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Grand Canyon Hiking and Backpacking Logistics

The Grand Canyon captivates many of those who penetrate its depths, and I am one of them. Living nearly a thousand miles from the South Rim means I visit the canyon, at most, once or twice a year, so I try to make each visit count. In April of 2024, I completed my fourth hike to the canyon floor. Each of my hikes has been very different. When it comes to hiking in the Grand Canyon, those looking for expansive views and rugged terrain won't be disappointed. Backpacking the Grand C

Susan Dragoo

Susan Dragoo in Trips

Two Short Hikes in Zion: Canyon Overlook & Many Pools

Zion National Park is one of my favorite national parks, and for good reason: there are amazing views, beautiful cliffs and streams, abundant photography opportunities, and wonderful hikes. The park has several well-known popular hikes – The Subway, Zion Narrows, and Angel’s Landing for example – but there are some other shorter or lesser known hikes that are also well worth your while. I have made a couple of short visits as part of my mountain biking and hiking trips over the past two years, a

Steve Ancik

Steve Ancik in Trips

Hiking the Mariscal Rim Trail: A Return to Big Bend

Last fall, my sister, Melissa, and I visited Big Bend National Park in west Texas (see TrailGroove #56). As we left, we decided that we needed to return in the spring – unfinished business! One of the main reasons was to hike the Mariscal Canyon Rim Trail, which we didn’t hike last trip as the temperature was going to be too high. While our previous trip (detailed here) involved more extensive hiking and some backpacking, during our latest trip, we hiked several shorter hikes and drov

Steve Ancik

Steve Ancik in Trips

Backpacking and Hiking Songs: 11 Favorite Classics

Whether you’re driving across the country to finally hike that classic mountain range that’s been on your mind for years or simply on the way to your local trailhead, perhaps nothing can get you ready for the hike like the perfect song or hiking playlist. And hey, there’s nothing else to really do in the car anyway. On the flipside, it could be argued that nothing is more annoying than getting the latest pop song – that you happened to hear on the radio right before locking the car – stuck in yo

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Reading

10 Best Freeze Dried and Dehydrated Backpacking Meals

Let’s be honest; not every backpacking trip provides the time for us to prepare a nightly gourmet meal, and not all of us are ready to embrace, or perhaps we have yet to have a discussion with, our inner hidden chef. While I like to create backpacking meals from scratch at times and when I can, if you’re like me, after a long day on the trail I simply often find myself wanting a sufficient amount of calories that taste great, and I want that meal as quickly and as easily as possible with minimal

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Food

Wild Zora Paleo Meals to Go Mountain Beef Stew Review

The Mountain Beef Stew meal from Wild Zora is a just add water freeze dried meal suitable for backpacking that keeps the ingredient list simple while also meeting a slew of dietary requirements and preferences. The meal has no gluten, milk, grain, nuts, or added sugar and was designed to meet a higher meat Paleo dietary requirement. This meal is just one in a line of meals including breakfasts and dinners and with options ranging from the Caldera Chicken Curry to the Bedrock Beef Chili .

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Food

Skiing to Hogan Cabin: Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest

In typical backpacker fashion, I did my solemn duty of taking off the Thursday before a federal holiday falling on a Friday to schedule a two-night trip followed by a day of rest. A stroke of good fortune allowed me to book Christmas Eve and Christmas night at a small, rustic Forest Service rental cabin in the mountains of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. Given the frigid forecast, it was well worth the nominal fee to know that after skiing around all day I’d have four walls,

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Trips

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 in Trips

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

MSR Quick Skillet Review

Like most backpackers, my cook kit usually consists of a stove, pot, spork, and mug. Sometimes I even forego the mug in a quest for simplicity and weight savings and just drink my tea and coffee out of the pot. And, inadvertently, I’ve left my spork behind once or twice and enjoyed extremely minimal and inconvenient weight savings. However, under certain conditions, I’ve been known to expand my cook kit to include a non-stick skillet and cook up meals normally reserved for car camping

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Gear

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

Alcohol and Canister Stove Weight Comparisons

When it comes to backpacking stoves a key consideration is of course weight, and more importantly the weight of a system including fuel for the duration of your trip. Not only is initial weight important, but also the average weight you’ll carry each day. For 3 season, lightweight backpacking use alcohol stoves and upright canister stoves are the most used options for weight conscious backpackers, and while both are very different in application, many similarities can be found to exist in the we

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Gear

Rugged and Remote: Backpacking the Ferris Mountains WSA

For years and usually while driving to go hike or visit some other place, a small mountain range in southern Wyoming had always caught my eye from a remote stretch of highway in south-central Wyoming – a range that sharply rises up above the dry sagebrush plains in a place nearly without a name. The consistently jaw-dropping views of these obscure peaks from north of the range and a unique row of limestone fins on the south side of the range led to further research, and I eventually learned that

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Trips

Springtime Solitude - A Wyoming Red Desert Overnight

The Red Desert of Wyoming holds a unique appeal no matter your approach – it’s a country just as suitable for backpacking as it is for exploring and camping beside your vehicle off a rough and long forgotten dirt road. Either way, you’re likely to be in the middle of the nowhere. Adding to its allure, to begin the year the desert can only be comfortably explored for a short time each spring after the roads have sufficiently dried from melting snow to make passage by vehicle (just to g

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Trips

Gossamer Gear Gorilla Backpack: A 3,000 Mile Review

Gossamer Gear has been refining their ultralight oriented backpacks since 1998, including multiple iterations of the Gorilla – their medium volume framed pack. The Gorilla was redesigned in early 2015 using gray Robic fabric instead of the white Dyneema Grid fabric as seen on older packs. The shoulder straps are now unisex, more contoured, thicker, and slightly narrower than the previous version. The hip belt was also redesigned to have more padding with a mesh inner face to wick sweat. Trekking

HikerBox

HikerBox 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

Backpacking in the Needles District, Canyonlands National Park

On this trip, I was able to return to Canyonlands National Park, but this time stayed on the opposite side of the river from the Maze to join up with Ted Ehrlich and Christy who drove in from Colorado to backpack through Salt Creek Canyon and the Needles. The Needles offer a near endless array of unique rock formations to find and routes to explore. Into the Needles Our respective drives late on a Thursday night resulted in a noon-ish start from the Cathedral Butte trailhead

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Trips

Backpacking in the Maze, Canyonlands National Park

A few years ago and to follow up on a previous Utah hiking trip, Ted Ehrlich and I spent a few days backpacking in the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. The Maze is frequently referred to as one of the most remote spots in the lower 48, and though I’m not sure how exactly it ranks on that scale, it did require some significant amounts of off-highway driving to reach. The Maze is located in southeastern Utah, west of the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers and bordere

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Trips

Trail Tested by Justin Lichter

Over a decade ago now, Justin Lichter (also known by his trail name Trauma) released a collection of insights, tips, and stories detailed across more than 200 pages in his book Trail Tested. If you haven’t heard of Justin yet, he’s quite famous in the long distance backpacking and hiking community – having hiked over 35,000 miles in his career. Not only has he completed the Triple Crown of the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide Trails – he’s done it twice. Throughout his tra

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Reading

Evernew Ultralight Titanium Review: 1.3 and .9 Liter Pots

While the potential exists to makes one's backcountry cooking setup nearly as complex as the average home kitchen, albeit hopefully a bit more miniaturized and lighter, in most cases the average lightweight backpacker only needs to boil water for freeze-dried dinners, freezer bag style cooking, to heat and hydrate a basic meal within the pot, or to heat water for things like coffee and tea. For these backpackers – like myself – the Evernew Ultralight Titanium Series pots have been a fairly popul

