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.


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

Video: Airplane Camping Under a Meteor Shower

“We’re going to go fly out into the desert and camp next to a giant cactus.”


Staying "Low and Local" During Coronavirus

For all the unpredictability of nature, and the chaos that can be the wilderness, the folks that love it tend to be planners at heart. Meticulous planners even: the kind who take expedition logistics to the point of obsession; zealots, who pour over maps and read guidebooks cover to cover; lovers of order, who chart their itineraries to the minute, and wrestle with every gram that goes into their packs. That’s why when COVID-19 established itself in the Northeast, and all of that came to a screeching halt, many of us felt the whiplash.

As cities and states shut down so too did the crags and trailheads. Travel was heavily restricted, people were asked to stay home, and our priorities shifted from reviewing the weather reports of far away mountain ranges to the very immediate matter of trying to contain an outbreak.

And so, our lofty goals got a lot further away—but as the higher, more distant summits receded, the outdoors didn’t actually go anywhere—and as we were encouraged to stay “low and local,” it seemed that the outdoors actually got a whole lot closer.

A new perspective on a familiar trail. | Credit: John Lepak
A new perspective on a familiar trail. | Credit: John Lepak

Rolling with it

With the rest of the world suddenly off-limits, we had to turn our attention to our own backyards. We all have our go-tos in the neighborhood, and in the first few weeks we covered a lot of familiar ground. It was refreshing to hike the local preserves and neighborhood parks before or after work, or even on a lunch break. They were different than they are on the weekends, and it was rewarding to see winter transition to spring in real time—something that isn’t immediately apparent from a desk in an office from nine to five.

As time passed, and spring progressed, we gradually expanded our definition of local. A ten minute drive to a trailhead became twenty and opened up that many more opportunities to get outside. With the changing weather though came the people. Folks cooped up with nowhere else to go turned their attention to the outdoors, and with this surge in usage came crowds, trash, and—as popular state parks became overwhelmed—closures. Once-quiet trails more resembled Fifth Avenue at rush hour than peaceful woodland singletrack and the only thing that exceeded the annoyance was the hazard presented by large, maskless groups that can’t socially distance because of the terrain.

We began looking beyond the ‘usual’ spots, taking to the internet and to apps like AllTrails and The Hiking Project, trying to find somewhere new. We went early, or late, or watched the forecast, seeking clouds rather than clear skies knowing that our favorite spots would be more safely passed in rain. Sometimes it was about improvisation—stopping at a trailhead we’d never heard of after turning away from a full parking area. Other times, having a plan B—and even a plan C—was the way to go. Flexibility is always a requirement in the outdoors and rolling with it felt natural—and stoked a small bit of a sense of adventure along the way.

Old neighborhoods, new trails, and a lovely little run by the river. | Credit: John Lepak
Old neighborhoods, new trails, and a lovely little run by the river. | Credit: John Lepak

Mix it Up

Not being able to climb at the height of the pandemic in the northeast was rough. It took what felt like forever before local organizations like the Ragged Mountain Foundation lifted their no-climbing advisory—and longer still before the Gunks reopened—and not being able to climb, even locally, had us bouncing off the walls. Staying low and local—and exploring new places close to home by doing so—opened up a ton of new territory. And that got us thinking about how else can we expand that newness in our own backyards?

Some of us mixed it up a bit. If we typically hiked a loop clockwise, we’d try hiking it counter-clockwise. We started to trail run our hiking trails and to hike our running trails. We may have dusted off an old family canoe and took to the water for the first time in a while. We may have picked up a used mountain bike and taken to the trails, both new and familiar, in a fresh way. Within the restrictions the pandemic assigned us, we persisted in getting out and doing things.

When redlining the local trails yields a solid local crag find. | Credit: John Lepak
When redlining the local trails yields a solid local crag find. | Credit: John Lepak

New Goals

A ton of us had high expectations for 2020. We’d trained for this season, seeking a summit or a thru-hike or a trail race. We’d sustained injuries, healed, trained up again. It’s hard to talk about things like climbing, hiking, or running in the context of a surging global pandemic but, simply put, seeing these sought-after objectives grow more distant, after years of preparation, really sucked.

We had to put those objectives on hold—so we found new ones. We redlined the hiking trails in our town. Or county. Or state. Or we sought and completed ridiculous virtual ultra-running challenges. Or we built our own hangboards and trained like crazy. There’s no replacing a Rainier summit or going end-to-end on the Long Trail but we found new challenges, we kept busy, and we made it work.

Fall’s starting to set in, and with it comes a whole new vibe to the local trails. | Credit: John Lepak
Fall’s starting to set in, and with it comes a whole new vibe to the local trails. | Credit: John Lepak

What Now?

Eventually, in the Northeast, we flattened the curve. Climbing started up again and trailheads reopened. Limited travel became a thing and we could get to the Whites and the ’Daks and Acadia safely. It’s still weird—we’re still masked up, taking separate cars, and sanitizing our hands until the skin falls off—but we’re still here and we’re still getting out. And while it’s hard to believe it’s been six months of this, and we seem to be staring down six more, it’s reassuring to know that staying low and local can still be rad. Now, as fall approaches, we’re going to keep on seeing what other cool, new stuff we can find in our own backyards. Winter’s just around the corner, and with any luck, it’ll be cold, long, and full of frozen waterfalls, deep powder, and bluebird days.


Explore Connecticut's Litchfield Hills This Fall

Nestled in Connecticut’s rugged Litchfield Hills, the town of Kent is the postcard-perfect image of rural Southern New England. From its charming center at the intersection of US-7 and CT-341, bucolic farmland gives way to dense second-growth forests, rocky hillsides, and pristine waterways—all a study in contrast to the densely populated suburban tableau that the Nutmeg State typically evokes.

What local hikers, trail runners, climbers, and paddlers already know though, is that Kent is more than just a pretty face. Miles of trails, awesome climbing, and plenty of water—both technical and flat—make Kent a full-value day trip. Throw in some excellent restaurants and a destination-worthy brewery, and you’ve got yourself a fine spot for a long weekend.

The views from the Macedonia Ridge Trail will have you forgetting you’re in the fourth most densely populated state in the country. | Credit: John Lepak
The views from the Macedonia Ridge Trail will have you forgetting you’re in the fourth most densely populated state in the country. | Credit: John Lepak

Hiking and Trail Running

From hilltop to hollow, Kent’s state parks, forests, and private land trusts provide access to miles and miles of high-quality trail fit for hikers and runners of all abilities.

The centerpiece, of course, is the venerable Appalachian Trail. 51 of the AT’s 2,190 miles run through Connecticut’s Litchfield Hills offering some of the loveliest low-elevation day hiking and backpacking options in the northeast. If you’re looking for an easy and scenic stroll, head south from Bull’s Bridge to Ten Mile Hill (4.5 miles, out-and-back), taking in a 19th-century covered bridge and a beautiful section of the Housatonic River along the way. For something a bit more challenging, head south from the Saint John’s Ledges trailhead on River Road, traversing Fuller Mountain, Caleb Peak, and Saint John’s Ledges while you catch views on your way to the AT’s junction with CT-341 (4.3 miles, one-way). Looking to fill your weekend? Just north of Kent, in Sharon, the AT–Mohawk Loop (39.4 miles, loop), is an excellent backpacking route that connects the Appalachian trails of the past and present—today’s Mohawk Trail actually traces the original path of the AT before it was rerouted in the 1970’s.

The AT isn’t the only game in town though. Just around the corner, Macedonia Brook State Park boasts an impressive network of trails that offer a not-so subtle reminder that “low-elevation” doesn’t always mean “easy.” Varied terrain, outstanding views, and a climactic rock scramble characterize the Macedonia Ridge Trail—a part of Connecticut’s Blue-blazed Trail Network and one of the state’s finest—as it works its way up and over Cobble Mountain (6.4 miles, loop).

A few miles northeast, Kent Falls State Park and its dramatic, stepped, eponymous cascade drops over 250 feet as it flows into the Housatonic River. Linking the Park Path up with the Red and Yellow Trails makes for a lovely, easy hike up and around the falls (1.5 miles, loop).

Trail Magic (5.9-) at Saint John’s Ledges in Kent is one of the most enjoyable single pitches of climbing in the state. | Credit: John Lepak

Climbing

Connecticut climbing has a reputation for short routes, steep traprock ridges, and incredible sandbags, but Saint John’s Ledges, rising above the Housatonic River in Kent, offers climbers a bit of a diversion: slab. Right along the Appalachian Trail, a quarter mile in from the trailhead parking area on River Road, are the Upper Ledges, a long stretch of friction slab reaching well over 100 feet high in some places.

