just do these kinds of activities longer.”
For youth and Baby Boomers alike, nothing restores one’s energy on a backpacking trip like a good night’s sleep. Kenny is enthusiastic about Cascade Design’s new inflatable sleeping pad, which should help facilitate a restful night of shut-eye. “The NeoAir UberLite is the lightest on the market,” she says. “It’s really comfortable and very quiet. It doesn’t make that crinkly sound that other Therm-a-Rests make. It’s getting great reviews in the press.”
Before considering bigger items like packs and tents, however, Kenny and Sweet both recommend considering the piece of equipment that will make or break a walking experience: footwear. “The distance hikers are all wearing running shoes built for hiking these days,” Kenny says, “but the average hiker is going to want a sturdier hiking shoe, especially if they’re planning any off-trail travel.”
Backpacking footwear choices are bewilderingly vast these days, with options ranging from minimalist sneakers to traditional heavy leather lace-up boots. Most hikers are most comfortable with something from the middle of this range, usually a lightweight breathable boot with moderate ankle support.
In 2018 Technica introduced its Forge boot: the world’s first custom-moldable hiking boot, which earned the Backpacker Magazine’s editor’s choice award. Using technology that the company had employed for years to custom-fit alpine ski boots, Technica produced a hiking boot with moldable foam in the heel, instep, and ankle. Kenny says “I tried some of these boots out and they were probably the most comfortable boots I’ve every worn. The fit was pretty impressive.” Kenny points to the heel and ankle in particular. “The ability to mold the heel and ankle and eliminate so many of those pressure points, it just solves so many problems,” she says, referring in particular to blisters.
After a year on the market, the reviews of the Forge continue to be glowing. Customers who purchased a pair of Forge boots had them customized to their feet using special equipment. Incredibly, the boots can also be re-molded over time as feet change. “Response to the Forge has been huge,” says Kenny, who sold quite a few pairs to local hikers. “People are just blown away by the comfort.”
This year, Technica has introduced a low-top version of the Forge, called the Plasma. “Same custom fit in heel and instep,” says Kenny. “It’s a great addition to the line.”
Winthrop Mountain Sports’ other co-owner, Diane Childs, suggests that hikers consider stiffness (particularly in uneven terrain), breathability (you probably don’t need waterproof boots if most of your hiking is in the eastern Cascades), and boot height (low for level trails, higher for off-trail—although local hiking machine Midge Cross unflinchingly maintains that strong ankles eliminate the need for boots with ankle support). Childs also provides this information: boots made on European lasts are better for narrow feet, while those made on American lasts accommodate wide feet better.
Childs solves the boot dilemma decisively: “What’s the best boot for backpacking? The one that fits your foot best.”
In general, hikers in lightweight and breathable boots are far less likely to get blisters than those in heavy leather boots. “Blisters are caused by friction, heat, and moisture,” says Cascades Outdoor Store co-owner Amy Sweet, who speaks with the empathy of one who has suffered. “When your sweaty feet are trapped in your waterproof boots, you’re creating the perfect conditions for blister formation.” Sweet recommends the athlete’s lubricant Glide, combined with lightweight breathable boots and two-layer socks as blister prevention.
Until recently, hikers haven’t had the option of selecting a hiking shoe that combines the lightweight benefits of a trail runner with the durability and protection of a hiking shoe. But Sweet points to Danner’s new shoe, the Danner Trail 2650 (a nod to the varied terrain of the Pacific Crest Trail’s 2650 miles). “It’s really light and cushioned, and soft and supple on top like a trail runner,” says Sweet, “but the undersole is durable and protective, which trail runners typically aren’t. It’s a cross between a trail runner and a proper hiking shoe.”
Whether you’re wearing a light trail runner or a heavy leather boot, the importance of properly fitting footwear on a hiking adventure cannot be overstated. You may be able to endure the challenge of a monster backpack, but if your feet turn to hamburger three miles in your backpacking trip might as well be over, and you’re going to wish it were. Childs said it—“fit is key.”
Speaking of hamburger—which you will absolutely not want to bring on your overnight trip—meal planning is often one of the most onerous tasks of the trip, yet is quite possibly the most appreciated component of any journey into backcountry. Just as colors are brighter in the mountains, food seems to taste better.
For some people, backcountry meal planning is as easy as visiting an outdoor retailer and purchasing a variety of foil packages, which, after boiling, can be opened to reveal offerings such as beef stew and Thai curried rice and chicken. These meals aren’t cheap, but they’re certainly convenient.
