Soldierstone (CDT Day 48)

Soldierstone (CDT Day 48)

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The CDT cutting through a sub-alpine meadow in the foreground, the trees near the horizon where Soldierstone is hidden, and the Rocky Mountains, tall and beautiful in the background.

The tall meadow grasses brushed against my bare legs as I walked slowly, reverently, towards the granite blocks of Soldierstone. Soldierstone was described in Yogi’s Continental Divide Trail Guide as “the most unique, peaceful war memorial on the planet,” and the two veterans that were leaving the site when I arrived had both found the monument to be profoundly moving. I was thinking about those veterans when I stumbled onto the first of many Quote Stones:

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“… AND YOU WILL HEAR THE WAILING OF THE WOUNDED AND THE WHISPER OF DEATH.” Operation Brotherhood 1953. Philippine Civic Action Group-Vietnam (PHILCAGV) 1964-1970

… and as I read the inscription I did. I heard the wailing of the wounded in the howling of the wind and the whisper of death in the rustling of grasses in the meadow. It was ceaseless, it was inescapable, and it took my breath away. “Is this part of the tinnitus ringing in the ears of the combat vets I know?” I wondered.

I took a step back, letting my eyes drift away from the stone. The Rocky Mountains loomed, spectacular in the distance, and the vibrant green meadow surrounding me was peaceful and serene despite the wind. Nestled in among the meadows’ bright yellow dandelions I found another Quote Stone. This one was inscribed with a Vietnamese poem and the only English on the stone was, “FLOWERS FROM HELL.”

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This Vietnamese poem on this Quote Stone was written by Nguyen Chi Thien while interred in a N. Vietnamese reeducation camp. I would later learn the translation: “When dreams and wishes fail and don’t come true, they turn to stones and just sit there, stock-still. They weigh so heavy on my brain, my heart- I want to shrug them off but often can’t.”

Quote Stones were scattered like leaves around the central Soldierstone monument. Some were in English, many were not. I slowly walked through the quote stones as I circled closer to the monument in the center. I’d stopped at many monuments and memorials on my thru-hike, and would stop at many more, but this one was different. It wasn’t conveying names, numbers, and honors from a dispassionate distance… I wasn’t seeing this memorial, I was feeling it.

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“And how can men die better/ Than facing fearful odds/ For the ashes of their Fathers/ And the temples of their Gods?”

Soldierstone felt like it was made for soldiers, by soldiers. There was so much of it that I didn’t understand, that was going way, way over my head. I was glad that I was alone at Soldierstone… I would have felt like I was intruding if other veterans like H., who served in Vietnam, and her son, who served in Afghanistan, were still there. Hidden away from the world, Soldierstone felt like a very private place.

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Dead trees standing alongside the central Soldierstone, with a mix of forest, some live, some dead, fading into the backdrop of the mountains.

I walked through the Quote Stones as I would walk through a graveyard, slowly, reverently, and with respect. Amidst a stand of towering trees, now dead, was an ~10 foot tall stone monument topped with a 40 mm mortar, and surrounded by a three-sided stone wall (designed to represent an abandoned Southeast Asia outpost). This was the heart of Soldierstone. Whether it was the altitude (11,743 ft), the poetry, or the place, everything seemed to be taking on extra meaning, and was hitting me harder than usual. I’d been on the trail for over a month, constantly worrying about food, water, did I mention water, and shelter, but this monument was tapping into something much deeper.

I followed the stone wall to the gap/entrance at the northeast corner, entered the protection of the wall, and looked up at the central stone where 7 rectangular stones lay stacked on each other. “SOLDIERSTONE” was etched into the top stone in large, bold, black letters; “VIETNAM” was etched in the same bold black letters two stones below it, and “SACRIFICE” was etched into one of the lowest stones.

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SOLDIERSTONE
In Memory of LONG WARS LOST and the Soldiers of
VIETNAM
Nếu khóc than mà tôi có thể biến đổi được tiến trình sự việc,
Thì dóng lệ của tôi sẽ đổ xuống không ngừng cho dện ngàn thu.
Still in Death Lies Everyone and the Battle is Lost
SACRIFICE

Those three words, “SOLDIERSTONE”, “VIETNAM”, and “SACRIFICE” all hit me at once, as I walked towards the stone, and one man came to mind, my dad. In that moment Soldierstone took on a different meaning for me, it became about my dad. It was about the things he sacrificed, the things he lived through, the things he’d done, and the things he never talks about with anyone. I blinked back a tear, my dad was far away, and in this moment I really wanted to give him a hug.

As I moved closer to the North side of the monument, I read all the blocks more carefully, trying to understand the greater context. I had to read “Long Wars Lost” multiple times as it sunk in. Vietnam was a long war, with US involvement from 1957 until 1975, and according the Veterans Administration, “It was the first war in which the US failed to meet its objectives,” in other words, it was the first war we, as Americans, had lost. ~2.7 million of the ~8.7 million Americans that served during the Vietnam era (1964 – 1973) were deployed to Vietnam. More than 60,000 Americans were killed, and more than 150,000 Americans were wounded.  So many were so young, and had sacrificed so much for their country, but instead of returning to victory parades, praise, and glory, they returned to war protests, sneers, and a country inundated by images of a war that wasn’t all glamour, glitz, and glory; it was gritty, raw, and gory.

“I’m sorry,” I said, blinking back tears as I looked up at the monument. “I’m sorry we abandoned you, and left you to deal with this alone. I’m sorry that you were forgotten and that we are forgetting.” The wind dried my tears as they rolled down my cheeks. My dad was a Vietnam Combat vet, but I knew almost nothing about the Vietnam War. I hadn’t lived through Vietnam, I hadn’t learned about it in school, and it was a thing that people just didn’t talk about. “I’m failing you, all of you” I said, realizing that my ignorance was a form of forgetting, and that my generation was forgetting Vietnam. “I will stop, I will learn, and I will remember,” I vowed as I set my backpack down, put on my jacket, and prepared to start learning and remembering.

I walked slowly around the monument, reading the inscriptions that were in English, and looking at those in unfamiliar languages.

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The south side of the monument is inscribed with the word “VALOR” and three poems: 1) “like the fallen leaves of Autumn in unregimented ranks, unremembered soldiers rest… eternally…” 2) “If by weeping I could change the course of events, my tears would pour down ceaselessly for a thousand autumns.” 3) “The appointed time… to be born… to die, to love… to hate, of War… for Peace”

Soldierstone was important, and as I walked around the monument, I felt that more people needed to know about it.  Why didn’t all the hikers know about it? There was a sign in the little dirt parking area about 0.2 miles from the Soldierstone that indicated that the CDT was 0.4 miles from the lot, but the sign up at the CDT didn’t say anything about Soldierstone.

At the base of each of the 4 faces of the monument sat an olive green ammo can. After reading all of the inscriptions that were in English, I circled around the monument and looked at the contents of each can. Most of the cans had tributes left by previous visitors in them: spent shell casings, campaign service metals, coins, and patches. I was deeply moved by the monument, the quote stones, and tributes and wanted to leave some sort of symbol of my support for our veterans.

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“Aha,” I thought, “I can leave my ‘I Support Combat Vets’ patch here as a tribute. It would be perfect!” As I stood, and started to go get my patches, I thought about all the conversations I’d had with vets that had noticed that patch. For many vets I encountered, it was the first patch that they noticed, and in many cases, the most important. I don’t carry the “I Support Combat Vets” for me, I carry it for the veterans I know, and those I haven’t met yet. I sighed as I realized that I had a responsibility to use my patch wisely, and that leaving it at Soldierstone may have made me feel better, but that it was probably more important for me to continue carrying it as I was, smack dab in the middle of my patches for everyone, veterans and civilians alike, to see my support.