There’s a good range of difficulty but the majority of lines register as solid, enjoyable moderates with a mix of heady slab moves and jammable cracks—and though some are leadable, protection can be sparse (or non-existent), and top-rope is generally the order of the day. A 60-meter rope alone won’t do it on some routes so be sure to bring a 70 or plenty of static line to build anchors with. Everything is east-facing, and the top half of the Upper Ledges are sunny and warm in the morning, so climbing here can comfortably extend late into the season. Must-do’s include Half Bling (5.8+), Falling Bodies (5.6), and the excellent Trail Magic (5.9-).

There are a handful of areas, and a good amount of climbable terrain, at Saint John’s in addition to the Upper Ledges, including the Lower Ledges, a short, beginner-friendly cliff just off the trailhead parking area. With a pair of super-easy routes like Wilderness Crack (5.3) and Try (5.2), this is an excellent spot for first-time climbers—and if its popularity with groups and classes is any indication, the Lower Ledges may well be the best such area in the state. There is a little bit of something for everyone here though, and more experienced climbers headed for the Upper Ledges will enjoy a change of pace (and some shade) on stout face climbs like The Graduate (5.10-).

The Housatonic River, known for its quality fly fishing and kayaking, as seen from Bull’s Bridge. | Credit: John Lepak
The Housatonic River, known for its quality fly fishing and kayaking, as seen from Bull’s Bridge. | Credit: John Lepak

Paddling

From its headwaters in Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountains, the Housatonic River travels 149 miles on its course to Long Island Sound, effectively halving the town of Kent from northeast to southwest in the process. Like the surrounding hills, the Housatonic is emblematic of Connecticut’s Northwest Corner—it’s also one of the finest destinations in the east to fisherman and kayakers alike. The river moves quickly and can be technical at several points, the most noteworthy of which is the Staircase, an obstacle just south of Bull’s Bridge, that heralds rapids up to Class V when the water’s high.

Those seeking gentler waters need look no further than Lake Waramaug State Park. Situated on the border of Kent, Warren, and New Preston, Lake Waramaug is a gorgeous lake in a stunning setting—absolutely perfect for an early morning paddle. The state park also has an adjoining campground, a great spot if you’re in for more than a daytrip.

Kent Falls Brewing Company, located on a working farm in Kent Hollow, makes some of the best beer in the state. | Credit: John Lepak
Kent Falls Brewing Company, located on a working farm in Kent Hollow, makes some of the best beer in the state. | Credit: John Lepak

Eating and Drinking

For a small town, Kent does really well on the food and drink. Get started in the heart of town at Swyft, a cool little joint in a restored 18th-century home that serves up modern, seasonal fare alongside a robust tap list. A local draft and one of their wood-fired, Neapolitan-style pizzas tend to hit the spot after a big day on the trail or at the crag.

No trip to Kent is complete without grabbing a beer at Kent Falls Brewing Company. Located in Kent Hollow, just a hop, skip, and a jump from Lake Waramaug, Kent Falls Brewing Company is a brewery on a working farm specializing in locally sourced ingredients. Their beer menu is wide-ranging, ever changing, and always excellent and the setting is as bucolic rural Connecticut as it gets.


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

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.


How Warm is Your Jacket, Really? The Down Equation

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

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A High Point in Warmth

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

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

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Not All Down is Created Equal

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

Down Fill Power

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

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

Down Fill Weight

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

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

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

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

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Putting it All Together

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

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Choosing a Down Jacket

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


How to Choose a Backpack

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

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Daypacks (Up to 35 liters)

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

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

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Backpacking Packs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hydration Packs & Waist Packs

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

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

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

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Backpack Structure

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

Internal vs. External Frame

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

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

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

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Top-loading vs. Panel Access

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

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

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

Sleeping Bag Compartment

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

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Load Support, Padding & Ventilation

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

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

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

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Pack Features & Accessories

Pockets

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

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

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

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

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Attachment Points

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

Rain Cover/Weather Resistance

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

Hydration-Compatibility

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

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

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Where to begin?

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

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

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


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

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

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

Get Your Feet Wet at Big Cypress National Preserve

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

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

Cumberland Island National Seashore

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

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

Cycle Through the South

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

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

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

Paddle the Okefenokee Swamp

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

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

Hike Alabama’s Pinhoti Trail

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

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

Visit Georgia’s Providence Canyon State Park 

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

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

Hike South Carolina’s Palmetto Trail

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