Cross Country Routes – My History & Gear Tips
by Danielle “Sonic” Vilaplana
I don’t love hiking.
I realize that is an absurd sentiment for someone who has spent the past four years on long-distance trails and living in a truck to fund this lifestyle. But these trails were an easy way for an unskilled Midwesterner to get outdoors and there’s a lot of appeal to a culture focused on extended wilderness travel.
I hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2016 with no backpacking experience or conception of what I was doing. It took just over four months to reach Georgia.
McAfee Knob on the Appalachian Trail 📷@vilaplanet
The following summer and fall I hiked the Continental Divide and Arizona Trails. I was bored with deciduous forests and grasslands and intrigued by the alternate routes that juxtaposed the Appalachian Trail’s beaten path.
I had a rough time on the AZT but it influenced my transition to cross-country routes. My phone was stolen early in the hike so I had to navigate by reading the landscape when there were no markers. I also felt the panic of coming to a dry water source with empty bottles, learning never to rely on water in the desert.
Less than five months after finishing the AZT, Beans and I set off on the Hayduke Trail. The HDT is not actually a trail but 750 miles of interweaving lines through canyons, rivers, and mountains in southern Utah. It was my first true cross-country route and my first true love and a tantalizing hint of life beyond Guthooks.
Scrambling on the Hayduke Trail 📷@vilaplanet
The Wind River High Route 📷@vilaplanet
Though the King’s Canyon High Basin Route and Southern Sierra High Route had their merits, Steve Roper’s Sierra High Route is one I can truly see myself hiking again. Roper expertly knit together some of the region’s most beautifully remote places and gave glimpses into basins and peaks I would still like to explore.
His book paved the way for those seeking refuge from the mainstream hiking community in comically curmudgeon prose. Two decades later, my shift from the National Scenic Trails to map and compass routes mimicked Roper’s own seclusion in the Sierra and criticisms of the hiking community.
The Kings Canyon High Basin Route 📷@vilaplanet
I initially developed interest in hiking off-trail in 2017, after the CDT’s toxic ultralight male culture became overwhelming. I found myself intentionally taking remote alternate routes without my group and ultimately left in New Mexico to hike the AZT alone.
I am still drawn to this solitude as well as the navigational challenges of routes. I love being alone in these quiet spaces, or with a few friends, and it’s satisfying to know the history and greater context of a landscape beyond a narrow piece of singletrack.
Ultimately, I am most drawn to the challenges and opportunities to extend adventures beyond hiking and incorporate more gear, such as packrafts and climbing gear. Google Earth, Gaia GPS, and Caltopo are incredible tools for connecting geographical lines, be it dirt road, scree field, or river.
Shockingly clear lakes of the Sierra 📷@vilaplanet
Developing the skills for cross-country hiking (medical, navigational, etc) is far more important than the gear I’ve carried on these trips, but a lightweight pack is realistically more comfortable.
However, I’ve found conventional ultralight theology ill-suited to anything other than easy summer hikes. My 6lb base weight was awful on the Continental Divide Trail and I ran out of food on the Hayduke because I could not fit enough in my MLD Burn Backpack. I have a few mandatory pieces of gear for cross-country routes but ultimately everyone should find their own balance of comfort and weight.
I’ve listed below those items that have been the most useful to me but to each his/her own.
I download a bunch of info from the web about the route ahead of time. Day-by-day blogs from Wired and Carrot Quinn are great and I tend not to think about the trip again until I’m in the moment. I feel super prepared without putting in any actual effort.
Anker Powercore 20100
It’s heavy and possibly outdated, and I only find it necessary on trips with 5+ days between resupply points. But, GPS apps are draining and I am not particularly eager to navigate exclusively with map and compass, though I do feel comfortable doing so.
I also bring a camera with a terrible battery life and listen to music, audiobooks, and podcasts. Are you even in the Seventh Dimension if you don’t have Taylor Swift’s new album on repeat?
Paper Maps & Compass
Pie and Cheesy didn’t carry paper maps in the Sierra and I’m sure there are plenty of others with this philosophy.
But losing my phone in the past when I depended on it was rough. GPS can also disappear or be wrong – I’ve had my GPS stop functioning for significant chunks of time or lag for no decipherable reason. I’m not going to get Big Miles in if I’m waiting for my GPS to load.
Sonic navigating 📷@pieonthetrail
Patagonia Houdini Jacket
This might be the best piece of gear I own. It’s super light, super warm, and blocks wind like a boss hog. I’d recommend the orange color to get that nice Traffic Cone of the Natural World look.
Western Mountaineering HotSac VBL
This definitely saved me in the Sierra. Despite my opinion that wildly expensive UL gear should last more than one thru-hike, that is not the reality. My Neoair XLite popped and the ZPacks 10-degree bag felt like it was rated for 50-degrees. I would not recommend the HotSac to those looking to get a good overnight ab workout, however.
Kavu San Blas
Overalls, jumpsuit, dungarees, whatever. They’re synthetic AF and looked so cool. They were great for cross country hiking through brush and thorns, though the bottom is riddled with holes though and my sewing never held. So, I suppose they’re more ideal for less-scrambly routes.
Kavu San Blas – Synthetic AF 📷@pieonthetrail
We evacuated a comatose woman in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and only had a SPOT Messenger, which could not obtain a signal beyond the Chinese Wall. I also didn’t know what to do when my friend Peacock got injured in the Grand Canyon.
I know I said ‘to each his/her own’ when it comes to gear but this item is actually non-negotiable to me. One person in the group must have an inReach or something of comparable quality (not a SPOT). Being unprepared is a terrible feeling for you, and far worse for the victim.