CDT

self reliance

Self-reliance is the only road to true freedom, and being one’s own person is its ultimate reward.

Patricia Sampson
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It’s essential to take five navigation tools in the backcountry: map, altimeter, compass, GPS and personal locator.
To navigatehead for the sun
With first aid and knife on the run
Bring fire and shelter
Extra food is a helper
But water and clothes weigh a ton 

That’s the Mountaineers Ten Essentials limerick.

The ten essentials are navigation, headlamp, sun protection, first aid, knife and repair kit, the ability to make fire, shelter or a bivvy, extra food, a way to purify water and extra clothes.

Super important for day hikers who should always ask themselves the question if they could spend the night out here if something goes wrong like they get lost or hurt. Now a backpacker has all this stuff, but the thinking on navigation is to take five tools with us – including printed maps.

The Continental Divide Trail does have an official route, but, unlike most other long-distance trails, nearly every thru-hiker chooses alternates. Why? Because in some cases they’re more beautiful or more interesting or more challenging than the actual divide. The CDT Trail Coalition does make maps available – as does a very generous thru-hiker named Jonathan Ley, who marks the most used alternates – but there’s a couple that are not on maps, exactly.

And for those, I need to make my own. So I took a class.

I admit that on my last two thru-hikes I only had maps on my phone. Yes, it was risky because phones fail, they get crunched, lost, they die. I made it, but what bothered the most was a feeling like I was just following a line and not aware of the larger picture, or my options.

In the GPS Navigation class I learned a lot including navigational workflow, situational awareness and the ethic of self-reliance. Those are some big concepts and I’ll admit, I’m quite literally taking baby steps – and the class is for people like me who gotta start somewhere – and that’s with creating a map – a physical map with a route and waypoints customized to my needs – like, where I want to go, where I might want to stop and issues I may encounter along the way, like water sources or resupply options.

And that begins with learning to use software called Cal Topo. The story goes that founder and Wilderness EMT Matt Jacobs was sick of buying maps for every outing and 10 years ago, he set up mapping tools for search and rescue. He now has ten people on staff for this incredibly sophisticated tool.

With time running out before I head to Montana, I still thought cramming in all the material I’d need for class, including six hours of pre-work, reading and studying, practicing in the field and taking two quizzes (which I passed) – was worth the effort, even if by no means would I master navigation.

Read ‘Don’t shun (-tion) the “Ten Essentials”’

A CalTopo map I created for the Teton Crest Trail alternate from the CDT.

In addition to making a physical map, I’d also learn about the phone app Gaia GPS, which works in conjunction with the map software – you basically make your map, print it and then import to Gaia so you can follow it via GPS. But the key to success in the backcountry is to keep you nose out of your phone. And that’s because, well, you want to see the scenery, but also you are more aware of weather, how many hours left to daylight, if there’s a rattle snake in the middle of the trail. You want to NOT rely on these tools singularly, but rather as a whole.

And that’s when the magic occurs, when we combine the map making and gps with the lowly handheld compass. After our three-hour Zoom class, our next activity was in the field. I printed a map with a route and marked waypoints and went out and walked it. It’s at Lake Elmo again with clearly marked trails and a place very familiar to me using my compass to follow the bearing from the map I made now in my phone. One of the first things I learn, even after all those times walking here, I never has any idea which direction I was going. I also learn that heading towards something “as the crow flies’ is not always possible, and I can take intermediate bearings. The GPS gives me the distance, kind of like someone telling you, “walk fifty paces then turn right.”

And maybe the biggest miracle, is if I stay on my bearing, I don’t get lost.

Now back to why I took the course, to make that map for my big alternate on the CDT. It’s loosely called the Super Butte/Big Sky Cut Off – or the “Butte Scoot” – followed by Yellowstone and finally the Grand Teton Crest Trail. The good news is other people have walked it and have made their GPX data available online which I import directly onto my map. Still, I need to vary the route somewhat and create waypoints for water and possible camping. The greatest tool of all is a snap to OSM or open street map. No there aren’t streets in the wilderness, but there are trails and I can snap my route to them. It takes a bit of trying, but it saves so much time.

There are a couple of cross-country sections without trail, and here I can change the map layer from Map Builder to aerial or aerial topo hybrid, which allows me to see the terrain. I can see from the profile that there’s a 1,400 foot cliff over Lake Solitude, but there’s a section that looks doable and I know it’s doable because other people have done it. So I drop in waypoints to the easier part so I can navigate to when I get there.

