Chanell's Story / You've answered my questions, and now what?

This is an ongoing series on chanell, a black woman who's documenting her journey of going on her very first backpacking trip. If you're joining now, you can start here

Thank you Liz for all the answers to my questions! I don’t know why I didn’t think about bears, especially because I did watch Grizzly Man. It must be due to the fact that I’m assuming all the places I want to travel too are bear-free. I guess I’ll see if that’s true!

First, that gear check list is super organized but feels a bit overwhelming. I don’t have most of the things on that list. Right now I’m thinking, how much of this list do I absolutely need to purchase? Luckily, I have a number of friends into camping and backpacking so I think the “sleep system” will be the easiest thing on my list.

My initial question is, "What about the gear checklist is overwhelming?" Is it because you don't have most of the stuff on the list or you don't know what it is or something else? If it's you don't own most of the stuff, I've created a pared down version of the essentials I think a beginner needs on their very first backpacking trip. Keep in mind that you don't need to take all these things if there are amenities available to you. For example, you might not need an extra bag for soiled toilet paper if there are pit toilets. (Phew!) Research beforehand is key. 

Second, I’ve always wanted to explore Big Sur. I think I went once in college for what turned out to be a very uncomfortable camping trip. My tent was set up on top of twenty million rocks, so I didn’t get a good night’s sleep for two nights! The outhouses were super gross (to me) so I ran in, held breath, and peed as quickly as possible. And I didn’t want to hike so I just hung out around the camping area (and missed out on the waterfall and swimming hole)! Other than the great people, the trip was pretty dismal. Since then, I’ve driven to Big Sur a couple of times and have been astounded by its beauty and proximity to the water. I’d love the opportunity to be in that space for a couple of days. While I’m not attached to Big Sur (I’d certainly consider other places near bodies of water) I’d want an easy hike for my first time around though, nothing to crazy.

Having a bad camping experience sucks! I know what that's like so I'm sorry you had that experience. But it sounds like it hasn't completely deterred you from wanting to go again. (Awesome!) And it also sounds like you really want to be near water. Is that the ocean more specifically? Or does a river or lake work too? 

Big Sur is awesome for sure. I'm thinking it might be kind of fun for you to go to Sykes Hot Springs, but it'll be about 10 miles in and 10 out which could be a challenge depending on your fitness level. Unfortunately, it's gotten really crowded especially on the weekends. The other option that might be awesome is going to Point Reyes - one of my favorite places on earth! There's a fairly easy backpacking trip you that'll lead you close to the ocean. I just searched and it looks like there's availability in the next month. [Search: Coast Campground, "Walk to"]. I've stayed at campsite #1 and it was a bit exposed, but I liked that it was centrally located. I would go with sites 1, 2, or 3. 

I did like the plug for free gear (which I’m pretty sure I can also borrow from some friends) but again, I’m wondering: do I need to buy everything under pack essentials? Do I need a stove? I’d like to do this trip solo or with one other person so I don’t want to overburden myself.

You don't need to buy everything under pack essentials. The gear checklist is a pretty thorough list of stuff I take on almost every trip. Check out the pared down list here. As for the stove, it totally depends on if you want hot food. So for example, if you want hot coffee in the morning or a warm meal at the end of the day, you'll want a stove. If not, you can eat dry/cold foods and be perfectly fine. If it's an overnight and you don't want to carry a stove, I say go simple and eat no-cook food. I can make some suggestions for food for an overnighter when we get there.

Next question: I’m leaning towards Big Sur (but I also plan on doing some research for other parks near large bodies of water). I’m hoping to carve out a weekend in mid November. Once I have a place in mind and a general time I want to go, what do I do next?

