Firsts / Lisa's first backpacking trip as an adult!

I got a chance to reconnect with an old colleague during my last visit to the Bay Area. Meet Lisa. She is the Partnerships and Communications Assistant at HopeLab (my last workplace), she has two teenage kids, and holds a curiosity and vitality about life I find irresistible!

Lisa was buzzing with energy while telling me about her upcoming backpacking trip with her friend Liz (not me, another Liz). This would be her first one since she was just a young lass. Lisa showed me the new hiking shoes she was considering (in her favorite color, purple, of course) and gear she was borrowing, and we gabbed on and on about what she was hoping for during this trip.

Well she went on her first backpacking trip recently and told me all about it! I laughed out loud, squealed, and related to her stories and pictures. I hope her story inspires you to go on your first backpacking trip. (P.S. Look at how adorable she is in her dress + hiking shoes!)


Snowqueen & Scout: Tell us briefly about your background in backpacking.
Lisa: The last time I backpacked was about 28 years ago when I was 20! My very first trip was with the community center when I was in 3rd grade and I went a few times with my family while growing up too. 


For this most recent trip, where did you go, how many days were you gone, how many miles did you hike, and what did you see? 
We went to Emigrant Wilderness, north of Yosemite. We arrived late Thursday night and threw up the tent in a random spot near a fire road. We started hiking on Friday and finished around 6pm on Sunday. In three days, we hiked roughly 24 miles total (including the "Oh Shit" four-mile detour which I'll talk about later). 


You mentioned your hiking partner Liz when we chatted in a previous conversation. Tell us about how she was a partner to you both pre-trip and during your trip. 
After a group conversation about the movie “Wild,” Liz totally made our trip happen. I often say something sounds like a great idea, but don’t follow through with it. This would have absolutely been one of those things without Liz’s enthusiastic planning and follow up. She got input from one of our colleagues on the best places to go backpacking, researched it, got a map, determined our route, and called the ranger station to learn about permits and restrictions. The week of the trip she called the ranger station and made arrangements for our free permit to be left at a pick up spot since we would arrive after they closed.

During our planning phase she would check in with me and let me know what she was doing in terms of training and getting equipment together. That really motivated me to keep up and keep my own prep going!

During the trip she was a great partner because we kept a similar pace, had similar endurance and were on the same page about when to call it a day. We really had to work together to pick up the trail at certain points and to negotiate some of the stream crossings. She also had a lot of great ideas about food, equipment & hygiene that she shared. Liz created what I called the “Bidet Bottle.” I will totally try it on my next trip. It's a water bottle with a squirt top for cleansing yourself during bathroom stops. I thought it was brilliant!

Did you have any "OH SHIT" moments? What happened? 
We were fortunate that we didn’t have many of these at all. There are two that stand out. The first OH SHIT moment was after we left camp the first night. We missed the trailhead to Gem Lake and continued on a trail going to Wood Lake. Liz and I didn’t realized we were not on the right trail until we came to a river crossing and could not figure out where to go from there.

Up until then, there had been small stream crossings, but this was much bigger. We definitely did not want to cross it without knowing where to go on the other side. We didn't want to risk having to cross back if we couldn't pick up the trail, so we decided to backtrack. We finally ended up back at a familiar stream crossing. It was challenging for Liz to cross the first time so she wasn’t thrilled to go back across. But once we crossed the stream, we very quickly saw the trail marker we had missed. Not sure exactly how far that detour was, but it potentially added up to four miles to our total!

The second OH SHIT moment was when I stumbled and fell forward onto my knees. That wasn’t so bad, but the weight of my pack pushed me forward and I had to land on my right hand. I felt really powerless to stop the momentum and that was pretty scary. I was super lucky that I really didn’t scrape my knees or tear my pants. I came out of that fall with only a light scrape on my hand. 

What are two highlights and two lowlights you'd share with your closest friend? 
Highlights: I loved skinny dipping for the first time! I loved being naked outside in general!
Lowlights: My lady parts did not smell good by day two and I need to learn to dig a deeper hole for shitting in the woods. Also although Liz is not my closest friend, it was still fun talking about all of these things on our trip!

First breakfast on the trail. This picture doesn't do any justice.

First breakfast on the trail. This picture doesn't do any justice.

What would do differently next time? 
I would like to plan more time to stop and appreciate beautiful places and I would stop more frequently for small meal breaks. I would maybe play in the water more! And I definitely need to come up with a better hygiene plan as well. 

Was there anything you took that you'd definitely not take again? And conversely, is there anything you didn't take that you wish you had? 
I got such great advice on what to bring from Snowqueen & Scout and from a colleague who is crazy about backpacking so I don’t feel like I had anything that I didn’t need. The things I didn’t use are things that I think I couldn’t avoid bringing anyway (i.e. gloves, stuff to start a fire, a compass, most of my first aid stuff). I also brought sunglasses, two bobby pins and ear plugs I didn't use, but I would probably bring those again next time. I did have a small drinking cup that I left behind because it seemed unnecessary, but I'll take it next time. And did I already mention that I really want to try Liz’s idea of rinsing with water at potty breaks next time?! 