I am no expert, but I am incredibly empowered. The ethic of self-reliance is founded on the principles of experience, preparation, skill and judgment. This is just one more arrow in my quiver that will help me when I move along the trail to make good decisions and be responsible for myself.

Listen to Blissful Hiker podcast, ep. 56 “CDT prep: maps ‘n food”

I plan to make “no cook” meals on the CDT.

You want to get overwhelmed fast? Try making food for a thru-hike.

To be honest, the only recipe that’s mine is for my magic vegetarian pemmican bars. That’s a calorie bomb of cashews, almonds, pecans, walnuts, wheat germ, flax flour, figs, dates and honey. Fortunately, I have about four pounds in the freezer ready to be packed.

For all the other recipes, I am using Backcountry Foodie. It’s a member-based backpacking meal planning site created by a dietician backpacker. Ultralight recipes packed with nutrition and high in calories and most importantly, gridded into meal plans, so you don’t have to think too much. You just have to prepare.

I watched friends on the PCT manage all 2600-plus miles without carrying a stove and I was jealous. I don’t like cooking on trail, and it’s not necessary. Backcountry set me up with a “No-cook 7-day meal plan” and I got to work.

The most fun to make was pasta. Sure you could live off of ramen for 7 days in a row on repeat, but I wanted to try others. You have to cook the pasta first, then dehydrate it. This enables it to rehydrate in about 30 minutes for a pasta salad. It does seem a bit ridiculous to pull out the water just to put it back in. And oddly, the pasta looks exactly the same. But it’s not. What works really well is penne and elbow macaroni. Not so crazy about orzo and definitely unwieldy is angel hair, which glued itself to the dehydrator. Still, for no cook meals, pasta works great because you make salads. Sun dried tomato pesto, spicy peanut, buffalo salad. And just how do you make these tasty? The trick is using mayonnaise and peanut butter packets and lots and lots of shelf stable parmesan cheese as well as olive oil

I was kinda tuned off to the mess of it, but oils pack a massive nutritional punch per ounce and I know my body is desperate for it on the trail. Does it go bad? I haven’t had any problems, but I’ll let my nose be the tester. You do have to pack it carefully in a leak-proof Nalgene bottle and its own baggie, but it’s worth it.

I made about ten or so of each main meal, packing the herbs and spices and pine nuts separately in their own tiny baggie. It’s just a glorified assembly line, but it still takes me the better part of two days.

Read “Backcountry Foodie review”

I’m less cooking show quality, and more “Swedish Chef.”

I have no idea why I was so opposed to cereal in the past on my thru-hikes. Maybe because it was always porridge over a stove, slowing down my morning. This time around, I make packages of granola and kashi with whole milk powder, berries dehydrated at home and nuts. I actually end up eating out the bag. I must look like a sorry little person, but wait until you hear about the dozens of shakes I created and also drink out of the bag – berry, chocolate, peanut butter – and a real cool trick of grinding up coconut and oats to a powder. I just might have the most flushed colon on trail!

For lunches, I have dips and spreads with chips and crackers. Have I gone completely off the deep end if I’m counting each cracker, measuring each pile of pita chips? Maybe the most complex of all my dips is a salsa. Lots of ingredients including a new discovery for me of True Lime powder, like one slice of squeezed lime juice and a miracle of flavor popping. In between meals are my magic bars, a truckload of Honey Stinger waffles sent to me by a follower, plantain chips, Pepperidge Farm goldfish and of course, gummy bears.

I am less a cooking show star and more a Swedish chef disaster of spoons, bowls, knives, cutting boards, food processor and baggie explosion – but I only had to go to the store twice for extra items.

Everything is assembled in quart-sized freezer bags and nestled into boxes ready to roll. Some I’ll send to my first resupply at mile 236 at Benchmark Wilderness Ranch. I need to send that this week so it gets there in time. Another box I’ll leave in east Glacier, and then there’s what I’ll pack in my new Ursack to take on day one.

And all the rest, my trail angel here in Saint Paul Richard will send as I move along, to Yellowstone, Atlantic City and Encampment, WY and Pie Town, NM – and maybe points in between. I’ve tried all the recipes and didn’t gag or die, but not cooking might pose its own issues. Let’s just hope Richard doesn’t have to send me an emergency resupply half way through Glacier with my stove.

Read “Behold the Bar”

All of this will be eaten by me
CDT

Kula Cloth review

Big dreams happen in small spaces.

unknown
Blissful gives Kula Cloth the highest rating, five Anitas.
Intentionally designed for all the places you ‘go,’ the Kula Cloth is one of the most important pieces of gear a women should have attached to her pack.

Can we talk peeing in the woods?

