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On any hiking or backpacking trip, the ability to procure safe drinking water during the hike is one of the most important logistical considerations for both pre-trip planning as well as while we’re on the trail. Finding the water is of course the first step, and having the necessary gear to properly process the water so it’s safe to drink is the second part of the equation. Here we’ll look at the main types of water filters and backcountry water treatment methods that are best suited for backpacking and hiking, and elaborate on the necessary reading between the lines that needs to be done when choosing the best water filter or treatment option for backcountry use.

Hiking and Backpacking Water Filters, Treatment Methods and Considerations

What We Need to Treat and Filter

Microorganisms and Biological Concerns:

While protozoan concerns such as giardia and cryptosporidium get the most publicity, concerns are best looked at in a categorical fashion. Starting with biological containments from smallest to largest, viruses (example: hepatitis, rotovirus, often smaller than .1 micron) are notoriously difficult to filter as they can slip through most common filter’s pore size. Luckily, viruses are mostly a concern where there are many other people – for example where you might find untreated sewage. However, it’s always important to remember the source of the water you’re filtering. Bacteria (example: e.Coli, Salmonella, average size greater than .3 microns) are a more common concern in the wilderness as they are spread by both humans and wildlife, but luckily they are larger than viruses and more easily captured by most common filters. Protozoa are a a bit larger and include cryptosporidium and giardia, and a filter that will filter to 1 micron or smaller is recommended for removal. Concerns that are larger still include tapeworm eggs and unsightly, but not necessarily dangerous, critters of various types in your water such as insect larvae. On many occasions I’ve scooped water from crystal clear mountain streams and upon close inspection, have been quite surprised at what that scoop reveals to the eye – from sticks and stones to tadpoles and worms of various types – not to mention what you can’t see. I prefer to get my calories from my food bag while backpacking, and luckily these larger organisms are of course, very easily filtered.

Backpacking Water Source and Filtration for Microorganisms, Biological, and Other Considerations

Other Treatment Considerations:

Many other components can make up the water you’re drinking in the backcountry as well. Chemicals, pesticides and herbicides, heavy metals, tannins, silt, taste and odor, as well as natural particulates of various types will need to be considered. Some of these concerns will only affect smell and taste, others could affect your health. Visible suspended matter is removed by most filters, but tannins and taste / smell can pass through – in my experience even drinking tea colored water however, has been fine. If your water source is downstream of an area that has seen prior or active agricultural or mining use for example, chemicals and other various components introduced by man could be in the water source, especially as you move further downstream in the water supply chain. To reduce these types of contaminants and concerns we can utilize a purifier or filter that contains a carbon stage, or add a carbon element or step to an existing setup to assist in reducing many of these possible impurities.

Physical Filters and Purifiers

Most water treatment products designed for backcountry use that are reasonably lightweight, will not address all of the above concerns in one fell swoop. Thus, we need to evaluate our backpacking and hiking destinations, as well as our own personal comfort level to find the best compromise. For backpacking in the mountainous wilderness areas of the United States for example, the general consensus is that viruses are usually not of a great concern, and many times our water sources are fairly pure from man-made pollution as we’re getting it close to the source. In these cases bacteria and protozoa are usually the main concerns. Other backcountry trips may find us on the banks of a river far from the source, that has passed through many towns before we consume it, perhaps on foreign soil, and the full gamut of contaminants are more of a possibility.

Water filters do just what they say; they filter the water to a certain micron level to remove bacteria and protozoa. Water purification by definition, including options like the First Need XLE will take this all a step further by also removing viruses, though not all products that are officially listed as purifiers will remove or reduce chemicals, heavy metals, tannins, debris, etc. – your water may be purified by marketing general standards, but it will not necessarily be “pure”.

Backpacking Pump Water Filters - Katadyn - PUR Hiker PRO

Classic pump operated filters work well for pulling water out of hard to reach and shallow sources.

Popular filters for backcountry water treatment should filter to an absolute pore size of .3 microns or smaller for adequate removal of bacteria, protozoa, and all things larger. Note the absolute part of the pore size equation, as filters listed with a “nominal” pore size will only on average filter to that level. Absolute is a guarantee, and is the number we’re actually interested in. If you prefer viral protection, you will need an option with a much smaller absolute pore size; as a result flow rate will likely suffer and these types of purifiers are rare. Alternatively some filters combine with other technology to treat the virus part using an iodine or ion exchange process. Some purifiers here that remove viruses physically are the MSR Guardian as well as this option from Sawyer. Other options like the Katadyn MyBottle combine a normal filter with a cartridge that contains an iodinated resin for added virus protection, while the Grayl Purifier uses an ion exchange process to achieve this goal.

Types of Filters

Physical filtration can be achieved utilizing various types of elements and technologies. The most popular lightweight water filter technology today, hollow fiber filters work by passing water through a multitude of small tubes; tubes that are perforated by many, many, pores so small (rated to the micron) that anything larger than this pore size cannot pass through, trapping any living organisms or non-living matter larger than the pore size. Hollow fiber filters are popular for their light weight and versatility – you can pretty much find one in any filter configuration you prefer – be that as a gravity filter, inline filter, pump, etc. and many can be used multiple ways, such as the Sawyer 3-way SP122 filter (check out our review of the Sawyer here in Issue 3). Hollow fiber filters can usually be backflushed to help restore flow rate, and flow rate will vary depending on pore size, surface area, and use. The most popular hollow fiber filters are in the .1 to .2 micron range making them sufficient for bacteria and protozoa, and this micron level is usually a good balance of protection, sufficient flow rate, and lifespan. Smaller micron, virus-rated filters also exist in this category as seen with the aforementioned Sawyer SP191, but flow rate will be slower due to the smaller pore size.

Gravity Water Filter for Backpacking - Platypus GravityWorks System

A gravity system, in this case using hollow fiber filter technology, uses the force of gravity to move water through the filter.

Hollow fiber filters cannot be allowed to freeze when wet (The MSR Guardian is an exception) or after they've been used, so on trips where it will freeze at night you’ll need to sleep with the filter in your sleeping bag or carry it in your pocket any time temperatures begin to flirt with freezing during the day – this goes for nearly all other filters using different types of elements as well.

In addition to freezing physical filters also need to be treated with some care in regards to drops and impacts, which could damage the element. Some hollow fiber filters like the Platypus GravityWorks (read our full review here in Issue 25), and the Katadyn BeFree have manufacturer supported integrity tests which are very helpful for a little peace of mind – unlike other gear, you can’t really tell if a filter is working properly or not, without this test.

Other types of physical filter media will use a ceramic element like the MSR EX filter, and the Katadyn Pocket Filter, or utilize a glass fiber element like the venerable Katadyn Hiker Pro. Ceramic filters have the ability to be repeatedly field cleaned. Some filters are entirely self-contained and will need to be thrown away when their flow rate diminishes too much to be of practical use, while others setups will have a replaceable cartridge that fits into a housing.

Approaches to Filtering

No matter what filter technology you end up going with, physical filters are most often utilized in an inline, gravity, squeeze, or pump configuration. The traditional pump water filter requires you to pump the water through the filter element via a hose in the water source, and is a proven setup at both getting you water and providing an ample upper body workout. Moving parts here increase the complication and weight, but these are also great for pulling water out of hard to reach places. The other methods will require you to fill some type of reservoir with dirty water first, by either submerging the dirty water container or bag in the water source or, if it’s one of those shallow or small sources you occasionally may need to use a separate vessel to fill the dirty container, like a mug (boil later to sterilize).

Inline Hiking and Backpacking Water Filter Setup - Sawyer 3-way SP122

An inline water filter connected to a hydration setup treats water as you drink.

Gravity setups like the Platypus GravityWorks and the Katadyn Base Camp Pro let gravity do the work for you, by filling a dirty reservoir with water and by elevating, hanging from a tree branch or rock if possible, water passes through the filter element into a clean container. Inline setups such as the Sawyer SP122 splice into the tubing of your hydration reservoir and your own drinking force filters the water with each sip, while with squeeze setups like the Sawyer Squeeze, you can utilize a combination of gravity and squeezing force to move the dirty water through the filter and into a clean vessel or drink directly. Other options integrate the filter into a bottle (MetaBottle) or softbottle (BeFree), where much in the same manner as an inline filter with a hydration reservoir, your drinking or a combination of drinking and squeezing is what filters the water as you go. Straw type options are also another strategy, treating water by directly inserting one end into a water source and drinking from the other side of the straw. This type of filter is limited in that you cannot process larger volumes of water and each sip takes more work, perhaps best reserved more for emergency usage.

In whatever case, seek out the cleanest water possible to prolong the life of your filter and for the best flow rate. While many filters can be backflushed or cleaned, this is usually a losing battle over time. Although filters are rated by the gallon or liter in regards to their lifespan, it’s a great idea to evaluate this when choosing a filter, but take this number with a grain of salt. Clean water is important for other treatment methods as well; in very turbid situations it’s a good idea to allow water to settle in a separate container (in for example, a Sea to Summit Bucket), then treat from the top. Luckily, this is more of the exception than the norm for most of us.

UV Treatment

Ultraviolet treatment options like those offered by Steripen, come in various forms using either normal or rechargeable batteries, and utilize, as with many municipalities, UV light from a special lamp that’s inserted into your water container to neutralize many microorganisms by disrupting their DNA. This process usually takes about a minute and you’ll most likely be treating your water a liter or so at a time. Some other UV devices have come to market that feature an integrated lamp, like the Camelback All Clear, and yet others have been designed to float from the surface of your water vessel.

UV Water Treatment for Backpacking - Steripen Adveturuer

UV water treatment uses battery powered ultraviolet light that's inserted in a container to treat many microorganisms.

On the plus side, these UV treatment options are quite effective at neutralizing the things that physical filters have the toughest time with – viruses – and the technology is proven. However, many are not comfortable relying on an electronic and potentially fragile instrument for their main or only wilderness water filtration source. Additionally, UV light on its own is not sufficient for neutralizing all living organisms that could be present in your water – tapeworm eggs for example, or larger organisms and larvae that may or may not do any harm but may not necessarily be what you want to ingest, nor will a UV product remove anything from the water or improve its composition. If the water is dirty, you’ll be drinking dirty water. Steripen offers a filter with a 40x40 micron mesh screen that can help here, which is intended to reduce organic matter or particulates. Performance may also be insufficient in murky water, requiring pre-filtration. All said, this is an excellent technology as long you’re aware of the limitations; I utilize a Steripen Adventurer Opti as a secondary treatment with a hollow fiber filter on any trip where I desire viral treatment.

Chemical Treatment

Chemical treatment usually utilizing chlorine dioxide (Aquamira) or Iodine (Polar Pure) and on occasion some other chemicals like household bleach or other chemicals that produce chlorine, like Aquatabs can be effective, but like anything this category has its share of pros and cons. In contrast to physical filters and like UV treatment, chemicals are again effective against viruses, but often take longer (hours) to work on such concerns as cryptospordium (4 hours) and these products will add a taste to your water; other products are not suitable for cryptosporidium whatsoever. To be honest, most of my thought goes into making sure my drinking water source is either free of any chemicals or how to reduce or remove them should there be any chance of them being present, so chemical treatment is a bit counter-productive from my point of view, and options like iodine are not an option for pregnant women or those with any type of a thyroid issue. Iodine and chlorine (i.e. bleach) on their own, are not effective against cryptosporidium.

However, this method is lightweight and over the years has been popular with ultralight backpackers, though decreasing in recent years with the increased availability of very light hollow fiber filters like the Sawyer Mini. In this category, other devices like the MSR Miox and current Potable Aqua Pure have seen the market over the years that create a solution with salt to create an oxidant solution that you subsequently dissolve in water; but as with other chemical treatments, with a 4 hour wait time these are not the quickest of options. Chemical treatment may also be integrated with some filters to move them into the purifier category. As with boiling, chemical treatment can be a good backup to bring as well or to utilize in conjunction with other methods.

Filtering Downstream and Muddy - Silty Water Sources While Backpacking

Hundreds of miles from the source, I took extra steps in my treatment process at this backcountry location.


Boiling water is an excellent way to neutralize microorganisms that might be present, but it takes a while, requires a lot of fuel, and let’s be honest, on a hot summer day, who wants to drink steaming hot water when we could be drinking that crisp and cold water from a mountain stream? As such, boiling can be tough to utilize as a main water treatment method on most 3 season backpacking trips, but it’s an excellent method to keep in mind as a backup method should your filter or other method fail you. In winter however, melting snow for water may be your best and only option. Be sure to bring a big pot (my Evernew 1.3 works well solo) and a stove that will work well during continued usage in cold conditions like the MSR WindPro II – read our review in Issue 33. Opinions on how long to boil water vary widely; the CDC suggests bringing water to a rolling boil for 1 minute, or for 3 full minutes at altitudes above 6562 feet (be sure to check that 2 on the end of your altimeter!) Data suggests however that pathogens are neutralized at lower temperatures; in the end in depends on heat and time but luckily, both are achieved by bringing your water to a boil and after removal from heat.

Carbon Filtration

As we’ve seen, the technologies used above are all mainly designed to thwart microorganisms. If improving the taste and smell of your water, or if any agricultural and / or industrial contamination is a concern, look for a system that integrates filtration technology combined with a carbon stage that will improve and / or reduce, but not necessarily eliminate, these concerns.

Backcountry Water Filtration and Using a Carbon Element to Improve Water Quality

If desired, a carbon element can be integrated into an existing system using a modular approach.

This will increase the weight of your system, and possibly the cost of replacement elements, etc., but there is of course no free lunch. The Sawyer Select Filters, the Lifestraw Flex, and Katadyn Hiker Pro are all examples of filters with integrated carbon filtration – or if you’re like me and have settled on a treatment method that does not address this concern, but you may occasionally head out on a trip where some of these concerns would be nice to cover, you can always splice in an add-on carbon element (I use add on GravityWorks Carbon Element) for this purpose when needed.

My Approach

For a complicated issue, there are unfortunately no one size fits all solutions and in the end, when we’re concerned about not carrying extra weight, it all comes down to a compromise and what each one of us is most interested in removing from our water. Luckily there are many lightweight and effective options out there to choose from. For general backpacking we should expect to find an option that will treat what we’re concerned with for around a pound or less. About half a pound is usually doable, and lighter options of just a few ounces are very realistic to target.

Platypus GravityWorks Water Filter Element

Most of my trips are very well served by standard hollow fiber filtration technology; as with all of us most likely, my preference is to backpack into areas where the water is already fairly good. As such I’m not usually concerned about viruses or pollution, (both a Steripen and carbon filter have a spot in the gear room for such destinations to use in conjunction with a hollow fiber filter), and I like to target the removal of bacteria, protozoa, and the removal of larger critters no matter their parasitical intent or lack thereof. The hollow fiber filter also has that added benefit of giving your water a good scrub; removing particulate matter. I really like a filter that has a manufacturer supported integrity test as well, so it essentially comes down to the cartridge for me. The Platypus GravityWorks cartridge fits all of the above criteria, and it just so happens the whole setup it comes with works well and is pretty darn convenient to use both on the trail as well as in camp.

For a complete list of backcountry-ready water filters and treatment methods that you can sort and filter by all the main points we’ve discussed in this post, check out this page at REI.


Whether you’re driving across the country to finally hike that classic mountain range that’s been on your mind for years or simply on the way to your local trailhead, perhaps nothing can get you ready for the hike like the perfect song or hiking playlist. And hey, there’s nothing else to really do in the car anyway. On the flipside, it could be argued that nothing is more annoying than getting the latest pop song – that you happened to hear on the radio right before locking the car - stuck in your head for that otherwise perfect week long backpacking trip. Listening to our own music collection is a much safer bet; tune into the radio with caution. Thus I’m sure we’ve all found a few favorite hiking tracks over the years.

Hiking and Backpacking Songs -11 Favorite TrailGroove Classics

If we took hiking out of the equation and made this a pure list with the outdoors aside, this list would without a doubt look a bit different, but hey, this is TrailGroove. Including songs of a newer generation would certainly mix up the list a bit further as well,  but this will be a “classic” list of songs that have stood the test of time  and that have been around for at least 30+ years or so. Lastly in the criteria department, they also have to be good songs, not just thrown in because they describe the act of walking. (Worthy of a separate post, however!) Thus while I doubt hiking had much to do with the writing of any of the songs on this list, I find them relatable to hiking and to the outdoors. Here’s the list and the why:

Sittin' On the Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding, 1967

It’s 2000 miles I’ve roamed
Just to make this dock my home
Now I'm just gonna sit at the dock of a bay
Watching the tide roll away

With very similar themes to Watching the Wheels below, Dock of the Bay, one of the most popular songs of all time on a list of any type, is to me the definition of the search and journey to a better place, returning to a simpler existence, and that finding that satisfaction with the simpler things in life; very similar themes to hiking and the wilderness. I don’t plan many hikes to many bays save for a few exceptions, but the song translates to any locale quite easily. Watching the sunrise from a convenient log on the 5th day of a wilderness backpacking trip with a hot cup of coffee in hand, I can’t help but think of this one.

Watching the Wheels – John Lennon, 1981

I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go

Before launching TrailGroove and what now seems like long ago, I worked in a corporate job staring at a computer all day under fluorescent lights stuck in a cubicle. Other than a walk during lunch, my only respites were weekends and once a year, week or so long backpacking trips…somewhere. Vacation requests elicited a couple predictable responses: “Why would you want to walk that far?” “Can you check your email daily?” Luckily, I found the answer to the age-old question on one of those trips deep into the Wind River Range: If you’re in the middle of the mountains and a corporate emergency takes place, it turns out that no, it actually doesn’t make a noise.

Backpacking Trip Music and Classic Playlist

Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin, 1971

There's a feeling a get
When I look to the West
And my spirit is crying for leaving

Taking things very literally, unless you're driving the top of Pike's Peak to start your hike, every trip into the mountains starts with a climb. This classic tune from Zeppelin starts with a contemplative tone, but steadily builds to leave you ready to tackle any mountain climb as you wonder just what Jimmy and Robert really meant with this collection of metaphorical lyrics. And it’s not uncommon for that classic and unmistakable intro to play in my mind as I start the climb to the top of one of those ominous, offtrail high mountain passes with peaks shrouded among the clouds.

