Thursday, June 9, 2022

Ten Years of Lake Blanche

June 9, 2012. Ten years ago today. I'd arrived in Utah mere days earlier, and was eager to get out and explore my temporary home for the next three months. The first item on the list was a hike up to Lake Blanche, an icon of the Wasatch Mountains.

I'd drooled over mountains for years, depicted beautifully in the model railroad magazines I'd spent my childhood reading. I had climbed a few mountains of eastern Spain where I'd spent a college semester. But despite that, I'd never actually spent time in the high alpine. This mountain foray was a new and long-anticipated experience.

I made all the typical mistakes. I clad myself in cotton from head to toe. I misidentified every single tree I passed. I carried myself with a youthful overconfidence, even haughtiness. I came down with dehydration-related headaches. 

But I was transfixed. The high alpine was just as idyllic, just as stark, just as captivating as I imagined it would be.

2012. Excuse the dodgy digital photography

Lake Blanche was just the beginning. I explored a new Wasatch destination nearly every weekend that summer, climbing several 11,000-foot peaks and reveling in the wonders of the high alpine.

Along the way, I learned quite a bit. I learned the importance of hydration in an arid climate. I learned how to deal with altitude and how to pace myself. I stopped wearing cotton and started carrying the Ten Essentials. At the end of the summer, I took my first non-failure backpacking trips. By the end of that summer, I was well on my way to being the outdoorsman of my aspirations.

Equally important were the lessons I learned about myself. I'm a truly terrible athlete. While I've always been active and/or played sports, genes simply don't work in my favor. In four years of high school swimming, not once did I manage anything other than a last-place finish. I have several friends in their 60's who can still hike circles around me.

But that summer I found my niche. Even given its limitations, my body could still propel me thousands of feet upward, to beautiful places and unforgettable experiences. Sure, I might be a little slower than the average person, but I really could do it. That summer gave me the confidence to tackle the Appalachian Trail the next spring and launched a solid decade of adventure.

2012. Cotton from head to toe.

An annual tradition has developed - an homage to that first, transformative hike. Every year, on the first Sunday after Memorial Day, I hike up to Lake Blanche after church with some friends. Objectively, it's a terrible idea:

  • It's always at least 95 degrees.
  • We don't start until about 1pm, so there's never any room left in the trailhead lot. We end up parking about a half a mile down the road.
  • We do the climb during the heat of the day. Nobody's ever passed out (yet), but it's always sweltering.
  • I tote a watermelon three thousand feet up to the lake.

...but terrible ideas make for quirky and fun traditions. 

2016. Nothing better on a hot day! (Photo: Clara Gelderloos)

This year, things were a little different: no companions and no watermelon. I did it on a Thursday, ten years to the day after that first hike. After two major foot surgeries in the past fifteen months, I needed to keep a rather ponderous pace. I'm still working back into shape, and it's unclear how the past year's foot odyssey will affect my future hiking capabilities.  

Nonetheless, this Lake Blanche hike represents a hope that the next ten years will be as fruitful as the previous ten and that the foot can recover enough to make backpacking possible again. It's also a celebration of ten years of adventure, and ten years of living in a place that's become my home.

 

2022


Sunday, January 9, 2022

The Winter Thru-hike Problem

Spend any time on the internet or hanging around Triple Crowner types, and inevitably the topic of winter thru-hikes will arise. There are dozens of long-distance trails out there, but most are best hiked in the spring, summer, and fall. There are relatively few true "winter" thru-hikes. Sure, you can get away with starting some trails at the end of February of the beginning of March (even if that's often a bad idea), but that's not really what we're talking about here. Rather, we're referring to treks that are doable - and even pleasant - in the dead of winter, e.g. January. In this post, we'll review some candidates routes, and then discuss some special considerations for winter thru-hiking.

The Desert Winter Thru Hike holds tremenous potential.

Rejected Candidates

When I was a college freshman, I headed down to Great Smoky Mountain National Park over spring break with a few friends for our first-ever backpacking trip. Spring break in the south! It'll be warm and pleasant, right? Wrong.  We trudged through multiple feet of snow, slid off the road once, and even got a good old-fashioned case of hypothermia. I was cold and miserable most of the time. To put it charitably, the trip was a flop.

Photo: Jake Vriesema

To this day, I see people making the same mistake. Northerners like me seem to underestimate the effects of elevation. Just because a trail is in the "south" doesn't mean it's warm and pleasant in the depths of winter. The following trails, despite being located in southerly climes, are largely at high elevation, and would be unpleasant at best in the depths of winter:

  • Arizona Trail
  • Sky Islands Traverse
  • Grand Enchantment Trail
  • Hayduke Trail

Is it possible to do these trails in winter? Yes, and some of them have been done already. But by that standard, the Pacific Crest Trail has been done in the winter, and I certainly don't think anyone would call the PCT a "winter thru-hike". Hikers attempting any of these trails in the winter will be doing them explicitly out-of-season, and will face many challenges not present during the prime hiking season. 

It should be noted that most of these routes do have sections that dip down into the low elevations. The stretch of the Arizona Trail north of Oracle comes to mind as an obvious instance. Certain sections would be perfectly doable in the winter, however I wouldn't advise attempting a thru-hike of the whole thing unless you're prepared for a whole lot of unpleasantness and truly four-season conditions.

Marginal Candidates

A few years ago, hiker extraordinaire Cam "Swami" Honan walked Arkansas's Ouachita Trail in January/February. He evidently enjoyed it, and wrote a very positive review of the trail. Since that time, I've seen countless online acolytes refer to the OT as a "winter thru hike". And while it's certainly possible to hike the OT in the winter (even if you're not a top-notch adventurer like Swami), there's some context that's missing.

Swami did the OT as part of his stunning "12 Long Walks" project, in which he hiked many of North America's foremost hiking trails in one year-round, 18-month push. Of course, that meant finding trails to do in the winter. Among them was the OT. He hiked the OT not because it was at its very best in the winter, but because it was possible, pleasant, and lined up well with his schedule. 

Put another way, if your goal was to hike the Ouachita Trail at its best, and there were no other considerations, you probably wouldn't hike it in January. The OT and its brethren are perfectly suitable for winter thru-hiking, but frankly, are best enjoyed at a different time of year. Off the top of my head, there are several such trails:

  • Ouachita Trail (223 mi)
  • Ozark Highlands Trail (164 mi)
  • Palmetto Trail (~500 mi, unfinished)
  • Pinhoti Trail (335 mi)
  • Benton MacKaye Trail (287 mi)

It's possible to hike all of these trails in the winter. Temperatures may be cool (or even downright cold at night), but it warms up during the day. Snow and ice may be a factor, but snowpack doesn't hang around all winter and continue to accumulate.

But it's hard to argue that any of these trails are at their best during the winter. Hiking a trail through the  leafless hardwoods can be a little monochromatic in the winter. Sure the views are marginally better, but those dead and brown trees don't exactly inspire a soaring feeling of wonder as you hike through the woods. And though they're well south of the Mason-Dixon line, each of these trails (especially at higher elevations) can see snow/frost/cold temperatures. On the Ozark Highlands Trail (early March 2018), I had nights in the single digits, and four consecutive days where the mercury didn't even reach the freezing mark. 

