How to Tell How Much Fuel is In Your Canister

On a cold, wet, and windy morning in late October, our party huddled in Stony Clove Notch, the halfway point of the Catskills’ infamous Devil’s Path. We were sitting, shivering in the lee of a boulder, and watching a pot of water try to boil when, without warning, the fuel ran out. We checked it, shook it, tried again and again to light it, but that was that—it had kicked. There would be no hot breakfast this morning. There would be no coffee. No. Coffee.

We’d walk off the cold on the climb out of the notch, but we learned two valuable lessons that day. One, nothing takes the wind out of your sails quite like running out of stove fuel, and two, always bring enough.

Because canister stoves use stock container sizes—a common knock when debating the merits of liquid versus gas backpacking stoves—it’s not super easy to tailor the amount of fuel you’re bringing into the backcountry. Short of hauling extra canisters (heavy), or only packing-in full canisters (wasteful), your only option is to measure just how much fuel actually remains in that used canister you’ve got hanging around.

Here are a couple of ways to do just that.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

1. Weigh It

To measure a fuel canister’s contents, weighing it is a reliable and fairly accurate method. This is optimally performed with a digital scale. Kind of a specialty item, these scales aren’t crazy expensive and are a fantastic tool to have in the kitchen if you’re the cooking type. They are not, however, ultralight or especially useful in the field. So, you’ll need to do this exercise at home, before the trip.

Gather two fuel canisters of the same brand—one with some gas left and one empty. Since the exact mixture, manufacture, and packaging vary from company to company, it’s important that the canisters be of the same brand.

This is when you’ll need that digital scale, and since there’s a bit of math involved here, it couldn’t hurt to grab a scrap of paper and a pen—or to open up that calculator app. 

Weigh the empty canister, and record its value. This measurement gives you a baseline for what the container weighs by itself.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

Next, weigh the semi-full canister and record this measurement. Now for the arithmetic: Go ahead and subtract the weight of the empty canister from the semi-full canister. The resulting value tells you how much gas you’ve got left.

Fuel weight to burn time ratios vary from stove to stove, however. So, a little research on your specific setup will be necessary to find out how long those ounces will last. Measure that against the needs of your trip, and you’ll have a good idea of what to pack.

Side note: If you’re using Jetboil canisters, the Jetboil JetGauge Canister Weight Scale offers accurate weight measurement in the field. It’s small and packable, and goes one step further for you, converting the weight into a percentage value to represent the remaining fuel. 

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

2. Float It

At home, a digital scale is a luxury, but in the backcountry, it’s an impossibility. Fortunately, thanks to physics and the fuel canister’s natural buoyancy, there’s still a way.

The principle is simple: A full canister weighs more than an empty one. Ergo, the more fuel in the canister, the lower it will float. Start at home with two canisters of the same brand—one full and one empty. You’ll also need a permanent marker and a pot or bowl large enough to hold your canister and a sufficient amount of water to float it.

Fill the vessel with just enough water to submerge a single canister. Then, gently add the full one, tilting it slightly to free up any bubbles that got caught in the concavity underneath. Also, be sure not to get any water in the little area around the valve, as this will skew your reading.

Let the canister settle, and check the water line. Once it’s not moving around as much, take it out of the vessel, and mark the water line with a permanent marker. For accuracy, a good move here is to eyeball a feature printed on the canister that lines up with that water line.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

Now, repeat the process with the empty canister. At this point, you’ll clearly notice the difference in where the water line hits.

Finally, line up both canisters on a flat surface and copy the marks from one to the next, so that each has an approximate “full” and “empty” line. Provided you’re using the same brand of fuel moving forward, you can keep one of these marked canisters to use as a template to mark future ones.

Some companies, like MSR and Jetboil, have taken to printing “fuel gauges” on their canisters. This cuts the advance work out of the picture and allows you to measure your available fuel on the fly.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

Honorable Mentions

There are no doubt hordes of OGs out there who swear by the shake method, and that’s cool. For reference, this is when you shake a used canister to see if there’s anything left and make a judgement by touch and heft. It can work, too, but only to a very rough degree of totally subjective accuracy. The method also relies heavily on experience. So, if you’re new to your camp stove, keep away from this approach.

