How I became focused on the "backcountry"

In late college and the years following, I noticed a distinct and purposeful transition in my personal goals - I've begun to place much more importance on time spent moving through backcountry settings. A great number of specific events have led me to hold this as a  key element of my identity. As of now, I can remember each of these events distinctly, but I won't forever, so I wanted to write them down.

First of all, what exactly is backcountry? I suppose the definition is up for a bit of interpretation. To make it easy for me, I've defined backcountry as simply land that impossible or illegal to access by motor vehicles, and is thus uncivilized. Sure, one could ramble about how some areas are more backcountry than others, but we have to define this somewhere. I've made a conscious effort to reduce the use of the term wilderness in my personal vocabulary, because it's most recognized definition is land unaffected by humans. In America, this contributes to the erasure of indigenous people, because all of the land we travel through today have been thoughtfully stewarded by them for centuries. When you consider that and large scale factors like climate change, it becomes stupid to claim that any land is unaffected by humans. So, I've settled on the term backcountry. Because in reality, it's not lack of human impact that I seek, but simply that it is minimized, and civilization is absent.

Briefly, I'll summarize my entire relevant life before this period. I lived on the outskirts of Phoenix for my whole childhood, spending time hiking and biking in the desert. I camped frequently in those urban deserts during the cool seasons, and occasionally in the forests of the Mogollon Rim during summers. 

This love of nature led me to come to college at NAU in Flagstaff. To my surprise, it took me nearly a year before I found friends who wanted to be outside much at all. In fact, the very first of these is now my wife, Joelle. By 2017 I was captivated wholeheartedly by a life of outdoor adventure, including some new sports: paddling, canyoneering, climbing, backpacking, and skiing. Some very important friends shaped my journey into this world, especially Kevin Graves and Riley Koldenhoven. Often together, we would spend all of our free time in pursuit of these activities. The pull of elsewhere often drew us to spend a weekend or week living out of cars to explore the beauty of the Southwest. 

The beginning of my obsession with big wild spaces happened in November of 2018. Kevin had planned an excellent trip through Grand Canyon for a 4-day "superweekend". The trip would involve canyoneering and packrafting as part of a backcountry traverse. I was incredibly excited for the trip, and I remember having a sense of satisfaction to finally be planning a route using "Caltopo rather than Alltrails". Before this trip I had done all of these activities, but not together, and I had never been in the backcountry for more than 3 days. This was my first big multisport.

This trip didn't quite go as planned, to the point where it will forever be remembered by all of us as a "crazy story".  For some, the enjoyability of the experience was compromised. Personally, I remember being absolutely infatuated. My mind was blown that we could navigate through such a multifaceted and remote place. But there were certainly some problems with the trip. Besides some timing issues, premier in my mind was the weight of our gear. This may have been accentuated in my mind by the massive (borrowed) packraft you can see on my pack in the above photo. I knew I wanted to do trips like this, but I felt punished by my 70 pound backpack. Our ratio of goals:fitness:weight was off.

In December 2018, Kevin and I returned to the Grand to complete another canyoneering-packraft linkup. But this time, we would do our entire 26 mile route in one 15 hour push. No camping gear, less food, faster travel, a perfect weather window, a tighter group: more fun. We were overjoyed to pull off a multisport trip with less hiccups. This solidified (temporarily) in our minds that single-day adventures were the most fun. By March, 2019, were able to convince our partners that these multisport trips could be great. In a 19 hour day, we completed a stunning technical route in Marble Canyon. Notice the warm weather, which may have been a stoke factor...

But wait, who's the other guy in these photos? The one with the beautiful red hair and beard, blue shirt, and large backpack? Now's the perfect time to introduce Daniel Conley, who was our Grand Canyon mentor and rapidly became my premier trip partner after Kevin and Riley moved away in May 2019. Daniel has a long history of impressive backpacking trips in Grand Canyon, a ferocious appetite for adventure, and finds great satisfaction and peace in spending multiple, uninterrupted days in the backcountry. Another thing about Daniel that I found intriguing was his dedication to large, printed maps. The guys could hardly ever be seen eating a snack without a Grand Canyon map in his lap. I had always considered free, digital maps sufficient for navigation, but it wouldn't be long before spending quality map time with Daniel changed how I thought about trip planning.

As 2019 went on, I found myself also longing for another, longer backcountry voyage. I had just begun to notice a vague sense of dissatisfaction with activities punctuated by visits to civilization. I felt unhappy with how returning to a car between single-day outings broke up the experience. So, we planned a simple, basecamp-style trip to Clear Creek in the Grand Canyon over the Winter Solstice. This would be my first 5-day backcountry trip.

We planned to hike the 17 miles into Clear Creek camp in a single day, to maximize our time there. After a few hours of painful nighttime hiking, we succeeded. My pack "only" weighed 50 pounds this time, but once again I felt defeated. We slept in until 9:30, and barely mustered the energy to crawl a mile up canyon the next day. Gear was far from my only problem, we all carried hefty "secret snacks" into Clear Creek. I brought roughly 6 pomegranates, among other things. Fitness was of course a problem, too. How could I expect to carry that weight over that terrain if I had never done close to that before? I severely broken my foot in April, and wasn't able to hike a single mile until August. I had done some hiking that fall, but nothing serious.

