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Mark

Sitting atop the summit of Mount Saint Helens, with views of over a hundred miles in every direction, a passage from a novel came to mind as I sipped a cup of coffee and gazed at distant peaks. Seemingly appropriate when applied to an exceptionally clear autumn day observed from atop a mountain, an experience that makes one feel full of life. It felt like the “most beautiful day in a thousand years. The October air was sweet and every faint breath a pleasure.” As Annie Proulx wrote in the book, Barkskins.

Climbing and Hiking Mt. Saint Helens

My climbing partner Kerra and I had begun the hike up Mount Saint Helens at 5 a.m. sharp, leaving our camp under a starlit sky with an archetype of a crescent moon making its way toward the horizon. We had camped just below 4,800 feet in elevation and had approximately 3,500 feet of elevation to gain on our way to the 8,365 foot summit of one the Northwest’s most famous stratovolcanoes.

Kerra and I had meet two years prior when we were both hiking the Loowit Trail, which loops around Mount Saint Helens and is one of the most dramatic hikes in terms of scenery-per-mile that I have had the pleasure of hiking. We kept in touch after that hike and had since ice climbed in Montana and backpacked along the Oregon Coast. When Kerra let me know she had a spot on a permit to climb Mount Saint Helens in early October I jumped at the chance to climb a mountain that I had already circumambulated the base of, which would be a hiking “first” for me. Although I do not consider myself a “peakbagger”, as I’m often most content simply ambling along in the woods and spending my time looking at up peaks from lakes while I flyfish, the opportunity to summit Mount Saint Helens had a distinct and irresistible appeal.

Mount Saint Helens Approach

Approximately the first half of our climb was by headlamp and we reached the snowline after less than an hour or ascending. The amount of snow on the mountain, which was fairly substantial for so early in the season, was fortunately more of an aid than a hindrance. As we climbed, the final dark hours of night transitioned into the ethereal predawn glow, and then into a beautiful and clear morning with brilliant blue skies. The colors of the sunrise were vivid and the sight of the sun rising near Mount Adams was absolutely breathtaking.

View Towards Lake from Mt. Saint Helens

Kerra, who had summited Mount Saint Helens three times previously, remarked several times on how helpful the hardpacked snow was. It allowed us to travel above the ashy and sandy slopes on the final summit push, which can make for frustratingly slow going in summer conditions. Additionally, the ash and sand are easily whipped up by the winds which usually blow across the summit, which can make hanging out atop the mountain a less than enjoyable experience.

Fortunately for us, not only was the wind so light and infrequent as to be almost unnoticeable, but the ash and sand were covered up by snow. This allowed us to stretch out up top, make some warm drinks and breakfast, and enjoy the view for almost two hours before starting our descent. Given our early start and the permit limitations that keep the number of climbers to a steady, but not overwhelming, stream we ended up having the summit to ourselves for almost an hour.

Hiking to the Summit of Mt. Saint Helens

The summit view was made even sweeter by the fact that I could see Mount Adams, thirty miles away in a straightline distance but seemingly so close you could reach out and touch it, which I had also hiked a loop around. Several other mountains were visible that had trails around them – such as Mount Rainier and Mount Hood – which provided ample inspiration for future adventures in Washington and Oregon. Looking into the crater of the volcano, the surrounding mountains, and the intriguing waters of Spirit Lake (which are filled with floating dead trees that were blown into the lake by the May 1980 eruption) made the time fly by. We were still able to enjoy beautiful views on the way down, although the snow was starting to soften up and we encountered several groups of hikers headed up.

Trail Sign at the Base of St. Helens

While the mountains in Montana, the state where I reside and do most of my backpacking, has amazing mountain ranges which provide a lifetime of backpacking, you are almost always hiking in the mountains rather than around them. While this experience is incredible in its own way, a hike involving something like Mount Saint Helens is something different to experience. My take on this could be partially due to the novelty of the experience, hiking around mountains provides a sense of scale and majesty that is different from trips which venture into the heart of mountain ranges, even if you do climb a peak along the way.


Information: A permit is required to climb Mount Saint Helens. Please the permit information page on the website of the Mount Saint Helens Institute for current regulations.

Getting There: Travel on Forest Road 90 and near Cougar, WA turn north onto FR 83. Drive north on forest road 83 to forest road 81. Make a left onto forest road 81 and drive 1.6 miles and turn right onto FR 830. Follow this to the trailhead.

Best Time to Go: Mount Saint Helens can be climbed year-round, although winter ascents require technical skills and equipment. Summer can be uncomfortably hot as the climb provides little shade and the rocks can radiate heat they absorb from the sun and windblown ash and dust can be irritating. The weather can be less reliable, but late fall can be a perfect time for a climb.

Maps and Books: The Green Trails Map for the Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument is an excellent resource, National Geographic offers their Trails Illustrated Mount St. Helens and Adams Map, and this guidebook provides detailed information about hiking in Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument.

Susan Dragoo

It’s almost as if the Pacific Ocean is a magnet, pulling me west each time I venture out to explore. While I take full advantage of the natural wonders offered by my home region in the central U.S., if I am traveling very far to hike, it is usually somewhere west of Oklahoma. As a result, I have hiked very little in the eastern United States, though I’ve managed to walk short sections of the Appalachian Trail on trips to Vermont and Maryland. Not much to brag about.

Trail Marker Near the Appalachian Trail, Hiking in Shenandoah National Park

Recently, I was in Virginia on business with my husband, Bill, and found myself with a free day, presenting an opportunity to experience a slice of the hiking in the East. We were stationed only a 30-minute drive from the southern boundary of Shenandoah National Park (SNP), so it was a natural choice. The 200,000-acre park is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains in western Virginia, stretching 105 miles from north to south. One main road, Skyline Drive, runs the distance of the long, narrow park and most hiking trailheads are accessed right off that main road. With more than 500 miles of hiking trails at SNP, there’s plenty to choose from. But how to choose? Since I was coming from the south and wanted to maximize my time hiking rather than driving, I picked a trail in the Loft Mountain area, about 20 miles north of the park entrance. And who doesn’t like waterfalls? SNP is full of waterfalls and I selected a couple of trails that appeared to have nice cascades, connecting them in a loop with a section of the Appalachian Trail, which runs all the way through Shenandoah. My total walking distance would be about eight miles, a nice length for a leisurely day hike.

Arriving in Shenandoah early in the morning on a cloudy October day, I pulled into a nearly empty Jones Run Trailhead, pleased to be getting ahead of the weekend crowds. There was only one other vehicle there and I let its owner get on the trail ahead of me. I was alone, since Bill was working, and I preferred some solitude on the trail. The leaf-strewn path lined with ferns took me down, down, down into the hollow toward Jones Run Falls, a 42-foot cascade. I knew what the long descent meant – what goes down must come up. But for the moment I enjoyed the easy walking. Raindrops began to pepper the forest canopy and I thought how silly I was to have forgotten a rain jacket.

Blooming Flowers along the Trail in Shenandoah National Park

In spite of what the calendar said about the season, there was little color change in the oaks and hickories, and what little existed was muted by the overcast skies. The temperature was pleasant, though, and the rain had stopped. I was enjoying myself thoroughly, nearly scampering along on the rocky trail.

“I got my picture of a bear,” said a hiker, approaching from the opposite direction. The gray-ponytailed man in a ball cap stopped to explain he had just seen a bear on the trail and was able to capture a photo of it. He said he’d had to wait a while before proceeding, watching the bear cross the creek and eventually clamber up the hillside.

I thanked him and continued, a little more watchful in case I too might get such a photo op. Soon I came to Jones Run Falls, but it was only a trickle, as the area had been experiencing drought. The 42-foot cascade was a 42-foot dribble, but I imagined it would have been quite spectacular with water. Continuing, I crossed the creek and began to ascend, now on the path toward Doyles River Falls.

There are two falls along the Doyles River Trail, the upper and lower. Like Jones Run, there was only a trickle of water flowing across them. As I approached the lower falls, my solitude ended. Crowds of hikers, young and old, human and canine, were coming down the hillside as I climbed up, up, and up. If they were looking for spectacular waterfalls, however, they were out of luck.

Waterfall and Cascade in Shenandoah

Soon I came to a spring surrounded by a wall of mossy stones. A sign there pointed to Doyles River Cabin. Curious, I followed the spur trail to find a woman and two young girls sitting on the front porch of a rustic house. “I didn’t mean to intrude,” I said. “I saw the sign and wondered what was up here.”

“No worries,” said the woman. “You’re not the first hiker we’ve seen today.”

“I accidentally locked us out,” said one of the girls. “My daddy’s gone to get the ranger so we can get back in.” Probably more information than the mother would have liked her daughter to share with a total stranger, but then I also probably looked (and am) pretty harmless. I wished them luck and turned back, continuing my climb. It was a relief when I reached the top after the long ascent, and there I found the trail marker for the Appalachian Trail (AT), indicating a 3.4-mile walk back to Jones Run, my starting point. The AT was narrower than the trail I’d just been on, appearing less trafficked at this point. Right away, I saw bear spoor on the trail, and only seconds later another such deposit, renewing my alertness. I started walking more quickly and making a bit of noise, becoming nervous about a bear encounter.

Soon I began to meet other hikers on the trail and relaxed a bit. Then, lo and behold, I came across the first hiker I’d met, the guy who took the bear picture. I told him I hadn’t seen the bear and he asked about my camera, a lightweight mirrorless I was carrying around my neck. He was carrying his big DSLR with its huge lens in a waist pack. Good for pictures, heavy for hiking.

Shenandoah Overlook

Bidding him adieu, I soon reached my car, well satisfied with the hike but hungry. I drove a little farther into the park to the Loft Mountain Wayside and grabbed a late lunch, then began my return trip. As I drove south, the sun broke through the clouds, lighting up the red leaves of the maples along the roadside, so much so that I was compelled to stop at a turn-out and admire the view. The wind freshened, and as I left, autumn leaves skittered across the road and onto my windshield. Fall, it seemed, had just decided to arrive.

Information: Shenandoah National Park lies along the Blue Ridge Mountains in north-central Virginia. Almost 40% of the land is designated as wilderness and protected as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. The highest peak is Hawksbill Mountain at 4,051 feet.

Best Time to Go: As with most of the southeastern deciduous forest, spring and fall are generally the best times to go, avoiding humid summers and often snowy winters in the mountains.

Getting There: Shenandoah National Park is located about 70 miles west of Washington, D.C. The park has four entrance stations along its 105-mile length. The Jones Run Falls trailhead is located at mile 84.1 in the south district of the park.

Maps and Books: A map for the Jones Run Falls/Doyles River Falls loop is located here. Note, however, I connected the two trails with the Appalachian Trail rather than with Browns Gap Road. National Geographic also offers their Trails Illustrated Shenandoah National Park Map.

Several guidebooks are available on Amazon, including a Falcon Guide to Hiking Shenandoah National Park.

Mark

The Rocky Mountains provide hikers with countless opportunities to immerse themselves in backcountry areas filled with quintessential landforms. Majestic mountain peaks, sublime subalpine lakes, waterfalls, glaciers, and wildflower-filled meadows come immediately to mind. Rolling high-altitude plateaus, cascading mountain streams, and fragrant forests of dense conifers are also key contributors to this enchanting landscape. Somewhat surprisingly, there are even some natural arches scattered across the Mountain West, mixed in amongst the gendarmes, sawtoothed ridgelines, and other rock formations.

The Larch Tree of the Northern Rockies - Hiking in Search of

Despite the abundance of grandeur in many regards, there is one piece of natural phenomena that the Rockies lack – the stunning display of fall color that deciduous forests come alive with each autumn. The mosaic of reds, oranges and yellows, presented in a stunning variety of tones – from brilliant to muted – is one of the most captivating sights in the mountains of the eastern United States. From New England to the Great Smoky Mountains, the trillions of leaves clinging to well over 100 species of trees form an enchanting tapestry of color. An almost kaleidoscopic canopy hangs above trails that traverse an already wonderful landscape for hiking.

While the West lacks the type of forest that bestows hikers with the unique experience of hiking during peak fall foliage in New England or the southern Appalachians, it isn’t entirely monochromatic during the fall months. Aspens turn a rich yellow before dropping their leaves and many shrubs turn vivid reds as the nights get colder and the days grow shorter. However, in the high country of the Northern Rockies and the North Cascades hikers can witness a spectacle that – while lacking in the breadth of Eastern foliage displays – is mesmerizing enough to plan a backpacking trip around.

Hiking during Larch Season in the Northern Rockies

Larch trees, also known as tamarack and containing several subspecies, look similar to spruce and other conifers, but every autumn their needles turn gold and drop to the ground. They’re somewhat of a contradiction: a deciduous conifer. When the sunlight hits these trees, which are the dominant species at certain elevations and in certain cirques, they emanate a glow that is almost iridescent. There are several different subspecies of larch, and going into the complexities of them is beyond the scope of this article, and the word “larch” throughout this piece refers to those found in Montana, Idaho, and destinations in Washington (such as the Pasayten Wilderness). Specifically, it is the alpine larch (larix lyalli) which is the focus of this piece.

Backpacking During Larch - larix lyalli Season

The sight of a golden conifer is magical enough on its own and would be worth hiking a few miles to see even if it was in the middle of a cornfield. That said, the context in which fall larch are set often increases the amount of awe to mystical levels. The subalpine and alpine country where the larch inhabit is both Spartan and spectacular. Rock, hardy conifers, and lakes tend to dominate the landscapes in these upper reaches of the Mountain West. Summer is short and the legacies of glaciers and dramatic geological forces are front and center. The summer months are understandably the most popular time to visit the high country, as the weather is about as benign and predictable as it gets in the mountains (which isn’t saying much). The days are long and allow a lot of miles to be covered while still providing plenty of time for a refreshing (or bone chilling) swim in a lake and lounging around camp. Or, for the ambitious, hiking up a peak near camp.

Mountain Lake with Fall Larch Trees

Late fall in the high county comes with many rewards. The complete lack of biting insects is a major plus and the fishing in fall can be excellent. The larch trees, of course, are a bonus that can’t be understated. Lakes that would be crowded on a July weekend can become lonesome in late September and October. There are also some challenges in late fall as well. There is the potential for wet, heavy, early season snow which can be challenging to hike through or camp in. Earlier sunsets and clear skies allow for excellent stargazing, but the nights can come with a frigidity that lets you know winter is not far away.

For hikers well-prepared for camping in shoulder season conditions, few things can be more memorable than a trip to the high country to see the larch. If you’re able to catch them at peak, with a dusting of snow on the ground and blue skies overhead, you will likely make a visit to see the larch a yearly pilgrimage.

Information: Larch trees are common in most subalpine areas of Montana, Idaho, and Washington’s Cascade Mountains (you can find a map of past destinations that we've featured in TrailGroove Magazine at this link). They are typically found near treeline and usually begin turning in late September through the middle of October, although this can vary some from year to year depending on conditions. Consult guidebooks, ranger stations, and trip reports to get information about where the larch are at and how far along they are in turning when planning your visit.

Mark

With backpacks loaded and my friend Drew in the passenger seat, both of us eager to head to subalpine lakes with hungry trout, I turned the keys in the ignition and proceeded to break one of my cardinal rules of backpacking: don’t start in a trip in the middle of a holiday weekend. As advantageous as having an extra day off work to extend a backpacking trip is, if you’re spending that time on a crowded trail only to end up at an area where all the best campsites are taken the “victory” is at best bittersweet. I usually take precautions to avoid that outcome – picking remote destinations, getting a head start and being deep in the backcountry by the time the weekend rolls around, or going to a national park where the backcountry campsites are crowd-controlled by permits. Neither of those were options for this particular trip, we rolled the dice, rolled out of the driveway, and hoped for the best.

