FAQ: How You Can Enjoy the Trails While Social Distancing

We get it. Shelter in place orders, quarantines, and social distancing are complicated. Different municipalities and states have slightly different rules, so it can be hard to know what you can and can’t do. And especially for those of us who like to get outdoors, the instinct to “get away” and head off the grid might be at odds with some of the directions we’re hearing these days. The simple answer—just stay home—frankly may be the best thing we can do to slow the spread of this virus, and the easiest way to ensure we’re not doing anything that could cause problems for ourselves and other people. But at the same time, we need fresh air to maintain our own health and sanity. So how do you balance those two competing needs?

Step one: Know the rules in your local area. Read and understand the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, then study up on any regulations and guidelines that have been put in place by your state, county, or municipality, as well as any closures of local parks, trailheads, and facilities. Whether you’re under a full shelter in place order or not, it’s good practice for us all to be following the same general guidelines to help slow down this virus. These answers have been written to apply to the vast majority of people—most orders allow for some level of physical exercise—but be sure you understand what your local recommendations and requirements are.

20190726_EMS_Conway-4425_Backpack_Hike_Scene

If I was told to shelter in place, can I still go for a hike/bike ride/climb?

Yes! Getting exercise is not only important for your sanity, but it’s also a vital part of keeping your immune system up and running. But while at this time of year we might normally be thinking about driving to the next state over to climb a 4000-footer or dusting off our climbing shoes, we need to scale back quite a bit during this crisis. For starters, staying close to home to avoid being a part of the virus’s spread, keeping 6 feet of distance between yourself and any other people, and staying home entirely if you’re sick at all, are critical. And as you would anywhere else, practice good hygiene by washing your hands and using hand sanitizer, coughing into your elbow, and drinking enough fluids to keep your immune system healthy.

How far away from home can I go for a hike?

The simple answer is that this might be a great time to get reacquainted with your local neighborhood park and staying on the trails nearest to home. If you need to do much driving to get there, consider finding someplace closer. Stopping for gas (inevitable at some point, even if it’s not on this particular trip), or to get snacks, or use the bathroom increases your interaction with public spaces and the chance that you could pick up or spread the disease. While most parks and public lands are still open, check before you head out, just to be sure.

20190726_EMS_Conway-7197_Kayak_Scene

Should someone from an at-risk group do things differently than someone who is less at-risk?

Let’s get one thing straight: Everyone is at risk. While younger, active people have definitely been impacted less by the virus, they have been shown to be the biggest transmitters of it. Without any symptoms, it’s easy to assume you’re safe and continue on your day-to-day, but if you are carrying the virus, you could be spreading it without even knowing.

That being said, older people and those with underlying health conditions should be extra precautious to avoid picking up the virus themselves, and should consider staying even closer to home.

What if I’m not going to a populated area, and just headed to a quiet little mountain town instead?

Bad idea. While heading up to isolated North Conway, Keene Valley, or Millinocket might seem like a good way to escape the virus, each visitor to those towns increases the risk that the virus will appear there. And more than most places, the virus is something that those towns simply can not handle, thanks to smaller hospitals, fewer medical professionals, and less equipment. Steer clear of these places to avoid putting the local residents at risk. Once again, it’s best to stick close to home.

20190724_EMS_Conway-0168-2_Hike_FW_Merrell_Compass4PointShort_Socks

Can I go with friends or should I go solo? What about my dog?

Avoid large groups and keep a healthy distance from everyone—6 feet is recommended. If you want to get out with a buddy rather than going solo, that will always increase your safety on the trail, but consider doing some things a little differently. Maybe now isn’t the best time to be meeting new hiking buddies on Facebook or elsewhere. Stick to friends who you know and trust to vouch for their health and sanitation. Also consider driving separately to trailheads. It’s difficult to maintain 6 feet of separation with a buddy if you’re in the same car. Sharing a tent with a friend might also be out, for now.

Experts don’t believe your pup can get this particular strain of coronavirus, so get them some fresh air, too! Just be wary of strangers petting your dog and potentially transmitting the virus to its fur, before snuggling up with the pup at home at night.

Am I allowed to get sendy?

With emergency workers and medical professionals a little preoccupied by the virus, now might not be the best time to go particularly hard and put yourself at risk of injury. Dial it back, make conservative decisions, and stay safe to avoid needing to take a doctor away from someone who is really sick. Carry a first aid kit, stick to trails you know, and don’t do anything particularly risky or challenging, right now. On a similar note, while getting exercise can boots your immune system, overexercising and pushing yourself physically can take a toll.

20190724_EMS_Conway-9432_Hike_Techwick_Compass4PointShort

What if I see other people on the trail?

Again: 6 feet of distance. Say “hi” and be your friendly self, but give others as wide a berth as possible. If that not possible, either because of the trail or the number of people on it, consider choosing a different place to go that day. Think about your objective when you pull into the trailhead. If it’s too crowded, you could be putting yourself or the others on the trail at-risk.

Is it safe to go skiing even if all the resorts are shut down?

Earning your turns can be one of the best ways to milk every last day out of your ski season if the resorts are shut down, and skinning at the resort is one of the best ways to be introduced to ski touring generally. But keep in mind: Uphilling during the open season includes the promise of groomed trails, marked obstacles, ski patrol assistance, and avalanche mitigation. With the resorts closed, it might as well be a day in the backcountry. Be prepared for that. If you don’t have ski touring experience, consider going with a friend who does (staying 6 feet away from them, of course), carrying all the gear you would have for a day in the backcountry, and having avalanche safety knowledge. And again—Keep it mellow.

Have another questions? Leave it in the comments!


