Monday, March 18, 2019

Redemption on the Ozark Highlands Trail


In March 2012, spring break of my junior year of college, a few friends and I decided to head to the Ozarks of northern Arkansas to do a little backpacking. We had taken our first backpacking trip a couple years before, and that trip had turned out to be a miserable failure - hypothermia, lost shoes, and deep snow, just to name a few travails. We had quit our planned route and had gone home early. This was our second trip. This trip was going to be different. This trip was going to be a success.

We were all still relatively green, but far better prepared than last time. We were enjoying it. We took our time, cooked breakfast and delicious dinners each day, and enjoyed wearing our short sleeves - a welcome reprieve from the eternal Michigan winter. Within the first two days, we had covered about 25 miles - almost half our planned distance.

PC: Jake Vriesema
And then it started to rain. And it kept raining. We were quickly soaked, miserable and, you guessed it, hypothermic. Most importantly, the creeks we had to cross quickly swelled and became perilous, raging torrents. The choice was clear. We bailed. Again.

That failure stung a little bit. I had gone backpacking twice, on both occasions defeated by a combination of bad weather and my own inexperience. Was I skilled enough, strong enough, tough enough to be a backpacker? Were my plans to hike the Appalachian Trail doomed to failure?

Over the years, I've revisited many of the locations of those early (2010-2012) backpacking trips. In 2010 I went to the Smokies as a rookie (the infamous lost-shoes trip), and returned to the area in 2013 as part of my Appalachian Trail hike. In the summer of 2012, I bagged Kings Peak and hit up the Tetons; in 2014, I returned, older and wiser, and did those areas justice.

But I'd never been back to the Ozarks. I'd never been back since rain and inexperience washed out my plans. So, with a couple of free weeks before starting this year's long hike, I decided to finally go back and do the Ozarks right. This time, I would hike the length of the Ozark Highlands Trail (165 miles). It was a fitting final stop to my road trip.

Outlaw Mode

The Challenges: It quickly became apparent, though, that I'd again have to contend with significant challenges on the OHT. A highly unseasonable cold snap hit on the day I started, and temperatures didn't rise above freezing until the fourth day. And once things warmed up, it started raining. In nine days, I think I had roughly six hours of pleasant weather. Everything else was either bitterly cold or rainy. 

The weather challenges served to magnify the difficulties posed by the terrain. While the entire OHT is fairly well-marked (about on par with the AT), I found the maintenance to be spotty at best. I found a lot of semi-overgrown, thorny trail and uncleared blowdowns. Perhaps it's better in a month or two, when the volunteers who maintain the trail have a chance to get out and do more work. But the most frustrating part was the rocks. The Ozarks are infamously rocky, and rocky trails covered with several inches of leaf detritus made every step an adventure - I couldn't see the rocks I was about to step on, making it impossible to plant my feet squarely. Progress was slow and frustrating at times. 


The Water: More than any other trail I've ever hiked, the Ozark Highlands Trail is defined by water. The Ozarks are more of a highlands-type area rather than a true "mountain" range in the classic sense of the word. And as such, they don't have one defined ridgeline or crest. In practical terms, that means that there's no such thing as "staying high". The trail repeatedly climbs up out of a creek's drainage, traverses some high terrain, and then drops back down to cross the next creek. These creeks are quite lovely for the most part, with bright blue or green water. I managed to gingerly hop across most creeks from stone to stone without getting my feet wet, but there were perhaps a half dozen unavoidable wet crossings. On one occasion, I had to swim. In addition to the creeks, I passed dozens of waterfalls on the OHT. The layered limestone geology of the area is conducive to the formation of waterfalls, especially given how wet the Ozarks are. Many of the waterfalls featured interesting ice formations, the result of all that cold weather. 


Redemption: When I hiked the Ozark Highlands Trail the first time, it was difficult. We experienced hardship. And we were not entirely prepared to deal with that level of hardship. The second time around, I expected that I would not face nearly as many hardships, a function of my experience and comfort in the outdoors. I was wrong. The Ozarks were once again wet, cold, rocky, and often unpleasant. Experience didn't eliminate the challenges. But it did equip me to better deal with those challenges. Last time, I quit on Day 3. This time, I made it. And, despite the challenges, I enjoyed it. Mission accomplished.



Saturday, February 23, 2019

Are We Approaching "Peak Route"?


Nobody remembers John O'Sullivan anymore. But we do remember that famous phrase he coined in an 1844 newspaper editorial - "Manifest Destiny". As you may remember from high school history class, Manifest Destiny was the idea that the United States had a sort of God-given national birthright: to expand from Atlantic to Pacific and, who knows, perhaps beyond. On some level, the causes of the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the the Indian Wars can all be traced back to the policies and attittudes of Manifest Destiny. 

This, the age of Manifest Destiny, was also the age of the Wild West. Scholars still debate exactly how "wild" the Wild West truly was, but that is not my concern here. In our collective imagination at least, the Wild West was a time of limitless possibilities, blank spaces on a map, land there for the taking. The untamed nature of the West offered many possibilities. Technology had improved - railroads, barbed wire, and better weapons had allowed settlers to cobble together a living in a place that was previously inaccessible or inhospitable. So to speak, the West had "opened" for settlement.


Before I lose too many more readers, let's tie this back to the outdoors. Like the West in the 1860's, backpackers finally have technology that allows us to go farther and explore previously inaccessible places. Of course, there are the obvious improvements in gear. New fabrics and designs mean that it's relatively easy to cobble together a backpacking setup that's lightweight and comfortable - a setup we could only dream about a few decades ago. But more importantly than gear, navigation technology has improved in leaps and bounds. The single most important backpacking development in the past decade, in my opinion, has been the proliferation of mapping software.

Consider, for a moment, a backpacking route I planned and hiked in 2016 in the Beartooth Range in Montana. In decades past, I probably wouldn't even know that the Beartooths existed. But if I did, and if I knew that they were an amazing backpacking destination, I still would have needed to purchase a dozen individual maps from the USGS, each costing around $10. And after planning my route, I still would wouldn't know if that off-trail pass is actually hikeable - or if that forest burned to a crisp last year. But with the recent rise in navigational technology, I could lay out my route on Caltopo, a free site. I could add an overlay to show recent burn areas. And I could browse a site like Peakbagger or Summitpost to see what established travel routes exist over that off-trail pass. Twenty years ago, planning my route would have been nigh-impossible. Now, it's a piece of cake. 


But although technology opens new frontiers, it closes them just as quickly. The very thing that those early settlers sought - abundant land, freedom from entrenched power structures, the opportunity for adventure, a fresh start - soon disappeared, as more people moved west, seeking those very things. For example, Kentucky was once the frontier, but after it was settled, pioneers moved ever farther west, trying to stay ahead of the creep of urbanization. And that tide didn't crest until nearly every square inch of arable land was tilled, grazed, or drilled. In 1860, only a hardy handful of white Americans lived between the Missouri River and the Sierra Nevada. By 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner had sufficient reason to plausibly declare that the frontier had been closed. Only three decades had elapsed.

The same thing is true in the backpacking world. The Appalachian Trail was once the common and the familiar - the "back east", both literally and figuratively. But then, as the AT increased in popularity, folks started hiking the PCT in greater numbers. And more of those PCT veterans started hiking the formerly wild-and-untamed CDT. And now that the CDT is becoming popular, hikers are turning in greater number to other routes - for example, the Hayduke Trail, the Sierra High Route, or the Grand Enchantment Trail. I hiked the Hayduke Trail in sections over the course of four years. And over the course of those years, I saw a surge in its popularity. In an era of tools that allow us to venture off the beaten path, those off-trail routes we create quickly become beaten paths themselves.

There are still many blank spaces on our collective long-distance hiking map. There are no established long-distance routes through many unique and spectacular US landscapes. But it's just a matter of time before we collectively fill them in.

Some energy-industry analysts believe that we are approaching (or have reached) "peak oil" - a time period when technology allows us to drill for petroleum with ever-increasing efficiency, but there are still plenty of available reserves left to drill without an overwhelming amount of effort. Similarly, I believe we're at "peak route" in the backpacking world. The technology is there. The access and the information is there. There's still exploring left to be done. But this age won't last forever.


So then, how then shall we live? Why is it important to recognize this particular moment in time, this transition period between the supposedly untamed wilds of yesterday and the defined, mapped, domesticated lands of tomorrow? I suggest two "key takeaways", to borrow the corporate lingo:

1) We must respect those who are already there. The dirty little secret of Manifest Destiny, of course, is that those western lands were never vacant, just waiting to be claimed by largely white Americans. They were home to millions of people - Indians who had lived there for hundreds or thousands of years. To the extent that the lands were vacant, it's only because the pre-existing populations were massacred, infected, or forcibly re-settled to make room for the incoming pioneers.

Similarly, when we lay down a new hiking route through a wild place, we must consider carefully the impact that that route has on the local population. One person trespassing on private land may not pose a significant problem, but what happens when that one person becomes ten, or a hundred? What happens to lower-income locals when many (generally well-educated and affluent) outdoorsy people move to Moab, Bend, or Bozeman, causing costs-of-living to spike? What happens when a well-meaning hiker posts a friendly local's email address on the internet, and soon that person is inundated with requests from strangers?

2) We must take deliberate action to keep some places truly wild. It's no coincidence that the world's first National Park (Yellowstone, in 1872) was established during the opening of the West. And, had we not acted during that time, our national treasures - places like Yosemite and Sequoia - likely would have been courdoned off, dammed, or developed. The short-sighted folks of that era would have deprived future generations of the opportunity to experience these amazing places.

Similarly, we must carefully consider whether or not to published a route - to make available a planning guide, map set, and GPX file. Does my route in this very wild place deprive future hikers of the opportunity to create their own route through largely uncharted territory? Am I killing their sense of exploration? I got a taste of this with the aforementioned Beartooths route. In the middle of the planning process, I posted it online to get feedback from people who knew the area better than I did. Lo and behold, the incomparable Cam "Swami" Honan, who was also planning a Beartooths trip, found my maps online and used them as a basis for his own adventure. This is of course fine (Swami is extremely conscientious and I trust him to treat our public lands with respect), but I do worry that my maps deprived him of the satisfaction of planning and executing a route through virgin territory.

I have mapped some routes through truly amazing places - routes that I will never make public. It's not because others shouldn't visit those places. It's so when they do visit those places, they'll have that same amazing sense of discovery that I did.


The purveyors of the Manifest Destiny concept got one thing right - expansion is seeming inevitable. To fight the trend of new backpacking routes would be a fool's errand. Information wants to be free. And frankly, I appreciate the proliferation of backpacking routes, and of the tools necessary to make them. But now, more than ever, it's important to be thoughtful with how we go about the task.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Water Bottles for Backpacking: An Overview

In the world of outdoor recreation, gear is a hobby unto itself. Almost without exception, the most-read posts on my little blog are the ones that focus on gear. Gear posts are relatable.

But although they're technically "gear", water bottles are a pretty banal subject. Nobody is writing a "Top Ten Water Bottles of 2019" piece of clickbait. But, because the topic is so boring, many hikers don't think very carefully about their water bottle strategies. Yes, water bottle strategies. I'm about to spill a thousand words about water bottle strategies. Brace yourself.

PC: Justin Swason

Like most beginning hikers, I carried Nalgene bottles on the Appalachian Trail in 2013. They served me well, but weighed nearly a pound. As part of a general purge of unnecessary weight, I threw them in the trash somewhere in central Virgina. With one notable exception, that's the last time I've carried a Nalgene for three-season use. Among long-distance backpackers, the Nalgene is dead. In its place, lightweight bottles reign.

But there are many different kinds of lightweight bottles. Some are containers made specifically for outdoor adventures, while others are re-purposed "disposable" bottles bought at a gas station. What's the best kind of bottle for lighweight backpacking? As usual, there's no one right answer to this question. Different water bottles have different strengths and weaknesses, and it's important to choose the right tool for the job


A few notes before we proceed: 
  • There are a few commonly-used bottles that I did not review because they are obviously inferior to the bottles I did review. These include pop bottles (ungainly and hard to pack), Listerine bottles (too brittle), and 1.5 liter airline water bottles (too thin). Any of these would of course work, and I've used all of them before in a pinch. But given the opportunity, I'd use one of the bottles below over pretty much anything else. 
  • I also did not consider hose-based hydration systems (i.e. the Camelbak). Some very experienced hikers love their hydration systems. But I've generally found that, as folks gain experience, they tend to ditch the Camelbak for a simpler bottle system.
  • I made no attempt to quantify the weight of the bottles. Except for the Nalgene, all of them are very similar in weight - within fractions of an ounce. I firmly believe that choosing the right bottle for the job - in terms of capacity, collapsability, mouth size, etc, is far more important than choosing the absolute lightest thing. But if you want to know exactly how much they weigh, Google is your friend.


Nalgene
Gatorade
Smartwater/Lifewtr
1-liter Platypus
Nalgene Canteen
2-liter Platypus
Capacity (Liters)
1 Liter
0.95 Liter (1 quart)
1 Liter
1 Liter
3.78 Liters (4 quarts)
2 Liters
Soft/Hard Sided
Hard
Hard
Hard
Soft
Soft
Soft
Mouth size
Very Wide
Wide
Narrow
Narrow
Very Wide
Narrow
Weight
1
5
5
5
5
5
Durability
5
4
4
2
3
2
Sawyer Filter Compatibility
1
1
3
5
1
5
Side Pocket Packability
3
3
5
4
1
2
Internal Packability
1
1
2
4
4
5
Shallow Source Performance
2
1
1
5
3
5
Dripping Source Performance
5
4
2
1
1
1
Flowing Source Performance
5
5
4
2
1
1
Best for...
Hot water
Dripping sources
Side-pocket compatibility
Packability
Long water carries
Long water carries

For a copyable version of the chart, click here. These evaluations are admittedly subjective and are on a 5-point scale.

The Nalgene – a classic backpacking item. But it's completely pointless except for deep winter use. The Nalgene weighs many times more than every other bottle on this list. While the Nalgene is a great water bottle, nearly all of its good features are shared by the Gatorade bottle, at a fraction of the cost and the weight.

However, you may still find a use for the Nalgene if you need to make a hot water bottle to throw in the foot of your sleeping bag. The Nalgene is the best choice for safely containing boiling water. But to be honest, the best use of the Nalgene is to cover it in outdoors-related stickers and put it on your desk at work.

The Gatorade bottle – the Nalgene, but on a weight-loss program. The Gatorade bottle is a great all-around bottle and a classic favorite of lightweight backpackers. The wide mouth makes it easy to fill up from painfully slow, dripping sources – particularly useful in desert environments. Its short and squat stature means that it doesn't fit into the side pockets of your backpack quite as well as the Smartwater bottle. A Gatorade bottle will fill the entire pocket, leaving very little space for other items (say, another water bottle).

The Smartwater/Lifewtr bottle – the undisputed gold medalist in the Bottle Olympics. The tall, slender shape makes it easy to fit into any backpack's side pocket, and many packs can hold two of these bottles in each side pocket. Among hard-sided bottles, Smartwater has the narrowest mouth and consequently the longest fill time. But it does use a standard pop-bottle style cap, making the cap easy to replace when you lose it. I generally wrap my Smartwater bottle with duct tape for blister care, gear repair, and muzzling chatty hiking partners.

1-liter Platypus – The most versatile and packable bottle on this list. A 1-liter Platy holds water when you need it to, and packs away to nearly nothing when you don't. In addition, it's by far the easiest bottle to draw with when dealing with very shallow sources (less than 1” deep). Again, this can be a life-saver in the desert. It tends to leak after a while, but by then, any water bottle is so grimy and nasty that you'll probably want to throw it away anyway.

The 2-liter Platypus – slightly more lightweight and compact than 2 separate 1-liter Platys. Otherwise identical to the 1-liter Platy.

The Nalgene Canteen – holds a gallon of water and has a wide mouth. Otherwise identical to the 2-liter Platy.


***************************************************************************

I generally mix and match different types of water bottles. I usually carry 2-7 liters of water storage capacity, and there's no reason that all my bottles should be the same kind. On the contrary, I frequently carry different types to draw from different types of water sources. If there's a dripping seep, I'll fill up my Gatorade bottle, and then dump the water into all my other bottles. On the other hand, if I find a shallow pothole or cattle trough, I'll use my Platypus to fill up.

As an example, consider my strategy for a section of the Hayduke trail that I completed in 2017. I had to plan for a  30-mile waterless stretch - two full days, given the rough terrain I had to contend with. I brought seven liters of capacity.

Just one problem - the tank at the beginning of that stretch had very nearly run dry. I had to fill up from a pipe that was barely dripping at twelve minutes per liter. I know this because I had to wait for an hour and a half to collect seven liters of water.

The wide mouth of the Gatorade bottle was crucial. I could set the bottle on the ground and its mouth was wide enough to capture every falling drop. Having to hold my bottles up to the lip of the pipe for an hour and a half would have been more than slightly annoying. Instead, I could sit in the shade, eat a snack, and every twelve minutes, empty the Gatorade bottle into my other Platypus bottles or my Smartwater bottle. 

Perhaps half an inch of water in the bottom of this tank. Thank goodness for the Platypus!

I generally carry two hard-sided bottles - a Smartwater bottle and a Gatorade bottle - and as many 1-liter Platypus bottles as I need. The hard-sided bottles are stashed in the side pockets of my backpack, and the Platys get moved around to wherever is the most comfortable. I prefer the 1-liter Platypus over its larger cousins because having multiple containers allow me to distribute the weight in my backpack more effectively, and because if/when a Platypus springs a leak, I've only lost a single liter of water. When empty, a Platypus is collapsible and takes up virtually no space in my pack.

Perhaps this all seems excessive. But especially when water is scarce, the importance of having the right tool cannot be overstated. And best of all, increasing water bottle diversity costs nothing and weighs nothing. Give it a shot! And if you have a suggestion for another water container I overlooked, please to leave a comment.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the NPS

 
Especially for backpackers, it's easy to take potshots at the National Park Service - or more accurately, at public lands administered by the NPS. Allow me to explain:

In 2015, I hiked a section of the Hayduke Trail in southeastern Utah. My route took me through Canyonlands National Park. I began on land administered by the BLM - wild, remote country. Beautiful canyons wore their way through a million years of sandstone, their watercourses on a path to the Colorado River. I climbed up and out of a drainage, onto a beautiful mesa that jutted into the sky, adorned with rock pyramids that more than slightly resembled chocolate layer cake.


At some point on my walk over the mesa, I crossed into Canyonlands National Park. And I didn't care. You see, the canyonlands of the Grand, Green, and Colorado rivers sprawl far beyond the confines of an arbitrary line on a map. Whether or not I was inside the National Park, I was in the canyonlands. All that the NPS boundary meant was that I was required to purchase a backcountry permit, carry a bear canister, and camp in designated sites. What benefits did the Park afford me? None, other than the benefits offered by the landscape itself.

For many years, I remained skeptical about the value of NPS sites - at least for folks like me, who like solitude and venturing off the beaten path. Let's take Zion as a convenient example:
  • Parks are crowded. Stand in line for two hours to get a chance to summit Angels Landing. The entire area smells vaguely from feces. There's a porta-potty right before the "chains" section but one little toilet is ill-equipped to deal with the literal thousands of people that are up here.
  • Parks are trite. All those other people you watched for two hours are going to post the exact same photo on social media. But yeah, you go ahead and believe that you're a special little snowflake. #liveauthentic #optoutside #vanlife #nofilter #blessed #findyourpark
  • Parks are bureaucratic nightmares. Want to hike the Subway instead of Angels Landing? Get ready to get up early and stand in line so you can get a permit. Once it's your turn, you get to try and convince the infamously cranky ranger that you do know what you're doing, you're not going to kill yourself, etc. Wait for the "don't be an idiot in the backcountry" lecture to conclude, pay your money, and maybe, if you're lucky, you'll hit the trail by noon.

Or so I thought.


Over the past couple of months, I've visited at least a dozen NPS sites. And in so doing, I've gained a new apprecition for places I had previously dismissed. Some of them are well-known, like Sequoia National Park. Others remain obscure, like Fort Bowie National Historic Site. Sure, I could list tips and tricks for improving NPS-unit experiences, but I'd rather show, rather than tell, using some of my recent wanderings:

Carlsbad Caverns National Park: This one took some planning ahead and, yes, bureaucratic nonsense. I had the privilege of joining a small ranger-led tour to an amazing area of the cave that featured tight passages and long sections of crawling on our bellies, so tight were the passages. Helmets, knee, and elbow pads required. Climb those slippery formations and please, please don't fall! A rescue back here would be nigh-impossible. And at the end, I saw an amazing active dripstone formation called the White Giant. I don't have any photos from that particular tour; my phone would have been destroyed as I wriggled through clausterphobia-inducing passageways. But believe me, it was amazing - and inspired me to do more caving. I'm no spelunker... at least, not yet!


Fort Bowie National Historic Site: Behold, the only NPS site that's accessible only by foot. I did this one on a rainy Wednesday morning in February and saw nobody. I learned about the conflict between the US Army and the Chiricahua Apaches, saw the remains of a couple of different forts, and appreciated the geology of an important mountain pass and historic travel corridor. The lack of accessibility keeps the crowds away and I could explore the area at my own pace.


Valles Caldera National Preserve: It's a completely different park during the winter. Although accessible by paved road, Valles Caldera sits at 8,600 feet and is blanketed in snowpack during the winter. We braved the cold (13F if my car's thermometer is correct) and snowshoed across the bottom of the Caldera, as well as around a resurgent dome.


Salinas Pueblo Mission National Historic Site: This site sees only 35,000 visitors per year (mostly during the summer months). And because of that, the rangers seemed happy to answer the dozens of questions that a friend and I asked. We spent all day exploring 500+ year-old Puebloan ruins, as well as the Spanish missions that Franciscans built to spread Catholicism. We learned about the oft-overlooked history of Spanish colonialism in the American southwest.


The National Park system is more than just the crowds at Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and all the rest. It includes unique and special places, places where silence still dominates. I'm still probably not going to visit Zion again in April. But that's alright. The National Park System is big enough for all of us. I guess you can say I've [hashtag] "found my Park"!