Trail Yum

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We are just a couple of days back from our first overnight backpacking trip, so it’s a good time to review the foods and drinks we consumed. Before we start, let me share some important background information: I love cooking and baking, I love a great meal shared with friends, I prefer healthy/organic ingredients. I have car camped since I was a toddler (usually for 3 weeks each summer). My parents would always make great, healthy meals, with fresh local ingredients, on their camping stove, that’s how I roll…What is shared here, is the food we ate during our overnight trip in the Shenandoah’s. We didn’t hike a long distance or with a huge elevation, it was around the 40-ies during the day (low 30-ies at night), with snow in the forecast.

There are many blogs and vlogs about food and cooking while backpacking, but each of them contains a little gem. For example, the video from Wondering Dot, she showed her preferred thru-hiking foods and even though this video was several years old, I got a few great tips from her (especially on small package condiments to enhance flavors).

Each hike filmed by David Gray, he always eats his favorite appetizer, a cheddar cheese spread. I brought it on this trip. I’ll describe it later in this post.

From Jason at Outdoors Adventures, I learned a more organized approach where you pack one day of food in one bag. Since we were just doing a two-day hike, I had all my food in one bag, for more days I can see it’s handy to split it up. This also helps prevent overeating, you don’t want to run out of food! Jason also pointed out to look at the calories per portion. Again, we were not doing high mileage days, but it can become important to keep an eye on this. There needs to be a nice balance between weight, calory density, and of course taste!

It is a little bit of a challenge to find healthy and organic food for backpacking. There are a few organic brands like Mary Jane’s Farm and Backpackers Pantry. This can become expensive, so either I’ll start putting together my own meals and perhaps dehydrate food myself, or I eat a little less healthy while backpacking. I think I’ve found a nice balance between these options. Below is what we consumed during this trip with our 9 and 13-year-old daughters. One vegetarian and a gluten-sensitive included.

Breakfast

I liked Trader Joe’s oatmeal, I added some Butter Buds and Bonne Maman honey. The Bonne Maman packages come in a mixed package with honey, strawberry jam, orange marmalade, and raspberry jam. breakfasttaco_plainThe Tex-Mex breakfast taco from PackitGourmet was good (no meat in it, but instead a few veggies, a good option for vegetarians), however, you need to heat this in a pan, which makes it a messy clean up. We rolled it in our soft tacos from Trader Joe’s. The Mountain House Scrambled Eggs with Bacon were tasty, no clean up as you make it in the bag, just make sure to drain the water out well otherwise it may be a little soupy. Next time I’ll add some olive oil to improve the mixture. They do sell a version without bacon, you could add some veggies to it and flavoring to make it more interesting.

Lunch

We took our time to make lunch on the trail. Our daughters enjoyed finding a good spot with a level area for our stoves, it provided them something to look forward to while hiking (walking is sooooo boring!) LOL. We made instant miso soup from Trader Joe’s, Knorr Cheddar Broccoli Rice (cook for 7 minutes) and tacos with tuna. Great tip from my friend Tessa (the AT thru-hiker): get the flavored tuna, as the regular tuna tastes pretty bland. We added mayonnaise or spicy mustard to the tuna and wrapped it in a taco et voila! We ended our meal with a hot drink of choice.

Appetizers

cheddar_jackAs some meals need time to re-hydrate or boil, it’s great to have some quick appetizers ready while you’re waiting for the main course. We tried the cheese spread from PackitGourmet (I brought Trader Joe’s rice crackers), but maybe due to the low temperatures (40-ies) it didn’t come out as well as I thought. The cheese didn’t become spreadable, it stayed loose and chunky. I’d suggest using lukewarm water when you’re camping in colder temperatures and I also like the idea of adding mayonnaise, or perhaps a small package of cream cheese, to make it more of a spread. Adding some hot sauce is not a bad idea either! It is a high-quality product but needs some (seasonal) tweaking. chorizo_bean_dipFrom the same company we had the Chorizo bean dip, that you make by adding hot water. This was a winner, we all loved it! Just one tiny negative, it comes in a tall bag, even reaching in the bag with our long sporks created messy hands, so we decided to squeeze it out of the bag into a bowl.

 

Dinner

Dinner time is certainly a highlight of the day. Once we set up our camp and ate some appetizers, it was time for a hearty main course. My daughter’s favorite meal is the MountainHouse beef stroganoff. Actually, we all like it a lot! I made Trader Joe’s mashed potatoes, added olive oil and butter buds, and we enjoyed a nice warm, filling meal. My friend made a MountainHouse Beef Stew, but this needed more time to “cook” (re-hydrate with hot water), some pieces were still a little hard, but tasty nonetheless! Tip: use an insulated bag to keep your “cooking” foods warm! The warm mulled wine (gluhwein from Trader Joe’s) was a nice touch to this dinner.

