Ben Massey. Backpacking enthusiast, creator of this site, former writer of sports articles for several websites and one magazine, all-round handsome guy, and writer of his own blurbs.
2,811 words · Hiking and backpacking "policy"
I am a train enthusiast who hates flying. If I can reasonably take the train, I shall, and if it’s not reasonable I might do it anyway. Especially when hiking: you can’t fly with stove gas or bear spray, never mind checking your backpack and wondering if it’ll meet you on the other end.
This is not a politics post, but it starts that way: the National Post‘s Chris Selley recently reposted a July 2022 article about Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault’s rash promise to “cross the country by rail listening to people’s ideas about climate change,” reminding us of the Liberals’ 2019 campaign promise to “partner with VIA Rail to make [camping at national parks] accessible and affordable for more families.”
Neither trains to national parks nor a whistle-stop eco-tour happened, because Quebec-Windsor elites don’t know what the rest of Canada is. 95% of Canada has less frequent, less reliable, and slower passenger service than before the First World War. The High-Frequency Rail plan is peeling off the parts of Canada’s passenger network that get attention into a public-private partnership and the rest of the country will do what it can with a roll of quarters and 70-year-old train cars. When a politician says “I’ll take the train to Banff, how long could it be, six hours?” he’s not even lying, but ignorant.
Which is funny, because the trains are responsible for the mountain parks. The Canadian Pacific Railway built many of the trails in Banff, constructed hotels and tea houses, and literally opened Yoho’s Twin Falls with dynamite, but you’re not taking the train to Yoho anymore unless you work on one. In 1991’s The World of Lake Louise, one of Don Beers’ iconic Canadian Rockies hiking guides, he laments that “passenger train service is confined to weekends in the summer months. The trains stop only at Calgary, Banff, Kamloops, and Vancouver; the rail station at Lake Louise is closed.” In 1991 this seemed like an unbearable cutback; in 2023 we shout “RETVRN!”
You can still get to national parks by train. The adventurous can do a little more. Here’s what there is.
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2,493 words · Gear, General topics, Hiking and backpacking "policy"
Bears are smarter than many people, and stronger than most. This past August another Problematic Bear at Garibaldi Provincial Park learned the knack of shimmying up BC Parks’ official bear hangs and bringing the bags down. Several hikers lost whole backpacks until conservation officers shot the bear.
This is the second-best recent British Columbia “bear defeating bear-proofing” story. The winner was at Akamina Creek in 2021, where a bear was caught non-chalantly opening bear-proof lockers right in front of several hikers (private video on the Great Divide Trail Hikers Facebook group). A few years ago Andrew Skurka shared a spreadsheet on Yosemite bears getting food from the portable hard-sided bear canisters. Most incidents involve user stupidity, but far from all. Given time, a cliff, a manufacturing defect, a slight fault in procedure, a plastic container weakened by UV, or just one that’s smarter than the av-er-age bear, that food is gone.
Traditionally this is when the author brags that he does it right. My food is all dehydrated meals and packaged snack bars, kept in an OPSAK resealable odour-proof bag that’s in turn tied inside an Ursack, hung on or stored in permanent infrastructure whenever available. Sure enough, a bear has never eaten my food (raccoons ate some once).
Except OPSAKs pick up odours from handling even before the openings fail, which they always do. Ursacks can be defeated when overfull, tied improperly, or a bear has four hours to work on the thing.
The author of this post is neither a bear expert nor highly experienced. In the wild he does what seems like it ought to work well enough. However, like most people who’ve lived in the world the past few years, he has a well-developed contempt for the narcissism of the expert. Responding to the Garibaldi incidents, the CBC quoted unnamed “advocates” whose words had no relevance to a bear climbing up the bear hang. Whenever a bear gets away with someone’s food wiseacres say “he probably didn’t do it right” and insist that if you follow these fourteen weird tips faultlessly every time you’re sure to be safe. It amounts to endlessly trusting the plan.
