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Melissa Farage

Melissa Farage has 66 articles published.

Adventures in Yellowstone’s Black Canyon: The Trail to Nowhere

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Yellowstone's Black Canyon
The boneyard on the Hellroaring River in Yellowstone’s Black Canyon.  Photo Source: twoinatent.blog.com

This was one of the most terrifying and exhilarating backpacking experiences of my life. It was my first time in Yellowstone’s Black Canyon, and I was just starting to realize what I’d signed up for.  Sulfur smelling rivers, bones littering the ground, and meandering game trails – just another day in the Yellowstone backcountry.  You may have read Part 1  of this epic tale of adventure and folly, here is the second in this two-part series.  I hope you enjoy.

My morning started by skirting down a cliff brimming with antlers and bones. I followed the buffalo tracks down to the Hellroaring River to filter water. I pumped halfheartedly, scanning the wild Yellowstone River for any signs of buffalo, bears, or stampeding antelope. As a Pacific Northwesterner, whose greatest backpacking fear is finding too few huckleberries, I was a bit out of my element in the Yellowstone wilderness.

I finished filling the water bottles and it was right back up the hill, dodging buffalo patties, to retrieve food for breakfast. I shivered under a set of down jackets and pants while the water steamed to a boil. It was the end of May, after all.

We’d camped at the fork of the Yellowstone and Hellroaring Rivers on our first night at Yellowstone. The Helloraring River, in case you were wondering, smelled appropriately of sulfur and all things demonic. Our tent was pitched on an isolating little outcrop of land, edged by a dropoff on two sides and a rock wall on the third–essentially a natural funnel leading the wildlife right towards campsite 2H2. After a few cups of coffee we packed up our tent, molted our layers and headed out.

We took the same strategy exiting the campsite as we’d used entering. Follow the least dangerous looking game trail. Yes, to avoid the bright eyed, bushy-tailed tourists at Yellowstone, I’d decided that we’d start from the less popular Hellroaring trail. The strategy was a success — so far the only bright eyed creature we’d seen was a buffalo, and the only bushy-tailed creatures around were the snooping foxes.

The one downside to this approach was that signage was a bit lacking. (Or missing all together.)

Yellowstone's Black Canyon
Rolling hills upon rolling hills in Yellowstone’s Black Canyon.

My partner and I picked our way through a quarter mile brimming with hedge bushes and slippery cliffs, finally breaking out into the plains. Grasslands for miles, as far as the eye could see. In wild land like the Yellowstone backcountry, trying to find the actual trail among a lattice of game trails was quite a skill. An important skill.

One that we lacked.

We picked the most traveled trail up the grassy knoll. We knew the trail headed west and this trail seemed like it could take us there. We were just 15 hours and one sleep-deprived night into acclimating to the 7000 ft elevation, which made every step seem deserving of a chapter in our personal memoirs. When we made it to the top, all we could see was a second hill to climb and a tangle of reasonable-looking trails leading the way.

A sea of hills beyond that. A network of convoluted game trails.

At this point I’d kill to see a tourist.

A decent climb and several uneducated guesses later, we finally stumbled onto the Yellowstone River Trail. At this point, our standard for the Yellowstone River Trail was just a narrow strip of dirt cut deep into the grasslands. Sometimes, there’s no shame in settling.

Dutifully, we followed. We meandered through the grasses, soaking in incredulous views of Hellroaring Mountain as we climbed higher onto the plateau. The grasslands brimmed with sunshine, speckled with sage hedges. It was spectacular. Not a tourist in sight. I was proud of my choice.

Yellowstone's Black Canyon
Navigating the plateau in Yellowstone’s Black Canyon.

The Yellowstone River Trail finally led us up the plateau towards a small lake. On one side of the lake: a snoozing buffalo, on the other—a well-trodden trail through the reeds. The previous day I’d learned just how large and terrifying buffalo could be, so of course we chose the buffalo-free option.

We followed the trail, admiring the dramatic scenery until the trail just disappeared into the grass. Gone. We looked around, dumbfounded. At this point, the sun had faded to gray and dark, heavy clouds were rolling in. The temperature dropped about 10 degrees.

Using our stellar route finding skills, we chose a game trail to follow, inching up the knoll towards a cliff that separated us from the Yellowstone River. That didn’t work, so we tried a second. And third. We were fairly close to the drop-off as a sheet of rain rolled across the Blacktail Deer Plateau.

The valley echoed of an oncoming storm. Drops of rain became sheets of rain.

A gust of wind hit us and within a fraction of a minute the rain turned to snow. Aside from my colorful language, the only sounds to be heard were the bellowing wind and the distant roar of the river. The clouds were swollen and low, nearly tangible. Bruised and violent. As the wind gained momentum the snow blew sideways, accumulating on the yellow grass. Our visibility deteriorated to a matter of feet. The priority became seeking shelter.

Yellowstone's Black Canyon
A storm rolling in over the Blacktail Deer Plateau in Yellowstone’s Black Canyon.

We’d exhausted all of our trail options—the Yellowstone River Trail was nowhere near us—so we ran down the hill towards the shelter of pine trees. Slipping through the trees, we scrambled down a buffalo path and sat under the trees as we tried to determine just where we were. I’d come to know the large, dug-out area we were standing in as a buffalo sleeping area. We strategized as we pulled on our rain gear. The plan was brilliant: we were going to find the trail.

We headed uphill, away from the cliffs and towards the mountains. We climbed hand over hand among the bones and antlers as the stormy skies made their way over the mountains. The snow abated and the sun tore through the clouds as we finally stumbled onto that dirt track we’d grown to love and hate.

From that moment on, we never left the Yellowstone River trail.

