By Tephanie H. in TrailGroove Blog 2I must admit I started a like affair with hiking around 1993. I did not know I was hiking since I was mandated to do it, along with some fellow Army comrades, while stationed in South Korea. When your company commander says to take that hill, you take it, or as I would like to say, “hike it.” I do not remember the specific area where we hiked, but I know I was surrounded by lots of trees, large leaves, and some trickling of water. I remember almost falling into the water, and guess what, I can’t swim, so that would not have been a good end to my hiking journey. I also recall being captivated by the smell and sound of nature; it was delightful.
Fast forward 20 years, and remember: I said I started a like affair with hiking. Well, I met this guy through an online dating app as I was feeling out the dating scene after my divorce. He reintroduced me to hiking. I did not fall in love with him, he was cute, but I fell in love with hiking. We hiked the Aztec Cave in the Franklin Mountains. It was only .7 miles, a moderate hike. I must admit it was not moderate for me; it was challenging because I was not in my best shape. But when I reached the top of the mountain over the entrance to the cave, and I saw the view of the rest of the mountain, it was absolutely stunning. I was in love with hiking!
Hiking in Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
But you know, love takes work, you just can’t fall in love and be content. You have to work on it. It’s like being married. After the honeymoon, that’s when you realize it’s not all kisses and cuddling. You must work at it. So, I worked on my passion for hiking by hiking more. I took my first getaway hiking and trip with Fort Bliss Morale, Welfare, and Recreation – an organization that provides recreational programs for military families – around 2015. I was so excited to visit the place I’d seen on nearly every computer screen saver. Do you know what that place is? It’s Antelope Canyon. It’s literally a screen saver for most computer screens, or at least back then it was. Antelope Canyon is in Page, Arizona, owned by the Navajo Tribe. We got there early and waited a bit before our tour guide came, but it was worth the wait. Made of sandstone, the bright orange canyons are carved by many years of wind and water erosion. Side note, orange is my favorite color, but that’s not why I love the canyons so much, but it might be. I remember nervously descending into the canyon, but that faded when I saw the sun so brightly reflecting the orange sand. I was absolutely mesmerized. The Slot Canyon tour was fascinating. The tour guide was outstanding; he told us all the spots to take the best photos and shared some history of the tribe as well. Hiking always takes me to another level. It brings out the sunshine in me. It makes me feel like a ray of hope, and joy is radiating through me. It’s so uplifting when you make it to the top, or the bottom like in Antelope Canyon. It may sound cheesy, but when I hike, I feel like I have a “pocketful of sunshine.” You know, like the song by Natasha Bedingfield.
Since that hike, I’ve hiked numerous places like the Tom Mays Unit in El Paso, Texas, the Willow Springs in Las Vegas, Nevada, and I hiked at Joshua Tree National Park just to name a few. But what I noticed with all the hikes is, I was usually the only one that looked like me, an African American female. According to the 2018 Outdoor Participation Survey, there continues to be a gap between the diversity of outdoor participants and the diversity of the U.S. population. The survey also found that all non-Caucasian ethnic groups reported going on far fewer outings in 2018. However, I thought that since Outdoor Afro, a national organization that encourages hiking amongst minorities, was introduced, I’d see more people like me out hiking. I really noticed it when I visited my son in San Diego for Christmas in 2018. I went to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve to hike. My son didn’t come because he had to work, so I went alone. There were a lot of people hiking there that day, but nobody looked like me. I must admit I was somewhat fearful because the world can be a dangerous place for a single woman, let alone an African American single woman, but I proceeded anyway. If you know me and I know you all don’t, I can strike up a conversation with nearly anyone. So, I saw a couple, and I said hello and introduced myself, and we began talking.
