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Trail Report: Walking the West Highland Way

in Trails by
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The West Highland Way is a marked walking trail that extends 154 kilometres (96 miles) from Glasgow to Fort William in Scotland.

The Route
The Way was established in 1980 and sees 15,000 walkers completing it annually. The well-marked path makes use of old footpaths, military roads, abandoned railway lines and trade routes through the highlands and, as a result, is graded in most sections with the possible except of the route along the banks of Loch Lomond. Walking from Glasgow to Fort William is most typical with the Way rising day over day and becoming more and more wild as it approaches Fort William.

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Notable hills include Conic Hill just before Balmaha, the Devil’s Staircase in Glencoe, the seemingly endless descent into Kinlochleven and the final mountain road descent into Fort William. Along the route are many historical ruins as well as mountain bothies for use by climbers and walkers.

The Way breaks down well into sections. Typically the choice is between 5 and 8 days. I chose to complete it over 6 days.
My stopping points with daily distances (kilometres/miles) were:

Day 1: Milngavie to Balmaha (Oak Tree Inn) – 32/20

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A relatively simple start on footpaths, lanes and an old railway sees you to Drymen, your first town for resupply. Rising past Drymen the Way enters the Garadhban forest before eventually going over Conic Hill with fabulous views of Loch Lomond and Balmaha. I was fortunate to walk this entire section in brilliant sunshine and receive the rarest of things, a sunburn in Scotland!

Day 2: Balmaha to Inversnaid (Inversnaid Bunkhouse) – 22/14

This section closely follows the shore of Loch Lomond, the largest body of inland water in Britain. The roughest section of the way, this part climbs and descends numerous streams flowing down into the Loch and, on many occasions, employs bridges and ladders to traverse the rocky shoreline. This portion is within the no-camping zone on the Loch (other than designated campgrounds), a requirement caused by past overuse in the area. I had a strenuous rainy day ending in Inversnaid at the Inversnaid Hotel where I was picked up for the ride uphill to the Bunkhouse located in a converted church.

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Day 3: Inversnaid to Crianlarich (Scottish Youth Hostel) – 21/13

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Up and out in the rain again to walk the remaining portion of Loch Lomond over the same rough terrain as the previous day. The Way leaves the Loch at Inverarnan and climbs up the stunning Glen Falloch River with its many waterfalls and rapids then over a low pass to Crianlarich. The section is marked by many sheep and cattle farms and the classic and ever present highland stone walls which, in some instances stretch for many kilometers beside the way. The Scottish Youth Hostel in Crianlarich is downhill from the Way on a near four kilometre spur route. A well-equipped grocery store provided dinner to be cooked at the hostel as well as a few beverages pre-dinner.
Day 4: Crianlarich to Bridge of Orchy (Bridge of Orchy Hotel) – 21/13

In contrast to the previous two days, this portion was both rain free and generally easy going. The Way here winds over good paths and tracks through the valley running west from Crianlarich with a few ascents and descents and a welcome lunch break in Tyndrum at the Green Wellie Stop. Along the Way I explored the ruins of St. Fillan’s Chapel which was funded as a priory by Robert the Bruce in 1318 (after St. Fillan’s relics assisted him in his win over King Edward at Bannockburn in 1314) and which represented an important religious centre at the time. Past Tyndrum Robert the Bruce’s presence is felt again as the Battle of Dalrigh and the Legend of the Lost Sword are commemorated along the Way. I arrived at the Bridge of Orchy late afternoon and enjoyed their pub and then a gourmet meal in their restaurant. Camping is also available just over the Bridge near the river.
Day 5: Bridge of Orchy to Kinlochleven (Blackwater Hostel) – 34/21 + 5K!

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I was up early for the long day over Rannoch Moor to Kinlochleven. As is common in most accommodation, packed lunches are available if ordered the night before. This section, and also the next ending in Fort William, lacks any amenities other than Kingshouse in Glencoe and so I opted for the two sandwich lunch and packed extra food. Using old military roads built in 1752 and little changed since then the Way rises up then dips down to Inveroran and a small snug Hotel right on the Way at a location it has held for over two centuries before rising again to the western edge of Rannoch Moor on the edge of Loch Tulla. With an early start and pursued by midges across the vast exposed reach of the Moor over 10 kilometres I reached Kingshouse under the watchful eye of the instantly recognizable mountain at the head of Glencoe, Buachaille Etive Mor (the Great Herdsmen). A steak and ale pie and a pint were my reward for a 19 km morning which put me within easy striking distance (or so I thought) of Kinlochleven.