1,362 words · General topics
Five years ago (good grief) I hiked the West Coast Trail. On my second night out, after a very rainy hike to Walbran Creek, I woke afloat in the midst of a flash flood. Diving into the pouring rain to move my tent out of the new lake I snapped the pole twice and tore the fly to ribbons, spent an extremely miserable night in the ruin, and tarp-camped the rest of the trip. I replaced the tent with a cheaper, better one I still use, what was scary at the time turned out to be a great adventure, and almost all was well.
But sadly my nice old camera drowned in that flood, and the SD card with two days of pictures on it could not be read however I tried. For five years those two days have beem memorialized only by some bad phone photos. I re-read my own blog posts and relive the memories once in a while; that’s half the reason I publish them. I always felt that loss. The only photo I had for beautiful day one hardly bears thinking about.
One day, five years later, I was at the office testing software by plugging SD cards into things to bring photos off them. It was testing and therefore frustrating, and after my nth fix I grabbed the SD card off my desk, plugged it into the tablet, swore again because the right pictures weren’t coming up… then realized they were my West Coast Trail photos. I’d thought I’d thrown that SD card out years ago, and I did have a card in my office that I knew didn’t work, that I kept meaning to put in the trash but never did, and it just so happened this Android device could read it, and I got my photos off.
Before the flood I ended my diary for the day “God loves me and wants me to be happy.” When I got flooded I thought that was dramatic irony; it turned out to just be true. Those snaps set me remembering, and that set me wondering.
22,717 words · Alberta, Multi-day trip reports, Rocky Mountains
The South Boundary Trail. To some those words are instantly evocative. They mean history, grandeur, self-reliance, and solitude.
Jasper National Park has beautiful backcountry, from Skyline to the Brazeau to the Tonquin Valley; the South Boundary’s isn’t the same. The scenic highlight is Nigel Pass, which is also a day hike and easily backpacked on the Brazeau. Otherwise, there are wonderful moments but not constant stimulation. No 3,000-foot climbs, no camps above treeline.
The South Boundary just feels different. The ninth Earl of Southesk put it on the map in 1859 when, recovering from injury, illness, and the loss of his wife, the 32-year-old peer explored the Front Ranges, defined a great Rocky Mountain backcountry trek, met legends of the Canadian West, read Shakespeare and Bulwer-Lytton, and wrote his account with a personality that any fan of obscure backcountry content will recognize. The hunters with him had hardly the vaguest idea where to go: they were experts, not guides, and the earl pioneered this route.
As Jasper matured the South Boundary became popular until, around 1994, the parks began their long retreat from the backcountry. Wildfires in 2003 and 2006, and a flood in 2013, decimated the trail, and little was repaired. Reports discussed how difficult the path could be to find, let alone hike.
Then, in 2019 Stuart and Evelyn Howe recorded a two-and-a-half hour video of their hike. They found Rocky Pass, navigated the washouts, made it to the old paths above the Southesk burn, then got down to the bridge. They showed what victory looked like, posted their GPS tracks, and more would-be hikers were inspired to follow them. In the years since the trail’s been better-marked by cairns, markers, and flagging, and the park has made a couple maintenance trips. One hesitates to call a 75-mile trail with chancy fords, multi-mile route-finding, primitive campsites, unbrushed trails with six-foot willows, and one thoroughly remote trailhead “easy.” But it mostly is.
This was the second part of a 14-day, no-resupply hike that I started at Fiddle River. There’s a synopsis of my earlier adventure ahead but start there if you want the full story.
6,793 words · Alberta, Multi-day trip reports, Rocky Mountains
Hiking Jasper’s Fiddle River trail in mid-August had a simple object: to reach the South Boundary Trail without a three-hour taxi ride.
Living a long way from the Rocky Mountains, I get at most one hike out there a year and the Fiddle River would never make the cut. However, it suited my South Boundary goals perfectly: take a taxi to Miette Hot Springs, hike for three days, cross Fiddle Pass and emerge on the Grave Flats Road less than eleven miles from the Rocky Pass trailhead. It made for 14 days on the trail and about 111 miles (179km) of hiking, with a garbage bin en route but no resupply.
