Author Archive | Justin Valley

Hiking torres del paine 5

Hiking Torres Del Paine: What to Know Before You Go

There’s something undeniably special about long multi-day treks through nature. They revitalize our souls in a way few things can. They offer us a different way of understanding a place, moving slowly, really taking a scene in with all of your senses.

I personally have hiked mountains in Ethiopia, and thru-hiked the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier. I’ve hiked the length of small islands and the coast of Portugal. Each of these places left an impression on me that I wouldn’t have gotten through the glass of a car window. It’s no wonder I was called to Torres Del Paine National Park deep in the heart of Patagonia-often deemed the best place to hike in the world.

I chose to hike the Torres del Paine full circuit with the great outift over at Erratic Rock. While guides are not required for any of the treks in Torres Del Paine, and, yeah, I could have handled this trek on my own, going with a guide turned out to be an excellent decision. In retrospect, it made the whole experience more enjoyable overall (much more on that below!).

What to Know Before Hiking Torres del Paine:

Unpredictable Weather:

Want to be laughed at in Patagonia? Ask a local what the weather is going to be like for the next week. The term “four seasons in a day” doesn’t even seem to do this place justice. During the trek we experienced everything from beautiful 80 degree sunshine to driving sideways rain, 85 mph (you read that right) winds to a white out blizzard. Oftentimes it was as if the rain and the wind were at war with each other; just after the rain soaks everything in it’s path, a strong gust of wind out of Antarctica blows through drying everything within reach.

Crazy weather and wind on the trail

Crazy weather and wind on the trail

The crazy weather made it an authentic Patagonian experience. It’s also why going with a knowledgeable guide proved to be truly important when it came to our itinerary. The night before setting off, he adjusted our starting point to ensure we would go over the John Gardner Pass on a good day (avoiding the snow and sleet storm that seemed imminent in the coming week). As a result we had a wonderful day with spectacular views of Glaciar Grey from the the top of the pass.  Going over the pass with visibility for miles in every direction made comprehending the sheer size of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field a possibility.

Top of John Gardner Pass

Top of John Gardner Pass

Gear Necessities:

The Torres del Paine trek, more than any I’ve ever done before, required the right kind of gear for the trail. Many of the campsites provided little protection from the elements, and it wasn’t out of the ordinary to see someone’s tent take flight with the caracara birds in the area. The high quality four-season tents provided by Erratic Rock kept me warm on nights when the temperature dropped well below freezing. More importantly, the tent stayed stationary when the strong winds fought to carry them along.

Hiking torres del paine 2 Tough tents were not the only necessity, though. “I always thought trekking poles were for the senior citizens going for slow walks next to the beach,” thought Nick, one of six in my hiking group. It’s fair to say his opinion had changed thoroughly by the end of our circuit. With a full pack on your back, trekking poles support your knee and hip joints on the steep declines throughout the hike. More importantly, they acted as stability when we found ourselves on the narrow trails on the sides of mountains and the aforementioned wind gusts did their best to try and knock us off our feet.

Quick-drying base layers, waterproof outer gear, warm layers for the cold nights, dry bags for your electronics, and the low-tech but extremely effective trash bag around your sleeping bag and dry clothes inside your pack are all highly recommended as well!

Crowd Control:

One of the many advantages to doing the full circuit instead of just the extremely popular W trek is that the crowds on the backside of the park were much more manageable. As soon as we hit the W portion of the trek, the number of people fighting for trail space, tent space, and cooking space was much greater. At present, there is no limit to the number of people that can trek each day, and it’s understandable that people are coming from all around the world for the special experience here.

Hiking above Glaciar Gray

Hiking above Glaciar Gray

Again, here is where going with a guide proved to be well worth it. There were days where we spent more time exploring, and there were days when we hustled to make camp earlier in the day. After witnessing about 100 people sleeping head-to-toe on the cooking area floor because there was no room for their tents, the hustle to the Campamento Los Cuernos completely made sense.

While the crowds were a hassle in camp, on the trail most people were very courteous and friendly, realizing and respecting that everyone was there for the wonderful experience with nature.

Science Class:

Trekking in Torres Del Paine felt like my high school Earth Science class had come to life. Martian-shaped lenticular clouds that would have been at home in the sky of a Dali painting floated overhead. Weather systems traced mountain ranges and changed so quickly it was like watching a movie in fast-forward. The sheer size of Glaciar Gray suddenly made it easy to understand how glacial erosion works. The towers made of granite remain where the overlying sedimentary rock layer has been completely eroded away.

torresdelpainetowers

Torres del paine towers

I peppered Koen, our wonderful guide, with question after question about how this amazing place at the end of the world had been formed. He patiently answered all of my questions, and suddenly all those Science classes of my past became extremely relevant and equally fascinating.

