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Subalpine Splendor: Hiking in the Bitterroot Mountains

With so many places to explore in Montana, it might seem a bit strange to visit the same place for a second time – much less a third time. But one lake in particular has drawn me back to it three times over the last few years. My first visit to this lake was coincidentally my first summer in Montana. My eagerness for mountain scenery led me to visiting it so early (late May) that even though it had been a mild winter, the lake was still frozen over and although the scenery was magical I wasn’t a

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Trips

Petzl IKO CORE Rechargeable Headlamp Review

For whatever reason, headlamps have not been an item I’ve paid particular attention to during a decade of backpacking. I’m on my third or fourth headlamp, but whenever I’ve needed to replace one (lost, intermittent failure issues, decided to make it a spare to keep in the car, etc.) I’ve simply purchased whatever was most similar to the previous one. Bells and whistles were never that intriguing to me when it came to headlamps (although one of mine did have a whistle built into the plastic on th

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Gear

Exploring an Ecosystem: Hiking a Greater Yellowstone Loop

The 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 Yellowston

Kevin DeVries

Kevin DeVries in Trips

From Mexico to Canada: Thru-Hiking the Route In Between

Hikers love maps. Maps are more than just navigational aids – they’re permission to let our imaginations run free. Maps inspire childlike wonder. We dream about what’s around the bend. I’ve spent years staring at a map of long-distance hiking trails in the United States. The Arizona Trail runs north-south through its home state, as does the Idaho Centennial Trail. Between the two, there’s a gap where no established trail exists. The gap is not for lack of scenic beauty, however. The state o

Kevin DeVries

Kevin DeVries in Trips

Backpacking Pillow Selection Guide and Overview

A good night of sleep is always important – but with the physical activity that goes along with backpacking, it becomes even more important on the trail. Getting a good rest after a long hiking day will only help things the next day – whether it’s the physical challenge of a high mileage day, or even a day that tests other things like your sharpness with navigational ability. Not to mention just our general mental outlook – being tired makes everything harder. With our at home pillow system (at

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick 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

Solitude in the Sapphire Mountains of Montana

I’ve always placed a premium on solitude when planning my outdoor activities and, with some planning and luck, have never found it to be particularly difficult to obtain. However, with trails across the country being more crowded than ever this past summer, it’s taken a bit more effort even in sparsely populated western Montana to have that lake, peak, or meadow all to yourself. Fortunately, with a bit of flexibility and research I was able to turn a short-notice opportunity for an overnight tri

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington 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

October Alpine: Fall Backpacking in Montana

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

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Trips

Backpacking and Tenkara: Ultralight Fishing on the Trail

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

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Technique

Altra Lone Peak 4 Mesh Mid Hiking Boot Review

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

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Gear

Lakes, Peaks, & Bugs: Hiking the Beaverhead Mountains

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

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Trips

Hollow Fiber Backpacking Water Filter Care & Maintenance

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

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Gear

Altra Lone Peak Youth Kid's Shoe Review

When it comes to backpacking with a kid, many challenges will need to be addressed. While most of these challenges come in the form of intangibles such as proper trip planning for their particular age, motivation on the trail, and figuring out the best way to answer “how much farther” type questions, when it comes to hiking gear for kids, good shoes (as with adults) are critical. Unfortunately, decent footwear that is durable, lightweight, and comfortable for actual hiking distances i

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Gear

NEMO Switchback Sleeping Pad Review

I think we can all agree that getting a good night’s sleep is essential to enjoying a backpack trip. But it is also a challenge. If you are accustomed to sleeping on a bed, as most of us are, then the transition from mattress to ground is a hard one. We need something to cushion that transition and thus some sort of sleeping pad is a part of nearly every hiker’s kit. Inflatable sleeping pads best mimic the mattress sleeping experience. But they have their drawbacks: they are fairly heavy (often

HappyHour

HappyHour in Gear

ULA Equipment Spark Kid's Backpack Review

Backpacking with kids is all about progression – from the first overnighter where you might be carrying all the family gear as well as the kid, to those first short trips later just a short distance from the trailhead and as far as young legs – or young attention spans can make it. However, once you pass these stages and your kid can start to carry more than just a small day pack with just a couple very light weight items and your trips begin to venture farther into the backcountry, a real pack