Describe those last steps out to the trailhead on Sunday night. What were you feeling? 
The last few miles Liz and I were both feeling sad that it was coming to an end. But by the time we were close to the trailhead, I started feeling better about the trip ending! When I saw the car, I knew there would be clean clothes and shower wipes available, and we would be on our way to a fast food meal! I was pretty excited about those things. 

But as we drove away from the trailhead, I felt a little sad again to be leaving the amazing quiet, peace and beauty. We drove with our windows down because we were already missing all the mountain fresh air. And although it was great to have no cell service on the trail, it was nice to be able to check in with our significant others after we finished.


Would you go backpacking again? If so, what about it draws you back? If not, why not? 
I will absolutely go again! I loved the beauty and serenity. I loved experiencing all kinds of conditions and environments and I loved pushing myself when I was tired or hot. I loved getting to a new beautiful location or seeing some new spectacular sight or view. I loved the simplicity of not really cooking or washing dishes, not having to choose what to wear each day, not having to wear makeup or worrying about my hair. I loved the freedom of not having too many choices and decisions to make, not being tied to my phone, and being totally self-sufficient.

We were just in our bodies, feeling them work and really only had to worry about basic needs – food, water and finding somewhere to sleep. It was exquisitely awesome!

In what ways are you a different Lisa now, than the Lisa before you went on your first backpacking trip?
I’m different in that I love backpacking and can’t wait to go again! I would even go on a short trip by myself. I NEVER thought I would have any interest in that. I had never been backpacking without a man in the group. Being single after a 22 year marriage, it feels good to have the confidence that I don’t “need a man” to do things with me, particularly something like go out into the wilderness. In the past when we'd car camp, I was always afraid of animals like mountain lions and bears. I liked knowing my husband would be there to help or protect me.

It turns out that I’m totally ok on my own! I wasn’t afraid and I didn’t spend any time worrying about it. There wasn’t anything we couldn’t handle on our own. Feeling confident, self-sufficient and empowered is a great thing.

Anything else you'd like to share? 
Thank you, Liz, for all the great info and inspiration on your blog and in person!

Aww, you're so welcome Lisa! Thanks for sharing your story with all the ladies out there who are new to backpacking. I so appreciate your candor and reflections and I can't wait to hear more stories of future backpacking trips! #GoLisaGo

Have You Ever... Talked to a Cartographer?

Image courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

Image courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

I had never spoken to a cartographer until just recently, when I sat down with Amelia Hagen-Dillon of Cairn Cartographics. I got to pick her brain about what life is like as a cartographer, and it was such a great opportunity to learn! Amelia was fascinating, and I wished I could bring all of you around the table to "listen in" on what she had to say.

Why? Because cartography is necessary in the world of wilderness backpacking. I don't leave home without a map when I'm on a journey, and yet, this essential tool can be overwhelming and difficult to understand. (You're not alone if you've ever felt that way.) So I want to first introduce you to Amelia, and next week, she'll provide a beginner guide on how to understand maps. Woohoo! 

Let's cover some basics...How old are you, Amelia?

Where are you from originally?

What is your profession? 
Cartographer, and all the other things that go along with being a small business owner (marketing and communications, account manager, operations and logistics). 
What exactly is cartography?
Cartography is the art and science of making maps. 

Image   courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

Image courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

What stands out to you when you first open a map?
I notice how clean the design is and how easy it is to get my bearings. I look at typography (the style, arrangement or appearance of printed letters) and topography (the features, such as mountains and rivers, of an area of land) and how the whole design works together.

How did you first get into cartography?
I took a few GIS (special mapping software) classes in college and loved them but I always thought it was kind of a bummer to make all these maps of places I had never been.  I found a summer internship in the Greater Yellowstone area mapping invasive weeds. Jamie (my now business and life partner) was my crew leader for that job. Along with two other people, the four of us spent the summer hiking to random GPS points and collecting data about the landscape there.

Then I spent a semester abroad hiking in Patagonia which is criss-crossed by all these old “gaucho” trails that were historically used to move sheep and cattle between summer and winter pasture, but now are disappearing. I thought it would be fun to map them as part of a cultural history project using the technology that I had learned about in Yellowstone. When I got home, Jamie and I started talking about how to make a project like that happen. We applied for a National Geographic grant to pursue that idea, which we didn’t get (but someone else did, a few years later). Instead, we decided to make maps closer to home, which was western Montana for both of us by then.

Tell us more about this Jaime character.  ;-)
Jamie Robertson is my partner in crime. We first met when he was my crew leader for the summer job I just mentioned. He studied geography and cartography in college and dreamed of making maps of wild places. We’ve been working and exploring together since 2007.

Sounds like you've found a great partner!
So tell me, what does the day in the life of a cartographer look like?