You can also combine your knowledge with the information provided by your stove’s manufacturer. For example, an MSR Reactor stove set up with a 1L pot should—according to the manufacturer—burn through an 8 oz. canister in approximately 80 minutes, producing 20 liters of water in the process. Unless you’re on a trip that requires melting snow as a water supply, that’s enough to last a single person for a week—10 days if you’re stretching it. If you can keep track of just how many times you took your canister out, and roughly how much you used it each time, you can get a decent estimate. Unlike weighing or floating, though, you’re still essentially making a guess rather than taking a measurement.

No Substitute for Experience

At the end of the day, preparedness relies on experience, and there’s no way to get that but to spend the time. The more you get out there, the more you’ll know about which type of stove fits your needs, and how much fuel you’ll need to bring along. Waking up without coffee is a bummer, but when you’re really out there, a working stove—that you know how to use and are comfortable with—can be the difference between a good trip and a serious situation.

So, give these methods a shot and let us know which works best for you.


Opinion: Connecticut Is Playing Catch-Up on Public Lands

Connecticut Residents Should Vote “Yes” On Question 2

Over the past few years, the debate over public lands and conservation has been a national political flash point. The reductions of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments, the reopening of mining in the Boundary Waters, and attacks on pro-environmental policies illustrate the attitude current officials have toward conservation. It’s a grim picture.

But, there is a chance for some good news. This November, protecting public lands at the local level has made it onto the ballot.

Protecting state-owned land in Connecticut is of critical importance. It preserves our heritage, it protects our natural resources and wildlife habitats, and it provides much-needed open space in one of the country’s most densely-populated states. If you’ve spent any time in the Nutmeg State, you know what I’m talking about. Names like Hammonasset Beach, Squantz Pond, and Sleeping Giant likely evoke pleasant memories of days spent outside. As much as grinders, white clam pizza, and the Hartford Whalers, they’re an inextricable part of the state’s culture.

However, if you can believe it, these places are essentially unprotected. They can be sold, traded, or given away without the public’s input, in the dead of night, over a handshake deal. It sounds insane, but it has actually happened before.

Come November 6th, though, it doesn’t have to happen again.

Paugussett State Forest, Upper Block in Newtown | Credit: John Lepak
Paugussett State Forest, Upper Block in Newtown | Credit: John Lepak

Understanding Question 2

“Question 2” is simple. Essentially, it asks if the state’s constitution should be amended to protect these places. A “yes” vote would mean two things. One, the transference of state-owned land would need to be subjected to a public forum. Secondly, any such transference would require a two-thirds majority vote by the state’s legislature. While it seems pretty straightforward, it’s not entirely unprecedented, either. Massachusetts and New York already have similar provisions in their respective constitutions, as does Maine.

Our neighboring states seem to realize that retaining public lands is significantly more valuable than their price tag would suggest. Forget about natural beauty and a clean water supply for a moment. Instead, looking at the purely pragmatic, bottom-line-numbers side, they make money. Fees collected at state parks, forests, and beaches generate revenue, and their operation and maintenance create jobs. Beyond that, dollars spent at businesses adjacent to these public lands offer a significant boost to those local economies. Meaning, again, public lands help generate more money and more jobs—two things Connecticut just happens to really, really need right now.

So, here’s what you can do: If you live in Connecticut, vote “yes” on Question 2 on November 6th to protect Connecticut’s state parks, forests, and beaches for generations to come. If you don’t live in Connecticut and are interested in safeguarding your state’s public lands, call up your local representative to see what’s what. Maybe you can get yourself a constitutional amendment of your own.


5 More Fall Hikes Around New York City

Fall is objectively the best time of year in New York City. Summer’s oppressive combination of heat, humidity, and trash-day odor is finally fading away, and the icy sidewalk chaos of winter is still weeks off. It’s the best time to do anything in the five boroughs.

It’s also the right time to catch the foliage and enjoy the natural wonders that abound in the surrounding country. The options within reach of public transportation or a short drive are both surprisingly plentiful and equally cool.

So, get out of town! Borrow a car and head up the Palisades! Hop a train to the Appalachian Trail! Take a hike!