Thus the Fiddle River was not really a “trail” to me: it was an approach. Every niggling inconvenience—and there were a few—wasn’t part of my adventure, but part of my commute. I didn’t realize what a difference that would make mentally until I was at Medicine Tent campground four days later and magically felt better. Carrying a pack with two weeks of food and fuel didn’t improve my mood.
For all the frustration the trail did create some fond memories. Fiddle Pass is lovely, the rivers and creeks are distinct pleasures, and if you want backcountry nights that are private and rugged but not too “out there” I suggest Utopia and Slide Creek campgrounds. It’s just thru-hiking it with a big pack was the wrong way to go, when you could experience the parts you’d like on a less frustrating out-and-back. When you tie the whole trail together, trying to get from one end to the other, Fiddle River is a hassle.
This trip was a single 14-day hike to me, but as it covered two trails at Jasper National Park, joined by a half-road-walk half-hitchhike, I’m dividing it into two posts for readability. The South Boundary Trail post, which will be much longer, is on the way.
1,748 words · Gear, General topics
As I might have mentioned I love my old MSR Hubba NX very much. It was the last of the Good Hubbas, before they started screwing up the seams and making it into an Elixir with an uglier fly, and I got it on clearance. It’s been with me on the Chilkoot, Skyline, the Rockwall, and many other one- and two-night trips. It’s still in pretty good shape, give-or-take a hole in the bug netting, and I’m looking forward to bringing it on the South Boundary.
The only problem’s been the cord that connects the tent poles which, after a couple seasons of use, lost its elasticity, leading to slack lines and difficult pole assembly. I got rather good at working around this, but clearly an elastic tent cord with no elastic was a failure waiting to happen. I knew I’d have to replace the cord, but that involved open-heart surgery on a tent that was pretty much working and I kept putting it off and putting it off, until I went camping in July and got fed up. Then I went home and replaced the cords, and not only was it was so easy I felt like an idiot for waiting so long, but I felt better knowing one more thing about how my gear works.
Here’s a guide on replacing tent cord on MSR Hubba-family tents. The principles will help you with many other tents as well, and the most important principle is: don’t be afraid. This is an easy job which not only makes your tent stronger, but helps you know your gear in case anything happens in the field.
1,663 words · General topics, Hiking book reviews
It is 2022. Every trail of consequence in the Canadian Rockies has been shot through with YouTube videos and dissected by bloggers, and every park has detailed descriptions online. A book becomes dated with every spring flood and summer fire, while the forums and the Facebooks carry updates in close to real time. Do you still need to spend $29.95 on a trail guide?
When hiking a maintained trail, even a long and difficult one, the answer has to be no. You can learn everything you need for free, provided you can endure clickbait, trash, and crass self-promotion in some stranger’s report. It’ll even be more detailed. There is no park-spanning guide that could surpass anything focused on a single trail, not without being 50,000 pages long.
Yet, should you hike the Canadian Rockies, absolutely get the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, the long-awaited tenth edition of which has been released in May 2022. Because there are things only trail guides do. The limitations of two covers, finite pages, and infrequent updates allow the creation of a resource which other media theoretically could match but never, ever do.
They capture information concisely and clearly in one place. They let you find the trail you’ll want to hike next summer as well as plan the one you’ve already decided on. They show routes and possibilities videos only gesture at. They let you scheme, and dream. In this edition Brian Patton and Bart Robinson not only provide some much-needed updates but, with a handsome new layout and full colour on every page, given us more room than ever to fantasize about hiking and then make those fantasies real.
