Saturday, May 18, 2019

RIB Part 3: Kanab to Torrey


Note: This post is the third update from a Mexico-Canada hike through Arizona, Uah, and Idaho. I'm calling it the "Route In-Between" (RIB). Links to previous installments are below:
Background and Introduction
Part 1: Mexico to Flagstaff
Part 2: Flagstaff to Kanab

After much anticipation, I've entered the Utah section of my route and am now truly and fully in trailblazing mode. I've left behind defined trails, other hikers, and friendly locals who know why I'm hitchhiking. My footprints are the only ones in the pristine snow.

Yep, Still Winter: Speaking of snow, there's a lot of it left. More notably, it continues to fall. I took several days off in Tropic, near Bryce Canyon National Park, to allow a doozy of a storm to clear out. That storm dropped over a foot of fresh snow in the high terrain of the Aquarius Plateau (10,000+ feet). After three or four nice days (in which I scooted across the plateau and down into Torrey, Utah), another round of terrible weather moved in. One storm has already passed, with two more on their way. With snow levels as low as 6,000', along with high winds, heavy precipitation, and plummeting temperatures, I made a business decision and am waiting out this extended stretch of bad weather for a week or so. Interrupting the hike is not my preference, but did make the most sense. I've got plenty of time to work with - I'll use some of it to avoid unnecessary risks.


The Burly Snowpack: Even after the weather stabilizes, I will be walking through a very, very deep snowpack. In addition to the heavy winter and late-season snowfall, this spring has been cool, wet, and cloudy, which means that the pack is not melting anytime soon. My local Salt Lake ski area, Snowbird, will certainly be operating into June this year, possibly even July. 

Walking through snow is tough. If I'm lucky, I'll have a couple hours of quick travel in the morning, when I can walk atop the hard crust from last night's freeze. But as mid-morning approaches, the crust melts and I begin to sink in with every step. By time 10AM rolls around, I've switched to snowshoes. Walking in snowshoes isn't that much faster than postholing, but it is a little bit less exhausting. A backpack full of snow and storm gear weighs me down. A full day, perhaps eighteen miles, requires as much effort as a thirty-mile day ordinarily would. These are already some of the toughest miles I've ever walked. And I've got several hundred more upcoming.


Beauty and Brutality: But let me paint a picture for you: I climb up onto a high plateau, through the Pink Cliffs - the same geologic layer that forms the famous hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park. There's nobody here though, in this random corner of National Forest. I climb off-trail up a steep ridge with stunning views of the valley four thousand feet below. I eventually hit the snowline and travel atop a blanket of white, weaving around Ponderosa and Douglas Fir trees. Occasionally, I break into a meadow and marvel at the sea of undisturbed snow. I'm probably the first person to visit since last fall. The sunshine bounces off everything up here, nearly blinding me even though I'm wearing sunglasses. 

There's not much liquid water up here, not yet anyway. It's all locked up in snow and ice. I eat a handful of snow - hardly satiating my thirst - then another, then another. Brain freeze. I point my compass at a tree at the other side of a long, open meadow. There's a dirt road under here somewhere, but I can only identify it from the clearcuts where it enters a grove of trees. Everything's white. Everything's beautiful. 


The snow transforms into wet glop over the course of the day, freezing ice clods onto my trekking poles. The afternoon is a slog and my progress is minimal. Billowing clouds form, obscuring the once-brilliant sunshine, and a little rain begins to fall. But after a few hours, it clears up and the sun sets in an almost incomprehensible palette of bold color. 

I set up camp on snow - again. I build a little pillow out of snow and then set up my shelter. I'm sleeping in my rain gear tonight - again. My breath will condense and form frost on the walls of my shelter - again. It cools off quickly once the sun goes down, and after eating half a jar of peanut butter with a spoon, I close my eyes and go to sleep.

In 2018, I found the unofficial motto of the CDT - "Embrace the Brutality" - to be mostly outdated. On the RIB, I'm finding out exactly what it means. This route has challenged me in ways I didn't think possible. It's tough. I love it.

I don't always take advice from random styrofoam plates stapled to trees. But sometimes I do!

Goodbye Desert:
After almost one thousand miles of walking through arid environments, I've officially left the desert. It ended on a great note though. I climbed through various geologic layers, passing cliffs of many different colors. I revisited a neat slot canyon I'd been in a few years prior, dropped in on Bryce Canyon to see how it was faring, and slogged up the always-gorgeous and muddy Paria River. Goodbye desert, hello snowbound mountains!



Unexpected Warmth: One highlight of Utah has been the people I've met. The person who picked me up when I was leaving Kanab made sure to give me the number of a friend whose homestead I will pass by in northern Idaho. The owner of the barbeque joint in Tropic was was supportive, curious, and didn't really mind that I sat at a table for five hours and listened to the baseball game on his wifi. Even the police officer who confronted me for hitchhiking was kind and helpful. But a wonderful RVing couple take the cake. In addition to very generously driving me an hour out of the way so I could catch a bus to Salt Lake, we shared some truly wonderful conversation. John and Gretty - if you're reading this, thank you! 