A very icy Hudson River as seen from the top of Breakneck Ridge’s opening scramble. | Credit: John Lepak
A very icy Hudson River as seen from the top of Breakneck Ridge’s opening scramble. | Credit: John Lepak

Breakneck Ridge

Make no mistake about it—Breakneck Ridge is popular. On a fair Saturday or Sunday from April to October, this place will be absolutely mobbed for two good reasons. One, it’s accessible via public transportation with its very own Metro-North stop. The other reason is that it’s awesome. Consider, for example, the 1,250 feet in elevation the Breakneck Ridge Trail gains in its opening, three-quarter-mile scramble. It’s steep, it’s rough, and the views are extraordinary. If you don’t feel like dealing with the crowds, consider Breakneck Ridge on a weekday or in winter. When it’s not covered in ice, it’s definitely still hikeable with a decent pair of MICROspikes and an abundance of caution.

From the Breakneck Ridge train station—as an aside, it’s really more of a staircase next to some rails than an actual station—walk south on NY-9D to a tunnel. The trailhead begins here and runs up over the tunnel to head east over the road. Follow the white blazes up the scramble and keep doing it. It’s steep and rough, and if you’re there on a nice day, you’ll have plenty of people to deal with, as well. Keep on climbing, and you’ll hit a nice open area with a flagpole and a view that’s great for a first breather. There’ll be two more of these on the ridge’s exposed section, so keep going up.

Eventually, you’ll run out of ridge to climb and will enter the woods, where the trail alternates between rough ups and downs. At the junction with the red-blazed Breakneck Bypass Trail, bang a left. From here, the hard work is done, and the trail descends moderately through mixed hardwood forest. In short order, the Breakneck Bypass Trail dead-ends into the yellow-blazed Wilkinson Memorial Trail. Take another left, and continue heading on down to the road—the train station will be right across NY-9D.

The view south from Bear Mountain’s summit, including New York’s skyline. | Credit: John Lepak
The view south from Bear Mountain’s summit, including New York’s skyline. | Credit: John Lepak

Bear Mountain

Hiking Bear Mountain is a tale of two trails. The rugged Major Welch Trail ascends the mountain’s decidedly woodsier northern slope, scaling several exposed mammoth rocks along the way. The northbound Appalachian Trail, on the other hand, descends to the east over gentle grades, groomed paths, and even the occasional road walk. But, despite their differences, they combine to create a lovely little loop hike with several excellent viewpoints and even a summit tower for those of us who want a little extra.

Start your hike at the junction of the Appalachian, Major Welch, and Suffern-Bear Mountain Trails, just east of the Bear Mountain Inn. The steeper, more rugged Major Welch Trail is a better bet for going up, so follow the signage and the red-and-white bullseye blazes and head out along a paved path. The path runs along Hessian Lake for a little bit, before branching off into the woods to the left, the official start of the Major Welch Trail. Follow those bullseye blazes as the trail climbs moderately, switching back twice before it ascends the slope directly.

The mammoth rock formations are a fun feature and offer views to the north and east. Keep going up, and at 1.6 miles, after another steep effort up a pile of smaller rocks, cross Perkins Memorial Drive—the alternate route up for the mechanically inclined. From here, it’s just another 0.1 miles to the flat summit and Perkins Memorial Tower. From here, on a clear day, you can see four states: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. Continue across the paved parking area to the viewpoint on a ledge with open southern exposure and, way off in the distance over the Hudson Highlands’ rolling hills, a view of the Manhattan skyline.

Your way down, the ever-white-blazed Appalachian Trail, descends to the south. Trail maintenance has recently rerouted the AT to the roadway, but enjoy the views as you make your moderate descent.

Gravel, steps, and cool boulders are the order of the day as the AT takes you back to Bear Mountain Inn.

The Swamp River Boardwalk on the Appalachian Trail in Pawling, NY. | Credit: John Lepak
The Swamp River Boardwalk on the Appalachian Trail in Pawling, NY. | Credit: John Lepak

Appalachian Trail Metro-North

Courtesy of a small, weekends-only stop on the Metro-North Railroad’s Harlem Line, you can hop a train from Midtown Manhattan to access the entirety of the Appalachian Trail without ever getting behind the wheel of a car.

From the train station, cross the tracks (carefully) and start heading south. You’ll immediately be met by the Swamp River Boardwalk, a beautiful, 0.4-mile wooden walkway that traverses The Great Swamp and provides a dry route from the wooded hills to Route 22 in Pawling, New York. The reeds and cattails flanking the route on both sides create a cool kind of natural tunnel, while the abundant wildflowers attract hummingbirds.