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick in Gear

Altra Lone Peak 4.5 Trail Running Shoe Review

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

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Buzz Away Extreme Insect Repellent Review

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

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Backpacking in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest

“Crowded” at trailheads in national forests in Montana typically just means more cars than you can count one hand, thus providing a degree of solitude that backpackers in states like Oregon or Washington would envy. If a solo experience is what you’re after, it doesn’t take much effort to find great hikes where the chances of you being the only hiker on the trail are north of 90%. Needless to say, by and large hiking in Montana during the COVID-19 pandemic has not made me feel like I’m putting m

Mark Wetherington

Mark Wetherington in Trips

COVID-19 Backpacking and Hiking Considerations

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

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Black Diamond Cosmo Headlamp Review

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

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

RapidPure Scout Water Purifier Review

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

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

Mountain House Yellow Curry with Chicken & Rice Review

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

Aaron Zagrodnick

Aaron Zagrodnick

  • Blog Entries

    • Mark Wetherington
      By Mark Wetherington in TrailGroove Blog 1
      With so many places to explore in Montana, it might seem a bit strange to visit the same place for a second time – much less a third time. But one lake in particular has drawn me back to it three times over the last few years. My first visit to this lake was coincidentally my first summer in Montana. My eagerness for mountain scenery led me to visiting it so early (late May) that even though it had been a mild winter, the lake was still frozen over and although the scenery was magical I wasn’t able to fish it. That trip also resulted in a memory that made an impression on me and that I’ve succeeded in avoiding repeating – camping on top of slowly melting snow in a thunderstorm.

      It was four years before I would visit the lake again, this time in mid-June. I hoped the extra two weeks of warm temperatures would allow me to arrive right as the lake completed its thaw and might provide excellent fishing. No such luck – the lake was approximately 90% covered in ice, only a swimming pool sized area near the outlet stream was open water. I descended to a nearby and much larger lake that, a thousand feet lower, was totally free of ice and even warm enough for a brisk swim. Or perhaps it could better be described as “barely warm enough to not make hypothermia a certainty”. A few fish were rising on that lake, but none were interested in the flies I tossed out.
      It should be mentioned that this lake is not an easily reached or often visited body of water. The trail that leads up to it has long been abandoned and its description in a guidebook was equal parts discouraging and intriguing. Sweetening the description of a seldom visited, unnamed lake was the comment that “a cutthroat fishery thrives in these deep, cold waters.” I hoped to finally get to see for myself what swam beneath the lake’s beautiful waters that reflected sheer granite cliffs stretching toward the crest of the Bitterroot Mountains. According to the guidebook, I’d already succeeded in perhaps the toughest part of reaching the lake which is simply knowing where to begin the 1000 foot climb from the trail that passes along the shore of the lower lake.

      While that description – of the toughest part being where to know where to turn off onto the faint trail to the lake – may have been true a decade or two ago, since the trail has all but disappeared I would counter that the steep ascent from thick brush and downed trees is the most difficult part. After my most recent experience with hiking to the lake, I’m not entirely sure I will do it again. Conveniently, it will compel me to visit new areas. On the downside, it makes me wary of returning to an absolutely beautiful lake that has (spoiler alert) decent fishing and two stellar side-trip options, only one of which I’ve done in its entirety.
      On a beautiful mid-July day, I hiked the 8.5 miles to the large lake where I then began the real effort of my day – hiking another 1000 feet (I’d already gained 2000 feet to reach the first lake) off-trail to the unnamed lake where I would spend the night. Despite having done it twice before, the final push up to the lake really made a miserable impression on me this time. The steepness, the unstable footing, and the downed trees all seemed worse this time around. After finally making it to the lake, it was like seeing it for the first time as it wasn’t covered in ice. The beauty of this place had blown me away on the previous trips, but finally seeing it in its summer scene was incredible.

