Puttin’ On the Ritz

30 10 2009


Costumes.  They’re an essential part of life — and not just on Halloween.  We (by we, I mean me and Giles, of course) love costumes, and embrace them from the moment we play our first game of dress-up as children.  Sure, on Halloween (and perhaps for the errant masquerade ball), we go all out and put together outfits in order to be things that we either couldn’t hope to be or wouldn’t want to be in our real lives.  But costumes are not just for Halloween.  I put on a costume every day that I go to work — suit, heels, proper accessories — and then I change into a different costume, usually involving jeans or yoga pants (I’m not into yoga, but I’m really into yoga pants), when I get home. 

Putting on the right clothing, having the right accessories, is our chance to be not someone else, but rather some particular version of ourselves.   Whatever you’re doing, if you can put on the costume, you can put yourself into the mental space necessary to focus.  I can write anywhere, but my favorite way to write is on a laptop in a cafe, preferably one where a waitperson will keep filling my coffee. 

This holds true for hiking and camping, as well.  While having the right equipment is necessary, it’s also fun, and puts you in the right frame of mind to tackle the outdoors.  Clothing that is hiking-appropriate, shoes that work for you, hiking poles/walking sticks, backpacks, water bottles, etc., are the trappings that make up the outdoors costume.

We aren’t talking about specifics today, it’s just food for thought: getting the right gear isn’t an excuse to shop (though that’s a nice side benefit), or some fakery that outdoorsy types indulge in.  It’s the costume.  And costumes are important.

What are the key parts to your hiking/camping costume?

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2009.

Go Girl: Women On the Run

29 10 2009

Today, I write about nothing and everything (and road-tripping solo) over at Go Girl Magazine.  Enjoy!

Give Me Something Good to Eat

28 10 2009

iStock_000004282863XSmall[1]Ah, Halloween.  The one night a year when it’s perfectly acceptable to beg for, scarf down, and get sick from twenty-seven pounds of chocolate and nougat in one go.  (The one day a year when it’s perfectly acceptable to scarf down twenty-seven pounds of savory foods like turkey and stuffing and potatoes and is one month later, of course, because you need the time to recover.)

Now, I like chocolate as much as the next girl, and will probably head for the store on Sunday to buy discounted Halloween candy, even though I shouldn’t.  I won’t be taking any of this chocolate on a hike, however.   First of all, it melts in the heat.  Second, it provides quick but fleeting energy boost and in the end will just make you feel crappy.

So, you may ask, what is the right food to take on a hike?  We’ll talk in more depth about this as time goes on, but here is my general practice:

If it’s a short hike (1-2 hours) in familiar territory, I’ll usually just grab a couple of energy bars…what kind, you ask?  I have my preferences, but you’ll have to check back to find out another day.  For now, pick what you like, try different ones, see what works for you.

If it’s a longer hike, particularly if it spans the lunch time frame, I’ll be a little more elaborate in the edible goodies I put in my backpack.  My favorite hiking lunch draws from a variety of categories: crunchy, salty, filling, light, and sweet.  I tend to stay away from gooey and dairy, because gooey is messy and dairy can spoil.  (These are technical categories, developed after decades of scientific study…I mean, developed in my head a minute ago.)

In seriousness, you want food that will give you energy, fill you up but not slow you down or make you feel heavy and lazy, and is satisfying.  Salt is also important because, as you sweat, you lose sodium, which needs to be replaced if you’re drinking a ton of water as well.  (See hyponatremia.)

A typical hiking lunch for me:

  • Sandwich (turkey, ham, other protein) with mustard and lettuce.  Tomatoes make the bread soggy unless you pack them separately and I don’t like tomatoes enough to make that worth it.  Mayo is a big no-no (the whole “dairy spoils” concept, remember?).
  • Tortilla chips or pretzels .
  • Grapes/cherries/apple/some other easy-to-eat fruit.  I don’t like bringing oranges because then you have to deal with the peel, and I think they’re messy and sticky, but some people don’t mind that.
  • Energy bars/granola bars

Obviously, this isn’t by any means an exclusive list.  In the future, we’ll talk more about food: brands, homemade recipes, and what to eat when you camp.  You’ll find what combination works for you.  What I have found is that the combination above is about right for me on a longer hike.  I have also found that I eat more than I think I will when hiking — I get hungrier from the activity — so I pack more than I might eat if I were just sitting around in front of a computer, like I’m doing right now.