After the boardwalk, the woods begin and so does the ascent—gently at first, until around 1.1 miles, where it gets a bit steeper. The mixed forest is thick at first, opening up a bit as you climb, until, at 1.5 miles, it reaches a meadow of tall grass and wildflowers. From here, the trail narrows and traces the border of a private home. At some points, it’s rather overgrown but isn’t difficult to follow at all. Then, it’s mostly downhill to West Dover Road and the Dover Oak, a beautiful, truly massive white oak. With a height of 114 feet and trunk circumference of 251 inches, it’s the largest—and likely the oldest—of its kind in New York State.

Take a photo with the cool tree, and then, cross the road to continue on the AT, back into the woods. After a quick initial dip, the trail resumes its climb—rocky at times—to Cat Rocks, an east-facing overlook at 3.25 miles. From here, you can survey the surrounding hills and open meadow you’d just passed through.

To return, retrace your steps to the train station for a nice, little 6.5-mile hike with around 1,350 feet of elevation gain.

Approaching the summit of Lamb’s Hill on the Fishkill Ridge Trail. | Credit: John Lepak
Approaching the summit of Lambs Hill on the Fishkill Ridge Trail. | Credit: John Lepak

Fishkill Ridge

Short, steep, and rocky ascents characterize many hikes in the Hudson Highlands, and this route up Fishkill Ridge over Lambs and Bald Hills is no exception.

From the parking area at the end of Sunnyside Road, in Beacon, New York, the red-blazed Overlook Trail begins climbing immediately. At 0.5 miles, a trail to a private campground enters from the left, and the grade evens out a bit before dipping into a gully to cross a small stream and resume climbing.

At around 1.4 miles, the trail levels out once more in an open hardwood forest with some cool stone walls. The Overlook Trail then dead-ends into the white-blazed Fishkill Ridge Trail at 1.7 miles. Here, bang a left and head up the rocky final ascent to the top of Lambs Hill at 2.2 miles. Looking back, the City of Beacon and the Hudson River provide the view.

From here, the Fishkill Ridge Trail is a true ridge walk, alternately climbing and descending and cutting through thinly wooded high grasslands and rocky outcroppings in the process. Viewpoints at 2.5 and 3.0 miles offer nice places to stop and chill before the final climb up Bald Hill at 3.7 miles.

Just past the summit—which is not actually bald and doesn’t offer much of a view–an unmarked trail enters from the left. Pick this up to head back down the hill. This portion is wide and somewhat rocky, and resembles an old woods road. Keep on it, until it eventually joins the red-blazed Overlook Trail, which will lead you back to the parking lot, making a 5.2-mile loop that covers 1,600 feet of elevation gain.

The view over Slide Mountain Wilderness from Giant Ledges. | Credit: John Lepak
The view over Slide Mountain Wilderness from Giant Ledge. | Credit: John Lepak

Giant Ledge and Panther Mountain

If wilderness is what you’re looking for, then you’re in luck. A mere two-hour drive north will land you in the rugged and wild Catskill Mountains, home to 287,500 acres of public forest preserve and 35 peaks over 3,500 feet in elevation. The trail up to Panther Mountain—one of those peaks—is a great example of what the Catskills have to offer in a fun-size day hike.

Begin on the Phoenicia-East Branch Trail, just a few steps up the hill from the parking area at the hairpin turn on CR-47, 7.2 miles south of its junction with NY-28. The trail ascends gently for 0.7 miles through a mixed forest, before reaching a well-marked intersection with the Giant Ledge-Panther Mountain-Fox Hollow Trail. Take a left onto the Giant Ledge-Panther Mountain-Fox Hollow Trail, and begin the moderate climb to Giant Ledge.

This is also a very popular trail, as the view-to-effort ratio is considerably low. At just 0.8 miles from the Phoenicia-East Branch Trail, a short spur trail to the right brings you to Giant Ledge. Here, you’ll get an incredible, sweeping view east of Devil’s Path’s jagged ridgeline to the north and the Slide Mountain Wilderness to the south, including Wittenberg, Cornell, and Slide Mountains.

Continuing from Giant Ledge to Panther Mountain, the trail levels out a bit, before climbing moderately to the true summit just 3.0 miles in. Take in the view—similar to Giant Ledge’s but including a few more summits to the north, and much cooler because it’s on top of a mountain. Retrace your steps to the parking area for a nice, little six-mile out-and-back.


