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? 

Lighten Your Load / Trash compactor bag vs. Rain cover

First, apologies for my long pause of #100daysofwilderness. I went on a trip to the Bay Area and then spent the last week processing a decision not to go on a reality TV show. It was kind of emotional! Excuses excuses...really I just lost motivation this past week, but I'm back now! 

Okay, so I'm all about shaving ounces and tenths of ounces off my pack weight, so let me share why I'm a 99% trash compactor bag lady convert (that doesn't roll off the tongue very easily). This information is great for beginners so you don't waste money on a rain cover when you can use a trash bag!

Below is my REI rain cover (4.2oz) versus my trash compactor bag (2.3oz). That's a 1.9oz difference!

First, definitions.
Rain cover - A cover that goes over your backpack to protect it and the contents inside, from rain (or other moist elements).
Trash compactor bag (TCB)- A plastic bag that tends to be thicker and more durable than a traditional trash bag, hence less chances of leaks/rips/tears.

If you dig around on ultralight/lightweight sites, you'll notice many people recommending trash compactor bags instead of buying a rain cover. Have you noticed that yet? Well, when I first saw that suggestion, I was like..."Eh, I don't want to get the outside of my pack to get wet....everything's going to be messy in my pack....I don't believe in wasting plastic bags....etc." Really, what I thought was that it just looked cooler and more official to have a logo-ed rain cover. I admit, it was a bit naive of me to think but hey, it was what it was!

Why I'm 99% converted
Trash compactor bags are awesome because of the durability, weight, and effectiveness. It's compact and slides in nicely into your pack and does it's job. After you insert it, just roll it up on top and everything inside it will stay dry, granted you don't open it wide open in the rain. There are things about a rain cover that I'll miss, like the fact that it covers my entire pack, not just the core of it, or how I can access the bottom of my pack with the zipper. (But why would I need to access my sleeping bag during a rainy hike anyway?)

Why I'm hesitating that 1%
With the way my pack is designed, the TCB only protects the stuff in the main compartment of my pack. What about the contents of my brain (that's the top large pocket that usually flaps over, not my literal brain)? You can mitigate that issue by carrying an ultralight umbrella, keeping brain contents inside a large freezer ziploc bag, or getting a backpack that only has a one main compartment. 


Would you try this? Why or why not? 

Pooping in the Woods / What's your poop kit look like?

Okay, a couple days late, but here's Day 7: A QUICKIE ON POOPING IN THE WOODS.

I'll be frank here, I (really) dislike pooping while squatting over a small hole, when my nose is closer to my poop than it ever would be if i were sitting on a toilet. This process is both fascinating and gross, but mostly gross. I don't like it. Period. Did I mention I don't like it? 

With that said, I've accepted it as an essential part of my wilderness journey. So why not talk about how to do it effectively. The Pacific Crest Trail Association's WILD page does a great job of explaining it too, but here's my take:


  • Trowel (0.6oz, one of the lightest ones out there!)
  • Toilet paper
  • Soiled TP Bag (STP Bag)
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Bag to hold all of the above
  • Total weight: 1.9oz


  1. Dig a cat hole about 6-8" deep.
    • TIP: If you are the type who has to go as soon as you wake up, then make sure you dig your cat hole the night before. When there's urgency, you're cat hole will likely be too shallow because you'll say, "Ahhh, this is good enough!" Well, it's probably not. So plan ahead!
  2. Get your STP Bag open and ready for the next TP deposit
  3. Squat down to take care of business. Make sure to aim into your your cat hole.
  4. Get some TP ready, think about application so you're utilizing all of it. No big wads and wasting here!
    • TIP: Use a smooth rock to do a big first wipe to conserve TP, then use just a couple squares to do the finishing wipes. Toss the rock in your cat hole. 
  5. Carefully fold the dirty TP in on itself to cover up your poopy TP and place inside your STP Bag. (Your quads should be burning right about now!)
  6. Quick, pull up your undies and pants. 
  7. Remove air and seal up your STP Bag.
  8. Give your poop a swirl with some dirt (to help with decomposition), fill your cat hole all the way and do your best to return the earth the way you found it. 