From Kingshouse the Way works down the Glencoe Valley then bears west up and over the Devil’s Staircase, at 550 meters, the highest point on the Way. Approaching Kinlochleven you pass the Blackwater Hydroelectric Dam which powered the aluminum smelter in Kinlochleven vital to the British WW2 war effort. A seemingly endless downhill road walk from the dam into town (with Kinlochleven visible far away) became longer when the Way left the road but I didn’t. Several kilometres downhill I was forced to retrace my route back to where the trail diverted, adding 5 extra kilometres to an already 34 kilometre day. Thankfully I had booked at the Blackwater Hostel right on the Way and had secured one of their Micro lodges which were two bed barrel shaped accommodations complete with refrigerator, microwave, TV and kettle! I picked up dinner and cooked at the hostel and went to bed early after a long day.
Day 6: Kinlochleven to Fort William (West End Hotel) – 24/16

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My final day saw more rain and a steady climb out of Kinlochleven over the Lairigmor and then another up and over Glen Nevis. The views of Ben Nevis were partially obscured by the increasing cloud accompanied by high winds. After another extremely steep dirt road descent and the approach to Fort William on public roads to the former end of the Way just before the town and then into town for the official end point, I posed for the classic end photo and then retreated to the West End Hotel to dry out and celebrate.
When estimating my day’s walk I found that my average speed broke down to slightly better than 4 kilometres per hour with most days walking ranging around 9-10 hours with breaks. The latitude of Scotland caused long summer days with the sun setting very late, permitting long trail days without worry of being caught out in the dark.
Logistics

Getting to and from the Way

Glasgow is the usual arrival point by air with local trains running several times per hour from Glasgow’s Central and Queen Street train stations to Milngavie which is about 30 minutes away. If you arrive by air you can purchase a combined shuttle ticket to the train station and the Glasgow – Milngavie ticket at a discount from the machines in the airport. If you plan to travel in Scotland after your walk you can leave luggage at the airport or, for a more reasonable rate, at the Central train station. Milngavie is a full service town with accommodation and stores to purchase supplies including camping supplies such as cooking fuel. The West Highland Line has train stations near or on the Way up to the Bridge of Orchy (where it swings away and goes on to Fort William) which could be used for an abbreviated trip or in the event of an emergency enroute.
Accommodation and Baggage services

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Users can choose to either camp along the Way or make use of a full range of accommodations. My original plan was to backpack and camp the route however, as a result of an accident shortly before the trip, I opted to carry only what was necessary to permit me to overnight in accommodations which ranged from hostels to hotels.
There are numerous baggage carrying services that will pick up your kit daily and drop it off for you at the end of the day, permitting you to travel light with only your lunch and waterproofs. I didn’t opt for this service and chose to carry my end of day clothing, a week worth of snack food and other essentials in a 25 litre day pack.
An official pocket companion is published each year which details all services along the Way from food and resupply, travel providers, baggage transfer, banking and accommodation.

Gear

Footwear: the Way is quite well groomed and, with resupply easily available enroute to lighten your load, heavy boots are not necessary in my opinion. It is likely that you will end up with wet feet due to the weather and the many wet spots and so foot wear that can dry more easily at the end of the day is preferable. I wore lightweight synthetic boots and, with judicious taping at the beginning of each day (Leukotape), I had no issues.
Trekking poles: in some parts, most notably on the shore of Loch Lomond and on the rocky up and downhill portions, trekking poles were invaluable. If you fly, be sure to put your poles in your checked luggage as there have been reported instances of poles not being permitted as carry on. I typically collapse them and wrap the sharp tips in duct tape for flights.
Waterproofs: it is the Highlands. It will rain at least once each day and, on one occasion, several times alternating with sunshine in a single hour. Combined in many instances with a bit of wind it pays to have a waterproof jacket in an outside pocket along with a brimmed hat (more on that when we get to midges!). I opted not to take waterproof pants as the temperature was warm enough to wear synthetic pants (in my case zip offs) which got wet then dried quickly. Between the midges and the cooler rainy days I only wore them as shorts on one of the six days. Be sure to have a pack cover also. All of the hotels and hostels I stayed in had drying rooms for gear which permitted at least a dry start to each day.
Resupply

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When originally planning my camping walk I looked at resupply options and decided to pack breakfasts and two dinners for 6 days and go heavy on the snack food. When I was forced to switch to roofed accommodation at night I dropped my cooking plan and went exclusively with purchased food other than a large bag of mixed energy bars and trail mix.
I found that there are sufficient places to purchase food along or just off the Way in all but the last portion from Kinlochleven to Fort William that, with a bit of planning, my original 2 dinner plan would have been sufficient. Using accommodation I was able to buy a big breakfast (a full Scottish breakfast is very substantial), in some cases buy a boxed lunch from the place I stayed and then eat my snack food as I went with dinner at my new accommodation at the end of the day.

I cooked twice in the kitchens at the hostels in Crianlarich and Kinlochleven by buying food at the local grocery store and in the other three hotels/bunkhouses I bought my dinner (and a beer or two at the pub!). The hotels and bunkhouses had full dinners to buy (Scottish smoked salmon starter along with haggis, neeps and tatties at the Oak Tree Inn in Balmaha is highly recommended!).

My schedule allowed me to eat a full lunch on two memorable occasions in Tyndrum at the Green Wellie Stop where I had a great bowl of Cullen Skink (smoked haddock soup)

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and at Kingshouse in Glencoe where a pint and a steak and ale pie made a 35 km day much more enjoyable. Finally, carry cash as cash machines are infrequent and not all places accept credit cards especially for small purchases such as the stellar bacon butty and tea I had unexpectedly one morning at a small campsite canteen.

