Backpacking in Canyonlands, a NOLS Experience
In November 2021, I attended the NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) LGBTQ+ 10 Day Backpacking trip in Canyonlands, Utah. As I processed the trip from Canyonlands back to East Village, NYC, here were my learnings.
Canyonlands is a beautiful park in Utah. 4hr flight into Denver => 45min flight into Grand Junction, Colorado => 4hr drive to Canyonlands in Utah. There was such gorgeous natural beauty, yet also and hardship. The climate is tough! Shed those layers on hot days, pile them on frosty nights. Throw in a flimsy whimsical tent meant to provide basic rain cover and some (limited) privacy, and you have yourself a backpacking party.
Backpacking literally means carrying all of your necessary items (40–50lbs) on your back for 6+ hours/day for your trip’s duration — mine was 10 days. If you’ve never backpacked before (as I had not), it’s a difficult lifestyle. The weight forces crucial clothing decisions like 1 inner layer, 1 mid-layer, 1 puffy outside layer. “Luxury items” like baby wipes or face creams are a thing of the “front country” (everything that is not the “back country”). Even time is relative.
It takes at least an hour for breakfast because you have one pot, one stove, one stirrer: boiling water takes 15–20min and “then and only then” you can actually start on the food makings. Cleaning as well — boil some more water, scrub the pot with the stirrer. Everything takes longer. A typical morning routine — wake up => breakfast => backpack packed => start moving — is a process that takes anywhere from 90 minutes to two and a half hours.
Typically, we woke up at 630am to get breakfast started by 7.
We left camp by 9am. No warm showers. Cold fingers in the morning that make you think arthritis is setting in 30yrs too early. So the first stove pot of the day is always hot water to make tea or just warm you up. Last pot of the day after dinner is always hot water to clean and put into water bottles to warm you up. Keeping warm is a mandatory, necessary chore. You must take action on it for it cannot be assumed.
My morning to-do list:
1. set stove up
2. get water from water seals
3. boil water
4. decide breakfast
5. cook breakfast
6. clean pots
7. divvy lunch for the day — trail mix, banana chips, leftover dinner
8. divvy food (and weight) for the day.
My personal tasks:
1. deflate and roll sleeping pad
2. stuff sleeping bag into day pack
3. push day pack into botton of backpack (typically 10–15min of effort)
4. brush teeth
5. morning poop and pee
A morning poop takes 20min MINIMUM, and includes the following activities:
- Pack your jacket — soap, water bottle, wipes or kleenex, tampon if necessary.
- Solicit a trowel (explained below)
- Walk to a far spot where you can have some privacy — typically 300 ft+ from camp behind a tree, do your business, be VERY careful about wiping up esp. if the bidet system is less your cup of tea, pack the used wipes/tissues into zip lock or hand carry them out, wash hands, and then YOU’RE DONE!
With one task.
Trowels are bright orange shovels with the intent of “Leave No Trace”. Finding a trowel is not difficult. There is one per tent group.
If you don’t have one, you whisper to your closest tent-mate “do you have a trowel?”, not make eye contact, and then proceed walking away timidly to a far location. But by day 3, our group timidness transformed to voice projection — you loudly announced to the group “do you have a trowel?” and we’d all look quickly to the outside of our bags. Morning was a busy trowel time.
To use the trowel, you dig a hole 8 inches deep, lower pants to knees/ankles, and aim to poop in the hole. If you had missed the hole, you found a rock or stick but definitely NOT THE TROWEL and pushed the poop into the hole. When complete, use your water bottle as a bidet, clean your dirty hand, then clean both your hands, then use the trowel to cover your hole with the displaced dirt. Then proceeded with the requisite burying of your poop.
Imagine a dog pooping.
That was me as I overlooked the sunny canyons making sure my poop aimed correctly into my hole. By day 3, you got the idea. Our route was a loop so there wasn’t any going back. Good luck to the next backpackers.
