,Backbone is a 68 mile trail that spans the Santa Monica Mountains from Will Rogers State Park in Pacific Palisades to Point Mugu near Malibu. Backbone is a stunning trail with a ocean views, tree canopies, dramatic boulders, creeks, and wildlife. It is well-maintained trails with mostly good trail signage (some areas not so much) and a few bathrooms/water fountains along the way. It is accessible from several canyon roads like Topanga, Kanan, and Latigo so an out and back hike can be an excellent option for someone wanting to explore just a few miles at at time.
Over the past few years, I've run and hiked much of the trail in these small bite-sized sections but have had my heart set on traversing the entire trail in a more methodical way. While I'd LOVE to do it all in one shot, a more realistic approach for me is breaking it up into 3-4 sections. That journey started yesterday, November 8, with the first 23 miles from Will Rogers to Piuma Road.
RESEARCH: Setting off on a 23 mile hike that would take a projected 9 hours and involve over 4000 ft of climbing, meant doing some research first. There are multiple resources for learning about this trail system including the National Park Service and the County of LA websites. I personally stopped by the Santa Monica Mountains Anthony C. Beilenson Interagency Visitor Center at King Gillette Ranch to buy the 3 Tom Harrison maps that I have pinned up on my wall, guide books, and to speak to a Park Ranger (as of 11/9 though they are still closed due to the pandemic). There are also multiple online blogs like Hikespeak and AllTrails.
In this post, I'm not going to recount the details of the trails, the views, or the terrain. As you can see above, there are plenty of resources for that and honestly, until you actually get out there, it's all a bit of an enigma. Instead I'm going to focus on what I packed and how I fueled my 9 hour hike following SCD principles - i.e. real food, no grains, no processed sugar.
PACKING: I’m a bit type-A (my friends will laugh at the use of the word ‘bit’) so packing for a big hike like this involves spreadsheets, food tracking apps, and comprehensive lists! It takes (me) a great deal of thought to find the delicate balance between packing enough food, water and gear to meet my needs without weighing down my pack.
One of my tricks for organizing is putting my pack on a coat hanger before filling it with the hydration bladder, food, and gear. It hangs here until I'm ready to get into the car where I can hang it in on the headrest. This way everything stays upright, nothing falls out or gets squashed, and nothing leaks!
FOOD: When it comes to food, I like a balance of sweet & salty, as well as a good mix of protein and carbs. Being on a diet that restricts most processed foods, grains, or traditional sports fuels like gels means I have to be thoughtful with my calories.
I knew this hike would take around 9 hours and that I typically consume about 100 calories an hour. I wanted extra calories in case my food needs increased, or if I wanted to share my snacks with my friend, or if the hike took longer than expected. I planned on 150 calories per hour and ended up with about 1600 calories once it was all tolled.
Here’s what I brought:
Although the food I brought totaled 1600 calories, I ended up eating 1000 of them. I know this because I recorded the adjustments into my spreadsheet after the hike so I can track my caloric needs for next time. Of those eaten, 63% was carbohydrate. 14% was protein. 23% of my calories were from fat. 119 grams of sugar, 839 grams of sodium and 1044 grams of potassium.
The tuna in a pouch was the best addition to my pack! It was light weight and flat so easy to carry and had 140 calories. It was only tuna and olive oil so I added some dehydrated carrots for salt and crunch. I brought a disposable bamboo fork and tore the pouch open at lunch time and ate it right out of the pouch.
* Note that Country Archer beef sticks are not verified SCD and contain ‘powders’ that could contain trace ingredients to keep them from clumping or to enhance the flavor. That said, the ingredients of Country Archer include no sugar or gluten and are all recognizable to the English language. I eat these because I have been in remission for many years and can tolerate some foods that I wouldn’t have touched early on in the diet. Many people dehydrate their own jerky and this would be a great option for strict SCD
WATER & BATHROOMS
I carried a 2 liter (70 ounce) water bladder. I hydrated well with water and electrolytes the day before and knew there would be at least one water fountain along the way. It was a cool day with temperatures averaging 60-70 degrees so I never refilled. I felt well hydrated (proof was in the number of times I peed).