Band on the Run – Paul McCartney and Wings, 1973

Well the night was falling as the desert world
Began to settle down
In the town they’re searching for us everywhere
But we never will be found

Band on the Run exhibits the need to escape to a simpler existence and the success of subsequently doing so, which are lyrically woven throughout the song. While I’m pretty sure Paul wasn’t talking about hiking here, when you’re stuck in a situation where you can’t hike and this song comes up, the similarities become quite apparent.

Learning to Fly – Pink Floyd, 1987

There's no sensation to compare with this
Suspended animation
A state of bliss

While Pink Floyd is undoubtedly one of the best bands of all time...let's be honest...many of their songs aren't exactly uplifting. But David Gilmour was always a bit more positive. Learning to Fly features an upbeat tempo and inspirational and hopeful lyrics. And no matter how long you've been hiking, there's always another journey out there and more to learn with each step. Although this could be stretching the classic prerequisite a bit, the most recent song on this list was released 30 years ago.

A Forest – The Cure, 1980

It’s always the same
I’m running towards nothing
Again and again and again and again

This isn’t the most easy going and comforting song out there, but that’s kind of the point. With a haunting intro and lyrics that begin to tell of a chaotic sequence of events this one always reminds me of backpacking since I watched Cookie and Paul’s CDT video, where it was featured on the soundtrack. If you’ve ever stumbled down an offtrail route after dark on a first trip in unfamiliar terrain, hoping your compass bearing was correct as you pick your way through deadfall by the light of a fading headlamp as rain begins to fall, you know the feeling.

Best Backpacking and Outdoor Songs from the 60s, 70s, and 80s

Here Comes the Sun – The Beatles, 1969

Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it’s feel like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right

If you’ve ever been on a multi-day hike through cold, wet, and unrelenting weather in the mountains, sleeping bag steadily losing loft and the chill setting in just a bit further each day, I can think of no better song to hum out loud as you brew a hot cup of coffee and the sun begins to finally peek through those grey clouds for the first time in days. A song that’s upbeat, uplifting with seasonal themes, and literally could not contain more positivity can certainly hit the spot most all the time in the wilderness.

Take Me Home, Country Roads – John Denver, 1971

Almost Heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

Rocky Mountain High of course is another contender from John Denver, but from my standpoint Country Roads is a more enjoyable listen. Country Roads offers up a theme of getting off the beaten path and connecting with the natural world, and of course many of us are at home, or find ourselves a second home, out on the trail. Wilderness Trail, Take me Home? Either way this is a great hiking – or driving to the trailhead – song.

A Horse with No Name – America, 1971

The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds
The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound

You just have to include this one on the list. No matter where your journey may take you, if you’re on a journey this is your song. Telling a story and with a distinct beginning, middle, and end along with a tempo that matches a quick hiking pace surprisingly well, if you tend to get songs stuck in your head before a trip and are almost to the trailhead to start a multi-day trip, this is never a bad choice to listen to last.

Hiking Song Playlist and Classics

Heart of Gold - Neil Young, 1972

I've been to Hollywood
I've been to Redwood
I crossed the ocean for a heart of gold

This short and sweet song from Neil Young is sure to play throughout your head on repeat if it's the last song you play in the car before hitting the trail, but that might not be such a bad thing. Invoking themes of searching for our own intangibles, whatever those may be and with a heavy dose of searching and travel themes throughout, this song is great inspiration and a perfect mental soundtrack as you shoulder your pack and hike past that wilderness boundary sign.

Kodachrome – Paul Simon, 1973

I've got a Nikon Camera
I love to take photographs
So mamma, don't take my Kodachrome away

Hiking and photography go hand in hand, and this not so subtly rebellious and powerful, yet uplifting song continually invokes the colors of nature as they might be captured on Kodak's famous Kodachrome film, reminding a hiker of those blissful lackadaisical summer hikes where you can't seem to make any miles as you're forced to stop every few feet to capture a new quintessential summer scene. Hiking at its finest.

Wilderness Backpacking Songs

Nothing can set the tune of a trip like a great soundtrack on the way to the trailhead, or cement a recent hike in your memory on that necessitated trip to the nearest place with a hot meal and cold beverage once the trip is over. And while I don’t listen to music during a hike, I’ll likely have a song stuck in my mind, and often one of those listed above, out on the trail.


A backpacking sleeping pad very importantly provides warmth by insulating us from the cold ground at night, and ideally a sleeping pad will also provide sufficient comfort to allow for a good night of rest. As an item that’s one of the heaviest and bulkiest core gear items you will carry on any backpacking trip, the sleeping pad requires some thought and consideration when it comes to selection and application. With a multitude of options available there's a sleeping pad to specifically suit any season and backpacking trip, as well as those that offer a wide range of versatility across many situations.

Selecting the Best Backpacking Sleeping Pad - Tips and Considerations

R-Value and Warmth

The most important function a sleeping serves is to keep you warm; although we all like to be comfortable we can’t be comfortable (or safe) if we’re cold. Thus, consider a sleeping pad’s r-value when making a choice. However, there’s no free lunch; the warmer the pad the heavier and bulkier it will be. As such we have to seek a balance just like anything else. For general 3 season use here in the Rockies where it always gets a bit chilly at night, I target a sleeping pad with an r-value around 3. Combined with an appropriate sleeping bag for the forecasted lows of course, I’ve found this to provide sufficient warmth into the higher 20’s. When it will be colder, I combine this pad with the thinnest (1/4" or less) and lightest generic foam pad I can find particularly of the Evazote foam variety that can easily be cut down to a custom size or folded over to double up if needed – such as the Evazote Exped Doublemat, or this option on Amazon, and foam pads sometimes carried by many cottage makers / vendors also work well.  Essentially, you are looking for a thin 1/8" to 1/4" foam pad that will cover you width wise (depends on your main pad width of choice), and at least offer torso length coverage or more. This system that will keep me comfortably warm to the high teens. If it will be colder than that I will combine my usual sleeping pad with a thick foam pad of nearly an equal r-value. As an example, the Exped Synmat UL7 – find our full review here – which is my choice for an inflatable pad (the current equivalent Exped Synmat UL adds a tacky surface layer) combined with the RidgeRest Solar (the warmest foam pad from Therm-a-Rest) provides a total r-value over 6 and this combo has kept me warm on winter trips well below 0. 

Carrying a CCF Backpaking Sleeping Pad on the Outside of a Backpack

On this trip with a low for the night well below 0, I packed both this Ridge Rest Solar plus an insulated inflatable.

Some inflatable pads like the Big Agnes Air Core Ultra feature no insulation at all (r-value around 1) and basically provide mostly comfort from the ground, but not cold ground. These pads are lighter and cheaper, and might be useful for a dedicated summer sleeping pad in warm locales. On the flipside some winter sleeping pads, such as the Exped Downmat 9 or the NeoAir X-Therm, are heavily insulated and would be sufficiently warm all on their own for cold winter camping and for cold sleepers. On both sides of the coin though each are on the specialized end of the spectrum; I prefer the adaptable approach of using one 3-season rated pad, and then adding in a thin, or thicker foam pad when needed for colder temperatures. For the 3 season pad I like an inflatable to provide the comfort and some baseline level of insulation, and when combined with the additional foam pad the foam pad protects the inflatable and will even serve as a fail-safe should the inflatable spring a leak. 

The Exped Synmat Inflatable Sleeping Pad Features a 3.3 R-Value

As a general starting guide an r-value of 2+ has been useful for me on summer trips in the mountains and for 3 season use in warmer locations; warm into the 30 degree range. I find an r-value of 3+ most useful all-around, providing sufficient warmth for  most 3-season trips in the mountains and down to the 20 degree range. However if you sleep colder or warmer, you can implement some respective addition or subtraction here. For winter trips I do not mess around and take a combination of pads totaling a 5-6+ r-value. Pads that feature an r-value under 2 I find useful only as part of a larger system (as a solution to boost warmth as part of an overall sleep system), but not on their own.

Sleeping Pad Size

Sleeping pads are usually offered in multiple lengths and depending on your height and use, an appropriate fit can be found. If you’re going with an ultralight approach a shorter pad can work that offers coverage for the most important part of your body - your torso and core, but your feet and legs will hang off the end. To insulate this area you can pile gear and your backpack - that might just have an insulating foam backpanel, at the bottom of the shorter sleeping pad. This will save the most weight, but still will not be as warm or as comfortable as a longer pad. My preference is to use a pad that’s at least close to my height. A few inches shorter is fine as we often sleep a bit shorter than our height with knees and back bent, etc., or longer than your height offers the most luxury. Either way, by getting your whole body on the pad you will sleep warmer. 

The standard width for most sleeping pads is 20 inches. Often a wide version (not really standardized, but usually 25”) is also offered and even up to double wide pads for two like the Exped Duo 2-person sleeping pad are offered. (Although two one-person pads can always be strapped together – Sea to Summit makes the best solution for this I’ve used) Preference will of course depend on your size and sleeping style. A 20” pad works for me, but there’s not much wiggle room and I do sleep better on a wider pad that offers more room to bend your knees for side sleepers or for toss and turners. Many tents are based around this 20” width standard, so be sure your pad will fit in your shelter of choice and combined with whatever width pad your partner may have if you’re sharing a tent.

Either way longer and wider pads offer more comfort but at the cost of an increase in weight and bulk. I’ve accumulated several sizes over the years, so on trips where I’ll be covering a lot of miles I take a standard 6’ pad; on more relaxed trips I like the comfort my Synmat LW (Long/Wide) offers. No matter the size, you will find sleeping pads available in both traditional rectangular as well is in tapering, mummy shapes that narrow towards the feet. While tapered pads offer some weight savings, a rectangular sleeping pad offers more room. 

Mummy Shaped Backpacking Sleeping Pad - Weight Savings but Not as Much Room as Rectangular

The lower section of a mummy-shaped sleeping pad. Weight is saved, but there's not as much toss and turn room.


A great target for an adequately warm and comfortable full length standard 3-season sleeping pad for most locations is around 1lb with the weight falling below that as we get into shorter and/or less warm pads, and above that as we get into longer, wider, and warmer pads. Save for a dedicated winter pad, approaching the 2lb mark is best reserved for sleeping pads in more of the super comfortable and warm, but heavy and bulky car camping variety.

Closed Cell Foam Pads

The simplest and cheapest option to go with is a closed cell foam sleeping pad. I’m much more comfortable on an inflatable pad, but as previously described, I still have an assortment of closed cell foam pads in my gear stash to combine with an inflatable pad for additional warmth on shoulder season and winter trips with my 3 season rated Exped Synmat UL7. However, the foam pad excels in the reliability department – it won’t leak and you don’t have to carry a patch kit. They are also usually cheaper.

Closed Cell Foam Backpacking Sleeping Pads - Pros and Cons

The downside is they pack bulky and you will probably have to carry it on the outside of your backpack. This can be a pro though, as the pad will be easily accessible to use as a sit pad on breaks and for lunch. Foam pads are usually just around an inch thick or a bit less, and then compress further when you’re on it. You will definitely feel the ground and any rocks or roots that might occupy your campsite, but if the comfort works for you the foam pad is a reliable and affordable choice. Note that you will want to avoid open cell foam pads, as they will absorb water and when they do they take a long time to dry. Reserve these for use on the futon at home.

Carrying Bulky Closed Cell Foam Backpacking Sleeping Pads on the Outside of a Backpack

Foam pads are bulky to carry, but convenient for breaks.

Most foam pads can be had for under $50. Some popular options include such venerable choices as the generic blue foam pad, the Therm-a-Rest Ridge Rest (a classic), and the more conveniently packing ZLite Pad. And in recent years, the later two classic foam pads from Therm-a-Rest have been updated with an aluminized reflective (warmer) coating in the respective RidgeRest SoLite and the ZLite Sol pad for a small boost in warmth and durability.

Inflatable Pads

Inflatable sleeping pads offer a few advantages and disadvantages compared to their closed cell foam cousins. Usually thicker than foam pads when inflated, an inflatable pad can keep you totally off the ground and the inflation level can be adjusted to suit your own comfort preference. Thinner inflatables are better for back sleepers and the thicker variety better for side sleepers. If you toss and turn, look for a design that is raised around the sides a bit to help center you on the pad and keep you from falling off in the night. Inflatable pads also pack smaller, usually around the size of a Nalgene and even a long / wide inflatable will easily fit inside a backpack. Inflatable pads usually feature baffles arranged in a horizontal, vertical, or sometimes in a pod like arrangement like the Sea to Summit Ultralight we’ve also previously reviewed. Preference varies; I like the lengthwise tubes that I find help me stay centered on the pad. Self-inflating pads usually have a flatter sleeping surface.

How to Choose an Inflatable Backpacking Sleeping Pad

The downside of inflatable pads is that they can be punctured, baffles can fail, you have to inflate it, and to be sufficiently warm inflatable pads will use insulation or special baffles that bump up the price. If you carry an inflatable, you should also bring a patch kit along just in case, and use care where you put the pad. For inflation I prefer to not use my breath, not only can this be a little difficult at high altitudes after a long day, but it introduces moisture. Many manufacturers offer a pump bag solution - like the Exped Scnhozzel I use, and battery operated pumps are even available.

Exped Inflation and Deflation Valves on an Inulsated Synmat

The standard of inflatables a couple decades ago, some are still self-inflating as well. Keeping an inflatable pad protected and inside your tent is ideal. Many people may also take a smaller foam pad to use as a dedicated sit pad in this situation. Some inflatable pads, though not all can be a bit noisy and some can also have slick surfaces that can migrate around the tent, or have you migrating on top of them at night. Some strategic dots of Sil-Net on your (especially if it’s silnylon) tent floor can help mitigate the slipping, and if you combine an inflatable with a foam pad of any type as I often do in colder weather it will mitigate this issue.

For a lightweight insulated inflatable pad, you are probably looking at something in the $100 - $200 range. Popular inflatable pads can be found in the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir series that utilize a combination of baffling and aluminized reflective features to provide warmth, the Exped Synmat series that uses microfiber insulation, and many options exist from makers like Big Agnes and Nemo Equipment.

My System

Selecting a backpacking sleeping pad is without a doubt, a huge balance between weight, comfort, price, reliability, and warmth - and while there’s no best sleeping pad and no free lunch, with so many options out there there’s no doubt an option that suits your style can be found. As a side sleeper who values all the above points fairly equally, I like a comfortable 3 season inflatable pad as the main cog in my sleeping pad system, and add in a thin foam pad for just a touch of additional warmth when it's needed and a thicker foam pad for winter conditions.  

For a full selection of lightweight sleeping pads that you can then narrow down by type, price, size, etc. take a look here at


Combining cameras with the outdoors and taking one along to document your hiking and backpacking trips introduces a few challenges that must be overcome to take your photos quickly and easily, while still being able to maintain and keep your camera safe from the elements. On the trail, a few key points are worth the most consideration and the following is the setup that has worked best for me on trips where the hiking is a higher priority than, or at least on equal ground priority-wise, with the photography objective.

How to Carry a Camera Backpacking and Hiking and Lightweight Photography Gear  Kit

How to Carry the Camera

When I first started taking my old DSLR backpacking, it was a frustrating experience. The camera was too big to carry in any pocket save buried deep in my backpack’s main compartment, and as such the camera had to stay inconveniently inside my backpack - causing many photos to be missed as it was just too much trouble. The alternative was to carry the camera around my neck hanging by the neck strap, banging around as I hiked, but this was of course uncomfortable, tiring, and the camera was completely exposed to rain, blowing sand, rocks and branches during class 2 hiking, etc. 

2 different methods to solve the issues above have worked best for me. If you’re able to find a small, compact camera (like the Canon G7X – find our review of the G7X here – or the popular Panasonic ZS series) that satisfies your requirements for image quality, using a backpack that has generous hipbelt pockets (like my ULA Circuit) is a great bet. Most of these pockets are made from water resistant – not necessarily waterproof fabrics, so back that up with a quart size Ziploc bag stored in the bottom of the pocket for rainy days or river crossings, or if you want something more durable that will last more than a trip or two many have had success with the heavier-duty Aloksak bags. In your hipbelt pocket the camera remains well protected, but is still easily deployed and stowed again all on the fly. If your compact camera has an automatically closing and opening lens cap / cover, it’s backpacking photo bliss. 

Carrying a Camera Using a ZPacks Multi-Pack While Backpacking

Carrying a Camera with the ZPacks Multi-Pack

If your photo requirements are a bit higher and you opt for a larger DSLR, mirrorless camera, or interchangeable lens camera like me, the camera will likely be too large for a hipbelt pocket. The best solution I’ve found is the ZPacks Multi-Pack. Hanging from your shoulder straps and at just a few ounces the Multi-Pack doesn’t weigh you down, but keeps your camera very accessible. The Multi-Pack is constructed from waterproof DCF fabric and features a water resistant zipper that keeps your camera dry in the rain, and offers protection from dust and sand when stowed. Since the zipper is technically water resistant, I back it up with a rolled up gallon size Ziploc freezer bag in the bottom of the Multi-Pack for wet trips and river crossings. For a lot more on the Multi-Pack be sure to check out our full review. Other choices like the Cotton Carrier harness setup are also popular where photography is a high priority. The Zpacks option isn’t padded, but the camera stays close to your chest and save for a complete face plant, the camera remains in a protected spot. The Multi-Pack would potentially have room for a small spare lens as well, but when I’m out on a backpacking trip I like to take one do it all lens instead of several. The Multi-Pack, and other carriers also have plenty of room for your photo accessories as detailed below. 

The Lightweight Accessory Kit

One of the worst feelings while on a mulitiday trip is getting your camera lens dirty, with no way to properly clean it until you get home. As such I take every precaution to keep a lens clean in the first place, but smudges and dust are inevitable. A small, lightweight, and inexpensive kit has served me very well and consists of 2 items: a small Giottos rocket blaster which is used to initially blast off as much surface dirt or dust as possible using ambient air.

Giottos Small Rocket Air Blaster for Cleaning a Lens While Backpacking

After blowing off as much dirt and dust as you can, anything that remains and stubborn smudges can be removed by following up with a Lens Pen Cleaner. (First the brush end, then the carbon felt side) These items and this method will keep your lens clear, your photos crisp, and works great on the trail while working much better than any cleaning cloth I’ve ever tried.