For those on a tighter budget or for those who prefer meals from scratch, food planning will take a bit longer. But fear not—backpacking meals with whole ingredients can be simple and satisfying, lightweight and luggable, endlessly varied and easy on the budget.
For breakfast it’s hard to beat hot cereal, like oatmeal or Bluebird Grain Farms’ Old World cereal blend. Another favorite backpacking breakfast is rice pudding. Bring beans and rice for dinner the night before and cook some extra rice. In the morning, heat up the leftover rice with milk, butter, brown sugar, raisins, and cinnamon for a tasty breakfast treat. It takes a few extra minutes and ounces of fuel to cook up a hot breakfast, but it’s worth the effort. Hot breakfasts taste better, they’re lighter to carry than granola or energy bars, and they stick with you longer through the morning.
Backpacking lunches work best when you surrender the idea of a sandwich or entrée and think instead of lunch as a cocktail party without the cocktails. Lunch is all about appetizers: a pile of trail mix, sliced cheese and salami on crackers, a few pieces of dried fruit, and a small slab of dark chocolate. Forget the crushed bagels, the crumbled pita breads, and the soggy sandwiches; just bring protein to pile on some sturdy crackers. Peanut butter, jam, tuna, and chicken are all available in foil pouches and can be easily squeezed onto Stoned Wheat Thins or Rye-Vita crackers, creating scrumptious little canapés for your mid-day meal.
One of the easiest and relatively lightest backcountry dinners is a dish I imaginatively call “Couscous and Sausage.” Like the name suggests, the dish consists of a main base of couscous (which cooks by sitting in boiled water for five minutes) and a topping of sliced sausage sautéed with zucchini, mushrooms, and spices. If you’re only going out for a night or two, you can pre-cook the sausage with the vegetables and carry them in a double plastic bag to be mixed in with the hot couscous at your campsite. A sprinkling of Parmesan cheese makes this hearty meal taste positively gourmet.
Another crowd-pleasing backcountry dinner is pesto pasta. Take a few blobs of last year’s pesto out of the freezer and double bag it. When you’ve got the pasta (penne or rotini work better than longer noodles) cooked and drained, simply squeeze the contents of the bag out into the pot and mix it all together with a dusting of Parmesan cheese.
And good old-fashioned beans and rice never fails to satisfy the voracious appetites of backpackers. Dehydrated black beans and refried beans are available in most natural food stores and even at larger grocery stores in the bulk section; minute rice is light and cooks quickly; and a little cheese melted on top brings the meal together. If you really want to impress your fellow hikers, bring an avocado in a rigid container and a tiny can of salsa verde.
Don’t forget the snacks! Trail mix (the options are endless), string cheese, jerky, dried fruit, nuts, granola bars—anything that can be carried in your pocket and consumed on a quick break will come in handy as a trail snack. Err on the side of salty/savory versus sweet; you’ll crave salt more than you’ll crave sugar.
What goes in must come out, and this is where the logistics of backpacking become too crude for some people. But knowing what your human waste disposal options are for the area you’re backpacking in will serve you well. You may be headed into a site with a modern, clean, regularly-maintained outhouse with a rack of current magazines and plenty of natural lighting. But probably not. More likely you’re going somewhere that has either a ramshackle privy or a “wet willy,” which is basically a box-like platform with a seat over a hole. Some of us are partial to wet willies because of the great view they typically afford the user, but for those unaccustomed to the open air concept the experience may be disconcerting.
Still, both of these options offer pre-dug holes, which is something you will yearn for as soon as you’re faced with the task of digging your own cat hole, which you should do according to Leave No Trace ® regulations—6-8” deep and 4-6” in diameter (with the U-Dig-It or other sturdy trowel you had the foresight to pack, because it’s really hard to get down 6-8” using only a sharp stick or the heel of your boot).
There are entire books devoted to the philosophy and methodology of human waste disposal in the backcountry and although you may not have the inclination to read any of them, you should at least know how to dig a proper cat hole; if you’re going backpacking, at some point you’re going to need that skill set. And look at it this way—it’s simply one more means to lighten your load.
Other movements in the backpacking world include a push for fair trade practice at all stops along the supply chain, says Kenny. “Manufacturers are looking to suppliers to make sure materials are sourced fairly and that employees and contract workers are treated well, with fair wages and benefits.” Big companies like Patagonia and North Face have put weight behind this movement, but even smaller companies have embraced this philosophy. “It’s a continued focus of looking at the whole process and being transparent,” says Kenny. “It’s very exciting, because for so long it’s all been about bigger and better. And finally fair trade has become a priority. All outdoor gear—right down to sporks—is being examined from a supply chain perspective.”