1,131 words · Gear, General topics
I recently found an old spreadsheet from when I began backpacking in 2017, listing everything I needed to get started in this hobby. It’s one of those accidental historical documents, because of the things I thought were important once upon a time (“I’ve got to get one of those portable medical splints!” said I, quite seriously) and all of the fads which turned out to be busts (“wow, UV-treating water on the trail is amazing! It’s more expensive than a filter, it’s about as annoying, it’s not much faster, and you have to pre-filter it anyway to get the leaves and sticks out!”). The things I spent a lot of money on, like my solar panels and my first lightweight tent, which sort of sucked, and my fancy down sleeping bag, which despite all the dire warnings against using down in wet climates has been worth every one of the many pennies.
Oh well, I was learning to backpack and I made mistakes, and few of them were expensive. I did something smart: I’d buy something big, heavy, and cheap, and I’d find out what I hated and what I liked and I’d upgrade where I needed it. This definitely saved me money compared to people who buy several blue-ticket items from trendy ultralight manufacturers until they find one they like or suffer in poverty.
Saving money’s more important than ever. In addition to the items, I wrote down their prices, in 2017 dollars, so I could budget for them, and what an eye-opener that is five years later. Getting started backpacking certainly felt expensive at the time, but it’s gotten so much worse.
2,416 words · Alberta, General topics, Rocky Mountains, Trip planning
This time of year, people talk about their backpacking plans. The luckiest souls plan to be out most of July and August, and I cope and seethe for like most of us, I get at best one good backpack a year. So naturally I plan it out to avoid being hosed by the booking gods, running down my list of must-do hikes every January and finishing on one can-do for August that’s as fun as I can make it. Moreover, this year I felt a hankering to get as close to the all-summer hiking crowd as I could, to make my one trip a real marathon.
My Western Canada backpacking bucket list goes something like:
So it’s the South Boundary for me in 2022, because I want to do the North Boundary and can’t.
1,202 words · General topics, Hiking book reviews
If you hike the Lower Mainland and use the Internet you’ve seen the name Taryn Eyton, whose Happiest Outdoors blog is very prominent indeed. Far from the selfie-seeking Instagram influencer trying to get photos on Panorama Ridge and sell t-shirts; Eaton has done the trails, including the unglamorous ones, knows her stuff, and shares her knowledge with the hiking community even outside her website. I also infer from some photos that she owns the same previous-generation MEC TGV 2 four-season tent I do, which speaks well of her taste.
The compliments go up top to soften the blow when I say that I’ve never liked that site: it’s too click-baity, too “top 30” this and “big deals on” that, every keyword carefully inserted where Google will find them. The ratio of useful content to search-engine-optimization is way off.
But she’s got a book out, Backpacking in Southwestern British Columbia, which targets an underserved niche. There are between five and seven million books on hiking in the Lower Mainland, each describing a hundred and some-odd hikes that you absolutely have to do if you’re a walk-to-the-top-of-the-mountain-at-a-35-degree-angle type. There are books aimed at tourists and well-meaning grandmothers, researched mostly from Wikipedia, saying that when in Vancouver you should really try that Grouse Grind thing. There were, however, no good informed summaries on backpacking in the area and, since researching such backpacks means a quagmire of provincial park websites, forest recreation sites, and old Facebook posts, an expert guide would be invaluable.
Eyton is an expert, she’s done ’em all. But a guidebook and a 24-best-Black-Friday-deals blog are two very different things. I bought the book without high hopes: could she really take that expertise and translate it to a more concise, lower-frills context, and make it a success?
Imagine my surprise and delight when the answer was yes.
1,199 words · Alberta, General topics, Hiking and backpacking "policy"
Jasper National Park’s North Boundary Trail is a dream hike. From Celestine Lake to the Berg Lake trailhead in Mount Robson Provincial Park, it is much-discussed but not often-hiked. This year Thompson Valley Charters started a bus between Kamloops and Edmonton stopping at Mount Robson. I would have made it if not for Heat Dome, whose melt flooded these trails. BC Parks closed the Berg Lake Trail beyond kilometre 7 in August.