I know, I know, choosing the name The Pee Rag for my podcast got a few of you in a twist, but it was never intended to be vulgar, rather a play on words – “rag” being another name for a news source.

I also meant the choice to equate the unglamorous bits of thru-hiking with the grit and bad-assery required – especially from of a middle aged solo female backpacker carrying all she needs on her back to so many stunningly beautiful and transformative places.

To tell the truth, I had never even heard of a “pee rag” until a few days before my departure for New Zealand with an objective of walking the length of both islands on the Te Araroa. It was actually a Facebook post devoted to women hikers of the TA that piqued my curiosity, one where a fellow hiker queried, are you taking a pee rag?

Not to look uninformed, I researched this mystery and came upon Stacia Bennett’s informative and matter-of-fact article all about the subject. Like me, after reading you too will come to realize you just can’t leave home without a pee rag. Let’s face it gals, “drip drying” is no way to manage on a multi-day hike – or ever for that matter, and using wads of toilet paper does not align with Leave No Trace principles in any form or fashion.

So both the Te Araroa and the Pacific Crest Trail saw me sporting bandanas on the side of Olive Oyl, one for the pot and one for me. But this presented a few issues – namely mixing them up, but also uric acid causing the bandanas to wear out fast, and I could never really find a way to keep them clean or dry. I also feared contracting an infection.

Kula Cloth is intentionally designed for all the places you 'go.'
Part of the Kula Cloth artist series, the “adventure sloth” Kula captures Blissful’s naturally sauntering and “andante” hiking speed.

What is a Kula Cloth?

And that’s where our story brings us to the remarkable Kula Cloth! Anastasia Allison is a former park ranger, blissful hiker, violinist, and entrepreneur based in the Pacific Northwest.

Like me, she toed a pee rag on her pack in the mountains, one made of microfiber. It became a kind of joke when rather than snap selfies, she would pose her pee rag in astoundingly beautiful locations. It wasn’t long before the thought occurred to her that maybe she was onto something.

Taking its name from Kula Khangri, the tallest mountain in Bhutan, the word Kula also translates as community, one she considers “a radically inclusive community that happens to sell a pee cloth for anybody that squats when they pee.”

What surprised me at first was how small the cloth is – just about a hand’s width in size, kind of like a potholder. My Kula is part of the artist series designed by Lyn Sweet and features an orange sloth backpacking with walking stick into the sunset. You could say, I’m carrying my Kula spirit of the “saunterer.

The pictured side is the “clean side” and waterproof, preventing moisture from reaching my hands. The working side is made of antimicrobial silver-infused absorbent material, which quickly and efficiently did its job on the many stops during my latest hikes on Isle Royale and the Kekekabic.

Other features include a cloth loop with a tough little hypoallergenic plastic snap that locks the cloth in place, as well as an extra privacy snap to fold the cloth over on itself into a triangle. Reflective thread is woven into each side so the cloth can be found when a night urge hits and a headlamp guides the way.

Read more gear reviews including La Sportiva and LEKI.

Leave no Trace Principles

1. Plan Ahead & Prepare
2. Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
3. Dispose of Waste Properly
4. Leave What you Find
5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
6. Respect Wildlife
7. Be Considerate of Others

Just to be clear, Kula Cloth and all pee rags are meant for use only when going Number 1!

So, how did it go?

Kula Cloth did its job perfectly – it fit beautifully in my hands, absorbed the urine and kept me dry and clean. The conditions on Isle Royale were very wet this season – rain, sea-fog and general humidity – so my Kula only dried out thoroughly when the sun was shining. When wet, it acted more like a “wet wipe” but remained surprisingly absorbent and kept my hands clean.

I don’t ever take soap with me on hikes and I simply rinsed my Kula in water. I should point out that it was only when it dried out that it became completely odor-free, but no soap was ever necessary to clean it on my nine-day hike.

The Kula feels weightier than a simple piece of cloth or bandana and the only wear and tear I noticed was some of the side threads shredding ever so slightly. Since I’m a pretty rough on my gear, this might become more of a problem when having to crawl under fallen trees and potentially snagging my Kula.

Are either of those issues a deal breaker? No! A pee rag is an absolute necessity and Kula Cloth is made with materials specifically designed to be absorbent as well as non-toxic, non-sensitizing, and non-irritating when in contact with the body. Although I have not yet suffered a urinary tract infection on a thru-hike, that is not something to fool with and I put my full trust in the superb bit of gear to keep me healthy.