      Snowdrifts still abounded in the shady spots and some went all the way down to the shore of the lake. A lovely and tall waterfall provided a charming soundtrack as it cascaded down the granite slopes and entered the lake. I’ve been to over a hundred mountain lakes ranging from Glacier National Park, the Olympics, the Cascades, and the Northern Rockies and this is one is definitely among my favorites.
      After admiring the scenery and scanning the water for rising trout (none that I could see), I hastily set up camp and then headed over to a large granite ramp that went to the water’s edge and which would make an ideal place to cast from. A dozen casts later – perfect casts, in my eyes – I began to worry that maybe the trout, like the trail, had become a shadow of their former selves or disappeared completely from the lake. Between deep freezes and other environmental factors, it is not out of the question for lakes to go “dead” from time to time.

      Fortunately, a few casts later a beautiful cutthroat trout took my fly and ran with it. After releasing that fish, I began to see a few of the tell-tale circles dot the water and I realized that there were plenty other fish to catch. I caught another half-dozen trout before stopping to eat dinner and caught a few more after that. My luck didn’t hold out the next morning and I left the lake on a beautiful cross-country trip to a basin filled with beautiful (but fishless) tarns on my way back to the trailhead. Despite it not being a record-breaking outing for my personal fishing stats, I’d succeed in something I’d set out to do several years prior and that was a satisfying feeling. Apparently, the third time was a charm!
      Information: No permits are required for backpacking in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. The USFS Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness map set (north and south half) is sufficient for most navigation, but using CalTopo or similar software to print more detailed maps is recommended if you plan on doing much cross-country hiking. Cairn Cartographics also offers north half and south half maps for the Selway-Bitterroot. Most subalpine lakes in the Bitterroot Mountains aren't ice-free until late June. Elevation and aspect impact this to a large degree, but by early July in most years you can rest assured that pretty much all lakes will be ice-free. And once they're ice-free, the trout are usually pretty hungry and eager for dry flies! By mid-October most lakes are starting to freeze again. It's a cruelly short window, but worth planning to make the most of it. Hiking the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness by Scott Steinberg (Falcon Press) is a useful resource for planning trips. For more information, see TrailGroove Issue 41 for our guide on exploring the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.
    • Mark Wetherington
      By Mark Wetherington in TrailGroove Blog 2
      For whatever reason, headlamps have not been an item I’ve paid particular attention to during a decade of backpacking. I’m on my third or fourth headlamp, but whenever I’ve needed to replace one (lost, intermittent failure issues, decided to make it a spare to keep in the car, etc.) I’ve simply purchased whatever was most similar to the previous one. Bells and whistles were never that intriguing to me when it came to headlamps (although one of mine did have a whistle built into the plastic on the headband adjuster), I just wanted something that would provide ample light for around camp and occasional night-hiking. I’ve never been especially impressed with the headlamps I’ve used, but I’ve never been terribly disappointed either. I suppose, much like the lights in my home, I just sort of take them for granted.

      I wasn’t really expecting much when I began using the Petzl IKO CORE Headlamp – even with its unique design and minimalist flair, I more or less assumed I’d find it to be like all the headlamps I’ve used before. Functional, but not anything that really put a grin on my face. To my surprise, I found that the IKO immediately impressed me in several ways when compared to the other headlamp I was using for backpacking (a Petzl ACTIK CORE). Although the weights are identical, the IKO feels lighter when worn due to the battery being at the rear and only a small housing for its seven bulbs on the front. This was most noticeable when wearing the headlamp while cross-country skiing and running, but even when sitting around camp it felt more comfortable than traditional headlamps with elastic headbands. Another nice feature of the headband is that it won’t absorb sweat or other moisture due to its fairly rigid plastic design.

      For its compactness, this headlamp was very bright on its highest setting. I found the lowest setting to be too dim for anything other than reading in the tent or small tasks around camp. The medium setting was the sweet-spot for me; bright enough to walk around camp and focus on tasks, but not so bright as to be obnoxious. The brightest setting was ideal for hiking at night and really lit up the landscape. The listed run-times for the various brightness settings are comparable to other headlamps I’ve used and should be plenty to get through an extended trip in shoulder-season, when you might be using your headlamp more and even might need to do some night hiking with the headlamp on the brightest setting. Three AAA batteries can be used or the rechargeable CORE battery. I’ve used the CORE battery, since it is interchangeable with my Petzl ACTIK, but it is nice to have the option to bring along the AAA batteries as a back-up on longer trips or for those trips in cold weather when batteries can get drained more quickly. The CORE battery can be recharged with a USB cable and has a green indicator light for when it is fully charged.

