By Mark in TrailGroove Blog 0When I became intrigued by the trout swimming in mountain lakes in the Northern Rockies, I realized the tenkara rod gathering dust in my gear room would be a great way to test the waters before outfitting myself with a full fly rod and reel set up. Tenkara is a Japanese method of fly fishing that focuses on simplicity and forgoes a reel in favor of a longer rod length, fixed amount of line, and uses as few fly patterns as possible. Presentation, mindful casting, and technique are emphasized more than trying to “equip” your way into catching more fish.
I’d used a tenkara rod in Kentucky with limited success, but it wasn’t until my second summer in Montana that I took it out onto the rivers, streams, and lakes in the Bitterroot Mountains and other ranges. I enjoy fly fishing, but almost exclusively as a supplementary activity to backpacking and not as my main motivation for getting outdoors. Fortunately, there is an incredible amount of overlap between amazing mountain scenery and fishable bodies of water. I’ve even noticed myself getting less interested in visiting lakes without fish and prioritizing camping at lakes with rumors of large trout.
At first, I just used the tenkara set up that I had because it was what I had on hand and there was no additional investment required. Plus, since I’d used it in Kentucky, I was familiar with basic casting so I didn’t need to learn any new skills – I just brushed up on my knots and bought the flies appropriate for the season and places I’d be fishing. I thought that after learning more about fishing the lakes (I almost exclusively fish lakes) I’d likely acquire a traditional fly rod with a reel and transition to using that.
However, after several short summers – fishing season in the high country is all too brief in Montana, with many lakes only ice-free from late June to early October – of catching a variety of trout on dozens of lakes, it seems that tenkara is all I need to have a great time. Its minimal weight (even with extra tippet, box of flies, clippers, and extra line my set up is less than 6 oz) and compact size (the rod I use collapses to 15 inches) are in a class of their own and absolutely perfect for weight-conscious backpackers.
The ability to quickly get a fly on the water is also something that cannot be emphasized enough, as I’m able to be casting within less than a minute of getting to a lake. When fishing with friends using traditional fly rods, I’ve often caught two or three fish by the time they’re making their first cast. The ability to efficiently pack up and move on is also a benefit, especially when fishing multiple lakes in the same day.
There are trade-offs when using a tenkara rod, like limited casting distance and inefficiency in fishing subsurface. Tenkara rods are designed to fish dry flies, but friends of mine have had some success using nymphs. For lakes where the fish are not actively feeding on the surface, this can be a point of frustration. However, in friendly “rod to rod” competitions with friends where I’ve used a tenkara rod and they’ve used a traditional fly fishing setup the results have been so similar that it appears that any advantage lies solely with the fly chosen and the skills of the angler.
On the topic of angling skills, I must admit that mine are certainly in the novice-to-intermediate range. With so many outdoor hobbies, I’ve never dedicated the time to becoming a technically proficient angler. Fortunately, because of the intuitive nature of tenkara and minimal gear to manage, that hasn’t stopped me from catching some impressive trout or dozens in a single afternoon during prime conditions. Tenkara is also a less-intimidating way of fishing when sharing it with others. I’ve had friends who never cast a rod in their life catch small trout within a few minutes.
Even if the fish aren’t biting, there is some solace that you’re not hauling around an extra pound or two of gear for no reason. Although they’re light, I’ve found the tenkrara rods to be rather durable. I typically don’t bring the rod case and instead just tuck them into a side pocket of my pack and cinch them tight with the straps. Even when in some thick bushwhacking, I haven’t lost or damaged a rod yet. My original rod is a decade old at this point and still casts great. I purchased a second rod last summer to have on hand for guests and to share some of the wear with my other rod. I’m hoping it should last at least a decade as well.
If you’re interested at all in fishing mountain lakes, tenkara is a great way to ease into the activity. A complete set up can generally be had for under $200, and much less than that if you’re willing to shop around. When compared to the other expenses related to getting equipped for backpacking, it’s not a bad deal for something that can bring you hours of entertainment on each trip and quite possibly provide you with a meal as well.
If you're ready to try tenkara, you'll want to get a rod that is appropriate for the types of waters you fish and the size of the fish you'll typically be catching. I've found rods in the 10 to 11 foot range to be ideal for the mountain lakes I fish and still reasonably maneuverable for streams and small rivers. Others might advise longer rods, especially if the lakes you're fishing tend to have larger trout (lucky you!). The topics of rod length, line length, tippet strength, and fly choices are much too broad for the scope of this article which is intended to serve more as inspiration than as a shopping list. That said, I've had success on mountain lakes in the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest using a 10 ft. 10in. rod, 11 or 13 feet of line, and 5-7 feet of 5X tippet. There are several different "beginner" kits by a variety of manufacturers selling tenkara-style rods that contain similar equipment and are a great place to start – you can find plenty of tenkara gear online and Amazon has a wide selection. But perhaps one of the most important things to remember when fly fishing in the tenkara style is that it is less about the gear and much more about the experience, the technique, and the interaction with the landscape.
