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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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: Steamy Logs

Unwind around the campfire.


4 Tips for Finding Wintertime Solitude in the Adirondacks

Finding peace, solitude, and quiet in our day-to-day lives gets harder every day. Sometimes I head into the woods looking for a more social natural experience. I like to see other people on the trail or at a campground. It makes me feel even more comfortable if I am alone, or it is getting dark. In some circumstances, I’m expecting to see other friendly dogs for my dog to meet, other hikers to chat with on the summit, and the trail to be worn from other snowshoers so my walk will be a bit easier.

But other times, I am seeking solitude. I want to experience the quiet, untrammeled parts of wilderness. I want to experience the natural world as many people have before me, for hundreds of years. I want to hear birds, and water rushing. I want to have a chance to see wildlife. I want to find an overlook to enjoy the view in seclusion where I can fully let my body relax, look over valleys, rivers and marvel at nature’s wonders.

The reality is that we must share our wildlands; They belong to all of us. However, there are a few things you can do to find a little more solitude if that is the experience you’re seeking when planning your next outing in the Adirondacks this winter.

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Venture into the wilderness outside the High Peaks.

The High Peaks Wilderness area gets a lot of attention for being home to the tallest peaks in the Park. But there are many other Wilderness areas that offer unique outdoor recreation opportunities. There are many mountains, lakes, rivers, and ponds that have trails that connect and offer opportunities to explore the Adirondacks. 

Avoid using apps to find your hikes.

These apps can be helpful, but especially in the Adirondacks, there are so many trails that are not listed on them. You can find more reliable and comprehensive information (and quieter places to visit!) listed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), town websites, regional land trusts, or the Champlain Area Trails. If there is a trail listed on apps or on a review site with many recent reviews, consider picking another location.  

Explore summer destinations.

Snowshoe/ski into popular paddling areas and primitive campgrounds that would be otherwise busy in warmer seasons. Make sure to call the land manager (many times the DEC) beforehand for permission to use the closed seasonal roads first.  

Start from a quieter town.

Whether you’re a local or coming from far away, consider planning your outing in a town that is a bit sleepier during the winter season. You will be much more likely to step out of your car and into solitude. Plan ahead if you’re hoping to make it an overnight trip, as some businesses may be shut down for the season. This may mean bringing your own provisions and cooking a cozy meal in your AirBnB. For locals it may mean bringing dry clothes and a thermos of something hot to keep in your car for a comfortable ride home. 

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It’s our responsibility when we get to any natural place, to leave it better than we find it. Even if we are the only person that visits a place, the next person will feel like they have just discovered a place for the first time too. That also means thinking about how you share your experience on social media after your trip.  

It’s also worth mentioning, that if you’re going to take the responsibility of venturing into more remote, less populated destinations, you should especially be prepared for the conditions for the outing. Understanding the safety implications of where you are going, what you’re doing, and if there is cell service where you are. Even if you’re only planning to be out for a day, have enough gear to survive overnight in case you get stranded. 

At the end of the day, no matter what, even if you’re sharing your experience with many other people, a day spent in the Adirondacks is a good day. However, there are many places in the Adirondacks where you can go and have a quiet winter day. There is a certain magic when we have a moment in winter solitude to experience the gifts of Mother Nature and realize why it is all worth protecting for everyone. 

How do you find solitude, and when do you enjoy a more social nature experience?


Video: Lure of the North

In the remote wilderness of Ontario, Canada, two travellers endure the repetitive mental hardship of cold winter tripping. This short film captures the experiences and emotions of their expedition. It’s tough. It’s tiring. It’s lonesome. Yet it’s a beautiful and meditative love affair as you persevere one snowshoe step at a time.


A State-by-State Guide to Giving Tuesday in New England

Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday—so much of our time (and money) around Thanksgiving is spent trying to find the perfect gifts for friends and families that it’s easy to lose sight of the organizations working to make our communities better. In recent years, the idea of Giving Tuesday has become popular, reminding us to support the organizations protecting our crags, keeping our waters clean, advocating for open spaces, and exposing the next generation of outdoor lovers to our favorite sports. If you’re in the giving mood, here are some New England outdoor non-profits that could use your support.