How to Shoot Film in the Outdoors

In the digital realm, memory cards with almost-unlimited, deletable memory hold the majority of our images of the outdoors, and computer-based editing lets you fine-tune that nearly perfect shot. But, shooting nature the old-fashioned way has its benefits, too.

First things first: Film will cost you. It will cost you time, it will cost you space in your backpack, and it will most definitely cost you money. If you’re like me, it’ll likely also cost you sleep, as you think about what you could have done differently with a certain frame. Or, maybe, it will cost you a few gray hairs, as you anxiously wait to see how the processed negatives from an exciting sojourn abroad turned out.

But, film photography can also change the way you think about making images or even what you decide to shoot. With time, it’ll make you a better photographer and more a part of the moments you choose to document. Ultimately, it’ll change the way you see, and it’s a lot of fun to use!

North Carolina's Linville Gorge | Credit: John Lepak
North Carolina’s Linville Gorge | Credit: John Lepak

Where Do I Begin?

Get started by picking up a film camera. Hit up a tag sale or a flea market. Or, poke around the internet a bit to see what strikes your fancy—Craigslist and eBay are both excellent resources. In all cases, 35mm film cameras are widely available, and the film typically has 24 or 36 exposures per roll. Medium-format cameras take 120 film, which is a bit bigger and produces a larger negative. Generally speaking, though, these cameras—and their film—are a little less accessible. They’re less forgiving, too, usually producing just 12 images per roll.

You can get your film on eBay or at a tag sale, but it does have an expiration date. As a side note, using expired film can produce some cool effects. However, you’re probably safer sourcing from a camera supply store (yes, they still do exist). Tip: Buy film in bulk to save some money and refrigerate it. Cooling it down significantly extends its lifespan.

A Guanaco in Torres del Paine, Chile| Credit: John Lepak
A Guanaco in Torres del Paine, Chile| Credit: John Lepak

Packing It Up

Next, the hard part: Finding room in your bag. Full disclosure: There is nothing ultralight about this. The film adds weight, and the older cameras have more in common with bricks than today’s backcountry equipment, but remember how much fun you’re having.

Personally, I only drag a camera along when I’m going somewhere far away, as opposed to a walk through the local park, and want to get the most out of photographing the experience. I’m also not lugging it on longer backpacking trips, where weight and space are serious issues. Overall, consider where you’re going and how much you want to carry. It will take some trial and error to figure out how many exposures you’re going to make, and you’ll likely need to drag some unnecessary ounces around before you find a good fit.

Also—and this is no different from using digital equipment—make sure you have a way to keep your gear dry. If you’re carrying the extra stuff, it’s a whole lot nicer to have it working than not.

Valahnúkur, Thorsmörk, Iceland | Credit: John Lepak
Valahnúkur, Thorsmörk, Iceland | Credit: John Lepak

The Downsides and Upsides

It’s worth noting that film is expensive—infinitely more so than if you just whipped out your existing phone and fired away. You’ve got the camera setup and the film, and then, you have to get it processed and either printed or digitally scanned. Most opt for the latter, unless you’re looking to gift or sell any of your images. All in all, it’s not cheap.

But, consider this a positive and use it to your advantage. Instead of running around with your phone out the whole time, take the opportunity to be deliberate and present. When you have a price tag attached to each image and a finite number of potential exposures, you’re going to really see what’s around you before raising your camera. Being in the moment ultimately helps you make better images and, moreover, connects you to what’s around you more than ever before.

Lastly, just have fun with it. Like getting out into the woods after a long work week, treat shooting film as a change of pace. Time in the backcountry seems to slow down in such a tremendous way that it only makes sense to capture it with a fitting medium.

Cuernos del Paine, Chile | Credit: John Lepak
Cuernos del Paine, Chile | Credit: John Lepak

The Top 5 Overlooked Hikes in Connecticut

Often overlooked for its grander neighbors to the north, Connecticut actually offers some top-notch trails and a surprising variety of terrain. You could reasonably find yourself scrambling up a cliffside in the morning and relaxing with a lobster roll and a beer on the beach by lunch. That’s the beauty of hiking in the Nutmeg State—you can have it all.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

1. Bear Mountain

The Litchfield Hills in Connecticut’s Northwest Corner account for much of the state’s elevation gain and include both its highest point (on the slopes of Mount Frissell, whose summit is actually in Massachusetts) and its highest peak: Bear Mountain.

