How to Choose the Right Sleeping Bag

I was a 19-year-old kid, weeks away from leaving on my first camping trip to Alaska. I’d never slept in the woods before, and I hadn’t spent a single night in a sleeping bag. When it came to purchasing one for myself, I had no idea where to start. I was a total rookie. I drove down to the local Eastern Mountain Sports and picked up the only bag within my budget that was rated to 20F, simply because I knew it wouldn’t get that cold in Southeast Alaska in June.

The sleeping bag turned out to be fine for summertime camping in Alaska. But, when I tried to use it a year later on a soggy climb of Mount Shasta, I was downright uncomfortable and freezing. The takeaway? When buying a sleeping bag, you have to look beyond the price and temperature rating. Specifically, take a larger look at the type of camping you’ll be doing, conditions you expect to face, and which features you want to prioritize, in addition to other personal and technical preferences. Below is a guide to help you choose the right sleeping bag for your next adventure.

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Consider How You’ll Be Camping

Are you a backpacker? Mountaineer? Car camper? Before you buy a sleeping bag, stop to think about the outdoor activity for which you’ll be using it the most. When it comes to backpacking and mountaineering, you want to save weight without sacrificing comfort and safety. Every extra ounce you carry on your back equates to energy spent. Car camping, however, is a bit more laid back. You’re not going to carry your sleeping bag around. Instead, your goal should be to maximize comfort and minimize cost, and think less about weight. From here, you can dive into the bag’s more nuanced specs to make your decision.

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Temperature Rating

The temperature rating is essentially the lowest point at which the bag will keep you warm and comfortable. For example, if a bag is rated to 40F, you shouldn’t get excessively cold in the bag, unless the air temperature drops below that mark. With this rating, it is assumed that you’re using a sleeping pad to create a layer of insulation between you and the ground.

The quality varies quite a bit based on the manufacturer and how frequently it’s used. For this reason, look at the temperature rating as a guideline, rather than a rule. In fact, always buy a bag rated a little bit colder than the actual temperature you expect to experience. You can always ventilate the bag if you’re too warm, but it’s harder to warm up if you’re freezing cold. As a general rule, summer bags run from 35 degrees and up, three-season bags are rated between 10 and 35 degrees, and winter bags run from 10 degrees and lower.

EN Rating

Additionally, many U.S. manufacturers have recently adopted a temperature rating standard called EN13537, or simply the EN rating. Originally developed in Europe, the EN rating is based on a standard laboratory test. This is good news for the buyer. It means that, although sleeping bags are made by different manufacturers, users will be able to compare the temperatures and comfort levels between them.

Based on the assumption that the sleeper is wearing a base layer and hat and is using a sleeping pad, and also assuming that women sleep colder than men, the test determines four temperature ratings:

  • Upper Limit: At this temperature, a standard male can sleep without sweating excessively. This rating assumes that the hood and zippers are open, with the arms and head out of the bag.
  • Comfort: At this temperature, a standard female can expect to have a comfortable sleep, in a relaxed position.
  • Lower Limit: At this temperature, a standard male can sleep, in a curled position, for eight hours without waking.
  • Extreme: This is the minimum temperature at which a standard female can stay for six hours without being at risk for death from hypothermia. Frostbite, however, is still a risk.

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Weight

Again, weight is going to be a determining factor. Most backpackers like to keep their bag lighter than three pounds (using something like the EMS Mountain Light 20), and many lightweight backpackers will strive to go under two pounds. Ultimately, you want a bag that’s going to keep you warm and comfortable at night, but that isn’t too heavy to carry on your back when you’re logging miles on the trail.

A lot of times, this balance boils down to personal preference. Are you willing to carry a little more weight for a bit of added comfort at night? Or, are you willing to chance being a little cold at night in order to reduce energy expenditure? Ask yourself these questions before you buy. The same principle also applies to mountaineering. However, safety—will this bag keep me warm enough if conditions get really, really bad?—needs to be given even greater consideration.

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Insulation

Ah, the age-old debate: Should you choose a down or synthetic sleeping bag? It’s not a question to be taken lightly (pun intended). Specifically, insulation type directly correlates with how much the product weighs, compresses, resists water, keeps you warm, and affects your wallet. All of these factors are going to influence your experience in the outdoors.

Down

Compared to synthetic, down bags provide a greater amount of warmth for their weight. They are highly compressible, and thus pack smaller than synthetic. As well, down is durable and can last for a long time. One of the more notable cons, however, is that if traditional down gets wet, its insulating capabilities greatly decrease. Once wet, it takes a long time to dry and can be difficult to clean. Additionally, down bags are also more expensive than their synthetic counterparts.

If getting wet is a concern, hydrophobic down is a new alternative that has gained popularity in recent years. Hydrophobic down has been treated with a water-resisting chemical, which allows the down to dry much more quickly and resists water for far longer. It also lets the down retain its loft when exposed to dampness. A bag like the Marmot Hydrogen uses Down Defender, a specific brand of water-resistant down. As you shop around, research the bag’s specs to see if the down is hydrophobic.

Synthetic

Synthetic bags, on the other hand, are often favored because they are generally more affordable, are even more water resistant, and continue to keep you warm when they get wet. The trade-off? Synthetic insulation weighs a little more and is bulkier than down. It also provides less warmth for its weight.

There are three basic types of synthetic insulation—cluster-fiber, short-staple, and continuous filament. You’ll also come across a few brand-name options, including Thinsulate, PrimaLoft, and Insotect. Popular in footwear and gloves, Thinsulate has very little bulk. PrimaLoft is another great choice, as it’s highly water resistant, and remarkably breathable and lightweight. Insotect, the type used in the EMS Velocity 35, is a strong bet for those seeking additional comfort. Specifically, it allows for superior body support and retains heat exceptionally well.

Again, the choice boils down to personal preference and how you’ll be using the bag. Consider where you’ll be taking the bag, and the type of weather that you might encounter. You should also think about how much money you want to pay, and the weight you’re willing to carry on your back.

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Shape and Size

Sleeping bags come in a number of different shapes, including rectangular, like the EMS Bantam 30, semi-rectangular, and mummy-style. Mummy is preferable for backpacking and mountaineering, because it allows for greater heat retention and protection from the cold while also saving weight. Rectangular bags, on the other hand, are more suited to car and warm-weather camping.