Yellowstone's Black Canyon
We were eventually rewarded with a rainbow over Yellowstone’s Black Canyon.

Fear and Loathing on the Yellowstone River Trail

in Community/Fireside by
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yellowstone river
On the Yellowstone River Trail you have to be ready for anything. Here, even the weather is trying to kill you. Photo Source: pixels.com

 

The thought “Well that title’s a bit dramatic” probably crossed your mind. Just wait, it gets worse.

Backpacking the Yellowstone River trail ranks among one of the most terrifying and exhilarating backpacking experiences of my life.  It was my first time in Yellowstone, and I was about to realize what I’d signed up for.

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Backpack for scale. Would my pack become an artifact on the Yellowstone Valley like these antlers?

Before even setting out on a backcountry trail in Yellowstone, backpackers are required to attend a 20-minute orientation, or what I like to call “100 ways you can die in Yellowstone”.  You sit in a small room with anywhere from 10-30 other prey – er, backpackers – and watch an informational video. Set to 90s-era music, the inspirational voice instructs you to fear everything from the large predators (who want to eat either you or your food), the large herbivores (who might trample you if they think you’re a threat) to even inanimate objects such as the swift river currents (try not to swim) and wild weather conditions (it’s hot then it’s cold). Yes, in Yellowstone even the weather wants to kill you.

I left the orientation a lot more intimidated, but really none the wiser. How far did I need to stay away from a grizzly again? What about buffalo? (Turned out, that would come in handy later.) We gracefully packed up our equipment in the Mammoth Springs parking lot as the clouds brimmed with rain. I was too busy contemplating the approximate hunger level of Wyoming grizzly bear populations to notice a fellow tourist pull into the parking spot that occupied my spread of backpacking supplies.

We’re experienced Northwest backpackers from Seattle, so of course we pretty much broke every basic rule of backpacking in Yellowstone right off the bat.

Yellowstone River
The swift moving Yellowstone River after a sudden squall.

By the time we got to the Hellroaring Trailhead (the less popular Yellowstone River Trail access point) we only had about two hours of daylight left. The plan was to hike fast and find our campsite before dark. If the inspirational video had taught me anything, it was: “Don’t go hiking at dusk. That’s when the predators are most active.” Well, that wasn’t happening.

Five minutes into our trip, we broke out of the skeletal pines to catch a first view of the Yellowstone Valley. Spectacular, wild, vacant. I stumbled over rocks and roots as I my eyes soaked in the monumental plains. Countless tacky adjectives and metaphors fogged my tourist mind, right up until I noticed a great white sheet of rain approaching us at an alarming rate. We heard the wind howl through the canyon below as a squall tore across the valley, headed straight towards us. Be ready for any weather, we thought as we threw on our rain gear and headed down into the valley.

As the squall passed and the rain blew by, sun drenched the Yellowstone Valley with a spectacular strain of orange light. We hadn’t seen a soul since we’d given directions to two lost hikers. We could literally see for miles around; nothing but the distant shapes of buffalo and herd animals moving across the grassland. It was a bit unsettling for a Pacific Northwesterner that’s accustomed to being socked in by trees.

I’d never felt so intimate with the word “agoraphobic”.

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Alone in the wilderness on the Yellowstone River Trail.

I really was overcome by a feeling of isolation I’d never really felt before. With the “How to Die in Yellowstone” documentary still fresh in my head, I knew that if we screamed no one would hear us. Well, we’d hear each other screaming at least.

As I fantasized some morbid and dramatic premature end to our trip my partner–impervious to my fatalistic fantasies–stopped dead in his tracks. That worried me.

I looked up.

A great black orb, about as big as the average Seattle Subaru, lumbered towards us. Colorful language ensued. (Mostly verbs and adjectives.)

I’d seen pictures of buffalo before, but when you’re nearly face-to-face with one, you notice things a bit differently. The horns look sharper. The hooves can surely shatter bones. The dark oval eyes: malevolent. The stench smells like deceased hikers.

We backed away slowly, trying to remember the details. Were we supposed to make eye contact? Avoid it? Were we supposed to stay 15 meters away or 25?

As we stumbled backwards off the trail towards the sulfur stench of the Hellroaring River, the buffalo followed. It snorted as it walked down the trail. But to me it flared its nostrils as it stalked us into a corner. Smelling the blood. Trying to prevent any means of escape. Ready to attack. I was pretty sure we’d found the first carnivorous buffalo, but wouldn’t survive for the nature documentary.

But of course that wasn’t the case. The buffalo kept wandering down the trail. As he passed, he didn’t even give us an acknowledging glance. He lumbered away, snacking on tufts of grass here and there. He didn’t so much as flick his tail at us.

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Finding camp in the open spaces of the Yellowstone River Trail.

We booked it after that, through the close-knit pine forest, down a narrow trail punctuated with buffalo patties. Every stump and shadow looked like a grizzly bear. As we made our way back into the grasslands, I wondered what monstrous creature I’d find on the other side of each knoll. We traded cautious glances with the deer and antelope as we made our way through the wild landscape. Bones and antlers punctuated the prairie like exotic plants, stained orange in the setting sun.

Finally, as the sun slipped behind the trees, we set up our tent on a plateau in the only small patch devoid of bones, antlers, and buffalo patties.

I could only imagine what the second day would offer on the Yellowstone River Trail.

Read Part Two

 

Elite DriDown Hoody

in Community/Gear by
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Finally, a down jacket that is dressed to impress on the trail; not just the city sidewalk.

