By Aaron in TrailGroove Blog 0When it comes to backpacking with a kid, many challenges will need to be addressed. While most of these challenges come in the form of intangibles such as proper trip planning for their particular age, motivation on the trail, and figuring out the best way to answer “how much farther” type questions, when it comes to hiking gear for kids, good shoes (as with adults) are critical.
Unfortunately, decent footwear that is durable, lightweight, and comfortable for actual hiking distances in the several miles+ range is very hard to find for kids. Usually, kid’s hiking shoes are heavy. So heavy in fact that I’ve weighed some kid’s shoes I’ve previously purchased and they weighed more than my men’s size 12.5 trail runners – which would be like me strapping on some heavy mountaineering boots for a short summer hike. Secondly, they are usually quite cheaply built. Many of these kids “hiking” shoes have no midsole cushioning layer and are simply solid rubber and then a thin foam insole. Some manufacturers even design the shoes with a faux midsole, that in online photos appears to be foam, but is really just a different color of rubber. Often the outsoles of these shoes will be hard rubber that offers little traction. Lastly many of these shoes have a high heel to toe drop, and as someone that hikes in zero drop shoes as much as possible the last thing I want to do is put my kid in a shoe that causes an unnatural gait.
One of the most popular shoes out there when it comes to trail runners, is the Altra Lone Peak line. These are the shoes that I use for any spring, summer, or fall hiking or backpacking trip and the shoe is popular for good reason. It’s lightweight, breathable, zero drop, and has an aggressive outsole for traction, plus enough cushioning for high mileage comfort. While Altra had released some zero drop kid’s shoes in the past, the ones that I used weren’t quite the best for the trail; while they did have a foam midsole, much of the outsole was that exact foam and the shoes had poor traction. However, more recently Altra released the Youth Lone Peak. A shoe inspired by the same shoe that I use, the Youth Lone Peak is a kid’s shoe that’s a step forward towards having the same benefits of an adult hiking shoe.
The Lone Peak Youth / kid’s shoes don’t come in half sizes, but they do come in enough sizes to get you all the way up to the smallest adult Lone Peak shoe size. The shoes feature knotty laces to help them stayed tied, but a double knot will still be required in my experience. The shoes are also durable enough to hold up to the rigors of the trail – or even off trail – and the shoes are going strong even after a mix of on trail and rough off trail hiking and backpacking. In fact, I think the outsole may be the first thing to wear out on these, but it’s a kid’s shoe – they’ll also grow out of them anyway and the outsole seems to be wearing at a rate where the shoes will be out of commission at around the same point that it’s time to buy the next size up. While a more durable outsole rubber compound could be utilized as kids can be rough on shoes, it would also have a negative effect on traction, especially on rock. Most of the time, I’ll take traction.
The shoes do not dry extremely quickly, but it’s reasonable. If for example, they get wet at the end of the hiking day despite a parent’s warnings to not get your feet wet right before we get to camp, they probably won’t dry that night, but will once you get on the trail the next morning and get moving (just to happen again, most likely). I do wish they’d include a better insole with the shoes, as the ones provided are extremely thin and offer little to no additional cushioning (you can always attempt to swap them with another shoe you might have on hand). Altra describes the cushioning as low on these shoes and I’d agree – underfoot there is just not that much there. While increasing cushioning or features would have a subsequent increase in weight, a better insole and a thicker midsole would be welcome in the Youth Lone Peak, within reason of course. Adding a rock plate like you find in the normal Lone Peak (currently the Lone Peak 4.5 is the latest grown up version) would also help smooth out the ride on sharper rocks. Leaving out these features or minimizing them does keep the shoe weight down however: they weigh just over 6 ounces per shoe in a size 4. With low midsole cushioning, little insole cushioning, and no rock plate the Youth Lone Peak is best for more gentle trails, reasonable distances, and lower pack weights.
Overall for parents that are looking to get on the trail and don’t want their limited miles (when hiking with kids) to be limited further by heavy footwear or footwear that doesn’t have any of same features we look for as prerequisites in our own shoes, the Altra Lone Peak Youth shoe is worth a look and very much a step in the right direction.
