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John Muir Trail Tips and Hiking Guide

Some years ago I was eating breakfast with my wife, Lyn, at the Vermillion Valley Resort when a group of unusual looking people sat down at an adjacent table. They were wiry and weather beaten and gave off a raised-by-wolves vibe. They proceeded to eat enormous platters of food, which they washed down with beer. They turned out to be thru hikers from the nearby John Muir Trail (JMT). After they told us a little about their trip, I said to my wife, “I want to do that! – or, at least, I want to lo

George Graybill

George Graybill in Trips

October Alpine: Fall Backpacking in Montana

Among its many inimitable charms, prime backpacking season in the Northern Rockies is also unfortunately defined by a cruel brevity. Try to hike too early in the season and you wind up postholing through leftover snow, anxiously evaluating raging creeks for the safest place to cross, and camping near lakes still thawing out from winter – adventuresome, but not exactly ideal. A few weeks later and things are more amenable to backpacking, but bugs (especially the biting kind) become so numerous th

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Trips

Backpacking and Tenkara: Ultralight Fishing on the Trail

When I became intrigued by the trout swimming in mountain lakes in the Northern Rockies, I realized the tenkara rod gathering dust in my gear room would be a great way to test the waters before outfitting myself with a full fly rod and reel set up. Tenkara is a Japanese method of fly fishing that focuses on simplicity and forgoes a reel in favor of a longer rod length, fixed amount of line, and uses as few fly patterns as possible. Presentation, mindful casting, and technique are emphasized more

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Technique

Altra Lone Peak 4 Mesh Mid Hiking Boot Review

For the last several years, I’ve primarily backpacked in low-top trail runners with Brooks Cascadias and Altra Lone Peaks being the ones most often on my feet. I’ve used both waterproof and non-waterproof models and, after much experimentation, have pretty much decided that in three-season conditions non-waterproof works best for me in the terrain and conditions most common on my backpacking trips. While trail runners have been preferable to me for a variety of reasons – breathability and comfor

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Gear

Lakes, Peaks, & Bugs: Hiking the Beaverhead Mountains

Although lacking wilderness status or the “brand name” recognition of Glacier National Park, the Beaverhead Mountains in western Montana are a remarkably scenic landscape with few crowds and plenty of lakes with trout in them. In other words, they contain all the prerequisites for a great backpacking trip. The Beaverhead Mountains, which are at the southern end of the Bitterroot Mountain Range, are also notorious for having millions of voracious mosquitoes which makes early season trips here a f

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Trips

Hollow Fiber Backpacking Water Filter Care & Maintenance

While many methods for backcountry water treatment exist, hollow fiber filters are quite popular due to their ease of use, effectiveness, reasonable cost, and longevity. While a hollow fiber filter is quite simple – with the filter itself having no moving parts and working through a multitude of hollow tubes (each hollow tube then having a multitude of microscopic pores, which actually filter the water) the filter element will still need to be maintained and some basic precautions should be exer

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Gear

Altra Lone Peak Youth Kid's Shoe Review

When 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 i

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Gear

NEMO Switchback Sleeping Pad Review

I 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

HappyHour

HappyHour in Gear

ULA Equipment Spark Kid's Backpack Review

Backpacking 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

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Gear

Altra Lone Peak 4.5 Trail Running Shoe Review

Since moving to the Lone Peak line as my 3 season hiking and backpacking shoe of choice in 2014, I’ve followed along as the shoe has matured across various versions as I’ve worn out each pair along the way. Now that it’s 2020, the latest version is all the way up to the 4.5 model that is quite different from very early versions of the Lone Peak, but very similar to more recent versions like the Lone Peak 4.0. In fact, the new Altra Lone Peak 4.5 is so similar that after wearing out my

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Buzz Away Extreme Insect Repellent Review

Despite a low snow year and summer drought conditions, mosquitoes this year have maintained a strong foothold here high in the mountains of Wyoming. As I’ve migrated from DEET to Picaridin to natural insect repellents over the years, I’m always on the lookout for products that either work better or have better ingredients. While I’ve been using Herbal Armor for several years, the best version of their product – the pressurized continuous spray has recently become hard to find. Thus in regards to

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Backpacking in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest

“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 m

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Trips

COVID-19 Backpacking and Hiking Considerations

With the summer hiking season in full swing, we’re all as anxious as ever to get outside before winter rolls around yet again. But with 2020 being a very different year and with trails as busy as ever with COVID-19 / coronavirus closures being lifted across the country, it’s a good time to look at our routine and approach to the outdoors and find ways to deal with considerations that we are all very much not used to. Here are a few strategies for getting on the trail and ways to adapt your hikin

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Black Diamond Cosmo Headlamp Review

While the Cosmo headlamp doesn’t sit at the top of Black Diamond’s headlamp line, it very well may offer the best feature to price balance while offering just about everything you need in a backpacking headlamp. After using the higher end Spot 325 light that includes a few more features, I decided to give the Cosmo a try this year simply because, it’s simpler. The Black Diamond Cosmo is backcountry light designed around Black Diamonds familiar form factor, and offers a spot beam, a wi

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

RapidPure Scout Water Purifier Review

While much of my backpacking gear sees turnover somewhat frequently as I test and review new gear in the field, I’ve traditionally remained quite dedicated to specific water treatment systems over the years. In fact, over the past decade I can count on one hand the specific models of water filters / treatment systems I typically turn to when packing for a trip (although there have been plenty of replacement cartridges or filters along the way). Rarely does a new water treatment contender intrigu

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Mountain House Yellow Curry with Chicken & Rice Review

One thing I’ve been focusing on recently for my backcountry meals is adding variety. When it comes to prepackaged backpacking meals this variety is often found in what is essentially the same meal but just in different flavors – for example flavor and cultural variations on rice or pasta based meals. Finding something that is truly different however can be difficult to find unless you’re making your own dinners from scratch. For an off the shelf pre-made meal however, the Mountain House Yellow C

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Olympic National Park: Backpacking the Quiet Corner

From beaches to rainforests to glaciers, Olympic National Park provides hikers with access to a stunning variety of landscapes. Although I’ve barely scratched the surface of what there is to do in the park’s 922,650 acres, I have had the privilege of soaking in its hot springs, swimming in its alpine lakes, and walking among the giant trees in its rainforest. The extensive trail network of Olympic National Park allows for memorable backpacking trips of all lengths, from overnight outings to week

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington

Mountain House Spicy Southwest Skillet Review

While standard freeze-dried meal fare will often find us eating rice or pasta based meals in the backcountry, it’s nice to mix things up every now and then. With the Mountain House Spicy Southwest Skillet Meal we can throw something that’s quite different into our food bag, while also adding an option that’s equally at home for dinner or breakfast in a pinch. The Mountain House Spicy Southwest Skillet Meal comes in a 2 serving package, but at just 490 calories total I would consider t

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Only on a Trail: How I Fell for Hiking

I 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

Tephanie H.

Tephanie H.

Mountain House Mexican Style Adobo Rice & Chicken Review

A 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

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

The Devil's Eyebrow: Hard Hiking in Northwest Arkansas

“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

Susan Dragoo

Susan Dragoo

The Sheltowee Trace: A Long Hike in Kentucky & Tennessee

With time rapidly running out to hike one of the big three trails this year or having run out already, it may be time to consider a shorter long trail once the present situation with COVID-19 becomes settled, hopefully sooner rather than later. Trails like the Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, and Long Trail (see Thru-Hiking: the Junior Version) will certainly get plenty of attention after social distancing regulations are relaxed and when current closures come to an end, but there are lesser kno

JimR

JimR

The Hidden Life of Trees Book Review

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben (Greystone Books, 2015) is an approachable book of bite-sized chapters explaining the mysteries of trees. Ever wondered if trees can talk to each other? How they know when to drop their leaves in the fall (and why)? That they can lower the blood pressure of hikers beneath them? Wohlleben answers all these questions – and brings up fascinating others – in this easily-digestible book that’s sure to make a tree-hugger

Isak Kvam

Isak Kvam

  • 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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