Up next: in further honor of Halloween, on Friday we’ll talk about the importance of costume.  In the meantime, go beg for candy.

It’s Not Rocket Science

26 10 2009

As we discussed last week, when you’re camping and hiking (and road-tripping) on your own, your own observations, thought and instincts are your best tools.  You need to look around, be aware, and make judgments about the right balance between adventure and safety.  There isn’t going to be a Twitter update (or even, ahem, a useful blog) to tell you when the group at the local watering hole poses a specific danger to you, or whether that grizzly bear up ahead on the trail is content to keep out of your way.

That might sound a little intimidating.  Can I really think on the fly, you might ask?  How will I know if my instincts about someone I meet are steering me right?  How do I tell if the campground is a safe place for me to stay tonight?

I’m telling you today to stop questioning yourself.

You’re smarter than you think, and not everyone is evil.

You know the old saying: Common sense is a misnomer, because most people don’t have it.  Well, I’m here to tell you that’s not precisely true.  Common sense is common, it’s just that a lot of the time, people don’t bother to use it.

iStock_000010540973XSmallWe live in a world where information comes to us through countless sources.  Television, newspaper (whether in paper form or online), books, ebooks, radio, billboards, podcasts, magazines, Google reader, email, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and in tiny digestible bites on that little screen in elevators.  While wandering through our environment, we get information from stop lights, digital temperature readers, weather forecasts with icons of sun and rain, traffic reports, and subway announcements.

We rely so heavily on external sources of information, in conclusory format, that we’re spending less time and focus on internal sources of information: our own senses and observations.  I’m guilty of it too — when I wake up, I check the weather on my iPhone and often don’t even look outside until I’m ready to walk out the door.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t come to our own observations and conclusions about the world around us.  It’s just a muscle that most of us don’t have to exercise in our daily lives as we go about our routines.  So exercise it.  Look around, see what you notice.  Test yourself.  Get used to being observant and reaching conclusions based on your observations.  You can do it — it’s a survival instinct that naturally exists.  It’s just that most of us are lazy in our comfortable routines where we don’t have to be so vigilant most of the time.

iStock_000004361536XSmallFurthermore, while there are dangers out there, and while being cautious around people you meet while camping and hiking alone is smart, not everyone is evil.  While the stories of solo female hikers disappearing or running into trouble because of unsavory characters are frightening, they aren’t actually the norm.  They’re the exception.  In fact, most people you will meet aren’t evil.  They’re like you — interested in enjoying the outdoors, having experiences.  They might be downright good samaritans.

It’s good to be cautious.  It’s necessary to use your common sense.  It’s smart to not blindly trust everyone.  But give yourself — and others — a chance.  You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2009.

Camping By Any Other Name

23 10 2009
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been talking a lot about camping.  Why mess with that now?  I thought it might be time to clarify what I’m talking about when I discuss camping.  In general, of course, I’m talking about pitching a tent and sleeping in it.  But more specifically, there are different kinds of camping:

There’s backpacking, in which you strap all of your supplies to your back and carry them to your intended site.  Sometimes these can be actual “sites” such as exist on the A.T., with shelters or raised platforms or designated cleared areas.  Other times you’ll have to clear your own spot (taking care to minimize your impact, of course). 

Shelter on the A.T.

Shelter on the A.T.

I’ve never done real backcountry backpacking.  In Ireland, I spent a few weeks with a frame pack strapped to my back and camped there, but it was by no means backcountry.  In high school, on two successive class trips, I camped in the woods at Chewonki, in Maine.  (Chewonki rocks.)  The first time, we pitched our canvas tents on raised platforms, cooked over a roaring campfire, and didn’t shower for a week.  The second time, we canoed and sailed around the Penobscot River and camped on islands and didn’t shower for a week.



Then there’s car camping.  Car camping does not mean that you sleep in your car (though, certainly, that’s a viable option in extreme circumstances).  Rather, it means that you pull your car up to a designated site, and set up there.

