A Guide to Trail Running Shoes: Basic Types & Characteristics

In theory, trail running should be one of the simplest sports to understand: Find a nice stretch, lace up your sneakers, and go. However, as the sport has matured, the idea of what constitutes trail running has shifted. In response, the shoes have evolved to accommodate everything from running technique to terrain.

Because of this, shopping for the “right” trail runner can be a daunting task. Deciphering the various classifications and their meanings is essentially akin to learning a new language. And, while I wouldn’t let the lack of the “right” pair keep you from speeding along some dreamy singletrack, having the proper shoes keeps your feet happy, maximizes your performance, and maybe even helps prevent injuries.

The Basics

Trying to categorize trail runners is pretty difficult, as the industry doesn’t have any specific criteria. Further complicating matters, as trail runners adapt to athletes’ growing needs, several characteristics overlap between categories. As such, for many, personal preference dictates use.

For lack of a better system, the heel-toe drop classifies each type. This simple measurement indicates the difference between the height of the heel and the toe box, creating a spectrum that runs from barely-there minimalist shoes, such as the Merrell Vapor Glove, to cloud-like maximalist types, like the Hoka One One Speedgoat.

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Barefoot

A zero heel-toe drop, no arch support, no cushioning, and a wide toe box identify barefoot trail runners. Outdoors, this basic design offers your feet slight protection from common hazards like thorns and sharp rocks. In other words, they’re only slightly better than actually being barefoot.

The philosophy behind barefoot shoes is, over the last hundred-thousand years or so, the human body evolved to run without big, supportive footwear. Barefoot runners argue that today’s traditional running shoes have altered the way we move—by encouraging landing on our heels instead of on our toes. As a result, those in this camp have turned to shoes like the Vibram FiveFingers Classic Multisport.

Barefoot runners additionally believe that this biomechanical shift in stride has not only made us less efficient, but has also increased our injury risks. Those using this technique will tell you that the lack of a thick, protective sole and a layer of cushioning between them and the ground makes them feel more connected to the trail. In turn, the design supposedly results in more comfort when you run technical terrain.

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Minimalist

Minimalist shoes are often referred to as, and are mistaken for, barefoot shoes. This confusion exemplifies why, in recent years, classifying trail runners has become convoluted. The dividing line is, people who like the idea of barefoot running but want more support and cushioning opt for a minimalist pair.

These shoes commonly feature some heel-toe drop, but the ramp (or drop between the heel and toe) is, well, minimal. As well, they combine the feeling of a barefoot shoe with some of the more traditional features. Like barefoot trail runners, minimalist styles encourage landing on the forefoot rather than the heels.

Minimalist shoes, such as the La Sportiva Helios 2.0, are perfect for East Coast trail runners who are looking to find their natural stride but are concerned about the trails’ many obstacles. Specifically, a more protective sole and a small amount of cushioning can be a welcome barrier against sharp rocks, pointy acorns, and rough roots.

Although I am not a minimalist devotee, I love these shoes for short runs on moderate terrain when I’m trying to be fast. Sadly, being a bigger person and not the smoothest of striders, I have to ditch my pair for longer distance runs.

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Traditional

Traditional trail runners constitute the majority of the shoes at your local Eastern Mountain Sports. As the name implies, these are constructed in a similar manner to those you’ve been wearing your entire life. These types, like the La Sportiva Wildcat 3.0 (one of my all-time favorites), have more padding in the heel than in the forefoot, which creates a noticeable ramp and encourages a heel-first stride.

Perhaps the best case I can make for traditional trail runners is, to quote the old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Many of us, myself included, have been running without issue in this type since our first steps, and changing shoes, along with technique, could be inviting disaster.

Because of this, I log most of my miles in traditional trail runners. Although barefoot and minimalist runners may feel more connected, I have found that, thanks to the additional cushioning, I can run over objects they have to avoid.

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Maximalist

Differing from the three aforementioned categories, maximalist shoes don’t emphasize heel-toe drop. Rather, they shift the focus to cushioning. Here, the incredible amount of material between the sole and footbed clearly identifies this style. Just check out the Hoka One One Speedgoat to see what I mean.

If the idea of bounding down mountain trails while feeling like you’re hopping along clouds is appealing, these shoes might be for you. Maximalist trail runners believe that the additional cushioning is easier on their joints and reduces fatigue, helping to prevent injuries and keep them running longer.

The negative, however, can be a loss of ground-feel. And, in my experience, the additional height may reduce your control when you’re running technical trails or steep downhills.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Other Considerations

Of course, this is just a simple breakdown of today’s trail running options. You still need to consider a handful of other factors when picking your next pair, such as:

Waterproofing

In my experience, a non-waterproof trail runner is ideal for about 90 percent of my journeys. They’re cooler, allow your feet to breathe better, and dry quickly when they get wet. The only time I choose a waterproof model, like the Brooks Cascadia 11 GTX (the waterproof version of an all-time favorite), is for colder runs in early spring and late fall.

Tread

When thinking about the type of tread you need, keep in mind a few things. Most importantly, have a clear picture of which type of trail running you envision yourself doing.

For instance, runners striving for the mountains will want a shoe like the Salomon Speedcross 4, a style with a more aggressive tread and deeper lugs. On the other hand, people who might be running some roads on the way or who plan to do less-technical terrain like rail trails will find a less-aggressive tread, such as those on the Salomon X-Mission 3, is ideal.

Foam or Rock Plate

Most trail running shoes, barefoot runners excluded, offer some protection against hazards by incorporating foam or a rock plate into the midsole. Those that use the former as a means of protection benefit from more cushioning and shock absorption, while trail runners utilizing a rock plate have better trail feel and more precise foot placement.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

While finding a type of shoe can be daunting, know that the only wrong choice is not getting off the road and onto the trail for your next run. Over the years, I have experimented with all kinds of trail runners, and even though I’ve settled on a traditional pair, I still incorporate minimalist shoes to work on my stride and exercise under-used muscles. And, I think about buying a pair of Hokas every shift I work.


