A Request…

31 03 2010

For the past almost seven months (yikes!), I’ve tried to pass along advice, information, funny stories, and helpful hints that could inspire you to try solo hiking and camping.  Now, it’s time for me to ask for something in return.

You see, I’ve never been to California.  (I’ll wait while you gasp in disbelief.)  I know, I know, it’s a tragedy.  Even on my cross country trip I just didn’t make it that far west.  I promised myself that, one day, I would fly out to San Diego, rent a car, and drive to Seattle, hiking, camping and sightseeing along the way.  I just haven’t managed to make that happen — but things are about to change.

I’ll be spending some time in San Diego this spring and summer for work, and will probably be able to squeeze in some leisure time to explore by extending my trips for weekends here and there.  I know I must see Joshua Tree, of course, and if I can manage to get north of LA, I know Yosemite calls, as does Death Valley. 

But I need specifics!  What trails/campgrounds/nature sights do you recommend?  What’s a not-to-be-missed?  What is your sense of how these trails and campgrounds would suit a solo female (population, skill level, security, etc.)?  What can be accomplished in one- or two-day trips from San Diego?  Heck, I’ll take restaurant recommendations too…

Thanks!  And as I explore this area that is new to me, I’ll keep you posted!

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.

Anticipation Round-up

29 03 2010

Ah, springtime.  Here in New England, that means rain, rain, followed by a teaser couple of warm sunny days, and then more rain (and last Friday, in Boston, snow/sleet).  At least the temperature is rising, and I have hopes that the spring hiking can soon begin in earnest.  In the meantime, as I look out at the rain and gloom, I’m focused on the anticipation of the good outdoor weather.  Here are five things to get you in the mood for a great hiking and camping season:

  1. The National Park Service celebrates National Park Week, April 17 – 25, by waiving entrance fees.  That’s right, free!  Do you really need another excuse to check out the National Parks near you?
  2. The National Park Foundation has teamed up with Expedia.com with a great incentive program that helps the National Parks.  You can now book your next vacation on Expedia through the National Park Foundation website, and for every flight, hotel, or rental car booked in this way, Expedia will donate 50% of its profits to the NPF. 
  3. Got some winter weight to shed?  Is 2010 the year you’ll become the buff, healthy woman you’ve always wanted to be?  Does the treadmill at the gym make you scowl?  This month’s issue of Outside Magazine has a great article on re-energizing (or discovering) your fitness regimine with jazzed up walks in the park.  I’ve looked it over, and I think you can do it on a hiking trail, too.  (The article does not yet appear online, so you’ll have to ferret it out elsewhere).  It involves short 2-3 minute walking bursts with reps of exercises that can be done with the assistance of a park bench or a fallen tree.  Check it out or make up your own!
  4. Are you a student with some time this summer, or an executive who can take a leave of absence?  Check out the seasonal employment offered by the National Park Service. 
  5. Are you a writer?  Would you like to be?  Creative Conferences is holding a series of conferences in Boulder, Colorado, this August and September, covering memoirs, magazine writing and digital photography.  These two-day intensive workshops — and the possibility of publication in Women’s Adventure Magazine — will give you a jump start, connections in the industry, and a wealth of information.  Plus, hanging out in Boulder?  Not too shabby.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.

Hi, My Name Is

15 03 2010
No it’s not Slim Shady, but that’s what you were thinking. Right?

I’ve lived my entire life in New England.  New Englanders are a hearty bunch: they know how to prepare for hurricanes and nor’easters, trudge patiently through piles of snow and slush, and wait out an eighty-six year World Series drought.  New Englanders aren’t known for being particularly friendly, however.  They keep to themselves, don’t trust strangers and newcomers, and mind their own business.

This is why I was surprised, upon visiting other parts of the country, to have random strangers smile and say hello to me on the street.  I kept thinking, “do I know that guy?”  I just wasn’t used to the idea that a person would interact willingly with the strangers around them, even in passing. 