How to Restock Your First Aid Kit

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

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

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

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

Where to Begin

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

Generally speaking, the lightest of these kits include:

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

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

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

The Resupply

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

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

Addition by Addition

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

Splint

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

Emergency Blanket

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

Snake Bite Kit

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

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

Put it Together

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

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


Start Planning Your Summer Trips Now: 10 Tips

If you’re contemplating a big adventure this summer, now is the time to start planning. Mark it on your calendar, request work off, and find the team you need to tackle it. Here are 10 things you can do to ensure your trip will be a success.

20190725_EMS_Conway-0684_Cabin_Pack_Prep_-Gear_GraphicTee

1. Find Some Partners

Unless you’re going solo, having the right partners is a critical part of any trip. Late winter is the perfect time to start chatting with friends about summer objectives and building a consensus about what to do, whether you like to climb, backpack, or paddle.

2. Pick a Destination

If you’re anything like us, there are probably so many places on your “must visit” list that it can feel overwhelming to pick one. The process gets even more complex when group dynamics are involved. Start having these discussions now to help narrow the options. As you pare down the list, consider which trips have nearby alternatives in case your desired route isn’t “in condition,” the weather doesn’t cooperate, or it proves too challenging, especially when you start planning it this far out.

3. Research

Pick up the guidebook and search the internet for first-hand accounts to get a more complete picture of what to expect. Learning as much as possible about a trip early in the process is important and will influence everything from your training to your planning to your gear choices.

20190725_EMS_Conway-3301_Camp_Scene

4. Pick a Date

Summer schedules fill up fast. Get your group’s trip on the books so that you’re not left sitting at home wondering what might have been. An added bonus—booking flights, reserving hotel rooms, and renting cars are all way less expensive when done far in advance.

5. Reserve a Site/Permit

Whether you’re hiking, climbing, or paddling, many areas require advanced reservations, many of them in the most popular areas require you put in a request or enter a raffle months early. Since the best zones can get filled up quickly, making all campsite reservations and/or obtaining any required permits now is essential.

6. Start Training

There’s nothing worse than showing up for the trip of your life out of shape. While you still have months to train, develop a plan that will put your fitness on the path to success. Not sure where to start? Between them, Uphill Athlete and the Mountain Tactical Institute have training plans for just about every type of outdoor activity.

7. Don’t Forget About Developing Group Skills, Too

Focusing on individual fitness is important, but don’t forget to practice group-specific skills as well. For example, if you’re going to Mount Rainier, make sure your entire group devotes time to developing critical mountaineering skills like crevasse rescue, avalanche rescue, and self arrest.

20190724_EMS_Conway-0143_Hike

8. Do Some Training Climbs

Logging time in terrain is just as important as general fitness training. So if you’re planning a trip to climb something like the Grand Teton, consider tackling some local alpine climbs such as the Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle or, as an easier option, Henderson Ridge, both in Huntington Ravine. If you’re planning a mountaineering trip to the Cascade’s volcanoes, think about doing the Lion Head Winter Route while it’s still in condition. Similarly, if you’re going to mountain bike the Monarch Crest Trail, you’ll want to start logging miles ASAP.

9. Buy Trip-Specific Gear

Waiting until a couple of weeks before a trip to purchase trip-specific gear is a recipe for disaster. In such a compressed time period, it might be hard to find what you’re looking for, especially if it’s a niche piece of gear not stocked at your local shop. More importantly, you won’t have much time to learn the ins and outs of that new piece of gear or to break in that new pair of boots.

10. Get Psyched 

It’s easier to train when there’s a goal, it’s easier to justify buying a shiny new piece of gear when it’s for a reason, and work is more bearable when an epic trip is around the corner. Get stoked to get ready for the best trip ever!

Have another trip planning tip that travelers should be doing now? Tell us in the comments!


How Warm is Your Jacket, Really? The Down Equation

Mother nature knows what she’s doing, at least if down fill is any indication. Decades after it was first borrowed from birds to keep us warm, down—with only a handful of improvements—is still one of the premier technologies for keeping us warm. The problem? Many of us don’t understand it or how it works, which means when it comes time to buy a jacket, we’re left in the dark. The tag on that jacket has a lot of numbers on it, many of which tie into how warm, compressible, and lightweight it will be while you’re wearing it or stuffing it in your pack. You just need to know how to make sense of them.

TK_EMS-Conway-8173

A High Point in Warmth

Synthetic insulation seems to get better every year, but down still reigns supreme for many users, environments, and activities. Lightweight, packable, and warm are just a few of the characteristics that have kept down as the go-to insulation of outdoor adventurers for almost a century. On the 1922 Everest expedition, mountaineer George Finch drew many suspect looks from his team members for his departure from traditional tweed and wool outerwear in favor of an eiderdown-lined coat and pants with a shell made of a bright green hot-air balloon fabric. Finch would go on to climb to a height of 8,360 meters—an altitude record at the time—and set the stage for down to become the favored insulation of those who work and play in the cold.

Put simply, down is the fluffy group of soft feathers that sit between a bird’s (usually a goose or duck) outer feathers and skin. Under a microscope, the plumes are a network of tiny filaments, woven and and networked together to trap air between then—This is why down is so warm. Microscopic pockets between filaments trap body heat next to your skin.

Daune_down_feather

Not All Down is Created Equal

No down is the same, which is why we need a system to explain how warm one particular jacket is over another. We use two big metrics to sort this out: the quality of fill used, which is measured by down fill power, and the amount of insulation used, which is measured by fill weight.

Down Fill Power

Just like so many other materials, some down is a higher quality than other down. Generally speaking, the “fluffier” a plume of down is—meaning, how much loft it has—the warmer it will be, and the higher quality it will be. This is fill power.