Car Camping

Car Camping

Most of my camping experience is car camping, as I note in Read This First.  There is a wide spectrum of campgrounds out there and the amenities you can find at these places.  I’ve seen places with swimming pools and movies and tennis courts and arcades.  Some have Wi-fi.  Others are more limited, with a small supply store and showers.  Some campgrounds in National Parks (though certainly not all) are primitive: no running water, showers, hook-ups, dump sites or facilities of any kind other than perhaps an outhouse.

A buffalo at the Sage Creek primitive campground in the Badlands, SD

A buffalo at the Sage Creek primitive campground in the Badlands, SD

There is also RV camping.  I have never done this.  I don’t really consider this camping, per se (but then, some people don’t think car camping is “real” camping, so who am I to judge?).  RV camping is, of course, when you pull your RV into a spot and park it there.  A lot of private campgrounds (and some in National Parks as well, although there are fewer of these), have dedicated RV sites.  They have bigger parking spots and often have “hook-ups” where the RV can plug into electrical outlets and sometimes even cable and internet.  Like I said, I’ve never done it, although I am intrigued.  It is, after all, a stereotypical American vacation.

RV Camping

RV Camping

So, thinking about all of these options, it got me to wondering:

What is the best type of camping experience?

I don’t really think there’s an answer to this.  I camp for a couple of reasons.  First, I enjoy it.  I like pitching the tent, and waking up in the morning and being a little bit self-sufficient.  Second, it’s a great way to stave off loneliness while traveling alone.  There is a certain comraderie that springs up between campers at campgrounds.  Think about it — it’s easier to meet people sitting at the next picnic table than in the next hotel room.  Third, there’s a transient nature to camping — the packing and unpacking and setting up and breaking down — that fits with and enhances a hiking road trip.  You don’t have to break your connection with the outdoors just because the sun goes down, and it feels nomadic to carry your shelter with you.  Finally, it’s an inexpensive form of lodging, which on long trips (or any trips, really) can be a huge bonus.

With all that in mind, then, what do I look for in a campsite, when camping alone?  Generally, the following: 

  • Bathrooms. 
  • Showers.  They aren’t a deal-breaker (unless I haven’t stayed in a place with a shower for a couple of nights, then I must have a campground with showers), but it’s a pretty strong preference.
  • Attendants.  Some campsites in National Parks, such as the Sage Creek primitive site pictured above, and the campgrounds at Bryce Canyon, aren’t manned.  You pay by finding an open spot, sticking your money in a box, and taking a little tag.  Or you don’t pay, if it’s free.  This is not to say that no one will come around and check on things, and this is also not a deal-breaker, but I really like it when there’s someone manning a front desk in case I have any problems. 
  • A pretense of seclusion.  I know I said that camping is a great way to meet people, and it is.  But I also prefer sites that have some wooded areas so that you can at least have the illusion of privacy between your tent and the one next door.
  • Other people.  When camping alone, at a campground, this is important to me.  At the primitive Sage Creek site pictured above, I arrived after a long drive on an unpaved road during which I had to stop my little sedan several times to wait for Buffalo to move along.  When I pulled in, I told myself that I was in the middle of nowhere and would go back and find somewhere else to stay unless there were other people there.  There were — one other solo tent-camper, and a couple of horse trailer/RVs.  So I stayed.  However, in Moab, UT, I chose not to stay at the campground on the side of the highway where only RVs were present.  It’s just a matter of balance, but having others around is a safety measure.  Also, sometimes they give you bacon (no joke, it happened to me twice on my road trip).

That’s about all I need.  I generally have no interest in pools/movies/arcades etc. when camping, because I use camping as lodging and not as a destination in and of itself.  A couple of nice-to-haves are a supply store and laundry facilities, but again, not terribly necessary.

So now it’s your turn.  What do you want in your campgrounds?

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2009.

Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head…When You Need A Better Tent

21 10 2009

It always rains on tents.  Rainstorms will travel thousands of miles, against prevailing winds, for the opportunity to rain on a tent.

— Dave Barry

While I don’t know if there is really some gravitational pull between tents and rainstorms (actually, I do know — there’s not), it does seem to rain at least sometimes on the very nights one chooses to pitch a tent.  Unless you enjoy getting dripped on while you sleep, or worse, sleeping on wet ground, it’s important to have a good tent that will keep you dry.