This isn't to dissuade anyone from doing these trails in the dead of winter. Even imperfect time spent outside is better than rotting on the couch. But there are other, possibly better, candidates out there.

Doable. Not ideal.

Prime Candidates:

As far as I'm concerned, there are really only two US long-distance routes that are at their best during the depths of winter (December-February) - the Florida Trail and the Desert Winter Thru Hike. We'll discuss each of them in turn:

Florida Trail

For many years, the Florida Trail has been the default choice for long-distance hikers looking to stretch their legs in the winter. Let's start with some fast facts:

  • 1,100 miles long
  • Federally-designated National Scenic Trail
  • Southern terminus: Big Cypress National Preserve
  • Northern terminus: Gulf Islands National Seashore
  • 70% trail, 30% (mostly paved) roads
  • No appreciable elevation gain/loss
  • Numerous towns/resupply points. Resupply is a breeze, at least if you're okay eating out of nothing but Dollars General for 500 miles.

The FT often carries a bum rap among thru-hiker types. They scoff at the completely flat elevation profile, lack of pristine wilderness, or abundant road miles. They're often scared off by the pounding that feet take on the FT, the swamps/wet conditions, and the bugs. All of those are fair criticisms. 

But here's what they're missing: The forests on the FT are incredible. Far from being boring green tunnels like they often are on other trails, the FT's forests are varied. They're dense, often with interlocking branches above. The palm and oak hammocks are something to behold. And while the swamps are certainly soggy, they're among the most unique and interesting parts of the trail. FT volunteers have worked tirelessly to bridge the deepest water with some truly spectacular bridges. The FT passes through varied ecosystems, from the Everglades in the south to pine forests in the middle to a white sand beach in the north. Along the way, you walk along idyllic rivers, one of which (the Aucilla) randomly dives into a series of karst sinkholes and soon thereafter disappears entirely. How cool is that!


The only realistic hiking season for the FT is the dead of winter. The rest of the year can be ruled out due to oppressive heat, hideous bugs, and high water left over from tropical storms. While you'll probably have a few chilly nights in the panhandle and a few sweltering nights in the south, overall, temperatures are fairly pleasant and mild. The swamps would require a dinghy in the summer; in the winter, they're passable on foot.

The FT can be hiked in either direction (northbound or southbound) during the winter months (Dec-Mar). Most hikers start in south after celebrating Christmas/New Years with their families, working their way north as the weather warms. Hikers generally finish in late February or March.

Desert Winter Thru-Hike

As its name implies, the Desert Winter Thru Hike is designed to be walked during the dead of winter. It stays generally in low-elevation terrain of the Sonoran and Mojave deserts. The fast facts:

  • ~750 miles long
  • Unofficial "route" created by Brett "Blisterfree" Tucker (of Grand Enchantment Trail fame)
  • Eastern terminus: Saguaro National Park
  • Western terminus: Joshua Tree National Park
  • 50% dirt roads, 40% cross-country, 10% trail
  • Modest elevation gain/loss
  • Tough resupply situation. By necessity, most towns have walk-in/walk-out access. With few exceptions though, they're tiny hamlets with few services.

Most of the "dirt road" miles are like this. Zero traffic, just double-wide trail.

We need to be very clear about one thing up-front: the Desert WTH is a route, not a trail. There's no dedicated trail tread (indeed, in this hardscrabble country, trails are a rarity). There's a ton of cross-country on this route, though most of it follows natural handrails like canyons or ridges. This route definitely falls into the "experts only" category.

Compounding the challenge, the Desert WTH is still in its adolesence. Though Blisterfree is fastidious about gathering beta, the reality is that the Desert WTH is still only a couple years old, is not yet finalized, and to date has seen zero completions. 

All that said, the Desert WTH is, in my opinion, most beautiful, wild, and rewarding trail mentioned in this article. To date, I've only done the eastern (Arizona) half, and am more than a little stoked to walk the California portion at some point in the future. Unlike wetter climes, the deserts look just as beautiful in the winter as they do in the summer, and the sunsets are often picture-perfect. For hikers with tens of thousands of trail miles to their names, I think the WTH will quickly become a preferred option in coming years.

Shorter Candidates

Beyond the FT and Desert WTH, there are a few shorter trails that are in-season in the dead of winter. Whether these trails qualify as "thru-hikes" is an arcane debate that I don't care to indulge, but these are all trails that can be done on either zero or one resupply. Hiking time would be anywhere from 4-12 days.

San Diego Trans-County Trail

For its length, the SDTCT is a surprisingly diverse trail. Some fast facts:

  • ~160miles long
  • Official county trail, but with many gaps that have been filled in by unofficial connections over the years
  • Eastern terminus: Salton Sea (below sea level!)
  • Western terminus: Torrey Pines State Park, Pacific Ocean
  • 65% trail, 20% dirt roads, 15% pavement
  • Significant private property/access concerns
  • Easy resupply situation
  • Most folks will want to cache water for a couple of long dry stretches.  

Normally dry wash, flowing after the winter rain nourishes this Mediterranean climate. Bring a rain jacket.

The SDTCT begins in a rugged, waterless desert next to the stinking Salton Sea. It crosses badlands, low mountain ranges, a significant river canyon, several neighborhoods of suburban San Diego, an urban greenway corridor, and splashes its way to an end in the Pacific Ocean. It's incredibly diverse; in just 150 miles, it contains both a 40-mile waterless stretch and a Costco. The eastern half is pretty remote; the western half is built up enough that finding a campsite can be a challenge. Even though the entirety of the trail isn't remote, unbroken wilderness, I still really enjoyed it.

Private property is a concern, and unfortunately there will be several times along the SDTCT where you'll feel distinctly unwelcome, even if what you're doing isn't strictly speaking illegal. I'd encourage anyone who seeks to undertake the journey to be respectful, stealthy, and understand the private property issues prior to undertaking.

Burbling brook in the foreground, high-voltage lines in the background. Hiking in the urban/rural interface is certainly unique.

Lone Star Hiking Trail 

I haven't done the Lone Star Trail and have no first-hand experience with the area. Some fast facts:

  •  96 miles long
  • Designated as a National Recreation Trail
  • Has a legit, active trail organization
  • Located in the Sam Houston State Forest, north of Houston.

On the other hand, reader Sisu has hiked the LSTH and offers her thoughts. She appreciated the warm Texas midwinter weather, the modest length and difficulty, and the easy navigation. There was no dangerous wildlife to contend with, aside from a few ticks.

On the other side of the ledger? She found the trail conditions to be a wet, "juicy mess". the scenery to be pretty lackluster, and the water quality to be surprisingly poor. Aggressive dogs on roadwalks and a tough camping situation rounded out the challenges on this route. In summary? 

Bottom line, if someone asked me about my honest opinion about the LSHT, I'd respond with: Don't waste your time. You can do better.