Fill power is calculated by a lab test that determines how many cubic inches of loft a certain weight (one ounce) of down produces. The higher the number, the more loft and the warmer than down will be for its weight. For example, a down fill rating of 800 means that one ounce of down covers 800 cubic inches. In general, jackets ranging from 600- to 1,000-fill power are considered high quality.

Down Fill Weight

But remember one key piece about fill power: It measures how warm down is for its weight. If the weight of the down feathers in a jacket is equal, a jacket with higher fill power will be warmer than one with a lower fill power. But not all jackets have the same weight, which is why we also need to consider that piece of the puzzle.

Down fill weight indicates how much insulation is used in its construction. Sometimes listed in grams, other times in ounces, though often not at all (more on this ahead), the fill weight is simply the weight of the down that was used to make a jacket.

Consider the EMS Featherpack Hooded Down Jacket and the EMS Ryker Down Parka. The Featherpack Jacket is made with roughly 140 grams of 800-fill down, while the Ryker Parka is made with 300 grams of 650-fill down. Because it has more than twice the amount (or weight) of down inside, the Ryker looks much larger and will likely be warmer, even though the Featherpack uses much higher quality down. On the other hand, the Featherpack is far lighter and will compress much smaller thanks to its 800-fill down, making it a better option for weight- or pack space-conscious users. It’s easy to get lured into thinking that a jacket made with higher fill power is warmer than a jacket with a lower fill power, but that’s not always the case.

Long story short, how warm your jacket will be is a function of both fill power and down weight. A jacket with a high fill power but low down weight may not be as warm as a jacket with a high down weight and low fill power. But a high combination of both means a super warm and super light and compressible jacket.

2019-01-EMS-Kemple-Conway-0762_Cabin_FeatherPack

Putting it All Together

A challenge in choosing a down coat is to balance your need for a high fill power (lightweight and compressibility) with fill weight (warmth). This is often complicated because many manufacturers are quick to highlight fill power, but are less likely to divulge fill weight. If the fill weight of a jacket you’re interested in isn’t available, your next best option is to find one in person and compare its weight and compressibility against other jackets with known fills. If that isn’t an option either, the best you can do is look at the jacket’s total weight, account for features like pockets and zippers, along with the shell material, and then guess at the fill weight.

TK_EMS-Conway-7439

Choosing a Down Jacket

Putting all this together, down jackets with high fill powers are a great choice for hikers, backcountry skiers, and ice and alpine climbers who want a puffy that provides maximum warmth while taking up a minimum of space and not weighing too much. They’re also great for those looking for a super-warm jacket that maintains a sleek cut. Conversely, those less interested in packability and compressibility—like, say, a sport climber with a short approach—might look to jackets that use down with slightly less fill power, but use more of it so that they can stay warm as they belay somebody on their project.


10 Tips For Taking Spectacular Winter Photos

Winter in the mountains is equal parts magical and challenging. With rocks and roots buried in snow, vicious flies and mosquitoes a distant memory, and the thick, humid air of summer replaced with a crisp chill, there are countless benefits to exploring the mountains in winter. When it comes to photography, no other time of year allows for such dramatic and otherworldly images. From alpine trees caked with rime ice to waterfalls frozen in time, the landscape takes on a special character that beckons to be explored and photographed. Hostile conditions in winter are more often the norm than the exception, however, and having a safe and productive winter outing takes a level of preparedness that far exceeds that of other seasons. So what kind of gear and techniques will set you up to take the best winter photos?

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

1. Protect Yourself

Just because you climbed a mountain or went outside to take pictures, doesn’t mean you’re not exposed to the same conditions as you would be if you were simply out on a hike. Having the right layers and gear are critical to keeping you comfortable and safe. In addition to snowshoes, skis, MICROspikes, and/or crampons, items such as a warm and lightweight jacket and pants, balaclava, and ski goggles will help keep you warm and protect your skin from the biting cold and wind while you’re taking photos.

Perhaps the most critical piece of clothing for the winter photographer is hand protection. Finding the perfect balance between keeping hands warm while maintaining enough dexterity to change lenses and adjust camera settings can be a tricky task. Pairing a thin and windproof glove with a warm pair of mittens can provide the best of both worlds: The base layer glove provide just enough protection and supple dexterity to handle the camera, but the mittens can slide on quickly before your hands get too cold.

Carrying extra pairs of gloves is always wise, as gloves that have become sweaty on an ascent can become hazardous if a prolonged photo session upon reaching the exposed alpine zone is planned. I’ll often pack an extra pair of buckskin or leather gloves to change into before breaking out above the tree line, as these types of gloves provide excellent wind protection and dexterity.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

2. Protect Your Camera

Protecting the camera from harsh winter conditions not only ensures that the best possible photos will be taken, but also prevents often expensive photo gear from being ruined. A snow/rain camera cover comes in handy when photographing in snowstorms or near a spraying waterfall, and costs much less than replacing a camera body that’s been ruined by water damage.

Condensation can also be a problem in winter, especially when taking the camera from the cold, dry outdoor air to a warm and relatively humid house, cabin, or car. Allowing the camera to gradually adjust to temperature differences limits the chances of condensation forming on the camera and lens and potentially making its way inside the camera. Leaving the camera in a camera bag inside your pack overnight after bringing it inside will allow it to gradually adjust to the swing in temperature and limit the formation of condensation.