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A picture of the patches I have carried on all three of my thru-hikes (Appalachian Trail 2013, Pacific Crest Trail 2014, and Continental Divide Trail 2018) including a large black patch stating in bold yellow print, “I SUPPORT COMBAT VETS”, shown here on the summit of one of Colorado’s 14,000 footers.

Inside the ammo can on the South side of the monument was a log book as well as a pamphlet, which provided information about the making of the Soldierstone as well as context and translations of many of the surrounding Quote Stones. I picked up the pamphlet, sat down on the stoop of the East Side of the monument (which was in the shade and out of howling winds) and began to read…

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“SOLDIERSTONE MEMORIAL. INFORMATION BY REQUEST ONLY. FOREST SERVICE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE,” and below an address that I have chosen not to disclose for reasons I will describe later, it continues, “NOT INTENDED FOR DISPLAY OR WIDE DISTRIBUTION.”

“Hmmm,” I thought, eyebrows raised and forehead crinkled, that’s unusual. “Not intended for display or wide distribution,” I’d never seen anything like that on a USFS pamphlet before.

Soldierstone was created by a retired U.S. army Lieutenant Colonel that served from 1962 to 1973, primarily with the soldiers and paramilitaries of Vietnam and Laos. When Soldierstone was erected in 1995 the Lt. Col. had asked for no publicity and no media stating, “Unfortunately, there is not enough distance from that tragic time for Americans to empathize with the proud pathos this small memorial represents.” He described the intent of Soldierstone in different ways in letters, as well as in drafts of a book he was writing to accompany the monument:

  • “It is to be an American Soldiers’ anonymous tribute to forgotten Soldiers.”
  • “SOLDIERSTONE is to be an American Soldiers’ Tribute to our forgotten allies.”
  • “A poignant reminder of our battlefield allies. It also asks of America a maturity to honor the defiant stands of soldiers in their seasons of death.”

As I continued to read the pamphlet I learned why there were no signs indicating the existence of Soldierstone on the CDT (also the Colorado Trail at that point). The creators of the monument had been concerned that the trail users might vandalize it. This realization deeply saddened me. The monument felt so important, so powerful, that I’d felt like every CDT hiker should take this detour out of respect not just to the forgotten soldiers and forgotten allies the monument was designed for, but to all the veterans of Long Wars Lost, and modern wars where the line between friend and foe, and winning and losing, can be complicated, and ambiguous at times…

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The beautiful mountains that provide the backdrop for Soldierstone and the sub-alpine meadow where the gray tower of Soldierstone, as well as a dried up tub for cattle water, can be spotted if you look closely.

The hidden nature of this monument was intentional. The people that created the site didn’t want it to be highly advertised, but preferred the location be spread by word-of-mouth, both to limit the risk of vandalism, and to minimize traffic through the fragile sub-alpine environment.

“Well, that explains a lot,” I sighed, my relationship with Soldierstone becoming more complicated by the minute. How was I going to write about my experience here, and convey the importance of this place while respecting the creators intent? In 1995 there still wasn’t enough distance for Americans to empathize with the proud pathos the memorial was meant to represent, was that still true in 2018?

When I walked into Soldierstone, I hadn’t known the creators intent, and hadn’t even realized that the memorial was specific to the Vietnam-era until I reached the ~10 foot tower at its center. The sentiments and quotes etched into the rocks at Soldierstone come from across the globe, across the centuries, and they feel timeless. (I have, ultimately, decided to share my story and experience of Soldierstone, while honoring the anonymity of the site location and the anonymity of its creators.)

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The inscription on this Quote Stone is in Chinese and is paired with English that states, “The Sacrifice… Stratagem Eleven”. The English translation is, “Sacrifice the Plum Tree for the Peach Tree.”

I sat there on the stoop, reading the translations of the quote stones in the pamphlet, thinking about war, the complexities of Vietnam, and my dad. Like many Vietnam Vets, my dad doesn’t talk about his experiences in Vietnam very often, only occasionally alluding to places and times, and memories he wishes he didn’t have. Memories of things he’s seen, heard, and done that remain vivid 50 years later, things that he cannot and will not forget. I wanted to call my dad, to check in and see how he was doing. I wanted him to explain this complicated place to me, to explain what it all meant. I wanted him to tell me that it was all OK, and that he was OK… I wanted it all to make sense, I wanted to share this place with him, I wanted to acknowledge the burden that I know he carries, without forcing him to relive memories he wishes he didn’t have.

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Soldiers, including my father, in Vietnam circa 1968 during Operation Big Money. Navy Photo by JOCS (Senior Chief Journalist) Ed Nelson courtesy of my dad. Dad is an army guy and says I should mention that, “The guy in the T-shirt, he’s a Navy guy.”

Instead of calling my dad, I stood up and walked among the Quote Stones, trying to reconcile my initial impressions of Soldierstone with the intent of its creators. Read together, stones 2 and 3 of Soldierstone said: In memory of Long Wars Lost and the soldiers of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 million Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian people died during the war, including both military and civilian casualties. According to the Lt. Col.’s sister, her brother created the monument because:

“He was impressed with a 10-year-old boy who had both legs blown off and crawled to the post to give a message to the Americans, which saved their lives… That experience just really impressed him so much – that so many people gave their lives, or jeopardized their lives. He just felt that they should be recognized.” https://www.military.com/memorial-day/mountaintop-mystery.html

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The inscription on this Quote Stone reads, “It is a worth thing to fight for one’s freedom; it is another sight finer to fight for another man’s.

Shortly before his death in 1995, the Lt. Col. wrote in a letter to the stonecutter that made Soldierstone possible:

“Many of them died because of my ‘push’ and drive. Yes, I believed in what we were trying to do; and fought as much for them as for us, carrying a false hope that they would ultimately benefit. But they paid the ultimate price. But I think they knew that I cared; and now, very largely because of your help, my promise to them has been kept and I can go to a ‘Soldier’s Peace’.” http://hiddencolorado.kunc.org/soldierstone/

I was unsettled, but I needed to make my own peace with this place. What happened in Vietnam isn’t a comfortable thing to think about, and neither is the way that we, as Americans, treated the Vietnam vets when they returned. Soldierstone wasn’t about being comfortable, it was about remembering, and acknowledging the complexities of war and the lives of the soldiers that fight them and the civilians caught in the middle of them.

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The final page of the USFS pamphlet states, “YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN”, and shows a black and white photograph with a traditional, ceremonial, salute to fallen soldiers: a pair of black combat boots in the foreground and rows of M16s planted in the ground covered with soldiers helmets (or jungle hats) fading off into the distance.

I returned to the monument at the heart of Soldierstone and read through some of the log book. My thoughts turned back to my dad and the vets that would come after me as I added my entry to the log book, heaved my pack onto my back, and walked back towards the trail.

Would this place have been able to bring some peace to my dad, like it had for some of the vets that visited, and for the Lt. Col that created it? I didn’t know. He was unlikely to get a chance to visit this remote place in the high mountains, and neither my words nor my pictures could do it justice. I wished that my dad was there so I could give him a hug and tell him that I loved him.

Halfway across the meadow I checked my mapping app to make sure that I was still on track and noticed that I had cell service. I couldn’t give my dad a hug, but I could call him and tell him that I loved him. Sheltering my phone from the wind, I dialed home. It rang a couple times before dad picked up:

“Hi Dad, I love you!”

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Spoiler Alert! :) My dad and mom met me near the end of my CDT thru-hike, and walked across the border with me. My mom snapped this photo of dad and I, hand in hand, patches flying, as we approached the Canadian border.


