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Liz Forster

Sierra Designs Zissou Plus Sleeping Bag – Gear Review

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For warmth and comfort, down sleeping bags are the obvious choice. Fears of complete saturation and loss of all of those warmth properties prevented me from making the switch from synthetic bags. The Sierra Designs Zissou Plus Sleeping Bag eased this fear, keeping me warm and dry in snow, rain, and wind.

Sierra Designs Zissou Plus Sleeping Bag

The Test

I tested the Sierra Designs Zissou Plus Sleeping Bag on two trips and in varying conditions. The first was a 4-day fall trip in the Maroon Bells near Aspen, Colorado where it was first 40 degrees and raining then 15 degrees and snowing at night. The second was was a 13-day backpacking trip in Glacier National Park at the end of September through mid-October. During the latter trip, the weather varied from a dry 50 degrees, a snowy 10 degrees, and a rainy 30 degrees at night.

Design

The Sierra Designs Zissou Plus Sleeping Bag is made with 700 Fill Duck DriDown insulation material. The DriDown insulation combines the warmth and insulation of traditional down material with the hydrophobic finish of a synthetic bag. An untreated 15-degree down sleeping bag loses up to 30 percent of its loft over eight hours in an 80 percent humidity environment. In short, a 15-degree bag turns into a 30-degree bag. With DriDown treatment, though, bags lose only 2 percent of their loft, retaining 98 percent of its insulation properties. To say the least, DriDown is pretty innovative.

Sierra Designs Zissou Plus Sleeping Bag

To get more into the tech specs, the comfort and lower limit of the Sierra Designs Zissou Plus Sleeping Bag is 27 and 15 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively. The regular sized sleeping bag fits to a 6 foot tall male with a 62 inch shoulder and 58 inch hip width. There is a full zipper on the left side of the bag and a quarter zipper on the right side. Sierra Designs recorded the stuff size as 8 x 19 inches, but with a compression sack, I was able to shrink it down more than half that. 

Comfort

This bag was one of the most comfortable I have ever slept in. Although it is inspired by mummy designs, I never felt restricted in the Sierra Designs Zissou Plus Sleeping Bag as I do with other mummy sleeping bags.  I could toss and turn without the whole sleeping bag twisting upside down, I woke up without a twisted liner during sub-15 degree nights, and I could change into my hiking socks and pants in the morning without trouble.

On a more extreme note, the width of this bag prevented my mild hypothermia from accelerating into moderate hypothermia during the Maroon Bells trip. My expedition partner, who was also mildly hypothermic, and I were both able to fit in the sleeping bag to warm each other. Although we could not move around easily, that extra room that most mummy sleeping bags do not provide allowed us to properly address a serious medical concern.

Warmth

The Sierra Designs Zissou Plus Sleeping Bag definitely performs according to its 15 degree rating. On nights closer to 50 degrees, I slept comfortably in a t-shirt and shorts. On colder nights between 15 and 40 degrees, I felt just as warm as the 50 degree nights with a fleece and leggings. Even on the colder nights, I did not feel I needed a hat because of the warmth provided by the hood and the insulation flaps covering each of the zippers. Once temperatures dropped below 15 degrees, I needed a sleeping bag liner.

Sierra Designs Zissou Plus Sleeping Bag

Because of the DriDown finish, my feet stayed warm and dry even when the condensation from my tent got the bottom of my sleeping bag wet. The hydrophobic properties also allowed for my sleeping bag to dry inside my compression sack during the day.

Size/Weight

The Sierra Designs Zissou Plus Sleeping Bag ultimate trade-off is between comfort/warmth and size/weight. Whereas other 15-degree, light weight sleeping bags average about 2 pounds in weight, the Zissou Plus is 2 pounds and 10 ounces. Although it is more compact than synthetic sleeping bags, it is minutely larger once packed than other down bags. For me, the comfort and warmth is worth the extra weight, and, with a compression sack as opposed to a stuff sack, I did not have trouble fitting it into my pack on either the 4-day Maroon Bells trip or the 13-day Glacier trip. For ultralight backpackers, though, this trade-off is a greater consideration.

Final Thoughts

For the backpacker hesitant to switch from synthetic to down, the Sierra Designs Zissou Plus Sleeping Bag offers a great balance between warmth and waterproofness. Despite its mummy design, the bag had plenty of room inside for nighttime tossing and turning or a close-knit cuddle with your expedition partner. Backpackers less meticulous about every ounce of weight will love this bag, whether in the Pacific Northwest or the desert. 