While these tips will help to avoid damaging your gear after you’ve finished your outing, a challenge that’s often faced while out in the field is moisture from snow or waterfalls accumulating and freezing on the front of the lens. Periodically checking the lens glass for snow and ice accumulation will prevent the frustration of having an excellent photo rendered useless. While snowflakes can typically be simply brushed off the lens using a microfiber cloth or an air blower, special care needs to be taken if ice has accumulated on the lens. Trying to scrape off ice can lead to scratches which could permanently mar an expensive lens or filter. This is another situation where the ever-useful hand warmer can save the day. Gently holding one against the ice helps it melt, and the resulting water can be easily wiped or blown away.

3. Seek Out the Unique Beauty of Winter

One of the greatest aspects of winter photography is that even familiar destinations take on an entirely new character and appearance when the temperature drops and snow begins to fall. The typical summit views of grey rocks and green evergreens is transformed into a fantastical world that the majority of people will never experience first-hand. Crafting photos that fully capture the raw, surreal, and sometimes savage beauty of winter is equal parts challenging and rewarding, and focusing your efforts on the most eye-catching and awe-inspiring spectacles of winter will increase the odds of coming away with impactful photos. While the range of winter photography subjects is limited only by the imagination, nothing seems to epitomize winter more than evergreens blanketed with snow or rime ice.  Shooting at tree line, the highly dynamic mountain environment where the forest ends and the alpine zone begins, is the perfect place to seek out snow covered evergreens and krummholz encased with rime ice. Whether a wide-angle lens is utilized to craft shots of snow-coated trees in the foreground giving way to mountains in the background, or a macro lens is employed to capture an abstract photo focusing on the intricate shapes and detail of ice-covered tree branches, nowhere else represents the unique beauty of winter quite like tree line on a mountain.

Floating-in-Fire-Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

4. Choose Your Location Based on Conditions.

Knowing the optimal conditions for a given location that are conducive to the best photos is an important aspect of photography, especially in winter when conditions can change more rapidly than in other seasons. In addition to the typical weather forecasts, ski resorts often post snow reports and have webcams, which make for a very useful resource if one is located in the general vicinity of your planned hike.  Maybe you’ll discover that a low snow level will preclude a previsualized shot of evergreens coated in snow, and you’ll be able to call an audible before even leaving your house and switch focus to a different winter photography subject, such as frozen waterfalls.

5. Use a long exposure for waterfalls.

Partially-frozen waterfalls can produce some of the most impactful winter photographs, especially when photographed using a long exposure to give the water a silky-smooth appearance. Exposure lengths can vary from ¼ to multiple seconds, depending on the light level of the scene. A tripod is essential for these longer exposure lengths, and neutral density filters that limit the amount of light that reaches the camera sensor can also come in handy if a longer exposure is needed to achieve the desired effect.

4
Credit: Joey Priola

6. Utilize Live View

One of the trickiest parts of winter photographing is carefully composing a photograph in hostile conditions. While it’s easy to look through the viewfinder to compose a shot during other times of year, it can be difficult or impossible in winter. This is especially true when photographing from mountain summits, where high winds often require ski goggles, which impede the eye from being placed against the view finder, to be worn. Utilizing the camera’s live view function, which is found on practically all digital cameras, is a much easier way to compose a shot in harsh winter conditions. Live view displays what the camera is seeing on the LCD screen on the back of the camera, aiding in setting up the desired composition.

7. Get the Exposure Right in the Field

With bright snow and dark trees, rocks, or water often present at the same time in a winter scene, properly exposing a photograph can be challenging. One of the best ways to ensure that a winter photograph is properly exposed is to utilize the “histogram” function that’s found on almost all digital cameras. The histogram displays the distribution of tonal values in the image, from 0 percent brightness (black, on the far left of the histogram) to 100 percent brightness (white, on the far right of the histogram). Keeping an eye on the histogram is a great way to avoid one of most common pitfalls of winter photos: overexposing snow so that it becomes a white, detail-less blob.  Coupling the histogram with the live view takes things a step further, as it enables you to view how the histogram changes as the exposure is changed, even before taking a shot. Checking that the highlights aren’t “clipped” and that the histogram isn’t getting cut off on the right, white side ensures that bright snow won’t be overexposed and will retain detail.

dad-in-snowy-forest-IMG_4697-copy
Credit: Joey Priola

8. Focus Properly

While intentionally blurring portions of a photograph, such as the aforementioned long exposure to blur/smooth moving water, can be a great creative effect, more often than not the desire is to produce a photo that is sharp throughout. This requires the camera to be focused properly, and the winter season makes this more challenging than other times of years. In extreme cold temperatures, the camera’s autofocus abilities can fail. In addition, as the autofocus function relies on the presence of contrast at the focal point to render a sharp image, the autofocus function can have trouble properly focusing at times of low contrast, such as a snowy scene in soft light that is common in winter. Manually focusing the image is often the best method to produce sharp photos in winter, and is another advantage of utilizing the live view function. To do this, zoom in on the composed image in live view, and then turn the focus ring on the lens until a sharp image is achieved. For wide-angle landscape photos, a general rule of thumb to attain an image that is sharp from front to back is to focus on a point that is approximately 1/3 the distance from the lens to the background. To further ensure that a sharp photo has been obtained in the field, zoom in at 10x on the LCD screen after taking a shot to confirm that it’s sharp throughout, and refocus if needed.

9. Pack Extra Batteries.

Cold temperatures sap battery life, and there’s nothing more frustrating than getting partway through a photo outing and having your camera battery die. Packing a couple extra batteries for your camera, and extra batteries for a headlamp/flashlight, can be a trip-saver when they’re needed. Extra batteries will be rendered useless, though, if they’re left unprotected at the top of your pack and subjected to the cold as you hike. Stashing batteries towards the center of the pack, where they’ll be insulated by the surrounding pack contents, can help spare batteries to maintain life. Double-bagging batteries in a plastic bag and placing a hand warmer outside of the bag that contains the batteries can provide extra insurance in truly frigid winter conditions.