I asked if they cared if I tagged along since I was by myself, and they said, “yes,” I could. We had a great conversation, and I found out they were not an actual couple, but they were just a couple of friends who grew up together and came back to San Diego to visit. I was glad to have the company and on our hike together that day, the sights and the sounds in the park were truly dazzling. The smell of the ocean was breathtaking, and listening to the shorebirds was music to my ears. It was a gorgeous hike surrounded by the rarest pine tree – Pinus torreyana, or Torrey pine, that only grows in San Diego and off the coast near Santa Barbara. The park preserves not only the trees but also one of the last vast salt marshes and waterfowl refuges in Southern California. I must admit it was tough, but a fun hike and the views of the ocean were awe-inspiring.
With the recent COVID-19 preventative measures that are in place, I can’t really hike like I want to right now. But my love is still very strong for hiking. While there are challenges we all face in life, I won’t let race get in the way of my passion for the trail. I hope that minorities, others that look like me, or those that don’t look like me but haven’t yet tried hiking due to any roadblock they feel they might be facing, can head to the trail and fall in love with hiking too. That way, they too can smell the scent of the ocean, hike through the canyons, see the vast views from the mountaintops, and hopefully, find friendship on a common trail. Hike on!
By Aaron in TrailGroove Blog 0A new dinner from Mountain House, their Mexican Style Adobo Rice and Chicken Meal brings backpackers, hikers, or considering the current situation we've been facing here in the spring of 2020 just about anyone a decent Mexican themed meal that's also compatible with gluten free diets. And while normally we don't dive too much into packaging here at TrailGroove, in this case it deserves mention with a redesign that not only includes an artwork update but important updates to functionality as well for 2020.
The Mountain House Mexican Style Adobo Rice and Chicken Meal offers 2 servings and 570 calories total, in a meal that is dominated by rice, beans, and chicken with accompanying vegetables in an Adobo style sauce. While personally I must admit that I'm not an Adobo sauce expert, what I can tell you is that the meal very much reminds me of the rice side dishes you’ll get at an authentic Mexican restaurant – each place has their own unique recipe – with, in the case of this meal some pinto beans thrown in (reminding one of refried beans and rice), plus chicken. As such, I think of this meal as a good Mexican rice and beans combination plate.
What really sets this meal apart is the vegetables Mountain House has thrown in here: specifically tomatoes, zucchini, and cauliflower – all things that we don’t normally get on a backpacking trip. The tomatoes deserve special mention. After rehydrating the meal (1.5 cups of boiling water and 9 minutes) you could have told me the tomatoes in the meal were fresh. I just wish there were more. Overall the meal rehydrated well with only a couple of the pinto beans somehow escaping the water added to the meal and still having a dry consistency. The overall taste of the meal is good: I wish there were more vegetables and chicken to really make it more of a “meal” however. As the meal stands out of the bag, it comes across as more of a side type dish to me. However, by adding cheese and some tortillas, this is easily solved while adding a very nice calorie boost as well. Spice level here should be manageable by just about everyone.
When I purchased this meal I thought the new artwork on the package was just that, but with their newer meals Mountain House has thankfully eliminated the sharp corners of their pouches; they are now nicely rounded. No longer will I have to trim the corners of every meal (from Mountain House) I take on a trip so that they don’t puncture the OPSak that I keep my food in. Additionally, the pouches are shallower, so our spoon or utensil (and fingers) will stay all that much cleaner, and the packaging also has a split corner on the bottom that seems to add some stability. The improvements are quite welcome.
The Mountain House Mexican Style Adobo Rice and Chicken Meal retails for around $10 and can be found here at REI. You can also get it (plus a few more meals) all at 10% off using REI’s bulk backpacking food discount. You can also find the meal (when in stock) here at Amazon.com.
By Susan Dragoo in TrailGroove Blog 0“Build a railroad right through these mountains? You can’t do it, man; you can’t do it. You might as well try to build a railroad on the Devil’s eyebrow as to undertake to build one in such a place.” And so the words of a pioneer gave a rugged sandstone formation in northwest Arkansas its name. The year was 1880, and surveyors were doing preliminary work on the location of the Frisco Railroad. The railroad was built, the name stuck, and today “Devil’s Eyebrow” is one of 75 Natural Areas managed by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission (ANHC), which protects the last remnants of the state’s original wild landscapes. Devil’s Eyebrow is the only confirmed site in the state to contain the rare black maple tree, and is a large and well known winter roost for the bald eagle.