Cleaning a Lens on Hiking Trips with a Lens Pen

A couple other accessories are helpful. An extra battery or two is essential – when packing two I usually adopt a shoot at will strategy for the first battery and then if I exhaust that one, use the second prudently. This will of course also depend on your particular camera and how many photos you like to take, outside temperature, etc. Amazon is a great place to pick up a few spares. However, you can also opt for one of the many battery banks / solar chargers on the market if your camera will charge via USB, and if it doesn’t, I’ve had success with the PPuClip battery charger in the past. If you’ve collected a couple memory cards over the years, I also like to toss in a spare in its protective case just as a backup in the event the main memory card malfunctions, or maybe you just run out of space, and really, these days small memory cards are pretty cheap. If you carry any additional filters like a polarizing filter to help cut the glare, there are times when you’ll need to take this off and store it without fear of it getting broken, dusty, or scratched, and a lightweight filter wallet does the job nicely.

Lightweight and Trail Ready - Lens Filter Wallet and Storage

And if you’re looking to take your photos to the next level, a tripod rounds out the system. A tripod will allow you to take long exposure photos at dawn and dusk and an array of options are available depending on your needs. Unfortunately larger and heavier cameras generally need larger and heavier tripods, and as such I carry my Gitzo option on the outside of my pack. This does require me to remove my backpack to use it, but unless your trip is completely photography oriented, a tripod is most beneficial at dawn and dusk anyway – where I’m already in camp. On the trail during the day I much prefer to take photos quickly while on the move. If you have a smaller more compact camera you won’t need as stout of a tripod, and one of the various shock-corded options are great and can even be secured to your shoulder straps for use on the go without pack removal. 

Overall, while the actual best camera for hiking and backpacking use will widely vary depending on your image quality requirements and weight and size tolerance, a camera needs to be easily accessible while having a protected spot away from rain, snow, dust, and sand, and you’ll need a way to clean it when it does eventually get dirty without having to wait until the trip is over. A backup battery or two and an emergency memory card keep you going until the trip is over, and finding a system that works for you will allow you to photograph the trip, without the photography getting in the way of the trip itself. 


When it comes to backpacking stoves, there are several routes one can take and several different main categories of stoves exist and each with an array of pros and cons. Without a doubt however, no matter which way you go about it the backpacking stove is an important part of any overnight multi-night gear ensemble. A backpacking stove provides hot meals and drinks, goes a long way towards keeping you warm on chilly mornings and evenings, and for backpacking and hiking a stove needs to be convenient, lightweight, and reasonably fast to use with readily available fuel.

Choosing the Best Backpacking Stove, Fuel and Stove Types

The Canister Stove

A canister stove uses a pressurized gas canister for its fuel source, and this fuel can be butane, isobutane, or propane and is usually a mixture of these fuels. These canisters are available in different sizes for varying trip lengths, and if you'll be using the canister in colder temperatures, you want to avoid a canister containing regular butane as its vaporization temperature is quite high in the 30 degree range. (Translation: your stove may not work / performance will suffer / it may be difficult to use in colder temperatures) However canisters containing a mixture of isobutane and propane are much more suitable as temperatures drop.

Isobutane will vaporize down to about the 10 degree mark and even lower as you gain altitude, and propane vaporizes down to the arctic-like temperature of minus 44, but there is only so much propane in your usual backpacking canister mix. Canister valves automatically open and close when you connect and disconnect the stove for ease of use and packing, and note that you can mix and match brands here – you don’t necessarily have to match the maker of your stove to your canister brand. As long as the canister has a lindal valve you are good to go. Popular blended canister fuel brands include MSR IsoPro as well as fuel canisters from JetBoil and Propane/Isobutane mixtures from Snow Peak.

Either way canister stoves offer convenience: they are easy to carry, simple to use, and the pre-packaged fuel is likely readily available at your local outfitter. While having the fuel contained and prepackaged provides that convenience, they are non-refillable and after a while you are likely to end up with a bunch of canisters that don't have enough fuel to get you through a trip, but aren't empty either. They are recyclable if empty and punctured and Jetboil makes a specific tool for that purpose. A necessary accessory for any canister stove user should be a digital kitchen scale that measures to the gram - this way you can always calculate the exact amount of fuel inside a canister before a trip. Canister stoves excel at boiling water, but you can dial the flame down and simmer…or even bake…with practice and with the right approach.

Upright Canister Stoves

Among canisters stoves, upright canister stoves screw directly into the top of the canister and can be quite light – with many of these stoves falling in the 2-3 ounce range. I’ve used upright canister stoves with isobutane / propane canisters on trips with lows in the high teens, but usage much below these temperatures will become difficult, especially considering that the longer you use a canister in a sitting, the colder it will become – and colder than the actual outside temperature – due to evaporative cooling. In cold or cooler temperatures it’s good to keep a few tricks in mind. In cold temperatures you can place the canister in a bit of water inside a container like a shallow bowl if needed to keep the canister’s temperature up and maintain performance, and sleeping with the canister inside your sleeping bag is never a bad idea when temps get chilly to give you a head start in the morning. 

Upright Canister Backpacking Stove - Soto WindMaster

Soto WindMaster Upright Canister Stove with MSR IsoPro 110 gram Fuel Canister

Other types of upright canister stoves feature an all in one system like many of the system offerings made by Jetboil and options like the MSR WindBurner that are designed to be particularly efficient, at the cost of upfront weight, but do save fuel and may be a good option if your primary need is boiling water. I personally prefer a more typical upright canister stove and like to choose different pots – like those from the Evernew Ultralight Series – depending on the trip. In recent years several upright canister stove options that utilize a pressure regulating valve have made it to the market often claiming to increase overall and cold weather performance. While these stoves won't replace an inverted or liquid stove for cold conditions, I have found them to have better and more predictable performance overall when compared to other options featuring a standard needle valve.

Popular upright canister stoves include my current choice the Soto WindMaster – find our full review here, and a couple classic examples can be found in the MSR Pocket Rocket 2 and the Snow Peak GigaPower. Integrated all in one systems like the Jetboil Zip are also quite popular.

Remote and Inverted Canister Stoves

Remote canister stoves keep the canister remote from the burner and feed fuel via a hose. This allows for two benefits: remote canister stoves let you really shield the burner with a large windscreen to block wind and hold in heat to save fuel while the canister remains outside the windscreen – in an upright canister stove this would make to the canister too dangerously hot. Secondly, if said remote canister stove allows you to use the fuel canister in an inverted position,  a solution to the colder weather fuel vaporization issues previously discussed is realized, as using the canister upside down feeds fuel in a liquid form where it's subsequently preheated and vaporized at the hot burner of the stove itself in cold and very cold temperatures. For a remote canister stove that allows for inverted use, I use the MSR WindPro II. Find our review on that stove in Issue 33.

Inverted Canister Stove - MSR Wind PRO II

MSR WindPro II and Remote Canister

For all types of canister stoves I like a dedicated starter if I can get it, and always look for built in piezo ignition. A separate piezo starter can be used if your stove of choice doesn’t feature one, or a bic lighter will do the job as well. Piezo igniters can fail, but they can also be replaced. Of course, always have a backup ignition source in your separate fire starting kit, but the convenience of a piezo igniter has far outweighed any small amount of hassle in my experience.

Liquid Gas Stoves

The bread and butter stove of cold weather camping and for mountaineers alike, liquid stoves like the venerable MSR Whisperlite are reliable options that burn white gas, or even an array of liquid fuels including gasoline for some stoves like the International version of the Whisperlite. These stoves work well in very cold weather, but are generally heavier and more cumbersome to use in regards with the need to handle liquid fuel in refillable bottles, priming the stove, complicated hardware with more moving parts and maintenance etc. However, if you’re into group or complex meals like baking on the trail, a liquid stove may be hard to beat. (Options like the MSR Dragonfly are specifically designed with simmering in mind) Liquid stoves are thus perhaps best for the cold weather backpacker, the backpacking chef, or those who desire a stove that will work across all conditions who might not mind the extra weight for 3 season use.

Alcohol Stoves

Alcohol stoves are designed to run on denatured alcohol (available at many hardware stores, etc.), or for my use I’ve always run them on the cleaner highest proof grain alcohol (Everclear). The benefits of an alcohol stove are weight and simplicity, there aren’t any complicated mechanisms or moving parts, you usually just fill and light the stove. With simplicity comes reduced weight, and the stove can even be made from tuna cans, soda cans, and the like. Alcohol stoves can be subject to fire restrictions and require some extra care with the open flame and fuel. I’ve used alcohol stoves across many conditions and my favorite offering is the Trail Designs Ti-Tri system that works well to trap the limited heat that an alcohol stove produces while blocking wind, greatly increasing efficiency. Another venerable alcohol stove option can be found in one of the several Trangia burners that are available.

Backpacking Alcohol Stove - Trail Designs 10-2 Stove

Alcohol Stove from TrailDesigns

Regardless, if you go with an alcohol stove you will definitely want a windscreen of some type. Alcohol stoves usually compete with upright canister stoves; ultimately the choice is up to you regarding which benefits you find most appealing and on longer trips the increased efficiency of a canister stove may begin to cut into an alcohol stove’s weight savings. Fuel for an alcohol stove can perhaps be easier to find, and alcohol stoves have been popular for thru-hiking and ultralight backpacking usage for some time. With an alcohol stove you can dial in the exact amount of fuel you need prior to a trip instead of having to take a full canister each time, and perhaps too much fuel and the extra weight. On the other hand with a digital scale and some partial canisters to choose from, you can get close with a canister as well.

Wood Burning Stoves

Wood Burning Stove for Backpacking - Trail Designs Caldera Ti-Tri

Ti-Tri Wood Burning Stove

Many wood stoves exist on the market, with of course the simplest way to cook with wood being a small campfire, which I’m most likely to use when cooking in this manner, although I’ve utilized the combo wood or alcohol burning Trail Designs Caldera Ti-Tri system for this purpose. A wood stove won’t beat a campfire in weight carried, but will beat it in convenience and efficiency. Cooking with wood of course requires you collect wood and start a fire, and would have to be ruled out in areas where fire bans are in effect. Wood also leaves residue on pots and the stove, but a wood fire is hard to beat for ambiance, and fuel is free and you don’t have to carry your fuel in your pack during the day.

Chemical Tablet Stoves

Stoves that burn manufactured hexamine chemical tablets like those from Esbit are quite efficient and very lightweight. Like alcohol stoves, you will want a windscreen to maximize efficiency and block any wind here. These tablets and Esbit fuel can be a bit hard to find if you’re in a pinch, but you can of course stock up from online sources. Esbit stoves leave a residue on your cookware and produce fumes, and as I prefer cleaning or more natural burning fuel alternatives, my experience with Esbit or other hexamine stoves is limited, but I can see the appeal for emergency or backup usage. Some ultralight backpackers however find Esbit fuel appealing for its simplicity and light weight. Esbit stoves, like the Esbit Titanium Stove are small, light, simple, and easily carried. 

Final Thoughts

As with nearly any other backpacking gear category, there may be no best backpacking stove, but hopefully the above information can assist with determining which option(s) would work best for you. While I own them all, these days my general approach is to take an upright canister stove (The Soto WindMaster) for 3 season use and only when needed in very cold weather or anytime melting snow will be needed, I will reach for an inverted canister stove for those trips. Although, that same inverted canister stove – the MSR WindPro II, would work just fine in the summer as well if the extra weight wasn’t a concern. But whether you go with a one stove to do it all approach or like to mix and match to specifically meet the needs of the excursion at hand, any backpacking stove should ideally be durable, reliable, and have the ability to heat water and cook your cuisine of choice in a reasonable amount of time, and through whatever conditions will be encountered during a trip.


Among smartphone mapping and GPS apps, Gaia GPS is one of the most popular and one of my favorite smartphone applications for backpacking and hiking. The app is continually updated, and I’ve been using the app for the last 7 years to plan my backcountry trips at home and plan out days while on the trail.

How to Plan Hiking and Backpcking Trips Using the Gaia GPS Smarthphone App.JPG

My favorite part of the app, however, is its ability to store what would be a huge stack of USGS topos right to my phone for offline use. The app is free to download for iOS here, or find it for Android here. Much like here at TrailGroove though, to utilize the app to its full potential you really need to upgrade to their Premium / Gaia GPS Pro level to get the most out of the app, for $29.99 a year. Note that a one year Gaia Premium subscription is included with our own TrailGroove Premium Subscription – details on that here. What follows is a basic introduction and tutorial on using Gaia GPS (with a Gaia premium subscription) and a review on how I plan a hiking trip using the app, how to save maps to your phone for offline use, and tips and how to use the app while on the trail.

Using Gaia GPS Maps Offline.JPG

There are many other ways to use the app, including the importing of gpx routes, saving maps for a pre-determined route, etc., but most of my backpacking allows for much leeway in my route choice and often follows a “choose your own adventure” course as a trip develops. As a result my use is focused on a general area, not a specific route. This is how using the app has best worked for me.

Downloading Maps and Favorite Layers

After you’ve downloaded Gaia GPS and signed up for your premium subscription, it’s time to plan a trip and download the appropriate maps using the app for offline use. First we need to navigate to the appropriate land management area. To begin, open the app and select the “Map” tab at the bottom of your screen. Next, select the layers icon in the upper right hand corner to select your base and additional maps. (Note that you can always utilize the search function in the upper left, however I prefer the zoom on the map method which works a bit better for me) To locate a general area, for example if we’d like to hike an on and offtrail route through Utah’s Uinta Mountains, it helps to select a base map like MapBox Streets to start with. Much like driving to the trailhead (as seen in the first photo above, I prefer that state's Delorme Atlas for this purpose), a broad overview, street-based map that still offers a reasonable level of wilderness and backcountry detail is best to start with when planning a backcountry trip using Gaia GPS.

Gaia GPS Start of Trip Planning and Offline Map Download.JPG

If MapBox Streets is not already in the “Visible” list of Map Sources, scroll down to the available layers and tap the green up arrow to move it there. Then, press and hold on the 3 horizontal lines to the right of “MapBox Streets” and drag your finger to move it to the first (lowest) position among your Visible Layers. This will make it the Base Map. Now tap “Done” and pinch or zoom to your state and then on to your trip destination. (Example browse to Utah--> High Uinta Wilderness Area) Now that we’re centered and focused on the area of interest let’s download the hiking maps to our device.

For hiking I’ve found a few layers are most useful. A good topo map layer is the first essential / base map, and I prefer the USGS topos or the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps if one is available for the location. In this example using the Uintas, let’s go the USGS route. Now return to your map layer section (3 tiles in the upper right hand corner). Click the red “X” to the left of Map Box Streets – we can only select 5 layers and it's good to have all 5 available for more hiking related maps. The layers I’ve found most useful for hiking and backpacking over the years are USGS Topo, Shaded Relief, Slope, and Public Land.

Using and Selecting Gaia GPS Premium Layers.JPG

With these 4 layers, you’ll be able to map out nearly any hiking scenario. Add them to the "Visible" list, again by pressing the green Up Arrow for each listed under “Layers”. Make sure to set USGS Topo as your Base Map and click “Done”. I like to download maps for the entire management unit prior to a trip, just so I know I have everything covered in case the plan changes, and especially since I like to wander a bit or change up plans on the fly.

Downloading Offline Maps with Gaia GPS by Creating a Custom Area.JPG

At this point in our example, we now have the entire Uinta Mountain Range visible. Now let’s create an Area. Click the “+” icon at the top of your device and select “Create Area”. A triangle with 3 blue points will appear. Drag each blue dot to cover the entire mountain range in this example, and adjust the additional blue dots that are created with each drag as needed. Allow a bit of overlap here; better to download too many maps than not enough and if space is an issue, we can always delete these maps after a trip.

Creating a Custom Area for Offline Map Download Using Gaia GPS.JPG

Now that we’ve created the area covering the mountain range, tap “Save” in the upper right. The download size will now be calculated and you can adjust resolution here to save space if you want…but I like maps…and you can never have too much detail when you’re out there, so I always select “High” when I can. Our 4 favorite layers (or 5 if you go with a satellite option) should be pre-selected for download. At the top, give a custom name like “Uinta Trip” if desired and now click “Save”. Your download will begin. Tap the spinning wheel towards the upper left of your screen to evaluate download status, and make sure all layers successfully download before your trip. As previously hinted at, another layer that should deserve honorable mention is one of the satellite imagery layers that are available. If you have the space on your device this can be a handy layer to use as well, just for additional information to interpret on top of the more standard mapping data.

Gaia GPS USGS Topo with Slope and Shaded Relieve Layers.JPG

On the Trail

Once you get to the trail, you can now utilize all these layers and maps – even offline. From here it’s simple. Open the app and click the location icon in the very center top of the app to locate your location on the map (if you just started your phone and opened the app, give it a minute to acquire GPS signal). Now not only will our nearly exact location be shown, but we can plan out our trip on the fly in fine detail. Instead of carrying a stack of USGS topos, they’re all on your device, and by utilizing our layers we gain additional information, trip intelligence, and improve readability.

An Example of Gaia GPS Showing  Trails and Road on a USGS Topo Map with Slope and Shaded Relief Layers.JPG

To use the layers, again tap the layers icon in the upper right, since we already set USGS Topo to our Base Map, let’s adjust the opacity of the others using the sliders. Drag the round slider adjustment for each. I like to always set US Shaded Relief at around 25% to the right, and the same for Slope. Shaded Relief will give you an enhancement of visual contours, and slope details just how steep our Uinta traverse will be. Just like a weather radar map detailing a thunderstorm, more intense colors mean more intense of a slope. For general class 1 and 2 hiking, it’s generally a good idea to keep things in the yellow, possibly orange color range, or no color at all indicates the gentlest hiking slope wise. Purple is definitely getting pretty steep! When needed, use the Public Land layer to find a place to camp (useful at the start and end of trips where public land may start to be interspersed with private lands), or to make sure your hike stays on public land when you’re travelling through areas where this is a concern. When public and private lands become interspersed, the boundaries can often become very confusing and the app will help eliminate this concern and keep you on track.

At any time press and hold on the map to enter “Route Mode”. A blue dot will be created and will immediately tell you how many miles the selected location is from your current location. Press and hold again and another dot will be created with the app automatically connecting the dots and compiling the distance. Note that at home or if you have a cellular / wifi connection, you can also change the mode here to “Hiking”, and in this mode the app will automatically adjust your route to follow mapped trails if desired. Additionally while online, elevation gain and loss will be calculated. Altogether, this is very handy for pre-trip planning on or offtrail routes, when you know your desired miles per day and elevation gain / loss.