9
Credit: Joey Priola

10. Freeze the Action

Capturing outdoor athletes in action can yield powerful winter photos that make the viewer feel as if they’re a part of the scene. Skiers carving turns, with fresh powder billowing in their wake, are excellent subjects that highlight the exhilaration of the winter season. Freezing the fast-paced action of skiing can be a challenge to the photographer, though, and it’s easy to come away with blurry images. To ensure that the subject is tack sharp, utilize a fast shutter speed of 1/1000 second or less. If such a short shutter speed makes the image too dark, open up the aperture to allow more light in or bump up ISO, the sensitivity of the camera sensor to light.


How to Choose a Backpack

During a long day on the trail, your backpack should be your best friend. It should be easy to access the things you need, comfortable carrying however large a load you have, and easy to move the distance you need in. But backpacks are an extremely wide category, containing everything you might need for a half-day jaunt through the local park to massive packs for expeditions on the world’s tallest mountains. Knowing how you intend to use the pack is step one in deciding which is right for you, but understanding the differences in size, features, and structure will help guide you to the right option.

TK_EMS-Conway-7946

Daypacks (Up to 35 liters)

Daypacks are the smaller bags used for day hikes. Since hikes vary greatly in length and intensity, even as day missions, they aren’t one size fits all. You’ll need to have one big enough to hold all of your hiking essentials, as well as food and appropriate clothing for the location and season, meaning day hiking bags during the winter are consistently larger than summer backpacks. Consider the terrain, too: Will you be above treeline and need to carry more layers for wind/storm protection?

Also, it’s worth noting there is a distinct difference between school/commuter bags and hiking packs. The latter typically have better shoulder support and waist belts that effectively transfer the load to your hips, making them more comfortable on longer hikes or carrying heavier loads.

20190726_EMS_Conway-4341_Backpack_Hike

Backpacking Packs

As the name implies, these are your overnight bags, big enough for all the gear that comes with that. And just how many nights you’ll be out, as well as your creature comfort level, will determine exactly how large a pack you’ll need. Pay particular attention to how the pack fits your body as you will be carrying more weight, and for multiple days.

Keep mind that the volumes given and how they relate to the length of a trip are not law. While they are a pretty good guide for beginners, there are plenty of weekenders who like to carry extra food and gear like camp chairs, so a bigger pack might be nice. Simultaneously, thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, out for weeks at a time, often pack ultralight and get away with extremely small packs.

Weekend (1-3 nights, 36-55 liters)

These are slightly larger than daypacks, and likely have more compartments in them. This volume range is suitable for a few nights out, if you’re using lightweight modern gear. But be prepared: A lot of packing discipline and efficiency technique goes into fitting your gear into these smaller packs, so most beginners opt for slightly larger packs, even on weekends.

Multiday (3-5 nights, 56-80 liters)

These packs, the most popular backpacking packs, are slightly larger for longer trips, or those shorter trips where you may need to carry extra gear. They are well-suited to warm-weather trips lasting 3-plus days. This is the size/volume range that you typically see on long-distance hiking trails like the Appalachian Trail, the Long Trail, or the PCT. It will have more space for food and extra clothes.

Expedition (More than 5 nights, 70 liters and up)

These specialized packs are meant for long-duration journeys or trips to remote places where additional gear or equipment may be needed. This could be a 7 to 10 day trek out west, extended trips to climbing destinations, or travel in extreme weather regions like the mountains or winter backpacking. They might also be necessary for parents carrying extra gear on multiday family trips.

20190726_EMS_Conway-8163_Backpack_Hike_Techwick_Sunglasses

Hydration Packs & Waist Packs

Hydration packs offer a smaller, streamlined version of a daypack. They are useful for shorter hikes, and for outdoor fitness like running, cycling, or the slopes where you may want food and water beyond a granola bar. They are also a good starter pack for kids and are helpful for parents to encourage hydration on-the-go. If you need a little more space, most daypacks today are hydration compatible (see below).

Waist packs have become more technical over the years, which has increased their functionality and range of use. They come in a wide range from smaller pouches for your wallet, keys, and a few granola bars, to larger packs that hold water bottles and some gear. They’re suitable for short walks, or when you’re touring and want a little extra pocket space on-the-go. There are also lightweight versions that are popular with long-distance runners, they hold small water bottles and maybe a snack or two.

GO: Daypacks | Backpacking Packs | Waist Packs | Hydration Packs

EMS-Burlington-9171

Backpack Structure

Packs are built and organizes in many different ways, many of which impact personal preferences, but others impact the carry-ability and usability of a pack for a specific activity.

Internal vs. External Frame

Almost all packs feature some kind of rigid frame through the back. These add stability, keep the load close to your back, and help transfer weight to your waist. In daypacks, this usually just comes from more rigid foam or fabric, but in larger backpacking packs, these are metal rods, typically set up in one of two ways:

External frames are composed of hollow aluminum pipes and are easily visible on the outside of the pack. The pack bag is then attached to this frame system, and the frame offers many attachment options for additional gear. Less common than they once were, these types are still available on the market.

Internal frame backpacks are far more common, today. They are composed of thin fiberglass or metal rods that are sewn into the pack itself and give the pack its structure while using minimal materials. They also tend to be more streamlined and keep the load toward the center of your back. Most internal-frame packs also allow you to adjust the torso length to fit your body.

EMS-SP-17-CAMP-HIKE-000916

Top-loading vs. Panel Access

Most larger packs are top-loading, providing access to its main compartment through a cinched opening at the top of the pack. This makes it easy to load the pack efficiently and keep its contents stable. Packing these packs requires some thought to correctly position commonly-needed items toward the top so they are more easily accessible.

