Friday, October 30, 2015

Teton Crest Trail Video

A short video from this summer's trip to Grand Teton National Park where we hiked the TCT.  Enjoy!

Be sure to check out more pictures here.  Also, be sure to check out Jimmy Jin's photos at

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Winter Backpacking, on a budget!

Summer in the Teton's - Photo by Joe Mountain F$%#er Pranio
Over at DCUL Backpacking, we recently started a trial run of a mentor-ship program with the intent of introducing backpackers to the magic of the 4th season.  Those of us with strong winter experience have been slinging info, tips, and safety warnings like mad.  And generally just getting excited for winter!  My xc-skis are already itching for the first snowfall.

I thought it would be fun to write up some of the tidbits I have learned in the last few years (usually through painful experience).  But more specifically, here are some ideas for breaking into winter backpacking without blowing $1,000 on new gear.

I love winter backpacking, and if you catch the bug, you probably will too!

My first winter experience was in Death Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.  While I went in pretty well prepared, I had much to learn.  So I did, rapidly!  My next winter trips were classic Mid-Atlantic.  Cold, but not lots of snow.  Then there were even colder trips, with lots of snow!  Finally, I had my first taste of the Adirondacks in deep winter.  I was hooked.

Coming up is the perfect time of year to try out colder weather.  Warmer days, with cool nights.  No snow yet - but you'll find with time you prefer the temperature to stay consistently below freezing so you don't have to worry about rain!

So, where to start?


Invariably the first thing thing I usually get asked by the winter curious, "Do I need an expensive 4 season shelter?"  Nope.  I mean, there are certainly trips where having a bomb proof double-walled shelter is nice - but if you are just trying winter backpacking for the first time, that's not the weather you should be going into.

What do I use?  The same tarp I use for 3 season backpacking.  I think all but one winter trip last year I hammocked with my regular cuben tarp.  I'm not recommending you go out and try to hang in the depth of winter (most hangers won't take their hammocks out in the 4th season), but I want to illustrated what you really need your shelter to do: it needs to keep you dry, and it needs to keep you more or less out of the wind.

So whatever tent (or tarp) you have, go with that first.  Shelters are one of the most expensive backpacking items, so don't spend more money on a new one just for winter.  That is, at least until you have some more experience under your belt and you know exactly what you want (and need).

Bivy sacks are another shelter option that some adopt in the winter.  Letting you just plop down anywhere and go to sleep.  They keep your bag dry, and add some insulation value by blocking air transfer.  But they have there drawbacks - you have to manage potential condensation carefully.  Also, I wouldn't rely on just a bivy sack if there is potential for rain.  Makes sure the temps will stay well below freezing.  They make great options for use in lean-to shelters!

Sleeping Bags

Easily the second most asked question! Do you need to rush out and buy a minus 10F bag?  Again, no.  You shouldn't have to mortgage the house for this one either.  Plus, why spend all that money until you figure out if you even like this winter nonsense?

Chances are, you probably have two sleeping bags (or quilts) now.  Most of us have that super light "summer" - 40 or 50 degree - bag.  And then we have our deep 3 season Fall bag.  Well, you can use them together!

Now, there is a lot of variability here.  I might take a 20 degree bag down to -5F, but most people won't.  Literally, every body is different.  You should have an idea of your tolerances already.  DON'T TAKE CHANCES.  Leave some room for error until you know what works for you.  But, if you add your summer bag on top of your heavier bag, you can usually buy 10-15 degrees of warmth.

The method I recommend:  first crawl into your main (warmer) bag.  Then use your second bag as an over-quilt.  Trying to get inside both bags at the same time is a pain, and you lose some efficiency because one or both bags will probably become compressed.  If they don't loft fully, you are wasting insulation value.

Instead, once you are in your first bag, just put your feet in the footbox of your lighter bag (this helps keep it in place) and drape the rest over top of you.  This has the added benefit of moving the dew point (the point at which water vapor will condense) out into your lighter bag, protecting your more crucial bag's insulation.  Wet down is useless.