We also talked extensively about how the massive glaciers were receding. Tree lines on La Isla reveal just how far Glaciar Gray has receded in only about five years’ time. It’s one thing to think about the theory of climate change and another entirely to see it personally. Despite already knowing the overwhelming importance of its effects and the pressures to reduce them, seeing such jolting evidence in real time left an impression I will never forget.

Trekking Torres Del Paine 6

With all it has to offer, Patagonia always held an air of fascination for me, and this is one of those trips that truly outpaced all expectations I had. A big thanks to Erratic Rock for organizing this wonderful excursion – one I hope to revisit before long.

 

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Trans Catalina Trail

Backpacking Catalina Island: 3 Things I wish I Knew Before Hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail

Santa Catalina Island, probably the most famous island in the Channel Islands archipelago, is its own little world a short (90-minute) ferry ride away from four major ports in the LA area. Upon arrival in Avalon, one of the two quaint towns on the island, I was reminded of a Mediterranean resort town with understandable appeal to the many visitors who come to Catalina Island for the shops, restaurants, beaches, and watersports.

Catalina

Generally, visitors are looking for an attainable escape of the hustle and bustle of the busy nearby cities. As outdoor enthusiasts, after hearing of the Trans-Catalina Trail, we decided the best way for us to experience Catalina was by foot. “How cool would it be to backpack Catalina Island?” we thought. So we pored over a well-detailed Trans-Catalina Trail Trip Report by our friends at SoCal Hiker and hit the road.

Three things I wish I’d known before hiking the Trans-Catalina Trail:

1. Not Your Typical Hiking Trail
Don’t let the maximum elevation of the Trans-Catalina Trail of less than 2000 feet lull you into a sense of complacency. I’d read that the trail was steep and that there would be significant elevation gain and loss, but even after studying the elevation profile and seeing something resembling an EKG with constant ups and downs, I really didn’t expect the trail to be so steep.

Since the trail is a recent addition to the island, many parts of the trail follow fire roads, and seasoned backpackers will notice the almost complete absence of switchbacks, making parts of the trail unnecessarily steep. While altitude is certainly not an issue, the steep grades really make this hike difficult.   To have an enjoyable experience on the Trans-Catalina Trail, excellent hiking boots are a requirement, and Trekking Poles are strongly recommended.

2. Unpredictable Weather
For those who haven’t been to Catalina before, it can be difficult to imagine that a small island with the ocean on all sides is almost completely desert terrain. Because of this climate, though, trees are sparse. If possible, you should plan to avoid hiking in the summer months, as there is almost no shade outside of the campsites. In either case, make sure to bring high quality sunscreen, hats and sunglasses.

Rain on Catalina

If you’re like us and end up hiking on one of the 35 days a year that Catalina sees significant rain, keep in mind that the trail will quickly turn to mud, and significant cover is few and far between. Beyond the towns, you may have a tough time finding cell service, so it’s best to double-check the weather before leaving and pack accordingly, as a rainy day on the Trans-Catalina Trail can make for a really long one.

3. Spectacular Wildlife
Much like the desert island terrain, the wildlife on the Trans-Catalina Trail was incredibly unique. We came across bison, foxes, and bald eagles all in one day!

Bison on Catalina

Bison
There is a surprising population of 150 bison on Catalina island. We had several encounters with these big, beautiful animals over the course of a few days. Their presence was easily one of the biggest highlights because, no matter how often you hike, it’s not common to encounter wildlife weighing over 2000 lbs. If you get to greet them, make sure you maintain a safe distance from these seemingly gentle giants. Although we never felt particularly threatened, bison attacks are not unprecedented.

Fox on Catalina

Foxes
The Catalina Island Fox lives nowhere else in the world, and we were luck enough to have a few interesting experiences with them. The foxes that crossed our paths near camps were quite bold, and you could tell they had scored many easy meals from comfortable campers. Having trekked bear country, where I’ve had to hang food from poles (The Wonderland Trail) or carry heavy bear canisters (JMT), I let down my guard with the much smaller creatures.
We assumed leaving our food stash a few feet from our tent wrapped in storage bags would have been fine… right? Wrong! Shortly after settling in our tent to sleep for the night, we were startled by the sound of a fearless fox burrowing through one of our food bags. Though the only casualty was a package of instant oatmeal, it’s worth a word of caution to be careful around these opportunistic creatures. That said, the fox we saw farther off the beaten path were much more timid, and were really incredible to watch and photograph from a distance.