This six-mile loop starts out at the Undermountain Trailhead on CT-41 in Salisbury. The blue-blazed trail climbs steadily through a mixed forest before dead-ending at the Appalachian Trail. Bang a right (north) and keep climbing, a bit steeper now, over some semi-exposed ledges, until you reach the manmade stone pyramid at the summit, which is over 1,600 feet higher than where you started.

Once you’re on top, it’s easy to see why this is one of the state’s more popular hikes, despite its relatively remote location.

Descend by continuing north, down a steep stretch of boulders that turn into a bit of an icefall in winter. Keep on the AT to Sages Ravine just over the state line in Massachusetts. Head right yet again on the Paradise Lane Trail for a very chill, flat mile-and-a-half before you take a left back down the Undermountain Trail to the road.

Bonus: Make this a shuttle hike to take in Lion’s Head, an exposed ridge with more excellent views. Start your hike where the AT intersects with CT-41, just three miles south of the Undermountain Trailhead.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

2. Macedonia Ridge Trail

Another Litchfield Hills beauty is the Macedonia Ridge Trail in Kent. Running a 6.5-mile loop around Macedonia Brook State Park, the trail goes through four distinct ecosystems with a little bit of elevation change (around 1,750 feet gained, all told) and varies in footing from a narrow footpath to an old forest road to a ledge scramble.

Beginning from the parking area on Macedonia Brook Road, walk back along the road the way you came (south) to find the trailhead, which is marked by a light blue blaze on the opposite side.

Keep on following those blazes. You’ll get plenty of up-and-down over rolling hills through new-growth forest, along a densely fern-covered brook bed, and an old road with old stone walls that seem less like a manmade intrusion than a component of the surroundings.

At around mile 4.0, you start really going up, reaching a ledge with outstanding southerly views. Hop on down into a little hollow before coming to a fun scramble up to the summit of Cobble Mountain, the hike’s high-point with extensive views west. If you’re rolling with your puppy friend, they may need a hand at this part.

From the top, stick to the light blue blazes, and descend through abundant mountain laurel and coniferous forest for two miles or so back to the parking area.

Bonus: Kent Falls Brewing Company, an independent brewery on a working farm, is just a short drive from Macedonia Brook State Park. Grab yourself a beer—you deserve it.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

3. Bigelow Hollow

Connecticut’s “Quiet Corner,” the rural northeastern part of the state, is home to Bigelow Hollow State Park and Nipmuck State Forest. It’s just a hop, skip, and a jump from I-84 but far from everywhere else, and it feels that way.

Enter the state park on CT-171 in Union, and you’ll find the parking area about a half-mile up the access road on the left-hand side. Here, you can access a white-blazed trail that, after a quarter-mile, runs into the also-white-blazed Park Road, a forest road that runs from CT-171 to Breakneck Pond, our main destination.

Park Road is wide and generally flat—easy for hiking but watch out for the bug population in summer. After another 0.8 wooded miles, you’ll come to a junction with the East Ridge Trail and the Breakneck Pond View Trail, indicated by light blue and red blazes.

Take a left to follow this decidedly more rugged trail for another 1.8 miles. It quickly becomes a narrow footpath along the pond’s western shore and offers intermittent (and beautiful) lake views, until you enter Massachusetts for a quarter mile or so. Then, welcome back to Connecticut!

From here, the Breakneck Pond View Trail runs into the Nipmuck Trail. This takes you back down the pond’s eastern edge and features more intermittent-but-stunning views. Eventually, you’ll return to the junction with Park Road and get back to the parking area.

Bonus: You can do a circuit of the park’s three bodies of water—Bigelow Hollow Pond, Mashapaug Lake, and Breakneck Pond—with a cool, clover loop-style traverse. Total mileage: 11.8 mi.; total elevation: around 1,025 feet.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

4. Devil’s Hopyard

Devil’s Hopyard State Park in East Haddam is a cool spot with a cool name. It also packs a waterfall, a viewpoint, and a couple of geologic formations attributed to the devil into just 860 acres. Connecting the orange-blazed Vista Trail with the unnamed white-blazed trail makes a three-mile loop on the eastern side of the Eightmile River and hits all the highlights.