The Altra Lone Peak Youth shoes retail for about $70. Find them here at REI, at Backcountry.com, or here at Amazon.
By HappyHour in TrailGroove Blog 0I think we can all agree that getting a good night’s sleep is essential to enjoying a backpack trip. But it is also a challenge. If you are accustomed to sleeping on a bed, as most of us are, then the transition from mattress to ground is a hard one. We need something to cushion that transition and thus some sort of sleeping pad is a part of nearly every hiker’s kit. Inflatable sleeping pads best mimic the mattress sleeping experience. But they have their drawbacks: they are fairly heavy (often over a pound), require work to inflate and deflate, and worst of all, are subject to leaks. Inflatables usually come with a patch kit and can be repaired in the field. Still, no one enjoys waking up at midnight with a bottomed out pad and having to hunt down and repair a leak.
Foam pads solve the leak problem. But pads still need to insulate you from the cold ground and provide enough cushion to sleep. How well do they perform these functions? And how does one of the newest entries in the foam pad category, the NEMO Switchback, stack up against its competitors?
Foam pads have evolved over the decades. Closed-cell foam pads (which do not absorb water) started out as simple flat sheets of uniform thickness (like blue foam or Ensolite pads). Ridged pads, such as the RidgeRest provide more cushioning and insulation with the same amount of material. The Z Lite SOL pad introduced an egg carton design, along with a reflective coating to reduce radiative heat loss. The NEMO Switchback, introduced in late 2018, uses a more-complex egg carton design along with the reflective coating. I have used all of these products over the years, logging dozens to hundreds of nights on each. The Z Lite SOL has been my go-to pad for years. I find it is plenty warm for 3-season hiking and – on the right surfaces – plenty comfortable.
The NEMO Switchback has specs very similar to those of the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL, and if you’ve seen both pads, the similarities are hard to overlook. Both are 20” in width, and either 48” or 72” in length. The longer version of the Switchback weighs 14.5 oz vs 14.0 for the Z Lite. Both claim an r-value of 2.0. Packed sizes for both are 20 x 5 x 5.5 inches for the 72-inch version. The Switchback has an MSRP of $49.95 vs $44.95 for the Z Lite SOL.
The principal claimed difference for the Switchback is cushioning. A complex hexagonal design gives the unfolded Switchback a thickness of 0.9 inches vs 0.75 for the Z Lite. An extra 0.15 inch of cushioning doesn’t seem like much, but every little bit helps. I bought a Switchback in the summer of 2019, prior to my hike of the Theodore Solomons Trail. I now have some 40 nights on the pad. My subjective impression is that there is very little difference between the Switchback and the Z Lite SOL. It is perhaps a little more cushy at first, but that difference quickly fades as the pad compresses with use.
Switchback unused (back) and used (front) half-pads
I typically buy a 72” pad and cut it in half. I measured the average thickness of the used and unused folded half-pads after about 30 nights of use, and then again after 40 nights. Folded up (7 panels), the half-pad has an average thickness of 2 3/4 inches when new. After about 30 nights use, this thickness decreased to 2 1/2 inches. After another 10 nights it was 2 7/16. Those values correspond to a loss in thickness of 9 - 11%. As you would expect, there is more compression in the center of the pad than at the sides. A used Z Lite pad shows a similar degree of compression.
By both objective measurement and subjective experience, there is very little difference between the Z Lite SOL and the Switchback. I’m sure I could not tell one from the other in a blinded test. Both are fine products and are more comfortable compared to earlier shaped pads such as the RidgeRest, although with slightly lower r-values, and much superior to closed-cell foam sheets.
If you have been using inflatable pads and are considering switching to foam, there are a few tips you can use to maximize their usability and comfort. Foam pads are bulky compared to inflatables. Cut the pad down (or buy a smaller size) so that you carry only what you need. I use half of a 72” pad to cushion my hips and shoulders, and put a small square of Ensolite in the foot of my bag to cushion my feet.
