I view "doing without" as an essential skillset in pursuit of the ultralight/minimalist backpacking ideal. While, at times, I have defined my approach in terms of what I was not carrying, I have, nonetheless, found a few items I frequently carry, which not everyone does. First and foremost is a Sharpie. And, being the "Super Adventure Dork" that I am (yes, it's S.A.D.), I've distilled my reasons for doing so down to a list of five categories that all rhyme.
On occasion during a thru-hike, my wife, Kathy "OBAL Unbranded" Vaughan, and I have been unable to get the correct fuel for our Soto Micro Windmaster stove. In such cases, my go-to Plan B is making a soda can stove. This stove can be fueled with Heet, which is often available to be bought or bummed when fuel canisters aren't. A sharpie makes it substantially quicker, easier, and more precise drawing out cuts on the cans when compared to doing it with an improvised implement, such as a rock or found nail. Whether you are crafting a cooking can, cutting a patch for a piece of gear, or carving a spoon to replace the one you lost, being able to draw out the pattern on your limited materials can help make your repairs and improvisations more accurate, more efficient, and more likely to succeed.
Southbound on the Washington PCT, and not carrying a tent or sleeping bag, I found myself slogging through a torrential downpour along the Kendal Catwalk. Finally reaching Snoqualmie Pass after midnight, I barricaded myself in one of the Forest Service privies to get a reprieve from the pelting precipitation. Realizing I had with me a Sharpie, a piece of paper, and some duct tape, I was tempted to make an "Out Of Order" sign to tape to the outside of the privy door. Instead, I waited out the storm alert for the need to vacate my shelter should anyone have need of using it for its intended purpose. But the point is, I could have made a sign.
In a life-threatening emergency, a permanent marker could convey information that you are unable to communicate personally. If injured or ill, you could write a list of your symptoms or a description of the accident that injured you on a piece of clothing or body part to inform first responders in the case that you are unconscious when they arrive. If lost or disoriented, you could write messages on trees or rocks to tell searchers of your direction or to alert yourself to the fact that you have passed that way before and are wandering in circles.
With a Sharpie, you can communicate across both time and distance, if need be, and I'm far from the first or only person to think so. I've seen Sharpie signs other hikers have made and posted out along the trail. In numerous places along the PCT, outdated, inaccurate, or damaged trail signs have been corrected, amended, or replaced with some quick Sharpie work by well-meaning backpackers. While hitchhiking up to the Kracker Barrel on White Pass from a fire closure reroute, I used Sharpie on a piece of birch bark to make a sign stating our intended destination.
Motivation and Decoration
In the Nardcore punk rock scene of my youth, bands usually didn't have printed t-shirts available. If you wanted an Ill Repute shirt, you would just put pen to fabric and draw your own. Perhaps it's that DIY ethic that I still find deeply resonant, or perhaps it's just my lowbrow dystopian artistic sensibilities, but I have a penchant for decorating my gear with scribbly designs, especially when it reminds me of an ideal or goal.
When Kathy and I attempted to yo-yo the Grand Enchantment Trail in 2017 (detailed in our book 98 Days Of Wind: The Greatest Fail Of Our Life), I drew the word "Yo" on the top of each of my shoes, so that our goal was right there staring me in the face all day, every day. It was the rare occasion on which I looked down at my shoes and didn't literally "lol."
During our UP North Loop this year, our goal was to link together parts of the Oregon Desert Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Pacific Northwest Trail, and Idaho Centennial Trail. So, on the top of my Mariposa 60, I wrote ODT, PCT, PNT, and ICT, and crossed each one out as we completed it. Arguably, personalizing one's shoes, pack, etc., might not be of the highest priority. But, to me, the psychological boost I get from it is more than worth the minimal weight investment of carrying a single permanent marker.
Keeping track of resources that look identical can help keep you from being stuck in the dark with dead batteries in your headlamp, or rendering freshly filtered water contaminated by using the wrong water bladder. Again, it's possible to improvise alternative methods, but a Sharpie is the quickest and slickest way.
