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Four Incredible Fall Backpacking Trips in West Virginia’s Potomac Highlands

With fall foliage that rivals New England, a unique topography reminiscent of the Alaskan and Canadian tundra, and a bevy of wilderness areas flush with epic views but lacking crowds and complex permit systems, the Potomac Highlands of West Virginia possess some of the finest fall backpacking trips in America. From a quick and easy overnight to a multi-day odyssey far from official trails, it features some of the best backpacking you could find anywhere, for backpackers of all ability levels. Put these trips at the top of your backpacking to-do list this fall.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Table Rock

For an easy introduction to what fall backpacking in the Potomac Highlands is all about, head to the Canaan Mountain Backcountry Area and tackle the 2.4-mile roundtrip trek to Table Rock. With a short distance, minimal elevation gain, and astonishing views, Table Rock might be the best bang-for-your-buck hike in the entire state.  Even better, this trail receives surprisingly light hiking pressure since the majority of backpackers head to the nearby Dolly Sods Wilderness.

From the small trailhead parking lot on Canaan Loop Road, take the Table Rock Trail through a pretty forest of hardwoods that will be bursting with color in late September and early October. After 1.2 mostly flat miles, break out of the forest onto appropriately named Table Rock, and behold a 180-degree view of mountains and the Cheat River Valley. Be mindful of crevasses in the rock as you explore, and then set up camp at a protected campsite back in the woods that was passed just before reaching the overlook. Or, if the weather is clear and calm, consider sleeping under the stars out on Table Rock. Wherever you decide to camp, be sure to pack in all the water you’ll need, as there isn’t a water source on this trip. Rise early the next morning to have your coffee while watching the sunrise illuminate the fog-filled valley and colorful autumn foliage before making the return trip to the car.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Dolly Sods Wilderness

Dolly Sods Wilderness is one of the most popular and well-known wilderness areas in West Virginia, and for good reason. With a vast network of trails, a bounty of campsites and several overlooks that provide panoramic views of nothing but seemingly endless wilderness, there are countless routes in Dolly Sods that are perfect for a fall backpacking trip. Since Dolly Sods is a designated Wilderness, be prepared for minimal or no trail markings and to ford creek crossings, all of which helps to preserve a true wilderness feel as much as possible.

For a 19.4-mile (3 nights is best) lollipop loop that showcases the best of Dolly Sods, take the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail north from the Dolly Sods Picnic Area on Forest Service Road 19. In 2.5 miles, the first great views of the trip can be had from a rocky outcrop just off the trail. This overlook on the edge of Red Creek Canyon provides some of the best views in Dolly Sods, with Red Creek Valley below framed by Breathed Mountain and Rohrbaugh Plains. While only 2.5 miles from the trailhead, the view from here is so astounding that it’s worth spending a night at one of the campsites dispersed in the woods near the overlook. Sunsets from here are incredible, and on cool fall mornings fog often fills the valley below, making for truly dreamy photo conditions.

After breaking camp, continue on the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail and pass the Wildlife Trail on the right at 3.1 miles. Continue straight and drop down into Red Creek Canyon and cross Fisher Spring Run at 3.4 miles. Follow Fisher Spring Run Trail down to Red Creek, and pick up the Red Creek Trail to begin a 10-mile counterclockwise loop. Reach Rocky Point Trail on the left at 4.4 miles, which makes for a great side trip (add roughly 2 miles roundtrip) up to Lions Head, a rocky overlook that provides one of the best views in Dolly Sods, and possible campsites nearby. Continuing north from the junction with the Rocky Point Trail on the Red Creek Trail, reach the Breathed Mountain Trail at 6.0 miles. This trip takes you left down the Breathed Mountain Trail, but one could also continue straight down the Red Creek Trail to arrive at a fantastic and popular camping area near some waterfalls on Red Creek called “The Forks.”

Back at the junction with the Breathed Mountain Trail, take this trail west for 2.4 miles and travel through a beautiful forest of spruce and blueberry bogs. This combination of forest flora is more commonly found in the boreal forests of Canada than the Appalachian Mountains, and is especially beautiful in autumn when the berry bushes turn bright red and are a perfect contrast to the dark green spruce forests.  Arrive at the Big Stonecoal Trail at 8.5 miles and turn left to head south down this trail for 2.4 miles before arriving at a trail junction with the Dunkenbarger Trail. Excellent campsites along Big Stonecoal Run can be found here.