Snacks

We all had some sort of bar in our pack buckle pocket during the day. Trader Joe’s has nice fruit bars, the Nature Valley crispy nutbars are nutty, sweet, and salty. Lärabars are great too (Apple pie is my favorite). I’m not a big fan of large bags with trail mixes and nuts, it can be heavy, bulky and if you don’t put them in small portions, you can easily overeat it. I’ve tried making nut and fruit bars myself and I’ll make them for our next trip. The dried baby bananas and chocolate covered berries from Trader Joe’s are great and I will bring some next time.

Drinks

Water, water, and more water, we all carried at least 2 Liters. Depending on the weather you adjust your drinks, just like your foods. Water can get a little boring, so I got some Macha tea, flavored packages that you just add to your water bottle, not cheap, but good stuff. There are cheaper flavor packages available or you can make your own with dehydrated fruit powders, sugar, and a tiny salt. I loved my Trader Joe’s instant coffee, I had Starbucks as well, but I’m not a big fan of the Starbucks coffee flavor, I think it’s bitter and acidic (besides very expensive!). Not a bad product, just not my taste. The Starbucks cinnamon hot chocolate is very nice, just needs milk powder or a creamer to make it a little better. I think I got it on sale at Big Lots, a great place to check for food deals! Hot chocolate with marshmallows from Trader Joe’s was our daughter’s favorite drink. I brought tea as well. Adding a teabag to your water bottle providers a nice flavor. We also brought the mulled wine and a flask Captain Morgan rum (after dinner treat).

Would you consider us gourmet ladies? We think that great food and beverages make hiking so much more enjoyable! What do you think?

Next: I’ll talk a bit more about kitchen “appliances” (stove), pots and pans, cups, plates, etc. Check my YouTube channel MountainMuse, as I’ll be posting the next video covering these foods soon.

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Hiking Gear Q&A

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During our recent gear check, the room was filled with packs, sleeping bags in different temperature ranges, water filters, clothes, and much more. We reviewed the trail and terrain, including water sources. We checked the weather to see if we need to bring extra warm or just warm items. Below are some questions on my packing list. As a

Below are some questions about my packing list. As a beginner, I still have a lot of questions myself! Watching subject matter experts on Youtube has been very helpful and entertaining. It helped me with selecting my gear, but also basic stuff like selecting the right campsite, making knots, trail cooking, compass usage, knives reviews, and DYI gear. I love watching bushcraft and survival videos and learn so much from others.

Why do you bring all these fire starters?

For multiple reasons: I think you should always have a backup or two, and besides that we want to learn more about working with different types of tinder, kindling, and fuel wood, teaching our daughters along the way.

What is the purpose of sheep wool?

This was a tip from thru-hiker friend Airlock; she said it was the best emergency item someone gave to her. During a recent hike, I gave it to my friend who had a toe rubbing issue and she was amazed how well a small piece of wool resolved the issue! I use it because I need a little extra cushioning under my forefoot.

Do you have examples of the flavorings/condiments you mentioned?

See the image below here; I’ll dedicate a post to backpacking and food soon. I love cooking and creating a great meal while hiking can be a challenge for a lot of people. Having a few extra spices, herbs, and condiments can do wonders for an average meal.

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I don’t see deodorant or other toiletries on your list?

Great question. I’ll never forget a fellow hiker during my week long trip in the Alps; he made fun (sort of complained) about the fact that I smelled too good compared to everybody else in our group. Honestly, I don’t remember if I brought deodorant on that trip, or maybe I just didn’t stink as much in general. I’ve heard several thru-hikers complaining about meeting day hikers smelling like a perfume store, too strong for the natural environment I guess. I will bring a small amount of deodorant, and I am very pleased with the one I found recently, called Primal Pit Paste, it’s a crème I can bring in tiny travel size container. This stuff works! I put it on on a Friday and hiked that weekend for two days in a row, by Monday morning I still didn’t smell. It’s a totally natural product, highly recommend it. The proof is in the pudding, or I should say: Pit Paste. I don’t bring anything else, not even a brush (maybe I can use pine cone for that? I recently I watched a backpacking video of two girls, at the trailhead, one girl looked like she just returned from the hair salon and after the first night, she emerged from her tent wearing make-up! I really don’t get that, you’re in nature so go natural for Pete’s sake! But, I’m glad they’re hiking, HYOH as they say (Hike Your Own Hike).

