Our failed Wonderland Trail backpacking adventure – Part 1 – Intro

If you’ve never backpacked before, I would not recommend the Wonderland Trail as your first foray into wilderness marathon camping, unless you’re a little crazy*.

This series is entitled “Our failed Wonderland Trail backpacking adventure”, since we had planned to hike the full 93 miles, but for a number of reasons we decided to call it quits after 4 days and about 26 miles. After leaving the trail, we did some car camping and day hikes around the park, including some more of the Wonderland Trail, putting our total distance hiked at around 43 miles. Despite not reaching our initial goal, we made some great memories and gained some valuable experience.

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As a family of 7, this was our first backpacking trip*, and some of our kids would probably hope it was our last. We have 5 kids between the ages of 13 and 3, and we have spent many a summer at Mt Rainier doing day hikes and enjoying camping. This trip was inspired by my dad, who talked about doing the Wonderland Trail with me when I was probably around 10 years old. Well, I don’t know how serious he was about it, but his mention of it stuck in my memory. He died a few years later, so he and I never hiked the trail, but the seed was planted.

Now, many years later with my own family, tackling the WT was not on my list of to-dos… until I came across some videos online of other larger families hiking the trail. This piqued my interest, and suddenly learning about the Wonderland Trail became a favorite past time. I spent a number of months reading books, looking at maps and trail profiles, researching online, planning various itineraries, and trying to gather as much information as possible to determine if a hike of this scale was even doable for our family.

And, I guess I never came to the conclusion it wasn’t.

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We slowly acquired all the necessary gear, tried to pinch and squeeze weight out of every possible item, planned all the meals and logistics, and began training for what looked to be the toughest hike of our life.

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We looked a bit silly, walking around the local parks and up and down bleachers with our big packs on. We sat down as a family to learn about the trail, read trip accounts, think about possible starting points, watch videos, learn camp names and locations, and much more. We spent time thinking about how much of this, what type, how much does it weigh, rain gear, first aid, sunscreen, shoes, blisters, water, tent size, what if this, and what if that.

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We put together 12 days worth of food, split into 3 caches of 4 days each. Between Mowich Lake, Longmire, and White River, we would never need more than 4 days of food, so that was how we split it up. We mailed one cache to Mowich Lake a few weeks prior since it was the most remote location, and we were coming from the east side. The second cache we had with us ready to drop off at either Longmire or White River, depending on where we actually started hiking. And then we had the remaining 4 days worth of food in our packs.

Well, before we knew it, our backpacking trip was upon us, and all our preparation was about to be tested.

To be continued…

Northern Loop, Maybe Another Time

We made it to Mount Rainier in July, ready to do some backpacking, but our plan to do the Northern Loop trail didn’t exactly happen. We actually did hike the southern part of the Northern Loop, which is part of the Wonderland Trail.

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But, after months of training and preparing, we decided to do something a bit different, more info forthcoming… So, Northern Loop, maybe another time.

The Eastern Loop trail

While researching other possible trails near Mt Rainier, we came across the Eastern Loop. This isn’t an official trail, but a combination of a few trails to the east of the mountain that together form a loop. It includes the Wonderland, Owyhigh Lakes, Eastside, and Cowlitz Divide trails. At the north end of the loop, there is a short stretch of road (3/4 mile) that connects the Owyhigh Lakes trailhead to the Fryingpan Creek trailhead.

This loop is a bit longer than the Northern Loop, pushing 31 miles, and there are less camps along the way. Overall the elevation gain is less, but you do traverse the highest part of the Wonderland Trail as you cross the Panhandle Gap.

Eastern Loop from Owyhigh Lakes trailhead - Elevation Profile v1

Eastern Loop elevation profile and map files are available here.


A couple other websites with some good information are here and here.

Using Google Earth to create elevation profiles

To create a printable, nice looking trail elevation profile, I use Google Earth to generate the path profile, and the Gimp + Inkscape to design it, but you can use any bitmap and vector image editing software you like.

Google Earth

Open the desired trail in Google Earth. Right-click and select Show Elevation Profile.

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Depending on trail distance, and how wide you want the elevation profile to be, resize the Google Earth window to be wider. Turning off the Sidebar (View > Sidebar) is also helpful. If you have a dual-monitor setup, it’s easier to get a wider profile, but even with a single monitor, you can resize the window, drag it partially off the screen, resize it again, etc., until you have the desired size.