Sleeping bags also typically come in two standard lengths for men and women: regular and long. Although these sizes vary, depending on the manufacturer, regular men’s sleeping bags generally fit those up to 6 feet in height, and long fits up to 6 feet, 6 inches. For women, a regular is typically up to 5 feet 6 inches, with long being just over six feet.

When choosing a size, make sure the bag fits snugly, but not so much that you’re uncomfortable. The less air space there is around your body, the warmer you will be. However, for those who frequently change positions in their sleep, a little extra wiggle room around the shoulders and feet may be preferable.

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Other Considerations

For the detail oriented, here are a few final things to consider before purchasing your sleeping bag.

Zipper

Zippers come on either the right- or left-hand side. A left-handed zipper will be to your left, assuming you’re lying in the bag facing up, and vice-versa.

Stash Pocket

Most sleeping bags come with a small stash pocket to store things like your wallet, headlamp, and other useful items, to keep them handy at night. If you’re a stomach sleeper, make sure the pocket is not in an intrusive spot.

Sleeve and Hood

Some sleeping bags, like the Big Agnes Lost Ranger 15, have sleeves built into the bottom, allowing for a sleeping pad to fit inside. This means that you don’t have to worry about rolling off your sleeping pad during the night. Mummy bags, like the EMS Women’s Mountain Light 20, have a hood with a drawstring to help retain heat. A lot of heat is lost through your head at night, so for cold-weather camping, this is really important. The hood essentially functions in the same manner that the hood on a jacket does, and the drawstring allows you to cinch it tightly to retain even more heat.

Compression and Storage Sacks

For storing your bag, it’s important to have both a compression sack and a storage sack. The former helps you pack your bag down as small as possible for camping and backpacking purposes. When you’re not using your sleeping bag, keep it in the storage sack to preserve the bag’s insulation and extend its lifespan.

 

Equipped with this knowledge, you should be able to make an informed decision to purchase the sleeping bag that’s right for you. Unlike 19-year-old me, take some time to consider how and where you’ll be camping, weight and comfort, and especially personal preferences in order to get a good night’s rest. Once you have the right bag, the only thing left to do is get out there and enjoy sleeping in the outdoors!

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5 Tips for Staying Comfortable Hiking in the Mud

Spring’s arrival is often a welcome change for the hikers, backpackers, and weekend warriors among us. It means that we can finally shed those cumbersome layers of wool and down, hit our favorite recently-thawed trails, and enjoy some warm weather for the first time in months. But, with spring comes mud, and a lot of it.

Hiking through the mud presents a unique challenge. Not only can it be exceedingly uncomfortable to trudge through ankle-deep puddles, but it can also increase your risk of injury and have a disastrous impact on the trail itself. Thus, it’s important to know how to responsibly and safely enjoy a springtime trail. Here are a few hacks to make sure you’re maximizing fun and minimizing impact during your mud season adventures.

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1. Bring the Proper Footwear and Clothing

And, make sure you don’t mind it getting soaked and dirty. Springtime hiking might not be the time to break in your brand-new boots, unless you know how to maintain them, as muddy conditions can potentially damage your footwear. Instead, reach for an older, sturdy waterproof pair that you’re not as concerned about potentially wrecking. In addition, it’s always a smart idea to invest in some high, water-resistant gaiters to keep mud and water from seeping in. You always want to keep your feet dry and comfortable when you’re hiking, especially when you’re walking through the cold spring slush.

Footwear aside, you’ll want to wear a good, sturdy pair of hiking pants that can stand up to the elements and have a water-resistant finish to keep the mud from caking on your legs. You’ll likely be getting a little wet, so look for pants that are made of a quick-drying fabric, like EMS’ Men’s True North Pants, to keep you comfortable on the trails. A moisture-wicking hiking shirt and waterproof top are always a safe bet, too.

2. Carry Trekking Poles and Mind Your Footing

Anybody who’s descended a steep, muddy trail knows how quickly your feet can fly out from underneath you without warning. Not only does a slick trail increase the chances of an embarrassing (and wet) fall, it also heightens your risk for a potential injury. For this reason, it’s important to use trekking poles for the added stability and traction they provide. Even if you’re not otherwise a big fan of trekking poles, bring them on muddy hikes. They help you keep your balance, minimize slips, and prevent falling altogether on a precarious descent.

On the topic of footing, it’s a good idea to make sure your shoes are tied snug—ever had a boot stuck in the mud and then tried to pull it out?—and to keep a close eye on where you’re stepping. Walk using smaller strides than you normally would to help maintain balance and keep sliding to a minimum. If there is any ice remaining on the trail, you should bring your MICROspikes, just in case. Also, when hiking in the mud, you should try to go at a slower pace than you normally would. In these conditions, being deliberate and mindful of your footing benefits you more than speed.

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3. Muddy Trails are Susceptible to Erosion, So Stick to the Middle

Once the winter snowpack has melted, trails are at their soggiest and most saturated. As a result, they are more vulnerable than ever to serious erosion damage. For this reason, it’s super important that you stay on the trail’s center and tread as lightly as possible. It can certainly be tempting to walk on the trail’s edges, or off it entirely, in order to go around that large puddle blocking your way. But, doing so would widen and erode the trail. So, do the right thing, and stay on the trail regardless. If you’ve heard or read that a trail is in particularly rough shape in the springtime, consider hiking elsewhere, until the ground has hardened up a bit.

In addition to sticking to the center of the treadway, do your best to step onto rocks whenever possible. Stepping from rock to rock helps minimize trail damage—not to mention, it keeps your footwear dry and in better condition. The conscious springtime hiker will always understand that the muddiest trails are also the most fragile.

4. Consider the Time of Day and Weather

Springtime is known for its fickle weather. Although temperatures can become warm during the day, evenings and nights can still get very cold—occasionally dropping below freezing. This means that the trail is likely going to be softer around midday and will be at its firmest early in the morning and later in the evening.

During mud season, always be aware of these temperature changes. You may want to plan for an early morning hike, as opposed to one in the late afternoon. The trail will be firmer, making for a less messy and more comfortable experience. Time of day aside, you’ll also want to keep a close eye on the weather forecast beforehand. A steady rain can turn an already-muddy trail into a Slip ‘N Slide. If it looks like it’s going to pour, it might not be a bad idea to reschedule your hike for a sunnier day.