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Midges
The Highland Midge (Culicoides impunctatus). Wikipedia notes that “They are generally regarded as pests”. I can attest to that. Single midges are nearly invisible at 1 millimeter which is this size → ● A swarm can inflict 3000 itchy bites in an hour from 40,000 landings. They are most vicious at dawn and dusk and on any low light intensity day that is overcast following a light rain – in effect, all of the time in the Highlands. The worst months are June – August. I used a combination of a bug net, brimmed hat, long sleeves and long pants and a few insect repellent wipes. Those I encountered who did not have protection seemed frantic and kept running away mid-sentence as the swarm descends when you stand still. My day crossing Rannoch Moor was the worst but the protection I had seemed to work. Smidgeup.com (Smidge is a local Scottish repellent) maintains an updated midge forecast website for those who favour a technical heads up.

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G-Shock RANGEMAN Master – Gear Review

in Community/Gear by
User guide.

The G-Shock RANGEMAN Master or G-GW9400-3 is definitely a niche watch in today’s smartwatch world. Let me start by saying I put this watch through the gauntlet over the past three months, this watch has been with me on some hardcore downhill MTB rides, several triathlons, ice climbing, and a proper backpacking trip in Alaska. Also, as a quick note to give you a better idea of my impressions/judgments, I also currently own a Samsung Gear 2 and a Garmin 735XT.

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The G-Shock RANGEMAN took me into the wilds of Alaska’s Talkeetna Mountains and helped me get back again.

I broke this review down into five categories, which will give you a good idea of where this watch fits into your collection.

g-shock rangeman1.Style. For a watch built for toughness it is a darn good looking watch. My first impression was it might look like a beast but it isn’t too big and I really do like the look of this watch. I will always choose comfort over style, especially with a piece of gear I need to depend on in the backcountry. Luckily, I don’t have to make any sacrifices with this watch. Casio did a great job making this watch look the part and still be stylish while packing in all the capabilities it has to offer. I especially like the look of the digital compass in the top left-hand corner, that little touch of gold in the face is a subtle accent of style in this rugged build.

2. Features. This is the real reason you’re going to spend the money on this watch: Casio packed this watch full of some very useful and important capabilities. Here are my top five functions on the watch since there are too many functions to cover in detail.

  • Tough Solar Power: You will never need to charge or replace the battery with this watch! How awesome does that sound in today’s world of always looking for somewhere to plug in. Even if you were living in a cave this watch would still last you seven months on a full charge. Having the solar power really makes this watch stand out, especially in the smartwatch era that we are approaching. The last thing I would want is my watch to go dead if I was lost in the wilderness and it isn’t a worry with this watch.
  • Triple Sensor (Altimeter, Barometer, and Thermometer): Super important features to have when you’re headed out on an “epic” in the backcountry. For me, knowing the temperature, altitude, and weather are deciding factors for going forward on a big objective and having that information to make the right decision can be priceless if not life saving in some situations. I found all three functions to work well in the backcountry, the thermometer, of course, got a more accurate reading when off my body.
  • Shock/Mud/Water Resistant: Another strength of this watch is you can beat it up without worrying about it handling your adventure. I took a brutal fall on the downhill bike where I went over the handlebars and the watch didn’t even get a scratch but the rest of my body couldn’t say the same. I also grinded the face against a glacier while ice climbing and the same thing happened, I got some cuts but the watch was good. As for water resistance, I did a lot of open water swimming during triathlons and there was never any issues. I wore this watch when I knew my other watches would not be able to withstand the punishment I was going to be dishing out.
  • Memory Capacity: To be honest, this is a function I didn’t get to dive very deep into but I could see it being a very useful tool on longer trips into the backcountry. Up to 40 records (shared storage with date/time, bearing, and barometric pressure/temperature records). The main reason I did not get too deep into this is because in today’s smartwatch world it is not as simple to use as I would like. It just doesn’t have the technical ecosystem that we’ve grown a custom to.  
  • Digital Compass: A pretty common feature in watches these days but the G-Shock RANGEMAN did a great job of making it clear and easy to use on this watch. It measures and displays direction as one of 16 points with a measuring range from 0 to 359 degrees and a graphic direction pointer with bidirectional calibration and magnetic declination correction. On my last backpacking trip we were off trail and route finding almost the entire time so having a spot on compass was invaluable.

3. Comfort: An important part of every watch and one this one does well. The watch fits great with a ton of length options on the band and it actually feels pretty light. For backpacking, I would rank this watch very high on the comfort level. For the day-to-day use I rank it as just OK. As I mentioned before it got through several triathlons but wasn’t the most comfortable watch I’ve worn for endurance sports. Although, this watch was not made for triathletes and belongs at home in the backcountry.

4. Durability: Another one of the key traits to this watch is it can just take a beating. On the durability side, I don’t know if there is anything I would change, it is a beast.

5. User Friendliness: Here is where the G-Shock RANGEMAN looses a lot of points. I know Casio did not build this watch to compete with all the smartwatches out right now so it’s probably a little unfair to put them in the same category. But with that said, if you are into everything being super intuitive like your smartphone then you might get a little frustrated when setting all the functions up with this watch.

The manual alone might cause some fear but to be fair it wasn’t terribly hard to get the necessary features dialed in.

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The user guide for the G-Shock RANGEMAN looks thick, but is easy to navigate.