Plan on lashing the pad to the outside of your pack, unless you are using a frameless pack and need the pad as a pack stiffener. Not only will this free up space in your pack, but the pad will be accessible for use as a sit pad during breaks. Lastly, choose your sleeping surface carefully. Foam pads by their nature will not make a rock slab comfortable the same way that an inflatable pad can. Instead of that rock slab, look for campsites that feature durable but softer surfaces (forest duff for example). If you are a side sleeper, if you can work a small natural depression into your site selection for your hips you’d be surprised how much more comfortable you will be. As a bonus, this will keep you from sliding downhill if camped on a slope. Compared to an inflatable, a closed cell foam pad inherently has more traction in this regard as well.
Overall the NEMO Switchback offers a solid value when it comes to closed cell foam backpacking sleeping pads. I have found it to provide good insulation in three-season conditions. With some care in site selection, it also provides good comfort for sleeping and sitting. It tends to compress and lose cushion after a few weeks of use, and while this compression keeps the Switchback from achieving complete excellence, its performance is overall and nevertheless still very good.
The NEMO Switchback retails for about $50. Find it here at REI and at Amazon.com.
The Author: Drew “HappyHour” Smith is an ultralight backpacker who enjoys backpacking long trails – from well-known pathways to those more obscure routes where a map and compass is always in hand. Drew particularly likes exploring areas close to home in Colorado and across the desert areas of the southwest. Find more of Drew’s writing in back and future issues of TrailGroove Magazine.
By Aaron in TrailGroove Blog 0Backpacking with kids is all about progression – from the first overnighter where you might be carrying all the family gear as well as the kid, to those first short trips later just a short distance from the trailhead and as far as young legs – or young attention spans can make it. However, once you pass these stages and your kid can start to carry more than just a small day pack with just a couple very light weight items and your trips begin to venture farther into the backcountry, a real pack is in order. This will not only offer up comfort for the child, as a daypack will no longer be ideal for more bulky and heavier items, but so that you as the parent, can start to offload (very carefully) just a bit of that weight you’ve been carrying in family gear through all those earlier years. The Spark backpack, offered by Ultralight Adventure Equipment (ULA) is one such pack that offers all the features of grown-up backpacking packs, but downsized for kids.
The ULA Spark is based on two packs that I already use myself: The ULA Circuit that I’ve been carrying on anything from 1 to 9 night trips for years, and the smaller ULA Photon that is more appropriate for more ultralight shorter trips or as a large daypack. The kid’s Spark features the hoop frame of the Circuit for weight transfer to the hips, along with a removable aluminum stay like the Circuit. Closer in size to the Photon however, the size is more appropriate for what you’d expect on a kid’s backpacking pack. The Spark has all the same features of the Circuit or Photon, like a sturdy hipbelt with hipbelt pockets, load lifters, side pockets, an exterior mesh pocket for storing items you might want during the day, and a roll top main compartment that has a small pocket and hydration pouch inside – both are removable. Also removable, but on the outside of the pack are two handloops that can be used to rest hands during the day and water bottle holsters.
The pack is available in multiple colors of Ultralight Adventure Equipment’s Robic fabric, a camo Cordura option, or more recently even X-Pac. You can also even customize the color scheme using ULA’s customizer tool. The Spark is $199 and is listed at 37.5 ounces (includes all removable options; as measured). The pack comes all set for the torso size that you select when purchasing the pack, but is adjustable (via a shoulder strap Velcro attachment system) as a child grows and until they can fit into an adult sized pack. You’ll also need to select from one of several available hip belt sizes, and replacement / different sized hipbelts can be purchased separately. Capacity wise you get 2500 cubic inches / 41 liters of total capacity, and the pack is rated for up to 30lbs, but you’ll be unlikely to use to the pack up to that weight capacity as it would be too heavy for most kids – at least as long as they aren’t adult sized yet.