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5. Plan for the Post-Hike

One of the best ways to make hiking in the mud a favorable experience is to know exactly what you’re going to do once you’re done. For starters, you should always bring clean socks, extra shoes, and dry clothes to change into after. Seriously, there’s no better feeling than getting off the trail and having warm, fresh clothes and footwear to put on. Conversely, there’s no worse feeling than a soggy drive home. It’s also important to think about where you’re going to put your soaking wet, mud-caked boots and clothes when you get back to the car. Keep plastic garbage bags handy, or use a tarp to line the trunk as you put them away.

When you get home, wash your muddy clothes right away to prevent further damage and mildew from building. And, even though it might not be fun, remember to thoroughly clean your footwear! Leaving the mud on can dry out the fibers, cause cracking, and ruin your footwear’s weatherproofing altogether. Take care of these post-hike essentials, and you’ll be ready to go for next time.


Go Nocturnal: 6 Tips for Hiking After Dark

By the third quarter of the 2013 Super Bowl, it was completely dark out in the sleepy village of El Chaltén in Patagonia. My buddy and I had been camping two hours away at Laguna Capri and, on a whim, decided to hike down the mountain and into town to catch the first half of the game at a small café. We promised ourselves that, no matter the score, we would leave by halftime and head back up to our tent—where all of our food, gear, clothing, and headlamps were waiting—well before nightfall.

Credit: Lucas Kelly
Credit: Lucas Kelly

But, one round of cervezas inevitably turned into two, and halftime came and went. Before we knew it, we had no choice but to hike back up the steep trail in pitch darkness. It was disorienting and awkward to fumble our way blindly through the woods. We spent much of that evening tripping over roots and rocks, risking sprained ankles and skinned knees as we shivered in the cold, and strained our eyes while looking for our campsite. It was my first after-dark hiking experience, and needless to say, I had gone about it the wrong way. I was simply unprepared.

But, there’s no teacher like experience. I’ve since hiked safely after dark dozens of times, and have come to appreciate how peaceful it can be. No terrain or trail, no matter how many times you’ve hiked it during the day, is the same at night. So, if you can do it right, nocturnal hiking doubles your territory, helps you beat the crowds, and gives you a new appreciation for the still night’s air. To start, here are a few tips to keep in mind the next time you hit the trails after the sun has gone down:

1. Don’t go at it alone

You should always rely on the buddy system when going out into the mountains or woods, as the dark amplifies hiking’s inherent risks. Having another person with you diminishes the likelihood of getting lost, and you’ll also have help if something goes wrong. Plus, who doesn’t want a little companionship and someone to talk with while walking along an empty trail?

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

2. Always have a headlamp

Always—and this doesn’t just apply to nighttime hiking. I’ve found that it’s a good rule of thumb to carry a headlamp, like the Black Diamond Spot, and extra batteries in your pack any time you venture into the wilderness. This way, if you do get caught heading back down the trail after sunset, you’ll be ready. And, if you’re going out at nighttime, the spare batteries can be a lifesaver if your headlamp dies. Also, be sure to practice appropriate headlamp etiquette and tilt your light downward towards the ground, as to not temporarily blind your buddy.

All that being said, check the phase of the moon during your hike. If it’s big and bright enough, and the trail doesn’t have much cover (see: The Presidential Traverse During a Super Moon), you might not need to use your headlamp at all—but bring it anyway, of course.

3. Dress for the elements

The temperature can plummet after dark. A little trick I like to use is to always pack for conditions a little colder than expected. For example, if it’s predicted to be 50 degrees at night, I’ll prepare for it to be 40° or colder. You can always take off layers, but you can’t add what you didn’t bring.

I’ve found it’s better to err on the side of safety and comfort at night—even if it’s at the expense of a few more ounces in your pack. And, since it’s more difficult to keep an eye on the changing weather at nighttime, it’s always a good idea to be ready for rain and to pack accordingly.

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

4. Hike a familiar trail

This proved to be our saving grace in El Chaltén. My friend and I had tackled the trail a few times in daylight before we hiked it in the dark, so we (sort of) knew what to expect. Simply put, it’s just a bad idea to be exploring new territory in the woods or mountains without the convenience of daylight. It’s not worth potentially getting lost.

Instead, choose a trail that you’ve done a few times in the daytime. That way, you have a sense of where you’re going and what’s in store. Enjoy how different the experience can be without the presence of the sun and with the trail illuminated by headlamp instead.

5. Hike slowly and carefully

It’s important to remain extra-alert and aware of your surroundings while hiking at nighttime. Branches, thorns, roots, and rocks can hamper your experience and send you falling to the ground. So, move deliberately and keep an eye on the section of trail that’s illuminated right in front of you. This, too, might mean moving a bit slower than you normally would on a day hike. If you encounter wildlife, be mindful, and assuming your bright light has likely startled them, treat the animal with the same respect that you would under any other circumstance.

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

6. Think ahead, and bring food, water, and shelter

The same rules of daytime hiking apply after hours. Even though it’ll likely be cooler, it’s still important to stay properly hydrated and fueled. As such, even if you don’t feel thirsty or hungry, make sure you stop to have some water and snacks every so often.

Hiking at night also means you’re likely going to need sleep at some point. To prepare, have a light and a sturdy shelter you can quickly assemble when fatigue starts to set in. Opt for a lightweight tent or, if the weather is favorable and the skies clear, a hammock that you can crash in for the remainder of the night.


Q&A with Chris Oberg of 'Flags on the 48'

In the days and months following the September 11 terrorist attacks, homes, buildings, and flag poles across the country were draped in the red, white, and blue. The flags were a symbol of mourning, of patriotism and pride, and of national solidarity. But for a handful of New Hampshire hikers, it wasn’t enough. With 48 grand, rocky 4,000-plus foot summits dotting the landscape surrounding them, there was no place more fitting to come together and fly the flag.

Each year, a growing community of ambitious hikers in New Hampshire pays tribute to those affected by the tragedy through a simple and unique memorial: by hiking to the summit of each of the state’s 48 summits and flying the American flag from atop each one of them for two hours. They call this memorial hike “Flags on the 48.”

Sixteen years later, the tradition lives on, partly through the leadership of hikers like Chris Oberg, an organizer of Flags on the 48. We sat down with Oberg to talk about the powerful initiative he is a part of.

The Flags on the 48 crew in 2002, one year following the attacks and their first flay-flying. | Courtesy: Flags on the 28
The Flags on the 48 crew in 2002, one year following the attacks and their first flay-flying. | Courtesy: Flags on the 28

goEast: So what is “Flags on the 48” and how did it get going?

Chris: The initiative began with a group of six friends decided that they would take a flag up to Mount Liberty a few days after 9/11. So on the Saturday after September 11th, 2001, they were at the summit of Mount Liberty flying an American flag in a demonstration of solidarity and patriotism. Afterwards they decided, ‘Hey, we should do this every year and not forget about this.’

Now, Flags on the 48 is a memorial event that we do annually on the 48 4,000-footers in New Hampshire. We do it to recognize and memorialize the folks who lost their lives on 9/11, and all of the responders who helped out in a time of need. It’s basically just a way for us to try not to forget what happened that day, and to pay tribute to those folks who were impacted by responding, or by losing a loved one, friend, or acquaintance.

We’re just a bunch of people who like to get out into the woods and thought it would be a pretty cool way to pay tribute by hiking to the summits—which are pretty amazing places—and to put flags up. It’s a cool sight to see a big American flag (and many other types of flags), flying at the summit of a mountain with so many amazing views.

Many of this year's flag flyings were met with a military flyby. | Courtesy: Stephanie Howes/Flags on the 48
Many of this year’s flag flyings were met with a military flyby. | Courtesy: Stephanie Howes/Flags on the 48

goEast: When is the event, and how do folks learn about it?

Chris: We hike on the Saturday closest to 9/11—unless 9/11 falls on a Sunday like it did in 2016. Essentially, we just let word of mouth get out about the event. And in the past, people very often were actually hiking on the day that the event was held. They might’ve just stumbled across somebody who was hiking up, or maybe happened to arrive at the summit while the flag was flying and just said ‘Wow, that’s really cool. I’d like to do that.’ So they go to our website and check it out.

The fly going up on Mount Moosilauke. | Courtesy: Jon Thyng/Flags on the 48
The fly going up on Mount Moosilauke. | Courtesy: Jon Thyng/Flags on the 48

 

goEast: How many flags are flown? Is there one for each summit?  

Chris: We do at least one American flag at each summit of all 48, and then we also highly encourage people to bring whatever flags they would like to fly. There are a bunch of POW/MIA flags that get flown, some people bring prayer flags like you see in Nepal. I once invited a guy who was working with me from Brazil, so we flew the Brazilian flag along with the American flag. There are all kinds of people who will come up with lots of different ways to bring attention to the event, and fly different flags—each one meaning something different to each of them.

For each peak, we only allow 10 registrations. We don’t want to have this massive group of like 50 people hiking together and plowing through the wilderness. But at the same time, we don’t ever tell people well, don’t participate, don’t go, because we can split up the team into a variety of different groups.

Courtesy: Flags on the 48
Courtesy: Flags on the 48

goEast: I would imagine that this is a really powerful experience for a lot of reasons and evokes a lot emotions in all the participants.

Chris: I’ve personally met with people who have lost spouses. There was one guy who drove up from New York because he watched live as the towers fell. He was in Manhattan watching these buildings crumble. And he said it was just indescribable, that there’s nothing that could ever prepare you to see that kind of an event. It’s not something you’ll ever forget.

I met a woman whose husband died. She hiked up by herself and met us, and she didn’t want to be part of the group. She kind of wanted it to be her own solitary moment, but she met us at the summit and thanked us for doing the event. She just said, “Thank you guys for doing this. My husband was in Tower Two, and I really appreciate people remembering that this happened. It’s not something that we want to forget or move on from.”

I appreciate hearing stories like that. I don’t necessarily enjoy it, but I do appreciate that people think about what we’re doing and they aknowledge what we’re doing and support it, through their thoughts, actions, posts on message boards, etc. You’re doing this thing that you feel passionately about and you really care about the folks that were involved and then somebody says “Hey you know what, I think you’re doing the right thing, and I really appreciate that you guys do this.” That keeps us going for sure.


Changing Lives, One Pitch at a Time: Kismet Rock Foundation

Learning to rock climb, whether or not we’re aware of it, forces us to draw on some of our more virtuous characteristics. It takes trust in your belay partner, and a smidge of courage to go for that next move when your forearms start to burn. It also requires a sense of adventure and, at times, the ability to shut out fear. Especially if you’re young, learning to climb and experiencing the outdoors can be a formative experience, instilling a code of ethics that can last a lifetime.

But, unfortunately, rock climbing can also be really expensive and inaccessible to most of the population. Aside from the fact that it requires living near mountains and cliffs, being able to consistently engage in the sport is linked, to a degree, with one’s socioeconomic status. It’s difficult to begin without the necessary money and resources. So, how, then, can the sport be brought to kids who might not otherwise have the opportunity to climb but could benefit physically and emotionally from it?

Since 2000, Kismet Rock Foundation has tried to answer that question. Kismet is a climbing school based in North Conway, N.H., that identifies kids who could benefit from climbing’s confidence-building and problem-solving skills, but who don’t have the means to participate.

More specifically, Kismet looks for impressionable kids, possibly prone to violence, drugs, or depression in the future, who may find themselves going down a negative path if they don’t receive the right guidance. They are often children with a lower socioeconomic status from cities and towns around New England. Kismet identifies these kids by working directly with their schools and families, and then strives to redirect their potentially negative path through technical rock climbing instruction, along with providing a family-like home environment.

Courtesy: Kismet Rock Foundation
Courtesy: Kismet Rock Foundation

“We look for students who are close to giving up.”

Kismet’s screening process is rigorous. To identify those who will get the most out of the program, the organization carefully chooses kids from eight different rural and urban schools. Kids from broken homes, who haven’t yet found their passion, and are beginning to lose hope are often high on the list. They are boys and girls who are just beginning their difficult teen years, and are in need of an activity to help them develop their self-confidence.

“We’re very specific about the students that come to the program,” says Executive Director Chad Laflamme. “First and foremost, they must be kids who have no access to similar programs.” This means Kismet only selects kids who would otherwise be unable to participate because of geography or money. In addition, the students must qualify for free and reduced lunch, which is verified by the parents. “We work directly through the middle schools and with the parents to find these kids,” says Laflamme.

The second step prioritizes students who are particularly at-risk because of their social and economic capital limitations. Low socioeconomic status is recognized as a risk factor for mental illness, so Kismet seeks to select students who could be prone to these issues down the road if they’re not provided with the proper nurturing environment and outlet. In this case, the rock-climbing instruction provides both.

“We look for kids who are on the edge of breaking contract with society,” says Laflamme. “We look for students who are close to giving up. Our students don’t need therapy; they’re not adjudicated,” explains Laflamme, noting that oftentimes, Kismet’s students just need a guiding hand.

Courtesy: Kismet Rock Foundation
Courtesy: Kismet Rock Foundation

“You have to build up that trust and confidence in yourself.”

Once the students have been accepted, they begin Kismet’s program. Gashim Nyapir, a Kismet graduate and now a board member, recalls being a bit nervous on his first day. But, he was ultimately calmed by the welcoming staff and atmosphere. Says Nyapir, “When we first got there, Chad [Laflamme] was the first staff that I met, and right away, he welcomed me into the house with the other students.”

When the program starts, the kids are split into groups. “We have about eight or nine kids in each group,” says Laflamme. That group lives and climbs together for the duration of their time at Kismet—one week every summer for four years. “They get really close.”

The climbing portion entails a meticulously designed, technical education that fosters each child’s emotional development and physical confidence from the beginning. “We start right here in town to really get the basics down,” explains Laflamme. The children are introduced to very easy, fifth-class terrain, so that they can take it slow and get used to trusting the system and their belayers. “A lot of these students are very vulnerable, so we take our time. We don’t want to scare them away from climbing.” Groups are led by two to three certified climbing instructors, each of whom has at least five years of teaching or guiding experience.

Climbing can be a little scary at first, but the kids’ belief in their abilities starts to grow through practice and acquiring new skills each day. “For me, being on the rope was a little untrustworthy at first, because you’re putting your whole body and trust in a rope, cams, and someone else,” explains Nyapir. “You have to build up that trust and confidence in yourself.”

Every student is different, but the goal is to boost their courage and ability to trust—despite whatever difficulties they’ve endured in the past—by slowly expanding their climbing skill set each year. The technicality and difficulty increase as the program progresses.

Courtesy: Kismet Rock Foundation
Courtesy: Kismet Rock Foundation

“I love those guys. I still talk to them to this day.”

When the kids are not out learning to climb, the environment at their temporary home—the Kismet House—is an inclusive, family-like atmosphere. Imagine a healthy family environment with two parents (the staff) and eight children, where everyone helps out with meal preparation and cleanup. The consistency and nurturing atmosphere are essential, because many of the kids come from difficult home environments.

“We have in-house staff,” explains Laflamme, “who really work as surrogate parents to create that safe and inclusive atmosphere.” The children tend to bond quickly with one another because of their shared experience and similar backgrounds. The staff treats the students as welcome members of the Kismet family, making sure they are seen, listened to, and loved. “Many of our students don’t have access to this kind of experience in their homes. A lot of them come from really chaotic conditions,” says Laflamme. “So the [living component] is probably just as important as the climbing component.”

Courtesy: Kismet Rock Foundation
Courtesy: Kismet Rock Foundation

“We have students that say they don’t know if they’d be alive without Kismet.”

After four summers, not to mention making a handful of memories, Kismet’s students solidify their achievements with a graduation ceremony. Saying goodbye to fellow students can be hard, but many graduates remain friends long after the program is finished. “I love those guys. I still talk to them to this day,” says Nyapir. “Because we went through this program and experience together, I feel this responsibility to check up on them.”

The feedback from graduates is almost always positive. “We get a lot of great feedback from all our students,” says Laflamme, attesting to the effectiveness of Kismet’s program. “We have students that say they don’t know if they’d be alive without Kismet. A few have said they would have committed suicide or they’d be in jail without us.”

Nyapir agrees that Kismet was a positive experience, recalling his time in the program. “Kismet has shaped me to become more of an adult. It’s shaped me to become a better role model,” he says. “In physical terms, I have lost a lot of weight from the hiking and walking in general. Kismet came at a perfect time in my life.”

For many kids, Kismet is a transforming experience—even life-changing. “It made things a little easier for me in terms of understanding another human being. It changed my way of approaching people,” says Nyapir.

Many of the students come back as paid interns or house staff, or a select few like Nyapir return as members of the Board of Directors. But, all of them go into the world with a greater sense of self-worth, increased confidence, and more hope than they had when they arrived.

“The growth that happens for the kids, it’s something you have to see for yourself to believe.”

Nyapir says one of his favorite parts of being a board member now is watching the current students’ progress mirror his own. “I [love to] watch the kids progress,” he says. “The growth that happens for the kids, it’s something you have to see for yourself to believe.”

Certainly, Kismet serves as an example, not only of the transformative power rock climbing can have on the lives of these young people, but also of the incredible things that they can achieve when they’re provided with the proper environment to flourish. “The kids become happier throughout their four years,” says Nyapir. “They have confidence in themselves and the world.”

Courtesy: Kismet Rock Foundation
Courtesy: Kismet Rock Foundation

How Can I help?

Kismet is offered to students at no cost, which means they rely on grants, family foundations, individual donations, and business communities to provide programming. Flowfold, as an example, has recently joined the Kismet community as a business sponsor, providing funds to cover scholarship dues for students in their local region.

“The testimonials from the students really moved us at Flowfold,” said Flowfold’s COO James Morin. “Climbing is a fantastic way to get outside and enjoy the beautiful outdoor playground we have all around us. We are beyond proud to support Kismet and cannot wait to climb with the students this summer.”

Kismet students are not in the position to access this education without your help. To make a tax deductible donation now, use their online donation form.

Courtesy: Kismet Rock Foundation
Courtesy: Kismet Rock Foundation

Putting Techwick to the Test on the Devil's Path

Growing up across the Hudson River from the Catskill Mountains, I often heard murmurings of an especially difficult and rugged trail called the Devil’s Path. It wasn’t until I was a bit older, flipping through an article in one of my favorite outdoor magazines, that I saw the Devil’s Path listed as one of the “Eight Most Challenging Hiking Trails in the Country.” In the country! I could hardly believe it—right here on the East Coast, just two hours north of the Big Apple’s relentless bustle. I had to go and check it out for myself.

Credit: Lucas Kelly
Credit: Lucas Kelly

What To Expect

Before hitting the trail, I did some research to get the lowdown on precisely what kind of punishment would be in store for me. The 22 mile-long trail features roughly 18,000 feet of elevation change and hits six Catskill summits, along with a number of tricky rock scrambles and unrelenting, rugged terrain to navigate. As a side note, five of the summits are above 3,500 feet, making it an enticing hike for would-be members of the Catskill 3500 Club. The adventurer in me felt ecstatic. The pessimist? Well, let’s just say that I expected it to be Type II fun.

Many people make short day hikes of one or two summits on the Devil’s Path. Others thru-hike it in two to three days. The most experienced and fit complete the entire thing in one long, leg-torching day. Due to work obligations, I had to break the hike up into consecutive spring weekends. The weather was very warm for spring, teetering on downright hot at some points in the middle of the day. The lack of a breeze meant two things: sweating and mosquitoes.

To prepare, my buddy and I chose to hike in the EMS Techwick Essentials Long-Sleeve Crew and the ¼ Zip, respectively. Putting in close to 10 miles in a single shot, we selected this type of top because we wanted something that felt super soft and lightweight. And, we needed something that would wick away sweat from our skin and keep us feeling cool and dry throughout the slog.

Credit: Lucas Kelly
Credit: Lucas Kelly

Roller Coaster Hike

We began the path at the Prediger Road trailhead. After a brief, flat introduction, the first of many uphill grinds greeted us: a steep, 1,345-foot climb up Indian Head, all the while scrambling up and over large rocks, gnarled roots, and boulders. Near the top of the mountain, we clambered our way up a near-vertical rock chute, where a fall likely would have meant a broken leg.

After making it through, however, we were rewarded with a stunning lookout of the Hudson River and surrounding Catskill Mountains. After snapping a few pictures, we followed the red trail markers descending down into a notch, only to encounter the next scramble up Twin Mountain.

In a sense, this first section of the Devil’s Path foreshadowed the rest: Hit a summit, hike down into a deep valley, and then claw our way back up to the top of another peak. The dense forest throughout gave the trail an aura of real wilderness. As well, uneven, jagged rocks litter the trail, so your ankles are going to take a beating. The amount of mobility the trail required surprised me: Reach up to grab a rock hold here, jump down from a boulder there, and make your way around a fallen tree.

Credit: Lucas Kelly
Credit: Lucas Kelly

Staying Comfortable

Luckily for us, our Techwick shirts’ mechanical stretch allowed for a greater range of movement, making all of these tasks much less difficult and cumbersome. On past long distance hikes that required a similar amount scrambling, I’ve had problems with chafing around my underarms and shoulders. This time, the flatlock seams of my Techwick top helped to prevent any such feeling. This made the uncomfortable task of hiking the Devil’s Path much more tolerable for me by comparison. I was also impressed with how quickly the shirt dried following the trek’s strenuous, sweaty sections.

As we came to the end, I decided that the Devil’s Path had lived up to the hype. If I could describe the trail in one word, it would be relentless. With the summits of Indian Head, Twin, Sugarloaf, Plateau, and West Kill under your belt, you’re definitely going to feel sore afterwards, which will be slightly alleviated by your sense of accomplishment.

What’s more, the beautiful vistas that you get near the mountaintops are some of the Catskills’ best. You’ll come away with a very true sense of what hiking here is all about. While the Devil’s Path may not have the altitude or grandeur of some of the hikes out west, it certainly stacks up as being just as rugged and demanding.

Credit: Lucas Kelly
Credit: Lucas Kelly

Big Mountain Training with the EMS Sector 42 Pack

For the last four months, I’ve been going on training hikes to prepare for climbing Chimborazo, a 20,564-foot stratovolcano down in Ecuador. Unfortunately, I don’t have endless time to go outdoors; I’m bound by the old desk and keyboard from 9 to 5 every weekday. So, when I punch that clock on Friday afternoon, that means it’s time for me to speed off toward the mountains and start logging some serious miles.

As a proud weekend warrior from the Northeast, I had to select a pack that would allow me to go light and fast for long and multi-day trips in the Catskills, High Peaks, and beyond. Throughout my training, I used the EMS Sector 42 backpack. In spite of me being the type of hiker who’s hard on gear, the Sector easily exceeded all of my expectations.

The first thing I noticed about the Sector 42 is that it’s light and comfortable. I’m 5′ 10″, and the hip belt fit snugly around my waist, supporting the majority of the weight I carried. The shoulder straps felt sturdy and flawless, sitting flush with my shoulders and upper back. The breathable back panel shaped easily, maximizing comfort.

In addition to this, I appreciated that the pack, given its size, allowed for a full range of arm motion. This was especially nice for scrambling up Devil’s Path’s steeper sections on a day trip in the Catskills.

Credit: Lucas Kelly
Credit: Lucas Kelly

I’ve always believed that the little details are what make a pack enjoyable to use

I also used the Sector 42 pack on a few multi-day winter trips up to the Adirondacks. This meant that I had to fit my zero-degree sleeping bag, warm clothing, and single-person tent, plus food and water, into the bag. And, it all fit! The pack can hold up to 42 liters, so I was pleased to find that I could carry all the bare necessities for a weekend winter hiking trip on my back.

The front stash pocket is a lifesaver, allowing for quick access to smaller and important items, like my headlamp and wallet. I used this pocket often in combination with the zippered one on the top lid, both of which saved me valuable time while setting up and breaking down camp.

I’ve always believed that the little details are what make a pack enjoyable to use, and the Sector 42 was certainly designed with the hiker in mind. The two side stretch pockets are perfect for holding water bottles and snacks: They are built deep enough that you don’t have to worry about either falling out—a small detail, but one that makes a big difference.

The hip belt also has two small pockets to keep little items (think matches) within an arm’s reach. And, if you’re looking to save weight, the supportive aluminum stay can be removed. Not knowing what conditions I might face above treeline in the Adirondacks, I carried my hiking poles on the pack’s outside by tying them into the handy attachment loops, which would work just as well for ice axes and other tools.

Conclusion

As our summit day for Chimborazo approaches, I’m happy that I was able to take the Sector 42 along on my weekend training hikes, and I’m really looking forward to using it again. Overall, it’s a solid choice for a day or weekend pack, and I’d even recommend it to those who like to go ultralight on extended backpacking trips. 

Credit: Lucas Kelly
Credit: Lucas Kelly

Guide's Pick: Best Adirondack Ice Climbing Destinations

Winter is finally in full swing here in the Northeast, with the mercury hanging well below that magical 32-degree line in many places. And, that can only mean one thing: ice! Whether you’re a seasoned ice climber or a beginner just looking to get that first taste of vertical water, Lake Placid and the Adirondacks are home to some of the United States’ best and most accessible ice climbing destinations. The area offers varied terrain—from shorter, low-angled waterfalls to longer, more difficult routes—making the Adirondacks inviting for all skill levels. What’s even better is, EMS offers a range of ice climbing and mountaineering courses out of Lake Placid, tailored to your skill level. We caught up with EMS Climbing School guide Will Roth to get you the low-down on climbing Adirondack ice.

Guide: WILL ROTH

School: LAKE PLACID

Specialty: ICE, ALPINE, TRAD, and SPORT CLIMBING

Roth started climbing while attending Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, and quickly fell in love with all of its aspects. Will’s passion is demonstrated through his impressive resume of ascents: He’s climbed all over the Northeast and American West, scaled the fabled big walls of Yosemite, completed high-altitude ascents in Peru and Bolivia, and winter-climbed in Scotland and Chamonix, just to name a few. “It’s impossible for me to get bored,” Roth said. “[Climbing] gives me a purpose. I’m always thinking about how I’m going to get things done, so I can climb more.”

With so much energy and passion for the sport, Will inevitably became a guide. Inspired by a great climbing mentor who was a guide himself, Will found his niche in the Adirondacks, running an ice climbing program for the Boy Scouts. He transitioned into his role as an EMS guide from there.

The Adirondacks offer the perfect backdrop for Will to teach his clients the fundamentals and beyond, and he’s quick to share the wisdom he’s accrued over the years: “Go with a guide service like the EMS climbing school that has high-quality gear for you to borrow. In ice climbing, quality gear can make a huge difference in your initial impression.”

If you do take an EMS course in the Adirondacks, rest assured that you will be outfitted with all of the proper technical gear to move on steep snow and ice, as well as expert instruction to give you a full understanding of what’s required to climb ice in the wintertime.

Before you depart, Will recommends bringing lots of easy-to-consume, high-calorie snacks. He also stresses the importance of staying hydrated by bringing along warm liquids: “Staying hydrated will make your day more enjoyable, and it’s easier to drink warm liquids. Cold fluids usually aren’t very appealing when it’s freezing out! Also, a warm belay jacket is important for comfort when not climbing.”

When you’re ready to go, use this list from Roth for some of the Adirondacks’ best routes:

Credit: Chris LaCour</a
Credit: Chris LaCour

Chouinard’s Gully (NEI 3 300′)

This is the route that Yvon Chouinard and his crew supposedly climbed during their historic 1969 visit. It’s three pitches of moderate ice, with the first being the steepest. Although you can rappel the entire route, walking off down a trail from the top keeps congestion on busy days to a minimum. This one is a classic and can get busy.

Pharaoh Mountain (NEI 3+)

If this route is in, get on it! It’s a long day, no matter how you do it. After a several-mile approach, three moderate pitches lead to the top. The first is the steepest, and after that, the higher you get, the easier the angle. Good map and compass skills and an overnight kit are a must on this excursion, especially if the weather is bad and visibility low. Most doing this climb for the first time significantly underestimate the time it takes to go from car to car, but it’s probably the Adirondacks’ best route of its grade.

Credit: molochmaster
Credit: molochmaster

Multiplication Gully (NEI 3+ 225′)

In the Adirondacks, we don’t have many climbs like this. It is a true gully, with steep walls on either side. Two pitches of moderate ice top out at a cliff that has vegetation so thick you better rap off. This climb truly is a gem, and being tucked back into a cliff with views out toward Whiteface Mountain really makes it stand out.

Credit: Bertrand Côté
Credit: Bertrand Côté

Positive Thinking (NEI 5- 400′)

This is the big, hard route. The initial long, just under vertical first pitch can be deceivingly thin, while the second pitch is short but steep! And, the last pitch is a fun romp to the trees. Topping this climb out is always satisfying!

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

Roaring Brook Falls (NEI 3+ 350′)

On a below-zero degree day in the sun, this three-pitch moderate climb is where you want to be. Because you’re climbing a “live” feature, there are always interesting ice formations. More than other ice climbs, this one forms differently every year.

 

Whether you’re tackling Positive Thinking or taking EMS’s Introduction to Ice Climbing course, you’re going to have a good time in the Adirondacks. The rhythmic swing of the ice axes and the deliberate, precise nature of the task at hand all make for an experience that’s hard not to enjoy. And, what’s better than spending a winter day in the outdoors? For Will Roth, that’s what it’s all about: “The biggest thing climbing does for me [is], it allows me to focus on just one thing; my mind isn’t going in all different directions when I’m climbing. There is something very satisfying about that singular commitment.”

 


5 Tips for Cold-Weather Workouts

If the thought of winter’s shorter days and freezing temperatures makes you want to grab a fleece blanket and go into hibernation on your couch, you’re not alone. It’s the time of the year when people tend to gain body fat, skip workouts, and just feel generally blah. But, if you’re an outdoor athlete or even just a weekend warrior looking to amp up your fitness level, cold-weather workouts provide a ton of benefits and prepare you for your spring and summertime adventures.

Here are five things to keep in mind this winter when you’re faced with the inevitable decision of choosing between another afternoon of binge-watching or going for a run:

1. Cold-weather training is good for you!

Training in the cold may take an extra bit of motivation, but ultimately, it’s good for you. Specifically, winter’s lack of sunlight means your Vitamin D level decreases, leaving you a bit more lethargic than in the summertime. Going outside and training can combat this: It boosts your levels of serotonin and gets those feel-good endorphins going.