This interaction with strangers is even more pronounced on the trail — the hiking trail, that is.  Outdoorsy people are a friendly bunch, and it’s considered appropriate to exchange greetings with hikers you pass along the way.  In addition to being friendly, it’s also safety-related; when a hiker nods and smiles and says hello, he’s really saying, “Everything going all right?”  And when you nod and smile and say hello back, you’re really saying, “Everything’s fine, thanks for asking.”

Last week, we talked about the importance of choosing the right trail — and that applies to campsites, as well — in order to find the right balance between your enjoyment of nature and your comfort with the level of solitude you’re facing.  I personally like trails where I can meet other people, and so here we are at the Good Stuff part of picking the right trails:

Meeting People On the Trail (and at Camp)

As always, there’s caution to be taken here, and using your head, and all that other stuff we’ve been talking about for the past six months.  It’s understandable to be a little shy about interacting with others you meet, and cautious about sharing too much information.  That’s just good sense.

However, there are lots of good people out there on the trail.  In particular, if you’re on a relatively populated trail, your chances of running into a serial killer are slim.  He wouldn’t pick that trail — too high a chance of getting caught.  Someone smiling at you might just be being friendly and checking in (in fact, that’s probably what they’re doing).  If you’re very nervous, pick out the people with kids to talk to; they’re too busy making sure their kids don’t fall off the mountain to be dangerous.

Here’s another benefit to making friends on the trail: sometimes, you need someone to give you a push.  One day, when I was hiking the Bright Angel Trail at the Grand Canyon in 110 degree heat, I was in bad shape.  I had another mile and a half to the top, and while I had plenty of water, I felt like I had to stop and rest at every switchback, because while hiking alone, all I could hear was my labored breathing and my heart pounding.  I sat on a rock in a brief piece of shade to take a break, and after a moment a man sat down on the rock next to me, asking if I minded.  I shook my head, still breathing heavily.  We started chatting.  He was alone too, and asked if I’d be his company for the rest of the hike.  That last mile and a half absolutely flew by.  We talked about nothing I can remember, but we didn’t stop again until we reached the top.  Having someone to push, and be pushed by, made that last portion of the hike much more enjoyable (and take much less miserable hot time!).

Meeting people can work in camp, too.  I found that I was more likely to strike up conversations in the morning than at night, in particular if I was moving on that day, because it felt less risky.  Retired couples in RVs in particular like to share their bacon with the daring, interesting girl who slept in that little tent.

Besides, meeting people is fun!  So just smile and say “Hi.”  You might end up with lifelong — or trail-long — friends.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.

The Road Less Traveled is Overrated

8 03 2010

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Taking the “road less traveled” is the metaphor we use when we want to muster up the courage to do something out of our comfort zones, congratulate ourselves for choosing the more adventurous alternative, and justify not sticking to boring routines.  As a metaphor, it’s inspiring and comforting at the same time.

Taken literally, however, choosing the “road less traveled” might not always be the wisest decision.  For example, imagine that you’re driving into a blizzard in Vermont.  You could choose to take the interstate most of the way, along with all of the other cars persistently slushing through the precipitation, or you could go the shorter, windier route through the mountains that, during nice weather, is much more pleasant.  Here’s a hint: the road less traveled is a pain in the ass.  (Based on a recent, and very true, story.)

When solo hiking, you may think the road less traveled might be just what you’re looking for.  You want solitude and serenity out in nature, without hordes of other hikers spoiling your meditations, and what better way to achieve that than to find that trail no one else seems to want to hike?

As a casual solo hiker, however, someone who is just dunking a toe into the shallow end to see how it feels, the road less traveled can be scary.  Choosing the trail where you’ll be by yourself might seem ideal at first, but once you’re out there you may change your mind.  It might not be as well-maintained as the more-traveled routes, causing you to question whether you’re still on the trail.  If you’re truly out there on your own, and there is little likelihood anyone will come by, then there won’t be anyone to help you out if you need it.  Finally, you face higher chances of surprising wildlife — hint: surprising wildlife is usually a bad idea — lulled into complacency by the infrequent sightings of humans.