On routes with long water hauls, I generally carry two 2-liter bladders to rig as a gravity filter. I always mark one water bag with a Sharpie for use as the "dirty" (unfiltered) bag. It's the mere presence of the ink on the bag that conveys its designation as dirty; the words themselves can say anything. Once I used a quote from the Simpsons' Reverend Lovejoy: "Good dog. Do your dirty sinful business." Sometimes, it's just a list of synonyms for filth, or an inside joke only I get to enjoy. But, I always choose something to give myself a little smile or laugh when I go to filter water, and to make sure I don't foul our potable water by filtering it into a contaminated bladder.
Whenever I remove spent batteries from a GPS or headlamp, I mark them to be sure they don't get confused with the fresh battery supply. Whether it's the dark or the desert, I don't want to get stuck there because I mismanaged my battery supply. Keeping track of the dead batteries is key to that.
On occasion, it's important to make a note of critical information, and it may not be quick, easy, or even possible to access your phone to do so. Plus, a simple text note or photo may not do the job. While on the UP North Loop, I used a Sharpie to track a developing skin issue. A few patches of irritation weren't clearing up on their own. Relying on just my memory, I was having trouble telling if they were spreading or growing, so I circled them in permanent ink. Watching over the next few days, as the ink gradually wore off, I was able to determine that they were neither multiplying nor expanding, which put my mind at ease. A small tube of fungicide purchased at the next resupply eventually confirmed a Google diagnosis of ringworm, and cleared up the malady.
In 2013, during a sextuple crossing of the Grand Canyon, I used a Sharpie to write down my time on my calf sleeve each time I hit one of the rims. On the UP North Loop, while talking on the phone at a picnic table in Metalline Falls on the PNT section, I Sharpied things up by writing someone's number on my leg, where I would neither lose it, nor forget it, as it was being dictated to me over the phone. Similarly, a month later while on the phone at a picnic table outside Sandpoint on the ICT, I wrote the address to which we were rerouting a resupply box on the lid of a styrofoam takeout container. I could go on and on.
A permanent marker might not be the first thing you think of as a backpacking essential, but, at only nine grams in weight, I've found it well worth carrying.
At Gossamer Gear, we have huge love for our brand ambassadors. They're the best gear testers. They're incredible people. And, golly, do they go on some awesome adventures! Two of our Brand Ambassadors, Ras "UltraPedestrian" Vaughan and Kathy "OBAL Unbranded" Vaughan (aka: Team UltraPedestrian), recently completed over 2,600 miles on the first ever Inland Northwest Loop, which they have dubbed the UP North Loop.
The UP North Loop links together parts of the Idaho Centennial Trail, Oregon Desert Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Pacific Northwest Trail. The epic journey took them across the breadth and width of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho–and even included briefly setting foot in Montana and Nevada. The adventurous duo began their journey on May 14, 2018 at 6:17pm by hiking south on the Idaho Centennial Trail from the small town of Hammett. They completed the UP North Loop on November 5, 2018. In total, the trek took them 174 days, 22 hours, and 25 minutes to complete.
"The whole route, every section, was so unique from all the others," Kathy shared. "The terrain of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho offers so much untold beauty: deep canyons, sage steppes, the Cascade Crest, ancient cedar groves, rugged river valleys, and small towns rife with history. Ras and I feel like we barely touched this immense landscape. We came away from the UP North Loop with images of a magnificent land, and the desire to delve even further into the surrounding wilderness."
How the UP North Loop Came to Be
But, how did Kathy and Ras even come up with the idea for the UP North Loop? Well, one evening, while studying a map of all the long trails in North America, Ras pointed out to Kathy how parts of the Oregon Desert Trail, Idaho Centennial Trail, Pacific Northwest Trail, and Pacific Crest Trail could be linked together to form a huge loop through the Inland Northwest.
This loop would be comparable in length to the Big Three long trails (Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Appalachian Trail–completing all of which is known as the Triple Crown of long-distance hiking). The difference with this proposed long trail, however, is that it would end where it began, and would stick within the Northwest.