Should You Buy This Watch? Yes, but only if you plan to be in the backcountry a lot. Sadly, I feel the G-Shock RANGEMAN is a bit outdated when it comes to the intuitive technology we’re accustomed to today. So if you’re looking for an everyday watch, I don’t think this watch is worth the money. For my own personal use, I am excited to have the Master of G-GW9400-3 in my collection but I think it is most likely going to be on the shelf and only come out on the big adventures because that is where this watch shines.

 

Fear and Loathing on the Yellowstone River Trail

in Community/Fireside by
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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.

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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

 

Renowned Guide Book Writer Tami Asars – The PCT Experience in Her Own Words

in Community by
Mount Adams
Tami Asars
As you head north the trail curves around the broad shoulders of the giant Mount Adams and truly introduces ‘purple mountain majesty’ with meadows of lupine and aster lining the rocky soil. Volcanic views make you realize just how tiny you are in the grand scheme of the universe. Words and Photo by guide book writer Tami Asars.

This fall, photographer, former REI guide, and guide book writer Tami Asars will release her third backpacking guide book.  Tami’s critically acclaimed books are known for detailed trail information and beautiful photograph.  I caught up with Tami this summer after her two-year odyssey to write the definitive guide book of Washington’s portion of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).  This timely book follows a 137 percent increase in PCT usage between 2013 and 2015.

In this two-part series, I will explore Tami’s experiences writing the book and her advice for those thinking about taking on the challenge of backpacking Washington’s PCT.  Not wanting to change a word, I present Tami’s responses unedited.  Enjoy!

Part One:  Tami Asars in her own words

What gave you the idea to write the guide book about the Washington PCT?

As a guidebook author, I’m constantly thinking of ways to share my passions with other hikers.  While I love day hiking, I’m absolutely smitten by backpacking and love doing long distance trips, especially in Washington State.  Because it’s so beautiful, section hikers are becoming increasingly more prevalent in the backcountry and I wanted to give them a tool to help them discover the best way to see the trail from logical point to logical point.

How long did you spend on the PCT?  Was it continuous or did you break it up?

I spent two summers pushing up every pass and traipsing down every valley with the GPS rolling. I documented every water source, every camp site, every trail intersection, every river ford, every challenge and every reward.

The first year, I hiked from Snoqualmie Pass to Manning Park, B.C a distance of just over 267 miles. It took me roughly 13 days and it rained, hailed, and drizzled consistently for 9 solid days out of those 13. Washington weather is extremely fickle and I was able to represent the landscape and countryside in photos and trail descriptions having experienced a wide variety of conditions.

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Lodge Lake near Snoqualmie Pass. Photo by guide book writer Tami Asars.

The following summer I bobbed and weaved through lightning bolts, rain and sunshine from the Columbia River to Forest Road 23, near the town of Trout Lake, a total of 81.8 miles which took me 3.5 days.  During those days I enjoyed the splendor of the deciduous forests and riparian landscapes near the southern Washington border, and wandered through Indian Heaven Wilderness elbow deep in huckleberries.

I took a break at that point and explored the Columbia Gorge before hopping back on the trail and hiking from Forest Road 23 to Snoqualmie Pass a total of nearly 163 miles. During that stretch there were moments of peacefully, haunting quietness save for the occasional lone Clark’s Nutcracker call in the Mount Adams Wilderness.

What was your experience on the trail? Your time alone, people you met, wildlife encounters, observations of nature, photography.

I hiked half of the state solo which I always enjoy.  Don’t get me wrong, I love company too, but I believe all of us seek to peel back the layers and find out just how strong we are, both emotionally and physically, and hiking completely alone does just that.

When you spend time deep in thought simultaneously hyper aware of your surrounds, you actually begin to use all of your senses more keenly. Because we live in a modern world, I think we forget about the fact that underneath it all we are mammals and those senses are there for our survival; they are just a little buried underneath computer screens and central heat.  Out on the trail I could smell where there had been herds of elk before I came to their tracks. I could hear water dripping down creek beds long before I saw them. And, at one point, I felt as if I was being watched, so I stopped and took a hard look around. I thought I was going crazy before I discovered a beautiful, red-tailed hawk perched on a tree branch not more than 30 feet above me.

One night, I met a thru-hiker who offered to let me pitch my tent not far from hers.  It was late and getting dark, so my options were limited and she seemed happy and chatty. We talked for a long time about her med school ambitions and shared stories about our love of wild creatures and places.  We were so deep in conversation that we nearly missed the most brilliant sunset I’ve ever seen!  As we starred at the hues of reds, pinks, yellows and turquoise melding into the setting stars over Mount Adams, we were hypnotized into a stilled state of awe.  Sometimes the most brilliant of life’s moment unfold at the most unexpected times.

As for wildlife encounters, I’ve seen many animals along Washington’s PCT.  All have been quick to scamper off much to the chagrin of my waiting camera. Deer, elk, bear, bobcats, pikas, marmots, martens, toads, frogs, snakes, lizards, and too many birds to list have crossed my path along the way. And, it’s likely I chatted with every animal who would listen to me talk.

What obstacles did you face on the trail and with the book?

The most challenging part of the book, hands-down was the data and ensuring it was as accurate as possible. Collecting data is challenging in the best of conditions but add in a dense forest in places and/or an overcast sky which prevents the GPS from seeing the sky/satellites and data can get messy. What’s more GPS’s are often slightly inaccurate.

