Gear Nerd: Why You Should Be Wearing Merino Wool Year-Round

It’s not terribly often we get to go full science nerd on here, but today we’re digging into the most magical material of them all: merino wool. It’s natural. It’s renewable. And it’s oh so comfortable. But why is it so comfortable, versatile, and fantastic?

Unsurprisingly, merino wool comes from merino sheep. While we don’t exactly know how these fluffy little magical wool makers happened (they likely originated in Morocco or Spain and are definitely a domesticated breed), but we do know that they are the bearers of the softest wool of them all.

The detailed science behind merino would take a lot of articles to explain, but the general gist is that the strands that make up merino wool are much thinner than traditional wool. This means we can achieve a much finer weave than traditional wool and take advantage of all the other perks: it’s light weight, softness to the touch, amazing moisture management, and odor resistance.

Courtesy: CSIRO

The Merino Wool Matrix

But we have a feeling you came here to nerd out, so let’s briefly get into it.

If you were to break out your microscope (you do have one, right?) and some super cool microscopic cutting tools, you’d discover that merino wool has an exterior called “cuticle cells”. These cells have a slightly waxy coating which is what allows the strands to both shed water and absorb vapor. If you dig in further, you get to the “cortical cells.” These cells are like little tiny springs that allow merino to be flexible, elastic, and wrinkle free. And even further in, you hit the “matrix.” This contains proteins that love water molecules; So much so that they can absorb up to 35 percent of their weight without feeling wet (in your face, cotton). This region is kind of the coolest section of them all as it is why merino wool is fire resistant, anti-static, and eats odors for lunch.

Feel smarter? Us too.

 

Wool Mythbusting

With all that being said, it makes a lot more sense now why merino wool is the ideal material for all four seasons. But in the event you’re still not convinced that it’s the most magical material and are going but “Wool is itchy! And only for winter! And smells weird!” we’re going to bust all those myths… with science.

“Wool is itchy.” Under normal circumstances, we’d agree with you and suffer through flashbacks to those sweaters grandma knit one year for Christmas. But merino wool is different because it’s actually thinner than your own hair. And because it’s so thin, it bends out of the way when it encounters your skin meaning you just feel nice soft material from some super fluffy happy sheep instead of being stabbed by rogue traditional wool. Busted.

“Wool is just for winter.” Psh. Nope! Unless you’re in the “I don’t sweat, I glisten” crowd, we all sweat year round. And getting sweat away from our skin ASAP feels lovely all year, which is where merino excels thanks to that whole cuticle cell and matrix thing no matter the season. Removing moisture from our skin helps us regulate our temperature and keep comfortable. Being hot, sweaty, and stuck in a sticky damp material? Not so comfortable and not going to help regulate your body temperature. Interestingly enough, this same scientific aspect is why merino wool is also your safer bet during the winter when sweating. Being cold and damp is flat out dangerous (ever hear someone say “cotton kills”?), so we recommend rocking merino year round.

“Wool smells weird when wet.” We all know that musty smell you’re thinking about, but once again going back to the matrix, merino wool eats odors including whatever it puts off… and what you put off. That means that you can skip smelling like a wet (traditional) sheep and a locker room. Your friends will thank you.

And so concludes our nerd session. Give merino a try. And thank a sheep.

 


Shoulder Season Running vs. the Northshield Jacket and Pants

The air is getting crisp, the leaves are starting to turn, and the sun is setting just a little bit earlier every evening. It’s finally fall, and just like every other year, fall is a time of transition—a time to pack up the summer gear and start training for those big time winter objectives.

Whether you’re skiing powder or climbing ice, “training” could mean a lot of different things—but one necessity across the board is cardio. For many of us, that means breaking out the running shoes and hitting the road. This, in turn, means braving whatever weather the Northeastern shoulder season may have in store. On any given day you may be cruising under clear skies, pushing through the rain, or slipping and sliding in the snow.

The EMS Northshield Jacket (men’s/women’s) and Pants (men’s/women’s) were made for just these conditions, and last spring, I had the chance to put them to the test in my own backyard.

A DWR coating will keep you dry on shorter runs in the elements | Credit: Katharina Lepak

“Shield” is in the name, after all

Were my aspirations not tied to the mountains, running into a cold, driving rain would be near the bottom of my list—but committing to lofty goals means bearing down and building a base of fitness on which to try that next climb. In that spirit, I ran the Northshield through its paces in the snow, the rain, and everything in-between. On shorter runs, around the neighborhood or on local trails, its DWR coating did the job and kept me warm and dry. On longer, colder runs in the elements, I still found it effective as a breathable insulating layer, but would definitely recommend adding a lightweight shell over the top to keep the precip out if you were running a marathon in the driving rain.

Thumb loops and reflective accents round out the features that make the Northshield work in the elements | Credit: Katharina Lepak

Cool morning make for the best training

Whether Spring or Fall, shoulder season in the Northeast can be chaotic, and the conditions can vary wildly from day to day. Just because it snowed in the morning doesn’t mean it won’t be 75º and sunny by the afternoon, and in many instances—like mountain running, for example—you can count on such a shift. Being prepared is incredibly important and such unpredictable circumstances underscore the importance of layering.

The Northshield makes an excellent addition to any layering system. It’s ability to block the wind made it useful even in milder temperatures and it’s a solid pre- and post-run layer—great for warming up and cooling down. On warmer runs, I found myself opting for one piece—either the jacket in combination with a pair of shorts, or the pants with a t-shirt—rather than both.