Beyond 48: The Northeast's Hardest Hiking Checklists

For many people, just getting to the top of a New Hampshire 4,000-footer is a big accomplishment. For others, summiting all 48 of the state’s 4,000-footers is the ultimate goal and a sign that you’ve “made it” as a New England hiker.

But, for a select few, the White Mountains and New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers get in your blood. So, the idea of stopping at just 48 seems ludicrous. For these people, they move on to tackling more challenging ways to summit the New Hampshire 48, whether by linking them, attempting them in different seasons, or exploring them by different trails.

The view from the Southern Presidentials. | Credit: Sean Greaney
The view from the Southern Presidentials. | Credit: Sean Greaney

The Big Hikes

In many cases, hiking your first 4,000-footer involves getting out of your comfort zone, accepting a new physical challenge, and returning to your car with a blend of jubilation and exhaustion. Perhaps it’s the desire to recreate this feeling that leads some to move on from the 48 summits to the White Mountains’ classic long, hard hikes.

Presidential Traverse

The most notable, the 18-plus mile Presidential Traverse climbs over 8,500 feet while summiting seven New Hampshire 4,000-footers. For planning out your journey, this includes Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, and Pierce. Some ambitious hikers even continue the extra couple of miles to tag the summit of Mount Jackson.

Carter-Moriah-Wildcat Traverse

Although the Presidential Traverse gets most of the attention and has more climbing, many insist that a Carter-Moriah-Wildcat Traverse is more difficult. Helping it earn this reputation, its steep rock trails and 7,200 feet of climbing take you over six 4,000-foot summits. Here, that list covers Moriah, South Carter, Middle Carter, Carter Dome, Wildcat A, and Wildcat D. However, losing the majority of the elevation previously gained and having to reclaim it near the middle at Carter Notch really make the Carter-Moriah-Wildcat Traverse feel difficult.

Pemi Loop

While traverses are great, sometimes you want to go big but only have access to one car. Here is where the Pemi Loop rules. The route, as you may know, combines two of the White Mountains’ classic traverses—Franconia Ridge and the Bonds—into what Backpacker Magazine has labeled the country’s second-hardest day-hike.

Covering over 30 miles and 9,000 feet of elevation gain, this legendary loop hike tags the summits of nine New Hampshire 4,000-footers. This time, you’ll reach Flume, Liberty, Lincoln, Lafayette, Garfield, South Twin, West Bond, Bond, and Bondcliff. The truly ambitious and fit will then add the summits of Galehead, Zealand, and North Twin for an almost 40-mile day that summits 12 peaks.

Credit: Hannah Wohltmann
Credit: Hannah Wohltmann

Gridding

Although the big hikes present equally large challenges, they can all feasibly be done in a day. For those looking for a longer-term commitment, on the other hand, you can attempt “gridding.” Gridding is defined as hiking every New Hampshire 4,000-footer in every month of the year. These journeys amount to a grand total of 576 summits and appeal to those of us who love checking boxes off our lists.

Until this January, completing the grid was considered a multi-year objective—that is, until Sue Johnston of Littleton, NH, became the first person to do it in a calendar year. And, according to the definitive website for gridders, 48×12.com, only 70 people have completed the whole shebang.

Named for the 48 x 12 spreadsheet used to document ascents, gridding adds the challenge of facing each and every mountain in all possible conditions. That covers the snow and ice of winter to the mud of spring to the heat and humidity of summer to the treacherous leaves of fall.

Credit: Jeff Jacobsen
Credit: Jeff Jacobsen

Red-Lining

If the idea of gridding sounds overly ambitious to you, red-lining will sound downright crazy. While hiking the New Hampshire 48 and gridding revolve around summiting the White Mountains’ highest peaks, red-liners seek to hike every mile of every trail, including viewpoints, campsites, and spur trails (approximately 1,420 miles) found in the AMC White Mountain Guide.

If that sounds like a lot of mileage, take into consideration that many of the trails are out-and-backs or crisscross with others. Typically, this forces red-liners to hike far more miles than just the 1,420 miles required.

Named after the act of highlighting completed trail sections, red-lining is most frequently done over multiple years. What’s truly incredible about it is, considering its relative closeness to major metropolitan areas and hiking’s surging popularity, only 35 people have finished the endeavor. One includes EMS customer Bill Robichaud, who we featured back in 2015:

Redlining the White Mountains

While summiting all 4,000-footers is an incredible accomplishment, you don’t have to stop there! New Hampshire’s White Mountains can be explored and experienced in so many different ways. Whether you want to repeat your favorites, tackle the hardest, grid, red-line, or invent some new way to keep the challenge alive, just remember that the 48th summit doesn’t have to be your last.


Tuned Up: Your Spring Mountain Bike Walk-Around

If you’re like me, sometime over the next few weeks, you’ll be digging your mountain bike out of the basement, garage, or shed and hitting the trails for the first time since last fall. If you’re also like me, the last time you thought about your mountain bike was when you rode it way back in October or November.

Whether it’s the shorter days, the impending stoke of skiing, or just the fact that the seasons change too quickly, I seemingly never take the time or care to go through my bike before winter. Although it’s tempting to just dig your bike out of storage and go for a rip, a few simple actions before heading out on that first ride can set you up for a great season while preventing a lot of aggravation.

Credit: Mark Turner
Credit: Mark Turner

Clean Up Your Act

The first thing to consider is some spring cleaning. Whether you buried your mud-covered bike in the back of the basement or gave it a good scrub before the off-season, a thorough washing now lets you start with a clean slate and makes the following steps significantly easier.

Cleaning your bike is pretty simple and can easily be done in the driveway or backyard. All you need is a hose, a stiff-bristled brush for components like cassettes and chains, a soft-bristled brush or sponge for your bike’s frame, and some dish detergent or bike wash.

One thing to remember when using a hose on your bike is, you want to avoid anything high pressure. Especially in sensitive areas like the headset, bottom bracket, and hubs, think gentle rain—not a fire hose. The great thing about washing your bike is that it’s the perfect activity for those first warm days of spring. You get psyched to ride as you wait for the end of mud season.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Get On a Roll

With your bike clean, now is the time to start visually inspecting it. A great place to begin is the tires. How is the tread? Is there much left? What about the knobs? Are they peeling off? While there is no “penny test” for mountain bike tires, a good rule of thumb is that if you’re questioning how much life they have left in them, it’s probably time for a new set.