Kenny notes that more companies are manufacturing in the US these days. “Every sock brand at Winthrop Mountain Sports is made in the US,” she says. Kenny also highlights local manufacturers, such as BCS Livestock, which offers a line of wool hats at Winthrop Mountain Sports and Goat’s Beard. After shearing their Targhee sheep, BCS owners Skip Smith and Betsy Devin-Smith haul the wool to Wyoming in a U-Haul trailer, where it is spun into yarn. Artisan manufacturers in Colorado knit the wool into warm, breathable, soft and cozy fleece-lined hats, and then ship them back to Winthrop, where Twisp-produced labels are attached before hitting the shelves at retailers.
“Customers are interested in the supply side of retail,” Kenny says, “and local products hold a huge appeal.” Especially, she might add, when consumers can drive past a company’s location and see manufacturing in action—like the BCS Livestock farm just west of Winthrop on Hwy 20, where the lambs are busy making the wool for next year’s hats.
Head for the hills
Ready to make the mountains your home, even if only for a day? Make sure you have proper permits, passes, and parking information for your desired destination.
DAY HIKES (one-way miles from shortest to longest)
Slate Peak: The ¼ -mile hike to Slate Peak gets you up to 7400’ elevation and provides a glimpse into the rich mining history of the area around the turn of the 20th century. Drive to the end of the Harts Pass road (which can often be quite rough) and hike from the gate.
Falls Creek: Another short hike to a stunning view is the ¼-mile walk to Falls Creek Falls, out the West Chewuch Road. Park at Falls Creek Trailhead.
Twisp Ponds: A 1-mile loop winds through restored riparian areas, native vegetation, interpretive signage, and several significant public art pieces. Park at the Twisp Ponds site just outside Twisp on Twisp River Road.
Rainy Lake: Hiking doesn’t get any easier than the 1-mile walk on a paved, level path with interpretive signs and resting benches, ending at a sparkling alpine lake. Park at the Rainy Pass Trailhead.
Tawlks-Foster Suspension Bridge: The flat 1-mile trail to the Suspension Bridge brings you to a picnic shelter and some interpretive signs by the river. Park at the Suspension Bridge Trailhead along Goat Creek Road in Mazama.
Lone Fir Loop: Kids love the 2-mile loop around Early Winters Creek at Lone Fir Campground. With its shady glades and fun bridges, the trail is interesting and surprising. Park at Lone Fir Campground.
Patterson Mountain: The 3-mile loop around Patterson Mountain is one of the first snow-free hikes in the valley and is lush with wildflowers in the late spring. Park at the state boat access on Patterson Lake Road.
Lake Ann: Lake Ann is just 1.9 miles from the parking area, but it gets you into what feels like the heart of the mountains—a sparkling lake in a granite cirque. Park at the Rainy Pass Trailhead.
Lookout Mountain: Lookout Mountain in Twisp loses its snow early, making it a favorite spring hike. Panoramic views and a historic wildfire lookout make this 2-mile hike a worthwhile one. From Twisp River Road, turn left on Rd 1605 and connect with Forest Service Rd 4400-200 to the parking area at the end.
Cutthroat Lake: Another alpine lake worth visiting is Cutthroat Lake, although it is marshier than Blue Lake or Lake Ann. The 2-mile trail into the lake is easy; moms have even been seen pushing baby joggers along it. Park at the Cutthroat Lake Trailhead.
Blue Lake: The 2.2-mile hike into Blue Lake has some elevation gain but rewards the hiker with the opportunity to dip in its turquoise waters. Park at the Blue Lake Trailhead.
Goat Peak: Goat Peak is popular for its panoramic views of the North Cascades but also for its staffed fire tower (one of only two remaining in the Methow Valley Ranger District) on the summit. The 2.5-mile hike is strenuous and is dry in the late summer. From Goat Creek Road, take Forest Rd #52, then #5225, and then to the end of #5225-200 to the parking area.
Maple Pass: The 7-mile Maple Pass loop is probably the most popular day hike in the area, and for good reason. The hike passes through old growth forests and subalpine hillsides before emerging into alpine meadows and a 360 degree view of the North Cascades from the summit ridge. Park at the Rainy Pass Trailhead. The Maple Pass hike has been severely over-crowded in recent summers, and is on most summer days the antithesis of a solitary backcountry experience.
