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A beginner's backpacking testimony Stony Ridge Lake, Desolation Wilderness

I love hiking but I have never backpacked and the last time I went "camping" was probably in elementary school as part of a school event. As much as I love the outdoors, the thought of carrying everything and hiking is really daunting; it's easy to imagine the worst case scenarios. At some point you just have to make the decision, and even harder yet, find someone who's willing to go outside their comfort zone with you.

Once I committed, it was pretty easy deciding where to go, thanks to Instagram. I've seen numerous posts about Desolation Wilderness so it was just a matter of deciding which zone, date and getting the permit (which, by the way, you definitely need. We got stopped on our return hike for a permit check). Since it was both mine and my friend's first time we decided to go easy on the miles (a tradeoff we were both grateful for as we were trudging it uphill over rocks) and camp for one night.

The GEAR

Because of the element of carrying everything I spent a lot of time looking at and buying gear, especially since I was starting from scratch. It's the biggest gear that becomes the most important and adds the most amount of weight.

MY pack

So many choices...

During my first REI visit I chatted with the sales person about the type of trip I was preparing for. He gave bag capacity recommendations and measured me. I tried on a Deuter packed with weights, walked around the store, and decided I needed to do more research on the features I wanted, so I went home empty handed.

I was like Goldilocks on my second visit. After lots of research and YouTube videos I decided I wanted an Osprey Aura 65L. I walked right in, grabbed an extra small, tried it on, only to find it didn't fit. Then, with the help of another sales person I tried a Gregory, which was slightly better, then a REI branded pack, which was getting closer but still didn't have any of the features I wanted. Nothing felt right. By total chance and out of frustration, I grabbed an Osprey Ariel in a small and, wow, a huge difference! We realized I was trying on the wrong size the whole time, despite being measured an extra small, so we went back to the Osprey Aura in a small and, voila! It fit like a dream!

The features

  • Sleeping bag compartment.
  • Completely ventilated back with a frame that prevents the pack from touching your back. This is good for sweaty people...like me.
  • Adjustable (and ventilated) waist band. Adjusting the waist bands also made a big difference in comfort for me.
  • Loop holes that allow me to strap hiking poles (or GoPro) to the front for easy grab and stowaway.
  • Slanted side mesh pockets for easy access to water bottles, snacks, etc. This seems like minutia, but it makes a huge difference when you're on the move so you don't have to constantly unbuckle/buckle, something I really appreciated while on the trail.
  • Bottom compression straps that can also be used to strap things to the exterior, like a tent.

Caesar's Pack

Caesar has a couple packs but for this particular trip I decided to start getting him used to the one from Alpine Outfitters. It's not as low profile as the Ruff Wear one, which is exactly why I thought it would be more appropriate; it has a larger carrying capacity and is made to be used with the Alpine Outfitters harness, which is the one I plan to use for this particular trip.

After a couple test runs I realized the pack moves to the side really easily, so I sewed velcro strips to both harnesses (he has one red and one blue) to help keep the pack steady. In the end, it didn't prevent it from sliding to one side, but I may try again with his blue one, since it's a bit more snug.

Caesar doesn't require a lot of gear so I tried to keep it down to the basics: wax for his paws (although he has pretty tough pads), poop bags (can also come in handy for other general trash), first aid kit that includes a bandage, antiseptic wipes and styptic powder (which is the most important, IMO); booties (also in case the terrain gets tough), a yoga towel (they're light and super absorbent), a collapsible bowl (not pictured here) and a hitch system from Ruffwear, which was pretty pricey but I loved it and came in super handy.

The things I could have done without are his night collar and "bedding". The night collar is really meant for city use so others can see him; it's not an actual light source.

The "bedding" was an old pillow case I ripped open to put on top of a Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol Sleeping Pad I bought. While Caesar isn't so picky about bedding, in the sense that he requires bedding, he is particular about surfaces, mostly because he needs to stay cool.

Once inside the tent Caesar ended up sleeping on the pad at first, but eventually opted to sleep on the tent floor. Outside, he was perfectly content on the dirt ground. He's still pretty wild like that.

The Tent

Originally I was going to borrow the Half Dome 2 (for two people) from a friend but after loading up the bag with all my gear I realized I needed to shed as much weight as possible, so I bought the Half Dome 1+. Caesar really is the size of another person, especially when he lays down, so this was a pretty snug fit. I secretly love it because it forces Caesar to cuddle with me. While he loves to be close to us and lay at our feet, he does not want to be smothered.

