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A Day Hiking Weekend in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

My childhood best friend moved to Akron, Ohio right after she graduated high school to attend the University of Akron. Being from Virginia and having lived there all my life, I had never really heard of the city aside from its connection to Lebron James (but even about this my knowledge was severely limited due to my lack of interest in basketball). That was seven years ago, and I realized recently that I still had yet to visit despite her open invitation. Feeling guilty and quite aware of how l

Grace Bowie

Grace Bowie in Trips

Mountain House Chicken Teriyaki Meal Review

While some meals may come and go from the backpacking freeze-dried meal repertoire, other meals stand the test of time and seem to find their way into your food bag many times over the years. Mountain House Chicken Teriyaki is one such meal that I’ve taken along on recent trips to trips pretty far back in the memory bank, and in Mountain House packaging from the latest all the way back to the old yellow and blue package. While perhaps not quite as exciting as newer meals to hit the market, somet

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Food

Backpacking Gear: Down vs. Synthetic Insulation

Before you begin to narrow down your choice of a sleeping bag or jacket for backpacking usage, there’s one key decision you must arrive at first: the choice of down vs. synthetic insulation. The source of much debate, both options have mostly pros and a few cons. In this post we’ll detail why you might choose one over the other and detail the performance of down and synthetic insulation across various backpacking situations. Down The lightest and most compressible option, down in

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Gear

Solarpad Pro Ultralight Solar Panel Review

Now having tested several solar panels over the years that are marketed towards outdoor use and use on the trail – most of these stay stashed in the back of my gear closet, and are more likely to be something I might use during a power outage at home rather than actually depend on out on the trail. For hiking and backpacking purposes most of these panels are too heavy, just don’t perform well enough, or have significant drawbacks like compatibility with one device, while not being compatible wit

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Gear

Good To-Go Chicken Pho Review

Many years ago, I was stuck at a cubicle all day under fluorescent lights in the corporate world. In such an environment one has to find small ways to make their days positive – getting your favorite morning coffee, a lunchtime stroll, or looking forward to that dedicated Friday lunch spot. One such eatery was a local restaurant that specialized in one thing: Vietnamese pho. Perfect on bitter winter days, the dish for me is a satisfying blend of a flavorful soup broth and noodles but with a heav

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Food

Backpacker's Pantry Rocky Mountain Scramble Review

While most breakfasts on the trail in my case are whatever gets me hiking the fastest – typically an energy bar or two and coffee – from time to time a more elaborate breakfast is called for. And of course, there’s always breakfast for dinner, which for me is the most likely time I’ll make such a breakfast meal. For this purpose I already have a couple go-to freeze dried backpacking breakfast meals including the Breakfast Skillet from Mountain House and their Spicy Southwest Style Skillet. Varie

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Food

Garmin InReach Mini: Battery Life with Basic Messaging

Although I’ve been a user of an InReach SE for years – which always met or exceeded my battery life expectations in the backcountry, when the InReach Mini was released – and despite its obvious advantages in the weight and size department over previous InReach devices, I had a few reservations in regards to a possible upgrade. While the weight and size factor would be a step up, custom messaging would be a downgrade – the InReach SE’s message composition already reminded me of text messaging on

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Gear

NEMO Fillo Elite Backpacking Pillow Review

After setting up the tent on a recent trip and after a long day, I heard an unwelcome sound the moment I laid my head on the pillow – the sound of air leaking from the previously trusty pillow I’d been packing along on trips for years. Luckily, this trip was quite warm for the mountains – lows in the high 40s plus having a double walled tent along meant I had a down jacket that I wasn’t wearing at night, and could roll up in a stuff sack to get me through the trip. However, for more normal temps

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Gear

Firepot Spicy Pork Noodles Review

Ever since one of my favorite backpacking meals of all time – the Pad See You noodles from Backpacker’s Pantry was unfortunately discontinued, I’ve been a search for a simple, but good rice noodle dish with an accompanying meat protein. The Pad Thai from Mountain House is a recent meal that ends up being a close contender to my old time favorite, and the latest meal with this theme I’ve tested is the dehydrated Spicy Pork Noodles from Firepot, who makes pre-packaged, just add water dehydrated me