Like with any trail, opinions vary. I hate to say it, but hiking a midwinter trail in North America does often imply lowering your standards a little bit*. No one is going to confuse the Lone Star Hiking Trail for the John Muir Trail, or the Florida Trail for a Greater Yellowstone Loop. But that's okay. 

*In my opinion, the Desert Winter Thru Hike is the exception to this rule, but I'm admittedly a huge fanboy of that route so you should probably take this with a grain of salt.

Photo courtesy of Sisu
 

Big Bend 100

I've only done a few miles of the Big Bend 100 (where it overlaps with the Outer Mountain Loop in Big Bend National Park), but think the route has a lot of potential. Some fast facts:

  • 100 miles long 
  • 50% trail, 30% dirt road, 20% off-trail
  • Unofficial "route"
  • Western Terminus: Casa Piedra Trailhead, Big Bend Ranch State Park
  • Eastern Terminus: Chisos Basin, Big Bend National Park
  • Split roughly evenly between national park and state park land.
  • Tough logistics/transportation between termini

This one's another expert-level trail. I haven't done the "hard" (i.e. off-trail) parts, as the 2019 government shutdown scuttled my plans, but would expect it to be on par with the Hayduke for navigational and water difficulty. The route's "official" website has been taken down recently for unknown reasons, so do your homework if you want to attempt this trail. Reading between the lines, I suspect there's some significant red tape associated with hiking this trail, with the National Park's permit system being of particular concern.

Considerations for winter hiking

Even for hiking trails that are at their best during the winter, things are still a little bit different in the winter vis-à-vis three-season hiking. 

Short Daylight

In early January, the sun is only up in Miami for 10.5 hours. For points more northerly (e.g. the rest of the country), there's even less daylight. This has two implications.

First, expect to scale back your daily mileage. During three-season conditions, I typically do about 25 miles/day on the major western trails, and most of those trails are far more physically demanding than either the Florida Trail or Desert Winter Thru Hike. Despite that, I found that my daily mileage on both the FT and Desert WTH was only around 20 miles/day. I constantly found myself running out of daylight. I could certainly do bigger miles, but it would involve night hiking. I advise anyone looking to thru-hike in the winter to scale back their mileage expectations relative to the long days of summer.

Second, find ways to pass the long nights. Even while hiking, I can't sleep for 13 hours, night after night. I generally find myself falling into an exhausted sleep soon after dark, waking up for an hour or two in the middle of the night, and then falling back asleep til morning. Apparently this sleep pattern was common in the long winter nights of pre-industrial Europe. I recommend bringing a deck of cards, a book, or some other form of entertainment. I also use the nighttime interregnum to do a significant fraction of my daily eating. I'm awake anyway, so why not? It allows me to make better use of my limited daylight to hike and see stuff, rather than taking an hour lunch.

Sunrise and sunset seem to consume half the daylight hours during the winter

Less Human Presence

Particularly for trails in the "Marginal Candidates" bucket, I find that trails are much quieter during the winter. Most casual outdoors-types who live in warm climates aren't particularly enthused about going out in cold weather (at least by their standards). On my Ouachita and Ozark Highlands Trails hikes, I met a grand total of 4 people over 400 miles. Had I hiked in the dead of winter instead of during the winter/spring transition, I probably met even fewer.

With shoulder-season hiking comes certain challenges though. Campgrounds and seasonal businesses may be closed. Water faucets at campgrounds and visitors centers may be shut off. If you're planning to hike a Marginal Candidate durin the winter, make sure you do your research beforehand!

Reduced Physical Fitness

A friend of mine refers to this as the "Winter Manatee, Summer Dolphin" phenomenon, and I don't think it's limited to long-distance hikers. Understandably, most people simply aren't as active in the winter as they are in the summer.

Hikers are particularly susceptible to this phenomenon, though. Many of them will have completed a long-distance hike in September or October, and will have adjusted their expectations over the course of that hike. They now see 25-30 mile days as the new normal, and may not fully appreciate just how tough a 25 is for someone "coming off the couch". After a couple months of reduced physical activity and still eating 3,000 calories/day, trying to do big miles during the dead of winter may be a rude awakening indeed. 

All in all then, even experienced thru-hikers would do well to ease themselves into the hiking life and allow their bodies to acclimate to the rigors of on-trail life.

Worth It?

There's no way around it - long-distance hiking options are limited during the North American winter. Nevertheless, a winter thru-hike can be delightful. I think that the Desert Winter Thru Hike in particular has a ton of potential as a delightful midwinter journey for very experienced route hikers. But even if you're not up for something that long or difficult, the shorter candidates, or a section of the Florida Trail may be just what you need to ward off the winter manatee. And let's not pretend there's not a certain delight in enjoying the warm sunshine while our friends and family in colder states are complaining about yet another foot of snow!



Thursday, December 23, 2021

2021 - In Review

I've done this year-end review series for several years now, and the format's always the same. I generally try to tie the year together with a little theme, compile some silly numbers, and run through each month's trips. I generally conclude that it was a "good year". Some years (2018, 2019) were pretty phenomenal, while other years (2017) were rougher, but still alright. Heck, even the dumpster fire we call 2020 was fairly fruitful for me from a backpacking standpoint, despite a global pandemic and literal bear attack.

Not this year. This year sucked.

It started out well enough, with a little ramble through the low desert during the dregs of winter. And despite returning to full-time work this year, I was pretty stoked for the a full slate of weekend and vacation-length trips.

On the very first of those weekend trips, I shattered a bone in my foot. I had surgery shortly thereafter and was knocked entirely out of commission for the next 5-6 months. I did some (exceptionally wimpy) trips in the fall, but as of this writing (December 2021), the foot is still very limited - a few miles over easy terrain is about all it can handle. I'm still unsure how thorough the recovery will be, and whether I'll be able to get back to doing some of the things I love - long-distance stuff, uneven terrain, etc. The foot odyssey will stretch at least into 2022, and your prayers would be highly appreciated as that journey continues.

"Getting outside" on the Bonneville Salt Flats with a wheelie scooter. H/T Justin Swanson

 Whew, sorry for being a downer there. Despite the year's rottenness, there were a few highlights to celebrate. Let's begin with a few fun facts:

Gear:

  • Pairs of shoes: 2
  • Silver umbrellas: 2
  • Tents used: 2
  • Leaky tents: 1
  • Leaky tents complained about in last year's In Review that I still haven't replaced: 1
  • Sleeping pads rendered as sacrificial offerings to the thorns of southern Arizona: 1
  • Cars rented: 2
  • U-Hauls rented: 1
  • 5-gallon buckets hidden in the desert: 4
  • 5-gallon buckets insufficiently hidden in the desert:1 (it got stolen)
  • Days on crutches: 77
  • Days in a walking boot: 103
Trips:
  • Long-distance hikes: 1
  • Weekend backpacking trips: 5
  • Number of vacation days devoted to backpacking: 0
  • Car camping trips: 5
  • National Parks: 1
  • National Monuments: 2
  • Miles hiked: 475
Highest/Lowest/Fastest/Slowest:
  • Highest point (literal and metaphorical): 11,949' (Bald Mountain, Uintas)
  • Lowest point: 392' (Lower Colorado River)
  • Lowest point (metaphorical): Crawling up a steep rock-and-dirt slope on hands and knees with a broken foot
  • Longest day, in miles: 22 miles (desert ramblings)
  • Shortest day, in miles: 0.5 miles (Bear River Range)
  • Most consecutive days without seeing a human: 2
  • Longest water carry: 33 miles
  Animal Encounters:
  • Snakes seen: 0
  • Bears seen: 0
  • Moose seen: 2
  • Wild horses poking around my camp in the middle of the night
  • Dead bees floating in my water sources: millions
  • Killer bee colonies crept past under the cover of darkness: 1
  • Water sources fouled up by a dead/decaying burro corpse: 1
  • Water sources drank from despite aforementioned burro corpse: 1
Human Encounters:
  • Solo trips: 4
  • Trips with friends: 1
  • Hitchhikes: 1 (after breaking my foot)
  • Episodes of Boy Scout drama: 1
  • Times I was once again the gossip of hospital staff: 1
Camping:
  • Bag nights: 35
  • Weird UFO sightings: 1 (I don't believe in aliens but I sure couldn't identify whatever I saw in the sky!)
  • Harassed by ravenous mosquitoes in the middle of the Arizona desert: 1
  • Slept on a train: 1

Previous years in review: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2014.

On a train, not in a train

In January and February, I walked 440 socially-distant miles (all caches, no town stops, no public transit) from Tucson to the Arizona/California border along the route of Brett Tucker's proposed Desert Winter Thru Hike.When finalized, the Desert WTH will connect the Arizona Trail to the Pacific Crest Trail through the Sonoran and Mojave deserts. It was great fun to contribute in a small way to the its development, as well as pick up some route-creation tips from hiking's foremost master craftsman.

The only  flowing water in 400+ route miles
 

In March, I took an otherwise-delightful weekend trip through some non-technical slots in the Glen Canyon area. In so doing, I broke my foot badly.  The next six months consisted of surgery, endless follow-up appointments, and physical therapy.

I took several car camping trips over the summer, but my next backpacking trip didn't come until September, when I did a half-mile overnighter in northern Utah's Bear River Range...

...and a another quick trip to a lake in the High Uintas.

I spotted a pair of moose and the first snowfall of the season in October while camped in the upper reaches of the Wasatch.

November brought a trip to one of my favorite canyon systems in the newly restored Bears Ears National Monument.

What's next: for the first time in forever, I don't have any concrete outdoor plans for the coming year. The foot is a wild card, so it's tough to set expectations. Lord willing, I have plans to do some international hiking in 2022 if the foot/Covid situation permits. Hopefully next year is a bit more fruitful than this year was. I realize it's been a bit of dry year on the blog, and I'm honored that some of you have stuck around to read these rambles. More to come in 2022!



Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Hundred Yard Hike

The trail was a half mile long, four feet wide, and punctuated by wooden benches every few hundred yards. It'd be a stretch to call it true "wilderness". Yet the path slithered past a few grassy ponds on its way to a deep, clear alpine lake, nestled in a north-facing cirque. I could hardly complain about that!

I hiked/limped my way down the trail, stopping periodically to rest on those conveniently-placed benches. Families, teenage cliques, and the occasional retired couple breezed past. I didn't care. I was just happy to be out with a pack on my back for the first time since breaking my foot.

Thankfully, most folks were going the other way, back to their cars as the shadows lengthened. There were still a number of groups at the lake, most of them headed for the 40-foot rope swing attached to a stately tree overhanging the water. It looked like a blast, but such shenanigans were out of the question in my current condition. Instead, I headed for the opposite side of the lake, finding a level patch of short grass to pitch my tent on. The rope swingers' excited shrieks filtered across the water, even as the sun finally took leave behind the rocky cliffs that ensconced the lake. 

After setting up my shelter, it was time for dinner. Carrying a stove is out of the norm for me, but on a trip like this, it was worth the weight and the fuss to prepare a nice meal and enjoy the camping. Except for one thing - I forgot my cookpot. Darn. I guess that's what happens when you've been out of the backpacking swing for six months.

Yet, even as I was shaking off the rust, certain elements seemed so familiar. The slightly sweet musk of pine sap. The way the world quiets down as evening falls. The muting of color, as the brash hues of afternoon gives way to the soft sepia of dusk. As it got dark, I sipped a brew I'd squirreled away in my backpack, and finally went to bed. It was good to be home.

*****

In a way, this trip brought me back to my roots. I've been backpacking for the better part of a decade now. After a while, the memories of those first trips fade. Sure, you remember how you brought nothing but nuts and chocolate chips for a three-day trip, clad yourself in cotton, or saw your buddy lose his shoes down a raging river. But it's much harder to recapture the general discomfort/nervousness/fear of spending those first days and nights outside. But now, where every step was a battle, and I couldn't stride carefree into the backcountry like normal, I remembered what it was like to be a newbie in this hobby.

There are a lot of people in my boat right now. One fascinating subplot of the Covid-19 pandemic has been its effect on outdoor places. Because people rightly perceive outdoor activities to be less risky (at least as far as the virus is concerned) than indoor activities, visitation to many of our public lands has skyrocketed. A new, vaguely handwringy article on the subject is published seemingly every five seconds. And yes, there are real consequences to the overcrowding of outdoor spaces - it can impact visitor experience, quality of life for locals, habitat for wildlife, and the land itself. 

But there's one thing I think that narrative is missing. There is a whole generation of people right now who are in their first or second season of outdoor adventuring. They didn't necessarily intend to get into the outdoors, but then the pandemic happened and forced their hand. And now, they're glad they were introduced to it. Because even though they had to wait two hours for the chains at Angels Landing, they did it, goshdarnit! And in so doing, they realized that their body was good for more than simply carrying their brain around. And they discovered they loved those outdoor places. 

To those enthusiastic beginners, welcome!




Thursday, May 20, 2021

Quick Guide: Backcountry Resupply Caches

I walked into Hot Springs, NC on Day 17 of my 2013 Appalachian Trail hike. I found a cozy hostel, a welcoming populace (Wednesday night potluck at the community center!) and a great greasy-spoon diner that didn't skimp on the portion sizes. I ended up staying in Hot Springs for a day and a half, eating pizza, sampling a few local brews, and hanging out with hikers at the hostel. I don't generally hang out in town on thru-hikes. But I certainly enjoyed Hot Springs.

Not all trail towns are as idyllic as Hot Springs, though. Some towns (Kent, CT) have plenty of services but a terrible attitude. Other towns (Leadore, ID) have a great attitude, but very limited services. And once you get away from established hiking routes and trails, towns are frequently both unfriendly and inconvenient.