 

Sierra Designs Flashlight 1 Tent – Gear Review

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sierra design flashlight

Going to wild places with Sierra Designs Flashlight 1 Tent.  When solo camping, I prioritize light weight. For the past couple of years, though, I have compromised on weight by bringing a two-person tent. With most one-person tents, I find myself struggling to sit up even half way comfortably. Sierra Designs has addressed that compromise backpackers oftentimes make with the innovative design of the Sierra Designs Flashlight 1 tent.

Sierra Designs Flashlight
Basic set up on the Sierra Designs Flashlight 1 Tent

Design

The Sierra Designs Flashlight 1 Tent is as unique in design as tents get. It has a rectangular base with a diagonally-sloping top. At its peak, the tent stands at 45 inches tall, allowing for ample room to sit up in that half of the tent. The tent has one door and 3.5 ft2 vestibule. There are three poles, one for the door, one for the ventilation window, and one for the footbed. Five guylines situated at the front, rear, and sides of the tent keep the tent erect and taut. The tent is single-walled, so the rainfly is built into the frame of the tent. Combined with the Polyester Tafetta fly fabric and 20D Nylon body fabric, the materials are quintessential ultralight.

The Test

The Sierra Designs Flashlight 1-Person Tent accompanied me during two trips. The first was an overnight, car-camping trip in Pike’s Peak National Forest, Colo., in mid-September, and the other was a 13-day backpacking trip in Glacier National Park at the end of September through mid-October. As is custom to September in Colorado, the weather during the first test was dry with low temperatures around 45 degrees. During the second test, the weather varied from a dry 45 degrees, a snowy 10 degrees, and a rainy 50 degrees.

sierra design flashlight
The Sierra Design Flashlight 1 is highly packable leaving you space for the other essentials.

Ventilation

During my first test of the tent and the dry days in Glacier National Park, I experienced little to no condensation on the inside of the tent. In Colorado, this is normal with any tent because of the aridity of the air, but I was pleasantly surprised in Glacier National Park. When the humidity increased, the inevitable ventilation disadvantage of a single walled tent was on full display, and the walls were coated with dew. That being said, when I took out the tent that night to set it up at our next campsite, the condensation had not saturated the tent even though I packed up the tent without having fully dried it.

Usability

Even though the non-freestanding design of the Flashlight decreases its overall weight, it also restricts the type of surface on which the Flashlight can be used: without a surface in which stakes can be hammered in, this tent will not work. Additionally, the ability to make the tent taut depends heavily on how well suited the ground is for stakes. In areas that had very silty or shallow soil, the pull of the guylines coming down from the apex of the tent would either dislodge the stake from the ground or compromise the tautness of the entire tent. Although the guylines work sufficiently in fair weather, rain or snow more easily pooled at areas where the tent had begun to sag.

The vestibule is also very small. Neither my 75 L pack nor my 45 L pack could fit in the vestibule without leaning on the vestibule or tent doors. Although I left my pack outside the vestibule with a pack cover on and my belongings in trash bags, this was not ideal when inclement weather hit.

Sierra Designs Flashlight
Sierra Designs Flashlight 1 Tent tested in unexpected snow.

Set up

The other issue with the Flashlight 1’s non-freestanding design is that it made it difficult to set up alone, which, for a 1-person tent, is a problem. I found myself trying to hold up one of the tent poles at the apex while trying to stake in its corresponding cord. Oftentimes, I would have to re-stake the corners or change the tautness of the top guylines after finishing the initial set up. The inclusion of the 5 guylines does make adjustment substantially faster and more precise.

Final Thoughts

The Flashlight 1 tent is perfect for lightweight trips in dry areas. As someone living in Colorado, I would use this on any late spring, summer, and early fall trip, even if light flurries were in the forecast. It is light, packable, and durable enough to handle any length or trip intensity. The tent is not suitable, though, for wet trips because of limited vestibule space and poor ventilation. Additionally, the tent cannot be set up in places without ground suitable for stakes or populated with heavy rocks or logs to tie-off to.

The only other consideration when buying this tent is about height. I am 5’ 6” and fit comfortably in this tent. My partners on the Glacier Trip are both 6’2” males and did not fit comfortably, especially when there was a lot condensation at the front and rear of the tent.

