Homer's Travels: Camping RMNP: Lessons Learned

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Camping RMNP: Lessons Learned

Every now and then it's ok to have a bad experience if you can learn from it.  My Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) five day camping trip was a mix of good and bad.  From the good I got wonder, joy, and happiness.  From the bad I learned valuable lessons that will help me improve.

There were five major lessons learned on this camp.  Four are universal and can be applied to most, if not all, future camping.  The other is a bit more specific.  We'll start with this one.

Lesson One: Altitude is a butt kicker.

Doing my first five day camp in a park with altitudes ranging from 8,000 ft to over 12,000 ft probably wasn't the smart thing to do, especially considering that I live at 1,000 ft 99.9% of the time.  Altitude sickness comes in various grades and severities.  I am fortunate to handle altitude pretty well.  In Peru, on our first day at altitude in Cuzco, I suffered from a headache which went away after a good night's sleep.  In RMNP I didn't even have a headache.  What I did suffer from, both in Peru and RMNP, is rapid onset fatigue ... i.e. I tired very easily.  This made my days two to three times harder than they should have.

I'd spent the night in Estes Park (altitude 7,000 ft) and I'd hoped it would have acclimatized me but one night was not enough. It took until day three on the trail to finally start to acclimatize.
Learned: Take time to acclimatize before you do physical activity at altitude.  You may need up to a week to fully acclimatize.  In the meanwhile, take things slowly and rest often. 

Lesson Two: Thirty-seven pounds is not light.

I thought my pack was light at thirty-seven pounds but once you hoist that pack on your back it begins to feel like a ton of bricks.  When I chose my latest pack, I picked it for it's weight capacity (50+ lbs).  I figured I may have to go over forty pounds occasionally and most ultralight pack capacities top out at 40 pounds.  Now I know better.  Thirty-seven pounds is too much.

My current pack weights, empty, about 4.8 lbs (2.15 kg).  Another pack I was looking at but rejected due to it's lower weight capacity comes in at 1.8 lbs (0.84 kg).  Both of these packs have the same volume (60 liters).  One weighs three pounds lighter.  Now I know I could have gone with the lighter pack and I would have shaved a few pounds off my load.

Besides the pack, I will have to look at all my equipment to see if I can shave a few ounces (or pounds) off the final weight.  I am starting to understand the ultralight hiking obsession that I've read about.
Learned:  Keep the weight to a minimum.  Lighter is often better and a light pack means additional spring in the hiker's steps.  Lighter = happier.
Lesson Three: Food is not food unless it has calories.

I thought I'd brought enough food with enough protein and calories to sustain me for five days.  Turns out, for various reasons, I was wrong.  In addition to the weakness caused by the altitude and weight of the pack, I wasn't giving my body enough fuel.

I carried four dehydrated meals, trail mix, and jerky.  I also carried some sandwiches packaged for campers in case it rained and couldn't use my stove.  First off, I didn't carry enough of each.  I probably needed double the calories ... maybe even triple.  Another thing is everything has a high sodium content which made me drink a lot of water.  This is not a bad thing but high sodium is not ideal.

To make things worse on this trip, all my jerky molded on the first day and had to be tossed out.  I never noticed this at home because I store my jerky in the fridge ... hence no mold.  The camping sandwiches saved the day here substituting for the jerky.

Before my next long camping trip I will have to research calorie dense food - foods that really pack the calories into each ounce.  I will also have to investigate foods that can take the heat and not spoil too quickly.
Learned:  Calorie dense food that doesn't spoil.  The more you expend energy, the more calories you need to keep going.
Lesson Four: Pull up your pants!

The North Face convertible pants that I love do not fit me properly.  Also their integrated belt (i.e. the belt is sewn into the waist) will not stay cinched tight.  This allows the pants to shift down and the pack belt then rubs on the hips without the protection of the pants.  I didn't have open wounds but it was a bit bruised and sore on my hips.
Learned:  Find better fitting hiking pants, preferably without an integrated belt.
Lesson Five: Toesocks RULE!

When I first bought my Injinji toesocks I said that they would need a multi-day hike to really test them out.  Well, on my camp I thoroughly tested them.

I had three pairs of liner toesocks and three pair of wool hiking socks.  While I hiked I wore a pair of liner socks with a wool hiking sock over them.  I wore two pairs for two consecutive days each and one pair for the last day.  I climbed up, I climbed down, and I walked on all sorts of surfaces with these socks on.  I wore a pair of Solomon Eskape Aero hiking shoes with custom orthotic insoles.

The results, frankly, were amazing.  During the entire trip, I had only one blister on one toe.  This was better than I expected.  I had a couple hot spots on a big toe and the bottom of one foot but they only lasted a day and never developed into blisters.  I couldn't have asked for better results.

In addition to having minimal blister issues, the soft corn on my toe that seems to always flare up when I do long hikes, never bothers me when I wear the toesocks and it didn't bother me this camp either.  The added cushioning seems to prevent any irritation of the corn.

One odd thing which I may have to work on is, when I pulled off my socks to change them after wearing them two days, my toes were filthy.  Aparently the tenacious dirt went through the cloth upper of the shoe, through a thick wool hiking sock, and through a liner sock to get to my toes.  The rest of the foot was relatively clean.  Fortunately I had some Wet Ones with me and I could clean my toes before putting on clean socks.
Learned:  Toesocks work wonders for reducing the chances of getting blisters.  A must have on long hikes.
I'm sure there were other lessons in there that I've forgotten.  There are always opportunities to learn things when you do something new.  All of these lessons, once I tackle them and find solutions, will help me on the Appalachian Trail (AT).  The only one that really won't matter much is the one hardest to solve and that is altitude.  The highest point on the AT, Clingmans Dome, is only 6,643 ft (2,025 m) which is nearly a thousand feet lower than Estes Park and nearly two thousand feet lower than the Bear Lake trailhead where I started my hike.  I would consider that a good thing for, as I said before, altitude kicks butt.

Several times as I was struggling near the end of the day I found myself asking if I was willing to repeat this week twenty-six times along the AT.  At the time, especially during the first three days of the camp, I might have answered a resounding 'No'.  But I've learned my lessons.  I will find solutions.

Near the end, even when it still was difficult, I would stop, look around, and marvel at what I saw.  I would drink a long draw from the filtered river water - some of the best water I've had the pleasure of drinking - and forget all the dark thoughts I'd had the day before.  It's time to start planning my AT adventure.


  1. toe socks for hiking! I'm so glad you tried these out! You get to try out all the cool stuff so I know what to buy or not to buy. But then I think "But...NATURE." I think I'll keep my camping to hotels for now. But I like the toesocks idea!