However, some designs (including most daypacks) offer you a panel access option, allowing you to reach into the main compartment without digging from the top and removing other items unnecessarily. This also allows you to organize your pack around each item’s weight and not just the frequency you may need to access it on the trail.

Many backpacking packs today feature aspects of both, primarily using a top-loading access point, but offering other zippers along the sides or back to make accessing deeper items on the fly easier.

Sleeping Bag Compartment

A sleeping bag compartment is one panel-access point on larger packs, specifically designed for sleeping bags. It is a separate area at the bottom of the pack just below and sometimes connected to, the main compartment. It is accessed from the outside so you can reach for the sleeping bag at the end of the day without having to remove everything else. Some packs have the option to remove an internal panel and make the sleeping bag area contiguous to the main compartment.

2019-01-EMS-Kemple-Conway-6078_Backpacking

Load Support, Padding & Ventilation

A pack’s load-carrying system consists of two main supports: shoulder straps and the hip belt, both of which have varying types (and amounts) of padding. Packs are designed to direct the weight onto your skeletal frame at your hips, a natural point of support for the human body. Shoulder straps hold the pack upright and close to your body to direct the load directly down, rather than pulling you to the side or backwards. While shoulder straps should not carry the weight, they do have additional “load-lifter” straps to fine-tune the fit and pull it closer to your body.

Padding on the shoulder straps and hip belt is an important feature, and largely a matter of personal preference. Thicker padding can offer more comfort and a flexible fit to your unique body shape, while less padding can allow these points of contact to ventilate better. Some straps are even designed with holes in them to reduce sweat build-up. Always test your pack in the store and fully-weighted to see what feels right for you.

Ventilation is another important feature of your pack, as it can reduce the build-up of uncomfortable, and possibly unsafe perspiration on your body. Traditionally, the padded fabric of the pack lays directly against your back, like a typical school bookbag. You might not notice how much sweat builds-up until you take the pack off. These days, most hiking packs are designed with greater ventilation, potentially using air channels in the backpanel, an arch between the shoulders and hip to lift it off your back entirely, or breathable mesh in the backpanel.

2019-01-EMS-Kemple-Conway-6578_Backpacking_Snowshoe_Osprey

Pack Features & Accessories

Pockets

In addition to the main and sleeping bag compartments, a pack will have several other storage pockets. Starting at the top, the “brain” is the very top pouch that closes over the main compartment, acting as storage and weather closure. It is a great place for those items you may want to have on the go like lunch, gloves, hat, sunglasses, or a map. Some packs have a removable brain, allowing you to either leave it at home to reduce weight or use it to carry a few items on a short side trip from your camp, or into your tent at night.

Other pockets include water bottle pockets, which are located just behind your hips and are nice for carrying a water bottle, or other small items you may need to reach while walking. Exterior access pockets can also be found on the outer sides of the pack, and are nice for storing items you may want to reach for without digging into the main compartment. This might include rain gear, lunch, or a water filter.

Hip belt pockets are a great feature found on many packs today. These are small, zipper-closed pockets on each side of your hip belt and in easy reach while you’re hiking. These are a great place for a compass, GPS, or snacks.

Different packs have varying numbers of pockets and organizational abilities, mostly corresponding to preference—Some like the organization of multiple pockets, while others prefer the streamlined nature of keeping everything in the large main compartment.

2019-01-EMS-Kemple-Conway-8011_Snowshoe

Attachment Points

You will notice most packs have a variety of small loops or straps sewn into them for attaching additional gear. These are helpful for attaching bulky, but lighter-weight, gear like trekking poles, a sleeping pad, an ice tool, spikes/crampons, snowshoes, or even skis. Consider your intended activities and see what attachment point(s) might be useful to you.

Rain Cover/Weather Resistance

Most hiking backpacks are made with water-resistant materials but are not actually waterproof. And when you are on the trail, you will definitely want the option to protect your clothing and gear from the elements. Rain covers are like a fitted, waterproof jacket that you stretch over the pack. Some packs come with a rain cover built-in, but if not, there are many options available and it’s a worthwhile investment. They come in a range of colors for degrees of visibility, and some include reflective graphics.

Hydration-Compatibility

Keeping hydrated is critical when you’re on the trail, and many hiking packs now have a specific sleeve/pouch inside the pack to hold a hydration reservoir. A reservoir is a plastic bladder with a drinking hose that stretches through a secure opening in the pack so you can hydrate on-the-go. It is a very nice feature, and many find it easier than reaching for that water bottle.

GO: Pack Rain Covers | Clips & Buckles | Straps & Gear Ties

20190726_EMS_Conway-4523_Backpack_Hike_Techwick_CompassPant_Short

Where to begin?

Now that you have an idea of what to look for, where does one go to find the right pack? It is strongly recommended that you visit an EMS store to try the backpack on first-hand and receive advice from a store expert. Buying online might be convenient, but finding the right fit your body is critical and well worth spending the extra time to get it right.

When you visit a store and work with their staff, you should expect several things. First, you will get introduced to many different pack styles, designs, and manufacturers. Each has its own unique approach and one of them may suit your needs and preferences better than the others. Secondly, you will get the pack properly fitted to your body. This is imperative and it involves finding the correct torso length, then fine-tuning the fit. Third, in the store, you will be able to load the pack with test weights (usually sandbags) to simulate a fully-loaded pack. Then you can wear the pack around the store for a length of time to see how it really feels. It is always best to find out how it truly feels before you make the final selection.