It was in the cold that the Northshield really excelled though. Whether I was doing a chilly pre-dawn tempo session or on a long run through that lovely precip grab bag known as “wintry mix,” the Northshield kept me toasty the whole way through. Both the jacket and the pants are adorned with heavier windproof panels on the front—sensible for running headlong into cold weather—while the back is lighter, more breathable, and lends itself to a less bulky feel.

Shorter days inevitably mean running by headlamp | Credit: Katharina Lepak

Stay seen

As winter approaches, the days get colder and darker, and more and more often, runs have to happen in the dark. Before my day job adopted a work-from-home policy back in March, my runs would always have to take place on the fringes of the day—either before or after a lengthy commute into the city. This would invariably mean running in the dark, with a headlamp. Even still, packed days at home wind up pushing workouts later and later, and running in the dark is a necessity.

I was initially skeptical of the Northshield’s colorway for this purpose—black is hardly ideal for running at night and in my neck of the woods, where the roads are dark, curvy, and hilly—not the safest combination. After giving it a go, however, it became clear that the reflective accents on both the jacket and the pants succeeded in affording a huge amount of visibility on the unlit backroads of my neighborhood. I would still strongly recommend including a headlamp, and a hi-vis vest or hat in your kit though, should running in the dark be on your agenda.

Overall, the Northshield jacket and pants are versatile layers, well-fitted to shoulder season running | Credit: Katharina Lepak

Verdict: The Northshield is a capable shoulder season training compabion

Overall, I found EMS’ Northshield jacket and pants to be an excellent fit for shoulder season running. They kept me warm when it was cool, and dry when it was snowing or raining. They’re versatile enough to be used in tandem or as separates—as conditions dictate—and have found their way into my regular running clothes rotation. Also worth noting, they’re wicked comfortable—great for those rest days spent chilling out around the house picking through guidebooks, poring over maps, and planning that next big objective.


How to Choose an Ice Axe

Whether you’re a rock climber thinking about giving ice a try, a winter hiker looking to greater heights, or a skier with eyes on deeper backcountry, you’re going to need an ice axe to take it to that next level. They are a critical tool for safety and stability in steep winter terrain and open the floodgates to bigger mountain objectives. While the options out there may seem overwhelming, a little bit of background on the anatomy of an ice axe is all you need to find the right one for your objectives.

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Types of Ice Axes

Broadly speaking, there are three types of ice axes: mountaineering axes, technical ice tools, and a spectrum of semi-technical axes covering everything in-between.

Mountaineering Axe

When most folks think of an ice axe, what they picture is a traditional mountaineering axe: an asymmetric head, with a curved pick on one end and an adze on the other, mounted atop a long, straight shaft that ends with a sharp point. These days, the shafts have gotten shorter and some deploy a bit of a curve, but the intent of their design is the same: During non-technical travel on glaciers and high alpine snowfields, they are incredibly useful as a third point-of-contact, for building anchors, and for self-arresting after a fall. If you’re looking to tackle Mount Washington’s Lion Head Winter Route, a mountaineering axe is what you’re after.

Ice Tools

Ice tools main function is climbing steep, technical ice. Aside from being used in pairs, the principal difference between ice tools and other types of ice axes is the aggressive pick and a curved shaft—both designed with steep terrain in mind and more overhead swinging into hard ice than plunging the staff into snow. The head of an ice tool is asymmetrical, and may or may not have an adze or a hammer opposite the pick. The most common set-ups you’ll see in a pair of ice tools are adze/hammer or just picks. For steep ice from Crawford Notch to Stony Clove, a pair of technical ice tools is the way to go.

Everything in Between

The spectrum of options that exists between mountaineering axes and ice tools is difficult to define, but they are invariably designed for utility and efficiency. To that end they will usually take on the qualities of both mountaineering axes and ice tools in incremental degrees. These “hybrid” or “alpine” axes are excellent for long jaunts into the high backcountry where one may encounter anything from snowfields to steep ice.

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Parts of an Ice Axe

The anatomy of an ice axe can be broken down into four main parts: the head, the shaft, the grip, and the spike. The characteristics of these parts, designed with specific use cases in mind, are what differentiate one axe from the next.

Head

The head of an ice axe can be further broken down into three parts: a pick, an adze or a hammer, and a carabiner hole. It’s common for the heads of mountaineering axes to be cast from a single piece of metal, where as ice tools are modular, allowing for a greater degree of customization. All of these, however, are subject to a “B” or a “T” rating. The ratings are given based on tests performed on ice axes assessing their durability against the forces commonly found in mountaineering. Simplified, a “T” rating is stronger, and more reliable when subjected to the punishment of steep ice climbing or dry-tooling on rock. A “B” rating is more than sufficient for most general mountaineering purposes and may be lighter.

Pick

Picks come in two basic styles: classic or reverse curved. Classic curved picks are ubiquitous on the traditional mountaineering axe and are superior for self-arresting after a fall and for plunging into steep snow with the hand on the head of the axe. Reverse curved picks, on the other hand, are far more effective biting into ice when swinging a tool on steep terrain.

Adze/Hammer

Opposite the pick of an ice axe you can expect to find an adze, a hammer, or nothing at all. More often than not, mountaineering axes are adorned with an adze, a sharp, horizontal piece not unlike a spade. This is a very useful tool for digging an anchor, or cutting a platform for a bivy or a tent on an uneven surface. Back before the advent of modern crampons, these were used to cut steps up steep slopes.