 

Exploring Iconic Colorado Springs Hikes Like a Local

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colorado springs hikes
Read about these less well-known Colorado Springs hikes and enjoy amazing vistas without the crowds. Photo Source: pinterest.com.

Colorado Springs, Colo., is often seen as an urban gateway to some of the best outdoor recreation in the country. In fact, it is the largest city to border a National Forest in the nation. Such proximity to the outdoors, an increasingly vibrant downtown, and a medium-sized airport draws in an estimated 5.2 million overnight visitors annually to Colorado’s second largest city. Most of these visitors who choose to explore the outdoors schedule their days around the iconic, must dos in Colorado Springs hikes: Garden of the Gods, The Incline, and Pikes Peak (by train, car, or the 26 mile there-and-back Barr Trail), among others. Although these attractions are well worth the trip, they are heavily trafficked by recreationists of all abilities and experience. As a three-year resident of Colorado Springs, I have accumulated a list of hiking and mountain biking spots that guarantee the same grandeur as Garden of the Gods without the hordes of tourists. For tips on avoiding the crowds and finding the locals on your first (or next!) trip to this urban-outdoor Mecca, check out these four spots.

Red Rock Open Space

Garden of the Gods Park is generally ranked by travel websites as the number one destination for tourists in Colorado Springs. The giant red rock fins contain a wealth of geologic, ecologic, and cultural history that has helped define what Colorado Springs represents. As a local looking to avoid the crowds but still enjoy the grandeur of this type of geological landmark, I instead venture two miles south of Garden of the Gods to Red Rock Open Space.

The 789-acre city park offers an extensive network of trails open to hikers, mountain bikers, dog walkers, horseback riders, and in the winter time, cross country skiers. Hikes can range from as short as a half mile to the pavilion and lake, to over five miles into very low traffic areas on the western hillside. For a shorter hike, head to the Quarry for humbling, worms-eye views of the red rock. For those with more time and energy, hike around the Roundup Trail for 180 degree views of Colorado Springs, Garden of the Gods, and the eastern plains.

colorado springs hikes
Colorado Springs hikes offer many opportunities to leave the crowds behind. The Section 16 area offers dramatic views and micro-ecosystems. Photo by Liz Forster

Section 16

Also known as the Palmer Loop Trail, Section 16 offers hikers and mountain bikers expansive views of Red Rock Open Space and Garden of the Gods. The trail meanders through a variety of micro-ecosystems, from chalky white sandstone and the iconic red rock to small forests of conifer trees. On a weekday, even in the summer, you can hike through Section 16 without seeing more than three groups of hikers and/or bikers. If the hikes at Red Rocks are not long enough, take the Section 16 connector trail for a hike upwards of 10 miles looping through Section 16 and back to the Red Rock parking lot.

After your hike, head down to Manitou Springs for a taste of one of Colorado Springs’ most eclectic and ‘hippy’ neighborhoods.

 

7 Bridges Trail

The 7 Bridges Trail is a 3.8 mile loop that crosses over (you guessed it) seven bridges. The trail switchbacks through North Cheyenne Canyon and leads visitors to expansive views of Colorado Springs.  Visitors will also enjoy an up-close look at the flora and fauna in the mountains surrounding the city. The trail has moderate traffic, especially on weekends, but if you walk past the seventh bridge further into the canyon, traffic drastically decreases. If you’re looking for some scrambling up scree fields and atop rocks, the area past the seventh bridge can serve as a small playground.

Paint Mines Interpretive Park

Most peoples’ vision of eastern Colorado consists of flat plains and miles of wind turbine farms, and rightly so. Until Denver, the midpoint between Utah and Kansas, that vision is mostly true. Hidden among the forest of white wind mills, though, is a true cultural and geological gem: Paint Mines Interpretive Park. About 30 minutes east of downtown Colorado Springs, Paint Mines features colorful clay spires and hoodoos (a column of weathered rock) jutting out of a eroded depression in the plains. The four-mile trail network allows visitors ample opportunities to hike under and scramble atop of red, orange, purple, maroon, and tan rock formations, and imagine what it was like 9,000 years ago for the first humans recorded in this area. Visitors can sometimes find themselves completely alone in this striking park.

colorado springs hikes
The Paint Mines Interpretive Park offers some unique Colorado Springs hikes to visitors willing to explore areas off the beaten path. Photo by Liz Forster.