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Food

An Outlaws' Retreat: Hiking in Robbers Cave State Park

The forested slopes of southeastern Oklahoma’s ironically named Sans Bois Mountains provide the backdrop for much of the excitement in “True Grit,” a novel by Charles Portis and two major motion pictures (1969 and 2010). You wouldn’t know it though, for the mountain peaks shown in the films suggest places farther west. Indeed, the movies were filmed in Colorado and New Mexico, but pursuing outlaws in post-Civil War Indian Territory, as the main characters are portrayed as doing in “True Grit,” w

Susan Dragoo

Susan Dragoo in Trips

Firepot Chili con Carne with Rice Review

While many of us have settled on a routine of meals and old standby dinners in the backcountry – whether that’s commercial freeze dried meals or our own recipes on the trail, every once in a while it’s nice to mix it up. Recently when re-stocking the freeze dried meal inventory for some upcoming trips I noticed that REI was carrying a brand I hadn’t tried before – and I decided to test out the new Chili con Carne with Rice Meal made by Firepot in the United Kingdom. While trying new m

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Food

Backpacking the Lost Coast Trail: An Oceanside Wilderness

The Lost Coast Trail (LCT) in northern California may very well be the best beach hike in the United States. The name derives from the fact that it is the only part of the California coast that is not paralleled by a highway. I’m sure the romantic ring of that name only adds to its considerable popularity. It sounds like something from a teenage adventure novel. “The Hardy Boys and the Pirates of the Lost Coast” There is a northern section and a southern section. The southern stretch is muc

George Graybill

George Graybill in Trips

A Winter Refresher: Backpacking at Chief Joseph Pass

Although I did several trips on cross-country skis and snowshoes that involved camping out in the Northern Rockies in below freezing temperatures for multiple nights, the past few years my definition of “winter backpacking” has either included a US Forest Service rental cabin with a wood stove or a plane ticket to southern Arizona. I still find winter to be a beautiful time of year and I enjoy the heightened elements of the season that seem so magical, but I just hadn’t hadn’t been motivated to

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Trips

Ancient Wanderings: Hiking in the Ventana Wilderness

I collect hidden places of refuge in the wilderness. At least once a year I retreat to one of these havens to renew my spirit. These spots have a few things in common: They are off trail, deep in the wilderness, difficult to get to, and a delightful surprise when first discovered. And, when I am there, being alone feels exactly right. Deep within one of California’s coastal mountain ranges in the Ventana Wilderness, one such location is a sandstone cave at the base of a large rock outcroppi

George Graybill

George Graybill in Trips

Feathered Friends Down Booties Review

Few items provide as much comfort for the weight during frigid backpacking trips as dedicated down booties. Cold feet can quickly sap out any enjoyment of wonderful winter scenery and can easily discourage someone from ever attempting winter backpacking or cross-country ski touring. While down jackets can easily keep your core warm, having a full-body strategy for keeping in heat is crucial for winter trips where you’re spending a significant amount of time in camp. Down booties provide a soluti

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Gear

Hiking the Wailau Trail: Lost in a Hawaiian Jungle

I was muddied, bloodied, and soaked, but I had reached my goal. I was standing on the rim of Wailau Valley. Just beyond my toes, the land dropped away steeply to the valley floor 3,000 feet below. Waterfalls streamed down the cliffs that surrounded this lost world as it swept away before me to the north shore of Moloka’i. It was hard to believe that 50 years ago I had descended this cliff and then hacked my way through five miles of jungle to the ocean. I must have been crazy. I was definitely l

George Graybill

George Graybill in Trips

Subalpine Splendor: Hiking in the Bitterroot Mountains

With so many places to explore in Montana, it might seem a bit strange to visit the same place for a second time – much less a third time. But one lake in particular has drawn me back to it three times over the last few years. My first visit to this lake was coincidentally my first summer in Montana. My eagerness for mountain scenery led me to visiting it so early (late May) that even though it had been a mild winter, the lake was still frozen over and although the scenery was magical I wasn’t a

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Trips

Petzl IKO CORE Rechargeable Headlamp Review

For whatever reason, headlamps have not been an item I’ve paid particular attention to during a decade of backpacking. I’m on my third or fourth headlamp, but whenever I’ve needed to replace one (lost, intermittent failure issues, decided to make it a spare to keep in the car, etc.) I’ve simply purchased whatever was most similar to the previous one. Bells and whistles were never that intriguing to me when it came to headlamps (although one of mine did have a whistle built into the plastic on th

