How to Choose Sleeping Pads

Tents keep you dry. Sleeping bags keep you warm. It’s easy to give the love to other parts of your backcountry sleep system. Sleeping pads, as far as many people believe, just add some comfort. In reality, they’re as critical to keeping you warm and comfortable as your sleeping bag: Without a good sleeping pad, not only could you be kept awake by the rocks and roots underneath you, but you’ll be missing insulation from the ground and getting cold quickly, and likely not getting a good night’s sleep.

But with the number of sleeping pads of different types, sizes, warmths, materials, widths, and more, it can be hard to know where to start in picking the right one.

Knowing how or where you’ll be using your sleeping pad is the first step. For example, a great pad for car camping may not be great for long backpacking trips, and your ultralight air pad may not be enough for winter expeditions. Think about where you’ll be using your pad, as well as what you’ll be doing when you’re there. Keeping these thoughts in mind will not only lead to more effective pad choices, but will also allow you to use your pad to its full potential.

GO: Shop For Sleeping Pads

Credit: Lauren Danilek

What Are Sleeping Pads Made Of?

The first fork in the road to choosing the best pad for you comes with the decision between the two main categories of sleeping pads: foam or inflatable. There are pro’s and con’s to each category, and there is not necessarily one best option, although each has its superior applications.

Foam

Foam pads, generally closed-cell foam (which provides better structure and support than open-cell) are the simplest, least expensive part of a sleep system. They are foolproof to use, naturally lightweight, and practically indestructible, making foam a reliable and time-tested asset to a weary camper. They’re also highly effective insulators from the ground.

These pads are not typically made very thick to save on weight and bulk, and as such do not always provide the “sleeping-on-a-cloud” feeling that one desires after a hard day, but that does not mean that a foam pad is not comfortable, especially when you’re roughing it out in the wilderness. Because they only roll or fold up rather than deflate, they also don’t pack particularly small and are generally kept on the outside of a backpack.

Foam pads are popular in winter settings, doubling up with an air pads, as well as for backpackers or thru-hikers who need the ultimate in durability and reliability, as well as a light weight

Inflatable

The more high-tech alternative to foam pads are the inflatables—light, packable, and increasingly comfortable, these sleeping pads offer a lot to any camper, especially for backpackers and people looking to limit backpack size. A far cry from the air mattress you’d find in a friend’s guest room, modern inflatable pads are getting smaller, lighter, and tougher than ever before. These can actually be broken down into two more categories: self-inflating and air pads.

Self-inflating pads use a clever membrane of open-cell foam inside the pad that will enable it to expand and fill with air all on its own, assuming the valve is open. This generally will get you most of the way, then you may still want to top it off with a couple breaths for more support. The extra foam layer means that these can be slightly warmer than air pads, and they’re obviously easier to set up, but aren’t as packable.

Self-inflating pads are popular for shorter overnights or car camping where size and packability isn’t as much of an issue.

Air pads are essentially just a bag with a valve, and must be inflated by mouth, or increasingly commonly, with a separate inflating bad. These are the lighter option and often more comfortable because of the generally thicker inflated size, and they pack down smaller to boot.

Air pads are the bread and butter of backpackers, packing small and adding exceptional comfort and insulation.

Inflatable sleeping pads of any type can offer exceptional weight savings and surprising comfort, albeit at a higher cost. Of course, the possibility of puncturing an inflatable pad is an important factor as well—they’re much easier to damage than a foam pad. So make sure you know how to field-repair an air pad (it’s not hard).

Credit: Lauren Danilek

Sizing

Most sleeping pads come in a length enough to fit an adult, head to toe, but there may also be options for short or long pads, or even pads in different widths. Look at the size options of that specific pad—they may be different from model to model or brand to brand.

Regardless of your height, there may be cases where using a full-size sleeping pad is not exactly what you’re looking for. Particularly in ultralight applications like thru-hiking and alpinism, where every gram counts and pack space is at a premium, some users find that smaller pads, some creativity, and a little sacrifice of comfort can pay off for performance and weight savings.

Sleeping in the Cold

The winter is objectively the hardest time to camp comfortably. Cold conditions and a frozen sleeping surface make for rapid heat loss. Having an effective sleep system is crucial for winter camping (as well as the chilly shoulder seasons) to not only stay safe, but also to enjoy the experience. As for sleeping pads, the more insulation the better, and that often means bigger, or simply more pads. Sleeping pad insulation can either come inherently from the foam making it up, larger air chambers, or even a layer of synthetic insulation not unlike what you would find in a winter jacket on the inside of the pad.

What buyers need to look for in effective cold-weather pads is the associated R-value of the pad. This is the metric used to measure thermal resistance, in other words how well a material insulates. Read lots more about the R-value here, but remember that higher numbers mean better insulation. R-values are also additive, so you can combine two pads (for example, a foam pad and an air pad) to increase the insulation.