With the pandemic still raging and a run on toilet paper reminiscent of Black Friday on repeat, many people have been considering pee rags a possible permanent solution. Why cut down trees when using a renewable resource is far more ecologically sound? Perhaps Kula and pee rags in general will become far more normalized as part of everyone’s good habits.

And besides, how cool is to have a work of art on the back of “Blueberry” (my new Granite Gear pack) something that gives a little character to my walking – as if I need any more!

Kula Cloth is coming with me on every hike and I give her my highest rating, five Anitas.

Specs at a glance

  • Weight: .53 oz
  • Length: 6.25″ x 6.25″
  • Antimicrobial, silver infused materials
  • Hypo-allergenic snaps
  • Reflective thread

Disclosure

alison young was given this pee rag for testing by Kula Cloth.

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Balega is a Zulu word that means "move with speed." I'm happy to move with comfort, blister-free and in a spectacular array of colors.
gear blog

Balega socks review

Balega is a Zulu word that means "move with speed." I'm happy to move with comfort, blister-free and in a spectacular array of colors.
Balega is a Zulu word that means “move with speed.” I’m happy to move with comfort, blister-free and in a spectacular array of colors.

Recently, a pal from the PCT named “Toast” asked me how my socks held up I did not lie, I still use a few of my Balagas from the hike, they’re practically indestructible! So, I’m republishing this review and offering a chance for you to win Balega socks as a kind of post Christmas bonus present. Just LIKE and SHARE The Pee Rag on Facebook and you’ll be automatically entered to win!

Sometimes it’s safer to read maps with your feet.

Kelly Link
Blissful gives Balega Socks the highest rating, five Anitas.

September, 2018 – If you want to hike with the ease, agility and the fleet-footedness of a seasoned ultra trail runner, and keep your feet cool and blister-free, Balega socks are for you. Balega means to move with speed and while that is not my ultimate goal as a backpacker, I appreciate that whatever is protecting my foot is indeed the ultimate arbiter of success in any walk.

Balega scores high for me because of a moisture wicking fabric they call “Drynamix” that is soft and breathable and just as advertised keeps my foot dry. I chose the slightly heavier Blister Resist sock that combines mohair with Drynamix. These socks are soft and cozy – and may prove to be a bit much for the beaches and rain forests of New Zealand’s Northland, which is why I am taking pairs of Enduro V-Tecs in my bounce box. They are synthetic and contain a compression band for the mid-foot, supporting just so without feeling too tight.

Both socks are made without seams, which help prevent blistering, but fit like a dream with a snug heel cup and elastic grippers that prevent slippage. And each have strategically placed ventilation panels that aid the wicking process which will be key as I walk in and out of rivers and find my feet caked in mud throughout my five-month sojourn. Sounds fun, eh?

But maybe more than just feeling thrilled that I have found the best sock for my long distance thru-hiking, I also have some real warm fuzzies when I think that the additional pairs of Balega socks I buy will help support Balega’s outreach programs in their home country of South Africa. There was even a little sticker on each pair with a picture of the person who inspected – and washed – my socks before they were sent out. Just like that beautiful Zulu word Ubuntu, meaning “shared humanity,” I feel there is a bit of this wonderful company’s energy walking each step with me on the Te Araroa.

Blissful gives Balega Socks the highest rating, five Anitas.

Specs at a glance

  • seamless
  • “drynamix” mohair and synthetic available
  • V-tech arch support
  • anti-microbial silver-infused

Disclosure

Balega supplied alison young with socks.

Gear

Care Remote boot sock review

Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.

Anne Lamott 
Blissful gives Care Remote boot socks three Anitas (will use as a backup)
Comfortable, therapeutic and colorful, Care Remote boot socks worked well on the Kekekabic, but sprung a leak on day four.

Everything starts at the feet.

If you want to have a pleasant hiking experience, it’s imperative that you wear the right hiking shoes – whether boots or trail runners – ones that fit well, have good support, and are built to handle uneven surfaces. But even the best footwear will let you down if you’re not wearing the right sock.

I have been wearing Balega socks for the past two years, but became curious about compression socks after suffering a minor bout with shin splints on the Pacific Crest Trail.

So it was one of those “the trail will provide” sort of moments when Victor Phillips, founder of Care Remote, contacted me to ask if I might give their socks a try.

What are Care Remote socks?

The branding comes from Phillips’ origins working in the healthcare and technology fields. Traveling the world, he worked with people in textiles and design as well as the medical professionals to come up with a solution to the problems of socks – namely, that they fit badly, get soggy and smell.

