Random Group of Hikers organizer Cesar Hernandez talks about his changing interests in the outdoors, backpacking, hot tent camping, and hiking and camping as a multi-generational experience.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: You grew up in Venezuela. Did you hike there, or did you start hiking after you moved to the United States?
CESAR: Growing up I did few but amazing hiking trips in Venezuela. I hiked the Roraima which is a table-top mountain between Venezuela and Brazil. I went with my dad three times when I was between 16 and 20 years old. Those trips really cemented in me a love for nature and the physical exertion of hiking. I also hiked the Avila multiple times which is a 9k+ mountain in Caracas. During my time in Venezuela, my main activity was mountain biking but not hiking.
When I moved to the US, I started eating a lot of fast food and pretty soon I put on some weight. I started running, and later trail running. In 2013 I was running ultras. I ran around ten 50k races and two 50 mile races. Sadly, in 2014 I tore my ACL. This was a very long recovery, and during my recovery process I picked up hiking as a way to get back to running at some point. I fell in love with hiking and never looked back. I found an amazing group of hikers (Random Group of Hikers) that have taught me and helped develop my hiking skills over time.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: I understand you also do a lot of backpacking and camping, even in winter, and you have got into “hot tent camping.” What appeals to you about backpacking, winter camping, and can you explain what hot tent camping is and why you like it?
CESAR: I have always liked going backpacking. In 2018, I hiked the John Muir Trail (which is the longest trail I have hiked) and I loved every part of it. There is something magical about backpacking, it makes you realize how little you actually need to get out there and be happy. All you have to do is eat, sleep and hike. Few years ago, I backpacked in winter for the first time and I was very cold. I thought it was not for me and did not do it anymore until recently. In November last year, I did a week class on mountain living in Maine. During that time, we learned a lot of things about living in the backcountry and hot tenting was introduced to me. Traditionally, it has been done by hunters for a long time, but more recently, campers have adopted it as a way to stay comfortable outside during winter. You basically put a wood stove inside your tent. There are many companies that make light stoves and light hot tents. Light enough to bring in a sled. So I placed an order for one. It was one of the best things I have done, because now my wife Vanessa can come with me and enjoy camping in winter.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Tell me more about sharing this experience with Vanessa and your children. What is it like for them?
CESAR: I started taking Vanessa camping in winter because we had a hot tent. A month later I convinced her to come with me on a regular winter backpacking trip. I think the secret is to have enough experience and pick a good day so anyone that is getting introduced to it can have a good trip. I think that’s key if you want to bring someone that is just experiencing it for the first time. My wife has loved the few trips in winter we have done together. In my case, I am willing to be uncomfortable, it’s part of the fun. With my kids, since they are babies, we have taken them car camping. We have a really big tent to make sure we have enough room inside for them. One of my goals with my kids is to expose them very early to camping and nature so they see camping as normal and continue loving the outdoors as I do. I have met many adults that think car camping is super adventurous, and I want my kids to see it as a normal, regular weekend.
This winter, I did a winter trip pulling a sled near Flat Mountain Pond in NH. The place is beautiful and the trail to get there is pretty easy. My wife and I are planning to take my older daughter there this summer for her first backpacking experience. She will be 4 years old by then, and our plan is for me to carry everything, and my wife will bring one of those backpacks that can carry a child in case my daughter gets tired. I am sure we will have many car camping trips this summer as we usually do. While hiking the JMT, I saw a few families hiking the entire trail. I cannot wait to do this trip with them when they are old enough.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: You mentioned that your dad took you on hiking trips when you were living in Venezuela. What is the most important thing you learned from those trips with your dad? Do you have any plans to hike with your dad again soon?
CESAR: My dad lives in Venezuela and he comes every other year. Every time he comes, I take him hiking. He still loves to be connected with nature even though we did not hike as frequently as we could when I was living in Venezuela. I believe that if my dad never took me backpacking the Roraima when I was teenager, I might not have developed the love for the outdoors I have today. The experience from our hikes is what drives me to expose my own kids to nature. I believe connecting early with nature is important to understand and appreciate the outdoors. I am expecting my dad to come this summer again (depending on COVID restrictions). If he is able to come, I would love to bring him to the Presidentials in New Hampshire, and hopefully do a backpacking trip so we can spend some dad-son time together.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: What was one of your best/ most satisfying hiking experiences, and why?
CESAR: The most amazing trip I have done is the John Muir Trail (JMT). As I was l working, I had to rush my trip and completed the 240+ miles in 15 days. I was able to enjoy every second of my hike, but I want to come back and go slower and hopefully with my kids. For anyone wanting to do it, I would definitely recommend they do it in not fewer than 23 days. On the JMT, you go over four national parks and the scenery is out of this world. For people living in New England, you often have to get above treeline to get amazing views but the JMT offers you days and days of never-ending amazing views.
Photo credits: Cesar Hernandez