 

Notes:

I would later learn that there are 36 Quote Stones, each weighing 300 lbs, scattered around the central Soldierstone monument. I would also learn more about the other inscriptions on the central Soldierstone:

  • Stone 1 (top): SOLDIERSTONE
  •  Stone 2: In Memory of LONG WARS LOST and the Soldiers of
  • Stone 3: VIETNAM, LAOS and CAMBODIA
  • Stone 4: Translations of:
    • “If by weeping I could change the course of events, my tears would pour down ceaselessly for a thousand years.” In Vietnamese, Lao, English, and Cambodian
  • Stone 6: SACRIFICE, COURAGE, VALOR, HONOR
  • Stone 7: blank on all faces
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A Quote Stone inscribed with a Vietnamese proverb that translates to: “Who could say that “Heaven” is blind?” in the foreground, the South and East sides of the Soldierstone monument in the background.

References:

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Soldierstone in the background; in the foreground a Quote Stone in a combination of English and German reads, “Left behind in the Tonkin Delta. Died for France? Yes, died for France.”

Things That Go Phubt in the Night (CDT Days 37-40)

“Phhhhuuht,” something I’d never heard before snorted outside my tent at 3 in the morning. I let out a sigh of my own as I rolled over and grumbled, “Go on now, Git!” And, hearing whatever it was shuffle off, I promptly fell back asleep.

It was my last night in New Mexico and I’d found the perfect campsite in a high Wilderness meadow. It was an awesome spot that would give me both a sunset and sunrise view, and (I almost managed to convince myself) it would even give me a tiny bit of protection from the wind. Although I’ve mostly been cowboy camping, I decided to pitch my large, ghostly white tent as the sun began to set over the distant mountains. It would actually provide some shelter from the wind, but more importantly it would make me look bigger and more visible to the elk and the mountain lions that might be roaming through the meadows.

The sun cast the most beautiful golden light onto everything as I pitched my tent against the battering 40+ mph winds. I’d never used my free- standing tent in winds this high, but I figured this would be a good test since if it didn’t hold I’d just cowboy camp per usual or retreat into the nearby trees. The gravel wasn’t holding the stakes very well against the high winds so as the sunset hues shifted from gold to red I built tiny cairns over each stake so that they would hold firm against the wind.

I finished up and sat with my pack watching as the sun dropped into the haze of distant forest fires, the entire orb of the sun, a huge red ball of light lingering on the horizon for a moment before slipping behind the mountains. What an incredible last sunset and night in New Mexico!!

I crawled into my sleeping bag, happy and content, and tried to convince myself the tent really would hold against the wind despite the shimmying of the center pole and the flapping of the tent fabric. Eventually I managed to fall asleep.

At around midnight I woke up, either from the pressure on my bladder or the surprise at the sudden stillness as the winds finally faded away. I crawled out of my tent and just stood outside gawking at the night sky. The Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon, filled with shimmering stars and a depth that you only can see on dark, cold, moistureless nights at altitude. It was truly breathtaking. I got lost in the stars until I started to shiver, which reminded why I’d left my tent to begin with, I had to pee.

If my pajamas were thicker or the night warmer, I would have lingered outside longer. Instead, I tied the flaps of my tent open and pulled my sleeping bag forward a smidge so when I laid down I could still keep my eyes on the stars. All cozy in my sleeping bag I drifted off to sleep gazing at a truly spectacular New Mexico night sky.

“Phhhhuuht,” something snorted outside my tent, waking me up just a short while later. “What was that?” I wondered groggily. After ~6000 miles of backpacking I thought I was pretty familiar with most of things that go bump in the night. The two things I least want to be woken by are mountain lions and bears. If you’re lucky enough to hear a mountain lion it sounds cat- like and this definitely didn’t sound cat- like, and bears tend to grunt more and smell like wet dog. Besides, I’ve heard lots of bears and this didn’t sound like a bear. A herd of elk had kept me up snorting and buggleing at me a couple nights before, but this was something different.

It snorted again. It was behind my tent so I still couldn’t see it. Definitely not a cat, not a bear, not a cayote, not elk, not deer, not porcupines. “Go on! Get out of here!” I instructed whatever it was, and it seemed to respond, so I went back to sleep.

“Phhhhuuht!” It was about an hour later, probably 3 am, and my snorting creature had returned to wake me from my slumber. “Ugh,” I let out a sigh of my own as I rolled over and grumbled, “Go on now, Git!” And, hearing whatever it was shuffle off, I promptly fell back asleep.

Sometime between 4 and 4:30 in the morning I woke up again, not from any noise, everything was quiet and still, but because of a bright, blood- red light that didn’t make any sense. I rolled over and opened my eyes to see where the weird light was coming from. There was a sliver of red light rising like a flame from behind the mountains on the distant horizon. “Ah,” I smiled letting out a sleepy, yet contented sigh. A tiny sliver of the moon was rising through the haze of far-away forest fires. It was beautiful, and I watched, transfixed, as the tiny flame slowly grew into the much more recognizable crescent of the waning moon. The previous night, my sleep-addled brain had watched the same phenomena through a misty, mossy, tree-covered forest and had been very confused, initially convinced that humans had settled nearby with a campfire, then realizing that wasn’t possible, I had dreamt that it was fairy fire until I finally woke myself enough to realize it was a brilliant red moonrise and not a fire at all.

By the time the moon finished rising, the sky was beginning to brighten with the impending sunrise. I decided that it wasn’t worth trying to go back to sleep at that point. Sleep simply wasn’t meant to be on my last night in New Mexico. Instead I sat up and started lazily preparing for my day.

“Phhhhuubt!” I looked up from my snack bag, and there in the predawn light was a pronghorn antelope looking right back at me. “Ahhhhhh, that’s what you are,” I exclaimed with surprise. I didn’t know there were antelope in New Mexico! I fully expected it to run away as soon as I said anything, but it didn’t. As soon as it noticed that I noticed it, it walked three teps towards me, then stopped and posed.

“Well, that’s unusual,” I muttered while pulling out my camera. The wildlife never knowingly walks towards me. I wondered if antelope get rabies as I snapped a quick photo of it. Rabies will make animals walk towards humans. Before I even finished the thought the antelope bounced away. The way the antelope bounced, almost straight into the air, was so comical it completely distracted me from any worries. I sat there chuckling for a moment and watching the early pastel colors filling the sky before getting back to packing.

Not 5 minutes later I looked up and the antelope was back. As soon as I noticed it, it posed for me, walked three steps towards me, posed again, and then bounce, bounce, bounce it was gone. “Weird,” I exclaimed and went back to packing.

“Phhhhuubt!” I looked up and the antelope was back again. Apparently she’d gotten tired of waiting for me to notice her so she began snorting to get my attention. Pose, pose, bounce, bounce, bounce.

As soon as I started packing up she’d be back and would perform the same routine: pose, pose, bounce, bounce, bounce.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know how i’m supposed to respond,” I apologized. Was this some sort of weird mating dance? I was sporting all the same colors as the antelope with my ghostly white tent and my sand colored pants, shirt, and hat.

Pose, pose, bounce, bounce, bounce. The routine continued as the sun rose, round and red in the distance. It was beautiful, and I have to admit that I enjoyed having the company of another living creature to appreciate it with (even if I knew it wouldn’t work out). Hiking alone through New Mexico I hadn’t had the opportunity to enjoy much company.

Pose, pose, bounce, bounce, bounce. The antelope kept coming back, even when I emerged from the tent and started taking it down. Pose, pose, bounce, bounce, bounce. I packed the tent up and started hiking. Pose, pose, bounce, bounce, bounce. She followed me awhile as I hiked down the hill and out of sight.

Pose, pose, bounce, bounce, bounce. I was kind of sad when I realized that she wasn’t following me anymore, but she had definitely made my last night in New Mexico very memorable!

Water, water, everywhere! (CDT Days 35-37)

I had water, but I walked down to the mountain spring to check it out anyway, almost as though I needed to make sure it was real. I leaned down scooped some up and splashed it on my face. It was cold and awesome.

Less than half a mile later a gushing, babbling brook cut across the trail. I looked at all the all the crystal clear pools of water tumbling down the hillside and burst into tears. It was real. There was water here. There was water everywhere here. I hadn’t realized how much the lack of water in New Mexico had been weighing on me until that moment.

After weeks baking in the desert hiking miles and miles to the nearest shade tree it feels surreal to suddenly find myself hiking through purple and green fields of wild irises, listening to the leaves of the Aspens rustling in the wind and getting startled nearly to death as herds of elk crash through the underbrush.

Clomp, clomp, clomp

The elk run down the hill

Clomp, clomp, clomp

I hear them still

There is just so much green! Who knew that New Mexico could be so lush?

P.S. there are still plenty of cattle. Also, I know that they’re is a gap of harsh desert Days missing from the blog right now, i’l try to fill in that gap, but in the meantime I’m going to start keeping these more current posts coming.

You Gotta Keep ‘Em Separated (CDT Days 10-12)

“6 miles, it’s only six miles to the next tree,” I murmured to myself trying to convince myself that it wasn’t that far. I only had to hike six miles through the unrelenting heat and blazing sun of the New Mexican desert before I’d get to a tree and some hope of shade, after the tree it would be another 14 miles to get to the next water (a cattle trough).

I popped open my chrome dome (a shiny silver desert umbrella), tied it to my pack, and adjusted it so that it would shade as much of my body as possible. I would try to create my own shade until I got to the mythical tree which I hoped was up ahead somewhere. This was definitely not the tree-covered landscape of New England where there is so much water it’s in the air. Here there wasn’t enough water to sustain even one tree, not one!

As the day wore on it got hotter and hotter and the landscape got more and more desolate. The trail was littered with the bones of creatures that had learned how unforgiving the desert could be. People started decorating the trail signs with bones and then making trail signs out of bones. Too much time in desert or maybe too much sun was giving us a wry sense of humor.

Although I’ve done desert hiking before (including ~700 miles of Mojave desert on my PCT thru-hike), the Chihuahuan desert in New Mexico was a whole new beast. The temperatures were in the low 100’s, but the real kicker was the abysmally low humidity ranging from 4% to 8%. The extremely low humidity meant I was going through a lot more water than I anticipated (1 or 2 liters more each day).

Eventually I made my way to the mythical shade tree and discovered that despite being a tree it didn’t provide much shade. Once again my chrome dome came to the rescue. I tied it to the tree to create some shade I could sit under and then checked in on my poor overworked feet.

In these extremely hot and dry conditions with 15-20 mile stretches between water lots of us were surprised to discover that our feet were developing blisters in places we’d never had blisters before: between the big toe and the next toe over and following down into the ball of the foot.

I ran into tons of hikers on the CDT that “never get blisters” yet all managed to get a variant of this blister, so I started calling it the “CDT special.” When I started developing the CDT Special I tried all the tricks I’d learned on my AT and PCT thru- hikes, but I couldn’t seem to prevent the blister on my right foot from growing, and I wasn’t able to prevent the one on my left foot from developing. I ended up taking a break for a couple of hours in the shade to pop the blister on my right foot, and let it air out before bandaging it up with lots of bacitracin and then hiking ever northward.

Later, I learned that the solution to this problem is toe socks, which keep your toes separated and keep the blisters from forming between them. I borrowed a pair from my friend Peru and didn’t have any more problems with blisters between my toes.

Labrador, pictured below, had the worst case of a CDT special I’d ever seen. To distract him from the pain of walking I made up a silly song about toes:

You gotta keep ’em separated

Yeah, yeah my toes are fine.

I used to feel 10, now I’m only feeling nine.

Yeah, yeah my toes are fine!

(During the peak heat of the day the desert is brutal, but everything is beautiful and awesome in the mornings and evenings when things are cooler.)

CDT Days 5-9: Rocking it!

“Is your pack full of rocks?” joked one of the other thru- hikers. At the time I could honestly say, “No, of course not.” However, less than 48 hours later, I was standing on the side of the CDT filling my pack with rocks.

Whenever I went for a walk or a hike as a kid I’d come home with my pockets full of interesting rocks I’d found along the way (If you ask my mom she’d probably tell you that the pockets of my jackets continued to be full of rocks well into college). After hiking thousands and thousands of miles and seeing millions and millions of rocks, I thought I’d been cured of my rock- collecting habits. I was wrong.

As I headed up into the mountains of New Mexico I started finding a weird type of volcanic rock that I’d never seen before. It reminded me of obsidian, but it was glassy white instead of black, and it had a slightly more fluid look to it. Some of it was translucent, some was blueish, and some off it had an orangey hue to it. Whatever it was it was clearly volcanic and it was something that I’d never seen before. Eventually I learned that it was a variety of chalcedony commonly referred to as agate. It was very cool, or at least looked like whitish molten rock that had been cooled quickly as it ran down the mountainsides ;)

I picked up a couple of small pieces that were particularly cool and interesting and suddenly found myself with rocks in my pockets.

As I continued my hike into Lordsburg I kept stumbling into veins of agate and found my eyes were constantly being drawn to the whitish rocks that were so different than any other volcanic rocks I’d ever seen before.

The desert temperatures were soaring with the first heat wave of the season, but I found the bubbly white veins of rock to be a pleasant distraction from the heat (especially on the up hills). The rock was definitely more bubbly as continued northwards and I wondered if that was because the rock there had cooled more quickly.

The sun was high in the midday sky when I discovered that the white rocks in trail had lost their fluid, glassy look, and were sparkling in the sun light instead.

I stooped down and picked up one of the sparkly rocks to look at it more closely. I erupted into a gigantic smile as I discovered that the rock was covered in small white crystals. My inner rockhound was unleashed as I looked up and realized that the entire hillside was sparkling with the kinds of crystals that I had dreamt of discovering (and spent countless hours searching for) as a kid.

“Oooh!” I exclaimed picking up a new rock and discovering more crystals, “Ahhh!” I exclaimed finding crystals with a more orangey tinge. Before I knew it both of my hands were full of small crystals and I was having trouble deciding which ones I should put down so I could pick up new ones.

My hands completely full, I stumbled onto a rock about the size of my fist that was covered in quartz crystals… “uh oh!” I didn’t have enough hands. My inner child froze with indecision, unwilling to put any crystals down, but equally unwilling to move on without picking up this cool new sparkling rock.

I took advantage of the sudden break in the excitement to do a little adulting. First, I put all the rocks and crystals down. I’d heard that rock collecting was allowed on public lands in New Mexico, but before filing my pack with rocks I wanted to double check. So I pulled up the New Mexico rockhounding guide on my phone as well as the basic BLM guidelines:

https://www.blm.gov/basic/rockhounding

Next I did a sanity check… how much time could I afford to spend looking for rocks? It was awfully hot and exposed on the hillside and I wouldn’t get another chance to get water until I got to Lordsburg… I was glad I’d carried extra water out from the water cache and figured that I shouldn’t spend more than an hour collecting rocks.

After a while I stopped searching for crystals and had to choose my favorites to load into my pack. It was so hard to choose, but one by one I wrapped each crystal-covered rock in my dirty laundry until I ran out of dirty laundry. When I hefted my pack onto my back it was about 10 lbs heavier.

“Leave it!” I admonished myself as I was impulsively drawn to each sparkling rock, “It is statistically unlikely that you’re going to find any crystals that are better than the ones already in your pack.” Besides it was getting hotter and hotter and I needed to focus on hiking up the hill.

About 10 minutes later, as I was struggling up the next hill I spotted a big crystal covered in dirt. “Statistically improbable,” I laughed as I bent down to brush it off and discovered a rock the size of a plate covered with large green and purple crystals each about the size of a quarter. It was the coolest rock that I’d ever seen in the wild.