After checking the tread, inspect them for any signs of damage. Make sure there are no small holes in the tread and no embedded objects. After that, go over the tires’ sidewalls to check for cuts and tears. Keep in mind that a damaged tire is never going to get any better, and nothing kills early-season stoke more than being plagued by flats. If you’re running tubeless tires, add in some of your favorite sealant before heading out.

Oh, and one more thing—don’t forget to inflate your tires before hitting the trail!

With your tires all set, give your rims a closer look to check for any dings or dents. Next, elevate the bike, and spin its wheels to make sure they don’t wobble.

As well, check the spokes to ensure none are loose. Wobbling and loose spokes mean your wheels need to be trued. If you don’t have a truing stand at home, bring your wheels to the shop before your first ride to prevent an unfortunate tacoing situation.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Don’t Stop Now

Before tackling the season’s first gnarly descent, first make sure your bike will stop. Most mountain bikes today are running disc brakes. These give pretty obvious cues when they need work, as, if they are out of alignment, they will make a scraping sound when the wheel spins. The silent enemy of many hydraulic disc brakes, however, is air building up in the fluid. While you can find a bunch of great resources online for bleeding your own brakes, the only thing I’ve ever accomplished by trying to do it is getting frustrated. Bring it to a pro—they get paid to be annoyed.

Now you’re ready to roll-check your bike’s brake pads. To do that, simply remove the wheel, and give them a look. Most pads start with 3 to 4mm of compound on them and should be replaced when they get to 1mm. Don’t feel like measuring? Take a peek at what new pads look like the next time you visit the bike shop to drool over your dream rig. If your pads have less than half of what you see on the new ones, replace them, and be amazed at how much better your bike stops.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Get Crankin’

Nothing sucks the joy out of getting back on your bike more than shifting issues. Before heading out on your first ride, examine the teeth on your cassette and chainrings to ensure none are bent or missing. Next, shift through the gears. Unless you shift, you shouldn’t hear any popping or skipping between cogs.

While you’re looking over the drivetrain, you should also check your chain length. If it’s stretched out, replace it. Remember, waiting to replace wearing drivetrain parts can be expensive, as a single worn part can accelerate the wear of other components. Also, nothing is more deflating than when a snapped chain has you mountain hiking instead of mountain biking.

With everything still clean, be sure to lube up the drivetrain before your first ride.

Credit: Mark Turner
Credit: Mark Turner

Suspension

You paid good money for your bike’s suspension, so make sure it’s in working order before you hit the trail. While much of your bike’s suspension requires an expert’s hand, a simple examination of your fork and shock seals (if you’re riding a full-suspension bike) can save you a lot of hassle down the road. If the seals either look to be dry and cracking or have fluid buildup, it’s probably time to get your suspension serviced.

If you’re riding a full-suspension mountain bike, having all of the bushings greased and tightened is good preventative maintenance. Doing this now is an easy way to avoid excessive wear and expensive fixes later. Sadly, this can be a complicated job, and is most easily left to your local bike shop. With the bushings ready for a season of abuse, set the sag, and be ready to roll.

Don’t Forget To Accessorize

Did you take an epic fall last season? Before heading out, scrutinize your helmet’s condition. If it’s had any significant impacts or any cracks, it’s time for a new one. Helmet technology seems to improve every year, allowing them to vent better while providing more protection. These days, you can get a helmet with MIPS technology, which reduces the impact to your brain in the event of an accident, for under a hundred dollars.

The type of person who discovers their bike still covered in last season’s mud is the same kind of person who will find their hydration bladder with water still in it. Surprise—you’re growing something! Even if you did clean and dry your bladder before storing it, I like to pop a cleaning tablet in to make sure I am starting from a good place.

Since you have your hydration bag out, clean all of last season’s empty gel packets and energy bar wrappers out of it. Once you take out all of the junk, make sure your pack has a spare tube, a pump or CO2 inflator, a chain master link, a multitool, and a small first aid kit.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Let Us Do It

If you like riding more than working on your bike, or simply don’t feel comfortable doing everything yourself, bring it to one of EMS’ fantastic bike techs, and let them get you ready for the season! Just remember: You’re not the only one digging a bike out from behind a pile of skis, snowboards, and snowshoes this spring. So, the sooner you get your bike in the shop, the quicker it’ll be ready to hit the trail.

 

Of course, you could do what I’ve done for the majority of my mountain-biking life and just pull your bike out and ride it. But, that has never worked out particularly well for me. It’s amazing how spending just a few hours on maintenance before the season can save you hours of aggravation—and perhaps even add days of riding.


Heavenly Pants: Three Scenarios for the PrAna Stretch Zions

Whether you’re meeting friends at the crag or that special someone for coffee, the Prana Stretch Zion Pants deliver the performance needed for outdoor pursuits, along with the look for fashionably navigating everyday life. Because of their versatility, the PrAna Zions have become a staple of many outdoorsy men’s and women’s wardrobes over the years. But, out of all possibilities, there are a few ideal scenarios to have these rugged pants on you.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Scenario One: The Lunch Lady

Most days at lunch, you escape your desk to stroll around the wooded trails surrounding your office building, trying to squeeze a little bit of nature into your sedentary work life. A few weeks ago, you were shocked to discover a proud boulder with a steep face standing alone in the forest not far from your office. Upon closer inspection, the face appeared to have enough holds to make it climbable, even if the slopey top out looked a little sketchy. Since discovering “the office boulder,” you’ve haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

Over the last week, your lunchtime walks have turned into bouldering sessions, as you work the moves on what you’ve started calling The Lunch Lady. Although the PrAna Stretch Zion Pants haven’t helped you send yet, their good looks have fit right in around the office, while their stretchy material has allowed you to spend your breaks with The Lunch Lady without having to change between work and play.

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

Scenario Two: Hiking for Answers

This project at work is killing you. You’ve been stuck in the same spot all week, and you still haven’t made a breakthrough. It seems your best ideas come when you’re the farthest from your computer. Tomorrow, you’re going to hike before work.