Also closed was a bridge over Twintree Creek, one of the few remaining on the North Boundary. Stuart Howe’s 2019 video shows horrible rushing blue-white water and Parks Canada has officially closed that bridge on pain of a $25,000 fine.
Berg Lake is closed for 2022 while under repair, but the North Boundary is long-neglected. Reservations are refused until September because Blue Creek bridge washed out in 2014 and they want hikers to wait until water levels go down. By all accounts Twintree Creek is tougher; it’s probably safest to consider the trail closed.
Would Jasper National Park lose a marquee trail for want of a bridge? Well, it keeps happening. The Fortress Lake trail into Hamber Provincial Park has been cut off since 2014 because of a washed-out bridge over the Athabasca River. The Athabasca Pass trail, leading to a National Historic Site of Canada, has been nigh-unreachable since the winter of 2016 due to a lost bridge at Simon Creek.
This is normally when an author bemoans Parks Canada’s budget and suggests the reader somehow vote our way out of it. Yes, Parks Canada should have the money far more than other things all politicians treat as higher priorities, but they ain’t quite broke. Earlier this year they built a 113-metre suspension bridge above Logan Creek on the West Coast Trail. A safe existing route has received a spectacular upgrade that will save hikers from what was once a morass of ladders and a shorter, still-memorable suspension bridge. The contract was valued at $840,122.
Bridges can be built, when they’re a priority.
3,312 words · Southwestern British Columbia, Vancouver Island
It would have saddened a handful of Vancouver Island backpackers when Sooke Mountain Provincial Park outlawed camping. Located about an hour from downtown Victoria, Sooke Mountain has been logged, surveyed, alternately protected and exploited, driven over, ridden on, and hiked for more than a century, and the park is part of a more nearly-wild area than you might expect given its location and history.
People are all around. Sooke Mountain borders the popular Sea to Sea Regional Park, maintained to a very high standard by the [British Columbia] Capital Regional District and criss-crossed with trails. It is linked to the Sooke Potholes, a very popular destination, and a walk between the two can easily involve a side-trip to Empress Mountain, the tallest peak in the Victoria area. The terrain is often strenuous but, on the established routes, only occasionally severe. To the north there’s logging, which puts a limit on the real wildland, and the Greater Victoria watershed, but this leaves a great deal to explore on foot by unofficial and haphazard trails. Geographically it has every advantage. But this gem goes unpolished, to the pleasure of Sooke Hills wanderers who escape the capital for a taste of wilderness.
Land ownership is complicated, with the Capital Regional District, the province, and the YMCA all holding big stakes. The provincial park itself is relatively small, compared to the bevy of public and private landowners around it, and lacks direct vehicle access, so BC Parks has taken a very stand-offish approach. Victoria’s planned for at least ten years to open the area up to recreation, but the region has swallowed up more backcountry parkland than it can digest: Sooke Mountain is just one more page of bullet points. Because of this, trails and facilities are user-maintained at best while official maps are non-existent and unofficial ones obscure. Since a wildland so close to an urban area is tempting to the inexperienced, and nobody’s apparently taking responsibility for the area, it’s probably best not to encourage too much casual activity. People are already rescued after going in flagrantly unprepared for the backcountry; nobody needs more of that.
But until 2019, you could camp there, and in 2017 I did, braving bad maps, blowdown, and poop buckets, crossing old moss-covered pipes across gaping chasms, getting lost in the woods, and emerging dazed, tired, and alive, having seen hardly a soul in 24 hours between two popular destinations.
2,458 words · Gear, General topics
I want to write more, I really do, but it’s hard. I just don’t hike that much, and when I do it’s often not worth writing about even to me.
In this situation, what do other hiking blogs do? That’s a bad question because all hiking blogs, and vlogs, and Instagrams are terrible attention-seeking nightmare factories that seem to dream of being sponsored by a company selling bandanas or something just so they can experience the sheer joy of selling out. I like adorable half-polished diaries of hikes, and I like Andrew Skurka’s site, but I’m posting all the half-polished diaries I can and Skurka’s site is good because he’s an expert full-time hiker and guide, which I most definitely ain’t. Damn.