Does that mean that, as a beginning solo hiker, you should only choose the most populated hiking trails?  Not necessarily.  As always, kids, the key here is balance.  That brings us to Rule No. 9:

Choose the Right Trail.

As you get more comfortable solo hiking, and get a sense of your comfort level, this will get easier and easier.  That’s because your comfort level is precisely what should dictate what trail you choose — and not the dire warnings and scare tactics of naysayers. 

While on my Road Trip, I started out picking only those trails that seemed to get a lot of visitors.  I was alone, in the sense that I didn’t have a travel companion, but I wasn’t yet comfortable being alone in the woods, or the desert, or wherever it was that I found myself on that day.  After a few hikes, I became more confident, and soon I wasn’t paying all that much attention to how popular the trail was.  Even so, and to this day, I am comforted when there are a couple of other cars at the trailhead, because I know that, somewhere out there, I’m likely to run into someone.  On the other hand, I dislike hiking on trails that are so populated I’m constantly staring at the heels of the person in front of me.  Happily, it’s easy to find balance once you know what to look for.  Here are a few indicators:

  • How many cars are at the trailhead?  If you’re having trouble finding a place to park — especially if the parking area is large — you’re going to be hiking amidst a sea of other hikers.  If there’s not another car in sight, you’re probably the only one there.  And if there’s a school bus, turn tail and run (or is that just me?).
  • Is the trail highlighted, discussed, or merely mentioned in guidebooks?  The most popular trails can be spotted from miles away because they are considered must-sees and mentioned everywhere you look, while others are less well-known and publicized. 
  • Once you’re on the trail, can you see any other hikers?  Hear them?  If not, that doesn’t mean they aren’t around the next bend, and you can usually tell after hiking for a half hour or so the level of travel on the trail by how many people you meet.

So pick the trail that’s right for you.  If you’ve never solo hiked, you might want to try a couple of well-visited trails to build your confidence rather than seeking true solitude right away.  And it’s okay for even experienced solo hikers to generally prefer to run into at least a couple of people during an 8-hour hike.  Chances are, you’ll find plenty of spots on the trail where you’re on your own and can soul-search and reflect in solitude to your heart’s content.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.

Daydreaming About Zion Again

5 03 2010

As promised, Her Side presents:

Zion Trip Tips: Part Two

On Wednesday, we talked a little about what to do in Zion National Park itself.  Today, let’s explore outside the boundaries of the main section of Zion Canyon.

Staying in Springdale, on Zion Park Boulevard, is convenient and fun.  The main street is lined with hotels, motels and private campgrounds to fit all manner of budgets and persnicketiness.  I have stayed at the Driftwood Lodge, and found the staff delightful, the rooms clean, and the views incredible.  A major benefit of staying on Zion Park Blvd., however, is its proximity to the west entrance of the park, and the free shuttle that runs along the Blvd. and drops you off at the entrance (where you can switch to the Zion shuttle with no fuss).

Zion Park Blvd. also has a wide assortment of art galleries (paint, photo, and sculpture), artisan shops, rock and crystal stores, and souvenir shops, so you can poke around to your heart’s content.

Hungry?  No problem.  Check out Zion Pizza & Noodle Co., with mouthwatering pizza, pasta and beer (and next to a friendly outfitter so you can plan your excursion to the Narrows after you’re stuffed full of carbs).  In the mood for something spicier?  Stop by the Bit & Spur for margaritas, microbrews, Tex-Mex fare and pool.

Once you’ve had your fill of the main area of Zion National Park (though that will never happen, so perhaps I should rephrase), it’s easy to venture farther afield.  The other, less-visited section of Zion is Kolob Canyons, located a 45-minute drive northwest of the main canyon.  Kolob has a very different feel from the main canyon.  It is quieter, more peaceful.  Arrive early, bring plenty of food and water, and embark upon the 14-mile out-and-back hike to Kolob Arch.  You’ll first descend nearly 700 feet into the canyon, and then trek across barren desert, lush forest, and wild fields before reaching your destination 7 miles in.  The entire round trip takes approximately 8 hours.  It isn’t a particularly strenuous hike but it requires endurance and preparation, since the Utah heat can make you grossly underestimate your water needs.  Also make sure to bring your snake-bite kit.  Chances are, you’ll encounter at least one rattlesnake…but it’s a hike well worth the effort.