What’s more, when you work out in colder temperatures, your body has to spend extra energy in order to stay warm. This fires up your metabolism and burns more calories at the same time. Additionally, this approach taxes your lungs (ever notice that it’s more difficult to breathe?), which can improve overall athletic performance.

Finally, you can’t discount the mental edge you’ll experience. Ever see Rocky IV? To recap, he goes out and runs through the frozen Siberian landscape, where he chops down trees and pulls sleds to get lean and mean for his fight. Why? Because physical activity in colder temperatures builds good, old-fashioned grit.

2. Layering is key

Before you step out into sub-freezing temperatures, make sure you’ve layered up properly. Keep in mind that, rather than find yourself shivering, you can always ditch the outer garments if you get too hot.

To start, wear a synthetic base layer to wick sweat away, followed by a mid-layer and a windproof outer shell, and you’re good to go. Also, don’t forget to protect your extremities and cover your neck and head, as this is where much of your body’s heat is lost.

3. Warming up beforehand is critical

One of wintertime training’s major drawbacks is that it leaves you much more injury-prone than in warmer conditions. Tight muscles coupled with icy roads are a dangerous combination. So, to combat this, you need to rev-up your body temperature and loosen up before you start training with any intensity. Use dynamic stretches, such as twisting lunges, knee-to-chest movements, high kicks, and jump squats, to activate your muscles and to elevate your heart rate beforehand.

EMS-Winter-SnowShoe-7577

4. Get creative with your workouts

Doing things outdoors is supposed to be fun, right? So what if it’s 20 degrees? Get out there and be creative! The wintertime offers exercise opportunities that just aren’t there any other time of the year because of—you guessed it—snow. So, use it to your advantage. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are both excellent cardio workouts that’ll test your lungs and your legs. Ice skating, downhill skiing, and snowboarding will, too, if you’re willing to push yourself. And, of course, there’s still running.

Winter also offers a chance to try a new sport. As one approach, sign up for an ice climbing, mountaineering, or another class at an Eastern Mountain Sports School.

5. Make sure you hydrate and stretch

If you’re properly bundled up, you’re going to sweat. So, it’s important to hydrate before, during, and after your workout. Heat up a little water before you go, and take it with you in a bottle. Then, after training, use static stretching to keep your muscles loose as you transfer from the cold to the warmth inside.

Do you have any favorite winter workouts?


A Hiker's Guide to Nuts

We’ve all been there. You’re out hitting the trail for a weekend hike with friends, pushing steadily upward, and suddenly, fatigue starts creeping up through the soles of your feet. As you turn the corner on what seems like the thousandth switchback, you become hyper-aware of the burning in your thighs and the layer of sweat gluing your shirt to your back. “We’ve gotta be close now,” you think as you force one languid step after another. The summit begins to feel elusive, almost miles away.

It’s at times like these that the proper fuel (and hydration, of course) can give you that extra kick you need to power through those last few miles. When it comes to hiking and backpacking foods, which require a blend of carbohydrates and protein, all while being dense in calories and light in weight, few nutrition sources can pack a punch like good, old-fashioned nuts and seeds. They’re a backpacker’s best friend, because their high fat content and caloric density provide sustained energy for steady-state cardio activities.

To prepare, here are a few types of nuts and seeds worth bringing along the next time you head off to the hills:

Almonds

For their size, almonds are impressively high in nutrients. A small handful packs roughly 3.5 grams of fiber, 6 grams of protein, and 14 grams of healthy fats. And, this is good news for hungry hikers: Fiber digests slowly and helps you feel full right away, while the protein keeps you feeling that way. What’s more, almonds are loaded with antioxidants and Vitamin E, both of which help to prevent oxidative stress and cell damage. What that means for you, the backpacker, is that almonds can help combat the fatigue brought on by long hours on the trail.

Pumpkin Seeds

For shorter, steep hikes that require bursts of energy, pumpkin seeds are a solid bet. Thanks to their high levels of manganese, arginine, zinc, and magnesium, pumpkin seeds can provide you with a natural boost of energy ideal for powering through a trek’s steep sections. After you consume this “superfood,” the magnesium in pumpkin seeds breaks down glucose into energy, and arginine produces nitric oxide, which relaxes blood vessels and improves circulation, which is why they’re popular in pre-workout supplements. Next time you find yourself staring up a seemingly endless incline, consider eating a few handfuls of pumpkin seeds to help you hammer through it.

Walnuts

A powerhouse of hiking fuel, walnuts are loaded with essential nutrients and antioxidants—and they’re unique, because they’re the only nut that contains high levels of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid that has been shown to reduce inflammation. This could help to offset some of the pounding that your joints take while backpacking. Research also shows that eating walnuts can help reduce the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, which means more healthy days spent in the outdoors for you.

Chia Seeds

Chia seeds are perfect for those backpackers obsessed with saving weight and going ultra-light. These little guys take up a minuscule amount of space, don’t require any cooking, and are chock full of dietary fiber, phosphorus, calcium, and those heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Just soak them in water to hydrate, or sprinkle them on other foods. They’re ideal for fighting off cravings and providing sustained energy, and it’s no surprise that they’re becoming a popular staple for thru-hikers concerned with the weight of their pack.

Cashews

Cashews are often touted as a solid post-workout snack, and could be especially beneficial near the end of or after your hike. After vigorous exercise, your body needs carbs to replenish its recently depleted glycogen levels. It also needs protein to repair taxed muscle fibers. Cashews help to accomplish both. Just an ounce has 9 grams of carbs and 5 grams of protein, which make them an ideal recovery snack. What’s more, the sodium in cashews can help you re-hydrate after a hike, because it increases water retention and amps up your thirst.

 

In addition to the above, Brazil nuts, pistachios, and peanuts are all solid options and have many of the same nutrients. One of the best things about nuts and seeds is that you don’t have to eat them alone to reap their benefits. You can mix them with other ingredients to make all kinds of delicious trail mixes, such as M&M’s, dark chocolate, raisins, dried fruit, grains, cereals, and marshmallows—the possibilities are infinite. You can even add spices for more variety. Next time the trail begins to seem endless, or you feel yourself start to bonk, take a breather and make sure you have some of these classic hiking staples nearby.

What types of nuts work to get you through a tough hike? Let us know here.