By Aaron in TrailGroove Blog 7While many methods for backcountry water treatment exist, hollow fiber filters are quite popular due to their ease of use, effectiveness, reasonable cost, and longevity. While a hollow fiber filter is quite simple – with the filter itself having no moving parts and working through a multitude of hollow tubes (each hollow tube then having a multitude of microscopic pores, which actually filter the water) the filter element will still need to be maintained and some basic precautions should be exercised to maximize the lifespan of the hollow fiber filter.
Every hollow fiber filter I’ve ever used has had precautions about dropping the filter – and although most have the actual element protected within a plastic housing, care should still be exercised. At home, store the filter on a low shelf or otherwise in some place where a drop would not be possible. On the trail, ensure that the filter is properly secured and stored. While I prefer to always keep my filter in an outside pocket of my pack for quick access during the day, we also need to make sure it can’t fall out easily if you happen to jump across a small creek. Water filters are one of those gear items where you can’t really tell if it’s working or not – if it’s working water comes out…just like if the element was compromised. Thus, I like to always look for a filter that comes with a manufacturer-approved integrity test that can be performed in the field – like the Platypus GravityWorks.
Just like drops, hollow fiber filters can’t be frozen if they’ve been used, as any water inside the tubes (which can never really be completely dried) could when freezing expand and fracture the element. This is a constant issue in mountain environments when it can freeze any night of the year. As such, when there is absolutely any chance of freezing I filter all the water I’ll need for the night, then disconnect the filter (if applicable to the system) and put the filter element in the foot of my sleeping bag at night in a Ziploc bag. If it’s still below freezing when you get up, you may then need to carry the element around in a pocket until it’s warm enough outside. Once the season gets cold enough where you’re carrying the element around all day or it never gets above freezing, it’s best to look towards a different water treatment method, of course.
This pond, which was the best water around for miles in either direction, was full of algae and quickly slowed the flow rate of my hollow fiber filter. However, after a quick backflush the flow rate was easily restored.
The flow rate for all hollow fiber filters will diminish over time and the dirtier the water, the faster this flow rate will fall. Luckily, hollow fiber filters can be rinsed or backflushed to help restore at least some of this flow rate, and this can usually be performed in the field. Look to the instructions specific for your exact system, but for gravity systems such as the aforementioned Platypus GravityWorks I currently use this simply involves filtering some water from the dirty bag into the clean bag, then raising the clean bag higher than the dirty bag, causing the clean water to flow back through the filter, taking dirt and debris along with it as it passes through. This dirty water can then be dumped on the ground. Other filters like the Katadyn BeFree can be cleaned by swishing the element in clean water. While backflushing will not make the filter perform quite as good as when it was brand new, keeping up with it and backflushing regularly can maintain acceptable performance for a surprisingly long amount of time. If you'll be backpacking where all of the water sources are questionable, you can also pre-filter your water with something like a bandanna to help extend the time you'll need between backflushes.
After a trip, your hollow fiber will still retain some of that water you filtered along the way – whether that was questionable pond water or from a high mountain lake. Putting the filter right on the shelf could lead to all kinds of growth, be it algae, bacterial, mold, etc. Not only is this not appealing, but it can clog the filter over time as well as these types of growth are not easily cleared by backflushing. Unless you’ll be picking right up and heading out on another trip very shortly, it is best to disinfect the filter prior to putting it away in your gear stash. Once again, we’ll need to look to the specific instructions for your specific filtration unit to perform this task. However, most manufacturers suggest using household bleach diluted in water, then passing this solution through the filter.
Make sure you’re using unscented normal liquid bleach for this task and diluting it as the manufacturer suggests. For example, with the Platypus GravityWorks, 2 drops of bleach in 1 liter of water is suggested. This can then be run through the filter to disinfect – and this solution will remain in the filter while it sits on the shelf to keep things fresh until your next trip. When that next trip comes along, I like the run a about half a liter of backcountry water through to clear out this solution. After a trip, I like to backflush first, then disinfect as a way to gauge what type of flow rate I can expect on my next trip – and to make sure it’s not time to order a new element. Hollow fiber filter elements aren’t exactly cheap either, and are usually the most expensive part of the system – with something like a replacement GravityWorks filtration element running about $55, I like to replace the cartridge only when I have to.