Continuing south on Big Stonecoal Trail, the western end of the Rocky Point Trail to Lions Head is passed on the left at 11.6 miles, and in 1.4 more miles ford Red Creek and arrive back at Red Creek Trail at 13.0 miles. The banks of Red Creek possess several wonderful campsites, and Red Creek (named for the reddish-brown tint of the water caused by a high tannins concentration from decomposing red spruce and hemlock needles) is perfect for cooling tired feet after a long day on the trail. Continue heading northeast along the Red Creek Trail for 1.5 miles before hitting the intersection with Fisher Spring Run Trail, at which point you’ll be retracing your steps from the start of the trip back to the parking lot.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

North Fork Mountain

For fans of ridge hikes with near constant views, it doesn’t get any better than an autumn trek along North Fork Mountain. The full length of the ridge hike is 24.7 miles in total from end to end and makes a great shuttle hike if a car can be dropped at both trailheads (it’s about a 40-minute drive one-way between the north and south trailheads). It’s also possible to break this up into smaller shuttle sections, especially if starting from the northern trailhead. From the northern trailhead on CR 28 (Smoke Hole Rd.), ascend switchbacks for 1.6 miles to gain the ridge. Once up on the ridge, views and campsites abound, and there is minimal elevation change. Hike south and take a short side trail on the right that leads to Chimney Top, which provides a spectacular view of distant mountains and autumn foliage peppering the pastoral countryside far below. Countless other vistas await further down the trail, as the ridge never strays far from a clear view.

Three quarters of a mile further south, pass another fine vista, Table Rock (not the same Table Rock as the one previously discussed at the start of this article). If short on time or energy, this makes for a great stopping point, and several nice campsites can be found dispersed in the forest not far from the trail that provide easy access to sunset views from the ridge. From Table Rock, the trail ambles south and passes two spur trails that descend east off the ridge: Landis Trail and Redman Run Trail, reached 4.1 and 8.2 miles from the north trailhead, respectively. Taking either of these trails would provide a shorter shuttle hike alternative.

The main disadvantage of being up on the ridge is the scarcity of water. Save for a semi-reliable spring that’s passed halfway through the trail, there’s no water sources up on the ridge, so it’s best to pack in enough water to last the length of the trip in case the spring is dry.

The views continue on the southern portion of the trail, with so many overlooks that they don’t even have names. While the north half of the trail is more interesting, the southern half to the southern trailhead is still beautiful, and completing the full length of the trail is a rewarding and recommended experience.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Roaring Plains

For the seasoned backpacker looking for a trip that’s as challenging as it is scenic, there’s no better destination in the Potomac Highlands than a part off-trail wilderness sojourn in the Roaring Plains West Wilderness. Backpackers with the necessary skills are rewarded with some of the most incomparable solitude, views, and campsites to be found not only in West Virginia, but the entire East Coast. Given the largely off-trail nature of this route, it’s wise to budget extra time in case you get turned around, and to pack a map and compass and know how to use them. A GPS could also be incredibly useful for this trip.

There are several possible routes that can be taken into the Roaring Plains, with the eastern fork of the South Prong Trail (which begins just a half mile down FS 19 from the start of the aforementioned Dolly Sods Wilderness trip) offering a pleasant, relatively flat portal to the rugged terrain that lies ahead. After heading south for approximately 2.5 miles on the oftentimes wet and muddy South Prong Trail, the real fun begins. Look for an unofficial trail on the left, not marked with a trail sign but often marked with a cairn, which heads in a southwest direction through the forest. Take it slow, keeping an eye on your compass and be on the lookout for more cairns marking the way along the faint trail, known as the “Hidden Passage.” After almost a mile of picking your way through the forest, break out into an open meadow with expansive views. Soon after arriving at the meadow, the trail passes one of the finest campsites imaginable, nestled in the flame-red berry bushes and with the kind of expansive, open views that are hard to come by when backcountry camping in the East. This area makes a great basecamp option to do day hikes from, with the top hiking option being an off-trail journey along the rim of Long Run Canyon.