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Gear

Hiking Buckskin Gulch: A Trip Report and Guide

During an April trip several years ago, Ted Ehrlich and I spent a few days hiking and camping in southern Utah – one highlight of that trip had to be our hike through Buckskin Gulch, one of the longest and deepest slot canyons in the world. With a snowy drive through Wyoming and then a whiteout in Colorado, the drive wasn’t a fast one and I met Ted at a deserted trailhead near Grand Junction around 10pm. From here we’d carpool into Utah. We drove west in the night, eventually moving past the sno

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Trips

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

Book Review: I Hike by Lawton Grinter

A couple years ago I came across The Walkumentary, a film produced by Lawton Grinter (trail name Disco) detailing the southbound CDT thru-hike that he completed in 2006 along with his partner P.O.D. and a loose group of other hikers. The film really shows the viewer not only what it’s like to hike and to do so every day, but also what it’s like to do so along the CDT, where a thru-hike frequently involves longer, more remote stretches between resupply stops and staying “found” can at

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Reading

  • Blog Entries

    • Aaron Zagrodnick
      By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 10
      Although I resisted bringing technology in the backcountry for many years – whether that be a simple watch at one time to today’s smartphones – one trip that left me stranded on the side of the road for hours changed my mind. A simple call would have resulted in a quick ride, but on that day getting a ride after 5 days in the mountains resulted in a failure even with my best smile. My phone lay in the car back at the trailhead – on the other side of the Continental Divide, and that burger I'd been thinking about since the day before – still out of reach as I pulled another crushed granola bar out of my pocket. Since, I’ve taken my phone on most trips and have settled on a few obvious and perhaps not so obvious uses for this 21st century multitool in the backcountry. Here are a few of my favorite backpacking and hiking apps and types of apps that I may reach for when planning a trip or in the field.
      GPS Mapping Apps
      A smartphone GPS and mapping app has become a frequently used application both on and off the trail. While apps like Gaia GPS and CalTopo offer the ability to create and save tracks, work with gpx and kml files, and more, I don’t use the apps full time – both to save battery and because I find it much more preferable to navigate with a paper map. My main use for apps of this nature is the sheer amount of data that I’m able to download to my device in the form of USGS topographic maps and aerial imagery. For any destination that I might be interested in exploring, I’m able to download detailed topographic maps for the entire area and even aerial imagery if desired for offline use (higher detail will use more space). The physical equivalent to this would be a huge and unruly stack of paper – but these maps add not a gram to my 4 ounce phone. Combining this data with a larger overview map (Trails Illustrated maps or similar) which receives the most use while hiking makes for a nice blend of traveling with a bigger picture map where you’re on the same fold for miles at a time, while still having the ability to look up the fine details if you need to – or simply if you like maps and are curious.
         
      Mapping a route and distance with Gaia GPS
      Additionally, as long as you’ve done your map download homework prior to your trip, the app will of course pinpoint your position – usually in less than a minute even after a cold start for these types of apps. Obviously there are a lot of situations where this could be a benefit. I find this to be great on those days where you’ve perhaps been hiking off-trail, conditions were tougher than you expected, and you’re regretting the weight of that extra luxury item you threw into your pack at the last minute. Perhaps targeting a remote backcountry lake as a campsite that night…destination still out of view with light fading…you break out the map and compass to verify the correct direction of travel. But after making the determination, a quick spot check with the app offers a nice mental reassurance, and just in case you did make a mistake with your paper map and traditional navigation skills, it could even save you a lot of time if you do get a save – a good sign to practice more with that map and compass.
      A quick spot check can also simply be nice for those occasional "are we there yet" moments. However, I much prefer an app that does not automatically locate you as soon as you open the app – CalTopo is one that is great in this respect. This helps me locate myself using mapping skills to stay sharp, verifying only as a 2nd step.
      Navigation apps are also very useful for planning routes both on and off-trail whether online at home or in the field – with your finger you can measure point to point distances and calculate elevation gain or loss. No more sort-of accurately measuring with a stick or string against a scale or by eye. This feature is also really useful when you’ve found that perfect campsite and aren’t sure if it’s the required distance from a lake, river, or trails – you can measure a close to exact distance from your current location with a couple taps.

      USGS topographic map with slope angle shading in the CalTopo app.
      Both Gaia and CalTopo work very well for the way I use these types of apps – and I don't even utilize all the features here – just keep an eye on battery life. For occasional use, only as needed, and with the phone turned off between uses you won’t even need to pack that battery pack or solar panel unless you’re on quite an extensive trip without any opportunity to recharge. Remember, always use apps like this as a supplement, and not a substitute for real maps and navigation skills – I’ve woken up to phones that don’t work on more than one occasion (bitter cold, forgot to turn it off, airplane mode mysteriously turned itself off, etc.). If you’re out a lot, odds are your phone will eventually fail on you in some manner.
      Both of the apps mentioned here are a free download, but to use offline features you'll need to sign up for an upgraded membership in either case. For more on Gaia, you can read our Gaia GPS guide here and regarding CalTopo take a look at our CalTopo review in Issue 52. Note that a TrailGroove Premium Subscription includes a free year of Gaia Premium ($60 value) to use online or combined with the separate Gaia GPS smartphone app.
      An App on Knots
      Another favorite app is an app on knots. While I can honestly say that I’ve become a certified master of the half-hitch over the years, some of those other more obscure knots out there – infrequently used but highly effective in the rare case that you do need them, occasionally slip my mind. The free What Knot to Do app from Columbia is currently what I have installed, but there are a few choices out there and What Knot to Do appears to currently be on a hiatus. Whichever way you go, having an app that details the various knots that you might need in the outdoors, complete with step-by-step slides on how to tie each knot can be valuable when you need it. Suddenly in a situation for example where only a man-of-war sheepshank or an oysterman’s stopper knot will do the job? With the right app you're covered. Or for that matter – the more commonly needed bowline and clove hitch should be covered, as well.

         
      For knots that you don't have memorized quite yet, an app on the subject can be helpful in the field when half-hitches just won't do.
      Stock Apps
      And not the Nasdaq – many apps you probably already have by default may be of the most use. The photo quality from smartphone cameras just keeps getting better – along with actual dedicated cameras for that matter, and while I’m usually after better photos than what my iPhone can offer, it makes for a great backup. On a recent below zero degree trip, while fighting with frozen fog on my regular camera’s lens, I was at least still able to get a record of a great sunrise, for example. But if you’re interested in a photography-specific smartphone app list, check out David Cobb's great article covering his 13 Favorite Photography Apps. And in a pinch a camera’s flash / the phone’s flashlight could assist as a backup light…for a while.
      And on to more backups: the phone’s compass makes for a great backup or backup to a backup and of course – your stock maps or Google Maps app – you’ve gotta at least get to the trailhead right? Text messages, while not to be counted on in an emergency will sometimes make it out from a surprisingly isolated place (perhaps unfortunately), with phone calls working to a lesser extent. Where I’ve found the phone function (almost forgot it was a phone there for a minute) most useful is on bailouts, as previously described rides get a little easier.
      Winter solo with darkness rolling in at 5 p.m. and a long wait in the tent until first light? Download a movie or a few episodes of your favorite show at home and you’re covered. As someone who also writes about the trail on occasion but isn’t a paper and pen type of guy, any type of word processing app can be very handy. Apple’s Notepad app works in a pinch, but I usually like a word count and Apple’s Pages app is great when an idea for an article hits my mind in the tent at night, or while waiting out a cold and rainy shoulder-season morning…there’s no reason to hold that thought until the trip is over. If you’re more of a speaker than a writer, voice memos can easily be substituted here.


