Hi all. Late on creating this post (sorry!!) but this summer I’ll be blogging for the Trek. When I get back home I’ll add the posts here, but for now please follow along with my PNT adventures at: https://thetrek.co/author/justin-sprecher/
Less than 3 weeks until we set off on the Pacific Northwest Trail and we’re in full prep mode. Food, maps, gear. Our apartment is a mess.
Mostly the mess is due to the food. We’re making all of our meals due to K’s gluten allergy (more info and a recipe here). It’s a lot of work to do ahead of time but it’s also pretty fun, put on some tunes and get a production line going.
Biggest change from previous backpacking trips is we’re going no cook. At least that’s the plan. Seems doable from the comfort of our home but time will tell how I feel after ~70 days of cold soaking (don’t worry my stove will be on hand to send via resupply in case this plan goes horribly south).
Maps! Maps are maybe my favorite thing. Not just for backpacking but maybe also in life. K can attest to how long it took me to sort these out (too long) because I kept stopping to look them over. So pretty. So nice. Can’t wait to start using them.
I remember as a kid seeing a North Country Trail sign while hiking on Lake Superior. I asked my uncle where the trail went and when he said “New York to North Dakota” the idea of hiking that far both baffled and enticed me.
Since then thru-hiking a long trail has always been in the back of my mind as “something to do someday” but I never really had a plan (or time) on how to do it. Then 3 years ago when I was laid up with a broken ankle I stumbled across the book “Grizzly Bears and Razor Claims” by Chris Townsend. I devoured it. The Pacific Northwest Trail resonated with me: rugged, rough, remote. I became somewhat (ok, totally) obsessed with the idea of hiking it.
And just over a month from now I’ll be starting the PNT. Hell. Yes.
Why the PNT?
The PNT has all the things I love about backpacking: navigation challenges, undeveloped sections, bushwacking and solitude. The length is perfect for my 3 month timeframe, the trail typically takes 2-3 months. These are the reasons why I’m choosing the PNT over some of the more popular trails like the AT or PCT. Plus, I love the scenery and the vibe of the Pacific Northwest and am excited to spend the summer walking across it.
Having a lot of experience backpacking I’m confident in my backcountry skills, but that’s not to sound naive. According the PNTA less than 300 people have completed the trail since its inception in 1977. It’s going to be tough. Really tough. It will test me. It might even break me. All part of the adventure. Let’s do this.
I spend a lot of time in the winter scheming up new ideas for my summer trips. Usually these involve lightening pack weight and spreadsheets. Oh how I love my spreadsheets.
This winter’s obsession was cold soaking. Yup it’s what it sounds like: pour cold water on your food and let it sit and soak. No stove, no heat.
Initially I was intrigued, can this really be good? My philosophy for trail food is it has to taste good and be nutritious. I don’t want to eat ramen packets, pop tarts or anything else chock full of things I can’t pronounce. It shocks me what some people eat on the trail (to be fair it shocks me what most people eat in real life). I fully admit that I’ve been known to scarf down some less than “clean” food without shame, I just don’t want this to be part of my plan before I head out on the trail.
What got me onto the cold soak train was thinking about how much I actually use my stove. I realized that on my most recent trips I’ve only used it once per day, at dinner time. I gave up making a hot drink at breakfast a while back to save time and I’ve always, even at home, eaten my oats uncooked. Seemed like a lot of weight to carry fuel, stove and a pot around for just once a day.
There are lots of good companies out there that make pre-made cold soak meals but I’m frugal and enjoy making up my own meals, so my winter goal became to create a nutritionally balanced menu with high caloric density that I actually want to eat. Oh and it has to be gluten free too since K can’t handle the gluten. I was hoping to get 4 solid meals, seemed like a good rotation for an 8 day or less trip: each meal twice... I ended up creating 6, they are: Thai Peanut Rice, Southwest Beef and Corn w/ Rice, Thai Coconut Rice, Green Curry Rice, Beef and Corn Chowder, Pea/Walnut/Carrot Salad, Almond/Broccoli/Cranberry Salad.
All of the dinners vary slightly in weight and calories; however, the average of the 6 is 140.09 cal/oz and 6.92oz each, about 970 calories per meal.
Most of the ingredients I buy in bulk and a good rainy spring day activity is mixing up a bunch of meals at once. Then when I decide to go on a trip I can grab and go from the cupboard.