To get Long Run Canyon from the meadows campsite, follow a faint, unmarked trail for about 0.7 miles through the open meadows, until reaching the Pipeline Swath (essentially an old dirt road). A small trickling creek located at this junction is one of the only water sources if camping at the meadows and for the duration of the loop along Long Run Canyon, so top off water bottles here and be sure to treat the water. Take a left to head southeast on the Pipeline for about 0.3 miles until arriving at the remains of an old road, where the real adventure begins.

Turning right, dive into the bush and head in a west-northwest direction to reach the rim of Long Run Canyon. Scan for a faint path possibly marked with cairns or flagging, and budget extra time for this section of the hike, as it’s the sketchiest part from a navigation standpoint. Once you arrive at the canyon rim, the trail is much easier to follow. When in doubt, ensure that the canyon is on your left. The next 2.5 miles are some of finest hiking miles imaginable, with almost constant views out across the canyon into the vast West Virginia wilderness. Heath thickets, spruce, and rocky outcroppings combine to form an incredibly beautiful and unique landscape unlike anything else in the East. While there is minimal elevation change on this section of the hike, since this is an unmaintained trail, there will almost certainly be downed trees to navigate around.

While base-camping at the meadows will make the hike along the canyon rim easier, for the hardy backpacker there are several options for camping along the canyon rim. Although water is hard to come by along the canyon, the views and solitude more than make up for the extra effort of hauling in water. Some of the best campsites are just past possibly the finest view of the day, at a spot called “The Point,” reached 1.5 miles into the hike along the canyon rim. From The Point, head northwest and in one mile arrive at a large campsite with a fire ring. On the north side of the campsite, look for a cairn and the start of your journey away from the canyon rim on the Tee-Pee “trail.” Another unofficial trail that can be a pain to follow, it’s best to set a northeast compass bearing and do your best to follow the faint boot path while sticking to the compass bearing. A half-mile bushwhack will lead to the Roaring Plains Trail, which is an official Forest Service trail. Turn right (east) onto the Roaring Plains trail, and in 0.9 miles again reach the Pipeline Swath. Turn right onto the Pipeline, and head southwest for one mile before arriving back at the base of the meadows, where you’ll turn left and retrace your steps from earlier in the day to return to basecamp in the meadows, having completed one of the most rugged and beautiful fall hikes imaginable.


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Level-Up Your Fall Photography at the Adirondacks' Heart Lake

With all due respect to the other seasons, there isn’t a more exciting time of year for wilderness exploration and photography than fall, and there’s no better place to be this time of year than the Eastern United States. Blessed with a variety of hardwood species like sugar maple and birch that turn practically every shade of color imaginable during the autumn season, there’s no shortage of fantastic foliage destinations in this part of the country. That said, there are some locations that stand out from the rest, such as the Heart Lake area in New York’s Adirondack Mountains.

Located south of Lake Placid in the High Peaks Region, Heart Lake is a perfect fall hiking and photography destination. While the main sights can be seen in just a daytrip, to truly appreciate this special area, nothing beats spending a few nights in a classic Adirondack lean-to, several of which pepper the lakeshore and surrounding forest. Or if camping isn’t your style, the charming and cozy Adirondack Loj is also near the lake and offers the weary hiker heated rooms and home-cooked meals.

Another big advantage of staying at Heart Lake is that some of the best fall photography imaginable is right at your doorstep. The following tips will help you make the most of a fall trip to Heart Lake and to take your fall photos to the next level. While this article is focused on the Heart Lake area, most of the photography tips can be applied to any locale.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Time it Right

The first consideration when planning a fall photography trip to Heart Lake or elsewhere is timing. While difficult to predict and variable from year to year, peak fall foliage in this part of New York typically arrives in the last week of September and lasts through the first week of October. Peak fall color at Heart Lake the past two years has been right around October 5th. Once September arrives and preparation for fall kicks into high gear, the Adirondack Mountain Club posts a weekly Heart Lake foliage report on their social media pages that is an incredibly useful resource for monitoring the color progression remotely. If looking to explore other areas in the Adirondacks or New York State, I Love New York posts a weekly foliage report for the entire state on their website and social media pages.