GPS technology used for recreational purposes is simply not an exact science, so unravelling the mysterious data tracks took a lot of imports and exports on a variety of mapping software as well as comparisons with numerous paper maps and other trusted sources. In the end, I proudly stand with my conclusions.

 

Check back next week when Tami gives sage advice for those thinking of backpacking Washington’s PCT.

PCT SignGuide book writer Tami Asars on the Pacific Crest Trail. Tami’s new guide book will be out in September 2016 in a full color coffee-table style edition.  An e-reader version is available for those that want to take the book with them on the trail.  Tami says that her book is one in a series of PCT guide books that will be out this fall, other books will cover the California and Oregon sections of the PCT.  For details about where Tami Asars will be signing books and talking about her adventures go to her website at www.tamiasars.com.

The Sawatch 15 Sleeping Bag – A New Way to Look at an Old Design

in Gear by
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Sawatch 15 sleeping bag
The Sawatch 15 sleeping bag received high recommendations in recent gear testing by Backpacking Light.

Katabatic Gear takes a new look at the traditional sleeping bag with the Sawatch 15.  The Sawatch 15 sleeping bag features a unique quilt style design that attempts to keep the insulation where you need it most for increased warmth at a lightweight.  The design also eliminates the zipper to allow for versatile use as either a blanket or mummy.  Another innovative feature of the bag is the attachment system that allows the Sawatch 15 sleeping bag to be attached to your sleeping pad so you don’t roll off in the middle of the night while maximizing thermal capacity.  In addition, the Sawatch 15 sleeping bag uses a differential cut that keeps loft (warmth) even when the bag is pulled tight against the body on chilly nights.  The roomy trapezoidal overstuffed foot box allows for extra warmth around your feet.  Continuous baffles help to move insulation around the bag as needed.  The bag is also equipped with an overstuffed down collar for added warmth and comfort.

Swatch 15 sleeping bag
The Katabatic Gear patented Cord Clip attachment system keeps you on your pad and maximizes the thermal qualities of the bag. Simply tie the cords around the pad, and attach your bag!

The Sawatch sleeping bag is rated to 15 degrees, but the added features and design will keep you warmer than most bags rated to this temperature. Katabatic Gear uses premium goose down that is treated to be moisture resistant.  At around 24 ounces, the Swatch sleeping bag is lightweight and an ideal three-season option for most backpacking trips.

Iceland Backpacking – 5 Things to Know Before Booking Your Trip to Iceland

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Iceland backpacking
Iceland Backpacking – Valley in between the Botnar and Alfatvatn Huts on the Laugavegur Trail. Photo by Liz Forster

Our adventure travel reporter, Liz Forster, is once again on the trail and filed this trip report from London.  Find out about the next big thing in adventure travel – Iceland backpacking.

1.  It’s an outdoorsperson’s paradise.  Iceland backpacking is known for its wealth of outdoor activities and sightseeing opportunities. Once you drive out of Reykjavik, you have access to and views of volcanoes, glaciers, natural hot springs, lush mountainsides, canyons, black sand beaches, lakes, waterfalls, and geysers. No matter what your preferred outdoor pursuit (scuba diving anyone?), Iceland has it.

2.  Some parts feel like an Old Faithful attraction.  But many do not. The Golden Circle is a famous loop of attractions- Thingvellir National Park, Gulfoss waterfall, and Geysir- where every tour bus, camping van, and tourist will go to take a selfie. The attractions on the loop are worth a stop, especially because of the proximity to Reykjavik and the magnificent views provided. But many of the less popular attractions are just as stunning and can be enjoyed without the crowds.  Most tourists will not walk further than a half mile from the parking lot, so any longer and you’ll be away from any crowd.

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Gulfoss waterfall on the Golden Circle loop. This waterfall has historically been compared to Niagara Falls. Photo by Liz Forster

3.  Hikers will never get bored. From half-day and day hikes to five day backpack trips; Iceland backpacking has it all and none will disappoint. If you rent a car, be sure to check out the Snaefellness and Skaftafell National Parks, and Seljandafoss and Skogafoss waterfalls. Although Seljandafoss and Skogafoss are quick stops, an avid hiker can spend two or three days hiking in the Snaefellness and Skaftafell National Parks. Some bus packages (and of course hitchhiking!) will also take you there.

For hikers looking to backpack, the Laugavegur trail is the most famous backpacking route in Iceland, and many Icelanders regard it as a rite of passage. Traditionally, the backpack trip is four days, starting in the lush Thorsmork valley, through giant volcanic canyons, glacial rivers, seemingly endless mountain valleys, and ending in Landmannalaugar. In total, this route is about 35 miles. There is also an option to add another 16 miles and go over Fimmvörðuháls pass to Skógar. Around 80 percent of people hike the route north to south, but many of the hut wardens along the way say south to north is the way to go!

If you want to truly go off the beaten path, drive to the West Fjords in northwestern Iceland. They are largely untouched by tourists and Icelanders alike.

4.  You don’t go there for good weather. During the summer in Iceland, it is generally overcast, raining, and between 30 and 60 degrees. Make sure to bring rain gear and plenty of layers.

