By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 1Ten years or so ago, questions about smartphones were just beginning to come up in backpacking circles. Questions like “Do you take your phone with you on the trail?” were typically asked. Some – including myself at times, saw little reason to take the extra weight and a potential distraction into the wilderness. Others simply packed theirs along so they didn’t have to leave it their car at the trailhead where it could be stolen. However, these days you are more likely to hear questions pertaining to the best powerbank to bring to recharge your phone due to heavy usage on the trail, rather than questions related to bringing it at all.
But with such common smartphone usage on the trail and with a phone – along with associated mapping apps always at hand – smartphones are now relied upon for navigation over a paper map for many. And it’s easy to see why – with a smartphone you can instantly locate your exact position, or perhaps even download your planned route to the phone before your trip. Then, with GPS telling you exactly where you are, you can just follow the line. Navigation is expedited or even by many definitions, eliminated. You just hike. Well, just hike…and look at a screen.
But with this technique the prowess of one’s navigational abilities lessens over time. Not only is this a safety issue if your phone breaks or you run out of charge – and hopefully you brought a paper map as a backup – but for me it also lessens the experience. No longer are we exploring and leading our own way through the woods; we are now simply following. And I’ve found myself guilty of this as well despite my reservations with technology in the backcountry (although I always take a paper map). With the phone in your pocket you head out – and eventually come to a “why not check the GPS?” point. After turning the phone back on you decide to just keep it on in airplane mode – making more frequent checks convenient and easier. Eventually, you can find yourself staring at a screen at intervals instead of reading a map and the terrain – which is not what I headed out to do. Now, and while I still pack my phone, I’ve made it a point to use the paper map instead. Just like the old days, the paper map puts a little more pressure on your shoulders. But instead of looking at my location on a screen I’m looking at the land. Better yet, I have to locate myself – which is a skill that has to be learned and continually polished. The compass is actually used. There’s something satisfying about doing it this way.
However, the smartphone still offers many benefits. The amount of high detail USGS topos that my phone can carry for no extra bulk and weight…with maps that are more detailed than a paper overview map – make it worth the while. But I try to keep it off during the day. I’ll look at those detailed USGS topos at night in the tent, and navigate with the paper map during the day. Or, although not as romantic as a paper map, using the phone to look at maps but using a mapping app that does not automatically locate you unless you choose, like CalTopo, can be a nice secondary option. After you’ve made your navigational decisions, you can always choose to pinpoint your location just to be sure. But only after you’ve looked at the map – seeing your location first unavoidably seems to cause the problem-solving, navigational wheels in your head to come to an immediate stop.
Navigating with a paper map takes practice. But you don’t have to be an orienteering expert to be efficient at backcountry navigation. While I’m versed in such techniques as triangulation – and it’s good knowledge to have without a doubt, it’s a bit like advanced math. Day to day, it’s not something I find useful, but is still something nice to have in your bag of tricks should the need arise. The first step to navigating with a paper map is to have it at hand. A cargo pants pocket that buttons or zips and is big enough to hold the map would be my first choice. The other thing I like to have on hand is a compass. In fact, I keep this very much at hand and on my wrist in the form of an ABC watch, that you should adjust for declination before each trip. Declination is the difference in degrees (which varies by location) between true north and magnetic north. Any paper map worth the paper it was printed on will have this listed. Adjust your digital or physical compass as needed. Although I've gotten away with a small zipper-pull compass in the past, these days I back the compass on my watch up with a physical Suunto compass for when I really want to get precise with navigation.
The best way to stay found is to never get lost in the first place. As long as you know where the trailhead you started at is, you can stay found by watching the map, watching your compass, and constantly staying attuned to your relative location. But I am not sitting down and triangulating peaks while I’m out there. Mostly, I am using terrain association and directional compass guidance. Using handrails – which could be a stream, a trail itself, or even navigation by elevation, and backstops where you navigate to near can’t miss features like rivers or trails are all techniques that I use just about constantly. Of course, you don’t have to go all in on these techniques. Off trail in a deep forest with no view where you might just be following a compass bearing can be some of the toughest navigation out there. Making decisions about your current location first based upon the map and compass and the terrain in front of you, then coming up with a way to get from point A to point B using the map – but then double checking your location via GPS can sure save a lot of time if you did make a mistake. But, with this method you’re still refining those navigational skills either way.