I have a little two-person tent that I got for free by collecting points in a promotion years ago.  I did no research on the brand (Wenzel); I was a poor student planning a lengthy road trip on the cheap and there was nothing cheaper than “free.”  Here is my tent:


That’s at Grant Village in Yellowstone National Park, by the way…but we’ll talk about that another time.  Since I had done no research on tents, I was a little apprehensive about how waterproof this free tent would be.  I found out the night that photo was taken.  It poured.  I mean, it rained cats and dogs and buffalo and small dinosaurs.  Inside my tent, however, I stayed completely dry.  When I crawled out of the tent the next morning, the guy who was cooking bacon outside of the RV across the way said, “Hey!  There’s a person in there!  We were wondering if you got washed away!”  I thanked him for his concern and ate a piece of his bacon.

But I digress.  Mooching yummy breakfast meats from fellow campers is not today’s topic.

So, Her Side, you may ask, how do I find the right tent?  Well, I’ll tell you.  You find the right tent by asking yourself the following questions:

What is the right size tent for me?  There are one-person tents on the market, and some solo camper/hikers prefer these ultralight, ultrasmall shelters:


It’s cool looking, right?  The major drawbacks of these teeny tents is that, while the descriptions may claim you can change your clothes inside, I think that would be a feat of contortionism.  Also, I’m a little claustrophobic, and so I would feel uncomfortable in such a tiny space.  So it’s not for me.

A standard two-person tent is nice because it’s a little roomier, but still small and lightweight.  For serious backpackers, the extra weight might be a dealbreaker, but for casual campers, this isn’t usually an issue.

What kind of footprint should I use?  (And what’s a “footprint?”)  A footprint is a separate piece of material that goes between the tent floor and the ground.  It’s important for a couple of reasons.  First, it will keep you drier and more comfortable.  You know how when you sit on the ground in the morning, your pants get wet?  The same thing will happen to the floor of your tent while you sleep.  Sleeping in a puddle is not fun.  The footprint adds an extra layer of protection between you and the wet ground.

Second, a footprint protects the wear and tear on your tent floor.  The footprint will take the abuse from the ground and keep the grit away from the tent floor, protecting it from punctures and the like.  Because a footprint is a separate item — and usually sold separately — it’s easier to replace than the tent floor (which you replace by throwing away your tent and buying a new one).

One important thing to remember is that the footprint should be slightly smaller than the tent.  Many tents have recommended footprints or companion footprints.  I use a tarp, and fold it to slightly smaller than the tent itself — it’s even more durable, and multipurpose, and since I’m not carrying it on a backpack, the extra weight isnt a problem.  Why slightly smaller?  Well, if it extends beyond the floor of the tent, and it rains, guess where that water is going to run?  If you guessed, “between the footprint and the tent floor and pooling under me while I sleep,” then you win.  There’s no prize, but feel free to gloat.

What features should I look for?  I’m assuming that, like me, you’re casual camping during the warmer months.  For winter camping and more extreme conditions, you should speak with your local camping supply store clerk.  For standard late spring/summer/early fall camping, the following should suffice:

  • Lightweight, alluminum collapsible tent poles that are easy to distinguish from one another (the ones connected by a bungee practically set themselves up)
  • Mesh areas for venthilation and allowing relief from summer heat
  • A rainfly that extends enough beyond the mesh areas to protect from the rain but allows for air flow
  • Reinforced, durable material where the tent poles attach (loops, corners, etc.)
  • The ability to stake your tent.  I like freestanding tents for ease of set up, but sometimes you have to stake it down.

Thanks, Her Side.  I found the perfect tent.  Now, how do I take care it? 