Even if you miss peak color, there can be advantages to being a little on the early or late side. In the days leading up to peak color, the prominence of some trees with green leaves that have yet to change color can make the ones that have changed pop even more. Post-peak when the leaves begin to fall is a great opportunity to experiment with detailed macro shots of freshly fallen leaves and can provide the opportunity to catch the first snow of the season as autumn color hangs on before succumbing to the white of winter.

Scout It Out

One of the best ways to get to know an area and to take the best photos possible is to get out and explore and scout out different compositions upon arrival, especially if never having been to the location before. Spending at least a couple days in an area is also advantageous as it provides more time to study weather patterns and to get a better understanding of how the light interacts with the landscape at different times of the day. Scouting is rather easy to do in the Heart Lake vicinity, but there are a few classic spots where photography is worthwhile:

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Heart Lake

The lake itself offers a bounty of photo opportunities, and a hiking trail leads around the eastern half of it and provides several access points to the lake. Even better, snag one of the lakefront lean-tos, which can be reserved up to a year in advance, and your own slice of private lakefront will be just steps away. A sandy beach on the north side of the lake is an excellent spot to photograph mountain reflections or a canoe beached on the sandy shore with a background of colorful foliage.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Mount Jo

Rising above the north shore of Heart Lake, 2,876-foot Mount Jo provides one of the most phenomenal fall views and is one of the best bang-for the-buck hikes in all the Adirondacks. A typical rugged and steep Adirondack trail leads from the campground to the rocky summit ledges. Partway up the Mount Jo trail, the trail forks into the 1.1-mile “Short” Trail and the 1.3-mile “Long” Trail, both of which ultimately meet below the summit after a 700-foot climb. It takes roughly 45 minutes to get to the top, where a glorious view of mountains and fall foliage spreads out below. The opportunities for landscape shots with a wide-angle lens are endless, and since the view looks to the south, great sidelight can be had at both sunrise and sunset. While views from the official summit are nice, some open ledges below the summit provide an even more panoramic view with a clear perspective of Heart Lake surrounded by colorful autumn foliage with Algonquin and other High Peaks rising from the valley further to the south.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Heart Lake Campground

Spending the night camping at Heart Lake opens up additional photo opportunities. Campers by a crackling fire and tents or lean-tos nestled in the forest are great additions to any fall photography portfolio and help to fully paint the picture of what fall in the mountains is all about. Lean-tos, tent campsites, and bunks in the Loj can be reserved onlineat the Adirondack Mountain Club’s. Lean-tos and tent sites cost $40 to $45 per night, and Loj rooms range from $70 to $160. For all Heart Lake accommodations, Adirondack Mountain Club members receive a 10% discount.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Mornings are Magic

As difficult as it can be to crawl out of a toasty sleeping bag to feel the cold slap of predawn air, there’s no better time of day for fall photography than early morning. Winds at Heart Lake are typically calmest at dawn, better facilitating the reflection of colorful foliage and clouds in the lake. Fog rising from the lake on crisp autumn mornings is a common occurrence and provides some of the most dreamy and mystical photography conditions imaginable, whether photographed from the shore of the lake itself or from a higher vantage point up on Mount Jo. On especially cold mornings, frost might even coat the flora, adding a special touch to an already extraordinary time of year.

Look Beyond the Grand Landscape

When color is at its peak, the most obvious way to capture the beauty is to use a wide-angle lens to capture grand landscape photos. To create a more diverse portfolio and to truly capture the full essence of fall, though, it’s important to look beyond the landscape and find the subtle beauty of fall. One of the best ways to do this is to use other lenses besides a wide-angle. Utilizing a telephoto lens is a great way to isolate smaller sections of a landscape, and it can be a fun exercise in creativity to start with photographing the landscape using a wide-angle lens and then switch over to a telephoto to pick out different compositions from within the wider shot. From the shore of Heart Lake, use a telephoto lens to create a frame-filling shot of the most colorful group of trees, or a lone red maple amid a group of evergreens. From the summit of Mount Jo, hone in on morning fog floating over the top of the forest canopy, or a canoe on Heart Lake dwarfed by the immense scale of the Adirondack wilderness.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from an expansive landscape photo, macro photography can reveal an intimate and abstract side of fall that often goes unnoticed. With macro photography, a small section of a single leaf can be as beautiful and profound as a grand vista filled with millions of leaves.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Pack a Tripod and Polarizer