You adapt your bathroom cycles. Poop and pee in the morning with enough light. A quick midday pee. And an evening just-before-sunlight-is-gone pee. Sunset is 630pm so you have until 7pm. If you drink water after 7pm, with sleep starting at 830/9pm, that secures a night-time adventure pee.
The first night, I drank a liter after 7pm because I was trying to be “healthy” after forgetting to drink enough water during the day. At pitch dark whatever-the-time, I badly needed to pee. This involved a somewhat difficult disentanglement from my sleeping bag, popping my shoes on, finding my tiny light (because I forgot to bring my headlamp — a crucial mistake), crawling under the tent to get out (because the tent zipper is difficult to operate and in our small 3-person tent, someone always slept under the zipper), and then finally finding a spot to go. But thankfully it’s pitch dark so you can probably get away with a five-foot distance from your tent. Evidence erased in the soil by the morning.
Where does our drinking water come from? Well, anywhere. We were lucky that this 2021 winter was particularly wet, — so after arriving at our decided campsite for the day, a “search party” would seek crevices in rock formations to see if they still contained water. A few years ago, it was so dry one day that the group’s only water source was a small puddle containing cow poop and a dead bat.
You add a substance called Aquamira to kill the bacteria in the water but any taste is still there. That year they used their entire ration of lemonade to mask the taste. Thankfully, we didn’t need to do that. But the water was a muddy rusty red color from the canyon sand. So you looked above the water bottle every time you drank, like looking at someone’s forehead instead of their eyes. It was hard to disassociate.
Carrying a 50lb pack is no joke. Your head is always bowed because the weight is disorienting, and, for a novice, it’s hard to get used to. So you look down to make sure you’re stepping on the correct load-bearing rocks. It exhausts you but you don’t recognize it until the night when you have a reprieve from the weight. Hauling a massive backpack onto your back and then taking it off is, itself, an act of strength.
If you can’t haul it onto your back, you ask for a pack assist — a PA.
“Can I have a PA?” is how Scripps Spelling Bee would use it in a sentence.
Someone hoists your backpack up for you so you can squeeze your arms in. Then you jump/jostle the pack on your back a few times to adjust the weight. Finally, you clip in the waist strap (ensures the bulk of the weight is on your hips rather than your shoulders) and the shoulder strap (ensures the pack isn’t jostling around). My pack was always taller than me by 6–8+inches. That’s normal.
Setting up a tent was easy — find 8 rocks: 4 larger, 4 smaller. Unpack bag, find tent, find tent adapter so you can use walking poles at the middle spoke holding the tent up. Often, these items are scattered amongst your hiking group mates or other. Unpacking your bag is often a frenzy. Dump layers on the ground, dump food on the ground, “ah there’s the adapter! squished between my 1/3 bottom layer of my sleeping bag.”
With all your strength, pull the sleeping bag out of the backpack. Undo the waterproof ground plastic. Unfurl sleeping pad. Blow into the sleeping pad for 5 minutes to inflate. Don’t drool (too much) on yourself. Pull sleeping bag out of the day pack. Ok, now go get some water to boil.
Re-packing your backpack is intense, and crucial to weight distribution, so it is a n extremely mentally consuming task. If a backpack stands by itself on the ground, that’s a good sign. There should not be any air pockets throughout the bag. A good rule of thumb is 90% of your packing effort should be for the bottom third of the bag, then 10% effort into the 2nd third, and finally top third are items you need easy access to.
My sleeping bag was in the bottom third. After compressing sleeping items in the wee morning light, you stretch and pull and stuff and re-stuff and push down and re-stuff until your morning arthritis fingers feel bruised to create a no-pocket bottom third. It’s VERY important the sleeping bag doesn’t take up half the bag (because you have many other items to pack) so 90% of your effort goes to turning a very large sleeping bag on its side. Stuff air pockets with clothes. 2nd third is food (big pot, stirring spoon, and my third of the 30lbs of food) and my sleeping pad. Top third is everything else: food for the day, puffy jacket in case we had to wade through canyon water and need to warm up after. I carried 1 full fuel container in my side pockets and 2 water bottles. Pack, re-pack, unpack.