One section of the Hayduke Trail, for example, goes more than 300 miles between paved road crossings. Getting to town involves either a lengthy detour or a tough hitch down a dead-end dirt road. At the end of a similarly-sized roadless section of the Idaho Centennial Trail, the nearest "real" town is 80 miles away. Eighty miles! The Hayduke and the ICT are both admittedly fringey hiking routes. But we can push the envelope further. How about a thousand-mile loop of the empty spaces and looming ranges of Nevada, or an 800-mile ramble through the Mojave and Sonoran deserts? What if the best route - as far as scenic values and hiker experience is concerned - goes nowhere near anything that resembles a decent town or a plausible hitch?

The point is this: the need to stop into town once a week can, in some cases, be a major impediment to our enjoyment of a particular environment. But there's good news: we don't actually need to go into town in order to resupply. We can cache supplies in the backcountry instead.

Normally, caching is probably the least desirable way of resupplying. After all, it involves a whole bunch of driving to and from your cache site, before and after your hike. It involves having enough foresight to pack absolutely everything you'll need, weeks or months in advance. And it does involve leaving food unattended in the backcountry, which necessitates strict food-storage practices, as well as compliance with local regulations. All in all, it's a headache. But sometimes, it can be the best way, and allow you to hike a route that would otherwise be logistically impossible.

Prepping maildrops and caches. When appropriate, the latter make for a more pleasant resupply experience (IMO).

What is a cache?

Simply put, a resupply cache is a sturdy container filled with all the supplies a hiker needs, hidden in the backcountry. It requires extra work before and after the hike - you've got to place it before you begin the hike, and retrieve it after you finish. But in exchange, it's enormously convenient while on-trail - there's no need to get off route or go into town in order to resupply. To break it down into steps:

  1. Research your cache. Decide whether or not a cache is actually the best option for your particular resupply needs. Look up whether caching is legal in the area you’re planning to visit - and if so, what the applicable regulations say.
  2. Pack your cache. In addition to backpacking food, you'll want to include first aid supplies, extra gear,and more.
  3. Stash your cache. Drive to a convenient point along your backpacking route, and bury your odor-proof, bear-proof container in an inconspicuous & Leave-No-Trace compliant site
  4. Enjoy your cache. When you get to your cache site, take the afternoon off, eat your "town food", play Angry Birds on your phone while it's charging, wash your socks, and swap out gear. Pack up your backpacking food for the next section and re-bury your cache.
  5. Retrieve your cache. After you complete your hike, drive back to your cache site, pick up your box, and restore the area to a natural look. 

1. Research your cache

It’s the first principle of Leave No Trace outdoor ethics - prepare and plan ahead. Caches require far more forethought than any other method of backpacking resupply. You really do have to think of everything - headlamp batteries, new socks, Leukotape, medications, SD cards for your camera - if you didn’t think of it beforehand, you’ll have to live without it for a couple weeks at a minimum. This may sound intimidating - and to be fair, cache-based wilderness expeditions require a greater skill set than traditional town-based thru-hiking, all else being equal. But that need not scare us off. After all, thru-hiking requires a greater skill set than backpacking, which in turn requires a greater skill set than day hiking. Cache-based expeditions are merely one logical step in our development as outdoorsmen or outdoorswomen, and just about anybody willing and able to put in the time/effort should be able to achieve mastery.

When to cache

In addition to the obvious (town is impossible or inconvenient to get to), there are a few other reasons one might want to cache in the backcountry:

  • It's not safe to go into town. Many hikers aren't particularly comfortable with hitchhiking, especially when they're outside the cozy confines of a well-established trail corridor. And, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic introduced a wrinkle in the "hiker visits town" dynamic. Even though the threat is gradually receding as vaccination rates continue to improve, many hikers prefer to avoid town during the 2021 hiking season - and I certainly can't criticize that decision.
  • You don't have time to go into town. Town stops are the single biggest time-suck on a long-distance hike. It can often take an hour or two to get a ride. And once you get into town, you've got to visit a restaurant, post office, outfitter, grocery store, and laundromat. And by that time, the sun's going down, and you decide to spend the night at a motel. By the time you get back on trail the next morning, the better part of a day has elapsed - and that's if you make your town stop quick! By contrast, with a cache, I can eat my "town food" leisurely, pack up my resupply, launder my clothes, and repair gear - all in about three hours and without feeling rushed. 
  • You don't want to go into town. The founders of the Hayduke Trail designed their route around the cache system - not because towns didn't exist, but because they believed strongly that the best Hayduke experience would be found in two months of uninterrupted wilderness. It turns out that not too many hikers have followed in their footsteps, opting instead for a more traditional hitch-to-town resupply strategy. Nonetheless, their impetus was well-intentioned: spending weeks or months in the wilderness, without going into town, can be a tremendously powerful and rewarding experience.

When not to cache

Caches can be very useful, but they're not always appropriate. Here are a few instances where I would not cache:

  • Whenever it's illegal. You're generally prohibited from caching inside state or national parks. Exceptions exist of course, but generally the more protections that land has, the less likely that it's going to be appropriate/legal to cache on it. Land managers often distinguish between attended food storage (i.e. hanging your food bag near camp) vs unattended food storage (i.e. a cache). There are often different regulations for each. In many jurisdictions, unattended food storage is banned outright. Check the regulations for the park/forest/monument in advance.
  • On/near established long-distance hiking routes. Caching can be a great solution to logistical issues, but it also comes with its fair share of ecological impacts - digging a hole, for one. It's not too big of a problem if one hiker does it on a DIY route in the middle of nowhere - but we probably don't need a couple dozen people all digging holes near the same trailhead. Thankfully, there's generally no need to cache on an established trail. Even the most hardscrabble of CDT trail towns, Leadore ID, has a few people who run shuttles for hikers to and from the trail crossing. That's very much welcome, since there's not too much traffic on that dirt road! 
  • In ecologically sensitive areas. It's completely inappropriate to cache in the high alpine or cryptobiotic desert environments. Areas with lush vegetation and high soil moisture are generally best - these areas will heal quickly once you've removed your cache.

2. Pack your Cache

I used to be pretty skeptical of caches. After all, they shared a lot of similarities with maildrops - similarities that I didn't particularly like. I was forced to plan my resupplies weeks or months in advance, without knowing exactly how my nutritional needs and tastes would change on trail. I couldn't bring string cheese - keeping it unrefrigerated for a week in your pack is no problem, but two months in a cache sounded like a recipe for food poisoning. And finally, I wasn't looking forward to not eating in a restaurant, not being able to wash my clothes, or missing out on any other town niceties.

In preparation for a 2020 Greater Yellowstone Loop hike, I started to research food cache strategies. One of the most insightful tips I got was from serial thru-hiker Buck-30, who'd done some water caching on a hike of the Desert Trail a few years ago. Along with the water caches, Buck packed himself heavy, but yummy food - fruit cocktail and a Diet Coke, in his case. This got the gears turning, and eventually morphed into my "Town-in-a-Box" concept.

Town-in-a-Box

The idea is this: when hikers visit town, we do a lot more than just buy six more days of backpacking food. We pig out at the buffet, compensating for the calorie deficit we've been running. We wash our clothes. We charge our phones. We swap out gear, sip a beer, and relax with some trashy daytime TV. If I'm going to opt for a resupply cache in lieu of a town-stop, then my cache has to serve most, if not all of those functions.