The cost for each meal varies, but they are between $2.61 - $4.78 per serve and pack more calories than most packaged meals. The beef is the premium ingredient costing about $2/meal, if I were to go vegetarian the costs would be $2.61-$3.69 per meal.
Below is the Thai Cashew Curry recipe, this one costs $3.07 when buying in bulk. I’d love to hear your thoughts if you make it, I’m always open to improvements!
As much as I like to shed weight heading into the backcountry it’s also the time I want the best camera possible.
Over the last few years I’ve experimented with the balance of weight and image quality. On shorter trips, like weekend trips or day hikes, I’ve taken full frame cameras such as the Canon 5DS R, Sony A7Rii and Nikon Z7. A full frame camera is an amazing tool to have in the backcountry but the weight penalty comes at a premium. The only one I’d consider on a longer trip would be the lightest of the 3 above, the Sony A7Rii (or A7Sii if I was shooting more video) weighing in at 22oz w/ card and battery. Weight aside I just really love the Sonys and already use them for non-backcountry travel and professional shoots.
Which brings me to my current solution for a balance of weight and quality: the Sony A6000. There are newer models (A6300, A6500) with extra features but ever the frugal guy I was able to get a used A6000 with a low shutter count for a bargain.
Photos w/ Sony A6000 and Zuiko 28mm f/2.8 lens
The A6000 has an APS-C sensor which isn’t as nice as full frame but in high light for outdoor shooting I feel it does a great job. And it only weighs 11.6oz with battery and card (no body cap). 11.6oz!
Lens-wise my preference is to use a prime lens. I think the image quality is superb and they are typically lighter and faster than zoom lenses. There are drawbacks like a fixed focal length, but I mostly take landscape photos and it ends up not being a big deal for me. If I wanted to take wildlife photos I would definitely look into a zoom.
Again, being a frugal guy I tend to be an opportunist when it comes to lenses (and everything in life). The lens I take with me is an old Olympus Zuiko 28mm f2.8. Yes. That’s what I take. I picked it up at a consignment shop for $20 (they tend to run $50-$75 on eBay). All manual everything. With the crop factor of the Sony APS-C sensor (x1.5) the 28mm becomes a 42mm (if I lost you crop factor explained). To me this lens packs quite a punch for its compact size and the weight isn’t too bad at 6.2oz.
The downsides are the OM to Sony adaptor weighs another 3oz, no auto focus and it’s a sort of atypical focal length for landscapes. I’ve been considering getting a wider lens, something between 18mm and 28mm, and probably will but it’s hard to justify spending the money.
Outside of my camera setup I love the Peak Design Capture clip. To have my camera on my shoulder strap ready to shoot photos means I use my camera a lot more. It’s actually easier to access than my phone.
I also take the Pedco Ultrapod. The tripod is great for long exposure photos (astrophotography) and low light situations (morning, dusk) and I trust it with a lot of weight. If you need a tripod it’s great, but I’ve been finding that I rarely use it and, at 4.2oz, would consider leaving it at home when I’m counting every ounce. It’s not that hard to find a rock or a log to balance the camera on the rare occasion that I use it.
A breakdown of my typical backpacking camera setup (*new version of Capture Clip is even lighter than mine!):
We blast over the divide and into Utah for a long weekend and find a truly stunning camping spot overlooking a canyon just outside of Canyonlands National Park. We might end up just sitting here the whole weekend.
I was able to score a Nikon Z7 w/ Nikkor Z 24-70mm zoom lens to test for the weekend. All photos from this post are taken with that camera, and more detailed review follows (warning, I’m not a gear junkie, it’s more of an aesthetic review than a technical).
We do end up leaving the camp to do the Syncline Trail in Canyonlands NP. This trail is awesome. It circles the Upheaval Dome, the origin of which is unknown (cool). First we hike down into a canyon and along a riverbed, then up a boulder field and back to the start. It’s certainly my kind of hike: the trail isn’t always obvious, scrambling required, lots of up and down through amazing scenery and very few people.