Multiple stream crossings create intriguing wading possibilities.
Old logging roads comprise the trail system through this 3,000 acres of deep ravines, clear streams, and limestone bluffs located at the north end of Beaver Lake along Indian Creek and its tributaries. Halfway between Rogers and Eureka Springs in the Ozarks, the Devil’s Eyebrow Natural Area is more than 3,000 acres of bluff-lined hollows separated by steep ridges. While hiking here, the word “diabolical” often comes to mind, with the image of an acutely arching devil’s eyebrow providing a fitting symbol for the topography. Sharp declines plummet to tantalizing streambeds but what goes down must come up, and the climbs – straight up, no switchbacks – are lung busters.
A small cascade in a deep ravine makes a steep climb out worthwhile.
On my first hike at Devil’s Eyebrow, just after its 2013 opening, there were only a few miles of trail available. But now, there’s an out-and-back trail that extends 5.9 miles from the trailhead just off U.S. Highway 62 to the shores of Beaver Lake, with several spur trails along the way. On my most recent hike there, I took one of those spurs to explore a year-round spring situated amid fern-lined bluffs. Its breathtaking beauty made the (literally) breathtaking trudge out of the ravine well worth it. From the trailhead to the spring, the distance is about 1.5 miles.
Winter offers a wide-open view of the area’s limestone outcroppings.
Just 2.3 miles from the trailhead, a broad streambed provides a perfect spot for a rest, or a good turnaround point. Along the way, numerous stream crossings are worth exploring, each encouraging the hiker to ignore the perils of wet boots and slippery rocks, probing ever more deeply into the beauty of this place. And, a loop trail of 1.4 miles circumnavigates the top of Trimble Mountain, at 1,720 feet elevation, the area’s high point. The trail is also accessible on its south end from the shore of Beaver Lake.
I have the feeling that hiking the steep ups and downs of Devil’s Eyebrow is a little like childbirth: right after you’ve done it you think you’ll never do it again, but then the passage of time drapes gauze over the memory of the pain and eventually it seems like a good idea to repeat the process. Devil’s Eyebrow’s beauty is what drew me back a second time with only vague memories of long climbs and indeed I found it was worth the effort.
Information: Devil’s Eyebrow Natural Area is open to the public for hiking, bird watching, photography, and hunting. Travel is limited to foot traffic. The trail is very strenuous and you should be in excellent physical condition to tackle the steep climbs.
Getting There: From the town of Garfield, travel east on U.S. Highway 62 four miles to the town of Gateway. From the junction of Highway 62 and Highway 37 at Gateway, continue east on 62 for one-half mile to the gate on the south side of the highway. This is the entrance to the natural area.
Best Time to Go: The period from late October to late April offers the best conditions for hiking in Arkansas. Summer brings ticks, poison ivy, and hot, humid weather, but the weather is generally mild the rest of the year.
Maps: Maps and other information can be found here. For navigating to and from this and other hiking destinations in Arkansas, an atlas like the Delorme Arkansas Atlas and Gazetteer can be useful.
By Aaron in TrailGroove Blog 5While backpacking during an all-day rain presents its own challenges when it comes to staying dry – or as dry as possible – protecting your gear and the items in your pack that must stay dry comes with its own set of considerations. Having a dry jacket, clothes, and a dry sleep system at the end of a long rainy day is not only backpacking luxury, it’s also critical to our safety on the trail. And whether rain is in the forecast or not, in most backpacking locations we still need a strategy to keep our gear dry in the case of an unexpected dunk during a creek crossing, or even in the event of a leaky hydration reservoir inside our pack.