After you have a time and location, I would recommend thinking about how many days you're going to go and how many miles you think you'll want to hike per day. If you're thinking 5 miles or so, it will put some parameters on what trails to take and what you'll be able to see. You can start by searching sites like The Outbound, EveryTrail, or even just googling "backpacking in _______". Honestly it might confuse the heck out of you - it confuses me every time I look for backpacking trips! But when you find a trail that meets your criteria, you need to: 
  1. Find the ranger's # for the area you want to go to
  2. Look into permits and secure them
  3. Nail down dates to go
  4. Get a sense of the weather to prepare accordingly (ask the ranger when you secure a permit)
  5. Finish getting the rest of your gear
  6. Think about what you'll wear and wear it on practice hikes
  7. Practice hiking with your pack partially loaded so you can work out kinks

Once you've decided on your location and route, let's take it from there! You have about a month before you have to go, and that can go by real fast. Love that I get to work with you through this Chanell! I admire your will and determination to forget something new for yourself.  


Hygiene / Backcountry Dental Hygiene

Have you heard yourself say, "Ehh, I'll just skip brushing my teeth tonight. I'm too tired and I feel so dirty anyway...what's skipping one night gonna do?"

Ha! I've said that a hundred times! (Ok, I exaggerate.)

Even if you might be feeling dirty from a good ole day's hike, I believe dental hygiene (hygiene in general) is important in keeping up your mental game. I really think it's the little things that extend mental longevity in the wilderness. Anyway, I love feeling clean at the end of a physically demanding day. (Who doesn't like that feeling of stepping out of the shower after getting filthy?) It's wonderful! But more importantly, being clean helps me sleep better and feel refreshed at the start of a new day. It's not just about being OCD with cleanliness, it's really about having a long-term strategy to help me keep going so I can stay out longer in the wilderness. 

All that to say, one piece of floss and some easy teeth brushing skills can help your mental game, not to mention your breath.


1. Floss your teeth.
If anything, flossing is the least you can do. It's SO good for your dental hygiene!

2. Dab just a tiny bit of natural toothpaste on your kid-size toothbrush.
You don't need a lot of toothpaste. It suds too much and it gets messy if you use a lot. Instead, try just a dash just to get that minty fresh feeling without frothing all over (which means more clean-up).
TIP: Baking soda is also a great natural option!

3. Add a tiny splash of water and brush like normal.
I have my water bottle with me (with potable water) and I put the tiniest bit of water in my mouth before I start brushing. (This is my equivalent to getting my toothbrush/paste wet under the faucet when I'm at home.) Then I brush brush brush. I have a small toothbrush, so it takes a little more effort.

4. Add a little more water in my mouth, swish, and spit. 
Spit into a cathole or have you ever tried the spitting method where you create a really fine mist? (If you have no idea what I'm talking about, I really need to make a video!)

5. Final rinse.
One more mouth rinse and toothbrush rinse and voila! Minty fresh....Ahhhhhh! Time for bed. 

This is my entire hygiene kit I used for a 9-day trip. From L to R: Sunblock, toothpaste, lotion, Diva cup, tweezers, comb, kid toothbrush, floss, all-purpose castille soap, small piece of broken mirror. I had too much toothpaste, castille soap, and sunblock. I could've lightened my load even more. (And the lotion was gold!) Total weight: 4.5oz


Buy: Kid-size Preserve Toothbrush
Buy: All-natural Tom's of Maine Toothpaste
Buy: Oral-B Glide Deep Mint Floss


*All purchases made with these affiliate links support Snowqueen & Scout. Thanks!

Pooping in the Woods / How to dig a proper cat hole


When I first started backpacking, I remember I'd dig a hole for my poop (aka: cat hole) that was just barely deep enough. I felt so EwwWwbbBBLAAaahh having to poo outside, I'd want to take care of business and get out of there as quickly as possible. So I'd put a rock over my not-deep-enough cat hole, dust my hands off, and walk away quickly. No one ever showed me what a good cat hole should look like, so I didn't really know. But if my guilty conscious is indicative of anything, I think I always knew I wasn't really doing my best to protect the environment. I'm sorry Sierras! I'm sorry Glacier! I'm sorry!!!

Let's all bury our poop properly so we can preserve the wilderness for the folks coming after us next weekend, next year, in the next 100 years...Agreed? 