      The small light housing on the front of the headlamp tilts smoothly to adjust the beam where you want it. What’s nice about the design of this is that you can stop it anywhere along its path, whereas other headlamps I’ve used just allow it to be moved into one or two positions it clicks into. In the past, I rarely used this feature because it just never really worked for me with the preset angles, but the fine-tuning allowed with this one actually made it functional to adjust the beam lower when doing things like cooking, for example.
      As is expected when a product focuses on simplicity, there are only minimal features present with the IKO. There is no strobe feature or red light. This wasn’t a great loss to me, although I do find having the red light to be helpful when stargazing but needing to attend to a small task, or when in camp with others to lessen the visual disruption of a headlamp. The color temperature of the light is nice, and it doesn’t have a headache-inducing fluorescence to it. At its highest setting it is certainly bright enough for hiking off-trail and the medium setting is enough light for on-trail night hiking on most trails. The headlamp does have a "lock" feature, which is effective at keeping it from being inadvertently turned on and draining the battery when packed.

      The stuff sack that accompanies the headlamp is useful and it is nice to have it included, as most headlamps either don’t include a stuff sack or case and instead sell them as accessories. Granted, a stuff sack for a headlamp really isn’t a necessity and can be viewed as unnecessary weight, but I tend to use one on most trips as it helps with my organizational system. I particularly appreciate having a stuff sack for a headlamp during winter trips when I need to store it in my sleeping bag to keep the battery from getting sapped from the cold, for some reason it just seems to make it easier to push down to the bottom of the bag and out of my way than storing it loose.
      My first thought about using the stuff sack as a lantern as shown on the Petzl website was that it was simply a marketing gimmick, one of those things that seems nifty but during actual performance in practical conditions is lacking. I was pleasantly surprised when I tested this out on an early December cross-country ski touring trip. With sunset occurring a few minutes before 5 p.m., there was a lot of time around camp in the dark which made for great testing conditions. When used with the beam on the highest setting, I found the "lantern mode" to really brighten up my tent — in regards to both illumination and mood. On the medium setting, it was enough to read by and for doing other small tasks, like looking at a map and making notes. On the lowest setting, the lantern mode was barely functional. Given how quick the battery can be sapped when used on the highest setting (around 2 hours according to Petzl) this unfortunately made the lantern mode less practical.

      Overall, this headlamp was a welcome addition to my backpacking kit. Its on-head comfort and ease-of-use are perhaps the most noteworthy characteristics. If you’ve never found a headlamp that you’ve found comfortable, or always have a latent feeling of mild irritation when wearing one, then this headlamp would be a great option. Given my previous experiences with Petzl headlamps and other products, the durability and longevity should be worth the price.
      The Petzl IKO headlamp retails for about $70 in the Petzl IKO version (without an included CORE battery), or for $90 in the Petzl IKO CORE version with the rechargeable battery included. You can find the cheaper IKO at Backcountry.com and the IKO CORE version here at REI. For more on how to choose a backcountry headlamp, see our backpacking headlamp guide.
    • Kevin DeVries
      By Kevin DeVries in TrailGroove Blog 2
      The 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.
    • Aaron Zagrodnick
      By Aaron Zagrodnick in TrailGroove Blog 2
      A good night of sleep is always important – but with the physical activity that goes along with backpacking, it becomes even more important on the trail. Getting a good rest after a long hiking day will only help things the next day – whether it’s the physical challenge of a high mileage day, or even a day that tests other things like your sharpness with navigational ability. Not to mention just our general mental outlook – being tired makes everything harder. With our at home pillow system (at least, in most every case) off limits due to size and weight, many different types of backpacking pillows are on the market for a hiker to choose from. Here are things to consider when it comes to choosing the best backpacking pillow.

