Wonderland Trail: Post-Trip Musings

Just one last entry on the Wonderland, to reflect on trip logistics, lessons learned, and some of my feelings about long-distance hiking. I found these kinds of blog posts from others really helpful when I was planning our trip. –Toby

Wonderland for First-Time Thru-Hikers

We picked the Wonderland Trail for our first thru-hike (and it was a good choice) because:

  • it is well-maintained and well-traveled, with periodic exit points and ranger stations if we experienced serious problems
  • the established campsites simplified our planning
  • bear poles/lockers at each campsite eased our minds about backpacking in bear country for the first time
  • the trail is challenging but not super technical, and we could complete it in the time we had available this summer
  • resupplies are easy and we only had to carry ~3 days of food at a time; water sources are plentiful

The trail is very popular right now and it can be hard to get a permit, but we found that it was still pretty quiet out there, especially away from the main day-hiker trailheads. Starting and ending at Sunrise for a clockwise trip of the loop was ideal: there’s a ranger station at Sunrise for any last minute questions, the first day’s hike to Summerland was reasonable in terms of mileage and elevation change, and ending with the climb to Skyscraper Pass was phenomenal. Finishing at Longmire or Mowich sounds so anticlimactic in contrast.

Food & Water

For our friends who have had many questions about our food, here is what we brought, along with some notes about how it worked out.

Breakfast: Homemade oatmeal packets including whey protein powder, or instant potatoes with cheese, powdered milk, and bacon bits. But we gave up on hot breakfast after the first few days and donated the remaining rations to the free buckets. It just took too long to make and eat when we wanted to get on the trail quickly, and even the cheesy potatoes were not as exciting as we’d anticipated. Instead we ate a bar or some trail mix before leaving camp each day. We also brought instant coffee (Cyn) and hot cocoa (Toby), which we were thrilled to have for our daily Hot Drink break.

Lunches: Various combos of jerky, string cheese sticks, tortillas with peanut butter & honey, and foil pouches of tuna with tiny condiment packets of relish/mayo/mustard. Both of us declared the tuna to be a big winner, either eaten directly with a spoon or folded into a tortilla. [Mmmmmm tuna!! I wasn’t that exciting about this in the planning phase. It was weird how many things tasted better or worse once we were out on the trail. -Cyn]

Dinners: I decided not to dehydrate meals from scratch, and instead combined various instant & freeze-dried ingredients into four dinner options: instant mac & cheese, couscous with soup mix, ramen (splitting one flavor packet between us), and instant potatoes with gravy mix. They all included freeze-dried chicken and veggies, and we brought little packets of olive oil to add for more calories. The mac & cheese was disappointing but we enjoyed everything else, even though we both found it hard to eat all of the food at night. I used recipes from Freezer Bag Cooking.

Snacks/Desserts/Supplementary: ProBar meal bars, Kind bars, Larabars, trail mix, potato chips/veggie chips [Potato chips saved my life on this trip. Such an amazing, indulgent treat to perk me up in the middle of the day. -Cyn] , nutella packets, and Snickers bars. We also had electrolyte tabs (dissolved instantly in a cup of water on breaks) and energy chews (eaten on the go), which helped immeasurably on hot sunny days.

Next time I would forego the hot breakfasts, and bring more bars and more chocolate instead. I was surprised to find I never got tired of eating bars. Before the trip, Cyn was very worried that we wouldn’t have enough food, but we actually brought more than we could eat.

Water was pretty easy. The longest dry stretch was along Cowlitz Divide — I don’t recall any good water sources between Indian Bar and Nickel Creek (~7 miles). Along the west side, we heard that Devil’s Dream camp had no water nearby this year, and you have to fill up at St. Andrews Lake for Klapatche Park camp. We fell into a routine of filtering water at night in camp (we each carried a mini Sawyer), then using Aqua Mira drops as needed during the day to save hiking time. We each carried two 1-liter Smartwater bottles and a 2-liter bladder (we drank from the bottles and used the bladders just for filtering) and it was plenty of capacity — we probably could have managed with less on this trail.

Gear & Clothing

We used almost every single item in our packs, and except for one clothing choice (see below), didn’t wish we had packed anything else. We did not use:

  • bug nets (at 1oz. each, I don’t regret bringing these for a summer trip; ditto sunscreen and bug repellent)
  • snow stake serving as lightweight trowel (each campsite had a privy, so this was really just for emergencies)
  • sunglasses (wide-brimmed sun hats worked fine, especially because there was no snow to produce glare)
  • compass, and a few items from our first aid/repair kits (but I would never not carry these things)

One of our few “luxury” items was a silnylon bucket that weighs 1oz. We used it almost every night to have extra water in camp for cooking, washing up, and rinsing out clothes. We used this method for packing out toilet-related waste, which worked perfectly.

Our first aid kit was about right, though next time I’d bring more Second Skin bandages and more alcohol wipes (our Purell worked in a pinch though). We used Leukotape for hotspots/blisters on the whole trip and it was great, much better than duct tape. Our only injuries were some blisters and Cyn’s wasp sting.

