“You should do the Midstate Trail,” my brother suggested. I’d been stewing about where to take my week-long backpacking vacation with my freshly (hopefully) healed sprained ankle. As a thru-hiker, I’ve been interested in backpacking the long-distance trails in my home state of Massachusetts, and I figured that a week would be just about the right amount of time for me to hike the 95-mile Midstate Trail.
Here’s a list of the winter hiking and backpacking gear that M’s Seeing Eye Dog Edge used on our winter Appalachian Trail adventure in Virginia for New Year’s. This list includes the gear he used for climbing up to Mary’s Rock with wind-chills of -15℉, as well as the gear he used for his first winter overnight (with a record-breaking low of -2℉).
Knowing what I know now, I would have made different decisions… I may be an expert hiker, but when it comes to kayaking I’m still a novice and I know it. There’s absolutely no way that I would have knowingly chosen to kayak through class IV (advanced) rapids in my origami kayak (Oru Kayak), never mind doing it alone, and without a spray skirt!! No way! So how is it that I ended up in way over my head on the West Branch of the Penobscot River, swimming through Big Ambejackmockamus Falls?
Spring is here! It’s time to go outside, explore new places, and find new adventures… but how do you decide which adventure is right for you? Here are some things to consider before you go:
All week people had been telling me about how amazing Obsidian Falls was… “Absolutely gorgeous,” they’d say, “but you’re not allowed to camp there.” No problem, I’d thought… I understand the need to protect the unique and fragile areas of the wilderness, especially the ones that see heavy use, I don’t need to camp there.
Finally the day came and I was within 10 miles of the famed Obsidian Falls… It was really a shame that we weren’t allowed to camp there because it was the perfect distance… It was the place that I would naturally end up if I kept up my usual pace and hiked until I normally did… Looking at the map I realized that I was going to have to stop hiking early, or push myself to hike further than usual in order to avoid the banned zone… That was ok. I could do that, but it was a shame… It would be the perfect place for me to camp that night.
As I continued to hike northwards I encountered wave after wave after wave of southbound section hikers. “Where did you camp last night,” I innocently asked one of the groups of four… I was hoping to get intel on a pretty spot, since I figured they probably started at around the mileage where I’d finish that day.
“Obsidian Falls,” they cheerily explained, and went on to describe how amazing and breathtakingly beautiful their spot had been.
“Oh, I thought we weren’t allowed to camp there.”
“Well, you’re not allowed to camp there,” they said, seeming rather smug to me. “You have to have a permit to camp there.”
“Cool,” I responded, “I have a PCT permit, so I should be all set.” Maybe I could camp in the mythical place after all, and not have to worry about cutting my day short or pushing it too long.
“No, your PCT permit doesn’t count for that,” they patiently explained to me… They had the right permit, so they could camp there, but I had the wrong permit, so I wasn’t allowed. Not only that, it sounded like there was no way that I, as a long distance hiker, would have been able to get the right kind of permit.
A wave of betrayal and indignation washed over me… It felt so unfair, I’d hiked ~2000 miles to get here, and once again the PCT was telling me that I couldn’t stay at the pretty place, because it was reserved for other people.
Was I experiencing the fabled sense of entitlement that I’ve heard thru-hikers are rumored to be full of? Up until that moment I didn’t think I suffered from that dread disease… Maybe I was just grumpy, and if I sat down and ate a snack the world would suddenly feel fair again.
As soon as the other hikers went by I sat down and I ate my snack… Did it suddenly feel fair that they could camp at Obsidian Falls and I couldn’t? Nope, it didn’t… Did I feel like I should be allowed to camp there if they were letting people camp there? Yes, I did.
Over the past four months the trail had become my home, and it felt like someone had come in, slammed my bedroom door in my face, and told me that I had to sleep on the couch that night because they were going to sleep in my bed. I contemplated shouldering my way in, and crawling into my proverbial bed anyway… Knowing that it would make it too crowded, and that I’d be sharing my bed with a bunch of strangers… Knowing that it would be even less comfortable than the couch…I was grumpy and I wanted to make a point!!
As I thought about my analogy, I realized how incredibly juvenile that kind of behavior was… I didn’t need to sleep at the falls, I could still see them and enjoy them without camping there. I would just hike my hike, the way I usually did, and pretend that nobody had told me about Obsidian Falls and what an amazing place for camping it was.
The area leading up to Obsidian Falls was gorgeous in its own right, with alpine meadows full of lupine, and impressive views of both South and Middle Sister… As evening approached, I did what I always do, I looked for a spot to camp with a sunset view… About 2 miles before the Obsidian limited use area I found it, the place I wanted to camp…
There was a lava flow cliff off to the left of the trail, with a full sunset view to the west, and the sisters behind it… It was the perfect spot!
