Hell’s Canyon


So, the Merkles attempted our first ever backpacking trip last week. I should mention that Ben is an old and seasoned backpacker/ climber/mountain biker/ skier/ camper. I, contrariwise, am nothing of the kind. Just driving past an REI makes me glaze over and drop into a state of boredom from which it is nearly impossible to extricate me. I should hasten to add that I don’t feel that way about the outdoors – just about stores for outdoor people. Weirdly enough, I could hang out all day in a hardware store. I love a good hardware store. But plunk me into an outdoor-outfitter-emporium and I instantly wilt. And then I find a nice quiet corner to sit and weep at the tedium of it all. Nalgene bottles – and even worse, Nalgene bottle sleeves – can’t get even a flicker of interest out of me. Everything in those stores costs the earth – and isn’t even a tiny bit stylish to make it worthwhile. If it all looked less drab and neoprene-ish and a little more like British campaign furniture then I could get behind it in a big way. But it doesn’t, and I can’t. Those stores hurt my feelings and that’s all there is to it.

Anyway, for the first ten years of our marriage I got away with this prudent and rational lifestyle because I was either pregnant or nursing or both and we were certainly not going to be hitting the trails with five toddlers. Then once we got through that phase we galloped off to England for Ben to get his PhD. (That was a bit like survival camping.) And then we moved back to the US and lay down on the floor and panted for three years. And now, and only now, we decided that our family was at the point where we could give the old backpacking trip a whirl.

Ben kindly spared me from having to go into any stores to purchase folding shovels, and did all the necessary prep of that sort. The one thing he did throw down about though, was he insisted that I buy a pair of hiking boots . . . his theory being that wedge sandals with an ankle strap weren’t quite the ticket. I was peeved. Every single pair of boots was entirely dreadful – and heinously expensive. I fussed. I tried many many pairs on, and complained that they chafed my Achilles tendon – never mind the fact that I will put up with any amount of foot pain for a really gorgeous pair of shoes. I am also willing to pay a good bit of money for a gorgeous pair of shoes . . . but a gorgeous pair of shoes these were not. (See the above photo for verification of this statement.) What they were actually chafing was my soul. In the end I found the rock bottom cheapest pair that I could rummage up (that also hurt my aesthetic sense the least) and we went with those. I have to say that they were in fact quite comfortable. But I would also like to apologize to anyone who happened to see me in Costco that day as we were on our way out of town. I know someone out there saw me – I was the one trying to coyly hide my feet behind the grocery cart because my husband wouldn’t let me stay in the car.

Anyways, we tootled off to Hell’s Canyon for a bit of outdoor excitement on Thursday. Within 40 yards of the car I had spiritually bonded with Robinson Crusoe, and I was taking back all my criticisms of him and his endless raisin making. Do you not agree that there were a lot too many raisins in that story? But then again, who am I to cast the first stone? The split minute we were on the trail . . . out came the trail mix. It really just hits the spot, answers the questions, and sums it up. And while Robinson Crusoe didn’t have peanuts and m&ms, he did what he could with the raisins.

It was stinkety hot in Hell’s Canyon. We passed a rhinormous rattlesnake skin. Hero fell and put her hand in a cactus. We took the wrong trail and ended up back in a parking lot. We exhausted the water supply before we even found the correct trail. Our m&ms had melted into the raisins. I felt like a bit of bacon spitting and twitching in a frying pan. When we picked our way down to the river to filter some water I paused just long enough to drop my pack, peel off the boots, and I then sat down in the river in all my clothes. (Those who know me well call me Bear Grylls for short – my stamina on these occasions is amazing.)

After this eventful beginning to our hike we managed to refill the water bottles, pick all the cactus needles out of Hero’s hand, lower my body temperature enough that I could remember that I hadn’t taken my iphone out of my pocket when I sat down in the river (it didn’t get soaked thank goodness), and get ourselves onto the trail for real.