Backpacking in the Bitterroot Mountains

One of the perks of living in a small city on the edge of a 1.3 million acre wilderness area is that if you arrive at a trailhead that is a bit too crowded for your tastes, you can simply drive a bit further to another one without delaying your hike too much. Our plan was to head first to the most appealing trailhead for the type of trip we desired – a trip featuring lots of fishing and not much more hiking than necessary. If our first preference had a packed parking lot, we would just drive a half-hour to the next trailhead, potentially repeating this process a time or two until we found our spot. One of the great luxuries of the Rocky Mountain West. Making this plethora of option sweeter was the fact that, unlike our trip to Yellowstone the previous week, no permits were required. It was simply a “choose your own adventure” situation with no park entry fees to be paid, campsites to be chosen, or miles to be covered regardless of weather conditions or energy levels.

Although there are virtually endless options for backpacking within a few hour drive, I often find myself returning to the same lakes year after year, and sometimes within the same season. Sometimes this is to introduce others to the beauty of a place that I’ve grown fond of, or to be able to plan a trip for a novice backpack where I will more or less know what we will be getting into, or out of the sheer convenience of its location and the time involved in reaching the main attraction. Certain places tend to shine in certain seasons as well. While the lakes we hoped to visit were wonderful in summer, they are truly spectacular in late autumn when the needles of the larch trees turn gold before falling to the ground.

Hiking in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and Bitterroot Mountains

When we arrived at the trailhead on Sunday morning of Labor Day weekend and saw only two other cars, we celebrated our good fortune and contemplated going back to town to purchase a few lottery tickets. The trailhead, less than an hour outside of town and with almost half the driving on a gravel road, is usually one of the more popular destinations for quick trips or family backpacking excursions. The canyon it provides access to is almost too good to be true. Hosting several lakes (four with good fishing), a beautiful stream, a lofty peak with several minor summits on adjacent ridges, and enchanting larch forests in late September, the canyon can reasonably be viewed as a microcosm of much of the high country of the Bitterroot Mountains. A moderate three-mile trail leads to the first lake and the others are reached by bootpaths that are more intriguing than intimidating. Our destination was the third and highest lake in the trio (the other two lakes are separated from the primary chain of lakes) which arguably has the best fishing and the most spectacular scenery. We allocated plenty of time to get there, as the lower two lakes are fun places to wet a line and get some practice catching the small cutthroats before heading up to the larger fish at the upper lake.

Bitterroot Mountains Hiking Trail

In no rush, we plodded along the pleasantly graded trail, occasionally pausing to eat a few of the ripe and brilliant red thimbleberries. Just shy of the halfway point to the first lake, we met a backpacker headed out. Our odds of having the upper lake to ourselves, which were already looking pretty good, had just doubled. Energized by our good fortune, we kept up our pace and soon arrived at a quintessential subalpine lake on what can only be described as a perfect summer day in the mountains. Temperatures in the mid 70s, light breeze, and no clouds in the stunningly blue sky. The icing on the cake was seeing trout rising on the glassy water, well within casting distance, and no one else in sight.

Easing our way along the talus slope on the northern shore of the lake, we stopped often to take advantage of the plentiful room for a backcast. After getting a good warm up of our casting arms and hook removing fingers, we took a lunch break before starting up the faint path to the upper lakes. Adequately but not obnoxiously marked by cairns, the path gained elevation quickly over granite slabs after exiting the patch of forest that clung to the inlet stream. Combined breaks for catching our breath and admiring the scenery slowed our progress, but we reached the middle lake without being too far behind on our non-existent schedule. Relying on the notion that if a lake has fish, and there is daylight, then there is time to fish, we put the lines back on our Tenkara rods (an excellent rig for backpacking) and tossed some flies on the water. Finding ourselves just as successful as we were on the lower lake, we enjoyed an hour or so of relaxed angling bliss before shouldering our packs and heading to the uppermost lake.

Lake and Fishing in the Bitterroot Mountains

The push to the final lake went much quicker than from the lower to the middle lake and we arrived at the unoccupied and awe-inspiring body of water just as the sun reached its highest point in the sky. Rising and sizable trout tempted us on our way to scope out campsites and, as expected, we were unable to resist. A crisp and refreshing swim washed off the sweat from the hike and refreshed us for the minor camp chores and a long afternoon and evening of fishing and soaking up the subalpine splendor. Taking time to scope out the best campsite, we set up our tents on a small rise with a commanding view of the lake and near a small granite peninsula that was a perfect spot to cast from.

Bitterroot Mountains Backpacking Campsite

With camp set up and hours of daylight ahead, we waded into the cold but tolerable waters to fish a drop-off where the water deepened quickly and a cold inlet stream pushed oxygenated water, and whatever bugs it had picked up, to the center of the lake where larger trout swam. This was Drew’s first experience with camping and fly fishing at a mountain lake – each activity being outstanding on its own, and when combined, far exceeding the sum of its parts – and few things could have gone better. No mosquitoes, ideal weather, eager trout, no crowds, and no rush to hike out the next day. Late in the evening, our hunger became more of a priority than catching fish, so we traded our rods for stoves and cooked up dinner as twilight settled over the mountains. The stars eventually became as enrapturing as the fishing had been and we stared upwards until we had no choice but to either involuntarily fall asleep under them or head to our tents. We reluctantly but prudently chose the second option.

Sunset in the Bitterroots

Awakening to a mild morning, we once again marveled at our good fortune. An almost empty parking lot, uncrowded trails and campsites, blue skies overhead – a perfect holiday weekend trip. Making the most of it, we took our time packing up and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and more fishing before beginning our descent. Just as we were leaving the lake, three hikers descended from the larch-filled basin above the lake. Our paths crossed again while we fished the lowest lake. Their dayhike was a long but rewarding route that I was familiar with – it passes four lakes, summits a peak, and features a three-quarter mile ridge walk on stable talus. On our way out, we passed nearly a dozen hikers headed in to enjoy a nice forest walk on Labor Day and arrived at a trailhead with four times as many cars as when we had left.

In the decade I’ve been backpacking, I’ve had some memorable Labor Day trips: a half-foot of snow falling overnight in the Beaverhead Mountains in Montana, starlit soaks in lonesome hot springs in Idaho, a smoky traverse of North Cascades National Park, and a cozy campsite in the Beaver Creek Wilderness of Kentucky. The subtle perfection of this trip makes it a worthy addition to that list and a type of outing that I’ll be trying to repeat in early September for years to come.


Information: Trailhead access in the Bitterroot Mountains and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness is often best suited for higher clearance vehicles and for those who have a sense of adventure, but more accessible trailheads can be found. The area offers an array of outdoor exploration opportunities – from backpacking to fishing to hot springs; see this Issue 41 article for more on the area.

Best Time to Go: The Bitterroot Mountains are typical for the Rockies in that prime backpacking season can be found from approximately mid-June to September, snow pack and early fall snow permitting. At other times of the year, winter conditions can be anticipated.

Getting There: The Bitterroot Mountains and Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness can be explored via Highway 93 (east) and Highway 12 (north) and from the cities of Darby, Hamilton, Missoula, and Stevensville.

Maps and Books: The Forest Service publishes their Bitterroot National Forest North Half and South Half Maps, and Cairn Cartographics also has this option available. For a guidebook, see Hiking the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness by Scott Steinberg.

Aaron

Along with the other meals that we’ve recently reviewed in the Backpacker’s Pantry Outdoorsman Line, this meal is a 1 serving freeze dried meal that focuses on delivering 500+ calories and 30+ grams of protein to solo hikers (or the outdoorsman) in a meal that requires minimal water for rehydration and won’t take up much space in your pack.

Backpacker's Pantry Outdoorsman Cincinnati Chili with Beef Review

The Cincinnati Style Chili with Beef Meal contains 540 calories and 35 grams of protein to be exact, and only requires 1.25 cups of hot water and about 15-20 minutes of rehydration time. Containing the Backpacker’s Pantry take on Cincinnati Chili, the meal is based around pasta, beef, cheese, onion, and beans, plus a blend of spices and flavorings ranging from chili powder to cinnamon and cocoa powder. The end result is a meal that builds on ingredients that are classic ingredients that always seem to hit the spot in the backcountry, but adds a fresh take with the blend and variety of spices they’ve also included in the package. And other than perhaps a little dash of pepper (somewhat oddly excluded from the ingredients), there is little reason to reach for one’s backpacking spice kit with this meal. Once the rehydration wait time has been completed the meal somewhat surprisingly seems to soak up all the minimal water that needs to be added without the soupy consistency you can get with some other meals of this nature.

Outdoorsman Cincinnati Chili Ingredients and Nutrition

Of all the meals in the Outdoorsman lineup, for me this was the best tasting meal and offers a fresh take on something of a more traditional chili mac type meal. The spices in this meal separate it from just about anything else out there and I only found myself thinking that perhaps, adding some additional cheese would have taken the meal to the next level. As suggested on the front of the package hot sauce would have been a great addition as well, however since it wasn’t until after I ate the meal that I read the entire front of the package I’ll have to wait until next time in this regard. I also – as opposed to the Outdoorsman Beef Stroganoff Meal – found that the beef included with this meal had an entirely different (in a good way) quality, as it seems to end up coated in the tomato sauce and has much more of a normal ground beef type consistency and impression.

Backpacker's Pantry Cincinnati Chili with Beef Ready to Eat

Overall this meal is quite good and with the compact packaging, minimal water required, and the uniqueness that the spices add to the meal this one might find a somewhat regular spot in my backpacking meal rotation. For one person, the 540 calories in this meal are a great start and if you need to boost it up from that, the aforementioned extra cheese addition as well as some olive oil (unlike many meals from Backpacker’s Pantry, this meal does not include an olive oil packet) will certainly make this a workable meal for larger appetites and long hiking days.

The Backpacker’s Pantry Outdoorsman Cincinnati Style Chili with Beef Meal retails for around $10. Find it here at Amazon and at REI.com.

Aaron

Another option from the Outdoorsman Line of meals from Backpacker’s Pantry, their Beef Stroganoff with Egg Noodles promises their chef’s “real deal”, just add water take on stroganoff – a recipe that is not without competition in the freeze dried meal category. As with the other options in the new Outdoorsman Line, their beef stroganoff meal is designed to be a one serving meal with a lot of protein, and in a compact, packable form factor.

Backpacker’s Pantry Outdoorsman Beef Stroganoff Review

This option packs 530 calories into a package that won’t take up much space in your pack, with an accompanying 35 grams of protein in a meal that is based around egg noodle pasta, freeze dried cubed beef, olive oil (included as a separate packet), sour cream, and mushrooms. After removing the oxygen absorber, then opening up the olive oil packet and adding to the other contents of the package, one only has to add a backpacking mug’s worth of boiling water (1.25 cups), then allow 15-20 minutes for rehydration. Once the brief wait is over, this meal rehydrated well – although be aware that this meal in particular did have some stubborn spices in the bottom of the bag that resisted initial attempts to stir and distribute all the ingredients equally into the rest of the meal’s contents, so make sure you’ve packed a proper utensil (long handle suggested) that will allow you to stir the meal well.

Beef Stroganoff from Backpackers Pantry Ingredients

My impressions of the meal were mixed – the sense of a good stroganoff is definitely to be had here, but the broth / sauce was more of a soup-like consistency as opposed to the thick, stick to your ribs type of sauce that I usually look forward to when sitting down with a good bowl (or pouch when it comes to a freeze dried version) of stroganoff. This may come down to preference however. Along with the mushrooms, the beef in the meal is at the forefront and my nitpick here is that the cubes of beef are all extremely small – although there are many of them, and they are cut in such a seemingly precise manner that it’s just a bit of an odd culinary experience reminding one almost of a manufactured meat product. As one of my favorite foods, I wish the mushrooms had been fresher tasting as well and overall these impart a strong earthy overtone to this meal, and if you don’t like it there will be no escaping it when it comes to this meal. When it comes to the Outdoorsman Line, I will have to give the nod to the other options in the lineup such as their quite good chicken lasagna or their Cincinnati chili (which we’ll review shortly).

Backpackers Pantry Beef Stroganoff Meal Rehydrated & Ready to Eat

If however you are a fan of stroganoff and especially if you have a palate that sounds like it would be in disagreement with my assessment above, this meal is certainly worth a taste test in the lineup, and when it comes to the Outdoorsman Line in general the options here are almost perfectly suited for solo ultralight or lightweight backpacking. The meals are lightweight (like most freeze dried meals), but they also don’t take up much space and rehydrate with minimal water for a suitable one person meal for those with an average appetite, and serve as a good base to a larger dinnertime meal on those longer, higher MPD types of backcountry trips.

The Backpacker’s Pantry Outdoorsman Beef Stroganoff Meal retails for around $10. You can find it here at Amazon as well as here at REI.com.

Mark

As a backpacker, I’ve found few things more enjoyable than hiking over a nameless and trail-less mountain pass to beautiful subalpine lakes with trout swimming in their frigid waters. In the mountain ranges of Montana, this isn’t too difficult a feat to accomplish, at least logistically. However, the physical challenge of gaining nearly a thousand vertical feet in well under a mile of horizontal travel is nothing to scoff at, regardless of your conditioning. With millions of acres of public land and hundreds of subalpine lakes, Montana is a veritable playground for those who like their trails lonesome and their lakes trout-filled. Although there are plenty of mountain ranges to choose from when planning hikes, I’ve found the eastern Pioneer Mountains well worth returning to for multiple visits.

Backpacking the Pioneer Mountains of Montana

On a recent mid-September trip, for example, I passed eight lakes – seven of which had fish in them (six of which I actually caught fish in) – and crossed two mountain passes with wonderful views. One of the passes had a faint trail over it, the other was cross-country travel through fairly open subalpine forest. Surprisingly, even given the low population and massive landscape of Montana, I only encountered one other group during my three-day trip. For five of the lakes I stopped at, and one of the ones I camped at, I was the only person there. In an era of increasing permits and quota restrictions, and decreasing opportunities for solitude on public lands, to be able to have such a trip during a prime weather weekend was fairly lucky, but by and large such luck is not unusual in the Pioneers, at least in my experience.

Hiking Trail in the Pioneer Mountains

Lacking the “name brand” recognition of Glacier or Yellowstone National Parks (two of Montana’s biggest destinations for outdoor recreation), the Pioneer Mountains aren’t on the agendas of most tourists visiting the state. Their somewhat out of the way location in the southwestern part of the state, away from the few cities that are the centers of population, the Pioneers are mostly left to those who are relatively local or to avid backpackers and hikers in the state who can look at a map and recognize the wealth of opportunities for unbeatable hiking and backpacking experiences that lay within them. Although lacking in official wilderness designation, many of the trails in the eastern Pioneers are non-motorized and non-mechanized, allowing only foot travel and equestrian use. The western Pioneers, which are more subtle and lower in elevation, have more motorized and mechanized use but still have great options for hiking and backpacking. The primary trails in the Pioneers are in remarkably good shape and often have gentle grades and great tread, with some exceptions for the steepest sections up to certain lakes.

Cutthroat Trout and Fishing in the Pioneer Mountains

With many high mountain lakes (most lakes are at elevations between 8,500-8,950 feet) clustered fairly closely together, the eastern Pioneers are especially attractive for backpackers looking to spend some of their time fishing. Many lakes were stocked in the past, with some still seeing regular stocking, and cutthroats and rainbows (or hybrids) are the most common fish to catch. Catching trout 12-14 inches is not uncommon in many lakes, with some holding fish even larger. In my experience, trout in mountain lakes can frustratingly vary from striking virtually any fly thrown on the water to being exceedingly picky and fickle. This can even vary from lake to lake on the same day, and given how close some lakes are to each other this can mean that you can go from striking out to hitting a grand slam just by packing up and hiking a mile.

The Eastern Pioneer Mountains

Although there are some nice campsites along creeks and tucked in the forest along the edges of meadows, for the most part the best campsites are at the lakes. Many offer excellent tree cover to shelter you from wind but still experience the subalpine scenery and majestic views of talus slopes stretching upwards to sheer cliffs and lofty mountain peaks. Several passes easily reached from the lakes provide breathtaking views, but routes up to peaks are relatively indistinct and can require significant scrambling or traversing on unstable talus. Hiking up to these passes, even if you don’t intend on crossing them, is well-worth the effort as a side excursion from a campsite at one of the lakes.