      No Pillow / Stuff Sacks: The ultralight option is to not pack a pillow at all of course, using spare clothing or gear – from extra stuff sacks to spare clothes to anything else you can find rolled up and possibly within a stuff sack to contain it all. This works well provided you have these types of things on hand when you hit the sack for the night, but if you’re like me and wear most of that spare clothing along with your jacket in your sleeping bag to boost warmth at night, pickings will be on the slim side. Some manufacturers even make stuff sacks designed for this purpose, with a fleece covering for comfort. While this is not the most comfortable option when compared to a pillow that is dedicated to the purpose, if you do have spare clothing on hand this can be worth a try to see if it’s comfortable enough for you since this would be the lightest option out there.
      Filled Pillows: Most similar to a real pillow but in a smaller version, these pillows are usually filled with synthetic insulation, down, or foam and are likely the most comfortable option out there. However, being unavoidably heavy and bulky, at least when enough fill is included to actually provide a sufficient level of support, this option in not the best option for any type of backpacking other than perhaps in a basecamp type scenario. Unless of course, this is the only option in your own case that allows you to get a good night of sleep. These types of pillows typically weigh in over half a pound and don’t pack up small. As such if you’re moving day after day and covering any type of mileage, the added bulk and weight to your pack will be significant.

      Air Pillows: A popular option on the market today, most backpacking pillows are inflatable in some manner. This greatly helps in the bulk and weight department, still allowing you to inflate the pillow to a high enough height for comfort, but deflating to pack very small. With air taking the place of fill, these pillows are often quite light – as little as 2-3 ounces like the Therm-a-Rest Airhead Lite. Many options in this category exist. I prefer inflatable pillows that have a one way inflation valve – so that I can fine tune the inflation level and so that all the air doesn’t escape if I don’t close the valve immediately during the inflation process. Many inflatable pillows that have a one way inflation valve will also allow you to fine tune with small deflation adjustments, like the Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight. Since finding the inflation level that is most comfortable will be somewhere less than max and of course more than zero, this can be very convenient. Most inflatable pillows are also baffled, which helps keep your head centered and offers more comfort.

      Hybrid Pillows: Over the years I’ve tried just about every approach – from no pillow at all to the most ultralight inflatable pillows available and all the way up to near luxury options – and as you might expect what works best tends to fall somewhere in the middle. As such my current choice is usually one of the pillows that takes a hybrid approach: that is an inflatable pillow that features an internal air chamber for height, but also has a cover of some type with at least a thin layer of cushioning – foam, down, or synthetic insulation. This additional layer will add an ounce or two, but helps offset any balloon type impression you can get for air chamber only solutions. Since the outer cover and layer is thin, these types of pillows are light enough – usually 3-5 ounces, and still pack small. As a bonus, some warmth is to be had with the addition of the synthetic, down, or foam layer. Examples in the category include the NEMO Fillo Elite and the Sea to Summit Aeros Premium. For any inflatable backpacking pillow, one bonus to look for (if you also use an inflatable sleeping pad) is a valve that is also compatible with the inflation stuff sack for your sleeping pad (Exped Schnozzel for example). This keeps moisture from your breath from building up inside the inner air compartment of both your pillow as well as your sleeping pad.

      No matter the solution you end up choosing, shape is also worth considering – I like a rectangular shaped option instead of a curved shape so that my shoulders aren’t bumping the pillow out of place during the night, but this is very much personal preference. Additionally, keeping any of these pillows on your sleeping pad at night can be a challenge (and if your pillow is falling off your pad all night, no pillow will be comfortable). This can however be solved by keeping the pillow inside your mummy bag’s hood – but if you pack a hoodless sleeping bag (or quilt) as I do, a pillow that has loops on both sides aids greatly in keeping it in place – check out our Issue 34 trail tip for our solution on how to keep your pillow on your sleeping pad during the night. Even when using a mummy bag with a hood, I prefer to keep the pillow on the outside of my sleeping bag to allow for a better seal against cold air.
      For an extensive list of outdoor and backpacking ready pillows that you can sort and filter by many of the points we’ve discussed in this article, check out this page at REI.
    • George Graybill
      By George Graybill in TrailGroove Blog 6
      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 look like that.”