Adzes are also found on ice tools—typically on one of the pair—and can be used in the same way, which is handy on longer alpine objectives that may include a mix of low-angle terrain and steep, technical ice.

In those circumstances, the tool opposite the adze will have a hammer. Hammers are great for banging protection into rock, clearing out ice from around fixed gear, and setting snow pickets on steep, snowy routes.

Ice tools intended for shorter outings on single- or multi-pitch waterfall ice often have neither an adze nor a hammer.

Carabiner Hole

Directly above the shaft of an ice axe is a hole cast into the head. This hole can be used to tether a mountaineering axe to its user or to rack an ice tool on a harness. It’s pretty common on the former, and ubiquitous on the latter.

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Shaft

After the head, the shaft of an ice axe is the most important determining factor of the intended use of an ice axe. Shafts are similarly rated as “B” or “T” and can be subcategorized based on two characteristics: their shape and their length.

Curve

The silhouette of an ice axe’s shaft is likely it’s most nuanced and varied characteristic, defined not by an either/or but rather a spectrum of curves and bends dependent on the needs of the user. At one end, the traditional mountaineering axe maintains its straight profile—excellent for use as a cane–while at the other end the shaft of an ice tool has an aggressive curve—which makes penetrating hard ice easier and relieves fatigue while weighting a tool on steep terrain. In between, several mountaineering axes have adopted a curved shaft to keep the user’s hands out of the snow on steeper snow slopes—where gripping the axe mid-shaft and plunging the pick into the snow makes for efficient travel. Similar variety can be found in some ice tools which have a gentler curve, which allows for more utility in more varied terrain.

Length

While ice tools are a bit of a one-size-fits-all thing, the length of a mountaineering axe is largely dependent on the height of a user. When sizing a mountaineering axe, let your arm hang by your side and measure from the base of your thumb to your ankle. That measurement will directly correspond to the size mountaineering axe that you need. Most mountaineering axes come in varying sizes.

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Grip

For technical ice tools, the design of the grip is another important consideration to take. All ice tools have ergonomic rests at the base of the grip, but many also have one at the top: this is there for matching or switching hands on a traverse, or to help pull up and over steep bulges. The big difference in the grips of ice tools though, is whether or not it’s offset. Offset tools are designed for efficient movement on steep terrain, easing fatigue and keeping the user’s hands from bashing the ice. Regular tools are totally usable on steep terrain, but are excellent on long, moderate alpine climbs, where an offset grip may be more hindrance than help, and utility is key.

Spike

Finally, at the very end of it all, is the spike. All mountaineering axes—and many ice tools—are outfitted with a spike at the bottom of the shaft, meant for plunging into snow and for stability while using the axe as a cane. It’s handy even on ice tools, for both the lengthy backcountry expeditions as and the short, steep approaches you may encounter at the local flow.

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Accessories

Your specific objectives as a climber will dictate the axe you ultimately choose. Those objectives will also determine any extras that you may need to effectively and safely use that axe in the field.

Leashes

To use or not use a leash while wielding an ice axe boils down to a simple question: “Am I likely to drop a tool doing this?” If you’re a first-timer climbing steep ice, then it may be a good confidence booster to tether your tools. Even the most hardened of alpinists may leash-up—especially if they’re headed deep into the backcountry, where losing a tool could lead to a dire situation. For vertical ice, a leash that connects to your belay loop rather than your wrist won’t prevent you from switching tools on a traverse. For non-vertical terrain, a wrist leash—which comes stock on many mountaineering axes—will do the trick.

Ice Clippers

Ice clippers are rad little plastic carabiners that, when attached to a compatible harness, are used to rack ice screws. They’re also handy for racking ice tools so your hands are free while rappelling or being lowered down a pitch of steep ice.

Protectors

Protecting your sharps—and everything they may come in contact with, for that matter—is critical, so covering them up should be a no-brainer when your tools aren’t in use.


How to Choose Your Avalanche Safety Kit

There is nothing quite like the feeling of skiing fresh, untracked snow out in the wilderness after hours of hiking and toil, with no crowds or civilization in sight. This is the bliss of backcountry skiing, and while there are countless reasons why it is great, there are also considerations to be made in order to manage the increased risk of travel in potential avalanche terrain. Avalanches are serious hazards, and each year more and more accidents occur as more people venture out away from resorts into uncontrolled terrain.

Anyone who travels in avalanche terrain should consider taking avalanche equipment with them. This is not just limited to skiers and snowboarders, but any sort of users that find themselves in these areas. It is important that you have the proper equipment, not just to manage risk for yourself and your party, but also in case another person or group needs help.

The avalanche safety kit may have many pieces, all of which warrant discussion, but there are a universal three: a transceiver, a shovel, and a probe.

This article is by no means a replacement for instruction or education concerning avalanche rescue. Seek qualified instruction and training! Buying and having this equipment is one thing, but being able to use it correctly and effectively is entirely another.