No second bag?  No problem.  Add layers!  Experienced backpackers plan out their sleep system to include every stitch of clothing they are carrying anyway.  Put everything on, and crawl into your bag.  But don't get too constricted!  Trapping air between each layer is what makes it work.  See layering below.

Sleeping Pad

Most winter backpackers go with the Xtherm.  But it's not cheap.  You might find you are fine with whatever pad you have, but if you are using an inflatable that is sans any insulation, you will definitely feel the hard winter ground sucking at you in the night.  But luckily all you need is a cheapo foam pad to put under your blow up, like the Z-Lite.  Once again, doubling up saves the day!


First off, lets dispel the myth that some materials out there are better at keeping you warm when soaking wet.  Absolutely anything that is wet, regardless of what it is made of, is going to suck the heat out of your body at a rapid rate.  Number one, if you get your insulation wet, you screwed up.  Number two, if your insulation is sopping wet in the winter, get it away from your body!

Don't crawl into your sleeping bag with soaking wet layers.  You will just wreck your bag, and really find yourself in a fix.  Take off the wet stuff, stuff it in a dry bag and into your footbox so it doesn't freeze, and worry about drying it the next day.  Hopefully when the sun is out.  At worst, you'll have to put on cold, wet clothes in the morning and start hiking.  But that is a lot more tolerable then trying to sleep while shivering.  And it's incentive to hike faster!

Back to that Number One point - your downy goodness should never get wet.  Ever.  Down is for stopping, not for moving.  That nice puffy jacket should only come out when you are taking a break, or you are at camp.  The rest of the time, it should stay safely nestled down in your pack away from rain, snow, and sweat.  Your puffy jacket, sleeping bag, and quilts are your luxury, and sometimes your life line.  Don't mess with 'em.

Now that we have that all clear :) ...what DO you wear while hiking?  You need to think in layers.  You have your base, a mid, maybe a top layer, and then a shell.  You might not wear them all at the same time, it all depends on the weather, how your body is feeling, if you are climbing, or descending, etc., etc.  It takes experimentation, and experience to get it dialed in just right.

 Here's where you raid your gear closet again, and hopefully avoid rushing out and spending a bunch of cash.  You probably don't need to spend $200 on a fancy heavy-weight mid layer.  Do you have a base layer?  Check, some kind of synthetic mid-layer top? Sure.  A light weight fleece?  Perfect.  A nice shell jacket?  Warm hat?  Gloves? Done.

Avoid cotton, it might feel nice on your skin - but as a hydrophilic material, it holds moisture like nobody's business.  Moisture against your skin in winter is always bad news.

You really don't need much while hiking.  If fact, you don't really want to wear that much.  You will be surprised how warm you'll stay just by moving, even when temps are in the teens.  What you desperately don't want to do, is sweat.  If you sweat in the winter, not only are you wasting energy and fluids (and overworking yourself), but you are getting your layers wet!  See above - that's bad!

What do I wear in winter?  A merino wool top baselayer, like this.  If I'm climbing, it's probably just going to be that, plus my shell.  I'll wear thin, softshell type pants (no thermal long underwear, no way!).  If it's really cold, or I'm mostly on flat or descending terrain, I'll put on a mid-layer synthetic top, or a light (100 weight) fleece top.  If I'm climbing into alpine territory (i.e., into heavy wind), I'll put on my shell pants.

One caveat for all of the above, I'm a polar bear!  I run hot, all the time.  Probably why I love winter so much :)

It's common to think you have to layer up, and stay that way at all times - but eventually as you get accustomed to winter hiking, you realize you don't need as much clothing as you thought while moving.

So if you have that stuff listed above, and a puffy down jacket, you are golden!  When it's time to stop, put all that on.  If you are still cold, it's time to get in your bag.  Really, when winter camping, you are generally either moving, or in your shelter and bag.  Of course, you should also have that thick pair of luxuriously warm socks to change into before hitting the sack.  Also have an extra "emergency" warm layer just in case while you are figuring things out.

If you really miscalculated, boil water and put it in a bottle.  Wrap it in something so it won't burn you, then into your sleeping bag it goes.  You will be amazed how warm you will be!

