Trip Log: How I *Begrudgingly* Learned to Love Backpacking

Trip Log is a blog series where I rip a metaphorical page out of my trip journal and get a little personal. I’m answering your questions, sharing stories and voicing opinions about the great outdoors. You can subscribe to Trip Log by filling out the form below. Have a question? Send me a message.

It wasn’t the elevation gain that intimidated me, though 7200 ft over 25 miles isn’t for the faint of heart. No, what intimated me was the number of people who passed us while hiking in the opposite direction. Statements like “totally impassable” and “horrendous blowdown” were thrown around.

I’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge, however, so my group continued its trek to Cone Peak, one of the tallest peaks in the Ventana Wilderness at Big Sur.

Big Sur is known for a lot of things: zigzagging coastlines and crashing ocean waves, waterfalls and wildflowers. Most people stick to the stops along Highway 1, never straying too far from their vehicle or the shoreline. I prefer to go inland, to the Los Padres National Forest. Here, the redwoods stand tall and the Santa Lucia mountains block out the sound of vehicles.

The hike from Highway 1 to Cone Peak brought us through Vincente Camp, the most popular backpacking campground in Big Sur. Seeking a quieter atmosphere and a little Type 2 fun, we skipped over Vincente and continued onto Goat Camp, about 10 miles from the trailhead. It was in this section that we started hearing stories of how difficult the trail was.

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While we encountered some tricky (and very annoying) sections, nothing was particularly challenging. We continued our trek.

After camping at, what we later learned was not actually Goat Camp, we pushed on for a challenging second day. By this point, we were in so deep that the trail would have to get downright dangerous for me to turn around. Annoying, frustrating, infuriating – I will take any of these adjectives if it means I don’t have to accept defeat and turn around.

And as expected, the trail progressively got tougher and tougher. Forest fire damage covered sections of the trail, forcing us to go over, under and around massive, burnt-to-a-crisp trees. Lack of use meant the trail was difficult to follow and bushes had engulfed sections of the trails – we engaged in some good ol’ fashion bushwhacking. As challenging as the blowdown was, it never got dangerous so, as expected, we soldiered on.

Throughout this period, my biggest concern was not that we would get lost or someone would get injured – those were on my mind, of course, but I felt confident in my abilities as a pseudo trip leader to keep my friends safe. My biggest concern was that they were having a miserable time; it was Mika’s first backpacking trip ever and only Eva’s third. I’d grossly underestimated the difficulty of the trail.

Yet if they were cursing me under their breath, I never heard. (Reassurance came when, on the drive back, they eagerly asked me what trip I was planning for them next. I had not scared them from backpacking nor had I lost the only two friends I’d made since moving to California – success!)

But tramping up the side of a mountain that’s recovering from a forest fire isn’t an inherently fun activity. Type 2 fun requires some kind of reward, otherwise, it’s just masochistic.

And to our delight, it all was worth it when we reached the top of Cone Peak. We could see all the way out to the Pacific Ocean and the mountain ranges around us. After resting our legs and eating some snacks, we scurried down the peak to find somewhere to camp. As we speed-walked to our campsite, the sky exploded in a painter’s palette of reds and oranges, pinks and yellows.

The third and final day wasn’t too difficult, especially compared to the day prior. My mind drifted with each step and I thought about the people who had turned back, thankful my group had been eager to push through. While definitely a difficult trail, I had loved hiking it. I felt accomplished and strong and energized and ecstatic; I felt rewarded by the views and enjoyed the company of my team.

Even when I was being pushed, I absolutely loved backpacking.


How I Begrudgingly Learned to Love Backpacking

I didn’t always like backpacking. I grew up canoeing and I liked paddling because it wasn’t that hard. Sure, you could argue it’s monotonous and gets tiring after a few hours. But I never considered paddling to be physically demanding.

Unless I was portaging, that is. The canoe never rested nicely on my shoulders; it dug in sharply and made my fingers go numb. The other gear wasn’t much better. Canvas packs were awkward and lopsided; food barrels were infinitely heavy. Hiking rugged trails with a canoe over my head fell somewhere on the spectrum between uncomfortable and hell on earth.

So whenever I was asked about backpacking, my usual response was: “Why would anyone like backpacking… it’s just a never-ending portage.