Use this chart to get a general sense of the recommended R-value of the sleeping pad you should use for each season:

  • Summer: 1+
  • 3-Season: 2+
  • Winter: 3+
  • Extreme Cold: 5+

Also keep in mind that sleeping pad temperature ratings assume you’re using a sleeping pad with an R-value of 5.4. If you’re sleeping bag is rated to 30 degrees but your sleeping pad only has an R-value of 3, you’ll likely be colder than you would expect.

Credit: Lauren Danilek

Stuff Sacks and Inflators

Today, the stuff sacks of numerous sleeping pads serve double duty as an inflation bad. A single puff into it can be the equivalent of 10 if you were simply blowing into the valve, allowing you to blow up the pad quicker, easier, and without using all your breath. If a sleeping pad doesn’t come with an inflator, they make worthwhile accessories.

Credit: Lauren Danilek

Valves

Take a look at the valve on the sleeping pad you’re considering purchasing. Some use a simple twist-closure which allow you to inflate the pad then quickly spin the valve to seal it off. Others use convenient one-way valves which let you blow in and catch your breath without worrying about the air escaping. A secondary opening that bypasses the one-way valve deflates the pad quickly when it’s time to pack up. Pay attention to how easy the pad is to inflate, deflate, and even how easy it is to let out small amounts of air, customizing the firmness when you lay down at night.

Credit: Lauren Danilek

Durability

Balancing a sleeping pad’s lightweight and packability, and its durability can be a tough compromise. Pay attention to the denier of the material making up a sleeping pad: Higher numbers mean greater durability. Weigh this against the weight and packed size of the sleeping pads. If you’re someone who cowboy camps a lot, placing your pad directly on the ground, or is generally rougher on your gear, you may want to sacrifice and bring something a little heavier but more durable. If you’re careful with your gear and plan to sleep in a tent, you might be able to get away with something a little lighter but less durable.

Maintaining your sleeping pad is simple and easy most of the time. With regular use, wiping down dirt and letting pads dry out completely after using is almost all that needs to be done.


My 16-year-old and His Friend Hiked Vermont’s Long Trail...By Themselves

As I watched my 16-year-old son and his friend walk into the woods at the Massachusetts/Vermont border to begin their northbound thru-hike to Canada—alone—I fought the urge to run up the trail with them. Despite my beaming smile and outward excitement, I was still conflicted about whether or not we’d made the right choice.

Happily heading into the woods. | Credit: Sarah Hunter

The boys first approached us about this adventure a year earlier, after returning home from camp. They had spent ten days that summer backpacking a section of Vermont’s Long Trail, a 272-mile footpath through the Green Mountains, with six other friends and two counselors. It had been hot, their packs were heavy, and the mountains were steep, but they loved it. They wanted to return the following summer to hike the entire trail, by themselves.

Despite my beaming smile and outward excitement, I was still conflicted about whether or not we’d made the right choice.

We knew they had the experience and training to do it. They had hiked and paddled hundreds of miles with their families and with each other for the past five summers at camp. They practiced Leave No Trace and impeccable trail etiquette, and both were certified in Wilderness First Aid. This adventure was well within their skill-set and it had all the makings of a true coming-of-age experience. We couldn’t let our fears hold them back. We said yes.

In the spring, they planned their route, including evacuation options and resupply stops. They developed a meal plan based on the calories, fat, and weight of each item. They made a packing list, assessed their gear, and determined what they had and what they needed. Soon packages were arriving regularly at our doorstep: a JetBoil, gravity water filter, and the all-important two-way satellite communicator that would track their route and allow them to check in with us at the end of each day.

Sunset on Killington. | Credit: Silas Hunter

When summer arrived, my son and I tested his new gear during a weekend backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, during which he cooked our meals, filtered our water, and hung our bear bag each night. All I had to do was hike. My husband had the even easier task of following along from home, watching our path on the website. With one click, we sent him a message each evening: We’re checking in; everything is fine. It worked like a charm. We were ready.

The day before their start day, though, I broke down in a panicked what-did-we-agree-to moment. Even though they were prepared to go, I realized I’d never be fully prepared to let them go. But as I watched them walk into the woods together the next day, laden with heavy packs made heavier by their summer reading books, I put on a brave face. I was out of my comfort zone, but so were they. They were doing a brave thing. The least I could do was to be brave, too.

But as I watched them walk into the woods together the next day, laden with heavy packs made heavier by their summer reading books, I put on a brave face. I was out of my comfort zone, but so were they. They were doing a brave thing. The least I could do was to be brave, too.

Over the next three weeks I followed the map as they made their way north through the Green Mountains. I checked the weather. I worried. But each time I met them for a resupply my spirits were buoyed. They were doing fine. Better than fine. They were swimming in clear, quiet ponds, climbing fire towers, hiking in the dark for mountain-top sunrises. They were doing great. My worrying didn’t help them, or me.