Most backpacks themselves are only water resistant – many packs are made with a PU coated fabric that is waterproof to start but becomes more water resistant over time, and even when new, with backpacks that are made from waterproof materials the seams and zippers (if so equipped), not to mention the huge opening at the top of a top-loading pack, are still waterproofing weak points. In reality, true waterproof backpacks are quite the exception and are often targeted more towards those who prefer to paddle instead of walk. A traditional solution is an optional or aftermarket waterproof pack cover that one can deploy over the outside of the pack. This is a decent solution for a rainy day, but won’t have coverage on the backpanel of the pack, and isn’t the best solution for an unexpected dip. Perhaps the biggest downside of the pack cover is that it must be deployed and undeployed – making it one more task to deal with on a rainy day compared to a set and forget system.
Dry Bags / Pack Liners
In contrast, a pack liner goes inside the pack and is always used – so if a sudden rain shower pops up during the day you likely only have to worry about donning your rain gear and not protecting the contents of your pack. Pack liners can be anything from a dedicated solution (most are like giant dry bags), to a trash compactor bag (twist the top closed and tuck to secure) that is a budget replaceable option. Due to lack of durability, normal trash bags are not recommended. Either way this option protects from rain water intrusion quite well and even from a brief underwater dunk as well. Smaller, separate roll top dry bag stuff sacks can be used in place of, or in conjunction with a rain cover / pack liner approach. This technique offers redundancy and also allows for some more refined compression of your gear.
In recent years one other option has become popular with the rise of the ultralight inflatable sleeping pads – the combination dry bag / inflation stuff sack. As long as it is a completely waterproof, roll top option, this makes for a great dual use item and this is how I personally store my “must stay dry” items during the day – sleeping bag, sleeping pad, jacket, and any other spare clothes.
Whether you go with a pack liner, cover, or dry bags I like a “pick any 2” approach to waterproofing and especially as all my insulating gear – sleeping bag and jacket are both typically down. For example a trash compactor bag or pack cover combined with ultralight dry sacks for those items of greatest concern is great insurance, or a pack liner on its own if you have a particularly waterproof pack (roll top design utilizing hybrid waterproof Dyneema Composite Fabric for example).
Some other techniques that can be helpful is a (often overlooked) large enough shelter or double walled tent solution – a shelter large enough gives you room on high condensation nights so your bag isn’t making contact with tent walls covered in condensation. Your sleeping bag DWR will help for the occasional brush against a wet tent wall, but will eventually wet out. Carrying a small bandanna or camp towel is also helpful here. On humid trips that feature multi-day precipitation events this is quite important since your gear will have very limited opportunities to dry in these conditions. If you gear does absorb some moisture and is packed away first thing in the morning (into a waterproof system that will now not allow anything to dry), make sure you take an opportunity over lunch to get things out in the sun if possible and / or get everything out to dry immediately upon arriving at camp.
Odds and Ends
For any other odds and ends that might not be stored in the main compartment of your pack, I stick with the same pick 2 approach for waterproofing and luckily, these items will likely be few such as your map and any electronics you might carry. Quart to Gallon Ziploc bags were almost tailor made for waterproofing maps – even waterproof maps will have ink run or stick together after getting wet – and any electronics from cameras to smartphones. For an upgrade, one could also utilize smaller roll top dry bags – either the waterproof nylon or Dyneema varieties. I also like to store these items in something like a water resistant bag such as the ZPacks Multi-Pack for that additional layer of waterproofing. A couple other safety related items should always stay dry as well – like your fire starting solution and nobody likes a soaked first aid kit or toiletry type items. These however, are stored in the main compartment of my pack in their own dry bag.
Rain ahead: A dialed-in system offers peace of mind when your drive to the trailhead looks like this.