Through a proprietary weave of an anti-microbial mix of nylon, polyester and lycra, the intention is to check all the boxes for a sock’s use whether in the outdoors, as therapy or to just to look snazzy in a casual setting.

In addition, these socks are meant to stay consistent even after multiple washes, reduce blisters with fibers placed in strategic “hot spots,” and slip in and out of boots easily.

So, how did it go?

Victor sent me a variety of socks to try – no show, ankle-length and full-length. I started using them by simply walking around my neighborhood, but it was when I got on trail, walking the Kekekabic in Northern Minnesota, that I put them through their paces, choosing the 12-inch, mid knit compression sock for this remote 41 miles in the Boundary Waters Wilderness

pros:

  1. I had very damp conditions last October and the socks wicked moisture, staying surprisingly dry and keeping their shape.
  2. I wore the same pair for four days and the odor was well managed.
  3. My calf felt comfortably swaddled in the soft, form-fitting and massaging fabric which still managed to breathe.

cons:

  1. The sock did not fit well. I recommend choosing a smaller size than your shoe size since the heel will stretch and ride up.
  2. The toe-box did not offer enough protection for an all-day hiker and I suffered wear on the skin as well as the loss of toenails. To be fair, the sock is much thinner than my Balegas and my foot may have slipped more.
  3. The sock sprung a leak on Day 4.
  4. Other notes: they’re expensive. These socks were given to me for review, but they seem a bit on the high side.
  5. and there are just too many choices on the website and I found it all a bit confusing.

Conclusion…

For the most part, I liked the socks I wore and will find uses for them on day hikes, when climbing, skiing (especially since they feel like a second skin and will be very easy to slip in and out of boots) and when biking.

Since I got a hole after only three days of backpacking, I think these socks might not have the durability required of a thru-hike, though they may act as a nice second when I need the compression or will be walking in a lot of wet terrain.

Blissful gives Care Remote boot socks three Anitas (will use as a backup)

Specs at a glance

  • available in hidden, mid or full-length (3, 6, 9 and 12-inches)
  • regular sock – 5% Lycra, 45% Nylon, 50% Polyester mix
  • compression sock – PTFE 8%, 2% Lycra, 40% Wool, 17% Nylon, 33% Polyester mix in two gradients
  • seamless with padded heel
  • antimicrobial and free of metals
  • colors: pink, blue and green camo, black/gray and off-white
  • mid and heavy knit available
  • machine washable

Disclosure

alison young was given socks for testing from Care Remote

Look closely and you can see the pee rag (tie-dye peace sign bandana) hanging from the back of my pack.
Gear

GUEST POST: The Pee Rag by Stacia Bennett

What is a pee rag? Let’s just say, it’s a tool that enables a female hiker to get the job done without fuss or muss, and focus on being her badass self on the trail.

Blissful Hiker, “The Pee Rag” Episode 1
Look closely and you can see the pee rag (tie-dye peace sign bandana) hanging from the back of my pack.
Look closely and you can see the pee rag (tie-dye peace sign bandana) hanging from the back of my pack.

It is not an overstatement to say reading Stacia Bennett‘s article on for The Trek “Gear Essentials for Women” changed my hiking life. My discovery began with a question posed in the private all-women Te Araroa Facebook , “Are any of you ladies taking a ‘pee rag’ on the TA?” I had no clue what this gal was referring to and obviously needed to get myself enlightened – or look the fool. Dr. Google led me straight to Stacia, a.k.a Tink, and once educated, I never looked back! I hope you enjoy this Asheville-based, former teacher turned nomad, Appalachian Trail thru-hike-attempt-turned-long-ass-section hiker’s explanation on a requisite piece of kit for every women’s backpack.

It’s super simple to start using a pee rag. The biggest decision you have to make is what material to use. For my long hikes, I chose to stick with a plain old cotton bandanna.

A bandanna is lightweight and since the cotton is thin, it’s pretty quick drying. Cotton is gentle on the skin and absorbent. So, pick your favorite pattern for $1 at the Wally World. Tie it to the back of your pack, and BAM! You’ve got yourself a pee rag.

Ok, I know what you are wondering. What the heck is a pee rag??

Actually, if you’ve spent any time at all on a long trail you’ve probably heard of them, and you’ve likely seen them hanging off the pack of the badass lady hiker in front of you.

A “peedanna”, or pee rag, is a bandanna or similar cloth that is designated for wiping after urinating in the woods. A lot of women opt to use a pee rag instead of toilet paper. There are a multitude of reasons why you’d want to make the switch to a pee rag. For me, the ease and convenience were the biggest factor.