Avid outdoors enthusiasts flock to down coats because of their exceptional compressibility and impressive warmth-to-weight ratio. However, the age-old issue with down has been that it’s useless when wet. Sierra Designs offers a DriDown alternative that excels in the Northwest’s rainy and humid weather. Fit for summer and winter trips alike, you’re probably not enjoying your hiking or backpacking trip to the fullest until you’ve tried their Elite DriDown hoody.

Sizing.

Like most jackets, I recommend getting a size up. If you’re using the Elite DriDown hoody in the outdoors, more room to move will help you enjoy your trip. Although I’m 5’6’’ and typically wear small shirts, I tested a Medium. It fit perfectly to accommodate athletic use with light layering. I recommend following Sierra Design’s sizing chart, it won’t steer you adrift! Arm length is generous (34.5 inches, but who’s counting) to accommodate reaching forward or up above your head with thumbs in the thumb holes. Unlike a few competitor jackets I’ve tested in the past, the Elite DriDown Hoody won’t shortchange you in length.

Elite DriDown hoody
The Elite hoody in its natural environment.

Function.

The Elite DriDown Hoody is fitted for function rather than fashion. With a back length of just over 26 inches, I could pull the coat comfortably down to my upper thighs to keep out the chill. Unlike the fashion-focused jackets, the Elite DriDown Hoody features a subtle elastic waist that prevents it from riding up when seated. Sorry, fashionistas — functionality over fashion is always a win in my book.

Features.

In typical Sierra Designs style, the manufacturer slips in a few clever features. The generously sized thumb holes are lined with stretch nylon flaps that seal the hole when not in use. This means no chilly breezes down your sleeve when you’re not using the thumb holes. The fitted hood is lined with a knit nylon fabric for a comfortable, moisture-reducing contact against your forehead and chin when fully zipped. The hood is fully convertible, and can easily be tucked down inside itself to form a draft-resistant collar. This adaptable feature makes your Elite DriDown hoody ready for even the most intense adventures.

Elite DriDown hoody
Draft-free thumb holes and fitted sleeves for increased insulation.

Materials.

One of the biggest benefits of the Sierra Designs Elite hoody is that it features 850 fill power duck DriDown. If you aren’t familiar with DriDown, here’s the rundown: it’s a backpacking game changer. DriDown is conventional down that is treated with a molecular-level polymer to give each individual down plume a hydrophobic finish. This allows DriDown to stay dry 10 times longer than regular down and dry faster than your conventional down jacket. If you hike and backpack in a wet area like the Pacific Northwest, this can make the difference between a fun or miserable trip (and it could even save your life). To seal the deal, the nylon ripstop is treated with a polyurethane finish for additional water resistance.

The Test.

I put the Sierra Designs Elite DriDown hoody through an extensive series of tests that all started with the same letter, but wildly ranged in activity and utility: biking, boating, and backpacking. From the Palouse to the North Cascades, from land to lake, the Elite hoody didn’t get an out when it came to testing.

Biking: The Sierra Designs Elite hoody followed me on a week-long road biking trip up the rural roads of Eastern Washington. Even in the desert and Palouse, warm days result in cold, humid nights and mornings. The Elite hoody stayed dry and warm throughout the trip, and remained my go-to source of warmth when even my fleece was saturated. Those who are interested in bike camping can rely on the Elite hoody’s packability.

Backpacking: When it comes to the mountains, Elite hoody is unarguably in its element. The Elite DriDown hoody weighs in at around 11 oz and packs down to about the size of a 20-oz water bottle. With its 850DriDown fill, this small jacket packs a punch when it comes to warmth. Ultralight and ultra compact, the Elite hoody is an essential for any Northwest backpacking trip.

Elite DriDown hoody
The Elite Hoody’s relaxed fit makes it easy to move, no matter what you’re doing.

Boating? No, not the sophisticated kind. I took the Elite DriDown hoody along on a 22-mile overnight canoe trip that mostly consisted of fighting downwind currents or paddling against gusts of winds as the rain closes. Not picturesque at all. Let’s just say that the Elite DriDown hoody was about the best decision I made on that trip. With its hydrophobic down and water resistant nylon shell, I felt comfortable using the hoody without a rain jacket. The DriDown allowed a semi-saturated jacket to fully dry out within two hours. Because I could rely on it to dry quickly, I find the Elite hoody to be a reliable comfort (or survival) tool in my pack. In the Northwest, it’s arguably one of the ten essentials.

Elite DriDown hoody
I may be incapable of making fire the old fashioned way, but the Elite DriDown Hoody will keep me warm nonetheless!

Final thoughts.

Before reading my final recommendations, please keep in mind that I run cold. Because the hoody is designed to be light and compact, the Elite hoody can suffice as a main layer for late spring-early fall, depending on elevation. I estimate it to keep me warm down to about 50 degrees. While I designate it mostly as a summer backpacking coat, I do think that the Elite DriDown hoody is a great jacket for year-round layering. Pacific Northwesterners can rejoice in its hydrophobic nature and resilience to nature. If you’re looking for a light, compact and completely functional down jacket, I recommend adding the Elite DriDown hoody to your arsenal.

Sierra Designs Flashlight 2 FL

in Community/Gear by
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Ultralight. The word doesn’t necessarily invoke comfort or luxury, does it.

When shopping around for an ultralight two-person tent, I typically find myself sacrificing comfort to save ounces, losing valuable square-footage until I’m essentially left with a very expensive tarp for one. Not really the investment you want to make. But Sierra Designs challenges the conventional ultralight tent with a unique design that saves weight without sacrificing room and comfort.

Flashlight 2 FL
“Unconventional” doesn’t even begin to describe the Flashlight 2 FL’s unique design.

The tent.