For planning purposes, note that there are real bathrooms/sinks and a water fountain at the start in Will Rogers State Park, at Musch Camp (mile 11), and a Dead Horse Parking Lot (mile 13). There’s a compost toilet at the Hub (Mile 8) with no sink, but it is currently locked and hasn’t been open since the pandemic – there’s a bench here to sit and eat a snack and trash cans. You can also go to Trippet Ranch near Musch Camp – it’s a slight detour off trail but it has bathrooms, water, and picnic tables (we found everything we needed at Musch camp though and it was right on the course).
WHAT’S IN MY PACK
Nine hours on the trail in the Fall means hiking from sun up to sun down and multiple changes in temperature. Here’s my list of things to take besides food and water:
Hiking poles – these were so amazingly helpful on this particular trail, especially the 4 mile climb up Hondo Trail and the last 3 mile descent towards Piuma Road when my legs were noodles. I credit them for keeping much of the pressure off my knees and hips.
Buff neck gaiter – during the pandemic a mask in a necessity for hiking or running near crowded trail heads. A Buff is the perfect mask because it has multiple functions, which is why I’ve been running with one for years. It’s an ear warmer for early cooler temps, it covers your head and forehead in sunshine if you forget your hat (like I did this trip), and it can easily wrap around your wrist so you can wipe your face or nose. It can also be a makeshift bandage in case of a scrape. I always carry a Buff!
Navigation – I wear a Garmin sports watch and I carry my phone and use the AllTrails App to help me navigate the trails. AllTrails has a great paid subscription that includes a ‘lifeline’ features where you can allow your emergency contact to see your progress and location on the trail. It also has a feature that alerts you if you go off trail which is really helpful if the course is confusing. Just be sure to put your phone on low battery mode and to turn up the ringer volume so you can hear alerts.
Sun/cold protection – Sunglasses, arm warmers or a long sleeve for cold weather or sun protection, weather specific hat, and extra socks that are great for a cold morning to wear as gloves or to change into if my feet get wet.
Personal safety items – my Nathan personal alarm has become a staple for the trails for me. It’s a lightweight siren that hooks onto my waist band and can be used to call for help or to alert animals that you are near. I also carry a pocket knife and wear a road ID bracelet.
First Aid Supplies – this needs to be functional but lightweight. Given that the trail we were one was never more a few miles to a road, it didn’t need to be too complex. I keep my first aid supplies in a zip lock bag that includes bandaids, butterfly bandaids, a gauze pad, small roll of gauze wrap, small roll of first aid tape, antibacterial ointment, anti-itch cream, antibacterial wipes, latex gloves, a dog poop bag for trash or as a waterproof wrap, Desitin diaper cream (contains zinc oxide which is great for skin chafing and it’s sweat resistant), aspirin, Tylenol, and salt packets (that I picked up from a take out restaurant.
Personal items – sunscreen, tissues, hand/personal wipes, hand sanitizer, eye drops (my eyes are prone to getting dry and scratchy), and lip balm
My husband picked us up post-hike and thank goodness for that because my legs were noodles. I had pre-packed a bag to keep in the car that included a cold cup of coffee (don't judge, I needed that at 4:30pm to get through the next few hours), flip flops, a plastic bag for my dirty shoes and socks, a towel to sit on, a sweatshirt, water, and some fresh fruit. A very welcome end to an amazing day of adventure - one that kicks off a series of hikes on the Backbone Trail!
About the Gutsy Runner!
Lucie is a runner, hiker, and fitness coach who follows the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) for her ulcerative colitis. She is currently on a year long birthday celebration that includes covering 2021 miles on foot and exploring some of the areas most iconic and beautiful trails. Read more