I’m sitting on the floor of our tiny apartment using all of my effort to will my sleeping bag to be smaller…and I’m actually breaking a sweat. The girl at REI showed me how to put my sleeping bag at the bottom of the pack and it’s supposed to go horizontally…not vertically. At present my sleeping bag is too wide and the bottom compartment of my backpack is too narrow. Why is it that this scenario reminds me of so many visits to the dressing room at Nordstrom? Backpacking for beginners…am I right?!
With great force, full utilization of the sleeping bag compression straps and some extra help from Catherine we managed to wedge the bag in place. *I actually Googled “straps that compress a sleeping bag” and Google told me those are called compression straps. This is the level of un-informedness we’re dealing with. Again, beginner backpacker over here.
I had the sleeping bag in, now I just needed to get the tent and fly into my pack. Once in place all the other niceties I wanted to bring would comfortably slot into the little crevasses left in the cavernous space that was my backpack. Why is it that I suddenly have the feeling that creepy Facebook is going to show me an ad for a t-shirt that says “NOPE”.
Once again creepy Facebook hits it on the nose. Turns out that after you jam in a sleeping bag, 3-person tent with fly and a sleeping pad you have surprisingly little space left. And so the reconsidering began. In my mind I had already committed to bringing very little on this trip, but after reconsidering it turns out I didn’t need that extra t-shirt, clean pants for the hike out or quite so many snacks. After all, it was just ONE night…after which we would be car camping in luxurious Crystal Cove and we are believers in putting as much stuff in the car as you want.
Backpacking for Beginners Packing List:
- Sleeping bag (I LOVE my Nemo bag…but it turns out it’s kinda big. Which I suppose is good because I am too)
- Tent (Some might say we should have a 2-person tent to cut down the weight and give me more space. To this I say, “We will not buy another tent!)
- Sleeping pad
- Jammas, jams, jammers, pj’s…clean clothes to sleep in
- Toiletries (body wipes, toothbrush, toothpaste, contact solution, deodorant)
- Very lesbian looking sandals (Blue croc-like material Birkenstocks. They are not at all stylish, BUT they are perfect for camping.)
- First aid kit
- Water bladder with 2 liters of water
- 1 additional water bottle (Can you tell I’m worried about water?)
- Solar panel phone charger (This was brought purely to test it out…it works.)
- Snacks (Have you tried Lorissa’s Kitchen chicken jerky? What about Bobo’s Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Oat Bites? Both are very tasty.)
The simple act of packing up my backpack caused me to freak out. I might mention here that Catherine put everything into her pack effortlessly with zero sweating, grunting or emergency YouTube video watching.
In an effort to work our way up to actual backpacking I booked one night of “primitive camping” at Crystal Cove State Park. I considered this our very mini low risk first shot at beginner backpacking. If it went horribly wrong, we were just a few short miles away from civilization. After that first night of truly roughing it we had two nights booked in the civilized campground at the edge of the bluffs overlooking the ocean. And so we packed our hatchback with our backpacks plus a million other things for our snooty seaside camping and set off. A short hour long drive later we pulled up to the ranger check-in booth, me a little anxious and Catherine most likely cool as a cucumber.
I handed a very nice semi-retired gentleman our booking and he walked back to the little hut he was station in. Over the sound of our car engine and the waves crashing I could hear his conversation with a co-worker. From what I could hear there were no reservations that night for the primitive campsites…except we had a printout with our name, a payment and the correct date. After conferring with one another and studying the print out they told us to pull forward and wait for their supervisor to return.
This was a somewhat worrisome way to start this first backpacking adventure. What made it more worrisome was the fact that the semi-retired gentleman told us that we were brave for hiking in and camping there. Thanks for that.
After waiting a few minutes their supervisor whizzed by on his ATV and gave us the green light to proceed to our no frills campsite. We parked the car, placed our permit in the window, heaved on our packs and began our 3-mile hike in.
When I booked our site at Lower Moro campground I picked it because it was the shortest hike. Catherine and I spent much of the spring and early summer building strength and endurance by hiking most weekends, but summer in southern California makes for tough hiking and to be honest we hadn’t gone out in more than a month. To say we were a little out of practice and more importantly out of shape would be an understatement. This coupled with the additional 28 pounds on our backs made for a slow and sweaty climb.