5.  Other than hypothermia, there are very few hazards in the backcountry. Iceland travel has none of the dangerous predators found in the United States and much of the water is giardia-free because it is a product of glacial melt. This makes backcountry hazards manageable as long as you bring plenty of warm layers and rain gear, have a map and a GPS (a must-have item for the Laugavegur trail), and be sure to check the weather report before heading out.

Tourism is increasing in Iceland backpacking, so get there now!

Deuter Gröden 32 Hiking Backpack Review

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Upon first inspection of the Gröden 32, the thing just screams German engineering. It doesn’t have the streamlined cut or traffic-stopping color scheme of many American-designed day packs. With a muted, earthy color scheme and a fascinatingly bulbous design, the Gröden behaves more like a Volkswagen than a Mustang.

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As far as day packs go, I’m more accustomed to something akin to a stuff sack-like design, maybe with a couple of smaller pockets for mobiles, hiking snacks, or a map. The Gröden, on the other hand, acts like a condensed backpacking pack. Much of the volume is split between several isolated pockets, adding up to 32 litres of packing space total. I chose to test the packing limits of the pack, fitting in a couple of changes of clothes, a book, water bottle, a pair of sandals, and a couple of smaller items such as a headlamp and a phone charger. There’s lots of room for the Deuter to expand, so packing it to maximum capacity wasn’t an issue.

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Like a German automobile, the Gröden has an incontrovertible exertion of Eurocool. With the Vintage-inspired design and a classic European minimalist flair, I never stopped feeling like I wasn’t hip enough to wear such a collector’s item. Deuter does well in drawing on inspiration from backpackers in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Gröden boasts the Deuter Aircomfort System, which features a steel frame, a mesh back for ventilation, and padded shoulder straps. The suspension design is practically a benchmark in most packs nowadays, intended to keep most of the weight directly off the back and weigh it more effectively to be dispersed, preventing that notorious back sweat from making a rather unpleasant and chaffing packing experience. My 50 litre Osprey pack has similar technology. I didn’t find the shoulders as luscious and comfortable as Deuter advertises, but they weren’t particularly uncomfortable either.

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Regardless, this is a reliable pack. Hip strap problems aside, it fits pretty comfortable on the back, and the air ventilation system is a godsend. At $129, it’s not the cheapest small pack I’ve tried, but the engineering and design certainly justify the price tag. This pack is best for hikers who require slightly more than the fundamentals of a day pack and are looking to upgrade to something that can pack more without adding significant weight.

Specs:

Weight: 2 lbs 9 oz
Volume: 32 litres
Material: Deuter-Ripstop-Polytex
Waterproof: Yes, includes rain cover
Price: $129

Vasque Skywalk GTX Review

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Hitting the trail in a shiny new pair of hiking boots is akin to driving a new car off the lot: The rush of adrenaline, the boost of confidence, the fractional increase in speed that can only convey Yeah, I look pretty good right now.

Vasque’s new Skywalk GTX backpacking boots basically look like Corvettes coming out of the box: They’re aesthetically clean cut, pleasingly slim but weighted fairly heavily (2 lbs 13 oz.), so they rest satisfyingly in the hand. Vasque aimed to revive the design of the original boot from the 1980s while modernizing the technology to compete with the best boots on the market today. The result is a gorgeous shoe with all the specs to make the most backcountry-bound packers green with envy.

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This is a sturdy boot; I was pretty accustomed to my ol’ faithful Keens, which have worn in to basically slipper-quality over time. Subsequently, the first time slipping them on sent a little nervous thrill through my mind. The body is stiff leather (tanned in the U.S., according to Vasque) with a polyurethane midsole and Vasque’s Pyrenees rubber outsole. It’s highly stable, but takes a lot of breaking-in. My first time out with the Skywalks was a simple 5-mile roundtrip hike up the sloping switchbacks of Icicle Ridge outside Leavenworth. I was nearly blistering by the summit, but I could already feel the gradual softening off the heels.

Skywalk GTX Review
Photo by Carley Schmidt

I have notoriously weak ankles which, in addition to squandering my childhood dream of being a figure skater, makes rocky ascents a treacherous undertaking. Luckily, the Skywalks more than compensate for my biological disadvantage; they’re fully supportive throughout the ankle, making rock scrambles significantly less dangerous.

The summit of Icicle Ridge was blanketed in about three feet of snow. The Skywalks have a sturdy tread, and combined with the waterproof Gore-Tex lining, traversing banks didn’t create much of an issue. They braved mud and creeks without slippage.

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Photo by Carley Schmidt

The only issue that arose when it time to descend. Downhill tends to wreak the most havoc on my legs; I step fairly heavily, which puts pressure on my toes and knees. I’ve lost many toenails due to this bad habit. The Skywalks have a fairly narrow toe, and while I loved the aesthetic value of this feature, it did create an issue when marching back down the switchbacks. I had sore feet by the time we reached the trailhead again, and was starting to lose feeling in a few toes. This may just be something that has to be worn in over time, and even now it’s not unbearable, but it does play into my planning process.

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Photo by Carley Schmidt

Vasque’s Skywalk GTX is overall a great boot. It’s durable, stylish and undoubtedly long-lasting. For those seeking a classic look and a trustworthy design, the Skywalk is a solid choice. For a student like myself, $200 is a substantial investment, but like a new car, I plan on racking up some hard miles.