      On a rainy tent-bound day, a notepad or composition app can help to get your thoughts on (digital) paper.
      Files and Pages
      A great Apple feature set that lets you save PDF files directly to your phone, and with Android equivalents available – with these apps I’m now able to carry the complete user manual for anything from my camera to my watch to my water filter right on my phone.
         
      Quite helpful for those situations where you realized you forgot to set the declination on that digital compass and are tired of guessing at the right sequence of buttons, or maybe anything from your inReach to your SPOT to your Steripen is giving you a flashing LED sequence you’ve never seen before. And, considering I can store every issue of TrailGroove Magazine right on my phone, the app frequently helps with some great reading, too. Android? You probably already have a PDF app, but just in case here’s Google Play’s selection.
      Field Guide Apps
      One of the main reasons I like to hike is that I find nature itself compelling – from plants to birds and everything in between and I like to try to learn something new every trip. As such on my phone you'll always find some type of bird or plant, etc., identification app loaded and ready for reference on the trail.

      No more “Let’s remember to Google that when we get home” situations here – research right away in your tent that night. Or, I’ve even identified the owl above my tent that kept me up all night on one trip – some apps even have included recordings of bird calls to play back on your phone. Playing the owl’s song back through my phone’s speaker only served to intensify the noise above my head that night, however. I'd recommend a couple here, but the list of apps available when it comes to outdoor field guides seems to constantly be in flux. I had a favorite free mammals app that was then suddenly discontinued, and I had purchased a birding app that was then also disabled (and it wasn't cheap!). Thus, I'd suggest doing a current search for what you're most interested in – be it mammals, birds, plants, geology, etc. – and go from there. On top of any apps, this is one area I like to back up with Peterson's Field Guides that I keep at home.
      Google Earth
      I’ll occasionally use this one at home for trip planning purposes. If you’ve ever used the Google Earth app or its big screen equivalent prior to visiting the actual place you may have had your share of “wow…it didn’t look quite like this on Google Earth” moments, but nonetheless, combined with topo maps and other trip planning tools Google Earth is a good tool to have in the trip planning toolbox.


      Google Earth can really help when planning something like an off-trail backpacking route at home.
      In the Field
      While there are plethora of smartphone cases out there that will help with shock, dust, and moisture, I just use a small Ziploc bag to offer some additional protection for my phone on the trail and previously had good success with a small Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil dry sack. These solutions won't really help to keep your phone from breaking if you drop it, but it does help with scratches and dust. Obviously if headed out on a rafting trip I'd look for something with more waterproof protection, but stored inside the Ziploc (heavy duty freezer, double zip type), then placing that inside something like my waterproof hip belt pocket with water resistant zippers has done the job for me. Battery life is always your limiting factor, but I'm able to easily go on a week long trip or more without a recharge – even using the phone daily / nightly by starting my trip with a full charge, entering airplane mode, and setting the screen dimmer to the lowest possible level that I can still see. Although it's tempting to turn airplane mode off just to see if you do have signal in your tent – use with caution. I've had my battery suddenly take a large drop just from a quick cell signal search.
      Apple made things easier by allowing GPS use in airplane mode with a recent update, so thankfully no longer do I have to mess with removing my SIM card in an attempt to use GPS without the phone's cell radio. I have found my iPhone's battery to be poor in the cold – even stored in an outside pants pocket is not sufficient in single digit temperatures or below – it wants to be stored right against your body. If the phone does get too cold and displays the charge symbol when you know there's still juice left, you can wake it back up using body heat, hand warmers, etc. By staying in airplane mode, using the GPS sparingly, and keeping the phone turned off I rarely feel the need to consider bringing any type of recharging solution (even 30 minutes of video with sound uses just 5-6% of charge). If I did need to recharge I'd pack the PowerFilm Solar Charger we reviewed here in Issue 6, or the newer Solarpad Pro, and there are of course many rechargeable battery packs out there which do pack a punch if you're not into solar.

      In Conclusion
      Technology in the backcountry is a debatable topic, but at just a few ounces and taking up essentially no pack space, I’ve found a smartphone to be a great multipurpose tool on the trail – albeit with limitations. Any electronic device can fail and in some instances, all this information can start to creep its way into replacing skill and knowledge. If not managed well, it can even become a distraction for others or yourself…for a great read regarding many of these issues, see @PaulMags excellent article here in Issue 19. These limits with technology vary from hiker to hiker however, and can be dealt with...and of course luckily, you can turn a phone off. While I’ll never be that gentlemen I saw in the Bridger Wilderness last year jamming to heavy metal music (no disrespect to the genre) playing through a Bluetooth speaker attached to his pack, I’ve found that a smartphone, when used wisely, can indeed enhance my experience outdoors by making some things a little easier while learning a little more along the way.
      So, what are your favorite outdoor apps?
    • Aaron Zagrodnick
      By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 2
      In recent years concern has risen in some circles of the outdoor community regarding the impact that sharing hyper-specific location information can potentially have on specific outdoor places and wilderness. While this has always been a topic of discussion in the outdoor community over the years, the more recent popularity of social media has made it easier to post something like the coordinates to an obscure place, and potentially overwhelm it with visitors in a near instant time frame, at least when things are viewed through the lens of "wilderness time". Some have even called for the creation of an 8th Leave No Trace Principle to address the concern.
      On the other side, others believe that geotagging and offering other such specifics are meant to be shared and encourage others to get outside and explore, and / or that those not sharing location specifics are engaged in what's been dubbed "gatekeeping". Much of this debate revolves around social media. However, while social media can certainly amplify the issue and the debate, the issue is a broader one and not just limited to posts on your favorite social platform. While I think we can all agree that more people need to get outside, what's the answer? The answer I think, is a bit ambiguous. Side note: for further reading and a great perspective on these issues specifically related to social media, be sure to give Paul Magnanti’s article Keeping Wild Spaces Wild: The Ethics of Social Media, published in Issue 36, a thorough read.

      As far as an 8th Principle is concerned, the proposed 8th Leave No Trace Principle was created as a conversation starter, but a couple examples of a possible principle are provided on the 8thLNT site:
      “Be mindful when posting on social media and consider the potential impacts that rapidly increased use can have on wild places”
      As well as:
      “Use discretion when posting on social media and consider the potential impacts of creating a ‘buzz’ about specific destinations”
      Having seen firsthand the effects that media and social media can have when excessive attention to a specific spot or specific route can have on our limited wilderness areas over the years, as well as the detrimental effect that wild places can suffer without any publicity, exposure, and advocacy on different occasions as well – this is an issue I’ve thought about frequently and is an issue that colleagues and I have discussed on many occasions. The answer, for better or worse, doesn’t seem to be black and white, and it seems that it may all come down to a delicate balancing act.
      Protecting Wilderness
      One immediate and initial concern here is of course, the very short term, limited benefits, and long term hazards that keeping a general place secret, so to speak, can have. The proposed principle however, is not about keeping secrets; in fact the very core of the principle itself is about spreading the word. It’s also about inspiring current and future generations to recreate and protect our wild places, while instilling a sense of stewardship for these very places and for the outdoors. Without knowledge of these places comes the lack of support that these wild places need. And while greater regulation and enforcement is appropriate in some scenarios, and education always appropriate, do we really want all of our backpacking trips to begin with a lottery? And sadly, no matter how much effort we put into educating (and this is by no means an excuse to limit those efforts), unfortunately there will never be a time or place where all visitors will follow all of our leave no trace principles, and some places can only support so much use while maintaining their existing wilderness character. A wilderness area, or wild location, that’s at an equilibrium between its wilderness character and its usage, is in my mind a worthy goal.