Checking out the new dig

The set up is super easy and quick. Once I had it up I threw some treats inside to get Caesar in, and then spent a few minutes one morning just having him practice getting in and out. Caesar is pretty mellow and comfortable when it comes to new spaces when he's with me so I'm lucky, in this aspect. While he didn't hate it, he didn't love it, either, and after sitting in the tent closed for several minutes it definitely got warm. Plus for me!

utilities

The only thing I didn't use, but I would still pack anyway, is the GoPro. Because I had hiking poles, which I now understand the value of, I stashed my GoPro in the exterior pocket on the back, making it inaccessible on-the-go. Turns out when I'm carrying a pack that feels like half my body weight the last thing I'm going to do is stop to take off my pack every time I want to video something.

Other items: headlamp (super useful), utility knife, extra battery and cord, tripod (for the GoPro), tweezers, lighter, bear spray, two maps (also downloaded one on my phone) and my kindle, which was super entertaining since I had a really difficult time sleeping (more on that later).

personal items

The morning of, down to the wire, I was still trying to figure out ways to shed weight. I think my pack must have been somewhere between 50 - 60 lbs to start, so the first thing I did was remove my water bladder since we knew our trail would have a lot of water sources and just packed a full 32oz nalgene bottle and my sawyer squeeze filter kit.

Aside from encountering a bear, having to poop was my second greatest fear. Luckily, I didn't have to go (I think my body got nervous) but the trowel is required to bury both human and dog waste. It's amazing how it's made me more aware of how much toilet paper I use, now.

And just in case, for extra trash/bags for dirty items I grabbed some extra meat/produce bags from the supermarket (also super light).

I also removed anything with scent (because of bears) so skin care was kept super basic: wet napkins (only the amount you think you need), sun screen (all natural in case we went swimming), chapstick, and Eyptian's Magic (my favorite all-purpose cream), toothbrush and travel size toothpaste (inside the case), hand sanitizer and gorilla tape (in case).

I also brought a first aid kit for myself which I downsized to the minimum: bandaids, antiseptic wipes, allergy medicine, and tecnu, which is meant for poison oak but can be used generally to treat skin irritants.

Clothes/sleeping

I have an inflatable sleeping pad (Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus Sleeping Pad) but because I thought Caesar might benefit from sleeping on something soft, I also packed the Z-lite pad, which a lot of dog owners praised.

My sleeping bag is the Marmot Trestles Elite 30 Sleeping Bag (for women). I do tend to run cold, so I also packed a warm hat and thermals for pajamas and stuffed my arcteryx jacket (not pictured) in an exterior pocket for easy access. The arteryx is one of my all time favorite jackets and is a great additional layer to sleep in.

Turns out I packed one too many hats. Usually I like full brim hats, but because the pack sits so close to the back of my head I can only wear baseball caps, so I wanted to bring an alternative to hang out in at camp but we arrived late so I didn't have a need for it. Plus the hood on my arteryx sufficed.

Toe socks + flip flops is great to putz around in at the campsite (you definitely want something to give your feet a break from hiking boots) but otherwise I didn't pack another set of socks (or bra or underwear). I simply hung all the clothes I wore on my tent (in between the tent and cover) to let them air out overnight. I packed one flannel button down, just in case, and it ended up coming in handy since the next day was breezy and much cooler, but everything else was exactly the same item of clothing as the previous day. If there was even the slightest chance of rain in the forecast I would have also packed rain gear. More weight...ugh.

I also packed a yoga towel for myself and a bathing suit in case we went swimming and I'm a big fan of buff puff. I carried one when I went on safari. They're super handy. When I hike I mostly wear them around my neck so I can wipe away sweat.

Food

This was the least concerning category for me compared to water, over which I really struggled getting used to the idea that I would have to simply prepare and fill up my 32oz nalgene bottle whenever possible.

Since Desolation Wilderness doesn't allow fires you have to bring a portable stove. While pricey, I opted for the MSR Rocket which is super light, compact, and can last for multiple boils.

All snacks were packed in exterior pockets: 1 apple (I realized they're kind of heavy), 2 packs of fruit chewy gummies. My friend packed a couple granola/nut/cranberry bars, some string cheese (which we added to our dinner), and also 2 apples. She also bought a big sandwich for lunch which we split and ate on the trail.

All other food (including Caesar's) was packed into the bear canister (bv450 Bear Vault) which I hated carrying because of the bulk but is absolutely necessary for bear country.