When we met them at the northern terminus of the trail on the Canadian border we were overjoyed, and so were they. They were visibly tired and sore and dirty and also thoroughly, deeply, happy. For 21 days they had taken care of themselves and each other while traversing rugged peaks and steep valleys again and again. They faced countless decisions every day. Important decisions. On their own. Their reward for their perseverance, fortitude, and bravery, and ours, was etched on their faces. They had completed an incredible journey, one that they will carry with them always. It came at the expense of sore muscles and blisters (for them) and several more gray hairs (for us), but it was, without a doubt, one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.

Resupply day! | Credit: Sarah Hunter

Escape the Leaf-Peeping Crowds by Boat and Boot at Indian Lake

Autumn is upon us, and the vast hardwood forests of the Northeast are putting on their annual show that rivals any natural spectacle in the world. While the fall season has always been a popular time for hikers and roadside tourists alike to get out and explore, larger crowds than usual are expected this fall due to COVID-19 and the fact that being outside is one of the safest ways to get away from home during these tough times. The Adirondack Mountains have long been a haven for stressed and overworked city dwellers to get back to nature, and unsurprisingly the ever-popular High Peaks region has been experiencing record visitation throughout the summer and early fall. Hoping to avoid the maddening crowds while simultaneously exploring a part of the Adirondacks that we had yet to properly experience, my wife, dog and I recently went on a canoe camping trip to Indian Lake that quickly became our all-time favorite camping trip.

Credit: Joey Priola

The Island Campground

Located in the Southern Adirondacks, approximately a 70-mile or 90-minute drive southwest from Lake Placid, Indian Lake is a 12-mile-long reservoir that runs southwest from the tiny town of Indian Lake. While not quite as wild (the west shore has some development) as some of the more remote ponds and lakes of the Adirondacks, Indian Lake still has a relatively remote feel to it, especially on the eastern shore which is largely Forest Preserve land. The lake is peppered with several rocky islands, ranging in size from nothing more than a few boulders to over 1,000 feet in length. The best thing about Indian Lake is that it possesses the Indian Lake Islands Campground, which consists of 55 campsites (each with a picnic table, an outhouse, and firepit) spread along the lakeshore and islands that can only be accessed via boat. Sites can be booked up to 9 months in advance, and while they’re incredibly popular during the summer, as the temperature begins to drop in the fall, so does the visitation.

Note: Due to COVID-19, the DEC and New York State Parks has temporarily lifted the 9-month reservation window restriction for camping at New York State Parks, including Indian Lake Islands, and bookings for 2021 are currently being accepted.

Credit: Joey Priola

Exploring Kirpens Island

While all of the campsites offer privacy and outstanding views, nothing can beat the experience of camping on your very own private island. Of the 55 campsites at Indian Lake, five of them are on an island with no other campsites. Of this handful of select sites, the most outstanding site might be campsite 2 on Kirpens Island, which offers several advantages compared to the other sites.

Situated due east from Indian Lake Marina, the campsite on Kirpens Island can be quickly accessed via a 20 to 30 minute, mile-long paddle if launching from the marina, as compared to the 8-mile-long paddle if starting from the access point and campground check-in center on the south end of the lake. Kirpens Island is also one of the largest islands on Indian Lake, with countless nooks and crannies along the shore to explore, as well as some informal trails that lead to the far reaches of the island from the camping area on the north side of the island. A number of smaller islands surround Kirpens and make interesting photography subjects, especially in the fall when the berry bushes, maples, and birches that are prevalent on the islands show off their fall colors.

The view from Baldface Mountain’s summit. | Credit: Joey Priola

Multi-Sport Adventure

What really sets Kirpens Island apart from the other sites at Indian Lake, though, is its proximity to the Baldface Mountain Trailhead. The trailhead is a quick five-minute paddle east from camp into a quiet bay and is only accessible by boat. This difficulty of access greatly minimizes the crowds, and on a beautiful Saturday with near-peak foliage conditions, we had the trail and summit all to ourselves. After beaching your boat on the shore near a large boulder marked with white paint, an easy 0.8-mile-long trail with red trail markers and 550 feet of elevation gain weaves through the forest before breaking out on a rocky ledge perched just above the treetops, with the long blue swath of Indian Lake and its islands spreading out in the distance. Fall views don’t get any better than this, as the predominantly hardwood forest that surrounds Indian Lake bursts with a vibrant array of red, orange, yellow, and purple in late September to early October. After enjoying the view from Baldface, head back down to the lake and explore the islands near Kirpens, marveling at the banded metamorphic bedrock that the islands consist of, which makes for fantastic photo opportunities.

Once back at camp, cap off a spectacular day of autumn exploration in complete solitude by watching the sun set over Indian Lake and Snowy Mountain from an open ledge high above the lake on the west side of the island, and perhaps raise a glass of your favorite beverage to toast your own private piece of autumn heaven.

Credit: Joey Priola

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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.