Southern Utah has the reputation, not entirely undeserved, of being a good ol' boys club - of stratification between insiders and outsiders. But with few exceptions, I've felt welcomed in these small communities.

What's Next: As mentioned, I'm waiting out an extended period of weather, and using the opportunity to visit my friends and church family in Salt Lake City. After that? Back to central Utah. More snow travel, more beauty, more brutality. More adventure.



Friday, May 3, 2019

RIB Part 2: Flagstaff to Kanab


Note: This post is the second update from a Mexico-Canada hike through Arizona, Utah, and Idaho. I'm calling it the "Route In-Between" (RIB). Links to previous installments are below:
Background and Introduction
Part 1: Mexico to Flagstaff

Bah Humbug, Springtime: Once north of Flagstaff, I started to encounter lingering snowpack. The trail crests above 9,000 feet in the San Francisco Peaks, flanking the highest peak in Arizona (12,600'+). Normally, I would be tempted to climb it on the way past, but in a snow year like this, that would have still been a mountaineering task. Don't you worry, though; I'll have plenty of snow travel further north in Utah.


Further north, at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, I found even more widespread snow pack, again at about 9,000 feet. The trail was almost entirely snowbound, but a parallel road was already plowed for the year, and, since the North Rim hasn't opened for the season yet, it was entirely devoid of traffic. I opted for the road, and enjoyed the open subalpine meadows and Ponderosa forests at first. Unfortunately, the weather decided to turn foul as I walked through those high elevation areas, and it rained, snowed, and sleeted for about two straight days. At one point I bailed to a nearby fancy-pants resort just to get indoors and out of the driving wind and rain. It's been a long time since I've been that cold!


Surprised Once Again: I must admit that I had low expectations for the Arizona Trail through the Grand Canyon. I'd backpacked in the Canyon once before, on the Hayduke Trail, and found it to be spectacular. The Hayduke spends a week or two below the rim and passes through some truly wild and stunning environs. By contrast, the Arizona Trail stays on trails that are pedestrian equivalents of the Interstate highway system. It takes the most direct route down to the Colorado and up the other side. The Arizona Trail certainly doesn't do justice to the Grand Canyon.


Even so, I thoroughly enjoyed the (brief) time I spent in the Grand Canyon. I stayed near the famous Phantom Ranch, just a stone's throw from the Colorado River, saw wildflowers in bloom, and even ate a steak, courtesy of some friendly tourists who had food to spare. The climb up to the North Rim was new to me, and did not disappoint. Since the North Rim isn't open for the season yet, the trail was entirely deserted except for a few hardy ultrarunners going Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (starting at the South Rim, running down to the Colorado, up to the North Rim, and back again). Those ultrarunners may be in elite shape, but they still can't match the uphill speed of thru-hikers who do nothing but hike, all day, every day. 


Goodbye, AZT: I crossed the border into Utah on May 1, reaching the northern terminus of the AZT. I truly enjoyed the Arizona Trail, and it would be a worthy adventure in its own right. But I'm not nearly done yet. I've left behind the world of maintained trails, abundant information, friendly trail angels, and a large hiker community. 

I now head out on a route that exists only in my mind and on my maps. I've already had to re-route once or twice because of flooding. I'm heading over high, snowbound plateaus and mountain ranges. I've swapped out my lightweight desert gear for more rough-and-tumble snow travel equipment. I'm moving forward in dependence on God. Here we go!








Monday, April 22, 2019

RIB Part 1: Mexico to Flagstaff


Note: This post is the first update from a Mexico-Canada hike through Arizona, Utah, and Idaho. I'm calling it the "Route In-Between" (RIB). For additional background on the RIB, please click here. The first section of the RIB follows the Arizona Trail (AZT), a federally-designated National Scenic Trail that runs from the Mexican border to the Utah border.

Sky Islands: The story of the first 200 miles were the magnificent "sky islands" that the AZT passes through. I've written about sky islands before, but just to recap: Sky islands are isolated mountain ranges in the Southwest that jut thousands of feet skyward above the surrounding desert floor. The sky islands are cooler and wetter than the surrounding environs, and are home to many interesting plants and animals found nowhere else on earth.

The Arizona Trail passes over several sky island ranges - in particular, the Huachucas, Santa Ritas, Rincones, and Santa Catalinas. On many an occasion, I began my day surrounded by desert scrub, cholla, and saguaros, and ended the day in forests of stately ponderosas. One day, I took shelter from the broiling sun in a tiny culvert under I-10, and the next night shivered through a chilly night at 8,000 feet on a high mountain ridgetop. The contrasts were simply unbelievable.

With the massive changes in elevation came, well, massive changes in elevation. The walking across the desert floor was relatively easy, for the most part. But the climbs were very, very long. I did a pair of five-thousand foot climbs in three days - and between the two climbs, a five-thousand foot descent. The trail was relatively well-graded, but a vertical mile is still a vertical mile.


A Spectacular Bloom: The story of the next 200 miles was the flora and fauna. After descending from the Santa Catalinas, the trail stayed lower. There were still mountains, of course, but they didn't reach nearly the heights that the sky islands in the first section had. In this section, I reached the lowest point of the AZT, the Gila River (~1,800 feet).

The 2018-2019 winter was one of the wettest on record. I've been able to rely on water sources this year that, in other years, would be hit-or-miss or completely dry. I've never carried more than three liters of water. Near the Santa Catalinas, I stopped to chat with a mountain biker who's lived in the area for her entire life. She mentioned that she had never seen a nearby creek flowing more than a tiny trickle. When I reached the creek crossing, it was so wide and deep that I had to take a flying leap to avoid getting my shoes wet.

A healthy water year led to a once-in-a-generation wildflower bloom. The cactus blossomed, their translucent pink/purple flowers shimmering improbably. Yellow/orange poppies dotted the landscape. Indian paintbrush made a brief cameo. And hosts of other flowers showed off their innumerable hues. I tried to get photos, but none fully captured the in-your-face beauty.



The wet year has also naturally led to a boom in the populations of insects and other animals. Of particular interest were the rattlesnakes. They were everywhere in the lower elevations. I saw at least one rattler a day in the lower elevations. On one sunny morning, I saw four in the course of an hour. Rattlers are generally polite - sounding the alarm to avoid confrontation. Still, it's a little unnerving when a bush mere feet away starts buzzing.

As I descended to Roosevelt Lake one day, I spotted a rare and reclusive creature - a Gila monster! Gila monsters are the only venomous lizards in the United States - and they're huge - but pose little danger to humans because they're so timid and sluggish. Still, as he lumbered off the right side of the trail, I gave him a wide berth, stepping off the trail several feet to my left.


Just as I was passing him though, bzzzzzzt! A rattler. The Gila monster was still in front of me, and the rattler behind me. The snake poked his head out of a bush, tongue flicking the air, sniffing out the situation. All three of us stared at each other for a few minutes, trying to figure out how to end this Mexican standoff. At some point, though, I decided as the only non-venomous guest at the party, I should probably split first. So I swung even wider left and left the two reptiles to resolve their differences.

More Mountains and the Plateau: The latest 200 miles were a bit of a mixed bag. I started out with what's probably the toughest section of the AZT, through the Superstitions, Four Peaks, and Mazatzal Crest areas. This section featured a lot of ups and downs. To top it off, I came down with a cold - my first ever on a long distance hike. Those long climbs certainly challenged my crud-filled lungs. But again, the views from atop these ranges proved spectacular, and it's really hard to complain too much when surrounded by that much beauty. 


After that challenging stretch, the trail's character changed dramatically. I climbed up onto the Mogollon Rim, the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. The Plateau here is between 7000 and 8000 feet in elevation, and almost perfectly flat. It's some of the easiest trail I've ever walked, yet surprisingly beautiful. I expect quite a few flat miles between here and the Utah border - with the exception of the Grand Canyon, of course.


Just Plain Fun: I've now done about 75% of the Arizona Trail, and I think it's fair to start drawing some conclusions. In many ways, the AZT has been perfect - almost a little too perfect sometimes. The scenery has been spectacular throughout. The trail is well-built and maintained by a small army of hardy volunteers. It's not just thru-hikers out here - I've met scores of mountain bikers, equestrians, day hikers, and weekenders. Many locals are section-hiking the trail over the course of several years. And if you ever want to meet some inspiring, go-get-em retirees, the AZT is the place to be.

The Arizona Trail Association is well-run and relatively well-funded. Folks in trail towns are generally know what the AZT is, and are used to and helpful to hikers. Hitchhiking is not a problem on this trail. And a couple of truly wonderful trail angels in Kearny and Pine offered me a place to stay.

This sign would not exist on the CDT. But if it did, it would simply read, "Good luck, suckers!"
Moreover, I've found the core of the hiking community - the hikers themselves - quite nice. It's a fairly even mix between first-timers and veterans of other long trails. I've even run into a few friends from the CDT - a real treat! I'm trying to savor the opportunities I have to experience cool trail towns and hang out with hikers - because I know that once I cross the border into Utah and begin the next phase of my adventure, I'll be truly and fully on my own. 

What's Next: As a general rule, I try not to peek too far ahead on a long hike, preferring to focus on today, this week, or this hundred miles. I can't help, though, looking ahead to what awaits in Utah. Mostly, it's a lot of snow. Southern and central Utah had a record-shattering winter this year. Some areas I plan to hike through are still blanketed in twice as much snow as normal. So in addition to pioneering a new route, I have to do it in the worst snow conditions on record. Frankly, I'm not sure whether it's possible to complete my route this year. But we're about to find out. 

That blue is bad news. Courtesy NWCC 


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.