  • Before any camping trip, particularly if I haven’t used my tent in a while, I set it up at home.  This is important for three reasons: 1) to make sure it’s in good shape, no tears or issues to deal with; 2) to make sure I have all the pieces and nothing is missing; 3) to remind myself how to set it up and break it down with minimum fuss.
  • Use a footprint to protect the tent floor from wear and tear, as discussed above.
  • Clear the ground of rocks/sticks/debris before you set up the tent, to minimize risk of puncture.
  • Take off your shoes before getting into the tent.  This helps protect the tent floor from internal abuse, and it also keeps the grit and dirt outside (it’s a pain to clean the inside of the tent).
  • Be careful with sharp objects inside/around the tent, to avoid punctures.
  • Sweep/shake out the tent when breaking it down.
  • Don’t pack the tent while it’s wet.  Sometimes this is unavoidable, but if you must pack the tent wet, try to set it up again as soon as is practical to let it air out and dry.

That’s about it.  Now, I’m going to go look into this whole “tents attract rain” theory…

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2009.

Your Gut’s Telling You to Run, Run. OK?

19 10 2009


BUFFY: What did your instincts tell you to do just then?

RONA: Block his attack, keep him off balance, gain the advantage…?

BUFFY: No, they didn’t.

RONA: They told me to run.


VI: They told me to run. They’re still sort of telling me to run.

BUFFY: Don’t fight on his terms. Your gut’s telling you to run, run. OK?

— Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Potential”

We all have instincts.  Have you ever found yourself in a conversation with someone you don’t know, and started to feel like backing away?  Something was telling you — signs the stranger is putting off, something he/she said, something you’ve noticed but haven’t consciously considered yet — that this person wasn’t trustworthy, or the situation wasn’t safe.

When discussing hiking solo as a woman — or traveling solo as a woman — there are a lot of “do’s and don’ts” to consider.  While some of these rules are phrased as absolutes, all of them can be broken if the situation warrants.  When to break the rules — or how to make decisions about something that isn’t covered by the rules — is something that you can only do by considering your situation and balancing the risks and the benefits of each choice.

Here’s one example: I have read solo female travel guides that advise women to never reveal that they are traveling solo, to always have some excuse, like they’re catching up to your group, or waiting for a husband/boyfriend.  This isn’t a bad idea, at least as a fallback.  The trouble is, it’s difficult to maintain (what if you’re at a restaurant, eating alone, or you’re walking behind a group on a trail, by yourself, etc.).  Also, it will deprive you of one of the great joys of traveling alone: meeting people.  That’s why it’s not a rule on my list.  However, it falls under the umbrella of Rule Number Three:

For God’s Sake, Use Your Head: Instincts Are Your Best Tool

Like with anything else, there is a balance here.  As a default, not revealing you’re solo status is wise, at least up front.  But sometimes it can’t be helped, and really, all you need to do is pay attention and trust your gut.  Don’t trust everyone blindly, but there’s nothing wrong with making friends while you travel, as long as you’re using your head and taking other precautions.

Here’s an example from my own experience: One day, I drove to Moab, Utah, with the intention of pitching my tent and spending the next day at Arches National Park.  When I arrived, however, I found that the park’s campgrounds were closed for renovation.  The private campgrounds on the side of the main highway made me uncomfortable.  They were exposed (as it was, after all, the desert), and there weren’t any tent-campers, only RVs.  It took me about thirty seconds to decide I didn’t want to risk being the only tent on the side of a major road, and I pulled into the Comfort Inn (or it might have been a Motel 6, I don’t remember).

Would anything have happened?  Probably not.  But there was something about the situation that said “don’t do it.”  And so I didn’t.

Several nights later, I had no trouble having a couple of beers with an older couple from California while watching football at a local bar (Pats v. Colts, season opener) and sharing with them that I was on my own.  I was camping that night, and I was just careful not to say out loud where I was staying — or even that I was camping that night — and since I was staying at a quite crowded campground, I was very comfortable.  My caution was less about the couple I was hanging out with (they were really nice people), but more that I didn’t want someone else to overhear.  In that situation my instincts were giving me the go ahead, with caution, and so I did.

Sharing your solo status, and meeting people, is only one example that falls under this rule.  Some solo female travelers don’t touch a drop of alcohol while traveling alone, afraid it will impair their judgment.  That’s a personal choice you have to make, but I wouldn’t advocate willingly impairing your judgment while traveling even if you were with a group.  Or in your home city, for that matter.  You may be in a more comfortable place, but there are still risks.  It all comes down to using your head — don’t do anything willfully stupid, and trust your gut.