Lake in Montana's Pioneer Mountain Range

While the Pioneers lack any outstanding loop trips, no backpacker would be disappointed with an out and back trip to any of the lakes. The mileage seems to go quicker on the trail than it looks on paper, which is an unusual but welcome idiosyncrasy. Having a shuttle can make for particularly enjoyable trips, especially given that distances between trailheads along the Wise River Scenic Byway isn’t particularly long. A bike shuttle is even a reasonable option for certain trips, provided that the time and energy required are factored into the planning.


Information: No permits are required for hiking or backpacking, although rules regarding group size and duration of stay do apply. For specific information, please visit the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest website.

Best Time to Go: Late June to mid-October is the best time of year to hike in this area. Early in that span includes the possibility of snow on the mountains passes and lingering around high mountain lakes (some of which may not be totally unfrozen), later in this span means the potential for chilly nights and early season snowfall. Mosquitoes can be unpleasantly abundant for a few weeks in July and August, although this is often when the wildflowers are at their peak. August and September offer generally pleasant weather and great fishing at the mountain lakes.

Getting There: The Pioneer Mountains are most often accessed from Interstate 15 near Dillon, MT, with the western side of the eastern Pioneers and the eastern side of the west Pioneers accessed via the Wise River Scenic Byway between the tiny towns of Wise River, MT and Polaris, MT. Access to trailheads on the western side of the west Pioneers is from Montana Hwy. 278 and Montana Hwy. 43 near Wisdom, MT and Jackson, MT.

Maps and Books: The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest (Central) map provides a non-topographical overview of the area and is a good resource for planning general routes. Maps for specific areas should be printed out via Caltopo or a similar resource. Exploring Montana’s Pioneer Mountains by Leroy Friel is one book that covers the area. Hiking Montana (a Falcon Guide) also covers a few hikes in the Pioneer Mountains, as does 100 Classic Hikes: Montana by Douglas Lorain.

Aaron

This meal from Backpacker’s Pantry offers up their take on chicken lasagna in a 1 serving meal and is from their new Outdoorsman Line – a series of meals that are all a single serving and have a compact form factor. The Outdoorsman Line meals have a slightly higher level of calories and are also higher in protein compared to generally accepted backpacking meal standards.

Backpacker's Pantry Outdoorsman Chicken Lasagna Review

This Chicken Lasagna Meal offers up 530 calories and 34 grams of protein, and is based around some hard to beat ingredients when it comes to comfort food: tagliatelle pasta, chicken, cheese, butter, and olive oil to name a few. The Outdoorsman Line packs quite compactly – these meals are really nice in that they don’t take up a lot of space in your food bag and the packaging even has rounded edges so that nothing else (or your OPSak if you use one in combination with an Ursack) gets punctured, so you don’t have to trim any sharp corners when packing food for a trip. After adding the olive oil to the contents of the package (this comes as a separate packet), the meal needs only 1.5 cups of hot water and about 15-20 minutes of rehydration time.

Backpackers Pantry Chicken Lasagna Meal - Before Rehydration

I found the meal to rehydrate perfectly and even though the sodium level is high here – 54% of your daily intake – I did not find it to be as up front as another meal we recently reviewed in the same line – the Chicken with Rice Meal. Perhaps this is just because it’s lasagna and could be more expected and a better fit in this type of meal. Taste wise, the meal is pretty good and deserving of being worked into a backcountry dinner repertoire on a somewhat regular basis. If anything, I do feel that the meal could use a little something; the first thoughts I had when testing the meal on a trip over the summer was that it lacked a little bite and could use more variety on the cheese (the meal is based on mozzarella and parmesan), and some oregano – the last ingredient. However, the meal serves as a good enough base that one could spruce it up to suit their own tastes, perhaps by bringing along some spices (extra oregano or basil would be great), or cheese of their own to add in, which would also boost the calories after a long day. One small bonus I did like about the meal is that it does not cause a nearly impossible to clean residue on one’s backpacking utensil, a common issue among freeze-dried lasagna style meals that results in a utensil that for the most part, stays that way for the rest of a trip.

Outdoorsman Chicken Lasagna from Backpacker's Pantry - Ready to Eat

Overall, this resulted in a nice meal and I’ll be packing this one along to mix things up on future trips – although I may also pack along some extra spices to go along with it. The Backpacker’s Pantry Outdoorsman Chicken Lasagna Meal retails for about $10. Find it here at REI and on Amazon.com.

Aaron

Backpacking with a dog always involves taking along additional gear to ensure the comfort and safety of your canine companion, and when it comes to backpacking throughout the seasons or in higher elevation areas, some type of solution should be brought along to keep your pet warm at night. In combination with a foam pad, in the past I’ve used everything from an unzipped down jacket to a kid’s sleeping bag for this purpose, to another dog sleeping bag (from Ruffwear) that's available. When it comes to Nunatak's solution, their dog bivy is appealing both from a functionality standpoint and in regards to the product's low weight.

Nunatak Dog Bivy  - Sleeping Bag Review

While all of those past solutions worked, down jackets would fall off throughout the night, a kid’s sleeping bag is just not the right shape and size, and at 26 ounces, the Ruffwear dog sleeping bag is more weight than I'd prefer to carry for this purpose. Last fall, I learned that a company who normally specializes in making insulated ultralight sleeping bags, quilts, and garments – Nunatak Gear – based in Moab, Utah was making an insulated, lightweight to ultralight dog bivy / sleeping bag. Not only that, but after a couple emails it seemed they were also completely open to any customization requests and after placing my order – with some patience required for the 2 month+ wait time – I’ve been testing out the Nunatak Dog Bivy this summer with help from a 45lb heeler.

Insulated Ultralight Dog Bivy and Sleeping Bag from Nunatak Gear

By default, the Nunatak Dog Bivy is available in 2 different warmth levels, in 5 sizes, and in 3 different fabric durability levels (10D, 20D, or 40D) all with a waterproof silnylon inner lining. In all cases, synthetic Apex insulation is used on both sides with one side warmer than the other. The 3 season dog bivy uses a combination of 3.6oz/yd. and 2.5oz/yd. Apex while the 4 season goes up to 3.6oz/yd. and 5.0oz/yd. insulation. The bivy has a rectangular shape with a zipper on 3 sides. Obviously, one is able to mix and match their desired weight, warmth, and durability needs here. For my order – I did ask for a change and an add-on, which included changing the silnylon liner to a more typical breathable fabric like you'd normally find in a sleeping bag. Additionally, with insulation underneath your dog being so important for warmth, and since with other solutions I’ve had to reposition dogs back on their sleeping pad throughout many nights, I also asked if adding a pad sleeve for a cut to size closed cell foam pad would be possible. Fortunately, Nunatak was able to fulfill both requests and even had some design suggestions on the pad sleeve idea which they worked into my order.

Nunatak Dog Bivy - 3 Season with 20D Fabrics

The size medium ended up being the absolute perfect size for my 45lb, medium size heeler and outside of the stuff sack weighs an appealing 14 ounces in 20D fabrics. The included stuff sack wasn’t a dry bag type however, so I’ve been using an 8L Ultrasil Dry Sack from Sea Summit. One could definitely get away with a smaller stuff sack, but I find the 8L is nice in that it doesn’t over compress the insulation, and I can choose how much compression I’m going for simply by rolling the top more or less. Packed, the bivy / sleeping bag fits well in one side of the Ruffwear Approach Pack my dog will often use. And at less than a pound, if I’ll be carrying everything it’s no big deal. Warmth wise, the dog bivy has been fine for typical 3 season type trips and nights in the Rockies.

Nunatak Gear Apex Dog Sleeping Bag

On colder nights I’ll add a Ruffwear Cloud Chaser Jacket to the system and at all times the bivy is used with a cut down section of a RidgeRest SOLite. Using down insulation instead here would have been interesting for insulation longevity and maximum weight savings / packability, however the synthetic Apex used is nice to have for peace of mind during extended wetter weather or on trips where for whatever reason you might end up with a wet dog at night. Ease of use is the best thing about the Nunatak Dog Bivy. After setting up the bivy and the foam pad, by completely unzipping the top of the bivy and laying the entire top of it aside, one can allow the dog to get settled, then zip around and over the dog, leaving a smaller opening on colder nights. Additionally, the dog doesn’t need to be oriented on one particular side so no matter which way the dog lays down you’re good to go.

Overall, the Nunatak Dog Bivy has turned out to be the near-perfect niche solution that I’ve been looking for all these years, and although I can’t say I’ve ever waited this long for a gear purchase to arrive, the wait was well worth it. When it comes to a proper dog sleeping bag / warmth solution and with a multitude of standard sizes, fabric choices, and with 2 warmth options (in the future I may also look at the 4 season), one can really end up with just what they need…but not more than they need…which is what it’s really all about.

The Nunatak Dog Bivy retails for $150. Find it here at Nunatak Gear.

Aaron

One of 4 meals in the newer Outdoorsman Line from Backpacker’s Pantry, the chicken with rice meal reviewed here is a single serving meal containing 500 calories and 33 grams of protein. The meal is made by adding 1.5 cups of hot water and waiting 15-20 minutes for rehydration, and is essentially chicken, rice, vegetables, and a chicken gravy that Backpacker’s Pantry describes as “no-fuss comfort food the world over”. This 4.4 ounce (net weight) meal is also gluten-free, making it worth a look for those with such a dietary requirement.

Backpacker's Pantry Outdoorsman Chicken with Rice Meal Review

One of the things I like about the new Outdoorsman Line is the packaging style and shape, as it seems fit more easily inside my Ursack than other meals from Backpacker’s Pantry or other manufacturers, and the rounded corners are friendly for limiting punctures to something like an OPSak liner, or other food for that matter. In any event, with our test meal here it was a bit difficult to follow step one of the directions (remove enclosed oxygen absorber) as none could be found in the package despite extensive searching through the dry contents prior to adding hot water. The 2nd step is adding the contents of the included olive oil packet to the rest of the meal – always a welcome way to boost calories in the backcountry. After adding the required 1.5 cups of hot water, and pausing for some introspection (about 15 minutes worth) the meal rehydrated well on one night of a recent 5 day trip.

Chicken with Rice Backpackers Pantry Meal Nutrition and Ingredients

Taste wise it was tough to make up my mind on this meal from Backpacker’s Pantry. The most prevalent component of this meal palate wise is salt, and checking the back of the meal revealed that the meal contains 1230mg of sodium or 54% of your daily intake so perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise. However, it would have been desirable for my tastes if the sodium level had been reduced, as it would be easy to bring along some salt to add to the meal as needed, but we can’t take it out if it’s already in there. The vegetables could also be more prevalent and the chicken gravy is quite light, in fact checking out the ingredients it appears that it’s not actually a chicken gravy but is rather based on other ingredients, although this is mostly par for the course when it comes to freeze dried meals. My overall conclusion on this meal is that the sodium level should be reduced and I think the meal is in a bit of a no-man’s land when it comes to what it’s trying to be. Of all things it reminded me most of chicken fried rice…just imagine that without the egg or the frying. For more of a chicken and gravy type meal I'd say the gravy could use a boost here to add more of a southern theme – and throw in some extra pepper while we’re at it.

After Rehydration (Chicken with Rice Meal from Backpacker's Pantry)

While not a pro or a con for me, the meal is gluten-free and I can perhaps see this meal being best for those gluten-free backpackers out there that are looking for additional options to mix in when it comes to pre-packaged, just add hot water meals and who are fans of the basic components of this meal (chicken, rice, salt).

The Backpacker’s Pantry Outdoorsman Chicken with Rice meal retails for about $8. Find it here at REI and on Amazon.com.

Mark

As far as hiking gear goes, trekking poles are one of the most utilitarian and least flashy pieces of gear out there. Whereas sleeping bags, tents, backpacks, down jackets, and rain shells all seem to have copious amounts of energy and ink expended in marketing campaigns to promote them, trekking poles seem to have a much lower profile.

Gossamer Gear LT5 Carbon Fiber Trekking Poles - Review

There’s just something about these simple pieces of gear that doesn’t really inspire the enthusiasm and consumer-fever that gets people worked up about discussing fill power, hydrostatic head, Dyneema Composite Fabric construction, and the Holy Grail of true waterproof-breathability. Perhaps it is because trekking poles are relatively simple items and a quick substitute for them – a stick lying on the ground in the forest – has existed since humans began walking upright and found themselves needing a temporary extra appendage to add balance in certain situations. Whereas sleeping bags, down jackets, and rain jackets are more cutting-edge and, given the amazing benefits they provide, lead themselves to greater fandom than mere trekking poles. Add in the fact that most of the aforementioned pieces of gear are non-negotiable and absolutely necessary for most three-season backpacking trips, while trekking poles can easily be left behind without ruining a trip (try forgetting a sleeping bag and still having a good trip), and it is no wonder that trekking poles usually fade into the background in discussions and magazine articles about gear.

Regardless of their lack of hype when compared to other items on the outdoor gear market, trekking poles provide significant benefits to hikers, especially those carrying the weight in food and gear needed for multi-day backpacking trips. Benefits range from stability on uneven terrain, reduced strain on knees, balance when crossing streams or when on snow, to somewhat less tangible ones like their ability to help hikers get in a better rhythm when moving on easier terrain to really crank out the miles (although this certainly varies from hiker to hiker, as some simply stow the trekking poles when the terrain mellows out). For backpackers using tarp shelters and certain models of tents, trekking poles serve as the support for the shelter and allow it to be pitched without needing separate poles that only serve one purpose.

Carbon Fiber LT5 Gossamer Gear Trekking Poles

Granted, trekking poles aren’t something used by all backpackers or even all avid and experienced backpackers. One hiker I know, who has logged over 30,000 miles during four decades backpacking, doesn’t use trekking poles. Another avid backpacker who has explored the rugged terrain of Montana for over 50 years only uses them when snowshoeing. Some complain about the added piece of gear, that they can get in the way, the straps get tangled up in their hands, and so on and so forth. Others, including this author, couldn’t imagine a backpacking trip without using trekking poles and proselytize to novice hikers about their benefits at every opportunity. To quote the Red River Gorge guidebook author Jerrell Goodpaster, in regard to trekking poles “some swear by them, others swear at them.”

Like all pieces of gear, not all trekking poles are created equal. Different locking mechanisms (the twist locks of the LT5s compared to the lever locks of REI's Flash Carbon Poles), handle materials (cork vs. rubberized vs. foam), collapsibility (three-section, Black Diamond’s z-poles method, etc.) all have certain benefits and drawbacks. Some of this boils down to personal preference, and some to the conditions where you plan to use the poles. For general three-season on-trail and easy cross-country hiking, models such as the Gossamer Gear LT5s – an update to the previous LT4 trekking pole – are popular for their excellent mix of compactness, minimal weight, comfortable handles, and suitability for most non-mountaineering hikes. The Gossamer Gear poles are not cheap – at $195 for the pair there is a lot of other gear that could be purchased – but their performance is commensurate with the price.

LT5 Trekking Poles from Gossamer Gear

The most striking thing about these poles is their minimal weight. At 5.3 ounces each (which includes the strap and mud/snow basket on the bottom; they are a scant 4.6 ounces without these), these poles truly are feather-weight. This low weight made my initial uses of them an exercise in suspension of disbelief, as the ability of such a light pole to fully support my weight with a backpack on rocky terrain and with all my force on one pole was astounding and amusing. It really was almost hard to “trust” these at first, as I was coming from using poles that were more than twice as heavy. After a few hikes and unexpected stumbles in which these poles saved me from a fall, I was totally converted.

The low weight is a result of their carbon fiber construction, resulting in their top-tier price. From bicycle wheels to skis, carbon fiber has led to reduced weights without sacrificing performance in multiple categories of outdoor gear. Although carbon fiber can fail catastrophically and with little signs of warning (like the obvious cracks you would see in a steel bicycle frame when compared to a carbon fiber one), this shouldn’t dissuade you from using carbon fiber poles (the high price would be a more legitimate excuse). There is barely perceptible lateral flex on these poles when under extreme duress, and this seems to be the most likely way that these would fail in the field. The types of forces typically exerted on trekking poles, the consequences of failure (unlike a bike, you probably won’t be going 30+ mph if a trekking pole failed), and the improvements in quality and durability over the years mean you should feel secure in choosing and using carbon fiber poles. No warranty against breakage of the carbon fiber tubing is offered however, so if a section does end up breaking, you’ll need to purchase the fix (replacement sections are available) through Gossamer Gear.