Lastly, you can expect good, relevant advice. Store staff will take the time to work with you and give you invaluable advice on how the packs work, how they are constructed, and how each might work for you and your intended activity. You can often find a staff member who has specific experience related to your chosen activity, so the guidance you receive will be timely and on-point.


Tired of the Winter? These 7 Southeast Adventures Will Warm You Up

If you’ve had enough cold and snow for the season, why not plan a late-winter/early-spring vacation in the Southeast? In just a few hours you can fly into Atlanta, Georgia, or Jacksonville, and feel the sun on your face! Whether you’re a hiker, paddler, cyclist, or camper, you’ll want to check out these seven Southeast activities that are sure to warm your spirit for adventure during the Northeast’s coldest part of the year. 

Joe King gets his feet wet on the Florida National Scenic Trail. This 30-mile section of Big Cyprus is located at the southern terminus, and borders the Everglades. | Courtesy: Aaron Landon
Joe King gets his feet wet on the Florida National Scenic Trail. This 30-mile section of Big Cyprus is located at the southern terminus, and borders the Everglades. | Courtesy: Aaron Landon

Get Your Feet Wet at Big Cypress National Preserve

Big Cypress, bordering Everglades National Park, is the southern terminus of the Florida National Scenic Trail and offers a very challenging 3-day, 30 mile hike through an otherworldly wet cypress forest. This is considered the toughest backpacking trip in Florida, but if you can handle being wet most of the time, and don’t get too freaked out by the vast loneliness of hiking through a swamp, you’ll come away from this experience a changed person. If you want to continue north on the Florida Trail, keep going and you’ll reach Billie Swamp Safari within the Seminole Indian Reservation where you can sleep in a real Seminole Chickee hut.

Cumberland Island’s 50 miles of trails meander through pristine maritime forests under live oak canopies. Courtesy: Troy Allen Lair
Cumberland Island’s 50 miles of trails meander through pristine maritime forests under live oak canopies. | Courtesy: Troy Allen Lair

Cumberland Island National Seashore

Cumberland Island is Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island, featuring pristine maritime forests, undeveloped beaches, and wide marsh views. There are many miles of rustic hiking trails, backcountry campsites, historic sites, and lots of wildlife, including sea turtles, turkeys, wild hogs and horses, armadillos, and abundant shore birds. To make the most of your time on the island, set up camp at Yankee Paradise, a primitive campsite located in the middle of the island. From there you can explore Cumberland’s breathtaking seashore, Plum Orchard Mansion, Dungeness Ruins, and the Settlement, an area located in the north end of the island that was settled by former slaves in the 1890s. Make your camping and ferry reservations in advance because the number of visitors to the island are limited.

The Dirty Pecan ride and Thomasville Clay Classic are two gravel rides featuring stunning scenery beneath live oak canopies. | Courtesy: Phillip Bowen
The Dirty Pecan ride and Thomasville Clay Classic are two gravel rides featuring stunning scenery beneath live oak canopies. | Courtesy: Phillip Bowen

Cycle Through the South

The 40th Annual Florida Bicycle Safari will be held April 18-23 this year, and includes six days of riding in North Florida and South Georgia. “The Florida Bicycle Safari is much more than just a ride,” says Louis McDonald, Safari Director. “We’ve planned six days of cycling, food, games, live entertainment, and plenty of Southern hospitality at Live Oak and Cherry Lake. Our riders are from all over the country. Different routes are offered each day, including two century rides. Being the 40th anniversary, this year’s event is going to be our biggest yet!” 

And if gravel riding is your thing, the Dirty Pecan ride will be held on March 7 in Monticello, Florida, followed by the Thomasville Clay Classic on April 13 in Thomasville, Georgia. “I really love being off paved roads where there is little to no traffic,” says cyclist Cheryl Richardson, a member of the North Florida Bicycle Club. “Both of these rides feature beautiful tree canopies and spectacular scenery the entire route.”

The Okefenokee Wilderness Area offers over 400,000 acres of wetlands and swamps to explore with seven overnight shelters. | Courtesy: Troy Allen Lair
The Okefenokee Wilderness Area offers over 400,000 acres of wetlands and swamps to explore with seven overnight shelters. | Courtesy: Troy Allen Lair

Paddle the Okefenokee Swamp

A multi-day paddling trip though Georgia’s Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is a bucket list must do. There are wooden platforms throughout the swamp where you can pitch a tent at the end of each day of paddling. You’ll see lots of alligators, birds, and rare plants—The swamp is a photographer’s dream come true. You can bring your own canoe or kayak, or rent them at the park’s concessioner. They also offer guided paddling trips to suit your needs. Other activities include fishing and hiking. The Okefenokee will leave you spellbound.

The Pinhoti Trail’s Cheaha and Dugger Mountain Wilderness areas offer an otherworldly hiking experience. | Courtesy: Troy Allen Lair
The Pinhoti Trail’s Cheaha and Dugger Mountain Wilderness areas offer an otherworldly hiking experience. | Courtesy: Troy Allen Lair

Hike Alabama’s Pinhoti Trail

Start your 335-mile hike at the southern terminus, Flagg Mountain, and meet famous hiker and author, Nimblewill Nomad, who is now the caretaker there. The Pinhoti traverses through Talladega National Forest, Cheaha Wilderness, and Dugger Mountain Wilderness before entering Georgia, where it eventually meets up with the Benton MacKaye Trail, and onto Springer Mountain. Appalachian Trail hikers consider the Pinhoti a great practice hike before attempting the AT.

Providence Canyon is a hidden gem in the state of Georgia, with just enough elevation changes and glorious scenery to make it fun for all ages.
Providence Canyon is a hidden gem in the state of Georgia, with just enough elevation changes and glorious scenery to make it fun for all ages.