After that it was fantastic. The canyon is gorgeous, the hike was fun, and we all had a great time. When twilight was starting to set in we found a promising little patch of cheatgrass, ringed round with a tasteful border of poison ivy, and pitched our tents. I whizzed up our little dinner over the miniature camp stove, and then we lay and watched the stars come out. Totally stunning. Then we proceeded to not sleep a wink all night due to the lumpy ground and lack of pillows, and when we came out of our tents in the morning something had gotten into our little garbage bag and there were three deer in the camp – a buck, a doe, and a fawn. We sipped our instant coffee and thought that it tasted much better than instant coffee ever does. Then we packed up and hiked back out, thankfully before the sun had come over the ridge which meant that even though it was already in the 90s, we weren’t directly in the sun. And then we came home. And I have, ever since, been pondering the question of how an overnight backpacking trip can blitz my house out to this amazing extent.

But all in all we had a terrific old time – and I have a feeling that won’t be the last of our backpacking excursions. Which means that if any of you have any good backpacking recipes I want to know about them. A quick google on the subject will show you that people eat the most awful muck when they go out into the wilderness. I packed orzo, a stick of butter, and a ziploc full of parmesan (which keeps well) mixed with salt and pepper. That was our dinner – and it was pretty bland and lacking in zip. Not bad, but also not very interesting. I won’t be party to a freeze dried ice cream sandwich or tofu jerky – so there’s no use suggesting those, or anything else that falls into that general category!

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26 thoughts on “Hell’s Canyon

  1. Hi Rebekah,

    I’m married to a hiker too and, like you, have thus far avoided the overnighters due to pregnancy/babies/toddlers. So…take what I offer in the way of recipes – or not: I have a camping board on Pinterest which has some dandy looking ideas. My username is meredithinaus.

    (I have the ugly hiking boots too, although buying them on sale eased some of the pain ;oP ).

    Looks like you had a great time, by the way.

    In Him


  2. I grew up tent camping on nearly every family vacation…
    My favorite camping food growing up was breakfast food: Bisquick pancakes are easy and yummy;
    Eggs are easily packed in a hard plastic camping container (you can do tasty and multi-varied things with eggs themselves);
    And though dried milk is nasty on its own, it’s fine in cereal (my mom never let us have sugar cereals but on camping trips we got to buy those horribly awesome — to kids — packs of individual little boxed junk cereals — the kind you can open from the side and use the waxed paper lined box as a cereal bowl);
    Bacon doesn’t keep long so it works better when you are from-the-car tent camping but you can get some kinds of pre-packed canadian bacon that will keep a little longer (especially with an ice pack around it — I like using the kind that come with pyrex “potluck” dishes that will keep your food cold [or hot] for quite awhile).

    Another fun meals is vegetables spiced and cooked in aluminum foil packets right in the fire. (Potatoes, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, squash cubed up…all work great — especially with some butter and garlic powder or cajun spice — if your family leans more that way.)
    Okay, enough…but, really, camp cooking can be fun and tasty and very creative — You can do it!

  3. p.s. Aside from it being better to go with what your husband wants you to wear on your feet, honestly, I have found that for most hiking, unless you are seriously wildernessing it, I’ve been more comfortable with wearing my good running shoes than my hiking boots — but you don’t get the ankle support and from stories you have told on yourself concerning clutziness (-:, your husband is probably trying to protect you from yourself, right?! But, I like running shoes better — and you can get them in some awesome crazy neon colors which could give you the added benefit of protecting you from hunters and being used to find you in an emergency rescue situation. Ha!

  4. Hip Hip Hurray!

    While I’m slightly offended that you fall asleep in REI (one of my all time favorite stores) I’m super stoked that y’all went backpacking and had a good time! Of course I’m also the lead backpacker in this family πŸ™‚ Allen will come with me, but it’s not his most favorite. Seriously, I live in my chacos and love falling asleep in tents.

    So here’s my girl’s guide to backpacking πŸ˜€

    Inflatable pillows are a splurge (and add to your weight), but my husband and I like ours. If we’re fussy about weight we’ll stuff clothes into a stuff sack instead. FYI the pillows make great Christmas stocking stuffers. Also, if you seriously need a little more cush to help you sleep consider getting a Big Agnes Insulated Air Core pad. You’ll have to air it up yourself, but it’s lightweight and 2 1/2in thick. I love mine. Also, if you want to be thrifty make sure you’re sending your husband to the REI garage sales (assuming they have those up there). I bought my tent and sleeping bag up there for literally pennies on the dollar. Love love love.