For dinner I opted for Mountain House after watching reviews on YouTube. It's also why the string cheese comes in handy. You simply drop a stick in the pouch when you pour hot water in and let it sit and melt. I also grabbed a couple packs of oatmeal and hot chocolate from the office as breakfast and snack options. We didn't end up eating breakfast; oddly, neither one of us was hungry. And of course, several packs of instant coffee. I opted to buy a Korean brand since I prefer the flavor. Then of course you need utensils. I bought a long spoon which is handy for the meal pouches (to reach), although annoyingly didn't fit in the bear can and when I tried to make it fit I ended up breaking it. Luckily, as backup I also brought an extra set of plastic utensils that I had leftover from takeout.

So how was dinner? I have to say, pretty damn tasty and filling!

As for Caesar's food, 2 weeks prior I was slowly transitioning him to Primal Raw freeze dried nuggets since it's lighter and more portable than his raw/home cooked food.

I simply packed each meal so that at meal time it was already portioned out. While I waited for the water to boil I crushed the nuggets in the bowl, then added water and let it sit, and voila! Dinner!

I also packed extra treats.

At the end of the night you have to clean out all your cooking/eating utensils. Since you can't rinse things in the lake I just wiped everything down with a wet napkin, again, creating as little waste as possible, and then pack all food, garbage and anything with a scent, including toothpaste, sunscreen, chapstick, all into the bear can and then place it about 50 ft downwind from your camp site. Get why I was scared of a bear encounter?

Oh, and if you do see a bear, you're supposed to make a lot of noise to scare it away because you don't want to let it ransack your camp, otherwise the bear gets conditioned, which leads to more close encounters, which leads to potentially having to put down bears if they become unafraid of humans...so yeah...I'm scared of bears.

This is all packing as a first-timer. I'm sure if I planned another trip and for more than one night, I would definitely try and figure out a way to get rid of more weight. If you ever read or seen Wild, there's a scene where Cheryl/Reese Witherspoon has to put her pack on lying down, then rolls over and then gets up. It's comical, but I understand now.

The trail

This trail was stunning and a lot more technically challenging than I expected, especially with the added weight. While I expected this to be hard, I didn't expect it to be as much of a struggle as it was.

The trail starts off with a flat sandy wide path that follows a meadow. It was a good way to get my body accustomed to the weight. Then the trail starts to get more diverse, starting with a narrow path through lush vegetation.

The trail is super clear because one, the official start is clearly marked, and once you're on, there really isn't anywhere else to go.

The trees here are just breathtakingly beautiful...

and massive...

Struck by lightening?

The gnarliest parts were the incline with the rocks. It's extremely taxing and it's where I really struggled. I had to stop multiple times to catch my breath and my legs, all of it, from my ankles to my hips were absolutely worn out. I could hear my heart pounding, couldn't quench my thirst and absolutely thought I'm just not cut out for this. We thought starting at 11am - 11:30 would give us ample time to get to site, set up camp, and then go swimming and wander around. It took us more than 3 hours and mostly because I was moving at an extremely slow pace.

Every time I stopped to catch my breath my back and shoulders would ache and all I wanted to do was sit down, but at the same time if I sat down then it would only be more exhausting to have to get back up. There was no comfortable position to be in without wasting time, so the only option is to really keep moving, even if it's at a snail's pace.

In the beginning, keeping Caesar leashed was helpful because I was worried he was going to lose the sleeping pad since he likes to run off trail into bushes, but then I realized it helped me get uphill.

As painful as the rocky parts were, they were also some of the prettiest since it added texture to the trail and often times meant there were big boulders, which were super impressive.

Lake Tahoe in the background

The trail follows Meeks Bay Creek so there was always water available, in particular for Caesar, which I really appreciated since it helped keep him cool but also meant I could drink all the water I had. This also gave us lots of opportunities to refill when needed.

Spending the time and effort to gather your water and filtering it is really something...profound and primitive. It made me really appreciate having clean water. I have to admit, my first few sips of filtered water were super hesitant and I stood there trying to determine what I was tasting. At first, the water tasted metallic but then thirst just kicks in and I felt like I couldn't get enough. I cannot say enough positive things about the sawyer squeeze filtration system, although next time, if there is one, I'm definitely going to pack flavored electrolyte tablets to help with the fatigue.

