How to Restock Your First Aid Kit

Venturing out into the backcountry, in any form, is a serious undertaking. Whether you’re ski touring deep in the mountains in the middle of January or doing laps at your local crag on the hottest day in July, our collective pursuit of happiness in the outdoors carries with it some inherent risk—and locales remote enough to require a degree of self-reliance should things go sideways. This is why a first aid kit is absolutely essential on a wilderness sojourn of any scale. Should you really need it—and that occasion may never come—it’ll be the ounce-for-ounce most valuable thing you packed in that day.

A likely—and far less grave—scenario is that your first aid kit is used in increments, for small concerns. A bandage here for a nagging blister, an ibuprofen there for a morning after too many camp beers—that kind of thing. Not a big deal, but over the course of a season or two, you may find that these benign applications have slowly eroded the contents of your first aid kit since you first purchased, adding up to a severely depleted stock.

Fortunately, reupping a first aid kit is a simple task that’ll have you thinking about what you’re carrying while affording you the option to customize your kit based on the activity you’re after, and spring training season is the perfect time to give your kit a look-over and make sure its ready for a summer of adventuring.

The severely depleted contents of an AMK Ultralight/Watertight .5 Medical Kit after a few seasons of light use. | Credit: John Lepak
The severely depleted contents of an AMK Ultralight/Watertight .5 Medical Kit after a few seasons of light use. | Credit: John Lepak

Where to Begin

Odds are your starting point for a first aid kit is of one of the pre-packaged variety. These come in all shapes and sizes and are designed for myriad uses. Adventure Medical Kits makes it easy on us though by specifying how many days and how many people each of their kits can service. Products like the .7 Ultralight/Watertight Medical Kit, for example, are designed specifically for up to two users on trips up to four days while heavier duty options, like the Mountain Explorer First Aid Kit, are stocked for four people for up to a week.

Generally speaking, the lightest of these kits include:

  • Bandage materials, such as gauze, sterile dressings, adhesive bandages, and medical tape;
  • Antibacterial wipes, ointments and other topical applications to clean and treat wounds;
  • Medication, including ibuprofen, aspirin, and antihistamines;
  • Moleskin for blister care, and;
  • Tweezers, which are wicked handy for splinters and ticks.

Your first step is to take an inventory. What do you have? Next, take a look at what the kit’s manufacturer lists on their site for the kit’s contents, note what’s missing, and make a list. If you’re empty in any specific area it may be worth doubling up on those items for the future.

Buying larger quantities cuts down on nasty excess packaging. | Credit: John Lepak
Buying larger quantities cuts down on nasty excess packaging. | Credit: John Lepak

The Resupply

Actually restocking these items is as simple as raiding the medicine cabinet or popping by the drug store, but there are some things to consider while you do so. Medical products are very heavily packaged, for good reason—maintaining sterile dressings and uncontaminated medication is incredibly important. It does, however, result in a substantial amount of single-use plastics, foils, and other non-recyclable materials that amount to tons and tons of waste. Buying items in larger quantities and divvying them up between reusable containers reduces the impact significantly. It also ensures the home medicine cabinet will survive the resupplying of your backcountry first aid kit. Larger bottles of commonly-used medication—like pain relievers or antihistamines—are the way to go. As for bandages, products that have a variety of types, all in the same box, are a good bet.

Consider supplementing your kit based on where you’re planning to go and what you’re planning to do. | Credit: John Lepak
Consider supplementing your kit based on where you’re planning to go and what you’re planning to do. | Credit: John Lepak

Addition by Addition

Following a manufacturer’s template is a great starting point but how we get outdoors isn’t one-size-fits all. Personal experience, knowledge of the terrain, and the nuances of the activity will also dictate just what you need when you go out. Here are some additional things to consider adding to your kit while you’re at it.

Splint

It’ll add a bit of bulk and a minor amount of weight to your pack, but consider adding a splint like the AMK C-Splint to your kit. A broken bone is a serious issue if you’re really out in the backcountry, and immobilizing any such injury shouldn’t need to be a MacGuyver-esque exercise in bushcraft—besides, would you rather be limping down the trail with a well-dressed splint or a twig affixed to your leg with a length of prusik cord and some climbers’ tape?

Emergency Blanket

A severe enough injury may pin your party down in a single location for awhile so ensuring the patient is warm is critical, especially in winter, when hypothermia is a real concern. An emergency blanket like the Karrimor Survival Blanket is a handy addition to any first aid kit. They’re lightweight and useful beyond an injury situation.

Snake Bite Kit

It’s not so much an issue up north, but venomous snakes are a real thing while hiking and climbing in southern New England and New York. There is a reasonably healthy timber rattlesnake population in both the Catskills and the Taconics and Copperheads are extremely common on the traprock ridges of Connecticut. Though sightings still are rare—and incidents even rarer—all it takes is bumping into one on the trail before you’re carrying a kit like this when venturing into these areas.

Packing smart ensures that you can get to what you need quickly. | Credit: John Lepak
Packing smart ensures that you can get to what you need quickly. | Credit: John Lepak

Put it Together

Stuffing everything back into your first aid kit can be a pain, especially with the super-compact prepackaged ones that are designed to prioritize efficiency of weight and space. Try to keep the different items separated from one another—group bandaged with an elastic band or sort pills with reusable plastic baggies. Keep in mind how quickly you may need to access something and organize accordingly.

A first aid kit should go into your pack as a single unit, stowed away somewhere that’s easy to get to. It doesn’t need to be at the top—you shouldn’t be digging past it to get to your water or an extra layer or anything—but it should be accessible. Keeping it in the same place every time you go out is a good practice too, so that you’re always going to know where it is.


How to Choose an Ice Axe

Whether you’re a rock climber thinking about giving ice a try, a winter hiker looking to greater heights, or a skier with eyes on deeper backcountry, you’re going to need an ice axe to take it to that next level. They are a critical tool for safety and stability in steep winter terrain and open the floodgates to bigger mountain objectives. While the options out there may seem overwhelming, a little bit of background on the anatomy of an ice axe is all you need to find the right one for your objectives.

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Types of Ice Axes

Broadly speaking, there are three types of ice axes: mountaineering axes, technical ice tools, and a spectrum of semi-technical axes covering everything in-between.

Mountaineering Axe

When most folks think of an ice axe, what they picture is a traditional mountaineering axe: an asymmetric head, with a curved pick on one end and an adze on the other, mounted atop a long, straight shaft that ends with a sharp point. These days, the shafts have gotten shorter and some deploy a bit of a curve, but the intent of their design is the same: During non-technical travel on glaciers and high alpine snowfields, they are incredibly useful as a third point-of-contact, for building anchors, and for self-arresting after a fall. If you’re looking to tackle Mount Washington’s Lion Head Winter Route, a mountaineering axe is what you’re after.

Ice Tools

Ice tools main function is climbing steep, technical ice. Aside from being used in pairs, the principal difference between ice tools and other types of ice axes is the aggressive pick and a curved shaft—both designed with steep terrain in mind and more overhead swinging into hard ice than plunging the staff into snow. The head of an ice tool is asymmetrical, and may or may not have an adze or a hammer opposite the pick. The most common set-ups you’ll see in a pair of ice tools are adze/hammer or just picks. For steep ice from Crawford Notch to Stony Clove, a pair of technical ice tools is the way to go.

Everything in Between

The spectrum of options that exists between mountaineering axes and ice tools is difficult to define, but they are invariably designed for utility and efficiency. To that end they will usually take on the qualities of both mountaineering axes and ice tools in incremental degrees. These “hybrid” or “alpine” axes are excellent for long jaunts into the high backcountry where one may encounter anything from snowfields to steep ice.

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Parts of an Ice Axe

The anatomy of an ice axe can be broken down into four main parts: the head, the shaft, the grip, and the spike. The characteristics of these parts, designed with specific use cases in mind, are what differentiate one axe from the next.

Head

The head of an ice axe can be further broken down into three parts: a pick, an adze or a hammer, and a carabiner hole. It’s common for the heads of mountaineering axes to be cast from a single piece of metal, where as ice tools are modular, allowing for a greater degree of customization. All of these, however, are subject to a “B” or a “T” rating. The ratings are given based on tests performed on ice axes assessing their durability against the forces commonly found in mountaineering. Simplified, a “T” rating is stronger, and more reliable when subjected to the punishment of steep ice climbing or dry-tooling on rock. A “B” rating is more than sufficient for most general mountaineering purposes and may be lighter.

