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.  


Chanell's Story / One black woman's journey into backpacking


Disclaimer:  I (Chanell here) share this post as my own opinion on blacks and their relationship to the outdoors. I am not a spokesperson for an entire race and cultures so please do not take these posts as truth for all blacks. These are my own personal musings, based on my father’s stories, family history, and a very quick Google search. :) 

Initially when I imagined writing this blog post, I thought maybe it would lead to breaking the stereotype around black people and hiking. It would go something like this: Black people don’t hike. After working all day – the last thing I’d want to do is sling on a backpack and traverse through (potentially) difficult terrain to then sleep on a hard ground.

Then I imagined I’d share a bit about knowledge and access: there aren’t any commercials for the National Parks and it can be difficult for communities of color to access far-flung destinations like National Parks or other camping grounds. That didn’t feel right to me either.

What did feel right begins with a percentage.

11 percent, to be exact.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, that is the number of blacks in 2013 who participated in outdoor activities such as backpacking. I don’t think anyone is surprised by that number. I certainly am not. Despite changing demographics in United States, where people of color either are or are projected to be the majority in a number of states, 70 percent of the people engaging in outdoor activities are white. As a black woman, I keep asking myself this question: Why is this reality?

Backpacking – especially if you have kids – is a great way to respect our environment, appreciate its beauty and power, learn how to survive, and is far cheaper than Disneyland. And yet, my parents never took me backpacking or camping. So I thought about my father and his childhood stories, specifically the ones that related to nature.

As a child, my dad spent his days picking cotton and fruits in the fields. It was back-breaking labor that lasted for hours, but it had to be done. My grandmother was a single mom with four children in the 60s; she needed every penny she could get. His experiences in the outdoors were not spent reveling at the nature around him; it was spent soaking in sweat, laboring in a field, and being exhausted by the end of the day. My ancestors experienced a similar fate: foraging and tracking through the wilderness wasn’t a trip filled with beauty and wonder, it was life or death. I think about Little House on the Prairie (which I love!) and contrast that with my ancestors’ reality. Or I think about John Muir, the father of National Parks, who was preserving the National Parks while my family was suffering under segregation and Jim Crow laws.

The reality is that from my dad all the way to my ancestors, no one had the privilege or access to enjoy the outdoors. The outdoors was either about labor or survival, not recreation. This is the history of slavery is what shapes my relationship to the outdoors. Historically, the outdoors has not been a space of recreation for blacks. And whether it was conscious or not, that’s how I internalized (and externalized) my relationship with the outdoors. 

For a number of years now, I’ve been working hard on a policy level to save our environment. I’ve promoted equity, public health, conservation, and sustainability in our land use and transportation planning. I've been preaching and acting on the conviction that this integration is what we need to do if we want to survive as a society. This work, however, has made me much more critical of my own relationship with the environment and of the (potential) dissonance between myself and others who are not black. 

Let me unpack that. I find that most whites are surprised that I’m not an avid camper or backpacker, considering the kind of environmental policy work I do. For them, saving the environment goes hand-in-hand with enjoying the outdoors. So the fact that I don't see the outdoors as a place of recreation or that kind of enjoyment, can cause quite a face contortion. 

As I reflect on this topic, I’m realizing that our history is complicated when it comes to the topic of people of color in the outdoors. The conversation runs deeper than "urban versus rural" or “black people don’t do this kind of thing” stereotypes - (good thing, because I’m sick of that anyway!). This conversation ignites the organizer in me and I can't help but reimagine policy changes, asking how we increase not only knowledge, but participation of people of color in our National Parks. Is it changing the mediums we use – do we need more commercials that highlight how much fun (and cheap) visiting National Parks can be? Is it by promoting and creating spaces like Outdoor Afro

But this post – this journey, my journey – isn’t about me organizing for anyone or for any policy. It’s about me exploring me before, during, and after my own backpacking trip. To be honest, I don’t have any answers. This trip, to my surprise, has become much bigger than my original goal. Empowerment, space, beauty, and breathing – yes, these are all reasons I want to go - but now, I feel like there’s an opportunity to connect with something much larger and deeper than myself. I’m not sure what that is, but I’m excited to figure it out. 

Thanks for following my journey. It's exciting for me to have a space and reason to share. Stay tuned for more on my practical steps to get on the trail.


P.S. I’m assigning myself some required reading: Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the
Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors
. I found it googling around and now I want to read this on my trip! Well, that is, if it doesn't weight too much to carry. Note: Buying the book using the link above helps supports the work that Liz is doing with Snowqueen & Scout. 

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? 

Chanell's Story / Starting at "I want to go backpacking"


I reconnected with a college friend recently and while gabbing on about what we're up to now, she said she wanted to go on her first backpacking trip...and go solo! I squealed internally and then we decided that we'd do this together: I'll give her info and guidance and she'll follow them. Basically I'm going to be her private backpacking tutor, if you will. 

I want to see if I can give Chanell the guidance she needs to get on the trail and we'll learn together about all the questions and barriers a complete newbie has to overcome to get from "I want to go" to "I can't believe I'm here!"