      Lone tree, Craters of the Moon National Monument
      Relative Impact
      There are impacts to be aware of for all wild places; those close and far, those easily accessible, and those that are remote. What it comes down to is the character of each place, and the preservation of that wilderness character; each destination is unique. The character of a remote wilderness location that only sees a dozen visitors a year would be significantly changed by a dozen visitors per summer day; and likewise with hundreds of visitors seeking out an easily accessible waterfall or hot spring that’s just a mile in from the parking lot. Not only do thoughts surrounding this discussion seek to physically protect these wild places, but I think we can all agree that there’s much more to wilderness than at first meets the eye. It’s these qualities as a whole, some starkly apparent and others just a subtle whisper, that we should work to preserve. That character may be in the eye of the beholder and admittedly is a bit different for us all, but it’s up to us to preserve every aspect, for everyone and for the place itself, in these public spaces.
      Getting Specific
      If the newly proposed principle has any concerns to be addressed, I can only say that I feel it might be too specific in its current state of existence. There are many other forms of media that can have an equal, if not more significant impact than even the most popular Instagram account. Anything from movies, books, and websites can all be looped into this discussion and whether you’re a website owner or run an Instagram account, we all share in the responsibility of both 1) protecting our wild spaces through advocacy and 2) performing point 1 without bringing harm to those places we’re advocating for. A principle addressing social media, inclusive of social media, would cover and consolidate all bases from my standpoint. Either way however, it’s great to see the awareness and any aspect of these issues being discussed and potentially implemented.

      With many points on the subject having merit, when it comes to wilderness location ethics balance is needed.
      The Balance
      In the end, it’s all about finding a balance. Paul Magnanti of PMags.com has dubbed this “Obscurity, not secrecy”. Mark Wetherington of 8thLNT terms it “Be mindful when posting”. I like to think of it as a focus to: “Name the place, not the spot” – for example perhaps name the land management unit or area, but consider saving those coordinates, the exact location of that amazing campsite, or maybe the name of that lake or exact canyon for yourself. This doesn't prevent someone else from finding a great campsite or place to explore – they might even find something better. Back to it being relative, each place and situation is unique. And while naming names is one thing, providing the step by step directions along with it takes things to another level – there is definitely a way to go about promoting wilderness, and specific wild areas, without specifically impacting exact locations. I would argue that preservation of wilderness and of wilderness character itself, is above all the most important aspect to consider.
      As a typical fisherman who often brings along a fly rod on backpacking trips for example, I’ll surely tell you that there are big trout to be caught in that mountain range, but I’ll probably be a little more general when it comes to which lake. And there’s nothing like finding your own lake, your own favorite trail or campsite, and grabbing the map and hiking your own route to experience our wilderness areas all in our own unique way…those have been my most successful, satisfying, and memorable wilderness experiences.

      Although I use my smartphone when planning trips, it can be difficult to get the big picture view on a small screen, and following a pre-loaded route limits imaginative exploration. Paper maps very much still have their place and hopefully always do (more thoughts here), and it's not about anyone "keeping the gate". Pick up the state atlas of your state or the one you're looking to explore and suddenly you have a lifetime's worth of places on your destination list. Get the overview map for the wilderness area you're targeting, and in an instant you can explore wherever your hiking shoes can take you. With the right map, wilderness offers a spot for everyone.
      As far as principles go, the difficulty of summing up a complex issue in a sentence or two on a list of principles has inherit complexity, and while I'd like to think we should all individually hold ourselves responsible for leaving no trace without a checklist, a set of guidelines accepted by the outdoor community as a whole is certainly very beneficial and a very teachable tool – and I hope these concerns will continue to generate discussion in the outdoor community. But whether a new principle is added to the list or not, we should all take it upon ourselves to keep it wild.
    • Aaron Zagrodnick
      By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 6
      Let’s be honest; not every backpacking trip provides the time for us to prepare a nightly gourmet meal, and not all of us are ready to embrace, or perhaps we have yet to have a discussion with, our inner hidden chef. While I like to create backpacking meals from scratch at times and when I can, if you’re like me, after a long day on the trail I simply often find myself wanting a sufficient amount of calories that taste great, and I want that meal as quickly and as easily as possible with minimal cleanup afterwards.

      Freeze dried and dehydrated, ready-made backpacking meals usually fit the above criteria – but if you’ve tried your share of these types of meals, you’ve surely had your share of experiences that don’t exactly hit the spot in the taste department, and not much is worse than having to force down such a meal when it's all you have in the wilderness. As such, here’s a review of the 10 best add water and eat freeze dried / dehydrated backpacking meals that I’ve eaten over the years that do hit the spot, taste great, and are easy to prepare. These are the meals I keep stocked in the gear room, and that find a place inside the Ursack or food bag on backpacking trip after trip.
      The Criteria
      Meals to make this list and review are weighted on a few factors that are important to my approach and palate, including ease of preparation, great taste, calories, lack of artificial colors and flavors, and the inclusion of meat, or another protein that’s tough to carry while backpacking like eggs. While I’m by no means a carnivore on the trail, a vegetarian I also am not – and although I’ll eat a meal that is specifically aimed at other dietary considerations, I don’t abide by gluten-free, vegan, paleo, standards etc. and for the most part have a pretty standard and eclectic food bag.
      Things like chicken and beef that go well in meals are tough to carry in the backcountry; and I’ve found for dinner applications, meat of the freeze dried variety works best on multi-day backpacking trips for the light weight, taste, quick rehydration, and texture. This would go for something like eggs as well – in my experience taste is definitely not a high point of powdered eggs. On the flipside, I’ve found vegetarian meals are the easiest to replicate through freezer bag cooking or one pot meals in the backcountry. For example, while a simple mac and cheese (our mac and cheese guide) or ramen meal from many popular brands that make freeze dried meals may taste great, it’s pretty easy to make this on your own from the grocery store either in the pot or freezer bag style, and thus meals of this variety are ones I usually just make on my own.
      This top ten list of backpacking meals all meet the above criteria and considerations; and all are coincidentally from two popular brands, Backpacker’s Pantry of Boulder Colorado, and Mountain House, a division of Oregon Freeze Dry. With the criteria set, on to the list!
      Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy
      $9, 560 calories per pouch. Ready to eat in: 9 minutes. 4.4 ounce net weight.
      A meal I originally bought for breakfasts, Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy now also works its way into my dinner menus. Buttermilk biscuits were something I used to think were only to be had from a refrigerated can (yes I have taken those backpacking), or from a favorite local diner, but Mountain House has done a great job of bringing these to the freeze dried backpacking meal world. Combined with crumbled sausage and gravy with an ample amount of pepper seasoning, when this one occupies some space in my food bag I’m always looking forward to it during the hiking day.