Pick

Picks come in two basic styles: classic or reverse curved. Classic curved picks are ubiquitous on the traditional mountaineering axe and are superior for self-arresting after a fall and for plunging into steep snow with the hand on the head of the axe. Reverse curved picks, on the other hand, are far more effective biting into ice when swinging a tool on steep terrain.

Adze/Hammer

Opposite the pick of an ice axe you can expect to find an adze, a hammer, or nothing at all. More often than not, mountaineering axes are adorned with an adze, a sharp, horizontal piece not unlike a spade. This is a very useful tool for digging an anchor, or cutting a platform for a bivy or a tent on an uneven surface. Back before the advent of modern crampons, these were used to cut steps up steep slopes.

Adzes are also found on ice tools—typically on one of the pair—and can be used in the same way, which is handy on longer alpine objectives that may include a mix of low-angle terrain and steep, technical ice.

In those circumstances, the tool opposite the adze will have a hammer. Hammers are great for banging protection into rock, clearing out ice from around fixed gear, and setting snow pickets on steep, snowy routes.

Ice tools intended for shorter outings on single- or multi-pitch waterfall ice often have neither an adze nor a hammer.

Carabiner Hole

Directly above the shaft of an ice axe is a hole cast into the head. This hole can be used to tether a mountaineering axe to its user or to rack an ice tool on a harness. It’s pretty common on the former, and ubiquitous on the latter.

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Shaft

After the head, the shaft of an ice axe is the most important determining factor of the intended use of an ice axe. Shafts are similarly rated as “B” or “T” and can be subcategorized based on two characteristics: their shape and their length.

Curve

The silhouette of an ice axe’s shaft is likely it’s most nuanced and varied characteristic, defined not by an either/or but rather a spectrum of curves and bends dependent on the needs of the user. At one end, the traditional mountaineering axe maintains its straight profile—excellent for use as a cane–while at the other end the shaft of an ice tool has an aggressive curve—which makes penetrating hard ice easier and relieves fatigue while weighting a tool on steep terrain. In between, several mountaineering axes have adopted a curved shaft to keep the user’s hands out of the snow on steeper snow slopes—where gripping the axe mid-shaft and plunging the pick into the snow makes for efficient travel. Similar variety can be found in some ice tools which have a gentler curve, which allows for more utility in more varied terrain.

Length

While ice tools are a bit of a one-size-fits-all thing, the length of a mountaineering axe is largely dependent on the height of a user. When sizing a mountaineering axe, let your arm hang by your side and measure from the base of your thumb to your ankle. That measurement will directly correspond to the size mountaineering axe that you need. Most mountaineering axes come in varying sizes.

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Grip

For technical ice tools, the design of the grip is another important consideration to take. All ice tools have ergonomic rests at the base of the grip, but many also have one at the top: this is there for matching or switching hands on a traverse, or to help pull up and over steep bulges. The big difference in the grips of ice tools though, is whether or not it’s offset. Offset tools are designed for efficient movement on steep terrain, easing fatigue and keeping the user’s hands from bashing the ice. Regular tools are totally usable on steep terrain, but are excellent on long, moderate alpine climbs, where an offset grip may be more hindrance than help, and utility is key.

Spike

Finally, at the very end of it all, is the spike. All mountaineering axes—and many ice tools—are outfitted with a spike at the bottom of the shaft, meant for plunging into snow and for stability while using the axe as a cane. It’s handy even on ice tools, for both the lengthy backcountry expeditions as and the short, steep approaches you may encounter at the local flow.

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Accessories

Your specific objectives as a climber will dictate the axe you ultimately choose. Those objectives will also determine any extras that you may need to effectively and safely use that axe in the field.

Leashes

To use or not use a leash while wielding an ice axe boils down to a simple question: “Am I likely to drop a tool doing this?” If you’re a first-timer climbing steep ice, then it may be a good confidence booster to tether your tools. Even the most hardened of alpinists may leash-up—especially if they’re headed deep into the backcountry, where losing a tool could lead to a dire situation. For vertical ice, a leash that connects to your belay loop rather than your wrist won’t prevent you from switching tools on a traverse. For non-vertical terrain, a wrist leash—which comes stock on many mountaineering axes—will do the trick.

Ice Clippers

Ice clippers are rad little plastic carabiners that, when attached to a compatible harness, are used to rack ice screws. They’re also handy for racking ice tools so your hands are free while rappelling or being lowered down a pitch of steep ice.

Protectors

Protecting your sharps—and everything they may come in contact with, for that matter—is critical, so covering them up should be a no-brainer when your tools aren’t in use.


Catskill Ice: Climbing at Stony Clove

Just a stone’s throw from the big city, the Catskill Mountains have long been a favorite wilderness retreat for the respite-seeking New Yorker. Its densely forested summits, deep, dark cloves, and dramatic overlooks have stoked the imagination of local and visitor alike for centuries.

It’s with a blanket of snow and a healthy cold snap that the Catskills extend their allure to area ice climbers. When the conditions are right, the region is dotted with hero ice—from long multi-pitch moderates like Buttermilk Falls, to playgrounds like the Devil’s Kitchen, to the terrifying and ephemeral jewel that is Kaaterskill Falls, there is a little bit of something for everyone.

If you’re new to ice climbing in the area, Stony Clove, in the very heart of the Catskills, is probably the best place to start. It’s very popular, and it’s no surprise why: there are dozens of routes, all of varying length, style, and difficulty—and they’re all easily accessible via a short approach. For both the total novice and the hardened old-timer, there’s more than enough in Stony Clove to spend a weekend picking away lap after lap.

The height of land at Stony Clove as viewed from Notch Lake. The approach for the West Side, and the northern areas of the East Side, traces the road back to a historic marker commemorating a forest fire, just out of view. | Credit: John Lepak
The height of land at Stony Clove as viewed from Notch Lake. The approach for the West Side, and the northern areas of the East Side, traces the road back to a historic marker commemorating a forest fire, just out of view. | Credit: John Lepak

How to Get There

The climbing at Stony Clove is centered around Notch Lake, on NY-214, at the unofficial halfway point of the Devil’s Path. From the Thruway (I-87), take Exit 20 for Saugerties. At the end of the exit, turn onto NY-32 North and continue for 6.0 miles before bearing left onto NY-32A. Keep going for another 1.9 miles into the town of Palenville. At the traffic light, turn left onto NY-23A. Continue on NY-23A, up through Kaaterskill Clove, for another 9.2 miles, before taking a left onto NY-214. Notch Lake and its parking area are just 2.8 more miles down the road, just past the height of land.

Parking is extremely limited and the lot can be a zoo on a weekend when the conditions are good. Do everyone a favor and carpool. There are commuter park-and-ride lots with more-than-enough room just off the Thruway at New Paltz (exit 18), Kingston (19), Saugerties, and Catskill (21).

The Dungeon (WI4) and Escape Hatch (WI3+), two of the fun routes at Castle Grayskull, hiding in the shade from the late afternoon sun. | Credit: John Lepak
The Dungeon (WI4) and Escape Hatch (WI3+), two of the fun routes at Castle Grayskull, hiding in the shade from the late afternoon sun. | Credit: John Lepak

Lay of the Land

The word clove, adapted from the region’s early Dutch settlers, can be roughly translated to notch, ravine, valley, or gorge. In Stony Clove, the soaring flanks of Plateau Mountain to the east and Hunter Mountain to the west certainly fit the bill—in places, the cleft is barely wide enough for the road. All this lends itself to a feeling of isolation and remoteness prevalent despite the area’s popularity.

As such, the climbing in Stony Clove is neatly divided into east and west, between Plateau and Hunter, by NY-214. Because of the aspect and the prominence of the mountains, climbing on either side is a very different experience in the afternoon than it is in the morning. The east side stays out of the sun most of the day and thus stays colder and dryer—until the afternoon when the sun hits and things can get wet. The west side gets the sun early, and can generally be a bit wetter when afternoon rolls around.

One thing you can count on when climbing either side is a strenuous—but short—approach. Getting to and from the climbing requires a very steep ascent over unfriendly terrain. Moreover, in low snow conditions, the exposed rocks and roots can make it a bit spicy—using one tool in cane position isn’t the worst idea. Once at the base of the climb, it’s advisable to fix a line to a tree to clip in any wayward packs—It’s a long way down should anything get dropped.

Generally speaking, all of the routes in Stony Clove are leadable, but it’s not a requirement. Many of the east side areas are accessible for a top rope set-up via a short scramble.