She'll be guest posting about her progress every other week(ish), so I hope you follow along! Here she is... #GoChanellGo



Hi Snowqueen & Scout Community!

My name is Chanell and I want to backpack in the wilderness. 

*Whew* That’s something that I've never shared publicly. Ever.

I know a lot of friends – and family – who would be surprised, even incredulous at that statement. And I completely understand. Over the years, I’ve watched friends journey into the wilderness and I've found myself looking at them skeptically too.

But recently I've found myself wanting to do something similar. OK, before I get ahead of myself, let me start from the beginning because some background will help give context…

Over the years, I’ve used many adjectives (and some nouns) to describe myself. Today, at age thirty-two, the most consistent ones seem to be: quirky, idealistic, spontaneous, and thoughtful. Also, African-American. I want you to know that I identify as a woman of color. [Note: Chanell will be writing sharing more about this topic of being a Black woman and what that means for being in the wilderness in an upcoming blog post. Stay tuned!]  I’m a military brat by birth. I was born in Fort Gordon, Georgia and moved around the mid-west until I was ten. But I’ve been in Northern California for twenty-two years so I’m officially claiming “Californian."

It's safe to say that as a child, my family was definitely NOT into the outdoors. We didn’t go camping or hiking. While we spent a lot of time in the county (rural Mississippi to be exact) and went on a good amount of cross-county road trips, we weren’t the type of family that was going to pitch a tent and hike around the mountains. In fact, there was a healthy (or strong?) fear of the wildness. It was bit like, "Why would you go walk around bear country and wonder why the bear ate you?" kind of mentality. The logic was basically: the bears and ticks and God knows what else could have the wilderness, we’ll take the roads and streets and suburban tract homes. And I was A-Okay with this logic.

Even when I attended the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2001 – which was literally living in the redwoods – I had NO desire to explore anything. In fact, I spent a good amount of time complaining about how many hills and trees and (fear of) mountain lions I had to deal with just to get to class. I had a number of friends who couldn’t stop talking about the natural beauty of Santa Cruz and offered to take me on hikes through the campus. I remember thinking, "Hmm, do I want to hike through God knows what or take the asphalt path to the coffee shop?" For me, it was a no-brainer! Coffee shop wins every time! After Santa Cruz, I moved to very urban places filled with transit, buildings, and concrete. That was an intentional decision: I didn’t want to live in suburbia but I didn’t want the rustic lifestyle either.

Fast forward – right around 2007 – my life was pretty difficult. I was living in San Jose but I felt so confined by my profession, my (perceived lack of) choices, and the tension between how people saw me versus who I wanted to be. I remember the tears and pain around being silenced, not being supported, and not being able to find my true self in my current situation. An old friend invited me to North Lake Tahoe in the midst of this difficult time and I happily accepted.

In my ten years of living in Northern California, I had only been to Tahoe once. And it was an extremely short trip in the middle of summer. So when I drove up this time, I took my time. I wanted to experience something different from my current life and Tahoe exceeded my expectations! It was winter and the landscape was stunning. I was driving in snowstorm and I remember feeling such excitement at seeing Mother Nature at work. I remember pulling over and walking through the storm. I felt such childlike delight at the flurries, the blinding whiteness, and the rough bark of the trees. For the first time, I could breathe. I felt free.

My friend lived a very rustic lifestyle and for the weekend, and I was a part of that lifestyle. When the weekend ended, I told my friend I wish I could stay up here. But I didn’t. I went back to my life in San Jose. I know that trip sparked something inside of me: a deep appreciation for nature – in its many forms – and a strong sense of wanting to live my life in a way where I felt free.

Eight years later, I’ve made a lot of strides to becoming who I want to be, who I am meant to be, and - most importantly – who I feel called to be. But life is a journey and things don’t happen overnight. As I get older, I am more and more humbled by that knowledge. As I stay on this path for my own journey, I am embracing the knowledge that I want to spend more time in nature.


Over the years, I’ve seen friends do the John Muir Trail (JMT) and felt an urge within me to do something similar. I’m looking for a transformational experience within myself. When I was in Tahoe in 2007, I was on my own for parts of it and I was free from the distractions of my life to really grapple with my sadness, my frustration, and my heart.

I’ve found Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart to be magical in its teaching. It is a religious text but the knowledge (at least in my mind) is universal. He states, “Solitude is the furnace of transformation.” And that’s what I’m ready to experience on my first backpacking trip in the wilderness.

I hear the call for me to be in the wilderness, to release myself from distractions, to appreciate the simplicity and beauty, and to see myself for who I was, who I am and who I want to be.

But in the midst of this call, I’m realizing I have no idea where to begin!

These are my top five questions on my mind as I think about my first solo backpacking trip:
    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?


Part of what I admire about Chanell's story is her background. Having not spent much time outdoors or even desired to, I love how she's walking towards this new challenge. 

What do you resonate with about Chanell's story? I'd love for you to share your thoughts! #GoChanellGo