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Rhode Island

It makes sense that the state nicknamed the Ocean State is home to awesome water-based organizations. One of the most notable is Save the Bay. Turning 50 years old in 2020, Save the Bay is a 20,000-member-strong group dedicated to protecting one of Rhode Island’s most valuable natural resources, recognizable landmarks, and playgrounds for paddlers and surfers: Narragansett Bay.

Another ocean-inspired Rhode Island organization that will be amped if you hang ten (or more) dollars on them this holiday season is Spread the Swell, which is working to share the stoke by offering free, non-profit surf camps to underprivileged Rhode Island kids.

While the Ocean State is best known for its surf, it’s also home to some of the best bouldering in New England. Spot the Southeast New England Climbers Coalition a donation and assist them in their work to help protect and establish access to crags, along with maintaining popular destinations like Lincoln Woods.

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Massachusetts 

The Pan-Mass Challenge is synonymous with summer in the Bay State, as cyclists push their limits on a variety of rides, raising money for a cause everyone is on board with: defeating cancer. Go the extra mile this year by donating, fundraising, or committing to volunteer at the August event.

Helping keep cyclists safe as they train to tackle the Pan-Mass Challenge’s 187 miles and 2,500 feet of climbing is the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition (MassBike). Help MassBike keep the wheels in motion toward creating a more bicycle-friendly state with a donation or by volunteering your time.

Investing in the sports we love is about more than merely maintenance and access. Chill Boston introduces underserved youth in the Greater Boston Area to board sports such as snowboarding, SUPing, and surfing. Drop in and hook them up with a donation to keep our board-based sports healthy and diverse, while also teaching young people valuable life skills.

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Connecticut

Connecticut is home to outdoor activities as diverse as its landscape, ranging from hiking to rock climbing to cycling. A donation to the Connecticut Forest & Park Association (CFPA) can put a spring in the step of the Nutmeg State’s hikers. The organization is committed to connecting people to the land to protect Connecticut’s forests, parks, walking trails, and open spaces for future generations.

Enthusiasts of Connecticut’s high and wild places will want to tick a donation to the Ragged Mountain Foundation (RMF) off their list. The RMF currently owns 56 acres of land in Southington, Connecticut—including Ragged Mountain—and is focused on stewardship, protection, and public access to the state’s cliffs and crags.

The Connecticut Cycling Advancement Program (CCAP) provides the state’s youth with an organized state-wide cycling league, allowing them to grow within the sport and develop values and skills that transfer to other parts of their life. Ride into the holidays feeling good with a donation to this great group.

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Vermont

Locally grown food, amazing craft beer, and outstanding outdoor experiences are commonly associated with Vermont. One of the orgs aiding Vermont in sustaining this reputation is CRAG Vermont, which is dedicated to preserving access to and maintaining the state’s climbing resources, along with giving hungry and thirsty climbers a place to play. Help CRAG Vermont over the crux with a donation this year.

Vermont is a destination for mountain bikers from across the US and Canada. The Vermont Mountain Bike Association (VMBA) consists of 26 unified chapters dedicated to advocating, educating, and promoting mountain biking in the Green Mountain State. Your donation will facilitate the trails remaining fast, flowy, and flush.

If you think of Vermont’s mountains as more white than green, check out the Vermont Backcountry Alliance (VTBC) this Giving Tuesday. Cutting a check to the VTBC helps keep the state’s legendary tree skiing properly maintained, while also protecting and advancing access for human-powered skiing.

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New Hampshire 

It’s no surprise that the Granite State is a mecca for New England climbers. Friends of the Ledges is an org focusing on stewardship and access to the climbing found in the eastern White Mountains of New Hampshire and Maine. Keep this awesome group sending in the future—they secured nine-acres of land critical for access to Cathedral Ledge and Whitehorse Ledge in 2019—with a donation this year.

Accidents happen in the mountains to even the most experienced hikers, climbers, and skiers. If you happen to have a mishap in the White Mountains, you’ll be glad you came to the aid of Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue (AVSAR) with a donation this year, as they assist various agencies with search and rescues in the region.

If you pedal your bike in central or southern New Hampshire, you’ve likely spent time on the techy trails built and maintained by the Friends of Massabesic Bicycling Association (FOMBA). A donation to this awesome org helps keep their relationship with Manchester Water Works rolling, and access to these terrific trails open.