Woodpecker on Catalina

Spectacular Birds
There were a number of unique birds we saw during our time on the Trans-Catalina Trail that were truly stunning. We managed to get up close and personal with a pair of woodpeckers and a hummingbird near Black Jack Camp. We were then circled by a red-tailed hawk at a high point on the trail the next day. The bird-spotting highlight, however, came when we caught two bald eagles flying just overhead. The eagles on the island are so famous they even have their own live-stream.

Though the seemingly limitless number of hikes in Southern California, this hike was unlike any other we had done. Most notably, the TCT maintains amazing isolation for a place that’s still quite close to one of the largest metropolitan centers in the world, and the wildlife is proof. Each interaction was undoubtedly unique to the trail, and it left us with wonderful memories of animals we would never normally have seen so close.

Backpacking Catalina

For those looking to hike Catalina in the future, I’d argue the portion of the Trans-Catalina Trail between Two Harbors and Little Harbor is the best of it. This section of the trail provided the most rewarding vistas alongside all the wonderful fauna experiences without the sometimes monotonous sections of fire road that we found on many other parts of the trail. While completing an entire trail has an unparalleled sense of accomplishment, spending more time in this section will truly provide the most spectacular reward for your efforts to get to Catalina Island.

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Mt. Rainier from the Wonderland Trail

5 Essential Backpacking Foods

There’s something really special about going deep into nature. For me, I find that it takes me three days to decompress fully into what nature has to offer. Because of this, I’m a big fan of multi-day treks wherein you can spend days seeing more animals than people. This past summer, Annelise and I embarked on the Wonderland Trail, which traces the 93-mile circumference of spectacular Mt. Rainier in Washington. The eight day trip (although it can take anywhere between seven and 14 and we originally planned for 10) required a heck of a lot of meal planning for all we had to take with us initially and for our cache that we planned to pick up halfway through our journey.

Food Cache for the Wonderland Trail

Food Cache for the Wonderland Trail

In my experience the following are the five most essential backpacking foods for every back-country journey:

Dehydrated meals

After a day of 10+ miles meandering through forest, over creeks and through multiple temperature changes at various elevations, nothing hits the spot quite like a warm meal. And yet nothing sounds worse (to me at least) than cooking. Instead, fill up the Jetboil with the required cups of water, bring it to a boil, pour the water into the bag, let it sit for 8-15 minutes and you’ve got a nourishing meal you may forget is dehydrated. Having tried multiple brands and flavors on trips throughout the years, I, myself, prefer the  Backpacker’s Pantry meals.

RBars

There are an overwhelming number of energy bars out there nowadays and I’ve sampled my fair share over a number of years and countless trails. I can safely say my absolute favorite for long hikes are RBars. In the past I’ve suffered with trying to just get down energy bars to keep me going on the trail. I’ve found them hard to chew, and felt I was eating out of obligation. With the great flavors (peanut butter and jelly!) from RBars, all of which contain seven ingredients or less, I instead found myself looking forward to my mid-morning snack breaks.

RBar plate

Tortillas

Flour tortillas are also a favorite hiking food because they are incredibly versatile. You can spread some almond butter over a tortilla and you’ve got an easy, palatable and sweet snack. Or you can re-hydrate some beans, add a little foiled chicken, throw on some cheese and you’ve got savory trail burritos. Tortillas are a little heavy, but they are worth it for the amount of energy and carbs they contain and how long they last.

Smoked salmon

Smoked salmon is a true treat on the trail. It’s salty and savory, as well as protein-packed with good fats, providing a lot of tasty nutrients where it counts. It can be slightly heavy, so I try to plan the smoked salmon to be the first meal when picking up a food cache. Spread on some crackers or tossed into spaghetti, it’ll prove worth its weight when the time comes. (Pro tip: make sure you seal it well, especially in bear country!)

Hi-Chew

Anyone who, like me, has a hiking partner that can get hangry at any moment knows the importance of having easy candy on hand. Hi-Chews have become my favorite because of their great consistency and the energy they provide quick when someone’s mood, er.. blood sugar, drops suddenly. The sugar provides a quick and easy energy boost to get you up the last leg without the need for a lengthy meal break.

Mt. Rainier from the Wonderland Trail

Mt. Rainier from the Wonderland Trail

Hot Cocoa

Hot Cocoa is something I never drink at home, but, for some reason, hot cocoa absolutely melts in your mouth on the trail as an after dinner treat to warm you up or mixed with your morning instant coffee. If you’re a coffee snob like me, instant can be startlingly unsatisfying, and the cocoa adds a bit of sugar to help soften the blow and get your engine going while you pack camp.

While there are a good number of things we’ve packed not on the list, these five have been a few of our favorites hands-down. Tell us what your must-take items are, because we’re on the hunt for great snacks as often as we are great trails!

Disclosure: I was not compensated for this post, which contains affiliate links, however I did receive a sample for my review. All opinions are my own and not influenced in any way.

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