Two of the most useful accessories for fall photography not only at Heart Lake but in general are a tripod and polarizing filter. Unless intentionally blurring some or all of a photo for creative reasons, it’s typically desirable for a photo to be in sharp focus from front to back. A tripod is often necessary to stabilize the camera and facilitate a sharp photo, especially at dawn and dusk when there’s less light and longer exposure times are required. A polarizer comes in handy throughout the year but is especially useful in fall. Much like the polarized sunglasses that you might own, putting a polarizing filter on a camera lens helps to decrease glare and haze. Using one helps to make fall colors really pop, especially when the leaves are wet. A polarizer also helps to deepen the color of a blue sky, although care should be taken not to overdo it and end up with an unnatural polarization gradient in the sky. To avoid this, twist the polarizer back and forth until the most pleasing effect is achieved, especially when photographing at a 90-degree angle to the sun, at which the polarization effect is most prominent.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Get Out and Explore

While there are enough interesting photography subjects at Heart Lake to keep a photographer entertained for days on end, there are also several other nearby locations that can all be reached on foot that are worth investigating if on an extended stay in the area. About a mile up the road from the Heart Lake Campground, a trail to Mount Van Hoevenberg begins off South Meadows Road and leads to another short mountain with an open, rocky summit that provides a different perspective than Mount Jo. En-route to the summit, pass a beaver pond that provides an excellent view of Mount Van Hoevenberg to the north. For a less strenuous diversion from Heart Lake, continue to the end of South Meadows Road by foot or car to photograph pretty meadows complete with a babbling brook.

Heart Lake also provides easy access to hiking some of the most popular High Peaks, such as Algonquin, Marcy, and Phelps. It should be noted though that while the tundra of these peaks can sport pretty autumn alpine grasses, the best fall colors will be well below these lofty summits.

For a more secluded leg-stretcher than hitting a High Peak, loop around the north side of Heart Lake to connect with the Indian Pass Trail. Reach beautiful Rocky Falls in a little over two miles, with the option to continue on approximately three more miles to rugged and seldom-visited Indian Pass.

On the drive to and from Heart Lake on Adirondack Loj Road, several open meadows are passed that make for perfect photography or picnic spots, just be sure not to encroach on any private land.

 

Whether spending just an afternoon or an entire week, Heart Lake is a perfect destination for fall photography. With the tips outlined in this article and an open, creative mind, you’ll be sure to come away from your visit with the best fall photos possible.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Staying Clean on an Adventure: Trail Hygiene 101

If you love to hike, you probably don’t mind getting a little dirty. Muddy feet, sweaty shirts, and grime under your fingernails are all part of the trail experience. But there are a few good reasons to practice good hygiene while out in the woods. Poor habits like not washing your hands can spread diseases, and excessive dirt can cause bacterial infections in even small wounds like cuts and scrapes. Not to mention, not filtering your water can cause serious gastrointestinal problems. Not to mention, on longer backpacking trips, keeping good hygiene just makes you feel more comfortable and keeps you happy. A clean hiker is a healthy hiker, and a healthy hiker will enjoy many more miles on the trail.

Hikers should brush their teeth 2 to 3 times per day, just as they would at home. | Credit: Karen Miller
Hikers should brush their teeth 2 to 3 times per day, just as they would at home.
| Credit: Karen Miller

Clean Your Teeth

Hikers have a tendency to eat sugary snacks on the trail, so brush your teeth 2 times a day, just as you would at home. Pack a tiny toothbrush and a roll of floss, or carry a titanium toothpick instead of floss. Did you know you don’t need toothpaste to clean your teeth? A good brushing with clean water does the trick. If you prefer to use toothpaste, try an all-natural brand like Tom’s or Dr. Bronner’s, or take along a tiny container of baking soda. Swallow or spray your foam to prevent large globs from sitting on the forest floor. If you use floss, be sure to pack it out!

Above the Waist

To keep your hair clean, wear a buff or bandana. If your hair is very long, braid it tightly. Give your hair a good brushing before bed to remove debris that may have collected on the trail. For general above-the-waist hygiene, use a damp bandana to wipe down your body. Bathroom wipes are okay, but be sure to pack them out. Even if the package says they’re flushable, they are not biodegradable. Scented deodorant and soap attracts animals, so leave these items behind if you can.

A bandana, biodegradable toilet paper, reusable bathroom wipes, and hand sanitizer will keep you clean and healthy on the trail.  | Credit: Karen Miller
A bandana, biodegradable toilet paper, reusable bathroom wipes, and hand sanitizer will keep you clean and healthy on the trail.
| Credit: Karen Miller

Below the Waist

Carry only biodegradable toilet paper and use it sparingly. If you have to poop on the trail and there’s no privy available, choose a site that’s at least 200 feet off the trail, away from any water sources. Dig a hole 6 to 8 inches deep, and 4 to 5 inches wide. (Follow local guidelines if they are more rigid or specific.) It’s always preferable to carry out used toilet paper. If you choose not to do so, bury it. For feminine hygiene products, always pack them out in an odor-proof bag.

Take Care of Your Feet

Your feet are your greatest asset when you’re hiking, so give them the treatment they deserve. When it comes to feet, a bandana is your best friend! Dip a clean bandana in water and use it to wipe your feet, especially before you go to sleep at night. This practice will keep your sleeping bag cleaner, too. Try a pair of toe sock liners which keep your feet cleaner than socks alone—they also help prevent blisters. If you come across a brook or stream, take off your boots and socks and give your feet a good, cold soak. If you don’t have access to water or have a limited water supply, use bathroom wipes to clean your feet. You can also make your own reusable wipes, and wash them out when you return home. Boil two cups of water with a tablespoon of coconut oil and a teaspoon of vinegar. Cut bandanas into wipe-size squares and soak in the liquid. Let cool and squeeze out excess liquid. Place in ziploc bags. Use separate bags for above-the-waist and below-the-waist cleaning. Used wipes can go into an odor bag to be washed when you return home.

Mud season is especially challenging when trying to practice good hygiene on the trail. | Courtesy: Joe King
Mud season is especially challenging when trying to practice good hygiene on the trail. | Courtesy: Joe King

What About Soap?

Do you need soap on the trail? Not really. You can wash your hands and face with plain water, and use a squirt of hand sanitizer on your hands and fingers. Trim your fingernails as short as possible before your hike and your nails will stay cleaner. But if you’re a soap person, only use a biodegradable brand, and never use soap in a stream or lake. Your choice of cleaning products helps maintain a “clean” trail, so think twice about what cleaning products you carry and whether you really need them.

Should You Wear a Mask on the Trail?

Evidence has shown that the virus is much more difficult to transmit outside, but social distancing and mask-wearing should still be big parts of your outdoor activities. While you probably don’t need to wear a mask when no one else is around, wear a Buff or bandana around your neck and quickly pull it up over your mouth and nose when you pass others, especially if the trail is too narrow to maintain 6 feet of distance. Although lots of hikers prefer to stay in shelters, this may not be the best time to do that. Carry a tent, pitch it away from other hikers, and be respectful of your fellow campers.


10 Tips for Solo Backpacking

Don’t get us wrong: There are few things as purely fun as heading into the wilderness with a group of close friends, sharing stories around the campfire, and dragging conversations and debates out late into the night. But there also might not be many outdoor activities as rewarding as heading into the wilderness alone. The physical, mental, and emotional challenges are heightened, your awareness of your surroundings deepens, and you finish with a feeling of accomplishment and self-reliance that you can’t get with help. But solo adventures are different than group trips, especially in safety and planning. So whether you’re seeking out a challenge, looking to escape from the hectic modern world, social distancing, or simply don’t have anyone to go with, use these tips to get the most out of your solitary adventure.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

1. Ease into it

Your first-ever backpacking trip shouldn’t be a solo mission. Before immediately diving into a multiday solo trip, incrementally gain experience and knowledge by first backpacking with other, more experienced backpackers. It’s also far better to make a rookie mistake while in the company of a seasoned vet than to learn things the hard way when you’re all alone. Once you feel comfortable enough to go solo, get a few low-mileage, one or two night trips under your belt before biting off that week-long epic you’ve been dreaming about.