    I dehydrate most of our own meals, and some are easier than others. (If you really get into it you can dehydrate things like spaghetti sauce and taco meat to take with you)

    For instance-

    Chicken tortellini alfredo (recipe for two adults): dry tortellini, pouch of chicken, packet alfredo mix (with powdered milk), pesto mix, 1 cheese stick, dehydrated or fresh veg (I like a mix of onions and mushrooms), and sundried tomatoes. Boil the pasta, drain excess water, mix everything together. Add salt/season salt blend.

    Blueberry Flapjacks –

    Biscuit Mix (homemade or not), freeze dried (or fresh) blueberries, water. Mix to a thick dough and spoon into a greased pan (test before cooking on the trail. Different stoves and pans will work better or worse). Cook on each side (dark bits are acceptable!) and eat with plenty of butter.

    Burritos –

    (If you aren’t using dehydrated meat then just pack frozen meat in the middle of your pack and cook the first night.)
    Cook taco meat as usual and serve on tortillas with cheese sticks and a package of guac. You can add rehydrated black bean soup mix as well.

    Pizza Pockets-

    Sauce packets (or put in a non-glass container), pitas, pepperoni, cheese, whatever toppings you like. Just assemble and eat.

    Instant Potatoes (carb heavy so eat during the day when you need extra hiking energy) –

    Instant Potatoes, dry milk, cheese, and toppings like bacon bits (those little bags are pricy but shelf stable before opened), onions, etc.

    Thanksgiving Dinner (also carb heavy) –

    Instant/Dry stuffing mix. Assemble the stuffing mix and top with pouch chicken, gravy (dry packet), and dried cranberries (and veg if available)

    If you don’t mind dehydrating some things (you can google tips for dehydrating hamburger and ground meats) then it’s super easy to take things like stronganoff. Cook a fat free version of your meal (fat doesn’t dehydrate well) minus the noodles and dehydrate. Toss your dehydrated stroganoff (or spaghetti or whatever) into a ziplock bag along with your noodles. Boil up to rehydrate and add in some cheese/oil.

    Veggies like onions, mushrooms, carrots, corn, celery, and spinach dehydrate really, really well, so they’re an easy (and lightweight) addition to meals.

    Then you’ve always got your oatmeal/peanut butter/rice/pudding mix/candy bar assortment. Seriously – just walk around your grocery store and see what you can put together with water or dry milk or the like. You’ll be surprised.

    For my backpacking pantry I typically take: salt (can be used for pot scrubbing in a pinch), 1/4 blue scrubby pad, season salt blend, a really small cutting board cut from one of those thin, flexible ones you can buy in packs at Walmart/Target, bonner’s soap, and (occasionally) a small spatula.

    My personal kit is super small: comb, hair bands, buff (it’s this super awesome scarf/headband/scrunchy/bandanna thing), sample size lotion, lip balm, and (tmi?) diva cup if appropriate. Clothing varies, but a pair of clean socks is high on my list πŸ™‚

    Sorry for the way long post – this is just a topic I love.

  5. I feel the same way about REI. My husband can spend hours in there, literally. I can only take about ten minutes and then I dodge out to the neighboring fabric store. However, I love backpacking! We did the Rogue River trail in Oregon at the beginning of May and took our 11 year old nephew with us for his first backpacking trip. He took to it like a fish to water : ) The wildflowers were amazing and the scenery was beautiful!!!

    As for backpacking food, we go for convenience, but I try to pack some tasty snacks like chocolate, nuts and dried fruit. It really is true that everything tastes better on the trail.

    I have found that keeping lists of what gear and food we packed is super useful so that I don’t have to “reinvent the wheel” every time we go backpacking. Also, I make notes of what I want to bring next time and what I really didn’t need to bring.

  6. I love this post!! I relate to your feelings about sporting good shops – I feel that way about any shop except shoe stores and art supply stores.

    I really do like to hike, but my husband enjoys “off trail” hiking. One of the greatest joys of my motherhood was when the kids were old enough to be his hiking partners and I could stay home or at least stay on the trail. I’ve learned to ask specific questions because “Will there be a trail?” will always yield a “yes.” What I really want to know is “Will YOU, honey, be blazing a trail with a machete or will the trail be something easily recognizable by the general public as a trail?”

    What I really love about hiking is the scenery, and I’m enjoying the photos of the scenery you saw. Wow, what a beautiful place.