Courtesy: Pieps
Courtesy: Pieps

Avalanche Transceivers

Your avalanche transceiver (also known as a beacon) is the most complex, varied, and expensive part of your avalanche kit. It is essentially a small two-way radio transmitter that works by generating signal pulses, which can be picked up by other transceivers in a different mode. The beacons have a handful of methods to lead rescuers to a buried victim. Generally, these are slightly smaller than your average PB&J sandwich and are carried either in a harness close to the chest or in specific “beacon pockets” that can be found in some ski and climbing apparel. Transceivers have been around since the 1960s, and decades of research and refinement make us lucky to have these advanced tools at our disposal. All transceivers on the market use a common signal frequency (457kHz), so no matter which model or brand you go with, every device is compatible with every other device.

Almost all avalanche transceivers on the market today (excluding some outliers) are three-antenna transceivers. Historically, transceivers have used two or even one antenna, and these are now defunct. Having two or fewer means that in certain orientations, the signal from a buried person’s beacon would not be intercepted by rescuers. Use caution if buying older transceivers, and make sure to check each unit.

Digital vs. Analog

These days, most transceivers on the market are digital, meaning they use a microprocessor to interpret incoming signals. This means the display is updated more quickly when searching for a signal. Analog transceivers are the original technology, and while the search range can be greater, these are more difficult to use. Some models are able to use both technologies in conjunction depending on the situation. Generally, transceivers in today’s market have quite varied effective ranges, generally between 40 and 70 meters, depending on brand and the technology that they use. The longer a beacon’s range, the further away from a victim you can be before beginning to pick up their signal, making searches faster and easier.

Features

There are many helpful features available on modern avalanche transceivers, without being simply bells and whistles. Most commonly you’ll find directional indicators on an LCD screen on the device, to be used in addition to auditory signals. These displays look different for each transceiver, so take time to find one that makes sense to you and learn how to read it quickly. Generally you will see a combination of directional arrows and distance in meters, both designed to help you narrow in on the buried beacon. Another common feature is a “flagging” feature, which in multiple-burial situations (when you’re looking for more than one person) allows you to intentionally block the signal from a victim that you have already found, to focus your device on the other buried transceiver. Different manufacturers also build in some of their own features to devices, like Bluetooth capabilities.

Pricing

As mentioned above, avalanche transceivers are the most expensive piece of the kit. Prices vary from around $250 to $500, accounting for differences in features and performance. While not every user needs the top of the line beacon, these are one life-saving piece of gear and are always money well spent. Have a good one that you trust with you or a friend’s life.

Courtesy: Pieps
Courtesy: Pieps

Avalanche Shovel

While it may benefit you to shave weight in other places in your kit, your shovel should be able to handle whatever you throw at it without failing. You will be shoveling like a mad person in a rescue, and worrying about your shovel’s durability shouldn’t be on your mind.

Materials

Avalanche shovels can be found using steel, aluminum, and plastic in their construction. In general, the shaft of the shovel will be aluminum, the handle will be plastic, and the blade should be metal. Plastic blades, while being the lightest option and may be good for digging out your car or building a snow fort, is much more likely to break when chopping and moving avalanche debris, and should be avoided in the backcountry.

The size of the blade will also affect how the shovel performs: A larger blade means you can move more snow at one time; However, it will be harder to fit into a backpack. The blades on the market have slightly different shapes to them, and it’s worth investigating what you like.

Handle

There are a variety of shovel handles out there, including D-grip, T-grip, and L-grip. There are pros and cons with each type.

The D-grip is your classic shovel handle like you’d find on a driveway shovel. These give you the best grip and offer the best leverage for using the shovel, especially with big gloves or mittens. However, it is larger, and also possible to break off the handle (being plastic).

The T-grip is very popular as well. It is simple, low profile, and very hard to break, although using it with mittens is trickier.

The L-grip and other special case handles you may find are less popular, but the L-grip will perform similarly to the T-grip, with a little more to hold onto. Try out a couple different types (with gloves/mittens) to see what you like.

Shaft

Shovels these days are pretty similar across the board when it comes to the shaft. In general, you’ll have an aluminum construction, with an extendable, telescoping adjustment. The shape of the shaft (round, rectangular, etc.) is more of a personal preference than anything. You will come across shovels with fixed or removable shafts, meaning you can or cannot separate the blade from the shaft and handle. Fixed construction is stronger, but a separating shovel will fit into a smaller package. Longer shafts will mean more leverage and perhaps increased performance, but it will be harder to fit in your backpack as well.

Features

Some shovels have extra features that can be rather helpful as well, but keep it simple! There are a couple models out that allow you to change the orientation of the shaft and blade from a “shovel” mode into a “hoe” mode, which can be quite helpful when used correctly. Some of these have extra little handles close to the blade for bonus control.

Courtesy: Pieps
Courtesy: Pieps

Avalanche Probe

The avalanche probe is used primarily for finding your buried person once you’ve narrowed in your transceiver search. These are all pretty simple and light, but be careful that yours will hold up to the rigors of use, and practice deploying and using your probe plenty before you need it.

Materials

Probes on the market will almost exclusively be either made of aluminum or carbon fiber, although steel probes can be found as well. The latter tend to only be used by professionals because of how robust steel is. For the layperson, aluminum is the most popular given its balance of weight and durability (and price). Carbon fiber is the lightest, saved for the gram-counting high-end athletes. Carbon fiber can splinter and break so one should use caution if using a carbon probe.

Length

Avalanche probes are available in a plethora of sizes, ranging from 2 to more than 3 meters in length, and tend to be measured in centimeters. Common sizes include 240, 280, and 320cm. The size you want depends on where you are and the size of the snowpack you’re operating in. In the Northeast, you will almost never need a 320cm probe, as this area simply doesn’t get that amount of snow. If you were traveling in the Pacific Northwest or British Columbia, 240cm may not be sufficient, as they have very deep snowpacks. It’s best to study up on where you will be going to educate your decision.

