Disclaimer: This article will give you a general explanation of why you should bring a map and how to read it. This is NOT a cartography or navigation primer and I am NOT an expert in those subjects.
Okay! Even if you plan to bring your smartphone to take pictures with or to have that security blanket weight in your pocket, be mindful that you are NOT guaranteed cell service on any trail. Connectivity has improved more and more lately, and will likely continue to do so, but no amount of Google can beat the real deal of having a current map to look at and guide you. For trip planning purposes and preparedness on the trail, I highly recommend getting a topographical map. This kind of map has billions of squiggly lines on it that show elevation changes. This information is critical when you are planning your trip.
For example, let’s look at some images of National Geographic’s topographical map for the Mount Rogers Recreational Area.
If this isn’t confusing to you right off the bat, then why the hell are you reading this series of blog posts. If this is confusing, then hurray, you’re in the right place! The trails are marked with dotted lines, and the major ones are highlighted in yellow. Boundaries are highlighted in green. And those light tan/green/gray curvy lines throughout? Those are the elevation lines. The elevation change between each line is 50ft. The further apart the lines are, the more gradual the elevation change.
This bit? A walk in the park.
THIS bit? Absolute murder. Probably a cliff.
Get it? When you’re planning your hike, take these lines VERY seriously. Sure, you can do 10 miles in a day of gentle elevation changes, no problem. But 10 miles which includes more strenuous ups and downs and steep switchbacks? You’re gonna regret that one in the morning. And remember, when you’ve stopped for the day and made your camp, streams and water sources are generally down a slope of some kind. Plan for a little more exercise even after you’ve put down your pack!
And one more word of warning: yes, the Appalachian Trail (or AT, indicated in the white diamond on that second close-up image) is considered to be a maintained trail. That DOES NOT necessarily mean it’s easy. It likes to follow the ridge lines, and when there isn’t a ridge line it has to go down and back up to find the next one. Sometimes spur trails are kinder.
For a really great resource on navigating with a map, click this link here!
Spelled how the kuhl kids do it. Pf, whatever, nobody pronounces the “g” anyway. Nobody says “trekking poles”; it’s always “trekkin’ poles”. The apostrophe takes the place of the letter not said. Deal with it.
Oh, hi, didn’t see you there! So this one WAS gonna be called Part Five: Accessories and I WAS gonna ramble about all the bits and bobs I bring or don’t bring hiking. But, honestly, short of the obvious like a stove and water filter, etc, which will get their own parts in the next installment or so, THE MOST CRITICAL EXTRA THING TO BRING HIKING OR BACKPACKING IS A PAIR OF TREKKIN’ POLES. A properly selected pair of trekkin’ poles will save your knees, your ankles, your back, and potentially your life.
I’M NOT FUCKING KIDDING AROUND.
I can’t tell you how many times my trekkin’ poles have saved me from falling and breaking a limb or dying. They’re game changers. They give you four operational legs rather than two, and do you see ANY two-legged creatures besides dumb humans gamboling around the wilderness? NO. Because four legs are absolutely better than two. Well-applied trekkin’ poles will save your ass from getting wet while crossing a stream; they’ll save your ankle from getting twisted while scrambling a particularly rocky trail; and they’ll save your knees from exploding during a steep decline.
You think I’m exaggerating? I’m not. Anyone that has walked in the wilds with additional weight on them (ie a pack of any weight really) will tell you that you want a walking stick or two, and the better option is a pair of trekkin’ poles. Poles are lighter than sticks, better designed in the grip, easier to use, and way more durable.
I love mine so much I did a fucking photoshoot for them. Here they are!
I have the Black Diamond model with the cork ergonomic grips and the carbon fiber lower bits. I got these ages ago from a retailer that doesn’t exist anymore, much like most of my major gear assortment, and honestly Black Diamond probably doesn’t make the exact model anymore just like Osprey doesn’t make my pack model anymore but still makes a 70L womens pack in green. You know. The basics are still there in the catalog: they just changed the names.
The important keywords to remember here are: CORK, ERGONOMIC grips, and CARBON FIBER lower bits. Cork is absorbent, so your hands don’t get all sweaty! YAAAY! “Ergonomic” means that they’re angled a smidge instead of being straight up and down, and HOLY SHIT does that take all the stress of impact off your wrists. It’s amazing. Pay more for it, it’s worth it. Carbon fiber is important because it’s a sturdy material that is lighter weight than steel and will still do the job.
There are a few key points to make regarding the proper fitting and use of trekkin’ poles. When standing still with your pole planted next to you, your elbow should be at a 90 degree angle and your wrist should be straight. Like this:
See that ergonomic angle? See how my hand fits perfectly into it and doesn’t try to bend the pole to accommodate? You want all these things.
You should also note how the handle loop is positioned around my wrist. My partner is a purist and cuts all the tags off his clothing to save weight, so he also took the handle loops off his poles. Whatever, it works for him. I keep the loops on because I have carpal tunnel syndrome and will occasionally, COMPLETELY BY RANDOM, lose all grip in either of my hands. THIS IS BAD if you’re trying to hold on to stuff like trekkin’ poles! The loops have saved my grip multiple times when a snag in a rock or a nerve flare up would otherwise leave that pole behind.