Alpine lakes

With all that running water that meant there were plenty of lakes, and to get to Stony Ridge we actually had to pass by four other lakes. It was really something...although after we passed the first we kept asking, are we there yet? Are we there yet?

Crag Lake

We were so relieved to come upon Crag Lake after what seemed like a never ending stumble through rocky terrain so we took a break here, sat down, and pulled out the maps to see how much further we had to go. Turns out, another three miles, at least. That's when we started calculating how long it was taking us and started to hustle so we could actually set up camp before sunset.

Lake Genevieve

Lake Genevieve was surprisingly really large and had this cool little island...but we had to keep moving. We ended up passing another lake called Hidden Lake but when we saw it was a descent we decided to skip it since we were too tired to make it back uphill.

Shadow Lake

Shadow Lake was more covered like wetlands. The one amusing thing about this was Caesar didn't realize the grass wasn't dry land so he ran straight into it only to realize it was all water. Ahhh, Caesar...my lovable furry goofball...

Stony Ridge Lake

We were so happy when we arrived; I yelled, "I see another lake!!!" as I was hiking up, literally, because after Shadow Lake there was another steep rocky ascent. I was so tired at this point I kept tripping over rocks because I wasn't and couldn't lift my feet anymore, so as soon as I saw water in the distance all I do was repeat, "I see water! Is that water? Is that a lake?!"

Then came the challenge of finding a good spot to camp. The lake is pretty big and we initially tried to find a sunny spot, but also staying 100 ft away from the water. The sun was on its way down but across the lake it was so nice and sunny...and far, so instead we found a nice flat spot tucked under some trees by a dam with easy access to the water.

Our little private beach

Then came the huge relief of taking off our packs to stretch for a few minutes and then it was just hustling to set everything up before it got dark. The wind was picking up so the breeze mixed with sweat already made it chilly, and then when I went to refill my squeeze bottles and felt how cold the water was I knew swimming was out of the question.

It's funny, but I felt really proud setting up camp - something so basic, but for me, so foreign. I felt...useful.

Night time

I did not sleep. Maybe I got a couple hours of shuteye, tops, but once that wind picked up it stayed; sustained 55 mph through the entire night. I thought for sure it was going to die down after midnight, but it just kept coming, and the worst part was you could hear the really strong gusts approaching and all you could do was brace for it.

Caesar initially curled up on the ZLite pad, giving me only half of it, which was okay because I used that time to stretch, put my legs up, make circles with my ankles, do figure four and butterfly stretches, but then at some point he got hot so he moved to the side where there was a sliver of floor exposed and passed out. I read...a lot...watched my tent shake...watched the shadows dance across the fabric, and every once in a while peeked outside. Reading is usually my go-to mechanism to fall asleep but I could only doze off for 15 minutes here and there. With all the noise from the wind, the bushes, and who knows what else in combination with the fear of a tree falling on me, sleep was just not possible.

I loved the closeness, though. As I lay there reading all of sudden a paw would launch into the side of my face, my very tired and sore thigh or on top of my stomach. Every once in a while I would reach over and massage his legs or his belly. He also kept the temperature inside the tent very pleasant, and if I felt cold I just moved a little bit closer. He was so exhausted and would have just slept fine outside, but without a clear view of him and not being able to keep the tent "foyer" open because of the wind, there was no way I was going to risk leaving him out there.

I was just waiting for the sun to rise and once there was a hint of light Caesar was ready to get out of the tent.

That's what made it all worth it, all the pain, the discomfort, the aching. It was all worth it to open up that zipper and see that amazing scenery.

As for Caesar, he was exhausted after that first day and into the next which brought about a sense of calm. While we were packing up I let him roam around and I was actually surprised how he stayed close to camp; I thought for sure he was going to venture off but it's like he knew, too, that this was a time to stick together. It's almost like the more wild I let him be, the more tame he becomes.

Jim asked me if I liked backpacking because of the actual experience or because of the sense of achievement. The question made me pause, but in the end I think it's both: I enjoyed the actual experience, the scenery and the simplicity, and if I had two nights I could see how it would be enjoyable to have a day to just relax or explore, versus feeling like it was a race against a setting sun. At the same time, it did feel like an accomplishment. I waited for this opportunity. At first it was waiting for the right time, then the right place, then the right people, and after a while I just decided I don't need to and don't want to wait anymore, and trying something new, something challenging and pushing your limits is something to be proud of, no matter the start or end point.

No pain, no gain, right?

👣 The fur-mom

Thank you to Annika, for joining me on this adventure and for the photos!