Visit Georgia’s Providence Canyon State Park 

Called Georgia’s Little Grand Canyon, Providence Canyon is a hidden gem. Massive gullies as deep as 150 feet were caused by poor farming practices during the 1800s, yet today they make some of the prettiest photographs within the state. Hikers who explore the deepest canyons will usually find a thin layer of water along the trail, indication of the water table below. The hike is not strenuous but has enough elevation changes to make it fun! Guests who hike to canyons 4 and 5 may want to join the Canyon Climbers Club. Backpackers can stay overnight along the backcountry trail which highlights portions of the canyon and winds through a mixed forest. This is a great trip for families who may prefer to stay in the developed campground and take day hikes. 

South Carolina’s Palmetto Trail includes the mysterious Swamp Fox Passage, where you can expect to do a little wading through Wadboo and Dog Swamps. | Courtesy: Troy Allen Lair
South Carolina’s Palmetto Trail includes the mysterious Swamp Fox Passage, where you can expect to do a little wading through Wadboo and Dog Swamps. | Courtesy: Troy Allen Lair

Hike South Carolina’s Palmetto Trail

South Carolina’s Palmetto Trail is a new trail, and still in progress (350 miles of the trail are completed; the entire trail will be 500 miles long). Swamp Fox Passage is the longest section of the cross-state Palmetto Trail at 47 miles, and traverses four distinct ecosystems through Francis Marion National Forest, including swamps made famous as hideouts of Revolutionary War hero, Francis Marion. This trail is both dry and wet, and hikers will enjoy wading through Wadboo and Dog Swamps, along with Turkey Creek. Swamp Fox Passage is close to Charleston, so be sure to give yourself an extra day or two to explore the city.


4 Winter Hikes for Aspiring Catskill 3500ers

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

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

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

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

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

Slide Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

Blackhead Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

Panther Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

Balsam Mountain

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

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

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

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


Video: An In-Field Review of the EMS Compass 4-Points Pants

We brought the comfortable, lightweight, stretchy Compass 4-Points Pants to the Utah desert to put them to the test.


Winter Off-Trail Hiking in the Adirondacks

Overuse on Adirondack trails—especially in places like the High Peaks—is a big problem. One solution to reduce your impact? Get off trail. As winter sets in and snow and ice blanket the park, the solitude of these beautiful and remote places gets even more intense. For those hearty and adventurous explorers who seek a challenge beyond the trail, and are well prepared, winter bushwhacking in the Adirondacks can be both challenging and rewarding. 

Credit: Lucas LaBarre
Credit: Lucas LaBarre

How to Prepare to Go Off-Trail

Preparing to venture off trail in the rugged terrain of the Adirondacks, especially in winter, requires some vital skills, proper gear, and careful risk management. 

One of the most obvious requirements is developing navigational skills. While modern GPS technology can be tremendously useful, it is important to have adequate map and compass skills before leaving the safety of marked trails. Start by taking an introductory course or practicing in an area like a local park or small trail network where the consequences of becoming “lost” are minimalized. 

Prepare as always for winter hiking with proper gear and clothing, snowshoes, and crampons or microspikes. Learn to read snow conditions and think about if you will be using crampons on an icy hardpack or breaking unconsolidated powder; when in doubt preparing for all possibilities. Realize that moving through tight snow filled woods results in you being constantly wet and snow covered, so often some extra layers, gloves, and even another shell are crucial. 

Trip planning and risk management also become even more vital when bushwhacking in winter months when an unexpected night or two in the woods can have dire consequences. Use traditional maps, online tools like CalTopo, and trip reports from others to carefully plan your route and consider timing of off trail hikes. 

Understand that winter bushwacking often involves breaking trail through deep snow, pushing through thick forests, and bypassing unexpected obstacles like blow down and icy cliff bands. This results in a much slower pace and greater energy use than trail hiking; consider this when planning for both timing and food and water supplies. 

Seeking assistance for an injury or other serious issues is typically a much harder task than on trails or in summer so be sure to prepare at all times for an evening in the cold, let others know a detailed itinerary, and consider use of a personal locator beacon. 

Credit: Lucas LaBarre
Credit: Lucas LaBarre

Our Favorite Hikes

There’s a way to get away from the trail for every hiking ability level, in the Adirondacks. 

Beginner 

Morgan Mountain: This Wilmington hike is a short hop off an easy trail with a nearby pond, lean-to, and slide to explore if interested. Views are limited but the area is still beautiful.

Number 8 Mountain: Number 8 is one of many open summits with nice views of Brant Lake from ledges accessed by the relatively easy bushwacking of the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness area.

Advanced 

Elizabethtown #4: Herd paths approach this Keene subpeak, there are loads of open rock for views, and Spotted Mountain is a nearby add-on. Use caution near the beautiful but frigid waters of the South Fork of the Boquet River.

Wallface Mountain: An ADK 100 highest list peak and home to one of the largest cliffs in the Northeast, it’s a great hike on its own. A recent search and rescue left a massive clearing on the summit allowing for unique views. 

Credit: Neil Luckhurst
Credit: Neil Luckhurst

Expert

MacNaughton Mountain: Some hikers call MacNaughton the 47th high peak. There are many different approaches to this one and some are becoming faint herd paths, but it’s still a challenging and long day in winter. This summit has a sign and a pleasant summit ridge. 

Sawtooth #2: The entire Sawtooth Range (not to be confused with Sawteeth Mountain) includes some of the most remote and wild land in the park. None of the peaks in this range come easily, especially in winter. The approach from the Averyville side is preferred. Viewpoints feature Lake Placid, the Sewards, MacNaughton, and beyond.