The great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wants us to be wanderers, “though not as a traveler to a final destination: for this destination does not exist.”
audio narrative

TA audio narrative: no outcomes backpacking

If you arrive at a final destination, it’s a sign that you’ve set your sights too low.

Friedrich Nietzsche
It’s difficult now trying to picture the person I’ll be on, two or five months from now. But on a long hike, who we are if about recovering from who we think we are.
The Blissful Hiker sets her Garmin inReach GPS to "starting my trip."
The great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wants us to be wanderers, “though not as a traveler to a final destination: for this destination does not exist.”
Taking my bike across town to Orchestra Hall, then a ten-mile ride back after the concert.
CDT

training is life; life, training

Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.

Mark Twain
I "trained" to Orchestra Hall last night, but after the broadcast, rode 12 miles home. Bliss!
I “trained” to Orchestra Hall last night, but after the broadcast, rode 12 miles home. Bliss!

At my last Zoom presentation, a participant asked how do you get in shape for a long walk? I published this blog less than a week before I left for the Te Araroa and I thought it would be a good idea to revisit it!

The short answer to the question “how do you get in shape for a thru-hike?” is by being in shape, which sounds much harder than it is! What I mean is take on the attitude of having physical fitness – in all forms – a part of your being.

How does one do that? Well, by choosing each day to move.

The list below covers most things I like to do to make myself strong enough to manage the rigors of a thru-hike, though Richard and I have lately been doing a daily morning routine with Russian Kettlebells.

Bells are lifted, swung, and pivoted around the body in orbits and figure eights. A series of kettle bell activities, along with planks and pushups, may very well be the number one routine worth adding to prepare for a thru-hike because they strengthen the core and improve balance – and let’s face it, you look like a bad ass swinging them!

Though a warning that you should find an instructor to ensure your technique is proper so you don’t injure your back. Contact me if you’d like to know more about using kettle bells and read on!

Kettle bells ready to be lifted and swung.

I admit it. I am a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to training. It feels too much like homework. Not that I haven’t done it. I have, and even happily. I successfully trained to run 100k with 11,000 feet ascent, to ski 31 miles uphill and down hills three different times, and to bike all the way from Saint Paul into Canada. That being said, each and every time I found that my biggest successes came when I went easier on the schedule and more intentional on the changing of my lifestyle.

You might call me an “active middle aged woman.” So when people ask how I’m training to walk the 3,000 kilometers of the Te Araroa, I usually say, “By staying active!” with a smile, though that never satisfies.

Ok, then. How about, “By walking to work every day?” They usually look at me oddly either because they realize that 20-30 miles walking per week is never going to come close to the amount of walking I’ll do over the course of five months.

Or maybe it’s because most people don’t relate to my walking every day, rain or shine, snowstorm or heat wave. It’s at about this point in the conversation when I feel like a slacker and wonder just who I think I am planning to simply warm up as I go on this 3000 km stroll. That’s more the perspective of the 20-somethings I’ll meet along the way, out-of-work or in their gap-year with young lithe bodies that can adjust fast to the conditions, and pick up long distance walking “skills” as they go.

At 53-going-on-54, that does not describe me. The not-so-young-anymore part, anyway. The out-of-work part is still TBA, though I do protest my calling myself a slacker. Welcome to my head-space!

Read next – ten reasons to add hot yoga to your thru-hike prep

Walking to MPR is not always passive. I usually carry a fully-loaded "Olive Oyl" up over 400 steps.
Walking to MPR is not always passive. I usually carry a fully-loaded Olive Oyl up over 400 steps.

Truth is, I move a lot – and in varied ways – and I find it translates more directly to my needs as a thru-hiker: to move steadily, quickly (enough) and over long periods of time.

Let’s look at the evidence:

Walking

Walking to work requires me to obviously move my legs briskly for two miles to and from my job in downtown Saint Paul. I live on Summit Hill, so it’s usually downhill to and uphill from MPR. But I have gotten creative in adding a roundabout course that forces me uphill both ways. It entails a good deal of stair climbing, and not that I’ve counted, but it comes to some 400 steps, and that’s first thing in the morning keeping my knees nice and juicy. Sure it gets my blood pumping to take them on, but what really “trains” me is the discipline of setting aside 40 minutes each morning. I have to make the time and I have to get there whether I want to or not.