Hiking Offtrail with the Gaia GPS App.JPG

Closing Thoughts

Of course, this is just a basic introduction to the app, but this will get you started hiking with Gaia GPS. And a quick note on general mapping philosophy – I do not use Gaia GPS as my main map or primary navigation tool. Be sure to take a paper map that details the area, and frankly for primary navigation the paper map is just more convenient and keeps your mapping skills up to snuff. A somewhat detailed yet broad overview map like a Trails Illustrated map, combined with the fine detail of USGS topos saved to your phone when needed makes for a good combination. Be it a drop on a rock or a dunk in the river, or a low battery, smartphone accidents can happen.

One of the many portable power banks or solar chargers can help keep you charged (for a couple of our previous reviews on solar chargers take a look here and here), and a protective case can help protect your phone on the trail (I like a Ziploc bag for waterproofing). Regardless however, paper maps and an electronic devices both have their separate places. On average, I find that a fully charged (don’t forget this step!) phone will last on even week long trips with judicious usage. To save on battery, make sure to only operate your phone on airplane mode (the GPS will still work with the app), and turn the phone completely off when not in use. Out on the trail, you’ll now be able to pinpoint your location using Gaia GPS on a topo map, and combined with the additional layers you’ve downloaded, re-route on the move, or my favorite – just plan for the next day ahead in the tent at night.

You can find Gaia GPS here at the App Store. Check out details on their Premium Subscription here, or for the best of both worlds at least as we see it, a Gaia GPS Premium Subscription is also included for free with your TrailGroove Magazine Premium Subscription.


For some reason gaiters were one of the “accessory” pieces of backpacking gear that I delayed purchasing far longer than I should have. Trekking poles likely would have fallen into the same category, but fortunately for my knees I received a pair as a gift early in my backpacking days. It was only after I moved to Montana and began adapting my backpacking to a different landscape – the Northern Rockies is quite different from the Southern Appalachians – that I bought my first pair of gaiters. There may be no single best hiking gaiter - as since then, I’ve acquired three pairs of gaiters, all suited for different purposes, and it has been a rare backpacking trip where I don’t start out wearing a pair or have them stashed in my pack. 

How to Choose Gaiters for Backpacking and Hiking - Atlas REI and Outdoor Research

Keeping debris out of your shoes, dew-soaked vegetation from saturating your pants, or helping rainpants better do their job in a deluge –  most gaiters excel at all these tasks. For specific conditions or activities, like with all backpacking gear, there are certain types of gaiters that will be better suited than others. While you could wear the same gaiters snowshoeing as you do on a summer trail run, you’d definitely be better off using ones designed with the distinct requirements of those activities in mind.

For all-around backpacking use, the Rocky Mountain Series (which comes in high and low versions) by Outdoor Research are hard to beat in regards to price and efficiency. These water-resistant gaiters (the lower half is coated to assist with this, while the upper is uncoated to assist with breathability) are ideal for most three-season backpacking and have proved as effective at keeping out lingering snow when postholing in Montana’s Welcome Creek Wilderness as they have been at saving pantlegs from being shredded by unruly vegetation when bushwhacking in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness. When paired with rainpants, they’ve been a saving grace during daylong rains in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Idaho and allowed boots and socks the luxury of only being wet at the end of the day and not soaked.

Outdoor Research Rocky Mountain Gaiters

While these gaiters are nothing short of excellent in most circumstances, I did have some durability issues with my first pair. The stitching on the velcro on one pair blew out after two hiking seasons of moderate use and the Velcro closure tab at the hook at the bottom of the gaiter began to separate as well. Outdoor Research replaced them at no cost and provided great customer service during the process. Granted, I had put them through some pretty serious off-trail hikes during the two seasons, but by the standards I have for other Outdoor Research gear (and backpacking gear in general) they fell a bit short in the durability department. It is worth noting that the fabric of the gaiters was still in good repair and the foot straps still had a lot of life left in them as well. Hopefully this was just a fluke with the pair I received and not a common weak spot in the product.

Once the snow piles up and I switch from hiking to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing to access the backcountry, I also switch my gaiters. Although I’ve used the OR Rocky Mountain High gaiters with minimal issues in dry, powdery snow, my go-to winter gaiters are made by Atlas Snow Shoe Company and feature a waterproof lower, waterproof-breathable upper (Marmot Membrain in the pair that I have), and microfleece lining for warmth on the upper section. I’ve found these gaiters to be a nearly perfect piece of equipment for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, as well as hiking, in all types of winter conditions. The durability has been excellent, even when getting scraped by snowshoe edges when treading my way through dense lodgepole stands. I’ve never seen these gaiters wet-out even when in some very slushy snow conditions and the fleece adds a nice touch of insulation without seeming to contribute to cause too much head to build up when engaged in strenuous cross-country skiing. 

My only complaint with these gaiters is that I was unable to find a pair locally when looking for a pair for a friend and unfortunately it seems like Atlas does not have any available for purchase on their website for the Winter 2017-2018 season. However, there are still pairs available on Amazon and other third-party retailers. Hopefully these will be back in stock soon, because there is nothing similar I have seen on the market that covers the bases for what dedicated winter gaiters need to provide as well as these do.

REI Co-op Activator Gaiters - Low.JPG

When the conditions – both trail and weather – are on the milder side, I have a pair of REI Co-op Activator Gaiters that provide just the right amount of protection whereas the Rocky Mountain High gaiters would be overkill. These gaiters pair perfectly with trail runners and excel at keeping out the irritating sand, tiny rocks, and debris that can be hard to ignore but frustrating to have to stop and remove. I’ve used these for hiking as well as trail running and have found to be adequate but not excellent at their ability to stay in place when properly adjusted. Oddly, these have to be fitted onto the shoe and the foot inserted through the gaiter and then into the shoe (at least that’s the only way I’ve found to do it, but then again I could just be making things more difficult than they need to be, which wouldn’t exactly be a surprise), but this does allow for the coverage and positioning of the gaiters to be dialed in. During a trail run around a low-elevation lake in Montana, with some early season snow patches to run through, these gaiters did a good job of keeping the snow out and didn’t seem to wet out even when there were extended sections of melting snow to contend with. Unsurprisingly, these gaiters are the most breathable of the three reviewed and would be the ones most appropriate for those who hike mostly on open trails in areas without an abundance of precipitation.

While not having gaiters wouldn’t exactly ruin a trip in the same way that forgetting the stove or not bringing a warm enough sleeping bag would, they most certainly improve the comfort level measurably. And fortunately, there are a plethora of gaiters for distinct conditions and activities.

Gaiters for Hiking and Snowshoeing

The gaiters reviewed here represent a good sampling or the most common types and can hopefully guide you towards the type that you would want to purchase for the activities and conditions you most frequently engage in. The Rocky Mountain  high and low series of gaiters from Outdoor Research run around the $40 mark here at REI, and the Atlas gaiters go for around the same price at REI’s Activator gaiters are here, and find our review of another gaiter option from Mountain Laurel Designs here.


Western Mountaineering MegaLite Review

Western Mountaineering makes popular higher-end down sleeping bags in a wide range of temperature ratings and size configurations, and no matter the model it's likely to be at or near the top of the class when it comes to weight and packability for its corresponding temperature rating. These models from Western Mountaineering include the 20 degree Ultralight and Alpinlite we've also reviewed, as well as the Western Mountaineering MegaLite reviewed here. The MegaLite is a 30 degree rated down mummy sleeping bag that has a wider design when a bit more room and space is desired compared to most standard mummy bags and other Western Mountaineering bags like the slimmer Ultralight. 

Western Mountainering Megalite Review

Like all Western Mountaineering down bags the MegaLite uses 850+ fill power non-treated goose down for 4" of loft, and features a lightweight, DWR treated shell fabric. Horizontal baffles allow one to shift the down if needed, but I always like to shake all the down to the top of the bag after unpacking and then vent with the 2 way zipper if needed. The bag doesn't have a full draft collar, and instead has a passive down filled collar that's designed to hang down around your neck area to help prevent drafts, and a zipper draft tube also follows the side zipper down the bag. The passive collar doesn't work as well as a full cinchable collar like you'll find on the Alpinlite, but the MegaLite is all about saving space and weight for those more temperate trips. Now produced in more of a navy blue color, I've used my classic MegaLite in "Plum" for many years through the Midwest, Southwest, and in the Rockies.

Western Mountaineering Megalite Sleeping Bag

While the 20 degree bag is my all around favorite rating for the Rockies, I've found the MegaLite to work well for those trips where lows are forecasted to be more in the mid to high 30's or above. In baselayers the Megalite gets a little chilly for me at about 35 degrees and when used on a pad with an r-value in the 2.5 to 3 range or so, commonly used at these moderate temps. However as a wide bag there's definitely extra space to layer up with a down jacket like one of my favorites, the Montbell Mirage jacket if needed. With that extra space the MegaLite can also work well as a winter bag; not by itself but when combined with another bag inside - Using the MegaLite as an outer bag has helped me camp in temperatures well below 0. Fit wise the slimmer bags that Western Mountaineering makes like the Ultralite and Summerlite are just a bit to small for me to sleep in comfortably, but the MegaLite definitely takes care of this issue.

Megalite Zipper

Although a zipper guard is in place the zipper will still snag on occasion and you do have to zip with a little care. In fact - the shell fabric is light weight here to save weight - I've even had one of these zipper snags tear a small hole in the fabric of the MegaLite. This was however easily fixed with a small Tenacious Tape patch and again, as long as care is exercised here it should be fine. So without a doubt, learn from my mistake and exercise patience with the zipper. The shell fabric is otherwise sufficiently durable for normal use, and repels condensation encountered during the night adequately. Like all DWR treated fabrics it's best to both clean and re-treat after use, I like to do so on a yearly basis using Nikwax Downwash (this helps keep your loft up as well) and then with T.X. Direct specifically for the DWR.

Megalite Extremelite Shell Fabric and DWR

A drawstring hood helps seal out the cold, though the cord and Velcro securement here will on occasion hang down or scratch against your face, so careful positioning may be needed. My 6'6" version fits my 6'2" height perfectly, weighs in at 27.5 ounces, and will pack into an 8 liter Sea to Summit UltraSil stuff sack, or with ease into the 13 liter version. 

Western Mountaineering Megalite Footbox

For many parts of the country, the MegaLite is a good choice for summer backpacking or for 3 season use in warmer locales, and it's still light and roomy enough to work into a winter sleep system for versatility if needed. The extra room provides extra comfort for not so slim sleepers and / or allows for greater layering leeway without compressing the insulation of your layers or the bag. And with 850+ fill power down and all in a package from a well-respected manufacturer, the Western Mountaineering Megalite wraps it all up in a very light and compressible package. The Megalite is tough to find on sale but any bag from Western Mountaineering is definitely a sleeping bag and investment that will last you for many years to come. 

The Western Mountaineering MegaLite retails for about $450 and is available in 3 different lengths to fit your height. Find it here at Backcountry, at, and at CampSaver

If you're looking for a bag that's also a wide mummy and will cover colder temperatures check out the Alpinlite, or if weight and packability are paramount and it's a better fit both in application and size wise, the Ultralite with its more narrow configuration is hard to beat, and among the slimmer bags, Western Mountaineering also offers the very light 32 degree Summerlite


In recent years the popularity and availability of wind shirts or ultralight wind jackets have both increased, and as many have found, these pieces often fit in very well with active outdoor pursuits including backpacking and hiking. These specialized jackets focus on light weight, simplicity, full or mostly single layer construction, and have a design focus on performance in a layering system and in the outdoors.

Backpacking and Hiking Wind Shirts and Jackets

A wind shirt is made from nylon fabric that has a dense weave and thus is highly wind resistant, but more breathable than waterproof breathable rain gear. On the flip side wind shirts aren’t waterproof like rain gear, but are usually treated with a DWR to repel light rain and snow. Unlike a traditional wind breaker jacket, since the garments are made from such lightweight fabric and are so simple most wind shirts weigh literally only a few ounces and take up little space in a pack when not in use.

Patagonia Houdini Packed Size in Pocket

In use, a wind shirt is a specialized piece of equipment and as such, I find them mostly useful for specialized scenarios. Where a wind shirt excels is in cool to cold weather combined with high output activities where little to no external moisture will be encountered – my Patagonia Houdini will get me through a quick shower…but not for long. Under the Houdini I like to wear any type of long sleeve synthetic hiking shirt (preferably a zip-neck in cool weather as well – I like the REI Coop Tech Shirt) with the fabric weight increasing as temperatures drop, with perhaps an additional lightweight next to skin synthetic layer if needed.

Patagonia Houdini Rain and Snow Resistance and DWR

For my personal use, I haven’t found a wind shirt useful for backpacking where I’m already carrying a real rain jacket. The rain jacket already blocks wind, and unlike the wind shirt is actually waterproof and can be worn in extended rains – a wind shirt will just add weight to my pack here. But a rain jacket isn’t as breathable. I don’t backpack at a very high pace, much preferring to hike at a moderate pace with fewer breaks to make my needed daily mileage, so this isn’t an issue for me. I also always select rain jackets that have some direct venting (pit-zips or vents) like the Marmot Essence and of course, there’s always that full length zipper in the front of a rain jacket for venting. And even though a wind shirt is pretty light, one of two ways to end up with a lighter pack is to leave things at home.

Patagonia Houdini Fabric

If you like to hike at a faster pace or sweat a lot, the wind shirt will make more sense with its ability to keep the chill off without adding bulk and weight, but still providing additional breathability. The exception would be for winter backpacking – when you’re hiking or snowshoeing through the snow with a pack no matter your pace it’s all high output, and additionally in such cold temperatures the wind shirt will easily shrug off moisture of the solidly frozen variety in such cold temperatures (teens or colder). In these conditions the wind shirt does the job of blocking the wind while allowing the additional breathability you need.

While wind shirts see very limited backpacking use in my case, I do however, use a wind shirt or jacket extensively for day activities when it’s not likely to rain in all seasons other than summer. Day hiking, running, biking, or really any type of outdoor on-the-move activity are a perfect time to break out the wind shirt as your outer upper body layer. And it’s doesn’t have to be windy (in some of the activities like biking it will be windy no matter what of course), the wind shirt will add substantial warmth in all conditions and remain breathable.

Houdini Wind Shirt Full Zip and Pocket

The Patagonia Houdini

As featured throughout this post, my preference for a wind shirt or jacket has always been the full zip Patagonia Houdini. And for a quick review: At just a few ounces, the Houdini packs into its own pocket, features a lapel pocket, adjustable hood and waist, and a full length zipper with elastic cuffs. Everything you need without anything you don’t. The Houdini has a slim fit, if you’re between sizes I’d suggest sizing up. The Houdini is offered in a full zip hooded version as shown here (I always prefer a hood in any type of jacket), or in a vest, and in the past as a pullover. And speaking of hoods, the Houdini’s hood works well when deployed (particularly useful if biking as it easily fits under a helmet to block wind), but if it’s windy and you prefer not to use the hood, you can tuck it inside the jacket to prevent flapping.

Patagonia Houdini Wind Jacket Review

The DWR of the Houdini is good, but do not mistake it for a rain jacket – you’ll likely have just enough time to get to shelter without soaking your inner layers if it begins to rain. But the Houdini is excellent at blocking wind and adding warmth in any condition; again perfect for those high activity pursuits because it doesn’t weight you down and doesn’t add bulk, a bit like gaining the benefits of a jacket without feeling like you’re wearing one when you’re on the move.

Patagonia Houdini Hood

Overall all of our activities in the outdoors vary a bit, but no matter your outdoor pursuit or method of accomplishing said activity, the wind shirt likely has a situation where it would work as well as it has for me for all of us. Many wind shirt options are out there. My choice of course is perhaps the most popular and a classic choice – the Patagonia Houdini, which retails for $100 but can be found on sale. You can find it here at REI or at

Some other wind shirt and jacket options in this category to consider include the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite wind shirt, Marmot DriClime, the RAB Windveil jacket, and the Marmot Trail Hoody.


A key component of any practical backpacking kitchen setup is a cup or mug suitable for morning coffee or your hot drink of choice, and of course we need something light and packable while still working well for the purpose at hand. While the best backpacking mug choice may vary a bit from hiker to hiker, like any other piece of gear there’s a few key points worth consideration.

Choosing the Best Backpacking Mug

A multitude of materials have been employed for the purpose, from aluminum to titanium and plastic, and in addition such mugs are available in single wall and double wall insulated versions. All have their pros and cons.

The lightest mug to rule them all is no separate mug at all, by using your existing cooking vessel / pot to serve the purpose. But here we enter a conundrum; wide pots are the most efficient for cooking but the least efficient for drinking. Thus if we're looking for a pot / mug combo some compromise is in order. For solo backpacking, I do take the single vessel approach and use a titanium MLD 850 pot, and this larger mug-like shape (pots like the Snow Peak 700 are popular as well as the MSR Titan) is suitable and large enough for solo cooking and boiling water while still be serviceable for a mug.

MLD 850 Pot - Mug

If you want to cook and have hot coffee or tea at the same though you're in for a bit of a conundrum. For morning coffee this isn't an issue for me - I like a cold breakfast on the trail - and at dinner I will frequently boil water for the meal, pour that into a freezer bag or Mountain House style meal, then enjoy a hot cup of tea while the food dehydrates. 

However, for real cooking in the pot I much prefer the using a dedicated cook pot here and choose from one of two Evernew Ultralight models and take a separate dedicated coffee mug. The wide pots work better for one pot meals, use fuel more efficiently, and have enough volume to share and to cook for groups of 2, in which case each member of the group needs their own cup. 

Snow Peak 450 Titanium Backpacking Mug - Single Wall

A few stories to tell; Snow Peak 450

In these situations my choice is the 2.4 ounce Snow Peak 450 ml singe wall titanium cup. This aproximately $30 cup really keeps things light, has folding handles for easy packing and being single wall I can put it right on the stove, which becomes quite handy when your morning coffee begins to cool down just a bit. The 450 ml capacity is also perfect with 2 packets or Starbucks Via, making a potent morning cup of coffee for some trail motivation on chilly mornings. Check out the Snow Peak 600 for a little more volume.