 

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.

iceland backpacking
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!

7 Tips for a Successful Solo Trip

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Photo by Christopher Cotrell Flickr.com

Hiking and camping can be some of the most peaceful, and often spiritual, activities. It reminds us to open our ears to every rustling leaf and chirping bird, gaze at more than just the ground in front of our boots and return to the core of why we love carrying a heavy backpack through the woods. As simple as walking in the woods can be, though, hiking and camping alone requires an additional self and outer awareness that group members usually supply. Here are some tips for embarking on your first or hundredth solo trip.

 

1) Evaluate your experience and knowledge
Solo Trip

A successful solo trip relies heavily on past experience and knowledge. Before planning a solo trip, ensure you can navigate with a map and compass, treat a variety of medical issues, build a proper fire, efficiently use your gear and maintain your body without assistance from others. If you have any hesitations about your abilities, take another trip with an experienced friend and test yourself along the way.

 

2) Draft and share your plan

solo trip
Photo by Allison Wildman Flickr.com

Especially during an overnight or multi-day backpacking trip, the most basic step in emergency management is writing out a day-to-day itinerary and the GPS coordinates of each campsite to leave with a family member or friend. Then, set a date and time for when your emergency contact should notify authorities had you not returned or contacted them about extending the trip. This preventative measure could save your life following a debilitating injury, onset of disease or inclement weather.

As much as we would like to ostracize ourselves from technology on trips, carrying your cell phone or a satellite phone could also ensure your survival. Turn it off or on airplane mode to keep you disconnected and save battery.

 

3) Actively listen to your body

solo trip

As with any hiking venture, pace and hydration are key to successfully finishing the day’s mileage and maintaining optimal bodily functions. In a group, inevitable disparities in speed tend to regulate the group’s overall pace and time allotted for water breaks. Solo hikers, though, can settle into a trance or depth of thought that can cloud the mind-body awareness. This can increase pace to unsustainable levels, leaving the body overly exhausted to efficiently set up camp and complete the forthcoming days. It can also decrease pace to a level that could unnecessarily extend your hours spent hiking.

Hydration also requires an understanding of under and overconsumption, especially when others cannot point out the signs to you. Outdated jargon surrounding hydration advised athletes to drink as much as they could before, during and after exercise. Now experts advise drinking water with the expectation of losing up to two percent body weight and never gaining weight during aerobic exercise. This means not only recognizing signs of dehydration, such as a dry tongue, pruny fingers, strong headaches and the appearance of flashing, dark spots, but also not over saturating the body to the point where you are constantly peeing or, in extreme cases, develop hyponatremia.

 

4) Fully set up camp before pulling out your camping chair

solo trip
Photo by Joseph Flickr.com

After a long day of hiking, setting up camp by yourself might seem daunting and exhausting, and you will want to delay it until the cold starts to penetrate the heat your core has built. Don’t let the thought of the seemingly strenuous feat stop you from assembling those tent poles and collecting water for the night. When camping with a group, you can employ the ‘divide and conquer method’ to collect firewood, prepare dinner and purify water. By yourself, it takes a while, especially in the dark. So, as soon as you arrive at your campsite for the night, throw back a handful of trail mix, rehydrate and start on the night’s tasks.

 

5) Don’t skimp on firewood

solo trip

Depending on the quality of firewood in the area, you can burn through fuel quicker than you may imagine. And while that bundle of kindling and logs may look like it will last for another two hours, there’s a chance it won’t, and you’ll end up searching in the dark for more wood as your fire threatens to extinguish into a thick cloud of ash and smoke. So, when you collect firewood upon arriving at camp, overcompensate.

 

6) Bring activities

solo trip
Photo by Christopher Cotrell Flickr.com

Like the parent who totes around a beach bag full of coloring books, mini racecars and puzzle sets, pack enough activities to last you at least until the sun sets. For some, a book suffices. For others without the attention span to read over one hundred pages in a sitting, bring cards, a journal and, if small and light enough, portable speakers or an instrument.

As with food, layers and other camping amenities, balance sufficient entertainment supplies with a consideration for extraneous bulk and weight as you would with any trip, solo or not. So, swap the 600-page hardcover for a 200-page paperback.