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Gear

Exploring an Ecosystem: Hiking a Greater Yellowstone Loop

The United States tends to protect its public lands in piecemeal fashion. Congress designates a single landform – a mountain range, coastline, or canyon – as a National Park or Wilderness area, but leaves the surrounding land open to settlement and industry. As a result, an ocean of development – towns, roads, mining claims, and logging operations – surrounds a few islands of protected space. Only a few ecosystems are protected in their entirety. One such ecosystem is the Greater Yellowston

Kevin DeVries

Kevin DeVries in Trips

From Mexico to Canada: Thru-Hiking the Route In Between

Hikers love maps. Maps are more than just navigational aids – they’re permission to let our imaginations run free. Maps inspire childlike wonder. We dream about what’s around the bend. I’ve spent years staring at a map of long-distance hiking trails in the United States. The Arizona Trail runs north-south through its home state, as does the Idaho Centennial Trail. Between the two, there’s a gap where no established trail exists. The gap is not for lack of scenic beauty, however. The state o

Kevin DeVries

Kevin DeVries in Trips

Backpacking Pillow Selection Guide and Overview

A good night of sleep is always important – but with the physical activity that goes along with backpacking, it becomes even more important on the trail. Getting a good rest after a long hiking day will only help things the next day – whether it’s the physical challenge of a high mileage day, or even a day that tests other things like your sharpness with navigational ability. Not to mention just our general mental outlook – being tired makes everything harder. With our at home pillow system (at

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Gear

7 Ways to Make Freeze Dried Backpacking Meals Better

Even the best freeze dried backpacking meals that are out there tend to have some common drawbacks. The most common issue with ready to eat commercial meals is their lack of calories – with meals commonly containing calorie counts in the 400-500 range (or sometimes, even worse at 200-300 calories). Typically these meals will claim to feed 2 – when in fact they're pretty light on calories even for one person after a long hiking day, leaving us to dig through our food bag for anything we can find

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Technique

Solitude in the Sapphire Mountains of Montana

I’ve always placed a premium on solitude when planning my outdoor activities and, with some planning and luck, have never found it to be particularly difficult to obtain. However, with trails across the country being more crowded than ever this past summer, it’s taken a bit more effort even in sparsely populated western Montana to have that lake, peak, or meadow all to yourself. Fortunately, with a bit of flexibility and research I was able to turn a short-notice opportunity for an overnight tri

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Trips

  • Blog Entries

    • Susan Dragoo
      By Susan Dragoo in TrailGroove Blog 3
      “What are some of the more scenic trails in the area?” my friend Joan asked a local man at a hiking store in Sedona, Arizona.
      “All of them. They’re all scenic. Everywhere you look is scenic,” he said with a well-practiced manner, unable to hide his weariness with such questions. Even the trail map on display at the store was marked in bold black ink with exclamatory statements: “It’s scenic!!” “The views are amazing!” To say the least, it became apparent that we weren’t the first out-of-towners to ask the locals such seemingly innocent questions about hikes in the area.

      But after a few days in Sedona, I became more sympathetic to his sentiment, if not his attitude. Everywhere you look, it is scenic. Not just scenic, but grand. Magnificent is not too strong a word. Line up all the synonyms for “breathtaking” that you can because they all apply. Red rock spires ring the city, sandstone formations call to mind distant castles and alien landscapes, and it’s all made more dramatic when viewed in the golden light of sunrise and sunset. Limpid, turquoise waters flow south through Sedona’s mystical Oak Creek Canyon to the Verde River.
      And, amid all this scenery, there are hiking trails everywhere. Literally, everywhere. In four days, Joan and I could only sample a few. But they were good and, yes, they were scenic. All of them are within the Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness and three (Bear Mountain, Devil’s Bridge, and West Fork) are rated among the top 15 Sedona hikes by the Great Sedona Hikes guidebook.

