Issues, Trip reports

Not a Girl Scout

I like to joke that in my family, roughing it means staying in a chain hotel.

That’s an arguable exaggeration (although my mother really is a boutique hotel kind of woman), but it highlights one of the challenges I face in my quest to rediscover my inner adventurer: I am not a Girl Scout. Or Campfire Girl. Or anything that might have taught me even rudimentary backcountry skills. (I was, however, an avid 4-Her for several years, and I have the blue-ribbon-winning hooked rug and macramé plant holder to prove it.)

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Rug hooking: not exactly a backcountry skill (Lauren Danner photo)

My lack of training glaringly asserts itself on a regular basis. On a recent trip to the Olympic Peninsula, I stood by and watched while my friend, a former Campfire Girl who fondly recalls weeklong backpacking trips she took at age six (six!), speedily built a campfire from, as far as I could tell, a few scrawny twigs and a muttered spell. I am a notorious overpacker for day hikes:

Mr. Adventure: “I don’t think you need fleece. It’s going to be 80 degrees.”

Me: “But what if something happens and we have to spend the night in the woods?”

Mr. Adventure:  “We always stay on the trail and won’t be more than four miles from where we park. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem.”

Me: “Welllll….”

You get the idea.

Trip planning and prep is seocond nature for Campfire Girl, Mr. Adventure, and many others who grew up hiking, camping, backpacking, and generally just being in the mountains. They’re as at home on the trail as they are in their, well, home. For me, a product of New Jersey’s carefully tended suburbs, not so much. What’s a would-be adventurer to do?

REI to the rescue. Last February, when I wanted to get out but wasn’t confident about being prepared for cold-weather hiking, I signed up for a “Northwest Winter Hiking Basics” class at my local store. What a revelation! The instructors started from the premise that we knew little or nothing about winter hiking. Which in my case turned out to be a good place to start.

The first thing they covered was the updated way to think about the Ten Essentials — you know, the gear you need to be prepared on the trail. First, choose gear based on your response to the question, “What are the worst plausible conditions I’m likely to encounter?” Not the worst possible conditions, just the worst plausible conditions. Um, yeah, so no fleece for a four-mile hike on an 80-degree day. Then, think of the Ten Essentials as questions that help you pack for those conditions.

Instead of… Ask yourself…
Navigation How can I figure out where I am and how to get where I want to go?
Hydration How can I make safe and carry the water I need?
Nutrition What food do I need for my planned time out and a little extra, and what do I need other than fire to prepare, eat, and store it safely?
Rain gear/Insulation How can I maintain a comfortable or at least safe level of warmth and dryness while working hard or standing still?
First Aid Kit How can I prevent, fix, or temporarily stabilize problems with my body and do what I want to feel, look, and smell better during my trip?
Tools How can I adjust and fix things so they work well enough until I get back?
Illumination How can I see well enough in camp, on a trail or route, and during an emergency?
Firestarter How can I make fire for warmth and to prepare food and drinks (including stove?)
Sun Protection How can I ensure I don’t burn my skin or eyes?
Shelter What tent/bag/pad or other combo will keep me comfortable in expected conditions and safe if uncomfortable in plausible conditions?
Other: insect repellent, whistle, watch, mirror, gloves, extra socks, etc. Other things logically follow, such as a pack, ditty bags, straps; specialized equipment like trekking poles, traction devices, personal locator beacon; whatever is important to you personally.

They even gave us a handy slip of paper with the questions printed on it, and showed a couple of daypacks that had been packed for different hikes under various “worst plausible conditions.” It was wonderfully helpful and confidence-boosting.

And, lucky me, each attendee got a discount for shopping in the store that night (smart marketing, REI). I picked up 50 feet of Ultimate Survival Technologies bright orange paracord for less than five bucks, and left the class raring to get out on the trail.IMG_0592

That weekend, we headed to Mt. St. Helens for a five-mile snowshoe to June Lake. The weather forecast was for a bluebird sky and temps in the 40s. Using my list of ten essentials questions (what are the worst plausible conditions?), I packed accordingly (and took the paracord — good for emergency snowshoe repair). My pack was light, I had everything I needed and then some, and it was a fantastic day.

Since then, I’ve taken more REI  classes. Some, like the Bootfitting Basics class, have changed my life. From others, like Women’s Backpacking Basics and What’s In Your Pack?, I’ve gleaned tips and strategies that have me more confident and happy in the outdoors. And because I’m just that geeky, I’ve reorganized our hiking gear into “Ten Essential Questions” boxes, complete with labels on the sides and the questions on the top lid. It makes trip packing (and unpacking) easy and fast.

I’m still not a Girl Scout. I have to carefully think about each trip, and it probably takes me longer to plan and pack (do I need that fleece?) than it would for people with lifelong experience. But I am a lot more confident on the trail, and I come home feeling good about my packing choices. And I continue to burnish my trail cred by taking REI classes.

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A few of the many useful handouts I’ve collected from REI (Lauren Danner photo)

2 thoughts on “Not a Girl Scout

  1. I like this article, though I may be a little biased. I love how you bring us along on your adventure! I’ve had fun teaching some of the classes you’ve enjoyed at Olympia REI, and I love helping folks get the confidence and competence to get out and play. I believe that classes are at the heart of stewardship; learn to play, love where you play, and take care of it. Thanks so much for sharing!

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