There are two possible routes to hike into Lower Moro. The first takes you straight up along a relentless ridge line the other brings together three trails that are rated easy, difficult and strenuous to give you a slightly easier ascent. Knowing our lack of stamina we chose to take the easier route up and enjoy the ridge line on our way down the next day.
It didn’t take long for the heavy breathing to kick in resulting in many breaks of heaving and water drinking. Turns out hiking with 28 pounds on your back is harder than hiking with two cans of soup for extra weight in your day pack, who knew?
To distract myself from the heavy breathing I made sure to take plenty of pictures with my “old school” DSLR that I decided to bring along. I call it old school because while it does have a ridiculously small screen at the back to review your shot, it doesn’t have live view, so you need to actually bring the camera to your face and look through it to take a picture. I love this.
What I did not love or anticipate was that the camera strap would constantly rub on my neck creating a line of irritation, or that if I didn’t hold the camera as I walked it would bounce back and forth, further irritating my neck and my bruising the girls. Something to think about if you’re going to bring a heavier camera on your first backpacking trip.
As we worked our way up the many switchbacks we were able to see the canyon ahead of us filled with desert plants including grasses, cactus, flowers, some trees and general scrub. My second mistake of the hike was the decision to squat down low in order to get a close-up shot of a particularly spiky cactus that was being hit by the light just perfectly. As it turns out squatting down low while wearing a 28 lbs. backpack is not as easy as your run of the mill squat. All that extra weight is just dying to push you further forward. I came very close to face planting on a cactus. But look at that shot…those spikes would have been brutal.
I haven’t mentioned the weather yet, but let me tell you that it was hot. Not excruciating, but as we were pretty much always in full sun it was quite warm. I often wear all black while hiking. This isn’t because I’m goth or too cool for bright colors, I LOVE bright colors and show tunes for that matter.
I wear black while hiking because I’m a very sweaty person. I’ve had my head erupt in sweat for no apparent reason. I once had a personal trainer comment on the amount of sweat I was producing, using the phrase “sweating bullets” and as he said it a bead of said sweat shot down my face and landed on his shoe. So yeah, I’m sweaty.
You know what happens when a sweaty person wears say a pair of lovely blue hiking pants on a hot day? There is a moment when it starts to look like they’ve wet their pants, but as I (I mean they) have a fully functioning bladder that’s not the case. The wet spot in the crotchal region….it’s sweat. And it ain’t pretty. This leads me to the next thing I learned on my first backpacking trip and that’s to stick to tradition and wear black because you can’t see sweat stains as well when you wear black.
By the time we reached our campground sunset was upon us. Campsites in Lower Moro are first come first serve and while the ranger said there were no reservations for that night there was one tent already pitched and more to come. We did a quick walk around to figure out which site looked best to us, in this case we were looking for a little morning shade, a good view and a little distance from the trail and the pit toilet.
We found our spot and got our tent up before dark. As the sun set and the mist started to descend we ate our dinner of potato salad with green beans and tomatoes, spicy tuna pouches and Ritz crackers. It was delicious! Dessert was hot chocolate and Nutella & Go Hazelnut Spread and Breadsticks. We may have been roughing it, but Nutella is always in order.
It felt pretty amazing to be so far away from civilization surrounded by the sea and coastal hills. With darkness setting in, increasing condensation on everything and a no fire policy we decided to head into our tent and turn in for the night.
After struggling to get out of our wet clothes, attempting to extinguish the stink coming from us with wet wipes and putting on fresh pj’s we laid down and realized that up in these hills we had the perfect cell phone reception….better than our own house. And thus we both proceeded to scroll through Instagram until we were ready to go to sleep. Ridiculous but true.
Lessons learned on my beginner backpacking trip:
- Your sleeping bag and tent take up nearly all of your pack.
- Seemingly nice semi-retired rangers do not offer the best encouragement for first time backpackers.
- Cameras are heavy, and their ability to chafe your skin is great.
- Squatting while carrying a full pack is ill advised.
- People with a history of serious sweating should wear BLACK not blue hiking pants.
- Take a little time to scope out the best spot once you reach the campground.
- It’s hard to take your wet hiking clothes off while laying down in a tent.
- It’s harder to give yourself a “wet wipe bath” while laying down in a tent.
- Cell phone service in the middle of nowhere can be pretty good…better than in your own house.