Which elevation app do you use?

I got Altimeter for my Windows phone. I will provide an update after some testing. I like to know my elevation gain and my total ascent/descent, in some cases, it might explain certain symptoms connected to a certain altitude.

What kind of drinks to you bring?

I will include that in more detail in the food and beverages post. I often get tired of drinking plain water, so I bring some flavoring packets. When it’s cold, I love to have a little rum in my hot cocoa or a glass of mulled wine.

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Why do you have multiple light sources?

Two words: safety and backup. The tea light is actually for providing heat inside our tent; it increases the temp by several degrees! I’ll probably not bring the flashlight because I have a pretty good headlamp.

Are you bringing all this stuff?

No! This is my comprehensive packing list, I review as I pack and when we return from a trip I’ll review again and probably leave more items out next time. Many items on my list are very small and very light, or one item fits inside the other item. For the cold season, I expect my pack to be a little heavier. I try to keep my base weight (without water and food) around 16 lbs.

I just started my new channel MountainMuse. Making videos is fun, but as a beginner, it is quite a challenge and very time-consuming, I hope you will enjoy learning with me🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The List (Checking it Twice)

As promised, I’m sharing my backpacking list with you. Depending on the season and the length of the hike, some items become more, or less important to bring. This coming weekend our hiking team (3 ladies+2 young ladies) will have a prep meeting to check our gear prior to our overnight next week. I’ll be updating this post the coming days and I’ll add some links and images, in case you’re interested in more information about certain items. Feel free to drop a note or ask a question!

  1. Navigation

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    5 herbs and spices to make camp food tasty.

  • Map (in plastic bag)
  • Compass
  • Optional: Altimeter app on phone or watch
  1. Sun protection
  • Sunscreen
  • Lip balm
  • Sunglasses (still not 100% sure about wearing them)
  • Sun hat (summer only)
  1. Insulation/clothing (adjusted for the season)

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    Emergency (tool) kit. Still need to add the fish hook and some line. Did you know that tampons have many great purposes? It’s a great fire starter for example.

  • Puffy Jacket
  • Rain jacket
  • Warm beanie, neck warmer (winter buff), summer buff
  • Hiking pants (zippable warm weather hiking pants, lined cold weather pants)
  • Hiking shirt long or short sleeve
  • Sleeping set: Long base layer leggings, long sleeve shirt, warm socks
  • Fleece sweater
  • Gloves/mittens
  • 2 pairs of hiking socks
  • 2 pairs of underwear
  • bra
  • Small scarf (multi-purpose)
  1. Illumination
  1. First-aid supplies – emergency
  • First-aid kit: painkiller, anti-diarrhea, band-aids, antibiotic cream, wound cleaner, sting ease, tweezers, floss/thread, 2nd skin, sheep wool, tape
  • Mirror
  • Backup water treatment (for longer hikes)
  • Whistle
  • Pepper spray
  • Fish hook + line
  • Mylar blanket
  1. Fire

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    My fire starter kit. Still need to add the cotton balls. Also included an Esbit fuel tablet.

  • Waterproof matches, Ferro rod, and several lighters
  • Multiple fire starters including, magnesium shavings, steelwool, fatwood, dryer lint, and vaseline cotton balls.
  1. Repair kit and tools
  • Knife
  • Mattress repair (included with my pad’s stuff sack)
  • Duct tape (on both my hiking poles)
  • Sewing kit with needle
  • Cord
  1. Nutrition – camp kitchen
  • Food (3 main meals + quick appetizers) + extra day supply of food
  • Snacks (bars, dried fruits, nuts, chocolate) + tea-coffee
  • Small herbs and spices bags to pimp up meals (Incl. multiple tiny package flavorings, like hot sauce, olive oil, jam, honey, etc.
  • Energy beverages or drink mixes
  • Stove + gas canister (+ base) + windscreen + spork + pan + pasta pot + insulation bag to keep food warm
  • Cups for (warm) drinks
  • Bear bag from Z-packs, extra odor shield bags for other items with a scent
  • Trash bag (rain cover and overnight cover)
  • Dish soap (biodegradable) + pot scrubber (piece of a citrus bag)
  1. Hydration

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    Cleaning kit, containing hand sanitizer, a tiny bottle body soap, and one with biodegradable dish soap. The white “tablets” are biodegradable towels.

