When I was 12, I was published in Chicken Soup for the Girl’s Soul with a story called “Do Girls Belong?” It was all about how, as the only female in the local Scouts Canada troop, I couldn’t pee in the woods. Somehow, over the last 20 years of camping and adventures, I’d still never needed to correct this statement.
Let me tell ya — I can now pee in the woods without any hesitation.
Every year for the last five years, I’ve spent three weekends camping just outside race car tracks over the midwest, as I follow the IndyCar series in the U.S. to the races nearest my hometown of Windsor, Ont. — Indianapolis, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin. But this year, of course, I could not. Not only was the Canada-U.S. border closed to non-essential travel, but IndyCar races were run without fans in the stands, for the safety of everyone as the COVID-19 pandemic ran on.
Faced with uncommonly open weekends and an urge to do something — anything — outside of my living room/home office, I jumped at a passing suggestion from my cousin: “We should try a multi-day hiking trip.”
The short comment turned into a nine-year plan to hike Ontario’s Bruce Trail before we both turned 40. We figured this 900-kilometre feat would take a few weekends each year … despite having very little hiking experience, and zero multi-day hiking experience.
How hard could it be?
We quickly filled Amazon carts and Canadian Tire baskets with lightweight tents and sleeping bags, purchased hammocks (for which I’m now getting a ton of targeted ads) and Merino wool socks. My first COVID-19 foray into a non-grocery store was to get a pair of hiking boots, which are now the most expensive shoes I own. Enamored with the new gear and the idea of hiking for days through the woods, we were eager to get on the trail.
Amongst all the purchasing was a whole lot of planning. We watched YouTube video after YouTube video on how to pack your backpack, what to bring, what to wear, where to stay and how to eat on the trail. I joined four Bruce Trail Facebook groups, purchased digital and print versions of maps, downloaded an app (yep, there’s an app for that), and booked a Friday off work.
In hindsight, I should have booked the Monday off too, because I was exhausted that work day!
After too many kilometres and bug bites to count, I’ve been solidly bitten by the multi-day hike bug. If you’ve been thinking about backpacking before the warm weather runs out, here’s what I learned in my adventures.
What to put in the backpack
The short answer here is don’t put as much in your backpack as I did. I overpacked on water, spare clothes, toiletries and snacks. I didn’t need a raincoat AND a hoodie and I didn’t need three different squeeze bottles of peanut butter, plus four different kinds of trail mix (although they were all delicious). I would have liked to have something like gum or Skittles to cure my sweet tooth, but I didn’t go hungry by any means.
It was difficult to find information on where to refill water on the south end of the Bruce Trail, so I carried about eight litres of water on my person both hiking days. When one litre of water weighs about one kilogram, that’s a lot of stress on your shoulders. It turns out that not only does the Niagara end of the Bruce Trail follow a lot of waterways; it weaves through small towns and homeowners are only too happy to let you fill up your water container from the garden hose outside.
I insisted on bringing deodorant, which I probably could have done without (you end up smelly, regardless, after so much hiking — just embrace it!) but I was very glad for my travel-sized bottles of sunscreen and bug spray. I also brought three pairs of socks and definitely could have cut one out. But I wish I’d had a second neck scarf to trade in for the second day — the first one was pretty gnarly by then!
What to eat
Snacks are all well and good, but proper food is a challenge on the trail. We weren’t “true” backpackers in the sense that we hiked during the day and then drove to a nearby campground to sleep before hitting the trail again the next day. Regardless, we planned to eat backpacking food in anticipation of our future backpacking adventures. This included a freeze-dried Pad Thai (moderately delicious, very spicy, a little mushy), and ramen noodles.
We may have caved after Day 1 of hiking and ordered a pizza to the campground instead of eating the ramen. Shhhh …
Our snacks focused on healthy high-protein snacks like peanut butter and nutty trail mix. I have a pistachio allergy, so my cousin made a special trail mix to ensure no anaphylactic reactions would take place on the trail. We also had cricket bars, squeeze applesauces and granola bars. These are all great options, but don’t forget to take snacks you know you like! We bought high-end granola bars designed for physical activity, but I would have been perfectly happy with any classic lunchbox snack.
How hard is it, really?
I went into a three-day hiking trip expecting to easily cover the planned 50 kilometres. We made it through about 40 kilometres before calling it quits, thanks to a couple of old knee injuries and just pure exhaustion. Coming from not hiking at all to attempting multiple (long) days of hiking in a row was probably a bad idea — of course I hiked and camped back in my Scouting days, but that was longer ago than I’d like to admit. Now that I’m home I’ve focused on walking three to five kilometres every day to help build up my strength and endurance for the next trip — plus that now that peeing in the woods is an easy option, I can hike anywhere.
But next time, I’ll plan to go slower and cover less ground so I can literally smell the flowers, take more pictures, chat with my hiking companions and dip my toes in all the streams we pass.