Looking up at the long, right-facing corner of Little Black Dike (WI4-), the area’s classic route. | Credit; John Lepak
Looking up at the long, right-facing corner of Little Black Dike (WI4-), the area’s classic route. | Credit; John Lepak

The Tick List

Both sides of Stony Clove have a few prime beginners’ routes, but the east side has a greater concentration of easy areas with ample room for multiple top rope set-ups. The Playground, is a wide, heavily trafficked flow that offers a handful of lines ranging from WI2 to WI4—for the true first timer, this is your best bet. It’s popular with the guides though, so it’s likely to be crowded. Castle Grayskull, also on the east side, is a good alternative with four short (but fun) routes in the more moderate WI3 to WI4 range. Across the way, on the west side, Climax (WI2+) is a great, beginner-friendly option for those seeking something a little longer.

The west side also hosts a couple of great, longer, more moderate climbs. The Curtain (WI4) is fun, straightforward, two-pitch route that can oftentimes be a bit thin towards the end. A little ways to the north, tucked away from the sun in a tight, right-facing corner, is Little Black Dike (WI4-), the area classic. Fun moves and reliable ice—it tends to be one of the earliest Stony Clove climbs to come in—make it a must do. Back on the east side, to the right of The Playground, the steep Twin Columns (WI4) offer some fun, vertical lines.

The Mixed-up Amphitheater area, on the east side (just left of The Playground), offers a half-dozen or so mixed routes of varying difficulty. Head Over Heels (M4) climbs an obvious and inviting crack to the far right of the area. If mixed is your game or the ice conditions elsewhere in the clove aren’t cooperating, this is a good place to be.


4 Winter Hikes for Aspiring Catskill 3500ers

Rough terrain, remote locations, and harsh weather make tackling any of the Northeast’s peak-bagging lists a difficult achievement. Whether it’s the high peaks of the Adirondack 46’ers, the 4,000-footers of New England, or the summits of the Catskill 3500 Club, membership is hard-earned.

Unlike the stewards of New England and the Adirondacks, however, the Catskill Club challenges its aspirants in a different way, by requiring that four of its 35 listed peaks be gained twice—once in winter—for a total of 39 climbs. It’s a wrinkle that ups the ante and affords hikers two unique experiences on some of the region’s finest summits.

As with any winter outing, be prepared for frigid temperatures, shorter days, and potentially nasty weather. Always be sure to check the forecast and trail conditions before heading out. If you’re new to winter hiking, start here.

So which are the must-do winter climbs in New York’s southern range?

A view along the Wittenberg–Cornell–Slide Trail, just shy of the Slide’s broad, flat summit. | Credit: John Lepak
A view along the Wittenberg–Cornell–Slide Trail, just shy of the Slide’s broad, flat summit. | Credit: John Lepak

Slide Mountain

At 4,190 feet, Slide Mountain is the tallest peak in the Catskills and, together with Hunter Mountain, complete the region’s contribution to the NE115 list. It’s Slide’s superlative status that makes it a mega-popular place to be at any time of year, so be prepared to negotiate the crowds on the weekend.

On a bluebird winter weekday though, it’s about as good as it gets. The Curtis–Ormsbee Trail, though neither the most direct nor the easiest route to the top—but decidedly less crowded than the alternative—is an outstanding bit of hiking. Those willing to take on the extra effort though are rewarded with two stellar, sweeping viewpoints, from which several of the Catskills’ higher peaks are visible.

The allure of ticking another 4,000 footer—and a winter one to boot—is also hard to deny. There are a good lot of harder hikes in the Catskills, but Slide definitely has that 4,000 footer-vibe about it.

A 6.6-mile loop hike linking the Curtis–Ormsbee and Wittenberg–Cornell–Slide Trails is one of the best short hikes in the Catskills. For the more ambitious, a full traverse of the Burroughs Range—one of the region’s premier hikes—is an awesome longer (9.8 miles as a shuttle, 14.5 miles as a loop) option.

Black Dome Mountain is front-and-center while descending from Blackhead’s viewless summit. | Credit: John Lepak
Black Dome Mountain is front-and-center while descending from Blackhead’s viewless summit. | Credit: John Lepak

Blackhead Mountain

High and rugged, the peaks of the Blackhead Range loom large over the northeastern Catskills. From west to east, Thomas Cole, Black Dome, and the eponymous Blackhead account for the fourth-, third-, and fifth-highest mountains in the region, respectively, and are traversed by a network of well-signed, well-maintained trails.

It’s easy to see why the architects of the Catskill 3500 Club’s bylaws chose this place—and specifically Blackhead Mountain (3,940 feet)—for one of their four required winter hikes: the ice.

As winter lays siege to Blackhead’s upper reaches, the steep eastern ledges grow dense with thick, accumulated ice, making an approach from this direction substantially more challenging. In fact, the hardness of the ice and the steepness of the terrain often demand that hikers ditch the light traction for real-deal crampons—a pretty unique requirement for a day hike in the Northeast.

The most popular way to bag Blackhead is by way of a 4.3-mile loop from the parking area at the end of Big Hollow Road on the Batavia Kill, Escarpment, Blackhead Mountain and Black Dome Range Trails. Doing it clockwise will have you ascending the heavy ice and descending on gentler ground with prolific views of Black Dome, the best on the hike.

The viewpoint just north of Panther’s summit, a little bit obscured by low clouds and flurries. | Credit: John Lepak
The viewpoint just north of Panther’s summit, a little bit obscured by low clouds and flurries. | Credit: John Lepak

Panther Mountain

Panther Mountain (3,730 feet) and its north–south running ridgeline are best known for offering some of the best views in the Catskills. For better or worse, this is a widely known fact, and a nice weekend day can draw a crowd, particularly at Giant Ledge, a bit south of Panther’s summit.

The snow and ice of winter will thin the crowds a bit, especially past Giant Ledge where the higher-precip years, snow can really pile up enough in the col that even the most intrepid post-holer will turn back (hint: bring snowshoes). Beyond, the moderate ascent is made easier with a good snowpack. Some ledge work will still need to be negotiated and switching between spikes and snowshoes will add some time to the trip, but that’s winter hiking for you.

The terrain is generally moderate and enjoyable, but this hike is all about the views—views that are magnified with winter’s absence of leaves. Unlike in leaf-out season you can really feel the scale of the place the whole time—not just at the viewpoints.

The most direct route up Panther—a 6.4 mile out-and-back on the Phoenicia–East Branch and Giant Ledge–Panther–Fox Hollow Trails—can be made from the south, starting at the hairpin turn on CR-47. A northern approach from Fox Hollow, with a substantial view just before the summit offers a longer (8.8-mile), far-less-traveled option for those looking to avoid the crowds.

The view from the Pine Hill–West Branch Trail, just north of the summit of Balsam Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak
The view from the Pine Hill–West Branch Trail, just north of the summit of Balsam Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak

Balsam Mountain

Balsam Mountain (3,600 feet), in the Catskills’ Big Indian Wilderness Area is the shortest and most westerly of the required winter 35’ers. Though the summit itself is viewless, a little ledge just to the north offers an outstanding easterly view, and the broad, flat character of the ridge makes for a pleasant, relaxing stroll—all the better with a good snowpack.

The main attraction of Balsam, however, is its location. Proximity to easily accessible trailheads, shelters, and other high peaks make it a great mountain to revisit: alone, as a day hike, or as a longer, overnight trip by linking up with the semi-trailed Eagle and Big Indian Mountains to the south.

Despite its generally moderate grades, winter on Balsam presents would-be summiteers with yet another unique seasonal challenge: water crossings. Climate change certainly hasn’t made mountain weather any more predictable and unseasonable thaws can cause high water, making even the simplest of brook crossings a challenge. Be adequately prepared and know when to turn around.

Beginning at the Rider Hollow Road trailhead and linking the Mine Hollow, Pine Hill–West Branch, and Olivrea–Mapledale Trails makes for an excellent 4.9-mile loop up and down Balsam’s western flank.


Northeast Mountaineering Climbs for All Abilities

Each year, the onset of winter transforms the mountains of the northeast. With the shorter days and plummeting temperatures comes a brand new world of icy, wind-scoured summits and long, snowy approaches. The hiking trails and climbing routes of New York and New England, easily accessed in summer, become entirely different challenges, rife with logistical considerations and objective hazards. Meanwhile, terrain that is beyond reach in the summer opens up—the gullies fill with snow, the waterfalls freeze, and beautiful, blue ribbons of ice adorn the cracks and corners of cliff faces from the Catskills to Québec. Come wintertime, the mountains of the Northeast are a playground for those bold enough to brave the cold.

For the vertically-inclined, it’s winter that makes the Northeast an excellent, low-elevation training ground—what the high peaks of the Adirondacks and the Whites may lack in height, they more than make up for in heinous weather, high-quality routes, and a long history of daring ascents. This is the place to be for mountaineers of all abilities—from those who are just starting out, to more experienced alpinists seeking grander objectives, to the west or overseas.