Let's take a walking tour of an imaginary trail town, stopping at each business.

  • Restaurant. You may not be able to get a hot/fresh meal in the woods, but you certainly can pack yourself a bunch of obscenely heavy, bulky items that you'd never take backpacking. A couple cans of chili make a great snack. Ditto with snack-pack pudding cups, fruit cocktail, a 2-liter bottle of pop, or whatever else you crave. Depending on how long you're leaving your cache, and how deep it'll be buried, you can even get away with putting a few fresh fruits or veggies in your cache. How about burritos - tortillas, a can of chicken, a can of chili, a bag of shredded cheddar, fresh tomato, avocado, and onion? I bet that'll keep just fine for a week, buried underground at a constant 55F.
    • Go big! The first time I tried caching town food, I didn't leave myself nearly enough and ended up hungry and miserable. The second time? I left myself a feast.
    • Pack some luxuries. Hikers who typically go stoveless can leave a pot/stove/fuel inside their cache, so they can make a hot meal. Even hot/cooked ramen is a treat when you're used to biting it off the block. And of course, you can leave yourself a glass jar of spaghetti sauce and a container of parmesan with no care in the world for weight. 
  • Grocery store. It's possible to "go shopping" inside your cache - just leave yourself a little extra food so you can pick and choose what you want to carry. That way, if you're sick and tired of the Doritos after a month of eating them, you can pack out the BBQ Lays instead. And if you've been ravenously hungry and running out of food, you have the option to bring both - more food than you originally thought you needed.
    • Don't forget those non-food items that you typically buy at the store - toothpaste, headlamp batteries, ibuprofen, or athletic tape. You might not need all of it at any given resupply, but it's hard to say what you will and won't need. Anything you don't need can just be left in the cache. None of it will go to waste - you'll use it all eventually on future trips, just like with the extra food. 
  • Motel room. In addition to a soft bed, motel rooms offer hikers the chance to take a shower, charge their electronics, and veg out with House M.D. reruns.
    • Consider leaving a sponge in your box so you can wipe yourself down/freshen up. It'll eliminate the worst of the grime. Same thing goes with any other personal care items (say, a hairbrush) that are too heavy or annoying to carry in your backpack.
    • Bring a big battery bank. In addition to taking your phone from zero to 100%, you'll want extra juice so you can take care of the stuff you normally do in town - uploading photos to the cloud, paying your credit card bill, yakking with Great Aunt Edna for 45 minutes, or watching some bad TV. 
    • Before leaving home, check cell coverage maps (Gaia GPS offers layers for most major US carriers) to see if your cache location has cell service. Otherwise you'll have to bring a larger capacity battery on-trail (or a solar charger) so you can take care of all of your electronic entanglements atop a mountain where you actually have service. 
  • Tavern. Slip a couple delicious beverages of choice into your resupply cache. They won't be ice-cold, of course, but they do stay surprisingly cool if they're buried underground. This is particularly true in fairly cold climates, where soil temperature is fairly low. Fortunately, mountainous areas fit the bill. 
  • Post office/outfitter. This is your opportunity to swap out gear and to replenish supplies. Need new shoes or trekking pole tips? Leave yourself a pair. No longer need those microspikes? Leave them in your cache. In this way, with a little forethought, you can swap out your gear, always bringing the right tools for the season and environment.
    • Socks, trekking pole tips, shoes, and bottles of Aquamira all have pretty well-defined lifespans. Plan conservatively, just in case conditions are a bit more rugged than you expected. If your shoes usually last 700 miles, consider replacing them around the 450-500 mile mark. If they fall apart earlier than expected, and you're not within striking distance of a town, you'll be very glad you planned to replace them as soon as you did!
    • Consider leaving a sewing kit in your resupply cache (if you're not already carrying one in your backpack).
  • Laundromat. For the vast majority of human history, washing machines didn't exist. Yet, we've usually avoided living in total squalor. I won't claim that "some soap and a sturdy plastic bag" gets your clothes quite as clean as an Electrolux, but it certainly does the job. At the bare minimum, it gets rid of the uncomfortable sweat crust that builds up on your socks - and let's be honest, that's the biggest reason you want to do laundry in the first place. Two caveats apply here though:
    • Use biodegradable soap, and using as little of it as possible. My first attempt at trail laundry involved Dr. Bronners, and wasn't particularly successful in getting my clothes clean. My second attempt involved beefier soap, but it turned out to be really concentrated and probably wasn't the greatest for God's creation. The search continues for the perfect backcountry laundry soap. If you use one and are happy with it, shout it out in the comments so the rest of us can learn!
    • Don't do your laundry next to a stream. Instead, get water from a water source (either a large jug in your cache, or a nearby stream), and do your laundry "Dundo-style", as Ray Jardine would say, far away from the water source itself. We don't want to contaminate a stream with a mixture of soap scum and foot funk. If there's no nearby natural source and you need to cache water, I'd expect to use about 2.5 gallons to pre-rinse, thoroughly wash, and rinse a typical hiker's load of socks/underwear/bandana.

The overriding message is this: a little extravagance goes a long way. There's no need to go ultralight or minimalist when it comes to caching supplies. It's okay to have a little more than you need. You need a little flexibility to account for unknowns on trail, and you need a mental break for the austerity that wilderness backpacking demands. Treat yourself. It's okay. And you're still using a lot fewer resources (and money!) than you would be on an in-town resupply stop.

We can't completely emulate the comforts and conveniences of town with a resupply cache. But with a little creativity, we can get pretty close. And it's certainly a far cry from the "barely enough food, crammed into a USPS flat rate box" sadness of an isolated post office in the middle of nowhere. Unlike that sad, pathetic maildrop, Town-in-a-Box is designed to be sustainable indefinitely. It's possible to hike for weeks or even months at a time without ever visiting a town, using the Town-in-a-Box strategy.

One final tip: trying to organize many caches at once can be daunting. Spreadsheets are essential to keep it all organized. And, unless you’re buying in bulk, you might find it easier to go shopping for just one or two caches/resupply legs at a time. That will help you increase the variety of foods that you put in your cache (different foods will look good to you on different days) and avoid the dreaded “aw-screw-it” apathy when you’ve been at the grocery store for two hours already and your cart is overflowing.

3. Stash your cache

Critter Safety

The most important consideration when caching supplies in the backcountry is keeping your food absolutely 100% safe from critters. It's your only way of staying fed for the next week. And, given that your food will be stored unsupervised, it needs to be very, very critter-proof to keep a fed bear from becoming a dead bear, or to stop determined squirrels from gnawing their way inside.

I use a three-part safety system to ensure that my food will be absolutely secure:

  1. Store all food and smellable items in odor-proof bags
  2. Put everything inside a hard-sided, IGBC-certified bear-proof container
  3. Bury the whole business 8-12 inches underground

The idea is this: if a critter can't smell my food, it won't have any reason to try and dig up my box. And if it does randomly dig up my box, it'll find it completely impenetrable. And the fact that it's well-buried means that a curious animal won't randomly stumble upon it, swat it around a bit, or run off with it. Put simply, with this method I can be 100% certain that my cache will be waiting for me when I get there, completely undisturbed.