In addition to the minimal weight, the ability of these poles to be compacted to less than two feet (23.5”) when stowing them is a great feature. When needing to stow them to make both hands available when scrambling in Class 3 terrain or when they weren’t needed on easy terrain, it was great to be able to pack these away in those types of situations. And the added weight to my pack was barely over a half-pound. The max length is 51" when fully extended, so if you plan to use these for a shelter you will want to factor that in as well.

Preference for handle material varies from user to user and I found the handles on these poles to be a great material in a variety of conditions. During the few months of testing, I didn’t see any noticeable deterioration in the materials despite exposure to a variety of conditions and lots of sweat. The handle material is preferable over rubberized handles, and these are some of the nicer handles I’ve used with superb handle comfort, one of the most comfortable handles I've ever had on a trekking pole. The strap is functional and not overly burdensome or inconvenient – it simply functions as it should with no remarkable characteristics. The included rubber tips and baskets are helpful for the conditions where they are appropriate and replacements can be easily ordered at a reasonable price from Gossamer Gear when they are worn out or go missing. The tip traction is great on a variety of surfaces and the snowbaskets are easy to add and remove.

LT5 Trekking Poles Showing Grip, Tip Options, Measurement Marks, and Expander

Perhaps the most important part of a trekking pole is having an absolutely solid locking mechanism to prevent the poles from unexpected slipping when loaded with weight, which often occurs during a slip or when bracing when climbing up or down something, or crossing a creek. While the vast majority of the time the changes in length of the pole as a result of slippage were microscopic over the course of a moderate backpacking trip, there were a few instances where significant slippage occurred. Both were when crossing creeks that were deep enough to cover the twist-locks and when I had to fully weight the poles to gain enough balance to not slip. The slippage didn’t result in injury, but it also did not inspire confidence in a situation where I needed it most. I will accept some role in perhaps not tightening them down as much as I should have after adjusting them prior to the crossings, but overall I think that this more an issue with the twist-lock mechanism and not solely user error.

While I've been pleased with poles and they've met my expectations, the price tag on them makes it difficult to unequivocally recommend them. Although I would be surprised if anyone purchased them and found them lacking, there are many other more affordable options out there for hikers just needing a pair of poles and not overly concerned about their weight. Aside from some limited slippage of the locking mechanism, there were no major issues of concern that I encountered when using these poles. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, I'm hopeful that these poles will be with me for as long as my previous pair of poles, which was nearly a decade.

The Gossamer Gear LT5 Trekking Poles retail for $195. You can find them at here at Gossamer Gear.

Aaron

Performing a few simple yet vital tasks, our choice of a backpacking pot is one item that the rest of our cooking gear will frequently revolve around, especially if you like to pack your entire cooking kit inside your pot. A backpacking pot serves as a vessel in which we can prepare our backcountry meals and heat or even sanitize water if needed – and despite being such a simple item it is not one easily replaced. In fact, if one were only allowed to take a few items of gear into the backcountry a good pot would be near the top of one’s list. This article will cover basics on backpacking cookware selection while focusing on the main player in this department – the backpacking pot – as we’ve already covered mug selection and backpacking utensils at the aforementioned links.

Selecting the Best Backpacking Pot and Cookware Options

Capacity

With options out there in nearly every shape and size, the first step in narrowing down our cookware selection process is choosing the right capacity. In this regard we want to go with the smallest pot that will adequately cover our cooking needs, since weight increases with capacity. For solo use, pots or mug / pot combos in the range of 600-900ml are usually ideal for weight conscious backpackers. Sizes on the low end of this range will serve one well when it comes to boiling water for freeze dried meals or freezer bag style cooking, but if you like to cook simple meals in your pot, larger options are suggested. In these sizes many options will be of the mug / pot combo variety, like the Toaks 750 or the MLD 850. These choices, while often being on the large side for a mug and on the small side for a pot, can save some weight and keep your camp kitchen simple by having only one vessel, whether it’s needed for morning coffee or meal preparation. For more involved meals it may pay to go with a larger, dedicated cookpot however along with a smaller dedicated mug.

A Solo Size Mug and Backpacking Pot Combo from Toaks

For groups of 2 or more however it will be time to move to a dedicated mug for each person, but a single pot can still be shared if desired. Here it pays to increase capacity as we’ll be boiling more water at once and having a pot that can handle this capacity will increase efficiency. Generally, unless appetites are limited and you plan to split single meals, moving into the 1000ml / 1liter + capacity range is needed, and it’s nice to have a little buffer to lessen the chance of spilling or boiling over. For 2 person trips the Evernew 1.3 liter pot has been about right for me, not only for basic meal preparation but this 1.25-1.5 liter range works very well for a wider range of cooking needs, from boiling water for 2 freeze dried meals, to cooking up a pasta dish right in the pot, or for comfortably heating water for an entire Nalgene.

For larger groups you will simply increase the capacity from here, although you can use your normal 2 person pot with multiple boils for the occasional group trip if needed. This won’t be convenient for meals that are made in your pot, but can work for boiling water to go around for meals that just need hot water. At some point however it may pay to take separate cooking gear for speed, convenience, and for requiring less group coordination – and large pots are difficult to pack. Additionally, larger pots may also be too unstable, or too heavy when filled, to work with your stove of choice – suggested maximum pot sizes can often be found in your stove user manual. Solo or in a group, one situation where you will want to step up in capacity is if you’ll be going winter backpacking and melting snow for water – with low water content in snow it can take a lot of snow melting to get those water bottles filled.

Backpacking Pot (Evernew) with Insulated and Folding Handles

Features

Once you’ve decided upon the right capacity, there are a few other features to look for in the cookware department. One of the most important is shape. If you’re going solo and choose a pot / mug combo option, your pot will probably end up looking like a large mug. However, when choosing a dedicated pot something shallower and wider is desirable over a skinny and tall form factor and the wider pot will be able to use more heat from your stove and increase your fuel efficiency on the trail. A nice tight fitting lid is essential for further fuel efficiency, as are ways to “handle” your pot. Look for collapsible handles, and if the handles feature an outer insulating material (often for lifting the lid as well) this can be helpful while adding minimal weight. However, ultralight cookware will often omit this feature to save weight, and in this case you can still handle the pot with a pot holder (bandanna, etc.) and / or by always making sure to configure your handles upwind.

If you’ll be cooking more complex meals in your pot quite often a non-stick coating can be helpful, but may have health considerations or concerns for some, will add weight, and can scratch if the proper utensils or cleaning methods are not used. The ability to perform cooking tasks such as dry baking would also be limited. Additional features to look for include measurement marks stamped right on the pot to make meal preparation easier, and a built in pour spout is a nice to have for spill reduction when you’ll be transferring hot water to another vessel. This could be the case when heating up water for a Nalgene bottle to make a shoulder season heater for example.

Pour Spout on Evernew 900

Materials

While exceptions exist, most of the time for backpacking purposes we’ll be deciding between two materials – aluminum and titanium. Titanium will be the most expensive option, but is very light and strong, allowing pots constructed of this material to be of a very thin gauge. And while debatable, if aluminum cookware poses a health concern / consideration to you, titanium would be the way to go. For actual cooking, with its thin gauge construction and tendency to develop hotspots, titanium can be challenging, but not impossible to use if you’ll be performing more complex trail cooking tasks in the pot like trying to bake a trail pizza, simmering, or when cooking less watery meals where burning is more likely to occur than with aluminum pots. Aluminum pots conduct heat across the pot surface more evenly and distribute the heat better, while still being pretty light, and cheaper. In the end the best material to choose comes down to budget and personal preference / style.

Optional Items

Once you’ve settled on a pot, a mug (or pot that can also be used in this regard), and your utensil of choice about the only thing left to consider might be a plate or bowl of some type. If you’re making freeze dried meals no plate will be needed as you’ll be eating right out of the bag, and if you’re solo eating out of the pot or eating freezer bag style will certainly save you the weight and extra cleanup of bringing a dedicated solution here. Lids of larger pots can be used, and mugs can perform double duty, but if a dedicated plate or bowl is still needed various solutions like the popular Fozzils Bowls are worth a look, and other options include this Snow Peak titanium option. This category is a bit of a luxury however, so it pays to go as light as you can or accomplish this task with your other cookware if possible and if weight is a concern.

Backpacking Cookware - Larger Size Mug Pot Combo

Whether you end up with an ultralight titanium mug / pot combo for the lightest trail weight or an anodized aluminum all around cookpot sure to be great the next time you need to sauté a side dish in camp, much like a good down sleeping bag camp cookware is one area where it does makes sense to invest. Of all the things I pack on backpacking trips and while a lot of gear changes over time, I still often pack the same titanium pot and mug that I’ve been using for over a decade.

For a list of backpacking cookware that you can sort and filter by many of the options we’ve discussed above, take a look at this page at REI.

Mark

Depending on what time of year you’re hiking and your latitude, a headlamp likely alternates between something you might barely use (summer in Alaska) or something you’re using when cooking dinner, breakfast, and for the many hours in between (winter in most of the northern hemisphere). Not to give a particular piece of equipment too much credit, but in a certain sense a headlamp is an almost biblically miraculous piece of gear – where there is darkness, it provides light. Whether that’s for illuminating the trail as you crank out post-sunset miles or reading in the tent, a headlamp doesn’t just make tasks easier. It makes them possible.

Petzl Actik Core 350 Lumen Rechargeable Headlamp Review

Like most headlamps, at its most basic the Petzl Actik Core is a piece of plastic (lights like the Zebralight H53w would be an exception) housing an energy source that uses bulbs and electrical wizardry to project light and attaches to your head with an adjustable elastic strap. The most notable feature of this headlamp is its energy source(s). The standard power source is a rechargeable battery and AAA batteries can be used as well. For longer trips, this allows one to easily bring back-up power without having to use an adapter or bring a spare battery specific to the Actik. I’ve found the standard battery charges fully in just over two hours (via the included USB cable) after extended use and much quicker when just “topping it off” in between trips where it didn’t see too much use. The convenience of not having to have as many batteries on hand to swap in prior to trips – not to mention avoiding the frustration of wasting batteries with a quarter-charge or so remaining – is huge. If your car has a USB outlet (if it doesn’t, 12 volt USB car adapters are inexpensive), then the convenience of recharging your headlamp on the drive to the trailhead will be much appreciated. Just don’t get distracted and leave your headlamp in the car before you hit the trail!

Petzl Core Battery System

The light has three different brightness settings that draw down the battery at speeds proportional to the brightness. The 350 lumen mode – super bright – will burn through the battery in a mere two hours, whereas the standard 100 lumen mode lasts for seven hours. The minimal five lumens (enough to read in the tent or other tasks not requiring a large field of illumination) will last 160 hours. On the low mode, only the diffused beam LED is activated, with medium and high modes utilizing both white LEDs for a mixed, spot and flood combined beam effect.

Depending on how much daylight there is any how much time you spend in camp, bouncing around between these settings should last most hikers for up to a weeklong trip. If you’re going to be doing a lot of hiking at night and using the brightest setting (although for on trail night hiking I’ve found the 100 lumens to be reasonable) then you could easily burn through the battery on an overnight. The brightness doesn’t fade as battery life diminishes, but instead quickly decreases towards the end its capacity. A red light option (including strobe function) is also available and keeps you from interrupting your “night vision” after becoming acclimated to the dark and allows you to be considerate of others around camp and not blind them with the white light.

Petzl Actik Core Headlamp

Most of my use has been on either the medium setting (chores around camp in the dark) or the low setting (reading in the tent). The maximum setting is extremely bright and offers plenty of illumination for hiking at night, even cross-country. For night hiking on trail, I found that even the 100 lumen setting was adequate for distinct trails.

The headband fits comfortably and is easily adjustable. After getting damp, I’ve found it to dry more quickly and seemingly absorb less water than the straps from other headlamps I’ve owned. Although not fully waterproof, the Actik is listed as “weather resistant” by Petzl (IPX4). I’ve had limited use in extended downpours, but light drizzles have had no effect on performance. While its primary function is providing light when you need it, this headlamp also has a few safety features worth noting. The lettering on the strap is reflective, which is a nice touch, and a cleverly designed whistle on the adjustment piece of the strap could come in handy in an emergency. As mentioned, an available strobe setting also falls into the safety department. Unfortunately, the headlamp can't be locked out, but the on switch is designed in such a way that makes accidentally turning it on unlikely.

The Actik Core Rechargeable Headlamp from Petzl

If you’re in the market for a headlamp, the Petzl Actik Core certainly warrants a close look. Having all the standard headlamp features, a rechargeable battery, good mix of brightness, and an MSRP of $69.95 it should check most practical, convenience, and economical boxes for most backpackers. Although the price is a bit more than non-rechargeable headlamps, the convenience and the fact that you won’t have to spend money on batteries over the life of the headlamp still makes it an appealing purchase. Weighing in at just shy of three ounces, the performance certainly is commensurate with the modest weight. It you’ve ever tried to find a campsites at night using an underpowered but ultralight headlamp, I think you’d agree the extra weight is well worth being able to see what you’re doing and not ending up camped on a bumpy, sloping piece of ground. Available in black or red, this headlamp has reasonable warranties for the lamp and battery (five years for the lamp; one year or 300 charging cycles for the battery, a Core replacement battery is $29.95).

You can find the Petzl Actik Core here at REI and at Backcountry.com. For more on headlamps in general, see our guide on choosing a backpacking headlamp.

Mark

After making the switch from hiking books to trail runners a few years ago, I’ve been fairly loyal to various iterations of the Brooks Cascadias. At any given time during the hiking season, there is usually at least one Gore-Tex pair of Cascadias and one regular pair on my feet or in my gear room.

Brooks Cascadia 13 Trail Running Shoe Review

Alternating between the two based on trail conditions or the season has kept my feet happy for well over a thousand cumulative miles of backpacking and trail running. I’ve found both versions to be supremely comfortable for my absolutely average feet and, when purchased on sale, to be reasonably economical since they generally seem to last less than a year of frequent use, even when splitting the wear between two pairs. The Brooks Cascadia 13 is the most recent version of the popular trail running shoe and continues with the same general principles of comfort and performance that have defined them since they came on the market.

I used the Cascadia 13s on a few brief day hikes before lacing them up at the Iron Gate Trailhead on the edge of Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness for a 60-mile backpacking trip. As expected, and as with most trail running shoes, there really isn’t any break-in period required – they’re comfortable right out of the box whether you’re going on a 3-mile run or a 30-mile hike. The trip in the Pasayten put the shoes through a good mix of terrain and conditions – from well-graded forest trail to steep burned sections, and sunny afternoons followed by snowy mornings.

Hiking in the Brooks Cascadia with Gaiters

Despite a pack with gear for shoulder-season weather in the Pacific Northwest and five days of food, the Cascadias were exceptionally comfortable and provided all the support needed. Even after long days with lots of elevation change – the most challenging day being around 24 miles and with 3,500 feet of elevation loss and 4,100 feet of elevation gain – my feet were still pretty happy at the end of the day (although they became even happier when slipped into Crocs at the end of the day after a quick soak in a stream). I’m prone to sweaty feet and appreciate the breathability of non-waterproof trail runners, but even on uphills during a warm and sunny afternoon my feet never felt like they were sweltering in these. The Gore-Tex lining came in handy when crossing small streams and was particularly appreciated when walking through a few inches of wet snow. Similar conditions a few months later during a trip to a hot springs in Idaho saw the Cascadias working well in the same conditions, as well as when hiking through overgrown stretches of trail. They also gripped well on dusty and eroded sections of creekbank which, at one time at least, had a trail along it.