      Since then, I have hiked the JMT three times. I would like to share some tips and tricks I have learned that will be helpful to anyone attempting the trail for the first time. I will focus on information unique to this trail and throw in some general thru hiking advice. I assume you know how to backpack, or you wouldn’t be reading this.
      Because (in my opinion) the JMT is the best long trail on the continent, it is very popular, so scoring one of the few permits awarded is difficult. You must plan ahead and apply 168 days before the date you plan to hit the trail. After you apply, you will be put in a lottery for your start date. If you lose, your application will be rolled forward every day until you win, which you probably won’t. Your chances are something like 5%.

      Now the good news: Your chances of scooping up a cancellation are quite good if you know this trick: cancellations are posted at 11:00 A.M. every day. If that doesn’t work, you can get to the JMT through the national forest just outside Yosemite National Park and still hike 80% of the JMT. Rush Creek Trail leads to the JMT and is easily accessible from Silver Lake on the June Lake loop off of highway 395. National forest permits are much easier to get. But beware: All of this information as well as the information below may change due to changing pandemic restrictions and the aftermath of wildfires.
      Most people prefer to begin at the north end of the JMT in Yosemite Valley because the elevations are lower at that end. The south end is 211 miles away on top of Mount Whitney. If you start there, you begin by gaining 6,000 feet on the first day. As to timing, August is the best month because there are fewer bugs, probably no snow on the trail, and the stream crossings are not life threatening.

      Many people who plan to hike the whole trail send a resupply box ahead to one of three rustic resorts located along the north half of the trail. These places also have small stores where you can pick up almost anything you forgot to pack. The first is Red’s Meadow, but it is the least practical because it is only about five days in. Next is Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR) about two days short of the mid point. They are very kind to thru hikers (The first beer is on the house.), and you can get a shower. Close to the half-way point is Muir Trail Ranch (MTR). The beauty of this detour is the hot springs in nearby Blayney Meadow. They are very therapeutic. Red’s is smack on the trail, and VVR and MTR require short side trips. At VVR you can rummage through boxes of food and gear that other hikers have abandoned. You will find a surprising amount of quality stuff. MTR stopped providing this service because of COVID.
      There is an interesting feedback loop related to the question of whether or not to resupply. The lighter your pack, the faster you can travel, which decreases the number of days on the trail, which decreases the amount of food you need, which decreases your pack weight, which…If you can carry a 35 to 40-pound pack 15 miles a day, you probably won’t need to resupply. It is worth a shot because you can scoop up abandoned supplies and because, as they say, “The trail provides.” This expression is based on the thru hiker subculture that almost guarantees that people with extra supplies will help those who have run short. Do not count on finding abandoned supplies in the bear boxes scattered along the southern half of the trail. There are signs discouraging this that people tend to obey.

      I’ll assume you know about safety and first aid supplies, but let me make a few suggestions. There is very little cell service on the JMT, with Whitney summit being an interesting exception. For this reason, I pack a good first aid kit and a PLB1 Beacon. If I ever push the little red button on this gadget, somewhere a helicopter will take off.
      You should know what lightweight gear you like, but I have two suggestions. The air is usually quite dry in the Sierras, so you can use a single wall tent and rarely be bothered by inside condensation. I take a very light sleeping bag, but I also pack lightweight down jacket and pants. In case of a cold snap, I wear my down outfit to bed.
      If you prefer a real map, as opposed to a phone app (such as Gaia GPS), a good map set from Tom Harrison Maps can be found here, and National Geographic offers a map guide as well. Muir pass is the only pass you needn’t worry about getting stuck at. You can spend the night in the amazing Muir Hut. When choosing a base camp for your early morning ascent of Whitney, you want the highest flat spot with water.

      What about transportation logistics? Specifically, how do you get back to your car? Shuttling a car to the other end of the trail takes at least half a day. There is a shuttle from the south end of the trail to the nearest bus line. This bus will take you to the YARTS bus line that you can take back to Yosemite Valley. Other options exist as well for piecing transportation together, but while the pandemic lasts, self-shuttling for your JMT hike is a good way to make your thru-hike possible.
      The John Muir Trail offers an unforgettable hiking experience, and stretches some 214 miles through California’s Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks while passing through several wilderness areas along the way. The youngest person to hike the whole trail was Sara Harris, age 6, and the oldest person to complete the trail was the author of this article, George Graybill, age 80.



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