I settled in, ate my dinner, laid out my sleeping bag on the smooth rock surface, and watched the sunset with a heart full of awe and joy. There was absolutely no doubt, I was exactly where I was supposed to be!
I awoke to an amazing sunrise the next morning and smiled as I ate my breakfast of skittles and Cheetos from the warmth of my sleeping bag… What an amazing spot this was, and I still had Obsidian Falls to look forward to!
P.S. The huge deposits of obsidian by Obsidian Falls were really cool, but my campsite was much more awesome than anything I saw there… Besides, who wants to camp on a pile of broken glass anyway? :)
“It’s a trap!” Admiral Ackbar’s famous quote from Return of Jedi ran through my head as the dark gray, almost black clouds descended upon me from every direction. I was still in a pocket of sunshine but it was only a matter of time… the clouds (and rain) were coming for me.
Maybe this was why it had been so easy to get the Yosemite backcountry and half dome permits? I vaguely remembered the weather report from the info board at the ranger station that morning… Chance of thunderstorms 1pm to 9pm. I hadn’t worried much about it. I was in the mountains in the summertime, isn’t there always a chance of afternoon thunderstorms?
It was 3pm, so I tried to consider myself lucky… At least the thunderstorms hadn’t rolled in at 1pm. I eyed the sky again… I’m still getting used to California weather patterns, but this seemed pretty obvious… Thunderstorms were coming.
As if to emphasize my point I heard the distant rumbling of thunder. I was in Yosemite national park, above 9000ft, and hiking through a meadow… Not where I wanted to be in a thunderstorm… And even more annoyingly I’d just reached the turnoff for clouds rest. My plan had been to take this turn, climb clouds rest, and then cowboy camp at it’s summit. I’d envisioned laying there in my sleeping bag as I watched the sunset over half dome that night… The perfect prelude to the following mornings climb.
The trail to clouds rest would lead me up to higher elevations and even more exposed terrain. Even though I expected that the thunderstorms would pass before my dream sunset, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be able to avoid getting caught in the storm. The only choice I had was where the storm was going to catch me. I sighed and pulled out my map. At least it wasn’t raining… Yet.
Sure enough, the trail to clouds rest went up an exposed ridge… Definitely not the place to be in a thunderstorm. Alternatively, the JMT (John muir trail) continued to drop in elevation and descended towards Yosemite Valley and the trail for half dome. I sighed again and let go of my beautiful plan to climb clouds rest and watch the sunset. I couldn’t responsibly take that trail in this kind of weather.
For that matter, the spot Where
I was standing, in the meadow, the tallest thing around, wasn’t where I wanted to be in a thunderstorm either. I put the map away and hurried down the JMT figuring that as I descended I’d find more places where I could reasonably take cover from the oncoming storm.
Vacation, I was on vacation… And technically I was on vacation from my vacation. I wasn’t on the PCT, my trip into Yosemite Valley and to Half Dome was a side trip. I decided that this vacation idea meant that I definitely did not have to hike in the rain today.
As the remaining rays of sun were evicted from the sky and the only remaining colors were shades of gray, I started looking for a place to pitch my tent. I would wait out the storm in my nice, dry tent… Maybe I’d even take a nap… That seemed like a good vacationy thing to do. If the storm didn’t last long, I could always keep hiking again later, but I didn’t have to. I was on vacation.
As the thunder grew louder I found a spot that would have been ok, but decided against it… It was too close to the trail, so I hurried on… I got another 50 feet down the trail and heard a loud thundering crack. I wasn’t getting rained on yet, but I got the message loud and clear… The storm was here.
No more excuses, the next suitable spot and I was going to stop and hunker down… Besides, I didn’t want to risk the trail dumping me out into another meadow.
At 3:15 I stopped, put up my tent, and crawled inside. By 3:30 it was pouring and not long after the thunder became deafening. I listened to it reverberate off of the granite cliff faces around me. I was sad to miss my idyllic sunset atop clouds rest, but felt somewhat vindicated, at least I’d been right about the weather.
I curled up, happy to be warm and dry there inside my tent, and tried to take a nap. The rhythmic drumming of the rain on my tent lulled me to sleep… The thunder so constant that it stopped being startling. I woke up at around five to the sound of silence. No more rain, no more wind, no more sleet, no more thunder… Just complete silence. I listened for a few minutes… It certainly sounded like the storm had passed.
I popped my head out of the tent… The sky was a universally soft gray… I wasn’t sure wether or not it would rain again, but the thunderstorm was certainly done and over with, so I decided to pack up and keep on hiking… I wanted to be a bit closer to half dome if I could manage it.