      Bear Mountain:

      This strenuous, out-and-back hike involved 2,100 feet of ascent over about 2.5 miles and the views were well worth it. The literature contains several differing estimates of the elevation gain, but my GPS measured 2,100 feet, consistent with the Great Sedona Hikes guidebook. The descent was actually more difficult than the ascent, with many steep, sketchy spots along the trail. We experienced some light rain, and tiny hail at the 6,444-foot summit. This would definitely not be a trail for a rainy day! Total round trip mileage was almost 5 miles, which we did in about 4 1/2 hours.

      Palatki Ruins:

      A visit to these Sinagua ruins was good for a rest day after Bear Mountain. It is an easy walk to cliff dwellings and rock art, totaling about 1.2 miles. Make a reservation for a guided tour at (928) 282-3854. Take your time and soak up the interesting lore (and speculation) from the knowledgeable docents.
       
      Devil’s Bridge:

      Ending at the largest natural stone arch in the Sedona area, this trail attracts a lot of tourists — most of whom don’t seem to have a clue what they’ve gotten themselves into. It’s an easy trail with some steep climbing at the end, 4.4 miles round trip from the Mescal Trail parking area. You may have to wait your turn to get out on the bridge for a photo, and don’t miss the short and less traveled trail to see the bridge from below.

      Long Canyon:

      In Long Canyon, we attempted to find a cliff dwelling I’d read about, located about 0.4 mile off trail and behind the “Ice Cream Cone” formation. After some slickrock scrambling and brambly bushwhacking, we gave up. I know it’s there but couldn’t find the right access point. It was otherwise an easy and enjoyable out-and-back hike, a little less than 5 miles round trip.

      West Fork, Oak Creek Canyon:

      It’s no wonder this mellow trail is one of the most popular hikes in the area. Its beauty combines red rock canyons, clear cool waters, and tall pine forest. Wear shoes you can wade in so you can enjoy the 13 creek crossings with abandon. You’ll see widely varying estimates of the distance to the trail’s end (where the canyon narrows and the footpath disappears into the creek), but my GPS said it was 4 miles. With side trips off trail to explore the creek, our round trip distance was about 8.4 miles. But don’t worry about the distance, take your time and enjoy this magical spot.

      In four days, my friend and I barely scratched the surface of Sedona’s abundant hiking, but it was enough to get acquainted with the geography of the area and whet our appetites for more. And when we return, we’ll certainly know which trails are scenic, because we have it on good authority that it’s every single one.
      Recommended Guidebook: Great Sedona Hikes, Revised 4th Edition, William Bohan and David Butler
      More Information can be found at the Bear Mountain, Palatki Ruins, Devil's Bridge, Long Canyon, and Oak Creek Forest Service pages.
    • Grace Bowie
      By Grace Bowie in TrailGroove Blog 0
      My childhood best friend moved to Akron, Ohio right after she graduated high school to attend the University of Akron. Being from Virginia and having lived there all my life, I had never really heard of the city aside from its connection to Lebron James (but even about this my knowledge was severely limited due to my lack of interest in basketball). That was seven years ago, and I realized recently that I still had yet to visit despite her open invitation. Feeling guilty and quite aware of how long 7 years is, I reached out and we worked it out so I would stay with her over Labor Day weekend. Now was the time to figure out what there was to do in Akron!

      As I said before, 7 years is a long time. Long enough for me to also graduate high school, and college, and develop a love for hiking and the outdoors that would take me on road trips all over the country. From Zion to Acadia, from Shenandoah to Bryce Canyon, I loved seeing all sorts of landscapes, beautiful views, and making a dent in my National Parks bucket list. And as luck would have it, as I glanced over the list of parks I had yet to see, I noticed – Ohio! After a quick search, I dove into researching the new-to-me world of Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP), which – as luck would have it – is located right in Akron’s backyard. Why hadn’t I heard of this park before? Perhaps because Ohio isn’t the first state that comes to mind when you think of National Parks or wilderness hiking destinations. Maybe because there’s no colossal red rock arches, or canyons that are a mile deep, or bison roaming on grass plains. Undeterred, I was excited to find the beauty in this park and immerse myself in a new space full of its own natural wonder.
      Our first hike was the Ledges Trail. This 1.8 mile loop trail winds through sandstone cliffs and features one of the most scenic overlooks in the park. Not too difficult, it was a great first foray in this new place, with lots of little crevices and slot canyon-esque areas to squeeze into and poke around in. A few ups and downs along the way, but mostly a flat journey that was filled with massive slabs of rock and lush greenery. Perhaps most impressive was the complete immersion in nature I experienced. No sounds of highways or motorists, I felt like I had been transported to a completely new place. It certainly was not the image I picture when I think of Ohio. Be sure to bring bug spray though if you’re thinking of visiting from late spring to early fall –mosquitoes abound.