Should you be among those looking to test their mettle in the east, the following five mountains—and these all-time classic routes—will most certainly oblige.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Easy Snow: Franconia Ridge

High and exposed, the Franconia Ridge—including two summits above 5,000 feet—stands at an important place in the heart of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Its western slopes plummet into Franconia Notch, a hub of hiking and climbing in all seasons, while to the east, its flanks drop into the Pemigewasset Wilderness accounting for a sizable chunk of the Pemigewasset Loop, a top-notch classic backpacking trip. By many accounts, Franconia Ridge is the finest high route in the Whites.

While it doesn’t have as many noteworthy technical routes as, say, Cannon Cliff, its neighbor across the notch, it does have a few worthwhile moderate endeavours like Lincoln’s Throat (WI3) and Shining Rock (WI2). It’s Franconia Ridge’s merits as a winter hiking destination, however, that make it an ideal introduction to traveling the mountains of the Northeast in winter. A hike linking the Falling Waters, Franconia Ridge, and Old Bridle Path trails makes for a long, fun day in the mountains. As the trail breaks the treeline and gains the ridge, the exposure and weather combine to create an excellent, non-technical environment to try out some of the tools and techniques required of a true mountaineering objective.

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

WI2/Easy Snow: Mount Colden’s Trap Dike 

At 4,714 feet, Mount Colden is the eleventh highest peak in the Adirondacks, a bonafide 46’er, and may appear as a somewhat diminutive selection for a catalogue of classic, Northeastern mountaineering routes. But for one striking feature, however, does Colden draw attention year round: the Trap Dike, a heavy cleft in its northwestern face.

In summer, the Trap Dike is one of the Adirondacks’ main attractions, bringing hikers from far and wide to its base at Avalanche Lake. The lengthy approach is made worth it by the steep, class 4 climbing, and the thrilling exposure of the upper slabs. At times, even in the best conditions, climbing Colden via the Trap Dike can feel like splitting the difference between a hike and a climb.

In winter, the combination of weather, shorter days, and frigid temperatures take hold, and the water that flows in the dike freezes, introducing in turn a new feature to negotiate: waterfall ice. The Trap Dike (WI2, Easy Snow) opens with two pitches of ice climbing, interspersed with some easy snow, before the route opens onto the exposed upper slabs. While not steep, the slabs are extremely exposed, and be downright terrifying in thin conditions. Easier options for descent abound, though none are short—a frozen Mount Colden is a day-long affair, at least, and a stout challenge for newer mountaineers.

WI2/Easy Snow: The North Face of Gothics

The Great Range, in the heart of the Adirondacks, is one of the most spectacular places in the Northeast. Rugged, remote, and wild, a full traverse covering its eight high peaks—over 20-plus miles—is an all-timer, and arguably one of the hardest hiking objectives in New York State.

At its midpoint, miles from the nearest road, rises Gothics, a steep, dramatic mountain recognizable from afar by its steep, bare north face. Though it’s summit only measures 4,734 feet above sea level, Gothics punches above its weight—even the normal hiking routes are aided by fixed cables on the slabby upper reaches. From any direction, at any time of year, Gothics is a tall task.

Come winter, the North Face (WI2, East Snow) route up Gothics is one of the Adirondack’s premier mountaineering challenges—when it’s in. More often than not though, the season conspires to create sub-optimal conditions, ranging from verglass to bare rock, that can seriously have you questioning the validity of its WI2 grade.

When it’s right though the North Face is a thrilling, exposed climb up a sheer 1200-foot wall. The wide flow offers numerous lines of ascent, with varied difficulty and opportunity to place protection, so experience reading ice and snow is critical. Between that, the scenery, and the approach—a true haul—Gothics’ North Face is a legitimate, must-do objective.

Courtesy: Ryan Wichelns
Courtesy: Ryan Wichelns

WI3: Pinnacle Gully

Simply put, Mount Washington is the centerpiece of mountaineering in the Northeast, a hulking mass around which all other objectives in the region orbit. At 6,288 feet, it rises, literally, above everything around it for a thousand miles, and its remarkable features—from the deep ravines and soaring buttresses of its eastern slopes to its rugged summit cone—are host to some of the most spectacular hiking, climbing, and skiing to be found anywhere.

However, it’s Mount Washington’s “character and hostility,” as legendary climber and author Fred Beckey once put it, for which the mountain is probably best known. The unique topography of the White Mountains, and Mount Washington’s location at the confluence of two, ever-churning weather patterns can result in some famously horrendous conditions. Dangerously cold temperatures, heavy snow and high wind—with gusts reaching hurricane-force—are a regular occurrence in winter. As a direct impact, Mount Washington and the rest of the Presidential Range have a very low treeline (around 4,500 feet) and a ton of exposed, alpine terrain, over which many outstanding winter climbs can be found. One line up “the rockpile” stands out, however, making “best-of” lists left and right: it’s the über-classic ice climb, Pinnacle Gully (WI3).

Ice begins to form early in the north-facing gap between Pinnacle and Central Buttresses in Huntington Ravine. The flow it creates—three pitches of incredible, aesthetic, ice climbing over 600 feet—is about as good as it gets. At WI3 the grade is relatively moderate, making Pinnacle Gully an accessible and popular route in an alpine environment that is unique in this part of the country.

A day on Mount Washington should never be taken lightly, though—the weather is always a factor and even on a bluebird day, high traffic can mean a shower of falling ice. Bring a helmet and enjoy the best of what the northeast has to offer.

WI4: The Cilley-Barber Route on Katahdin

Rising some 4,288 feet from the forest floor, unchallenged, the Katahdin massif dominates the landscape of Baxter State Park, its bulk of rock and ice without rival against the backdrop of Maine’s Great North Woods. Katahdin is wild, remote, and unforgiving at any time of year but it is doubly so in winter, when an ascent by any means is a serious challenge—one that is perhaps unequaled in New England, including Mount Washington.

Already removed from the population hubs of the Northeast, Katahdin becomes significantly more remote come winter, when the seasonal closures of Baxter State Park’s access roads makes for a rigorous, committing, 16-mile approach. Further complicating matters—and adding to that expedition-like vibe—access to Baxter State Park is subject to strict regulations, and winter climbers must apply for permits. Factor in the extreme cold and harsh weather that you’re bound to encounter at some point on a trip to Katahdin, and you have a real-deal, multi-day, winter adventure. It’s fitting then, that its name comes from the Penobscot word for “the greatest mountain.”

The steep headwall of Katahdin’s South Basin, scarred over with dramatic, icy gullies, is the frozen jewel in the crown of New England mountaineering. Classic, technical climbs, have been put up here in all seasons since the early twentieth century. The routes are long and committing and objective hazards—like avalanches and icefall—are very real dangers, and moving fast is absolutely critical. This is as alpine as it gets in the Northeast.

Among these coveted lines is the Cilley–Barber (WI4), a dramatic, ice-and-snow-packed cleft in headwall that soars some 2,000 feet from the bottom of the cirque to the top of the Knife Edge arête. It is a long, sustained, and difficult ice climb—one that is often recognized as one of the best of its kind in the east. The approach, permitting, and weather may lend themselves to the feeling of an expedition, but they also thin the crowds out a bit, and cultivate a wild feel—one unique to the Northeast, that should have a place on everyone’s tick list.


Thanksgiving Week vs. The Feather Pack Jacket

When word came through that EMS was releasing a new and improved version of the Feather Pack jacket (men’s/women’s) to call me excited would be an understatement. I’d been eyeing a couple of down jackets for a while, as an alternative to my synthetic puff jacket—to use as an insulating layer on colder hikes, or as a belay jacket while ice climbing—and the Feather Pack appeared to fit the bill. It’s lightweight, packable, and warm. Moreover, it’s a handsome looking jacket, as fit for a day in the mountains as a night on the town. Which got me thinking: How can I appropriately test-drive such a versatile piece of outerwear?

Just like autumn in the northeast, the week of Thanksgiving is a time of change. It opens with a bit of work, transitions into family time and a day of feasting, and culminates in the form of a beautiful long weekend—the perfect opportunity to get outside. And so, to put the Feather Pack to the test, I’ve invited it to Thanksgiving, adopting it as my go-to jacket for the week, to see how it performs in town and country alike.

