Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. – Mark Twain
Today, my boss gave me the green light to take a personal leave of five months to take care of a little something that has been on my mind for the past several years: to walk one of the biggies.
While it would seem to make more sense to start with something close to home like the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest, my chunk of time away will be in the winter, and it’s only logical to track down summer – and prime backpacking season – where it happens during our cold months, on the other side of the earth.
I must have been playing a long song on Classical MPR when I stumbled upon this long trail. I was surfing the web looking up top hikes of the world and this newish hike – or tramp, as the Kiwis call it – popped up, piquing my curiosity.
Te Araroa means “the long pathway” in Maori. Completed in 2011, it’s a 3000 kilometer trail extending from Cape Reinga in the North to Bluff in the south. It traverses the entire country; beaches, forests, mountains, volcanoes and cities and should likely take all the time I have planned to finish it.
Thus far the furthest I’ve walked all at one time was the GR5, 450 miles over the spine of the Alps. While taking on that challenge I wondered if I was made of the right stuff to sustain a thru-hike of not just weeks, but months. Aside from the logistical nightmare and the risk that I might not be missed at my place of employment, I hadn’t the faintest idea if I possessed the grit, the fortitude and determination, and the sheer pig-headedness to stick with a walk of 1,864 miles.
Over the ensuing years, I decided there’s only one way to find out, and that’s to go and do it. Keeping in mind the fact that I’m not getting any younger and my arthritic toes are continuing to protest, I made the decision to request a leave of absence, and put myself directly on the path of enormous change. Sure, it will be a change in scenery and routine, but also in how my life looks and feels because I am going alone. Don’t worry. Richard will be following my every step through the magic of GPS tracking – and I’ll stay connected by blog. I certainly hope you’ll follow me. I might need emotional support along the way.
So right now I’m absolutely tingling with excitement for this rare opportunity even as I make lists of all that has to get done, including applying for a visitors visa on an extremely thorough application which requires proof I not only have the financial means to return home, and plan to do so!
I leave for Northern England and the Coast-to-Coast in six days and until a few moments ago, I was still ambivalent as to which stove to bring. A little scientific research made for an obvious winner
Carry as little as possible, but choose that little with care. – Earl Shaffer
On a week’s long walk of the Superior Hiking Trail several years ago, my hiking partner required lots of stopping on ridges to sketch and paint as well as to partake of a spot of tea. His paintings were nice, but what impressed me most was the lack of fuss as he heated up water.
Just take a look at my tent, and you’ll understand that I am a gal who prefers the fewest moving parts and accessories possible. The Jetboil was love at first sight. Compact, lightweight, and easy to use, I soon had my own, putting her through her paces on the John Muir Trail, the Drakensberg Traverse, Paria Canyon and numerous shorter walks.
But several backpacking friends scoffed, assuring me I could make my own stove for pennies, it would weigh less than an ounce and it would burn clean. One friend, composer and avid backpacker Jake Runestad, showed me how to make a cat stove, a kind of can-within-a-can wrapped in carbon felt. I happily took this mini contraption to France for the traverse of the Alps on the GR5, though it took me a few days to ascertain where to buy fuel – known in France as alcool à brûler. I felt kinda dumb once I realized it’s ubiquitous, used everywhere to keep fondue melty.
Another backpacking pal helped me make a space-age cozy out of pipe insulation, best for getting my one-pot meals to rehydrate. Life was good that summer and the cooking was quiet. But since that trip, my mini stove has not been used at all and I here I am, needing to decide which will go on this trip.
So today, I did a scientific experiment with some surprising results:
cat stove deets
3 oz cat food can lined with carbon felt, 6 oz tomato paste can with both ends cut out and three air holes near bottom nestled in the felt plus a plastic cough syrup measure – 1 oz
16 oz nalgene – empty 3 oz, full 16 oz – lasts 5-6 days
wind screen – 1.5 oz
titanium pot, 25 oz – 5 oz, with cozy – 6.5 oz
total: weight and volume 25 oz
advantages: burns clean, cheap fuel can buy anywhere, no canister to recycle
disadvantages: need to burn all alcohol, can’t simmer, slow cook time, open flame
Stove, cup, platform, lid – 15 oz
Fuel, 4oz canister – full 6.8 oz – lasts 5-6 days
total: weight 21.8 oz, volume 33 oz
advantages: fast cook time, all-in-one design including cozy, canister fits in pot
disadvantages: loud, have to carry empty canister, lighter breaks easily, hard to find fuel in some parts of the world
lighters/case – 2 oz
long handled spoon – 1 oz
single blade – 1 oz
…and now it’s time for the cook test!