Let's dig into each of these elements:

1. Odor-proof bags. The name of the game here is a fleet of OPsaks - heavy-duty, resealable plastic bags designed to be 100% air and odor-proof. In the past, I’ve been a little skeptical of OPsaks. They don't hold up very well to the rigors of backpacking. Backpackers tend to abuse OPsaks - opening them and closing them constantly, crumpling them up, jamming them to the brim with food. After a week or two of this harsh treatment, the seals start to break, seams begin leaking, and suddenly your odor-proof bags aren’t very odorproof anymore.

On the other hand, OPsaks excel at keeping things fully air and odor-proof in static environments like a cache. Just buy fresh bags, put everything with a smell in them (including medication, chapstick, toothpaste, and any other smellables), and put them inside your cache boxes. Not only will they contain odors, but they'll keep your chips and cookies and other food fresh for weeks. You can even pre-open and crush a bag of chips (to save space), and after a month in an OPsak, they'll still be perfectly crunchy.

2. Hard-sided, IGBC-certified container. The honest truth is that 95% of the classic backpacking terrain in North America is black and/or grizzly bear terrain. Everybody knows that the Sierra Nevada and Yellowstone are bear habitats. That much is obvious. It's far less obvious that large parts of Florida, the ranges of the mid-south (Ouachitas/Ozarks), and even many of the desert ranges of the Southwest (Superstitions, Mazatzals) are bear habitats too - but they are! Unless you have solid and bulletproof information that you’re not in bear habitat (e.g. Catalina Island, where bears absolutely, definitely do not live), you should assume that you're in bear territory, and plan accordingly.

It is therefore imperative that a cache be fully bear-proof. That means that it must be in a sturdy, hard-sided container (no Ursacks!). But more than that, the container should be certified as bear-resistant by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. An IGBC-certified container is a legal requirement for unattended food storage on many public lands. Not all hard-sided containers are IGBC-certified. Most coolers, for example, are not - and even if they are, they must usually be bolted or padlocked shut in order to be in compliance with regulations. A full, constantly-updated list of IGBC-certified products can be found here.

Even in the tiny minority of places where bears do not exist (low-elevation deserts, certain islands), you should take basically the same precautions. On one occasion while hiking in the low desert, I decided to use 5-gallon buckets instead of ammo boxes. To my horror, one of the caches was nearly gnawed through by a desperate rat! Not only did some poor rodent have to visit the dentist because of my actions, but it very nearly got into all my food, which would have been disastrous. The same thing applies with water jugs - animals will smash, bend, and otherwise mutilate gallon jugs of water in order to get some of that precious liquid. So even when you're not in bear country, it's wise to take the same precautions anyhow, just to avoid problems with other wildlife.

What kinds of IGBC-certified containers work well for caching? There are a few contenders:

  • Bear Canisters. There's an obvious advantage to bear cans - many backpackers already own them. Despite that, though, I find that bear cans aren't actually ideal for caching. They're simply too small. Any PCT hiker who's tried to cram 8 days of food into a bear can in the Sierra will attest to the fact that they tend to fill up very quickly. And once you start adding town food, replacement gear, and all your other Town-in-a-Box supplies, you'll find that a bear can probably isn't big enough.
  • Coolers. Most coolers are not IGBC-certified, but a few are. If you've got an IGBC-certified cooler, it can work well, as long as it's padlocked or bolted. The IGBC product list will generally detail the correct way to use it. But if you're planning a long trip with multiple resupply caches, those roto-molded coolers quickly become economically impractical.
  • Ammo Cans. Fortunately, there's one product on the IGBC list that's cheap and can be purchased en masse - the Army-surplus ammunition box. Ammo boxes themselves are NOT IGBC certified, but with a couple easy modifications - a couple lengths of U-channel bar and some bolts, along with a razor saw and a drill with carbide bit - you can make a huge, fully IGBC-certified container at home. You can expect to pay maybe $15-25 per ammo box, plus a couple bucks for the supplies needed to modify it. They come in a variety of sizes - commonly identified by the size of the ammunition stored within. Larger numbers correspond to smaller boxes. The "standard" 50-caliber box is too small to do Town-in-a-Box - it barely fits two days of backpacking food! The 40mm box is sufficient for about 3 days of food, plus Town-in-a-Box. The big boy, the 20mm box, can pretty comfortably hold up to 8 days of food, plus Town-in-a-Box. It's my preferred choice for most caching.

3. Bury your cache underground. You'll probably want to bury your cache anywhere that there are large animals capable of dragging away your food cache. Burying it keeps it to be out-of-sight and out-of-mind for critters. Yes, animals can dig, and maybe they'll be curious about your freshly-dug hole. But if burying our poop 6-8 inches deep is sufficient to keep animals from messing with it, then burying our odor-proof food cache least that deep (I recommend 8-12 inches) will probably be similarly effective. And I probably don't need to remind you that poop is not odor-free! Except mine, of course. :)

In order to dig a proper hole, you'll need the following:

  • A good shovel. We're talking a real shovel, not your poop trowel. Even with good site selection, you'll invariably have to dig out a big rock or cut through a few roots. That’s a job for a shovel that you can really stomp on and use some force with. Thankfully, there's no need to leave the shovel at your cache. Once you've placed your cache and filled the dirt back in the hole, it's easy enough to dig back up with bare hands - even after a couple months of letting the dirt settle and harden.
  • Plenty of patience. Your hole will need to be at least twice as big as you think. The problem is, we dig round holes, and our ammo cans are rectangular. So we'll need to dig a lot deeper and wider than it appears at first glance. Be patient, and give yourself plenty of time to complete the work.

It should be noted that there are some drawbacks to caching underground - namely, the LNT impacts of digging a hole. In most cases, I consider those drawbacks to be "worth it" in the name of greater food security. There are certain exceptions - most notably in truly arid desert environments where there aren’t bears or any other animal large enough to mess with a IGBC-certified and smell-proof container.

And keep in mind - caching is only recommended on super obscure/DIY routes, not on the Pacific Crest Trail. One hole in the middle of the woods isn't a big deal to me, provided that it's dug in a sustainable location and that you re-landscape the area to a natural appearance afterward. But if you've got a thoughtful, contrary opinion on the matter, I'd love to hear it in the comments. 

Human Safety

Two-legged critters are more likely to cause problems for your food cache than the four-legged critters are. Mere weeks before I began my 2020 Greater Yellowstone Loop, the treasure of Forrest Fenn was finally found. For years, it was strongly suspected to be in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem - not too far from where I was burying caches! Needless to say, I was relieved that fewer people would be poking around random trailheads in the GYE, looking for buried treasure.

On another occasion, I neglected to hide a resupply cache underground, as it wasn't in bear country. But I hid it a little too close to town, in the litter-and-creosote wasteland where people ride roughshod on ATV's. When I got to my cache location a few weeks later, my bucket had vanished without a trace. I hope the thief really enjoyed those crushed potato chips and Teddy Grahams.