But wouldn't double wall keep it warmer longer? Absolutely, however double wall mugs are heavier, more expensive, still lose most heat through the top (although Snow Peak for instance, does offer a separate insulated lid for their 450ml cup), and you can't put them right on the stove which can be very convenient. Pereonally, the pros of single wall work better for me, and if I'm winter camping and need an insulated beverage holder I leave the mug behind entirely and take a Klean Kanteen or Hydroflask vacuum insulated bottle, which keeps liquids hot for hours and works well for hot water, coffee, tea, etc. 

Heating Coffee in the Snow Peak 450 ml

Heating (hot!) coffee directly on a canister stove in the Snow Peak 450 Single Wall

Thus I either go with no dedicated mug at all (pot mug combo) solo, prefer an ultralight single wall cup, or go all out for winter camping with a vacuum insulated bottle. Materials are up to you: titanium can be a tad hot on the lips for some - Snow Peak offers a hot lips solution that I've tried, but it's also one more thing to keep track of. Honestly though, I've found just the straight titanium to be a non-issue with some careful sipping. Single wall titanium is also hot on the hands so make sure to pick up a mug with handles – another mug on my gear shelf, the no longer made REI TiWare mug actually has snazzy insulation on the handles as well.

Snow Peak Hot Lips on Single Wall Mug

Snow Peak Silicone Hot Lips

Aluminum is of course another metal option, and plastic choices are popular and insulate well, but you lose the ability to use it on your stove there. Metal mugs are very durable, in fact I've been using the same blue anodized single wall Snow Peak 450 for nearly 10 years and Snow Peak makes a double wall version of the same mug if that’s your preference. Size wise the 450ml to 600ml volume range, and in the 2-4 ounce weight range, is about right. And again stepping up in size and moving into pot / mug combo territory it's hard to go wrong with titanium offerings like the Snow Peak 700 and MSR Titan which are quite popular, versatile, and still quite light. 

No matter which strategy or choice you end up going with, what we can all agree on is that there's nothing quite like that first sip of coffee in the morning or a hot cup of tea on a chilly day in the wilderness. As such, in my mind the perfect backpacking mug is definitely an indispensable piece of gear.  


Among traditional sleeping bag brands, Western Mountaineering has long been one of the most revered for producing high quality lightweight down sleeping bags popular in backpacking and climbing circles, and the 20 degree bag has proven to be one of the most popular and versatile bags one can choose for use across 3 seasons in much of the continental United States. The 20 degree rated bag is still light enough for summer backpacking in the mountains, but still adequate warmth-wise for shoulder season use and can easily be used in colder temps with a little extra layering and strategy. Among the 20 degree bags offered by Western Mountaineering the Ultralite (find our review of the Ultralite here) is perhaps the most popular, with the wider Alpinlite simply offering more space at a slight weight increase.

Western Mountaineering Alpinlite Sleeping Bag Review

While the Ultralight is Western Mountaineering’s lighter and more packable offering, for larger-bodied users, those who like a bit more space in their bag, or those that would like the ability to more effectively layer up inside their bag, the Alpinlite is a suitable choice. Available in 3 different lengths, the weight of the Alpinlite will hover around the 2lb mark; my long version weighs in at 35.4 ounces and for my 6’ 2” height, fits me very well. As an example and compared to the Ultralite, in this size the shoulder girth is 64” compared to the 60” and translates to a significant gain in space. In any length, 850+ down fill is adjusted to provide 5.5” of loft. A full length 2 way, side zipper with a draft tube allow for easy in and out and ventilation options. At around $550, the Alpinlite (or any Western Mountaineering / high quality down bag from any manufacturer for that matter) is definitely an investment, but with proper care these bags will last decades and in my view that’s an investment easily recouped.

Western Mountaineering Alpinlite Continous Baffles

Western Mountaineering has integrated a zipper guard into the bag, but careful use of the zipper is still in order as it does still tend to snag on the shell fabric on occasion – this however seems to be par for the course on just about every sleeping bag I've used. The insulated draft collar is substantial and likely my favorite feature on this bag as it definitely helps out as temps drift towards the lower 20’s. The bag isn’t EN rated, but in my experience, with base layers and on a suitable and appropriate sleeping pad (I’ve used the Alpinlite on Therm-a-Rest NeoAir pads, Ridgerests, and with the Exped Synmat UL 7) the bag is indeed comfortable into the mid 20’s and into the lower 20’s to upper teens with a down jacket and some extra clothing thrown in. With continuous horizontal baffles on the bag, be sure to shake all the down to the top of the bag when you unpack it for maximum warmth.

Zipper, Hood Closure and Draft Tube Detail

The hood will cinch up tightly, and combined with the draft collar seals the cold out effectively, although the Velcro closure and the hood cinch cord will occasionally rub or fall onto my face at night – a slight annoyance, but re-positioning everything or yourself leads to a quick fix. The fabrics of the bag, though light weight, have proven to be sufficiently durable (I have had one small tear in another bag from Western Mountaineering – the Western Mountaineering Megalite that was easily and quickly patched using Tenacious Tape). So far so good with the Alpinlite though.

Western Mountaineering Alpinelite Wide Mummy Sleeping Bag Hood

The DWR fabric treatment works well for repelling any condensation encountered during the night, although effectiveness here will gradually be reduced over time through use and as dirt and grime work their way into the bag. I usually wash my bags once a year in Nixwax Down Wash and then treat with a their TX.Direct spray, which both restores loft and water repellency, and make sure to store your bags dry and unstuffed. (A large cotton storage bag is included with Western Mountaineering bags) On the topic of water resistance, Western Mountaineering doesn't use a treated down in any of their bags, but across the board from summer trips in the Southwest, to soggy high humidity nights in the midwest, to snow camping in the Rockies, the bag has always held up well through such a variety of conditions. 

Western Mountaineering Exretelite Shell DWR Fabric

 Considering this is a wide and warm 20 degree bag it does pack a bit on the bulky side – I’ve used both a 13L Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil dry sack as well as an Exped Schnozzel for packing and to keep the bag dry, but in my ULA Circuit it’s been very doable. Space within the bag of course is a focus of the Alpinlite and it is indeed generous. Never in the Alpinlite has space been an issue, and if other mummy bags have been tight on space for you the Alpinlite is definitely worth consideration with plenty of room to move around and for additional layering if desired.

Alpinlite Sleeping Bag Footbox - Made in USA

Overall the Alpinlite offers a top notch 20 degree bag that's made in the USA and is great for those that need or prefer the extra space of a wide mummy bag, while offering top of the line Western Mountaineering quality and craftsmanship. And considering the very versatile 20 degree rating range and with the 850+ down insulation used here, it’s all of course still kept quite light and packable.

The Western Mountaineering Alpinite retails for about $550. You can find it here at Backcountry, over at CampSaver, and on


ULA Circuit Backpack Review

The Circuit from ULA Equipment has been my go-to backpacking pack choice for nearly the last decade and upon review it’s easy to see why: the pack offers both versatility and durability and all at a reasonable price and weight. Thus, the ULA Circuit (or its close cousins) have become some of the most popular backpacking packs out there for lightweight and / or long distance backpacking and thru-hiking.

ULA Equipment Circuit Backpack Review

While ULA offers an array of models, most follow the same design principle. They’re built with a versatile arrangement of both inside and outside storage options for convenience and livability on the trail, utilize durable and tough Robic and Cordura fabrics, and are offered at reasonable price points and don’t weight you down. I’ve had experience with ULA’s largest pack – the Catalyst – which is the best option if you’ll frequently be carrying heaver 35+lb loads, and I’ve also had recent experience with ULA’s new smaller model – the ULA Photon – that is great for dayhikes or summer overnights. The ULA Circuit however is the pack that hits the backpacking sweet spot for me and for my backpacking style.

ULA Circuit Exterior Center Pocket, Water Bottle and Hipbelt Pockets

Offering 4200 cubic inches of total storage across a top loading main compartment, and outside pocket on the back, hipbelt pockets, and two side pockets (about 68 liters all together) I’ve used the Circuit on up to 10 day trips, to quick overnights and for winter and summer backpacking and everything in between. I find the Circuit carries up to around 35 lbs. well – though I’ve carried up to 45lbs – and the whole design is quite comfortable.

Should Straps and Hipbelt - ULA Circuit

Light, but adequate padding is found on the hipbelt, backpanel, and shoulder straps, and the dual strap, inward pull hipbelt adjustments deserve honorable mention allowing one to perfectly adjust the hip belt and get the load resting perfectly around your hips in a custom fit manner. The Circuit utilizes a carbon and Derlin hoop type internal frame along with a single aluminum (removable) stay, and this all works together with the load lifters to get the weight on your hips.

5 Day Backpacking Trip with the ULA Circuit

The Circuit has undergone some minor changes over the years, but the basic setup has remained the same, with my experience split across one Dyneema X pack ordered from original owner Brian Frankle to a newer custom Circuit I’ve been using as of late made from hybrid cuben fiber / DCF. All accessories are now included with the pack – water bottle holders on the shoulder straps, interior hydration sleeve, interior pocket, handloops, and the aluminum stay. Altogether, the Circuit is listed at 41 ounces, but there’s about 7 ounces of easily removable weight if desired. Of everything removable, I take everything off except for the aluminum stay and exterior bungee cord across the back -- great for holding a foam pad, drying clothes and gear, etc.

Hiking with the ULA Circuit Backpack

The Circuit is available in 5 different torso sizes and 5 different hipbelt options – needless to say you’ll be able to dial in a perfect fit with some measuring time at home. 2 different shoulder strap options are available – the original and standard J-Curve design which I use, and there’s also an S-Curve option which is ergonomically designed for women, although it’s become popular all around as well. 6 colors are also available and even custom trail name embroidery; the base pack retails for $235. The pack uses a roll top closure system, and with two buckles securing down the sides of the pack aiding in compression – another top strap and two additional side straps help in this department and really secure the load and offer a great place to stash extra gear if needed.

ULA Circuit Top Strap with Ursack

My favorite thing about the pack, has to be the comfort and pocket arrangement. In the morning all sleeping gear is packed at the bottom of the pack (inside an Exped Schnozzel), my shelter of choice on top of that, then my Ursack, and finally I forgo use of the included hydration sleeve and just throw my Platypus 3L Hoser horizontally across the top (with all other incidentals filling the spaces in between the aforementioned items).

A Multi-Day Hike with the ULA Circuit Backpack

Anything I might need during the day is packed in an outside pocket of choice or at the top of the main compartment for easy access on a lunch break: For example rain gear goes well in the exterior outside pocket of the pack with a water filter, water bottles go on the sides, and snacks work well in the hipbelt pockets. Thus if a quick afternoon shower rolls through or you just want that granola bar to get you through the next pass, there’s no need to deploy the contents of your pack trailside in a yard sale manner to find what you’re looking for. And if you’re a hydration reservoir user like me, be sure to setup your pack so you can refill on the move without even opening your pack – my solution is detailed in our Platypus Gravityworks Review – and a magnetic sternum strap holder is also a favorite add-on feature. Carry a larger camera like me that won’t fit in the hipbelt pockets? Check out the ZPacks Multipack which adds even more convenience here…an overall theme with the Circuit.

ZPacks Multipack and ULA Equipment Circuit in Winter Camp

Overall the Circuit from ULA Equipment has worked so well for me that it’s tough to even consider other options on the market and for a lightweight backpacking style, ULA really has this pack at the top of the class. If you like to pack a little heavier or longer trips with more food are your forte’, the Catalyst might be worth checking out, or if you’re packing a little lighter and / or shorter trips are your focus the OHM 2.0 is worth considering as well. In between them though, the Circuit fills the niche for me perfectly on nearly any trip.

The ULA Circuit retails for $235 – Find it here at ULA Equipment.


Although your local or online retailer likely carries an array of backpacking and camping utensils sure to satisfy even the most advanced culinary ideas, most of us that don't work as a chef for a living can attain backcountry mealtime prowess with the simplest of choices and without cluttering or weighing down our pack. Here are my thoughts on the main players in this department and what I've found has worked best over the years.

Backpacking Utensils and Cutlery

The Spoon

Perhaps utilized mostly for liquids at home, a backpacking spoon serves most mealtime purposes well on the trail where most meals are made all-in-one style in the pot, freezer bag, or as freeze dried meals and while those meals might not be soup, the consistency is almost always easily scooped and eaten with a spoon. The backpacking spoon is also great if stored inside your food bag in that you're guaranteed that it won't ruin your Opsak if you're using one like me.

Long Handled Titanium Backpacking Spoon

The Fork

While a staple off the trail, very rarely have I found myself longing for a fork on the trail. Only on those few times I've cooked something more extravagant like steak the first night out has a fork been desirable, but steak on the trail or something similar is a rare, special occasion event indeed. In fact, while I have taken the lightest fork in the kitchen drawer backpacking a couple times, I’ve never purchased a dedicated backpacking fork, and hence no photo here. However, MSR makes a very nice titanium fork and spoon set that is worth a look  if you desire a more complete backcountry cutlery set.

The Spork

If you really can't decide between a fork and a spoon and don't want to carry both, one of the many sporks on the market can be an obvious choice. However, the spork’s short tines make it less than ideal as a fork and the same tines make for tough going in soup mode. I've used several throughout the years from REI's TiWare version to a nylon spork (and spatula / knife combo) from Guyot Designs, but no matter which you choose the spork is a jack of all trades...while specializing in none. Combo spoon and fork options are also available that look to seek the best of both worlds in a single implement.

REI Titanium Spork

The Knife

You're most likely already carrying this, and thus no extra knife is needed for hiking purposes. A multifunction Swiss Army knife (I carry the Victorinox EvoGrip 16 which offers a nice blend of trail features without going overboard) does the job for tough to open packaging and for slicing up such backpacking treats as cheese and summer sausage.

Specialty Utensils

Many other specialty utensils fill those outfitter shelves in nearly every form, color, and material from spatulas to foons to whisks and more (I am still waiting on an ultralight titanium potato masher myself), but these are very rarely needed for the average backpacker and work-arounds are easy enough with standard choices making your pack that much lighter.

Backpacking and Camping Utensils

In the end I've found a spoon in the material of your choice - titanium, aluminum, and plastic are the most popular, and you should look for something in the under 1 ounce weight range here. I always go for titanium when it comes to backpacking cookware for its light weight, inertness, ability to sanitize over flame, as well as longevity and strength. Combined with a small knife of the Swiss Army variety (or whatever knife you are carrying) makes for a very versatile combo that keeps you prepared for nearly any backpacking meal.

Of spoon varieties (or even if you go for a fork or spork), long handled varieties are my favorite as they allow for getting to the bottom of freeze dried meals or freezer bags easily without getting food on your hands. Long handled varieties probably won't pack inside your cook pot though, but I just stash mine inside an Ursack and inside a Ziploc bag. I don't like folding varieties here - more nooks and crannies for food to accumulate and thwart cleaning efforts.

Long Handle and Short Handle Backpacking Utensils

The best long handled spoon I've used is the no longer produced Ti-ware polished titanium spoon from REI, but Toaks makes a nice current day alternative with just a polished bowl. (The polishing is both easier to clean and more friendly on your teeth than the rough surface of non-polished offerings).

Polished and Unpolished Titanium Spoons

And since I've lost the old REI offering somewhere along the way, I now use the Toaks long handled titanium spoon - a ~$10 investment here at Amazon, that will last forever,  along with my trusty Swiss Army knife on every trip. Thus and in conclusion, any small knife combined with a long handled spoon in your material of choice will leave you very well prepared for just about any backpacking meal.


ULA Equipment Photon Backpack Review

For many years, I’ve been a big fan of backpacks from ULA Equipment, as they always really seem to hit the nail on the head when it comes to a balance of convenience, durability, weight, and price in a pack. For all of my backpacking trips I use the ULA Circuit - review here - and while there’s another pack or two on the market that I’d like to try at some point, the trusty Circuit always handles the job so well with no complaints from me that no other backpacking pack really gets a chance in my rotation.

ULA Photon Review

But while I’ve had my backpacking pack…with the Circuit handling anything from an overnight to 10 day trips...locked down for the past few years it’s been musical chairs when it comes to daypacks in my case, and I’ve never really been able to find the right one. Between gear and water on longer dayhikes I prefer a hipbelt, but with a long torso and most daypacks only coming in one size I’ve always faced somewhat of an imperfect fit. Using the hipbelt you can loosen shoulder straps to account for a longer torso if you have to, but it’s a bit awkward with the pack sagging so low. Additionally, I like a certain set of convenience features / design on any pack, be it a backpacking pack or a daypack: Top loading main compartment, outside pocket(s), and a hipbelt preferably with hipbelt pockets.

ULA Photon Backpack

When the ULA Photon was announced, it seemed like a framless mini Circuit, and I had my hopes up since best of all it comes in 3 different torso and belt sizes and I’ve always regretted not picking up the no longer produced ULA Amp to some extent. The pack is sized at 35 liters (including all storage), so it’s on the large side for a daypack or definitely on the small side for shorter backpacking trips. Either way it’s a definitely a pack designed to fit a niche role. The typical ULA removable features are all included: hydration sleeve, water bottle holders, inside pocket (for wallet, keys, etc.), handloops, foam pad, and the exterior shock cord (AKA the wet gear drying rack).

ULA Photon Rolltop Closure

Overall my pack comes in at 27 ounces with all removable features included, but optionally, removing your pick of the numerous add on features can get the weight down into the lower 20 ounce range. I opted for the standard roll top closure and the original J-Curve shoulder straps, but you can also order the pack with a drawstring closure, S-Curve shoulder straps that many women prefer, and in 6 different or even custom colors.

ULA J-Curve Shoulder Straps

There are lighter packs out there for sure, but for a pack of this size I’m fine with the durability tradeoff considering the very tough Dyneema Robic and Cordura fabrics ULA utilizes and the overall design and feature set. For my approach, as long as it’s reasonable, weight isn’t much of a concern to me on dayhikes or shorter hikes. While I have some daypacks and smaller packs that are closer to the 1lb mark, the extra 10 ounces of the Photon aren’t going to make much of a difference to me on a dayhike or even a summer overnighter and the feature to comfort tradeoff here is well worth it. Weight becomes much more important to me on multi-day hikes, and at that point I won’t be using the ULA Photon with its limited volume and weight carrying capacity for such trips.