Jetboil brought two cups of water to a rolling boil in under four minutes!
The cat stove didn’t perform quite as gloriously. It took eight minutes to get two cups of water just shy of boiling, only to the point of kinda bubbling.
Well, for me on this hike, it’s pretty obvious. Coming in at a lower overall weight and higher volume plus Roger Bannister record boiling time, the winner is the Jetboil.
And you never know, I might need a large enough cooker to entertain any hikers I might meet brave enough to test my Whole30 compliant backcountry cooking!
One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. ― Virginia Woolf
When I first made these backpacking essentials, I called them vegetarian pemmican which simply confused everyone. The fact is, they’re similar at least in principle. Vegan, but not gluten-free, these babies are packed with vitamins, protein, fiber and fat, and the best part is they taste oh, so good. You might find your bars double as currency if you’re in a jam on the trail.
Here’s what you’ll need:
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup dates
1/2 cup dried figs (remove stems)
1/2 cup unsalted raw almonds
1/2 cup unsalted cashews
1/2 cup walnut pieces
1/2 cup pecan pieces
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/2 cup wheat bran
1/2 cup ground flax seeds
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup honey or agave syrup
Here’s what you do:
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Chop fruit and nuts in a food processor. I like to get the nuts really buttery.
3. Mix together with dry ingredients and slowly add honey. Add enough water to moisten, 1/2 to a full cup.
4. Press into a greased 6×6 pan.
5. Bake for 30 minutes.
6. Let cool on wire rack.
7. Cut into squares and immediately store in vacuum sealed bags. They can be frozen until ready to bring on your backpacking trip.
For best results, keep the batter moist before baking.
The bars are not light, but they pack a punch of nutrition and much-needed calories.
Once you open the vacuum seal, repack bars in ziploc bags.
Is it possible to stay healthy and eat heartily on the trail?
Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious. – Ruth Reichl
Have you ever taken a close look at the nutrition labels on pre-packaged backpacking food? My eyes popped at just the amount of sodium, some providing nearly 50% of a daily allowance. And – to paraphrase an old joke – the portions are too small.
For the past six years, I have cooked up my own backpacking food, dehydrated it and placed the crumbly contents in vacuum-sealed bag. It’s more economical to make your own food, takes less packaging and you control the ingredients.
But in recent months, Richard and I have been following the cleansing diet Whole30 with incredible results – loss of cravings, more balanced energy, better sleep and, for me, zero menopause symptoms.
I also found I no longer had a desire for coffee, which is a huge plus when backpacking as in the past it was imperative that I make time to fire up the stove and heat up a cup of Joe or headaches would set in.
On summit mornings, that can sometimes prove awkward, and I’ve been known to swallow cold coffee out of a Nalgene hiking up the mountain. Bitter, but life-saving.
Grass-fed and organic meat marinated in garlic, vinegar, coconut
Naturally I want to feel this good on my next hike, but the question was how to cook? England’s Coast-to-Coast passes through many towns, so resupply is not a critical issue, but I always like to take four to five days’ worth of food in the event stores are closed or I just feel like getting off a plane, a train and a bus, hiking straight up a hill and camping in a field like I did on the GR5 in France.
In the past, my usual staples included brown rice, quinoa and sometimes grits and oatmeal, all off the list these days. Protein and vegetables is the name of the game, so this time around, I am trying something new, drying ingredients rather than one-pots.
And it’s a lot of ingredients!
Red and orange peppers
Yukon potatoes (mashed)
And probably far too many coconut larabars.
Here’s what’s needed to make your own:
I use the Nesco 1000-watt Garden Master dehydrator with eight trays and extra screens. I realize there might be stronger dehydrators on the market, but mine seems to work well enough, though I have always put the temp on full-blast.
Pro tip: only use the screens for liquid or liquid-ey items that might pour through the trays, like the eggs and mashed potatoes.
Food processor. I have a mini Kitchenaid food processor. Every year I promise myself a larger one, but somehow just don’t get around to it. Making the larabars took many extra steps, but one blade – even if small – chops the same. The eggs need to be pulverized to dust and trying to do that with mortar and pestle was frustrating to say the least. It was a dream in the food processor.