The term “unconventional” doesn’t even begin to describe the Flashlight 2 FL. The tent stands 46X50 inches at the head and 24X46 inches at the foot. Spanning 90 inches, the Flashlight 2 may look small but offers a staggering 30 square feet of interior space. The two-doored tent features two small gear “closets” by each door, which range from 3.3 to 4.9 square feet depending on where the closet is clipped. To save weight, the tent also features 8-inch awnings above each door, rather than conventional vestibules.

Let’s get technical. The Flashlight 2 FL is a single-walled tent, featuring a 20D Polyester Ripstop, Silicone/1200mm PE fly. The floor and zip-up interior walls are made from a 30D Nylon Ripstop, WR/3000mm PE material, while the rest of the tent’s body is 15D Nylon No-See-Um mesh. The three DANC NSL Pressfit poles weigh in at less than 12 ounces. What does this name-dropping have to do with anything? Well, it means the Flashlight 2 FL is made from the best of the best ultralight materials on the market. You’re getting quality.

Flashlight 2 FL
The Flashlight 2 FL comes in a compact stuff sack — poles and tent separately.

As with most ultralight tents, the Flashlight 2 FL is not freestanding. The basic structure is derived from three poles – two for the head of the tent, and one curved to lift the footbed. To save 6 oz of weight, the head poles can easily be swapped for trekking poles. The tent relies on tension from 8 stakes to hold it upright, and comes with three guylines for additional security during wind. String locks on each of the stake points offer quick tension adjustment.

The set up.

In my experience, freestanding ultralight tents can be a pain to put up. With help from the exquisitely detailed instructions, I was able to set up the tent in less than 5 minutes. After a week of practice, setup was down to three minutes and tear-down was around three. Why? Besides the fact that single-walled tents are always significantly easier to manage, the design is just intuitive and user-friendly.

The test.

My SO and I stayed in the Flashlight 2 FL for about a week total, as we rode our road bikes up Eastern Washington. I chose to submit this non-freestanding tent to everything from high winds to dew and rain. Frankly, I was a bit skeptical about the wind. While brilliantly designed, the tent doesn’t look wind-tolerable at first sight. However, the tent’s intelligent design and multiple staking points allowed it to survive gusts up to 20 mph with no wear and tear.

Flashlight 2 FL
A view from the head of the tent.

Durability. Because Sierra Designs doesn’t offer a footprint for the Flashlight 2 FL, the product was tested without one. The 30D Nylon Ripstop withstood the test, although the tent was always pitched on grass or soil. Even in dewy and rainy mornings, the Nylon base held up to the water.

Weight. Coming in at 2 pounds 14 ounces, this is one tent you won’t notice in your pack. I’ve carried the Flashlight 2 on multiple backpacking trips as an emergency shelter.

Comfort. Although the tent looks like a squeeze from the outside, it feels remarkably large inside; considerably larger than most ultralight tents. There was ample space for two sleeping pads, and the extra length allowed for some interior gear storage. We managed a week without feeling claustrophobic.

Outside storage. The gear “closets” are large enough for a 65-liter bag or stuff sack, but won’t fit a 65-liter backpack. Unfortunately, the lack of exterior gear storage would make me think twice about bringing this tent on a wet weather trip.

Flashlight 2 FL
One exterior pole lifts the footbed. Gear closets closed in this shot.

Usability. Similar to all Sierra Designs products I’ve tested, the manufacturer sneaks in an innumerable amount of bells and whistles for such a small package. Two snaps to allow for different vestibule coverage/gear storage sizes. The doors allow easy access to gear in the vestibule, while the awning provides some shelter from rain and morning dew. Quickly add insulation or shelter from the elements by zipping up the nylon interior walls over the mesh.

Ventilation. While the tent is waterproof, its biggest adversary is condensation. The single-walled build inhibits necessary ventilation, especially when the nylon doors are zipped up over the mesh. This means dramatic condensation build up by morning. While I didn’t have any condensation issues in the drier regions of Eastern Washington, I saw significant moisture buildup as we traded desert for the wetter regions of the Palouse and the North Cascades.

The Pros.

Ultralight and ultra compact. The Flashlight 2 weighs in at 2 pounds 14 ounces and the tent storage bag is a mere 8X3.5 inches, meaning I barely noticed it in my backpack. The tent is actually designed to easily accommodate trekking poles with clever pocket design.

Roomy. You can’t argue with 30 square feet of space for a two-person tent. The 46-inch max height adds a “lofted ceiling” feeling of luxury.

Ease of set up. A quick set up and tear down means more time enjoying nature. Who can argue with that?

Flashlight 2 FL
The Flashlight 2 FL compacts down to about the size of two Nalgene water bottles.

The Cons.

Condensation. Unfortunately, this is a typical battle with single-walled tents. Because the roof is shared with the tent, on cold or dewy days your gear is wet by morning.

Small vestibules. In the Pacific Northwest, vestibules can be the difference between a good second (or third) day and a bad one. The vestibules were slightly too small to completely shield a 65-liter backpack, making me wary of taking this tent out in inclement weather.

Final thoughts.  The Flashlight 2 FL is labeled a 3-season tent, but in the Pacific Northwest I might limit it to two seasons. Due to the limited vestibule space and condensation issues, I do not recommend the Flashlight 2 FL for wet trips. That being said, with its compactness, durability and low weight, the Flashlight 2 FL is an exceptional tent to have on hand for fair weather trips and minimalist bike camping trips. Slightly larger than my 32-OZ water bottle, and weighing less than my sleeping bag, the Flashlight 2 FL is a perfect choice for desert trips and Eastern Washington adventures.