By taking these few simple steps you can maximize your water filter investment and avoid having to replace the element more often than you need to. And by taking care of your filter, you might be surprised just how long a hollow fiber filter can continue to serve you season after season. Need more info on all the common different backcountry water treatment methods and what’s ideal for different scenarios? You can read our guide on backpacking water treatment methods here. Check out a full selection of backcountry water filters (including those that utilize hollow fiber filters as well as other technologies) here at REI.
By Mark in TrailGroove Blog 3For the last several years, I’ve primarily backpacked in low-top trail runners with Brooks Cascadias and Altra Lone Peaks being the ones most often on my feet. I’ve used both waterproof and non-waterproof models and, after much experimentation, have pretty much decided that in three-season conditions non-waterproof works best for me in the terrain and conditions most common on my backpacking trips. While trail runners have been preferable to me for a variety of reasons – breathability and comfort being the foremost ones – I’ve found myself missing the ankle support provided by boots.
Despite using trekking poles, I’ve had two sprained ankles within the last year while using trail runners. Past injuries are the primary contributing factors to this weak spot in my anatomy, but it seemed worthwhile to examine my footwear as well. Not wanting to go back to boots, but recognizing that maybe trail runners weren’t offering the support I needed, I decided to try out a pair of mid-height trail runners – the Altra Lone Peak 4 Mids.
After having used Altra Lone Peak 4 trail runners for many of my backpacking trips since last year, I didn’t have any trouble adjusting to the zero-drop platform of the shoes. Hikers used to more traditional designs might want to ease into using zero-drop shoes, as sometimes issues can arise when doing too much too quickly after making the switch. I never had any noticeable issues when I made the switch years ago and have been happy with how my feet and body feel at the end of the day after hiking in Altras.
The Lone Peak 4 Mids are, aside from the higher tops around the ankle, nearly identical to the Lone Peak 4 Lows. A wide toe box, gaiter trap for use with Altra specific gaiters, and ample cushioning are all features of each shoe. As someone with a rather generic foot shape I don’t necessarily need the wide toe box, but I have noticed that on longer-mileage days my feet do appreciate the extra room to spread out when compared to shoes with a narrower profile. I’ve yet to use the Altra specific gaiters on the low version of this shoe, instead just using gaiters I already own, and with the mid version I’ve not found gaiters to be necessary for most of the terrain I hike in since the higher upper portion keeps out enough debris, especially when wearing pants.
Similar to most trail runners, these shoes were comfortable right out of the box and no “break in” period was required. My first trip with them was a 10-mile round trip overnight with a few miles of faint trail and bushwhacking and a steep climb through a burned area. These shoes felt just as comfortable on that trip as they did 100 miles later on another backpacking trip with significant cross-country travel. At 1 lb. 9 oz for the pair, these feel nearly as light as low trail runners while still offering a reasonable amount of ankle support at a fraction of the weight of traditional hiking boots. The boots have a 25mm stack height, and combined with an integrated rockplate I’ve found them to provide ample protection underfoot on rough trails. The sole provides good traction across the board with a fairly aggressive tread pattern. Although overall, I've been impressed by the durability of these shoes – especially given that a decent chunk of the mileage has been cross-country or on brushy trails – they do appear to have similar weaknesses as with trail runners in general. The toe cap on one of the shoes is beginning to peel slightly as I close in on 150 miles. However, the tread is still in great shape and most surprisingly no weak spots in the mesh have appeared.
The only downside I’ve noticed about these shoes compared to traditional trail runners is that they are not as easy to slip on and off when taking breaks or exiting the tent in the middle of the night to, uh, admire the stars. Whereas with most low trail runners I can easily slip them on and off without undoing the laces, with these I have to undo the laces and loosen them to get my feet in and out. This isn’t a major point of contention for me, as I usually use camp shoes, but on trips where I forego them I do miss the convenience of being able to easily shed my footwear and just as easily slip it back on.
As would be expected with a mesh shoe, the breathability is excellent. Even on a 16-mile day in Yellowstone National Park with a heavy pack in 80-degree temperatures, my often-unusually-sweaty feet didn’t get uncomfortably warm. The obvious counterpoint, of course, is that these shoes are not waterproof. Although Altra does offer RSM mid and RSM low versions of the Lone Peak with waterproofing in mind, since I’ve more or less phased out waterproof footwear and replaced it with breathable, quick-drying footwear this wasn’t a major adjustment or inconvenience for me. These shoes dried reasonably quickly in low-humidity conditions in the Northern Rockies after getting wet crossing creeks; no better or worse than other comparable trail runners.