In the field the ULA Spark has performed very well and is a stout, durable, and comfortable pack for kids that can stand up to the abuse the pack very much will encounter, a given when backpacking with a kid. While the pack comes in at 37.5 ounces stock, the removable items allow you to get that down a bit. In our case, removing the water bottle holsters, interior stash pocket, and the hydration sleeve saved 2.5 ounces. One could go even further if you were up for removing the handloops, shock cord, and / or the aluminum stay – which can be custom bent to the shape of your child’s back.
Most of all the ULA Spark offers convenience – a way to keep snacks in the hipbelt pockets, a way to setup a hydration system, and enough room to carry some bulky, but lightweight items so your child can help carry some of all that family gear. Typically, I like to setup the Spark so that my 8 year old is carrying his own uncompressed (to take up empty pack space) lightweight down sleeping bag (hand me down Western Mountaineering Ultralight), a lightweight sleeping pad, water, and minimal odds and ends. You will want to measure the weight with a good backpacking scale, to make sure you aren’t exceeding an acceptable weight range for your kid, along with a normal scale so you can find out how much your kid weighs as well. 15% of your child’s weight including the pack itself and water is about as high as I’ve found acceptable to go for the trail, 10% is better.
Whatever you find to be the ideal pack weight, with the features that the Spark has inherited from ULA’s other proven adult packs like the Circuit (hoop frame, stay, robust hip belt), you can rest assured that when worn and adjusted properly, the Spark will transfer most of that weight to the hips as it should. And best of all, since the pack is adjustable when it comes to torso height, this is (at least one thing!) that you won’t have to trade out every year or every other year as your child grows.
The ULA Spark Kids Backpack retails for $199. You can find it here at ULA Equipment.
By Aaron in TrailGroove Blog 8I’ve tried a few packs over the past couple years, including the larger Catalyst (also from ULA), but keep going back to an old standby – The Circuit from Ultralight Adventure Equipment (ULA). The volume (4200 cubic inches total) and carrying capacity (~35lbs) have been versatile enough for 10 day trips and shorter trips alike across all seasons.
2013 Hybrid Cuben ULA Circuit
Though for some shorter excursions it might be a little on the large side, if I end up with extra space I just store my sleeping bag and clothing completely unstuffed at the bottom of the pack, filling any extra space nicely. The pack is easy to live out of on the trail – Large main compartment, two water bottle pockets, dual hipbelt pockets, and an outer mesh pocket with a crossed bungee cord on the outside. Plenty of options for storing things you might want to access during the day without going through the trouble of unpacking a bunch of gear each time you need something. For me, the configuration can’t be beat.
The Circuit has also been durable. 4+ years of use on my 2009 version and everything still works, though it might be starting to show its age just a bit – A small hole in the pack fabric from a stray spark (My fault) and a ripped hip belt pocket from some off trail travel through a tangle of deadfall. (My fault again, but easily patched) The only thing that’s really failed was the stitching that secures the bungee cord cinching system on one of the water bottle side pockets, but I rigged that with a quick repair that’s still going strong. Considering the use it’s seen, the pack has held up extremely well. The entire package comes in at a very respectable 37.1 ounces for my (2009, large torso, medium belt) model with all options and the outer bungee cord removed. The body of that pack is made from Dyneema X 210 Gridstop with some 1.9 ounce nylon thrown in, but ULA in more recent years has utilized Cordura to increase durability in key areas.
Earlier this year I noticed that ULA began offering a new fabric as a custom option – Hybrid Cuben Fiber. Hybrid Cuben takes the light weight, strength, and waterproofness of Cuben and adds an outer polyester face fabric for additional strength and protection against what might be the main enemy of Cuben – Abrasion. The custom option will set you back an additional $100 and per ULA, will save about 3-4 ounces over a pack built with their standard fabrics. The option is available on any backpack ULA makes other than the Epic, and is currently offered in white, gray, black, and olive. I do like a pack to be durable, and my current experience using a ZPacks Multi-Pack made from hybrid Cuben has been good. With this in in mind and with the idea of my current pack but in a lighter version growing on me, I decided to give a hybrid Circuit a shot. Hopefully, this will be my go to longer trip pack for years to come.