7 Tips to Escape National Park Hiking Crowds

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Escape National Park hiking crowds
Escape National Park Hiking Crowds
The hiking herd getting you down? Escape National Park hiking crowds with these seven tips.  Photo Source: mnn.com

Washington hikers and backpackers are a unique crowd. We have high expectations when it comes to views, trail etiquette, and solitude. We know the good spots and we know the secret spots that we really only mention around close friends. But when we travel out of state, without our local insider information, we can find ourselves out of our element. I recently made the rounds to some of the West’s most famous National Parks, including Yellowstone, Arches, and Zion. While I reveled in the experience of exploring some of the nation’s most scenic National Parks, I constantly battled the feeling I was slowly slipping into a tourist trap and it was difficult to escape National Park hiking crowds.

Safe to say, I learned a few things along the way that will help plan my next adventure. Here are seven tips I can offer to help you stay away from the main pack and have a unique National Park adventure.

Escape National Park hiking crowds
Escape National Park hiking crowds at Angel’s Rest just 1/4 mile after the turnoff 1

1.Location. Hate crowds? Avoiding them can be as simple as choosing one of the less iconic National Parks or state parks in the area. You don’t have to hit Utah’s “Big Five” if you won’t enjoy the experience in the end. Even if you want to explore the major parks, it can be calming to plan one or two hikes in the less popular regions of the park. The scenery will be spectacular nonetheless.

2. Timing. Avoid visiting on or near major holidays. Everyone (including me) wants to schedule their trips around major holidays to optimize their PTO. This is great maximizing your vacation time, but can dramatically increase the number of park visitors. Choose weekdays over weekends, and skip summer vacation. Typically National Parks will list the five most popular days on their website. Take this into consideration!

3. Backpacking. While most of the crowds flock to the short hikes and easy-to-reach photogenic points of interest, backpacking can be a fantastic way to break away from the herd. Backpacking also allows you to enjoy the park on your own timeline and actually experience the park’s natural beauty after the day crowds have dissipated. Because backcountry permits are required in National Parks, you can actually count on some solitude on the trail.

Escape National Park hiking crowds
Enjoy the solitude of the Yellowstone River Trail by choosing the Hellroaring Trailhead as your starting point.  This trail will help you escape National Park hiking crowds at this popular location.

4. Research. Even though you’re leaving your usual stomping grounds, nothing is stopping you from getting local advice. Call the backcountry offices and ranger stations and ask around for tips. Don’t hesitate to request less popular hiking or backpacking trails; typically the rangers will sympathize and offer advice catered to the experience you’re looking for.

5. Strenuous trails. Typically trails marked “strenuous” are anything but, in Washington standards at least. I highly recommend selecting strenuous trails for a more serene experience. Before setting out on a strenuous trail, make sure to read any recommendations or precautions.

6. Secret trails. The best National Park trails aren’t marked. Ask the information center if they have any recommendations for less-traveled trails, and they might direct you to some unmarked trails. Because the trails are unmarked and often hidden at the start, you can relish in having a unique experience even in a well-traveled National Park.

7. Odd hours. Early or late; there’s no real guarantee as to when the crowds will gather. If you’re in the desert, sunrise and sunset can be popular times to visit the main attractions, but I recommend taking the chance. If conditions are fair and you have the right gear and experience, there’s nothing wrong with hitting the trail at sunset and enjoying the starry skies over some of the nation’s most striking vistas.

Escape National Park hiking crowds
Sorry, this one’s a secret.

Of course, with National Parks there can really be no guarantee when the crowds will ebb and flow. The most important part of exploring a new National Park is to enjoy your experience, even if you’re sharing it with several hundred of your new closest friends.

If you have a National Park hiking tip, please share in the comments below!

Women’s Mobile Mummy 800 3-Season Sleeping Bag

in Gear by
Melissa - Sleeping Bag Product Review-2

Backpacking is all about versatility. If one piece of gear can serve as two, you’re saving weight and keeping your gear consolidated. Sierra Designs tackles the age-old backpacking problem: should I bring more layers for hanging out around camp, or go light and forgo the fireside conversation? As a cold-blooded backpacker, I typically carry an unnecessary amount of clothing so I can enjoy the evenings while still feeling my fingertips. But the Mobile Mummy offers an innovative solution.

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 9.47.16 PMFirst off, you’ll notice the innovative design. Sierra Designs took the conventional sleeping bag and just threw it out the window. Rather than making the customer commit to either a left or right zipper, the Mobile Mummy features a central two-way zipper that runs from hood to the foot box. Gone is the oversized drawstring hood, replaced by a jacket-like hood that actually fits your head. Small shoulder-height flaps allow you to easily fit your arms through the sides of the bag for mobility or to accommodate any sleeping position. Of course, the bag features 800-fill DriDown, making it a superb choice for temperate environments.

The Test

Melissa - Sleeping Bag Product Review-5I tested the bag at both 5300 feet and 1500 feet, in two very different conditions. I camped at 1500 feet for several days with rainy nights and misty mornings to see if the bag would saturate. I toted the bag to a higher elevation at Pilchuck Lookout for the second test and used it to lounge around the lookout deck in the wind and rain. While the EN-rated 20 degree bag works exceptionally well in the colder temperatures and at high elevations (arms in or paired with a down jacket), the arm holes and two-way zip offer superior ventilation for warmer nights or lower elevations. Because of the hydrophobic DriDown fill, I wasn’t hesitant to walk around in the bag in dense fog and drizzling conditions. The bag remained dry and insulating, even after days in the Washington rain forest.