The bottom line is that you have a head.  Use it.  You have instincts.  Listen to them.

Or, as Buffy says:potential051

Your gut’s telling you to run, run. OK?

Road-Tripping 101: Themes A Good Idea At The Time

16 10 2009

Early on, I mentioned that I would talk not only about camping and hiking, but also about road-tripping as a solo female.  So here we are, at the inaugural post about road-tripping.  Today’s topic: themes.

Klum and Gunn

see FN1

Before Project Runway, Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum, I paid no attention to the world of fashion design (like, I’m guessing, most of America).  I had never been to a fashion show, so the idea of a designer’s “collection” was a foreign concept.  I quickly learned, thanks to the wonders of reality tv, that the best collections, aside from actually containing attractive and interesting clothing, are the ones in which all of the looks are tied together by some common element(s), such as a print, a style of draping, a fabric, etc.  Without such common elements, collections are just a bunch of varied looks.  The common elements, or the theme, unifies these looks and makes the collection work together.  The theme is what makes the collection memorable — without it, we aren’t likely to be able to retain memories of so many different and disjointed looks.

We look for themes in everything, in everyday life, even if we aren’t doing it consciously.  It helps us sort through all of the information we are constantly bombarded with.  (“Oh, that’s a news website.  There’s a reality show.  Here’s another vampire movie” and so forth.)  We’re always looking to compare the new information with old information so that we can tie it up in a neat little bundle and remember it more easily.

So what does this have to do with planning a road trip?

The first thing you should consider when planning a road trip is a theme.  First of all, there is a lot to see and do and experience in the world, and it would be impossible to see and do everything you might be interested in during a single trip.  Even if you define your location somewhat narrowly, and even if you have a fairly lengthy bit of time to explore, there will never be enough time to do everything.  And that means you’re going to have to pick and choose your stops, sights, and activities, and with so much available, the planning process can seem an insurmountable obstacle.

Moreover, if all you do is an assortment of disjointed activities, you’re likely to end up feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.  You’re having to work too hard to remember all of these unrelated activities and bouncing back and forth between too many different activities that require different moods requires a lot of “shifting gears” which can be frustrating.


see FN2

To counteract this, and eliminate the stress of planning, choose a theme.  It can be anything you’re interested in: vineyards, gourmet food, architecture, local bands, wildlife, history, etc.  Most longer road trips can withstand multiple themes — for example, on my six-week trip I chose National Parks, hiking/camping, and visiting friends.  I have a couple of friends who take regular road trips together, and they once chose a theme of “beer.”  (They were road-tripping in Ireland.)

Having a theme will help you focus your planning.  So, for example, when I decided I was going to “drive around the United States,” I was able to focus that rather massive endeavor by scouting out National Parks that I wanted to visit, and then mapping out a route between them that also took me through areas where I had friends I wanted to see.  If you want to road-trip through, say, western Nova Scotia, a theme of nautical history could work quite well, and help you figure out which towns to visit and which to skip.

Of course, not every single thing on your trip has to relate to your theme.  And this is not meant to discourage the spirit of spontaneity and discovery that is so much a part of a successful road trip.  On my long trip, for example, I spent some time in Memphis and Nashville, even though I wasn’t going to either place specifically to hike or camp or visit friends.  My route — which I planned using my themes — naturally went through these cities, so I decided it was a good time to check them out.  I went to Graceland, ate BBQ, saw bluegrass and blues performances, visited old plantation homes and cemeteries, and countless other things that seemed interesting.  A theme is not meant to be a restriction, merely a way to help organize and manage your planning.

One final note: some folks would question whether choosing a location first makes more sense.  It can, if you’re positive you want to road trip in a particular area.  But if that’s the case, then that’s already been decided, and so the planning really begins after that with the theme.  If you don’t have a specific location in mind from the start, choosing the theme will help you decide on a location ( i.e., if you want to tour vineyards, I’ve heard that there’s this place in California that might be good for that).

Do you choose themes for your trips (road-trip or otherwise)?  What themes have you chosen?  How have you worked your theme into your planning?

FN1: This image is licensed from A Continuous Lean on flickr using the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

FN2: This image is licensed from skampy on flickr using the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 license.