      The next morning we enjoyed a stroll on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail. Almost entirely flat, the trail was packed with runners, bikers, and walkers by 10 AM when we set out. Passing through Beaver Marsh and seeing all sorts of wildlife like great blue herons, snakes, and other little creatures was a delight. The locks which would raise and lower boats were an incredible piece of history that sparked daydreams of the early travelers of the canal. But the best part? The signature midwestern kindness. Every person greeted us with a chipper “good morning!” and a smile.
      That afternoon, I ventured solo to the Boston Mill Visitor Center to pick up a map and talk with the rangers. When I arrived, the parking lot was full to the brim. After hearing horror stories of closures and hours-long waits for trails in parks out west, I realized that the problem seemed to be ubiquitous across most National Parks, even the ones I hadn’t heard of until recently. I was finally able to snag a parking spot and talk to a ranger. He informed me that while the holiday weekend likely exacerbated the problem, this crowd level had been the norm for them in recent months. He estimated that their visitor numbers quadruple from the weekdays to the weekend. I believed him – as I sat in a line of cars later waiting to park at the Brandywine Falls trailhead, I couldn’t believe the crowds. I later found out from another park ranger that CVNP was the 7th most visited National Park in 2020, beating out big names like Acadia and Joshua Tree. I credit these numbers to the weekend (and weekday!) local visitors. The proximity of the park to major cities like Akron and Cleveland, even Pittsburgh, make it an easy weekend getaway to a totally green space.

      Brandywine Falls seemed to be one of the park’s crown jewels. With a packed viewing balcony just a quick staircase from the parking lot, visitors eagerly shot photos of the gushing water and the mossy sandstone backdrop. I diverted away from the crowd, preferring to take the less populated Brandywine Gorge Trail. Following the edge of the gorge and passing by an adorably quaint bed and breakfast, the 1.5 mile loop trail descends to the creek and provides more intimate views of the many layers of rock that formed the gorge. You’ll lose and gain a bit of elevation around the loop, but the trail provides plenty of stunning vantage points to stop and catch your breath while you take in the surroundings. The flourishing vegetation of the late summer was fun and enveloping, but I would be eager to visit again in the fall to see this same place with the leaves changing colors.
      After hiking a few more trails and seeing some landmarks (including a visit to the house from A Christmas Story in a suburb just outside Cleveland!) I hit the road and headed back home to Washington, D.C., finding myself dumbstruck by the fact that I was a bit sad to be leaving Ohio. The park I’d never heard of! I couldn’t believe it. But the winding, easy trails surrounded by history, the cooler temperatures of late summer in Ohio, the ability to so quickly escape from the city and immerse oneself in a forest – it was magical.

      Maybe it doesn’t make your bucket list when stacked up against some of the marvels out west, but Cuyahoga Valley National Park should not be counted out. This park brings people to the outdoors, regardless of their physical ability. It immerses them in history, in greenery, and in a space that they can call their own. It may not be the subject of oil paintings or John Muir quotes, but in its own beautiful way, it is a place of quiet, unassuming inspiration. I certainly hope I find my way back.
      Information: Entrance to Cuyahoga Valley National Park is free! You can support the park by donating to the park’s friends group, the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park. CVNP no longer allows camping within the park, but there are state parks and campgrounds within driving distance. Learn more here at the NPS website. Portions of the Buckeye Trail also pass through the park.
      Getting There: Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a thirty-minute drive from both Cleveland and Akron, OH. CVNP is also easily reached by car from Cleveland, OH and Pittsburgh, PA in about two hours driving time. If flying, arrive at either Cleveland Hopkins International Airport or Akron-Canton Regional Airport, both of which offer car rentals.
      Best Time to Go: Summer is a great time to visit for hiking, as the trails are shaded by trees and the scenic railroad is operating. If you’re looking for fall colors, visit in September and October while the leaves are changing. Winters in Ohio can be biting due to lake-effect snow from Lake Erie, but opportunities for skiing and snow tubing can make it worth the freezing temps!
      Maps and Books: The National Park Service offers detailed information and maps about the park and its trails at their website. The Conservancy for Cuyahoga National Park sells numerous books and maps as well, including a Cuyahoga Valley National Park Handbook. The Trail Guide to Cuyahoga Valley National Park offers easy-to-use maps and trail descriptions written by park volunteers.
    • Aaron Zagrodnick
      By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 0
      Before you begin to narrow down your choice of a sleeping bag or jacket for backpacking usage, there’s one key decision you must arrive at first: the choice of down vs. synthetic insulation. The source of much debate, both options have mostly pros and a few cons. In this post we’ll detail why you might choose one over the other and detail the performance of down and synthetic insulation across various backpacking situations.


