Backpacking Big Sur

Ever since Brian and I bought our hiking backpacks, I knew I wanted to try backpacking. I know, it’s strange to have your equipment dictate what you want to do, but hey if we’re buying packs suitable for overnight trips, why not try an overnight trip? The worst thing that could happen is that I can hate it, and never want to do it again, but at least then I’d know that I hate it, right?

That’s why, when Anh invited Brian and me to a backpacking trip to Big Sur’s Sykes Hotsprings, I immediately clicked ‘yes’ to the facebook invite (because who even invites people to things in person anymore? 😦 ). We commenced planning and buying equipment. All of us were backpacking noobs, so most of us didn’t even have packs, let alone stoves. I was a bit terrified, since I had wanted my first backpacking trip to be with a veteran who could show me the ropes, and I had heard all sorts of things about bears mauling the campsite for food that wasn’t properly hung, etcetc. But I’d never let that make me back out! Instead I just spammed my friends with bear safety videos, and called it good.

Here’s the equipment Brian and I had, if anyone’s interested!

Friday, September 26

We drove down to Big Sur Friday night, as we had booked a campsite near-ish to the trailhead for the hike to Sykes Hotsprings. The idea was that if we were already camped nearby, we’d get an earlier start on our backpacking than if we drove to Big Sur Saturday morning. Anh had brought a few packs of Mike’s Hard and beers, for whatever reason, so after setting up camp, we sipped and shot the shit until the alcohol lulled us to sleep.

Saturday, September 27

Saturday morning, we woke and tore down the campsite as quickly as we could before heading to the trailhead. We also made breakfast, which was my very first attempt at making freeze dried food!


The camping stove, which my coworker James promised would be super easy to set up, was actually quite a bit more finicky than the stoves that our friends had bought. Granted, ours was probably a bit lighter, but who knows how much of a difference that ended up making. The entire time I was setting it up and trying to get the gas to catch, I was a tiny bit afraid that I’d blow something up by accident.

On the bright side, the food was surprisingly good, considering it’s freeze-dried!


This was also when I found out that one of the two filters in the 2-pack that I had bought was defective! Instead of flowing naturally, the water piddled out in tiny droplets that wouldn’t satiate a bird, and sucking on it with all the force of a black hole didn’t do much in the way of producing water either. I ended up filling the squeeze pouch with water, and painstakingly filling my bladder by squeezing the water through the filter. Lots of elbow grease later, I had a half-filled bladder and a lot of lactic acid in my arms.

The cooking and cleaning up took a lot more time than we expected, so we didn’t end up arriving at the trailhead until 11:30am, even though we were supposed to start a lot earlier. The parking lot was PACKED, and we barely found a spot! (Literally – I think we took the last spot in the lot…)


Anh and Jessica were bringing their corgi, Baobao, on the backpacking trip with us. On previous hikes they said that he had hurt his paw from stepping on dried plants or sharp gravel or the like, so they had bought him cute little hiking booties! D’awww, ain’t he adorable?!


The hike to Sykes Hotsprings is about 10-12 miles in each direction. Since this was all of our first times backpacking, we didn’t really know what our pace should be, so we just hiked as if we were doing a normal day hike (which… I’d never done a day-hike longer than 7 miles before, so that didn’t help much in the way of pacing either…).

Here’s a picture of Allen reaching for some strange fruit on a tree growing just off the trail! We’d never seen it before, so we wanted to cut one open and see what was inside.


It ended up looking a bit like a green colored cross between an apple and a mangosteen (if you cut through one of the pulpy clove things, instead of exposing all the cloves like they’re usually cut).

Most of the hike is through underbrush with lots of tree cover, and there was a surprising number of creeks and still ponds considering the water shortage in California!


Early in the trail, there was a 2-ish mile section that was all exposed, and we got some gorgeous view of the valleys beyond. At one point, we could see across to the mountain that we had come from. It was amazing!