As I continued my hike, the skies cleared and I got my first glimpses of Yosemite Valley. It was already impressive and I hadn’t gotten within sight of any of the famous landmarks yet! I was definitely glad that I’d decided to take the two day detour into Yosemite valley.
About a mile from the side trail up to Half Dome I found the perfect campsite. It was on top of a little granite bald and had views of half dome and some other peaks whose names I don’t know. I hadn’t seen any other hikers since before the 3 o’clock thunderstorm so it felt like I had all of Yosemite to myself… It was a very nice feeling.
As I sat by my tent watching the sun go down and the stars come up I fell in love with my life all over again… I wasn’t sure what tomorrow and half dome would bring, but this moment… This moment was perfect.
“Mreh,” I mumbled and swatted at whatever had just landed on my face. I was all curled up and cozily sleeping in my beloved zero degree sleeping bag under the stars. Even though I wasn’t quite awake yet my brain was turning its gears as another thing landed on my face. This time when I swatted at it my hand came back wet. I knew what this was! It was rain! Barely half awake, I rolled over and quickly stuffed everything into my backpack and three my pack cover over it.
Considering I was in Southern California, in the Mojave desert, and the weather forecast said that there was a 0% chance of rain for each of the 10 days in the forecast I figured it was probably just one little cloud misting on me and would blow by quickly. I didn’t mind getting a little damp as long as all of my stuff (especially my electronics) was going to be safe, secure, and dry.
As I lay back down I looked up at the sky, the moon and some stars were still visible, but clouds were definitely moving in. Some bigger droplets fell on my face. I checked my watch, it was 2 am, and I was definitely starting to get rained on. Setting up my tent still seemed like a lot of work, so I just pulled out my tent fly and rolled myself up in it figuring that it would keep both me and my down sleeping bag plenty dry.
At that point I still didn’t believe that it was really going to rain. I’d started trusting southern California’s weather forecasts, had started to trust that the low humidity over the desert was a cloud killer. I had come to terms with the fact that a 20% chance of rain meant that I was going to get soaked, but 0% chance, that should mean that I’d stay dry!
As I lay curled up in my rain fly shroud the winds began gusting and moisture continued to drip from the sky. With temperatures in the low 40s or upper 30s I couldn’t afford to let my sleeping bag get wet. *sigh* This was not just one poor misguided cloud weeping at its desert fate, this was an actual storm!
Until that moment I’d been able to make all of my rain preparations without ever really waking up or getting out of my sleeping bag, but as soon as I came to the conclusion it was a storm and not a tiny misguided cloud I was out of my sleeping bag and setting up my tent.
As the winds whipped around me I quickly scooted my sleeping pad and sleeping bag into the tent before staking it out, erecting it, and throwing the rain fly up. It was so windy at that point that I put rocks over the stakes/bottom corners of the tent to help anchor it before quickly scooting into my tent to ensure that it wasn’t going to become a giant kite.
As I crawled back into my tent I could hear the wind howling around it and the rain slamming against it. I threw a bunch of heavy stuff into the bottom my tent to help anchor it down and put the rest of my stuff on the windward side to help buffer against the winds even more.
It had been less than five minutes between when the first drop of water hit my face and when I crawled back into my sleeping bag after getting my tent set up. I was impressed with my half asleep self, and I wondered if the tent was overkill… It was Southern California after all, And I was sure it wasn’t going to rain… At least not much.
The other person cowboy camping nearby heard the commotion I made, realized it was raining and set up their tent as well, so our little camping area was full of excitement at 2 am! As the night progressed the excitement didn’t end. Temperatures dropped, wind speeds increased, ice started mixing in with the rain, and people’s tents started blowing over.
Though my tent was getting whipped around by the wind and making lots of noise, it held it’s ground, and didn’t collapse or lose any stakes. Throughout the night, however, there was intermittent swearing as other people’s tents lost the battle against the wind and collapsed on top of their occupants.
It seems like a lot of people on the PCT cowboy camp (just sleeping out under the stars without a tent) most of the time since we are in the desert and the chance of precipitation is so low. As I started to get used to the desert I started to join the people cowboy camping.
For me the real appeal of cowboy camping is the night sky in the desert, which is absolutely phenomenal! Since the best time to view the stars seems to be well after hiker midnight (sunset), when I pitch my tent the only time I get to see the full night sky is when I get up in the middle of the night and inevitably have to make a bathroom run. When I cowboy camp every time I wake up I can just look up and stare at the stars. Since I often have insomnia this means that I get to look at the stars a lot, which I absolutely love…
Though getting rained on in the middle of the night is not awesome, I expect that the joy of star-gazing from my sleeping bag will eventually tempt me to continue cowboy camping! If I ever wake up with a rattlesnake curled up on my sleeping bag, however, I expect I will be permanently cured of my cowboy camping habits!