The Devil’s Garden & Primitive Trail in Arches NP also has the scenery but is much more popular. The Devil’s Garden Trail is very busy, makes sense there are a ton of arches in a short span. For being a popular trail in a National Park I’m pleasantly surprised by the ruggedness of some sections, especially the ones walking on and over rock faces. Taking the Primitive Trail makes this hike a loop (yay!) and adds more of a challenge with steep rock climbs and less obvious trail. Despite the warnings of such our hike on this trail turns into more of a rescue mission. K pulls an 80 year old woman up a rock face (kudos to her for making it that far!), I guide a group of hikers down a steep section of rocks and we help a number of people re-find the trail. It’s kinda fun, makes me feel like I know what I’m doing.
One of the days we switch it up with a bit of 4WDing down the valley we are camped by and under a giant rock. We also explore Moab a bit - I found a $4 flannel shirt in a thrift shop, that’s my highlight from town.
On the way back to Boulder we stop to do the Professor Creek and Mary Jane Trail. The trail follows a creek up a deeper and deeper canyon and ends with a waterfall (we didn’t go that far, just to the canyon). It’s really fun to splash through the creek. There isn’t really a trail and we end up follow footprints in the sand to make sure we are going the correct way. It would be easy to get lost in these canyons and if it was raining a flash flood would be dangerous here. Getting back is easier, just follow the main branch of the creek back the way you came.
Using the Nikon Z7 for the weekend was a fun treat (my primary cameras for hiking & backpacking are the Sony A6000 or Sony A7R ii). I don’t often use zoom lenses so I had to retrain myself how to take photos. I don’t have to walk around to get different shots, I can zoom! As fun as the zoom is I really enjoy using prime lenses, I feel like they are more “natural” to how my eyes perceive the world. Due to habit most of the pictures in the post are taken at 24mm, the widest the lens goes, because I forgot the lens could zoom. The exceptions are the shot with the car which is at 38mm and the shot of the arch which is at 36mm.
The camera has a nice feel in the hand, the grip is more robust than the Sony’s, and has a nice look to it. I’m not fully dialed in with the Nikon control menus but I found it easy to navigate and use when I wanted to change settings. For the kit lens I found the Nikkor 24-70mm to take excellent pictures. The biggest con for me is the weight (why I love the Sonys so much), I think the Z7 would be good on day hikes but it would be too much for a longer trip.
If you go:
It seems like I never go to Rocky Mountain National Park in the summer (not to hike anyway, we’ve driven the Trail Ridge Road a couple of times). I suppose it makes sense; it’s less crowded in winter and in the summer I’m usually backpacking somewhere I don’t need permits or to plan months in advance.
Anyway - Emerald Lake. It’s one of the more popular hikes so even though there was a ton of snow we didn’t need snowshoes, just microspikes, since the snow was packed down. It was super windy at Emerald Lake (I suspect common) but the sunny skies made it feel much warmer. For a short, ~3 mi out and back hike, it was nice to get out into the mountains, even if it’s only for a few hours.
If you go:
I don’t winter camp. I love the idea in theory but in practice the long hours of darkness cooped up inside a tent just put me off it. Get me a hut with a woodburning stove and I’ll walk/ski/snowshoe miles back to it.
Living this close to the mountains it kills me that prime backpacking season is 3, maybe 4 months max. After a few weeks of coaxing I finally convinced K that we should try it. She’s from the desert, this is probably the last thing she ever saw herself doing.
At the Moffat Tunnel trailhead , the gateway to the James Peak Wilderness, there are some camping options within a mile of the trailhead. Seems reasonable, close enough to escape if we can’t handle it but far enough away to make it feel worth it.
We headed in midday and found a nice spot between some pines and packed down a nice spot for the tent. After everything was all set up we snowshoed around the area and found a side trail leading up to a frozen waterfall.
About 4pm the sun set in our little valley and we got into the tent. Only 15 hours until the next ray of light…
The temps dropped to the teens and the wind howled through the trees but we stayed nice and cozy in the tent armed with books, crosswords and some warming stout.
I’d do it again, but I think I’d still take the hut and woodburning stove.
If you go:
I’ve been paying more attention to the calories per ounce in the food I take backpacking. I’m totally revamping my recipes and food for trips this summer, which I will post on later (spoiler, on top of better calorie density I’m also hoping to convince K to going down the cold soaking rabbit hole with me).
One food that is surprisingly calorically light is the raisin. I bank on raisins pretty hard, they are a big part of my breakfast and my homemade trail mix. After this realization I went on an interesting (and opinionated) path through blogs, sub-reddits and nutrition data websites. Coming in at ~85 cal/oz it gets dropped out of a lot of ultralight pack lists.