Finally, for something completely different, drive the hour and a half to Bryce Canyon.  Bryce is spectacular in its own way, a giant bowl of orange and white hoodoos that will take your breath away.  If you can manage it, plan to arrive before sunrise, station yourself at Sunrise Point, and surrender yourself to awe.  Once the sun has risen, descend into the canyon and take the Peekaboo Loop.  It’s only 5.5 miles, but because of the steep descent at the beginning and ascent at the end, it’s considered a strenuous hike.  Early in the morning, the trail will be clear of the horse and mule riders, and you’ll be able to enjoy the way the sun hits the hoodoos and they appear to glow from within.  **One note: roadwork on the Zion — Mt. Carmel Highway is about to start, and park officials are warning travelers to expect delays or seek alternate routes to get to Bryce from Zion, which would add significant time to the journey.

One additional planning tip.  The internet is your friend.  Check out these websites:

Whatever you choose, Zion (and Bryce) are a great destination for a hiking vacation.  Enjoy!  (PS — Now that I’ve posted this, I’ve decided I need to get back out there, so I’ll be planning my own trip, which will be my third visit.  If that isn’t an endorsement, I don’t know what else to say.)

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.

Daydreaming About Zion

3 03 2010


One of our readers let us know that she’s planning a trip to Zion National Park in May.  Since Zion is one of my top three favorite National Parks, I thought now would be a good time to give some pointers…

Zion Trip Tips: Part One

Zion National Park, just north of Springdale, Utah, is captivating.  Perhaps it’s the lush greenery set against a backdrop of russet, pink and white cliffs.  Perhaps it’s the Virgin River that winds its way through the base of the canyon.  Perhaps it’s Weeping Rock, or the Emerald Pools, or the Court of the Patriarchs, or the Narrows.  Perhaps it’s Springdale itself, or the Mt. Carmel tunnel, or the wildlife, or the rangers, or…

There’s a lot to love about Zion.  Here are a few recommendations about enjoying your time in the park itself.

Utilize Zion’s shuttle service.  Actually, you don’t have much choice, since personal autos aren’t allowed into the park unless you’re staying at the lodge.  The shuttle runs frequently, quietly, and efficiently, and the shuttle drivers are like tour guides.  So sit back and enjoy your trip to the trailhead of your choice.

Hike Angel’s Landing.  I don’t care how afraid of heights you are, or how nervous you are about an intense climb.  Just do it.  Start early in the morning, when the trail will be quiet.  Pack a lunch to eat atop the peak and enjoy the spectacular views.  When you reach the final ascent, keep your eyes peeled for peregrine falcons which nest up there.  Do this early in your trip — it will inspire you for the days ahead.

Avoid Emerald Pools in the middle of the day when it will be crowded.

The Narrows

Check out the Narrows.  The Narrows, for those just joining us, is a hike that takes place in the Virgin River, at a spot in the canyon where the walls are incredibly narrow.  You can hike it from the bottom up (at the end of Riverside Walk at the Temple of Sinawava trailhead), exploring until you decide to turn around, or you can hike from the top down with a permit.  May is supposed to be one of the best times of the year to take this in-the-river hike, but you always have to check with the rangers regarding the likelihood of flash flooding.  Long term Narrows hiking (and top down) require some research and special gear can be rented from nearby outfitters, but a couple of hours of exploring from the bottom up only requires fortitude and hiking poles.

Find some ranger-led programs.  Zion rangers, like rangers in any of the parks, are helpful, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic.

Any questions?

Next time: what to do in Springdale and farther afield…

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.

Announcing Contest Winner!