Wicked early on the way into work. | Credit: John Lepak
Wicked early on the way into work. | Credit: John Lepak

Monday and Tuesday: Commute, Work, Commute Again

A short work week is a work week all the same, so Monday is about putting the Feather Pack to the test on my heavy-duty commute. From my home in the woods of western Connecticut, getting to my office in New York City each day is a haul. Being on time means leaving before the sun rises, and any outer layer I’m bringing along needs to deal with two different climates. The temperature in the city tends to be incrementally warmer so what works on a freezing-cold Metro-North platform may be a bit heavy once I get into town.

Good news for the Feather Pack—it’s lightweight and it packs down well so, when I needed to shed on the subway or on the sidewalk, it fit right into my work bag.

Cold fingers but pretty warm otherwise. | Credit: John Lepak
Cold fingers but pretty warm otherwise. | Credit: John Lepak

Wednesday: Meal Prep

Each Thanksgiving, as sure as there is turkey and mashed potatoes, there’s an aspect of cooking Thanksgiving Dinner that moves the show outside. Occasionally, a warm fire or grill is involved, but more often than not, it’s shucking oysters and littlenecks en masse for a stuffing, a stew, or to just eat straight-up—this is New England, after all. It’s a bit wet and a bit cold so a warm layer is critical. The Feather Pack made a nice addition to this year’s wetter-than-usual shellfish prep session: the insulation did its job—I was toasty—and the durable water-resistant coating held up well against a little bit of rain.

Warming up after a breezy 5k. | Credit: Hans-Peter Riehle
Warming up after a breezy 5k. | Courtesy: Hans-Peter Riehle

 

Thursday: Run. Then Eat.

If you’re a glutton for punishment, the best way to kick off a day of overeating is with a little bit of exercise. Enter the traditional Thanksgiving morning road race. Since I’ve been running it, the Newtown Turkey Trot has been a cold affair, with temperatures rarely above freezing. Getting out of a warm bed and going out into that is a neat trick. I threw the Feather Pack on over my running clothes before leaving the house with a plan of wearing it until it was time to run and then throwing it back on once the race was through.

This year, while the day was a balmy 44° under partly cloudy skies, the wind was up and it felt a whole lot colder. The jacket was absolutely perfect during warm ups—super warm against the wind chill. Five kilometers later, it was back on again, keeping that body heat close.

Gearing up at the base of Thrills and Skills. | Credit: John Lepak
Gearing up at the base of Thrills and Skills. | Credit: John Lepak

Friday: Crag Day

The leftovers have been packed away, the kitchen is clean, and the day is free. With the masses in town, shopping their little hearts out, it’s finally time to get out and really run the Feather Pack through its paces. A couple of laps at the local crag are in order.

We headed up to Saint John’s Ledges in Kent to do some top roping on the long, slabby Upper Ledge. The Feather Pack, not nearly as weary as I from all of our activity the previous week, was again packed neatly away into my bag.

Typical of late-season rock climbing in New England, it was cold, and once we reached the base of the ledges—accessed via a short, steep section of the Appalachian Trail—the Feather Pack came right out. It was handy keeping warm while setting up the anchors and belaying. The roomy hood—also very warm—fit over my helmet, a Black Diamond Vapor, quite comfortably as well.

Carry out what you carry in. | Courtesy: Katharina Lepak
Carry out what you carry in. | Courtesy: Katharina Lepak

 

Saturday: Family Time

Getting out needn’t be a physical challenge all the time, and more mellow terrain makes access easier for the whole family. A local park or preserve with some easy trails is a great way to be outside together. Connecticut’s share of the Appalachian Trail offers several easy, scenic stretches along the Housatonic River that fit the bill perfectly.

Being a cooler day on less trying ground gave me good reason to try the Feather Pack in an active way. It also afforded me the opportunity to try it on over a baby carrier, complete with a baby strapped to my chest. I’m happy to report that both the jacket and the baby provided ample warmth.

 

Warming up on a quick break, trying to beat an incoming winter storm. | Credit: Katharina Lepak
Warming up on a quick break, trying to beat an incoming winter storm. | Credit: Katharina Lepak

Sunday: Take a Hike

Closing the book on another successful Thanksgiving weekend also means the opening of the holiday season, and the countless tasks and to-do’s that come with it. A couple of miles in the woods is the perfect reset before diving into all of that.

An impending winter storm meant staying local, and getting out early. I hit the Zoar Trail, a 6.5-mile loop trail in Newtown’s Lower Paugussett State Forest. For a shorter trail, the Zoar Trail offers a little bit of everything: river views, a waterfall, rock hopping, and a decent bit of elevation gain—a good test for an insulating layer like the Feather Pack.

I donned the Feather Pack leaving the house and wore it on the ride out, packing it away at the trailhead. Hiking the Zoar Trail clockwise gets the majority of the climbing out of the way early. I hoofed it, trying to beat the storm. Near the crest of the last hill, I stopped, put the Feather Pack on, and took a breather. As it had all week, it delivered the warmth. I took a drink, had a quick snack, and moved on.

The second half of the loop trail skirts the edge of Lake Zoar. It’s generally flat, so I threw the jacket back on to finish the hike. Soon after, the freezing rain moved in, and I again got a chance to test out the DWR coating. A few miles later, I was warm, dry, and in my truck headed home to watch the snow.

Verdict

The Feather Pack jacket held its own over the course of a long holiday week. It excelled as a resting insulation layer—Whether it was a quick water break on a hike or a longer stretch belaying a partner up a climb, it trapped escaping body heat and kept away the cold. It also served itself well as an around town jacket. As part of the test, I wore it everywhere, from hustling to an office in Manhattan to picking up a turkey in rural Connecticut and it never felt uncomfortable or out of place—a testament to its design, equal parts form and its function.
The best endorsement I can give it though, is that when Monday rolled around again, as I was stepping out into the predawn morning to scrape the ice and snow off my truck, the Feather Pack was the jacket I grabbed. And it’ll be in my pack when I’m back on the trails this weekend, too

How to Keep Warm in the Winter Wind

Shorter days, colder temperatures, and the possibility for wicked weather are all factors to be considered when getting outside in the winter time. The winter wind is one such factor that, if unaccounted for, can sour even the bluest of bluebird days. Here are some tips to help keep you warm when the temps are down and the wind is up.

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Be Prepared

The first and best thing to do when considering a winter excursion is to be prepared. Local weather and trail conditions reports are critical, as is understanding how the wind—and the windchill factor—can affect temperatures. One useful tool is the National Weather Service’s Wind Chill Chart, which uses sustained wind speed and temperature to calculate the amount of time skin can be exposed before frostbite begins to set in. This is super important, especially for those fast-and-light, alpine-style objectives, where spartan packing lists may cause an important item to eschewed for the sake of weight.

Cover Up

Exposed skin is the most vulnerable to frostbite when the windchill index dips down—so cover it up! Boots, pants and jackets are obvious but make sure to also wear gloves and a hat. A good balaclava or neck gaiter are also essential to protecting your face, which is almost always exposed in other circumstances. Ski goggles, in addition to keeping your eyes out of the wind, limit exposure as well.

Pack Hand Warmers and Start Them Early

As the body cools, circulation slows, and the extremities—starting with fingers and toes—become extremely susceptible to freezing. Nip this in the bud at the trailhead by stuffing your gloves and boots with hand warmers. Do yourself a double favor by packing extra gloves and socks and stuffing them with activated hand warmers from the get-go. Should you wind up losing a glove or getting your socks soaked, you’ll have warm replacements ready to go.

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Layers on Layers

Layering is always important while traveling in the mountains but when the wind is up, it’s doubly so. A wicking base layer will keep you dry while an insulating mid-layer will help trap your body heat. On top of those as an outer-most layer—while moving, at least—should be a waterproof, windproof, hardshell jacket. Hardshell jackets are designed specifically for conditions like the biting winter wind—they tend to be lightweight and packable too, so they’re not too much to throw into a pack until you need it. Finally, have a packable insulated jacket to pop over everything else to keep that heat in on breaks. As an added bonus, the air trapped between each layer also acts as additional insulation.

Eat and Hydrate Well

Before heading out into the cold, fuel up with a big meal. It’s more energy to keep you moving and digestion helps bring the body temperature up. While you’re out, keep hydrating—it’ll encourage circulation and spread the warmth to vulnerable extremities.

Warm Up from the Inside-out

Warm up from the inside-out by carrying an insulated thermos full of something hot. A little coffee, tea, or plain-old hot water can make a huge difference, raising core temperatures and spirits alike in the coldest of conditions. Alcohol, despite it’s common renown for cutting the cold, is best avoided when the windchill factor is severe as it actually causes the body to lose heat faster—so save it for the aprés.

