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Hiking the Los Padres Backcountry

News & Review , 16 May 1975

Don Boekelheide

The backcountry behind Santa Barbara has everything. Beautiful vistas, intimate meadows, rushing creeks - you soon run out of adjectives.

If you have never hiked before, the San Rafael wilderness, behind Lake Cachuma and the Santa Ynez Mountains directly behind Santa Barbara are good places to start.

Nothing makes me happier than leaving the gas eaters behind. All I can say is, try it. You must experience first hand the silence of a midnight forest, or the peace which graces a sylvan glade by a silver brook, or the satisfaction of viewing the whole world below the mountain you climbed with your energy alone.

Do it. You don't need Exxon (Vote NO ON A, May 27) to get you high, or anyplace else. Do it yourself.
For veterans, remember that our close-in trailheads - save valuable time spent busing or (ugh) driving to Sierra Nevada trailheads. Save the out-of-county treks for periods of local high fire danger, and the rest of the time explore the wonders in your own backyard.

Three things to consider before you drop what you're doing, wave good-bye to the boss, and hike out the door are: what to take, what to watch out for, and where to go.

The Essentials

The N&R has compiled a list of the essentials for backpacking, plus a few of the conveniences which won't hurt if you have the room.

One basic need is a comfortable, well-balanced backpack. Styles differ, but for the beginner a frame type is probably best - and that means an ordinary, "Kelty style" frame pack, not a "hip suspension" or other such arthritic jumble of aircraft tubing. Local backpacking shops have a wide selection to choose from, and the N&R Classified ads often feature bargains in used equipment. Check a shop first, however, even if you want used equipment, to take advantage of their expertise.

Sleeping Bag
A second need is a sleeping bag. For the mild, local climate, a bag filled with polyester fiber is adequate, but if you intend to do hiking frequently or under colder conditions, investment in a down bag is wise. Even local mountains are cold enough, at times, to make you happy you have a down bag. Again, ask the folks at the backpacking shops.

If you do decide on a down bag, remember that a foam pad is necessary. Down crushed under a body has no insulating qualities, and that foam pad is the only thing to prevent the freezing ground from freezing you.

Tube Tent

For shelter, I prefer a simple tube tent. Now, watch out! They are offering these days "tube tents" featuring mosquito netting, double-stitched grommets, everything but two floors and hot, running water.

Steer clear of these turkeys, which cost as much as $50 and more. A tube tent is a simple tube of plastic wide enough to amply enclose a sleeping bag. A rope through the tube holds the plastic above, and the bag provides ballast on the bottom.

Most of the time it doesn't rain, so the hiker can use the tube tent as a ground cover. Sleeping in a tent is, most of the time, a huge waste, to my way of thinking. Sleeping under the open sky, alone or with a friend, is a thing too glorious to be stuffed inside a pup tent.

The song wouldn't be the same if the lyrics went, "I want to sleep with you in the desert tonight, with a canvas sack all around." 'Ugh.

If it rains, put up your tube tent-but only one bag per tent is safe, since plastic can suffocate the crowded or the careless. Also, never sleep in a tube tent without the rope secured. For information, ask at the store.


For foot care, take lots of socks, and lots is of baby powder to put on your feet every chance you get. Wear two pairs, cotton on the inside and wool on the outside.

Food is important, since among other things it is often the heaviest part of your baggage. It shouldn't be. The corner grocery store has lots of products in the genus "Riceroni" which, shelled of their cardboard containers, make light, easy-to-fix meals, even for "vegies" like me.

A mix of dried fruits, seeds, nuts and legumes (peanuts or soynuts) provides a lunch rich in vitamins and protein. I like to very lightly salt with sea salt such "trail mix," to prevent weakness from salt loss through perspiration.
For breakfast, nothing beats granola. I mix enough for one meal in a baggy with dry milk, and have breakfast at the first stream crossing or nice view.

A Boy Scout mess kit is more than ample for fixing. A product called Vegelene keeps things from sticking. Just take spoon and fork, since you already have a pocket knife.

Some folks with stronger backs and a craving for BHT take canned food. Others with unlimited resources shell out a small fortune for freeze-dried escargots, and other modern wonders. Not me. Who needs it? (Except, you know, those freeze-dried plums are good...)

Watch out for two things in the mountains, especially. The first is thirst. Always carry water. Even if the map says "river," this can be dry country. So bring a one quart or larger canteen, one for each member of your party. Always.

Second, the chaparral is tough, so stay on the trail. The romance of pretending to be a pioneer is not worth dying of heat-stroke and fatigue in a thorny tangle of brush. Or, stumbling over a nervous rattlesnake.

Rattlers are common here, but they want to avoid you at least as much as you want to avoid them. They are occasionally deadly to people, while people are almost always deadly to them. Look before you put down your foot and you'll be safe. And, if you see a rattlesnake, just-leave it alone. It just wants to lunch on rats, and be a moroccas player in the natural band.


Now, where should you go? To get a good start, get a hold of the new book "Trails of The San Rafael Wilderness" by M. Hiester and R. Ford available at local camping stores. In the book are a number of trails to choose from. A couple of suggestions (see map, above):

Upper Oso to little Pine Mountain: This day hike is a real rocketship, climbing from about 1000 feet to over 4,500 feet in about five miles. Two friends of mine made it up in about four hours last week, and described the wildflowers as "the ultimate." From the top, you can see across the Santa Ynez Mountains to the Channel Islands.

Manzana Schoolhouse: A good overnight for newcomers starts at Nira Camp near Davy Brown, at the end of Happy Canyon Road. Following the river for about six miles beyond Nira brings the hiker to a large, meadow campground near an abandoned schoolhouse built for backcountry pioneers. Close-by are Indian cave paintings and lots of nice swimming holes.

There are many other trails, too numerous to even begin listing here. Head down to one of the local stores, or call the Sierra Club for more information.

But now is the time. Wildflowers are blooming, the weather is neither too hot nor too cold, rain is unlikely but the creeks are full. See you in the backcountry.