      Down
      The lightest and most compressible option, down insulation can either be goose down or duck down. Down insulation is rated by fill power (fp) – which is simply a measurement of how many cubic inches one ounce of down will fill. For non-backpacking usage this is non-consequential and lower rated fill power jackets could be utilized for example to save cash (the jacket will just be heavier), but when you’re carrying everything on your back, this is a key number. Higher fill power gear is more expensive, with top of the line jackets and sleeping bags typically using somewhere around 900fp or so. At these higher fill power levels down will give you the lightest and most compressible insulated gear available, but at the most cost. With down you also need to be careful not to get it wet, but this goes for all your gear no matter what it's made from. However, when down does get completely soaked, it takes forever to dry and retains less warmth than synthetics. This can be mitigated by taking standard precautions to keep your gear dry and I’ve found this to mostly be a nuisance when I wash gear at home. That said, on backpacking trips where you are in constant, unrelenting rain day after day with near 100% humidity, your sleeping bag will not have a chance to dry during the day in your pack – and inevitably will absorb some level of moisture every night especially if there is condensation inside your tent. This can lead to degradation in warmth of the bag – without it being completely soaked – after several days.

      High fill power down cluster
      Hoping to remedy the situation, chemically treated down has gained significant market traction in recent years – and treated down seeks to help with any potential doubts here by applying a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) treatment to the down itself. I have found that DWR treated down does not quite have the same type of loft (it’s a bit clumpy) compared to high quality non-treated down. Additionally, the natural oils in down make it naturally water resistant. However, treated down does perform better in tests when it comes to its ability to resist water and may offer some additional peace of mind. Another thing to keep in mind is that (and this goes for down or synthetic) your jacket and / or sleeping bag shell fabric likely already has a DWR treatment and will resist light rain or condensation, for a period of time. Being one of the heaviest things you carry, a down sleeping bag is a great item to target to save weight.
      Synthetic Insulation
      Synthetic insulation comes in many forms and in many names, and while some perform better than others performance can still be described in general terms here. Synthetic insulation will be cheaper, but compared to high quality down – it doesn’t pack up as small and will weigh more to provide the same level of warmth. In addition, longevity is a concern and synthetic insulation will not retain its loft over the years with many uses like a well-cared for down sleeping bag or garment will.

      Synthetic insulated ultralight backpacking jacket
      Synthetic insulation does retain more heat when it’s wet as it will not completely collapse when soaked through, and it will dry faster than down…although sleeping in a soaked synthetic sleeping bag will still not be all that comfortable. When you take thick synthetic insulation and wrap it in a high denier nylon or polyester shell on both sides it can still take quite a while to totally dry – even days to dry for a sleeping bag or thick jacket (unless you find an opportunity to put it in the sun). However, it does perform better in consistently wet conditions and will often get you on the trail for less cash than top of the line down. Synthetic may be the better choice for those that are not looking to save weight and have plenty of room in their pack, or basecamp type backpacking. If you’re one to wear an insulated jacket while actually hiking during the day (I never do this), synthetic will deal with sweat better, but best to take the jacket off before that happens no matter what insulation choice you go with. You’ll want to take extra care of your synthetic insulation – as while longevity is good and getting better, synthetic gear can only stand so many compression and use cycles before the loft begins to degrade (a well-cared for down bag will last decades or more). A synthetic sleeping bag will cost the most weight difference when compared side by side to a high quality down bag, while with something like a synthetic insulated jacket the difference will be less.