I already covered what you should have in your poop kit and how to poop in the woods, but I wanted to demonstrate what a good looking cat hole should look like. Here's one I dug recently in a really rocky area.  It was super annoying because I kept hitting rocks, so it took me about 10 minutes to dig this one. (That's a lot of minutes if you need to poo baaaaaad. Plan ahead if you're the type that needs to GO when you need to GO.)

TIP: I dig my hole the night before because I usually wake up and have to poo immediately. 


  1. Seriously, look for a spot where someone won't spot you pooping. No one needs to see that. It should be at least 200 feet away from three important things: water sources, your tent, and the trail. (200 feet = ~70 steps)
  2. Dig a hole about 6-8" deep and at least 4" wide. You don't want it to overflow. Ew.
  3. Take your business call. 
  4. Put some dirt back in and stir it up with the poop. It'll help with the decomposition.
  5. Fill the rest of your cat hole with the dirt and try to put it back the way you found it. Make it a game: see if you can make it look like there isn't a pile of shit underneath. That is the gold standard!

*Don't forget that the best thing you can do for the environment is to pack out your soiled toilet paper. Don't just drop it in the hole. #LeaveNoTrace

*The trowel pictured above is the Big Dig, by QiWiz ($36). I used to use a rock or stick, but it's more efficient to dig using a trowel. Another one at the same weight but cheaper is the Deuce ($19.99). I haven't tried it, so I can't tell you if it works well. One other alternative is to use a tent stake to dig your hole. It's not as efficient, but it'll save you 0.6oz and one more thing to think organize. Up to you!


I've written about some pretty awesome toilet views, but more often than not we'll have to dig our own cat hole behind some trees. Cat hole views can vary widely, but I thought I'd share my most recent one. This photo was taken while I was in the squat position over my cat hole. The silver lining of having to squat and poo is that I get to enjoy this while I'm at it. Not too shabby huh? 


FYI, The First 40 Miles Podcast just posted a fantastic toilet episode worth listening to with good advice and a helpful review on the two trowels I mentioned earlier. 

I hope this is helpful to you! If it was, please share the love. 

Chanell's Story / What comes after "I want to go backpacking"?


If you've never been backpacking and you want to go, what comes after saying, "I want to go backpacking"?

If you missed Chanell's intro story, you'll want to take a read. She asked some great questions that are on the forefront of her mind after publicly announcing that she wants to go on her first ever backpacking trip. To recap, here are her top five initial questions:

  1. What do I need?
  2. How do I find where I want to go? 
  3. Where do I get what I need at a reasonable price? 
  4. What am I missing? 
  5. It can't be this simple - what else do I need to be asking? 

Most beginners have the same questions about what gear they need and where to go. (I'm surprised Chanell didn't have any questions about bears, but I'm sure those will creep up soon enough.) Let me dive in with my responses to these questions, and we'll see how helpful they are - or not. Do they make sense? Does it still leave her baffled? Does it help her get one step closer to standing on the trail? You all are invited to chime in too, in the comments below. 

1. What do I need?
Chanell, here's a general gear checklist. I use it to make sure I don't forget my essentials. It's written in the general because there are different considerations for different seasons, altitudes, location. You can use it as a guide to think about what you'll need for your trip. For the specific things I take, here's my gear list.

Depending on where you're going and the weather, you'll use that info to determine what clothes you'll need. I don't recommend buying anything until this aspect nailed down.


2. How do I find where I want to go?
This is a great question! Because there are so many choices, I think it would probably be helpful to  filter your options. Here are a few questions to consider:

  • Is there a place you've heard of that you'd like to explore? 
  • How far are you willing to drive? (E.g. 1-2 hours? Half day? Full day?)
  • How many days do you want to be backpacking? (Exclude travel time)
  • Do you want to see anything specific? A lake? Waterfall? Awesome mountaintop view?
  • What kind of backpacking would you like to do?
    • Fairly easy (1-5 miles, not a lot of ascent or descent)
    • A good challenge, but not too hard (4-7mi/day, more steep uphill and downhill)
    • Challenging (7+ miles/day with at least one pass - that means hiking up to the top of a mountain range)
    • Let's get it (You're game for 10+ miles, passes, etc.)