ULA Photon Interior Storage and Capacity View

Other than capacity, one difference of the Photon (vs. the Circuit) is the use of stretchy side pockets and a stretch center outside pocket. The hipbelt is appropriately designed for the weight this pack will carry and features two hipbelt pockets great for quick on the go access. One great thing about the outer side pockets is that they are Nalgene compatible – something that can’t be said for every pack in this class, and with a little practice and a limber triceps muscle you can get your bottle out and back in without unbuckling or removing the pack. The backpanel is padded (removable interior foam pad)  and covered by a fabric overlay instead of the mesh on my Circuit. 

Photon Backpack from ULA - Backpanel, Hipbelt, and J-Curve Straps

I’ve found the ULA Photon fits the intended purpose I expected it to fit quite well, which is for extended dayhikes, and especially extended dayhikes during the colder times of the year when I tend to carry a bit more gear like a heavier down jacket or anytime an extra activity is involved (fishing, photography, etc.). The pack easily holds a 3L Platypus Hoser, food, 10 essentials gear and other “Pursuit Gear” like that fishing or camera gear and best of all fits comfortably on my longer torso…or with the multiple sizes available any torso for that matter. It would also work for me on a warmer season overnighter if desired, but the Circuit works just fine there as well. Size wise for a dedicated day pack and while not being overly large I’d say it could be just a bit smaller in volume but the extra space definitely adds that overnight versatility. 

ULA Photon Backpacking Showing Mesh Center and Side Pockets

Overall I think it’s a great pack in ULA’s overall lineup, and at least when it comes to ULA, you might have to decide between this and the ULA CDT if you’re looking for a frameless pack. If you’re looking at this pack to fill a dayhiking role or are wanting a smaller, but tough pack for short lightweight backpacking trips, the Photon should be a good choice – if you’re more in need of something for longer trips though, the CDT with its increased capacity or moving up to the framed OHM or Circuit with their additional gear capacity combined with additional weight carrying comfort would be a better choice. For the right role the Photon seem just right, and as always it's hard to go wrong with ULA; best of all between the Circuit and Photon I have nearly every hike covered with just 2 packs.

The Photon retails for $145 w/ free U.S. shipping - you can find it here at ULA Equipment.


The Ursack is a bear-resistant backpacking food storage bag that's both light and more packable than typical hard sided bear canisters - like the BearVault BV450 we reviewed in Issue 30. The Ursack has been around a while, and the latest version, dubbed the Allwhite S29.3, features a tighter more tear resistant weave than previous models and is IGBC certified.

Ursack S29 AllWhite Review

The S29 comes in a standard, 625 cubic inch model that holds about 5 days of food for one person and weight 7.8 ounces, while the larger Ursack Major holds 925 cubic inches of storage at 8.7 ounces. The S29 models aren't designed to thwart rodents and other small critters, so if bears don't frequent the area you're hiking in, Ursack also offers rodent specific food bags like the Ursack Minor that would be a better choice, or if you’re looking for the best of both world Ursack also offers the AllMitey.

Ursack S29 AllWhite and Ursack Major

Ursack Major (left) and standard S29.3 (right)

The S29 is best utilized in conjunction with an Opsak liner, purchased separately, that perfectly fits the standard model and is essentially a heavy duty Ziploc bag. 2 of these would be required for the Ursack Major. The Opsak waterproofs your food when the Ursack is tied off during the night hours out in the elements, and helps to reduce food odors that could attract wildlife. While Opsaks are fairly durable, I usually get one or two longer trips out of mine before the bag develops holes or the seal starts to break down; it's a good idea to always have a few stocked in the gear stash.

Ursack S29 with Opsak

To use the Ursack one seals the Opsak with your food inside (after sealing, gently compress the Opsak to verify no air is leaking), cross the drawstrings at the top of the bag, cinch these tight, then tie a double overhand knot tightly at the top. At this point there are several ways to complete the process. One way is then to hang the bag with an otherwise proper hang from a tree branch, or (more conveniently and the most common way to use the Ursack) is to tie it off above the ground to a secure tree branch or trunk with branches to keep it elevated and with a figure eight knot. You're looking for a branch or part of a trunk that the Ursack cannot be pulled off of and one that's quite sturdy. You could tie off at ground level, but tying off above ground helps limit any possible stomping and crushing of your food.

Closing and Beginning the Ursack Tie Off

Once properly secured and hung, any pulling on the bag only closes the top more securely, and when properly tied off even after a lot of tension the knots are easily untied in the morning – by a person – as Ursack states bears don’t have thumbs. The Spectra fabric, weave, and construction of the Ursack is designed to be both strong enough and dense enough to withstand Ursine investigation. If you're above treeline, it is suggested to tie additional knots and either hang over a boulder / cliff or leave on the ground. If crush resistance is desired, an aluminum liner is also offered. For any method, well away from camp and downwind of your campsite is a great idea.

Closing the Ursack  S29.3 With a Double Overhand Knot

Over the past 10 years or so, I've used multiple versions of the Ursack in several areas of the country, and on one occasion, it has even successfully kept my food safe during a black bear investigation at the hang site. I find that the standard model is indeed about right (at first tightly) for about 5 days of food solo and fits great horizontally in my ULA Curcuit, and you can either hang a separate food bag the first few days if this isn't enough space, take another Ursack or more than one on group trips, or look at the Ursack Major which offers more space at not much of a weight penalty and offers more room for cookware at the end of the day, at the cost perhaps of packing ease when full and depending on your pack.

Ursack Hang from Tree

Compared to hanging a silnylon food bag / dry sack or similar every night and retrieving each morning, using the Ursack is much more convenient, albeit with a little weight increase. Over time some failures have been reported, although many times the Ursack may not have been secured and used properly and as instructed. On the flip side, some canisters have been compromised on occasion as well. Compared to a canister however, the Ursack is lighter and more packable while being more convenient than a typical food bag hang, and thus hits the sweet spot for me and is my nightly food storage system of choice on every excursion I take.

The Ursack S29.3 Allwhite retails at $85, or $100 for the Ursack Major. (Compare all models on this page at REI) You can find the most popular standard AllWhite S29.3 version here at REI and at

The Ursack is best utilized when combined with an Opsak, retailing at about $12 for a pack of 2 - Find them here.


Fall – a time of the year when the crisp air is enjoyed and the greens of summer are replaced with hues of orange and yellow. And, it’s also the time that we as hikers contend with hunting season. Strategies for hiking during this time range from doing nothing different at all to simply staying home, and while hunting season is a worthy pre-hike consideration, by taking a few steps and modifying your gear and hiking approach just a bit, hiking during hunting season can be safely enjoyed. Here are a few tips that I’ve found helpful for hunting season hiking.

Tips for Hiking During Hunting Season

Add blaze orange into your clothing and accessory ensemble. An easy and important step to take is to add in some bright colors to your clothing arsenal, and very preferably blaze orange. Either way you want to stand out – exactly what you want this time of year, and hunters, who are likely wearing blaze orange themselves, are keyed up and actively looking for this color. While I personally prefer to blend in and wear natural colors at all other times of the year, during the fall hunting season I definitely embrace my extrovert side. Where to get the gear? Places like Cabelas are your one stop shop for blaze orange outdoor gear online or in person, Amazon will have just about anything you’re looking for in blaze orange (like the blaze orange Carhartt knit cap in the photo above), and your local hardware store might even have a decent selection of cheap, bright, and effective hunting season gear. If you look carefully REI from time to time will have a selection or clothing choices or accessories that could work as well. This goes for your dog if you take one on the trail as well – look at blaze orange collars, bandannas, or jackets. But as always at any time of the year, though especially during hunting season, you should keep your dog on a leash or at your side and under voice command. If you'll be out hiking at dusk or dawn, be sure your headlamp is on.

HIking Dog Blaze Orange Collar for Hunting Season

Hike around season dates. Using your own state’s fish and game website, plan your trip around the season dates when you can and especially opening  and closing weekends / opening and closing day, and holiday weekends in popular areas. Middle of the week in the middle of the season is great timing if you’ll be out there while the season is active. Remain “bear aware” as the season winds on as well, as often times successful hunting activities may increase the presence of other animals as well. Hunting season often typically begins with an archery only season, and planning a trip during this time is great if you feel more comfortable hiking at that time compared to the general firearm dates.

Head for remote, and preferably wilderness areas. Big game animals are heavy, and thus hunting is often closely tied to motorized vehicle use, ATVs, or horses. In wilderness areas you’ll avoid the motor vehicle aspect, and wilderness hunting horse trips are often led by experienced and local guides. But generally, just like if you’re looking for solitude any time of the year in the backcountry, the farther you go in and the farther from the road and trailhead you get, the less people…and hunters…you’ll see. Many national parks also ban hunting, so this might be a great time to head out on that road trip to explore that park you’ve always wanted to see.

Backpacking on the Trail in Hunting Season Blaze Orange

Consider where hunting will be more concentrated based upon wildlife activity. As an example and here in the Rockies, if we have a hot summer that’s stretching well into fall game animals could still be found in their higher elevation haunts. Early winter? Game may be pushed to lower and warmer elevations and closer to their winter ranges with the hunters following close behind. Plan your trip around this. The nuances of every locale are a bit different, but you get the idea. Talking it up with hunters in your area and those that you might see at the trailhead is a great way to learn – while learning some interesting aspects into the wildlife patterns in your area. Just be careful how you ask…you’re not likely to get a very straight answer if you ask where the best hunting spots in the area are.

Be especially alert when hiking offtrail, and make your presence know by sight (adding blaze orange as described above) but also by sound. You might, but shouldn’t encounter any active hunting while on a marked trail (though you may encounter hunters themselves), but you will be more likely to cross paths with someone actively on the hunt off of it. Just like in bear country, it pays to give a quick human vocalization or a single whistle blow every now and then, and stop to listen as well for the calls of game at intervals. Is that an elk, or someone trying to call one in? I’ve encountered both while hiking off trail during hunting season. Either way, a quick hello, hi there, or your phrase of choice is not a bad idea.

Elk Grazing as Seen While Hiking During Hunting Season

Even on my most recent backpacking trip, no less than 30 seconds after parking at the trailhead and starting off towards the wilderness boundary, I encountered a hunter near the trailhead (see point 3 above), and a few minutes after moving on down the trail, a series of shots were heard. Hunting season is definitely a time when we have to share the trail, but overall and with fall one of the best times to be outside (and winter is coming!), any potential conflicts a hiker might encounter during hunting season can for the most part, be safely mitigated with a few extra considerations before heading out, from destination choice, to season timing, to adding blaze orange options into your clothing mix. And just like dealing with the conditions of any other season – be it throwing in winter gear or mixing up your gear and approach just a bit for the shoulder seasons, it’s all about preparation and approach and just getting out there.


While non-waterproof shoes shine for summer backpacking and hiking with their light weight, breathability, and quick dry times, when temperatures fall, and especially when snow is involved I turn to a waterproof breathable solution. This has meant abandoning my usual lightweight footwear approach and turning to heavy Gore-Tex boots or similar, and going from my normal lightweight zero drop trail runners to a heavy cumbersome boot with a raised heel and significant heel to toe drop has always been a bit of shock. Not to mention, I still have yet to find a boot of this type that is completely comfortable. These types of boots are often built for maximum durability and consequently they’re bulky and heavy, which simply isn’t great for walking. To keep the soles from wearing out faster than the uppers the sole rubber used is durable, but often with durability the tradeoff is that traction is compromised on slick surfaces like snow and ice without additional traction devices. However, a couple years ago zero drop shoe maker Altra released a waterproof breathable version of their popular Lone Peak trail running shoe, quite popular with many hikers, backpackers, and myself for most 3 season conditions.

Altra Lone Peak NeoShell Low Review

The NeoShell version of the Lone Peak features Polartec’s air permeable yet waterproof NeoShell fabric along with all the normal features you’ll find in the Lone Peak. A normal low cut version, as well as a mid-height boot offering are available in the 3.0 line – while the mesh Lone Peak is now up to the 3.5 version, no Lone Peak Polartec NeoShell 3.5 is currently available from Altra. Since the Altra NeoShell release, I’ve had the opportunity to utilize both the original 2.0 NeoShell as well as the more recent and current NeoShell low shoe and mid based on the more recent Lone Peak 3.0 – in addition to all other normal mesh versions of the Lone Peaks save for the 3.5.

Altra Lone Peak NeoShell Mid Review

In either version the NeoShell Lone Peak uses a unique approach and places the waterproofing layer on the outside of the shoe as a shell, instead of as a bootie or liner sewn into the interior of the boot or shoe as you’ll find with Gore-Tex, eVent, or similar proprietary membranes from other manufacturers. What this does is repel moisture immediately without allowing it to soak the outer fabrics or materials of the shoe, and it also allows the interior fabrics of the shoe to offer quite a bit of moisture buffering capacity as your feet sweat. For either version, an aggressive trail running tread pattern provides traction, while a generous midsole with a rockplate provides ample cushioning and smooths out the ride. Shoe or boot, the Lone Peak NeoShell is quite light (15.25 ounces each in my size 12.5’s for the mid) and this combined with the zero drop design, and “foot shaped” wide toe box really make these very comfortable to hike in.

Lone Peak ToeBox  - 3.0

The NeoShell Mid offers all the same features but with the addition of added ankle support, better compatibility with gaiters, and additional warmth. All things that should be great for snow travel, while the low cut version is great for its light weight and mobility. While the tongue is gusseted, unfortunately it’s gusseted using a non-waterproof, ripstop nylon material and this can be the source of water intrusion into the shoe or boot. On the 3.0, there is still an improvement in this area as the tongue is now covered in NeoShell, compared to the earlier 2.0’s non-waterproof mesh. The tongue gusset issue is limited to some extent simply by the overlap of the tongue and shoe, creating something of a seal when worn, and can be further sealed off through the use of gaiters if you use them. However and in my case using the MLD eVent gaiter, the area is not completely covered towards the front of the shoe and some spacing is always created by the laces. (Altra also offers their own gaiter, but it is not waterproof) If you’d like to use a gaiter that does not utilize an underfoot strap or cord, the NeoShells are well setup for them, containing Altra’s Velcro gaiter trap on the heel for compatibility with gaiters that secure this way, and either way along with a ring in front of the laces for your gaiter hooks.

Lone Peak NeoShell with MLD Gaiters

Lone Peak NeoShell Mid w/ MLD eVent Gaiter

Altra does offer up a disclaimer on their website that these are not meant to replace waterproof full rubber boots, but I was hopeful that they would at least offer a replacement for typical Gore-Tex, eVent, or proprietary membrane waterproof offerings from many mainstream shoe and boot manufacturers that use an inner bootie to provide waterproofing. In practice the NeoShell from Altra is more water-resistant than proof, with the leakage through the tongue gusset, standing water is out of the question and I have additionally noticed leakage in this area from melting snow, and seemingly through the fabric / seams of the shoe itself as a hiking day goes on in snow and / or wet conditions and even when wearing waterproof gaiters. Additionally as the NeoShell is on the outside of the shoe and while it’s designed to be used as an outer layer, it will take direct abuse and abrasion over time from snow, ice, rocks, and brush and as time goes on the fabric will wet out faster. As such, for longer shoulder season and winter excursions in snow or chilly wet conditions there is still very much a place for more traditional Gore-Tex or similar waterproof / breathable boots in my gear room and the NeoShell is best suited for conditions where only occasional or intermittent moisture may be encountered. Hopefully as with improvements from the 2.0 to the 3.0 further waterproofing improvements can be made in the future as the NeoShell version matures, and especially since the Lone Peak platform is essentially unrivaled when it comes to fit and comfort.

Long Term NeoShell wear on the Lone Peak, 2.0 model shown

Long term, extensive NeoShell wear example. (Lone Peak 2.0 NeoShell version shown)

I do however find breathability of the shoes to be a plus, although as you might expect they do run a bit too hot for me for summer hiking. As such and overall the NeoShell is best at keeping your feet warm in cool but not cold conditions – adding a VBL will help as temps drop lower, but at some point you’ll want to switch to an insulated boot – and thus as a whole I find them best for a somewhat narrow range of day activities (running in the lows, day hiking in either the lows or mids) and they work best in cool dry conditions or on shorter excursions in the same weather when moisture is added to the equation. When wet and placed in a dry warm environment to dry, the shoes do dry quickly for an offering of this type.

Lone Peak Gaiter Trap

One other thing on the wishlist for a future version and only in relation to the mid version is that metal closed eyelets are used towards the cuff – it would have been great if these had been open hook speed lace hardware to make tying and untying your shoes and loosening all that much easier and faster.

Durability is inline with what you’d expect from a normal trailrunner. The sole will wear at the same rate, and I’ve found that just as the soles are about completely out of tread the upper is breaking down at around the same rate. Of course by this time with the shoes out of tread traction became a concern with a few slips to prove it. It seems that the upper and tread wear out all at about the same rate and somewhat gracefully over time, so if the feature set and performance works for one’s usage at first it all works. In regards to the mids these won’t be boots you’ll have resoled and use for years and years by any means, though.

Lone Peak Mid - NeoShell in Snow

For me the low cut version for the most part is relegated perhaps for what it was originally designed for: running in cold conditions and I also like it for day hikes or backpacking in chilly, but dry, shoulder season conditions. If more support and warmth is desired in similar conditions with running out of the equation, the mid may be the way to go. Either way the benefits of a footwear solution that’s as comfortable as your normal trail running shoe while adding both water resistance and warmth are very welcome during those times of the year when temps are lower, and on shorter excursions when light infrequent precipitation or snow may be encountered or where water resistance is desired, and in these specific situations the NeoShells do excel at keeping your feet warm and comfortable.

Altra Lone Peak NeoShell - Hiking in Snow

The NeoShell Lone Peak from Altra is available for men and women in both a low cut trail runner and mid-height boot version ranging from around $130 to $160, but you can occasionally find them on sale for a modest discount. You can check out both versions here at REI, at Backcountry, and on


Sometimes even a quick day hike can provide inspiration for another quick trip or a subsequent backpacking excursion, and such was the case last year on a family dayhike in the Bridger Wilderness of the southern Wind River Mountains. The plan: a simple morning in and a brief offtrail excursion to a river shown on the map, a brief afternoon of fishing and a return to the trailhead before evening drew on too long. Logistically simple, the hike went as planned and was a typical summer stroll along and off the trail – until we reached the river.