All told I rolled into Lordsburg with about 15 pounds of awesome rocks in my pack and it turned out that the cool purple and green crystals were fluorite crystals (which glow purple under a black light as illustrated in the photo below).

CDT Days 2-4: There is no trail

I stood stood on the CDT, beside a cairn, scanning the horizon and looking for the next cairn, or any sign of where the CDT might be headed.

I’d already looked at my apps and maps and knew the general direction that the CDT should be taking, but I also knew that somewhere hiding out there in the desert scrub was a cairn that would help keep me to the trail much more precisely than my general estimations.

The trail for the first 14 or so miles had been pretty clear and obvious to follow (although truth be told within the first 5 miles I found myself going along a slightly different trail than the other folks on the same shuttle as me), but somewhere between the first water cache and the second water cache the trail petered out and disappeared.

Now it seemed like a trail would briefly coalesce around each cairn, then as soon as the trail dipped down into gully it would fragment and splinter into 3 or 4 trails as people took different lines up and out of the gully. The trail would disappear entirely once we emerged from the gully and entered the open desert on the other side.

“Aha!” I exclaimed as I spotted the wooden post standing about 5 feet tall in the middle of the cairn way, way off in the distance. None of the natural desert vegetation or elements in the area created straight edges like fence posts or cairns. Since there were no other human made objects in sight, I was pretty sure that what I was looking at had to be the post marking the CDT.

Now that I verified my heading I set off. Although the trail seemed well defined as the trail headed into the first ditch, I resighted the distant cairn that I was headed for, picked my line and memorized the intermediate landmarks that I would look for and orient by as I came out of the ditch.

Sure enough when I got to the bottom of the ditch (a long dry stream bed) the trail disappeared into a jumble of sandy gullies. I chose what looked like the best scrabble out the other side, oriented to what I thought was my line and then checked to see where my landmarks were.

“Woot!” I came out of the streambed almost perfectly aligned with the cacti I’d chosen as my landmarks.

Although the first couple of times the trail disappeared it had been unnerving and disorienting, it didn’t take long for me to adapt my experience going cairn go cairn above treeline in the rocky, dark, wet, foggy, snowy/rainy mountains in New England to going cairn to cairn in the sandy, bright, hot, and arid desert of New Mexico.

One of the differences between the cairns I was used to and those on the southern stretch of the CDT was that the cairn posts in NM were often topped with a white or light-colored rock… As these cairns became spaced further and further apart, the white rocks on top of the posts suddenly started to make lot more sense… it was much easier to see the white spot out of plane with the desert than it was to see the dark straight pole in the dark background.

I found that I enjoyed the challenge and freedom of plotting my own course through the desert and having the opportunity to optimize my route for me. Besides, having to figure out the best path distracted me from how hot, dry, dusty, and foreign the New Mexico desert was to me.

Now, pretty much every time the trail of the CDT disappears and I find myself plotting my own cross- country course I think of a scene from the Matrix movie where Neo asks the child prodigy how he bends the spoon with his mind and I replace the word spoon with trail:

“Do not try to find the trail. That is impossible. Instead only try to realize the truth… There is no trail”

CDT Day 1: The Divide

CDT Day 1: The Divide

The continental divide trail (CDT) snakes it’s way through the United States (from Mexico to Canada) separating the East, whose waterways drain into the Atlantic Ocean, from the West, whose waterways drain into the Pacific Ocean. This dividing line runs through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.

Standing at the southern terminus of the CDT, looking onto the parched landscape of the Chihuahuan desert it was hard to imagine water flowing anywhere here, never mind Oceans brimming over with it. Looking North the dusty flat landscape was dotted with scrub and faded into hazy mountains. To the South was a barbed wire fence, old, rusty, and stretching from the eastern horizon to the western horizon. This unmarked, unmanned barbed wire fence was the border between the dusty desert of Mexico and the dusty desert of the USA.

There were 4 off us setting of on CDT hikes that morning. For the first 7ish miles we kept pace with each other sharing the excitement of the beginning of New Journeys together, but soon we parted ways as our bodies settled into their own unique rhythms and paces, and before long I had the desert to myself without another soul (or sole) in sight.

I was glad to be hiking through the desert in spring when the cacti were in bloom and lending some color to the otherwise bleak landscape. The towering cocotillo with their red flowers lent an other worldly atmosphere to the desert.

Despite it being spring it would be more than a hundreds miles before the trail would lead me to any natural water sources, so my first water stop would be a water cache maintained by the CDT about 14 miles from the start. We’d stopped on our way to the terminus to top off the water at one of those caches.

I swear the remaining 7 miles to the cache were all uphill in the scorching desert sun. A blistering heat that was desperately trying to share its blisters with my feet. Every couple of hours I’d stop, let my feet air out, and change the insoles of my shoes.

Pulling into the final mile before the cache I started making up lyrics to an old New Kid’s on the block song:

Oh oh oh oh oh, oh oh oh oh

Out in the desert, I’m hot stuff.

Out in the desert, having some fun

As long as the sun is shining,

I’m hot stuff.

It was only day one, but the silly little ditties had already begun :)

Cruising into the water cache I caught up with Root Beer and his friend Osito hanging out under a bush with a water jug recuperating. Although they headed out just a couple of minutes after I got there, I caught up with them as darkness descended and the desert began to cool.

I’d spent my last night on the PCT with Root Beer, so it somehow seemed fitting to stop and make camp with him on the first night of my CDT journey. I carefully avoided the cacti as I rolled out my sleeping pad and bag under the darkening desert skies and waited for the first stars to appear. My journey North to Canada had begun!!

Keeping it Raw? Actually Backpackers You Might Still Want to Treat Your Stream Water

Crossing Streams in the Andes

When I come across a bunch of raw water in the backcountry, what do I do? Sometimes I swim in it, sometimes I desperately try to avoid it in the hopes of staying dry, and sometimes I drink it. When I drink it, do I keep it raw? Very rarely. During my Appalachian Trail (AT) and Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru-hikes, the most popular approaches when it came to drinking raw water were to:

  • Filter it: Sawyer Squeeze Mini (0.1 Micron Filter, $20/2oz)
  • Chemically purify it: Aqua Mira ($15/2oz) or bleach (2 drops/liter)
  • Purify it with Ultraviolet (UV) light: Steripen ($69.95/2.6 oz)
  • Choose wisely and take your chances: select high-flow springs whenever possible; otherwise select lower flow springs or small spring- or glacier-fed streams
  • Boil the piss out of it

When I read the title of the link that started showing up in my feeds yesterday, “Actually Backpackers You Don’t Need to Filter Your Stream Water” my initial thought was, #notwrong. Unless my stream water is chunky or green I don’t usually don’t filter it, I purify it. I was surprised when I opened the article and realized that the title wasn’t a bait-and-switch about other water treatment options, the article was really suggesting that treating backcountry water sources for contamination was unnecessary:

“Treating backcountry water sources for contamination is a fundamental tenet of outdoor recreation education, ignored at the peril of contracting giardiasis, cryptosporidiosis, or worse. In this case, however, popular opinion is wrong: The idea that most wilderness water sources are inherently unsafe is baseless dogma, unsupported by any epidemiological evidence… research to date has failed to demonstrate any significant link between wilderness water consumption and infection with these threats”

Don't Fall In!

It is certainly true that the popular opinion in the backpacking community is that you should treat backcountry water sources for contamination, is it also true that there is no link between untreated backcountry water sources and giardia or other water-borne illnesses? (Spoiler Alert: the CDC released epidemiological evidence in 2015 and 2017 linking giardia outbreaks to a backcountry water sources). I settled in and made myself comfortable, curious to see whether the Slate was going to impress me with their SCIENCE or or with their SPIN. Ok, are you ready for it?

“A 1993 study looking at the incidence of Giardia infection and gastrointestinal illness in backcountry travelers in a high-use area of California’s Sierra Nevada found only 5.7 percent tested positive, none of whom exhibited symptoms. Broader-scale approaches have similarly failed to justify concerns: Both a survey of health departments and a meta-analysis found that while giardiasis was prevalent enough to justify concern, there was no connection between recorded cases and drinking backcountry water.” 

I started by looking up the cited 1993 study, “Cyst acquisition rate for Giardia lamblia in backcountry travelers to Desolation Wilderness, Lake Tahoe.”  (Zell et al, 1993):

  • 5.7% (2/35) of the backcountry travelers (1988-1990) acquired giardia cysts during their backcountry trips but remained asymptomatic
  • 16.7% (6/36?) of the backcountry travelers (1988-1990) experienced acute gastrointestinal illness (AGI), but did not show giardia in their stool. However, 1 of the 6 was diagnosed with giardia and treated with flagyl.
  • ≤25 giardia cysts per 100 gallon water sample (sampled at 2 gallons/minute) were found in the one trailside creek (Meek’s Creek) they evaluated in 1988

In summary, they showed that ~6% of backpackers acquired giardia in the backcountry, ~17% of the backpackers suffered from some sort of gastrointestinal illness, and they found giardia cysts in the one wilderness creek that they looked at. Given that their data was collected roughly 30 years ago, I was actually surprised that they found as much giardia as they did. Since the number of humans are one of the largest sources of giardia contamination, and the number of humans heading into the backcountry (and pooping in it) has been increasing over the last 30 years, I’d expect the amount of Giardia to be even higher now. For example, in 1988 there were 31 thru-hikers that hiked through the Desolation Wilderness on their way to completing their Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikes, whereas 717 backpacker passed through there on the way to successfully completing their thrus in 2016. I think it’s also important to note that the quotes in the Slate.com article about wilderness are all referring back to this one wilderness, which is wilderness as defined by the Wilderness Act, and not generic wilderness areas.

Desolation Wilderness

Although I enjoyed reading the 1993 paper, it didn’t convince me that backpackers in 2018 should drink raw, untreated water from streams.  I’d hiked through the Desolation Wilderness during my 2014 PCT thru-hike and opted not to drink the raw stream water then, and the evidence they’d presented so far wouldn’t lead me to make a different decision now. My general rule is to always filter, purify, or otherwise treat my water if there’s any chance that animals have been pooping, bathing, or swimming in it (especially if those animals are humans, beavers, or domesticated animals). Even though the glacially-fed mountain lakes and streams of the High Sierra were some of the most beautiful waters I’ve seen, I still always treated my stream water before drinking it because there was still a chance that someone or something higher upstream had been pooping in it. (As an aside, the backcountry contaminant I was most worried about as I hiked into the High Sierras was uranium, which is found in almost all of the groundwater of the high sierras; I shared my thoughts about the PCT water situation at the time in my trail blog: PCT Days 40-42).

Knee Deep in Raw Water

The next paper the slate article cited, the 1995 survey of health departments, was based on data more than 25 years old that found that 10.5% (2/19) of reported giardia outbreaks from contaminated drinking water were reported by campers/backpackers. The final scientific paper the slate article mentions was a meta-analysis published by Welch in 2000, which initially looked promising, but on further investigation, the only data that they included (met their inclusion criteria) about backcountry scenarios was from 1977. I wasn’t feeling wowed by the Science in the slate article at that point, so I decided that instead of  jumping into the way-back machine and delving into data collected from before I was born, I would see if there was a more recent discussion about giardia in the backcountry in the scientific literature.

It didn’t take me long to find it. In November 2017 the CDC released information about waterborne disease outbreaks collected during 2013 and 2014 (the years I did my thru-hikes of the AT, and PCT, respectively), which included outbreaks of giardia in backcountry settings and in national forests that were caused by drinking water from a river, stream, or spring. The 2011 and 2012 data also specifically cites giardia outbreaks that occurred from drinking untreated water directly from streams or rivers in outdoor settings. These giardia outbreaks are only the ones that met the CDC’s criteria and don’t include individual cases that may be scattered along the trail (e.g. my 2013 case of Giardia from the 100 mile Wilderness on the AT isn’t included in the CDC statistics).

CDC_table

Update: 2/5/2018. Selected outbreaks caused by backcountry, wilderness, and other outdoor water sources (river, stream, and/or spring) reported by the CDC. AGI: acute gastrointestinal illness, G.duodenalis: giardia duodenalis, G. intestinalis: giardia intestinalis

In addition to the epidemiological data from the CDC, I also found a meta-analysis looking at data in both the US and Canada from 1971 to 2014 (published in 2015) that stated that “Half of the outbreaks… were located in camps/ campgrounds/ cabins/ parks“, and found that 35% (101) of outbreaks were from camp/ campgrounds.

Stream or Trail?

After spending some time wading through the science (additional links available at the end of this post), I wasn’t feeling tempted to save money and lighten my pack by choosing to drink lots of raw, completely untreated stream water. The perspective shared in, “Actually Backpackers You Don’t Need to Filter Your Stream Water”, seems outdated in terms of the science, the technology, and the culture. Sure, back in the 1980’s and 1990’s the dogma in the outdoor community was that the average hiker needed to carry a $99.95 water filter that weighed almost a pound, but in 2018 most folks (myself included) are more likely to suggest lighter (2-3 oz) and less expensive (<$25) water treatment solutions. The scientific data from Slate’s sources show that giardia is present in at least some backcountry water sources, and the epidemiological data I found links giardia to at least some backcountry and wilderness water sources. Overall, the data suggests that there is some risk associated with drinking raw, untreated water. Whether or not you feel it is an acceptable risk is a completely different question.

Raw Water on the Appalachian Trail

I almost always filter or treat raw water from backcountry water sources. Although often my options when it come to backcountry water sources are limited, if I have a choice I have a preference. My personal preferences (along with the treatment options I use) are:

  • Springwater coming out of the side of a mountain (raw or purified)
  • Bubbling spring with a high flow rate (raw or purified)
  • Piped springs (purified or raw)
  • Beautifully clear waterfalls (purified or filtered)
  • Streams (purified or filtered)
  • Rivers or Glacial Lakes (purified or filtered)
  • Cisterns (purified and/or filtered)
  • Lakewater and pond water (purified & filtered)
  • Chunky and/or green water (pre-filtered, filtered &/or purified)
  • Cow pasture water (purified & filtered & boiled)

Raw Water in Iceland

Over the years I’ve consumed thousands of liters of water from backcountry water sources in the US, and I’ve only gotten giardia once…

 I got giardia from a pristine looking stream near a shelter in the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine on Day 147 of my 2013 Appalachian Trail thru-hike. I was really shaken up from having a tree almost fall on me, and distractedly gulped down a whole bunch of my water 20 seconds after adding Aquamira to it. I realized my error almost immediately, but the water was clear and the stream was pretty, so I was cautiously optimistic. About 10 minutes later the trail led me to the beaver pond that my stream had flowed from. Doh! I summitted Katahdin, finished my AT thru-hike, and didn’t think any more about it until a couple weeks later when a gastroenterologist suggested that town food wasn’t my problem, giardia was.

Once was more than enough for me. For me, $20 and 2 oz seems like a pretty low cost (both in terms of $$ and weigh) to decrease the odds of having to go through that again.

Beaver Activity in the 100 Mile Wilderness

7 Questions to Ask Before Drinking Raw Water

As we do more and more research on the importance of microbiomes in human health, I expect that conversations about raw water will grow. Over time our interactions with backcountry water sources may evolve, and we may develop better tools to guide our interactions with raw water. In the meantime, here are 7 questions I ask myself, and would encourage others to ask themselves, before drinking untreated raw water from backcountry sources (or any other source really):

  1. Are you in a long-term monogamous relationship with your raw water source?
  2. Does you raw water get routine testing for water-borne infections (WBIs)?
  3. Does it have unprotected contact with the bodily fluids (or solids) of other people? strangers? beavers? livestock?
  4. Does it have a history of unprotected contact with bodily fluids or other substances that could negatively impact your health?
  5. Sure, it’s beautiful, but how much do you really know about it?
  6. Who and/or what was your raw water with before it was with you?
  7. Do you really know enough about its history to want to be fluid-bonded with it?

In general, I would strongly advise hikers and backpackers to treat the water they take from streams before drinking it. If you do decide to drink raw backcountry stream water, you might want to consider abstaining during periods of heavy rainfall when the risk of drinking raw stream water is higher than usual because waterborne contaminant levels in streams (even in the high sierra) are highest after large amounts of rainfall.

NOTE: Although I know a few people that got giardia on the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, I know a lot more people that got Norovirus or Lyme disease (see links below) on their Appalachian Trail thru-hikes.


DSC03396

Related Posts I’ve Written:

Links to Additional Information About Giardia:

Doggone Cold! Winter Gear List for Dogs

Doggone Cold! Winter Gear List for Dogs

Winter on Mary's Rock

Here’s a list of the winter hiking and backpacking gear that M’s Seeing Eye Dog Edge used on our winter Appalachian Trail adventure in Virginia for New Year’s. This list includes the gear he used for climbing up to Mary’s Rock with wind-chills of -15℉, as well as the gear he used for his first winter overnight (with a record-breaking low of -2℉).

Winter Day-Hike Gear List for Edge

  1. Fleece-Lined Waterproof/Windproof Jacket (5/5): The jacket was easy to put on and take off, provided good coverage for precipitation, great mobility, and some added warmth. The jacket performed as described; I think it would have been perfect if the weather had been in the predicted range (lows of 15℉ to 25℉), but with temperatures dropping into the single digits and wind-chills making the effective temperature even colder, a warmer jacket with more coverage would have been better.
  2. Musher’s Secret Wax: It’s a barrier wax that helps protect paws that comes highly rated for winter trekking, but it accidentally got left at home this trip.
  3. Grip Trex Booties (2/5): I was surprised by how well edge tolerated the booties. For walking around the campsite and in paved/cleared walkways the boots did a good job, but while hiking the booties on his rear legs didn’t stay on very well, and we ended up losing two of them (both later retrieved by a kind stranger). To stay secured, I think the booties would have needed to come higher us his legs. It was also pretty clear that Edge had less traction with the booties than he was accustomed to. For icy sections of the trail we removed his booties because he seemed to have better traction without them, but his traction still wasn’t good enough on the ice. If I were to do it again I would try the Winter booties instead because they would provide more warmth and might stay on better in snowy conditions. Figuring out the traction issue is still an open problem.Edge Sporting his Jacket and Booties
  4. Quencher Water Bowl (3/5): This bowl worked pretty well. For winter something with an insulated bottom might be better as a water bowl, also something with a watertight seal or an easy pour lip to make it easier to keep the water that wasn’t consumed. The flexible nature of the bowl made it easy to break to the ice out of, which was nice.
  5. Food & Water: We carried extra food and water for Edge for winter hiking/backpacking. It takes extra calories to stay warm on cold winter days/nights, and winter air is so dry that you lose more water than you think. For our adventure I was guesstimating about 50% more food than usual based on the temperature and the planned exertion.
    • NOTE: Pay attention to how much they’re drinking, eating, and peeing:
      • Fewer pee breaks than usual may indicate dehydration
      • If pee breaks are really frequent and low in volume, check and make sure your dog isn’t cold and shivering.
      • If the color of their urine is really dark/yellow (or has a stronger smell than usual) it might indicate dehydration.
  6. Poop bags: It is what it is. For all day hikes dog poop should be packed out. For backpacking when the ground is frozen and you can’t bury it, you should pack out for your dog’s solid waste as well as your own (blue-bagging it as we used to say).
  7. Leash and/or harness: In most state and national park areas where dogs are allowed, they are required to be on a leash no longer than 6 feet at ALL times. Please be considerate of other hikers, dog-owners, the wildlife, and outdoor ecosystems when adventuring with your dog. Edge is a working dog, so his harness comes along with him too.

Edge in his Puppy Palace

Winter Overnight Gear List for Edge

  1. Highlands Sleeping Pad (4/5): This worked great as a winter sleeping/rest pad. This is a keeper and I’d highly recommend it for long winter day hikes as well as backpacking trips. In a perfect world I would want it to be a little bit bigger for a dog Edge’s size since his butt was consistently off of the back of it.
  2. Highlands Sleeping Bag (3/5): The sleeping bag just wasn’t big enough for Edge. For small- or medium-sized dogs I might give this bag a 5/5, but it wasn’t really big enough for him to be able to curl up into it. I ended up mostly unzipping it and tucking it around him like a quilt, and it did a pretty good job of keeping him warm. I was impressed by how well he tolerated being all bundled up. I’d be interested in upgrade options. With record-breaking low temperatures we ended up wrapping Edge with a second sleeping bag (a 30F bag designed for humans).Shenandoah Campfire with Edge
  3. Reflectix groundcloth (5/5): Used on the floor of the tent (the same way the humans used it) to provide an extra bit of warmth and insulation; it also covered a larger surface area than the sleeping pad, so if Edge slipped off of his sleeping pad he wasn’t on the bare ground.Edge inside the puppy palace
  4. Hyperlite Ultamid 2 Backpacking Tent (4/5): The hyperlite ultamid 2 worked great as a winter backpacking/camping dog house, but it is very expensive as a puppy palace. It provided good protection and extra warmth, and with one side of the door staked down, the door could be zipped ½ way down to provide a doggy door that Edge could enter and leave the tent through in case of emergency. The tent was plenty big so a person could have easily slept in the tent with Edge. I really liked the way the floorless tarp tent worked as a winter puppy palace. (I’m allergic to dogs, so it also had the advantage of being easy to shake it out, and then shower it off/wipe it down to prevent future allergen issues with the tent).

Additional Links/Resources for Winter Backpacking with Dogs

6 Shiny Things for Winter Adventurers

6 Shiny Things for Winter Adventurers

DSC07790

For me one of the shiniest (best) things is a beautiful winter’s day in the mountains with sunshine, bluebird skies, sparkling fresh snow, and glittering cascades of ice (Mt. Monroe, NH 2017).

During winter when the darkness comes too soon and lingers for far too long, all the shiny, sparkly, and glittery things seem to have extra appeal. The six things that made my list for this year’s winter gift guide ($7 to $70) and gear review all make dark winter days and long winter nights a little bit brighter, shinier, and more sparkly. So, without further ado, here are a few of my shiniest things (additional holiday song spoofs included in photo captions):

1. 1000 Lumen Nitecore HC60 Headlamp

Winter Nighthiking

“I’m dreaming of more night hiking, a thousand lumens lights my way! May your hikes be many and bright, and may all your adventurers have light! “

What it is: A 1000 Lumen headlamp (USB-rechargeable) for winter hiking/backpacking and home power outages.

The Shiny: The 1000 Lumen USB Rechargeable Nitecore HC60 ($59.95) is the shiniest headlamp I’ve found, and it makes the snow on a fine winter’s eve sparkle like nothing I’ve seen. It’s highest output setting, which I call “day light mode,”  throws light the length of a football field. Weighing in at ~5oz (3.47oz not including batteries) it’s not exactly ultralight, but it’s beefy 1000 Lumens makes my much lighter ~1oz  Petzl e+Lite ($29.95) with its meager 50 Lumens seem completely and utterly pathetic. Unlike my other electronic devices, the HC60 seems to do better as the temperatures drop instead of worse (I’ve tested it down to -20°F), and that’s makes it my number one choice for winter hiking/backpacking. I’ve used the HC60 for hundreds of hours of hiking/backpacking since receiving it as a Christmas gift last year, I absolutely love it, and I highly recommend it.

  • Features: 1000 Lumen (beam: 117m distance; 3400cd intensity; 100° angle)
    • Micro-USB Chargeable
    • Waterproof (IPX7) & Impact Resistant
  • Pros: 1000 lumens is impressive in a <5oz package.
  • Cons:  You may be tempted to do more winter night hikes, it doesn’t have a red light mode, and switching modes is a bit clumsy with thick gloves. The HC60 is a bit heavy for summer backpacking.
  • Upgrade: considering upgrading to the 1000 Lumen USB Rechargeable HC65 Headlamp, which fixes the button issue and has a red light mode.

2. “On Trails” by Robert Moore 📖

On Trails by Robert Moore

“On Trails we hike! New paths we’re always finding. Now there’s a book about trails and their worth.”

What it is: A popular nonfiction book about trails for whiling away long winter nights

The Shiny: The bright silvery trail snaking across the cover of  “On Trails” by Robert Moore ($16.00) and the word ‘TRAIL’ caught my eye as I walked through the airport book store. When I picked it up and read the back cover I was intrigued but couldn’t help but wonder if this book was actually going to be about trails. I’d felt misled by the last couple of books I’d picked up in airport bookstores that were written by hikers (see my reviews of: Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Wood and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild), but was hoping the third time would be the charm as I purchased Robert Moore’s “On Trails.” As I opened the book and began reading I discovered that “On Trials,” is a popular nonfiction book about trails that was written by a thru-hiker. A thru-hiker that has found himself asking many of the same questions that I’ve asked and wondered about as I explore the trails around me. I have to confess that I haven’t finished reading the book yet, but I’ve been enjoying it so much that I’m recommending it anyway. Based on what I’ve read so far I’d recommend it for hikers (and others) that enjoy popular nonfiction books.

  • Features: Available in paperback (11.4oz) and for Kindle (ultralight?). Published: July 12, 2016
  • Pros: Lots of interesting information about trails written from the perspective of someone that has spent a lot of time hiking them and thinking about them
  • Cons: A bit erudite and dry at times

3. Choucas Glide Hat 🎩

Choucas Hat

“The cozy and the sparkly, they both are good alone. Combine the two in a hat that’s good, for forest and for town.” (top: polartec band in the Glide Plus, bottom: breathable fabric in the Glide)

What it is: A lightweight, form-fitting hat for cool mountain nights year-round and for hiking and backpacking in mild-to-moderate winter conditions

The Shiny: Last weekend when I bought myself a birthday gift: a green sparkly Choucas Glide Plus Hat ($36.00) , which is a slightly warmer/beefier version of the sparkly purple Choucas Glide Hat ($32.00) that has been my favorite backpacking hat since my 2013 AT thru-hike. It’s not often that I stumble onto a piece of gear that I recognize as fashionable and not just functional, but my sparkly Choucas hats seems to combine the power of BOTH quite nicely. They are lightweight hats with a Polartec Windpro headbands that are the perfect combination of warm but breathable for my aerobic (and occasionally anaerobic) outdoor adventures.

  • Features:  Polartec Windpro fleece band keeps ears warm and the thinner fabric on top allows for better ventilation while exercising. 25 fabric color choices.
  • Pros: Both functional and fashionable; made in New Hampshire, USA; after four years of heavy use my purple Choucas hat still has its sparkle.
  • Cons: Glitter and sparkles on a hat are great, but glitter and sequins are notorious for becoming MOOP (Matter Out Of Place) and violating Leave No Trace principles; If you think your hat might shed glitter or sequins into wild places leave it at home. NOTE: Glitter free options are available

4. Thermarest Z Seat with ThermaCapture 🏕

Now rest ye tired hikers then, you’re off to play again… ” (Climbing Mt. Monroe with my Z-seat tucked into my pack, Photo Credit: James ‘Whispers’ Fraumeni)

What it is: A seat for winter hiking/backpacking trips for resting, cooking, and camping.

The Shiny: Normally I think that the ground is a good enough seat for me, but in the winter I’ve come to learn the value of keeping my butt both warm and dry, so I’ve started carrying the reflective silver Z-seat with ThermaCapture ($14.95) with me for winter day hikes as well as winter backpacking trips. I’m not sure if I’ll think it’s worth the weight and bulk to carry for summer hikes, but I definitely enjoy having it around for my winter treks. By consistently using the Z-Seat when I plop myself onto the ground each time I put on MICROspikes, layer up, or switch to crampons, I’ve been staying warmer and my legs feel stronger.

  • Features: lightweight (2 oz), egg-crate shape helps keep it from slipping under my weight; convenient bungee cord tie for keeping it closed and for anchoring it to my pack and/or the ground so it doesn’t fly away.
  • Pros: Keeps my largest muscle group warm when taking breaks, cooking, and camping in the winter
  • Cons: Bulky and catches wind in exposed areas

5. Rain-X Water Repellent 💦

Oh, wipers, wipers, wipers, you smear my view all day, but once my windshield’s treated, the rain will bead away.” (Looking at a rainbow through my office window, MD 2017)

What it is: A water repellent for car windshields that improves visibility in wet driving conditions

The Shiny:  Although it may not be the most obvious gift for winter adventurers, the bottle of Rain-X glass-water-repellent ($7.68) that I bought and applied to my windshield a couple months ago has probably had the biggest positive impact on my winter adventures and safety. Improving wet weather visibility is especially important because the most common view from the mountains is the inside of a cloud, and the most dangerous part of most hikes is driving to- and from- the trailhead. The improvements in visibility in wet and snowy conditions I’ve gained from just a single application of Rain-X to my windshield are impressive. It was quick and easy to apply and it eliminated the annoying water smearing effects that I’d tried to get rid of by changing my windshield wiper blades. The beading is really cool and I end up not needing to use my wipers as much.

  • Features: easy to apply liquid, coats windshield hydrophobic silicone polymer
  • Pros: Improved visibility while driving in mountain weather
  • Cons: Needs to be applied at temperatures above 40°F

6. Kahtoola Microspikes 👣

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“Microspikes, microspikes, traction all the way! Oh what fun it is to hike on the icy slopes today!” (A hiker using microspikes to cross a snowy section of the AT on Franconia Ridge, NH)

What they are: Pull-on shoe coverings that provide light traction for winter hiking.

The Shiny: My Kahtoola MICROspikes ($69.95) may not give me wings, but they do make me feel like I have superpowers as I cross shimmering sheets of glare ice without hesitation (note: some restrictions apply). MICROspikes are great for winter and shoulder season hiking where light traction is required and I advise people interested in doing winter hikes with me to acquire a pair of MICROspikes or equivalent. I’ve been using my MICROspikes for every winter hike/backpacking trip since my PCT thru-hike in 2014 (click here for my 2014 review) and they’re still going strong.

  • Features: 12 small (1cm) stainless steel spikes connected to a stretchy elaster harness that pulls over your shoes; weight per pair ~11 oz
  • Pros: Provide traction in icy conditions, lighter weight than crampons, much easier to navigate mixed ice and rock terrain than crampons.
  • Cons: MICROspikes cannot be used for kicking steps into snow/ice and they are best when used with a relatively stiff soled shoe. I still prefer crampons for navigating steep ice floes and when kicking steps is required (For some hikes in the White Mountains of NH, I find that the MICROspikes are not enough and I switch to my full crampons).

For a more complete list of the gear that I use for winter backpacking check out: Winter Backpacking Gear: Light Weight Gear for Temperatures < 32°F/0°C


❄️❄️❄️ Happy Holidays to all and to all a good hike! ❄️❄️❄️