3. Where do I get what I need at a reasonable price? 
I just wrote a post about ways to find gear for cheap or even free here


4. What am I missing?
The first questions that pop into my mind when I'm thinking about a planning a backpacking trip are as follows:

  • When is the best time to go? Can I go then? 
  • What do I want from this trip?
  • What kind of a physical challenge am I looking for?
  • Am I equipped for this trip? If not, what do I need? 
  • Do I want to go solo or with people? If the latter, who? 
  • Where can I find more info and trail recommendations on the area? 
  • Which ranger station is the one that knows the most information about the area?

5. It can't be this simple - what else do I need to be asking?
There's plenty more to come as we get closer to your departure. Let's focus on question #2 and find you a place to go! 


What would you add? 

Gear / How to find backpacking gear for free (or cheap)

Before you decide to go buy a bunch of gear without having much backpacking experience, please take a moment to pause.

[Take a deep breath and relax. Feel the excitement in your body and let go of any anxiety you have about acquiring gear. Seriously, take one big deep breath now.

An alternative way of approaching your first backpacking trip.
We are bombarded with messages to buy buy buy. Our pervasive consumer culture permeates every aspect of the outdoors industry too. No surprise, just ironic. (I mean I even have ads and affiliate links on my lil ole site.) 

When you want to get into backpacking, it can feel particularly overwhelming to figure out what to buy. A visit to REI might leave you feeling depleted because of all of the options and the lack of knowledge to make the best decision. (I mean your life is on the line, isn't it? We're talking about your survival in the woods!) Naturally, each purchasing decision feels big. A sleeping bag suddenly isn't just about a sleeping bag, it's about your survival, your life. 

[Is it time for another deep breath?]

I want to offer another framework. Instead of thinking of your first backpacking trip as "a big survival adventure that requires a huge financial cost where you suddenly acquire a whole crap-ton of gear you may never use," consider it as an invitation to invest in one backpacking experience. Just one.

You will be okay. 
I want to acknowledge that there's a lot of fear around going backpacking. The thing that people will attest to being one of the most empowering experiences ("Wow, I can't believe I carried everything I need to survive on my back") can be the thing that causes the most concern ("What if I don't bring what I need to survive, or it's not enough?"). 

Those fears are normal. They lessen with experience, but they are very real. Be smart, listen to your gut, don't take foolish risks in the wilderness and study up before you head out. You will be okay. And trust me, you're thinking will change rather quickly. 

Buying gear is scary because it asks you to commit to something you don't know if you even like.
Even with generous return policies by many of the major companies, it still feels like a big commitment to buy a $300 tent, doesn't it? What if you don't even like backpacking after all? Or what if you do like backpacking, but the tent was difficult to set up and the zippers were loud (don't worry, all zippers are strangely loud!). Ugh, now you have to go return the used tent and worse, if the sales rep asks you if there was anything wrong with it, you have to come up with something to say. Well skip it. Get it out of your head and go straight to the next point. 

Don't buy any of the major pieces of gear. Borrowing from friends or renting is the way to go.
Ask your coworkers, your family, your friends if they've gone backpacking before. Do they have a backpack, sleeping bag, pad, and tent you can borrow? Ideally, find a backpack from another woman so it's sized a smidge better for you. If you can go light, try to seek out lighter backpacking gear too. You'll thank yourself for it later. 

If you don't know anyone at all, try renting gear. Here are some places to consider to rent gear for your first backpacking experience. 

When you borrow/rent, the gear won't feel just right or as comfortable and light as you'd like. That's normal since you won't even know what you like the first time around. Just pick one and go for it. It doesn't have to be the "right one." You'll learn what you like and don't like on the trip and those lessons are valuable. It's a 100% learning trip, so keep that in mind.

Go on your first trip, enjoy it, learn, and then decide if you want to go again. You might catch the backpacking bug (no pun intended). If you're not sure if it was your thing, borrow gear again and try it out a second time. Apply what you learned. You'll know when it's time to start purchasing gear when you find yourself wanting to go back again and again. (And how to purchase gear is a whole other blog post!)

Any questions? Know any other gear rental resources you'd recommend?