But people write about gear. A lot. By gear, a hiker does not mean the kit he uses to inject heroin into the diminishing veins between his toes, although he’d save money if he did. He means the specialized, lightweight equipment that he weighs on his kitchen scale so he can tell everyone he’s some awesome minimalist who wastes not an ounce. I am not an awesome minimalist. I bring a chair hiking.
I also carry opinions, and they don’t weigh anything. Some of them might almost be interesting to others, and some will be good for me to write down so I don’t go “oh right my satellite messenger failed last time I tried this” sometime in 2022. Hey, perhaps a gear post now and then is a decent waste of electrons!
9,183 words · Multi-day trip reports, Rocky Mountains, Southeastern British Columbia
Parks Canada’s new reservations system is fun. Used to be you’d log in 7 AM on opening day, the database server would crash, and you’d refresh, and the database server would crash, and you’d have a couple browsers open to get one as far as the cart, and the database server would crash, but you’d check out, and then the payment server would crash, and you’d repeat this ten times until your credit card had been overcharged a few hundred bucks and, because you were high-agency, you’d get your campsites. I wrote about it! It worked for me, which is not the same as saying that it worked.
Now you log in opening day and are randomly assigned a place in line. The website hardly crashes at all but, no matter how on-the-ball you are, you cannot advance more quickly than the luck of the draw. When I visited on Banff, Kootenay, and Yoho backcountry day there were 14,715 people ahead of me taking the good campsites. 14,715. I wrote it down.
I had planned two hard and fast weeks through three parks, from Field, British Columbia to Canmore, Alberta, a hike to be proud of, one you have to train for. But 14,715 people made that impossible. So I had to gear down and hike Kootenay National Park‘s Rockwall, one of the crown jewels of the Canadian Rockies, the one they put on the cover of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide for seven out of ten editions, a beautiful and popular destination I was truly lucky to get into. I even found myself obliged to stop at every campground along the way, a relaxed itinerary that would allow me to spend the summer sitting and getting tubby rather than grinding the Grind.
It was amazing: five of the best nights of my life. You should go.
1,349 words · Gear
Solar power, as anyone who has tried it knows, does not work.
Perhaps there are niche cases, like desktop calculators or orbital satellites, where solar cells pay off their expense and bulk, but when it comes to backpacking the science is settled. Look at gear surveys on long-distance trails, at the items hikers love, hate, keep, throw away. If a hiker brings solar panels onto the Pacific Crest or the Appalachian, they are soon discarded. If he does not bring them, at no point is he tempted to buy a set. Not even their biggest fan pretends a solar panel relieves you from long hours sitting next to a power outlet recharging your battery pack. Garmin, acknowledged masters of the great-hardware-shitty-software industry, advertise their solar-powered Fēnix 6 smartwatch as having extended range, rather than being able to live off the sun. Reviews of backpacking-oriented panels try as diplomatically as possible to suggest that if you keep the best you can buy soaked in sunlight in Colorado in the summer, you might just possibly get something useful out of them.
My experience with my backpacking solar panels has been thoroughly bad, dragging them like boat anchors around British Columbia’s Lower Mainland and Southern Gulf Islands without the least satisfaction. But surely the apex of futility was when I used them sailing from Bellingham, Washington to Skagway, Alaska on the Alaska Marine Highway. Sleeping out on deck for four days in the Alaskan summer we had decent weather, eighteen hours of sun a day, and a shortage of power outlets. I tried my solar panels to bridge the gap, and by journey’s end was just this side of pitching them into the Lynn Canal.
There’s no sugarcoating it: solar panels are heavy (my set weighs almost two and a half pounds), expensive, and ineffectual. The backpacking solar panel is completely useless.
Or is it?
About the Author
Ben Massey. Backpacking enthusiast, creator of this site, former writer of sports articles for several websites and one magazine, all-round handsome guy, and writer of his own blurbs.
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