      Down sleeping bag
      As a backpacker in the mountain west, my personal choice is to go all down – and I appreciate the weight that’s saved, the investment over the long-term, and the extra space I get in my pack. I do take extra precautions to keep that gear dry – packing it all in a waterproof dry bag and then inside a highly water-resistant backpack. However, if your pack is more on the sort of waterproof side, a trash compactor bag used as a pack liner is a great way to provide additional protection from water. Trips where it starts to rain, and doesn’t stop for several days, have been the only challenge to this system where the sleeping bag can start to absorb moisture during the night and from tent condensation and has no opportunity to dry – but this doesn’t lead to a complete collapse of the bag. In this situation a 20 degree bag may turn into something more resembling a 30 degree bag until it can dry, and having the ability to toss a hot Nalgene in my Zpacks 20 degree sleeping bag is nice to have. On the trail, I certainly appreciate the lighter weight of down gear and the increased compressibility.

      Medium weight down parka
      That said, if I had a synthetic 30 degree bag and a down 30 degree bag and was planning to only pack in a few miles and setup a basecamp for several days, then hike out with a forecast calling for rain the entire time with lows in the 30’s, I’d probably pack in the synthetic. Moving daily on a thru-hike or high mileage backpacking trip? I’d choose down. If you’ll be hiking in an environment where moisture is frequently encountered for long periods of time, one strategy is to go for the down bag and combine that with a synthetic jacket or vice-versa. Down or synthetic, at home make sure to dry out your insulation gear after a trip and store it uncompressed, either hanging or stored very loosely in a breathable, large cotton storage bag and when needed, give it a good wash between seasons.
      The best choice depends on your own backpacking style and the conditions you’ll encounter, but whether you choose to go all down, all synthetic, or mix and match for the best of both worlds all 3 of these strategies are well-suited and workable when it comes to typical backpacking conditions. And frankly, if the gear itself is good enough – I’m not one to automatically rule something out because it’s not down or not synthetic. In all cases, you want to take every effort to keep your sleeping and insulation gear from getting soaked and take care of it at home after the trip, and by doing so you’ll be on a good track towards both having warm gear in camp and using your insulated gear on countless trips over the years.
      You can find a full selection of insulated backpacking gear at REI. Down insulated jackets can be found here and you can shop down sleeping bags here. For synthetic you can view their selection of synthetic insulated jackets and synthetic sleeping bags.
    • Aaron Zagrodnick
      By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 0
      While some meals may come and go from the backpacking freeze-dried meal repertoire, other meals stand the test of time and seem to find their way into your food bag many times over the years. Mountain House Chicken Teriyaki is one such meal that I’ve taken along on recent trips to trips pretty far back in the memory bank, and in Mountain House packaging from the latest all the way back to the old yellow and blue package. While perhaps not quite as exciting as newer meals to hit the market, sometimes knowing exactly what you’re going to get when dinner rolls around can be a good thing.

      The Mountain House Chicken Teriyaki Meal is marketed as a 2 serving meal containing 480 calories in total with an expiration date 30 years out. The meal is gluten-free and is based on rice, teriyaki sauce, chicken, and a few vegetables thrown in like onions, peas, and carrots. Nutritionally this meal is high on carbs and sodium with 27 grams of protein, but low on fat. One thing of note is the rice and brown sugar are both listed higher on the ingredient list than chicken – something that’s apparent when you dig into this meal.

      The meal is ready to eat 9 minutes after adding just over a cup of boiling water and rehydrates well. The result is a meal that is for the most part, rice and sauce. The meal is good but it does seem that the chicken and vegetables part of this meal could use a significant boost in presence. Overall you get a meal that is heavy on the rice and sauce (there is a whopping 84 grams of carbohydrates in the bag), with a sweet note overall, but without anything that really stands out. Texturally the meal is on the mushy side and does start to wear on you towards the end, although the taste is good. 480 calories is pretty light for a 2 serving meal, but is doable for 1 person. Crushed peanuts would be a nice addition here to help with texture, calories, and add fat to the meal along with perhaps olive oil. Some spice wouldn’t hurt either as towards the end, the sweetness of the meal can just start to become a little too much. Doubling down on the meat in this meal, and doing so with larger chunks of chicken would have been a good direction to go – when I think of chicken teriyaki I think of chicken first.