Different approaches (and price ranges) exist, but whether you go with trash compactor bags and Ziplocs, opt for top of the line Dyneema roll top dry bags, or some combination in the middle, once dialed in that system will ensure that our critical gear stays dry and offers peace of mind no matter the forecast. And from the occasional water crossing incident to trips that feature consecutive days of precipitation, there’s not much that can compare to crawling into a dry and warm sleep system at night on those types of days while keeping the rest of the gear you need to stay dry, dry along the way. For more on overall strategy on backpacking in the rain, take a look at this article in Issue 38.
By Mark in TrailGroove Blog 3Much like your bed at home, your sleeping bag is a place where you will be spending about one-third of your time in a 24-hour period. Making sure that your sleeping bag is comfortable, warm, and appropriate for the conditions is essential for getting a quality night’s rest so you can wake up the next day ready to crank out some miles, summit a peak, or simply soak up the natural scenery without dozing off. The good news is that there are plenty of options for high-quality sleeping bags, so finding one that works for the conditions you most often backpack in is an accomplishable task. The not-so-good news is that finding the right bag can require a significant amount of research and a sleeping bag will likely be one of the more expensive single items you buy for backpacking.
Quilts provide the same function as a sleeping bag – keeping you warm while you sleep – and many in the ultralight backpacking community favor them over sleeping bags for the weight savings. Since sleeping bags are still the most common choice for backpackers, this article will focus on them and leave an overview of quilts for another day (or night, more appropriately). Before going any further, it must be noted that a sleeping bag is only as good as the sleeping pad it is used with and the shelter or tent it is used in. Detailed discussion of sleeping pads and shelters surpasses the scope of this article by a country mile, but guides to each of those can be found at the previous two links.
One additional caveat worth noting before delving into the topic is that, depending on where you do most of your backpacking and if you backpack year-round or not, you’ll probably end up needing at least two sleeping bags to meet the different conditions you’ll face. If you engage in subzero winter camping or mountaineering, that number is likely to grow. But, for most of us, a bag for summer conditions (30-40 degrees F, although in the Southeast a 50 degree back would be adequate) and a bag for shoulder-season and/or mild winter conditions (0-15 degrees F) are sufficient.
Figuring out which temperature rating to get a bag for can be a bit challenging. No one wants to sleep cold, so novice backpackers often get a bag warmer than they need to and end up carrying around the extra weight in their pack for no real benefit. They often end up uncomfortably warm at night, with the bag unzipped and laying over them like a blanket. When buying a sleeping bag, don’t purchase with the idea that you might get into subzero camping at some point in the future, even though you don’t own any of the other appropriate gear (four-season tent, winter down jacket, etc.). Instead, purchase for what will be the most common conditions you expect to experience. The majority of sleeping bags sold today have a standardized system (called EN or ISO, based on when the bag was tested, but they are virtually identical) for determining what temperatures they perform in. This allows you to compare apples-to-apples when looking at bags. This information should be on the tag of the sleeping bag or listed online in the specifications.
So, if you do most of your backpacking between March and November in Great Smoky Mountains National Park or other areas of the southeast, a 20-30 degree bag would be most appropriate, although near record-breaking cold snaps or camping at high elevations might skew the functionality a bit for the months on either end of that range. And even then, a 20-30 degree bag might be a bit warm in the summer but is about the closest you would get to a single-bag-that-does-it-all given the parameters. A bag in that range would also be appropriate for backpacking in the cruelly short summer backpacking season in Western mountain ranges such as the Sierras, Rockies, and Cascades.
Down vs. Synthetic Sleeping Bags
Choosing between a down sleeping bag or a synthetic insulated bag is another bridge to cross. Down has a better warmth-to-weight ratio, compresses better, and lasts longer. Its kryptonite, however, is moisture. Down loses its ability to insulate when wet, so if you backpack in particularly humid environments for days on end with no opportunity to dry out your gear, you might consider synthetics. That said, it is fairly easy to keep a down bag from getting wet and advances in shell fabrics and hydrophobic treatments for down over the years have helped mitigate this issue. Sleeping bags using synthetic insulation are usually less expensive, slightly heavier (although innovations in synthetic fabrics have narrowed the gap considerably), and not as compressible. They maintain some of their insulating ability when wet, but you’ll of course be uncomfortable in a wet sleeping bag, and if you sleeping bag is wet, chances are high that mistakes were made along the way.