Biking

I am so lucky to live in the Twin Cites with the finest network of bike trails in the country. They are heavily used even in winter. And I must point out here that Minnesota is no place for sissies; we have real winter. While I stopped commuting by bike in the winter the second year we lived here, mainly because I didn’t want to get flattened by an impatient driver, I do bike everywhere else I can get to in town, for groceries, to my friend’s houses, even when I broadcast from Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. Biking has got to be one of the most efficient forms of exercise. It takes all the stress off the joints, builds muscle, and gets your breathe going. And look at this, without even thinking about it, by combining biking with walking I am “cross-training,”

Skiing

I do not have great form. Let’s just get that out there. My friend Rob says I look like an eggbeater, but, boy howdy, can I can push up those hills. Next to biking, cross country skiing is a sport you can participate in until you keel over of old age, frozen in a snow bank with a big smile on your face. Part of why I’ve gotten a little hinky about the whole “training” attitude is that Minnesota is home to some seriously awesome skiers – remember when our relay team stuck it to the Norwegians and nabbed gold? They were born here, popping out of their mother’s wombs with little skis on their feet. So I feel pretty self-conscious about my late start in this marvelous sport. It’s no wonder the Nordic Track is offered at gyms across the country, when you ski you become a four legged creature, using your arms as well as legs to propel yourself. I have never felt so fully fit then when I am skiing. Sadly, this year I have three summers in a row. Hey, that’s not sad! But I will miss ski season.

Rock climbing - or more accurately barn ceiling climbing - is the most Zen of sports.
Rock climbing – or more accurately barn ceiling climbing – is the most Zen of sports.

Climbing

My climbing partner Patrick is 22 years my junior. Why does he climb with me? He’s explained it’s because I never quit. Well, sometime I do, especially when leading as I simply chicken out, unnerved by fall consequences. So I am happy to be a reasonably advanced follower. Climbing is the only sport that totally and utterly focuses my mind. I am unable to ruminate on issues or even carry on a conversation when climbing. That in itself is freeing. But it also is a kind of training for all things physical because climbing asks the body to be flexible, balanced and strategic. You can’t simply possess upper body strength and muscle-it through moves; you have to plan them. Oddly enough, climbing enhances all I do even when on-air because it makes me think about how I am engaged and if I am using my body efficiently. Furthermore, climbing is the great humbler forcing me to listen to myself for signs that it’s time to quit and leave a “project” for another day.

Kayaking

I am happy in my boat on small lakes and rivers, but happiest in “the big lake” Gitche Gumee, Lake Superior. Kayaking has its own set of skills including paddle strokes, and “wet exits” and rescues and requires a keen sense of balance and a strong core. Using arm strength will just tire you out, so you have to engage your torso when moving and bracing. There is also the element of knowing your limits and leaving the lake when weather moves in, all good skills for a thru-hiker as she plans her day and creates a backup plan. My back and arms are much stronger from kayaking which translates to less stress wearing a pack day in and day out.

Listen next – Blissful Hiker podcast #53: CDT prep: getting in shape

Calm day, big berg.
Calm day, big berg.

Yoga

A few years ago, I was told that I had “advanced degeneration” in my left hip. It hurt so badly I could barely walk up the stairs and I thought a joint replacement was imminent. The docs administered a cortisone shot and then tried to figure out next steps with therapy. I was aghast at the cost for treatment so I hunted for ways to give myself PT and that’s when landed on Bikram Yoga. You may not be a fan of the namesake, but the practice is amazing. The premise is to heat a room to about 108 degrees and work through a series of 26 poses in the course of 90 minutes. It is extremely difficult to do correctly but has meant a world of difference to my joints. Hot yoga worked like a charm and I am pain-free from whatever locked up my hip muscle/tendon/ligament. Again, what captures me – in addition to the physical benefits – are psychological ones that yoga is a “practice.” When you bring to class an attitude of non-judgment and simply do your best, you stay in the moment and take pleasure in the surprises that await. Translated into thru-hiking it means I don’t so much seize the day and force it into my pre-conceived ideas, but I allow the day to unfold. Obviously not without planning or an assessment of what I realistically think I can accomplish, but with more of a sense of wonder and acceptance.

…So, do I “train?” or do I just “do?”

It’s hard to say. Though I wouldn’t plan to run a marathon anytime soon as that kind of continuous pounding would require more focus on the specific requirements of non-stop continuous pounding.

Maybe what I am really saying is not that I don’t want to train, but that I am not looking for an end result of a specific event – a marathon, an ultra, a fkt (ok, maybe when I’m 80 I’ll go for the record somewhere) – but rather I want more all-encompassing result – to be strong and healthy enough to keep walking and climbing and biking and paddling and stretching – as long as possible. And that’s why training for the Te Araroa is an every day thing, with each activity feeding on the physical, psychological and emotional demands that I will encounter.

