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Pack It Up and Go: A Little Work is Needed Before You Begin a Backpacking Trip.

July 3, 2008

By Marek Warszawski, The Fresno Bee, Calif.

Jul. 2–Topographic maps lie open on the dining-room table, keeping company with scribbled menus and half-finished itineraries. Sleeping bag and tent air out in the spare bedroom. Favorite hiking boots await a fresh coat of Nikwax and new pair of laces.

Yes, it’s that time of year. Another backpacking trip is just around the bend.

Two this month, actually, and I can hardly wait to hit the trail. First, a three-day exploration of the Mineral King region with the good folks of the Sequoia Natural History Association. Then, a bolder trek through some of the most remote areas of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.

For months now, I’ve been eyeballing a 68-mile loop out of Roads End that some have dubbed the “Circle of Solitude.” Scanned every map in detail and made the contours come to life in my mind.

This is how every epic journey begins. First you dream a little. Next, when the dream refuses to go away, you become captivated. Only then do the realities set in: How many days out? How many thousands of feet of climbing? How much food to bring? How many tons will my backpack weigh?

These gnawing questions provide the inspiration to get fit again. It means trading the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Doritos — no matter how good they taste together — for filtered water and celery sticks dipped in hummus. It means biking to work a couple of times a week. It means getting on the treadmill and setting the incline to maximum. It means strengthening those dreaded “core” muscle groups (abs, trunk, lower back).

“Core muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness will make your trip safer and easier,” said Eric Hanson, a Fresno orthopedic surgeon who has crossed the Sierra 19 times on foot. “And exercises like using a Stairmaster or walking up stairs, things where you’re pounding your body a little bit, prepare you better for the shock of walking in the mountains than just biking or swimming.”

The rewards are well worth the effort. Backpacking increases cardio capacity, muscle strength, endurance and flexibility. It sharpens motor skills and can reduce the risk of osteoporosis. Just being outside can work wonders. Sunlight-produced vitamin D has been shown to raise serotonin levels in the body, which researchers believe promotes an overall sense of well-being.

While rounding your body into shape, be sure to check out how the backcountry is shaping up. Summer conditions in the Sierra Nevada depend in large part on how much snow fell on the range during the winter.

Even though this year’s snowpack was measured at about two-thirds of normal, the second straight below-average year, Sequoia and Kings Canyon wilderness coordinator Greg Fauph predicts it will linger on passes above 10,000 feet until the middle of the month.

“The snowpack must have set up pretty solid, but it’s starting to melt,” Fauph said. “It’s hanging in there longer than we expected.”

Well below the high passes, snow levels also affect creek crossings, which are often the trickiest part of any backpacking trip. A good rule of thumb is to cross any potentially hazardous creeks in the morning, before flow levels increase in the afternoon.

Before heading out you’ll need to obtain a wilderness permit, which can range from formality to near-impossible hurdle. Trailheads typically have daily quotas that limit the number of backpackers entering the trail.

In Yosemite National Park, where 60% of each trailhead’s daily quota can be reserved in advance, popular trailheads like Happy Isles and Cathedral Lakes are already booked for the summer. The remaining 40% are first come, first served.

The Sierra and Sequoia national forests also allow 60% of their daily trailhead quotas to be reserved in advance. In Sequoia and Kings Canyon, that number increases to two-thirds.

To ensure you get your first choice of trailheads and destinations, either make reservations or start your trip on a weekday.

This is how all epic backpacking trips get done. You dream, you plan, you work yourself into shape and you line up all the logistics. Then you get out there.

The reporter can be reached at marekw@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6218.

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