It’s still dark outside when the alarm goes off. “There’s nothing like an alpine start to a work day,” you think to yourself as you pull on your PrAna Stretch Zion pants. You begin your hike as the sun rises and the morning’s cold darkness begins to ebb. You’re thankful you wore your Prana Zion Pants as you’re pushing pretty hard to make it to the office on time, and their breathable fabric is helping you stay comfortable in the warming air.

Descending to the car, it hits you: the key to your project! You’re so excited when you get to work, you forget to even change out of your hiking clothes. Not only did nobody notice, but instead, everyone has complimented you on how good you look today.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Scenario Three: Trying Without Trying

Everyone is meeting at the climbing gym this Thursday night and then heading out for drinks…including her. You’ve liked her for a while, and this might be your best chance to impress her with your skill on the walls and your banter at the bar. But, you don’t want her to think you’re trying too hard, either.

You walk into the climbing gym, wearing the same PrAna Zions you graced at the office, and pull your harness on over them. Of course, you did roll up and snap the pants’ legs, hoping she’ll notice your footwork on the wall. So far, so good: You’ve styled most of the routes you’ve been on, and thanks to the Zion’s abrasion-resistant material, you look no worse for wear. You’re sure she’s impressed, but you can’t let her know you’re trying, either. Removing your harness, you notice your pants still look great, so you play it cool, leaving for the bar in what you climbed in and knowing that, worst-case scenario, if she throws a drink at you, at least your Zions are water resistant.

 

From the outdoors to the office, the classroom to the crag, or the boulders to the bar, the PrAna Zion Pants will get you there in style.

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

Bouldering in the Ocean State: Lincoln Woods

To all but the locals, referring to Rhode Island as a climbing destination sounds like a joke. Even some struggle to believe that the nation’s smallest state is also home to some of the region’s best bouldering at Lincoln Woods (or, more simply, “The Woods”). In fact, some climbers even struggle to know where Rhode Island is.

I have two friends from the Ocean State who crisscrossed the U.S. on a climbing trip and claim they were treated like celebrities everywhere from the Red River Gorge in Kentucky to Bishop, California. Why? Because no one had ever met someone from Rhode Island. The most common thing they heard on their trip was, “Rhode Island…That’s near Cape Cod. Right?”

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Southern New England’s Secret

Perhaps it’s for the best that the rest of the country hasn’t learned of The Woods’ high-quality granite blocks. After all, it’s located just minutes outside of Providence, an hour from Boston, and an hour and a half from Hartford, making it an easy day trip for many in the Northeast’s major metropolitan areas.

Also, with a plenitude of moderate problems, The Woods is an attractive destination for groups of mixed abilities. Weekends here can get a little crazy, but don’t worry. There are plenty of problems to go around and solitude can be easily found by visiting the more out-of-the-way boulders. Be warned, though: To me, many of these challenges felt hard for their grade.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Why It’s Popular

Like its proximity to the area’s big cities, The Woods’ bouldering logistics are also incredibly convenient. Unlike many New England crags, The Woods has an abundance of parking, with multiple lots to service the diverse user groups frequenting the park. In all my years going here, I have never struggled to find a spot for my car.

Furthermore, a paved road loops around the park and comes within a short distance of many of The Woods’ classic boulders, making navigation a breeze and climbing typically only a short walk away. Additionally, many of its quality sites are adjacent to each other, allowing climbers to hop from boulder to boulder with relative ease. 

For me, once snow’s on the ground, I gravitate from climbing shoes to ski boots. However, at Lincoln Woods, you can find something to climb year-round. Some boulders sit in the shade or frequently get a cooling wind, making for comfortable climbing on the warm days of spring and summer. And, for the cold days of late fall and winter, plenty sit in the sun or reside in spots that seem to hold warm air.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

So Much to Do

Many will spend years just trying to visit all of the park’s boulders, never mind send every problem. But, for your next visit, consider checking out some of The Woods’ can’t-miss spots at least once and trying some of its must-do problems. Here’s a look at some of its more popular areas, all within an easy walk from your car. And, the best part is, all of these spots are about a five-minute walk from one another, so try them all!

The Great Slab/Wave

A short walk down the road from the park’s main entrance and around the pond brings you to The Great Slab/Wave, considered one of The Woods’ most iconic problems. Depending on who you talk to or where you get your beta, this popular boulder is either called The Great Slab, after the imposing slab you see from the road, or The Wave, after the boulder’s most notorious problem.

Climbing The Wave (V2) is a rite of passage for Lincoln Woods boulderers and should not be missed. Like the many problems here, don’t let its moderate grade fool you. The Wave is hard and combines a wide variety of climbing styles, forcing you into steep terrain and requiring you to use everything from slopers to cracks.

The Ship’s Prow

If the leaves are off the trees, you can see the Ship’s Prow from The Wave, as it’s just across a well-used dirt path. An extremely popular boulder, the Ship’s Prow sees a great deal of traffic, thanks to its proliferation of easy-to-moderate climbs and confidence-inspiring flat landings. It’s not uncommon to find a group of beginners projecting here, next to hardcore climbers warming up.

Although this spot is home to multiple fun problems, the Ship’s Prow Traverse (V1) is the area’s must-do route. You’ll find that it traverses roughly half of the boulder before topping out at the rock’s highest point.

The Iron Cross Boulder

If you look left, across from the pond as you approach The Wave, you’ll see a few boulders scattered up the hill. Following a well-established path, head up the hill to three of The Woods’ most notorious boulders.

On the far right is the the Iron Cross Boulder. Much like The Wave, this boulder gets its name from its most notable problem, The Iron Cross (V4)—which itself is known for a signature iron-cross move.

Shorter people, be warned: The starting hold on The Iron Cross is pretty high off the ground, and I have witnessed all sorts of trickery—from stacking pads to jumping to getting a boost—to reach it. If the starting hold is a little too high, or you’re just looking for something more moderate, the vertical wall facing the road holds a bunch of fun—albeit tall—problems.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Mack’s Traverse

To the left of the Iron Cross Boulder is Mack’s Traverse, which is also named after its signature problem. Mack’s Traverse (V2) crosses nearly all of the boulder’s entirety from right to left and is another classic problem that lures you in by looking easier than it is.

