Frequently Asked Questions about Hiking the Backbone Trail:
- How did you plan your hike?I extensively used the book “Day Hikes in the Santa Monica Mountains” by Robert Stone to plan my hike.* The entire last portion of the book is dedicated to the Backbone Trail. This book divides the Backbone Trail into 13 segments based on natural trail heads. I have used the same numbering system from that book for the maps I have made for these blog posts. There is a huge network of trails crisscrossing the Santa Monica mountains, so this book provided valuable turn by turn directions in areas where many trails intersected. I found the book’s descriptions of landmarks to be very helpful and the estimates on distance to be pretty accurate. I would use my GPS and cell phone to calculate the distance I had traveled on each section and determine my precise location. (*Please note that the only edition of “Day Hikes in the Santa Monica Mountains” currently available was published in 2012, before the last portion of the Trail was completely finished. Mr. Stone clearly indicates the unfinished portion and it is still possible to use the book even though it has not yet been updated.)
- Is back country camping allowed on the Backbone Trail? No, as of April 2017, backcountry camping is not allowed on the Backbone Trail – which makes through-hiking very physically and logistically demanding. In order to camp at sanctioned campgrounds during my hike, I had to travel 30 miles from Malibu Creek State Park to Circle X Ranch.
- Weren’t you afraid to hike the trail by yourself? I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous. I would call or text my family and fiancé every few hours when I had cell service. As noted above, I had to travel 30 miles in one day – which took me almost 13 hours. The most nerve wracking moments came at the end of that long day as dusk was approaching and I was coming into my campground. Thankfully, however, I was nervous about nothing…I had no issues on my hike.
Did you have someone drop off food for you? No. I carried all my food. For breakfast I would eat 2 Cliff Bars and some energy gel. It was usually pretty hot around noon, so I didn’t really feel like stopping too long. Instead I would snack on beef jerky, fruit leather, nuts, and squeezable vegetable packs on the trail. When I got to my campsite I would boil water to make an AlpineAire instant meal. For dinner, I would make another AlpineAire instant meal before settling down for the evening.
- What did you do for water? Each of the campsites I stayed at had potable water – but there are not a lot of natural sources of water on the Backbone Trail. Therefore, each morning I would drink 4 cups of water right when I woke up. I would then load up my camel pack with almost gallon of water to bring with me. It can be very hot and exposed in the Santa Monica mountains, so I would recommend anyone planning any sort of hike in this area to bring extra water – even if it is just a day hike.
- How heavy was your pack? 34 lbs. fully loaded (including 1 gallon of water.)
- How did you train for hiking the trail? I trained for almost 8 months for this hike. My training took a few forms. I did day hikes on the weekends, I did one long test hike by myself, and I modified my daily routine to increase my mileage during the week.
- Day Hikes to Scout Locations: Every weekend, my fiancé and I would travel to different sections of the trail to scout the location and do 5-8 mile day hikes. We prioritized scouting the area around the Malibu Creek State Park campground and the Circle X Ranch Campground as they are both several miles off the trail. We also made sure to visit areas that looked confusing on my maps so I would be familiar with where to go after a long day on the trail. I would do these test hikes with my pack about ¾ of its final weight.
- Test Hike: I did a full day test hike 3 weeks before the final hike. Basically, I hiked the first day of the trail – Will Rogers State Park to Topanga State Park with my pack at 90% of its full weight. This was very useful because it allowed me to estimate how fast I could go during the actual hike. This test hike also helped me choose the items I wanted to bring with me during the hike, and helped me be comfortable hiking by myself.
- Increase Mileage: Since I had to hike 30 miles in one day – I knew I was going to have excellent endurance. I figured I would need to have the same level of fitness as I did when I was running an ultramarathon. I had a basic program where every morning I would walk approximately 1 mile to work. At lunch I would run 4-5 miles in the sand. In the evening I would walk approximately 1 mile home. On top of this, some evenings I would also build my climbing muscles by either running the Santa Monica stairs (8-12 times up and down) or running the California incline (5-7 times up and down). I would also go for one long run one day every week of 8-10 miles.
- What was harder: running a 50 km ultra-marathon or solo hiking the Backbone Trail? While both very demanding, I found my solo hike along the Backbone Trail to be harder than running a 50km ultra-marathon. Perhaps some of the difficulty was due to the mental strain of hiking solo and planning all the logistics myself. The distance on the longest day of the Backbone Trail ended up being was about the same length as a 50km ultramarathon. But, I had to go the distance carrying a heavy pack.