Sleeping

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 10.26.19 PMWhile most sleeping bags are engineered for back sleepers, the Mobile Mummy’s design accommodates any sleeping position. Slip your arms through the arm flaps or unzip the bottom of the two-way zipper to poke a leg out. The central zipper, fitted hood, and slightly slimmer hip and foot box means that the bag actually stays oriented to your body as you move during the night. I tested the bag with my arms both in and out, and found that the shoulder width (a roomy 3 inches wider than Sierra Design’s comparable mummy bag) easily accommodated my arms inside the bag. The ability to customize the bag to my desired sleeping position allowed me to get a more comfortable night’s sleep than in a standard mummy bag.

Mobility

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The mobile mummy is versatile, arm holes allow the bag to be worn around the camp site. Photo by KPHorizons LLC

It’s not called the Mobile Mummy for nothing. The bag quickly converts from a sleeping bag to a warm garment to wear in the tent or around camp. Zip up the hood and slip your hands through the arm flaps. Simply unzip the bottom of the bag (I found that about 2 feet was just right for me) and secure the foot box using a pair of plastic toggles. There are toggle loops located 2 and 3 feet from the bottom of the bag, letting you customize how high the footbed is gathered. Note: the toggles did take some time to fasten at first. Now you’re ready to move! But after some tweaking and personalizing, the bag is surprisingly unrestricted. The arm holes make it much easier to move gear around the tent, or cook without leaving the comfort of your sleeping bag. On cold mornings it’s usually a challenge to leave your sleeping bag, but now you don’t have to.

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The two-way zipper and toggle cords allow you to open the bottom of the mobile mummy and hem the footbox up making the bag fit like a coat. Photo by KPHorizons LLC

What Are the Sacrifices?

I know you’re wondering it. With all the added features and versatility, what are we going to sacrifice? With a trail weight of 2 pounds, 7 ounces the Mobile Mummy 800 is actually 6 ounces lighter than Sierra Design’s 20-degree mummy equivalent. What about compression? The accompanying stuff sack is 15 X 8 inches, but I was able to easily compress the sleeping bag to 10 X 8 using a compression sack. Admittedly, not as compact as some competitors, but completely acceptable given the advantages. Insulation issues? I didn’t notice any drafts from the arm flaps, even as the temperature dipped below freezing.

Style? Well, I’ll leave that to the fashionistas.

mobile mummy
Can you jump for joy in your sleeping bag? Photo by KPHorizons LLC

Overall
I have to admit that I was skeptical at first about forgoing my mummy bag for this wildly unconventional sleeping bag. At just over $400 the Mobile Mummy 800 3-season bag is a bit of an investment, but let me tell you it’s worth it. A bag that doubles as a down garment is enough utility to warrant the price. It’s rare to find a 2-pound, 7-ounce 20-degree DriDown women’s bag in that price point — typically you either sacrifice weight, warmth or compressibility.

Mountain Hardware Dynama Pant Review

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Mountain Hardware Dynama PantIf you are looking for a faithful companion to join you on your next outdoor adventure, look no further than the Mountain Hardware Dynama Pant. This ultralight, quick-dry pant is the perfect go-to pant for anything from hiking to climbing, backpacking to trail running. Sporting a sleek and stylish cut, the Dynama Pant can hold up to a tough adventure, but still let you look casual around town.

Upon first glance, the Dynama Pant looks just like any other city-slick hiking pant, which usually ends in fashion, but frustration on the trail. On the first wear, it was evident that the Dynama Pant was comfortable, fashionable and utterly liberating. The pants are remarkably stretchy, sporting a nylon-spandex fabric that allows the pants to adhere to your range of motion. If you have a grudge against hiking pants zippers and buttons, you’ll enjoy the low-profile waistline, which offers comfort and a respite from rubbing during physical activity. A drawcord at the base of each pant leg allows the pants to easily be cinched to capri length. Four deep pockets allow for easy, carefree storage. At the same time, the nylon-spandex fabric provides the pants with an impressive quick-dry quality; the DWR finish makes the Dynama Pant water resistant, a salvation on the trail.

In order to avert my initial skepticism, I put the Dynama Pant through a series of tests to determine how rugged it actually was. I wore the pants for a weekend of climbing in Vantage, Washington’s rugged basalt columns to test their durability, stretch and wicking. For most clothing, outdoor climbing is an invitation for wear and tear and a growing disgruntlement at your restrictive fashion choice. Although I was already aware of the Dynama Pant’s stretch, Mountain Hardware Dynama PantI was blown away by how the all-way-stretch fabric allowed me to reach for any foothold I went for. The drawcords allowed me to cinch up the pant legs for an unrestricted, uncompromising experience. Even in 75-80 degree weather on the appropriately named Sunshine Wall, the pants managed to wick away the bounty of perspiration summoned by climbing and lounging in the desert sun. After two days of battering against basalt walls and getting squeezed through slot canyons, the Dynama Pants showed no signs of wear and tear. Pretty impressive, for such a light pant.

The Dynama Pant had survived climbing and hiking, but I still wasn’t satisfied. The pants are physically lightweight, water resistant and wicking, making them an obvious choice for backpacking. In order to verify my claim, I wore them on an overnight trip just off of Snoqualmie Pass. Despite the elevation gain and high temperatures, the pants seemingly instantly wicked moisture away from my skin. This, combined with the low-profile inseams, provided a relief from rubbing. During stream crossings, the DWR water-resistant finish caused water to bead up along the pant legs, rather than soaking through. After a long day on the trail, it was a relief to have completely dry backpacking pants.

Bottom Line:

In the beginning, I had nothing but skepticism for Mountain Hardware’s Dynama Pant. I’d been let down too many times by trail-trendy women’s hiking pants. However, the pants stood up to even the most intense tests I could summon. Ultimately, Mountain Hardware’s Dynama Pant exceeded my expectations in wicking, stretchiness and durability.

