Soldierstone (CDT Day 48)

Soldierstone (CDT Day 48)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi Dad, I love you!”

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


 

Notes:

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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

Clomp, clomp, clomp

The elk run down the hill

Clomp, clomp, clomp

I hear them still

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You gotta keep ’em separated

Yeah, yeah my toes are fine.

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

Yeah, yeah my toes are fine!

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

CDT Days 5-9: Rocking it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CDT Days 2-4: There is no trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CDT Day 1: The Divide

CDT Day 1: The Divide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh oh oh oh oh, oh oh oh oh

Out in the desert, I’m hot stuff.

Out in the desert, having some fun

As long as the sun is shining,

I’m hot stuff.

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

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

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

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

Crossing Streams in the Andes

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

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

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

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

Don't Fall In!

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

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

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

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

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

Desolation Wilderness

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

Knee Deep in Raw Water

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

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

CDC_table

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

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

Stream or Trail?

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

Raw Water on the Appalachian Trail

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

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

Raw Water in Iceland

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

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

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

Beaver Activity in the 100 Mile Wilderness

7 Questions to Ask Before Drinking Raw Water

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

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

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

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


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Related Posts I’ve Written:

Links to Additional Information About Giardia:

6 Shiny Things for Winter Adventurers

6 Shiny Things for Winter Adventurers

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

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

1. 1000 Lumen Nitecore HC60 Headlamp

Winter Nighthiking

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

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

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

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

2. “On Trails” by Robert Moore 📖

On Trails by Robert Moore

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

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

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

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

3. Choucas Glide Hat 🎩

Choucas Hat

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

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

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

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

4. Thermarest Z Seat with ThermaCapture 🏕

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

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

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

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

5. Rain-X Water Repellent 💦

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

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

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

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

6. Kahtoola Microspikes 👣

DSC03780

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

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

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

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

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


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

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:

Winter Backpacking Gear: Light Weight Gear for Temperatures < 32F/0C

IMG_7719

The  extreme air temperatures on the summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire can range from the 40°s (F) to the -40°s (F) during the winter months.

Before I delve into the details of my winter backpacking gearlist, I want to start by defining ‘winter backpacking’. Although most people define winter backpacking as backpacking between the first day of winter and the first day of spring (eg,  December 21 to March 20), the definition of winter backpacking that I use to guide my gear decisions is more accurately reflected by the lowest temperatures (as well as snow/ice conditions) that I am expecting to encounter on my backpacking trip. The rough definitions of backpacking seasons that I use are:

  • Summer Backpacking (lows ≥ 45°F)
  • 3-Season Backpacking (lows: 30°F to 45°F)
  • Shoulder-Season Backpacking (lows: 20°F to 30°F)
  • Winter Backpacking (lows: 0°F  to 20°F)
  • Expedition Backpacking (lows: -40°F to 0°F)
    • Winter Alpine Backpacking (lows: -20°F to 0°F)
    • Extreme Cold Backpacking (lows: -40°F to -20°F)
  • Arctic Backpacking (lows ≤ -40°F)

In this post I’m going to describe the gear that I use for ‘winter’ and ‘expedition’ backpacking (primarily) in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

If you do a lot of hiking/backpacking in the White Mountains I highly recommend purchasing a 2017 New Hampshire Voluntary Hike Safe Card for $25; it helps cover the cost of search and rescue because sh** happens!

¡DISCLAIMER! The following descriptions of the way I use and/or am considering using gear are NOT indicative of safe or manufacturer approved uses; winter backpacking is inherently dangerous and you are responsible for any/all risks that you assume when heading into the backcountry.

Sleep System

My winter backpacking sleep system consists of my tent (Nallo 2), sleeping bag (Marmot Lithium 0° F ), sleeping pad (NeoAir XLite), an emergency bivvy, and an extra insulated foam pad. The combined weight of my winter sleep system is: 8 lbs 2 oz (3.7 kg).

Shelter/Tent:

  • ≥20°F: Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 ( 1 lb, 15 oz)
    • 3-Season Tent: acceptable for minimal snow load, can feel draft at temperatures below 30F due to large % of mesh
  • ≤20°F: Hilleberg Nallo 2 (4 lbs 7 oz/2.0 kg)
    • 4-Season Tent: Easy to pitch alone, and spacious for solo adventures. Cozy (but workable) for 2 people winter backpacking trips. I would opt for a larger tent for winter car camping trips.
  • Emergency Bivvy: SOL Emergency Bivvy (3.8 oz /107 g)
    • I bring an emergency bivvy on all winter hiking/backpacking trips, especially since they are cheap ($16.95), light, and warm, and the cold can kill you very quickly when the temperatures start dipping near (and especially below) zero.I’m considering the SOL thermal bivvy (8.9 oz) as a replacement for adventures in the extreme cold (≤ 0°F to -40° F).

Sleeping bag

  • ≥35°F: Marmot Hydrogen 30°F Bag (1 lb 7.3 oz)
  • ≥0°F: Marmot Lithium 0°F Bag ( 2lbs 9.5oz /1176g)
    • Temperature Rating (EN Rating)
      • Comfort (9°F / -12.8°C): the temperature at which a typical woman can sleep comfortably in a relaxed position
      • Lower Limit (-4.5°F /-20.8°C): the temperature at which a typical man can comfortable sleep curled up for 8 hrs
      • Extreme (-45.2°F /-42.9°C): the minimum temperature at which a typical woman can sleep for 6 hrs without dying from hypothermia
    • Comment: I love this sleeping bag. Even after ~3000 miles use (purchased in 2013) it is still cozy for me down to temperatures in the teens and single digits (°F); the EN comfort rating is consistent with my personal experience with the bag.
      • ≤10°F, I start getting cold and need to wear additional layers (eg jackets, slippers, insulating pants inside the sleeping bag). I’m considering purchasing a vapor barrier liner (VPL) for use inside my sleeping bag (eg. the Western Mountaineering HotSac Vapor Barrier Liner [4.5 oz])
  • ≤ 0°F to -40° F: Currently considering acquiring a -40° F sleeping bag

Sleeping pad

  • ≤ 0°F to -40°F: NeoAir® XLite XTherm (15 oz)
    • Thickness (2.5 inches/6.3 cm); Length (72 inches/183 cm)
    • R-Value (5.7)
    • Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm mattress R-value chart
    • This was a Christmas 2016 gift, that I’m looking forward to trying out!
  • NeoAir Mini Pump (weight: 2.3 oz / 65 g)
    • Comment: a worthwhile addition especially for winter backpacking so you don’t get moisture from breath freezing inside mattress

Backpack

For winter backpacking I need a larger pack to accommodate the extra weight and volume of my winter gear; I also want larger buckles so that I can take my backpack on and off without removing my gloves (NOTE: I keep an emergency knife attached to front of my pack so that if my hands no longer have the dexterity to unclip my pack I can cut the straps to gain access to the lifesaving gear I’m carrying).

  • ≥0°F: ULA Catalyst (3 lbs)
    • Total Volume: 4,600 cu in (~75 liters)
      • Total volume includes the volume of the side and mesh pockets
      • Internal volume: 2,600 cu it (~42 liters)
    • Recommended max load: 40 lbs
      • I’ve definitely stretched this to 45-50 lbs without any trouble
    • Pack Cover: Large Etowah Pack Cover (3.8 oz)
    • Comment: this pack works for me for winter, but is a bit small for extreme backpacking (the internal volume is low); the buckles are also too small for me to easily use when wearing bulky gloves or mittens
  •  ≤0°F: Wishlist? Hyperlite 4400 Ice Pack (2.56 lbs)
    • Load capacity: 30 to 65 lbs
    • Interior Volume: 4400 cu. in. (70L)
    • Waterproof

Specialized Snow/Ice Gear


For winter backpacking trips I usually carry light traction (ie microspikes), ultralight (UL) snow shoes, and my ice axe, for a combined weight of 3.7 lbs (1,677 grams). Although I always use trekking poles, I don’t count them towards my pack weight since they never end up in my pack (I’m going to continue claiming this loophole).

  • Light Traction: Kahtoola Microspikes (13.5 oz/ 383 grams)
    • Indispensable for winter hiking/backpacking; allow me to leave my crampons at home in most winter conditions. Crampons still required for anything that requires kicking steps or climbing ice flows at steeper grades.
  • Crampons: Grivel 12-Point Crampons (31.1 oz)
    • These crampons clip onto my mountaineering boots (C2)/plastic boots; I have been using them for over a decade and I still love them. In conditions where I’m need to kick steps, or will be traversing steep ice flows I bring my crampons instead of my microspikes
    • To review proper crampon use check out:
  • Gaitors: Men’s Crocodile Knee-high Goretex Gaitors (10.2 oz)
    • Comment: These gaitors are useful for keeping the snow out of my boots (keeping my feet dry), and are also critical when using crampons to help prevent accidentally shredding my waterproof pants/insulated pants
  • UL Snowshoes: Louis Garneau Women’s Transition Boa (2.4 lbs /1089 g)
    • Length: 23 inches long, 7 inches wide
    • Load: 100 to 220 lbs
    • Notes: I love these snowshoes, they are light and easy to to put on/take-off on the trail. For winter backpacking, as long as I remain below their max load, I enjoy them. They have 360 degree crampon traction, lightweight decking flexible to -40°F, awesome foot clasp system.
  •  Ice axe: CAMP Corsa (7.2 oz /205 grams)
    • Length: 70 cm
    • Uses: Probing terrain, self-arrest, snow anchor, chipping out ice/snow for water. It’s not as rugged as a heavier ice axe, but it works well for my needs.
    • Before taking your ice axe into the mountains make sure you know how to use it. The following links have some useful reminders for ice axe use:
  •  Trekking Poles: Leki Carbon Ti (14.9 oz/pair)
  •  Snow/Avalanche Shovel: Snow Claw Backcountry Shovel & Multi-tool (6 oz)
    • A lightweight, easy-to-pack snow shovel for clearing campsites and digging snow caves; I only bring it when I anticipate deep snow
  • Avalanche Safety Gear (Transceiver/Probe)
    • Always check with the local avalanche center (for the White Mountains in NH: The Mount Washington Avalanche Center) for snow conditions and warnings prior to winter treks, avoid avalanche prone areas, and carefully monitor snow conditions. Prior to venturing into avalanche terrain I’m considering purchasing:

Emergency Locator Devices

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  • Personal locator beacon (PLB): ACR ResQLink+
    • If I get lost or seriously injured I want to be found, so I carry this PLB. It doesn’t have lots of whiz-bangs of the satellite communicators, but the engineering is better, it doesn’t require the purchase of a contract, the battery life if guaranteed to last five years (not rechargeable), the power output of its frequency beacon is higher than any other backpacking locator device I’ve found, it broadcasts at multiple frequency, uses the government/military satellite systems, and is registered with NOAA.
  • Satellite communicator: Delorme InReach SE+
    • This device allows two-way satellite communication with family, friends, and rescue services. It also allows you to post/track your routes and location online; in addition to purchasing the device you must also purchase a service contract, and you need to be mindful of battery use (the more you use it for tracking/messenging, the less you’ll be able to use it for emergency rescue)
  • Map and Compass: Don’t leave home without them

Footwear


For winter backpacking, I always bring a pair of knee-high waterproof gaitors and a pair of ultralight down booties to use as camp camp shoes. I keep using my trail shoes (waterproof trail shoes, or a thru-hiker hack with waterproof socks) into the early winter backpacking season when snowshoeing or when minimal/light traction (microspikes) is required, but I’ve learned the hard way (multiple toenails sacrificed) that my trail shoes (eg, Altras, Oboz, and Merrell Moab’s) don’t have rigid enough soles for heavy microspike/crampon use, especially on uneven terrain. For colder, more rugged conditions I switch to my mountaineering boots, or the dreaded plastic boots.

  • Camp Shoes/Booties
    • ≤30°F: Western Mountaineering Flash Down Booties (3 oz/pair)
      • Comment: As somebody that frequently has cold feet, these down booties are one of my favorite pieces of winter UL gear; I’ve backpacked over 1000 miles with these booties, and can’t complain about their durability ;) They do have some drawbacks for winter use though: they’re not waterproof and they don’t have much traction. I’m considering purchasing:
  • Socks

Additional Personal Items

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  • Water
    • 32 oz Nalgene wide-mouth bottles (2)
      • CAUTION: Not all 32 oz wide mouth Nalgene’s are created equal!!! I will be replacing my old Lexan Nalgene’s (which may contain BPA) with the lightweight HDPE Nalgenes (3.75 oz) and NOT the new Tritan Nalgenes (6.25 oz) because the Tritan Nalgenes are not rated to handle boiling water and they are brittle in extreme cold. Detailed explanations of the plastics used for each of the Nalgenes is available online (click here for the pdf); below I’ve listed the max use temp (Max), the heat distortion temp (HDT), the brittleness temp (Low), the chemical resistance (CR), and the recycling symbol (♻) for bottle identification.
        • HDPE (high-density polyethylene) Nalgene:
          • Max (120°C), HDT (65°C), Low (-100°C); CR (g00d), ♻ 2
        • Lexan (PC-polycarbonate) Nalgene: 
          • Max (135°C), HDT (138°C), Low (-135°C), CR (minimal), ♻ 7
        • Tritan (PETG-polyethylene terephthalate glycol) Nalgene:
          • High (70°C), HDT (70°C), Low (-40°C), CR (minimal), ♻ 1
    • Insulated bottle holders (2): Outdoor Research Water Bottle Parka (~1 oz each)
    • Purification: Boiling
      • Caution: Water filters are typically ineffective if they’ve been frozen and chemical water treatment methods are highly depend on the temperature of the water being treated
  • Food: a subject of a post of its own
  • Cooking/Stove
    • ≥20°F:  Jetboil Sol Ti Cook System
      • Jetboil Sol Ti (8.5 oz)
      • Winter Blend Canister Fuel:
        • Winter canister fuels I’ve had good luck with (≥20°F):
          • MSR IsoPro Fuel Canister: 80/20 blend of isobutane/propane
          • Snow Peak GigaPower: 85/15 blend of isobutane/propane
            • lowest working temp according to manufacturer: 15°F
          • For winter use I keep my fuel canisters warm (sleep with them and/or put them in a pocket before use), shake them, and place them on a foam pad to isolate them from the ground.
        • NOTE: For canister fuels to function, the ambient temperature must be above the boiling temperature of the fuel mixture. Higher percentages of low boiling point fuels will lead to lower boiling point mixtures. For reference, canister fuels are a blend of:
          • isobutane (boiling point:11°F)
          • propane (boiling point: -44°F)
          • n-butane (boiling point: 31°F)
    • <20°F: Whisperlite (11.2 oz)
      • Titanium pot
      • Comment: a classic that I’ve had forever
    • Sea to Summit Titanium Folding Spork (0.8 oz.)
  • Fire Starters (cooking/emergency):
    • Emergency Stormproof Matches
      • Waterproof matches are notoriously hard to light; I’m considering upgrading my emergency matches to:Titan Stormproof Matches
    • ≥20°F: Mini Bic Lighter (~1 oz)
      • Bic pocket lighters use isobutane as fuel (boiling point:11°F), but I find that below 30°F they don’t keep a flame very long unless I’ve kept them warm in a pocket close to my body; their safety mechanisms and flicking mechanism are also challenging to use with gloves on, making them a poor choice for cold weather conditions
    •  <20°F: flint/steel fire-starter
  • Sun protection
    • Sunglasses/glacier glasses
    • Sunscreen
    • Lip balm containing sunscreen
  • Additional Emergency Gear
    • First-aid kit
      • Pills/Capsules:
        • aleve (6), tylenol (4), 12-hour sudafed (2),  Nyquil capsules (2), benadryl (4), 12-hour immodium (2), nuun electrolyte tablets (4)
      • Asthma/Allergy
        • Epi-pens (2), Inhaler
      • Wound management
        • Bandages: Duct tape, 2 gauze pads, 2 maxi pads, 6 steri-strips, 3 tega-derm dressings
        • Triple antibiotic ointment
        • Alcohol wipes
      • Survival
        • Length of Rope/cord
        • Matches/Mini-lighter/Flint&Steel fire starter as described above
        • Knife
      • Hand/Foot Warmers (2)
      • Water purification: Aqua Mira/Iodine Tabs
      • Additional items that described elsewhere that reside in my first aid kit include:
        • sunscreen, lip balm with sunscreen, compass, PLB, ultralight headlamp, emergency bivvy
  • Headlamp with spare batteries
    • All season: Petzl e+LITE (< 1 oz)
      • Spare batteries (2x CR2032 Lithium)
      • Max lumens: 26
      • Comments: It doesn’t through much light, but it’s more than enough to hike with and set up camp with. Down to temperatures in the teens it continues to perform well.
    • ≥20°F: Nitecore Headlamp Series HC60 (3.47 oz)
      • Battery (1 × 18650 lithium ion, micro-USB rechargeable)
      • Max lumens: 1000
      • Comments: This isn’t the lightest headlamp on the market, but it’s bright, its rechargeable, and it generates enough heat on its own that it seems to do better in harsh winter conditions than in summer conditions. I love this headlamp for winter backpacking/nighthiking; I wish that it had a red light mode, but otherwise I can’t complain about this headlamp
  • Hip pouch: to keep inhaler/cell phone etc close to body and warm
  • Bandana/hankerchief: the only cotton items I carry while backpacking

Clothing Layers

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If you have any questions about my gear choices, or if you have a favorite piece of winter gear that you think I should check out, please let me know in the comments below! If there’s sufficient interest in any particular gear item let me know, and I can work on writing up a more detailed review in a separate post.

Happy hiking!!

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A fellow winter hiker descending from Mt. Lafayette and enjoying a phenomenal January sunset in the White Mountains of NH


Additional Links

For other gearlists/reviews that I’ve published check out:

Links to other winter gearlists you might find interesting:

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Appalachian Trail selfie in low visibility conditions above treeline in the White Mountains in January (temp 5F, windchill -30F)