By George Graybill in TrailGroove Blog 1I was muddied, bloodied, and soaked, but I had reached my goal. I was standing on the rim of Wailau Valley. Just beyond my toes, the land dropped away steeply to the valley floor 3,000 feet below. Waterfalls streamed down the cliffs that surrounded this lost world as it swept away before me to the north shore of Moloka’i. It was hard to believe that 50 years ago I had descended this cliff and then hacked my way through five miles of jungle to the ocean. I must have been crazy. I was definitely lucky.
That trip across Moloka’i long ago was the most difficult backpacking trip I have ever been on. It was also the most foolhardy, dangerous, and life threatening. In 1969 we had made our way from the south shore of the island to the north shore, hung out on the beach for a few days, then hiked back to our starting point. The day hike I took to the edge of the valley in 2019 was an attempt to relive the easier part of that ill-conceived youthful adventure.
I learned online that there was now a trail. It would be difficult to follow, but the trailhead was easy to find, as it was beside a large heiau (ancient Hawaiian temple). As I drove to where I thought I would find the trailhead, I passed what could have been the heiau. I drove on to a little country store and restaurant, called Manae Goods & Grindz to double check. I was the only tourist in sight. I asked a young Hawaiian woman clerking in the store where I could find the heiau, but she was reluctant to tell me. I got it – she didn’t want some Californian mucking around in a place she considered sacred. I explained that I needed to use the heiau as a landmark and promised I would not touch it. She was convinced and opened up.
In 1969 we didn’t even know there was a trail. We just took off blindly up the mountain. There were five of us in that group, all University of Hawaii students. The trip was Jan’s idea. He had been born and raised on Molokai, where his father was a well-paid agronomist for the pineapple company. Jan invited his friends Chris and our mutual friend, Fred. Fred invited me, and I invited Lou, a fellow chemistry graduate student. I knew just a little about backpacking, and the others knew next to nothing.
The route left the heiau as a dirt road and soon became a narrow, rocky trail overhung with thorn bushes. Eventually, I came out into a patch of meadow with sweeping views across the ocean to the islands of Maui, Lana’i, and Kaho’olawe. After the grassland, the trail entered the rainforest, where the trade winds dump 300 inches of rain each year. Rain fell intermittently as I worked my way uphill. Even though the slope was moderately steep, this was a swamp because the water could not run off fast enough. Everything was growing on top of everything. New life flourished from dead logs. Tree ferns, vines, twisted trees, mud, rain, and darkness. I lost the trail several times. Panic sets in quickly when one struggles to move in what may be the wrong direction.
The same thing had happened when I was here with my four friends, except that, then, we were always lost in this jungle. We had just followed our compasses and headed north. We got to the rim of the valley at dark and picked our way along the cliff edge until we found a spot flat enough to set up camp. In the rain. In 2019 I found the trail again just before I reached the edge of the valley. From there, the trail plunged down and out of sight. I have heard that slides have wiped out parts of the trail down the cliff.
Fifty years ago we had just shrugged and plunged off the edge. We tried following ridges to the bottom using a rope I had somehow thought to bring along. Each ridge looked promising until it ended in a vertical drop-off. We would then fight our way back up and across a ravine to the next ridge. By late afternoon, the smell of panic and surrender hung in the damp air. The clouds parted briefly, and I climbed a tree to get a better view. I could see a ridge that looked like it went to the valley floor and told the crew we had to get to that ridge. Before we got there, darkness fell and the rain increased. We found a gently sloping spot created by the root ball of a fallen tree and spent the night there in the mud under a plastic tarp that was my excuse for a tent. On the more recent trip, I stood on the cliff edge in the rain, lost in thought, as I waited for the clouds to clear. I got enough glimpses of the valley to satisfy my nostalgic longings and turned to retreat back through the jungle.
The next day we made it to the promising ridge. The angle of descent was encouraging, but there was a new problem – false staghorn fern. Our way was obstructed by matted, tangled, thickets of this vining plant, rising to heights of 20 feet. We took turns tunneling through the ferns and finally arrived at the headwaters of the Wailau River in early afternoon. On the return hike in 2019, I got terribly lost again in the rain forest/swamp. I was off the trail and down in a depression surrounded by thickets of ferns and vines. I took an educated guess and started fighting my way uphill. I spent 15 minutes climbing 15 feet. My panic was reminiscent of the 1969 trip. What if I were on the wrong ridge? Could I spend the night here in the rain? Ah, but there it was, the faintest hint of the trail. The remainder of the trip down to the heiau was uneventful.