16 02 2010

Well we didn’t get ten entries, but the entries we got were so good I decided to go ahead and award a prize anyway.

In order to be sufficiently fair, I gave the entries to a neutral third party — a fellow hiker/camper who has no idea who any of the entrants are — and asked him to pick the winner.

In the end, Neutral Guy was so impressed he picked not one, but two, insisting that it was a tie.  So, without further ado…drumroll, please…the winners are:

1. Jennifer Floyd, for her tale of triumphing over adversity, conquering the Boundary Waters, and not clocking her father with her oar.  Neutral Guy said, “I like the ‘I f-ing hate this/ok, keep paddling/now I remember this fondly’ tone of this story.”

2. CityGirlWhoRarelyCamps, for her tale of being awed by the night sky while at summer camp as a child.  Neutral Guy said that “there is not much better than being out at night somewhere where the sky lights everything up.”

Congratulations to both of you!  Select your photo, let me know which one you’ve selected, and I will send along your prize!

Thanks to everyone who participated.  I loved hearing your stories, all of them, and they got the juices flowing on some ideas I have of my own.

You can read all of the entries here.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.


10 02 2010

Let’s all watch someone take this crazy hike. El Caminito del Rey (or the “King’s Pathway”) is a walkway along the walls of a gorge in El Chorro, near Álora in Málaga, Spain. Yes, I’m afraid of heights (ironic, isn’t it?), so I won’t be going here anytime soon…

via videosift.com

Get Off My Back

3 02 2010

Choosing a backpack for day hiking might seem like a daunting task.  You walk into a large outdoor outfitter and they line the walls, in all colors and sizes.  Some have lots of little accessories.  Some are huge and some are small.  Some have internal frames, whatever those are.  Some have hydration sacs, which sounds a little funky.  Some cost more than your monthly car payment.  How to figure out what you need?  And why can’t you just dig out that old one you used in college?

The backpack that’s right for you has to be the one that’s right for you.  Deep, isn’t it?  I’m serious.  Backpacks are a very personal matter, because your back is a very important part of your body.  If you’ve ever had a back injury, you’ll know that when your back isn’t in good shape, everything becomes more difficult.  So do yourself a favor, and take the time to find the backpack that will keep your back in good shape.

First of all, that old backpack you used in college isn’t a good idea for hiking, at least not serious hiking.  In a pinch, for a short hike, you could make it work, but hiking backpacks are designed to hold more in an efficient way that allows you to access your supplies readily, and they are designed to fit you properly to distribute the weight, let you keep your balance, and save your back (and shoulders).

So, what should you look for in a day hiking backpack?

  • Woman-Specific Packs: Manufacturers got smart and finally started making packs that are specifically designed for women.  While I’m not 100% in favor of some women-specific items (see my grumble about “women’s” first aid kits), in the case of a backpack it’s essential.  Women’s backpacks are built to fit women’s torsos, which are generally shorter than men’s torsos; this way, the pack can sit on your hips (where the weight should be focused) and allow the shoulder straps to fit as well.  The shoulder straps themselves are contoured differently than men’s to account for…well, breasts.  All of this means that the packs designed for women will not only be more comfortable for you, but are also better for you.
  • Storage Space/Configuration:  Every pack is different, and you might not know precisely how much space you need until you try it out, and there is a broad range out there (at least as broad as 1000 – 2300 cubic inches).  I can honestly tell you I’m not sure how big mine is, but I’m going to guess it’s around 1700 cubic inches.  It’s important to remember that you don’t always have to stuff it full, so if in doubt, go with something on the upper end of the range.  As to configuration, take a look at how the pack is constructed.  I like multiple compartments (a primary and a secondary and maybe one more small one) in order to divide up gear.  I also like a couple of pockets on the sides (so I can stick the GPS, an apple, etc. for easy access), and handy loops so you can attach other things if necessary.
  • Water System: It’s up to you whether or not you get a pack with a hydration system, but I think it’s worth the extra cost.  There are packs with hydration sacs that hold a couple of liters of water (I’ve found to be plenty for even a significant day hike as long as it’s not a million degrees), and provide for easy hydration while on the go.  It eliminates the need to carry separate water bottles — but if you aren’t in the mood to use the sac, you can remove it.  One hint: don’t put anything but water in there, because it can be a royal pain to clean.
  • Fit: Yep, you get to go shopping.  Try the packs on.  Connect the waist strap.  See how it distributes weight between your hips and shoulders.  See how the straps feel.  Don’t be afraid to walk around the store for a bit to make sure it’s what you want.  Because day packs can cost anywhere from $75 to several hundred dollars, take the time you need to make the right purchase.