At $130 the Lone Peak 4 Mesh Mids are economically priced and, given the features and performance, I find them to be a remarkable value. If you’re looking for ankle support but don’t want the bulk of a traditional hiking boot, then the Lone Peak 4 Mids are a great option if you’re comfortable with zero-drop shoes or are interested in transitioning to them.
The Altra Lone Peak 4 Mesh Mid Hiking Boots retail for $130. You can find them here at Amazon, at CampSaver.com, and here at REI.
By Mark in TrailGroove Blog 1Although lacking wilderness status or the “brand name” recognition of Glacier National Park, the Beaverhead Mountains in western Montana are a remarkably scenic landscape with few crowds and plenty of lakes with trout in them. In other words, they contain all the prerequisites for a great backpacking trip. The Beaverhead Mountains, which are at the southern end of the Bitterroot Mountain Range, are also notorious for having millions of voracious mosquitoes which makes early season trips here a form of self-induced torture. Even on a trip in mid-August, there were noticeably more mosquitoes – which were irritating, but not trip-ruining – than on trips the same time of year in the Bitterroots, Glacier National Park, or areas of the North Cascades.
I’ve heard anecdotal reports from other hikers, and seen official statements by public land managers, that the trails this summer are more crowded than ever. Wishing to avoid the crowds, I headed to a trailhead in the Beaverheads that I’d visited once before as part of a three night out-and-back trip half a decade ago. On that trip, which was in early September, there were no mosquitoes to contend with but I did have about 5 inches of snow fall on the first night which complicated things just a bit. I’d always been eager to return and figured that a weekday in mid-August was as good a time as any. The trailhead is just over a dozen miles outside of Jackson, Montana – population estimated at just over 100 people – and the final three miles are rough and require a 4WD vehicle with decent clearance.
Lacking a vehicle capable of navigating the last few miles, I brought my mountain bike to ride to the trailhead since the road was fairly flat. Biking with a backpack is no fun, but I made it to the trailhead in about the same time it would’ve taken me to crawl along in a vehicle. On the way back I’m sure I made better time than most vehicles as the front suspension of the bike smoothed out the bumps and the downhill grade amplified each pedal stroke. The lack of an oil pan or other expensive undercarriage equipment to damage let me be a bit cavalier about avoiding obstacles that would have me white-knuckled if behind a wheel, plus the miniscule width of a bike compared to a truck allowed me to more easily choose the path of least resistance. The trailhead was as uncrowded as I’d expected, just a handful of trucks. Although the Continental Divide Trail runs through the Beaverheads, it sees surprisingly few other hikers. Distance from major population centers and somewhat limited access for passenger vehicles are major contributing factors. Some trails in the Beaverheads are also open to dirt bikes, which discourages hikers looking for a more pristine experience.
The trail that I was taking for my overnight trip led to a stunning mountain lake just four miles from the trailhead with only around 800 feet of elevation gain. From that lake, which has brook trout, I would ascend cross-country another 500 feet to an unnamed upper lake which has a self-sustaining population of rainbow trout. I made it to the lower lake with plenty of time to fish before plodding uphill to where I planned to camp. While the fishing wasn’t record setting, it was a great way to take a somewhat active break and wading around in the cool water was refreshing after the biking and hiking. Once a few fish were caught, water consumed, and snacks eaten I cinched down my pack straps, grabbed my trekking poles, and began the zig-zag ascent to the upper lake.
The views from the upper lake are nothing short of magical. The craggy mountains that hem in the lower lake seem to rise at eye level from a perfect low-impact tent site. Cliffs go down to the shore of the upper lake and two prominent peaks, one named and the other unnamed, rise above it. Several slabs of granite provide great places to cast into the waters and to stretch out and eat, read and relax. After some fishing, I worked up the courage to jump in from a small ledge five feet above the water despite the rapidly setting sun the chilly water of the lake, which sits at around 8,500 feet. I brewed a cup of tea before taking the plunge and appreciated the warm fluids to sip while I dried off.
A mild thunderstorm rolled through during the night, but cleared out just before the sun came up. I’d studied up on the map before going to bed and had my sights set up on the unnamed summit above the lake. The path was relatively straightforward and, at least from the lake, no technical climbing seemed to be necessary to gain the summit. I fished my way around the lake with a few catches here and there before stashing my gear and heading for the top.