  • Water bottles: small front pocket bottle, large, clean bottle and large dirty water bottle, small “night-cap” flask, wide-mouth (soft) Nalgene (for No. 1 during the night)
  • Water filter
  1. Shelter
  • Tent, stakes, guylines, footprint
  • Reflective emergency blanket
  • Tarp + cordage
  1. Sleeping
  1. Other
  • Backpack and plastic liner
  • Dry sack for clothes
  • Trekking poles (bring baskets if needed)
  • Hiking Boots
  • Gaiters
  • Camp shoes
  • Hand warmers
  • Insect repellant + head net for mosquitos (certain areas)
  • Toilet paper + sanitation trowel
  • Hand sanitizer + tablet towels
  • Toiletry kit: toothbrush and paste, multipurpose cream, soap, hair band
  • Notebook and pen or pencil
  • Permits
  • Camera + batteries + extra sd card + small tripod
  • Cell phone + fully charged power bank
  • Orange reflective vest or rain poncho for hunting (season) areas

 

First Overnight

Camping and hiking have been a long time tradition in my family. I recently found some cute old black and white photographs from my dad and his brother, who biked all the way to Germany from the Western part of the Netherlands. They carried a canvas tent and lots of canned foods, super heavy!

My parents took us camping while we were still in diapers. I’m grateful for so many wonderful camping trips, even when the weather was bad, for example, I remember one time in France when the whole family had to hang on to the tent poles to prevent the tent from flying away, we still had fun.

My mom always cooked great camp food and served it on a table with a table cloth and some wild flowers in a vase (empty bottle). Getting the bouquet together was one of the first campsite chores after setting up the tent.

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Camping at the lavender farm in the Provence

 

Many years later during my late teens, we were hiking bits and pieces of the Grande Randonnée, a huge network of trails through Europe. We would hike from village to village; I think this is the European way of hiking long distances?map_of_the_european_long_distance_paths

Just once did I hike in the wilderness of the Alps for a week, with a fully loaded pack (way too heavy!). My current pack is coming along nicely, the base weight (without food and water) is just under 16 lbs, I learned an important lesson: less is more fun!

Eating well and healthily is important to me. Backpacking food, though, is another story. It needs to be light, yet filling, have enough calories and be easy to prepare. I’ve finally accepted I’ll probably have to make a few “unhealthy” exceptions. Luckily there are many good and tasty options such as the Mountainhouse brand, my daughter’s favorite is their Beef Stroganoff with noodles.

Mary Janes Farm and Backpackers Pantry are two brands that have great organic options. Hiker David Gray never hits the trail without his freeze dried cheddar cheese spread. I watched him video after video eating this wonderful looking treat as an appetizer after setting up camp. I just bought my first package; I’ll let you know the verdict.

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Hiking in the Belgium Ardennes

 

WonderingDot made a great video showing her favorite trail foods; I learned a lot from her. I’ve gathered a nice stash of foods, which include the small packets with olive oil, Butter Buds, cheese powder, jam, honey, and peanut butter. The Artisana brand has some great nut butters.

If the weather permits, we’ll have our first overnight hike during the long Thanksgiving weekend. Bears are hopefully hiding in their dens (the Shenandoah has a huge population of black bears). Hunting season starts November 19th in the George Washington National Forest, so we’ll bring some bright orange items to decorate ourselves and our packs and be more visible.

Watching David’s hikes on YouTube, I decided to get a few more “luxury” items. I got a small, lightweight tarp and lightweight cord that provides a dry seating area when it’s raining. I also got a pillow; I just need a good night sleep! Since our sleeping bags are 32 degrees bags, I got fleece liners to add about 15 degrees; we’ll see how that goes!

I’ve decided to make videos of our hikes, so I outfitted my tiny camera with a tiny mustache (also called a wind muff) to avoid noise from wind and streams. I realize there are already thousands of backpacking videos on Youtube, but I think my family and friends in the Netherlands might enjoy watching our adventures in the US wilderness. While filming, I hope to share a few things I learn along the trail, such as edible plants, bush crafts, fire making, etc.