Brooks Cascadia Tread and Sole

Subsequent trips with more cross-country travel, including some particularly rough sections through recovering burns, put some wear and tear on these shoes. Extended use in such conditions rapidly wears out the less rugged parts of the shoes, with the mesh areas and spots where one piece of fabric transitions to another being the most vulnerable. While the performance in full-blown bushwhacks is reasonably good (a pair of gaiters is almost essential for keeping our debris), it is best to avoid using these when in rugged off-trail terrain due to how rapidly it reduces the lifespan of these shoes.

As a backpacker and not an orthopedic expert, I can’t comment with much authority or intelligence on the various merits of the shoes relatively standard 10mm midsole drop or its “neutral” support. All I know is that for someone with no major footwear preferences, no foot issues, or other special considerations that the shoes performed slightly above my more-or-less average expectations. One nifty feature that I truly appreciated was the elastic stash pocket on the front of the tongue to tuck the laces into. This clever design provides a place to keep laces out of the way, which was helpful when putting on gaiters as well as when trail running to provide some additional peace-of-mind about tripping over them or having them snag on an errant branch or root. At 12.3 ounces (each) the Cascadias are light enough to not feel burdensome when on the trail and, after changing into fresh socks and opening up the laces, function decently as a camp shoe once you’re done hiking for the day.

Review of both the Mesh and GTX Brooks Cascadia

Based on my experiences with the 13s, I plan to buy at least another pair when the 14s inevitably are released and they are marked down for closeout. And I’d say that it’s likely you can count me in for the 15s, 16s, and 17s as well.

The Brooks Cascadia is available in both a Gore-Tex and mesh version starting at around $130. Find them here at REI, at Backcountry.com, and on Amazon.com.

Aaron

A good light for backpacking is a required and essential safety item and a category for which there are no shortage of options available – and considering the convenience and hands-free operation provided, headlamps are the most popular option for backpacking lighting needs. What follows is an overview of features to consider when selecting a headlamp for backpacking and thoughts on lighting needs for the trail.

How to Choose a Headlamp for Backpacking

The Backcountry Headlamp

With headlamps offered in a variety of weight classes and with light output ranging from barely capable of illuminating a camp for basic tasks, to headlamps that could be bright enough to double as an airplane landing light, some form of balance must be sought in this regard. For backpacking we need a headlamp that checks a few boxes – a headlamp should be lightweight, bright enough for both trail and camp, have acceptable battery life, be easy to use at 3am in the morning, and be durable and waterproof.

While these are the basics, other features can undoubtedly be nice to have. With USB connections and power outlets tough to come by in the wilderness, some way to lockout the light can prevent the light accidentally turning on inside your pack during the day and draining the battery is a great feature to have. Locking out the light, if equipped, can be performed through a manual switch or power button sequence, or – as is the case with the Zebralight H53w that I use, simply by unscrewing the battery compartment cap slightly. Whatever method here, you’ll be assured that you have light at the end of the day and peace of mind on the trail, but this is also something that needs to be easy to do – nobody wants to have to fully remove and insert batteries daily.

Regulated Headlamp for Hiking & Backpacking

With LED headlamps dominating the market, these days it’s pretty easy to find headlamps that are both bright and light(weight). Usually something in the 3-5 ounce range – with batteries – is a good range to target. Lighter options do exist (example the Petzl e+LITE) but usually sacrifices will need to be made in regard to light output, battery life, comfort, or all 3. Heavier than this range and we are generally looking at headlamps that might be better suited for other activities and will begin to take up more pack space.

Look for a headlamp that is comfortable and waterproof as well – I at times wear my headlamp from dusk to dawn – a wide and adjustable headband helps here and this is another area were lightweight lights have the benefit of less bounce and just less to wear. For water resistance, some headlamps can oddly be lacking so it’s good to check the spec sheet here, and the more waterproof the better – some headlamps may only be splash resistant. Others have a waterproof main housing, but the battery compartment could still get wet in the rain and will have to be dried out later if this happens.

In the power department you have a few choices and many headlamps are available that can utilize standard batteries or rechargeable batteries, have a built in rechargeable battery, or can use both in some cases. If you’ll be taking frequent trips throughout the year, I’ve found rechargeable headlamps to be ideal. When using disposable batteries in the past (Energizer lithium batteries are high performers), I’ve inevitably ended up, after a few trips, with a collection of batteries in unknown states of partial charge. When using rechargeable batteries or rechargeable headlamps, all one has to do is charge things up before a trip and you can start your trip on a full charge every time, and without having to take along too many spares.

Backacking Headlamps

Photo: Mark Wetherington

However both a disposable or rechargeable approach can obviously work. Keep in mind that many headlamps with built-in rechargeable batteries will lose capacity over time. With my headlamp of choice using a single AA battery, I go with Sanyo Eneloop batteries that are both replaceable and rechargeable and spares are easy to bring along. This is especially helpful during shoulder season and winter trips when daylight is limited and I find myself using my light much more. Either way, output of the light will be, depending on the light itself, regulated or unregulated. A regulated light will maintain a more consistent output of light over the life of the battery at the cost of overall time. Unregulated lights will gradually diminish the light output as the battery discharges, but will frequently have extremely impressive run time specs (at least on paper), but many of these hours will be at a quite dim light output.

Lumens and Light Temperature

But how bright of a headlamp do we need? It all comes with tradeoffs, and more light means less battery life. A light with a wide range of adjustment, and that you can easily and intuitively adjust is ideal in this regard. For basic hiking on a trail at night, I’ve found about 50 lumens or more to be a good target number. You won’t be able to see far, but you will be able to see your feet, the trail, and a bit of the trail ahead.

Around camp, lower light levels are called for and perhaps 25 lumens will do for going about some camp chores in darkness. Once in the tent, a light output of just about as low as possible can be very nice to have for not blowing out your night vision and when you only need to find things very close at hand. This level of light can be obtained in a couple ways. One strategy is for a lower output, secondary red light to be designed into the headlamp, the red light being especially helpful for preserving night vision. The other method is to simply have an extremely low mode and level of light built into the regular LED in the order of just a few lumens. I’ve found both approaches to work about equally as well. For off trail, searching for a blaze in the distance, or any time you need to see as far as possible high modes are needed – over 150 lumens. Some lights on the market today can output many times more than even this figure. For a backpacking light however, where battery sizes are smaller and we’re looking to go as light as possible, these modes will quickly drain batteries and are best used only for short periods of time as needed, with lower modes preferred for all around use.

Headlamp on Low Mode

For checking the map in the tent at night, low levels of light are called for.

On longer trips, more battery life is always better and can vary greatly by season. While in the summer I can make a single battery in an AA headlamp last for a weeklong trip, I might be going through an entire battery in a couple nights in late November. Taking along a spare battery, or a way to recharge a rechargeable headlamp with a built-in battery (battery pack or solar charger) in the field is one way to know you’ll always have battery power and if you have a headlamp with a battery level indicator like the Black Diamond ReVolt, all that much better.

Light color is another factor to consider. Possible red LED aside, headlamps on the market today are made of mostly cool white LEDs that are brighter on the stat sheet, but may be a little cold and on the blue side for some. Other warmer LED headlamps are also out there that provide light more like an incandescent light bulb and render colors more naturally. Some brightness will normally be sacrificed however. Other LEDs emit a light in the neutral category; somewhere in between. It all comes down to personal preference in this regard. Beam pattern of the main LED is also something that should be evaluated. Beam types are most often full flood, or a combination hot spot (a brighter, longer distance center spot) combined with a dimmer flood pattern (spill) around the hot spot. Full flood lights can serve one around camp well and illuminate wider areas with brighter light, but less far. Hotspot / spill lights do sacrifice some close-in illumination coverage but will help in finding that next blaze at a distance. Other lights, like the Princeton Tec Axis, have an adjustable beam pattern and some lights may use multiple selectable LEDs to achieve this effect.

Headlamp Hotspot and Spill Example vs. Full Flood When Backpacking

Center hotspot and spill example

Other Lighting

Other lighting can be nice to have for camp if you don’t mind packing the extra weight, and on some more relaxed trips I have been known to bring along a Snow Peak Hozuki mini lantern for the tent at night – especially nice for a little reading on long winter nights. Any spare light you bring along is not always frivolous and can improve the camp experience a bit while serving as a backup light source as well. Flashlights can be useful on the trail – automatically by being held lower to the ground more shadows are created that can help when navigating bumpy trails. However, a headlamp can also be held and used like this or attached to one’s waist for the same effect.

Overall, the best backpacking headlamp might be the one you think about the least on the trail and a myriad of options are available – finding the perfect solution in this category is often a result of a series of compromises and finding the best balance in regard to your own lighting preferences. For a list of outdoor-ready headlamps that you can sort and filter by many of the considerations and features discussed above, check out this page at REI.

Steven Genise

In his beautiful and evocative memoir The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness, acclaimed travel writer Gary Ferguson breathes emotional and humane life into the Mountain West. After 25 years of marriage and as many seasons sharing a USFS ski patrol hut, Ferguson’s wife Jane passes away suddenly in a tragic canoeing accident in northern Ontario, dividing Ferguson from not only his partner and best friend, but from his identity in relation to her. In recognition of her last wishes, he sets out to scatter her ashes in her five favorite backcountry locations, and in doing so begins to hunt for what meaning he can reconstruct of his own life in her absence.

Review - the Carry Home by Gary Ferguson

As Ferguson takes the reader through the deep wilds of the American West, he constructs his world through prose as granular and pulsing as his environs: “West of Caineville the land melts into the bare bones of existence: rusted waves of sandstone peeling away with every passing storm; deep blue sky, hot and thirsty and bright.” But what breathes life into his writing is not the descriptions of the earth around him, but rather the emotional connections he generates to it with his readers. Each of the locations at which he scatters Jane’s ashes bears personal meaning, and he imbues that meaning into his descriptions from the opening passage:

“The end came for Jane, and so for us, at the edge of a spring, when the leaves of the north country were washed in that impossible shade of lemonade green. A color she said always reminded her of a certain crayon in the old Crayola 64 boxes she had as a kid – one labeled simply “yellow green” – a clumsy name with no hint of the promise it held”

From the first page, he reaches out and takes the reader’s hand, guides us through the Mountain West as he knows it. His travels to lay Jane to rest take him through the heart of the northern American Rockies, from the Sawtooth Range of Idaho to the northern reaches of Yellowstone and the Beartooths, south down to the canyons of Utah, but the greater story that he tells brings the reader to Colorado, Oregon, and the Northwest Territories of Canada. His trips start brief as he recovers from his own injuries, making short forays into the Sawtooths and into Utah alone to say his private goodbyes and close the intimate chapters on the story of their life together. But by the time he’s ready to make the final scatterings, he’s joined by friends, family, and anyone who has their own closures to make with Jane, and leaves straight from his front door in the foothills of the Beartooths and hikes a hundred miles south and west for her final ceremony in the northeast corner of Yellowstone. And like a guide, he shows us what’s worth seeing, tells us about his connection to it, but encourages us to make a connection for ourselves. He lays the emotional agar and steps away to let us seed it with our own experience.

He occasionally gets in over his head in this regard, jumping back and forth, often several times per (already short) chapter, between multiple recollections of a place. But while understanding the location’s importance in his and Jane’s life is crucial to our appreciation of his voyage in the present, his frequent and sporadic trips into the locations’ natural and explorative history often interrupts the pacing and adds further complexity to an already complex story.

But of course, a search for identity is necessarily complex, and that is ultimately what brings Ferguson out in the wake of Jane’s death. Not to find the right place to lay her to rest, not even to honor her memory at the places she loved the most. He spent 30 years of his life at her side, as rangers and as partners, and thus his identification with nature is pinned to his identification with her. His journeys lay Jane to rest, sure, but ultimately his driving force is to work out who and what he is without her, and how he relates to these timeless wilds. Jane is now part of the wilds just as she is part of him, but as the wilds go on, so too must he.

You can find The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness here on Amazon.com.

Aaron

One of the more recent meals from Backpacker’s Pantry, their Sweet and Sour Rice and Chicken backpacking meal brings this classic Asian dish to the trail in a 2 serving entree that’s ready in 15-20 minutes (depending on altitude) after adding 2 cups of boiling water. Included in the meal is an organic olive oil packet, to be added to the meal prior to adding hot water. All combined you’ll be getting a dinner that offers up 680 calories along with 38 grams of protein in this meal based on rice, freeze-dried chicken, pineapple, and green and red bell peppers along with other base ingredients and spices.

Backpacker's Pantry Sweet and Sour Chicken and Rice Review

After adding the needed water and after a little waiting, the meal rehydrates well and without any unintended crunch when given sufficient rehydration time. The chicken component here is not at the forefront, but is noticeable enough, and overall the meal is fairly sweet – more on the sweet side than the sour side when it comes to my palate. Standing out especially however are the pineapple chunks, which taste almost as if you sliced them off a pineapple you packed along and added them to the bag right before making the meal. I thought the meal needed just a little something however – and that was quickly solved by adding some heat with a dash of spice from my backpacking spice kit. The overall consistency once prepared is a bit on the soupy side, but it works and the red and green bell peppers do add some crunch.

Sweet and Sour Rice Backpacking Meal Before Rehydration

Before rehydration

One thing I really like about meals from Backpacker’s Pantry are the rounded edges of the package itself, which do not puncture the odor resistant bags I usually pack along for use inside an Ursack. With other meals that have sharp edges, I have to trim these prior to a trip to prevent punctures. And, while it probably won’t add much to a trip – Backpacker’s Pantry might just win when it comes to the freeze dried meal package artwork department as well.

Sweet and Sour Chicken After Rehydration - Backpackers Pantry

Overall this is a nice meal to add to one's repertoire of backpacking meals and it’s nice that this meal is at the higher end of the caloric scale, at least for pre-made backpacking meals. While more legitimately appropriate for one person after a day of hiking, the meal could serve as a base for two especially if at least one in the group does not have the largest of appetites.

One other thing to note is that if you find a Backpacker’s Pantry meal you like, you may want to stock up as from year to year many of their meals are discontinued, changed, or replaced – it’s a bit like baselayers from Patagonia that are never the same from year to year. As an example, the meal reviewed here has replaced one of my past all-time favorite meals in their lineup – their Hawaiian Chicken with Rice, and Sweet and Sour Rice and Chicken has apparently replaced their previous Sweet and Sour Chicken. Other meals like their Pad See You with Chicken, which made our list of top 10 backpacking meals has recently been discontinued, so I suppose the moral of the story is to stock up while you can. The new pouches from Backpacker's Pantry come with a 10 year suggested shelf life from the date of manufacture.

The Backpacker’s Pantry Sweet and Sour Rice and Chicken meal retails for about $11. You can find it here at REI.

Aaron

As soon as we set foot on the trail, a way to carry one of the most essential ingredients for a successful hike – water – becomes essential. With a myriad of options available from bottles of nearly every variety to dedicated, and often complex, hydration systems on the market today, when choosing a way to carry your water while backpacking the shopping experience can become complicated quickly. What follows is an overview of options that are available for this task along with my preferences, and a look at various water-carrying strategies for the trail.

How to Choose Hydration Options and Backpacking Water Storage

Bottles

The simple standard water bottle comes in many forms, but attention will need to be paid towards capacity, ease of use, durability, and weight. By far the most popular water bottle you’ll find on the trail, and often off of it as well, is the 1 liter Tritan Nalgene bottle. These bottles offer a nice capacity while still fitting in most backpack water bottle pockets – but they aren’t light – weighing around 6 ounces for the bottle alone and these are often one of the first things backpackers will change if they’re looking to save some pack weight.

In the bottle category, repurposed plastic drink bottles will be among the lightest options, such as empty Gatorade bottles, bottled water containers, 1 liter softdrink bottles, etc. and often will weigh less than 2 ounces empty. The bottles are an excellent choice if you’re looking to go ultralight and are ok with treating them somewhat gently. These types of bottles do not handle boiling water well, and I’ve had these bottles last for many trips only to crack when dropped a short distance – relegating them to something I can’t use but get to carry around for the rest of the trip. Luckily, if you go this route replacements are cheap! Soft bottles can also be placed into this category, also being very light if you do not mind a non-rigid drinking container.