I’d expected a mellow hike, and the actual route was even less demanding than I thought with views more incredible than I’d anticipated – always a good combination. Being able to see both lakes from one vantage point was particularly rewarding. After a break at the summit to soak up the scenery, I headed back down to the upper lake, then to the lower and out to the trailhead. I stopped to gather huckleberries and grouse whortleberries, which were still ripening up high while in the Bitterroots they were almost past their prime due to the lower elevation. The bike ride back to my car capped off yet another trip that featured solitude in the Montana wilderness. Riding downhill made for a faster trip out than the ride in and, as expected, there was no traffic to contend with.
Information: Trails into the Beaverhead Mountains from Montana are accessed from the southwestern part of the state, with Jackson and Wisdom being the closest “towns” to the trailhead (only Wisdom has a gas station; Jackson has a commercial hot springs with lodging and a restaurant). Trail access is also available from Idaho, with those trails being in the Salmon-Challis National Forest.
Hiking a section Continental Divide Trail is a great option if you can arrange a shuttle or don’t mind backtracking. Otherwise, just looking at a map and picking out a lake or lakes to hike to is a good way to explore the area. Cross-country travel in the Beaverheads is not prohibitively difficult for the most part, but as with any backcountry travel appropriate caution and research are necessary. This does allow for “shortcutting” from lake to lake or over ridges to create a route that connects trails that otherwise dead-end in adjacent drainages.
There is no guidebook for the Beaverheads, but several great hikes are detailed in 100 Classic Hikes: Montana by Douglas Lorain and published by Mountaineers Books. For driving to trailheads, the Montana Benchmark Recreation Atlas can be utilized. Printing maps from Caltopo or similar is a great option as the map provided by the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest does not contain enough detail to be sufficient for backpacking.
By Aaron in TrailGroove Blog 2Since moving to the Lone Peak line as my 3 season hiking and backpacking shoe of choice in 2014, I’ve followed along as the shoe has matured across various versions as I’ve worn out each pair along the way. Now that it’s 2020, the latest version is all the way up to the 4.5 model that is quite different from very early versions of the Lone Peak, but very similar to more recent versions like the Lone Peak 4.0.
In fact, the new Altra Lone Peak 4.5 is so similar that after wearing out my version 4 shoes, I immediately took the Lone Peak 4.5 on a 5 day, almost entirely offtrail (unless we’re counting elk trails) backpacking trip with no break in and without even trying them on before heading out the door. Normally, this isn’t suggested with a new shoe, but with my previous experience hiking in the Lone Peak and knowing I’m always a size 12.5 in Altra shoes, it turned out great. The shoe (so long as you get the right size) is immediately comfortable with plenty of space for the toes and the shoe is light (13 ounces per shoe measured in my size men’s 12.5), so it doesn’t weigh down your feet. The rockplate and moderate level of cushioning (25mm stack height) in the shoe is sufficient protection for your feet even offtrail with a 30lb pack, and the outsole offers sufficient traction in varied conditions. Like all Altra shoes the shoe has zero heel to toe drop.
For backpacking, and while I normally do not take camp shoes no matter what, the Lone Peak is the only shoe I’ve ever worn that didn’t have me partially wishing for a camp shoe at the end of a long day. The shoes will also dry reasonably quickly after an accidental or intentional splash through a stream crossing due to the breathability built into the shoe, and the mesh that offers this breathability is pretty tough – and in fact has been holding up even after some talus travel where I did completely expect the shoes to rip or at least show significant signs of abrasion.
With the Lone Peak 4.5 it’s just been more of the same that we’ve come to expect from the Lone Peak line – although with the most recent versions the “trail rudder” that Altra has used in the past has returned – which is just a small protrusion of the outsole beyond the heel of the shoe that is said to offer more control and traction on downhills. While I haven’t found this to make much of a difference on descents, it does seem like it adds an opportunity for the outsole to separate from the midsole at some point. Not that this has happened, but I do think with shoes sometimes simpler is better. I don’t use gaiters with low shoes, but if you do the Lone Peak has gaiter attachment points on the heel and toe of the shoe.
Overall the Lone Peak 4.5 is unremarkably great – it’s just more of the same nice blend of light weight, decent durability, traction, protection, and comfort (even right out of the box) that we’ve come to expect from the continually refined Lone Peak lineup.
A pair of Lone Peak 4.5 shoes retail for around $120, but can be found on sale. You can find them here at Amazon.com, at Backountry.com, and here at REI. For our review on the waterproof RSM version of the Lone Peak, see this magazine review. You can find my review of the waterproof mid-height boot here. Altra also has a mesh version of the Lone Peak in a mid-height boot (all of the last 3 models are currently on the 4.0 model) – you can check out the Lone Peak Mesh Mids here.