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Photo by Carley Schmidt. Sandwich by Grace Lindsey.

Features:

  • Leather tanned in the US
  • GORE-TEX® with Extended Comfort Technology
  • Comfortable yet stable
  • Polyurethane midsole
  • Weight: 2 lbs 13 oz.
  • Available now
  • Price: $200

Perfect Weight Vest Review & Exercises

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Perfect Weight Vest Inside Weight Pockets
Perfect Weight Vest Inside Weight Pockets
If you are looking for different ways to train for your backpacking adventures, then you should try the Perfect® Weight Vest. It comes in two sizes: a 20 pound or 40 pound vest with the ability to adjust the weight from 1 pound up to 40 pounds. Pictured is the 20 pound vest (the 40 pound vest is longer).  This vest is much slimmer than other brands I have tried and more secure with the double-belly Velcro band.  This is important because you want the vest to stay snug to the body and out of the way while you are moving.  Other bonus features include reflective material for safety in low light situations, a pocket for a smart phone or MP3 player and soft padding that makes it comfortable for the shoulders.
Perfect Weight Vest MP3 Player Pouch
When training with a weight vest, you can help build your cardiovascular endurance (which you need on a hike) or you can use it to build strength.  Your body must first be conditioned enough without the vest. This is extremely important, because you obviously want to reduce the risk of injuring yourself. If you can easily perform movements (hikes and exercises) without any added weight or resistance, then you are ready to add the weight vest.  You should first start with a vest weighing no more than 5% of your body weight. See how you feel with your training, and increase weight as you are successful with perfect form.  Perfect form means good posture with abs contracted, chest open and shoulders retracted and depressed (able to keep spine in a neutral position while performing various exercises). The core exercises (such as planks and weighted triangle) should always be performed with lighter weight.
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The only negative I have found with this weight vest (and all weight vests) is that you get really warm.  Even though it has a breathable shell, once you put the weights in the pockets, you get warmer than you would just holding dumbbells or weights in your hands or having a pack on your back.  With that said, it’s nice to change it up and have the weight evenly distributed on your body.  This challenges your body differently and may even help you break through fitness plateaus.
Specs:  Depth 2 in. / Height 16.5 in. / Width 17 in. / Total Weight = 21 pounds
*Here’s some strengthening exercises for backpacking using a weighted vest:
1 Legged Deadlift (Targets core, legs, and glutes)
  • Stand tall on one leg with knee soft.
  • Slowly reach towards your knee as you hinge forward.
  • Keep your spine straight with your abs contracted and chest open.
  • Raise back up slowly and repeat 30-60 seconds on each leg.
  • Make easier:  Tap back foot down.
  • Make harder:  Reach towards shin (don’t round your spine).
Plank (Targets core muscles)
  • Start in a tabletop position on hands and knees.
  • Push your hips forward with your shoulders directly over your hands or elbows (also known as modified plank).
  • Straighten legs to increase difficulty and hold 20-60 seconds.
  • Make harder:  Add rotation by slowly raising arm out to side and overhead.  Slowly lower back down and repeat on other side.
Side Squat (Targets legs, glutes and hips)
  • Stand tall with feet together.
  • Step out to side with your right foot and press your hips back into a squat with your chest open.
  • Push off your right foot to bring feet together standing tall again.
  • Repeat for 30-60 seconds on each leg.
  • Make easier:  Modify your squat by only bending your knees slightly.
  • Make harder:  Increase your range of motion with thighs parallel to ground.
Alternating Front Lunges (Targets legs, glutes and hips)
  • Stand tall with feet together.
  • Step forward with the right leg.
  • Keep weight on your right heel as you lower down into a lunge.
  • Push off your right leg to stand with feet together again.
  • Repeat sequence with the left leg.
  • Alternate front lunges for 30-60 seconds.
Triangle (Targets core, hip and leg muscles)
*This is a great way to work your abs and back without doing crunches.
  • Start in a wide stance, feet wider than shoulders.
  • Turn your right toes out with weight even on both legs (don’t let your left foot cave in).
  • Squeeze your quads as you open your chest and pinch your shoulder blades.
  • Slowly hinge from the hips as you tilt your torso to the right with chest open.
  • Only lower a couple inches, hold 2-3 seconds and slowly raise back up.
  • Repeat 3-10 times on each side.
  • Make easier:  Plant your back foot (left foot) at a wall for more stability.
  • Make harder:  Increase range of motion (as shown in photo).
Perfect Weight Vest Exercises for Backpacking
*Always start exercises without the weight vest first.  Consult your physician before starting this or any new exercise program.

Trail Angel: Generosity on the Pacific Crest Trail

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Thirteen days from the Columbia Gorge and fifty yards from Sheep Lake, I broke camp around 8:00 a.m. to begin another day of hiking.  My goal was to reach Razors Edge before late afternoon shadows created even further challenges to my poor depth perception. At 72 years of age, that reality had to be factored in to any day of hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail.

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My morning trail led upward about two miles to the base of Cispus Pass, where other hikers had told me I would have to traverse a steep and expansive snowfield. I had already encountered several over the past week and the thought of what lay before me gave cause for palpable anxiety.  I would need to hike across a hundred yards of snow, then scramble up another hundred feet of loose shale to reach Cispus Pass.