Backpacking Water Bottle - Naglene Ultralight HDPE Narrow Mouth Bottle

In between these 2 options is the Nalgene Ultralight, or HDPE version which features a more opaque and flexible type of material than the Tritan (both are BPA free). These at just under 4 ounces in the 1L version, are still a bump up in weight from a something like a repurposed plastic bottle (Gatorade, etc.) but will be much more durable. Both types of Nalgenes will also handle boiling water with ease, and on cold nights these are great for tossing inside your sleeping bag (the heavier Tritan will hold heat the longest). With a balance of durability and weight, the Nalgene Ultralight has become my personal go-to bottle choice on the trail. Both types of Nalgenes are available in a wide mouth (easier to fill) and narrow mouth (easier to drink) versions.

Of course, there are countless other options on the market in this category (REI offers 100+ water bottles for example), the main things are to select the capacity you need and go with some type of bottle that will be sufficiently durable for your wilderness excursions without weighing you down – not counting the water that the bottle will carry. For capacity 1 liter seems to be about right on size to last for a sufficient amount of time without having to refill too frequently, while still being small enough to be packable. For 3 season use and weight wise, it may be hard to justify anything weighing more than the already a bit burly Nalgene Tritan bottles. This would exclude winter backpacking however, when something heavier that is vacuum insulated like a Hydroflask or a Klean Kanteen can be very nice to have and can keep water / tea etc. hot for many hours even in bitter cold temperatures, keep water from freezing at night, etc. (burying your water bottles, upside down in the snow is a another technique here).

Backpacking Water Bottle and Hydration System

In all cases make sure your backpack choice allows for easy access to your bottles so that you do not have to take your pack off to get them out or back into the water bottle or side pockets on your pack. Although, there are other ways to attach a bottle to your pack as well. Lastly, one other small, but handy feature to have is a measurement scale on your bottle, which can help when it comes to measuring out water for that freeze dried meal at dinner time.

Hydration Reservoirs and Systems

Hydration reservoirs are very popular and for good reason: once they are filled, in place, and setup they make drinking on the go (we are hiking after all here) very easy and can be operated without stopping and having to remove and replace bottles. While filling can be awkward, often times your water filter choice can be connected directly to the system and the reservoir can be filled by pumping water or via gravity.

Hydration systems are perfect if you like to take more of a sip as you go approach vs. a tank up at intervals approach to hydration on the trail. In any event, since having that drink tube close at hand throughout the hiking day makes things so easy, I do find I always seem to end the day more hydrated when I pack along a hydration system compared to a bottles only approach, and this is especially helpful in hot weather and at altitude. For capacity here 3 liters is a great all around size – as long you remember that you don’t always have to fill it all the way – only enough to get to the next water source (or water source you want to stop at). Many various options exist on the market, but as features increase so does the weight.

Choosing a Backpacking Hydration System

While insulated tubes are available for cold weather hiking, for winter use I do simply leave the hydration system at home and switch to a bottles only approach (often including insulated bottles as we talked about earlier). Hydration reservoirs can be a little tricky to clean: after all we have a main flexible reservoir often with a small opening, a drink tube, and a bite valve. Some type of system with an anti-microbal treatment like the Platypus Hoser is very much appreciated here, along with a cleaning kit when needed between trips. Many bite valves will wear out or get dirty over time and start to slowly leak, so having some spare bite valves in your gear stash is helpful. Make sure you’ll be able to route the drinking tube out of your pack – most packs have dedicated hydration ports – and while a hydration sleeve in the pack can be useful, it’s not necessary – I usually pack my hydration system sideways across the top of my pack for easy access during the day.

Capacity Considerations

Having the ability to carry extra water or have extra water on hand while at camp can be beneficial as group size increases, when you’ll be hiking where the distances between water sources are large and / or during hot weather, and when you’ll be carrying all of your water into a dry location on shorter backpacking trips. While I have been known to carry gallon plastic jugs of water in the latter type of situation on several occasions, this is not the most suggested way of accomplishing this task. Rather than fill our pack with empty bottles that always take up lots of space empty or full, my preference here is to utilize lightweight, collapsible containers like your standard Platypus container or similar. Taking up little space and weight when empty, these can easily be filled at camp or when needed for dry locations.

Nalgene Cantene Collapsible Backpacking Water Storage Container

The total capacity you need among all water containers will vary based upon how often you like to stop throughout the day to filter / treat, how much water you like to drink, conditions, and if you’ll be dry camping or not. In normal conditions where water sources will be prevalent, I find that a 3L hydration reservoir combined with a 1 liter bottle is a great combo: I will usually either leave the water bottle empty or leave space in the reservoir during the day to save on weight, refilling both completely when at camp or at the last water source prior to. Water is heavy, but your pack gets lighter with each sip; strategies vary greatly on how much water to carry and I like to take the carry a little more weight and stop less often approach in this regard. If you like to spend more time in camp, or like to hit the trail and do not want to be forced to filter water again first thing or early in the day, having an extra collapsible container can be helpful. In drier conditions extra containers may also be needed, so a little math will be required in these cases to see what the ideal total capacity to take along should be.

The best route to take when it comes to your backcountry hydration solution? Simply put, there may not be a best. My preference is to vary my approach to the subject depending on season, the type of trip, weather, and anticipated sourcing of water on the trail and my approach nearly always results in some type of mix of all of the above. A hydration system is great for convenience during the day, but I still always like to have a bottle on hand for camp, for a little capacity boost, and to have if I’ll be adding any type of drink mix to my water, etc.

For a complete list of hydration options that you can sort and filter by the considerations we’ve discussed above, check out REI’s complete selection of water bottles and containers here, and you can find a list of hydration systems on this page also at REI.

Doug Emory

Chris, Randy and I sat at a local brewery, a map of Olympic National Park spread across the table. We had climbed in the Olympics for decades, but now we were attempting something different – a thru hike from one side of the park to another. You might have thought planning to cross using established routes would be simple, but it was proving anything but.

“Even the freaking rain forest is on fire.” Chris traced a route with his finger. The Pacific Northwest was suffering through one of its hottest summers on record, and our choices were dwindling. Park rangers had nixed the north-south high route, telling us the Elwha Snow Finger – the path leading from the mountains to the central river valley – had disappeared with climate change. Descent would require a rope and rack of climbing gear. As Chris noted, the western exits were threatened by the Paradise Fire, burning for months in the upper canopy of the Queets Rainforest.

Thruhiking Olympic National Park

After a month of planning we decided to come in from the east, up the Dosewallips River Trail, over 5800-foot Hayden Pass, and then out to the north, along the Elwha River. Even this route reflected the consequences of a changing climate and aging park infrastructure. We’d be out for six days and travel 60 miles, but 11 miles of that total would be on what were once access roads. A 310-foot section of the Dosewallips River Road had washed out in a flood in 2002, and cost, competing views of wilderness, and the likelihood the river would continue running higher essentially meant the road – the traditional eastern approach to the park – would never be rebuilt. We would end our trip the same way. On exiting the trail system at Whiskey Bend, we needed to trudge six miles along a road that was frequently blocked by flooding and was crumbling away one chunk of asphalt at a time.

The trip began, then, with our staggering along the Dosewallips Road. The temperature topped 90 degrees. The steep rise to the abandoned ranger station angled us into the sun’s glare, bleaching the road bed white and burning the outline of my pack along my shoulder blades. Drenched with sweat, we dropped our packs at the base of a towering cedar. I sucked in a breath and looked at what remained of the ranger station and campground. The place felt haunted. The river’s white noise might have blended with voices, as families came to picnic beside the sparkling water. Now plywood covered the windows and doors of the park service buildings. Modesty at the toilet was provided by a shower curtain hung where the door had once been. Waist-high grass swayed, overgrowing the picnic tables, and the informational signs –  “Dosewallips Trailhead/Mountain Wilderness” – and a host of others had been blown over, the plastic facings shattered and their bases smothered in weeds. 

Meadow and Olympic Mountain View

On the trail at last, we fell into a familiar line: Chris leading, Randy next, and me anchoring. Our goal was camp on Deception Creek, 8 miles and 1500 vertical feet away. Our time on the sun-drenched road had wasted us. Even sheltered under the cedars and firs, I couldn’t catch a full breath in the heat.  We dropped onto the mossy carpet beside the trail at ever-shortening intervals. At each stop we’d gulp water and then guiltily check our bottles, evaluating whether what remained in them would last till camp.

Finally, mercifully, a bear wire appeared, tracing a line from a fir’s branches to the ground. The camp was just below the trail, a big dusty circle with the creek trickling quietly along one side and the river giving a full-throated roar on the other. I dragged myself down the path and walked out beside the river. The Dosewallips cascaded by in blue-white arcs smooth as Chihuly glass. We had 13 miles behind us and 47 left to go. 

“These long hikes, you get faster each day,” I said over dinner.

Randy, ever the cynic, caught Chris’ eye and bobbed his head my way. “Does he ever stop lying?”

“Well, the weather is supposed to break soon,” I replied, trying to fight the leaden mood exhaustion brought on.

But the next morning supported Randy’s negative world view. The trail climbed the valley, popping out of forest and into meadows of head-high grass and Russian thistles, the plants holding heat like a sauna and disguising chuckholes deep as tiger traps. I remembered the first book I’d ever read about the Olympics – a 1970 edition of the Olympic Mountain Trail Guide by Robert L. Wood – and thought how this day contrasted with his telling. Mt. Fromme, described as “crowned with snow cornices”, now shimmered at the valley’s head, a series of naked cliffs that seemed to float, detached from the earth. Near tree line, Dose Meadows opened before us, acres of grass and lupine burning with light. At Woods’ writing, the meadow had teemed with wildlife, marmots, deer, and bears among throngs of backpackers, but we hadn’t glimpsed an animal, human or otherwise, in a day and a half, the three of us alone on the once-popular trail.

Backpacking Through Olympic National Park

A boot path led around a low dirt hill to another gorgeous site on the Dosewallips, the river here placid and shallow. Once the tent was up, Chris and I hastily repacked for our side trip up Lost Peak. We might be thru-hiking, but peaks rose all around us, and the climbing bug couldn’t be easily shaken. “You sure you’re not coming?” I asked. Randy stood beside me with a book under one arm. “Swear to god, man, just two miles up. No farther than that.”

But Randy snapped his book open, and the two of us headed up the Lost Pass Trail, so primitive and steep we had to kick our boot edges in to hold the slope. We reminisced along the way. One goal of this trip was to slow life down and refocus. “I feel like the last twelve years went by like a dream, Doug,” Chris said. “Like I lost them. Where’d they go?” Once, we climbed three weekends a month, but we all settled down and had kids, and while their young lives flew by, our trips to the mountains had become rare and manic in turn.

Harsh alpine country surrounded us at Lost Pass. We headed toward a rounded dome to the east, kicking over talus and through krumholz. The mountain was parched. Heather snapped as we pushed through, and every broadleaf alpine plant was burned a brittle red. Lost Peak was a rubble pile about 100 feet higher than the dome, and we scrambled the boulders to the top. We looked back the way we’d come. The river’s canyon wound away, slopes darkening with firs until everything vanished in the haze.

The Route went past many rivers including the Dosewallips, Elwha, Hayes, and Lillian Rivers

Randy was still reading when we returned, reclining against a log in the meadows and bathed in sunset light. The scene was blissful, and, next morning, the universe picked that same joyous tune. High clouds rolled in and the heat wave broke. For day three we’d maintain our basecamp, go light to Hayden Pass, and then follow a climber’s trail to Sentinel Peak. The river breathed its last beneath a final bridge, just a sheen of water trickling down rock steps. We hiked through tundra and followed the looping switchbacks to the pass, just a sharp notch in the ridge. A strong trail south wound up Sentinel, crossing talus basins and squeezing through clumps of alpine firs. Views opened on the rock slabs just below the summit – far off, the smoke plume from the Paradise fire and, nearer, clouds building behind Mount Anderson, a tortuous ridge-run away, its twin summits separated by a glacier and a rock pillar thrust skyward like a knife blade.

Olympic Trail Junction

We settled back in camp early. I’d planned on an afternoon nap, but we shoveled down snacks and chattered away, and I couldn’t keep my eyes closed, afraid I’d miss the next story though I’d heard each one a dozen times.  

That evening, a buck stepped from the shadows across the river, the first animal we’d seen in four days out. Heedless of us, he lowered his head to drink, his neck and shoulder muscles rippling. He picked his way soundlessly through the brush, glowing in front of that dark forest like Zeus come to earth in animal form.

The next morning we hiked to the pass again and took the Hayes River Trail down, coasting nine miles to the banks of the Elwha. The views of Mount Anderson’s intimidating glaciers disappeared. We navigated a trail washout, and shortly after that entered a gentler world. Hikers appeared in clusters. The forest rose and moss painted earth and blow downs a delicate green, every image softened as though viewed through a gauze-covered lens.

Historical Cabin in  Olympic National Park

On the porch of the Hayes River Patrol Cabin we took a break before strolling to yet another perfect river camp. Compared to the Dosewallips, the Elwha was mellow, its water clear and the gravel-lined bottom symmetrical as though a pool boy had taken a rake to it. Our final two days of hiking had a dreamlike quality to them after the battering we’d taken at the outset. On day four, the valley broadened as we passed the Elkhorn Guard Station, deciduous trees draped with moss in a scene out of the Mississippi bayou. After one last camp, on the Lillian River above the Elwha, we passed increasing numbers of hikers and reminders of the human history in this valley: the weathered cabin grandiosely named “The Elk Lick Lodge” and the equally-dilapidated Cougar Mike’s Cabin a couple of miles further up the trail.

Hiking Trail in Olympic National Park

Half an hour past Cougar Mike’s came trail’s end at Whiskey Bend. We swung around the road damage and hiked the pavement the final six miles to one last barrier, the gate closing the road to traffic. There we encountered a scene of intentional destruction, all in service of this beautiful country we’d just traversed. I dropped my pack and followed my friends onto an overlook platform. Across the river, a matching platform was filling with tourists exiting a bus, but on our side we stood alone.

A century ago, the Glines Canyon Spillway had been erected to dam the Elwha at a cleft between rock walls. Now the dam was gone, removed in 2014 to restore the river and allow a vanished ecosystem to be reborn. In all honesty, it didn’t look like much – the spillway was just two weathered cement walls caked with moss, old metal channels hanging loose above the rushing water. Back in the direction we’d come, manmade Lake Mills had drained. The ground it once covered looked like a construction site, braided channels flowing through a mudflat and patches of scrub. But the point of it, I told myself, was what this scene symbolized. With the park’s roads crumbling, the high country parched and the forest on fire, at least this attempt was being made to return one river valley to its pristine state in a way everyone could enjoy, whether or not they chose to hike the whole darned park to get there.

Backpacking Along the Trail


Information: As the park service says, “Wilderness Camping permits are required for all overnight stays in Olympic National Park wilderness (backcountry) year-round.” All of the areas on this trip were considered “non-quota”, which makes getting a permit easier, but the process is still fairly complicated and appears to be changing from an in-person or phone in to an online system. Best recommendations are to check out the wilderness sections of the park website, call the park at (360) 565-3130, or stop into a wilderness information center at Hoodsport or Port Angeles. One possible complication is that the Hayden Pass Trail was damaged (fire again) in 2016, and right now the NPS doesn’t recommend it. If it is not reopened, you might consider taking the primitive Lost Pass Trail north and exiting at Hurricane Ridge.

Best Time to Go: Obviously, the weather has been warming, but from the end of July through September, weather in the Pacific Northwest remains as close to perfect as you can imagine. While it’s always a necessity to pack rain gear, days are long and nights are temperate.

Getting There: The Dosewallips River Road leads west off Highway 101, just north of the tiny town of Brinnon, Washington. If you’re coming from the Seattle area, the coolest way to make the trip is via the Edmonds/Kingston ferry (reserve your spot through the Washington State Ferry system), and then take Highway 104 till it ends at Highway 101, at which point you head south toward Brinnon.

