Backpacking off into the wilderness or up a mountain by yourself is always fraught with challenges and difficulties, but you can ensure an exhilarating experience with proper anticipation and planning.
But first a little history. Back in the early 1970s I returned from a vagabond tour in Europe and the Near East teaching English, only to realize that this was not what I wanted to do anymore.
I eventually landed in Colorado and went to work for a company that manufactured and retailed backpacking and mountaineering gear in Boulder. It was called Holubar Mountaineering and was later bought out by North Face.
As employees we were to be experts on gear, and therefore we got to test all of the new tents, jackets, mountaineering technical gear, fly fishing rods, backpacks and cross country skis. People who love backpacking are invariably equipment junkles. It was fabulous!! I started solo backpacking in my early 20’s, going out for 3 days at a time, even doing a little bushwhacking.
Life, professional career and family intervened until 1990, when I took advantage of my close friend’s house as a “base camp,” which bordered on Rocky Mountain National Park. So every few years I would strap on the old frame pack and head up a trail for a couple of days.
This year much of the area had been flooded out by global warming, but I was able to get a back country permit for the 12.4 mile Lawn Lake trail in the Mummy mountain range, contingent on taking a screw top ‘bear canister’ which was a new regulation to me. They are big and bulky but you can cram your cooking stove, cook kit, food, iodine pills, gorp and food waste in there. I rented one from a local backpacking store in Estes Park before heading out. You stow the canister 80 ft. away from your tent to be safe. I also had to rent a stove and propane fuel container in Estes Park because I couldn’t bring propane fuel in my luggage on the flight into Denver.
Now to review a few key aspects you need to remember for successful backpacking or trekking at high altitudes:
1) Be in good physical condition. I work out two hours/day, six days/week at the gym. Of course you will be on the trail six to eight hours a day, so your beginning conditioning is only a starting point. You get into spectacular condition on the trek itself.
2) Pack light! But be prepared for summer and winter weather as early as September in the mountains. I experienced both rain and snow. You need shorts or strip off pants, a short sleeve shirt, a turtleneck and fleece jacket, wool hat, sun hat, sunglasses, a lightweight rain jacket, a topographical map of the area, compass, whistle, trekking poles, top and bottom long underwear, a headlamp, a small paperback, and an extra pair of socks and underwear. I pack a 5lb tent and needed it in the fall, but during the summer I probably could have gone with just a tarp. I also have a down mummy bag and a 4 ft. long self-inflatable air mattress which is good for this 65 year old body. Of course a small cook kit, waterproof matches, two quart size water bottles, iodine tablets, dehydrated food, trail mix, energy bars and a cook stove. I rented the cook stove, fuel and bear canister from a local backpacking store in Estes Park before I flew to my destination.
3) Have enough high energy food. You expend a lot of calories on the trail. One night I couldn’t get to sleep after trying for a few hours. So I did my check off list—Warm enough? Tired enough? Hydrated enough? I finally decided the dehydrated dinner I consumed didn’t have enough calories, so I ate about 6 oz. of trail mix. I fell asleep immediately. Toward the end, I discovered I had cut it too close on food, as I finished off the last of it about 2 miles from the trailhead.
4) Pack high altitude sickness pills (acetazolamide tabs 125 mg from any travel clinic). When I do all of the above, I find I don’t need the pills until I stay at 11,000-14,000 ft. for more than a day. Also make sure your tetanus shots are up to date.
5) Get acclimated for a few days prior to making the climb. As a flatlander, I hiked with a backpack eight miles a day for two days at 7,000 ft. before attempting the 9-11,000 ft. elevation.
6) Stay hydrated. This is essential to ward off high altitude sickness.
7) Schedule yourself to reach the end of your trip well before it gets dark. It’s a good safety measure. I usually plan to be done by 2:00pm with my friend waiting to pick me up.
On my recent trip I saw several day hikers as I ascended 2, 647 feet, but no one was in the campsite at the lake. Ah, the peace and quiet!!
The only hitch the whole trip was the first day about 7 miles in I tripped and fell face first on the rock trail, splitting my lip and scraping my chin badly, which bled profusely. I rummaged around in my cook kit and wadded up some paper towels to use as a compress. It was tough to eat that night what with the swelling. Months later at a dental check-up they discovered that all four of my front teeth had been knocked loose! Subsequently, I had to have two root canals and a band put on those teeth so they won’t fall out.
I still have a few years left of solo backpacking in me nonetheless. Next time I just won’t lead with my face.