One thing I floated as a possibility was making the hipbelt pockets out of the same hybrid material and utilizing water resistant zippers – Which turned out to be no problem. (Extra $15) For the bottom of the pack / highest wear areas you can opt for a single layer hybrid bottom, a double layered hybrid approach, or a Cordura outer (Like their current standard packs) with the hybrid Cuben material on the inside. Each option has pros and cons in regards to durability vs. weight, so the best choice will definitely vary based on intended use and how the pack will be treated. I ended up taking the middle road and going with the double layered hybrid approach on the bottom of the pack, but the Cordura route would have added less than an ounce to the total weight.
I had the pack just a few days after ordering, surprising as I was definitely expecting a wait perhaps closer to a few weeks for a custom pack, and ULA even threw in a free Sawyer Mini Filter as well. (At the time of this writing, you can still score a free filter on orders over $200) With all options, the pack weighs 38.9 ounces. (Large torso, medium belt) But I quickly took everything other than the hoop frame off / out of the pack:
Weight in Ounces
Hydration Sleeve: 1.1
Internal Mesh Pocket: 1
Water Bottle Holsters: .8
Outside Bungee: .65
Final trail weight = 32.35 ounces, though I’ll add the stay and possibly the outer bungee cord back on some trips. The design is nearly identical to my existing pack, but with one nice new feature – The top closure of the pack is now made with opposing buckles, so the pack can be either rolled and closed dry bag style, or rolled and closed along the sides of the pack in the same manner as my older pack. Both the Dyneema X and 1.9oz nylon of my older Circuit were coated for waterproofness, but in reality (Or possibly now after so much use) the fabric is only water resistant. The new fabric is completely waterproof, but the seams aren’t taped, so in the future I may tape or seam seal to get even closer to a pack that’s 100% waterproof.
The fabric is quite crinkly in a Neoair-like way and on the loud side, but once packed and on the back the noise for the most part, goes away. One thing I like is that the structure of the fabric causes the pack body to stay open on its own – And though I can’t compare it to the other color choices, the fabric is slightly transparent and with the gray outer face results in a lot of light inside the pack. This makes packing and unpacking / finding a wayward item inside the pack all that much easier. I feel confident that the fabric will be sufficiently durable, but of course, only time will tell. Overall there’s not much more to say – It’s the same great easy to live out of and comfortable pack from ULA, that much lighter, with more water resistance and a few other unexpected touches to make life on the trail just a little easier.
You can find more info about the Circuit, the Cuben option, and ULA's entire line of packs Here at ULA Equipment.
By Mark in TrailGroove Blog 0“Crowded” at trailheads in national forests in Montana typically just means more cars than you can count one hand, thus providing a degree of solitude that backpackers in states like Oregon or Washington would envy. If a solo experience is what you’re after, it doesn’t take much effort to find great hikes where the chances of you being the only hiker on the trail are north of 90%. Needless to say, by and large hiking in Montana during the COVID-19 pandemic has not made me feel like I’m putting myself or others in jeopardy.
With snow hanging around at the lakes on my favorite in-state local hikes (living close to the Montana/Idaho border caused some consternation in regard to travel restrictions as I could have hiked into Idaho from many trailheads, but wasn’t allowed to do so) well into June, I was eager to find some lakes in adjacent Montana ranges that might’ve melted out sooner and would allow me to be casting dry flies to trout before July. I perused my map collection and guidebooks and finally settled on an outlying lake in the expansive Big Hole Valley. A blurb in a guidebook describing it as “a swimmable mountain lake with fine scenery and plenty of solitude…stocked with cutthroat trout and gets relatively light fishing pressure” was all the motivation I needed to take a Friday off work and make the short drive to the trailhead.
