Santa Barbara Backpacking for Beginners

I Learned Some Things the Hard Way So You Don’t Have To

IN GOOD HANDS: The author, left, in a moment of false bravado alongside his hiking partner, Sam the mountain man. | Credit: Courtesy

I’d been backpacking a few times before I even started to understand what I was doing, and what I was doing wrong. The lessons were tough ― not drinking enough water on a hot day and crumbling under the pain of a dehydration headache; wearing the wrong socks and rubbing both heels bloody and raw; eating a freeze-dried pack of beef stroganoff and almost hurling; etc.

Luckily, pain is a good teacher, and so is my good buddy Sam. Over the past year, when COVID cabin fever got the best of us, Sam and I took a handful of trips into Santa Barbara’s backcountry. Not very far, but far enough to make cell phones and chores and the news feel like distant memories. He imparted some of his lifelong outdoorsy wisdom, and I picked my own tips and tricks.

So, if your need to be in nature is very real and you’re looking for more adventure and solitude than car camping can offer ― but you’re a relative rookie to backpacking like me ― here’s a bit of advice. This is by no means a comprehensive list of dos and don’ts, but it should save you from learning a couple of things the hard way.

Don’t Break the Bank

It may be tempting to head straight to REI and load your cart with every nifty-looking gadget and piece of gear you can get your hands on. If you do that, though, you’ll quickly run up a tab that will make you rethink this entire enterprise. Instead, do a little online research and bargain hunting. Big 5 may even have what you need.

For instance, I spent $280 on a top-of-the-line Osprey back at REI. And don’t get me wrong ― it’s great. I love it. But I could have saved myself some serious dough if I’d done what Sam did and taken the time to consider my options. He recently replaced his old pack with one from Granite Gear. “It is easily the most thoughtfully designed, comfortable, and lightweight pack I’ve ever owned, and I got it on sale for $160 total, shipped to my door,” he said. “Can’t recommend it enough.”

The same rule of thumb can be applied to almost all of backpacking’s big-ticket items, like a tent, sleeping bag, and cookware. Check out blogs. Read reviews. And remember to think about what you and your family might already own. I use a Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad from the 1990s that I dug out of my dad’s garage. It’s a little bulky and probably not as comfortable as some of the newer models, but it gets the job done.

Choose Your Route Wisely

The first step is easy. Buy these two backcountry guides by Bryan Conant, a cartographer and the executive director of the Los Padres Association ― San Rafael Wilderness, and Matilija and Dick Smith Wilderness. They’re absolutely indispensable, and you can get both at bryanconant.com

Then, think about what kind of time and distance on the trail you can realistically handle. I’d stick with one or two nights out to begin with. Consider the mileage, but just as importantly, the elevation gain. That’s what will really get ya, especially as you hump around a 30-pound pack. 

In order from easiest to hardest, here are three there-and-back trips we recently completed. Sam chose wisely based on their accessibility, beauty, and the slowpoke he was with. (1) Lower Manzana Trail, Coldwater Camp, 5.6 miles; (2) Cold Spring Trail to Forbush Trail, Blue Canyon Camp, 9.8 miles; (3) Upper Manzana Trail, Manzana Narrows Camp, 13.6 miles.

There are countless other routes and sites to choose from, every one of them unique and appealing in their own ways. That’s the fun of it.

Bring Real Food

Remember, you’re spending 48-72 hours in Santa Barbara County, not trekking for a month across the Himalayas. That means you can afford to bring slightly heavier perishable food and not rely on space travel, just-add-water fare that tastes like salted plastic. I promise, it’ll make dinner when you’re tired and famished a thousand times more enjoyable.

Our last time out, based on what we already had in our respective refrigerators, we made a sausage/couscous/bok choy concoction. A strange combo, maybe, but it tasted great. And as they say, hunger is the best seasoning. En route, we snacked on apples and trail mix and had a lunch of salami and gouda on ciabatta rolls from Trader Joe’s. Way better than Clif Bars.

Consider Fire and Water

Always, always check for fire restrictions. Hot and dry weather will frequently force the Forest Service to ban open fires, campfires, or charcoal fires in the backcountry. That’s the case right now, actually, as Santa Barbara finds itself in yet another drought and fuel moistures drop. Visit fs.usda.gov for updates. You can still use a small backpacking stove, but you’ll need a permit. Get it at readyforwildfire.org.

The other critical element is water. Before you get going, you’ll need to know if there’s water along your route. Contact the nearest Los Padres ranger station for their latest reports. If the rivers and creeks are flowing, invest in a decent water filter and be strategic about when and where you refill so you don’t run out but also so you don’t carry unnecessary extra weight. If they’re not, you’ll have to lug all your hydration in, so plan accordingly. 

The Miscellaneous Necessities

As I mentioned earlier, foot care is paramount. Get good boots. Spend a little extra if you need to. And make sure you get the right socks for you. I discovered I’m somewhat delicate in this department and need a double-layered style to prevent blisters. Wrightsock is a good brand. It’s absolutely worth it, because there’s nothing more miserable than hiking in pain.

Other essentials, according to Sam, and I have to agree, are: a pocketknife, a basic first aid kit, a bandana, a headlamp, and a Bic lighter. Also a hat and sunglasses. Other than that, revel in freeing yourself from the trappings of modern life. 

And enjoy yourself out there.


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