Features

Probes are simple pieces of gear in general, but there are still small differences that can feel important to certain users. Some probes have printed-on graduations, which can be bright and obvious at first, but later may fade or be worn off from use. Other manufacturers have started laser engraving the graduations to eliminate that problem, at a higher cost. The most variable feature of probes on the market will be the lockout mechanism. This can be a mechanical lock, a special tie-off, or some plastic snaps. Find something that couldn’t loosen itself when in use and it easy for you to use.

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Additional Avalanche Gear

While the beacon, shovel, an probe make up the essential triad of avalanche safety and are the three items you should always have when traveling in avalanche terrain, there are other items that can play a key role in snow and avalanche safety that might also be a good idea to think about purchasing and bringing along.

RECCO

This technology works by using a detecting device to send out a concentrated radio signal until a separate reflector bounces the signal back to the detector when hit. These reflectors are woven into various pieces of outerwear and other gear. A rescuer using the detector can locate a buried person wearing RECCO reflectors similarly to a transceiver search. Something to note is that RECCO detectors are large and very expensive, meaning they are almost exclusively used by ski patrollers in resorts, or from helicopters, and therefore should never be relied upon in place of an avalanche transceiver, but can be a nice feature for inbounds skiers.

Airbag

Avalanche airbag systems are a newer player in the game, and have proven to be valuable if you’re caught in a slide. They work by keeping you closer to the surface of an avalanche once inflated, which hopefully means you either get found sooner or are only partially buried. They come with special backpacks or can be attached to specific backpack models. These systems are very expensive, sometimes hard to travel with, and manufacturers are still ironing out all the details.

Courtesy: Backcountry Access
Courtesy: Backcountry Access

Avalung

Another crafty piece of avalanche tech, the Black Diamond Avalung system, has been proven to significantly extend the amount of time you can breathe while buried in snow. It is basically a snorkel that allows you to inhale oxygen from in front of your face and exhale carbon dioxide from your back. The downside is that per manufacturer’s specifications, you should already have it in your mouth when an avalanche occurs (Because you may not be able to find it while being carried, and once the avalanche is over, it’s likely impossible to get it in your mouth), and it can be quite cumbersome.

Communication

In any emergency, it is crucial to have the option of calling for help if you need to. This becomes increasingly difficult in the backcountry, where most avalanches occur, so the communication systems that you use must be an integral part of your rescue kit. While cell phone service may be available in many remote places these days, it cannot be entirely relied upon. This is where special devices such as the Garmin inReach come into play. Radios and satellite phones can also be helpful when used correctly. Do your research on what kind of device fits your needs, and become an adept user before you need to.

Helmet

A large number of avalanche injuries and fatalities, especially in places like the Northeast which has a thinner snowpack, are trauma-based injuries. A simple ski helmet may be one of the biggest life-savers if you’re ever caught in an avalanche.

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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.


Catskill Ice: Climbing at Stony Clove

Just a stone’s throw from the big city, the Catskill Mountains have long been a favorite wilderness retreat for the respite-seeking New Yorker. Its densely forested summits, deep, dark cloves, and dramatic overlooks have stoked the imagination of local and visitor alike for centuries.

It’s with a blanket of snow and a healthy cold snap that the Catskills extend their allure to area ice climbers. When the conditions are right, the region is dotted with hero ice—from long multi-pitch moderates like Buttermilk Falls, to playgrounds like the Devil’s Kitchen, to the terrifying and ephemeral jewel that is Kaaterskill Falls, there is a little bit of something for everyone.

If you’re new to ice climbing in the area, Stony Clove, in the very heart of the Catskills, is probably the best place to start. It’s very popular, and it’s no surprise why: there are dozens of routes, all of varying length, style, and difficulty—and they’re all easily accessible via a short approach. For both the total novice and the hardened old-timer, there’s more than enough in Stony Clove to spend a weekend picking away lap after lap.

The height of land at Stony Clove as viewed from Notch Lake. The approach for the West Side, and the northern areas of the East Side, traces the road back to a historic marker commemorating a forest fire, just out of view. | Credit: John Lepak
The height of land at Stony Clove as viewed from Notch Lake. The approach for the West Side, and the northern areas of the East Side, traces the road back to a historic marker commemorating a forest fire, just out of view. | Credit: John Lepak

How to Get There

The climbing at Stony Clove is centered around Notch Lake, on NY-214, at the unofficial halfway point of the Devil’s Path. From the Thruway (I-87), take Exit 20 for Saugerties. At the end of the exit, turn onto NY-32 North and continue for 6.0 miles before bearing left onto NY-32A. Keep going for another 1.9 miles into the town of Palenville. At the traffic light, turn left onto NY-23A. Continue on NY-23A, up through Kaaterskill Clove, for another 9.2 miles, before taking a left onto NY-214. Notch Lake and its parking area are just 2.8 more miles down the road, just past the height of land.

Parking is extremely limited and the lot can be a zoo on a weekend when the conditions are good. Do everyone a favor and carpool. There are commuter park-and-ride lots with more-than-enough room just off the Thruway at New Paltz (exit 18), Kingston (19), Saugerties, and Catskill (21).