TK_EMS-Conway-6432-CH

Stay in the Lee of the Wind

When the wind is really bad, do what you can to stay out of it. In most cases this is as simple as staying in the woods but above treeline it means being strategic about route selection and where to take your breaks. Use natural and artificial features like boulders and cairns to catch your breath—the relief of even a minute spent out of the wind can make all the difference, mentally as well as physically.

Keep it Moving

The best way to combat frostbite when the windchill factor is high is to keep moving. Aerobic activity keeps the heart rate up, increasing circulation and spreading critical warmth to vulnerable fingers and toes. Remember to capture that body heat and keep your core temperature up while resting by throwing on an additional insulated layer.


Hiking Acadia’s Ladder Trails

Acadia National Park is known far and wide for its dramatic natural beauty, the vivid contrast of mountain and sea creating a dreamscape of bald ridgelines, sweeping ocean views, and granite cliffs that dive straight into the tide. In the spaces between, dense woodlands and immaculate waterways offer no relief from the splendor. It’s paradise, in a complete, uncompromising, and distinctly New England way.

For all Acadia’s given natural qualities, however, it’s a man-made characteristic that allows visitors the privilege of access: the trails. Miles and miles of hewn stone steps, graded carriage roads, and blazed footpaths represent a mammoth feat of ingenuity, engineering, and labor worthy of the land for which they were constructed. Among these built features, it’s the use of iron—as rungs, railings, and ladders—that stands out. Their presence, on steep, severe, and exposed terrain afford hikers access to parts of the mountains that they wouldn’t be able to achieve without technical climbing acumen—and because of their concentration in the park, they’ve become almost synonymous with Acadia. In guidebooks and online, the Park Service has even appended their rating system to include easy, moderate, strenuous, and ladder.

A word of warning, some of these trails are steep and should absolutely not be attempted by hikers who aren’t comfortable with heights.

Editor’s Note: Some of these trails, including the Precipice, Jordan Cliffs, and Beech Cliff Trails are subject to seasonal closures to protect the peregrine falcons who nest in the cliffs. These can last from mid-March to mid-August but visit the park’s website to be sure.

The Precipice

Nowhere in Acadia are those elements that define the merit of the ladder trail more apparent than on the Precipice Trail. This notoriously steep and exposed route up Champlain Mountain’s rugged eastern face follows a system of near-vertical cliffs, navigating their natural cracks and ledges with the aid of dozens of iron rungs and railings. It’s not long before substantial easterly views of the Atlantic Ocean open up and the exposure becomes palpable—in places it feels closer to a climb than a hike. In a little less than a mile—with an ascent of over a thousand feet—the Precipice gains the 1058-foot summit of Champlain, with an outstanding view of Dorr Mountain to the west as a reward. From here, link up with the Champlain North Ridge and Orange and Black Trails for 2.1 miles of what is widely referred to as the park’s premier hike.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

The Beehive

Though the summit is a mere 520 feet above sea level, a quick jaunt up the super popular Beehive is a must-do on just about everyone’s Acadia list—and justifiably so. The eponymous Beehive Trail, with its iron rungs and railings, delivers sweeping views in short order by running right up its exposed southern face. From nearby Sand Beach, the crowds look more like ants marching up an anthill than bees working about their hive, but don’t let the crowds dissuade you—between the panorama and the fun of the brief, steep ladder sections, the Beehive is essential Acadia. String it together with the Bowl for a 1.4-mile loop. Getting there early and getting a spot at the beach for some post-hike chill is highly recommended.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

Dorr Mountain

At 1,270 feet, Dorr Mountain is Acadia’s third-highest peak and an ascent of its rugged eastern face rewards hikers with substantial views in every direction, taking in the town of Bar Harbor to the north, Champlain Mountain to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the south, and Cadillac Mountain directly to the west. Naturally, these views are best achieved via the aptly-named Ladder Trail. Starting just south of the Tarn, the Ladder Trail gets right to work, climbing steeply over seemingly innumerable stone steps before the first iron rungs come into view. The proper ladder section is brief but memorable, with intermittent views of Champlain through the trees. Continue up the Schiff Path over gorgeous slabs dotted with pitch pine to Dorr’s summit to take it all in. Connecting with the Dorr Mountain South Ridge and Cannon Brook Trails makes for a very pleasant 3.2-mile loop.

Jordan Cliffs

While most of the ladder trails in Acadia are designed to get hikers up a cliff face, the Jordan Cliffs Trail is actually a traverse, running north to south along a series of east-facing cliffs, between Penobscot Mountain and Jordan Pond. Although by heading north, hikers will get a cumulative elevation gain, the Traverse aspect of the Jordan Cliffs Trail promises plenty of up and down over its course utilizing wooden staircases and—naturally—iron rungs in the process. Some exposed sections offer excellent views, with Jordan Pond and Pemetic Mountain in the east, and the Bubbles, a set of postcard-worthy twin peaks on the north end of the pond. Make it a 4.6-mile loop and take in Sargent and Penobscot Mountains, Acadia’s second- and fifth-highest mountains by connecting the Jordan Cliffs Trail with the Sargent East Cliffs, Sargent South Ridge, Penobscot Mountain, and Spring Trails. The exposed ridge walk over Sargent and Penobscot is some of the best hiking in the park.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

Beech Cliff

On the western side of the island—commonly referred to as the “Quietside” for it’s relative distance from the bustle of Acadia’s better known attractions—one can get their ladder fix on the Beech Cliff Trail. This short trail rises straight up through the dense woods around Echo Lake over some cut stone steps before reaching a series of four iron ladders that negotiate the shelves and ledges of a near-vertical cliff system before topping out at a junction with the Canada Cliff Trail and a beautiful view back over Echo Lake. Continue to the right to the high point of Beech Cliff and more views of the lake and out to the Atlantic in the South. This is an awesome trail to do as part of a beach day at Echo Lake—Acadia’s only swimmable fresh-water lake—or as an escape from the crowds in high summer. Do it with the Beech Cliff Loop Trail and descend via the Canada Cliff Trail for a nice little 2-mile loop.

 


3 Trail Runs Near Newport, Rhode Island

Trail running is having a moment right now. First-person video of airy ridgelines traversed at precipitous speeds are flooding the social media feeds of the outdoor-inclined. Grueling backcountry ultra races—in the image of the notorious Barkley Marathons—are popping up by the day. Classic backpacking routes, from the Pemi Loop to the Devil’s Path, are getting done in hours, not days. It certainly seems that everywhere you look, the wilds of the Northeast are teeming with ultra-fit, tiny-backpack-clad trail runners, dodging blowdown and hopping over rock and root as they bound headlong into some real type 2 fun.

While it’s not the type of peaceful community with nature that some of us seek, trail running is, at the very least, another great way to get outside. It’s a lot easier to squeeze a hike into a busy schedule if you’re running it and covering more ground faster affords the ambitious—and properly conditioned—outdoor enthusiast the freedom of a remote backcountry experience without the heavy pack.

Trail running is also excellent cardiovascular exercise and incredibly good training for harder, higher mountaineering objectives, where moving quickly over difficult and varied terrain is essential. That said, it is a strenuous activity that shouldn’t be taken lightly—road runners will need to account for the uneven, often difficult footing while hikers will need to acclimate to the additional aerobic strain. So, if you’re new to trail running you’d be wise not to start in the mountains but rather with a more manageable goal.

Seek the coast. More specifically, set a course for Newport, Rhode Island. Though the City by the Sea is better known for its surfing and sea kayaking, a modest selection of trails, gentle elevation changes, and breathtaking ocean views make Newport—and the surrounding area—a top-notch place to give trail running a try.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

Sachuest Point, Middletown

Sachuest Point, on Aquidneck Island’s southeastern corner, is a true gem. A small peninsula jutting out into the sea, its 242 acres briefly divide the Sakonnet River from Rhode Island Sound, affording sweeping, sustained ocean views. The terrain is flat and easy, alternating between hard dirt and gravel path, all while the trail meanders through shrubland and native grasses before opening up to panoramic views of rocky coastline, beach, and sea.

The area is a federally-managed wildlife refuge replete with an incredibly diverse population of birds and smaller fauna, including the increasingly rare New England Cottontail rabbit. Obviously, this makes staying on marked trails—so as not to disturb these fragile habitats—of critical importance.

Linking up the Flint Point and Ocean View Loops, Sachuest Point’s two named trails, in a figure-eight will net you a 2.7-mile round trip. A cool down lap of one or both loops to enjoy the many, signed shoreline access points or observation areas is highly recommended.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

Sakonnet Greenway, Portsmouth and Middletown

Open meadows packed with wildflowers, breezy coastal woods, and bucolic farmland, characterize the Sakonnet Greenway, as it weaves its way through the heart of Aquidneck Island, linking the towns of Portsmouth and Middletown in the process. End-to-end, the trail weighs in at 10 miles—the longest continuous trail of its kind on the island—though a few well-spaced parking areas afford opportunity for shorter loops, including the Portsmouth, Middletown South, and Middletown North Loops.