      Like all Mountain House meals, this one is now officially rated to stay fresh for 30 years – no more expired meals hidden in the dark corners of your gear stash, and 30 years is even enough time to fall in love with a meal, get burned out on it, and then repeat the process a couple more times.
      Mountain House Breakfast Skillet
      $10, 510 calories per pouch. Ready to eat in: 9 minutes. 3.7 ounce net weight.
      A breakfast meal that originally debuted from the Mountain House “wraps” line, Mountain House Breakfast Skillet works equally well for breakfast or dinner in my experience. This originally debuted at a solid 800 calories per package, but is down to 560 in the latest packaging. This eclectic mix of hash browns, eggs, sausage, and peppers is definitely reminiscent of getting the works plate off your local diner’s griddle. For even more calories, bring a couple tortillas to go along with this one, and if you’re on the pro ketchup and eggs side of the fence, a packet of ketchup is an excellent addition to take along as well. Hot sauce packets of course, would also work for those looking for a bit more kick.
      Backpacker's Pantry Santa Fe Rice and Beans with Chicken
      $13, 600 calories per pouch. Ready to eat in: 15 minutes. 5.7 ounce net weight.
      The Backpacker's Pantry Santa Fe Rice and Beans with Chicken meal combines chicken and rice, with beans, cheese, green chili and vegetables. This is a great dinner for one or two, and adding an olive oil packet works very well for boosting the calories on this one. Although the rice is usually a little al dente in my experience following the specified directions, only slightly so and that’s fine in my book. For a burrito approach, this goes very well with tortillas, and bring a hot sauce packet or two if you’re so inclined. It’s not quite your favorite Mexican restaurant or a burrito from Chipotle, but for the backcountry it’s getting close enough to the latter. The latest iteration of this meal has less calories than before, but it's still a bit higher than average.
      Mountain House Yellow Curry
      $11, 510 calories per pouch. Ready to eat in: 9 minutes. 3.9 ounce net weight.
      A relatively new offering, Mountain House Yellow Curry features chunks of chicken with rice all in a curry sauce that is sweet, savory, and spicy all at the same time. My favorite part of this meal is that while the rice is there, it's not the main attraction so to speak. Where some takes of backcountry bag meals are nearly all rice with a little of this and that thrown in, this one is the opposite with the chicken and curry sauce as co-stars.

      While a bit of a light meal for two I’ve found, a packet of olive oil as well as adding tortillas (although naan would be better) and planning for some dessert to go along with this meal is a great idea. Overall, this is one of the best meals Mountain House makes and if you asked me of this list which meal would be number 1, this meal would be in the discussion. For more, take a look at our full Mountain House Yellow Curry review.
      Mountain House Spicy Southwest Style Skillet
      $10, 490 calories per pouch. Ready to eat in: 9 minutes. 3.9 ounce net weight.
      An offering that came out with a slew of meals that Mountain House released a few years back, Mountain House Spicy Southwest Style Skillet is in my opinion another that’s served up equally well for breakfast or for dinner. With a green chile and hash brown base, and oddly for freeze dried meals actual hearty chunks of beef combined with other southwest themed vegetables and ingredients, this meal is a bit of a diamond in the freeze dried meal rough. Although this recipe did have a recall to be aware of – those with pouch code 3253174 and best by date of Dec. 2046 were affected, this is a new favorite of mine on the trail...with the right pouch code of course. That said, unfortunately just recently this one has become difficult to find in stock or on the shelf. Hopefully, Mountain House won't retire this meal as it's one of my favorites to pull out of the food bag when dinner time in camp rolls around. You can find our full review of this meal here.
      Mountain House Chicken and Dumplings with Vegetables
      $10, 600 calories per pouch. Ready to eat in: 9 minutes. 4.5 ounce net weight.
      If you like chicken pot pie, this is the freeze dried meal for you. Mountain House Chicken and Dumplings with Vegetables features chicken, and a heavy dose of vegetables along with buttermilk biscuits and gravy at least reminding one of grandma’s secret recipe....or perhaps just your favorite microwavable chicken pot pie from your local super market’s freezer section. Either way, this one hits the spot while backpacking and especially if temperatures are a little on the chilly side. This is one meal that is on point right out of the bag – no mods or additions required.
      Mountain House Chicken & Mashed Potato Dinner
      $11, 450 calories per pouch. Ready to eat in: 7 minutes. 3.7 ounce net weight.
      I know I know, we can all head to our local grocery store and grab any one of a number of mashed potato packages that are easy to cook, quick, and taste great after a long day of hiking. As such, the key to the Chicken & Mashed Potato Dinner from Mountain House isn’t about the potatoes, it’s the chicken. And it just so happens that this is such a simple combo, but one that's tough to beat.

      Believe it or not, this meal used to come with two whole, grilled freeze dried chicken breasts included in the pouch. This was a bit of a novelty in the past, however these days the meal comes with more of a diced chicken. This is fine, as although I think previously Mountain House intended for us to eat the chicken breasts with a knife and fork, I always just mashed up the chicken and potatoes all together anyway. The price to calorie ratio on this is a bit steep, so this is one meal where I always add an olive oil packet to boost the calories, and I keep this on hand for a splurge occasion.
      Backpacker’s Pantry Pad See You
      $11.50, 720 calories per pouch. Ready to eat in: 15 minutes. 6.6 ounce net weight.
      This one was almost left off, as Backpacker's Pantry has apparently discontinued this meal. However, we thought we'd include it for nostalgia and in hopes that it's brought back someday, as it was hands down the best meal we've ever had from Backpacker's Pantry. With rice noodles and chunky broccoli in a tasty sauce with an adequate amount of chicken mixed in, Pad See You from Backpacker’s Pantry was about as close to take out as I've ever had on the trail.

      No need to bring along an extra olive oil packet – Backpacker’s Pantry already included one inside the pouch for you to mix in before you added hot water – and unlike a lot of freeze dried meals, this one actually packed some punch in the flavor department without extra doctoring (if stirred well; the spices were always at the bottom). If you like a little extra spice like me though, a little cayenne or a packet of Sriracha went great with this meal. Perhaps someday the meal will be brought back. However in the meantime we've developed a similar and easy DIY recipe that you can check out here in Issue 52.
      Mountain House Chili Mac with Beef
      $11, 460 calories per pouch. Ready to eat in: 9 minutes. 3.8 ounce net weight.
      A classic Mountain House meal, and just classic meal all around, Chili Mac with Beef from Mountain House takes mac and cheese to an entirely higher level (when you add cheese, as I always do) with beef, beans, and spices. One memorable experience came with this meal on an especially wet, snowy, and chilly hiking day – after setting up camp tired, a bit chilled, and with darkness having fallen this meal definitely raised both sprits and warmth before hitting the sleeping bag. The calories are a bit low on this one; I suggest adding a packet of olive oil and the aforementioned cheese for long hiking days (throw it in before adding hot water).
      Mountain House Mexican Style Adobo Rice & Chicken
      $11, 570 calories per pouch. Ready to eat in: 9 minutes. 4.6 ounce net weight.
      The Mexican Style Adobo Rice & Chicken meal from Mountain House may just be the meal to reach for when you're craving Mexican food on the trail, and this newer meal has always hit the spot for me in the backcountry. While I do wish the chicken in the meal had a bit more presence, it's hard to complain when it comes to taste here. I always like to add some cheese to this one on the trail, and tortillas are almost mandatory. Olive oil and a little spice if you’re so inclined can both work together well for taking the calorie count, and experience here to the next level if desired. For more on this one, check out our review.