The area around the parking lot on Foxtown Road and the adjacent Chapman Falls is rather developed and may be mobbed on a nice day but don’t be discouraged. The falls are beautiful, and the woods are right around the corner.

Head down the path (with the falls at your left) and cross the covered bridge to access the Vista Trail. Head straight (south) to start your counterclockwise loop.

Follow the orange blazes, bearing right when the trail splits into two separate spur trails that are both worth checking out. The first, at 0.4 miles, is a short but very steep spur trail to the Devil’s Oven, a small cave in a massive rock formation located in a densely shaded hemlock grove. The second, at 0.8 miles, is the viewpoint that gives the Vista Trail its name. While it’s worth a stop for a snack and a drink, the rolling green hills and the lack of manmade structures make for a welcome relief in one of the country’s most densely populated states.

Back on the trail, at 1.4 miles, bang a right, leaving the Vista Trail for the White Trail. This trail winds its way for another 1.5 miles or so through dense forest back to the falls. However, take care when following the trail here. There are more than a few unblazed footpaths that crisscross this part of the woods.

Back at the falls, end your hike by checking out the potholes, a handful of unnaturally perfect, cylindrical pools carved into the ledge on the eastern bank. Credited to the devil by the area’s earliest settlers, these geologic anomalies were actually caused by tiny grains of sand caught up in the swirling eddies. Not a bad guess, though, by the settlers, since they wound up giving the park such an awesome-sounding name.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

5. Pine Knob

Back in the Northwest Corner is the Pine Knob Loop, a short but sweet little hike in Housatonic Meadows State Park that connects the Appalachian Trail with US-7 in Sharon, CT. In just 2.5 miles, this route climbs around 750 feet in elevation and features some of Connecticut’s finest hiking.

From the trailhead parking lot, follow the blue-blazed Pine Knob Loop Trail into the woods, crossing Hatch Brook and running along an old stone wall up to a junction. Here, the Pine Knob Loop Trail splits, so continue to the left and begin climbing moderately.

With Hatch Brook to your left, the trail continues climbing through a pine forest. With a little breeze, the sounds of the wind through the pines and the brook running down the side of the hill make for a really special, peaceful time.

Keep on climbing, until this branch of the Pine Knob Loop Trail intersects with the white-blazed Appalachian Trail, and take a right. Here, the hike begins a relatively rough ascent, climbing over rocks to one of two excellent viewpoints.

Keep on the AT as it rolls over the ridge and ultimately begins descending. Then, rejoin the Pine Knob Loop Trail as it breaks off to the right. The trail descends steeply to another excellent viewpoint, before ultimately leveling out and arriving back at the split. Here, take a left, cross the brook again, and you’ll be back at the parking lot.


A Guide to Hammock Camping

For many, a swaying hammock is synonymous with relaxation. The word alone conjures memories of breezy summer afternoons: a cold beer sweating in the heat, dappled sunlight dancing through leaves, and gentle rocking that lulls you into a midday nap. It is the physical manifestation of the word “chill.” But, its portable, lightweight design is just as convenient for camping in the backcountry as it is for lounging in the yard, the park, or on the beach.

I started hammock camping a couple of seasons ago, and on solo overnight trips, it’s my absolute go-to. It’s wicked easy to set up after a long day of hiking, and it’s a significantly more sustainable, lower-impact way to camp. Provided you don’t need all the add-ons for every trip—like a rainfly or bug netting—it’ll even lighten the load in your pack. It is a different game, though, and you have to consider a couple of things before grabbing your hammock and hitting the trail.

From left to right the packed ENO SingleNest hammock, Atlas Hammock Suspension System, and DryFly Rain Tarp, weighing in at 3lbs 1oz. | Credit: John Lepak
From left to right: the packed ENO SingleNest hammock, Atlas Hammock Suspension System, and DryFly Rain Tarp, weighing in at 3 lbs., 1 oz. | Credit: John Lepak

Finding the Right Hammock

First thing’s first: you’ve got to get yourself a hammock. However, the “right one” is really just about finding a combination of size, material, and extras that make sense for you.

Backpacking hammocks tend to come in two widths—single and double wide. Just like it sounds, a single is a good fit for one person, while a double is a bit wider and good if you’re expecting company or just want a little extra room to kick it solo.

The material boils down to weight versus durability. A heavier-duty fabric lasts longer but will add ounces to your pack. A lighter fabric will wear quicker but packs down smaller and keeps it light on the trail.