Easy Pass: The 3.5-mile hike up Easy Pass is anything but, as you climb up 3000’ fairly relentlessly. Emerge into the talus above treeline and the views are breathtaking, as the trail criss-crosses an avalanche fan under the soaring peaks of Ragged Ridge before entering the larch-covered lush Easy Pass saddle. Park at the Easy Pass Trailhead.
OVERNIGHT TRIPS (one-way miles from shortest to longest)
Tiffany Lake: The 1-mile trail into Tiffany Lake brings you to a level campsite with swimming and exploration opportunities, with wildflower-carpeted Tiffany Mountain looming above. From the campsite you can travel more lightly on side trips to the saddle above the lake or to Tiffany’s summit. Park at the Tiffany Lake Trailhead. Directions are complicated; get a Forest Service map.
Windy Pass: The 3.5-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail to Windy Pass lacks significant elevation gain or loss, so you can travel through meadows and larch stands at a brisk clip before reaching your camping destination at the pass. Drive the Harts Pass Road almost to the end, parking in the small area that gives access to the PCT.
Black Lake: Hiking into Black Lake with a backpack is appealing due to its limited elevation gain and loss. In August, the 4.5-mile trail is lined with raspberries and blueberries as well. There are campsites on both ends of the lake. From the West Chewuch Rd, take Rd #51, the #5160-100 to the road end and trail #500.
Scatter Lake: Set in a spectacular bowl, Scatter Lake is hard-earned (almost 4000’ elevation gain in 4.5 miles) but worth the journey. Abernathy Peak looms above the lake, visible from the pleasant and abundant campsites. Drive Twisp River Rd to the Scatter Creek Trailhead.
Stehekin: Huh? Yes, that’s right, you can hike from the Methow Valley to this tiny boat-and-plane-access-only community at the end of Lake Chelan. The hike starts at Bridge Creek and drops you gradually into the confluence with the Stehekin River 18 miles later. From there you can take a National Park Service shuttle into Stehekin and either boat out to Chelan the next day if you’ve arranged a pickup, or turn around and hike back to your car at Bridge Creek via McAlester Pass. 2 campsites along the PCT provide the opportunity to break the 18-miles up into 2 days. Park at the Bridge Creek Trailhead.
Developed in the 1930s by The Mountaineers as a checklist for backcountry emergency preparedness, the Ten Essentials were ten individual items that few experienced wilderness travelers would consider leaving out of their backpacks. The jury is still out on the Ten Essentials regarding day hikes, especially those on familiar or well-marked trails in good weather. While most hikers agree that sunscreen is worth the weight, those trotting around Maple Pass in 3 hours would probably consider it overkill to carry a space blanket and a water filter (however, given the number of people populating that loop, there’s a good chance you’ll stumble upon a fellow hiker in need at some point).
When packing, you’ll need to make the decision for yourself, but consider the basic premise behind the Ten Essentials: you probably won’t use most of this stuff, but as soon as you need it, you’ll be glad you brought it.
Navigation: Learn how to read a topographic map before you hit the trail. Seriously. Ditto for your compass. Plus, a lot of compasses have mirrors in the lids, which you can use to admire your grubby face.
Sun protection: Sunscreen, sunglasses, sun hat—wear them every day.
Insulation: Bring more warm clothes than you think you’ll need; it’s colder in the mountains. Even on a sunny day hike it’s often nice to have a hat and puffy jacket for lunch on the summit.
Illumination: Even in the summer with 16 hours of daylight, you never know when you might have to hike out in the dark. Pack a headlamp or flashlight and make sure your batteries are new.
First Aid Kit: Outdoor stores sell well-stocked commercial kits, or visit REI’s website for an inventory list that will guide you through assembling your own.
Firestarter & matches: If for some reason you are spiraling toward hypothermia, and there are no other options for getting warm, you’ll have to light a fire. This should only be a last resort if there are no established fire rings. Heed all fire bans!
Repair kit & tools: Sometimes the ability to fix your stove or your pack makes the difference between comfort and misery.
Water & purification system: In John Muir’s day you could drink water straight from the stream. Not anymore—treat your water.
Extra food: Bring something high calorie, non-perishable, and unappealing, like stale energy bars in an unpopular flavor. You’ll have them if you need them, but you won’t be tempted to break them out for dessert one night.
Emergency shelter: If all goes well and you’re lucky, you won’t need your rain gear or space blanket, but better safe than sorry.