      Mountain House Mexican Style Adobo Rice & Chicken is a great meal that goes particularly well with tortillas.
      Final Thoughts
      Note that all the prices above are full price; any time of the year REI offers 10% off 8+ meals here with free shipping available, and cost can also be mitigated through careful shopping, as it’s not too difficult to grab these meals 20% off from time to time and / or with free shipping if you keep an eye out for sales at retailers like REI and here at Amazon. Although all of our palates vary and a lot of these meals seem to come and go on the manufacturer side, the above list is a great start, and are the ones that have stuck around in my food bag.
      One tip I can add is to always throw in a new meal or two on long trips; it helps prevent burnout on any individual meal and is a great way to find the next one you’ll go back to time and time again. I like to keep a simple spreadsheet at home for each meal, and update it after a trip any time a new meal is tried. I give each a meal a quick rating (poor, fair, and good) in my system, and also note next to this any thoughts on the taste, what might need to be added next time (example: needs black pepper and a packet of olive oil). Of all the meals I've tried the 10 listed above are the highest rated on my particular spreadsheet.
      While a pre-packaged meal can be more costly than making your own meals from scratch, if you have a focus on convenience, having some of these meals on hand can make packing your food bag before a trip that much easier, and freeze dried meals bring that same convenience to mealtime on the trail as well. Either way, whether you like to throw a couple in to take care of a meal or two on a long trip, or if you take one for dinner each night, having a few go-to freeze dried backpacking meals on hand for your next trip can go a long way towards helping out with your backcountry meal planning.
      For a list of nearly every freeze dried meal made (over 100 different options) that you can sort by brand, category, meal type, etc., check out this page at REI.
    • Aaron Zagrodnick
      By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 3
      Whether you’re driving across the country to finally hike that classic mountain range that’s been on your mind for years or simply on the way to your local trailhead, perhaps nothing can get you ready for the hike like the perfect song or hiking playlist. And hey, there’s nothing else to really do in the car anyway. On the flipside, it could be argued that nothing is more annoying than getting the latest pop song – that you happened to hear on the radio right before locking the car – stuck in your head for that otherwise perfect week long backpacking trip. Listening to our own music collection is a much safer bet; tune into the radio with caution. Thus I’m sure we’ve all found a few favorite hiking tracks over the years.

      If we took hiking out of the equation and made this a pure list with the outdoors aside, this list would without a doubt look a bit different, but hey, this is TrailGroove. Including songs of a newer generation would certainly mix up the list a bit further as well, but this will be a “classic” list of songs that have stood the test of time and that have been around for at least 30+ years or so. Lastly in the criteria department, they also have to be good songs, not just thrown in because they describe the act of walking (worthy of a separate post, however!). Thus while I doubt hiking had much to do with the writing of any of the songs on this list, I find them relatable to hiking and to the outdoors. Now, on to the list and the why.
      Sittin' On the Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding, 1967
      It’s 2000 miles I’ve roamed
      Just to make this dock my home
      Now I'm just gonna sit at the dock of a bay
      Watching the tide roll away
      With very similar themes to Watching the Wheels below, Dock of the Bay, one of the most popular songs of all time on a list of any type, is to me the definition of the search and journey to a better place, returning to a simpler existence, and finding that satisfaction with the simpler things in life; very similar themes to hiking and the wilderness. I don’t plan many hikes to many bays save for a few exceptions, but the song translates to any locale quite easily. Watching the sunrise from a convenient log on the 5th day of a wilderness backpacking trip with a hot cup of coffee in hand, I can’t help but think of this one.
      Watching the Wheels
      I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
      I really love to watch them roll
      No longer riding on the merry-go-round
      I just had to let it go
      Before launching TrailGroove and what now seems like long ago, I worked in a corporate job staring at a computer all day under fluorescent lights stuck in a cubicle. Other than a walk during lunch, my only respites were weekends and once a year, week or so long backpacking trips…somewhere. Vacation requests elicited a couple predictable responses: “Why would you want to walk that far?” “Can you check your email daily?” Luckily, I found the answer to the age-old question on one of those trips deep into the Wind River Range: If you’re in the middle of the mountains and a corporate emergency takes place, it turns out that no, it actually doesn’t make a noise. To me, Watching the Wheels puts this state of mind into song.

      Memories in the mountains...
      Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin, 1971
      There's a feeling a get
      When I look to the West
      And my spirit is crying for leaving
      Taking things very literally, unless you're driving the top of Pike's Peak to start your hike, every trip into the mountains starts with a climb. This classic tune from Zeppelin starts with a contemplative tone, but steadily builds to leave you ready to tackle any mountain climb as you wonder just what Jimmy and Robert really meant with this collection of metaphorical lyrics. And it’s not uncommon for that classic and unmistakable intro from Stairway to Heaven to play in my mind as I start the climb to the top of one of those ominous, offtrail high mountain passes with peaks shrouded among the clouds.
      Band on the Run
      Well the night was falling as the desert world
      Began to settle down
      In the town they’re searching for us everywhere
      But we never will be found
      Band on the Run exhibits the need to escape to a simpler existence and the success of subsequently doing so, which are lyrically woven throughout the song. While I’m pretty sure Paul wasn’t talking about hiking here, when you’re stuck in a situation where you can’t hike and this song comes up, the similarities become quite apparent.
      Learning to Fly – Pink Floyd, 1987
      There's no sensation to compare with this
      Suspended animation
      A state of bliss
      While Pink Floyd is undoubtedly one of the best bands of all time...let's be honest...many of their songs aren't exactly uplifting. But David Gilmour was always a bit more positive. Learning to Fly features an upbeat tempo and inspirational and hopeful lyrics. And no matter how long you've been hiking, there's always another journey out there and more to learn with each step. Although this could be stretching the classic prerequisite a bit, the most recent song on this list was released almost 40 years ago.
      A Forest – The Cure, 1980
      It’s always the same
      I’m running towards nothing
      Again and again and again and again
      A Forest isn’t the most easy going and comforting song out there, but that’s kind of the point. With a haunting intro and lyrics that begin to tell of a chaotic sequence of events this one always reminds me of backpacking since I watched a video about a CDT thru-hike where it was featured on the soundtrack. If you’ve ever stumbled down an offtrail route after dark on a first trip in unfamiliar terrain, hoping your compass bearing was correct as you pick your way through deadfall by the light of a fading headlamp as rain begins to fall, you know the feeling.

      When you're a hiker, many songs seem to take on a new meaning.
      Here Comes the Sun
      Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
      Little darling, it’s feel like years since it’s been here
      Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
      And I say it’s all right
      If you’ve ever been on a multi-day hike through cold, wet, and unrelenting weather in the mountains, sleeping bag steadily losing loft and the chill setting in just a bit further each day, I can think of no better song to hum out loud as you brew a hot cup of coffee and the sun begins to finally peek through those grey clouds for the first time in days. Here Comes the Sun is a song that’s upbeat, uplifting with seasonal themes, and literally could not contain more positivity that can certainly hit the spot most all the time in the wilderness.
      Take Me Home, Country Roads
      Almost Heaven, West Virginia
      Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River
      Life is old there, older than the trees
      Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze
      Rocky Mountain High of course is another contender from John Denver, but from my standpoint Country Roads is a more enjoyable listen. Take Me Home, Country Roads offers up a theme of getting off the beaten path and connecting with the natural world, and of course many of us are at home, or find ourselves a second home, out on the trail. Wilderness Trail, Take me Home? Either way this is a great hiking – or driving to the trailhead – song.
      A Horse with No Name
      The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
      And the sky with no clouds
      The heat was hot and the ground was dry
      But the air was full of sound
      You just have to include this one on the list. No matter where your journey may take you, if you’re on a journey this is your song. Telling a story and with a distinct beginning, middle, and end along with a tempo that matches a quick hiking pace surprisingly well, if you tend to get songs stuck in your head before a trip and are almost to the trailhead to start a multi-day trip, A Horse with No Name is never a bad choice to listen to last.

      The desert always seems to bring old songs back to the forefront of my mind.
      Heart of Gold – Neil Young, 1972
      I've been to Hollywood
      I've been to Redwood
      I crossed the ocean for a heart of gold
      This short and sweet song from Neil Young is sure to play throughout your head on repeat if it's the last song you play in the car before hitting the trail, but that might not be such a bad thing. Invoking themes of searching for our own intangibles, whatever those may be and with a heavy dose of searching and travel themes throughout, Heart of Gold is great inspiration and a perfect mental soundtrack as you shoulder your pack and hike past that wilderness boundary sign.
      Kodachrome – Paul Simon, 1973
      I've got a Nikon Camera
      I love to take photographs
      So mamma, don't take my Kodachrome away
      Hiking and photography go hand in hand, and this not so subtly rebellious and powerful, yet uplifting song continually invokes the colors of nature as they might be captured on Kodak's famous Kodachrome film, reminding a hiker of those blissful lackadaisical summer hikes where you can't seem to make any miles as you're forced to stop every few feet to capture a new quintessential summer scene. To me, Kodachrome by Paul Simon feels like hiking at its finest.