  7. I love to backpack and can’t wait to have a story similar to yours when our children are bigger. Here’s some of the best meals we’ve used in backpacking: pita pizza–put fresh or dehydrated pizza sauce on a pita, topped with mozzarella and pepperoni. Place in the pan, sprinkle a little water around the edges, cover, and let the steam melt the cheese. Hoover curry with rice and peaches on the side is another good one. Bagels also keep well…

    Thanks for the fun post!

  8. oh my. i can pretty much second you on that one. and, after much internal rumbling, i’ve reached a verdict; i will not go camping. nor will i invest in the slew of equipment necessary to do so. men, boys, and the otherwise nubile and undiscerning, may feel free to adventure to their heart’s content. and that only if they rough it in the real woods without a pop up shade canopy, air mattress, cooler the size of an actual refrigerator, or full on gas range – which all take up money, space in my garage, and not to mention heap in my living room before and after said occasions. back packing is so much more sensible; if it doesn’t fit in this bag, i guess you don’t need it.


    as for me, i’m perfectly happy to go on picnics. my vintage hamper is adorable. we love to go out, and bring pies with us. besides, food is the only thing worth packing. dragging an inferior version of your bed along as well simply makes no good christian sense. πŸ˜‰

  9. An egg tip — just crack them all open into a ziplock bag. Way easier to pack/carry this way. Campfire eggs and potatoes are SO good.

  10. I actually took two backpacking classes in college. One was a 28 mile route. I am not extremely proud of that and I do not continue backpacking today but it was great fun back in the day. My favorite meal had to be eaten the first night out (which was always a short 3 to 4 miles). I would put frozen hamburger, potatoes, onions, pepper, and salt into aluminum foil and would stick it into the fire for about an hour. By the time we got to our first camp site the hamburger would be thawed. This was so delicious! My family stills eats this occasionally. We call it “camping dinner”. However, I cook it on the stove top and we use lots of ketchup and hot sauce.

  11. My parents were trained in the art by the best backpacker in the business: John Curtis. He was at least 75 every time we went out, and he did not believe in trails. He would point to the mountain and say climb, and we did! Weed-wacking our own trail…He was also a master at edible backpacking food that didn’t weigh a lot, so you should check in with my mom for some tips on that.
    What a lot of fun, and some really fantastic memories!

  12. Hi I’m with you on the camping avoidance thing. I once had a whole camping store look at me blankly when I chose my waterproof by how it matched my eyes rather than water-repelling properties. I can also second the buff recommendation good for hiding camping hair! Here in the UK we go glamping which is camping but with style, think bringing fairy lights and earl grey tea (well I had rose pouchong but my husband had the earl grey) in chipped white and blue enamel mugs (ok not so good if you are carting your own stuff). I found this cookbook good for recipes (and a wipeclean cover) and she was similarly afflicted by the lack of enthusiasm thing but she has good tips like adding pre-mixed herbs like zatar to sprinkle on pitta bread, or even more basic putting chocolate in pitta bread and putting in in the fire/bbq (think french schoolkid’s gouter) . I also found this site helpful http://www.thehappycampers.co.uk/. And although I’m not keen on being completely matchy match Cath Kidston does cute camping accessories.

  13. I’ve done one long backpacking trip that was about as minimalistic as you can get, and our gear was most definitely drab and our food dehydrated. I wouldn’t choose to go that minimalistic again, but it was a good experience. (Wheaton’s Highroad, anyone?) But REI drab and unstylish? Guess it depends on your taste. If outdoors stores weren’t so expensive, I’d buy far more gear than I have. And I second whoever said running shoes or chacos for most hikes…and the people suggesting veggies and meat in foil in the coals. SO good. You can also bake apples filled with redhot candies (or take along the cinnamon, sugar, raisins, nuts…) in foil in the coals.

  14. You go, girl! Looks like a really fun, family adventure. Maybe in a few years we’ll try it with our crew πŸ˜‰

  15. Great post! Hell’s Canyon was given it’s rightful name, no? I’ve been there a few times! So hot and dry!!

  16. I’m just digging the gold hoops, lip gloss, and non-REI issued floral shirt. You’re the cutest hiker Hell’s Canyon has seen in a coon’s age! πŸ˜‰

    As for the shopping, I can TOTALLY relate. My nemesis just happens to be cell phone stores. I’m in dire need of a new one, but my eyes glaze over and I start scoping out the door when someone tries to explain all the plans.

