There is something innately masochistic about foot travel, especially backpacking. There will be physical discomfort involved, even when you are your most prepared. Unless you happen to be a barefoot runner, with thick, asphalt-denying soles, chances are strong that you will get blisters. Unless you consistently carry 20-30 lbs of backpack throughout your daily activities, you will have sore, aching shoulders. Hip flexors will tighten up and it won’t feel great to get up and hike after a short night sleeping on the ground. You can, however, be a little more prepared and be a lot more comfortable–and it will make the beauty of the trail that much easier to enjoy.
Pictured Rocks is one of the loveliest national parks I have ever seen, and I should know; I didn’t see the inside of an Embassy Suites on a family vacation until I was 12 years old. I just assumed that “vacation” meant tent camping in Colorado’s San Jose National Forest, where I would spend the week fishing with Grandpa B and losing all of my Jolly Ranchers in poker tournaments with my brother. I haven’t been to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, but Pictured Rocks is a primal geological wonder of sand, forest and water. The grandeur of Lake Superior contrasts sharply with the minutiae of the forest trail. I marveled at feeling both very large and very small as we trekked through 35 miles of the 42 mile North Country Trail. Enjoy this gallery, and read further to hear about how we packed our bags.
Dan and I are backpacking newbies. We have often spent entire days on the trails, especially in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, but after covering 14 miles, we are happy to return to a soft bed and pizza,–and wine. Nothing makes a long day of hiking better than a good glass of red wine, which is perhaps why I loved Argentina so much. The next day, we usually sleep in, drink coffee, and re-fuel with pancakes. Backpacking has none of these comforts–and it has torturous potential. It is physically and mentally grueling, and you can make it even more so if you are like us and packed 3 lbs of canned soup and no cook stove. When you find yourself salivating at the prospect of half-heated chicken broccoli cheese soup, turned a pallid grey color from ash, or eating a packet of tuna salad for dinner, you know that you should reevaluate your nutrition plans.
Readers who are advanced backpackers will surely make fun of us greenhorns, as you should. I worried about this trip incessantly for two weeks, trying to figure what to bring and how to use it. I was afraid of getting sick from drinking lake water (we didn’t; we filtered it). I was afraid of a bear or two taking all of our food (as my mom says, bears are more afraid of us than we are of them). I was most afraid of reaching that mental state when hunger turns into anger and attacking the bear trying to take my food. I did reach that point a couple of times, but the bears wisely avoided us, so nothing worse happened than my having a short panic attack–and that was at the beginning of the trail. And it turned out that we were prepared for some things, but not for others. Especially eating. Lesson learned: buy and pack a small backpacking stove and freeze-dried food. The stove is important at Pictured Rocks; not all campsites allow fires, and a packet of tuna for dinner is not really that appetizing.
Lesson Two: Sleeping pads. We slept on the hard ground, inside warm, comfy sub-zero sleeping bags. But sleep can’t ease soreness away if a tree root is lodged so deeply into your shoulder that you can’t tell where the root ends and your bones begin. A yoga mat would have been well worth the extra weight in the pack, and the Cliffs at Pictured Rocks are the perfect location for a scenic sunset vinyasa.
We were prepared for contingencies that we were lucky not to experience, namely, picnicking with bears. In recent months, Pictured Rocks National Park has started cracking down on bear preparedness, mostly because rangers have reported multiple instances of campers giving their food to bears. It is a bad day when bears associate people with food–your chicken broccoli cheese could be quickly snatched and you might have to use your bear spray (a frightening device that looks like an air horn and sprays a capsaicin spray that you must not in any way get on your person). We strung our food up in odor-proof bags inside a bear canister in a high branch or one of the park-provided bear poles. Don’t leave food or toothpaste or other toiletries in your tent–put them in the canister and hang them up. Bonus: Wolves will be less interested in your camp too. Nothing scarier than a herd of rabbits paraded through our campsite. I think avoiding a bear run-in boosted our backpacking confidence.
We were also prepared for injury, bugs and hygiene. Blisters were disinfected and bandaged nightly, making the next day’s hiking much easier. Two ACE bandages helped me limp through the last 11 miles of the trail. Pain killers take some of the ache out of your sore shoulders and hip flexors. And wet-wipes. Wet-wipes are essential for boosting hygiene and morale; there is nothing better than a fresh wet-wipe to make the trail look a bit rosier. They are even better paired with an industrial-strength mosquito repellent on skin and sprayed on tents, backpacks and a couple of outfits. You want something with 30% DEET or above. I’m sure it is highly carcinogenic. But I left Pictured Rocks, Land of the Thumb-Sized Mosquitoes, with three bites total.
When you hike Pictured Rocks–and you should, especially if you are a Michigander, a Buckeye or a Cheesehead (it is so close to home!)–don’t bother to take these things with you:
1. Canned soup. Or canned food of any kind.
2. 6 lighters. Bring 2 lighters, and some matches. 6 lighters, in the immortal words of Larry David, “are a bit much.”
3. A dozen AA batteries, unless you are actually carrying a device that requires said batteries. We weren’t.
4. Four changes of clothes. One or two is plenty.
5. 4 lbs of trail mix. Your tummy will not thank you later.
6. A bikini?!? Not sure why I brought that. The lake is way too cold for swimming in early June.
And definitely bring:
1. A well-stocked first aid kit.
2. Enough food to replace the thousands of calories that you burn; Dan and I roughly estimated that we ran a calorie deficit of at least 6000-9000 calories throughout the entire trip. That is more than enough to bring on hanger; I get grumpy when I have to give up chocolate for a week.
4. Bear canister and odor-proof, water-proof bags. And bear spray. Use the former; know how to use the latter.
5. A water filter, or at least some water filtration tabs. Rangers suggest a filter, but the lake water is clear and perfect for chlorine tabs if you don’t have anything better.
6. Your camera, and an extra battery. Because there is nothing better than waking up in the woods when the sun begins to peek through the canopy. The mosquitoes stare at you disconcertingly from their position under the rain flap of your tent, and you feel righteous, reveling in the fact that you are heavily bug-sprayed and that they are probably dying from the fumes. Outside, you eat your Cliff bar and saunter down to the lake to refill your water bottle. The water is so clear that you can see the fish feeding five, ten, fifteen feet below. You will want to capture that morning feeling, as your ankles and arches start to warm up on the trail after breaking camp. Your body feels better than it did last night, and for now, your muscles are fueled and you are full. You know that the rest of the day is nothing but moving and breathing. Happy trails indeed.
Chicken Broccoli Cheese by Katie Piper Greulich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at apiedonfoot.wordpress.com.