On the third day of the 1969 expedition, we followed the river across the valley floor and spent the third night sleeping on a sandbar. This leg of the trip was easier, but not without problems. Several times we had to lower our packs over waterfalls, and then wade across chest deep pools carrying them on our heads. We arrived at the beach at the mouth of the river early the next day. What can I say – life on the beach was idyllic. It may have even been worth risking our lives to get there. We were completely isolated by sea cliffs on two sides, the jungle behind us, and the sea sweeping away to the horizon. The trip back out took three days and two nights. The second night thick fog set in, and we got lost in the rainforest on top of the island again. Again, we spent a night in the mud under the tarp. The next day the fog lifted, and we got our bearings and returned to the south shore without further adventures.
A few other parties have hiked into Wailau Valley. They all had better gear than us and were more experienced. I believe they all got picked up from the beach by a prearranged boat instead of hiking back out, as we did. I think the five of us from the long ago trip all fantasized about returning to Wailau Valley with more planning and better gear. As we aged, the fantasy faded, and my 2019 hike put the urge to rest. What did I learn from these two outings? If you are going to get lost, it is more fun to get lost in a jungle.
Information: The first half of the trail is easy to follow, but rocky and thorny. About half way up you come out into a meadow of grass and ferns. The trail, which bears right, is easy to lose here. After you enter the rainforest, the trail becomes faint and even harder to follow. Pay attention for the trip back. When you come to the rim of Wailau Valley, stop! The route from that point is difficult to impossible. As with most activities on Moloka’I, no permits are needed. Just stay on the trail and avoid private property.
Getting There: The trailhead is just west of the country store, called Manae Goods & Grindz at 8615 Kamehameha V Hwy. The trail starts near a large heiau (Hawaiian temple). The heiau looks like a rectangular rock wall. A dirt road parallels the west wall, along which there is room to park. Walk to the end of the wall and follow the road uphill to where it becomes a trail. Please respect the heiau, it is sacred in the local Hawaiian culture.
Best Time to Go: Rain and fog should always be expected. Late summer generally offers the best weather.
Books: General Information on Moloka’i can be found in the Insider’s Guide to Moloka’i.
By Grace Bowie in TrailGroove Blog 1My 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.
By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 0Whether you are venturing out on a day hike with inclement weather in the forecast, or heading out on a multi-day backpacking trip, when you’re doing so with a canine companion taking the appropriate gear not only for yourself, but also for your dog is critical. A dog jacket is one such item that I put to constant use on the trail – nearly every backpacking trip into the mountains – in addition to other dog-specific gear like dog packs and sleeping bags. While there are many dog jackets that will keep a dog warm, there aren’t many that will also keep a dog (relatively) dry if wet weather rolls through during the hiking day.
Weighing 9 ounces in a size large, the Ruffwear Cloud Chaser Dog Jacket is one solution that performs well for all around backpacking and hiking usage. This jacket is sleeved in the front for additional warmth, and features a stretchy bottom with a waterproof / breathable top section. Both the top and the bottom have a water repellent DWR coating. Reflective trim and a light loop on top complete the exterior of the jacket. The interior is lined with a very light fleece. Getting the jacket on and off is pretty easy with a little cooperation from your dog – get the front sleeves on and then zip the jacket on. Folding the zipper back locks operation so it will not unzip itself while on the trail, and there is both an inside zipper guard and outer zipper cover that serve to keep the zipper from snagging fur and also to block the weather. Rearward, there’s enough room for calls of nature without the jacket getting in the way.
While this jacket doesn’t exactly feature warmth appropriate for the arctic, and doesn’t offer rain protection for something like an all-day downpour, the jacket is most appropriate to take the edge off the cold, block some wind, and to assist in keeping the dog somewhat dry. Since this isn’t full coverage like rain gear we might wear, your dog will still get wet in the rain and the bottom of the jacket is not waterproof. However, even if they do get wet, this fully synthetic jacket will help to keep them warmer. The jacket is also great for chilly nights in the tent. The jacket is offered in 6 sizes, sized by measuring around your dog’s chest behind the front legs. Sizing wise, my dogs have measured to fit the medium, but after trying that size I found it worked but was just a bit too tight. I like to size up in the Cloud Chaser, especially for backpacking purposes where your dog will wear the jacket when they sleep at night. If the jacket is too tight, not only will your dog be uncomfortable, but it will compress their fur and they will be less warm as a result.