The Dungeon (WI4) and Escape Hatch (WI3+), two of the fun routes at Castle Grayskull, hiding in the shade from the late afternoon sun. | Credit: John Lepak
The Dungeon (WI4) and Escape Hatch (WI3+), two of the fun routes at Castle Grayskull, hiding in the shade from the late afternoon sun. | Credit: John Lepak

Lay of the Land

The word clove, adapted from the region’s early Dutch settlers, can be roughly translated to notch, ravine, valley, or gorge. In Stony Clove, the soaring flanks of Plateau Mountain to the east and Hunter Mountain to the west certainly fit the bill—in places, the cleft is barely wide enough for the road. All this lends itself to a feeling of isolation and remoteness prevalent despite the area’s popularity.

As such, the climbing in Stony Clove is neatly divided into east and west, between Plateau and Hunter, by NY-214. Because of the aspect and the prominence of the mountains, climbing on either side is a very different experience in the afternoon than it is in the morning. The east side stays out of the sun most of the day and thus stays colder and dryer—until the afternoon when the sun hits and things can get wet. The west side gets the sun early, and can generally be a bit wetter when afternoon rolls around.

One thing you can count on when climbing either side is a strenuous—but short—approach. Getting to and from the climbing requires a very steep ascent over unfriendly terrain. Moreover, in low snow conditions, the exposed rocks and roots can make it a bit spicy—using one tool in cane position isn’t the worst idea. Once at the base of the climb, it’s advisable to fix a line to a tree to clip in any wayward packs—It’s a long way down should anything get dropped.

Generally speaking, all of the routes in Stony Clove are leadable, but it’s not a requirement. Many of the east side areas are accessible for a top rope set-up via a short scramble.

Looking up at the long, right-facing corner of Little Black Dike (WI4-), the area’s classic route. | Credit; John Lepak
Looking up at the long, right-facing corner of Little Black Dike (WI4-), the area’s classic route. | Credit; John Lepak

The Tick List

Both sides of Stony Clove have a few prime beginners’ routes, but the east side has a greater concentration of easy areas with ample room for multiple top rope set-ups. The Playground, is a wide, heavily trafficked flow that offers a handful of lines ranging from WI2 to WI4—for the true first timer, this is your best bet. It’s popular with the guides though, so it’s likely to be crowded. Castle Grayskull, also on the east side, is a good alternative with four short (but fun) routes in the more moderate WI3 to WI4 range. Across the way, on the west side, Climax (WI2+) is a great, beginner-friendly option for those seeking something a little longer.

The west side also hosts a couple of great, longer, more moderate climbs. The Curtain (WI4) is fun, straightforward, two-pitch route that can oftentimes be a bit thin towards the end. A little ways to the north, tucked away from the sun in a tight, right-facing corner, is Little Black Dike (WI4-), the area classic. Fun moves and reliable ice—it tends to be one of the earliest Stony Clove climbs to come in—make it a must do. Back on the east side, to the right of The Playground, the steep Twin Columns (WI4) offer some fun, vertical lines.

The Mixed-up Amphitheater area, on the east side (just left of The Playground), offers a half-dozen or so mixed routes of varying difficulty. Head Over Heels (M4) climbs an obvious and inviting crack to the far right of the area. If mixed is your game or the ice conditions elsewhere in the clove aren’t cooperating, this is a good place to be.


Layers 101: How to Dress While Snowshoeing

Trekking the winter trails can be peaceful and exhilarating, and snowshoeing is a great way for people of all ages to experience it first-hand. Yet given the lower temps, managing thermal and moisture comfort become critical. You’re wearing more layers than you would in summer, and you’re exerting your body more as you trek through the snow. But with the right layers and approach, it can be safe, comfortable, and fun.

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The Four Tenets of Layering

  1. Stay warm but don’t sweat. The whole point of wearing layers, instead of just throwing your big ski jacket overtop when you go snowshoeing, is to stay just as warm as you need to be comfortable, without sweating. Getting wet and sweaty while snowshoeing, aside from just being uncomfortable, could cool you down to the point of being unsafe. Having multiple thin layers allows you to take them off or put them on as needed to hit that Goldilocks zone of warmth.
  2. If it works for you, it works for you. There is no law about how many layers you should wear, how thick or thin they should be, whether wool, down, or synthetic is better, or how much money you should spend on layers. Experiment with different options to find out which works best for you.
  3. No two days are the same. Just because you wore these layers the last time you went out, doesn’t mean they will work today. While large parts of your system can remain the same, you may need to add or remove layers for certain days, change your base layers from lightweight to heavyweight when it gets cold, or bring an extra big parka for summit days. Watch the weather and choose what will work for today.
  4. Leave the cotton at home. While cotton clothing is soft, comfortable, and likely hanging in your closet already, it is not recommended for use on the trails, especially during the winter. Cotton fabric retains moisture and holds it against your skin and can create an unsafe condition, particularly in cold, wet weather. Cotton socks can also retain moisture on your feet and contribute to blistering. It’s ok to carry a cotton bandana to wipe the sweat away, but not as one of your primary clothing layers.

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Break it Down: The Layers

These layers generally break down into three categories: Base or under-layer, the mid or insulation layer, and the outer or shell layer. After that, layers for your hands, neck, face, and your eyes are all important, too. You will need all of these layers for snowshoeing, but use them strategically as you go.