 

7) Embrace solitude

solo trip
Photo by Rajarshi MITRA Flickr.com

Although hiking and camping can create unprecedented bonds between people, doing so alone reignites the bond we have with the outdoors that lured us into the woods in the first place. So, let your mind wander to places unknown without the fear of getting lost. And, of course, only panic if that noise outside your tent is growling.

The SALEWA ALP Trainer Mid Boots “NEW for Fall 2015” Review

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SALEWA ALP Trainer Mid Boots

For years, I have owned two pairs of hiking boots: an industrial boot able to carry me through 30 days in Alaska with a 60 pound pack and a light, day hiking boot with little ankle or knee support. Despite their respective advantages, they function in niche settings. The weight of the former discourages me from wearing them on a four-day, non-technical backpack, but the lack of support of the latter leaves me vulnerable to injuries while carrying a heavier pack. SALEWA, a outdoor gear company based in Italy, designed the ALP Trainer Mid Boots for the 2015 women’s Hiking and Trekking line as a mid-weight boot ideal for mixed mountain terrain.

SALEWA ALP Trainer Mid Boots

The ALP Trainer Mid Boots are one of three boots in the women’s Hiking and Trekking line with ankle coverage. Of the three, SALEWA rated this boot best for mixed mountain terrain. The Vibram Hike Approach outsole, designed for optimal grip on a variety of surfaces, kept me balanced while running through mud slick from recent snowmelt. As someone with neither a wide nor narrow ankle, the boot held my ankle snug enough that it did not wobble in the mud, but the extra space around the top of my foot allowed for minute movements to compensate for the occasional grip failures.

I also tested the boots during a midnight hike up Crested Butte in Colorado with a 20 pound pack through a mixture of slushy and hard-pack snow. The outsole gripped well to both for the most part, but slipped more on the slush than the hard-pack and mud. The GORE-TEX lining on the outside of the boot prevented melted snow from penetrating the boot. Although great for sunny days hiking through grassy areas, the breathability of the ballistic mesh tongue did not provide an adequate buffer from the temperature of the snow.

SALEWA ALP Trainer Mid Boots

On all the surfaces I tested the boots on, the Nubuk fabric on the exterior of the boot prevented any tearing. Nubuk feels and looks like suede, but is made from the outer hide, thus increasing its strength and thickness. TheALP Trainer Mid Boots have 1.6 mm of Nubuk around the ankle, shin and foot. The layer of Nubuk withstood contact with and pressure from rocks, sticks and trees.

Bottom Line:

These boots are great for hikes through non-technical terrain with mild weight loads in warmer conditions and can adapt to slick or dry terrain.

Tech Specs:

Date available: available now

MSRP: $199.00

Listed Weight: 515 grams

Materials: Vibram Hike Approach (outsole)

GORE-TEX Surround midsole (insole)

GORE-TEX Extended Comfort (lining)

Upper: Nubuk, Ballistic Mesh, highly wear-resistant fabric, protective rand

Size/Model tested: size 7, Venom/Bright Acqua

Sizes 3-9 (half sizes available)

Colors Available: Venom/Bright Acqua, Charcoal/Indio

The Truce Between the East vs the West

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East vs the West
Photo by brewbooks Flickr.com

Any magazine photo spread illustrating backpacking in the United States feature the grand peaks of the West, from Denali in Alaska to Mt. Rainier in Washington. Why wouldn’t they? These and similar peaks throughout the West own entire horizon lines, silencing any opposing force from both man and nature. They challenge even the most basic bodily functions like breathing with depleted oxygen levels at questionably healthy elevation levels. And lastly, but not exclusively, these behemoths prepare climbing aficionados for other formidable peaks around the world like K2 in the Himalayas and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

Photo by Liz Forster - Man's Best Friend enjoying some East Coast hiking
Photo by Liz Forster – Man’s Best Friend enjoying some East Coast hiking

As someone who spent the first 18 years of her life in Connecticut, I can confidently say we have nothing like those mountains. I’m guilty of allowing the lustful lure of the Rockies pull me to Colorado without even the slightest regretful glimpse back at the rolling, tree-studded hills situated in my backyard. I know it’s because I crave extremes and risk in my life that the seemingly tame nature of the eastern mountains and woodlands could not encapsulate me in a way that the West did.