Ras also explained how the UP North Loop could be seen as a bit on an antidote to the "Wild Effect." The "Wild Effect" is the name given to a recent influx of hikers seen on the PCT who were inspired by the book and film Wild by Cheryl Strayed.
"With thousands of new thru-hikers and section hikers pitting themselves against the Big Three each season, a subset of the hiking community has gravitated away from those now high-traffic trails," Ras said. "The same quest for challenge, solitude, and immersion in the natural world that drew people to long-distance hiking in the first place is now guiding them onto the lesser-known and less populated routes, such as the PNT, ODT, and ICT. The UP North Loop may very well be a glimpse of what the future of thru-hiking looks like."
Challenges Along the UP North Loop
The logistics of the UP North Loop differ substantially from those of the Big Three. On one of the north/south long trails, one can either begin early in the year at the south end and follow spring north, or begin later in the year at the north end and follow summer south. The UP North Loop, however, has a far more limited window of opportunity.
The blazing temperatures of the Oregon and Idaho deserts, along the southern edge of the route, make travel during the heat of summer life-threatening, so these sections must be completed in the spring or fall. Conversely, the northern section and the areas at higher elevation can only be done once the previous year's snow has melted, and before the new snows of the coming winter begin to accumulate. These logistical demands up the ante for anyone attempting the new UP North Loop.
However, Kathy faced an additional challenge to these logistics along the way. The UP North Loop was her first long thru-hike since being diagnosed as a Type 1 Diabetic.
"I had 40% of my pancreas removed in 2007 because of a growth encapsulating it. Sometime during the spring of 2017, the remainder of my pancreas stopped producing insulin," Kathy explained. "In July of that year, I was diagnosed as a Type 1 Diabetic. I had just come off an attempted yo-yo of the Grand Enchantment Trail. I had been experiencing diabetes symptoms for a number of weeks while hiking, and had become quite thin. Once diagnosed, I began insulin therapy and never looked back. Forward, onward. It was time to try a thru-hike now while using insulin.
"Despite having some scary low blood sugar episodes, in the end, I was able to complete the longest of my thru-hikes yet, feeling strong and healthy. I paid a lot of attention each day to my blood sugars, how I felt, what I ate, and how much insulin I needed based on those assessments. Terrain, elevation, and weather impacted my physical output and effected my numbers, causing fine-tuning to my insulin injections daily. As a Type 1 Diabetic, I will always need to manage my blood sugars using insulin therapy. I now know I can do it while living on the trail."
What You Need to Know about the UP North Loop
From the solitude of the Oregon Desert–where Ras and Kathy frequently went for a week or more without seeing other people–to the mining and trapping districts of the Cascades and the abandoned railroad lines of central Idaho, hikers will find human history everywhere they go on the UP North Loop. In southeast Oregon, Kathy and Ras observed Native American pictographs. Tumbledown homestead buildings and their surviving fruit trees dotted the route across northern Washington. Their epic journey ended in southern Idaho following the wagon wheel ruts of the historic Oregon Trail. And, they enjoyed many hot springs along the way, which people has enjoyed and used therapeutically since the dawn of time.
The "Purist Line," which Ras and Kathy designed as their primary navigational goal, links together the official routes of all four trails using connections designed by Renee Patrick of the Oregon Natural Desert Association. At a number of points in their epic journey, Ras and Kathy were forced to detour from their planned route due to trail conditions, fire, weather, and time constraints. For Fastest Known Time players, the Purist Line will stand out as an obvious first objective. However, Ras and Kathy don't want the UP North Loop to become too set in stone.
"Our hope is that the UP North Loop will never be codified into one official line. While the Purist Line is still very much up for grabs for a strict first send, our vision is for each hiker to design their own alternates and reroutes to truly make the UP North Loop their own," Ras shared. "If someone wants to hike the exact footsteps of thousands of other people, they can download an app and follow the PCT from Mexico to Canada. But, taking on the UP North Loop requires an amount of research, route-finding, navigation, and creativity that harkens back to the early days of thru-hiking."
To learn more about the UP North Loop, or to otherwise follow Ras and Kathy on their adventures, find them at the following: