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"!


Thursday, February 7, 2019

Shuttle? Arranging Transportation on the Uinta Highline Trail


The Uinta Highline Trail is a world-class adventure, and a trail that is getting more popular every year. But, as any aspiring UHT hiker will soon find out, transportation is a problem. Those 100 miles of untouched wilderness make it very difficult to get from one end to the other. Below are some current (2019 hiking season) recommendations.

Of course, the easiest way is to wrangle a loved one into shuttling you from one terminus to the other. But these days, there are a lot of people coming in from out-of-state to hike the UHT. The below guide offers the best shuttle/transportation option for those who don't have Utah connections whom they can lean on. Anyone coming from out-of-area will end up renting a car; the logistical challenge of the UHT is getting to the east end to begin your hike after leaving your car at the finish on west end. That conundrum is the subject of this article.

Note: older literature may reference a commercial shuttle service offered by the Wilkins Bus Line. While this service was available in years past, as of 2019, Wilkins has gone out of business. To the best of my knowledge, there are no current commercial providers of UHT shuttle service. If you know of any, please leave a comment on this page and I will be sure to include it!

TL;DR: Hitch from the western trailhead to Kamas. Catch the free #11 bus, transfer to the #12 bus, which drops you off in Park City. From Park City, take the Greyhound to Vernal, and hitch from Vernal to the eastern trailhead.



The Direction: These directions are intended for a westbound hike, which is the more common direction of travel, as well as the direction that I would recommend. You could reverse these directions if you wanted to do an eastbound hike, but would need to take care lining up the Park City busses with the Greyhound, time-wise.

The Route: The below instructions are for the 100-mile version of the hike. It would be very difficult to do the 70 or 80-mile versions of the hike using the method described below; the trailheads for those versions are located on seldom-traveled dirt roads. If you want to do the 70 or 80-mile versions of the hike, the only real option is to know somebody who will shuttle you. For a fuller description of the various route options, please see my UHT Overview page

You will need the following:

1) A car
2) A thumb
3) A Greyhound ticket from Park City, UT to Vernal, UT (approximately $17.00, if you purchase it far enough in advance)



Step 1: Drive to the Highline (Hayden Pass) trailhead (40.7230, -110.8636). This is about 90 minutes from Salt Lake City. On your way there, be sure to pay your recreation fee at one of the roadside kiosks. For current passholders, America the Beautiful Interagency Passes are valid here. Just leave the pass on your dashboard. MAP

Step 2: Hitchhike approximately 29 miles southwest on UT 150 to Kamas, UT. This is the world's easier hitch. All of the traffic on the road is recreational; and you are likely to catch a ride with a kindred spirit who is returning home after hiking, fishing, or camping. MAP  

You will probably want to hitch to Kamas the night before and spend the night in/near Kamas*. Your #11 bus from Kamas to Park City leaves very early in the morning - early enough that traffic will be likely non-existant on UT 150 at that time of day.

Step 3: Walk from [wherever you get dropped off in Kamas] to the Kamas Park 'n Ride (40.6396758, -111.2837887). Your ride will likely drop you off right at main intersection in Kamas (Corner of Main and Center streets, aka the corner of UT 150 and UT 32). If so, it's a very short walk, just a few tenths of a mile, to the Park 'n Ride. MAP

Step 4: Catch the free Summit County Bus #11 at 6:17AM or 7:17AM toward Park City. #11 is the only bus that serves Kamas so if you see a bus, it's the right bus! Get off at the Park City Medical Center stop (40.6876142,-111.4689766). MAP

Step 5: At the Park City Medical Center bus stop, transfer to the free #12 Kamas-Kimball Link bus. Take the #12 to the end of the line at the Kimball Junction Transit Center (40.7238635, -111.5466347) MAP

Step 6: Walk a short distance to the Park City, UT stop for the Greyhound bus (40.7229474, -111.5395926). The bus is scheduled to depart at 8:25AM daily, however Greyhound frequently runs late, often by several hours. You will need to purchase your ticket online, in advance. The Park City stop is curbside pickup only; only passengers that have already purchased and printed their tickets will be admitted onto the bus. MAP

Step 7: Get off the Greyhound in Vernal, UT (40.4485673,-109.5520539). MAP

Step 8: Walk from the Greyhound stop to the intersection of US 40 and US 191 (40.4557, -109.5286). This is "downtown" Vernal, such as it is. Walk a little bit north on US 191 in order to get a nice hitching spot on the edge of town. MAP

Step 9: Hitchhike approximately 29 miles north to the Highline trailhead at McKee Draw (40.7894, -109.4708). MAP

Helpful Links:
Pack City Transit Routes & Maps
Greyhound Booking

*The above recommendation offers legal parking for your car at the Hayden Pass trailhead. If legal and appropriate, it would probably be preferable to leave your car at the Kamas Park 'n Ride, essentially starting with Step #3. Then, once you conclude your westbound hike, follow Step #2 to get back to your car. This plan would eliminate the need to spend the night in Kamas. HOWEVER... I do not know whether or not it is legal/appropriate to park a car for a week+ at the Kamas Park 'n Ride. It's a small parking lot attached to a private business. If anybody does this, please let me know what your experience was!