What I failed to realize is that no part of nature is tame: the elements constantly ping humans chaotically back and forth between one another like a pinball with no regard for the immediate and long-term effects the previous ricochets have left. Isn’t that why we all love throwing ourselves into nature and getting lost for a bit? Should it matter whether our physical location is on the pinpoint of the rugged ridgeline leading to the summit plaque on the top of Mt. Massive in Colorado or on the five-foot boulder encircled by oak trees on the flat summit of Steep Rock Mountain in Washington, Connecticut? Let’s settle the backpacking battle of the East vs the West.

East vs the West

In revisiting my memories of the most chaotic and most tame single day hikes and multi-day backpacks I’ve enjoyed, I’d say no. Of course, there is no comparing sloshing through the rain for seven days through loose rock on Olympic Beach, the desert-like conditions of one’s throat in the thin, dry air on a 14er in Colorado, or the dense webs of oak trees in the woods of Connecticut; but the physical and mental demands, as I have learned, are one in the same.

When I attempted to climb Mount Baker in the summer of 2011 (which, at the time, was the tallest mountain I had attempted to climb), 15 feet of visibility and constant freezing rain stalemated my group for three days. For summit hunters like myself, such an uncontrollable defeat could have thrown me into a caldron of self-pity and frustration. Instead, I had to respect the grandeur of the power of nature to not only imprison us under a tarp and in our tents for 72 hours, but also to leave us without a foot on or even a glimpse of the summit. I went home that summer with only one summit (Mt. Adams) in my pack, but with many memories from the snow bench we laid sleeping pads across to shelter our butts from the snow as we played Werewolf and forgot about the rain freezing around us.

East vs the West

Two years later, I found myself hiking with a friend through the Connecticut section of the Appalachian Trail. This was my first self-planned and executed backpacking trip and, as much as I wanted to believe in all my hours of planning and deliberation with seasoned Appalachian Trail hikers, subconsciously I knew my first ‘real-world’ backpacking trip would push my physical and mental limits. My friend and I set an aggressive pace for the first day, 16 miles, and a much gentler one for the next two at 8 miles each. It was 16 miles in Connecticut, how hard could that be with my experience across the United States?

East vs the West
Photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli Flickr.com

I had yet to experience the seemingly never-ending, undulating hills starting in Cornwall, Connecticut. My quads felt as though there were nails digging into my tendons. My calves would periodically over-flex without my consent and pain would swim against what seemed like the strongest current up towards my knee. And, even with my hip belt adjusted correctly, my shoulders seemed to each be carrying a block from the pyramids. Nine hours later, we were huddled around a JetBoil filled with Spongebob mac & cheese. With every movement, I bowed my head a little lower towards the hills on which my feet had so recently left imprints.

The juxtaposition of these two experiences, along with many others, proved that hiking both in my backyard and on mountains nearly 2,000 miles will always be subject to the unpredictability and majesty of nature. West coast isn’t the best coast, and neither is the east; both have their challenges and their opportunities for success to offer the most and least experienced backpackers.

Man’s Best Friend Trail Tips – Hiking with your Dog

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vastateparksstaff

Hiking fosters some of the most profound social interactions whether for four miles or four weeks. The disconnect from technology, work and school facilitates honest conversation free of the social insecurities and inhibitions every day life imposes. There’s something special and underrated, though, about the silent dialogue between the lone hiker and his or her dog.

Hiking with your Dog

My dog somehow knows instinctively when I am planning to take him on a hike with me. He seems to connect the dots when I pull out my hiking boots or the orange Nalgene plastered in stickers from Colorado microbreweries. When I finally ask if he wants to go for a car ride, there’s no turning back.

As soon as we step on the trail, we are transported, hand in paw, to that world of disconnect. We chase each other through winding switchbacks, stand tall at summits and splatter our legs with mud. The silence is by no means discomforting, but rather a refreshing treat. How often is life simple enough that your thoughts are only interrupted by the curling moss on a rock your dog just needs to stop, smell and eventually pee on.

Hiking with your Dog
Photo by patchattack Flickr.com

All this sounds wonderful to someone who has never hiked with his or her own dog before, and it is. But when hiking with your dog, backpackers must adhere to an unwritten set of rules to ensure the safety of other hikers and dogs as well as the condition of the trail.

These rules, I believe, are moldable to individual dogs as long as the owner has a clear understanding of his or her dog’s personality and social tendencies.