In terms of clothing, we were especially grateful to have dedicated dry sleep clothes (including sleep socks), rain jackets and pants, and spare hiking socks, as well as thin water-resistant over-gloves. (We also had warm gloves that we would have gladly used on a few days, but they were soaked in the rainstorm. Note: do not store gloves in top lid.) For insulation, Cyn carried a thick fleece [which was indulgent, weight wise, but it was so cozy! -Cyn] and I carried a synthetic puffy jacket. Both of us agreed that in the weather conditions we experienced, a better set-up would’ve been one very thin fleece shirt (for hiking in and layering under the rain jacket if needed) and one puffy jacket kept dry for camp/sleeping. I wore trail runners with Superfeet insoles and found them to be totally fine, even on very rocky terrain. Light gaiters were essential, though, because the trail was often super dusty and gravelly. [I had the Voyageur Mid by Keen. I like them because they are not water proof, and it’s really hard to find boots that aren’t water proof. Also before this trip I had hiked a ton in them and had never had problems. I was also using Superfeet insoles. But after this trip I am going to have to find a new set up. -Cyn]

Training

I now know that it is fairly impossible to properly train for a trip in the mountains when you live in the flat prairieland of the Midwest. Starting in the early summer we ramped up our Crossfit training to five days/week, occasionally doing two workouts a day, focusing on squats, weighted lunges and step-ups, etc. We day-hiked with full packs (and should have done more of this), and we climbed the football stadium stairs with full packs at least an hour per week. I do think the stadium work helped, but it just can’t replicate several miles of steady climbing on rocky and varied terrain. I suspect a slightly slower start might have helped us adjust better to the difficulty of the mountains. On a trip without a fixed itinerary, I’d try to plan the first 2-3 days with lower than average mileage.

Lessons Learned & Feelings Felt

Some things I learned or had reaffirmed on the Wonderland:

  • Always look at the map at a major junction, especially if you don’t see a clear trail marker.
  • If the terrain doesn’t seem to align with what you expected, stop to check your map sooner rather than later.
  • Don’t let bad weather discourage you from eating and hydrating properly.
  • Always know where your next water source is.
  • Any place you set down your gear, do a 360-degree check of that spot before leaving it, to ensure you have everything. (I believe this habit is a big reason why we didn’t lose any gear on the trail. Except for Cyn’s liner sock, which was stolen by a cheeky bird, so doesn’t really count.)
  • Nature totally does not care what happens to you.
  • Aim for a slightly slower pace on long climbs that will allow you to take fewer breaks, and devise short goals for yourself throughout the day (e.g., I’ll get to that waterfall and then stop for lunch as a reward).
  • Ziploc bags are more useful than you could ever have imagined.
  • Be nice to your hiking partner(s) in hard times. I know part of what got us through the second half of Terrible Day was our generosity with each other as we both struggled.
  • Related to the above: try to maintain a good attitude, at least outwardly, even in difficult stretches.
  • I know everyone says this, but truly: hike your own hike. As long as we made it to camp, it really didn’t matter how speedy we were, or how many breaks we took, or how many times other hikers passed us. We had great fun hiking on our own terms.

In general this trip confirmed for me how much long-distance hiking comes down to a mental game. Backpacking is hard work. Sometimes it rains all day, sometimes there’s no way to escape the blistering sun, sometimes you don’t sleep well, and you still have to keep walking with all of your stuff on your back. I found that the more I could think of these conditions as my new normal, the easier it was to deal with them. It was also helpful to take each section and each day on its own terms: we were really worn out when we finally hit camp at the end of Day 2, but instead of despairing that I wouldn’t be recovered by morning, I tried to focus on the fact that we finished the day, allow myself to feel refreshed by washing up in a beautiful creek, and postpone any anxieties about tomorrow until it actually arrived. I found that the more I could stay focused on the present moment, the better I felt.

Many people we know were surprised to hear that we didn’t have a guide for the trip and weren’t going with an organized group. I totally get why that might be a good option for others, but some of my favorite aspects of backpacking are the preparation (pre-hike research! I never get tired of it!), the solitude, and the self-reliance. I was glad to occasionally see rangers and other hikers — and we picked this trail partly because it’s not terribly remote — but I also found it very rewarding to have to depend on my own planning and knowledge most of the time we were out there. I discovered that the more time I spent on the trail, the less concerned I was about things that would usually bother me in my daily life, like bugs and spiders, getting dirty and smelly, inclement weather, etc. Any fears or anxieties I had about being alone in the outdoors, like my usual nighttime jumpiness about every tiny noise, dissipated rapidly; by the second or third day, it just stopped feeling unusual to be on the trail. Technically, if we’d had lots of time to drive all around the park and were up to hiking big miles, we could have walked a good portion of the Wonderland by parking at different trailheads and day-hiking out and back. Thinking about this, I realized that thru-hiking was not necessarily about getting to see things I couldn’t otherwise see (although that was the case for some things), but about the different way I saw and experienced those things when I was fully immersed in them for many days in a row. I still appreciate and enjoy day-hiking, but was really moved by how thru-hiking shifted my experience of the outdoors.

Although we both loved hiking this trail, Cyn and I had different responses to the challenge of it, and different feelings about future thru-hikes by the time we finished. I learned that thru-hiking is pretty great for me, and is kind of suited to my personality overall: I enjoy a physical and mental challenge, appreciate things that require a lot of meticulous planning and self-sufficiency, and generally approach most things in my life with a mix of pragmatism and optimism. I’m not easily bored, almost never get lonely, and can be really stubborn about meeting my own goals (but can usually be flexible when needed), which are all useful traits for thru-hiking. I am already planning some longer trips for the next few summers. Until then…


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