Tech Specs:

Body Fabric: Warp Stretch Nylon

Body Fabric Content: 96% nylon, 4% elastane

Colors: Purple Dahlia, Mosstone, Black, Graphite

Availability: Available now

MSRP: $70.00

Weight: 5 oz/ 143 g

super.natural Base 175 Baselayers Review

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Super.natural Base 175

With its unique blend of Merino wool and synthetic fibers, super.natural’s baselayer collection provides a great alternative to the conventional wool baselayer. Unlike many baselayers on the market, which are either all-wool or all-synthetic, super.natural uses a unique blend of Merino wool, Polyester and Lycra to achieve a new excellence in moisture moderation. With a slim fit, the super.natural Base 175 long sleeve and tights collection insulates while preventing overheating, making it a willing companion on any athletic adventure.

The Women’s Base Long Sleeve 175 and Women’s Base Tight 175 comprise the super.natural’s midweight collection. Because the Base 175 is designed to move sweat away from the body while offering lightweight insulation – and is snug enough to fit under regular pants and shirts – this is a year-round piece of equipment that can accommodate you during any sport. The Base Tight 175 features a Soft Touch SN waistband, offering a secure fit without rubbing. While the synthetic qualities allow the baselayers to wick and breathe far better than wool, the Merino wool offers its odor-resistant and insulating qualities.

During my review, I wanted to challenge super.natural’s claim that the Base 175 was ideal for everything from hiking to snowboarding to running and cycling. Unfortunately, my previous experiences with Merino baselayers made me a skeptic about the product’s ability to wick. To stay true to the company claim, I indeed took the Base 175 through the rounds. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the baselayers stood up to every grueling task I put them through. The feature that impressed me the most was the baselayers’ comfortable, athletic fit. The polyester and lycra allow the Base 175 to stretch, simulating the next-to-the-skin fit of spandex. This allowed for ideal moisture regulation and prevented abrasions during activities such as running and cycling. In low and medium-intensity activities, such as hiking and snowshoeing, the baselayer successfully wicked away all moisture. In high-intensity activities, such as snowboarding and alpine backpacking, I found that the Base 175 wicked away the moisture for several hours, but eventually retained sweat. However, because of the 48% Merino wool content, the baselayer still insulated when wet. In a rain-infused backpacking trip to Goldmeyer Hot Springs via Snow Lake, the Base 175 underlayers were the only articles of non-waterlogged clothing I could rely on. In adverse snowy conditions, and against all odds, super.natural’s unique baselayers became the difference between comfort and calamity.

While the Base 175 underlayers perform outstandingly during activity, the lightness that allows them to easily wick away moisture can leave you cold during long periods of inactivity. The Base 175 is a product specifically engineered to prevent overheating during your favorite physical endeavors. It is not (nor does it claim to be) a high-insulation layer and is not the top base layer choice for immobile hobbies on a cold day. As cold individual, I’d consider the Base 175 to be a lightweight rather than a midweight layer. If you’re going backpacking, you’ll still need to bring your night time long johns.

Super.natural Base 175
Source: super.natural Instagram @sn_supernatural

After the outdoor tests, I put super.natural’s Base 175 through possibly one of the most challenging trials: the washer/dryer. I’ve had some terrible experiences pulling small or misshapen wool baselayers out of the dryer in the past, so I was surprised by the simple washing instructions. A few washes confirmed that the baselayers are machine washable and won’t shrink in the dryer. After several washes, the Base 175 Long Sleeve and Tights maintained the same shape and stretchiness as right out of the package.

While not important to me, I feel compelled to throw out a few words of fashion caution. Because of the stretchiness and slim fit, the baselayers will be slightly transparent when worn. Please keep in mind that, because they are typically worn under clothing, I’m including this as a minimal critique. I also found that the color descriptions on the site were a bit misleading. The Warm Red is actually an orange color, while the Purple turned out to be blue. If you’re concerned about transparency or color woes, super.natural offers the products in Caviar.

Bottom Line:

Overall, I was extremely impressed by the performance of super.natural’s Base 175 Long Sleeve and Base 175 Tights. The fit, easy care, and durability makes this a product a natural match for the active outdoors enthusiast. The women’s tights and long sleeve top both carry a price tag of $69.99, in the expected ballpark of base layers, but less expensive than many of the main Merino brands. Super.natural products are currently available only at selected storefront and online retailers.

Tech Specs:

48% Merino Wool

48% Polyester

4% Lycra

Size tested (LS and tights): Small

MSRP: $69.99

Availability: Available now

Norway’s Brekkefossen Waterfall Trail

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Brekkefossen Waterfall

Visitors to Flam, Norway are greeted with an abundance of adventures to enjoy during their stay. One of the local favorites is the Brekkefossen Waterfall. Although it isn’t the largest or tallest waterfall in the area, its location (just 2 kilometers) from the city center makes it a must-see attraction for visitors. The hike is short and sweet, and takes anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes to get to the main waterfall viewpoint. But don’t let the distance fool you. The hike is short, steep and sweet, offering stunning views of the waterfall, Flam and Sognefjord.

From the country road, follow the wooden sign to the Brekkefossen Waterfall. The waterfall is visible from the road, half-hidden behind a wooded knoll. The trail ascends into rugged cow pastures, heading towards the trees. Marked by a series of red-painted Ts on rocks and trees, the rocky trail quickly gains elevation alongside a forested ridge. Soon, the small city of Flam is visible through the trees, showing just how much elevation you’ve gained. The trail switchbacks up the rocky knoll, traversing through wooded cow pasture.