But, to send Mack’s Traverse, you need good beta and even better footwork. Like any classic at a high-traffic area, it seems that the boulder’s every hold is ticked, making where to go misleading at times. Furthermore, the problem is steeper than it appears. As well, because of the incredible amount of traffic it sees, the feet are pretty slippery. In fact, if you forget to keep pressure on them, you’re sure to slide off.

If Mack’s Traverse isn’t happening for you, you’ll find a handful of easier straight-up climbs on the right end and the face. And, if they seemed too easy, just walk down the short hill to the Warm-Up Cave, where you’ll find some of The Woods’ hardest problems.

Warm-Up Cave

Like all listed above, the Warm-Up Cave also sees a lot of traffic due to its high-quality problems and proximity to the park’s entrance. Although you’ll find a number of harder problems here, its easier routes keep beginner and intermediate climbers busy, too.

In spite of its harder climbs, the most notable problem at the Warm-Up Cave is within nearly every man’s reach. Neil’s Lunge (V4) starts in the boulder’s middle on a half-moon flake. Move up the flake to a small crimp, and then, psych yourself up for a dynamic lunge move to better holds.

Looking for something easier? The Cave Warm-Up (V1) follows a fun and obvious line of good holds to the boulder’s highest point. Be warned: Although you’ll encounter all positive holds, at some point, you’ll realize you’re pretty high off the ground, which can be a little intimidating.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

These problems are an awesome place to get started, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. And, while Mountain Project or a guidebook has even more listed, over the years, locals have shown me all sorts of hidden variations and challenges. Of course, the only way you get that type of beta is going directly there. Like I said initially, there is no bad time to visit…so, attempt these challenges at the first available opportunity.


Running the Wapack Trail

Named for the mountains marking the beginning and end—Mount Watatic in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, and North Pack Monadnock in Greenfield, New Hampshire—the 21.5-mile Wapack Trail opened in 1923, making it one of the United States’ oldest interstate trails. Crossing both public and private lands, the Wapack of today is virtually unchanged, except for some re-routing to adapt to changing conditions.

Whether you’re looking to attempt the entire trail in a day or run it in sections, the Wapack has something for everyone. At the same time, it goes through the traditional New England landscape, cresting rocky ridges and descending past dark forests. If, however, you just want to sample the choicest parts, here are some of the Wapack’s must-do runs.

The summit of Pack Monadnock. | Credit: Tim Peck
The summit of Pack Monadnock. | Credit: Tim Peck

Pack Monadnock

Miller State Park, located off Route 101 in Peterborough, New Hampshire, is home to Pack Monadnock (or, simply, “Pack”), which is one of my favorite portions along the Wapack. In fact, you can tell how great this run is because, despite its many negatives, I find myself there on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. Honestly, this run is so good I routinely have to force myself to go other places at lunch.

It may be a paradox, but the bad thing about this trail is that it’s so great. It has interesting terrain, it’s short enough that it attracts people of all fitness levels, it’s steep but not so much that it can’t be run, and it offers amazing views.

However, because it’s such a great trail, it’s also quite popular, which means it also has a parking fee, a heavily traveled road, and a bunch of buildings on it. Pack’s positives far outweigh its negatives, though. For example, the bathrooms at both ends can be a welcome sight, and the running water at the summit means there’s no need to carry bottles or hydration bladders.

Mount Monadnock from Pack. | Credit: Tim Peck
Mount Monadnock from Pack. | Credit: Tim Peck

Running Pack Monadnock

Leaving the Miller State Park parking lot, the Wapack Trail climbs 1.3 miles while gaining a little under 1,000 feet to the 2,290-foot summit of Pack Monadnock. Feeling winded? Don’t let the steep and challenging nature of the trail scare you off. The first quarter-mile is the hardest. After that, the trail flattens out and becomes less technical, at least by New England standards. If the initial climb hasn’t left you too blurry eyed, look out when the forest opens up and take in the awesome view of Temple Mountain and Mount Monadnock as you cross the breaks.

While not technically on the Wapack Trail, a few variations let you add mileage, increase difficulty, and take in more stunning views. The most natural thing to do is create a loop by descending the Marion Davis Trail from Pack Monadnock’s summit. Roughly the same length as the Wapack Trail, the Marion Davis Trail is a little less steep and technical, making it a much easier descent on tired legs.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Add in North Pack

There are plenty of occasions when I want to run Pack Monadnock but need or want to run farther than three miles. In these situations, traveling over to the summit of 2,276-foot North Pack Monadnock (or just “North Pack”) is the perfect solution.

When I stand on Pack’s summit, North Pack looks only minutes away, but in reality, it’s a fun two-mile run across a wooded ridge. Not very technical, and with the exception of a few steep parts at the beginning and end, this section is perfect for picking up the pace, at least if you have the legs to do it after ascending Pack. In the fall, leave the energy bars at home, as wild blueberry bushes are abundant around the summit.

Looking to add even more challenges or cover different terrain? Divert from the Wapack to the Cliff Trail to add an extra half-mile as well as some trickier conditions on your way to North Pack’s summit, and then, on the way down, follow the Wapack Trail back to Pack (and, eventually, to your car).

Pack from North Pack. | Credit: Tim Peck
Pack from North Pack. | Credit: Tim Peck

Mount Watatic

Marking the trail’s southern terminus is 1,832-foot high Mount Watatic. Here, the Wapack Trail leaves from a well-marked parking lot off Route 119 in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, and on busy weekends, you’re likely to see cars lining the road, as the lot reaches capacity quickly.

Mountain runners will love running the Wapack Trail on Mount Watatic, as it packs plenty of vertical, crosses diverse, demanding terrain, and features a bald summit with incredible views of Mount Wachusett. On clear days, even the Boston skyline is visible! What’s truly impressive is that it does this all in just a little over a mile.