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Next, create screenshots of each part of the profile. You’ll need at least a couple to get rid of the vertical marker. Put your mouse on a different area of the profile during each screenshot so that when they are combined, you will have a clean section to cover up with.

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Gimp

Then, open them in the Gimp to crop and combine them. Export a jpg or png image.

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Inkscape

Open the image in Inkscape. Right-click the image and select Trace Bitmap. This converts the bitmap to a vector image that can be scaled without losing quality, providing nice clear printouts even at large sizes.

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There are a number of options for tracing the bitmap. For this project, Brightness Cutoff worked well with the Threshold around 0.450, leaving only the path profile line.

Inkscape - Trace bitmap options

Click OK to trace the bitmap. Delete the image if you’re happy with the trace.

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From there, you can use Inkscape to create the rest of the path profile however you like. Add an outline, fill the inside with a color or gradient.

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Start adding trails and various features along the trail. I refer back to Google Earth for placement along the profile. You can move your mouse along the path profile to determine the approximate spot where a particular point of interest should be placed in Inkscape.

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Continue adding camps and other items of interest. Some you might consider are an elevation grid, water sources, side trails, etc. When you’re all finished, you can export a PDF for printing, or a PNG for viewing online or using elsewhere.

View some completed elevation profiles here.

Cooking for 7

Cooking for 7 means a bigger pot, more food, and boiling more water. Originally I liked the idea of alcohol stoves because they are super lightweight and the fuel can be put in lightweight containers, and you can easily measure remaining fuel. I had fun making my own stoves that work pretty nicely!

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However, the stoves don’t hold more than a few ounces of fuel before they start “spitting” out the top. We have a 3L pot and need to boil 6 cups of water each night. One of these alcohol stoves just doesn’t hold enough fuel to boil the water we need.

So, we are going with a compact isobutane/propane stove, for a few reasons. The stove is more efficient, the burner flame is adjustable, and we can easily turn the stove on / off without wasting fuel. The only real downside is the weight of the can.

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Our test meals have used just over 1oz of fuel each time, so going with an 8oz can will be enough for 4 nights, with some to spare. Coffee in the morning?

The kit so far includes the stove, fuel, a spatula, lighter, foil wind screen, and a pot and pan/lid. Other utensils will be added later.

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Everything fits nicely in the pot.

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Walking in the rain, a taste

If you would have asked before our hike the adequacy of our rain gear, I would have said probably good enough.

This particular day there was a possibility of rain showers, so we brought our collection of “rain gear” just in case. This consisted of a few ponchos, and a couple of actual rain jackets, and a couple umbrellas for good measure.

When the rain started sprinkling, we were doing fine, but once the shower got going, we began to realize the inadequacy of our gear. The rain jackets and ponchos did great, but they only covered so much, and soon our shorts, pants and shoes became soaked.

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Still being a good distance from the car, we had plenty of time to consider our “adequate” gear.  What if it rained for multiple days straight on our backpacking trip? To stay even moderately dry, we would definitely need better rain protection.

Since then we have acquired rain jackets and rain pants for everyone. We have waterproof shoes for some of us, and we’re also looking into additional ways of keeping our feet dry.

Overall, this trip was a good learning experience, and better to learn on a short hike than days removed from civilization!

Wilderness Permit Reservation Status

Today, we got the email confirming that our Northern Loop trail itinerary had been… denied. This was not wholly unexpected, but a bit of a bummer. That means our new plan is to try for a walk-on permit later this summer. On the bright side, that means we have more options and flexibility for our trip.

Back in March we applied for a wilderness permit for our Northern Loop trail itinerary. Acquiring a permit would allow us to lock in the dates and have our campsites reserved. According to the wilderness permit page, “About 70 percent of the available wilderness permits can be reserved while the remaining 30 percent are issued on a first-come, first-served basis.” This year it sounds like there were a lot of reservation requests, a record number in fact. The wilderness permit page currently states that:

“The park is no longer accepting reservation requests for the entire 93 mile Wonderland Trail. Between March 15 and April 1 we received a record number of requests. We will not be able to fulfill many of the requests we received in that time-frame, much less those that would arrive afterward.”

Time to research a few other possible trail options. Maybe the Eastern Loop trail…