Number 1: The Base Layer

This is the “long underwear” layer, or any fabric layer that touches your skin. It comes in different weights from light to heavy, and includes your shirt and pants/leggings. The intent here is to add just enough warmth while effectively wicking moisture away from your skin. This smooth base layer also creates a ‘slip’ between your skin and the outer garments which reduces rubs and blistering.

Look for synthetics like polyester, or wool layers for colder days.

Number 2: The Midlayer

This is your insulating layer and it should keep you just warm enough while you’re snowshoeing without causing you to sweat. You will likely need a couple of garments, like a fleece or light sweater, as well as a vest or puffy jacket. Vests work great because they keep your core warm which can allow heat to radiate to your arms and legs naturally.

Midlayers themselves can be layered. Many start with something lightweight and breathable, like a fleece to wear while you’re hiking, because they add just a little warmth. But you may want a second insulating layer, like a down or synthetic parka, similar to the EMS Feather Pack, to pull on when you stop or when you venture above treeline. These are lightweight and pack well into small spaces, so it won’t take up much room if the spend most of the day in your pack. Down is an excellent choice and is super-lightweight and insulates exceedingly well, but can be pricier than synthetic options. Just know that you have to keep this layer dry, when it gets wet it loses much of its insulating value and takes a long time to dry-out. Synthetic insulation is a nice alternative to down. It’s also lightweight and will dry-out quicker than down, but aren’t as lightweight and packable.

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Number 3: Shell

This is your weather protection (wind and precipitation), so you’ll need a jacket and pants like the EMS Thunderhead line that are both waterproof and breathable, with taped seams, and zippered ventilation options. Ideally, the shell layer is not insulated, in order to keep your layering options flexible. Use your mid layers to stay warm, then add the shell when it’s really windy or precipitating, especially above tree line. If you do wear it while you’re moving, features like arm pit zippers can help you stay ventilated.

There are multiple options for a waterproof/breathable system: A laminate lining system like EMS’s System 3 Technology, or GORE-TEX. Each provide the same basic service, at different price points.

The Extremities

Socks are also critical during winter hikes. Wool or synthetic materials work well. Wool blends make great socks too, as does Merino wool, a softer, fine wool material. Don’t forget to bring a spare pair!

Much like your other layers, you should have a pair of gloves or mittens for warmth, and an outer waterproof glove/mitten shell. Try using a pair of fleece or polypro gloves, then add a GORE-TEX mitten shell when its wet. A pair of thin polypro glove liners are nice because you can take your hands out and adjust your snowshoes, without exposing your skin to the cold.

A warm hat is always good, but try using a headband if you’re getting too hot. Knit caps are great, but make sure they have a fleece lining for additional warmth and wind protection. Balaclavas, scarves, neck gaiters work well for face and neck protection, and if it’s really cold and windy, consider using a face mask or balaclava, especially if you’re venturing above tree line.

There are plenty of layer options out there for you to choose from, and since each of us has a different physiology, be sure to find what works best for you. Remember to stay just warm enough, but not too warm, and add that layer when you stop for a break to preserve heat.

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So How Do I Use This?

There are generally two schools of thought when it comes to dressing for winter adventure, including snowshoeing.

Option 1: Start Warm

This is a very common approach, to begin in a comfortable state then remove those extra layers as you warm-up on the trail. It’s a logical technique, just keep in mind that you have to shed those layers proactively as you go so that perspiration and moisture does not build-up inside your clothing. If you start to sweat, it’s already too late as wet clothes can quickly create a safety hazard for you or your fellow snowshoe hikers.

Option 2: Start Cool

Another option for snowshoeing is to begin cool, and only wear the minimum layers you’ll need when you’re fully warmed up. This means starting out cool, even cold, knowing you will soon warm-up as you go. It takes a little fortitude at first, but it does work. And you’ll be less likely to sweat out those extra layers, making this the most popular option.

Make Adjustments

Regardless of the route you take, remember that layers aren’t meant to be stagnant. Not warming up as much as you thought? Put a layer on. Did you overshoot? Take a layer off. Stopping for a break? Keep a warm layer close at hand to throw on when you come to a rest to trap body heat, then take it back off before you start moving again. Add and remove layers as needed as your activity level changes, as the weather changes, and however you think you need to to stay comfortable without sweating.


10 Tips For Taking Spectacular Winter Photos

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

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

1. Protect Yourself

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

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

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

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

2. Protect Your Camera

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

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

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

3. Seek Out the Unique Beauty of Winter

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

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Credit: Joey Priola

4. Choose Your Location Based on Conditions.

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

5. Use a long exposure for waterfalls.

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

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Credit: Joey Priola

6. Utilize Live View

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

7. Get the Exposure Right in the Field

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

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Credit: Joey Priola

8. Focus Properly

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

9. Pack Extra Batteries.

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

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Credit: Joey Priola

10. Freeze the Action

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


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.


8 Short Winter Hikes in Southern Maine

Cabin fever? Want to introduce yourself and your family to the fun of winter hiking? Consider these short explorations in Southern Maine, and glimpse what so many of us love about the “fourth season.”

Credit: Bryce Waldrop
Credit: Bryce Waldrop

Bauneg Beg Mountain

This lovely moderate 2-mile hike begins with a drive to the trailhead through the bucolic countryside of North Berwick, Maine. The trail head is easy to find and has ample parking. You’ll find the trails are wide and easy to follow, and all ages can enjoy walking the rolling terrain through a mix of open hardwoods, and shady evergreens. You’ll step through old stone walls on your way to the summits, where you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the surrounding landscape, including some distant peaks to the north. One route follows some steep rock scrambling, so consider using “Ginny’s Way” for a milder ascent to the main summit.