I started with day hiking

Whenever I couldn’t paddle, I’d go hiking to get my nature fix. I only did day hikes and carried very little gear. As I grew my cardio for day hiking, I wanted to try longer hikes that got me to better viewpoints.

Living in New Zealand and British Columbia helped. Neither region has much of a canoeing culture, but they do have lots and lots of hiking trails. Many of those hiking trails are in the mountains and require a full day of hiking.

So over time, I got comfortable doing long day hikes.

I wanted to go to places I couldn’t reach in a single day

My research on hiking trails introduced me to backpacking trails. Some of them looked so incredible and I really wanted to be able to go far into the wilderness and camp where roads were nonexistent.

This led me to plan my first few backpacking trips. I decided the campsite and views would be enough of a reward to put myself through the actual backpacking. And the first few trips were tough.

I felt like I was literally carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. I’d need to take a break every 20 minutes. I got through the miles, but I didn’t enjoy it.

I cut down on my pack weight

Things started to change when I discovered ultralightweight backpacking. On some of those first few trips, I was carrying nearly 40 lbs! A lot of my gear was from canoe tripping (where weight and space are less of a consideration), so most of my gear was bulky and heavy. I carried way more clothing than I needed and way more food than I could consume.

So I adapted. I got a lighter tent and cut down on my clothing (full list of what I pack below). I replaced by liquid fuel stove and pot set (very heavy!) with an integrated stove system (very light!). I learned how much food I actually needed and got better at selecting my toiletries and camera gear.

I’m still not an ultralight backpacker (that’s defined as less than 10 lbs and still feels crazy to me!), but I am a lightweight backpacker (10-20 lbs).

But the weight isn’t the only thing I changed…

I got a backpack that fit me properly

I was browsing a random outdoor store in Vancouver when I came across a 36L Futura backpack from my favourite brand, Deuter, that was 50% off. I absolutely love my Deuter Futura 28L (my daypack), which fits my torso perfectly and is super comfortable to wear.

At that price, I bought the 36L backpack impulsively. This was one of the best decisions I made for my backpacking journey.

The backpack fits my body so well. And, after watching hours of Youtube videos and getting advice from REI experts, I’ve figured out how to adjust the straps such that the backpack fits perfectly. The weight is distributed to my hips efficiently, which makes carrying weight that much easier.

An added benefit to using a 36L backpack for your overnight trips… you need to be even more ruthless which what you do and don’t pack.

I practiced and practiced and practiced

Learning to be good at backpacking kind of sucks. I’m not going to sugarcoat it.

It’s like getting good at running; the more you run, the easier it gets. But in the beginning, running really sucks.

But I kept practicing. I did more and more hikes – a mix of short and fast, long and steep. I did more backpacking trips and pushed for longer distances and more aggressive elevation gains.

And somewhere along the way, I stopped noticing the weight of the backpack on my shoulders. I stopped disliking the inclines. Now, I still don’t love a steep section – but all of the negative parts of backpacking are now neutral, and all the positive parts are even better.

Despite disliking a lot of the journey (I had a lot of bad hikes and have sworn at a lot of trails), at some point I started to like it.

Now I love backpacking

I am now the kind of person that uses their precious weekends and vacation days exclusively for hiking. If I go longer than a couple of weeks without a trip I start to get impatient and cranky. (Just ask my two backpacking friends – at the time of writing, it’s been one month since I was on the trail and I’ve been super annoying lately. Thankfully I’ll be hitting the trail tomorrow!)

So what’s the takeaway here?

If you don’t like backpacking right now, that’s okay. If backpacking is hard right now, all good. If you spend half the trail saying to yourself “WTF did I sign up for?”, you are not alone.

But if you keep at it, backpacking will get easier. Focus on the goal ahead: conquering epic trails with comfort and confidence. If you keep that goal on the horizon and keep at it, you will find backpacking gets easier with every step you take.

Woman posing at the top of Mission Peak along the Ohlone Wilderness Trail
Smiling as I conquer my longest day of hiking yet: 19 miles in one day!

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MY FAVOURITE GEAR

Fleece Sweater

Down Jacket

Hiking Boots

Hiking Shirt

Back Pack

Hiking Pants

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