What I’ve learned from fellow hikers so far:

  • You bring what suits your comfort level. The more often you go backpacking, the more confidence you gain, which often means you can bring less stuff.
  • Adjust your gear for the distance and terrain. When I started talking to my friend Airlock who thru-hiked the AT, I realized I don’t need to go ultra-light because I’m only hiking for a short period and short distances.
  • Less weight makes it possible to enjoy my hike much more and more importantly (as I’m 51) it may avoid injuries. I saw people bringing glass jars with food, or cans. Some hikers keep items in original (heavy!) packages, which could be replaced with much lighter (plastic) bags. Yes, titanium might not be the best heat conductor and therefore use more gas (going to test that!), but the question is: is it worth to bring a heavy steel pan on a multi-day hike?
  • Bring a few luxury items and treats. You deserve it after enduring so much😉 I’m sure some may laugh at my pillow, but it’s not too heavy and bulky and will ensure a good night sleep. Chocolate and perhaps cheese are my treats, not sure, also depends on the weather.
  • Keep an eye on your budget! There might be things in your closet that you can use, check your closet before running off to REI. I was able to score some great items at the thrift stores for example; Smartwool tops and base layers, camp shoes, gloves, and hats) and I got an almost brand new Marmot rain jacket for $20 on Ebay!
  • As a female hiker, hiking with other females, I feel we girls need to be aware of our safety. Overall I’ve heard mostly positive stories, but better be safe than sorry is still the golden rule. We bring pepper spray as our area (Northern Virginia) has a VERY healthy black bear population, it could also come in handy when “human” bears are getting too close for comfort. We’ll bring a good first aid kit and other extra (repair) materials, so if one thing fails we have several other options available, this includes multiple lighters, emergency blanket, different fire making options (including steel and flint), and for longer trips I’m going to use this new app called a Hiker Alert, at only $5 a year, it’s worth a try.
  • Check weather and other local circumstances, like fire hazards, water sources (draught!) or hunting season.

As I’ve completed the process of getting all my gear (see gear list in my next post), I can now start planning several trips. If we have nice December weather (I only have 3-season gear!), we can do another overnight during the Christmas break. During spring break I plan on a three-night hike at Dolly Sods in West Virginia, a beautiful high plateau. After our first overnight, we’ll review our gear and perhaps share a few updates. One thing is for sure; car camping has taken a back seat, for now, backpacking is such an exciting adventure!

See you at the trail head,

Monique

 

 

 

The next project

Several days before our departure, as I was finishing my checklist for our trip to Thailand, my daughter asked me: “So mom, what is the next thing you’re going to obsess about?” I told her she should not worry, and that something new would pop up, and so it did…

I’ve always enjoyed hiking and even did a week long hike with our photography class in the Alps, back in 1986, weeks after the Chernobyl disaster had spread its fumes all over Europe. We were advised to be very careful with our water sources and that it was possible that snow could be somewhat radioactive…not a great start of our trip.

We had to plow through the snow at times, with a backpack that was way too heavy (if I remember well it was over 50 lbs). A mistake I would not repeat this time, as we are preparing for a section hike on the “AT” (Appalachian Trail, 2,184 miles – 3,515 km). The three main long-distance trails in the US usually go by their abbreviations, PCT (Pacific Crest Trail, 2,654 miles – 4,270 km), and the CDT (Continental Divide Trail, 3,100 miles – 5,000 km). Finishing all three of them will get you the Triple Crown designation.

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Testing our stoves and trail foods.

Several of my camping friends had talked about doing overnight hikes, and as we talked more, we all got inspired and started doing research and trying to find the right gear. So, there it is my new obsession, my new project.

A great source of inspiration is my friend “Airlock” (her trail name, you can read her trail journal here), who had finished the AT in 2015. She started in March and arrived at Mount Katahdin Summit September 19. Her journey included several “zero days” a term hikers use for a rest day, when you either stay at a shelter, in town or with friends.

Of course, reading “Wild” contributed some hiking inspiration as well. Some call me adventurous, but hiking alone doesn’t appeal to me. That first time in the Alps was with about ten people, and I had a great time. I feel more comfortable, just in case something happens, and you can help each other through tough moments and share gear and food. As we were talking about the gear we want and needed, I suggested consulting my friend the thru-hiker (someone who walks the entire distance in one trip, usually several months). The day before her visit I went to the REI garage sale. I was very late (10 am), but after following people who had scored carts full of equipment, that they were reviewing, one great backpack (Deuter 45L+10L) got eliminated, and I grabbed it like my life depended on it (which could be true).

They added 28 lbs in the pack and adjusted the torso height, and both (cute) REI guys said it was made for me. I then asked for a little more discount as there were two small stains on it—in the Netherlands, we say: “No you have, and yes you can get”—I got yes and walked out of the store with a $190 backpack for $60! It is the Deuter Act 45+10L backpack, I tested it during a 2-day hike recently and I am very pleased with it.