With most of us guilty of looking at screens too much already, the last thing I want to do in the wilderness is be guilty of the same thing. There’s nothing like navigating with a paper map – it’s the same journey, just more rewarding. There’s no pre-loaded GPX track to follow. A paper map never runs out of battery – making a fully charged smartphone when leaving the car more than enough for multi-night trips. You can go wherever your eyes might drift to over the folds of the map, and get there by whichever route you choose. Rather than follow a narrow corridor, the entire wilderness is now seemingly open for exploration. And with a little technology as a backup – but not the other way around – you can have the best of both worlds.
By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 0As a follow-up to Curry Caputo's excellent Issue 52 article Of Life and of Maine's 100 Mile Wilderness, a story that details a family backpacking journey through the wilderness of Maine and to the top of Mount Katahdin, here is the full narrated, audio version of the story alongside video documenting the entire trip. You can read the original article here in Issue 52, and watch and listen to the video below:
By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 0When hitting the store for a backpacking water bottle we may be inclined to at first reach for our favorite color bottle or the bottle featuring the most appealing printed design on the side. While there’s nothing wrong with that when it comes to having a water bottle around the house or at work, when it comes to choosing a hiking or backpacking water bottle other performance factors should be considered. With weight being paramount in the backcountry, the prototypical standard, Tritan Nalgene bottle may not necessarily weigh you down, but there’s a better option in the same company’s lineup.
The Ultralight HDPE Nalgene bottle – the old school, slightly opaque white bottle that was par for the course several decades ago when backpackers wore fluorescent jackets and shorts with rag wool, fingerless gloves, may just be the best water bottle of all time. While this bottle is not as ubiquitous as in years past, the HDPE / Ultralight Nalgene – made from food grade high density polyethylene plastic, is much lighter than its Tritan cousin (both are BPA-free, as you’d expect these days). At 6.3 ounces the Tritan adds nearly half a pound (each) to your pack, while the Ultralight adds a much more respectable 3.9 ounces. While nearly a quarter pound is still significant for ounce counters like myself, it’s worth the weight. Re-used plastic water or soda bottles, etc., are a decidedly lighter weight option weighing a couple ounces, instead of a few. However, they can’t take boiling water – and having a bottle that does allows you to make anything from hot coffee or tea for example, and also allows for throwing a hot water bottle inside your sleeping bag on chilly nights. Re-used plastic bottles also break, as I can attest to, and when one breaks a few days into a 10 day stretch, it’s inconvenient to say the least.
Being softer than a Tritan Nalgene, the Ultralight HDPE handles drops better in my experience, and although both versions can handle boiling water, the HDPE offers a little more peace of mind I suppose – the HDPE can handle water up to 248 degrees Fahrenheit (good for boiling water on below-sea-level backpacking trips I suppose) while the Tritan tops out at 212F. And, when it comes to figuring out how much water to boil for dinner, any Nalgene bottle features graduated measurements in ounces or ml on the side of the bottle, which helps to get that meal dialed-in. And to top it off, you won’t lose the tethered lid, and the bottles are especially secure in the leak department.
While the more modern Tritan Nalgene may admittedly, win in style factor and is the more popular option – found everywhere in stores, on the trail, and in coffee shops and schools, I’d argue that its more plain cousin is by far the best choice for hikers and backpackers. Most importantly – it’s lighter in weight. The Tritan Nalgene is a downright heavy water bottle approaching half a pound empty. The HDPE Ultralight Nalgene is not necessarily what I’d term “ultralight” (a better term for this bottle might be “not heavy”), but it strikes the perfect balance between durability and weight. Sometimes, old school just can’t be beat.
The Nalgene Ultralight HDPE bottle is available in a wide-mouth bottle (easier filling) and a narrow-mouth bottle (easier drinking) in the standard 1 liter size that fits in the side water bottle pocket of any backpack on the market worth its weight. The bottle can also be found in 16 ounce and jumbo 48 ounce options. You can find the normal and most popular wide-mouth option here at REI and here at Amazon.
By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 0I’ve dreamed about flyfishing for golden trout in the Wind River Range ever since I picked up a flyfishing magazine when I was about 13 years old that had a short article detailing a backcountry trip in pursuit of the elusive golden trout. Even at the time I was an avid fisherman, but what I read about in that article was the polar opposite of the type of fishing and the type of outdoor experience I was familiar with. While the magazine has long been misplaced, and internet searches to track down the article fruitless, the article planted a seed and somehow I’ve ended up with the range in my back yard and a few caught and released golden trout to my name.
