When Mary and I started this national park journey with our daughters, we knew the first few years would involve lots of car camping and some “entry-level” exploration of the parks we visited. We’d hit up the most popular spots, but also try to find some peace and tranquility on the hiking trails. We also knew that as the girls got older, we would want to explore more, doing some backcountry hiking and backpacking and really getting off the grid. The only problem was that we had no experience with that and didn’t think it was the safest idea to learn on-the-fly with the girls.

So we did some research on how to hone our outdoor backpacking and camping skills. We found programming through REI and Adventure 16 (a So Cal outdoors retailer). The programs were good, but a bit pricey and filled up quickly with fellow outdoor enthusiasts. We then came across a volunteer-led program by the Sierra Club’s San Diego chapter called Wilderness Basics Course. It was an 11-week program with a weekly evening lecture and included four weekend trips to take the classwork into the field. More importantly, it was $140 – a true steal.  With the fee, you got a workbook, a textbook/reference book, a compass, and some coupons to local outdoor stores. With the coupons alone and some of the equipment purchases that we made, we ended up saving tons of money on outdoor gear and clothing. We got high quality sleeping bags for Quincy and Leona and some hiking and outdoor clothes for me and Mary. Because of Mary’s busy travel schedule for work, she could not commit to being in town 11 straight Tuesday’s, so I signed up and took the plunge into WBC. 

I signed up and started the classes in January. Over 100 people were in the class and eager to get some skills for the outdoors.

The class covered topics such as:

  • The Ten essentials
  • Proper clothing and the layering system
  • Map and compass
  • Basic first aid and safety
  • Climate survival (desert vs. mountains vs. snow)
  • Trip prep
  • Water treatment
  • Gear assessments and preparedness
  • Lightweight backpacking
  • Animal encounters (and how to avoid them…)

It was a comprehensive program to get people educated and feeling safe about their future outdoor adventures. Future plans people had were as simple as taking a day hike on their own to a multiweek adventure on the John Muir Trail. It was a common sense approach to backpacking. The best part was that we got to take the knowledge out into the field immediately to test out our gear, practice our map and compass skills and enjoy our nice southern Californian backyard.

Below is a recap of each trip. Each trip started early on a Saturday and ended Sunday afternoon, trying to cram in as much skill building as possible.

Desert Car Camp- Anza Borrego Desert near Indianhead Mountain- We cruised through some wild metal sculpture gardens to get to our campground- a free spot just outside the Anza Borrego State Park. From there we found spots to set up our tents and begin our field work. We focused heavily on map and compass on this trip, beginning to understand the 3D world with a 2D map. The most important thing about the desert is to always have enough water, at least a gallon a day, which means 8 pounds of water a day.

Day 2 started with a “tent tour” to see what tents would work well for future trips and  how we should assess gear for future trips. We also did a fun compass exercising, getting coordinates for a person “in distress”. We were given the direction in degrees and then the number of paces from our starting point. We had to really focus on maintaining a correct course and keeping the pace count accurate. My partner and I found our first victim, about 120 paces from starting, but missed the mark on our second victim 280 paces away.

Looking toward Borrego Springs


Desert Backpack: Goat Canyon Trestle

Two weeks after car camp and a few degrees cooler, I took my first backpack camp trip. Carrying 16 pounds of water and plenty of gear, I hiked into Goat Canyon with my classmates to see the old train trestle that went defunct after an earthquake. I started off carrying 42 pounds of gear (consisting of water, sleeping bag and pad, food, ten essentials, clothing layers, and a few other items). I kept my load as light as possible by sleeping under the stars with no tent. The weather was in the low 50s at night, so there was nothing to worry about. By the time we made it back to the car, I was down to 22 pounds.

During this trip, we did some rock scrambling, some more map and compass, and even got to see some of the bighorn sheep that Anza Borrego State Park is named after. The final highlight was the train trestle. It is a long train track with some incredible views. We ended up hiking about 5 miles on Sunday after all of our explorations.

42 pounds of stuff, and yes, a small log, for a group fire
Train trestle


Goat Canyon sunset
small windcave
sleeping arrangements in Goat Canyon

Mountain Backpack: Lytle Creek

We had planned to go to Mt. Baldy, but some cold wind and snow had our leaders call an audible to move inland a bit further and get some shelter from the mountains. We ended up checking out Lytle Creek which let us explore a nice waterfall and hike up into a typically nice lookout point, but we were fogged in.


semi-frozen waterfall
Lytle Creek

Snowcamp-Mt. San Jacinto

To cap off the class, we really went out into the elements and did a snow camp at over 8,000 feet. We prepped by wearing lots of layers balancing staying warm and not sweating to increase the chances of hypothermia. To stay warm, I shared a 4-season tent with a buddy to put a little more body heat in the tent and to also help lighten the load on the amount of gear I  had to carry. Four season tents are much heavier and designed to handle a snow load and stronger winds. 


wind-driven snow
almost whiteout conditions


Reunion Trip to Mt. Baldy- Harwood Lodge

To celebrate the completion of the class, the volunteer leaders host a reunion weekend at Harwood Lodge, a property owned by the Sierra Club’s Los Angeles Chapter. It was great catching up with some friends and bringing my family along. I often would talk about them on our weekend trips, so many were excited to see them in person. We had a laid back weekend and took a short hike to a waterfall and climbed up some small rock walls.

doing what they do best…exploring
naptime hike
sleepy kids in the new bags
Mt. San Antonio Falls

At first, I was slightly intimidated thinking about the complexity of being out in nature, miles from modern-day technology and “Security” but I soon realized I became much more comfortable in nature and could use some very basic techniques to have fun and be safe.

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