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My decision to forgo packing crampons now felt particularly short-sighted and foolish. At less than ten ounces, they would have added little weight and taken minimal space in a side pocket of my pack. Had I calculated that a few snowfields wouldn’t be a problem to an old seasoned backpacker like me?

Doubly foolish.

Within an hour of breaking camp, I stood at the foot of the narrow trail that led across the snowfield. I shook my head in disbelief.  There were several hundred feet down the side of the mountain and nothing to break a slide if I lost my footing.  And looking up, the way to the Pass was equally steep and foreboding. But there was no other option. I took a deep breath, mustered some courage, and tried to set aside my usual fear of heights. Yet with my pack still strapped on and my path clear, I hesitated.  I stood waiting for something to convince me it was time to begin.

A man with two large dogs had gone just minutes before and left his boot imprints in the snow. I figured I could simply use his tracks. But just then a group of young men I had meet the day before came up behind me, so I stepped away from the trail and let them pass. They were young, virile and fearless. I hated them! I silently convinced myself that if they could do it, by God, so could I.

Once again, I stepped out onto the snowfield and crunched into the first boot imprint left by the last hiker. One imprint after another, I slowly followed. But in less than fifty feet I felt my boots slipping on snow that had turned to ice the previous night. I stood still for a few seconds, took another deep breath, and gingerly continued. About five steps farther, my feet slipped out from under me. I instinctively twisted my body, falling so that I landed on my butt. Immediately, I began to slide down the side of the mountain. I hastily jammed both feet and my trekking poles into the snow to slow my slide. With my pack strapped securely to my back, I feared I would become an enormous boulder gathering snow and velocity until I flipped over and barreled down the long slope to the rocky bottom.

Miraculously, after about thirty feet, I suddenly stopped. My stomach, though, accompanied by my pounding heart, continued on down the mountain. I sat, determined not to move an inch, while I tried to collect myself before I went into a full-on panic attack.

I heard one of the men yell down to me.  “Stay put and I’ll come down to you!”

I yelled back over my shoulder, “No way! I got myself into this mess. I’ll figure it out!”

After a long couple of minutes, I began cautiously to scoot myself upwards and backwards towards the spot where I had slipped, moving carefully, inch by anxious inch, and the entire time whispering, “Be calm. You are just fine.  This is part of the adventure.”

Actually, I was terrified beyond words but I dared not acknowledge my fear. In this situation, fear was my enemy. I needed calm and resolve. Up and up I scooted towards the icy trail of boot prints until I could feel my cold, wet butt on the flattened trail. Finally! But the ordeal wasn’t over. I sat considering how I was going to hoist myself back on my feet.  With a heavy pack on my back, hoisting wasn’t going to be an easy task, and I had spent so much physical and emotional energy over the past several minutes that I questioned whether I had enough reserves left. Yet somehow I found the resolve, and using my trekking poles as support, I hoisted myself back on my feet. But in so doing, I got turned around, facing back to where I had begun. “Oh crap!” I blurted, but, gratefully, I was vertical and not splayed out on some boulder below.

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As it turned out, facing in the “wrong” direction was fortuitous. I needed to return to where I had begun, sit down, and collect myself before attempting the crossing again.  I backtracked to the edge of the snowfield, about fifty feet away, dropped my pack, and collapsed on the soggy ground.

After a few minutes of rest, I heard footsteps crunching towards me. I sat up and saw that someone familiar was a few feet from where I sat.  It was one of the guys from the group that had begun the crossing just before me. When he saw that I had slipped, he broke away from the group and came back over the snowfield.

“How ya doing, buddy?” he asked.

“I feel like I’m going to throw up.”

“That was a rough go back there,” he said with a broad smile and calm voice.  Without another word, he took off his pack and began riffling through it. In seconds he pulled out a set of crampons still in their package and thrust them towards me.

“Here, take these. I don’t need them and you sure as hell do.”

I fitted them on my boots and asked, “Where can I meet you on the trail and return them?”

“No need. I own a restaurant in Bellevue, so someday after you’ve returned, assuming you return,” he chuckled, “bring your wife or girlfriend in and return them. I trust you.”

I wrote down the name of his restaurant, and with that quick exchange, he turned around and hiked back across the snowfield.

The crampons worked perfectly, and I was able to get across without further incident and up to Cispus pass. There I sat under a scrubby pine tree that seemed to be growing out of solid rock, wrote several pages in my journal, and chewed on some trail mix. From where I was sitting, I could see down to where I could have landed if I hadn’t stopped my slide. It wasn’t a pretty sight.  I felt calm and peaceful and deeply grateful for all the kindness and generosity that others had offered me over the past several days and on that day in particular, a gift from a Trail Angel who just happened to have a set of crampons.

And, too, it struck me that in the wilderness we seem to become transformed into people we have always wanted to be…more kind, more trusting, more generous, just as my Trail Angel was…but for some reason fail to be in our busy lives back home. What gets in our way? I wondered.

Several days after I returned home, I sent the crampons back to my Trail Angel with a gift and a note of gratitude, both for his help and for reminding me that kindness is its own reward.

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This story is excerpted from Almost There: Stories and Musings along the Pacific Crest Trail.

 

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