That wasn’t so bad, was it?

Don’t forget to enter Her Side’s first CONTEST!!!  Deadline is Friday, February 5th, and so far we haven’t met the minimum entries…tell your friends!

A Word About Why

25 01 2010

Since I began writing this blog — actually, since I started solo hiking and camping — I get the inevitable question:


I’ve talked a little on here about why I like to hike, and what I like about camping, but I haven’t yet addressed the big question.  Why solo?

I’m not sure I have a final answer to this question, but here are some thoughts:

  • I love the outdoors.  I really love the outdoors.  I didn’t always — I grew up in a family happier in a movie theater or reading books than even eating dinner out in the backyard.  Over time, however, that changed, and there’s something about being outside that is invigorating — and not just outside, but out in nature.  Maybe it’s the fresh air.  Maybe it’s the feeling that you’re not contained in anything but the big blue sky above you.  Maybe it’s some primal instinct to connect with the Earth.  I don’t know exactly what it is, but I know that I get antsy and depressed and stressed when too much time goes by between jaunts out into nature.  Being alone out there lets me “commune” at my own speed.
  • I like to get away from the crowds.  I’m a city girl.  I’m a social person.  I talk a lot.  This means that I spend a lot of time talking with people in person, on the phone, over email, instant messenger, texting, etc.  I spend a lot of time in the midst of crowds, on the street, on the subway, in stores — even in the park.  Sometimes it’s just too much, and there are two choices: stay in my house, or get away from the city and into the woods.  Both are viable options, but the second one is a lot more fun.  Getting out into the woods alone is a time to breathe and recharge for the next whirlwind of social activity.  Being alone on the trail ensures that I can avoid the constant need to socialize if I want.
  • It gives me time to think.  Being busy — in career and socially — means I spend a lot of time thinking.  However, I spend a lot of time thinking about what has to be done and the most efficient way to do it rather than real reflection and introspection.  Being alone out on the trail with the calming effect of nature and no demands on my time and attention gives me a chance to slow my brain down and actually think about important life things — without the temptations of the television, music, email, etc. to distract me.
  • It gives me a sense of accomplishment, independence, and freedom.  This is really the most incredible thing — if you’ve ever accomplished something you didn’t think you could do on your own, you’ll know the feeling.  When it’s something traditionally viewed as a male activity, that feeling is even more intense.  Suddenly, you’re one with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, rubbing elbows with Rosie the Riveter and sharing war stories with Amelia Earhart.  Women are taught that from a young age that they need to be taken care of, and to realize that that’s not precisely true is a proud moment.  I have that proud moment every time I successfully complete a solo hike or camping trip.  Solo camping and hiking is on another level from just being master of your finances, knowing how to check the oil in your car, or successfully replastering that section of the bathroom wall where your towel rack fell out (ahem).  Solo camping and hiking taps into a more primitive feeling of self-sufficiency, independence, and freedom. 

You’ll notice that, on my list of reasons, is not that I can’t find people to go with me.  This is sometimes true, and it’s what broke the seal on solo hiking for me in the first place: I was sick of waiting around for a time when my schedule meshed with someone else’s for a whole day and they wanted to spend it out in the woods.  But that was then.  Now, I solo hike and camp not because I can’t find a companion.  Now, I go solo deliberately because I’ve found that it does something for my soul that no other activity does.

That photo at the top?  It’s a quiet moment on a trail.  There’s really nothing like it.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.