You’re not going to gain a ton of elevation, and the footing is generally good as the trail runs mostly over dirt or cut grass, but step lightly after rain—the trail is also open to horses, and the deeper hoofprints can roll an ankle if you’re not looking.

And while this is not a wilderness experience, the Sakonnet Greenway still has its moments with flora so thick—nurtured by the milder marine climate—you’ll feel its breathing with you. Give the 2.6-mile Middletown South Loop a try, beginning at the parking lot at Newport Vineyards and ending with a glass of something chilled.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

Cliff Walk, Newport

While it’s not a trail run in the traditional sense—most of it is paved—Newport’s Cliff Walk is hands-down one of the best runs on the island. From the get-go at Memorial Boulevard, just uphill from Easton’s Beach, Cliff Walk delivers spectacular views of the Atlantic and it yields not once over it’s 3.5-mile course to Bailey’s Beach. On one side are the mansions of Newport, soaring monuments to the kind of American wealth that defined the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. On the other side, an even stronger force: the Atlantic Ocean and the dramatic cliffs that plunge directly into it.

In either direction, the views are stunning and the sea breeze is enough to make running Cliff Walk a joy even on the hottest of Summer days. Do yourself a favor and go early—this is a must-see destination in Newport and it fills up quickly. If you don’t want to be dodging and weaving your way through the crowds, don’t wait.

Parking and access points are aplenty on Cliff Walk so runs of varying distances are possible. If you’re up for it though, completing the 7 mile out-and-back route is the way to go.


Alpha Guide: Hiking The Devil's Path

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

Not for the faint of heart, the Catskills’ most notorious trail is rugged, wild, and just as challenging as it is rewarding.

Point blank, the Devil’s Path is hard. In its 25 miles, this hike gains over 8,500 feet in elevation while running over some of the roughest terrain in the Northeast. The five Catskill high peaks it traverses—Indian Head, Twin, Sugarloaf, Plateau, and West Kill Mountains—are separated by dramatically steep descents into low notches, requiring hikers to scramble and even downclimb in some spots. The kind of loose rock that makes your ankles hurt just looking at it is seemingly everywhere and, depending on the season, water sources can be few and far between. The challenges this hike presents are unrelenting.

The reward, however, is apparent in the abundant, fantastic viewpoints and the wild vibe of the trail. For being just two hours from New York City, this hike feels a lot more remote than it actually is.

Quick Facts

Distance: 25 miles, thru-hike
Time to Complete: 1-3 days
Difficulty: ★★★★★
Scenery:★★★★


Season: May to October
Fees/Permits: None
Contact: http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/5265.html

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Turn-By-Turn

The Devil’s Path is often thought of as two halves, east and west, with its midpoint being the intersection with NY-214 at Stony Clove Notch. Truth is, once you hit Stony Clove Notch (hiking westbound) you’ve done the bulk of the work with most of the mileage, elevation gain, and the decidedly rougher terrain behind you.

Most folks like to tackle this trip in a weekend, camping close to the trailhead on Friday night and splitting the Eastern and Western sections between Saturday and Sunday. For the brave, doing the “Devil in a Day” is also an option, though an early start and ample preparation are absolutely critical.

From the Thruway (I-87) take Exit 20 and head west on NY-212. After 2.3 miles, take a slight right onto Blue Mountain Road. Continue for 1.4 miles, then take a left onto West Saugerties Road. From there, it’s 5.2 miles to Prediger Road (on the left) and another 0.5 miles to the trailhead parking area.

This is a one-way ticket, so you’ll need to post a shuttle car at the other end on Spruceton Road.

The view from Orchard Point on Plateau Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak
The view from Orchard Point on Plateau Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak

The Eastern Section

Beginning at the Prediger Road trailhead (42.13396, -74.10435), the Devil’s Path starts out easy, heading southeast on a wide path over the mostly flat ground. At 0.2 miles the blue-blazed Jimmy Dolan Trail splits off to the right. Bear left and follow those red blazes. Fortunately, for all the myriad obstacles this trail is going to throw at you, route finding isn’t one of them—every junction is very well-signed and the blazes are plentiful.

At 1.7 miles, the trail runs into a T intersection with the Overlook Trail—take a right. In about 200 feet, the trail splits again, with the Overlook Trail heading straight (south) and the Devil’s Path breaking off to the right (west-southwest).

A short distance straight on the Overlook Trail is the Devil’s Kitchen Lean-to (42.11896, -74.08716), a very popular shelter and the first of its kind on the trail. Should you be looking to do this hike in a weekend, the Devil’s Kitchen is a solid Friday night option, and will all but ensure an early start on Saturday morning. You almost certainly won’t be the only one with this plan in mind, though, so don’t bank on a spot in the shelter proper.

A view through the trees on the way up Indian Head Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak
A view through the trees on the way up Indian Head Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak

Indian Head Mountain

After the junction with the Overlook Trail, the Devil’s Path begins its first ascent, moderately gaining elevation as it climbs the northeast face of Indian Head. At 2.9 miles the trail reaches Sherman’s Lookout, an open ledge with excellent views back to the east. From here, the trail meanders over the ridge, climbing and descending easily to another great view, this time to the south. Beyond this lookout, the grade steepens and requires some easy scrambling over rocks and roots—a mere warm-up for what’s to come—to the viewless 3,573-foot summit of Indian Head (42.11640, -74.11456), your first of five Catskill 3500-foot peaks on the trip.

Up next is your first, steep, characteristically-Devil’s-Path descent, dropping around 500 feet in 0.6 miles into Jimmy Dolan Notch. Compared with the descents to come, however, this one is relatively moderate. At the low point of the notch (4.5 miles), the eponymous, Jimmy Dolan Notch Trail descends to the right. This is the same blue-blazed trail the Devil’s Path crossed at the beginning of the trip so should you need an early bailout option, this is one will take you right back to the car.

A break in the clouds from Twin Mountain’s south summit. | Credit: John Lepak
A break in the clouds from Twin Mountain’s south summit. | Credit: John Lepak

 

Twin Mountain

Rising to the west, on other side of Jimmy Dolan Notch, is Twin Mountain, the second 3,500-foot peak of the hike. Much like your descent into the notch, the climb out is short and steep, regaining all the elevation you just lost in short order. At 4.9 miles, the trail gains the south summit and rewards your early efforts with a really outstanding view to the south. Continue on a relatively level ridge walk, descending slightly though thick evergreens and climbing again, easily, to the true summit of Twin Mountain (3,640 feet) (42.12559, -74.12903), at 5.6 miles, and another good viewpoint.

A short distance down from the summit you’ll come upon a cave on the trail’s right hand side. A spacious rock overhang makes this a solid, protected spot to post-up for for a breather and maybe even some lunch—if you’re trying to bang this out in two days, the timing will likely work out.

Make sure to enjoy the break though, because past this point, the Devil’s Path really starts to show its teeth. This descent, into Pecoy Notch, gets steep quickly and the pace slows right down. There are a few rock features through this section of the trail that require some serious scrambling and one that’s actually more of a downclimb. These can be dangerous in wet or icy conditions so an abundance of care is necessary to negotiate them safely. Keep on descending into Pecoy Notch where a junction with the Pecoy Notch Trail (blue blazes) at mile 6.3, provides another eligible bailout if needed.

A short spur trail past Sugarloaf’s summit offers a nice view when it’s not in the clouds. | Credit: John Lepak
A short spur trail past Sugarloaf’s summit offers a nice view when it’s not in the clouds. | Credit: John Lepak

Sugarloaf Mountain

From here, the trail presses on to the West and the steep ascent of Sugarloaf Mountain. One fun feature of the eastern section of the Devil’s Path is that the ups and the downs get progressively more difficult for the west-bound hiker. So, that this little section ups the ante—climbing around a thousand feet in a little less than one mile—should come as no surprise. It’s rough, as the trail scrambles over rocks and roots until, after what seems like forever, you reach the summit ridge and level out for a short, gentle approach to the 3,800-foot viewless summit (42.13130, -74.15014) at mile 7.5. A yellow-blazed spur path just beyond leads to a good viewpoint south.

The descent into Mink Hollow is—you guessed it—steep and rough. There are plenty of obstacles to negotiate as you drop almost 1,200 feet in 1.05 miles so the going is predictably slow.