Looking for an additional challenge? Just do what the runners of the Wapack and Back (the double-length trail race along the Wapack) do when they reach Watatic’s parking lot in order to hit the 50-mile mark—run up it, over it, and back a second time.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Go Big on New Hampshire’s Small Mountains

It’s believed that the Native Americans named these mountains, and that “Pack” means little. While they may be small in stature compared to some of New Hampshire’s larger mountains, the Wapack is capable of delivering big days. For those looking for a full-sized outing, running the Wapack from beginning to end is a worthy challenge.

But, don’t make the same mistake I did: Take the trail seriously. Running the Wapack is no joke, with technical terrain and fickle New England weather—wet and slippery in the spring, hot and humid in the summer, leaves covering obstacles in the fall, and snow and ice in winter—thrown in. And, it’s not just the nature of the trails and the weather that make this climb difficult. Additionally, the route ascends approximately 4,600 feet over its 21.5 miles, and with numerous short and steep up-and-downs, its relentless nature can exhaust even the heartiest trail runner.

Before You Go

While signing up for the Wapack and Back race is one approach, running the Wapack Trail self-supported is a fairly easy undertaking. First, the Wapack is very well marked, with yellow blazes and cairns on the ridges; in most instances, just a quick look around will reveal one. Secondly, the trail passes plenty of places to stash extra food and water. Or, because of some sections’ easier nature, you can have people of all skill and fitness levels meet you along the way with something to eat or drink or maybe even give you that much-needed pep talk.

With the exception of going through the whole thing, I have only highlighted runs at this awesome trail’s beginning and end, and there are so many other good routes in between. Get out to explore this historic trail, find your new favorite run, and maybe even challenge yourself to do it all, whether in sections or all at once.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

 


Winter-Summer Pairings: Shoulder Season Multisport Days

As we head into spring, many outdoor people find themselves conflicted on which sports to pursue. Should they get a head start on their favorite summer activities? Or, should they wring the last bit of life out of their favorite winter sports? Around this time each year, I find myself torn between the desire to get back on the trails (or rock) and—with the knowledge that, once the snow melts, it will be months before I can ski again—my love for spring corn. Luckily, New England is full of great opportunities for those of us who can’t decide what we want to do.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

1. Bag a 4,000-footer and ski the resort

New England springs often offer cold nights and warm days. This means the snow is firm in the morning and soft in the afternoon, so the ski trails aren’t always in prime condition until later in the day.

Waterville Valley is perfect for days like this! With the Tecumseh Trail leading directly from the Waterville Valley parking lot to Mount Tecumseh’s summit, you can tag a 4,000-footer in the morning and ski in the afternoon. Being the shortest of New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers, Mount Tecumseh is one of the easier hikes to tick off your list (roughly six miles round trip and with 2,500 feet of elevation gain). This leaves you with plenty of energy to enjoy the steep runs located off Waterville’s aptly named Sunnyside Triple trail in the afternoon.

Cliip a Dee Doo Dah (5.3) at Rumney. | Credit: Tim Peck
Cliip a Dee Doo Dah (5.3) at Rumney. | Credit: Tim Peck

2. Ski and send

Over the years, Cannon Mountain has developed a loyal following of skiers and boarders more interested in amazing terrain than in on-mountain amenities. If you’re like me and consider a chairlift an amenity, they even offer an $8 uphill pass that allows you to skip the lifts and skin uphill on designated trails. Even better, in good seasons, the mountain will close for the year with an abundance of snow still on it, offering great skiing for only the price of the calories and sweat it takes to get you to the top of it.

Coming from south of Franconia Notch in the spring, I love to blend a morning of earning my turns at Cannon Mountain with clipping bolts at Rumney on the way home. With an abundance of crags close to the parking lot, many of which get great afternoon sun, this trip is the perfect way to bid farewell to skiing and usher in climbing.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

3. Mount Wachusett, multisport playground

For years, I was lucky enough to live close to Mount Wachusett in Princeton, Massachusetts. While the mountain may be limited in terrain, it is in no way limited in opportunities for an incredible multisport spring day. Whether you’re skinning up the mountain before it opens, riding the lifts, or lucky enough to be getting turns after it has closed for the season, the skiing is almost always fun. As well, the mountain’s more limited terrain won’t have you feeling like you’re missing out as you leave to pursue other activities.

Much like Mount Tecumseh, Mount Wachusett’s summit is attainable simply by following trails leaving from the ski resort’s parking lot. Combining a morning on the slopes with a quick trek to the summit is a fantastic way to get your hiking legs under you without missing a chance to ski the soft spring snow. My favorite route has always been following the Balance Rock Trail to the Semuhenna Trail to the Harrington Trail to the summit.

Of course, as good as Mount Wachusett’s hiking trails are, the roads surrounding the mountain are basically tailor-made for cycling. After a morning on the slopes, I love to challenge myself with any number of loop rides that start in the ski resort’s parking lot and climb over the mountain. I like to descend Route 140 and hook up with Route 62. From Route 62, you can connect with Mountain Road to climb up and over Mount Wachusett.

If combining hiking or biking with skiing isn’t interesting enough for you, Mount Wachusett is also located only a few minutes down the road from Crow Hill, one of Massachusetts’ oldest and most notorious crags, and is roughly an hour away from some of New England’s most popular bouldering at Lincoln Woods in Rhode Island.

Although I am not big on playing in the water, one of my friends insists the ultimate multisport opportunity afforded by Mount Wachusett is the chance to play on frozen water in the morning and moving water in the afternoon. For those that don’t know, Mount Wachusett is roughly an hour away from popular surf spots in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

 

While spring is the season in which we say goodbye to our favorite winter sports and welcome in our summer activities of choice, there are a few magical weeks where your outdoor options are almost unlimited, making it perfect for the person who wants to do everything.


MntnReview: The Simple Beauty of the Car Bivy

Backpacking tents seem to get more high tech, weigh less, and pack smaller every year. Conversely, car camping tents get larger and deliver more living space and creature comforts while being less bulky, setting up easier, and offering more features. In spite of tents’ many advances, many outdoor people continue to use the car bivy, a tried-and-true dirtbag method for sleeping in the outdoors.

car bivy [kär bi-vē] n : The experience or act of forgoing the comfort of renting a room, or the inconvenience of pitching a tent, in favor of sleeping in the car.