The Best Part of Waking Up

14 10 2009

3343279270_015d40d9a2No, it isn’t Folger’s in your cup.  Admit it, that’s what you were thinking — or rather, singing — in your head when you saw that title, right?  Right?? That slogan, popular when I was growing up, perhaps because it was popular when I was growing up, is one of those that was permanently embedded in my brain, just like it is embedded in the brains of every member of my generation.  (That and “Mama’s got the magic of Clorox bleach.”  But this blog isn’t about that.)  Okay, that paragraph went in a direction I didn’t expect.  Let’s start again.


We’ve spent a lot of time on this blog so far talking about solo hiking.  Suggested hikes, rules for safety, musings, benefits, and so on.  That means it’s time to talk a little about solo camping.  When I decided to write this, I asked myself, what do I like best about camping?

The answer: waking up in the morning.

Some background as to why this is important (and a revelation to me):  I hate waking up in the morning. No matter how much sleep I have gotten, no matter what exciting thing I have in store for me on that day (okay, maybe with the exception of Disney World), when the alarm goes off in the morning, the first thing I want to do is go back to sleep.  I could blame it on the fact that I don’t usually go to bed early enough.  I could blame it on my bed, which is very, very comfortable.  I could blame it on the knowledge that, once I do wake up, there are too many things demanding my attention.

When camping, however, I wake early.  Some pessimists may point out that it’s because sleeping on the ground is not as comfortable as sleeping in a bed, and so it is less appealing to stay asleep while camping.  This is certainly true.  But there are other factors that contribute to waking early while camping:

  • You to go to sleep early.  For one, that’s because there’s not as much to do while solo camping once it gets dark except to read.  (Someday, I’ll tell you a story illustrating why you should never, never, ever read a scary book about murderers right before going to sleep while solo camping.)  For another, because you were probably up early the day before, and spent the day hiking or engaged in some other physically draining activity, so you’re actually tired enough to want to sleep early while camping.
  • You tend to eat better when camping and hiking — or perhaps eat more efficiently — and drink more water.  Say what you will, but I have seen firsthand that change in diet and hydration alters sleeping habits for the better.  I/you sleep better, so I/you wake more easily.
  • You are less stressed.  Once again, this effects quality of sleep.  You’re less likely to toss and turn worried about the next day’s deadlines while out in the woods, and therefore have a better night’s sleep.  (Except after having read a scary book about murderers while solo camping.)
  • The light wakes you up.  I don’t know about you, but at home, my room stays fairly dim in the morning until I open the shades.  The tent does not block light — it’s not really designed to.  That means that you’re more likely to realize early on that it’s morning.
  • Fresh air wakes you up.  I find that fresh air, particularly if it’s a little cool and damp out, delivers a zing to your senses.  And since, while camping, you’re surrounded by fresh air, you wake up more easily.

So while camping, in the early morning, I’ll open my eyes and see that it’s day (or at least dawn).  I’ll get a breath of fresh air.  I’ll feel rested.  I’ll get excited about another day of hiking or other fun activity.  And I’ll sit up and stretch.  Then I’ll open the tent flap and poke my head out, and that’s when there’s a full-on rush, better than any caffeine, from greeting the day and the outdoors at the same time.

Sunrise by joanarc4

Sunrise by joanarc4

What’s your favorite part of camping?

Hike to an Oasis: Zion National Park

12 10 2009

by joanarc4

by joanarc4

Zion National Park, in Utah, is one of my favorite places in the world.  There are reasons for this: it’s got a landscape of heart-stopping beauty, is an oasis in the middle of arid country, has a rich history (ask me about the man-made tunnel sometime), and is spectacularly well-managed and maintained.  It’s also a very easy park to visit, whether you’re solo or traveling with company.   The trails are well-marked and detailed descriptions are available in the Zion newspaper or from the helpful rangers.  The little town of Springdale, at the base of the canyon, has shops, restaurants, bars, hotels, and safe private campgrounds, and provides a free shuttle that runs up the main street and right into the park.  The park itself does not allow private automobiles to drive up into the canyon, but rather runs a squeaky clean and frequent shuttle that stops at all the main trailheads.

