The short and the long of it
Author, long distance backpacker Inga Aksamit
Kenwood author Inga Aksamit never grew up hiking or backpacking. Although she was active and adventurous, moving frequently with her parents overseas, it wasn't until she was in her mid-40s that the native San Franciscan thought this backpacking thing might be something she'd like to try.
“I wanted to sleep under the stars and I wanted the experience of being a self contained unit out on the trail,” said Aksamit during a recent interview.
Now, more than a decade later, Aksamit is a veritable local expert on backpacking. Her two books, Highs and Lows on the John Muir Trail and the recently published The Hungry Spork: A Long Distance Guide to Meal Planning, have won awards in competitions sponsored by the Outdoor Writers of California.
Aksamit leads backpacking trips for the Sierra Club, is a volunteer hike leader for Sugarloaf State Park's Hiking for Fitness series, which culminates with hiking to the summit of Bald Mountain, and has taught an Intro to Backpacking class at Sugarloaf State Park for the past four years.
Aksamit started doing short backpacking trips in Tahoe, but she began to wonder about long distance backpacking after she met some Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru-hikers in Chester, California. The 2,663-mile PCT, which runs from Mexico to Canada and through the Sierra Nevadas, California's backbone, is regularly dangled as a coveted golden carrot for backpackers throughout the country, but it's a commitment requiring around six months on the trail. While that felt way over her head, Aksamit began to wonder just how long could she last out on the trail? Could a weekend warrior really transform into a multi-week backpacker?
After a trial run on the 72-mile High Sierra Trail, tackling the 211-mile John Muir Trail (JMT) (of which the High Sierra Trail is part) felt within reach. The JMT, which shares some of its length with the PCT, is also one of the premier trails in the U.S. It runs from Yosemite National Park to the top of 14,505-foot Mt. Whitney, meandering through the Ansel Adams Wilderness, Inyo National Forest, Devil's Postpile National Monument, Sierra National Forest, John Muir Wilderness, King's Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park.
The trail took Aksamit and her husband more than three weeks, filled with ominous mountain passes (ranging from 10,000 to over 13,000 feet) and altitude sickness, but also enchanting meadows, glorious views and an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.
“I'm not a world class adventurer, just a regular person,” said Aksamit, “not even in my 20s or 30s, and it is really possible.”
Her first book, Highs and Lows on the John Muir Trail (Pacific Adventures Press, 2015), she wrote for people like her. It recounts her experience on the trail in all its pitfalls and glory.
Along that journey, Aksamit learned a lot. Her second book, The Hungry Spork (Pacific Adventures Press, 2017), is a how-to meal planning guide and addresses the often daunting challenge of prepping and carrying food for a multi-day trek.
“Of course, some superhuman people can shop on Monday, package everything on Monday night and mail out their resupply containers on Tuesday morning,” writes Aksamit in her book. “More often, though, those people are the ones posting Facebook photos at 3 a.m. surrounded by cardboard boxes and zip-top baggies, their kitchen covered in a fine film of powdered milk, their bodies a heap of sobbing protoplasm.” This second book, which won second place this year as “Best Outdoor Guidebook” in an annual contest sponsored by the Outdoor Writers, provides tips and recipes for those looking to move away from prepackaged commercial freeze dried meals and assemble their own on the trail - often a healthier alternative. Aksamit, who suffers from migraines, was turned off by the commercial backpacking food that is often high in MSG and sodium, or backpacking recipes that skewed heavily toward traditional American cuisine.
Aksamit's recipes focus on healthy, nourishing foods that will sustain a long hike, and are easy to prep at camp. She wanted to diversify to different cuisines of the world, and included Asian-, Indian-, Moroccan-, and Cajun-inspired recipes. The recipes are what she calls “modular,” allowing hikers to substitute ingredients based on their preferred diet modifications. The book includes recipe variations and recipe reviewer feedback so readers can tweak the recipes to their liking.
One important thing to remember? “A stack of chocolate bars is all that's needed for dessert.”
After the JMT, Aksamit has continued backpacking, favoring hikes in the 100 to 200-mile range like the Tour of Mont Blanc in Switzerland, Italy and France, and the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail from Meeks Bay to Tuolumne Meadows.
Aksamit's next trip is on the long-forgotten 271-mile Theodore Solomons Trail. She hopes shining a light on this less-used California trail, which parallels much of the JMT route, will help take some foot-traffic off the JMT, which is getting more crowded every year.
“Almost every problem is solvable,” said Aksamit, whose focus in all her writing and instruction is on removing barriers. “Whatever your fear is - bears, lack of confidence, blisters - there are different ways to approach it.”
You can read more about Aksamit's adventures at ingasadventures.com or find her books on Amazon.com.
Editor's Note: The original article incorrectly listed the distance of the High Sierra Trail and that location of the Hiking For Fitness Series. It was updated on 6/22/2018.
Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.