This new information sent me on a frenzy of thinking about how to get raisins out of my pack too. I bounced from one solution to another. “Cranberries have a few more calories/oz, I need to use them!”, “What if i just replace raisins with more shredded coconut for breakfast!?”, “More banana chips!”...
The cranberries have more calories but most of that comes from sugar. I don’t think I’d like the taste of that much coconut in my breakfast. Raisins have some stuff that can’t be quantified in calories; iron, magnesium, potassium and folate (B9) for example. All of these are essential and hard to come by on the trail. I like packing food that tastes good and is nutritionally well rounded. If I eat bad food I feel bad. Low energy, grumpy, etc.
Some disagree and say there are studies that prove we focus way too much on nutrition on the trail. As long we feed our bodies with enough energy it’s fine till the next town. If that works for you that’s awesome. But I personally feel much better on the trail if I’m getting a well rounded diet. In the end I settled down and remembered that what works for me is finding the balance between calories, nutrition and taste. Raisins will stay in my pack.
It takes a special friend to forgo family and be willing to travel over Thanksgiving weekend. Luckily I have one of those friends. In short, our phone call goes like this:
Me: “I have a kinda crazy plan for Thanksgiving...”
Him: “I’m in!”
The plan? Rent a backcountry hut, fill it with friends, build a pulk and lug up a turkey + all the fixings for Thanksgiving. Ok, maybe not that crazy, but certainly fun.
He’s not lying, he books tickets from Seattle to Denver shortly after our phone call. After looking through the huts we settle on Jackal Hut, part of the 10th Mountain Hut system. Not too far from the front range and close to Vail where about half of our guests live (this will end up being very fortuitous, but I’ll get to that later).
The hut is only 3 miles from where we park but it climbs 2,400ft. We’re fully loaded and then some. I have snowshoes & skis on my pack and then the pulk which has 2 12lb turkeys, 2 pies, various bottles and bladders of wine and who knows what else. Halfway up, when I’m seriously regretting my offer to haul all this up, I do a mental approximation of the weight in the pulk - 50 lbs at least.
The first half of the way up has patchy snow and mud (makes the pulk pulling almost impossible), thankfully the second half is snow covered and much better (though still insanely steep). We make it up to the hut around 3pm, exhausted, but in good spirits. Time to get this turkey cooking and the bread proofing.
Getting the woodburning oven up to a good heat works surprisingly well. I’m nervous that actually cooking the turkey for 3 hours won't be so easy… it turns out to be a little finicky but the turkey comes out looking awesome (no one took a picture, wtf). The bread also comes out nice after rising for a few hours. The rest of the crew chips in and makes green beans, mac and cheese, potatoes, stuffing, cranberries and gravy. After stuffing ourselves and downing a few glasses of my Seattle friend’s home-made wine we all agree that persevering to get all this up here was worth it. Now we have to eat more so I don’t have to carry it down!
Day 2 brings another 3 guests, 6” of snow, skiing and turkey #2. This one has been precooked and smoked and requires much less effort but tastes amazing, especially with all the leftovers from the night before.
Day 3 it’s still snowing. After skiing and lazing around the hut we descend down to the cars (it takes less than ½ the time it took to get up). There is about a foot of snow on the cars and the snow is flying horizontally. The road back to the highway is flat and even with the low visibility I don’t think too much of the snow, until we get to the highway. The plows have been busy… plowing us in behind a 4 foot high wall of snow, ice and grit. I should have known better, but that’s irrelevant now. After using snowshoes and hands to shovel a hole for the car to fit through I back up and get ready to gun it through (again no pictures, sorry!). My friends are ready to push from behind to get me over the hump if need be (it was needed). I make it over and we slowly crawl on the highway back towards I-70. Cars are in the ditch all over the place and the snow keeps getting worse. When we get back in cell range we discover I-70 has been closed. There’s no way I’m turning around and going back over the pass to try to get out (the usual 1.5 hours back to Boulder is estimated at 6 hours).
Thankfully one of our hut crew lives in Minturn (where we are stranded). We head back there and wait until the rest of the group shows up. It’s decided that in exchange for dinner and beers we can all sleep on his floor for the night. Empire Records on Netflix it is, slumber party style!