All of these factors mean that visiting Zion can be very relaxing (you don’t have to worry about traffic, like at Yellowstone, and parking, and finding your way), and it’s also a great place to travel solo.  There will be other solos, and the shuttle, trailheads, lodge, and museum (and Springdale) provide many opportunities to interact with other travelers.

However, it’s not just these very practical reasons that make Zion so amazing.  There’s a certain extra something about the park and the area that gets the blood pumping and…just sort of wakes you up.

One hike at Zion that’s a great starter hike for a solo hiker is the Emerald Pools Trail.  It’s populated (sometimes too populated, see below), it’s accessible, and it’s not a huge commitment.  Hiking the entire loop and the branch to the Upper pool is approximately 3 miles round trip, a 2-or-so hour hike.  Most of it is easy to moderate, with the exception of the moderately strenuous Upper pools branch.  So grab your gear and your camera, have breakfast (or lunch) at the Zion Lodge, and go for it.

The Emerald Pools Trail has three sections: Lower, Middle, and Upper.  The Lower and Middle section start from the same place, at the Zion Lodge, and meet up at the Lower Emerald Pools, while the Upper section branches off for a one-way short but steep climb to an upper pool.  The trail is so named for the algae in the pools that, particularly when the sunlight is just right, give the pools their emerald brilliance.

The Lower trail is an low-intensity trail that meanders along the Virgin River and then one of the tributaries, protected by the shade of the lush Zion greenery.  After just over half a mile, you’ll reach the Lower pool.  In the spring, waterfalls from the Middle pools up above cascade into the Lower pool, but even in the drier months this section is quite beautiful.

by joanarc4

by joanarc4

The Middle trail climbs at the start from the trailhead at Zion Lodge and then levels out, and while not difficult, the hike offers incredible views of the canyon as the path winds along the side of the canyon wall parallel to the Lower trail below. After about a mile, you’ll reach the middle pools, which cascade into the Lower pool.  Between the middle and lower pools is a series of switchbacks that take you between the falls — and the pools, so that the Middle and Lower trails can be done as a loop.

by joanarc4

by joanarc4

The Upper trail branches off from the Middle pools and heads up a steep, rugged path to the Upper pool.  Many people choose to forgo this section because it is strenuous, but it’s worth the effort.  There will be scrambling (particularly if you’re short like me) over dusty boulders, but after just a quarter mile (and another couple hundred feet of elevation gain), you’ll reach an oasis set in the side of the canyon.  The sheer canyon walls stretch straight up over the pool, and in this spot, it’s easy to forget that you’re still, in fact, perched on the side of a canyon.

by joanarc4

by joanarc4

Make no mistake: this is a popular trail.  Its location, just across from the Zion Lodge, makes it an easy hike for people to find.  It’s also somewhat iconic, a classic Zion hike, and people (I was one) are anxious to see what the fuss is about.

I have hiked this trail twice, once on a Thursday in mid-September and the second time on a Saturday morning in August.  The first time, I encountered others on the Middle and Upper trails, and the Lower was more crowded, but I did have moments to myself.  The second time, it was a bit like hiking in a shopping mall — I had to pay more attention to not stepping on the heels of the people in front of me than I did to the scenery, which isn’t ideal.  Even the Upper trail was crowded the second time, making finding a spot to sit and eat lunch difficult.

The lesson I learned: the Emerald Pools is a great hike for a solo hiker if you go mid-week while school is in session (I don’t hate kids…I actually like them; but in droves when their parents aren’t teaching them proper trail etiquette it can be a bit much).  There will still be other people, which is what you want as a solo hike when you’re just getting into it, but you’ll also be able to find yourself alone every now and then.

Second lesson: Hike the Middle trail, and not the Lower.  The Lower trail is an easy, paved, low-intensity stroll, and this route is therefore popular with families and those with less mobility.  Many people will stroll the Lower trail and reach the first pool, take photos, and troop back, making this section of the trail the most dense, particularly during the summer.

Because many people start on the Lower and return on the Lower, and others start on the Lower, climb to the Middle pools and then return on the Middle, I prefer to do the reverse — going against the flow of traffic, it allows, even when the trail is crowded below, for some quiet time on the Middle trail.

by joanarc4

by joanarc4