And frankly, it’s just a whole lot of fun, too!

The Hammock Gear quilt looks like a prop from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
gear blog

Hammock Gear Burrow quilt review

When every inch of the world is known, sleep may be the only wilderness that we have left.

Louise Erdrich
Blissful gives Hammock Gear the highest rating, five Anitas.
ali in the alicoop swaddled in a down ‘quilt.’
ali in the alicoop swaddled in a down ‘quilt.’

I am afraid of heights.

At least according to Ohio-based Hammock Gear, who – despite the name and mission – happily provides its superior quilts to us ground-dwellers.

I am delighted with the traditional mummy set-up I have been using for years. But lately I’ve read excellent reviews about sleeping quilts, and after a lot of nights of feeling a need for my legs to sprawl, I began to think hard about having more of a blanket over me than being swaddled in a cocoon.

At $180 for a 20-degree, extra wide, zippered-footbox, premium 800-down quilt, I thought what-the-heck and took a chance on Hammock Gear’s Burrow Econ. D-day is exactly two weeks from last night, so it was only fitting I have Olive Oyl schlepp the new purchase to the backyard, set up the alicoop and take her for a spin on a damp October night with temps dipping into the mid-30s.

Hardly backpacking, but a good one-night-stand to test out the Moroccan Blue before heading to New Zealand in two weeks.
Hardly backpacking, but a good one-night-stand to test out the Moroccan Blue before heading to New Zealand in two weeks.

First let me explain what a quilt is in the backpacking world. It looks like a traditional bag, but one that’s been sliced open like a seed pod à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That riven section actually goes beneath you. The idea is that you don’t need down under your body.

In fact, what you compress with your weight loses its warming power and, the argument goes, is wasted. Quilt-makers put all the coziness where you need it, making it a more efficient piece of gear.

I admit, climbing into my new Moroccan Blue quilt at first took a bit of trust as it was just my tender backside against my Therm-a-Rest, but in time, things came right up to temperature and I felt toasty warm.

I opted for a zippered footbox – rather than sewn – to stay flexible should temperatures rise and I want to transform my quasi-bag into a blanket. What is noticeably missing is a full zipper and a hood. This saves a lot of weight. A comparable 20-degree bag weighs nearly a third more than this 24.5 ounces of thru-hiker bliss. Less weight, less volume, less faffing about to maintain loft means a much more blissful hiker.

Hammock Gear understands that a hoodless, backless down ‘blanket’ with a box up to the knees is going to invite pockets of drafty air to any side sleeper. They recommend a wide width for tucking in, and cords to affix the quilt to your mattress. I ditched the cords, as anyone who has slept near me knows I’m a pretty fidgety sleeper, but opted to spend an extra $20 for more coverage. I am 5’7” and 135 pounds, and the quilt closed me in like a tube.

HG puts a snap at the neck and a cinch cord to seal the deal. Though no hood meant I slept wearing my beanie, a buff and down coat. I do recommend choosing bigger and wider, and depending on your temperature needs, choosing colder. 20 degrees was just right for temps hovering in the mid-30’s.

That being said, an added benefit of keeping your head out of the bag is less moisture build up to compromise the down. But the sleep system does take some getting used to. I come from the generation that was told sleeping nude in a down bag is warmer than clothed. An alternative fact created by the back-to-the-land hippy culture, no doubt, but one I seem to have a hard time shaking. With a quilt, you’ll need to sleep clothed, mostly your head and neck, but likely also your upper body. Quilts are roomy so this shouldn’t be a problem, but it’s a rethink on how you feel coziest at night.

The open section of the quilt goes under your body.
The open section of the quilt goes under your body.

Down is my go-to even in summer bags. It’s hands ‘down’ – pardon the pun – superior warmth to weight ratio than synthetics. Most manufacturers are using water-resistant shells these days, so keeping your down quilt dry is easier.

If you’re thinking about cutting weight, you are already on track to own an ultra-light mattress. I use the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir X-lite. It’s ideal for quilt-sleepers: warm, comfy and sits high so the quilt drapes over the sides and forms a seal. With hundreds of nights on this pad, I have never sprung a leak, even in the desert.

I realize it’s a one-night stand for me and the Moroccan Blue, but we’re off to a good start and she is my ‘bag’ of choice for the Te Araroa.

Specs at a glance

  • Weight: 24.59 oz
  • Length: 5’7″ to 6’2″
  • Width: wide
  • Temperature rating: 20 degrees
  • Footbox: zippered
  • Down fill: 800

Disclosure

alison young purchased this quilt from Hammock Gear.