Summer Wind River Wildflowers

Summer sights were abundant, but the river itself was nowhere to be found. Slightly bewildered and evaluating the map, we did now stand in a slight depression, entirely dry and it didn’t look like water had ever flowed through it. And we weren’t looking for an intermittent, seasonal creek either – this was a legitimate and named river. Doubting my map skills momentarily, I even turned my phone on and double checked with Gaia GPS – and sure enough, the app showed us standing in the river. Hiking on a bit farther through the lodgepole pine forest, entering a scenic dry meadow where it seemed good campsites – perhaps for another time – were nearly everywhere you looked.

More Wildflower Season in the Winds

The more I hike, and perhaps the more bad campsites I stay the night in, the more I’ve come to appreciate the good ones. You know the spot: an actual flat place to sleep where you’re not sliding around your tent throughout the night, one that is protected but still with a view, and one that's close enough to a water source – at least according to the map. But this was just a day hike. At such a site in the meadow we had lunch, but with the day getting late the decision was made to abandon the river search and perhaps, return at a later time. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this in the Wind River Range. While the USGS maps are for the most part quite accurate, it seems that when it comes to waterways assumptions have occasionally been made; water always flows downhill, but not always where you think it might at first glance. In any event, finding one of these inaccuracies, whether on USGS topos or usually equally reflected on other options like the Beartooth or Earthwalk maps has always been a great excuse to explore further and to see what the land truly reveals, and adds a bit of mystery to any follow up hike.  

Signs of Fall in the Winds Rivers

A year later and in need of a quick and easy family style overnight with easy logistics, we headed back to the site. Some research at home, looking at satellite views had revealed the real location of the river – nearly a mile away from where the USGS topos had suggested. After a drive to the southern end of the range ending with a rough final drive to the trailhead we hit the trail and made our way towards the meadow we’d eaten lunch at the year before,  and after sheltering from a brief and quick moving rain shower we eventually made it just as our younger trail companion’s legs began to fade. Although late in the year…so much that aspens were turning yellow…lupine still bloomed and the last glimpse of summer wildflowers was quite the welcome surprise.

Hiking in the Wind Rivers and Summer Lupine

After deciding on a reasonable spot to setup the tent, we ambled off in the real direction of the river, both to actually find it this time, evaluate fishing opportunities, as well as load up and filter some water. The meadow was higher, so after descending a game trail we found, and crashing through the brush, we entered a lush soggy meadow and eventually found ourselves on the river bank of the slowly flowing, lazy river that meandered through meadows.

River in the Wind Range

Filled only with small brook trout, fishing was decided against but water was filtered and returning to complete camp setup for the night, dinner was had – a fire considered but decided against on this mild evening, and much time was spent relaxing, taking photos, and watching the moon rise, set, and stargazing as the show emerged overhead in force while elk bugled in the distance. Eventually we all piled into our trusty Tarptent Hogback for the night.

Bridger Wilderness Sunset and Moonrise

The next morning after a night well above freezing the elk were again bugling at sunrise, more water was filtered, camp dismantled, and packs shouldered as we made our way back to the trail and eventually the trailhead again. Although a short and easy trip, it was a trip that easily fell together and was easily accomplished and all at a great spot – sometimes just what you need – and with one last glimpse of summer to boot. And best of all, now we know even more than the map at first reveals.


One thing is for certain: we all need to keep our sleeping gear dry and we all need to be able to fit it all in our pack. Like many of us, in the past I’ve used everything from a set of individual dry bags to accomplish these goals to budget friendly trash compactor bags. All worked well and served the purpose of keeping my sleeping bag and clothing dry during rainy days on the trail while also offering some benefit in the way of compression. As a user of an inflatable Exped sleeping pad however, one choice – the Exped Schnozzel pump bag – offers both the benefits of waterproofing and compression while also working for an additional use: inflating my sleeping pad at the end of the day while adding just 2.1 ounces to my pack and gear ensemble. 

Exped Schnozzel Pump Bag Review

Exped offers several versions of the product, the standard, heavy duty Schnozzel in both a medium (up to 42 liters) and large (up to 85 liters), as well as the lighter UL version in the same sizes. For my use, the UL, medium version is a great fit and is the topic of discussion here. At first resembling a larger roll-top dry bag or pack liner, the Exped Schnozzel pump bag is made from waterproof nylon construction with taped seams.

Exped Schnozzel and Apater that Attaches to Exped Pads

The top of the bag is secured with a roll top and buckles to hold everything in place, and setting it apart the bottom features an adapter that fits the inflation valve on Exped sleeping pads that don’t feature an integrated pump; when inside your pack this adapter fits securely in a holder and in a stowed sealed position. If you have an Exped pad made after 2010 you’re all set, but for older pads, or those with an integrated pump Exped also offers a flat valve adapter to make the Schnozzel compatible. Additionally and if you’re so inclined, Exped even makes a shower attachment for the pump bag to expand its capability into the hygiene department.

Exped Schnozzel

I utilize the pump bag with the Exped Synmat UL 7 sleeping pad, and it works perfectly for inflation once you get to camp. Once the bag is emptied of whatever you’re storing inside of it during the day on the trail and by snapping the valve to the sleeping pad, you’re able to easily inflate a pad by opening the bag up and allowing it to fill with air (a quick breath from a couple feet away can assist with inflation), then rolling the opening of the bag closed, gradually forcing air from the inflated bag and into the sleeping pad. Repeating the process a few times does the job to fully inflate even a long and wide sleeping pad, and not only does it alleviate any huffing and puffing to get your pad inflated, it also inflates it with ambient air, and not moisture-laden air from your own breath that’s getting into your pad's insulation and staying there – not a great mix day after day. 

Sealed Up in Dry Bag Mode

On the trail, I use the Schnozzel to both store and compress my sleeping gear and clothing. Normally I stow both my ZPacks 20 Degree sleeping bag and the aforementioned Synmat UL 7 sleeping pad, a pillow, and a down jacket plus any extra clothing I’m taking along on the trip inside. The bag is then packed first at the bottom of my pack – by inserting the bag and compressing the air out, then rolling the bag closed and securing / sealing via the buckles on each side, you’re able to compress all this gear, while sheltering it from the elements and it all ends up perfectly comforming and fitting the available space in your pack. 

Schnozzel Compressed and Used as a Dry Bag

Where the Schnozzel really hits the mark is in its usefulness for a variety of purposes on the trail and it’s equally useful for each one. If you’re already an Exped sleeping pad user it’s an excellent accessory to pick up that will make life on the trail easier by of course inflating your sleeping pad without introducing excessive moisture from your breath into your pad and insulation, while also compressing your gear during the day and keeping it all dry on rainy trail days – and all at an ultralight weight.

The Exped Schnozzel UL retails for about $40 – find it here at REI, at CampSaver, or on

Steve Ancik

I am a photographer. I am a hiker. I am a backpacker. I am a mountain biker. Sometimes I am all of those in the same day. But most often, I am on an awesome trail and am trying to take an award-winning photo of the area. My trips are usually built around getting to an area to photograph its beauty. I am always searching for beautiful photographic exposures of scenes that not everybody has viewed, looking for vistas that excite my eyes. Sometimes hiking or backpacking is the best way to get there, and sometimes a mountain bike the preferred way. Over the years, I have had the privilege and pleasure to visit a lot of places, particularly in the American west. This is a story of my quest to get to some of these places.

Exploring National Recreation and Multiuse Trail Systems

Trails that I have hiked and ridden are often multiuse trails, open to hikers, mountain bikers, hunters, cross-country skiers, equestrians, and other users. Some are designated as National Recreation Trails and others are simply great local trails. Some of the best of these multiuse trails that I have ridden and/or hiked include Gooseberry Mesa and Little Creek Mesa in Utah, Berryman Trail in Missouri, South Boundary Trail and the High Desert Trail System in New Mexico, Black Canyon Trail in Arizona, Palo Duro Canyon State Park in Texas, and Hermosa Creek Trail in Colorado. As I get older and more inclined to hike instead of ride, I will no doubt return and hike more of these.

Gooseberry Mesa and Little Creek Mesa

These trails are some of the most beautiful trails that I have ever experienced. Both mesas tower above the surrounding landscape, offering views better measured in miles than feet. Located on Bureau of Land Management lands east of Hurricane, Utah and just a few miles from Zion National Park, the vistas from the north rims of each mesa display Zion in all its glory. Looking west you can see views of the distant often snow-capped Pine Valley Mountains plus a panorama of desert canyons and plains in every direction. The trails on both mesas feature a combination of sandy tracks and solid rock, known locally as ‘slickrock’, although being solid sandstone, there is really not much ‘slick’ about them – your grip when hiking or riding is great. Navigation on a slickrock trail often involves some amount of searching for the trail. Gooseberry is in many places marked by white paint dots on the rock. Little Creek is mostly marked by widely-spaced cairns - sometimes you will come to a large flattish area of sandstone with a single cairn in the distance - it often takes a sharp eye to spot them. Other segments of the trails on both mesas are on more traditional singletrack trail and are easy to follow. Gooseberry has over 20 miles of trails of various lengths which can be combined into hikes or rides of almost any distance, depending on your stamina. Little Creek is a bit more isolated so is not as busy, and has two interconnected loops of about 9 miles each. Getting to Gooseberry and Little Creek Mesas require driving on several miles of sometimes rough dirt roads. These are both places seldom seen by the average visitor to the Zion area, but well worth the effort of getting there. Gooseberry Trail has been designated as a National Recreation Trail.

Gooseberry Vista from Gooseberry Mesa

Uses: bicycling, camping, dogs (on leash), and walking/hiking/running.

Best Time to Go: Best April through November. Summers can be extremely hot! There is no water on the mesas, so carry plenty. Restrooms are available near the trailhead of Gooseberry Mesa; there are no facilities at Little Creek Mesa. Primitive camping is allowed on the mesas.

Berryman Trail

This is a 24 mile loop trail in central Missouri near Potosi. This 70-year old National Recreation Trail passes through two campgrounds (Berryman Campground and Brazil Creek Campground) on an up and down route through heavy woods. Several crossings of small streams are included. The trail surface can be rough at times, with exposed rocks, eroded areas, and hoof tracks from horses. One can travel in either direction from either campground, but I have always started at Brazil Creek and gone clockwise. Beginning as I have from the Brazil Creek campground (no facilities are available, except for a few fire rings and picnic tables), and going clockwise, the trail heads uphill through the dense forest, and thereafter a series of descents and climbs greet you until you reach the Berryman Campground (picnic shelter, vault toilet, no water) in about the ten miles. From this point, continuing clockwise it is about fourteen miles back to the starting point at Brazil Creek campground. The western half of Berryman Trail is also part of the 390-mile Ozark Trail. Starting at Berryman campground and continuing to the north you are following the Ozark Trail until the trails eventually split. There is water available from several creeks (treat it!) and from an old trough about two-thirds of the way along the trail (I think this is from an artesian well, but I would treat it too). Overall, Berryman Trail is a great hiking, backpacking, and mountain biking loop. The trail can be easily divided into a two- or three-day backpacking trip, or shorter out-and-back day hikes, or an epic one-day mountain bike adventure.

Berryman - Typical Berryman Trail

Uses: bicycling, hiking, camping, dogs (on leash), wildlife observation, and equestrian.

Best Time to Go: All year, but summer can be hot and humid.

South Boundary Trail

This National Recreation Trail spans about 20 to 25 miles in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Carson National Forest between Angel Fire and Taos, New Mexico. It is heavily wooded with piñon pines, ponderosa pines, junipers, and aspens. In the fall, the aspens turn parts of the mountains bright yellow. There are also wildflower-filled meadows, wildlife, and numerous views of the surrounding mountains. As a mountain bike ride, the trail is often done as a shuttle, starting at the eastern end from one of a couple possible starting points, and ending near Taos at the west end. The trail ranges in elevation from about 7,200 feet to about 10,700 feet, so you will definitely feel like you are in the mountains! The South Boundary Trail is one of the most popular trails in Carson National Forest. The trail varies from old fire roads to long sections of singletrack, and the east to west route has more downhill than uphill. Hiking options would include starting at Garcia Park or Osha Mountain and hiking out and back. This would also be an excellent two or three-day backpacking trip. There are camping areas in the Garcia Park area along the trail, as well as dispersed camping in the national forest along the way.

Late fall view from South Boundary Trail

Uses: bicycling, camping, equestrian, hunting, walking/hiking/running, and snowshoeing.

Best Time to Go: Year-round, depending on your use.

High Desert Trail System

Just outside of Gallup, New Mexico is a series of looped trails that start at two different parking areas. The High Desert Trail System is designated as a National Recreation Trail. As you might expect from the name of these trails, this is ‘high desert’ country and has plenty of rock and sand supporting a desert mix of piñon pines, sagebrush, and junipers. Some of these trails are on rocky ground, but most are sandy soil singletrack. There are a few areas of interesting ‘hoodoo’ formations, and quite a few excellent views. Even though these trails were designed for mountain biking, I have seen hikers on them several times and would definitely recommend them as a good hiking location, particularly when higher elevations are less desirable because of weather or trail conditions. Along the trails are several metal sculptures, such as a coyote, a sundial, a mountain lion, and others. There are also some of the most amazing trail markers or ‘cairns’ that I have ever seen - some are as tall as a full-grown human man! Further proof of the trail builders’ “cool factor” are Native American-inspired trail signs of a backpacker and a mountain biker. There is no camping allowed on the High Desert Trail System, but there is camping available a few miles away in the Zuni Mountains, to the south of Interstate 40.

High Desert Trail has thee most impressive cairns!

Uses: bicycling, dogs (on leash), walking/hiking/running, and wildlife observation.

Best Time to Go: Fall through Spring. Summers can be extremely hot!

Black Canyon Trail

This is a nearly 80-mile north-south trail in the Sonoran Desert of central Arizona. It extends from Prescott National Forest near Prescott (north end) to Carefree Highway (Highway 74) near Phoenix (south end). The trail has eight trailheads that break it into manageable sections. The trail runs generally parallel to Interstate Highway 17. I have ridden on a couple of segments of this trail, which winds through areas offering some of the most stunning desert scenery that I have seen; for me it was hard to focus on the trail, as I kept looking around at the scenery. Perhaps next time I’ll hike instead of ride so that I can slow down and better take in my surroundings. The trail is nearly all singletrack and passes through rolling terrain with multiple types of cacti, including barrel, cholla, ocotillo, and a large number of the impressive saguaro. The trail crosses the Agua Fria River in places, and at those crossings the vegetation is sometimes dense mesquite. On one ride on the Black Canyon Trail, I spotted my first and (so far) only gila monster, which is a large venomous pinkish-orange and brownish-black lizard - quite a thrill, as they are rarely seen.

Black Canyon Trail and Saguaro Cacti

Uses: bicycling, walking/hiking/running, dogs (on leash), equestrian (riding and pack trips), and camping.

Best Time to Go: November through April. Summers can be extremely hot!

Palo Duro Canyon State Park

This State Park in the Texas panhandle just south of Amarillo. While not on the scale of the Grand Canyon, Palo Duro Canyon is still impressive, and has several excellent trails. The trail to the Lighthouse (the best known formation in the park), combined with Givens-Spicer-Lowry (GSL) Trail, Little Fox Canyon Trail, and Paseo del Rio Trail makes an excellent 10.5 mile loop. The Lighthouse Trail is a wide, well-used trail with little elevation change until you get near the end, at which point there is a steep climb up and over a ridge. Once you’re on the ridge, the Lighthouse is in view. Continuing the last few hundred feet you ascend onto a small mesa where the Lighthouse is located, and where pretty much everybody takes at least one “selfie”. Returning the way you came and then turning left onto the GSL Trail, you get away from the sometimes crowded Lighthouse Trail, and can enjoy many more miles of desert terrain. The next few miles are not too difficult, although there are some short steep climbs, and the trail is easy to follow. Along the GSL Trail, you can enjoy several sections of especially colorful cliffs and hills and several areas with hoodoos of varying sizes. The Little Fox Canyon Trail is an out-and-back side trail off of GSL, and the Paseo del Rio Trail takes you from the end of GSL back to the parking lot for the Lighthouse Trail, completing the loop. Across the park is the Rock Garden Trail which climbs about 600 feet from the road in the bottom of the canyon to a rimtop view in a 2.4 mile (one way) hike or ride. This trail is not as colorful as the Lighthouse and GSL trails, but makes up for it in the overview of the canyon from the top. The trail is mostly an uphill hike with just a few downhill sections, but overall I did not find it to be especially strenuous. All of these trails are designed for multiple uses, whereas several other trails in the park are designated for hiking only, biking only, or equestrian only.

Palo Duro Canyon The Lighthouse

Uses: Walking/hiking/running, bicycling, equestrian.

Best Time to Go: Fall through Spring. Summers can be extremely hot!

Hermosa Creek

The 25 mile Hermosa Creek Trail is located just north of Durango, Colorado. Starting at the north end gives you a net loss of about 1,500 feet by the time you get to the southern end near the village of Hermosa. Almost all of this trail is singletrack, except for a few miles at the northern end. The trail is not purely a descending hike or ride, as there is a mile-long section toward the south end that includes a 500 foot climb - the price you pay for the rewards of this beautiful trail! Most of the trail is within sight of Hermosa Creek, sometimes from far above it, and sometimes right next to it. Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs are the predominant conifers along the trail, with stands of aspens in some places. There are also several other trails that branch off from Hermosa Creek Trail, giving you numerous options. One week several years ago, a group of mountain biking buddies and I were planning on a trip to Santa Fe and Durango to ride. Less than a week before we were to leave, I broke my wrist. I decided to go anyhow, and spent the week hiking on trails where they rode, taking lots of pictures, and functioning as their shuttle driver when needed. It was on this trip that I hiked a few miles of the northern end of Hermosa Creek Trail before heading back to the highway to meet up with them after their ride. I’ve also been on the trail when a summer thunderstorm came up - scary, and not an experience I’d recommend. Check the weather forecast before you set off.

Hermosa Creek - View from the northern end of Hermosa Creek Trail

Uses: Mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing.

Best Time to Go: All year, depending on use.