Extras are in name only. In the backcountry, you’re probably going to want at least a few of them. So, let’s start with suspension. I love the ENO Atlas Hammock Suspension System. It goes up quickly—a bonus after a long day of getting beat up in the mountains. Also cool? They’re designed to lessen the impact your hang has on the trees you’re using.

The Atlas Hammock Suspension System straps are webbed so it’s really, really easy to adjust the hang as needed. The unused ones are good for hanging other stuff too, like a camp light, or clothes that need drying out. | Credit: John Lepak
The Atlas Hammock Suspension System straps are webbed, so it’s really, really easy to adjust the hang as needed. The unused ones are good for hanging other stuff, too, like a camp light or clothes that need drying out. | Credit: John Lepak

Next up? Bugs. Heading out in black fly season or just want to keep the mosquitoes at bay? Check out the ENO Guardian Bug Net. It’s another piece of gear, but it’s worth the weight in your pack if you’re in particularly buggy terrain.

Keeping Warm

Among the unique considerations hammock camping presents, keeping warm is likely the first you’ll hear about. On the ground, it’s easy: just a sleeping bag and pad. In a hammock, however, it’s not so simple.

Most sleeping bags have down or synthetic insulation on the bottom layer. But, when compressed, as it is under a person’s body weight, it’s significantly less efficient than its temperature rating would indicate. On the ground or a tent platform, the surface itself and a sleeping pad, which provides insulation of its own, correct this flaw.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

With a hammock, you can get around this in one of two ways. Insulate the bottom with an under-quilt, which hangs under the hammock itself. Or, place a sleeping pad inside the hammock. Personally, I prefer the latter, and run with a Big Agnes Deer Park 30 Sleeping Bag, a Big Agnes Gunn Creek 30º Sleeping Bag, and a Big Agnes Air Core Ultra Sleeping Pad.

Big Agnes ditched their bags’ bottom layer of insulation for a built-in pocket to fit an air pad. But, really, you can use any bag-pad combo. Once you’re in the hammock, your weight will pin the pad down, and the sides help keep it in place overnight. I dig this setup primarily because, unlike with an under-quilt, I can use it in a tent or for cowboy camping just as easily.

At the end of the day, it’s a matter of personal preference and takes some trial and error to get it right.

Staying Dry

It seems obvious enough, but a tarp or rainfly is critical if you’re out in weather or in a place where weather can move in quickly. For this, I use the ENO DryFly Rain Tarp. It’s light, it’s quick to set up, and it has kept me dry. The trick is, rig the tarp just above the hammock, so when the hammock sags under your body weight, you’re not exposed to the rain and wind blowing in from under the sides.

Motion Sickness

If you’re the type that gets motion sickness, this may not be for you. You’re going to move around, be it from wind or your own tossing and turning. Over the period of a night’s sleep, this may lead to some problems. If you’re unsure, give it a go for an hour or two out in the yard on some sunny afternoon to see how it makes you feel. Laborious, I know, but sometimes, that’s just the way it goes.

Credit: John Lepak
Credit: John Lepak

Picking Your Spots

In the mountains, two trees are often easier to find than a patch of earth flat enough to pitch a tent. This factor alone is enough reason to give hammock camping a try. It’ll take some time to feel out your preference—the perfect hang is subjective—but you’re good to go with two trees and enough line or a pair of straps (more on that below). Keep it off the trail (human or game), and give yourself about two feet of ground clearance. That’s just enough space to keep yourself from an unfortunate midnight run-in with a curious porcupine. 

Getting Comfortable

All right. You’ve done the dishes, rigged up the bear hang, and are ready to hit the hay. Your hammock is strung up just the way you’ve found yourself liking it in the yard and now’s the time. You’ve made your bed, and now must literally lie in it. Great!

Now, sleeping in a hammock is completely different from sleeping on a surface and takes some getting used to. There’s no one way to get comfy, and just like in the yard, it’s going to take some time to find the best fit. So, try out a few different ways to see what feels comfortable. Shift your bag up or down, and change the tension on the straps—do what feels good, and don’t be afraid to adjust! Hopefully, by the time you’ve tucked yourself in, you’ve also gotten your miles in and crushed a couple of mountains. If you’ve done it well, they’ve crushed you back, and you’re just about ready to sleep the sleep of the dead, anyway.