Overall…and currently going on 15 years of use all on the same jacket, I’ve found the Cloud Chaser to work very well for hiking and backpacking with dogs – it offers just enough warmth for 3-season chilly mountain backpacking trips, and is perfect to have on hand if inclement weather rolls in where you need to have some type of protection for your dog. At night, your dog needs to stay warm and get a good night of sleep just as much as you do. The Cloud Chaser helps in all these respects, packs fairly small, and while I wish it was a bit lighter to carry around, it’s well worth the tradeoff for me. While I’ve found the Cloud Chaser to work great for all-around usage, Ruffwear offers a few choices in the dog jacket market, one of which will likely be a good fit for the conditions you and your dog are likely to encounter. These include the insulated Powder Hound and the fleece-only Climate Changer Jackets.
The Ruffwear Cloud Chaser Dog Jacket retails for about $80. You can find it here at Amazon and at Backcountry.com.
By Kevin DeVries in TrailGroove Blog 4The United States tends to protect its public lands in piecemeal fashion. Congress designates a single landform – a mountain range, coastline, or canyon – as a National Park or Wilderness area, but leaves the surrounding land open to settlement and industry. As a result, an ocean of development – towns, roads, mining claims, and logging operations – surrounds a few islands of protected space. Only a few ecosystems are protected in their entirety.
One such ecosystem is the Greater Yellowstone, which encompasses most of northwest Wyoming along with parts of Idaho and Montana. Yellowstone National Park naturally serves as the ecosystem’s centerpiece, and a dozen Wilderness or Wilderness Study Areas flank the park on all sides. Moreover, even the land that has no formal designation remains largely wild, owing mostly to the ruggedness of the terrain.
And what rugged terrain it is! While the park itself is not especially mountainous, it is ringed by a nearly-continuous series of outstanding mountain ranges. Some of them are well-known, like the Teton or Beartooth Ranges. Others are more obscure – the Wyomings or Gros Ventres come to mind. In 2020, I set out on a self-supported hike around the perimeter of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. To avoid having to resupply in towns on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, I spent several days driving to various trailheads and placing bear-proof food drops – in compliance with forest regulations – along the route. I opted to hike in an 800-mile loop, beginning and ending the journey at my car to eliminate the need for public transit. I anticipated staying completely off the grid for the 2-month duration, walking in a circle.
The journey began on July 1st near the town of West Yellowstone, MT. I spent the first few days at lower elevations, battling swollen creeks and ruthless mosquitoes. I soon climbed into the Tetons though, walking right on the crest of the range for many miles. There’s something particularly magical about walking through an alpine landscape right as the snow is melting off. I felt as though I were somehow “getting away” with something – finding my way through snowy mountains that weren’t quite prepared for my presence yet. While I would glimpse the Grand Teton at least once daily for the majority of the loop, it would never be more up-close than it was along the Teton Crest Trail.
Leaving the Tetons behind, I ventured into a pair of more obscure mountain ranges – the Snake River and Wyoming Ranges. These ranges, while not quite as ostentatious as the Tetons, still contained plenty of magic – wildflowers in the height of midsummer bloom, ridgelines splashed with two-tone gray and orange coloration, and marvelous views of the Salt River, Teton, Gros Ventre, and Wind River Ranges. Despite a lack of official designation in the Wyoming Range, it felt like one of the most wild places of the hike. The magic continued in the beautiful but little-known Gros Ventre Range. The Gros Ventres were heavily glaciated in the upper elevations, creating “shelves” just below the main ridgeline that were a joy to cruise along. The lakes sparkled with a dazzling blue and wildflowers continued to show off their seasonal beauty.