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Maine 

Maine is home to the only national park in New England: Acadia. The first U.S. national park originally created by private land donations, you can join in the park’s philanthropic tradition by becoming a member, making a donation, or volunteering with Friends of Acadia—a group helping to preserve, protect, and promote the region’s only national park.

Another incredible private land donation (and the Northeast’s best hope for a second national park) is the 80,000+ acres donated by the co-founder of Burt’s Bees known as Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. While you probably can’t match enormous donations such as this, you can help preserve and protect this parcel by joining or donating to the Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters, taking part in the tradition of selflessness and generosity that birthed this area’s creation

If you’ve ever climbed Mount Katahdin and marveled at the wildness of Baxter State Park, you owe a debt of gratitude to Maine’s 53rd governor, Percival Baxter, who gave the park to the people of Maine with the mandate that it remain forever wild. Get in the giving spirit of the former governor with a gift to the Friends of Baxter State Park, who are working to preserve, support, and enhance the wilderness character of the park.

Do you know of another nonprofit that could use some support this year? If so, leave it in the comments so our readers can check it out.


How to Stay Warm While Sleeping Outside

Growing up, I had the fortune of having parents that took me camping. I had a thin foam sleeping pad and a 50-degree kids sleeping bag. I never slept well and I always froze at night. I thought that’s what camping was!

Turns out, I was wrong. Lucky for me, as I’ve gotten older and more experienced I’ve learned a lot about staying warm and comfortable while sleeping outside. For the past three years I’ve spent more than 100 nights a year sleeping under the stars. I get really cold really easily and I take my sleep seriously—I want to be comfy out there! Following these tips can go a long way toward keeping you warm and comfortable, and getting a good night sleep.

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The Basics

Step one: Get yourself a weather-appropriate sleeping bag. Duh. But something many people don’t think about is that the ground conducts tons of heat away from your body. The barrier you put between you and the cold earth plays a big role in how warm you’ll be. A foam pad is a good start. If you sleep cold or the temps are low, making the step up to an inflatable and even an insulated sleeping pad makes a huge difference. Pay close attention to the pad’s R-valueto know exactly how warm and insulating it will be. Not all pads are created equal. And don’t forget that sleeping pad insulation is additive, meaning on real cold nights or if you’re sleeping on the snow, stacking a foam sleeping pad and an inflatable pad increases the insulation even more.

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Debunk the Myths

Some people will tell you that you should sleep with hardly any clothes on, or even naked, to get the most out of your sleeping bag and that this will keep you warmer in the end. Those people have never slept outside, in the cold, naked in their sleeping bags.

Their theory isn’t totally baseless, though. The idea is that by wearing extra layers inside your sleeping bag, you crush the loft of your bag and thus take away from its insulating capabilities. It may seem like the best thing to do on a cold night would be to bundle up in all your layers then squeeze yourself into your sleeping bag, but if you’re wearing too much you can actually compromise the effectiveness of your sleeping bag’s insulation (not to mention your comfort). You can definitely wear some of those layers to bed (there’s no need to get in naked), but don’t wear so many that you feel your sleeping bag squeezing back in on you—Leave enough room for the down to expand to its full loft.

Keep these other tips in mind before heading to bed:

  • Keep a pair of “sacred socks” in your sleeping bag so you always have a warm and dry pair for sleeping. Never get in your sleeping bag with wet or cold socks.
  • Wear a hat. It’s not a myth that you lose a lot of heat through your head! Consider wearing a hood too, if necessary.
  • Make sure all your layers are dry. Dry clothes equal warm clothes.
  • If you’re winter camping or in really low temps, consider puffy booties, pants, and/or a jacket to sleep in. These are like mini sleeping bags for all your appendages and can work wonders! They’re also great pillows if you don’t sleep in them.
  • If you’re sleeping bag is too big for you and has extra space that you aren’t filling with your body, consider stuffing extra layers in those areas so your body can heat the air around you to keep you warm rather than losing all that warmth to dead space in your bag. This is especially helpful for shorter folks in longer bags. Keep those toes warm!

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Feed the Fire

Staying warm is all about keeping your internal furnace burning throughout the night. We’ve talked about insulating that furnace and now we’re going to talk about fueling it!

Eat a snack

Having some calories in your system right before bed gives your body fuel to burn and helps keep you toasty. If I’m not in bear country I like to keep a Snickers bar with me while I sleep. This gives me quick burning sugar for immediate warmth and the protein in the peanuts keep the burn going a while longer.

Drink something warm

The best way to get warm is to start warm. A hot drink helps warm you up from the inside. My favorite: Brew peppermint tea and put cocoa mix in it. If I want extra calories I’ll put in a scoop of butter or some light olive oil. Have you ever tried hot cocoa with peanut butter mixed in? It’s like drinking a Reese’s and adds some bulk to keep your furnace burning.

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Use a hot water bottle

Fill a small water bottle like a 16oz Nalgene with near-boiling water, put it at the foot of your bag and relish in your new personal sauna. If you’re super cold, hold the bottle between your thighs, right on your femoral arteries—Warming that blood as it circulates will keep the rest of your body warm.

Take a lap

My dad always said I had a heater in my tennis shoes and would send me on a little run if I complained of the cold. I might not like to admit it, but he was right. A brisk walk before bed, a set of jumping jacks, a quick dance party, or shadow boxing routine—whatever you need to do to get the blood pumping to keep you warm right before you tuck in for the night—can go al long way. Again, the easiest way to get warm in your sleeping bag is to already be warm when you get in it, but if you’re already in your bag you can simulate this by contracting all your muscles as hard as you can and then releasing them several times.

Bonus points: Go pee!

Seriously. I know it’s cold and dark out there. But go do it. Your furnace works really hard to keep all that liquid inside you warm, and when it’s doing that it has less energy to keep the rest of you warm. It may seem like getting out of bed will actually result in you being colder when you get back in, but the result is often surprisingly the opposite. Don’t hesitate to get up and take a leak.

 

Do you have other creative ways of staying warm? Have you found a sleep system that works well for you? Share your ideas in the comments below!

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Hiking by Helping: The Art of the Support Team

When my husband Troy told me he wanted to hike Vermont’s 272-mile Long Trail with his friend Brock, I was surprised. 

Troy and I have been hiking together since we met on the Appalachian Trail in 2017, and we’ve barely been apart for the last three years. But the Long Trail is a tough hike, and I knew I’d have a hard time keeping up with those long-legged men. So instead, we decided that I would support them on their journey by meeting them at trailheads in our van, providing food, drink, clean clothes, and dry socks. The Long Trail is remote in places and it would take an entire day to hitchhike into a town to resupply, wash clothes, get cleaned up, and hitchhike back, so keeping them fed would save them a lot of time and energy. By meeting up with Troy and Brock at regular intervals, they were able to make more miles and even take an occasional day off to rest.

Brock and Troy standing at the AT/LT trailhead in Williamstown, Massachusetts. | Credit: Karen Miller
Brock and Troy standing at the AT/LT trailhead in Williamstown, Massachusetts. | Credit: Karen Miller

Our planning began with the Guthook hiking phone app (an electronic guidebook), along with the Green Mountain Club’s Long Trail paper map, and a Vermont Gazetteer geographical guide, which allowed me to figure out which roads would be the best places to meet them, along with services, campgrounds, and grocery stores near the trail itself. A day before they started their hike, we went to Walmart and stocked up on all of the food they’d need for three weeks on the trail. And on August 23, I left them at the Appalachian Trail/Long Trail trailhead in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where they would hike a few miles to the Vermont border, the southern terminus of the Long Trail, and continue north until they reached Canada.

Troy and I have been hiking together since we met on the Appalachian Trail in 2017, and we’ve barely been apart for the last three years. But the Long Trail is a tough hike, and I knew I’d have a hard time keeping up with those long-legged men.

The Long Trail traverses almost all of the Green Mountains’ major summits, including Glastenbury Mountain, Stratton Mountain, Killington Peak, Mount Abraham, Mount Ellen, Camel’s Hump, Mount Mansfield, and Jay Peak. Our first meetup was to be at Kelly Stand Road, after 3 ½ days that included their first major climb, Glastenbury Mountain. The two hikers had big smiles on their faces when they saw me at the van with snacks, beer, and a cleanup station. We discovered a small camping area just down the road, where I served the hungry hikers barbecued chicken and coleslaw before turning in for the night. In the morning, Troy and Brock filled their food bags for another four days while I cooked them breakfast, and they were back on the trail in no time at all.

Troy and Brock filled their resupply boxes with food and supplies before they set out on the trail. | Credit: Karen Miller
Troy and Brock filled their resupply boxes with food and supplies before they set out on the trail. | Credit: Karen Miller

Our next meeting point was Clarendon Gorge, just a few miles from our friends’ home in Rutland. They had invited us to stay for the weekend, which was plenty of time for the hikers to take showers, rest, and resupply their food bags while I washed their clothes and shopped for our next meetup. After their “zero” day, I dropped them back on the trail and they “slackpacked”  nearly 18 miles into Killington, where I met them at the Inn at Long Trail for dinner. At this point the weather was turning colder and wetter, and Brock was getting discouraged. By the time the two had hiked into Brandon Gap a few days later, Brock was ready to head home. We were sad that he wasn’t enjoying his trip, and we hated to say goodbye, but that’s all part of life on the trail. Troy immediately got back on the Long Trail and hiked to Middlebury Gap, our next meeting place.   

By meeting up with Troy and Brock at regular intervals, they were able to make more miles and even take an occasional day off to rest.

Middlebury Gap is about halfway to the Canadian border, and this is where the hike becomes more difficult. Troy decided to take two days off before he would do the big push to the end of the trail. We stayed at Branbury State Park where we took walks, napped in our hammock, ate shrimp and grits, and watched an old Danny Kaye movie on my laptop. Troy was feeling well rested and strong as I dropped him off on the trail again. 

The next few days he would summit Mount Abraham, Lincoln Peak, Mount Ellen, and Camel’s Hump. On September 11, when I met him late in the evening at the Winnooski River, I could see he was exhausted, and cold. I cooked him a pot of Italian tortellini soup, and he slept long and hard into the next morning. I suggested he take another day off, but he was eager to go on, so after a breakfast of bagels with smoked salmon, cream cheese, and capers, he got back on the trail to do 37 more miles to our next meetup, climbing Mount Mansfield’s infamous Forehead, Lips, and Chin, along with Madonna Peak and Whiteface Mountain.

Nothing better than a cold beer after several days on the trail. | Credit: Karen Miller
Nothing better than a cold beer after several days on the trail. | Credit: Karen Miller

When we met at VT15, we took a day off at Elmore State Park, and after getting cleaned up we drove into Waterbury to visit the Green Mountain Club, Ben & Jerry’s, and a laundromat. At this point, Troy was well into the groove of the Long Trail, and eager to finish his trip. After going over the maps he decided he wanted to hike straight through to Canada, where I would meet him at the northern terminus, a place called “Journey’s End.” So the next morning after a hot breakfast, I left Troy at VT15 for the last 51 miles of his hike, while I hung out at Millbrook Campground in Westfield, just a 12-mile drive to the trailhead.

I felt closer to him than ever, knowing that being there for him helped him hike longer and stronger, and brought him back to me safe and sound.

On September 15, Troy hiked several short but steep climbs before his last big summit to Jay Peak. A few miles later, the trail became smoother and greener. “It’s like everything was improving as I got closer to Canada,” laughs Troy, remembering his last hours on the Long Trail. He arrived at the northern terminus at 5:11 p.m., and then took the approach trail to the Journey’s End parking lot where I was waiting for him in the van. My hiker man looked tired and cold, but he smiled broadly when I ran down the trail to embrace him.

To celebrate his success, we drove to Jay Village Inn for the night, where Troy enjoyed a well-earned sauna, shower, and a hearty meal of seafood and fine wine. After a good night’s sleep in a soft, warm bed, we talked about our hiking/supporting experiences over the last three weeks. I felt closer to him than ever, knowing that being there for him helped him hike longer and stronger, and brought him back to me safe and sound. We’re not sure where our upcoming adventures will take us, but next time, perhaps he’ll be supporting me!

Troy’s trail angel waits for the hikers’ arrival at Brandon Gap. | Courtesy: Karen Miller
Troy’s trail angel waits for the hikers’ arrival at Brandon Gap. | Credit: Troy Allen Lair