      Overall the meal is solid and good, and good enough to keep in my backpacking meal rotation but it’s not quite at the top of the Mountain House lineup. That said, while I may not look forward to this one the most while out on a trip, it’s a solid meal and is a meal that will continue to take up at least part of the backcountry meal rotation for me, from time to time.
      The Mountain House Chicken Teriyaki Meal retails for about $9. You can find it here at Amazon.com.
    • Mark Wetherington
      By Mark Wetherington in TrailGroove Blog 1
      With backpacks loaded and my friend Drew in the passenger seat, both of us eager to head to subalpine lakes with hungry trout, I turned the keys in the ignition and proceeded to break one of my cardinal rules of backpacking: don’t start in a trip in the middle of a holiday weekend. As advantageous as having an extra day off work to extend a backpacking trip is, if you’re spending that time on a crowded trail only to end up at an area where all the best campsites are taken the “victory” is at best bittersweet. I usually take precautions to avoid that outcome – picking remote destinations, getting a head start and being deep in the backcountry by the time the weekend rolls around, or going to a national park where the backcountry campsites are crowd-controlled by permits. Neither of those were options for this particular trip, we rolled the dice, rolled out of the driveway, and hoped for the best.

      One of the perks of living in a small city on the edge of a 1.3 million acre wilderness area is that if you arrive at a trailhead that is a bit too crowded for your tastes, you can simply drive a bit further to another one without delaying your hike too much. Our plan was to head first to the most appealing trailhead for the type of trip we desired – a trip featuring lots of fishing and not much more hiking than necessary. If our first preference had a packed parking lot, we would just drive a half-hour to the next trailhead, potentially repeating this process a time or two until we found our spot. One of the great luxuries of the Rocky Mountain West. Making this plethora of option sweeter was the fact that, unlike our trip to Yellowstone the previous week, no permits were required. It was simply a “choose your own adventure” situation with no park entry fees to be paid, campsites to be chosen, or miles to be covered regardless of weather conditions or energy levels.
      Although there are virtually endless options for backpacking within a few hour drive, I often find myself returning to the same lakes year after year, and sometimes within the same season. Sometimes this is to introduce others to the beauty of a place that I’ve grown fond of, or to be able to plan a trip for a novice backpack where I will more or less know what we will be getting into, or out of the sheer convenience of its location and the time involved in reaching the main attraction. Certain places tend to shine in certain seasons as well. While the lakes we hoped to visit were wonderful in summer, they are truly spectacular in late autumn when the needles of the larch trees turn gold before falling to the ground.

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

      In no rush, we plodded along the pleasantly graded trail, occasionally pausing to eat a few of the ripe and brilliant red thimbleberries. Just shy of the halfway point to the first lake, we met a backpacker headed out. Our odds of having the upper lake to ourselves, which were already looking pretty good, had just doubled. Energized by our good fortune, we kept up our pace and soon arrived at a quintessential subalpine lake on what can only be described as a perfect summer day in the mountains. Temperatures in the mid 70s, light breeze, and no clouds in the stunningly blue sky. The icing on the cake was seeing trout rising on the glassy water, well within casting distance, and no one else in sight.
      Easing our way along the talus slope on the northern shore of the lake, we stopped often to take advantage of the plentiful room for a backcast. After getting a good warm up of our casting arms and hook removing fingers, we took a lunch break before starting up the faint path to the upper lakes. Adequately but not obnoxiously marked by cairns, the path gained elevation quickly over granite slabs after exiting the patch of forest that clung to the inlet stream. Combined breaks for catching our breath and admiring the scenery slowed our progress, but we reached the middle lake without being too far behind on our non-existent schedule. Relying on the notion that if a lake has fish, and there is daylight, then there is time to fish, we put the lines back on our Tenkara rods (an excellent rig for backpacking) and tossed some flies on the water. Finding ourselves just as successful as we were on the lower lake, we enjoyed an hour or so of relaxed angling bliss before shouldering our packs and heading to the uppermost lake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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