Maps and Books: Olympic Mountain Trail Guide by Robert L. Wood – last edition available out in 1970 is the book I still use for general park info since the author knew every trail well. A lot has changed, but for the basics, with reliable info on backcountry camps and distances, it’s still great.

If the idea of bagging a few peaks along the way appeals to you, be aware that the Climber’s Guide to the Olympic Mountains is known to have some interesting route descriptions for obscure peaks. The guide lists both Lost Peak and Mount Fromme as Class 1, trail all the way to the top, excursions. Lost was a thrash that became a light scramble at the summit; Fromme appears to be a Class 2 that begins with a steep unpleasant stomp through krumholz. Most of the other allegedly 1.1 climbs in the Dose Meadows area are probably of a similarly mixed character. The book does give an overview of all of the approach trail systems, so it has its uses.

There’s also a newer Falcon Guide, Hiking Olympic National Park by Erik Molvar. For navigation, the waterproof and tearproof National Geographic Trails Illustrated Olympic National Park Map is suggested.

Aaron

In recent years, Mountain House has steadily released a variety of new meals to complement their tried and true backpacking freeze dried and pre-made backpacking meal standbys like their chili mac and stroganoff dinners – with their newest meal being the fusilli pasta based dinner reviewed here.

Mountain House Fusilli Pasta Backpacking Meal Review

The Fusilli Pasta Meal from Mountain House is an Italian inspired dinner featuring a fusilli pasta (gluten free diners beware), Italian sausage with, as described by Mountain House, rustic tomato sauce, fire roasted vegetables, and rounded out with olive oil, basil, garlic, and other seasonings. This is a 2 serving meal, and with 520 calories total per pouch it’s about average on the calorie scale when it comes to freeze dried backpacking meals, being more appropriate as a meal for one for most hungry hikers. The meal is ready in just 9 minutes after adding 1.5 cups of boiling water with a quick stir about halfway through the rehydration time.

Fusilli Pasta Nutrition and Ingredients from Mountain House

The meal rehydrates well and does so without having to use too much water with a resulting soupy consistency, and taste wise it’s somewhere in between spaghetti and meatballs, baked ziti, lasagna without the cheese, and maybe a little reminiscent of spaghettiOs and meatballs. No matter what you compare it to, the pasta – in a very much appreciated backpacking spoon compatible form – is at the forefront of the meal and is quite hearty (a term I would not usually apply to pasta), with the Italian sausage and tomato sauce not far behind when it comes to things you’ll initially notice. The garlic and the fire roasted vegetables are discernable, but I do wish these ingredients along with the basil were all a bit more prevalent overall.

Fusilli Pasta from Mountain House Before Rehydration

Before rehydration

The meal offers up a nice base however, so if you’re like me and desire a higher seasoning level, this is easily resolved by packing along a lightweight backpacking spice kit, and it’s always easier to add more than take any out. The taste of the meal is very good however straight from the pouch – although for me the meal did feel a little lightweight for a true one stop dinner, so I would definitely suggest supplementing this one. In particular any type of bread like a bagel or tortilla (perhaps even with butter) that you might have along would be a nice match. If desired cheese would be a nice compliment and would be a great way to boost the calorie count as well.

Rehydrated Fusilli Pasta Meal

Overall, this Mountain House meal is a nice addition to the lineup and is one of the meals I’ll actually look forward to eating – with a side or two perhaps – after a day of hiking. And it should be mentioned that one of my favorite things about meals from Mountain House in particular is that their pouches are now guaranteed fresh for 30 years – making the disappointing experience of finding an expired food pouch towards the bottom of your freeze dried meal stash pretty unlikely when it comes to this meal.

The Mountain House Fusilli Pasta meal retails for about $10. Find it here at REI and on Amazon.com.

michaelswanbeck

Spacious silence and cool, dry air. The sun is always warm in California, even in the dead of winter. Winter time is the off season here in Death Valley National Park, but I can’t imagine why. Boasting the hottest recorded temperature on Earth, it seems funny that most of the park’s visitors come in the summer. If you want to feel some serious, otherworldly heat, then pay us a visit in July! However, if you come to explore at any other time of the year, California’s mild and pleasant weather can be almost guaranteed.

Hiking Towards the Summit in the Panamint Range

Spring is especially nice in Death Valley, when the warm nights return, and the wildflowers occasionally bloom for miles. If you stop by in winter however, you will probably find ample solitude on the trails in the area. At higher elevations in winter, there will be snow and ice towards the top of the mountains, but usually not very much. Cold, crisp air awaits as you hike higher, complete silence, and most likely, isolation.

The Charcoal Kilns of Death Valley

Starting from the charcoal kilns area, deep in the Panamint Mountains you will know when you’ve arrived, because these strange, stone, beehive-like structures will suddenly appear in the pinyon pine forest. They will certainly bring a moment of fascination. Most people don’t realize Death Valley has forests at the higher elevations. As the road winds higher into the mountain range, trees will suddenly appear. Any further up from here it becomes 4 wheel drive only. That road will lead to the trailhead for Telescope Peak, another great day hiking option.

The charcoal kilns are a very cool landmark to check out. In the 1800s they would burn the pinyon pine forest here to make coal, and send it for fuel to the nearby mining boom-towns. I used to live in Death Valley and I fell in love with the park. The Panamint Mountains were my great backyard. When I would get some time to myself I’d wander up into them and enjoy their majestic silence. The hike here took place in January, and the conditions were icy, but without too much snow. The hike didn’t require any special gear, or any special permits. Just drive up into this lonely land and see what’s out there. The Wildrose Trail will generally have less snow on it than the Telescope Trail, so can be a good option in winter. 

View Towards Furnace Creek and Death Valley While Hiking in the Panamint Range

I felt refreshed at the beginning of the hike as I left the charcoal kilns, taking my camera along and meandering around a few scenic corners, before heading straight up! This was the most challenging part of the day as I climbed through the forest, but was the perfect warm-up in the sharp, high desert air. The charcoal kilns are already at 6,800 feet of elevation. Coming from the bottom of Death Valley, I left the warm weather behind having driven literally from sea level, and would climb to over 9,000 feet high on this 4.2 mile, one way hike. It wasn’t too far before cresting the ridge, and I looked down to the first sweeping view of Badwater Basin in the valley. This, I could tell, is where the great scenery would begin. The rest of the hike was much easier than the first part of the ascent. Now I got to stroll along the ridgeline, taking in the view of Telescope Peak behind me. Telescope is Death Valley’s tallest mountain, and has an incredible ridgewalk as well. Trails in this area are great options for day hiking the Panamints.

Day Hiking the Panamint Mountains of Death Valley National Park

After the mellow ridgewalk, I encountered one final push to get to the summit. This is where the snow and ice began, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. I was actually wearing sandals as well! I wouldn’t completely recommend this, because my toes were getting cold, but I generally love sandals for desert hiking. Just don’t hit a cactus! Finally, the summit awaits. 

Hiking the Panamint Range

I sat there and froze for a very long time, writing in my journal and wandering around that place which feels on top of the world. I took shelter in a pinyon pine tree to each some snacks, surveying the colorful, mirage-like desert all around. No matter the elevation, the sun always feels warm around here. Another great thing about Death Valley is you can hike in the bright moonlight, so I didn’t feel too rushed to get down knowing the moon would be showing up tonight. Still, it’s always a good idea to bring a flashlight or headlamp and the 10 essentials. Upon arriving back home in Death Valley later that evening, the warm air was a welcome greeting.

Along the Trail Hiking in the Panamint Mountains

Information: There is a free campground at the beginning of Emigrant Canyon Road, and at the junction of Wildrose/ Emigrant Canyon Road. They are reserved on a first come basis, and are often crowded or full most times of the year (except winter). Free camping can be found on the BLM land at the bottom of Wildrose Road in Panamint Valley, on many dirt side roads, and roadside camping/sleeping is acceptable there as well. Backcountry permits, day hiking or camping, are voluntary in Death Valley, and can be filled out at the two visitors centers – one in Lone Pine, CA, and one in Furnace Creek, CA. Check with a ranger about snow condition before attempting a hike, and be prepared with all your own water. It’s up to you how much water to carry because it is heavy, but 2-4 liters should be sufficient for a colder, shorter day hike. Of course if you bring more, you can always drink more!

Books & Maps: Hiking Death Valley: A Guide to its Natural Wonders and Mining Past by Michel Digonnet. This book is more than just a hiking guide, the author knows Death Valley very well and explains its rich and colorful history along with the descriptions of the hike. He will also tell you the many unique plants and animals found in the region, as well as more obscure hikes off the beaten path. This guide includes hidden gold mines to explore and descriptions of how to find them. This guidebook is one to constantly return to whenever planning a hike in Death Valley.

Hiking Western Death Valley National Park: Panamint, Saline and Eureka Valleys by Michel Digonnet. This book provides a closer look at the trails on the west side (the best side) of the park.

Death Valley and the Amargosa: A Land of Illusion by Richard E. Lingenfelter. A fascinating read for anyone interested in Death Valley, or who is familiar with the park, this book will convey all of its history. There are many stories, some grim and some funny. From the lost Mormon wagon train that accidentally discovered Death Valley and gave it the name... to the many prospectors and con-men who called the place home. It’s a long and highly informative read, and an excellent series of stories about this haunting land. 

Death Valley National Park Trails Illustrated Map, National Geographic. This is the only map I have ever needed when exploring Death Valley. It has clear topography lines and the beautiful coloring of the map makes it fun to look at and easy to read. It has info on the side about trail suggestions and concerns about hiking in the park. 

Getting There: If traveling from the east, take CA hwy 190, the main road through the park. After passing Stovepipe Wells village, drive 10 miles further and you will find Emigrant Canyon Road on your left. Take that turn, and drive for about 25 miles straight to the Wildrose trailhead at the charcoal kilns. The road will turn to dirt 5 miles before the kilns. These same directions can be used if traveling from the West on CA hwy 190. After you pass Panamint Springs village your turnoff is 22 miles away on the right. If traveling from Los Angeles area however, you will be coming into the park from the south. In this case you can take the back route in... After leaving the town of Trona and cresting the Slate Range Pass, you will drop into Panamint Valley. Take the right turn for Wildrose Road, 15 miles after Slate Range Pass. This will connect you to Emigrant Canyon Road, take a right turn there, and drive just 8 miles to the charcoal kilns. When exploring the region, it is fun to take both roads, Emigrant Canyon and Wildrose Road, to make a driving loop out of it.

Best Time to Go: Hiking the Panamint Mountains can be done any time of the year. My favorite time is December, because the air is very clear that time of the year, but the temperatures can be quite cold. The only time the hike should be avoided is immediately after a high altitude snowstorm or during one. This information should be found out at the visitor center, or at least by gazing up at the snow level on the peaks. Springtime snow is very possible in Death Valley. The best time to do the hike is on a rare cloudy day…In the summer, this hike is an excellent escape from the hot weather, and temperatures will still be mildly warm at the summit. In the spring, vast meadows of wildflowers sometimes bloom in the Panamint Mountains.

Aaron

No matter your approach to backpacking – ultralight, comfort light, traditional, or whatever our own unique approaches may be in the gear department, backpacking in and of itself goes hand in hand with a gear list (whether on paper or simply in our heads), making a way to carry all that stuff one of the most important gear related items we need to consider. What follows is a guide to selecting an appropriate backpack for hiking and backpacking, including an overview of features, technologies, materials, and other considerations that are needed when it comes to selecting the best backpacking and hiking backpack.

How to Choose a Backcountry Backpack

The Backpack Frame

As soon as you start to carry more than 15-20lbs on a trip (including food and water), which is the case for the great majority of backpackers with a full pack, a pack with a frame should be selected to help transfer the weight of the pack off your shoulders and on to your hips. While in years past the great debate was internal frame backpacks vs. those with external frames, the majority of choices on the market today will feature an internal frame. On the flip side externally framed packs are now available with cutting edge materials and designs that are significantly lighter than the traditional heavy and tubular external framed packs of days past, so with packs breaking out of the mold in many cases, I like to focus more on the other specifications of a pack rather than agonizing over the internal vs. external backpack frame debate. As long as it has a frame – commonly made of aluminum, carbon fiber, or a high density plastic sheet – other specifications such as maximum weight carrying capacity, materials used, comfort, and organization are most important to me.

External vs. Internal Frame Backpacks

Many frameless backpacking packs exist and are more specialized in nature, suitable for ultralight loads and as such usually most appropriate for shorter duration trips where less food will have to be carried and in areas where water sources are frequent. With careful packing however these ultralight frameless packs can still be used if you’re very diligent about how much weight you’ll be carrying and especially if you are concerned about having the lightest possible total packweight. However, their use is limited and I find it more feasible to utilize a framed pack on short trips where I might be carrying an extra pound of pack or so, rather than trying to deal with the limited weight carrying capacity of a frameless pack (and often limited storage capacity) on a longer trip. Some frameless packs will even omit a hipbelt to save more weight, but even on a frameless pack I still prefer a hipbelt – while weight transfer to your hips will be limited without a frame, every little bit helps. 

Backpacking with a Frameless Pack

While frameless packs will always boast the best weights, often hovering around just 1lb, thankfully many lightweight framed packs are now available from many manufacturers. For most backpacking purposes a framed pack weighing 2-3lbs is a great range to target, and perhaps a bit more if you like to carry a heavier range of gear, food, or water – or all of the above. And like shoes, backpack fit and comfort is critical and this is where it pays to take some extra time measuring your torso and checking out the manufacturer’s sizing guide, as framed packs are usually available in several sizes. Often each size will have a bit of adjustment built in, and will be provided by moving the hipbelt or shoulder strap attachment points in order to fine tune the fit.

Capacity

Expressed in cubic inches or liters, the most popular sizes for modern backpacking would be options in the 45 liter range (~2750 cubic inches) like the REI Flash 45 – quite appropriate for most weekend trips – and packs stepping up in size into the 60 liter range, which I find most appropriate for week long trips or so. Both sizes can be pushed a bit beyond these limits and depending on your other gear and packing style. Regardless, there will be times when a 45 liter is a bit too small or a 60 liter a bit too large, but it comes down to a personal decision and how your trips typically take place; some us are weekend warriors with others tending to head out only on longer trips. The other strategy is collecting multiple packs and picking from your collection depending on the trip at hand. For me, I like one pack that can do it all just to keep it simple (and cheaper), with my 4200 cubic inch (this includes all storage – not just the main compartment) ULA Circuit serving as my workhorse backpacking pack for all trips. With around 10 days the longest I will go at a stretch (this is about as much food as I prefer to carry at once), the pack will be at its limits early in the trip, but is perfect after a few days. For overnights or weekends in the summer where gear is minimal, my jack of all trades pack will have some extra space, but I will just allow my down bag to loft up inside and it’s always better to be in a situation where your pack is suited to carry more weight than you actually are carrying than the other way around.

Backpacking Packs - Roll Top and Drawstring Closures

The other capacity consideration is in regards to weight. Backpacks with a beefier frame and more sturdy hipbelts will allow you to carry more weight comfortably, but as we increase in weight capacity the weight of the actual backpack itself increases as well, forcing a balance to be struck. Again here we need to evaluate the length of our typical backpacking trip and normal proximity to water sources (water is heavy). One pack will not be perfectly suited for every condition. Whether you are just starting your collection of backpacking gear or are looking to upgrade an existing pack, this is also the time where it pays to evaluate all the rest of your backpacking gear, weigh it, and figure out how much food and water you’ll also usually be carrying before buying the pack itself. My preference again is to go with a pack that is suitable for carrying the full weight of all my gear, the full weight of my food even on day 1 of most trips, and all that combined with all the water I’ll be carrying. Sure, the occasional longest of trips might be a little heavy on my shoulders until I eat a day of food, but 95% of the time the pack will be near perfect. A little math at home here will pay off later on the trail. 