Multiuse trails are a shared experience - enjoyed by hikers, mountain bikers, riders on horseback, and other users. I use these trails as my way to get out in nature and away from the hustle and bustle of civilization and to get to places to use my camera in my never-ending search for new vistas and great photographs. So, whether you are hiking, riding, or using these trails in some other way, just get out there, share the trail, and see the world in your own personal way!

The Author: Steve Ancik is a landscape architect by profession whose hobbies include mountain biking, photography, hiking, and backpacking. He lives in Edmond, Oklahoma. You can see more of his photographs at All photographs in this article © Steven L. Ancik. 

Susan Dragoo

The Ozarks of northwest Arkansas and southern Missouri are full of magical places, and thanks to the rest of the world’s inattention to this glorious natural area, solitude can often be easily found. Eye-catching geology abounds as a consequence of erosion of the high plateau that created the peaks and hollows characteristic of the area. Clear rivers and streams lace through limestone bluffs and natural bridges and over waterfalls, making the Ozarks an outdoor paradise.

Ozark Mountains Hikes

There are so many spots with stunning scenery in the Ozarks that the best thing to do is base your adventure in one locale and explore for a few days. We recently visited the area near Jasper, a very small town on the Buffalo National River. There, we stayed at the Cliff House, a hotel and restaurant overlooking the “Arkansas Grand Canyon,” a wide canyon carved by the Buffalo, and took in three short, easy, and very scenic hikes.

Alum Cove

Natural bridges are surprisingly common in the Ozarks and one of the largest is at Alum Cove Natural Bridge Geological Area in the Ozark Natural Forest. The arch is 130 feet long and 20 feet wide, all that remains of what was once a quartz sandstone cave. Parking is near a sizable picnic area with tables and a restroom, a convenient stop before hiking down the switchbacks into the hollow. It’s only about 4 tenths of a mile to the arch but the entire 1.1-mile nature trail is worth the time to hike it. While it’s interesting walking atop the arch, the view from below is much more intriguing.The trail continues down the hill from the base of the arch and follows a bluffline with a shallow cave, then loops back up to the trailhead.

Hiking to Alum Cove

Directions: From Jasper, take State Highway 7 south for 15 miles. Turn west on State Highway 16 and go 1 mile. Turn northwest on Newton County Road 28 and go 3 miles. 

Kings River Falls

The highlight of this easy, level two-mile round trip is a waterfall flanked by broad stone slabs perfect for picnicking and sunbathing. Kings River Falls is a popular swimming hole in the summer, but visit in cooler weather and you may have it all to yourself. Most of the trail runs along the Kings River, a clear mountain stream on your right, and on your left a hay field defined by an old rock wall. A grist mill once stood at the big falls — look closely for marks carved into the stone.

Kings River Falls - Dayhikes of the Ozarks

Directions: From the community of Boston on State Highway 16 (between Fallsville and St. Paul), go north on County Road 3175 for 2.1 miles; bear right as the road forks onto County Road 3415. Stay on this road for 2.3 miles until you come to a "T" intersection with County Road 3500. Turn left, and go across the creek and park at the natural area sign.

Glory Hole Falls Trail

I’d wanted to see this place in the Ozark National Forest for years and it was definitely the highlight of the trip. The 1.9-mile round trip trail follows an old roadbed that drops down the hill to a place where Dismal Creek falls through a large opening through the roof of a bluff. The trail comes to the top of the bluffline where you can see the opening from the top. On the right there is a way to continue to the bottom. It is steep and slick in places as you enter a moist glade area. Once there, you can walk beneath the overhang and immerse yourself in the beauty of the waterfall, especially dramatic after a rain. Use caution, a hiker was critically injured here in 2015 when he fell 25 to 30 feet off a ledge to the rocks below.

Glory Hole Falls Trail

Directions: From Edwards Junction (the intersection of State Highways 16 and 21) travel west on 16/21 for 2.3 miles, going 0.7 miles past the Cassville Baptist Church. There is a parking area with room for several vehicles on the south side of the road, opposite a house up on a hill. Park along the highway and hike along the 4WD road, turning right at the bulletin board.

Additional Resources: Two books that detail hikes in this area of the Ozarks are Arkansas Hiking Trails and Arkansas Waterfalls, both by Tim Ernst.  


Summer Giveaway

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The Red Desert of Wyoming holds a unique appeal no matter your approach – it’s a country just as suitable for backpacking as it is for exploring and camping beside your vehicle off a rough and long forgotten dirt road. Either way, you’re likely to be in the middle of the nowhere.

Wilderness Study Area in Wyoming

Adding to its allure, to begin the year the desert can only be comfortably explored for a short time each spring after the roads have sufficiently dried from melting snow to make passage by vehicle (just to get there) possible, and before this treeless and shadeless expanse becomes too hot for comfortable hiking. And especially for family hiking as would be the case on this trip. And even hot weather aside, admittedly as summer arrives in full swing the high country opens up to distract a hiker up and into the mountains to enjoy those alpine meadows and valleys with pleasant summer mountain weather.

Hiking Among the Numerous Colored and Banded Buttes

Recently a quick backpacking trip was made into a particularly scenic corner of the Red Desert to explore one of the numerous Wilderness Study Areas that can be found in central Wyoming. One of my favorite things about backpacking is the pure adaptability of one’s existence, with your home on your back and as long as you have water and food, you don’t really need to be anywhere other than where you currently stand. Thus, as we left the highway and the dirt road progressively became rougher, and began to become only muddier as we turned onto a more obscure high clearance road passable only with the assistance of 4 wheel drive and patient driving, it gradually became apparent that plans would need to be changed. Not wanting to only get stuck farther in on the slick road, maps were consulted and an alternate entry into the Wilderness Study Area located. In this park anywhere, trail-less, camp wherever you can pitch your tent country, we pulled off the side of the road and shouldering packs laden with water picked our way through the sagebrush and hiked south.

Hiking into the Wilderness Study Area, Wyoming

Although it wasn’t even officially summer at the time, the early afternoon sun was unrelenting and as a family trip, we’d need to make the most of our miles. Descending to the bottom of a rim we followed the contours and canyons that made up its base, with a multitude of unique formations serving as ample entertainment for all of us. Eventually, a suitable alcove was located to serve as a campsite, and the rest of the day was spent photographing, exploring from camp, and observing the numerous wildflowers and local residents of the area…from prairie dogs to prairie falcons.

Backpacking and Camping in Wyoming's Red Desert

At sunset thunderstorms threatened and made for an amazing display, while gusty winds covered everything we had in fine sand. That night coyotes howled not much farther than a stone’s throw from our tent. The rain held off – meaning we’d actually be able to drive out the next day.

Sunset in Wyoming's Red Desert - Great Divide Basin

With storms again threatening the next day however, a lazy hike out – stopping to take photos nearly every few feet – became the plan as temperatures climbed and clouds grew taller in the distance. Ascending the rim we passed a herd of cows, then elk, then a lone antelope and eventually reached our lone vehicle. It hadn’t yet rained though, and the road seemed just a bit drier than yesterday, so we drove on to explore the area around what had been originally planned to serve as a starting point only to find that the road had been closed by the BLM and we were lucky we’d stopped where we had the previous day.

Spring Wildflowers in the Wyoming Desert - Primrose

But the further exploration was beneficial as much for the additionally scenery as for the knowledge gained when further exploration of the area is due. Turning around and after an hour of bumpy driving, we reached pavement just as the first drops of rain coated the windshield and with the satisfaction of this quick trip into the desert…along with plenty of ideas for the next.

Stormy Weather Approaches from the Mountains

Information: Exploring this area can be a bit difficult as the BLM web pages covering the Wilderness Study Areas in this region have recently gone offline, but information can be found with a little sleuthing and by using web archive services. Take plenty of water, gas, and provisions and check your spare. Watch the weather and forecast before the trip and the weather during, roads are often impassable when wet even with 4 wheel drive.

Best Time to Go: Spring after the roads have dried enough for easy passage (timing varies), and early fall – check hunting seasons.

Getting There: The Red Desert is located in south-central Wyoming. Numerous, somewhat maintained dirt country roads act as convenient ways to access more remote areas of interest from main highways. High clearance and 4 wheel drive are not required to get there, but are nice features to have, can help access more remote areas, and might help get you out!

Maps: Printing USGS topo maps at home for hiking and combining with a detailed atlas like the Delorme Atlas and / or the Benchmark Map offerings to get you around while driving is a good strategy.


The expression “timing is everything”, occasionally derided as a common-sense platitude, is compelling when applied to backpacking. Hiking along a knife-edge ridge at sunset, watching sunrise from a campsite above timberline, encountering wildlife unexpectedly, getting the tent pitched at the last possible minute before a storm – meticulously planned or completely serendipitous, such moments  are part of the thrill of backpacking. The physical act of backpacking, simply walking with a burden of gear and food attached to one’s body, is objectively not an “extreme” endeavor, but many of the scenes witnessed by us are nothing short of phenomenal.

Ice-out Trout Fishing Bitterroot National Forest Montana

Seasons, by definition particular times of year, are one of the most common qualifiers used to describe backpacking trips. Fall in New England, summer in the Rockies, springtime in the Southwest. These combinations of time and place are all that it takes to conjure up images of quintessential scenery to most hikers. Backpacking at the height of each season can feel like a journey through the absolute essence of a natural cycle. Rebirth, vibrancy, fading away, and dormancy. 

Backpacking the Bitterroots

After slowly becoming familiar with the terrain and timing of the Northern Rockies, I’ve began to embrace the magic and ephemera of landforms during the in-between seasons. Without a doubt, the early summer ice-out of high country lakes is one of the most surreal and rewarding of the fleeting transition and dramatic changes from one distinct season to another. Recently unfrozen water lapping against the shore as well as sheets of ice covering the lake is a mesmerizing sight to behold.

Varying with elevation, latitude, severity of winter, and the unique aspects and exposures of individual lakes, ice-out in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana begins earnestly in the second half of May and continues through June. Visiting at least one high mountain lake when its ice is just beginning to melt is on my annual and continually growing backpacking “to do” list. Watching ice recede further from the shore while wearing short-sleeves and whiling away an afternoon drinking tea and reading is a sublime pleasure.

Bitterroot National Forest Hiking

While it might seem to be about as entertaining as watching paint dry, I’ve found that the setting is an excellent one in which to more easily ponder the concept of geological deep time and experience an exaggerate microcosm of glacial pacing. Hearing the gushing of snowmelt swollen inlet streams, looking at craggy ridgelines ringed with snow and still pockmarked with ice formations, admiring the perfect level surface of a partially ice-covered lake; all with temperature swings of 50 degrees likely within a 24-hour period. When extrapolated from the local to the global, the present to the past and to the future, postcard scenes become as profound as encyclopedia entries.

The first of three lakes I visited on a recent overnight trip to enjoy prime ice-out conditions was an unnamed tarn that I reached after an hour of motivated hiking. Completely melted and with patchy snow around its shores, its waters reflected the blue sky above and the talus slope on its southern shore with mirrorlike precision. Pressing on towards the highest lake and the one I intended to camp at, I swatted mosquitoes, admired wildflowers, and tried to keep my feet dry when crossing the numerous melt-water streams.

Tarn in the Bitterroots

Reaching Kidney Lake, I was treated to a stunning lakeside panorama of a lake that I’d been to three times before but which seemed to be a totally different place. The remaining ice and snow both muted and amplified features of the lake. The background noise of a waterfall on the inlet stream provided a soundtrack that would slowly fade away in the coming weeks as the snow that fed it melted away. I had hoped for successful ice-out fishing, but neither the trout below the lake’s surface or the two I spotted in a pool in the outlet stream were interested in the flies I tossed onto the water.

Backpacking the Bitterroots

Although several feet of snow persisted around the shore of the lake, I was able to find a spot with dry ground for my tent and an adjacent snow-free area to cook. The “dining room” of this trip featured a breathtaking view of the crags and a peak above the lake, with a small channel of open water at my feet before it turned into a sheet of ice stretching across the lake to the base of the slopes that stretched upward to the aforementioned attractions. A delicious meal of pasta, tuna, spinach and mushrooms warmed me up as the sun set and a chilly night that would stall any continued melting descended upon the lake. 

Iced Over Kidney Lake

During consumption of coffee the next morning, I was treated to watching the rays of the rising sun wash across the white and ice-blue canvas of the lake. Not wishing to leave anything left unseen, I made a detour to the far side of the lake to enjoy a closer view of the waterfall before making the short trek to Camas Lake. The third lake of my trip, Camas Lake had already completed the “defrost” cycle that Kidney Lake was in the midst of. 

Only 500 feet lower in the cirque and barely a half-mile away, the contrast was astounding. Almost totally ice free, aside from a few small floes, Camas Lake provided a true taste of summer in the Northern Rockies. A few fish snatched bugs from the surface of the water, but avoided the various flies I tossed their way. However, moving around the lake the action was much better and several gorgeous cutthroats were hooked, landed and released.

Glacier Lilies - Spring Hiking in the Bitterroots

As the fishing waned later in the afternoon and a thunderstorm brewed to the west, it seemed like a good time to begin the pleasant downhill jaunt to the trailhead. Two crossings of rushing streams served as reminders during the warm but mostly shaded hike that summer, with its more moderated stream flows, ice-free lakes, and snow-free mountain passes, was still a few weeks away. I couldn’t help but smile knowing that while I’d have a few months to enjoy the summer hiking conditions favored with good reason by backpackers, I’d also perfectly hit the narrow window of opportunity for experiencing enchanting and crowdless pre-season scenery. 


The early-season opportunity to bike portions of Going to the Sun in Glacier National Park without any automobile traffic seems too good to be true. Miles of paved road passing alongside streams rushing with snowmelt, climbing into the high country, weaving through lush forests – all behind a gate and open only to bicycles and foot traffic. I’ve done enough recreational road biking and bike commuting to develop a sincere appreciation of a smooth surface, hard tires, and minimal traffic through beautiful landscapes but rarely plan trips around bicycling. Instead, like most backpackers, I plan my trips around trails. So it was a bit counter-intuitive to spend an extra day after a work trip that took me within an hour of Glacier National Park with the goal of spending an afternoon bicycling on pavement instead of putting my feet on a trail.

View in Glacier National Park

As someone who typically hikes and backpacks in wilderness areas or the more remote areas of national forest, the hustle and bustle of national parks is always a bit amusing to me. Arriving early in the afternoon on an overcast Saturday, I was able to get one of the last sites at Sprague Creek Campground (which filled up later in the evening) and awkwardly set up camp inside my vehicle before prepping for the ride up Going to the Sun Road. The forecast called for rain overnight and into the next day, with temperatures in the upper 30s in the morning. Needless to say, sleeping in the back of a Honda Element was a much more luxurious option than packing up a wet tent in a cold rain the next morning.

Lake McDonald Glacier National Park

Rolling out of the campground on my trusty touring bike was a blissful feeling. No more driving for the rest of the evening, just turning pedals and trying to keep my eyes on the road as mountains, waterfalls, and expansive valleys competed for my attention. The first few miles from the campground to Avalanche Creek were open to vehicles, but traffic was fairly light considering it was a weekend. Once past the gate at Avalanche Creek, the real fun began. There were plenty of other cyclists, but no other cars. None. No looking over the shoulder, no low-level anxiety about inattentive drivers, no exhaust fumes. Just open road and other cyclists. Given my late start, many of the cyclists I saw were on the downhill stretch of their ride while I labored up the mellow grade towards Logan Pass.

Biking Going to the Sun Road Montana

The temperature was in the mid-50s, which was perfect for biking steadily uphill. The flip side was that coming downhill would be rather chilly, so my saddlebags bulged with two pairs of gloves, a synthetic puffy jacket, and rain gear. Rather than hindering the view, the overcast sky and low hanging clouds made for dramatic lighting and a backdrop for the peaks that enhanced instead of obscured the mountains.

Biking During Spring in Glacier

The steeper sections of the climb to Logan Pass, especially those after The Loop, gave me plenty of time to concentrate on the surrounding panorama as I doggedly progressed toward the snow line. The road is open to cyclists as far as they would like to go and the natural place to turn around is where plowing has ended and several feet of snow remain. I took a few victory pictures at the snowline, which was around 17 miles from the campground and over 2,000 feet higher.

Closed Going to the Sun Road

The descent was simply thrilling. Watching mountain scenery sped by as I flew downhill at a safe but respectable clip without having to worry about inconveniencing motorists was sublime and, sadly, came to and end all too quickly. Miles that had taken me over two hours to gain were lost in a quarter of the time and I soon found myself pedaling easily along the flatter sections towards Lake McDonald and the campground.

Cycling to Logan Pass

Although my car camping skills were a bit rusty, I had made an effort in regard to food and drink. Soon after pulling back into camp, I was snacking on cheese and crackers, sipping wine, and waiting for water to boil for a heaping serving of ravioli and pesto. Views of Lake McDonald made my al fresco dining experience five-star. Once dinner was over, the increasingly dreary weather and my tired muscles compelled me to get in my sleeping bag fairly early.

The next morning I awoke to enjoy the fruits of my decisions, both good and bad. Sleeping in the vehicle was a good decision, as a cold rain poured over the campground while I made coffee from the comfort of my sleeping bag. Not stretching in any meaningful sense after returning to camp was not a good decision, especially combined with a four-hour drive home. But perhaps the best decision was to have broken out of my hiking-only focus on outdoor recreation that been all-consuming in recent months. The ride the previous day was one of the most soul-swelling and rejuvenating things I could recall doing recently. That recognition inspired another decision that morning – a goal to make an early-season ride on Going to the Sun Road an annual event.

Information: The park’s webpage on bicycling, which also contains links to the Road Status page, is the best place to get started on planning your bicycling trip:

Best Time to Go: Mid-May to June offer pleasant weather and most of the road should be open to bikes by then, although this depends on the year and plowing progress made by road crews. Weekends are best because the road crews are not working, but can be a bit more crowded.

Getting There: Bicyclists can start in West Glacier and travel east, or at St. Mary and travel west. Beginning in mid-May a free shuttle with room for bikes runs from Apgar near West Glacier to Avalanche Creek (where the vehicle closure is typically in place).

Maps: The basic park brochure map is sufficient for this adventure. Alternatively Trails Illustrated 215 is better suited for additional exploration in the park.