Say it with me: pack, re-pack, unpack.
Our group divided into smaller 3 groups every day. Everyday you’d be with a new face — hopefully a friend with at least one deep convo in by sundown.
We rested for ten minutes every hour. Or whenever someone needed a bathroom break. Any longer than 10 minutes and your body goes from “action/exercise” mode to “rest” mode. Rest means your muscles aren’t engaged and you have to start over. The longer the rest, the longer the possibility of cold, un-stretched muscles making small mistakes like not stepping on the right load-bearing rocks.
Getting the backpack down from your back feels like taking a boulder off your back, unsure how it got up there in the first place. Putting it on required me to put my left foot out in a crouch stance, hoist the backpack onto my knee, then sling it around my back. Because the pack is taller than me, despite my tedious packing, it is always a bit of maneuvering for the pack to start at my lower back, not my butt. After ordering and using the small NOLS pants (which looked like ’80s patchwork80s’ patchwork pants with pretty good leg volume but an incredibly small waist band) for 3 days, I asked around and found a teammate with a spare pair of medium pants. Thank GOODNESS! Now I didn’t have difficulty pulling the waistband over my butt every time I went to the bathroom. Medium’s waistband was a good size but the leg parts were quite baggy. Fair tradeoff for easier bathroom.
I did not wear a watch so time was based on daylight. If you put your hand out in front of you with your fingers together, then turn your hand so your fingers face horizontally, then find the horizon, you can determine the time. 1 sideways hand is ~1 hour. This was how I determined time. That sense of timelessness is something I attempt to replicate in NYC. “Hey Siri — set an alarm for 1:20pm”. Thus giving myself buffer time to get back or exit from focused to context switching, I’ve felt a lot more timelessness. The day fills and work is done and I feel satisfied.
Watching the instructors make decisions is crucial and fascinating. The likely vs. consequence grid is how they make their decisions.
On the 6th day, our mission was a day hike to Cowboy Canyon. It was here I found my first element of play on this trip — stemming. Keeping 4 points on the canyon walls without touching the ground. One of our 3 instructors had led this same trip 2 or 3 years before. They told us of the story of limited water and cow poop. But this year was a remarkably wet year. We descended by rope deeper into the canyons when the possibility of a high consequence/fatal drop was too high or stemming wasn’t a possibility for the entire length. When we descended by rope, it was into freezing cold black water. Then you had to swim to the other side. In frigid water, no matter how warm you were before, your muscles contract in 15–20 seconds of “swimming”. You swam and your teammates pulled you across by rope. Our group descended 3x.
Then you tried to warm up. Run in place in a tiny 1 x 1 sq ft of a canyon landing. After the first descent, all 118lbs of me were freezing. I kept running, jumping jacks, anything with my puffer coat. Then a teammate hugged me. Soon there was 6 of us in a group hug. It was a source of heat like no other, and I felt warmth and hope that my teammates were there for me.
After a 2nd descent, I thought of a brilliant idea to remove my midlayer and only be in my t-shirt. Logic: since my quick-dry t-shirt would dry fast in the limited sunlight, I’d be warm faster instead of waiting for my wet midlayers to dry. But expect the unexpected: the third descent was harrowing. As I write this months later, on a 70- degree day I feel a chill in my bones. There were 3 swims in the 3rd descent. I remember timidly waiting along with my group for the first person to scope the terrain — guide #1. Her partner was our guide #2 (I think this is quite rare for a couple to both be teaching/leading) and it was the first and only time I heard her voice with a tinge of fear, after not hearing from guide #1 for about 30–45 seconds. When it was my turn, I saw why. Wading through the first swim, you were 100 ft into this particular canyon. After the 2nd swim, 250ft. And after the 3rd swim, 500ft in.