      Red rocks, blue skies, and a classic tune in your head makes for a combination that is tough to beat.
      Final Thoughts
      Nothing can set the tune of a trip like a great soundtrack on the way to the trailhead, or cement a recent hike in your memory on that necessitated trip to the nearest place with a hot meal and cold beverage once the trip is over. And while I don’t listen to music during a hike, I’ll likely have a song stuck in my mind, and often one of those listed above, out on the trail.
    • MattS
      By MattS in TrailGroove Blog 6
      The trail before me had become a treacherous, muddy mess. My backpack felt like a sodden weight pulling me down, and my shoes squished and oozed water with every step. I was looking down at what would have been a sharp descent, now transformed into a muddy slide. As I debated between simply sitting down on the trail and letting gravity carry me along or staggering forward and attempting to remain upright, I thought again about how I had let this happen.

      The answer involved a series of bad decisions and bravado that all began with a hat. It had been the parting gift of a friend of mine when I left my home in Connecticut to teach English in Japan, and was of a rugged, outdoorsy quality, tan in color, with a mid-size brim. Its involvement in my current predicament began with a humble interaction at Japan’s Narita airport. At the time, I was absorbed in the process of following a series of guides to the hotel bus when another soon-to-be-teacher spoke up from behind me. I didn’t quite catch what he said, though, because I was in that unique state of exhaustion only a sleepless 14-hour plane trip can bring on. I asked him to repeat himself, and he obliged.
      “I said I like your hat.”
      “Thanks,” I replied, “I got it from a friend.”
      “Oh?” he said, “Are you into hiking, then?”
      “Yes,” I answered, though I hadn’t been anywhere near a hiking trail in the last eight years. I suppose I was trying to live up to my hat’s outdoorsy image. I then followed up this half-truth with an ambiguous statement. “I used to go on hikes all the time with my family.”
      “That’s great!” was his trusting response. “You must be excited to get out and do some hiking now that you’re here. There are mountains all over the place.”
      “Yeah,” I said, caught up in the spirit of the conversation, “I’m going to look up some good local trails after I get settled in.”
      Then the bus showed up, silencing us both, and everything dissolved once more into a whirlwind of activity. But that conversation stuck with me. I really had enjoyed hiking when I was younger, and Japan seemed like the perfect place to get back into it. There was an abundance of trails, it would give me something fun to do with my free time, and actually going on some hikes would help me feel less like a liar.

      The idea took hold. When I introduced myself to schoolchildren in the city of Hachinohe, where I taught, the three hobbies I always brought up were reading, listening to music, and hiking. When I and my fellow teachers were at welcome parties, I would ask my new coworkers if they knew any good hiking trails, or had any interest in the activity. Their answers to the first question tended to be vague, and I never did find someone who answered affirmatively to the latter. Still, I got the idea there were lots of places nearby where I could go out and practice my newly christened hobby.

      And yet it was months before I ever acted on this idea. I had arrived in early August, when even the highest peaks in Japan are fairly accessible, but I just couldn’t seem to get myself out the door. Before I knew it, it was winter, and I was telling myself that by the time spring rolled around I’d be ready to hit the trails for sure. I spent my time researching various mountains and finally made my choice: Mt. Kumotori. This was to be my inaugural hike in Japan, and it sounded perfect.

      The website I’d been using to get the bulk of my information had given the course a difficulty of 2 out of 5, which was just what I was looking for. The mountain was near Tokyo, making it easily accessible, and its elevation wasn’t too high, meaning I could climb it early in the season without worrying about snow. It was even one of the “100 Famous Mountains” of Japan. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but it sounded impressive.
      Satisfied with my decision, I moved on to choosing my equipment. This trip was to be a two-day excursion, though since I was planning on spending the night in a rest hut, I wouldn’t need to bring a sleeping bag or tent. I would only take the bare minimum: a change of clothes, some water, a few energy bars, a backpack just big enough to hold everything, and what I was now calling my “hiking hat”. Given the benefit of hindsight, I made at least three major mistakes here. First, I didn’t bring any rain gear. Second, I didn’t bother investing in a good pair of hiking boots. And finally, my choice of backpack was a raggedy old leftover from college.
      At the time, though, it never occurred to me to worry about such things, not even the possibility of rain. It was only as I hopped on the bullet train down to Tokyo that I even bothered to check the weather. Apparently, it had rained there every day for the past six days, would be cloudy on my first day, and might rain on the second. But, I figured I’d be off the mountain before things got bad on day two, and counted myself lucky. I couldn’t wait to get out there and experience the wonders of Japan’s mountainous landscape.
      Hiking Mount Kumotori
      First, though, I had to find the trail, which did not start at Mt. Kumotori. It began at Mitsumine shrine, and I had a number of other peaks to traverse before I could start on Mt. Kumotori itself. As my print-out from the hiking website eloquently explained, “you’ll be on the ridge all day.” Of course, I didn’t really know what exactly that would entail. I imagined I’d be on a high plateau most of the time, maybe with some small hills to walk over. Sure, the distance may be great, and each peak might be hard if begun from ground level, but it shouldn’t be that bad staying on the ridge, right? After all, the difficulty was only a 2 out of 5.

      The problem with that rating was that for someone on his first hike in Japan, it would prove to be a colossal understatement. I got my first sense of this almost immediately, when the trail began to slope up away from the shrine. And then it kept going up. Then it went up some more. I soon found myself winded, and could barely believe that the long series of switchbacks I was working my way over could ever be considered easy. Still, I was able to encourage myself by looking back at how far I’d come, and telling myself that once I was up on the ridge things would get easier.
      There was also the mud to contend with. Six days of rain meant that the trail was soaked, and the steep inclines were all slick and dangerous. On more than one occasion I had to use my hands to pull myself up different sections of the path, and already I was wishing for some hiking boots. When I finally reached the first peak, Mt. Kirimogamine, I felt totally spent.

      My legs were stiff and sore despite the short time I’d been moving, my precious hat had seemingly welded itself to my head thanks to prodigious amounts of sweat, and I was gasping for each breath. Haunted by the need to keep up a good pace, though, I only allowed myself a five-minute break, so while I was feeling better when I set out again, by no means was I in good shape. Still, I wasn’t worried. After all, now I was unquestionably on the ridgeline, and that was supposed to mean easy climbing.