  • Do not bury your TP. Not cool. 
  • Make sure you dig at least 6-8" deep. If you know you usually have a big load, dig deeper and wider. 
  • Don't just poop on the ground and roll a rock on top of it. That's straight irresponsible.
  • Be at least 200' from water, campground, and trail. The further away, the better. 

TIP: Add some baking soda to your STP bag for odor protection. Want more odor control? Add a half drop of essential oil and rub it on the inside of the bag.

What's in your poop kit? Do you have any fun tips or tricks you've developed for pooping in the woods? Please share them in the comments!

*Disclaimer: I received the trowel mentioned in this post for free, to try out and review. I'll be providing a closer look at how well it digs in a follow-up post.

Have You Ever... Learned How to Read a Topo Map?

This is part two of our interview with Amelia Hagen-Dillon of Cairn Cartographers. If you missed part one, it's worth checking out. So I thought it would behoove us non-cartographers to learn some basic skills to help us understand maps. And while we're at it, play a little trivia! Keep track of your answers and submit them in a comment below.

Let's get started! For those who might not know what "Topo" means, let's start with some basics before jumping into the interview with Amelia. 

What is a topo map?
Wikipedia defines a topographic map as "a detailed and accurate graphic representation of cultural and natural features in the ground." Um, so in lay(wo)man's terms, it's basically a map that gives enough information to help us get a sense of the terrain of the mapped area. A topo map is the next best option to having a 3D pop-up replica in our pocket, The type of graphics used (like contour lines and shaded/darker regions) tell us if an area is steep, has rolling hills, deep canyons, etc.

TRIVIA QUESTION 1: Which one is the topo map? The image on the left or the right?

How do you pronounce "topo?"
I've heard people say it like "toe-po" or "tah-po."

TRIVIA QUESTION 2: What do you think is the correct pronunciation for "topo?" 

Okay Amelia, pretend I'm an alien on Earth and I've never seen a topo map. Will you walk me through all of the major characteristics I should understand about how it works?
At the most basic level, a map is an abstract representation of a landscape. I think of maps in two ways: 1) as a way of depicting a landscape on a scale we can wrap our brains around and 2) a way of putting one’s immediate surroundings into the context of a bigger picture.

The most basic components of a map are the scale and the orientation. The orientation just means which way is which. For most maps, including ours, this means north is at the top of the page. This is usually shown with a compass rose. One important thing to notice is the declination. Without being too long winded, declination is the difference between true north and magnetic north, it depends on location and changes over time so most maps will have the current declination for the given area in the compass rose. You can read more about declination here.


The scale is a way of determining how the map compares to the actual landscape. You’ll often see this as a number. 1:24,000 for example is the scale of the old USGS quads which means one inch (or mile, or foot or yard or meter or kilometer) on the map is equal to 24,000 of the same unit in the actual landscape. Scale is also usually given with a scale bar which shows how much a familiar distance would cover on the map. For example, a map with a scale of 1:63,360 one inch on the map is equal to one mile on the landscape.

What do you think is the most important information I need to understand, in order to
read a map?

The most important information on a map really depends of what the map is for. There needs to be something that the viewer can recognize as familiar so they can put things in context. On a map of an urban area this might be major road networks or familiar landmarks. For a map of the wilderness, it’s topography, vegetation and water (in the form of streams, rivers and lakes).

In the image below, there are many creeks all over the map. Do you think any of those are rivers? Well, rivers tend to be indicated with a thicker line than the ones used to indicate creeks below. Also, none of these are labeled as a river; they are all labeled as creeks. 