Most sleeping bags for backpacking are mummy bags, which increase thermal efficiency by covering the head and shoulders and allowing for the bag to be zipped up and cinched down with your face exposed to breathe (do not burrow down and breathe into a sleeping bag, as the moisture you release will be trapped in the bag) but otherwise completely enclosing you in the bag. This can feel a bit claustrophobic at first, but comforting once you’re used to it. If you can’t get used to it, then a quilt is an option to look into. Some mummy bags are cut very slim to minimize weight and maximize efficiency and others are roomier. It will take getting inside the bag and tossing and turning a bit to figure out which is best for you. Sleeping bags are also designed slightly differently for men and women, owing to differences in body shape.
Other features that you will want to be aware of are a draft tube that runs the length of the zipper to block out cold air from coming in through the zipper and a draft collar that, much like it sounds, goes around your shoulders when you're in the bag to block out cold drafts and prevent heat from escaping. I've found that having a quality zipper can make or break a sleeping bag. There are few things more frustrating than having to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and fighting with a finicky zipper that snags on the fabric and gets stuck. Sleeping bags will have the zipper either on the left or right hand side of your bag, sometimes you have a choice in this and sometimes you don't. If you do have a choice, most people choose so that their dominant hand will be the one doing the zipping (so a right-handed person would choose a bag with the zipper on the left side when you're lying down). Another consideration, if you often backpack with a significant other, is getting bags that can zip together. I've found that there is a fairly wide range of cross-compatibility with this. I've had a Feathered Friends left-zip bag zipped together to a right-hand zip Mountain Hardwear bag, creating one big sleeping bag to get cozy in.
Most of the sleeping bags marketed towards backpackers use a lightweight shell fabric treated with DWR to provide some moisture resistance. Pertex is one of the most common brands used. Some bags, like the Apache from Western Mountaineering, are available using GORE Windstopper which provides more weather resistance than most bags. For most people using their bags in tents and in three-season conditions, the lightweight shell fabrics are sufficient.
It goes without saying that the actual performance of the sleeping bag is the most important part in choosing a bag, but the transportation and storage of a sleeping bag deserves consideration as well. I haven't found a better option than the Sea to Summit eVent Compression Dry Sack. Although the weight of this compression sack is not negligible, even for the smaller volume models, it is exceedingly durable, drastically decreases the volume in your pack the sleeping bag takes up, and is completely waterproof when properly closed. For those using a down bag, this provides a peace of mind when hiking in rainy conditions or on trips with multiple river fords that is worth every ounce. Other options include storing your bag in a waterproof roll-top dry bag and / or a trash compactor bag. Most sleeping bags come with stuff sacks, but these typically don't allow the bag to be compressed to its minimum volume. The stuff sacks provided by the manufacturers are more useful for socks and other pieces of clothing, in my experience. Many sleeping bags also come with large mesh storage sacks to store your sleeping bag when not in use. These are very useful, as your sleeping bag should not be stored in any state of compression when not in use. This can damage the insulating material, reducing loft and ultimately the warmth of the bag.
Generally speaking, you can expect to spend anywhere from $150 to $500 on a quality sleeping bag, and this can definitely be a situation where you generally get what you pay for: investing in a good bag will get the most important job done – keeping you warm at night – while saving the most weight and taking up less space in your pack during the day. Considering that a sleeping bag is one of the heaviest things we normally carry (offering a great opportunity to save the most weight), and combined with the longevity (especially with down bags) that we can expect from a properly taken care of bag, this is one gear category where an upfront investment can pay off over time.
For a list of sleeping bags that you can sort and filter by all the points discussed in this article, take a look at this page at REI.