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My new pack and poles. Yes, these are very purple hiking pants, but they were on sale. Afraid my trail name will be Plum.

The most important thing I learned from my first multi-day hike was to limit weight, and by getting a large backpack for example 65L you’ll keep loading it and adding weight that will possibly make your hike a nightmare. A “petite” woman (she told me she was from the Philipines) said she tried my pack (the 45+10L), but wanted a 65L so she can bring everything she wants. I tried to discourage her, her pack was almost as tall as she was! Oh well, I tried…

I wanted to wait with the other gear, and first get input from my friend Airlock, she hiked for more than five months, and I was eager to pick her brain. My friends had already bought a lot more (they also went to the garage sale). So we were able to discuss the pros and cons of their gear and what Airlock had used. We also reviewed (female) hygiene and safety (of course!).

Airlock saw 6 bears during these 2184 miles, and I believe 4 of them were in my home state, Virgina! They never bothered her or her campsite, even though she only slept in the trail shelters on a few occasions and pitched her tent just off the trail most of the time. Bears and snakes scare me, but ticks are actually the most dangerous!

I asked my friend what are “musts” to have and what you should definitely not bring. The “big 3” take the most weight and the most out of your wallet; the sleeping system (pad and sleeping bag), the tent, and the backpack. Since I’m not thru-hiking I can work with a slighty cheaper and heavier gear set. My friend’s pack was about 23 lbs on average, which is pretty light, considering that your food usually weighs around 2 lbs per day. I reviewed many blogs, hiking journals, books, youtube videos,  and documentaries, including several from the “ultra-light” hiker league, to further investigate the lightest, affordable gear.

There’s an even lighter league, the minimalist, their total packweight is no more than 12 pounds. For the ultralight that is about 20 pounds, and “lightweight” is up to 30 pounds (the max I’ve set for myself). I’m officially an ounce counter now. For exampe, my goal for my sleeping system (pad and bag) combined weight was around three  pounds (48 ounces) or less. My pad is 19.6 oz and my  down sleeping bag is less than 1.9 lbs, making it a total of 50 ounces, not bad.

It can get lighter than that, but then you’re looking at a $140 pad and $500 sleeping bag! The elimination and weigth game is fun, especially when its also cheap! Of course I’ll only find out during my hiking if it was indeed the right choice. I found this $25 “scout” tent that’s less than 4 lbs, even if it doesn’t work, it won’t break the bank, I’m just not ready for spending $500 on a shelter.

Every ounce counts! Food is around 1.5 to 2 lbs per day. Usually you pack for an extra day just in case. After 3 or 4 days you replenish at the store (along these trails is it not hard to find food stores or any other store, like gas stations. What you eat, when and how much is a very personal choice. It also depends on how hard (terrain) and long the hiking is. I’m thinking of a 2 or 3 week trip, so I need to plan my replenish locations.

First, we’ll do a one night, 2-day hike to test more gear, and also get our children adjusted to full-day hiking and become familiar with using their gear. No, I’m not obsessed, this is just my enthusiasm. When my friend Airlock explained why she loved her trip, she said: “It’s a project, and I love managing projects”. I love my new project…

Ok, let’s see what I have purchased so far.:

I’ll provide more updates on the hiking project soon, stay tuned!

The Beach (we’re back)

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Haad Chao Phao, Koh Pha Ngan

We just got back from our month long trip to “Amazing” Thailand, the one-word marketing slogan that has been used for decades to describe this truly amazing country. For me it was my 4th visit, the first one was in 1991, followed by 1995 and 1996, before this 2016 trip. A lot has changed since then, much stayed the same.

Now and Then

The Beach is the title of the 2000 adventure drama film directed by Danny Boyle and based on the 1996 novel of the same name by Alex Garland. Even though it’s set on and near the island of Koh Pha Ngan (see picture above), the movie was actually filmed at Koh Phi Phi.

After the movie, The Beach came out there was a significant influx of “regular” tourists, in addition to the backpackers that had discovered this jewel of the East several decades ago. Especially on my favorite island Koh Pha Ngan (125 km2 – 48 sq mi) a lot has changed since then. More fancy resorts, with AC and infinity pools, more paved roads, a larger pier supporting larger and more ferries, and MUCH MORE tourists.

This island is famous for its Full Moon party every month at Haad Rin beach. According to Wikipedia: “The first Full Moon Party was improvised at Paradise Bungalows on the beach in 1985, for giving thanks to about 20–30 travelers. The parties gained fame through word of mouth, and the event now draws a crowd of about 5,000–30,000 every full moon evening.”

During my first visit in 1991, I didn’t go to this party at Haad Rin. Instead, we created our own Full Moon party at our own resort, including (not surprisingly) plenty of readily available mind-altering substances. Haad Rin was a quiet beach, some scattered resorts and restaurants with wooden bungalows with a dirt road in the middle of this narrow peninsula beach.

Today it’s a small city, with an unusual amount of shops and firms catering to a Hebrew speaking crowd. It has quite a few run down, dingy areas, the beach is anything from quiet, with the constant coming and going of jet skis and boats. The monthly visit of tens-of-thousands of partying people has left its marks, or rather has scarred this remarkable beach with fantastic views of the deep blue water.

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The changes became apparent as soon as we arrived on the island, people were now hauling huge suitcases and were picked up by fancy resort vans, resorts they probably wouldn’t leave until their departure. The changes started back in Bangkok, the night before our bus-boat trip to the island.

I woke up at around 2 am because of a group of hotel guests who were partying in the hallway and being obnoxiously loud. After a few minutes, I decided to see them and ask to have mercy with me, as I had to catch the 6 am bus. I witnessed a group of 6 or 8 girls, dressed and make-upped for a nightclub visit, acting like brats in a dorm. I reminded them this was not a fraternity house, but a hotel with guests. They had a little mercy, and I was able to fall back asleep.

To my surprise, as we were waiting in line to check-in with the bus company the next morning, these same girls (still in nightclub gear!) arrived at the bus stop together with their large flashy suitcases. One girl had a problem with one of the other girls and was on a full rant (in Irish I believe), so loud and long, that everybody present was rolling their eyes in disbelief.

I was afraid they would be on my bus, and of course, they were! Luckily they were in the far back, and we were in the front seats. I knew they would probably fall asleep fast as they were up until the wee hours, and indeed, within an hour they were fast asleep. Adding a boat trip to this scenario (never sit on the top deck in the wind and sun unless you enjoy torture) and their cute looks turned into a disaster look, with runny makeup and knotty hairdos. I didn’t see them on our island, but I’m sure they partied at the Full Moon party, covered in fluorescent paint, drinking booze from buckets…

Pros and Cons

Every country and culture have pros and cons. I also realize that my four weeks of exploration can’t possibly render me with a complete picture. But visiting four times means I now have about four months of experience. I’m not a regular tourist, the one that has everything arranged, including tours and transfers, the one that dresses to the T, the one that doesn’t leave their resort, the one that prefers to eat food that resembles mostly what they eat home, the one that gets upset at the sight of a Gekko or Tjik Tjak on their ceiling, the one that sunbathes on a tanning bed near the pool (too much sand on the beach, and sea cucumbers in the water!).

My daughter and I immediately explore our “hood” and find cute places, fun stores, and sweet locals. Like Nikki, who just opened her nail and tattoo salon (her polish lasted over a month!) Like Gof, who was our guide during our island tour.

During my first visit back in 1991, we rented a motorcycle and crashed on a jungle road, followed by a short hospital visit. Even though the roads have been improved, I’m not used to driving a motorcycle, let alone on the left side of the road, together with other horrible driving tourists. I tried biking, but it’s too hilly and too hot for that. So we rely on taxis for transport, and this is why I signed up for a half-day island tour, to show my daughter a little more.

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This tour included a visit to Mae Haad, a great beach for snorkeling, zip lining through the jungle, a lunch, bow and arrow shooting, a visit with the elephants (I refuse to ride them, I just think they need to be protected not exploited), and a visit to a Chinese-Buddhist temple. The whole trip was great (the lunch was exquisite!) and Gof was a great guide, especially at the temple he provided a lot of background information. Thumbs up for Safari Boat (I wish we’d used them for our boat trip as well!).

OK, back to pros and cons. For me, the pros obviously outweigh the cons. The most annoying con is probably other tourists (just kidding a little) LOL. Although I’ve encountered quite a few very, let us say “interesting” tourists. Like this lady from Europe, who was also traveling with her daughter. They were just a few years younger than us, and the lady had, like me, also traveled to the island several times, during the early 90s. We had a lot in common and a nice connection, so when she rented a car, she invited us on a trip into town. There’s only one town on the island; this is where the ferries dock and most of the (larger) shops and banks are.WP_20160722_16_57_06_Pro (2)

She confessed that she had never visited this town, other than getting a taxi to her favorite resort (she stayed at this same resort each visit). I couldn’t believe it, as it was a great place to visit, getting a break from the beach, exploring great restaurants and cute shops. My daughter and I had already explored the town several times and were able to guide them around. In the evening I provided directions back to our bay, and she said she didn’t know the name of our beach or bay…what? As we drove through a tiny village, 10 minutes walking from our resorts (she stayed at a neighboring resort) she and her daughter discovered there were stores and restaurants right behind their resort, along the road to town.