Hiking with your Dog

 

1) Trails aren’t just for humans

Dogs are animals, so they can roam around wherever they want like other animals, right? Actually no. When dogs go off trail, their effect is the same as when humans do. They can harm protected areas, create ‘shortcut paths’ that lead to accelerated erosion and disturb wildlife habitats.

 

Hiking with your Dog
Photo by OakleyOriginals Flickr.com

2) …Neither is water!

Many people forget that dogs need to hydrate just as much as humans do. A small and necessary investment for any owner looking to take their dogs hiking is a portable water bowl. Most of these bowls are collapsible and lightweight, so they are perfect for hiking.

Hiking with your Dog 

3) Tell others about your dog before they pass by

A dog’s appearance and breed are not a prescription for their personality, but many people will change the way they approach a passing dog based on such stereotypes. For example, people hesitate to greet my German Sheppard until I tell them he’s very friendly with both people and other dogs. On the other hand, a small dog, which by appearance would seem to do no harm, could be the one that ends up biting someone who approaches too quickly. The risk of a less than ideal interaction with other people and dogs can be greatly reduced by just a few, quick words.

Hiking with your Dog
Photo by vastateparksstaff Flickr.com

 4) The leash is your friend

Most parks require dogs to be leashed at all times for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, park rangers and owners want to avoid any injury caused by a dog, whether a bite or scratch. This also ensures that dogs stay on the trail, which, as aforementioned, is just as important as humans staying on the trail. If your dog is a seasoned enough hiker that he or she sticks to the trail and is safe to interact with adults, children and other dogs without a leash, just carry one in your hand at all times for a quick clip on when necessary.

Hiking with your Dog
Photo by rachellynnae Flickr.com

5. It’s the woods, but you still have to pick it up

Unless your dog ventures off trail to go number 2, you still have to pick up his poop. Don’t forget a bag!

Backpacking Meal Plan to Treat Yourself on the Trail

in Food by
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In the backcountry when the ultimate goal is to reach the next campsite, we don’t always have the luxury or the time to focus on our food. We settle for a bagel and peanut butter for breakfast, three Cliff Bars for lunch and Kraft Mac & Cheese for dinner. The day after, when we do have time, why not sip on that hot drink for a bit longer and treat ourselves to a hot and hearty meal? For a full day of 5-star cuisine in the backcountry, check out this backpacking meal plan.

 Backpacking meal plan

 

Breakfast: Cheesy Biscuits

Makes 4 biscuits

1 cup flour

1 1/2 tsp of baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

2 1/2 tbsp + 1 tbsp vegetable oil or melted butter

1 tsp garlic powder

1/3 cup + extra for topping grated cheddar cheese

 

Combine flour, baking powder, salt, oil or butter and garlic powder in a bowl. Fold in cheese. The dough should be sticky, but shapeable.  Divide dough into four to five biscuits. Heat the remaining 1 tbsp of vegetable oil or butter in a skillet. Drop the balls of dough into the heated skillet and sprinkle each with a little cheese. Cook each side for 3-5 minutes, or until the bottoms are golden brown and the cheese is completely melted.

 

Lunch: Trail Mix Pita Pockets

Makes 8 sandwiches

4 pita pockets

1 cup crunchy peanut butter

1 cup strawberry preserves

1 apple, cut into thin slices

2 cups granola

 

Split the pita pockets in half. Spread peanut butter on the inside of one side and jelly on the other. Place four slices of apple on the peanut butter side and sprinkle granola on the jelly side.

 

Backpacking meal plan

Dinner: Pineapple, Almond and Veggie Couscous

10 oz couscous

2 cups water

½ tsp salt

1 tbsp + 2 tbsp olive oil

¼ green pepper, cut into ¼ inch squares

¼ cup onion, diced

½ zucchini, diced

½ yellow squash, diced

½ cup slivered almonds

½ cup pineapple, cubed (I use canned so that I can use the juice)

½ cup pineapple juice

¼ cup parsley (fresh or dried)

salt and pepper to taste

 

In a pot, bring water, salt and 1 tbsp of olive oil to a boil. Stir in couscous, remove from heat, and cover. Let it stand for five minutes. Saute green pepper and onion in 2 tbsp of olive oil on medium heat in a saucepan until al dente, about 3 minutes. Add zucchini, squash and a teaspoon of salt and cook for about another five minutes. Add vegetables to couscous. To toast the almonds, spread them over the saucepan evenly with 1 tbsp of water. Cook for about 5 minutes or until the almonds are fragrant and light brown, continuing to shake the pan so that the almonds do not burn. Mix almonds, pineapple, pineapple juice and parsley into couscous and vegetables. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Sriracha or Tabasco also go great with this.

Top 5 Chocolate Recipes for Backpacking

in Community/Fireside/Food by
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The backcountry is the one place where having an unlimited amount of chocolate 24 hours a day is socially acceptable. For one, chocolate provides ample calories and fat. More importantly, though, that squished Snicker’s Bar in your pocket or frozen bag of chocolate chips in your pack’s brain is an essential morale booster to which the most inspiring words from Thoreau or Jack London cannot compare. So reward yourself after a hard (or easy!) day on the trail with one of my top five favorite chocolate recipes for backpacking.

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Photo by Greg Walters Flickr.com

1. The Luke – One 16 oz Nalgene

The Luke is the instant fix for frozen boots in the morning, fading energy in the late afternoon, and grumbling stomachs watching water refuse to boil for dinner at night. Named after the mad scientist who created it on our NOLS backpacking trip in Alaska, Luke Cleary, The Luke fuels the body and warms the heart on a 3-day or 30 day trek.

2-3 tbsp hot chocolate mix

1 tbsp butter

¼ tsp cinnamon

1 ½ tbsp powdered milk

2 cup boiling water

 

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2. Kitchen Sink Granola – Serves 2

At the end of a trip or ration cycle, this granola on steroids is perfect for getting your body the calories, fats and proteins it needs for the day, as well as for ridding your pack of portions of food that add weight, but are still too small to make a whole meal. Another NOLS concoction we originally called “granola mush,” this breakfast was a close second to cheesy biscuits.

2 tbsp butter

¼ cup peanut butter (or any other type of nut butter)

1/3 cup chocolate chips

1 ½ cup granola

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp vanilla extract (optional)

 

In a fry pan, melt butter, peanut butter and chocolate chips, and stir until smooth. Be sure to stir constantly so that the mixture doesn’t burn. Sprinkle in granola, cinnamon and vanilla. Continue stirring over the flame until fully incorporated and the granola is slightly toasted. Serve as is or cooled in yogurt.

 

3. Banana Boats – Serves 2

Banana Boats are a car camping favorite with the scents of childhood wafting out of the creases of the tin foil. I was first introduced to them in 4th grade at sleepaway camp and have yet to have a summer pass without digging into the better version of the classic s’more.

2 bananas

1 Hershey’s Bar, broken into the individual rectangles

15-20 mini marshmallows

tin foil

 

Peel one side the banana, leaving ¾ of it unpeeled. With a spoon, scoop out half of the inside of the bananas. Press half the Hershey Bar squares into the banana and top with the mini marshmallows. Fold the unpeeled side back over the chocolate-marshmallow mixture and wrap the entire banana in foil. Repeat with the other banana. Place both bananas on top of a griddle over the fire, or a pan over the stove, for 5-10 minutes or until marshmallows are golden brown.

 

4. Mexican Chocolate Ganache Apples – Makes 8 Apple Slices

Every backpacker knows Sriracha, Tabasco and any other hot sauce instantly elevates a dinner in the backcountry. Heck, they do in the frontcountry! So, why not add some spice to dessert, too? These apples are the perfect balance of sweet with a touch of heat for a night around the fire or tucked away in the tents.

1 tbsp butter

1/3 cup chocolate chips

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp vanilla (optional)

small pinch cayenne pepper

1 apple, cored and cut into slices

 

In a pot over a stove, melt together butter and chocolate chips until smooth. Stir in cinnamon, vanilla, and cayenne pepper. Dip apple slices in the chocolate mixture. You can eat them as is or, if you want them more like a candy apple, make them before dinner and let them set for an hour.

 

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Photo by Mary Flickr.com

 

5. GORP

What would a list about chocolate in the backcountry be if GORP wasn’t included? GORP, or “good old raisins and peanuts,” is backpacker slang for trail mix. This version of GORP is my personal favorite, although there are a million variations out there. I normally use raw almonds and cashews.

1 part cashews

1 part almonds

1 part Pretzel M&Ms

1 part dried cherries

1 part banana chips

 

 

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