But like I said, we were not so good with the pacing. The beginning of the trail was all steep climbing, which we forgot would slow us down. Around 4:00pm, we passed by Terrace, the first of the campsites on the way to Sykes – a campsite that we had expected to pass 2 hours in. We didn’t reach Barlow Camp, the one we’d actually be staying at, until night fell. The hotsprings themselves were actually quite a bit past the campsite, so we ended up doing a lot of this:


As we walked by group after group of campers who all assured us that the hotsprings were not too far ahead, and that we’d just have to follow the river past the next bend, Brian and I got really frustrated with the never-ending stumbling about in the dark. Plus, we kept crossing back and forth over the river, which was really difficult for Baobao; several times we had to make an assembly line and pass him over the rocks, to avoid him falling in, getting wet, and then not drying off in the cold air.

Finally, Brian, Jessica, and I decided that we’d had enough of being lost, and decided to head back to the campsite first to set up our tents. Anh, Brian Lin, and Allen decided to press forth in their search for the hot spring.

So we traipsed back to camp (not without a bit of a scare – we had wandered so far from the campsite that it was eerily quiet, and once or twice I thought I heard animals). I had noticed that no other camps had their food hung in trees, so I guess bears aren’t a problem in this area. The three of us made dinner, and then Brian and I settled into our tent to read. A few hours later, after Brian had fallen asleep, I heard the boys come trudging back. They had indeed made it to the hot springs, and taken a glorious soak! Relieved they got back ok, I shut off the camp light, and went to sleep.

Sunday, September 29

By the time we woke Sunday morning, most of the other campsites had been torn down and their tenants long gone. We set about making breakfast and filtering water from the river just a few feet away from where we’d pitched our tents.

Everyone but Brian and I had these weird iodine tablets, which turned the water in their bladders a disconcerting yellow. I was so glad that Brian and I bought filters instead, even though mine didnt work. We jerry-rigged Brian’s bladder and filter into a hanging filter, which everyone then used to fill their pots for making breakfast. I was pretty proud of our handiness!


As we were cleaning up our site, we noticed that a neighboring campsite, which had blatantly violated the fire notice and been burning logs the night before, had not put out their fire thoroughly! Deep in the crevices of their abandoned log, an ember still glowed. Brian and I kicked and rolled the log into the river, and watched the ember extinguish with a hiss.

Soon, we were back on our way! I found a long stick that was suitable as a walking stick, and whittled the top away into a smooth grip. I was pretty proud of myself and my woodworking skills, and they came in handy too! Allen’s knees started hurting a few miles into our trip home, and he used the walking stick the rest of the way to help alleviate the pressure on his legs.

The hike back was the longest case of “are we there yet” ever. However, since we had consumed most of our food, our lighter packs balanced out the fatigue that everyone felt. By midafternoon, we were joyously racing down the fenced path that marked the start of our hike.

In the end…

This trip was definitely a huge learning experience! A few things I’d like to pass on to everyone who might be reading:

  • Hiking sticks are a must, since I have bad hips, and all the climbing could have been so much easier if I could have used my arms to help pull myself up!
  • Get a simple stove. The MSR one was wayyy overkill for us, and Brian accidentally disassembled it Sunday morning, which meant that we spent an unnecessary half hour puzzling over how to put it back together. Here’s the one my friends bought.
  • Clif Gel Blocks are such life savers! I definitely felt a tiny surge of energy every time I popped a few, and I feel like it helped sustain me for the arduous hike home.
  • Multitool was entirely unused other than for the eating utensils. The knife isn’t really very sharp, and is redundant since I also have a great pocketknife. I think in the future, I’m just going to bring a plastic spoon, since it’ll cut weight and be more effective.
  • 30L and 32L packs are BARELY large enough to accommodate an overnight trip. It’s lucky that there were 2 of us, since we were able to split the components of the stove and our clothes / sleeping pads /etc to evenly distribute weight and volume. If you’re going the trip alone, 32L won’t suffice 😦

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