      My optimism, however, would prove to be short-lived. After what felt like a much too brief descent, the path again angled upwards. This second climb was steeper than the first, though thankfully not as muddy. It was also during this ascent that I finally realized walking along the ridgeline would not be an easy task. It was instead a constant struggle of up and down. My being on it for the entire first day meant I was doomed to go through these cycles of intensely tiring climbs over and over again before even getting to the one mountain I had set out to climb. Was this really just a 2 out of 5? A 2 out of 5?!
      That difficulty rating became my curse as I went along, and my anger helped give me the energy to keep climbing. I went up and over the rocky slope, and then up and over a few more before finally reaching another landmark listed in my directions. It was the Mt. Shiraiwa hut, which the website placed approximately 90 minutes from where I intended to spend the night. Sitting inside was an old man who looked for all the world like he lived out here, and he was happy to brew me a cup of coffee and chat while I recovered from my exertions.
      He remarked that I didn’t look ready for the rain, and, right on cue, I could hear the sound of the first sporadic drops beginning to fall outside. I briefly considered just staying here for the night, but ultimately chose to press on given how close I was to my destination. Even if the website’s difficulty scale was a far cry from my own, at least its time estimates could be trusted.
      Thankfully, the rain proved to be intermittent and the path itself grew considerably easier. I felt like I’d hit my stride, and for a long time I traveled over mostly level ground. At some point this began to worry me, because I knew by now it would mean a bigger climb later. As it turned out, though, things wouldn’t actually get challenging again for quite some time.
      The difficulty, when it did arrive, was also of my own choosing. As I began to finally make some progress on Mt. Kumotori itself, I came to a fork in the path. Each branch was marked with a sign and both led to my destination. The problem was the name of each path. One was relatively straight and steep, and it was marked “Man’s Path,” while the other was more roundabout, with a more gentle climb. It was of course marked “Woman’s Path.” Faced with the decision of which way to go, I let my pride get the better of me. I started up the “Man’s Path.”
      I should have known better. All day I had been bemoaning how difficult this hike was, wishing for an easier way. I had been tired since first climbing up from Mitsumine shrine hours ago. And just because one path had been arbitrarily associated with men and another with women, I was hardly obligated to take the one that matched my sex. Even knowing that, though, I could not ignore the challenge of the “Man’s Path.” I railed against my decision to make things harder on myself every step of the way, but I stuck with it until, panting and exhausted, I reached the rest hut.

      I had never spent the night out in a hut before, leaving me no idea what to expect. The hiking website had described it as “luxurious,” though what that boiled down to was paying $50 for the privilege of sleeping in a futon on the floor next to ten other people. At least there was a roof over our heads, a good source of water, and the possibility of rest. I munched on my energy bars for dinner and went to bed early in the hopes that I could rise with the sun the next morning.
      Only, there was no sun the next morning, just shrouds of mist and clouds. Nevertheless, I set out early, and found the hut had been well placed just before the climb grew truly difficult. It was no easy task to wake up first thing in the morning and start climbing a mountain, especially when I was still tired and sore from the previous day, but I wanted to get as far as possible before what now seemed like an inevitable rainfall.
      It helped that I had some company on this initial ascent. An older Japanese couple had left the rest hut at about the same time as me, and we started climbing together. They asked where I had started from and seemed impressed when I told them Mitsumine shrine. I found that encouraging, and they then went on to point out how foreigners were now climbing mountains all over Japan. They wished more Japanese people would get out on the trails, but explained that nobody who isn’t retired has the time.
      After climbing together for a while, though, I ended up needing less breaks than them, and they encouraged me to go on. The last thing they told me was that there should be a great view out to the Japanese Alps from the summit, though the weather today might block the view. So, after one last push, I reached the top of Mt. Kumotori, and sure enough, the cloud cover was so thick that nothing was visible. This had been my experience pretty much all along, with clouds obscuring any but the most immediate beauty, and I was thoroughly sick of the uniform grayness.
      The Next Challenge
      It felt strange to reach the top of the mountain that had been my big goal so early on the second day. Together with the useless view it felt doubly anticlimactic, but I still took a minute to let myself feel accomplished. I had successfully completed my first hike in Japan, and now all I had to do was get down. Or at least, that’s how I looked at it, but getting down soon proved to be just as much trouble as going up. To begin with, I wasn’t sure which way to go.

      My directions claimed I would find an emergency rest hut, and that there were two ways down from there. One involved a long walk on a forest road while the other was presumably a more direct route down Mt. Nanatsuishi. I tried to take the longer and hopefully easier route, but in truth I’m still not sure which path I ended up on. I did find the emergency hut, but either through a trick of the fog or a misunderstanding I only saw one way to go. Whichever way it was, I soon learned that my efforts were far from over.
      The rain began falling in earnest while I was still on an easy downhill section. At first I hoped for a repeat of yesterday: a few intermittent showers with no real harm done. I could not have been more wrong. The rain was constant. The rain was hard. And the rain was miserable. I made my way along the trail, becoming first damp, then wet, then soaked. The path turned into mud beneath my feet, and then began to grow unstable.
      It felt discomforting to work my way along a ridge and feel it slipping away beneath my weight. It was also disturbing to discover that I wasn’t done with the ridgeline just yet. I had several more peaks left to traverse, and though this was an easier task than on the previous day, the rain had a way of making everything harder. Perhaps my worst moment came as the trail turned into a single narrow ledge. I wasn't even sure what was holding it up, because it seemed to jut out from the edge of the slope as though pinched from the side of the mountain.
      The rain had weakened this precarious passage so much that it was beginning to collapse. I started to run as I made my way along it, and when I felt it giving way beneath my feet, I finally jumped over to another section of the trail. When I looked back, I doubted whether anyone would be able to follow in my footsteps. This brief moment of terror had me on edge, and it was with a constant sense of dread that I continued on my way.
      Eventually, my direction shifted so I was mostly headed downhill. By this point, though, the path had essentially turned into a muddy chute. Since the bottom of the trail was so well trodden, over time it had formed into a half-pipe, with large embankments rising up on either side. Down in the center of this “pipe”, the trail consisted of a mix of water and mud that resembled nothing so much as a sluiceway. It was slippery and treacherous. Once or twice fell straight into the muck, but always managed to right myself and continue on.

      At one point I ran into a fellow hiker heading in the other direction. I warned him that the trail up ahead was bad. Considering my state at the time, dripping wet and covered in mud, I thought my warning would be fairly convincing, but he merely thanked me and headed on just the same. All this time it was still raining, though by now it hardly mattered. I certainly couldn’t get any wetter, and even that change of clothes in my bag was probably sopping wet by now.
      Finally, I reached the last muddy slope. At this point, I decided I might as well just sit down and slide myself to the bottom. Exhausted, and covered in mud, it would be another hour of squishing along on foot before I reached the train station and the official end of my hike. I was overjoyed when I arrived, and by now the sun was out and the sky a clear blue. It felt like the perfect day for a hike. Laughing to myself, I lifted a hand to my hat, which was rumpled and wet but still served to shield my face from the sun, and got on the train back to Tokyo.
      Need to Know
      Information
      With an elevation of 2,017 meters (6,6017 feet), Mt. Kumotori, or Kumotoriyama (雲取山), is the tallest mountain in the Tokyo area. It stands as the boundary point between Tokyo, Saitama, and Yamanashi Prefectures on Japan’s main island of Honshu, and is a part of the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. No permits are required for this hike, though it is generally recommended that you be bear aware, since black bears do inhabit the park.
      Best Time to Go
      While the Kumotori Mountain Hut is open year-round, and the consensus on a good hiking time seems to run from mid-April to late-December, my recommendation would be to go in the early fall, September, or October. Note that early-May and mid-August are peak travel times for Japanese hikers due to holidays, and the huts are likely to be very crowded during those time frames.
      Getting There
      From Ikebukuro station (池袋駅) in Tokyo, ride the Seibu Railway line (西武鉄道) to Seibu-Chichibu station (西武秩父駅). From there, take a bus to Mitsumine Shrine (三峰神社). The trail starts from the parking lot, branching off to the right as you climb the stairs. To get back to Tokyo after the hike, simply take a train from Okutama station directly back into the city.
      Maps
      The Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park map offers one option for a map of the area.
      Books
      Climbing a few of Japan's 100 Famous Mountains - Volume 5: Mt. Kumotori, by Daniel H. Wieczorek and Kazuya Numazawa.



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