The route briefly joined Continental Divide Trail as it entered the vast, wild, and obscure Absaroka Range. The Absarokas are home to incredible above-treeline tablelands, crumbling volcanic cliffs, jagged peaks, and scores of grizzly bears. On July 21, while following an elk trail near the edge of some cliffs, I turned a corner and met one of those grizzlies, trapped between me and the precipice. Though I was carrying bear spray and had practice deploying it quickly, the attack came far too quick to use it. He made contact, spinning me around, and charged again. This second charge knocked me to the ground. Recognizing the attack as the defensive reaction of a cornered animal, I played dead, protecting my head and neck with one hand and grabbing my bear spray with the other. But almost as soon as I hit the ground, the bear bolted. Looking at my watch as I lay on the ground, I resolved to stay still for a full 10 minutes – the bear had fled, but I wasn’t sure how far.
Once my 10 minutes were up, I field-dressed my wounds (a series of deep gashes in my shoulder and chest), and mulled my options. The injuries weren't severe enough to warrant activating my personal locator beacon. However, I couldn't just continue 40 miles along my route to the next outpost of civilization – I needed urgent medical attention. In the end, I hiked out the shortest side trail I could find and caught a ride to the hospital. The hospital staff cleaned and stitched up my wounds – nearly 40 sutures in all – and sent me on my way. I spent a couple weeks off the trail, waiting for my injuries to heal up. I was very grateful to be alive.
By early August, I felt well enough to continue the hike – with just enough time to complete it before winter arrived. The second half of the loop would be more relaxed than the first – I still couldn’t lift my arm above the shoulder, making scrambling impossible – and I stayed mostly on trails. Still, the Greater Yellowstone Loop didn’t disappoint. I made my way through the northern Absarokas, meandered down the seemingly-bottomless Clark Fork Canyon, and climbed into the Beartooth Mountains. The Beartooths were perhaps the most scenic range of the hike – and that’s saying a lot. Hundreds of lakes dotted the Beartooth Plateau. The area is a wanderer’s paradise – there aren’t many trails, but above treeline, they’re not needed. I walked past dozens of beautiful lakes, many of them unnamed.
All too quickly, the Beartooths faded away, dropping me into the northern part of Yellowstone National Park. Thick smoke from a West Coast fire complex obscured the area, imparting an eerie orange tinge to the entire viewshed. It wasn’t all bad though – I followed a well-defined, NPS-grade trail for the first time in ages, enjoying a few days of easy travel. As I began the penultimate section of the hike, the Gallatin Range, I left the park, continuing on good trail along the crest of the range. The Gallatins were probably the most “fun” section of the hike – a combination of pleasant walking and pleasant temperatures made for glorious days despite the smoky views.
For the past few weeks, I had been racing the changing seasons, and that became very apparent in the final range, the jagged Madisons. The fairly stable weather of the past two months began to break down, with a fresh batch of thunderstorms arriving each day. Due to the exposed nature of my planned route through the area, I was forced onto a couple of lower, safer alternatives. On one occasion, while following a trail through a forested basin, I glanced up at Lone Mountain – where my intended route would have led – just in time to see two lightning bolts crash down onto it. I was glad to be down here, rather than up there. As I walked into West Yellowstone on the last day of August, completing the loop, the first snow of the season began to fall in large flakes.
I spent two months walking in a circle. And yet, in going nowhere, I saw so much. The underlying unity of the entire ecosystem was apparent. Nearly every day, I caught a glimpse of either the Grand Teton or Electric Peak, two prominent area landmarks. The jaggedness of the Tetons, the wildness of the Absarokas, and the splendor of the Beartooths weren’t just points of beauty in a sea of unknown; rather, they were connected by footsteps. I suppose that time spent walking in circles is time well-spent.
Information: The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a vast tract of mostly-protected land, with Yellowstone National Park at its center. Many of its mountain ranges rank among the true classics of North American backpacking. Backpackers new to the area may be drawn to the Teton Crest Trail, Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, or trips in the Wind River Range. Backcountry Permits are required in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks
At least two people walked a Greater Yellowstone Loop prior to 2020. Phillip Knight, a Bozeman local, wrote a book about his 600-mile loop circa 1990. In 2018, my friend Pepperflake hiked a 1,000-mile route, which I used as a starting point for my own 800-mile variant.
Best Time to Go: The backpacking window in the Greater Yellowstone is rather limited – high alpine terrain generally doesn’t melt out until July, and snow often begins falling again by mid-September. July and August are prime months.