Let’s recap guide #1’s experience: she waded through pitch black water, unsure of how deep the water would be, often having to swim to the other side, then bring us novice backpackers across, and keep an optimistic demeanor while continuing to monitor all variables and decide big decisions like how do we descend deeper into the canyons? She had 2 other guides to collaborate on decision making but I want to be clear on how knowledgeable and resourced she had to be.
Here’s a few questions that my 3 guides answered that day during each descent: Can we set up a “meat anchor” as a 1st descending safety protocol? Is there a large rock nearby that can be used as 2nd anchor? What type of rock climbing knot should be used? What pathways do we see out of the canyon? What is our escape route in the unlikely but occasional instance of a flash flood? Who in our group is most equipped to go 1st, 2nd, etc? Who looks like they need a pep talk because they have a “I’m going to freeze to death” look? If someone is near sickness, do we need to stop and pull out the safety measure of a sleeping bag and stove to warm them up?
Decisions. Decisions. Big shoutout to my 3 phenomenal guides who receive a little more than $100/day for taking us on this trip. They are woefully underpaid for my safety and their knowledge.
On the trip, I counted down the nights. 9 nights left, then 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. I missed my partner, my family, my friends. I had booked this 2 weeks before, comfortable with the knowledge that I previously booked Everest Base Camp and West Highland Way about 2 weeks ahead as well. But backpacking is a different experience to hiring a porter and sleeping in motels. I was startled by my lack of preparation and knowledge. I’d like to think I adapted quickly, but am incredibly grateful to my 3 guides for their patience, experience, encouragement, and the right words at the right time.
TAMPONS and FRIENDSHIP
My period was scheduled to arrive during the trip. The motto of the NOLS organization is “leave no trace” — so everything taken with you on a trip must be biodegradable, or carried out of the park. Without too much detail, I carried my unused and used tampons and pads and zip lock bags. That was gross and I have so much appreciation for modern period technology.
I also want to shout out to the friend I’ve continued conversing with to this day. Your generosity with baby wipes built our friendship foundation, and our giggle fits layered it on. It was wonderful to make a true friend, who ponders deeply, cracks you up, and keeps your secrets.
EMOTIONS COMING BACK to NYC!
Coming back to technology after a 10- day lapse felt like heaven. With a full cup, every option is pondered and decisions are deliberate. With phones at the ready, shall we… facetime partner, facetime parents, check email to see how many dumpster fires there are!?
Because I live in East Village, Manhattan, with a high density of people, restaurants, and life around you, walking down the street can contain many triggering / frustrating / sad experiences. Three people asking for money or food, children running near busy traffic, food delivery bikes cutting off your walking path. Sometimes you see kindness — a young person helping an older person, a tourist family thoroughly enjoying the bustle. But everything plots for attention.
In the canyons, you have your teammates and instructors. You learn to read a map to navigate the landmarks around you to reach the next camp site. But you can’t text to reschedule when and where you’re meeting. There’s one spot you’re headed to. There’s one time. There’s daytime and nighttime. There’s no flakiness or maybes.
On the Wednesday I returned to the front country, my best friend suddenly canceled the brunch we scheduled. Suddenly, all the time and energy that went into communicating…evaporated. There was no end place we would both be. Texting and texting and texting. Checking my phone the night before to ensure we had a place and time to meet. Then her texting at 2am saying she probably can’t do 9am. Back and forth, back and forth. I was exhausted. Because she finally said she couldn’t do 930am. And I have a meeting at 11am. Then you second- guess yourself. Did I not say a place? A time? Should I tell this person how exhausting this is — the scheduling and the back and forth? It was my FIRST DAY BACK from my backpacking.
In the Canyonlands, I felt 5–10 emotions in 24 hours.
In the East Village, I felt 5–10 emotions in 10 minutes.
No wonder, as a population we are exhausted.