    If I think of anything fabulous from our camping experiences that will work well with backpacking, I’ll email you.

  17. RE: Hell’s Canyon
    You might like to read “Home Below Hell’s Canyon” by Grace Jordan. Written by a woman who with her husband and 3 children lived near Hell’s Canyon in the 1930s. Amazing story!

  18. Hooray for you! I am by no means a seasoned hiker, but I’ve done enough of it to withdraw my previous opinion that it is for the birds. Hiking can be one of the best things ever. I mean, maybe all of my hiking trips have involved wading through loose sand on the beach for kilometers, getting lost in a bog with wet feet, or trying to make it to the end of the trail in the dark down a steep mudslide of a slope, but otherwise, I’ve loved it.

    As regards the not sleeping, while using bagged spare clothes as a pillow and ensuring the ground is nice and soft before putting up the tent is important, I’ve found the best thing for sleeping while hiking is to make sure it’s at least a two-night trip. By the second night, you could sleep on a bed of nails ;).

    So far I’ve used sandwiches or curries while hiking. Curry, folks. With lots of spices. It won’t go off, it’s easy to heat, the taste only improves over two or three days, and it’s filling. The only problem, of course, is that it tends to be heavy.

  19. Ha ha ha, I love it all! The article and the responses! I am still in the “safe zone” of babies and preschoolers, but I know my time will come!

  20. Great adventure. Fun post to read. My husband is a backpacker and made it his goal to backpack the C & O Canal with our older children when we lived in Maryland. Occaisionally, i joined them on a day hike with the little ones. Our last hike was with 7 children, ages 12 – 3 months and included a two mile hike through a tunnel, then a 3 mile hike back over the mountain – it seemed more adventurous to me than going back through the tunnel. It was insane, but oh what wonderful memories!! In the end, they only covered half of the canal (90 miles) before we moved, buhotbed hope to return to finish it off. My daughter, Hannah, is looking forward to sharing some of those adventure stories with you when she returns to school ( NSA) this fall. She’s also bringing her favorite trail recipes for you. Happy hiking!

  21. HI Bekah,

    I would have written sooner but we just got back from a seven night car camping trip at Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan. Before the kids, my husband and I were avid backpackers. We are planning the first backpacking trip for the kids next year. They will be 6 and 9.

    Natalie had some great tips for you on cooking and I second all of them and have a few additions.

    First and foremost, DITCH THE INSTANT COFFEE !!! Invest in a Nalgene press pot, and tote in your favorite ground beans in a zip lock bag. A good cup of coffee is something we refuse to give up. A press pot of coffee neither takes up a lot of water nor fuel.

    When we started backpacking, the internet was not commonly used, so I used a cook book in real paper form for ideas. It is the NOLS cookbook.

    As Natalie said, look for things that you would normally eat which cook quickly and keep well and ditch the packaging. Couscous, instant brown rice, lentils, instant potatoes, dried soups, dried or canned meats and dried fruits.

    Also, there are foods that we refrigerate in the U.S. that are not necessarily refrigerated in other countries. (See your own post on eggs abroad). Yogurts, many cheeses, and eggs can go for a few days without being kept cool. We buy waxed cheese or wax our own blocks to keep them longer.

    Pita, tortillas, and Wasa crackers substitute well for bread.

    While our family is small, we have witnessed many larger groups backpacking successfully. One method for meals that is more expensive, but certainly convenient and requires much less thought, is to buy freeze dried complete meals. Usually one package will feed 2-4 people depending on appetites. All you have to do is boil a pot of water to re-hydrate the freeze dried portions. And the kids can pick out meals that they like.

    My husband and I are firm believers in enjoying God’s creation while backpacking. Therefore, on most days we do not hike a crazy number of miles. We have done up to 14 miles in one day, but prefer 5-7. This gives you time to look around while hiking and you can set up camp early and walk around without your pack. We only plan 2-3 mile hikes with the kids. Many people hike for mileage, and fail to see anything but their own feet.

    I could go on forever on this topic, but my little guy wants to read a book.

    Backpacking helps one appreciate all the luxuries one has at home.

    Best of luck with this new adventure in your life.


  22. Oh, how could I forget.

    Jiffy Pop, pack so as not to puncture. Jello-pudding cheesecake made with powdered milk and spray margarine then top with any found berries and instant Jello pudding made with powdered milk.


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