2. Tell a friend or family member your itinerary

If things turn bad while you’re solo, no one will be there to provide medical assistance or run out to the road or a ranger station to get help. Leaving a detailed itinerary with a loved one is always a good idea even when backpacking with others, but is imperative to your safety and wellbeing when going alone.

3. Consider using a satellite messenger

In the same vein, carrying a satellite messenger such can be a soothing security for you and your loved ones while you’re off the grid alone. These messengers vary in capability, but some good basic features include a “check-in” feature that lets the people of your choice know that you’re ok and provides your GPS coordinates via text and/or email, and an SOS feature that alerts local search and rescue of your location and that you’re in danger and in need of rescue.

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4. Double-check your gear

Extra care and diligence need to be taken with gear before heading out on a solo backpacking trip, as there won’t be anyone there to lend you spare gear or help with repairs in the event of a gear failure. Opening up your tent, sleeping bag and pad before packing them to inspect for damage or mildew from storage, re-waterproofing rain gear and boots, and checking how much fuel is in fuel canisters are just a few of the things that should be done each time before hitting the trail. There won’t be anyone to double-check your work, or carry backups.

5. Lighten the load

An advantage of backpacking with a group is the ability to split up gear among multiple people, helping to keep everyone’s pack at a reasonable weight. When backpacking solo, it’s up to only you to carry all that is needed to thrive in the wilderness, and pack weight can quickly balloon to an ungodly level that prohibits efficient travel and personal enjoyment. For high mileage solo trips, the added cost of lightweight gear is worth every penny. Smaller tents, cookware, and other items are perfectly fine for a single person, and can dramatically lower weight. Another useful way to eliminate unnecessary weight is to keep track of what you pack for each trip, and what you actually end up using. This is an easy way to identify the items that have earned a place in your pack, and those that can be done without.

6. Develop a daily rhythm

Solo backpacking involves much more work than just the act of hiking. Camp needs to be made, water gathered and purified, food cooked, perhaps firewood collected. If such tasks are procrastinated and completed haphazardly, solo backpacking can quickly feel more like a chore than an enjoyable escape. Developing a daily rhythm will ensure that tasks are efficiently completed and free up more time to hike and enjoy the beautiful surroundings.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

7. Mitigate risk

Solo backpacking is inherently more dangerous than hiking with a group, and extra care needs to be taken when solo to avoid danger and taking unnecessary risks. Pushing onward when the weather’s bad, crossing a swollen river, and venturing onto uncomfortably dangerous terrain are just a few of the high-risk scenarios that should be avoided as much as possible when backpacking solo. There’s no shame in turning back when a dangerous situation outside your comfort zone presents itself while solo.

8. Reinforce first aid and emergency kits

In the event of a medical emergency while solo backpacking, you want to be able to rest assured that you have the medication and equipment to safely get you through it. Off the shelf first aid kits are a good start, but it’s best to carefully go through them before a trip and bolster with extra supplies and medications. Items such as a signaling mirror, emergency whistle, prescription medications, and medical tape and bandages are items that can be crucial in an emergency and that often aren’t included in a run-of-the-mill first aid kit.

9. Strengthen navigation skills

Even when planning to stay on designated, well-marked hiking trails, having a strong knowledge of your planned route and bringing along a map of the area is crucial. GPS devices and phone apps can be great navigation resources, but many a backpacker has needed to be rescued after the battery in their navigation device died. Bringing a map and compass, and knowing how to use them, remains a vital skill even in this digital age, especially when navigational choices are up to you alone.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

10. Combat loneliness

Getting away from it all, challenging yourself physically and mentally, and connecting to the natural world are just a few of the many benefits of backpacking solo. Having some downtime on a trip can be great, but it’s in these moments that loneliness can creep up on you and threaten to sabotage a solo trip. Keeping the mind active is a great way to stave off loneliness. Writing in a journal, drawing, reading a book, and taking photos are a few activities that don’t require much energy but keep the mind engaged. Grappling with loneliness in the wilderness and overcoming it can be one of the most rewarding aspects of solo backpacking, and the more time spent out in the wilds alone, the more comfortable you’ll become and the more it will begin to feel like home.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!