Some things you definitely should buy: Mittens.  Like these.  Nothing will keep your fingers warm like mittens will.  They should have an outer shell that is weatherproof.  Having a pair of thin liners is a good ideas as well. Basically think about layering your hands just like the rest of your body.  It's nice to have something covering your fingers when you have to pull off your cumbersome mitts for cooking and such.

Some other items that are nice, balaclavas, and puffy (down or synthetic) ski pants, gaiters, goggles for alpine expeditions.  Booties for camp.  But for light winter, you can probably do without all that for your first trip.  Add them a bit at a time as you feel the need, and have the cash to spend.


You can (and probably should) start with whatever footwear you already have.  Hopefully your trail-runners or boots have enough room for thicker socks.  You want to avoid constricting your feet if possible, that just leads to blisters and other discomfort, as well as restricting blood flow.  Which will just make you feel cold.

I'll stick with my trail runners until I'm into consistent snow, or I know getting wet feet is a possibility.  At that point, I'll switch to waterproof boots.  It's it's getting really cold, I'll get out insulated boots like these.  I'll also typically switch from my standard Wright Socks to a smart wool variety for winter.

This is another case where you need to know your body.  My feet just never seem to get cold (but my hands do, easily).  Follow some basic advice though, until you find the combo that works for you.  Keep your feet dry as much as possible.  Have some backup dry socks.

If your toes (or any other extremities) are getting painfully cold - STOP, and do something about it.  Add layers, not just to the body parts in question, but your core as well.  If you are getting dangerously cold, get bundled up in your down, eat, and drink warm fluids until you feel toasty again.  Don't carry on trying to "tough it out".  It is very easy to get past the point where you are capable of taking care of yourself.  If your hands go numb, you will quickly run out of options.

Advanced Winter Stuff

There are any number of advanced gadgets you might eventually need, but I think I'll keep this first winter post simple and end it here.  I'll follow up with a more tips in another post.  There are any number of cold-weather subjects to touch on - water (and keeping it in it's liquid form), food, stoves, traction devices, snow shoes, and so on.

But I want to stress again, don't just rush out and spend a lot of money.  Wait until you get a little experience under your belt.  You can, quite easily, spend thousands of dollars on gear that is only useful in one season.

On the other hand, once you do accumulate all that fancy winter gear (and the experience that goes with it), you suddenly have the tools to travel into places where winter persists much longer than it does in the Mid-Atlantic.  Many of our National Parks are spectacular in the "off-season" - less crowded, and wildly transformed.  Suddenly the calendar, as well as new territories, will be open to you!

When embarking on your first winter expedition, try to keep it simple.  Plan on just one night, or have relatively easy to reach bailout points so that you aren't stuck in the backcountry multiple nights freezing if you mess up.  That's just not fun.  Set yourself up for success as much as possible.  Carefully watch the average temps for long term planning, and then live forecasts as your trip draws nigh.

If temps are close to freezing, and rain is likely - just don't go (or go somewhere else).  Rain, when temps are between 32F and 40F, not only sucks - it's dangerous.  You've probably had a rainy trip in the summer when everything you have is soaking wet.  Now imagine being that wet in winter.  Yeah.

Always plan for temps to be 15 degrees below the forecast for safety.  Remember as you climb in elevation, temps will drop.  Wind chill is also a factor.  When making camp, you don't want to be up high exposed on a ridgeline.  You also don't want to be at the lowest point in a valley, such as down by a river or creek.  Move up 30 feet or so in elevation, it can make several degrees difference.

Bottom line, if you play it smart, there is no reason not to enjoy winter backpacking!  It just takes more thought and preparation.  Eventually it will become second nature, and you'll be itching to hit the trails whenever you see snow coming down!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Foot Hills Trail, South Carolina

I never got around to writing up my thoughts from the Foot Hills Trail (South Carolina) which I hiked in the summer of 2014, but here is a link to the trip report on DCUL by trip leader "EZ Bake" - check it out!

A great trail, with a few awesome views, and tons of waterfalls to enjoy over it's 90 mile length.