Features and Organization

25 years ago – when you’d find inspirational, beautiful brochures detailing a popular manufacturer’s complete line of external framed packs along with the latest Campmor catalog in your mailbox, packs seemingly had a compartment or pocket for everything. Dedicated sleeping bag compartment. Swiss Army knife pocket. Zippered storage for your MSR white gas fuel bottle. The list goes on. While organization is a key component to finding what you need quickly on the trail, there’s no reason to go overboard, or under when choosing a backpack. I like the big 4: Main storage compartment, outside pocket or storage, hipbelt pockets, and dual side water bottle pockets. I’ve found this arrangement to be the best balance for me on the trail, and I then utilize further lightweight stuffsacks if additional organization is needed – rather than just throwing the complete contents of my first aid kit randomly in the main compartment of the pack for example. 

External Backpack Water Bottle Pockets

With this arrangement you are able to pack anything you’ll need only at camp inside the main compartment (sleeping bag, sleeping pad, etc.), pack anything you might need immediately at hand during the day in the outside pocket of the pack like rain gear – this pocket can be in the form of a lid or pocket on the rear of the backpack. You’ll also have easy access to small frequently used items, or emergency items in your hipbelt and side water bottle pockets – things like a small camera, snacks, whistle, and water bottles themselves – all without having to take your pack off. 
Additional attachment points are always nice to have on longer trips or for those times you might be carrying extra gear. This ability can come in many forms – bungee systems on the outside of the pack, ice axe loops, etc., with the main concern here being their existence without getting in the way or adding too much weight to the pack. Often, normal closure or compression straps can also be utilized to hold items you might want to secure to the outside of your pack like a bulky foam sleeping pad.

Backpack Pockets and Exterior Storage Options

Top loading packs feature a large opening on top of the pack – either a roll top design which work well for compression and water resistance, or with a drawstring closure often covered by a “lid” or “brain” with a pocket. Panel loading packs, which operate a bit like a suitcase with long zippers, are also available if you feel you prefer easy access to all of your gear at once. 

Although it may go without saying, other features such as a sternum strap, load lifters for framed packs to pull the load closer to your center of gravity and move more weight off your shoulders, a comfortable hipbelt, and features like a padded backpanel are all things to check off the list. Other features such as ventilated backpanels, hydration sleeves and ports, or trekking pole holders for example should be sought after on a preferential basis.

Materials

Protecting the rest of your gear contained within, other than shoes and trekking pole tips backpacks face one of the roughest existences on the trail of all the gear we carry. However, going over-durable here can lead to an overly heavy pack, but we still need something that can withstand being dropped on the ground and rocks repeatedly, leaned against scraggly trees, and contact with brush and boulders without having to constantly repair or replace our pack. Often the simple eye test can give an indication of just how durable all the various fabrics utilized for backpacks may be. Silnylon and standard Cuben / Dyneema Composite Fabrics result in the lightest of backpacks, but are not particularly durable fabrics in regards to abrasion resistance.

Backpack Fabric Choices and Exterior Storage

A water resistant ripstop nylon pack fabric

A hybrid Dyneema fabric is also available, featuring a polyester face fabric for increased abrasion resistance while still taking advantage of the waterproofness and strength of the base Dyneema material. (Seams may however, not be sealed or taped in any water resistant pack) Heavier duty ripstop nylons and Dyneema gridstop are more popular fabrics and offer a great balance of weight and durability. The latter two options frequently feature a PU coating for waterproofing, which will degrade over time – no matter the case one should always further waterproof their critical gear by way of waterproof stuff sacks, or by using a pack liner of some type – usually just a larger version of a waterproof stuff sack or a trash compactor bag. In all cases, if the bottom of the pack is reinforced with a double layer or heavier duty material this is always a bonus, with this location being the most susceptible to abrasion and wear.

Multiday Backpacking Packs - Choices and Considerations

Thankfully, as a required item for backpacking there are no shortage of lightweight, framed, frameless, heavy duty, ultralight, top loading, panel loading, and men’s or women’s backpacks – or various combinations of these designs  – on the market today. No matter your take and approach on the subject, the best backpack might be the one that you end up thinking about the least while on the trail; one that carries all your gear across the various intended situations with ease, all the while without weighing you down and one that is sufficiently durable to last for countless backcountry adventures.

For a current list of backpacks that you can filter and sort by many of the features we’ve discussed in this post, see this page at REI.com.

Aaron

The latest meal from Good To-Go, their New England Corn Chowdah is an option that seems well suited for a company that’s based in Maine to offer. This meal brings 330 calories for the single serving version to the table and 670 calories for the 2 serving option, and is a hearty soup / chowder (or chowdah when pronounced appropriately) containing dried corn, sweet potatoes and potato, milk, carrots, bonito (fish), along with leeks, shallots, parsley, salt, and black pepper. This meal is gluten free, pescatarian, and is ready in 15 minutes after adding about 1.5 cups of water for the single serving version and 3 cups on the double serving option.

Good To-Go New England Corn Chowdah (Chowder) Review

Immediately upon opening the bag, you are greeted with the smell of smoked fish, and one favorite of Good To-Go meals is the approximate fill line that they place right on the bag of each meal for those of us that are satisfied with a “close enough” approach when it comes to cooking measurements. After rehydration you’ll end up with a meal that has a soupy consistency – spoon suggested on this one for your backpacking utensil of choice compared to a spork, but with the chowder inspiration here there is still plenty of heartiness to the meal when you dig down towards the bottom of the bag. The smoked fish is quite prevalent – I’d say the bonito ingredient (a tuna relative) could be reduced just slightly if I had to nitpick, but this would be a great meal for those that enjoy a meal on the trail with a seafood component. Despite corn being the first ingredient here, I would consider this more of a fish chowder than a corn chowder. 

New England Corn Chowdah Before Rehydration

As a result however, there is no shortage of savory here, and no shortage of taste either – Good To-Go has really packed in the flavor with a balance between smoky and sweet and this is easily my favorite meal from Good To-Go. The meal rehydrates well after the wait and tastes surprisingly fresh, and it’s hard to think of a better option after a cold or rainy hiking day if you’re a seafood fan. I’d say the serving suggestion is pretty accurate and can be followed here, as the meal is surprisingly filling with the single serving making a hearty lunch for 1 and the double serving working for 2 who don’t have too huge of an appetite and perhaps combined some crackers to go with the chowder or your side of choice.

Good To-Go Corn Chowdah Backpacking Meal

While one can definitely pick up the smell of the fish, there’s no fishy taste. However, with the odiferous nature of the meal, it would be worth considering this when backpacking in bear country when it comes to cooking the meal and in regards to storing the empty bag after dinner, and for the rest of the trip as well. OPSak odor resistant bag suggested. Overall this ended up being a surprisingly filling meal, tasted great, and if you’re looking for a backpackable, chowder style meal with a prevalent seafood component (the meal is quite appropriately named) look no further. 

The New England Corn Chowdah Meal from Good To-Go retails at around $7 for the single serving version and $13 for the double serving. You can find the meal here at REI and on Amazon.com.

Aaron

The Snow Peak 450 is an ultralight titanium backpacking mug weighing in at only a listed weight of 2.4 ounces for the lighter single wall version of the cup (2.1 measured), or 4.2 ounces for the more insulated double wall offering. This classic cup has a capacity of 450ml (just over 15 fluid ounces), and is available in your typical titanium grey as well as in a variety of colors to brighten up your morning coffee a bit if desired. The handles are collapsible for packing, and can work as a way to attach the cup to your pack while on the trail.

Snow Peak 450ml Titanium Cup Review

Although the double wall version of this mug will keep your drink warmer a bit longer, I prefer the single wall for backpacking purposes with the lighter weight in mind. Although my drink will cool a bit faster than the double wall version, the single wall allows one to place the cup right on a stove for a quick reheat, and as such everything balances out somewhat in the end. Be mindful however that the handles can get quite hot when heating on a stove. One thing I do appreciate about the Snow Peak 450 is that it’s light without being too light; unlike some other titanium options I do not find myself having to constantly bend the 450 back into shape after some abuse on the trail.

Snow Peak 450 Handles

The 450’s capacity is just right for a quick cup of coffee in the morning as you’re getting ready to break camp – and with 2 packets of Starbucks Via it makes for a nice strong cup of coffee when filled nearly to the brim. The capacity here is a bit too low if you’re looking for a jack of all trades, master of none combination pot and mug to take along however, so I usually pair the Snow Peak 450 with an Evernew Option for actually cooking meals in a pot, boiling water for meals of the freeze dried variety, or for FBC style dinners.

Single wall titanium mugs don’t insulate well and can get quite hot; using the handles is pretty much required for sipping a very hot beverage and some care when it comes to your sipping may be needed as well. The rolled edge of the 450 combined with not filling it quite all the way to the brim helps in this regard, and Snow Peak offers their hot lips silicone covers as well. While these work well as insulation from the heat, in my experience they don't create a perfect seal and some liquid may be able to escape down the side of the cup when you take a drink. Not too big of a deal, but most of all I found this was just one more thing to keep track of on the trail and as such, I no longer take the Snow Peak hot lips along on trips.

Coffee in the Snow Peak 450 Mug

My Snow Peak 450 has taken a beating on many backpacking trips for nearly a decade, and it’s bounced around over many miles attached to the outside of my pack by the handles (and this can be configured for a “bear bell” effect if desired), been slammed against rocks and trees, boiled in directly on top of canister stoves, and other than a little age to the blue anodized coating of the cup and an inability to read the logo the cup is still going strong, and I suspect it will continue to perform well for another 10 years. Perhaps more? The Snow Peak 450 is just one of those very few items that is hard to beat and doesn’t get replaced by newer or lighter gear as time goes on.

Single Wall Snow Peak 450 on Canister Stove

While titanium backpacking cookware can involve a little up-front investment, the material offers durability and strength while keeping your pack weight low – always a good combination when it comes to backpacking gear. The Snow Peak single wall titanium cup retails around $30 for the grey version, and about $35 for the green, blue, or purple option. Find the standard version here at REI, and find the color version here at Backcountry.com. And for more on choosing a backpacking mug in general, see this post.

Aaron

If your next trip is taking you to a popular trail in a National Park or areas where campsites are available by obtaining a permit and making a backcountry reservation, often times there will be little to decide upon when it comes to choosing a campsite; if designated sites are all that’s available most of the deciding has already been done for you. When exploring more remote wilderness areas and in all areas where dispersed or zone camping is allowed or all that’s available however, when choosing the best place to camp for the night a variety of factors will need to be considered based upon the terrain, season, and other elemental factors. This of course is in addition to the standard prerequisites of finding a spot flat enough to sleep, with good drainage, and that has sufficient space for your shelter.

How to Choose a Great Wilderness Backpacking Campsite


Water

Proximity to water is often a high priority for many campers, but it’s not necessarily a requirement with sufficient planning for dry camping. Water simply equates to convenience – instead of having to carry water, which is quite heavy, from the last source to your dry campsite for the night, when camping close to water it’s easy to setup first, then filter water to get you through the night and have enough to get started on the trail the next morning. Camping near water can have a few drawbacks however, including a colder night – water seeks out low points in the terrain and this is where the cold air will flow and settle after dark. Additionally, wildlife encounters may be increased – including mosquitoes – and at times campsites or camping areas near water can become overused. If you do plan to dry camp, you may want to consider some extra water capacity – your standard Platypus container for example is quite ultralight (when not filled!) and they’re great for taking along when you might need to dry camp on a particular trip.

Wind

Depending on the weather and season, wind may best be avoided or can be sought out at other times of the year. While mountain campsites above treeline may offer the best view and make for a share-worthy photograph, these types of campsites can expose you to the full force of the wind. This makes everything from cooking to getting a good night of rest that much harder, and in these situations descending just a bit and seeking out the trees will help greatly. When backpacking in mosquito season however a bit of a breeze can be a godsend, especially when camping near water. (Always carry repellent – Herbal Armor is a personal favorite, combined with a backpacking headnet for maximum sanity regardless) Thankfully, mosquitoes typically coincide with warmer temperatures so getting a little breeze is no big deal. If wind is a factor that you can’t avoid, having a double wall shelter, especially one with a solid or partial solid interior will help, and seek out any kind of natural shelter possible whether a grove of shrubs, a boulder, heading to the lee side of a slope, etc.

Backpacking Campsite Considerations


Wildlife

For the benefit of all involved, it’s best to avoid any type of area where wildlife will tend congregate or be prone to utilize. Many times, this can mean avoiding overused areas where resident wildlife has come to expect food rewards from insufficiently protected and stored food, and additionally consideration for natural wildlife corridors and funnels should be evaluated in any situation. This includes trips where you’re following a marked trail, hiking offtrail, and in heavily used areas as well as in true wilderness. Just like camping at least a couple hundred feet away from the main hiking trail is a great idea and is usually regulated, using the same strategy when it comes to game trails or areas where wildlife would have to pass is a good idea.

A great example is a large lake with a cliff band on one side, with a grassy meadow in between the cliff and shoreline. The only way wildlife (or other hikers for that matter) can get from point A to point B is by taking the area between the cliff band and the shoreline, and this type of area is one best avoided. If you’ll be camping  in areas where bears are present, additional practices for backpacking in bear country will of course be in order. When you are camping in a popular area, use extra caution with food preparation and storage (by utilizing an Ursack, a bear canister, or food hang - check regulations).

Temperature

Nightly temperatures can vary wildly with terrain – and with cold air sinking and warm air rising camping lakeside at the bottom of a valley may not be the best choice if you're after a warm night, as cold air will settle right where you’ve setup camp. This can be counter-intuitive to some extent however, as when we begin to make large scale elevation changes in mountainous terrain – in the order of around a thousand feet or more – it will be cooler higher and warmer lower. It is usually too tedious to descend 1000 feet or more on any typical backpacking trip just to find a warmer campsite – since most likely you’ll have to gain that elevation back the next day so some compromise is in order. One exception might be in cold weather however, when descending can be quite appropriate in order to drop below the snowline of an impending storm or at least get to an elevation where total snow amounts will be more manageable.

No matter the overall elevation, finding that small rise above the valley floor, or camping on a bench part way up a slope can be significantly warmer than just a contour line on the map lower and will be drier and less prone to overnight condensation as well. When this situation can’t be avoided, having a sleep system that’s dialed in should get you through the night in relative comfort, and make sure to bring that pack towel to dry the condensation off your tent in the morning.

Camping in Mountain Snow Conditions and the Importance of Elevation


Sun Exposure

Something to be sought after in the cold, and avoided when it’s hot – exposure to the sun is always something important to consider. On winter and shoulder season trips where snow can be a factor, planning your trip and campsites to follow south-facing slopes can limit your snow exposure if desired, and will always be warmer than frigid north facing slopes that may see little to no sun at all on short winter days with a low sun angle. In desert or arid climates finding any terrain features to provide shade will be appreciated during the warmer months, although some of this comes down to timing in regard to setting up and leaving camp as well.

In forested areas trees play a huge part in campsite selection – so much that we devoted our Issue 31 Trail Tip to the subject, but in short when it’s cold camping in the trees will be warmer at night and block more wind and precipitation, while being less of a condensation prone campsite, but those trees will also block those first rays of light on chilly mornings. It can be a tough call – and may depend on how early you plan to be up and leaving camp. Additionally, you will want to avoid camping anywhere near or within range of trees that may fall when camping in a forest.

Desert Camping - Sun and Wind


Without a doubt there is no one single best campsite checklist than can be provided that will cover all circumstances, or even cover a single area when one considers the variability of seasons and weather. When it comes down to choosing a campsite for the night on a typical backpacking trip, there may indeed not be an area available that checks everything off the list of factors that are important to you and are most suitable for the situation. However, a quick consideration of the various factors applicable to the situation at hand can help when it comes to choosing between several initially suitable camping areas, or help seal the deal on avoiding a possibility altogether and instead hiking on to greener pastures.

In any case, when it comes to finding a wilderness campsite make sure you check the associated regulations in regards to the required distance from trails, lakes, and streams (note that many established wilderness sites you may come across will not necessarily conform to these regulations), or any other regulations that may be in effect for your backpacking destination of choice, while following practices to ensure you leave no trace.