As I became initiated with the Winds I collected and reviewed all the latest hiking guides, maps, and content that I could find. I soon found out that one thing that wasn’t included in my library was the trail guide published in 1975 by Finis Mitchell, who moved to Wyoming with his parents in 1906. I quickly located a copy online and the book was on its way.
In 1930, Finis and his wife started a fishing camp at the southern end of the range near the Big Sandy Trailhead. Finis states in the book that when they initially started the camp, only about 5 lakes contained gamefish. Over the course of time that they ran the camp, they stocked an additional 314 lakes with various species of trout by packing them in on teams of horses carrying the 5 gallon cans that contained the fish. He was also an avid climber and became very familiar with what the range has to offer other than just fishing and lakes. Before he passed away in 1995, he had climbed nearly every peak in the Winds.
At 142 pages, the book is fairly short and a quick and easy read. The book starts with a short autobiography and a section on hiking information, and is then broken down into 17 sections by entrance. Most of the modern day trailheads are covered. Within each entrance section Finis describes the trails within that general area, occasionally throwing in examples of his own personal experiences. Finis - a man who at 73 twisted his knee in a crevasse and hobbled 18 miles to safety on crutches whittled from a pine tree - writes in a matter of fact almost stream of consciousness type of style. At times it feels like you’re across the campfire from him listening to someone tell you everything they know about the Winds, while throwing in a few amusing stories for good measure. Finis was also an avid photographer, and many black and white photographs are included in the book, along with pencil-sketched maps. Some of my favorite parts are the quotes from Finis that are thrown in along the way.
Surprisingly, much of the trail and route information is still quite accurate. However, if it’s your first trip to the range, I wouldn’t suggest relying on this book. It’s better served as a supplemental information source or just a really interesting read if you like the area, and especially if you like fishing in the area. I did find myself wishing that the book would have expounded a bit more upon the personal experiences and stories that Finis experienced rather than mostly focusing on trail and route descriptions, but there is indeed a wealth of information in the book and more than enough personal input from Finis to keep things interesting. As I plan a trip and return from a trip within the Winds, I frequently find myself sitting down with the book just to see what Finis had to say about the area and I think it’s a must have for any Wind River Range enthusiast.
If you're interested in the book, you can buy Wind River Trails at Amazon.
By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 1Earlier this month, 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 new 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 travels his dog Yoni has often been a companion, and he’s no stranger to backpacking overseas either.
I received my copy of the book shortly after the release and at first was struck by just how visual Trail Tested is. Nearly every page is filled with great photos related to the subject at hand, and at the same time Justin’s descriptions are short and to the point – For a how to guide it’s everything that you need to know without being overdone. As such the book is easy to pick up and read in a relaxed manner, and the book doesn’t require too much commitment from the reader for Justin’s insight to come across. Trail Tested covers just about every backpacking and hiking topic that you can think of, ranging from gear to technique and general trail philosophy.
The book is broken down into 3 main sections, the first section titled “For Starters” focuses mainly on things like gear and food selection. The book then moves into the “Getting the Groove” section, (Obviously our favorite) which details more advanced topics ranging from winter camping to first aid and photography. “Stepping it up” is the last section in the book, where Justin details practices for making your own gear, hiking cross country, and much more. Along the way quick “Trauma Tips” are included that really highlight some of the strategies that you only find by spending time on the trail – The book will definitely save anyone who is just getting on their feet in the sport a lot of time, but is still a great read for the more experienced members of the community as well.
Even after finishing the book, I found that I kept pulling it off the shelf just to see what Trauma had to say about various categories of gear as I continually work to refine and perfect my own gear list and approach to life on the trail. I read straight through the book over the course of a few days, and it will continue to remain in my collection as a quick reference for all things that are hiking and backpacking related. Best of all, the book includes a great index to find what you need fast, and with all the pictures that are included, the book is sure to keep you motivated when you’re just not able to make it to the trailhead.
You can currently Buy Trail Tested at Amazon for $19.99. We're also currently giving away two signed copies of the book, a Harmony House Backpacking Kit, and signed copies of I Hike by Lawton Grinter. You can find all the details in This Blog Post. Good luck!