The point is this: curious or malevolent humans can pose a slight risk to your cache in the backcountry. Here are a couple security tips I've learned the hard way:

  • Avoid well-traveled areas. It's probably not a good idea to cache in the vicinity of a busy trailhead. Maybe, if you've got a couple mile roadwalk down a dirt road away from the main road, go half a mile down the dirt road and then cache well off the road in a place only you can find it. GPS tag the location and take a picture to be certain!
  • Seriously, bury your stuff underground. People are lazy, and on the odd chance that they spot your hole, will probably lose interest if they dig down a few inches and find nothing.
  • Disguise your cache site as a dog grave. I like to print off a photo of a random poodle from the internet and write "RIP Fluffy" on it. Bury it a few inches down in the hole, so if anybody starts digging, they'll promptly find the epitaph and stop. Nobody wants to dig up a rotting pet carcass.

Proper Site Selection

As alluded to earlier, it's important to choose a good cache burial site. Here are a few tips I've picked up:

  • If you wouldn't poop there, you shouldn't cache there. It's easy to get "lazy" with your caches - a fully loaded Town-in-a-Box will be pretty heavy, and hikers aren't exactly known for their upper body strength. But take the extra time and walk a few tenths away from the road crossing or trailhead, so you're not in/near a high-foot-traffic area. The LNT standard of 200 feet from trails/roads/water is a good start, but I'd probably go with 200 yards rather than 200 feet in this case. A large cache hole is a bigger impact and more unsightly than a small cathole, so it's best to cache well away from where other people will be venturing - both for the security of your cache and out of respect for other visitors
  • Lush and green is your friend. I like burying my cache in areas of high soil moisture. In addition to keeping your stuff nice and cool, the land will recover more quickly in a greener, wetter environment. On a Greater Yellowstone Loop, my latter caches - which had been buried for close to 2 months by the time I reached them - had little green shoots already growing out of the dirt I'd overturned. Within a couple years, the site will become indistinguishable from its surroundings.
  • Flood plains offer easy digging. Even in areas that aren't particularly rocky, there are rocks everywhere. And when you start digging holes, you'll find more rocks than you ever knew existed. I've found that flood plains of creeks and rivers make for the best digging - there are simply fewer rocks there. If it's an area that only floods in the springtime, and you're caching in the summer, you probably don't have to worry about floods sweeping away your Teddy Grahams. Just make sure it's a broad floodplain so you're not caching too close to the watercourse itself.
  • Disguise your burial site. After you finish burying your cache, grab some leaves/rocks/forest duff and try to make your site look natural. There will still be a leftover dirt pile nearby, of course, but you can disguise that too with a little additional landscaping. I generally leave two small sticks atop the burial site in an L-shape - recognizable enough to tell me exactly where to dig, but subtle enough not to attract attention from strangers who happen to stumble across the site.
  • Tag your cache site with GPS. After a few months, memories fade. Take a photo, save the exact GPS coordinates on your phone, and make sure to send the coordinates to your emergency contact. Perish the thought, but if the worst case scenario happens and you disappear, SAR can dig up your cache and determine whether you made it this far or not.
Green and lush. Any trace of the burial site will quickly disappear in this environment.


4. Enjoy your cache

This is the fun part. There’s absolutely nothing better than rolling up to your cache and being able to immediately dive head-long into a large pile of food and drink. You don’t have to wait for a ride or slow service at the restaurant. And, if you’ve done Town-in-a-Box right, you’ll be able to stuff yourself to the gills.

A few tips for maximum effectiveness:

  • Plan ahead. I generally budget about three hours for my cache activities, including a healthy dose of relaxation. Given that caches are usually relatively close to a road of some sort, I try not to get there too late in the day - otherwise I’ll have to camp close to the road and/or night-hike. I find that early afternoon is best. After all, I’ve got to do laundry, and I want it to dry in the warm sunshine.
  • Start charging ASAP. Unless you’re carrying a solar charger and/or auxiliary battery in your backpack, the cache is your only opportunity to recharge your phone or other electronic toys. Sit down, take a couple swigs of pop, and then plug your phone into your battery bank right away. By time you’re done with your “town chores'', the phone will be ready to go. 
  • Do all of your town chores. It can be surprisingly hard to keep track of all the things you have to do at a cache - be it repairing ripped gear, doing laundry, or swapping out gear. I suggest making a list ahead of time so you don’t forget anything. There’s nothing worse than getting five miles down the trail and realizing that you could have jettisoned your microspikes at the last cache - or worse, that you forgot your mosquito headnet for this next section.
  • Relax. Long-distance hiking may be a leisure activity, but darned if that hobby doesn’t feel like work sometimes, particularly when you do it all day every day. It’s okay - necessary, even - to just hang once in a while. A few ideas to increase the enjoyment of your cache day:
    • Watch a show on your phone. I won’t tell if you cry when they shoot Old Yeller. 
    • Do a little fishing. Roads tend to follow rivers, which means there’s a decent chance your cache site isn’t too too far from water. Pick up a cheap spinner pole at a thrift store, hide it near your cache box, and spend the day pulling little brookies out of the stream. 
    • Play a game. Again, the thrift store is your friend. Wade past the 91 copies of Trivial Pursuit to find a board game, leave it in your cache box, and enjoy settling Catan or whatever.
  • Re-seal everything properly. If anything, a cache is a bigger bear magnet after it’s been emptied. You’ve just swapped out food for your rotting trash, which is far more pungent than the food was. Leave everything smellable sealed back inside your OPsaks, safely locked in the bear-proof container, and re-buried.


5. Retrieve your cache

It’s vitally important to pick up a cache promptly upon completion of your hike. If it’s not picked up, it’s mere litter, and negates all the good work you did to make it sustainable and critter-proof in the first place.

You will want to take some time, after you dig up your cache, to re-landscape the site to a fairly natural appearance. In addition to filling in the hole, I recommend spreading forest duff, sticks, and leaves. Try to spread around the inevitable residual dirt pile, and generally do your best to make it look like you were never there - in other words, leave no trace! You won’t be completely successful in this regard, but if you do your best, the site will largely recover within a year or two.

To reiterate - site selection matters. If you’re digging in a drier place, or one with sensitive vegetation, your impacts may last decades. If you’re digging in a green, lush place with quick-growing plants, the impacts will be more short-lived.

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Food caching isn’t always - or even usually - the best or most appropriate choice for backpackers. But on extremely remote, DIY routes, it’s a useful part of a hiker’s toolkit. There are certainly many approaches to take to caching. In this guide, I could certainly be accused of overthinking it. But I’ve aimed to get hikers thinking outside the flat-rate box - and hopefully to inspire them to create a caching strategy that works well for them. Get out there, experiment a little, and report back! I’d love to hear other perspectives - please share your experience in the comments or ask a question!

Backcountry top-loader washer in action. Put the lid on before agitating! I don't recommend a plastic bucket anymore - a rodent nearly gnawed through one of my buckets on this trip.