Vacuum sealer: I have been using a Food Saver vacuum sealer for six years with no complaints. I cut varying sizes of bag from a long spool. You will need to heat seal one end first. I do not suggest buying the bags with a port. A friend tried these and found small particles of food gumming it up. In my experience, if the bag springs a miniscule leak – with no food escaping, but air entering the bag – the food is still safe to eat. If you are nervous, you can always cook the food to sterilize.
How it’s done:
The easiest fruits and veggies to dehydrate are those that require no work at all. Frozen veggies – like corn, carrots and peas – can be poured right out of the bag onto the trays and come out as perfectly dried “marbles” after about four hours.
I made it as simple as possible with the peppers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and apples by simply cutting them into small bits – with apples, I cored them first, then made thin chips – and placing them on open trays. You can add salt to the tomatoes at this point if you don’t want to take salt on the hike
I added oil to the zucchini. Oil, of course, does not dry. In the past, I added oil to a stir fry and dried it for a one-pot. I am not entirely sure how the same will transfer. To be safe, I have taken the dried squash and placed it is an airtight container in the refrigerator before vacuum sealing. My nose will hopefully alert me to any trouble brewing on the trail!
For broccoli, I lightly steamed it before placing on trays. I roasted the butternut squash until soft, adding salt, pepper and olive oil. I make potato “bark” with Yukon potatoes. First boiling until soft, then mashing with salt, pepper, parsley, nutritional yeast, dried shallots, onion powder and a few cups of bouillon. The result is kind of lumpy, but once put into a soup, it has the texture and heartiness of pasta soup. Mix and match a few veggies, drop in a few pieces of beef and voila, dinner is served!
I bought the best cuts of beef I could find at our local co-op. Grass-fed and organic top round, sirloin and flank. You want cuts with the least amount of fat possible and should cut off any excess before drying. Fat can go rancid fast and that’s dangerous stuff on the trail. The first time I made jerky I was so nervous I would make my companions sick, I dried the meat for hours until it was so tough we could barely chew it. The taste was fine and it eventually broke down, but there is no need to create leather. The meat can have a slight tenderness. The key is to freeze the meat for about two hours before slicing, this way you get nice thin strips that dry quickly and are easy to eat – or add to the veggies in a one pot.
This was the first time I made powdered eggs. Easy as can be. Simply scramble a dozen eggs and place them on a screened tray to dry. It takes about 10 hours. All the oily shine needs to disappear completely before you pulverize the dried egg in a food processor to again avoid any problems with the fat becoming rancid. At camp. Simply add 1-2 tablespoons water to 2 tbsp egg and scramble back up.
Larabars are a real treat, sort of trail-mix-in-a-bar. Pulverize ¾ cups almonds and ¼ cup cashwes in a food processor. Dates work the best for sweetness, but I had prunes, dried cherries and dried apricots on hand, so pulverized 1 ¼ cups with the nut mixture adding ¼ cup of unsweetened shredded coconut and ¼ cup of melted coconut oil. The batter is pressed into pans and refrigerated for a day or two. Cut up bars and vacuum seal.
How will it go? I hope reasonably well by supplementing from local shops and an occasional pub visit. I am not super strict on Whole30 having eaten this way for nearly 70 days, but I love my energy.
Sadly booze is out, so not planning on any nips from a flask atop the “Haystacks” but I think the views themselves will give me a natural high.
I need help choosing footwear for the Coast to Coast walk in June. What do you think?
Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair. – Khalil Gibran
My toes are deformed. They have not always been this way, but in the last several years arthritis has taken hold and sadly, I look far less lovely in open toed sandals.
I took the time to consult a podiatrist on the subject, who brushed aside my worries, saying this is the most common type of arthritis out there. If it doesn’t hurt too much or impede my lifestyle, he advised, just go with the flow.
The good news is that except for crimpy toe moves when climbing and an occasional twinge after long walks, I don’t have pain at all or, for that matter, any loss of mobility. But my goal is to keep this long-distance walking thing going as long as I possibly can, so I’ve made a few changes, like giving up regular running.
And considering giving up the hiking boot.
In the past, I was a full-on advocate for the leather hiking boot. Just look at those beauties with the fancy old-school laces screaming “Serious backpacker, coming through!”