The lake didn’t fit neatly into any mountain range – it wasn’t exactly in the Pioneer Mountains, but it wasn’t really in the Beaverhead Mountains either. It was somewhat of an anomaly. Making it even more intriguing was that when I called the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest for information, no one had any trail conditions to report or had been to the lake – some had never even heard of it. Its location outside of the major developed recreation areas of the forest and its location near the boundaries of three ranger districts made it understandable for me to receive answers of “I’m not really sure about that lake, maybe try calling the other ranger district?” and rather than finding such lack of information frustrating, I found it strangely appealing. With the trail only being four miles to the lake, I figured even if it was a mess of blowdowns and indistinct tread it wouldn’t be the worst way to spend an early summer day, especially with such a nice reward at the end.
When I arrived at the trailhead after six miles on a dirt road, I was pleased to see I was the only car there and my good fortune continued as I had the trail and the lake to myself for my Friday/Saturday overnight trip. Even with an ample amount of deadfall to contend with on the way up, some of which I cleared using a saw I had brought along (the Forest Service had relayed they’d appreciate any help clearing the trail), I made it to the lake in just over two hours. Other than a minor navigational mishap when the trail and cairns completely disappeared after crossing a large talus field, it was an exceedingly pleasant and uneventful hike in. Many wildflowers were just beginning to peak and it was a perfect temperature for hiking. The guidebook had cautioned that the rocky basin the lake was set in would make finding a spot for a tent difficult, so I set my pack down – exercising a lot of willpower to ignore the trout rising to the surface to snatch snacks of insects – and walked around the lake in search of a spot to camp. Finding the guidebook’s description to not be an exaggeration, I gave up on the notion of a lakeside camp and expanded my search area. After I climbed a few hundred feet above the lake to a small bench in a stand of whitebark pines, I finally found a decent campsite that had a view which exceeded my expectations. I set up camp hastily and then returned to the lake to filter water and fish.
It took me less than a minute to set up my tenkara rod for fishing and in less than a minute of casting and I had a sizeable cutthroat on the line. The beginner’s luck wasn’t a fluke and I continued to catch fish every few minutes as I worked my way around the lake in the late afternoon sunshine. Before dinner, I took a break from fishing to summit the eponymous peak above the lake which was only 600 feet above my campsite. Its broad summit provided incredible views to the Pioneer Mountains, the Beaverheads, and the Anaconda-Pintlers as well as down into the Big Hole Valley.
Although the mosquitoes made my dinner a more hurried affair than I would have liked, I tend to not complain about mosquitoes too much if the fish are rising and I’m having a good time catching them. It’s when the mosquitoes are vicious and the fish are lying low that it just doesn’t seem to be fair. I fished for another hour to allow my dinner to settle, then perched back on a rock with a good view and a good book while the sun set over the lake, which didn’t seem to fully occur until 10 p.m. Summer days are long in the Northern Rockies, which allows them to be filled with all the good things in life – hiking, fishing, mountaintops, dinners, and reading and relaxing.
With no real hurry to return home the next day, I started my morning off with a brisk swim and some sunbathing. The fishing was also too good to resist and I caught several more trout – all beautiful Westslope Cutthroats over a foot long – before beginning my leisurely hike out on a trail that had fewer obstacles on it than it did the day before. My car was still the only one in the parking lot upon my return to the trailhead and other than a few cows that were grazing on the lower elevations of the trail it didn’t appear as if there had been any other visitors. Hopefully the cows appreciated the cleared trail, as I’m guessing they vastly outnumber the human travelers on this beautiful piece of public land.
Information: The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest is located in southwest Montana and, as Montana's largest national forest at over 3 million acres, it contains an overwhelming amount of recreational opportunities. From cross-country skiing in the winter to backpacking, fishing, and paddling in the summer it is truly a paradise for those who enjoy human-powered recreation. Many great hikes in the forest are detailed in 100 Classic Hikes: Montana by Douglas Lorain and published by Mountaineers Books. Although none of the national forest could be considered crowded by most standards, the Pioneer and Beaverhead Mountain ranges are especially scenic and see relatively low to moderate recreational pressure. For getting to and from the trailhead and for finding obscure recreation opportunities in the area, the Montana Benchmark Recreation Atlas can be useful.