Here’s a little secret: I am not a backpacker. I have little to no experience backpacking, and my only overnight hiking trip was the Columbia Sportswear sponsored Omniten trip to Havasu Falls where all my water, food, and camping supplies was hiked in for me, cooked for me, and hiked back out for me.
I believe the term for backpackers like me is “total noob.”
Niko has had his sights set on the Olympic Peninsula since the beginning of our trip, and his goal was to do a 3-day hiking trip from the forest to the coast. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any trails that accomplished that, but we got a great consolation prize with the Hoh River Trail. The trail leads up to Mt. Olympus, while winding through meadows, lush rainforest terrain, riverside beaches, and everything in between.
We were joined for the hike by our buddy Mcgoo, who had been traveling with us for a few weeks starting in San Francisco. Our little crew of three was absolutely scrambling to prepare, unsure of what we would be facing, and planned to camp with two people sleeping in a one-man tent, and another up in a hammock. Folks, this should be an indication to you that things are about to get interesting.
The trek began on a rainy morning, but only after we got stuck with a dead car battery on the side of the road we were boondocked on – the first shenanigan of many. We finally arrived at the trail head, filled up our hydration packs, and set off down the paved portion of the Hoh River Trail.
By the time the pavement turned into muddy mush, I was already exhausted. I have a perpetual issue with packs: my body is simply too tiny to ever properly hold a pack. The straps don’t get tight enough, so I spent the entire hike carrying the weight of my pack on my shoulders. A mile in, and I was ready for a break.
We splashed along the soaked path past a small waterfall, over countless wooden bridges, and beyond the point where most tourists make it. As the day drew on, I quickly realized that there was no way I’d be able to carry myself up the 4,000 foot elevation gain and relentless switchbacks planned for the second day’s hiking. This was going to get ugly.
I carried on (did I have any other choice?) up 10 miles of deep mud pits that led us through some of the most incredible forest scenery I’ve ever witnessed. We paused to pet banana slugs, argued about appropriate times to take breaks, refreshed our hot skin with splashes of river water, and clapped our way through the thickets in hopes of scaring off any lurking bears. It was one of the most arduous experiences, but every sluggish step was worth it.
Our final resting spot was Lewis Meadows, where we set up camp for the evening after meeting a Canadian couple who was planning to summit Mt. Olympus the next day. Soaked from the rain, caked with mud, and aching from swollen feet, we gladly ate an uncooked dinner and promptly passed out. But the day wasn’t over.
At some point long after the sun had set, I awoke to Niko rustling from his hammock. Smooshed next to Mcgoo in our too-tiny tent, I peered up from my sleeping bag to see Niko poking his head into the tent.
“I’m really scared, guys. I farted in my hammock, and realized that I basically smell like a giant sausage hanging from the trees. What if I wake up to a bear nudging me from under the hammock? I’m coming in the tent.”
I laughed, because this idea of fright was so foreign to me. I was too sore to worry about getting mauled by a bear, but apparently I was alone in that sentiment. Mcgoo quickly chimed in:
“Dude, I have been trembling in my sleeping bag for hours. I’ve literally been praying for that we just make it to the morning.” – A pretty strong statement from a devout atheist.
At this point, my laughter became uncontrollable. Maybe it was the exhaustion, but I’ve never giggled harder. I couldn’t stop laughing as Niko crammed himself into the tent and the boys squashed me between their terror-filled bodies. Two grown men feared for their lives while my damsel self felt no distress. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it.
The next morning, I “awoke” after an evening of little rest. With no sleeping pad, and forced into a tiny space with two large men, my body lay sideways the entire night, perched on a tender hip and half-asleep shoulder. I was miserable.
I could hardly contain my excitement when the group agreed that a combination of really wet socks and hiking boots plus a strong desire not to spend another cramped night in bear country meant we’d ought to ditch our plan to continue onwards and just head back to the trailhead. Frankly, I wouldn’t have made it much farther. Hiking with a full pack is immensely more difficult than I was prepared for.
Despite being sore beyond description, the hike back out was far more enjoyable and manageable than the path into Lewis Meadows. About halfway through, we decided to split up and finish the hike solo. Niko ended up getting back to the van an entire hour before me, and Mcgoo held up the rear arriving back at the trailhead about 40 minutes after I did. Traveling at our own pace was a fantastic decision that allowed us to each focus on our own journey rather than focusing on speeding up or slowing down to maintain the pack.
Hiking by my lonesome allowed me to do something I hadn’t on the way in: slow down and look around. I’m always the slowest hiker on a trail, so I spend most of my time trying to catch up. Forging the path alone let me pause for moments like meeting a bushy fox as he sauntered over logs, getting startled by a herd of elk just off the trail, and washing my face with icy spring water. It was peaceful, invigorating, and reflective.
In the end, we traveled about 21 miles over the course less than 30 hours. A laughable journey for many ambitious backpackers, but for me it was a triumph: I had survived my first overnight backcountry adventure with Niko – and I was ready for another. I definitely have a lot to learn about backpacking, but I’m excited to continue the journey.