When I’m making a map, I think about what is going to be obvious to a person looking around them at the landscape, and then I try to convey that information on the map. Topography is probably the biggest thing that can be shown with contours, shaded relief or both. We use both on our maps. As a result, we get a lot of people telling us our maps actually look like the landscape, so it’s easier for them to read than a map with contours alone.


Another big one is vegetation. The green and white/gray in the background on our maps shows forested and non forested areas. It’s based on the data from the old USGS quads but we update it because it can be helpful to see big meadows or avalanche chutes and figure out where you are using them. We use the most detailed hydrography data we can get and we update the biggest rivers using the most recent aerial images to make it as accurate as possible.

If I'm lost on the trail, how would I use my map to figure out where I am?
The first thing I do is look for a landmark around me. This might be a bend in the river that I can see or a spot where the trail is right next to the creek, or maybe a long flat section on a ridge. Anything I can notice about where I am and then I imagine how that would look on my map. Then I orient the map and try and locate the landmark on the map. Here’s the thing: our brains don’t like to admit they are wrong. If you think you’ve been heading down one ridge your brain will try to convince you the map matches the landscape even if it doesn’t. This is why GPS can be great tools. Even the most basic GPS will give you your coordinates and you can locate yourself on the map with those.

In the image below, you can see correlating landmarks on the map and the photo. By identifying a landmark like Haystack Butte, you can then identify Elk Creek drainage and road.

TRIVIA QUESTION 3: Where was this photo taken from? A, B, or C? (Extra credit: How do you know?)

What should I look out for that indicates a trail is difficult?
This depends on what you think makes a trail difficult! If long steep climbs intimidate you than trails that cross a lot of contours or are in the darker shaded parts of a map are probably going to be steeper. Personally, I think the hardest trails are the ones that aren’t frequently maintained and are hard to follow. It can take so much mental energy to be constantly searching for the trail or climbing over downed logs. On our maps, we symbolize trails by class, so more frequently maintained trails are a different color than trails that might be hard to follow so people can have an idea of what to expect as far as trail conditions go.

What are maps useful for?
I think maps are most useful for planning a trip when you need to be able to see a large area all on one page and a GPS or computer screen isn’t big enough. I also love having a map when I reach a high point or somewhere with a big view and I want to be able to identify landmarks in the landscape around me.

Do we still need maps if we have GPS? 
When I tell people I make maps, often their first response is, “Aren’t maps being replaced by GPS?” You can read a whole blog post about how I think maps and GPS are both important tools, here.

Why is a map important to have in the wilderness?
The fact that a map can’t run out of batteries or break is always a big plus! If you need to figure out where you are or how to get to where you want to go, a map and the skills to read it will help. For me, I really love to know where I am in context of a larger landscape. A map is the best tool to help me understand that.


I hope this interview provided you a basic understanding of maps. Here are two final trivia questions:

TRIVIA QUESTION 4: Where did Amelia meet her partner Jaime?

TRIVIA QUESTION 5: How many times does Amelia mention the word "context?" In what context?  ;-)

Submit your FIVE trivia answers in the comments below FOR A CHANCE TO WIN A CAIRN CARTO MAP OF YOUR CHOICE!

  • Include your full name, email address & your answers in your comment below.
  • Submit your answers by March 5, 2015

UPDATED on 3/5/15:

1. The map on the RIGHT
2. The pronunciation of "topo" depends on where you're from. No wrong answer!
3. C
4. In Yellowstone, during a summer internship
5. Three. The word "context" is mentioned in reference to a larger landscape.

Samuel Mandell! You get to choose a map from Cairn Cartographics' collection! (I'm glad we live together because we can share. Yay!)


Gear Checklist

When I'm preparing for a trip, I have to go through my gear many times to make sure I packed everything. The checklist below is where I've landed for optimizing simplicity without compromising all of my comfort.

Below are gear checklists you can print and use as you prepare for your trip.

Here are four options: Glacier, Map, Fall, & Printer-Friendly.


Is there anything you'd add or delete on this list?