This really depends on the time of year. During the winter, all of our work is office work. So my day looks more or less like this: 

7:30-8: Wake up 
8-8:30: Drink coffee, read email and check social media. Once I’m feeling caught up with what’s happening in the world (and caffeinated), Jamie and I talk about what we are working on and what we're trying to get done. This is a mix of work and household tasks since our work life and personal lives are so intertwined. Then I write a very specific to do list and spend some time thinking about what order I should try to tackle it in. 
8:30-Mid afternoon: A mix of work and many breaks for snacks, laundry, putting away dishes and other "work-from-home" distractions. 
Mid-afternoon break: Exercise. Typically I would go for a trail run but my knee has been hurt this winter so I’ve been spending a lot of time at the gym.
Pre-dinner: I work a little more until it’s time to make dinner.
Dinner: Jaime and I eat together, and we often talk about maps! 
Post-dinner: If I am really on a roll, I might work a little more. But usually, I catch up some more on social media and read or write for a while before heading to bed. 

The summer is when we really get to know the area that we are mapping.

This means 5-10 days at a time, we are backpacking or truck camping and hiking to GPS trails. In the field, our days are pretty simple. We are up at or before first light, and I make breakfast while Jamie packs up camp. We typically hike for 8-9 hours but if it is really hot we might take a break in the afternoon for a few hours, especially if we can find a swimming hole. Once we get to camp, we make an early dinner and turn in. I usually read for a few hours before I fall asleep.

Image   courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

Image courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

So it takes a year to make a map?!
Yes! We start by collecting all the data that is out there in the public domain for the area that we want to map. Looking at that helps us decide where to put the boundaries of our map. We try and track down as many people as we can that are familiar with the area to ask about trail conditions so we can know what to expect when he hike most of it. Then we spend the summer getting to know the area and GPSing trails, and the fall/winter combining our data together with existing data, and cleaning it up to make it look like a map. Once that's done, we get our maps printed at a press in Denver in the spring, so they are ready to ship out to stores during the summer when people usually buy maps.

Is that what makes Cairn Cartographics unique?
I think so. We spend more time on the ground getting to know the area we're mapping, than any other cartographers I know of. I think our intimate knowledge of the places we map shows through in the maps themselves. We also go over every single detail on our maps with a fine tooth comb. Everything from the green vegetation layer to the rivers and streams, to trails and roads gets fixed up using the most up to date aerial imagery and GPS data.

Is there a formula to creating a high-quality map?
I don’t think there is a single formula, just a lot of time and attention to every single detail.

What maps have you made so far?
The North and South Bob Marshall, The Rattlesnake Wilderness and Missoula, The Mission Range, The North Half of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and the South Half of the Selway-Bitterroot will be out this spring.

Image   courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

Image courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

Which one are you most proud of? Why?
Our first map, the South Half of the Bob Marshall, because we proved to ourselves that we could make this crazy idea work! Also, the Rattlesnake and Missoula map because it was the map I wanted from the first day I moved here, but it didn’t exist. So I made it!

Which wilderness do you think more people need to know about? What have you experienced there?
All wilderness and Capital-W Wilderness! Some of the most wild places we’ve been haven’t been in federally designated Wilderness. I think there are always ways to get off the beaten path if you are creative [and experienced] with your trip planning. It’s easier to go to the places you see written up on blogs or in magazines like the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall, for example, or Blodgett Canyon in the Bitterroot. But if you spend some time looking at the map, you will notice trails you never knew were there or loops that look fun to try. Or, you might notice big open off-trail ridges that might connect two drainages. I would encourage people to be creative and explore, as you get more experience with backpacking and reading maps. Even small wilderness areas feel bigger when you get away from popular areas.

What's your favorite wilderness? Why?
The Bob Marshall has a special place in my heart because it is where we made this dream become a reality. The feeling of topping out on a pass in the Swan Range and looking to the west and north and south and knowing that it is Wilderness as far as you can see is pretty special. And I love the Rattlesnake too, because I think it is so amazing that we have a place like that so close to town.

Which area(s) are you drawn to for your next map?
We are still trying to decide. We have a lot of ideas so it’s just a matter of picking one!

What is something that most people don't know about cartography that you discovered, only by being in the field? There are so many little decisions that go into making a map that are totally subjective. The scientist in me has a hard time with this but the fact is the landscape doesn’t usually fit into neat categories. Sometimes a hillside is somewhere between forested and meadow and you have to decide which to display it as. Sometimes a road is somewhere between improved and unimproved and you just have to put it in a category. As humans we want things to be neat and tidy but in real life landscapes are pretty messy.

Are there other women cartographers you admire? Do you have any female mentors? If so, tell us about her.
I wish! I don’t have any mentors or role models that are in the cartography world specifically. I would credit my undergrad advisor and two or three other female professors that I had in college who were/are really passionate about encouraging women to study science and to be courageous about being smart and ambitious. Without the confidence they inspired I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Image   courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

Image courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

How can we learn more about you?
You can find all things about my work on our website and my personal musings on

Check back next week for a beginner guide on how to understand maps!

Take 10% off your entire Cairn Carto purchase by using the code SQSC10. Click here to see all their maps.