The Maroon Bells of Colorado are home to one of the world’s classic backpacking trips, the 28 mile/45 kilometer Four Pass Loop. Baz shares his thoughts from the trail…
Up around twelve thousand feet, the air is getting thin – it contains only 65% of the oxygen which you would find at sea level. Gravity, however, remains constant – there is still an awful lot of it around even at the top of any one of the passes of the Four Pass Loop.
What should we conclude from this? Don’t carry a heavy backpack. And if you’re coming from lower altitudes, plan a few days in advance of the trip to acclimatize (maybe a series of day hikes where you gradually increase altitude, but drop back down each evening).
Harnessing your energy
Make sure you know how to fit your pack correctly – we saw everything from load-lifter straps completely open (with the pack leaning back at a precarious angle), to shoulder straps which were actually folded over in a kink. Additionally, we saw dozens of packs with gear hanging off the outside: tents, sleeping bags, cameras, shoes, clothing… all of it exposed to the elements and to the potential for damage, and all of it making those packs less stable on the tricky switchbacks. Why would you put your shelter or sleeping bag on the outside of your pack? If a tent snags on a branch or if rain soaks your sleeping bag, you’re in for a miserable night. Shelter poles should be carried externally under the backpack side compression straps, while the canopy should be packed in an UltraSil Stuff Sack or Lightweight Dry Sack inside the pack. Your sleeping bag and liner should be inside the pack, too, safe and dry in an eVac Dry Sack. More about sleeping bags in a moment…
If you haven’t read the Ask Baz blog post on Modular Packing, now would be a good time. And – once you’ve determined that packing your gear in ultralight dry bags within your pack is the way to go, sort through your gear and clothing and leave out those things that are non-essential or which do not fulfill several functions. The blog post on gear you’ll need for a week-long trip should also answer the question ‘How am I going to fit everything – including my shelter and sleeping bag – into my pack?
What else did we notice on the trail? Well, a couple of things, which come under the heading of hygiene, Leave No Trace, and food storage/preparation:
Keep it clean
A beautiful mountain lake, aspen leaves turning, stunning vistas and… evidence of inadequately-dug cat holes. Look, we all poop in the woods. Your job is to bury waste and toilet paper so deeply that it will decompose successfully. We took an UltraSil Outhouse with us which kept a group-sized roll of toilet paper dry and left space for a bottle of Trek & Travel Hand Sanitizer and an alloy Pocket Trowel. Sure, you can buy other trowels; unfortunately we found the remains of one with its blade snapped off at a campsite by the lake mentioned above. In contrast, the hardened blade of the Pocket Trowel easily coped with the rocks and roots found in mountain soils – all cat holes should be as deep as the blade plus the handle.
Getting a thorough wash in the backcountry can prove challenging; being around people who haven’t showered for three or more days can be challenging, too. Fortunately, Wilderness Wipes are large enough and strong enough to provide a refreshing wipe-down for even the most grizzled backpacker.
Just plain common scents
For the Four Pass Loop, you are required to carry a bear canister for food storage. Canisters are bulky and awkward, but they do prevent food from getting squished in your pack. Consequently, we allowed ourselves the luxury of carrying pre-cooked beans and pre-cooked vegetables in Ziploc bags and enjoyed beans and rice one evening and ratatouille the next (just make sure that one member of your group is a gourmet cook). Here’s how to prepare meals like this with just one X-Pot, one X-Bowl, one XL-Bowl and two X-Mugs:
- Boil water in the X-Pot.
- Pour some boiling water into the XL-Bowl and place the X-Bowl in the water.
- Use an X-Mug to measure a cup (250ml) of pre-cooked dry rice into the X-Bowl, then pour a cup and a half (375ml) of boiling water (measured in the other X-Mug) into the rice. Cover with the lid from the X-Pot.
- Heat up the pre-cooked veggies in the X-Pot – keep the flame low and make sure there is enough moisture to cover the join between the base and the silicone walls. Stir with a spoon from your Delta Cutlery Set.
- After five minutes add the rice into the veggies and stir.
- Pour wine (from your fold-flat wine container) into the two X-Mugs.
- Add hot sauce to the veggies and serve.
Total preparation time: 10 minutes. Here is a meal that is far tastier, more nutritious, and easier to digest than freeze-dried food.
Whatever kind of food you prepare, make sure to cook at least 200 feet/70 meters from the place where you will pitch your tent. At night, put all of your toiletries and cookware/tableware (commonly referred to as “smellables”) in a Stuff Sack and suspend it between a couple of trees using Accessory Cord (food, of course, stays in the bear canister).
Nights will be very windy on the Four Pass Loop (and indeed in many mountain locations). Make sure you pick a campsite which is as sheltered from the wind as possible and pitch the tent or shelter so the narrowest part faces into the wind – you may find some extra guylines (Accessory Cord) will prevent your tent from shaking or flapping in stronger gusts. Some ultralight shelters may not have adequate wind stability for this kind of use. It might be a good idea to imagine how well your chosen shelter would stand up on the roof of your car if you were driving at 40 mph/60 kph.
The trail is particularly busy in September – the danger of summer thunderstorms has passed, and the aspen trees are turning from green to gold to red. For the temperature-sensitive, this also means that nighttime air temperatures will drop to nearly freezing.
We’ve mentioned the concept of a ‘sleep system’ on the Ask Baz blog a number of times – using the right sleeping bag liner, the right sleeping bag and the right sleeping mat to form a layered system – the antithesis of the conventional focus on the ‘rating of a sleeping bag’. You can read about it here.
Some of the female hikers we encountered who were confident they would be warm overnight were working on the assumption that a ‘twenty degree bag’ (20°F / -7°C) would do the job. A campsite at 11,000 feet is no place to discover that this temperature refers to the Lower rating on a sleeping bag – which is for a male sleeper. The Comfort rating (the appropriate temperature for a woman sleeper) for that same bag would be 30°F / -1°C, which is much closer to the actual air temperature they will encounter.
The ground at 11,000 ft will also be cold – again, not an ideal place to learn that the sleeping bag’s rating was calculated in a cold chamber with a high R-Value sleeping pad. The summer sleeping pads in evidence would not prevent the sleeper’s warmth disappearing into the ground beneath them. Most likely the ideal sleeping mat for autumn in the mountains is the Insulated Ultralight Air Mat, which will keep both male and female sleepers warm (assuming they have the right sleeping bag and liner) and comfortable. When it comes time to break camp in the morning: pull the dump valve – the mat will go flat in seconds and will fit easily inside your pack once you’ve rolled it up.
Packing everything inside your pack brings us back to where we started, as indeed the Four Pass Loop will do. Hopefully, the memories you will collect along the way will be overwhelmingly positive – perhaps the observations in this blog post may steer you in the right direction.
As always, if you should have any questions on gear or tips for the Four Pass Loop or other autumn backpacking trips, all you have to do is –