Credit: Bryce Waldrop
Credit: Bryce Waldrop

Mount Agamenticus 

The “First Hill” in Southern Maine, Mount Agamenticus (or Mount A) offers both forest solitude and an open summit with 360-degree views of the seacoast. And the best thing about Agamenticus? There is so much to explore, you can take a new route each time and experience it all over again. Numerous trail options take you through a mix of hardwoods and evergreens and over streams that gurgle year-round. Stay on the Ring Trail for an easier circuit, or hike up one of the many rocky routes to the broad, open summit. At the summit, you’ll find plenty of space to explore, including viewing platforms and interpretive panels that describe the local wildlife and distant views.

For families, Agamenticus has a fun “Story Walk” along the Ring Trail, featuring colorful pages from a nature-themed children’s book. The kids will be excited to follow the trail and find what happens next.

Short on time, or not able to hike up? No problem, take the road to the summit parking area where you can easily enjoy the beautiful views. Bring your lunch or coffee and sit and relax atop Maine’s first hill.

Second Hill at Mount Agamenticus

For a slightly longer walk on Mount A, try visiting Second Hill and savor the peace and quiet of this less-populated trail. Routes are easy to follow and offer you a different perspective on the wooded seacoast region. Second Hill is a nice stop for lunch, and it has plenty of space for kids to explore and a nice little summit sign for fun pictures.

Credit: Bryce Waldrop
Credit: Bryce Waldrop

Highland Farm Preserve

Easily accessible on Route 91 between York and South Berwick, Highland Farm Preserve offers easy to moderate hiking and cross-country ski trails through woods and open meadows. Created in 2009, this preserve is part of the Mount Agamenticus to the Sea Conservation Region (MtA2C). Trails are well-marked and an easy walk will bring you through open meadows, and alongside stone walls and old family cemeteries. You can enjoy the meadows, or expand your hike along wooded trails for up to 2-miles. Kids might enjoy a short climb up to the ridge where you can take in views, and find a second family cemetery.

Tip: See if you can find the tall stone cairn, a secret gem of Highland Farm Preserve!

Credit: Bryce Waldrop
Credit: Bryce Waldrop

Brave Boat Headwaters Trail

A great starter hike for young families, and only a mile from the busy Kittery Outlets, the 1.5-mile Brave Boat Headwaters Trail is a lovely winter walk. Nearly level, this gentle loop brings you through a wooded area with towering mature trees before rounding a point where you can enjoy numerous vistas of expansive Spruce Creek. Take note of waterfowl which remain active throughout the year, and look for animal tracks in the snow: You’ll forget you’re barely a mile from I-95.

Vaughn-Woods

Vaughn Woods Memorial State Park

This is a wooded oasis along the Salmon Falls River in South Berwick, Maine. Enormous hemlock and pine surround you as you walk 3+ miles of wide, easy-to-follow trails. The Park is very family-friendly and simply a joy to walk in winter. Trails and bridges are well-maintained and great for all ages and abilities. Look for evidence of winter wildlife as you traverse gentle hills and icy streams, while the sun streams through the evergreen roof. The River Run trail offers great windows onto the Salmon Falls River, or take the side trail over to the Hamilton House and enjoy the vista for this prominent Georgian-style mansion.

Credit: Bryce Waldrop
Credit: Bryce Waldrop

Orris Falls Conservation Area

The wooded region where York, Eliot, and South Berwick meet provides a rich habitat and numerous opportunities to explore Maine’s local wilds. This fun series of trails offers everything you want in a hike: streams, boulders, waterfalls, wetlands, a beaver pond, a gorge, and an enormous balancing rock. The natural features alone will keep the kids motivated and delight hikers of all ages.

The trail has few markers but is easy to follow, and trail junctions are marked with signs. The route provides an excellent mix of terrain for a fun hiking experience. Kids will have a ball traipsing over streams, through little ravines, and atop ridges. Look for tracks from abundant wildlife, and a nice example of a beaver dam just before the turn for Orris Falls, where the stream tumbles into a 90-foot deep gorge. Continue to the Orris Family homestead site and wonder what it might have been like to live here in the 1800s.

Families: Balancing rock is only 1/2 mile from Emery’s Bridge Road and so worth it. Talk to the kids about glacial erratics and they will impress the science teacher at school on Monday!

Credit: Bryce Waldrop
Credit: Bryce Waldrop

Kennebunk Land Trust – Alewive Wood Preserve

This is a pleasant, multi-use 2.5-mile loop trail in West Kennebunk that rewards you with lovely Alewife Pond. The trailhead is on Cole Road, mid-way between Alfred Road and Walker Road, and has parking for about 6 cars. The teardrop-shaped route is well-marked with red blazes, but occasionally shares a multi-use trail, so look for small signs indicating where the hiking trail veers off. There are also a few unmarked routes that crisscross the trail, so keep an eye on the red blazes.

All along you’ll find yourself wandering through new growth evergreens and hardwoods, giving the feel of a young forest with plenty of sunlight streaming in. A separate spur trail, marked with blue blazes, will lead you to Alewife Pond. This trail follows the shore briefly to a secluded spot with benches and nice views, making it a great place to pause for lunch or a warm drink before heading back.