To many people, the idea of someone sleeping in his or her car is pretty sad, but for a select group, the car bivy is the most practical—and least expensive—way to get close to their outdoor objectives. Whether in a campground, at a trailhead, or covertly on the edge of a Walmart parking lot, this method provides a low-cost, no-frills sleeping option.

While it may sound strange that individuals who often possess thousands of dollars’ worth of high-tech equipment, wear clothes made of expensive, cutting-edge materials, and also probably own an expensive tent (or three) would intentionally sleep in the car, it happens all the time. The truth is, by cutting corners on the cost of a motel or campsite, a hardened outdoor person can devote those funds to new boots, a new jacket, some other “must-have” piece of outdoor gear, or simply a campsite when it’s really needed.

My sleeping preference will always lie with beds. However, the practical outdoor person in me has spent a fair number of nights curled up in the back of my Subaru wagon, sleeping in the bed of a friend’s truck, or trying to get comfortable in the driver’s seat of a rental car. While seasoned dirtbags will tell you about the year they traveled the U.S. in their Saturn, I believe the car bivy is at its best when used for a day or two at most, and truly excels when you are only looking to get a few hours of sleep before an early start—for example, driving to a trailhead and briefly knocking out before a big day and an alpine start. 

EMS - BIG SUR -5229-Camping

Picking the Right Rolling Bed

The same qualities that lead people to the car bivy in the first place are, ironically, also the qualities that ensure they will probably rent the worst possible vehicle. Before heading to Mount Hood, I knew my climbing partner and I would spend somewhere between one and three days sleeping in the car. Yet, I never let that stop me from renting the cheapest (read: smallest) model available.

When booking a rental car from the comfort of your living room, it’s easy to talk about roughing it. The reality is, it’s easy to envision yourself in the mountains, but it’s harder to picture what life will look like if you’re storm-bound in a compact car jammed with skis, packs, jackets, food, and all the other gear that coincides with a ski mountaineering trip. Sleeping in the driver’s seat is hard enough. It can be almost impossible if you’re unable to push the seat back or recline it.

Taking Care of Your Car Bivy

The crazy thing about the rental car bivy is that, even when renting the cheapest available, it still tends to be nice. I’ve never had a rental with more than a few thousand miles on it, and most would pass for new. But, it’s a shame how disgusting they are when returned after a few days of serving as a bedroom, living room, kitchen, and mudroom in the outdoors.

While on Mount Hood, we took great care not to drag too much sand and mud into the car from the parking lot. But, there was no avoiding the skis de-icing in the trunk, our boots airing out in the backseat, and heaps of layers in various states of drying draped anywhere we could find space. Oh, and as the car obviously doesn’t have a shower, after a few days of ski touring, the vehicle’s unique smell only gets more pungent. By the end of the trip, the car stunk, and despite driving around with the windows open for a few hours before returning it, I’m afraid that smell isn’t going away.

Despite all of the car bivy’s negatives, I still had a fantastic time. In fact, the moment I got back, I began plotting my next adventure—one that will most likely involve another car bivy, complete with a too-small vehicle. In the end, the disjointed sleep, weird food, weirder bathrooms, strange smells, and all the other challenges presented merely added to the adventure. Maybe, then, the reason this method has grown to prominence is, why else would you get up at one o’clock in the morning to climb a mountain, other than you have to get out of the car?

[Credit: Tim Peck]
Credit: Tim Peck

Mount Washington Cog Railway: Ski It While You Can

Built in 1868, the Mount Washington Cog Railway has been a staple of the peak’s plentiful ski runs since skis first came to the Northeast’s highest point. But, recently, plans have come to light that could significantly change that three-mile run in the not-so-distant future.

In December, the Mount Washington Railway Company (MWRC) proposed building a new hotel and restaurant along the rail line just a mile below the mountain’s summit.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Mount Washington has seen more human impact than most peaks. It’s not hard to find the scars of actions made decades or even centuries ago, as everything from hotels, lodges, and huts to roads and railways dots the landscape. Between a multitude of buildings, an auto road, and a railway, Mount Washington has seen more than its fair share of development, both good and bad.

No matter how you feel about the existing infrastructure throughout the Whites, it’s hard to argue that there should be more of it. The most obvious reason we don’t need another building up there? Just look at the remnants of structures built in the past, both on Mount Washington and on the Whites’ other mountains—the impact will last generations. As outdoor enthusiasts, we can almost universally agree on one thing: We should be minimizing our impact on the environment.

But, if we can’t agree on that, then maybe we can agree to not ruin a favorite ski run.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The “Easy” Way

Skiing the Cog Railway might be one of the activities that leaves me the most conflicted about Mount Washington’s infrastructure. While in the summer the railway presents an easy path to the summit for those not wanting or not able to exert the effort in getting there under their own power, in the winter, the Cog offers the most accessible way to Mount Washington’s summit for skiers and snowboarders. Ascending roughly 3,500 feet in three miles, the Cog is the shortest route to the top and involves the least amount of elevation gain. Because it is graded to be suitable for a train, it is never excessively steep, making for quick ascents and even faster descents—especially when skiing! Even better, spring is the perfect time to make the trip, as winter’s cold and windy conditions begin to subside, and the days start to get longer.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Not only does the Cog offer an easier path to the summit, it also minimizes challenging route finding. Unlike many New Hampshire backcountry ski runs, skiing the Cog has no mysteries to unlock; simply follow the rail line from its parking lot near Bretton Woods to the mountain’s summit and back down. The simplicity is incredibly beneficial when considering Mount Washington’s fierce winter weather, with the railway serving as a handrail to the summit and back.