In boots, I feel the grip slogging up scree-filled slopes, boulder hopping or negotiating seemingly endless switch-backing descents. And when carrying a pack overland like I did on South Africa’s Drakensberg traverse where trails are non-existent, I treasure the torsional support, the power to fend off loose rocks and wade mini-mud puddles.
But in the last several hikes, my boots seem to be failing me. They feel heavy, hot and confined – and this even when I buy men’s sizes with a wider toe-box. My toes press against the leather, cramp – and goddess forbid – develop blisters.
Unhappy feet mean unhappy hiking.
And that’s why my new heroine is thru-hiker Liz Thomas, known by her trail name of Snorkel. Though loads have tried to convince me over the years, she helped me see the light explaining that heavier boots – warm, durable, and rigid – have their place and are perfect for mountains, and long daily walks to and from work in Minnesota winters.
But those very attributes might be working against me when it comes to summer-time fast, multi-day walking. Boots might not only be cramping my foot but adding weight to stride – try another SIX pounds in the pack. If you ask me, I’d would much rather carry that in snacks.
The other fail was all about water. Dreaming for perfect weather on the C2C might be a nice pastime, but it would also be a refusal to come to terms with the facts. There’s a reason there are lakes in the Lake District. Trail running shoes dry much faster than boots, even my Merrell lovelies with a gortex liner end up pooling water under the sock.
On the Paria river in northern Arizona, my lightweight boots held all that water wet and froze solid one cold night, giving a whole new meaning to cement shoes.
While I may never walk a trail barefoot or in any sort of minimalist getup, I am feeling more convinced to do this upcoming walk in trail runners – albeit with a wide toe protected box protected and more aggressive sole than your typical running shoe.
If worse comes to worse, I can do as the fell runners do in the north of England and wear a plastic bag as a sock!
Share your thoughts on shoe choice, brands, styles, stories below. Bring it on!
Let the beauty of what we love be what we do. – Rumi
Possibly the biggest purchase a thru-hiker will make – and the most obvious place to cut weight – is with her tent. So much goes into choosing. Will it withstand wind? Wind that carries sand? Will it need to protect her from torrential rain? Is snow expected? What luxuries does she need? Will she be sharing or going solo? Is she willing to set up with trekking poles? How light – and thus spendy – is she willing to go?
For my last long distance hike in the Alps, I took the Nemo Hornet, but had epic condensation issues with a fly that left no air gap to the main body of the tent.
The part of the tent directly over my head.
I also found that tent to be a pain to set up and longed for my favorite in a closet stuffed with tents: a single wall, non free-stander made by a company called Tarptent. It’s massive for a single and is up in a snap. I was nervous to take it to France with so much humidity, but had a thought to take a look at what the company is up to these days.
My timing was spot on. They have just come out with a kind of hybrid tent with a cuben fiber outer over a silnylon inner. This fabric known as Dynamee is used to make sails. Strong, impenetrable and super ultra lightweight.
Of course, it’s not cheap, and I’ve been warned dynamee will get beat up. How it handles in the seemingly continuous rain showers of England’s green and pleasant land remains to be seen, but the inauguration has occurred and next steps are to sleep in it over the coming weekends when I’m safely car camping.
what: Tarptent Notch Li with partial solid insert, inner: silnylon, outer: dynamee
weight: 22 oz.
packed size: 16×4 inches, it is not recommended to stuff dynamee
includes: four stakes though I may take two more to stake out the apex
My new home-on-the-trail may not be the prettiest and that might be a good thing to perhaps keep would-be thieves at bay!
Name my tent in the comments for a chance to win a prize!
I want to encourage in others the ambition to devise with the aid of maps their own cross-country marathons and not be merely followers of other people’s routes. — A. Wainwright, A Coast to Coast Walk
Created by the illustrious fell walker Alfred Wainwright, the Coast to Coast is an unofficial and often unsigned path that passes through three contrasting national parks: the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales, and the North York Moors.
Which pretty well describes my plan of no plan aside from ‘wild camping’ and catching a bus from Robin Hood’s Bay back to the airport and home mid-June.
Subscribe to my daily posts by clicking Follow in the lower right hand corner
“To experience the countryside on fair days and never foul is to understand only half its story.” – Melissa Harrison