After nearly 20 minutes of hiking, the trail opens up on a grassy ledge, affording views of the valley. Adventurous hikers can make their way down the mossy rocks to the base of the waterfall, while photographers can enjoy the one-of-a-kind view of Flam, nestled within the rugged landscape.

Brekkefossen Waterfall

Allot 20-30 minutes to walk to the waterfall. Roundtrip time: about 1 hour.

Brekkefossen Waterfall

Directions: From downtown Flam, cross the bridge and take a left at the intersection. Walk past the hostel, towards the highway. Cross the highway and continue alongside the road for approximately 1.5 kilometers. A wooden sign marks the turnoff for the Brekkefossen Waterfall Trail.

Norway’s Vidden Trail

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Vidden Trail

The town of Bergen, Norway often attracts visitors for its spectacular architecture, history and shopping. While the tourists remain in the city center, those looking for a one-of-a-kind adventure can head to the hills for picturesque scenery and a respite from the city crowds. The Vidden Trail stretches from Mount Ulriken to Mount Floyen, offering a taste of the area’s natural wonder. The trail affords plenty of views of the city far below, along with dramatic scenery and picturesque alpine lakes. This trail can be hiked multiple ways, depending on time limitations, budgets and physical preferences. I hiked the trail from the trailhead at Mount Ulriken to City Center, but those looking for a little less elevation gain can take the gondola to the top of Mount Ulriken, or the funicular to the top of Mount Floyen. This option cuts off approximately an hour and a half of hiking.

Vidden TrailStart from the Mount Ulriken trailhead. Follow the main trail as it gradually weaves up the side of the mountain. The manicured trail eventually gains elevation and gives way to stones as it weaves through its first switchback. Follow the signs, and the wide and well-traveled trail, to a wide opening with a trail intersection. Those who are interested in a quick climb up the mountain can follow the red signs towards the visible radio tower, while hikers who would like a more gradual ascent can follow the orange signs along a more gradual switchback. The red signs lead to a calf-burning climb up the mountain’s shoulder. As the trail continues, it quickly gains elevation. Metal rails are available along the steeper segments of the trail and can be a valuable accommodation during inclement weather. While steep, the trail affords stunning views of the city below. After approximately a mile of rocky trail, hikers can say they’ve climbed Bergen’s highest mountain. A restaurant and visitor’s center are located at the top of the mountain. While the trail is clearly marked, I recommend asking directions at the visitor’s center if you’re uncertain.

Vidden TrailFrom the tower, descend the steps to reach the first sign. Throughout the trip, simply follow the signs leading to either “Floyen” or “Vidden” to reach the final destination. The trail extends into a spectacular rocky wilderness, adorned with wild grasses. Along the first two-kilometer stretch, brightly-colored DNT cabins speckle the landscape, often perched along the rocky shores of pristine wilderness lakes. The rocky and rugged trail winds along the landscape, offering short, calf-burning climbs as you make your way farther into the wilderness. Soon the city of Bergen is nowhere to be seen— just the wilderness and the small, silent cabins.

As the trail itself is more of a suggestion than an actual path, use the tall metal poles and infrequent wooden signs to stay oriented. The path offers a few damp crossings through bogs before finally winding up along the side of the ridge where a large, lonely marker informs hikers of their next turn. Take a left, following the sign to Floyen, to begin the most spectacular part of the journey. The trail stretches for kilometers along a wide, grassy ridge, offering views of bustling Bergen to one side and small Norwegian towns to the other. The trail slowly gains elevation, offering side trails to quick mountain summits or small hidden lakes and no lack of stunning views. The trail is marked by intermittent stone columns that can be seen for kilometers, meaning that all effort can be put into enjoying the scenery.

Vidden Trail

After a long, gradual ascent, the trail begins winding downward, as the ridge loses elevation. A cluster of large lakes, the city’s reservoir, are perched almost precariously on the ridge below. As the trail descends, it grows rockier and boggier before coming out to a small bridge that offers a safe crossing between two reservoir lakes. After a brief uphill segment, the trail widens out within a grassy valley that offers a perfectly framed view of Bergen’s outskirts and the ocean beyond.

From here, the trail climbs yet again, offering a long slog up the side of Mount Floyen. The trail intersects with a paved wanderer’s trail. Take a right up the hill, heading towards the prominent cell tower. After a series of switchbacks, the trail levels out near the mountain’s summit. The wild landscape is punctuated by windswept trees and small lakes. Follow the trail down along the plateau, keeping your eyes peeled for World War II ruins tucked away within the grasses. Finally, the trail ends on a paved road. Follow the road downhill as it winds along the side of Mount Floyen. As the trail descends, the wild grasslands are replaced with forest. Follow the signs towards the Floyen Funicular, leaving the road to follow a gravel path. After several switchbacks along the wide, well-travelled trail, the trail ends at the Floyen Funicular.

Those who are interested in ending their journey in luxury can take the funicular down, while hikers who are interested in an additional 45-minute walk can follow the well-travelled gravel path down to the city center. Ultimately, while Bergen offers an endless assortment of museums, shopping quarters and cultural attractions, I found that the Vidden Trail was the most unique and memorable experience the city had to offer.

Vidden Trail

 

Hiking Times

– Distance between Mount Ulriken and Mount Floyen: 9.3

– Hiking up Mount Ulriken and down Mount Floyen to the city center adds approximately 4 additional miles.

– Local hikers recommend scheduling 5 hours for the Mount Ulriken to Mount Floyen hike; if you’re hiking from Montana to City Center, it is recommended to budget 7 hours.

 

Directions

From City Center, take bus 12 towards Montana. Get off at the Montana stop and cross the street, walking towards the Montana Hostel. Take the first right towards the well-marked Mount Ulriken trailhead.

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