When the trail finally levels out it’s joined by the blue-blazed Mink Hollow Trail on the right at mile 8.55. These two trails run together for a short while before the Mink Hollow Trail departs to the left. Following that will bring you to the Mink Hollow shelter (42.13564, -74.16247) and decent water source. Depending on what time of day you get here, this is also a beautiful little spot to set up camp for the night. If not, it’s still a prime opportunity to take a break and fill-up before the rough hike back up, the latest in a series of progressively harder climbs.

A view from an outlook just shy of Plateau Mountain’s wooded summit. | Credit: John Lepak
A view from an outlook just shy of Plateau Mountain’s wooded summit. | Credit: John Lepak

 

Plateau Mountain

Continuing straight on the Devil’s Path, the terrain steepens just about immediately and the scrambling resumes as you make your way out of the hollow. Intermittent views back towards Sugarloaf make stopping to catch your breath a bit more enjoyable but the ascent is steep. At 9.6 miles, after 1,250 vertical feet of some pretty heavy duty hiking, you gain the summit ridge and top-out on Plateau Mountain at 3,840 feet (42.13780, -74.17419).

As the name would suggest, the summit of Plateau is relatively flat for a leisurely 2.1 miles through dense, fragrant conifers. Roughly 0.4 miles after the summit, the Warner Creek Trail breaks off to the left.

Plateau’s ridgewalk culminates with two excellent viewpoints. Known as Danny’s Lookout and Orchid Point they offer nice views to the North and West, respectively and the open ledge of the latter is another great spot for a rest before heading down to Stony Clove Notch.

Notch Lake and NY-214 in Stony Clove Notch, the unofficial halfway point of the Devil’s Path. | Credit: John Lepak
Notch Lake and NY-214 in Stony Clove Notch, the unofficial halfway point of the Devil’s Path. | Credit: John Lepak

 

Stony Clove

From Orchid Point, the trail continues on to the left, dropping quickly over some large rocks before beginning a long, moderate descent. While ‘moderate’ may sound lovely here, especially after the drama of the previous several descents, the Devil’s Path has another plan for it’s weary hikers: loose, broken, ankle-rolling rocks. If you’ve chosen to split this hike into two days, you may be coming down in the dark here, so take care and make sure that headlamp is charged. Eventually the grade and scree will ease up and turn into a rough staircase as you make your way into Stony Clove Notch.

If you’re making this a two day affair, Devil’s Tombstone Campground (42.15466, -74.20599) is a good place to stop. It’s wildly popular so make sure to reserve a spot in advance. If you’re hiking in the off-season, when the campground’s closed (October to May) consider another option—the campground is regularly patrolled and the fines for illegal camping are steep.

Note: The Devil’s Tombstone Campground is closed for the 2019 season for essential infrastructure updates. Existing reservations will be accommodated but there will be no staff or amenities on site. More information is available here.

The Devil’s Path as it climbs out of Stony Clove Notch. | Credit: John Lepak
The Devil’s Path as it climbs out of Stony Clove Notch. | Credit: John Lepak

The Western Section

The trail resumes across NY-214, winds through the campground, and crosses a footbridge before reentering the woods. Another steep climb begins almost as soon as you get into the trees as the Devil’s Path switches back and forth over rocks and roots, steadily gaining elevation. This is one place to pay particularly close attention to, as some of the switchbacks are hard to see and it’s easy to just keep on walking straight off the trail. The blazes are there, just keep a close eye.

 

The grade eventually eases up and the trail proceeds over the relatively mild terrain in the col between Hunter and Southwest Hunter Mountains. At mile 15.1 the yellow-blazed Hunter Mountain Trail, which leads north to the summit of Hunter Mountain, begins on the right. Continue straight and just past this junction find the Devil’s Acre lean-to ( 42.16544, -74.23084)—another serviceable option for spending the night—and a reliable water source just off the trail to the right.

The next 2.2 miles are among the Devil’s Path’s gentlest as the trail traverses the southwestern flank of Hunter Mountain and descends into Diamond Notch.

The low-point of the notch features Diamond Notch Falls (42.17519, -74.25791)—a lovely place to take a break and get some water—and a junction with the blue-blazed Diamond Notch Trail. If you’re looking for a place to spend the night, this is a good opportunity—take a left and the Diamond Notch Lean-to is just 0.5 miles south. If not, keep on going straight—West Kill Mountain, your final high peak of the trip, awaits.

Buck Ridge Lookout, before the marked—but viewless—summit of West Kill. | Credit: John Lepak
Buck Ridge Lookout, before the marked—but viewless—summit of West Kill. | Credit: John Lepak

 

West Kill Mountain

The Devil’s Path crosses a sturdy wooden foot bridge over Diamond Notch Falls and turns right, paralleling the Brook briefly before swinging left and beginning to climb. The ascent opens with a short bit of rock hopping before easing into a soft, mostly dirt footpath. The grade is steep but steady and the terrain is far easier than any of the previous climbs on the route.

Nearing the top, a few rock obstacles require short scrambles before the climb out of Diamond Notch culminates with a cool rock overhang at 18.7 miles. The trail skirts the overhang to the left and gains the ridge with one final push.

West Kill Mountain’s long ridgeline has four distinct “summits,” and just past the rock overhang marks the first one. Beyond, the trail dips down into an easy saddle before beginning its ascent of the true high point. The enjoyable stroll winds through dense evergreens to Buck Ridge Lookout, an outstanding southerly viewpoint at 19.65 miles. If you’re looking for a breather, here’s a good place to do it.

Another gentle 0.15 miles takes you to the true summit of 3,880-foot West Kill Mountain (42.16787, -74.28959), marked by a cairn and a sign. Continuing on, the Devil’s Path drops, steeply at times, as it traverses West Kill’s ridge. Cross over another small knoll and continue traversing the ridge on your way to Saint Anne’s Peak.

A short final climb up Saint Anne’s Peak (3420, mile 21.85), the westernmost of West Kill’s summits, marks the final real ascent of the journey. Past here the Devil’s path descends steeply to the northwest before swinging back to the southeast. At mile 22.8, the trail meets a brook and takes a hard right.

The remaining 1.55 miles follow the path of the brook, gently rolling over minor elevation gains and losses through a shady evergreen forest until one last, steep descent to the parking area on Spruceton Road (42.19209, -74.32433).


 

In the clouds at the 3500 foot sign, on the way up Twin Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak
In the clouds at the 3500 foot sign, on the way up Twin Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak

The Kit

  • In the mountains, two trees are often easier to find than a flat, rockless clearing. Consider eschewing the tent for an Eno Singlenest Hammock. It’s also a whole lot lower-impact, which is a nice bonus.
  • Soaked socks are the worst, so a second pair is critical. Darn Tough Vermont Hiking Socks are wicked comfortable and just about indestructible—just what you’re going to need after a day on this trail.
  • Sacrificing taste for weight is rough but there are a ton of good freeze-dried options out there. Good To-go is an outstanding one with vegan and gluten free meals available. Try the Herbed Mushroom Risotto.
  • Get those meals cooked with the MSR Windburner Stove System. It’s lightweight, packable, and doesn’t skip a beat up high or in a storm.
  • Whether you’re doing it in a long weekend or a single day, at some point, you’re going to be hiking in the dark. A headlamp, like the Petzl Actik Core, is essential—the rechargeable battery is a real plus too.

Above Diamond Notch Falls, before ascending West Kill Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak
Above Diamond Notch Falls, before ascending West Kill Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak

Keys to the Trip

  • In drier seasons, water can be hard to come by out here so be prepared to fill up early and often. Do your research before you go: Know where reliable springs can be found and keep an eye on the trail conditions and weather reports.
  • Backcountry camping is permitted below 3,500 feet and at least 150 feet away from trails and water sources. Lean-tos at Devil’s Kitchen, Mink Hollow, Devil’s Acre, and Diamond Notch are good options as well.
  • If you want to go fast and light and not lug too much food (or water) with you, NY-214 crosses the Devil’s Path at its midpoint, making an ideal spot for a supply drop. Just keep it out of reach of the bears.
  • The Devil’s Path is a long, point-to-point hike that requires a shuttle. If you’re going solo, or your party doesn’t have access to a second car, you can book a ride with Smiley’s Transport. It’s always wiser to hike back to your car, so make sure to give them a call in advance.
  • Once you’re out of the woods, grab a post-hike beer at nearby West Kill Brewing. Just 1.7 miles East of the trail’s end on Spruceton Road, this little gem—and its eclectic menu of beers featuring locally harvested and foraged ingredients—is a welcome respite.

Current Conditions

Have you hiked any part of the Devil’s Path recently? Post your experience and the conditions (with the date of your climb) in the comments for others!