Getting There: Cody WY, Jackson, WY, and Bozeman MT are useful regional transit hubs, served by airlines and bus lines. In addition, bus lines serve both Big Sky MT and Hoback Junction WY – smaller towns that offer easy access to high alpine terrain.
Maps and Resources: Beartooth Publishing produces high-quality maps for most of the Greater Yellowstone’s major mountain ranges. Notable books include Thomas Turiano’s Select Peaks of the Greater Yellowstone (out of print).
About the Author: Kevin “LarryBoy” DeVries is an avid hiker based in Salt Lake City who enjoys everything from weekend trips to thru-hikes on America’s long trails. Most recently Kevin has hiked the Florida Trail, the Route in Between, and in the summer of 2020, Kevin hiked 800 miles on the Greater Yellowstone Loop as detailed in this article, a route encircling Yellowstone National Park and traveling through the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem through Wyoming and Montana. Kevin has also hiked from Mexico to Canada on the Route in Between.
By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 0The EXOspikes Traction System is a product from Kahtoola designed to enhance traction in wintry terrain, and is suited both for hiking and trail running. Sharing some similarities with the popular Kahtoola MICROSpikes, the product is available in multiple sizes, each fitting a range of footwear sizes. A stretchy elastomer harness fits over your footwear, and underneath you’ll find a grid of trekking pole-like metal carbide tips on the forefoot and heel – 12 on each foot to be exact. My size XL pair weighed 8.2 ounces.
I ordered the XL size as someone who usually wears a size 12.5 men’s trail runner or maybe a 13 boot. And I’m certainly glad I didn’t size down – the Kahtoola EXOspikes are pretty tough to get over my lightweight, mid-height boots (a couple times I have felt like I was going to rip the harness trying to get them over the heel), but are secure once on. If you wear a bulkier or winter boot in a men’s size 13 or above you might just be out of luck, as XL is the largest size offered. Without a doubt, while the EXOspikes will work on boots, the sizing guide is for trail runners.
Traction-wise the EXOspikes offer just about what you might expect. These are not aggressive spikes like the MICROSpikes and definitely are no Kahtoola K10s, so I found myself less connected to the surface beneath my feet than with those alternative and more aggressive products. But for me, the EXOspikes are a very nice to have item for non-steep mixed terrain and especially where there might be a little front country and backcountry mixed in together on your hike. Where I found the EXOspikes to perform best was in cold conditions where the snow / and or ice is firm and packed, and while the product does serve to add something of a lugged grip to the bottom of your shoe, traction is only slightly improved in loose snow, as there’s just not much bite.
Once conditions warm up and get slushy, the EXOs are not as effective. On ice, the spikes do add traction, but it feels more like added traction – kind of like having sandpaper on your feet, rather than a connection to the surface as with MICROSpikes, and I still very much appreciate trekking poles in addition to the EXOs. Additionally as you might expect from looking at the design, there isn’t much mid-foot traction.
Underfoot, the EXOspikes are very comfortable and even in trail runners, you can't really tell anything extra is on the bottom of your shoes. While I didn't notice this with boots, when wearing a trail running shoe there is enough compression in the toe area to cause some minor annoyance. Additionally when trail running on cambered trails, the EXOspikes did tend to drift out of place which isn't the most comfortable thing for your toes. You can quickly readjust, but the next time you hit a section of trail that's slanted side to side, it will happen again.
One thing to note is that just like the way trekking poles (without rubber tips) will mar rock and leave holes alongside the trail, you will want to either take the EXOspikes off when the trail clears up or be careful not to walk on rock that’s free of ice and snow. Not only will this increase the life of your EXOspikes, but more importantly it will help preserve the trail. I was impressed when reading the instructions that Kahtoola included this warning, in bold.
Overall the EXOspikes fill a niche for conditions where you would be taking your MICROSpikes off and putting them back on too often due to the terrain being mixed, and when you do opt for the EXOspikes they also have the side benefit of being about half the weight. Another larger, XXL size might be beneficial to the lineup for sizing. All said, I’m definitely keeping my MICROSpikes, but the EXOs are nice to have on hand for everything from wintry walks and runs in the neighborhood (or yes, even shoveling the driveway), to trail runs, or on day hikes where you might go from icy to snowy to dirt (or even pavement) and back again.
A pair of Kahtoola EXOspikes retail for around $60. You can find them at Backcountry, at Amazon.com, and here at REI.