What I Learned From The Washington BackCountry
Author: Lauren Hunsberger | Posted In: Go | November 2022
The first time I completed a five-day backpacking trip through the Cascades I swore I’d never do it again. In 2016, my two best friends and I hiked from Snoqualmie Pass to Steven’s Pass (Section J of the Pacific Crest Trail). We totaled 77 miles over five grueling days.
I remember every single painful step of the last mile. I had blisters, mosquito bites and sunburns. My body ached; I was hungry, tired and so dirty. I didn’t feel the overwhelming sense of accomplishment I was promised. I was over it and kicked every rock I saw on the way to the final parking lot.
In the two years following, I did dozens of day trips in the Washington backcountry and a handful of overnighters. However, I backed out of at least two multi-day trip opportunities in fear of the pain. I wasn’t ready to do it all again. I figured I had found my sweet spot—one to two nights max. It was just enough time to soak in the beauty of the mountains without steeping in deet too long. I got the exhilaration of being away from it all, but with the promise of a hot shower and bed within a reasonable distance. It was all I needed—or so I thought.
Cut to summer of 2022. This year I completed my third five-day backpack trip (with the same friends). I also summitted Mount Adams and attempted to summit Mount Rainier, experiences I never thought were in reach for me. Plus, I’ve already committed to plans to circumvent the base of Mount Rainier in the summer of 2023, a trip that will almost double my previous efforts. I now crave longer and harder trips.
So, what changed? What gave me the motivation and strength to gear up again?
First, the pandemic and quarantine life inside. When the ability to hike, especially with a group of dear friends, was taken away, it made me appreciate every night under the stars and every conversation on the trails a lot more. The more time I spent inside, the more I romanticized even the toughest moments on that first five-day.
My desire to get outside was stronger than ever before, but that wasn’t the only change. I tweaked so many other things during those years that allowed me to approach longer trips with more grace. I was determined to find ways to make the treks more enjoyable. If you have bug for backpacking, the winter season is perfect time to start preparing for summer hiking. Here’s what I learned along the way:
Attitude is everything. No matter how much you love the great outdoors or how well you prepared, you will eventually encounter some extremely hard moments. They might be weather related; the terrain might get hard; you might get spooked by wildlife; your gear might let you down. Over the years, my friends and I have found one single mantra that can get use through the darkest moments: “This is temporary.” Repeat it to yourself or out loud as often as needed.
When I started backpacking, I leaned heavily on my running background—a few marathons and half marathons but mostly just lots and lots of road running. I thought this would translate to miles on the mountain. My cardiovascular training was OK, but my knees, hips and feet all felt otherwise. In the days after that first trip, it was excruciating just to walk to the refrigerator. A feeling I will never forget.
After some casual complaining, a trainer suggested I start strength training to improve my hiking. Carrying 35 pounds or more requires a lot from the muscles and joints. I was skeptical but curious. Could a few extra reps in the gym make a difference? Once or twice a week I started incorporating a very simple set of lower body strength exercises into my routine, and then mindfully progressed these movements:
– Front squats
– Hip thrusts
– Leg press
Once I mastered those, I added weighted step-ups (to mimic hiking), one-legged balance exercises (for uneven surfaces) and some additional accessory work for the core. Nothing fancy, yet the results were remarkable. The achiness I felt after that first trip never resurfaced. I still felt fatigued after big days, but so much of the acute pain was gone, and I felt stronger than ever on the steepest ascents.
Another gamechanger is gear adjustments. I wasn’t ever horribly unprepared, but I have learned quite a few tricks that make a big difference. On my first trip, my backpack weighed 42 pounds without water—huge mistake.
I should’ve known that was way too heavy, but I couldn’t fathom leaving anything behind. Now I know better, way better. Here are a few specific things I always take that aren’t on your average packing list—and a few I leave at home.
- A mosquito head net. There are a few unwritten rules about backpacking: there’s no award for the person who suffers the most or looks the best. You might think it feels silly, but the satisfaction of seeing bugs unable to get to your skin is invaluable.
- Flip flops. A cheap pair of lightweight flip flops serves multiple purposes. First, they give your feet a break at night once you’ve made it to camp. The ability to walk around without your boots can do wonders for your morale. Additionally, they are perfect for water crossings or getting in a lake. Having a shoe that can get wet has saved me numerous times.
- Wet wipes. From your face to your feet, you can—and will—use them to clean the parts that get dirtiest. Many hikers say they are too heavy, but I consider it my secret weapon for feeling refreshed.
- Backcountry charcuterie. There’s no getting around eating dehydrated meals, but you can have fun with other meals. I’m a huge fan of bringing Babybel cheeses (individually wax-wrapped), a cured salami or pepperoni roll, smoked salmon, crackers, and Trader Joe’s green olive packs. Together, they make a perfect European-inspired charcuterie lunch or brunch. A few pieces of chocolate or a single can of wine can also elevate a meal on an especially hard day.
- Playing cards. This is purely for mental motivation. If you’ve ever been caught inside a tent on a rainy day or arrived earlier than expected to camp, you know that having something fun to do with your buds is brilliant.
Here’s what to leave at home. A bowl: Use a coffee mug and spork for everything. Microspikes: Chances are if you go during peak summer you won’t need them and they are heavy. A comb: Your hair will be far beyond help. Don’t even try.
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