Skiing the Cog further simplifies the logistics by reducing the likelihood of an avalanche. Unlike the more notable and steep Tuckerman Ravine, the Cog’s lower slope angle, less snow, and less wind traditionally make the snowpack more reliable and less likely to avalanche than other Mount Washington backcountry ski lines. However, in spite of its tame reputation, it’s still smart to carry a beacon, shovel, and probe, even though you probably won’t need to use them.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Summit Optional

While the Cog provides a path to the mountain’s summit, there are plenty of good turns to be had on it at lower elevations. In fact, on most occasions that I have skied there, the best turns have come down low. At 3,800 feet (a little over 1,000 feet of elevation gain), the Waumbek tank is a good stopping point for newer backcountry skiers or those just looking to run low-angle laps. Just below treeline at 4,725 feet, Jacob’s Ladder marks the turnaround point for people more interested in skiing than summiting. At a 37-percent grade, it’s also here where skiers will tackle the steepest portion of the trail. From Jacob’s Ladder, the next natural stopping point is the summit.

That is, unless the MWRC get the okay to build their hotel and restaurant. Planned for Skyline Switch, it would sit at 5,200 feet, just 1,000 feet of elevation below the summit. While some might appreciate the brief reprieve from the wind the building could offer, it would also sit blocking one of the trickier sections of the descent, as well as blemish the unique alpine landscape.

Skiing from the summit has typically involved everything from linking snow patches together to wondering why I don’t just put crampons on and walk back down. The trek to the top is mostly just for that: to touch the top. However, on a few occasions, I have been lucky enough click in and make turns right from the summit sign.

 

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Skiing the Cog Railway is one of my favorite winter trips in the Whites. It’s straightforward, offers great skiing, and allows you to descend one of the region’s most iconic peaks. Those should be reasons enough to do it, but with the uncertainty of the Cog Railway’s current state (the MWRC wants to have their hotel and restaurant open by 2019), the best time to go is right now!

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

MntnReview: The All-Around Adventure-Mobile

If you stop at almost any Eastern Mountain Sports, there is one thing you’re almost sure to discover in the parking lot: a dirty, well-used Subaru wagon adorned with a Thule rack, usually covered in stickers. Upon closer inspection, you’ll most likely find a pile of sleeping bags, puffy coats, climbing gear, bike helmets, and other outdoor essentials strewn about the backseat, in the hatch, and in various states of cleanliness and organization. But, it’s not only with EMS employees that Subaru has developed a cult-like following; the outdoorsy crowd in general has flocked to this car maker. I, too, have fallen for the Subaru’s siren song: In the past eight years, I have owned two Subaru Impreza wagons, and when the time comes for a new car, I will be hard-pressed not to buy another one.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Ask me what my favorite piece of gear is, and I will give you varying answers, depending on which season it is and which sport has me the most psyched at that moment. It could be a pair of ski boots I spent the winter touring in, a bike that I just did the “best ride ever” on, or maybe a helmet, ice axe, or cam that kept me from meeting with a gruesome end. Either way, I will most likely never mention my Subaru Impreza, despite the fact that it has taken me on more adventures than any bike, pair of skis, or boots. The more I think about it, my Subaru Impreza may be the most valuable—it’s certainly the most expensive—piece of gear that I own, and it’s time it gets the recognition it deserves.

The Subaru Impreza is so popular with outdoor people because it can be your gear room on wheels. With a Thule box on the roof, the Impreza works perfectly for ski trips, whether at the resort or in the backcountry. It comfortably carries four adults with plenty of room for boots and packs in the hatch and skis and poles in the Thule box. As a side note, leg room can be tight. My advice is, to make the most out of the space available, stick shorter people in the backseat.

In the summer, I have carried four adults and all of their biking necessities in my Impreza, as well as four bikes on the roof, all over New England. My wife and I have even used my Impreza for a two-week bouldering tour throughout the South’s Sandstone Belt, and had plenty of room for two crash pads, clothes, and all of our camping accessories with the rear seats folded down.

The more I think about it, my Subaru Impreza may be the most valuable—it’s certainly the most expensive—piece of gear that I own, and it’s time it gets the recognition it deserves.

Speaking of folding the seats down, the back of an Impreza wagon can also be used as a mobile motel. People continue to create slick sleeping platforms for Subarus, but for me, simply folding the rear seats down to toss in a sleeping pad has been a good-enough option for nights when I don’t feel like springing for a hotel, don’t feel like setting up a tent, or just need to get a few quick hours of sleep at the trailhead before an alpine start. At six feet tall, I can almost sleep lying straight in the car’s back, but either I have to bend my knees or sleep diagonally to fit. But, who sleeps totally straight, anyway?

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

As an active outdoor person, I require my vehicle to get me to my next adventure no matter the conditions, and the Impreza hasn’t disappointed yet. In the past, I have owned trucks, Jeeps, and SUVs, and in my opinion, the Impreza has been as good as—if not better than—any of them in the snow. I’ve never missed a powder day because I didn’t feel comfortable driving in winter weather.

While Subaru’s winter performance is the reason you see so many of them throughout New England, the Impreza can also stand up to the muddy dirt roads and parking lots found throughout the spring on the way to the crag or trailhead. Sure, at times, I have missed the clearance offered by a truck or SUV, but I have yet to get stuck or bottom out my car, and I have traveled some of New England’s rougher roads.

I’ve never missed a powder day because I didn’t feel comfortable driving in winter weather.

I want to spend my money on gear and adventures—not gas and repairs—and this is where the Subaru Impreza really shines. In fact, I do very little to my car, other than driving it (earmuffs, Subaru dealers, and technicians). Between my two Imprezas, I have driven well over 300,000 miles with only regular oil changes, one timing belt replacement, two batteries, and two brake jobs. The only time I faced a mildly expensive fix, I decided that, with over 220,000 miles on my first Subaru, the car owed me nothing, and I traded it in. To my delight, in the years between owning my first and second Impreza, Subaru managed to get between seven and 10 more miles per gallon out of it, making it even more affordable to drive.

The main reason I think the Subaru Impreza wagon has appealed to so many EMS people and outdoor enthusiasts is that it possesses the same qualities we value in our outdoor gear: It’s versatile, reliable, and durable, all while remaining affordable enough to leave us with some spare cash for the next big trip or must-have piece of equipment. When the time comes for me to retire this Impreza (hopefully, not too soon), I will have a hard time choosing anything but another one to replace it with.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck