5 Ways to Keep Mosquitoes and Ticks from Bugging You! (Gear Guide+)

Black flies, ticks, mosquitoes, and other biting insects can turn the most peaceful outdoor paradise into a stressful tormenting nightmare. In this post I’ll discuss the bug repellent strategies and gear that have worked for me as well as those that are recommended by the CDC, and that are registered with the EPA (after being shown to be both safe and effective for human use in repelling ticks and mosquitoes).

1. Cover up

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Wearing long-sleeves, long pants, and gaiters in an attempt to keep the mosquitoes at bay hiking through the high sierra during my PCT thru hike.

The first step in keeping the insects at bay is to minimize the amount of skin the buggers have access to by wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants, socks, gaiters, and closed-toe shoes. This is fairly effective at keeping ticks from biting you, but as many of us have discovered, mosquitoes have an impressive ability to bite through clothing. Constantly wearing head-to-toe rain gear is an effective way to keep the biting insects at bay, but when the weather is hot and humid wearing rain gear as bug repellent is just a different kind of misery. Instead, I move on to option #2…

My thoughts: wearing long-sleeved shirts, socks, long-pants, ultralight gaiters, and closed-toe shoes is just a start. For repelling ticks I highly recommend using permethrin-treated clothes as described in section 2. For black flies, be sure to include a head/bug net. For mosquitoes, add a an EPA-registered and CDC-approved skin-applied bug repellent as described in section 3.

2. Wear Permethrin-Treated Clothing

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Permethrin is based on the naturally occurring insecticides found in chrysanthemums.

Permethrin is a man-made synthetic insecticide based on the naturally occurring insecticides (pyrethroids) found in chrysanthemums. It kills insects and anthropods (eg ticks) that come in contact with it by affecting their nervous systems (neurotoxin). According to the centers for disease control and prevention (CDC), “permethrin-treated clothing repels and kills ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, and other biting and nuisance arthropods.”

The environmental protection agency (EPA) has evaluated permethrin for treating garments and has approved it as both safe and effective for human use for this purpose. The EPA in their “2009 revised exposure and risk assessment evaluated multiple exposure scenarios for permethrin factory-treated clothing, including toddlers wearing or mouthing the clothing, and military personnel who wear permethrin-treated uniforms on a daily basis. All exposure scenarios showed that permethrin factory-treated clothing is unlikely to pose any significant immediate or long-term hazard to people wearing the clothing.” The EPA also states that, “there is no evidence of reproductive or developmental effects to mother or child following exposure to permethrin.” If you have concerns about the safety of premethrin you can also check out this FAQ, which goes into more detail. One of the major reasons that permethrin is considered safe is that it is poorly absorbed through the skin.

When applied to clothing, permethrin binds tightly to the fibers of the clothing (especially cotton clothing). Since permethrin is not water soluble, it remains bound to clothing through repeated washing cycles and is not readily transferred to your skin if/when the garment gets wet. Note that permethrin kills ticks/mosquitoes on contact, so does not prevent bugs from landing on you. As a result, permethrin-treated clothing works best when it is loosely fitting.

The two CDC-recommended and EPA-registered methods approved for permethrin-treated clothing are factory-permethrin treatment and self-permethrin treatment.

Clothing Treatments (CDC Recommended and EPA registered) Manufacturer Claimed Maximum Effectiveness
Permethrin

  • Factory-permethrin treatment
    • Clothing: 70 launderings.
  • Self-permethrin treatment (0.5% permethrin):
    • Gear: 40 days of direct exposure to sunlight.
    • Clothing: 6 weeks and/or 6 launderings
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Wearing my factory-permethrin treated pants and shirt at Choquequirao, Peru.

Factory-Permethrin Treatment 

According to the CDC, factory-treated clothing, ie “clothing that is treated before purchase, is labeled for efficacy through 70 launderings.” My experience and the research I’ve done suggests that factory-permethrin clothing is effective through 25-50 washings. The military finds effectiveness against ticks last for about 50 washings and the EPA suggests that repellency beyond 25 washes when wear and tear is included is more likely to be true. Gear list/review of my factory-permethrin treated clothing:

  • Ex Officio BugsAway Damselfly Jacket (15/15)
    • Weight (5/5): 6 oz, 100% Nylon
    • Effectiveness (5/5): I carry/wear this mesh jacket for all of my hot weather backpacking and kayaking adventures. It protects me from both mosquitoes and excess exposure to sun. I give this jacket my highest recommendation. It remained effective against mosquitoes for about 1 year of heavy use (I didn’t count the # of laundering cycles). I used it on the PCT, kayaking in Maine during black fly season, hiking all over New England during mosquito season, and trekking through Peru in temperatures up to 112F.
    • Durability (5/5): The mesh has held up well under brutal thru-hiker treatment and ongoing use. After the factory-permethrin treatment wore off, I have self-permethrin treated the jacket and continue to use it for all my desert/hot climate adventures.
  •  Ex Officio BugsAway Damselfly Pants (11/15)
    • Weight (5/5): need to find scale, but light weight, 100% Nylon
    • Effectiveness (5/5): Both in the US and abroad I’ve found these pants to be effective at preventing bug-bites. For example, while my cohort in Peru ended up getting eaten alive with red welts all over their legs I remained bug-bite free.
    • Durability (1/5): These are great travel pants for hot weather, but not so good for brutal backpacking use: the butt of the pants shredded after less than a month of use during my PCT thru-hike.
  • UV InsectShield Buff (10/10)
    • Effectiveness (5/5): Keeps the bugs from biting my neck, which is awesome.
    • Durability (5/5): I’ve had good luck with the Buffs lasting forever
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Wearing my self-permethrin treated leggings, gaiters, and hat at Machu Picchu, Peru.

Self-Permethrin Treatment

If you apply permethrin yourself you have the option of either spraying it on to you clothing/gear or soaking your cloths in it. The CDC recommends treating “clothing and gear, such as boots, pants, socks and tents with products containing 0.5% permethrin,” and treating items “at least 24–48 hours in advance of travel to allow them to dry.” Note: According to the EPA: “Permethrin repellent products used for factory-treatment of clothing or as spray-ons for clothing are not to be applied to certain clothing such as underwear.”

  • Sawyer 0.5% Permethrin Premium Clothing Insect Repellent
    • Spray-on application method (~4/5): I use it on gear items for tick protection. I don’t have a good metric for effectiveness of my treated gear, but it seems to work. The gear I treat with spray-on premerthin, with the amount of premethrin I used to treat it in parentheses, includes:
      • hiking boots & camp shoes (~ 3 oz for both)
      • sleeping bag (~6 oz)
      • backpack (~ 3 oz)
      • tent body (~ 6 oz)
    • Soaking application method (5/5): I use it for clothing items for both tick and mosquito protection. I soak my clothing items in 0.5% permethrin (using the method described in the section-hiker post linked here) to treat my cloths because I am skeptical about getting complete coverage of my clothing using the spray-on method. My self-permethrin treated clothing seems to keep its protective properties through 6-10  washes. The clothing I treat by soaking it in permethrin, with the amount of premethrin I used to treat it in parentheses, includes:
      • OR Sparkplug gaiters (~2 oz)
      • MontBel Stainless Mesh Desert hat and midweight hat (~1 oz)
      • Sleep clothes (~12 oz): sleep shirt, leggings, and camp socks
      • Montane Featherweight Wind Pants (~3 oz)
      • Wrightsock Coolmesh 2 socks (~4 oz/pair)
      • Techwick (T1) long-sleeve hoodie (~4 oz)
      • Lightweight fleece hoodie (~5 oz)
      • Hiking leggings (~4 oz)

My Thoughts About Permethrin: Factory-permethrin treated clothing keeps its repellence 5-10 times longer than self-permethrin treated clothing and is worth it to me for my super-lightweight summer clothing. As far as I can tell, permethrin-treated clothing is the best product out there for preventing tick bites. For mosquito repellency the situation is less clear. Permethrin kills mosquitoes on contact, and does not actually act as a repellent, which means that the mosquitoes land on you (and may bite you) before they die. For loose-fitting clothing permethrin works fairly well against mosquitoes, but it is much less effective when used on tight-fitting clothing made from thin fabrics. As a result, I recommend purchasing 1 size larger than normal to maximize effectiveness of permethrin-treated clothing for preventing mosquito bites. Also, according to the CDC mosquitoes in some areas (such as Puerto Rico) have developed resistance to permethrin!

Other repellent treatments for clothing: DEET (EPA-registered) and picaridin (EPA-registered) may be applied to clothing, but they provide shorter duration of protection (same duration as on skin) when compared to permethrin, and must be reapplied after laundering. Both DEET and picaridin are repellents that can be applied to clothing that has been treated with permethrin to provide added protection. Note that DEET may damage plastics and some types of fabrics. I recently experienced this when the small bottle of 100% DEET in my pack leaked, melted through its cap, and fused itself to my bug net in a scary mess.

3. Use Bug Spray (Skin-Applied Repellents)

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The bug repellent picaridin is based on piperidine, a compound found in black peppercorns.

The CDC and EPA recommend using skin-applied bug repellents (wearing bug spray) in addition to using permethrin-treated clothing. The question then becomes, which bug repellent should I use? Since bug repellents are classified as pesticides, the EPA is in change of regulating them. Skin-applied bug repellents whose safety and efficacy data meet EPA standards are given an EPA-registered status. EPA-registered repellents can be classified as either conventional repellents, biopesticide repellents, or natural repellents.

Conventional repellents

Conventional repellents are synthetic repellents that directly kill or inactivate pests. The two conventional repellents that are both EPA-registered and CDC-recommended are DEET and picaridin. DEET and picaridin have the longest-lasting repellent effects of all of the skin-applied bug repellents evaluated and registered by the EPA.

DEET in concentrations of 5% to 99% is EPA-registered and approved for direct application to human skin. Unlike permethrin, DEET doesn’t kill mosquitoes or ticks, it just makes it hard for them to smell/detect us, and therefore less likely to bite us. Although the court of public opinion is convinced that DEET is horribly toxic, the EPA believes that it is safe for use as instructed at all concentrations, and for children and adults of all ages. Note that DEET may decrease the SPF of sunscreen and it may dissolve plastics and some fabrics.

Picaridin is a synthetic compound resembling piperine, which is found in black pepper. Picaridin is EPA-registered for human application in concentrations of 5% to 96.8%. It is commercially available as Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent as well as under other brand names.

Conventional Repellents (CDC Recommended and EPA registered)
Maximum Repellent Efficacy/Duration
Picaridin (aka icaridin)

DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide)

  • Mosquitoes:
    • 2 hrs (5% DEET)
    • 8 hrs (25% DEET)
    • 12 hours (100% DEET)
  • Ticks:
    • 2 hrs (5% DEET)
    • 4 hrs (25% DEET)
    • 10 hours (100% DEET)

My Thoughts About Conventional Repellents: I hate having to apply bug repellent directly to my skin, but on my thru-hikes (and other adventures) I carry a small bottle of 100% DEET for emergency bug-repellent use. DEET has worked well when I needed it, except for one stretch of the PCT where the mosquitoes were impressively aggressive and to my surprise seemed to be DEET-resistant; I applied 100% DEET and they bit me anyway. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it is scientifically possible that the mosquitoes in question were in fact DEET-resistant. After doing the research for this post, I’m going to give picaridin a try.

Biopesticide Repellents

Biopesticide repellents are naturally derived repellents, which are generally considered less toxic than conventional pesticides. It is also important to note that biopesticide repellents don’t need to stand up to the same degree of rigor as conventional pesticides to gain EPA-registered status. There are two EPA-registered and CDC-recommended biopesticide repellents: oil of lemon eucalyptus, aka PMD (p-Menthane-3,8-diol) and IR3535 (the active ingredient in Skin-So-Soft).

Oil of lemon eucalyptus is an EPA-approved way to market PMD (p-Menthane-3,8-diol), a synthetic version of the compound found in the oil of the lemon eucalyptus plant. The essential oil of lemon eucalyptus (pure lemon eucalyptus oil) is NOT EPA-registered and repellency of the essential oil only lasts for ~1hr.  According to the FDA, commercially available bug repellents listing Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus as their active ingredient are using the man-made synthetic version of the compound: p-Menthand-3,8-diol. Oil of lemon eucalyptus (PMD) at high concentrations has an efficacy similar to DEET over shorter period of time, but if you can find the information about it’s toxicity you profile you’ll be surprised to learn that the EPA considers oil of lemon eucalyptus to be more toxic than DEET at least in terms of potential for eye irritation. Having accidentally gotten DEET (Toxicity Category III) in my eye, I shudder in horror at the thought of accidentally getting oil of lemon eucalyptus (Toxicity Category I) in my eye. To me, the labeling practices for oil of lemon eucalyptus seem to be deceptive at best. It is commercially available as: Repel Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus Repellent and Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent.

IR3535 is the EPA-registered bug repellent in modern Skin-So-Soft bug repellents. It is important to note that the Skin-So-Soft bath oil that was used as bug repellent in the ’90s does not contain IR3535. I remember the Skin-So-Soft bath oil as bug repellent as being woefully inadequate to the task, but have not tried the Skin-So-Soft containing IR3535. Although IR3535 is EPA-registered, the only commercially available forms I was able to find are combined with sunscreen, and the CDC does not recommend the use of combined sunscreen/bug spray products because sunscreens typically need to be applied more often than bug sprays alone. It’s also important to note that the toxicity profile for IR3535 is similar to that of conventional bug sprays. IR3535 is commercially available as: Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus IR3535 Expedition SPF 30.

Biopesticide Repellents (CDC Recommended and EPA registered)
Maximum Repellent Efficacy
 Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus aka PMD (p-Menthane-3,8-diol)

IR 3535

  • Mosquitoes:
    • 10 hours (20% IR3535)
  • Ticks:
    • 12 hours (20% IR3535)
  • Black flies:
    • 3 hours (20% IR3535)

Although the following natural repellents (classified as biopesticides) require frequent re-application, and are not recommended by the CDC, they are registered with the EPA as being safe and effective:

Natural Repellents (EPA Registered)
Maximum Repellent Efficacy
Refined oil of Nepeta cataria aka Hydrogenated Catnip Oil (HCO)

  • Mosquitoes:
    • 7 hrs (15% HCO)
Oil of citronella

  • Mosquitoes
    • 2-3 hrs (~5%)
  • Ticks
    • ~1 hr (~5%)
 Essential oil of wild tomato (lycopersicon hirsutum) aka 2-undercanone or methyl nonyl ketone

  • Mosquitoes
    • 5 hrs (7.75%)
  • Ticks
    • 2 hrs (7.75%)

NOTE: The CDC does not recommend the use of products that combine sunscreen and repellent “because sunscreen may need to be reapplied more often and in larger amounts than needed for the repellent component to provide protection from biting insects.” Instead they recommend the use of separate products where sunscreen is applied first and is followed by the use of insect repellent.

My Thoughts About Skin-Applied Pesticides: After looking at all of the repellent options currently EPA-registered and CDC-approved I’m going to switch from 100% DEET to 20% Picaridin. The improved safety profile of picaridin compared to DEET as well as the promise of greater efficacy against black flies and longer duration of protection have convinced me to give it a try. At first glance the biopesticides, especially the Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus sounded promising, but on closer review the fact that they can claim a connection to naturally occurring pesticides isn’t enough to convince me that they are safer than the conventional repellents and the need to reapply them more frequently makes them a poor choice for me. If you’re looking for a second opinion, the EWG guide to repellents list the pros and cons associated with the different repellent options. Whichever bug repellent you choose, be sure to check the concentration of the active ingredient and to read/follow the application directions carefully. Which bug repellents have your tried? Comment and let me know which ones have worked (or failed to work) for you.

4. Know your enemy!

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Avoid the biting bugs by learning to love winter!

Know when and where the biting bugs are most active, and try to avoid them. Let’s start with when. The biting insects tend to be most active during the same seasons that people are most active: the spring in summer months. Below is some general information about the when and where for some of the most pesky biting bugs.

Black flies

Mosquitoes

  • Season: whenever temperatures are consistently above 50F
  • Most active time of day: depends on species.
    • A. aegypti & A. albopictus: typically bite from dawn ’til dusk, but may bite at night
    • Culex species: typically bite from dusk ’til dawn
  • What attracts them? Carbon dioxide from your breath, heat, and and other compounds secreted in our sweat and found on our breath.
  • Areas to avoid: swampy areas and areas with standing water; mosquitoes lay their eggs in standing water

Ticks

  • Season: whenever temperatures are above freezing (32F), although they tend to be most active April to September. Ticks are least active when temperatures are below 32F and during droughts
  • Most active time of day:  during the most humid part of the day; ticks need moisture to survive, especially the tiny and troublesome nymphs. As a result, nymphs are most active at night and during the mornings on hot days.
  • Areas to avoid: tall grasses and leaf litter and elevations below ~3500 feet
  • Added advice: shower as soon as you return from your outdoor adventure, do a tick check, wash your clothing in hot water, and remove ticks promptly

Additional Thoughts: In addition to avoiding the buggiest areas in the buggiest times (e.g. hiking in the snow), I’ve found that hiking faster (>2 miles/hr) prevents the majority of black flies and mosquitoes from landing on me and biting me. It turns out that mosquitoes typically fly at 1-1.5 miles/hour (1.5 miles/hr), so the little data I was able to find supports the anecdotal evidence that I can outrun most mosquitoes!

5. Dealing with the Itch


When I was a kid loved playing  in the swamp down by the river, which meant that I’d frequently come home covered in both mud and bug bites. The itchiness would drive me nuts, so I started experimenting with things in the first-aid cabinet that might take the itch away: “after bite”-didn’t work, benadryl cream-didn’t work, calamine lotion-didn’t work, toothpaste-didn’t work, and then I tried IcyHot. It worked!! IcyHot completely masked the itch. I then discovered that if I hadn’t scratched the bite before applying the IcyHot, the bug bite would disappear by the time that the IcyHot wore off… I’d found a bug bite cure!

My Thoughts on IcyHot: As an adult I’ve realized that bug bite prevention works better than carrying IcyHot with me everywhere I go (and constantly coating myself in it), but when my bug bite prevention methods fail and I have a bug bite that’s driving me nuts I still head to the medicine cabinet and treat it with IcyHot.

Summary

When it comes to avoiding ticks and Lyme disease my basic strategy is to:

  • Cover up with long-sleeves, long-pants, and gaiters
  • Use permethrin treated clothing
  • Avoid tall grassy areas
  • (while backpacking) Do a ticks checks and change into dedicated sleep clothes (long-sleeved lightweight shirt, camp socks, leggings) before getting into my sleeping bag at night.
  • (while in civilization) Do tick checks and shower after returning from each hike/outdoor activity in tick-infested areas
  • Avoid unleashed dogs (they run through the tall grasses and bring the ticks back to me)

For mosquitoes, I try to avoid the skin-applied repellents, but when the mosquitoes/black flies are particularly irritating I end up including them. My mesh Bugs Away jacket is a godsend in hot, humid weather. For mosquitoes my basic strategy is to:

  • Cover up with long-sleeves, long-pants, and gaiters
  • Use permethrin treated clothing
  • Hike faster! I’ve found that mosquitoes and black flies don’t tend to bite me when I’m hiking at >2 miles/hr
  • Use EPA-registered and CDC-approved repellent on exposed areas (hands, ankles, neck/face) sparingly as needed; I typically carry/use DEET, but will be trying out 20% picaridin.
  • Use a head/bug net in extreme circumstances, especially when the gnats dive-bomb my eyes, fly up my nose, and start swarming so thickly that I inhale the dang things… For gnats I also use the thru-hiker trick of poking a tall blade of grass/wheat out of my hat since they seem to be attracted to the highest moving point; it seems to help a little, but is much less effective than a properly positioned high quality bug net.

Combining these strategies seems to work for me with most biting insects most of the time. The one glaring exception is horse flies. Horse flies are relatively undeterred by repellents, and will bite any exposed flesh they can find. When I’m in an area horribly overrun with horseflies my strategy is to either to dive into the closest body of water and go for a swim (staying under water as much as possible) or to dive into the safety and security of my tent for a nap.

Links

Previous posts I’ve written about ticks:

Previous posts I’ve written about mosquitoes:

Thru-hike Toothbrush Review (Backpacking/Ultralight)

Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different backpacking toothbrushes, and I’ve hated most of them… They’re usually too small to fit comfortable in my hand, awkward to use,  and/or messy! I also find the idea of spitting anything (even toothpaste, maybe especially toothpaste) into the bushes to be contrary to my leave no trace ethos… So brushing my teeth in the back-country has always seemed like a bit of an onerous chore… Unfortunately, going on a thru-hike and not brushing my teeth for 5 months wasn’t something I was willing to do, so I started experimenting with toothbrushes… After 5000 miles of backpacking, I’ve found a few that I like:

Colgate Wisp Max Fresh Peppermint Mini-Brushes, 24 count

The Colgate Wisp (5/5): By far my favorite backpacking toothbrush… I discovered them on my 2014 PCT thru-hike and have used them on almost all of my backpacking adventures since:

  • Usability(5/5): Easy to use, seems effective, minimal practice required
  • Weight(4/5): for a weekend trip (5/5) because I only take one… for a thru-hike with 5-7 days between resupplies I would take a few (0.3lbs shipping weight for 24 including packaging)
  • Cost (5/5): ~$0.21/each ($4.96/24)
  • Availability (5/5): Walmart and many convenience stores/gas stations
  • Convenience(5/5): I love that they are waterless… On the PCT where water was a premium I was loath to waste water on wetting my toothbrush, spitting out toothpaste, and cleaning my toothbrush… This little guy solved all those problems in one fell swoop
  • Hygiene (5/5): Disposable, so you can throw them away when they get funky. Individual results may vary, but I was willing/able to use each brush at least 2-3 times before the minty goodness wore off (more if I cleaned them and didn’t mind the loss of mintiness).
    • Bonus: does not involve sticking your fingers in your mouth!!

Rolly Mini-Toothbrush(3-4/5): The lightest weight option, which is awesome, but seems to requires some skill to use effectively (without sticking your fingers in your mouth… Note: if you are super sensitive to strong flavors you may find its mintyness  overpowering at first.

  • Usability(3-4/5): Some skill required to get used to rolling around my teeth… I’ve used them 5 times so far, and with practice I expect that I will come to appreciate them more
  • Weight(5/5): Certainly the smallest and lightest weight toothbrush I’ve encountered… Just make sure you don’t accidentally swallow it! (0.3 oz shipping weight including packaging for 6 or them)
  • Cost(3/5): $0.60-$0.99/each
  • Availability(3/5): Available at some Walgreens stores and on Amazon
  • Convenience(5/5): I love that they are waterless… and small… nothing to complain about there
  • Hygiene (4/5): Disposable, so you can throw them away when you’re done using them… the fact that you have to directly handle it to put it into your mouth (and to take it out), makes it more squeamish for re-use… for single use no problem (Mintiness lasted through 2, 2-minute uses for me)

GUM Folding Travel Toothbrush(4/5): For my 2013 AT thru-hike I eventually settled on this folding toothbrush because I found the lighter alternatives to obnoxious to use for such a long trip. I hiked over a thousand miles with it! For general travel I give this a 5/5… It is my favorite reusable travel toothbrush!

  • Usability(5/5): If you’re looking for a travel toothbrush that fits in your hand like a normal toothbrush, doesn’t break in two while you’re brushing, and still folds up nicely for travel, this is the toothbrush for you.
  • Weight(3/5): It’s not ultralight by any stretch of the imagination
  • Cost(4/5): ~$4.50 each, typically sold in two-packs, reusable
  • Availability(5/5): Available at Walmart and on Amazon
  • Convenience(4/5): They are handy and reusable… they still require water, toothpaste, and washing, but it’s a toothbrush, what do you expect?
  • Hygiene (4/5): If you have plentiful access to water and can wash them regularly then hygiene is not an issue… I didn’t have any issues beyond what I’d expect with a normal toothbrush.

Safety First Finger Toothbrush(2/5): I would call this (along with all the other finger toothbrushes I’ve tried) a failed experiment.

  • Usability(2/5): the bristles didn’t seem very effective for me, and having to put my finger in my mouth seemed dubious (especially as a thru-hiker)…
  • Weight(3/5): much lighter than a normal toothbrush, and lighter than my travel toothbrush with holes cut into it…additional weight could be saved by trimming excess bits off of it, but then you have the hygiene issue of having your dirty finger in your mouth… I’m not sure that its worth it :-P (0.8 oz shipping weight; leave a comment if you know the weight of just the brush)
  • Cost(4/5): $1.99 is not bad considering that its reusable
  • Availability(5/5): Easy to get at Walmart (or similar) at Dollar Generals along the AT, which is how I ended up experimenting with one.
  • Convenience(3/5): Required washing, toothpaste, and usual care and maintenance of toothbrush
  • Hygiene(1/5): Didn’t clean my teeth well, required me to actually put my exposed finger in my mouth to clean rear teeth, and if water etc got into it, it tended to linger… yuck!

Do you have a favorite backpacking and/or travel toothbrush? Share your favorites in the comments! (Also, if you know the individual weights of the toothbrushes I’ve mentioned, let me know and I’ll update the post… I don’t have a scale with me.

Links to other backpacking/travel toothbrushes/reviews:

‘Tis the Season for High-Vis Hiking… (Hunting, blaze orange, a high-vis gearlist and more)

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The sound of gunfire shattered the stillness of the trail. “Oh, shit!” I thought. “It’s still hunting season!” Once again I’d forgotten that the winter hiking and backpacking season was also hunting season. I paused, trying to remember where my blaze orange was… Doh!! The answer was nowhere useful. I have a blaze orange hiking T-shirt that I wear in the fall, along with a blaze orange reflective baseball cap-I love them both. I also have a blaze orange expedition parka, but I don’t have any blaze orange for the in-between-winter season. Clearly, I needed more blaze orange backpacking gear. The only problem was that I needed it right then!

Up next, Mt. Washington?!

“Pop!” another shot went off, “Pop!,” And then another. I frowned as the AT was bringing me closer to the hunters and not further away from them. As a 4-season hiker and backpacker I share the mountains and the woods with hunters; I just want to make sure that I do it as safely as possible. That means being both seen and heard! Since I didn’t have enough blaze orange on, and my path was predetermined by the route of the Appalachian Trail, I opted to make my presence known with the only tool I had on hand: my voice. I started singing. Loudly:

I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer,
Howdy hunter, let’s be clear!
I’ve got 10 toes, 10 fingers too
An awful lot like you!

As I hiked through Vermont singing, I remembered that I’d run into this same issue last year on a section-hike of the New England Trail during the week between Christmas and New Years. I’d known that the regular deer hunting season ended by the second-week of December, but I’d failed to take into account the ‘primitive firearms’ season which runs until December 31 each year. On that trip I ran into five hunters for every deer track I’d seen. Even though they’d surprised me, I hadn’t surprised them. All of the hunters had both heard and seen me coming long before I’d seen them; still, I’d like to give them as much advanced notice as possible!

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September through November I always remember that it’s hunting season and I wear my blaze orange, but for some reason in late December I forget that there are still plenty of people in the woods with guns that are shooting at things. I don’t want them to accidentally shoot me, so I want to make it as easy as possible for them to see me, and avoid me… blaze orange it is, but, how much blaze orange should I be wearing as I wander through the woods in the winter? (Check out the educational video below, which has information about how much hunter orange you need, and how visible it is).

The safe bet seems to be to wear the same amount of blaze orange they recommend that the hunters wear: a blaze orange hat during most of the hunting season and 500 square inches of blaze orange on the head, chest, and back during shotgun season. Perhaps due to my motorcycling background I figure if I I’m going with high-visibility for hunters, I might as well go high-vis all the way, so here’s my high-vis hiking gearlist/wishlist:

Once I have my blaze orange gear, the tricky part is remembering when hunting season actually is so that I’ll know when I’ll need wear it… The answer varies by state (check the listings near the bottom of the post), but it’s a good bet that you should be wearing blaze orange whenever you go out into the backcountry between September and May. For example, in Massachusetts hunting season started on September 8, 2015 (with deer archery season), and will extend until May 23, 2016 with the end of wild turkey season.

Is hunting really allowed on national scenic trails like the Appalachian Trail?

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Yes! Hunting is allowed along most of the Appalachian Trail, or at least 1,250 miles of it according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. For a large portion of the remaining 900ish miles, hunting is allowed just outside the 1000-foot wide AT corridor. On my thru-hikes I’ve encountered a fair number of hunters on the trails: on my 2013 AT thru-hike I ran into turkey hunters on the trail in Georgia and North Carolina in May, as well as moose hunters in Maine in October. On my 2014 PCT thru-hike I ran into hunters in the woods of both Oregon and Washington, and on the New England Scenic Trail I ran into dozens of hunters in late December.

I hike the trail, from dawn to dusk
Whene’er the skies are blue
I wear synthetic clothing
Like all the hikers do!

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As a thru-hiker I’ve heard gunfire on the trail so often that I’ve started to recognize, and be able to tell the difference in, the patterns of sound between: people firing at clubs and ranges (there’s a spot on the AT in Pennsylvania where the firing range sounds disturbingly close to the AT), people randomly firing at objects and targets (hiking through the desert on the PCT provided plenty of data points for that), and hunters firing at game (see above)…

I like red meat and ice cold beer
I’m gnarly like a root
I climb up over mountains
There ain’t no need to shoot!!

As if the sound of frequent gunfire wasn’t enough evidence of gun use on the trail, on the PCT there were shell casings all over the trail… I ended up making a game of keeping track of each new type of casing I saw, just like I was keeping track of each new type of flower: there were casing from handguns, shotguns, and rifles in all shapes and sizes… Too many to count! Thru-hikers have a tendency to write-out the mile-markers for the long-distance trails using sticks, stones, and pine cones. But near mile 500 of the PCT the only thing around were shell-casings, so I made my mile-marker out of them :-P

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Since there are plenty of folks with guns out there, take a minute to review your local hunting seasons and land-use rules before heading into the woods this winter, and remember to wear plenty of blaze orange! Below are links to hunting information for the states that the AT, the PCT, and the Florida Trail cross through, along with a rough range of the current hunting season to give you a sense for why you want your blaze orange if you are thinking about doing a lot of winter hiking, or setting off on a thru-hike:

Hunting Seasons on the Appalachian Trail:

Hunting Season for the PCT:

Hunting Season for the Florida Trail:

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***

All together now, let’s sing (To the tune of Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song):

I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer,
Howdy hunter, let’s be clear!
I’ve got 10 toes, 10 fingers too
An awful lot like you!

I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
I sleep all night and I hike all day
I’ve got a pack, upon my back
And boots upon my feet.

I hike the trail, from dawn to dusk
Whene’er the skies are blue
I wear synthetic clothing
Like all the hikers do!

Cuz, I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
Howdy hunter lets be clear
I’ve got 10 toes, 10 fingers too
An awful lot like you!

I like red meat and ice cold beer
I’m gnarly like a root
I climb up over mountains
There ain’t no need to shoot!!

Cuz, I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
I’m not a doe and I’m not a steer
I’ve got 10 toes, 10 fingers too
An awful lot like you!

I hear gunshots, I eat my lunch,
I go to the lava-try.
I follow the white blazes
Singing loudly and off key

Cuz I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
Howdy hunter lets be clear
I’ve got ten toes, ten fingers too
An awful lot like you!

I like Bambi stew, and duck confit
My whiskey strong and neat.
I should be wearing orange
Now wouldn’t that be sweet!

Cuz I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
Howdy hunter lets be clear
I’ve got ten toes, ten fingers too
An awful lot like you!

Ticks & Lyme Disease at home and on the trail…

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2012 Master’s Project by Victoria Shelus

When a fellow 2013 thru-hiker was hospitalized with severe Lyme meningitis (inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain) earlier this month, I decided to do some research and try to help raise awareness about Lyme.

“How many of my friends have had Lyme disease?” I wondered… I assumed that most of my friends with Lyme experience were hikers since I’d estimated that almost 30% of the northbound 2013 thru-hikers I met in New England had had it,  but I wasn’t really sure… so I turned to my Facebook friends looking for answers…

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What I discovered came as a surprise! 5% of my friends (22 of the people that viewed the post, n=440) have had confirmed cases of Lyme! And most of them, (68%, n=15) weren’t hikers at all! They’d gotten Lyme in their yards or in nearby parks… The youngest had been bitten before she even turned a year old! I guess with 5,665 reported cases of Lyme in Massachusetts in 2013 (a 12% increase from 2012) I shouldn’t have been surprised… but I definitely was! (Also, check out this link: How did 2014-2015s harsh winter effect tick populations?)

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RI Tick encounter risk: Red=high, blue= low (Link Risk of tick encounters in Rhode Island by year)

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RI Tick encounter risk: Red=high, blue=low.

Where were my non-hiker friends getting Lyme? Lyme disease is named after a town in Connecticut and is endemic in New England so I wasn’t surprised that 93% (14/15) of my non-hiking friends with Lyme live in New England… but they weren’t getting it from backpacking trips to the wildnerness; they were getting it from ticks lurking in their yards and suburban parks. Since there are more white-footed mice and deer (the two biggest vectors for ticks and Lyme disease in New England) in the suburban areas of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island than in the wild areas it makes sense that those are the places where people are getting infected with Lyme… Clearly I need to start eying the tall grass, brush, and leaf litter in suburban parks and backyards with much more suspicion…

QDMA data from 2001-2006

It seemed strange, however, that  0% (0/7) of my hiking friends with Lyme were from New England… Another surprise was that 100% of my hiker friends that got Lyme got it during their during their thru-hikes (revision: 1 was on a 500 mile section-hike)! Maybe it’s partly because thru-hikers from other parts of the country don’t have the same level of tick awareness that people in the Northeast have? I remember being absolutely horrified the first time I saw someone drop their pack and lie down in the middle of a field of tall grass while I was hiking through North Carolina… Why? Ticks!!!! I had the same trouble on the PCT, even though people assured me that the PCT doesn’t have the same issues with Lyme… It was just engrained behavior for me…

A white-tailed dear I saw while hiking through Pennsylvania on the AT

A white-tailed dear I saw while hiking through Pennsylvania on the AT

Though a part of me loved the bucolic moments when deer wandered towards me on the trail… a bigger part of me was hungry and wished that I was going to be having have a nice venison steak for dinner instead of a boring dehydrated meal (Note: the CDC has this assurance, “You will not get Lyme disease from eating venison or squirrel meat”)… the biggest part of me, however, would start to feel imaginary ticks crawling on my arms and legs, so I would stop and do a tick check… “Is that a speck of dirt, or a deer tick?” I would wonder again, and again, and again…. On the trail I couldn’t shower as often as the CDC recommends for tick prevention, but I carried wet wipes with me and wiped down my legs with them every night as part of my tick check (~50% of tick bites in adults are on their legs).

It wasn’t until I hiked into Virginia on the AT in June that I really started seeing tons and tons of deer… I swear they were waiting around every corner of the trail. In the Shenendoah’s I saw tourists intentionally feeding the deer! I was horrified… Almost as horrified as I’d been watching people inside the AT shelters pick dozens of ticks off of their dogs and drop them just outside where they could re-attach to the dog or the next unsuspecting hiker that went by! Since dogs carry ticks, and can get sick from Lyme, tick checks are important, but disposing of the ticks appropriately is too!

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Later on in Virgina, I watched a fellow thru-hiker, Fingers, count as he plucked 48 ticks from his arms and legs after finishing a night hike… I hadn’t ever thought about it, but ticks don’t just quest (hunt for food) during the day, they also quest at night! In cool, humid climates adult ticks quest both day and night… When it’s hot during the day, the young ticks that cause 98% of Lyme cases quest at night (when their local humidity drops below 80% they dry out, dessicate, and die)... I had no idea that ticks came out at night… (I blindly asked 5 of the 7 thrus that had had Lyme if they’d done any night-hiking… all 5 had gone nighthiking in Virginia (or further north) prior to coming down with Lyme symptoms!)

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On the AT in Virginia with my parents .

It was July when I first discovered a tick on my person, “Ewwww, a tick!” I exclaimed looking at the lyme carrying Ixodes scapularis tick crawling on my hand! I was at a campground in the in the Shenendoah’s of Northern Virginia with my parents, “what kind is it?” my mom asked from the camper. I looked down at it, “A deer tick… it looks like a tiny poppyseed, but it has legs and is moving….”

Sizes of Ticks

“Wait, don’t brush it off, I want to see it!” cried my mom from the camper. “Really MOM!!” I replied incredulously! I have to admit that I was eying it curiously, but I was also in a hurry to get the damn thing off of me before it decided to bite. I watched it very carefully for the 3 seconds it took for my mom to come over and check it out (here are some tick pictures just for you mom!) As soon as she looked at it, I breathed a sigh of relief, flicked it into the fire, and headed for the showers. Mom was right to insist that we, the filthy stinky hikers, shower as often as possible… (Ticks usually take a couple of hours to attach so showering is recommended by the CDC as effective prevention). reportedcasesoflymedisease_2013

It wasn’t until I got to Pennsylvania that the first thru-hikers I knew started having symptoms of Lyme… I was sitting around hanging out with my friend Sir Stooge in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania when I noticed that he had a rash on the back of his calf (50% adult bites on legs, 22% on torso, 18% arms, 6% genitalia, 4%head/neck whereas 49% of bites on children were on head & neck). It was 4 or 5 inches across, with a partially cleared center… Bull’s eye (the classic erythema migrans rash)… A tick had found it’s target (a picture of his rash from his blog is below)…

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Sir Stooge’s rash from a picture on his blog

“I’m not sure if it’s Lyme,” he told me. “I think I’m going to wait until we get to the next town to get it checked out,” he continued (One study suggests that only 54% of thru-hikers know how to identify the erythema migrans rash of Lyme Disease). “Why?” I asked with disbelief.  “Well, it’s only 3 or 4 days to the next town… I’ll go then,” he said still procrastinating… I looked at him skeptically. Lots of thru-hikers don’t get prompt medical treatment because they don’t have health insurance and transportation to hospitals and clinics can be a challenge, but he was insured and his parents lived nearby, “You have health insurance, you’ve got a ride, go! The speed at which you treat Lyme matters,” I insisted!

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He ended up going to the ER, being diagnosed with Lyme, and was put on antibiotics (Lyme is usually treated with b-lactam or tetracycline antibiotics: penicillin or doxycycline). While he was at the hospital they tested him for Lyme, but he said on his blog, “I called the hospital to get the results of my blood titer (to see if I had antibodies against the Lyme). And much to my surprise, I tested negative for any Lyme.” Luckily for him, he took the antibiotics and his flu-like symptoms and rash went away… Unfortunately Lyme tests done when the rash first appears are rarely diagnostic because it takes the body a few weeks to generate Lyme antibodies, which is why the CDC recommends a 2-tiered approach to testing for Lyme: begin with Lyme ELISA tests (false negatives are common in the 1st 2 weeks of infection and positive results just suggest that you’ve been infected sometime within the last 5 yrs), and follow up with IgG and IgM Western blots only if ELISA is positive (Positve ELISA + Positive Western Blot ~100% certainty of Lyme Diagnosis).

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CDC report on the number of Lyme cases per month

As I continued to hike North I ran into my friend Bud, who’d left me in the dust as blazed ahead of me during the southern part of the trail… He was standing dazed and confused in the middle of the trail, clearly struggling… “Well well well, look who it is,” he said with a weak smile. “You don’t look so good,” I said, “Are you ok?” I asked, split between shear joy at seeing a hiker I knew, and concern over his obvious ill health…. “Well, I was hoping to hike, but I just can’t right now,” he confessed before continuing, “I ummmmm, well… I got Lyme… real bad, it really messed up my head…. my memory…. I started repeating myself all the time… and… I don’t think I’m going to be able to get to town today… I can’t hike that far,” he lamented.

He’d gone to the hospital and tested positive for Lyme and had already been on antibiotics for a week, but it was taking longer to recover than he’d hoped. It was a story that I would hear over and over and over again that August and September as I continued towards Katahdin… People without the characteristic rash, but with flu-like symptoms and a brain fog that just wouldn’t lift… Everything causes flu-like symptoms… With the rash, or a known tick-bite followed by flu-like symptoms Lyme is obvious, but without those two things? I wasn’t sure… actually, I’m still not… Thinking back on it, I had an awful lot of the symptoms while I was on the trail…

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Light-sensitive headaches… well, it’s probably just a migraine… fatigue and muscle aches, well, I’m a thru-hiker! Swollen knees… once again, thru-hiker… Nausea, double vision, trouble standing? Must be heat exhaustion… Having trouble breathing and exhausted? Must be my asthma… Would I even know if I had Lyme? I never thought that I had Lyme on the trail and I was never diagnosed with it… but I was treated with Doxycycline (for 10+ days, the preferred treatment for Lyme) during my thru-hike, and at least once afterwards… If I ever did have Lyme, I am relatively confident that it’s gone now!

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A dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis) I found attached to my leg on the AT in Pennsylvania. Dog tick’s don’t carry Lyme!

Lyme is certainly a scary thing, but a  life without playing outside is an even scarier thing for me. The fact that mice are also carriers for Lyme, that ticks hang out in the leaf litter, that most people get Lyme from nymphs in June and July, and that the nymphs are at least as likely to bite at night as during the day were some of the things that were new information for me. Check out my previous post: “Deer are the scariest things in the woods…” for more information about prevention, and stay tuned for one more post where I’ll go into the tick’s life cycle and what that means for Lyme disease transmission and prevention.

Have you been bitten by a tick? Did you get Lyme? Do you know someone that has? Did you get the rash (I’m curious about how similiar most people’s rashes are to the text book rashes)? Do you know where you got it? I’d be interested to hear you Lyme stories… either in comments below, or email me: patchesthru at gmail dot com.

 

Finally som tick advice for backpackers/thru-hikers based on my experience:

  • Shower as often as you can!
    • carry wet wipes to clean off and check target areas
  • Ticks bite at night!
    • Don’t hike thru tick-prone areas at night especially if the days have been really hot and humid!!! The ticks are out, and it’ll take you longer to see them and remove them
    • Don’t camp (especially if you are using a tarp without and bug prevention) in areas with dense brush, high grass, or leaf litter… Ticks quest at night!!! They don’t jump, or fly, but they do crawl.
  • Be especially attentive at lower elevations!
    • If you’re hiking at elelevations lower than 2000 feet to extra tick checks… Ticks are less common above 2000
  • Check dogs regularly for ticks (and use preventative measures)
    • Don’t forget to dispose of the ticks appropriately
    • Consider keeping your dogs out of the AT shelters when people are sleeping in them… The only way ticks have been shown to enter the shelters is if we bring them there!
  • Check your pack for ticks!!! If you set your pack down in the tall grass or leaf litter, ticks can grab a free ride directly back to you… besides, you don’t want to carry anything extra :-P
  • Walk in the center of trails where possible… It’s better for you and its better for the trail!
  • Use repellents: permethrin kills ticks on contact or 20% Deet
    • Permethrin comes in a wash or spray that you can apply to your favorite clothing and is good for dozens of washes
    • 20% Deet is just as effective as 100% deet for prevention…
  • Know the symptoms of Lyme and seek medical attention as soon as possible if you experience any of them

The beautiful balds in TN.

Choosing the Right Outdoor Adventure…

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Spring is here! It’s time to go outside, explore new places, and find new adventures… but how do you decide which adventure is right for you? Here are some things to consider before you go:

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  • Timing: How much time can you spend out on your adventure? Don’t forget to factor in the transit time to- and from- your destination! Usually I plan to spend at least as much time adventuring as I spend in transit. Another thing I’ve learned the hard way? Double-check what time the sun rises and sets before you go… the number of daylight hours varies seasonally and has taken me by surprise more than once (now I always take a headlamp along just in case!).

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  • People: How many people are likely to join you on your adventure? Some destinations are better for groups, others for solitude… Remember that popular destinations frequently get crowded, especially during peak-season and on weekends! Often when I got to popular places at popular times, I avoid the throngs by choosing one of the less common, less crowded trails.

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  • Background: What is your level of experience, and that of your group? If you jump in too far over your head the fun factor suddenly plummets. Also, take into consideration the health constraints and current level of fitness of each member of your group (including yourself) before choosing your adventure… I find that when things are too physically strenuous the complaining goes up, and the fun goes down.

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Join me this summer as I introduce new people to the outdoor trails and adventures that I love… Whether I’m going out for a day hike with my 4-year old niece, going camping with friends, or heading off on another solo backpacking adventure, I’ll be sharing my favorite tips, trips, trails, and tales here on this blog!

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Oh, and I almost forgot… pictures… I love taking pictures! I post to Instagram and Facebook between blog posts!

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P.S. Do you have questions about hiking? Camping? Backpacking? Gear? Getting outside? New England trails? Thru-hikes? Leave a comment below!

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Ode to Insomnia

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There are rumors and even scientific studies that say that backpacking cures insomnia… It’s true that when I’m on the trail I go to bed earlier, and get up earlier, but my sleep issues persist… I still have trouble falling asleep, and I still have trouble staying asleep, but I hold onto the hope that someday sweet sleep will come to visit me and stay for a while…

I can do it,
I can do it!
I can sleep,
There’s nothing to it.

Close my eyes now
All dark skies now
Count the lambs
as they fly by now

I can do it,
I can do it!
I can sleep,
There’s nothing to it!

But my Thoughts
They keep on coming
And my mind
It keeps on humming…

Go to Sleep now!
You can do it,
You can sleep,
There’s nothing to it!

But you see
There is this question
And then there
Is this hankering…

But, I can do it,
I can do it!
I can sleep,
There’s nothing to it.

At lest that’s what
they tell me…
So why won’t sleep
Bespell me?

I should be sleeping
Yes there’s sleeping
But ’round here
There’s only bleeping

Bleep you sleep!!!
Where are you hiding
With my pillow
I am colliding

But your mystery
Still evades me
Surely my textbooks
They shall save me…

I can do it,
I can do it!
I can sleep,
There’s nothing to it.

Wide awake I
Lay here thinking
As my eyes
Continue bliking

Everyone else
They seem to do it
Close their eyes
There’s nothing to it

But I lay here
In dismay here
I fear there is
No sleep here…

Meditation,
My Salvation?
Mind and body
Join one nation

There’s one goal now
Body ‘n soul now
Surely this’ll
Take control now…

We can do it,
We can do it!
We can sleep,
There’s nothing to it.

Close our eyes,
We are united!
No, we will not
Be excited

In the calmness
In the stillness
In the darkness
In the chillness

My mind it keeps
Reflecting
On these things I’m not
Expecting

I still have hope
that we can do it,
That We can sleep,
And that we’ll do it…

But the secret
It alludes me
Why must it
Thus exclude me?

Everyone else that is
Around me…
I hear them
sleeping soundly…

I can do it?
I can do it!
I can sleep…
There’s nothing to it…

Close my eyes now
With a sigh now
I’ll feign hope and say
Good-bye now…

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Only Fools…

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Suddenly it hit me like a ton of bricks… April 1… Tomorrow… is… April… First… “IshouldbehikingIshouldbehikingIshouldbehiking… I need to go hiking!”

I forced myself to take a deep breath… Yes, I should be hiking, and I should go hiking, but not tomorrow…. Tomorrow I should go to my job, pay my rent, and visit my friends… Returning to society after two thru-hikes isn’t easy… I’m still struggling with returning to the city and integrating back into ‘normal’ life…

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But… my mind was still racing… Last year… last year on April first I was just beginning my PCT thru-hike… last year on April first I was setting off on a long, amazing, incredible hike… a journey of a lifetime… That’s what I should be doing this year too!!!

Well… maybe I could sneak in a hike either before or after work tomorrow? Surely a small mountain before breakfast would be enough, right? Just a little hike to keep the trail from slipping away from me forever… just a little hike to keep me from completely rebelling against the bonds of civilization!

Hiking helps… I’ve been hiking/walking a 2-mile trail through the ‘urban wilderness’ on my way to and from work each day… It isn’t enough, but it helps… The birdsong in the air, the wind on my face, the crunch of snow beneath my feet, the squish of mud oozing into my boots, and the occasional wildlife… they remind me of the trail… they remind me of home…

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I try to remind myself that the trail isn’t my only home… I’m enjoying my new job as a science writer… It’s feels great to exercise my brain again… To fill my head with math, science, engineering, and experiments… the ideas in the air, the proofs in the equations, the beauty in the logic, the joy of the research, and the overwhelming moments of clarity… the trail isn’t my only home, this is home too… Remembering this world helps… So does spending time with my friends and family and the people that reach out to me… trying to lure me back into civilization or offering to learn more about my other world out there in the woods… they remind me that there are things tethering me here to this life and not just to my life on the trail…

I check the forecast again… tomorrow is going to be a beautiful sunny day… Sunrise at 6:28 am and sunset is at 7:08 pm… Perhaps I can find a way to exist in both worlds… Hmmm… How do I maximize the number of daylight hours I spend hiking in the mountains tomorrow while still being in my cubicle and ready to work for 8 hrs starting sometime between 8 am and 10 am?? Gotta run… I need to do some research and then some math and then get ready to  go hiking tomorrow!

Part 2 – A Solo Winter Mount Washington Ascent

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Was I really going to set off to climb Mt. Washington (the mountain with the worst weather in the world) when the temperature in the parking lot was -16F? No, I was not! (See Part 1- To Hike or Not to Hike). I was going to wait… at least for a little while… It was -4F when I left Carter Notch and that had seemed like a perfectly reasonable temperature for a hike, but -16F? No way!… That settled it, I was going to wait until the temperatures got up to at least -5F before I left the warmth and safety of my car…

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Temperature in the valley the morning of Feb. 28

How cold is too cold? I have trouble conceptualizing subzero temperatures, so -5F was an arbitrary threshold. However, if -5F was too cold I had no problem with turning around and hiking right back to my car (a big advantage of day hikes relative to thru-hikes). As I waited for the temperature to rise I double-checked my gear and re-packed everything… I was over-packed for this hike, but in light of the recent tragedy (the death of a solo hiker from exposure in the Whites), it seemed like a small price to pay to know that I could be warm if I needed to be.

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Looking out at the valley from the steep section of the Ammonoosuk Ravine Trail.

“ALERT: Wind Chill Advisory in Effect,” I read from the Mount Washington Observatory Higher Summits Forecast as I sat in the parking lot waiting, “wind chills -25F to -35F.” Brrrrrr… Just thinking about it made me cold!

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Mt. Washington via the Ammonoosuk Trail plotted using the tracking function of my SPOT locator.

Mount Washington via the Ammonoosuk Ravine Trail (White Mountains, NH)

  • Date: February 28, 2014
  • Total Mileage (out and back): 9 miles, 3,800 ft of elevation gain
    • Ammonoosuk Ravine Trail ~ 3 miles each way
    • Appalachian Trail (Crawford Path) ~1.5 miles each way
  • Mount Washington forecast the morning of  Feb. 28, 2015:
    • Sunny, highs near 0F, westerly winds 25-40 mph, wind chills of -25F to -35F.
  • Total Duration: 8 am – 4:30 pm, 8 hrs 30 minutes
  • Trailhead Parking: Cog Railway Base Station. Base Station Road and hiker area were plowed.
  • Base Pack Weight: 21 lbs, 28 lbs with food and 3L of water. Pack contents include: ice axe, snow shoes, crampons, expedition parka, zero degree sleeping bag, emergency bivy, SPOT etc.

By 8 am my car registered the requisite (and oh so balmy) -4F degrees, so I hefted my pack onto my back and headed towards the trail… Loaded up with all of my winter gear my pack was heavy! The base weight of this day-pack was heavier than the base weight for my PCT thru-hike!

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“Hmmmmm…” Just out of the gate and I was already feeling like a noob… Where exactly did the trail start? Why was everyone leaving the parking lot and hiking up the road? I’d hiked this trail in the summer and had scouted out the winter trailhead last night, but as far as I knew, the trail left from the backside of the parking lot… That trail, however, was largely untracked and I really didn’t want to start my Mt. Washington ascent by breaking trail if I didn’t have to… The next time I saw someone pull into the parking lot and start gearing up I wandered over and asked, “Is there a second trailhead up by the station? Everyone seems to be heading up there, but then some of them turn around and then veer off to the left… Are those the folks going up the Jewell trail?”

“Yeah,” he replied as he strapped his snowshoes to his pack, “if you veer to the left on the road before the station that’ll bring you to the Jewell trail, but if you keep going passed the station, veering to the right through the cabins, that’ll take you to the Ammo.” I hesitated, but he continued reassuringly, “Don’t worry, it’ll be obvious.”

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Ammonoosuk Ravine Trail: 3.1 miles, 2,500′ elevation gain

  • Difficulty level: Strenuous. Trails in New England are famous for their steep grades, and the Ammonoosuk (Ammo), despite it’s gentle start, is no different with an average grade of 15%.
  • Special Equipment: Snowshoes/traction. Most hikers were using snowshoes, but some, like me, started in boots and used full crampons as necessary. (I brought my snowshoes with me, but didn’t use them).
  • Trail Conditions (9/10): Well-tracked, mostly hard-packed powder, small section of ice flows immediately below Lakes of the Clouds Hut.
  • Vistas (9/10): The views of the Northern Presidentials from the parking lot and as you head into the ravine are stunning… and before long you start getting views of Washington that are spectacular.
  • Duration: 8:00 am – 10:40 am (2:40); Summertime ‘Book’ estimate (2:50)

I headed up the road in awe of the mountain that I was about to climb, but the closer I got to the base station, the more tracks I saw… there were ski and snowshoe tracks veering off in almost every imaginable direction. Eventually, however, I saw the well-tracked path the guy in the parking lot was talking about… It wove between the cabins and headed off into the woods right where I would imagine it to be from the map… I was shocked to discover that there were even some trail signs perched there at the edge of my winter wonderland!

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Because of the subzero temperatures I started off wearing more layers than I usually do, figuring that I would peel them off as I warmed up, but the outside temperatures dropped as I tucked into the ravine by the water… I didn’t need to add any layers but I certainly wasn’t going to take any off! About 10 minutes into the hike, however, my eyes started feeling a little bit gummy… my eyelids were sticking together and it was getting harder and harder to open them… I took off my gloves and reached up to touch them and discovered that my eyelashes were glued together with ice! The heat from my fingers quickly melted the ice from my eyes and I continued hiking…

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Within minutes my eyes started to freeze shut again… I took out my camera so that I could see what they looked like (and have a better sense of what I was dealing with), and was entertained to find that my eyelashes were crusted with a beautiful frosty mascara! Despite the ease of application of this ‘mascara’ (the first make-up I’ve applied in years), and my fondness for my new “Frozen” look, I decided that I needed to add another layer to my ensemble afterall… it was time to put my ski goggles on and eliminate every last bit of exposed skin!

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Just above Gem Pool (~2.1 miles, elev. 3522′) the trail got significantly steeper, and I stopped to put on my crampons. In the summertime, I love the waterfalls scattered along the Ammo, and I had hoped that I’d get to see them in all of their frozen glory on this winter hike. Unfortunately, the icy cascades were buried under the snow and largely indistinguishable from the rest of the blanket of white.

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There was a lot more snow on Washington now than there had been on Lafayette just a month before… It was beautiful… I just wished that the sun would finally peak around the Presidential summits and make all of the snow in my ravine sparkle!

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Climbing the last mile (1,528′ of elevation gain, 29% grade) from the pool up to the hut, I couldn’t help but contemplate the difference between the designed trails of the PCT with all of their switchbacks and moderate to low grades and the direct (fall-line) trails of New England that I’ve grown up with… None of the PCT was this steep, unless you count the snow-covered sections in the High Sierra where there was no trail (Mather and Pinchot Passes immediately came to mind, though there was a small stretch towards the base of Forester that probably would count to.).

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I stopped to enjoy the view… Not a cloud in the sky… the stark contrast between the snowy mountains and the deep blue sky was breathtaking… or maybe that was just all of the exertion with a side of asthma? It was true that it was time for me to use my inhaler again so I caught my breath, took a puff, and continued onwards and upwards… The views were still breathtaking!

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As I made the final approach to Lakes of the Clouds, I left the last of the trees behind and a starkly beautiful landscape of snow, rock, and ice opened up before me…

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“Wow, just wow!” In all the times I’ve climbed Mt. Washington I’d rarely (if ever) seen it this calm and clear. I could see the evidence of strong winds all around me in the beautifully sculpted sastrugi

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I made a mental note of these areas since the forecast predicted increasing westerly winds throughout the day… These would be the trouble spots when the winds picked up, but for now, they were quiet, calm, and eerily beautiful.

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Just above the first round of sastrugi, the trail opened up into a field of ice that made me glad that I was wearing crampons. I traversed it easily and found myself at the Lakes of the Clouds Hut.

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I wasn’t hungry (a common problem when winter hiking), but Lakes of the Clouds was a pre-designated break point for eating and for re-evaluating the weather, how I was doing, and for forcing myself to eat my second breakfast! It didn’t matter how unappealing food was, I had to make sure to eat, drink, and adjust my layers before making a decision about whether or not I should push for the summit of Washington! (Note: If you are too cold to eat, you are too cold to go above treeline. If you don’t want to bother with hydrating, you don’t want to bother with going above treeline. If you are too cold to stop and take a break, you are too cold to go above treeline.)

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Appalachian Trail (Crawford Path): 1.5 miles, 1300′ elevation gain

  • Difficulty Level: Strenuous. After finishing the final steep ascent to Lakes of the Clouds, the bid for the summit seems tame , but it is still steep with a lot of exposure and always feels longer to me than I think it will.
  • Special Equipment: Snowshoes/crampons. Most people switched from snowshoes to crampons for this final stretch, though either would work. I used crampons.
  • Trail Conditions (8/10): Hard, wind-swept snow, sastrugi, interspersed with occasional ice flows.
  • Vistas (10/10): Completely exposed and above treeline the whole way… views of the valley and of both the Northern and Southern Presidentials. It was 100% clear, not a cloud in the sky… a 1 in a million day on top of Mt. Washington.
  • Duration: 11:10 am – 12:40 pm (1:30); summertime book estimate (1:25)

The back side of Lakes of the Clouds Hut (Lakes) was glare ice, so I circled around to the front where the snow had drifted up and over the roof. I found a nice, dry, sunny spot on the roof to take a break, eat my second breakfast, and watch my fellow hikers. The majority of them were popping over to Mt. Monroe (a short hike from Lakes), but a few were returning from sumitting Mt. Washington so I asked them about current conditions up there, “Clear, calm, and absolutely beautiful,” was invariable the response. The sun was shining, it was early in the day, my belly was full, and I was nice and warm… Everything was looking good for a summit bid!

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The temperatures were still subzero, but I was confident that my gear was up to the challenge (the warmest of it was still in my pack)… The only thing I was still nervous about was the strengthening westerly wind, which was predicted to top out at ~40 mph, which by Mt. Washington standards that wasn’t too bad (the last time I was on top of Washington they were predicting 80 mph winds!).

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Since it was a westerly wind, I’d be facing into it for the 1.5 mile return trip to the hut, but even if the winds picked up to 65 mph (25 mph above anything predicted in the next two days), I would still be well within my comfort zone. If, for some reason, the conditions changed wildly and unpredictably (the Whites are famous for that) and were so extreme that I couldn’t return to the hut, my back up plan would be to head to Pinkham Notch via the Lions Head Trail with everyone else… After eating my second breakfast and going through all of my checks and double-checks I made the call (literally called my parents to let them know)… I was going to give the summit of Mt. Washington a go!

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On the AT, looking back at Lakes of the Clouds and Mt. Monroe.

As I left the hut, I was once again on my beloved Appalachian trail. I was stuck by the stark beauty of the wind-swept landscape… I’d never been up here in the winter before. The elegant sastrugi pointed out the areas where the winds funneled up from the western ravines… I noted them not only for their beauty, but because I figured these would be the trouble spots if the winds picked up later. For now, however, everything was still quiet and calm (~10-15 mph winds).

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As I continued to ascend the winds started picking up… barely breaking ~20 mph, but a sign of what was to come. Knowing how exciting the tippy-top of Mt. Washington can be, I decided to stop at the intersection between Crawford Path and Davis Path to layer up… fighting high winds to add warm layers at the summit of Mt. Washington is a challenge at best!

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On the AT, looking ahead towards Mt. Washington!

On my last hike up Mt. Washington (AT, September 2013) I was within 10 feet of the towers on top and had no idea that they were there! I had stopped, confused at the edge of the building with absolutely no idea which way to go to get to the summit which was less than 100 ft away…Needless to say, the view was less than stellar…

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The summit of Mt. Washington on my AT thru-hike! (September 2013)

That view, the view of the inside of a cloud, is the view from Mt. Washington that I remember from my childhood. In the 25 years that I’ve been climbing Mt. Washington it is, by far, the most common view I’ve encountered from the summit!

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My first hike to the summit of Mt. Washington (summer 1990) with my family (mom and brothers in photo).

So for me, the crystal clear views were unusual and I was savoring every minute of them! It was so clear that I’d been able to see the towers at the summit from the parking lot! I had had them in sight from the moment that I left Lakes, and now they were finally in reach…

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As I approached the first tower and the snow-covered parking lot it boggled my mind that the last time I was there I hadn’t known how to get to the summit… It was so close!

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I smiled and approached the final heap of rocks that sported the summit sign… Here I was, on top of Mt. Washington, on the Appalachian Trail, in the middle of winter… the temperature was around 0F, and I guessed that the winds were gusting to 35 mph, but hidden beneath my nice warm ski-mask was a great big smile… the same smile I always wear when I’m climbing mountains… the smile that comes with knowing that you are exactly where you are supposed to be!

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Photo actually from down by Lakes after summitting :)

I pulled my camera out of its warm inner pocket to document my final steps to the summit and managed to get one picture before the screen said, “power exhausted” and shut down. I tried for a cell phone photo, but the cell phone wouldn’t even bother to turn on… My electronics found the cold weather to be exhausting even if I didn’t!

I took another couple of steps towards the summit. It would be a shame not to have any summit photos, but wow… It was beautiful… I turned to fully appreciate the view and saw two people emerge from behind a building… I pulled my mask down and yelled over the wind, “Hi! Could you take a picture of me and mail it to me? My electronics are rebelling and refusing to work!”

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I spotted a couple of people leaving the summit and convinced them to take a quick photo and email it to me.

“Sure,” they replied quickly snapping a picture of me before I even got the chance to pull my hands out of my pockets where I was placing my cell phone hoping to warm it up. I hurriedly gave them one of my cards saying, “Thanks! This has my contact information on it. It would be awesome if you could email me a copy of that photo.”

“I’ll get the picture to you… You can count on it!” he said determinedly as he and his hiking partner hurried off, leaving me alone on the summit… (he emailed me the photo a couple of days later… Thanks again Andy!)

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The summit of Mt. Washington, all to myself?! How cool is that? -1F with a -30ish wind chill, that’s how cool! I took the last few steps to the summit and plunked my pack down… Wow! I’d made it, and it was absolutely awesome! There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and as long as I kept my back to the wind, I was perfectly comfortable relaxing there at the summit sign.

The Summit of Mount Washington!

  • Duration: 12:40pm – 1:20 pm (30 minutes)
  • Official Summit Conditions @ 12:47 pm:
    • Temperature: -0F
    • Winds: W 35 mph
    • Wind chill: -27F
    • Visibility: 100 miles
  • Number of people at the summit between 12:40 and 1:20 pm: ~10-15

I sat at the summit for a while soaking in the view and trying to coax my electronics into working again… It’d be nice to get one or two photos! I had the summit to myself for the first five minutes or so, but before long there was a steady stream of people coming up to summit, snapping quick pictures and heading off in search of some shelter from the wind… It was kind of fun watching them scurry around the summit buildings trying to find windows or door jams to crouch in, desperately hoping to find some shelter from the wind… There was none.

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After snapping a few pictures for other folks I pulled my cell phone out and managed to get another photo or two before it turned itself off… Fivish minutes of warm pocket time meant two pictures… This called for strategic picture taking… If I played my cards right, I might be able to get a picture of me at the summit itself! I set my camera warming in my pants pocket again and waited for the next group… I didn’t have to wait long before the next group of guys came up from the Lions Head (there was a steady stream of guys coming up from the Lions Head Trail) and I was able to get them to take a photo for me!

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I was reluctant to leave the summit because it was so beautiful up there, but what goes up must come down… Besides, I wanted to get back to Lakes of the Clouds before the winds picked up too much!

The Descent

  • Crawford Path to Ammonoosuk ~ 4.6 miles
  • Duration: 1:10 pm – 4:30 pm (3:20) including 30 minute break at Lakes.

With winds gusting to almost 40 mph, I definitely needed to use my goggles and a face mask as I descended down towards Lakes. By the time I got to the lower sections, however, the winds weren’t too bad (~20 mph). I took my time as I descended, enjoying the expansive views of the valley with both the northern and southern presidentials stretching out before me… It was amazing! If my electronics had been happier, I’d have taken hundreds of pictures and gone even slower,  but they continued to rebel against the cold. I only managed to get one or two photos every five minutes or so from the summit until I returned to the car.

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For the last snow field before Lakes of the Clouds I decided to pull out my ice axe… the footing was easy and good, but I I was getting tired and there was enough exposure that if I fell I’d go for more of a slide than I wanted to. Per usual, I crossed it with no problem and didn’t really need the ice axe. I was relaxing at Lakes of the Clouds and eating my next enforced meal before I knew it! I still wasn’t hungry, but on winter hikes I schedule food breaks where I force myself to stop, take a break, and eat because I know that I need the calories!

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Though glissading all the way from Lakes of the Clouds to the parking lot seemed like it was the way to go, I decided to hike it instead. I try to be more cautious when I’m hiking solo, and I know that glissading has a higher risk of injury than hiking…. Having done accidental glissades on similar slopes, and knowing that I was tired, I decided to keep my ice axe out just in case (especially since I still had my crampons on… stopping a glissade with crampons is a great way to break a leg).

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For the most part it was a long, beautiful, snowy, uneventful descent… I postholed once or twice, but not enough to make the snowshoes seem worthwhile, so I stuck with the crampons…

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It wasn’t until I was about 0.5 miles from the parking lot that things suddenly got exciting. I was just traipsing down the relatively flat trail as it followed along the Ammonoosuk River when suddenly my right leg went out from under me, postholing through the snow and then sliding down a steep embankment, my left leg quickly following behind it.

“Holy sh**!” I hadn’t left the trail, but the trail had left me! Before I knew what was happening my ice axe was buried to it’s hilt in the snow and my face was at eye level with the trail. I had reflexively plunged my ice axe into the snowy bank creating an impressively, awesomely stable anchor, and now there was nothing keeping me from tumbling 6-10 ft down into the Ammonoosuk (and getting sopping wet) except for my trusty ice axe… I looked at it, surprised (and very pleased) by its sudden usefulness as I pulled myself back up and onto the trail with its aid.

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The terrain was flat, easy, and had seemed very stable… Normally, I would have long since put my ice axe away in favor of my trekking poles, but I’d been feeling lazy… to lazy to take the time to stop and put it away… I looked back at the river… Though the tumble wouldn’t have killed me, the surprise icy plunge would have been incredibly unpleasant, and the 0.5 miles back to the car would be a really nasty hike if you were sopping wet after a full day out in the cold and with temperatures well below freezing! Yup, I was suddenly very fond of my ice axe indeed!

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When I finally made it back to the car I was both happy and exhausted… The sun was low in the sky, the afternoon was warmish (18F), and the skies were still perfectly clear. My hike up Mt. Washington had been everything I’d hoped for and more… I hesitated, standing there beside my car… I didn’t want the day to be over… I didn’t want my amazing hike to be over… I wanted to stay outside in the sun, enjoying the amazingly clear and beautiful afternoon… I have to admit, I didn’t hesitate for too long though… A nice warm car, a hot meal, and a soft bed sounded awfully nice!

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Official Summit Weather Summary for February 28, 2015

  • Temperature: 4F to -11F, avg. -3F
  • Precipitation: 0.00
  • Summit snow depth: 14 inches
  • Wind: avg. 30.8 mph, 46 mph gusts, 310 NW
  • Total sunshine: 680 minutes, 100% of possible minutes

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P.S. Know before you go!!! Mount Washington is known for having some of the worst weather in the world… Weather in the mountains (especially on Mt. Washington) can change quickly and with deadly consequence… In preparing for my trip I frequently checked weather conditions and trip reports and had an exit strategy (or two or three) at all times. These are some of the online resources that I found most helpful:

Thru-hike Trekking Pole Review: Leki Carbon Titaniums

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Trekking poles have been an indispensable part of my hiking and backpacking gear for over a decade, so when I set off to hike the Appalachian Trail (2013), and then the Pacific Crest Trail (2014) there was never a question… I was going to bring trekking poles with me. I chose the Leki Carbon Titaniums for my adventures:

  • Purchased: Fall 2012
  • Weight: 16.6 oz/pair
  • Length: 62-135 cm
  • MSR: $199.95

I started using the Leki Carbon Ti trekking poles in the fall of 2012 and I am still using them today (two thru-hikes and ~5000 miles later).

  • Functionality (10/10): I use my trekking poles for additional stability (I have a history of spraining my ankles without them) and to reduce the stress on my knees (especially going downhill). During the last 2 years (and ~5000 miles of backpacking through some of the most rugged terrain in the United States) my knees and ankles have remained sprain free! I love my trekking poles and found them to be incredibly useful during both of my thru-hikes… especially in rocky, sandy, and snowy terrain.
  • Fitness (9/10): Most people lose upper body strength during their thru-hikes, but I rely so heavily on my trekking poles that I actually gained upper body strength! I use my trekking poles for more than just passive stabilization, I use them to actively propel myself forward (similar to the way cross-country skiers use their poles), which engages the muscles of my upper body and turns hiking/backpacking into a full-body workout.
  • Comfort (8/10): The grips are comfortable and the adjustable height allows me to set my poles to the length that works best for me (I’m 5’10, have a 35 inch inseam, and have had trouble finding fixed length poles that were long enough for me in the past). During thru-hikes I build up callouses on my palms from heavy trekking pole use, but the poles remain comfortable even in hot, sweaty weather.
    • Note: I get rashes on my hands when I use poles with cork handles, so I stay away from the cork handles!
  • Locking Mechanism (8/10): The clip locks are much easier to deal with, and more convenient than the older twist-style locking mechanisms. I usually use my poles at a fixed length and only collapse them to their minimum size for transportation in cars or when I’m in town (even fully collapsed I wish they were shorter and more stowable than they are). The only time I intentionally adjusted the length of my poles was on the steep, snowy slopes of the High Sierra when I wasn’t using my ice axe. For the most part I didn’t have any trouble with the locks loosening as I hiked, but during the the last ~500 miles of the PCT (after ~4000 miles of use) the lower locks seemed to loosen occasionally. Even then I only needed to re-tighten them once or twice.
    • Pro-tip: Carry a quarter or a dime in your repair/emergency kit so that you can tighten the locks if they loosen over time. It’s much easier/better to mechanically tighten them with a coin than to do it by hand.
    • Pro-tip: When traversing steep snowfields you can shorten the up-slope pole and use both poles in the snow if you don’t have an ice axe or for some reason don’t think an ice axe is necessary.
    • Pro-tip: Your ice axe is only useful if you have it out! When in doubt, take it out!!! Trekking poles are not good ice axe replacements… Having attempted to self-arrest with a trekking pole I can strongly recommend against it (1/10)… Know when to use your ice axe, know how to use it, and take it out of your pack before you need it. Repeat after me, “When in doubt, take it out!!!”

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  • Durability (8/10): I am not gentle with my gear, and that is certainly true when it comes to my trekking poles. I have used my Leki Crabon Ti trekking poles on every hike and backpacking trip that I’ve been on since I purchased them in the fall of 2012 and have been impressed with their overall ruggedness and durability.

Even though I love my trekking poles, over the course of ~5000 miles of use they’ve accumulated some damage…

  • Repairs:
    • Carbon Fiber Shaft (8/10): I didn’t have any trouble with the poles during the ~2200 miles of my 2013 AT thru-hike. However, crossing through the High Sierras (PCT 2014) the middle section of one of my trekking poles sheered in half! I was able to remove that section and fully extend and lock together the remaining sections for a mostly functional pole until Leki sent me a replacement section (no questions asked) in my next mail drop.
      • Leki offers a 1 year warranty on carbon fiber pole segments.
      • Pro tip: Call Leki directly… I had hoped that the folks at Mammoth Mountaineering (4/10) in Mammoth Lakes would help me out, but they don’t help thru-hikers with warranty issues of any kind (I was hoping for Leki and Big Agnes help at the time).pole
    • Carbide Tips (6/10): They are reasonably durable, but replacing them is a challenge. It is hard (as in nearly impossible) to remove the old, overused tips to install the new tips.
      • The original pair of carbide tips saw me through the entire AT (~2200 miles) and the first section of the PCT (from Campo to Idyllwild, CA).
      • I purchased a new pair of tips at Nomad Ventures (10/10), but the old tips were so impacted that I couldn’t remove them. I ended up enlisting the aid of the store owner, a table vice, and some pliers before we finally managed to get them off…
      • The second pair was worn out by the time I got to Ashland, OR. Once again, I needed to enlist a store employee to remove the old tips, which he wasn’t able to do successfully (even using the appropriate tools), so he just fitted the new tips over them.
      • Carbide tips are not covered by Leki’s warranty and they told me on the phone that they expect each pair of tips to last about 500 miles though they were reluctant to give an exact mileage or duration.
      • If I was in the R&D department at Leki I would put a thin silicone or rubber coating over the carbide tips to reduce the noise of the poles on rocky surfaces… Wildlife and other hikers can hear you coming from a mile away as you click across the rocks with your trekking poles.
      • Pro-tip: If you want to see more bears, put your trekking poles away :-P
    • Wrist Strap (8/10): After more than 3000 miles of use, one of the wrist straps broke. The people at the Ashland Outdoor Store (10/10) replaced the wrist strap for me with one they had lying around.
      • If I was in the R&D department at Leki I would add a quick release to the wrist straps. I like hiking with the straps, and it helps make sure I don’t accidentally lose them down steep slopes, but the physics involved in some falls (especially on slippery, muddy down-slopes) mean having your wrists locked into the straps in a way that may contribute to severe wrist injuries or stress fractures (see below).20140507-223445.jpg
  • Injuries:

Despite the damages, I would give the Leki Carbon Titanium trekking polls a very good overall rating (8/10) and would recommend them to other hikers, backpackers, and thru-hikers. If I were to purchase new trekking poles I would get these unless I found something just as rugged and durable, but lighter weight, and with a more packable profile. Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts, questions, and/or trekking pole experiences!

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Even after two thru-hikes and ~5000 miles of heavy use my leki carbon ti trekking poles are my constant companions! (McAffee Knob, VA – AT section hike fall 2014).

 

 

The Gear That Got Me Thru (PCT Gear List)

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As I tracked down the gear that I actually carried on the PCT to weigh it and write up my final gear list, I tallied up the number of miles I’d carried each item with me… The miles added up quickly… in the last two years I’ve hiked ~5000 miles (AT 2013, PCT 2014 et al.) and some of my gear has been with me that entire time!!!

As my gear list grew, however, I noticed another thing that was quickly adding up… the weight of my pack! My pack was on the heavy side. When I was backpacking on the AT in the early 1990’s carrying a heavy pack was something that people boasted about; it was a point of pride. Back then my pack was lighter than most of my peers, and people gave me sh** about it because a lighter pack meant that I wasn’t working as hard as they were. Since the ’90s, however, there’s been a cultural revolution in the world of backpacking, and the lightest packs are now the packs that people admire and boast about…

“With a pack that small you’ve gotta be ultralight… You must be a PCT thru-hiker!” exclaimed a southbound John Muir Trail (JMT) hiker admiringly.

“Me? Ultralight? I’m a thru-hiker, but I’m definitely not ultralight,” I laughed. Many of the PCT thru-hikers I knew were striving to be ultralight (they’d reduced their packs to a minimum and they used all of the latest, greatest, lightweight gear), but I wasn’t one of them. On the contrary, I had gotten so used to being razzed about my ‘big’ pack that after ~1000 miles of hiking amongst fellow PCT thru-hikers I’d embraced the idea that my pack was ‘big,’ which is why I was surprised when the JMT hiker commented on the petite size of my pack… I was also surprised that he’d picked me out as a PCT thru-hiker since I was on the JMT (headed to Half Dome and Yosemite Valley) and not the PCT at the time. He was partly right though, compared to the JMT hikers I’d seen, my pack was small.

“Not ultralight?!” he re-iterated with surprise as he shifted his 60+ lb pack around uncomfortably. He eyed my pack, which weighed ~30 lbs less than his, suspiciously. “Nope,” I assured him, “not ultralight.” In the High Sierra I had all of my heaviest gear, but even in the desert when my pack had been at its lightest, with a base weight (the weight of my pack and everything in it except for food and water) of ~17 lbs, my pack was ‘light’ (< 20 lbs) and not ‘ultralight’ (< 10 lbs). “Well,” I conceded, “I have a lot of lightweight gear, and I try lighten my load when I can, but I don’t want to be ultralight. People that are ultralight tend to have different goals than I do… they are usually trying to cover as many miles as they can, as quickly as they can. Me? I’m on Vacation! My goal is to take my time, to relax, and to enjoy my PCT thru-hike… To that end: I started almost a month early, I carry ‘luxury’ items (like my Patches, my camp shoes, and my camera), I go sightseeing, I take a lot of photos, and I hike a lot of side trails… It’s a different backpacking philosophy.”

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As I tallied up the weight of my ‘luxury’ items for my gear list, it was clear that I wouldn’t be winning any ‘ultralight’ backpacking awards. On the trail, people frequently talked about their base weight… bandying around numbers between 12 and 15 pounds, but my cold weather base weight for the North Cascades was going to a lot higher than that… closer to 23 lbs… I carefully scrutinized my gear… I’d love to have a lighter pack, but what was I willing to sacrifice to get there? There were a lot of painless upgrades (except in terms of $$) and small sacrifices that I could (and would) gladly make to decrease my base weight in the future… Changes that would drop my cold weather base weight (to <20 lbs), but that wouldn’t alter the vacation-like nature of my thru-hike.

But what about my camera? That was my biggest luxury item, weighing in at ~ 2 lbs. If I were to do another solo PCT thru-hike would I leave my camera behind? No. Would I be willing to trade it for a point and shoot? No. I loved standing alone in the middle of the trail with my camera capturing bits and pieces of its ephemeral beauty as I hiked… My camera gave me an excuse to linger and interact with the beauty of the trail and its inhabitants… It enhanced my appreciation of my hike, and it was worth it… It was worth the weight… all two pounds of it…

Throughout my 2013 AT thru-hike and my 2014 PCT thru-hike, my gear was constantly evolving as I tried to maximize my enjoyment of the trail and minimize my pack weight. So, what did I have in my pack at the end of the PCT? Was any of it the same as what I started with at the beginning of my 2013 thru-hike? How many miles did my gear last? If I were to do the PCT again, which gear would I change/upgrade? What follows is the answer to these questions and a bit of gear geekery: first my comments on the gear that’s gotten me through between 1000 and 5000 miles of thru-hiking, then a detailed list of all of the gear I carried on my PCT thru-hike and the upgrades that I would make.

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5000 mile club: This is the gear that I carried from start to finish on both my AT and PCT thru-hikes!

  • Patches (3.8 oz.)
    • My patches are the source of my trail name and are full of memories of the people I’ve known and the places I’ve been… I’ve had them for over a decade.
  • Tent (9/10): Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 Tent (1 lb, 15 oz.)
    • I purchased the Fly Creek UL2 in 2013 for my AT thru-hike. I loved the UL2
    • After  ~3000 miles of use, the zipper on the body of my tent ran off of it’s track. I called Big Agnes from Mammoth Lakes (mile 907) and they sent me a replacement tent body in my next mail drop. Check out the full tent review that I did after the AT! The tent fly and stakes are still the originals I started out with in GA.
    • Upgrade: Z Packs Splash Bivy (6.4 oz., $225) with the Hexamid Solo-Plus Tarp w/ beak (7.4 oz, $280). Even though I loved the UL2, I would consider switching to a bivy/tarp setup. I discovered the joy of cowboy camping on the PCT, and cowboy camped whenever I could. This meant that I didn’t use my tent as often on the PCT as I had on the AT, and switching to the lighter weight bivy/tarp combination might better suit my PCT/CDT needs in the future.
  • Spork (10/10): Sea to Summit Titanium Folding Spork (0.8 oz.)
  • Synthetic Insulated Jacket (9/10): MontBel Thermawrap Sports Jacket (10.2 oz.)
    • I love this jacket as a good basic layer that will keep me warm even when wet.
    • Upgrade: If I had it to do over again, I’d switch to the version without pockets to save 1.8 oz: Montbel UL Thermawrap Jacket (8.4 oz., $145).
  • Gloves (8/10): Manzella wind stop gloves (1.4 oz.)
    • The gloves were great, but sometimes I wished I had something a little warmer and that I could leave on while using my phone.
    • Upgrade to: Brooks adapt gloves (2 oz., $20)
  • Headlamp (10/10): Princeton Tec Byte (2.4 oz.)
    • I ended up changing the batteries about once a month.
  • Trowel (9/10): REI Snow Stake (1 oz).
    • My 9.6 inch long snow stake worked as well as any camp trowel I’ve used for digging cat holes.
  • Camera (10/10): Sony NEX-5N (1 lb, 15.8 oz including all lenses, cables, batteries, and chargers)
  • Trekking Poles (9/10): Leki Carbon Titanium Trekking Poles (16.7 oz.)
    • I love hiking with trekking poles… The middle segment of one of the poles sheared as I was coming down Glen Pass in the High Sierra, I called Leki from Mammoth Lakes and they mailed a replacement to Tuolumme Meadows for me.
    • The original trekking pole tips got me from GA to ME, and then from the Mexican Border to Idyllwild. A second pair of tips got me from Idyllwild, CA to Ashland, OR. I’m on the third pair now (I was told to expect ~500 miles per $20 pair of tips).

4000+ mile club:

  • Sleeping Pad (10/10): Thermarest NeoAir Women’s Xlite (12 oz.)
    • ~4400 miles: PCT Thru + 1700 AT miles. It’s made it through with no leaks so far! Blowing it up is currently my least favorite camp chore though.
  • Sleeping bag liner (10/10): Western Mountaineering Whisper (4 oz.)
    • ~4400 miles: PCT Thru + 1700 AT miles. I used my sleeping bag liner as a sheet on hot nights. I also slipped my sleeping pad into it whenever I was cowboy camping (PCT) or sleeping in a shelter (AT) to protect it.
    • Upgrade: If I get the ZPacks bivy I will eliminate my sleeping bag liner.

3000+ mile club:

  • Hydration reservoir (10/10): Hydrapak 3L Hydration System (6.9 oz).
    • ~ 3750 miles: PCT Thru & ½ AT. I borrowed it from my mom when she visited me on the AT in Virginia… I wonder if she wants it back now?
  • Knife (10/10): Randall (10.4 oz. with sheath)
    • ~3750 miles: PCT thru & 1/2 AT. I love having my Randall at my hip. I started the AT with a couple of small, ultralite blades, but I got tired of every single person I met asking me if I was armed. After I started carrying the Randall on my belt people stopped asking me if I was armed. Mission accomplished.
  • Emergency beacon (9/10): Spot Locator Beacon (4.4 oz)
    • ~3700 miles: PCT Thru & ~1000 AT miles. As a solo backpacker, I try not to leave home without it.
  • Synthetic Insulated Pants (9/10): Backpacking Light Pertex Insulated Pants (11.8 oz)
    • ~3000 miles: PCT Thru and ~600AT miles. I’ve had these pants since my Kilimanjaro ascent in 2010… they double as my hiking pillow.
    • Upgrading to the newer version would save 3.5 oz.: Montbel U.L. Thermwrap pants (8.3 oz., $145).

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2000+ mile club:

  • Sleeping bag (10/10): Marmot Lithium Zero Degree Bag (2 lb, 15 oz.)
  • Ground cloth (10/10): Tyvek Sheet (5 oz.)
    • 2665 PCT thru: I absolutely loved cowboy camping on my ground cloth. I also kept the ground cloth handy to sit on during breaks during the day… (If I upgrade to a bivy/tarp combination I would leave out the tyvek sheet).
  • Cook Stove (8/10): Jetboil Sol Titanium (8.5 oz.)
    • ~2665 PCT thru! The only trouble I had with it was that the piezo-starter was unreliable.
  • Raincoat (2/10): Outdoor Research Helium II (6.2 oz.)
    • ~2665 PCT thru: I had a Helium II for the ~2200 miles of the AT, but it wasn’t waterproof so I returned it. They sent me a new one for the PCT, but it wasn’t waterproof either!
    • Upgrade: The ZPacks  Challenger Rain Jacket Large (5.8 oz., $260)
  • External battery (8/10): Anker Astro E5 15000 mAh (11.8 oz with cable)
    • ~2665 miles: PCT thru. It worked great, but it was more than I needed
    • Upgrade to the Anker 2nd Gen Astro E3 10000mAh (8.1 oz).
  • Camp shoes (9/10): New Balance Minimus (9.2 oz)
    • ~2665 miles: PCT thru. I used them for river crossing, and around camp every night.
  • Sun hat (10/10): MontBel Stainless Mesh Desert hat (1.4 oz.)
    • Mt. Laguna to Canada

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1000+ mile club:

  • Backpack (8/10): Osprey Exos 58 Backpack (2 lbs, 8 oz.)
    • ~1700 PCT miles. I used an Osprey Exos 58 on the AT and loved it to pieces, so Osprey replaced it and I started the PCT with a brand new Exos 58. At Kennedy Meadows, I switched to the ULA Catalyst (2 lbs, rating: 4/10) because my bear canister (required for the High Sierras) didn’t fit into the Exos very well. I told myself that I wasn’t allowed to hate the Catalyst until I’d hiked at least 100 miles in it. After hiking ~900 miles in it I was still grumbling, so I switched back to my beloved Exos. My dream pack upgrade would be to a 62L Arc Blast from Z-Packs (1 lb, 4 oz., $320) with a custom torso length (my torso is short: 15.5 inches).
  • Rain Pants (8/10): Go-lite rain pants (5.6 oz.)
    • ~1000 PCT miles: I’ve had them for about 10 years, but they need to be replaced now.
    • Upgrade: ZPacks Challenger Rain Pants (3.8 oz., $165).

****

When I finished my PCT thru-hike in the North Cascades, Washington I was carrying most of my cold weather gear and the total base weight for my pack (everything except the loophole weight*, food, and water) was 23.4 lbs. If money were no object, and I could convince myself to leave my ‘good’ camera behind, I would spend $1529 and make all of the upgrades I list above (and in my detailed gear list below), and I’d drop my cold weather base weight down to 16 lbs… But who am I kidding? I wouldn’t leave the camera behind…

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***

Detailed PCT Gear List:

The Big Three (8 lbs, 11 oz):

Cook System (1 lb, 3.5 oz.):

  • Jetboil Sol Titanium (8.5 oz.)
  • Sea to Summit Titanium Folding Spork (0.8 oz.)
  • Mini Bic Lighter (~1 oz, I used 3 on the PCT)
  • Fuel canister (11.8 oz): I cooked 1 hot meal a day and a canister would last me ~3 weeks.

Wearables:

  • Outerwear (2 lb, 4.6 oz.):
    • Raincoat: Outdoor Research Helium II (6.2 oz.)
    • Rain Pants: Go-lite rain pants (5.6 oz.)
      • Upgrade: ZPacks Challenger Rain Pants (3.8 oz., $165).
    • Waterproof gloves: 1 pair vinyl gloves (0.2 oz.)
      • Upgrade? ZPacks™  Challenger Rain Mitts (1 oz., $65)
    • Synthetic Insulated Jacket: MontBel Thermawrap Sports Jacket (10.2 oz.)
    • Synthetic Insulated Pants: Backpacking Light Pertex Insulated Pants (11.8 oz)
      • Upgrade: Montbel U.L. Thermwrap pants (8.3 oz., $145).
    • Rock On Fleece hat (1.4 oz)
    • Manzella wind stop gloves (1.4 oz.)
      • Upgrade: Brooks adapt gloves (2 oz., $20)
  • Camp shoes: New Balance Minimus (9.2 oz) – luxury item
  • Clothing (1 lb, 8.6 oz.):
    • 2 – Ex Officio underwear (2 oz., 1 oz/pair)
    • 2 – Wright Sock Cool Mesh II (3.2 oz., 1.6 oz/pair)
    • Mountain Hardware Hiking Pants (10.4 oz.)
      • Upgrade: Montane Featherweight Wind Pants (3.8oz., $84.95) or Montbel Dynamo Wind Pants (2.6 oz, $69). This is the first pack upgrade that I would make!
    • Women’s Capilene 1 Silkweight Bottoms (5.2 oz.): Pajamas
    • Women’s Capilene 1 Silkweight Long-Sleeve Crew (3.8 oz.): Pajamas

Technology (4 lbs, 10.2 oz):

  • Headlamp: Princeton Tec Byte (2.4 oz.)
    • lighter weight headlamps are an option.
  • Verizon iPhone 5 ( 7.8 oz. with cable and charger)
    • 679 miles: Bend, OR to Canada. My iPhone 4 made it ~4000 miles, through most of the AT and the PCT, before it decided it had had enough rough treatment and took a forbidden swim in Obsidian Creek.
  • Sony NEX-5N (1 lb, 15.8 oz including all lenses, cables, batteries, and chargers) – luxury item
  • External battery: Anker Astro E5 15000 mAh (11.8 oz with cable) – luxury item
  • Spot Locator Beacon ( 4.4 oz)

Extreme Weather Gear:

  • Desert (8 oz.):
    • Chrome Dome (8 oz.): 942.5 miles, I shipped it home with my ice axe. – luxury item
  • High Sierra (5 lbs, 4.8 oz): I wrote a review of my high sierra gear from the trail
    • BV500 Bear Vault (2lbs, 9 oz.): 318.5 miles, Kennedy Meadows South to Kennedy Meadows North
    • Kahtoola Microspikes (13.6 oz.): 318.5 miles, Kennedy Meadows South to Kennedy Meadows North
    • Hanz Waterproof Calf – Length Socks (3.2 oz.): 318.5 miles, Lone Pine to Kennedy Meadows North
    • CAMP Corsa Ice Axe (7.2 oz.): 290 miles, Lone Pine to Tuolumme Meadows
    • Montbel Plasma 1000 Down Jacket (4.8 oz.): 318.5 miles, Kennedy Meadows South to Kennedy Meadows North
      • Upgrade? Montbel XLite Down Anarak (6.2 oz., $219)
    • Sunglasses (?): Necessary in the High Sierra. I went through ~3pair on the PCT because I kept losting them. I’d put them on my hat, forget about them, and then, at some point, I’d take off the hat and I wouldn’t notice that the sunglasses had gone flying until the next time I wanted to use them… I didn’t use any sunglasses in Oregon or Washington.

Health & Hygiene:

  • Water (11.7 oz.):
    • Aquamira (2 oz.). ~5 aquamira kits for total PCT thru.
    • Sawyer Squeeze Mini (2 oz.).
    • Hydrapak 3L Hydration System (6.9 oz).
    • 3 – 1L Water bladders (0.8 oz. each). 6L capacity thru the desert, dropped to five later
  • Trowel: REI Snow Stake (1 oz).
  • First Aid kit (1 lb, 2.4 oz.):
    • includes emergency asthma medications, sunscreen, compass, bear bag rope, 2 epi-pens, 2 spare AAA batteries etc (Most people can drop this down to < 6 oz.).
  • Daily med kit (1 lb, 1.4 oz.):
    • includes one month of daily prescription medications, inhalers, contacts, toothbrush, toothpaste etc. (Most people can drop this down to < 4 oz.)
  • DEET & Headnet (~2 oz.):
    • Critically important during bug season in the High Sierra! Pick them up in Kennedy Meadows if you don’t have them before.

Loophole Weight (3 lbs, 6.6 oz.): *The stuff that didn’t go into my pack (or on it), and isn’t included in the base weight of my pack.

  • Daily Clothing (1 lb, 1.6 oz):
    • MontBel Stainless Mesh Desert hat (1.4 oz.)
    • Long-sleeve yellow Saucony shirt (4.8 oz.)
    • Rab t-shirt (2.4 oz.)
    • Arc Teryx hiking skirt (4.4 oz.)
    • Ex Officio sports bra (1.8 oz.) – doubled as bathing suit top.
    • Ex Officio underwear (1 oz.)
    • Wright Sock Cool Mesh II (1.6 oz.)
  • Shoes: Altra Lone Peak 1.5 ( 9.9 oz.). 4 pair of shoes total for PCT:
    • Altra ~850 miles. Truckee, CA – Bend, OR
    • Altra ~600 miles. Bend, Or to Canada
    • Check out my AT shoe review and my thoughts on shoes from the PCT!
    • Other  PCT Shoes:
      • Merril Moab Ventilator’s (1 lb, 8 oz.): ~700 miles, Campo – Kennedy Meadows, CA
      • Oboz Traverse Low (16.6 oz.). ~450 miles, Kennedy Meadows – Truckee, CA
  • Randall Knife (10.4 oz. with sheath) – luxury item
  • Leki Carbon Titanium Trekking Poles (16.7 oz.)

Questions about my PCT gear? Leave a comment below. I’m hoping to write full gear reviews for some of the things I carried in the upcoming weeks.

Thru-hikers: What was your favorite luxury item on the trail?

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