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I was flabberghasted, you don’t know where you are and you apparently never left your resort? I guess there are tourists like that, flying in and out the country, staying at their resort and then go home. Not my cup of tea.

Other tourists were loudly complaining about the fact they had to wait, or things were not the way they thought it should be. Then there were the ones who had no clue about the Thai culture and traditions. They would step over ten pairs of slippers in front of a store or restaurant and walk inside with their shoes on.

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Ok, enough of this! Yes, some things can be challenging, like bargaining with the Thai and make sure you’re paying a fair price, but that is the case in many other tourist destinations, often locals depend on this seasonal income and try to bump up the prices (like my $20 for a 5 minute taxi drive in Italy for example).

Yes, there are bugs in tropical places and often MUCH bigger than you’ve ever seen. You can also eat them; you like your cricket deep fried? No problem. You must avoid too many mosquito bites, as they carry diseases like Malaria and Dengue Fever. If you can’t deal with that, Thailand is not the place for you.

Dos and don’ts

I already addressed some of these in an earlier post, and in this post when I talked about people not taking their shoes off before entering places. My only advice here is to educate yourself a little bit prior to boarding your plane. Some things are just common sense and pretty much the same as at home. You don’t walk around town half naked, even though it’s exceptionally hot, you don’t see Thai doing that!

Bring or leave

I was going to include a travel list, but I think this is better for another post, so please come back and check if you’re interested in that. I’ll be uploading images on my website as well; you may visit www.moniquedicarlo.com

After 28 days, 19276 air miles, 3 train rides, 4 bus trips, 4 boat rides, 7 hotels, 855 pictures, 17 videos,  44 ice creams, 20 Tuk Tuk rides, a gazillion bugs, 6 Buddhist temples, 250,000 steps (each), and 15 amazing sunsets, we’re home. Planning our next trip…

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Counting Down…Counting Blessings

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Pid tong lang pra”

Meaning: Putting a gold leaf on the back of the Buddha. Which translates to “Doing something good without seeking attention”.

Our itinerary is looking great, and Sarah, my 13-year-old daughter is super excited to go on this month long trip to Thailand. The backpacks are out and already contain a few items. We did a pre-packing session the other day, to see what we want and need to bring, and if it’ll fit in our packs.

I always pack too much, so I constantly need to be mindful of every ounce that goes inside, and that will affect each step I take. The Thai heat and humidity already make it feel heavier than it is!

We’ll spend significant time in temples as they provide a quiet retreat during our hectic days in busy Thai cities, especially in Bangkok.  Many temples also offer Thai massages, a great way to overcome the jetlag and regain flexibility after spending months in an office chair.

I’ve always been drawn to Buddhism and love the way it is integrated into the Thai culture and daily life. People bring food to the monks in the early morning and celebrate many Holy days at the temples.religion

People often wonder whether Buddhism is a religion or philosophy. Buddhism does not ask you to accept its core principles on faith, it does not ask you to simply believe the results of someone else’s gnosis. To me it is a philosophy, the Buddha does not want you to believe, he wants you to seek out the truth–the very essence of philosophical enquiry.

The usual offering (Wai Phra) at a Thai Buddhist temple, consists of a candle, some flowers (often a lotus), a small square of gold leaf and three incense sticks. The flowers are placed in water before lighting the incense sticks using the candle. The three incense sticks are held between the palms of the hand in a wai gesture. In kneeling position with feet tucked behind (so that they face away from the Buddha image), a Thai making the offering recites in their mind, phrases from the Buddhist scriptures. Incense sticks are then planted into a container of sand, and the small square of gold leaf is pressed onto the Buddha image.

They cover the Buddha statue with the thin golden leaves to honour Buddha teachings. In the case of pain, the thin golden leaf shall be stuck at the same painful location on the Buddha statue. The gold leaf is a form of donation and seeing the leaves on the back of a Buddha makes a meaningful experience even more meaningful…

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We’ll put some extra gold leaves on the back of the Buddha’s we encounter, our way to show our gratitude, for being able to visit this exquisite country.

Update from July, performing Pid tong lang pra at Wat Intharawihan, Bangkok.

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