Despite the challenges, our time at Clear Creek was amazing. After a long time away from extended backcountry trips, this solidified in my mind that I needed to spend uninterrupted time in these rugged, remote places. Also, Daniel and I spent a lot of time looking at the large Grand Canyon maps, and it began to sink in for the first time how massive the place truly was. By this point in my life, I had also begun to hear about lightweight backcountry travel and understand what's possible with proper gear and planning. 

I was ready to make some big changes in 2020.

The first step, was a goal. A big, scary goal, that felt like it had a high chance of not happening. I don't remember the exact date, but I believe it was in February of 2020 that I showed Daniel the documentary "Into the Grand Canyon" by Pete McBride. I had seen the film before, but that night something was different. Daniel had thought about hiking the length of the Canyon before, without even knowing that others had done it. "Could we do that?" We talked for an hour afterward. A week later, I texted saying that I hadn't stopped thinking about the idea. He hadn't either. Planning commenced.

Planning for long backcountry trips through complex landscapes was easier when I used digital and paper resources.

I only wanted light gear if it could still pack a punch, so I engaged in a few more secret-snack related activities as tests. Here, hauling 18 eggs to an alpine basin for Daniel's birthday.

I've always had a fascination with outdoor equipment, so I took planning a big trip as an invitation to rework my gear. Throughout spring (which was my final semester of grad school), I found some excellent deals on a few "graduation presents to myself": a down quilt, a trekking pole shelter, and a lightweight backpack. That quilt was excellent and gave me 200 warm nights before I sold it to Daniel. The shelter and backpack, well, they were the first in a bit of a journey. I knew that lightweight didn't have to mean compromises in performance, and could actually mean gains. But, it took me a bit to find the pieces that were right for me. Unrelated to the Grand Canyon thru-hike, but highly relevant to this essay, I also bought a packraft.

Already you've seen photos of summer 2020, which was my first opportunity to test out my new philosophy. I spent 3 months working and playing in the San Juan mountains, living out of my beloved Rav4, Douglas. But during this time, I prioritized backcountry experiences on the weekends, when friends sometimes would come to visit me. In a post, I described all the things I adore about the Rav4, then said "All that, and I've still never spent more than 4 nights per week in Douglas since June. He makes an excellent house, but he's not so good for travel. There's way too much to see on the weekends, and the best places can't be driven to". This accurately conveys how I've begun to feel about cars. They're excellent palaces, vital to my existence. But I like to get away from them in my free time.

Part of my success in living comfortably in a car was keeping a simple kitchen - I just used my Jetboil all summer. This gave me a lot of time to practice yet another critical skill: backcountry food. On work camping trips I kept a cooler for beer and other luxuries, but for meals I experimented with how to make my own delicious, nutritious, and backcountry-friendly. I was expending a lot of calories hiking every day, so I got to practice replenishing them.

The next logical step in the process was putting it all together. Work schedules aligned, and I spent 10 days practicing the ways of thru-hiking by walking the entire San Juan section of the Colorado Trail. Some minor hiccups occurred, but I came away from the experience feeling truly comfortable living in the backcountry. For the first time, I knew that I could exist indefinitely with only a minimal amount of gear in my backpack. I knew what I needed to eat, and how much it weighed. I knew how to stay dry, get clean, cover ground, navigate, keep my electronics charged, and manage group dynamics. It was empowering,

Before I went home to Arizona, one test piece remained. What could I squeeze into a short overnight mission with my improved knowledge and fitness? After the Colorado Trail I had the next weekend as only a 2-day, so I solo backpacked an ambitious route in the Weminuche Wilderness. I made a lollipop loop out of climbing Turret Peak via Ruby Basin. This trip was 30 miles and 8000ft of elevation gain, with a significant off-trail component. I was able to complete the loop in 30 hours, which I expected. But, I returned to Douglas feeling not nearly as exhausted or beaten up as I had expected I would. This was truly exhilarating. I have no photos from the trip, but not for lack of time or camera. I just accidentally took only videos.

After the Colorado Trail, I didn't do any more extended backpacking trips in 2020. That was totally okay. Work schedules got unfortunate, and after spending a bit of time alone in the summer I was ready to be near home with people I love.

2020, for me, was certainly a time of change. But I feel privileged to say that it was a time of really positive change: big ideas, new philosophies, solidified relationships, and a deeper understanding of my identity. But most of the big ideas were yet to be implemented...

2021 will forever be solidified in my memory as my first year spending a truly massive amount of time in backcountry settings. To go into detail about the specific trips would be outside the scope of this piece, but I'll summarize some of the highlights here. I became a full-time, professional backpacking guide, but outside of work my passion for wilderness felt no limits. I spent 100 days inside Grand Canyon, and 35 of those were on personal trips. I spent a completely separate 30 days on packrafting trips, mostly in remote, wild river landscapes. I guided backpacking trips in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem for 50 days of my summer,

I am proud of these numbers, sure. But what do they say about me? For me, this is proof that I have learned how to be make  backcountry trips possible, enjoyable, and sustainable. It's also proof that I am authentically passionate about spending time moving through wild landscapes, away from civilization. I feel at home in the backcountry.

As much as I'd like to end it there, this piece wouldn't be complete without a nod to the trip that made me really ponder it all. We've just finished one of my first backcountry trips of 2022: a revisit to the Confluence. With smarter trip planning, we made that destination into an excellent out-and-back packrafting trip. Both Joelle and I had starting pack weights of less than 40 pounds - quite heavy for a 3 day trip! But for carrying a multi-day whitewater packrafting setup, that's pretty light, and the thing that made it okay was that we both handled the weight like champs!