To correctly use the handle loop, insert your hand from below the loop and then grab the handle. This will place the curved end over your wrist with the collected ends that connect to the handle below your wrist (and often, in your palm when you hold the pole.) Take note this is the LEFT pole in my LEFT hand. Your set of trekkin’ poles should have a left and a right pole, for reasons I’m not sure of, but it’s definitely important and you’ll notice once you start walking if the wrong pole is in the wrong hand.
If you have the loop worn correctly, you should be able to let go of the pole and not drop it! WEEE!
So that’s fitting and measuring done. There’s just one more tip on trekkin’ pole use: THESE ARE NOT FOR POLE VAULTING. These are designed for tapping along rocks and roots and such to ensure you remain upright with all of whatever you’ve got in your pack. Aluminum poles CAN break if you try to use them for pole vaulting. Steel poles CAN break if you try to use them for pole vaulting. And then where are you? You’re fucked, that’s where you are.
Do you have a favorite model of trekkin’ poles? Geek out with me in the comments below!
I feel like it’s safe to say that most, if not all, outdoorsy people like dogs and have at least one or know someone that has at least one. If you’ve got a dog or you know a dog, and you’ve ever wanted to take it hiking with you, that’s awesome! Hiking with dogs can be very rewarding. You’ve got guaranteed company, a built-in alarm system, and some enhanced security at the end of that leash. There are sketchy people on the trail, just like in the rest of the world. They’ll probably think twice before they mess with you if you have a dog.
That said, there are many things to take into consideration before just grabbing the leash and putting on your boots. Just like you, dogs need water, snacks, and breaks. They can’t safely go from years of playing fetch in the yard and napping on the couch to walking ten miles. They need to build up their strength, stamina, and flexibility just like us. The difference is that a dog won’t tell you when they’re tired, or hurt. If you’re moving, they’re moving because they want to stay with you.
Here are some tips for a happy hiking experience for both you and your favorite pup! But first, let me introduce you to my trail dogs: Riley and Aggie!
In this picture Riley is the lead dog and Aggie is following with the pack. Riley is my old mutt who I’ve posted about previously in this blog. At the time of this picture, Riley is 11 years old and Aggie is almost 4 years old (3 and 10 months). And this picture demonstrates our first point:
*HIKING WITH MULTIPLE DOGS
At 50 lbs, Riley COULD carry up to 16 lbs of equipment, but he REALLY DOESN’T LIKE TO. I’ve tried the pack on him a few times with all sorts of treats and positive encouragement, and he is NOT A FAN: he gets extremely stressed out and crab walks and shies away from everything. However, he does make a FANTASTIC lead dog. We got Aggie when she was a puppy (10 months old-ish) and Riley was 7 years old. She’s developed into an adult dog by following all of his examples, and she instinctively follows him in our yard, in the house, during neighborhood walks, and on the trail. If you’re hiking with more than one dog, it’s advised to teach them to walk single file so that they don’t take up the whole trail or encroach on passing hikers’ space. Luckily I never had to teach them this because they do it naturally.
*HOW MUCH SHOULD THEY CARRY
With any pack, it’s generally agreed that a dog can carry up to a third of its body weight. Aggie weighs 62 lbs, and can thus carry up to 20 lbs of equipment. When you’re introducing your dog to hiking with a pack, start with a fraction of that limit and gradually increase it over future trips. You would never load 50 lbs of gear into your pack, hike several miles and expect good results. Same thing for your dog!
The above picture shows my daypack on the left and Aggie’s pack on the right. We’re planning a trip in November that will involve some hiking days, and I haven’t properly backpacked in several years. In the interest of not hurting myself and in continuing Aggie’s training, here’s what I packed for us today:
In my pack I had a 40 oz insulated steel bottle of water, 2 sandbags that weigh 9.85 lbs each, and a pair of 3 lb hand weights (not shown, under the sand bags.) That’s about 28-29 lbs of weight, and reflects what I’ll be carrying during our day hikes in November.
Aggie’s pack for today’s hike included 2 liters of water (1 liter in either saddlebag), the dogs’ steel water bowl (we’ll have a collapsible bowl for the November day hikes), poo bags (LEAVE NO TRACE!!!!), and a baggie of treats. Just like with your pack, do your best to make sure the saddlebags are equally weighted otherwise the pack will not sit correctly on the dog. This could lead to injuries.
*MAKE SURE THE PACK FITS CORRECTLY
Hopefully your outfitter made you bring your dog in to the shop to be measured and to try on the pack before purchase. Hopefully you measured correctly when you purchased the pack online. Hopefully you tried the pack on your dog AT HOME and adjusted the fit AT HOME BEFORE YOU WENT TO THE TRAIL.
O.o (DO THOSE THINGS.)
The harness structure of the pack should fit snugly on your dog without cutting into their circulation or prohibiting natural movements AND should not shift around excessively when weighted. The pack should have a belly strap, a chest (or girth) strap, and a padded neck strap. If it doesn’t, return the pack and get you one that has all three. Each of these should be adjustable so that you can properly fit the pack to your dog. Aggie models a proper fit below:
The weight in your dog’s pack should be 90% carried over the shoulders. If this is not the case, adjust the pack forward or back along the dog until it is the case, and adjust your straps accordingly. If the straps will not allow for this position, return the pack and get a different one. EVERY DOG IS A DIFFERENT SHAPE. Every dog measures differently. Pack brands do their best to construct products that work universally, but you as the owner MUST do your part to make sure the pack fits properly. If it doesn’t, you can injure your dog, and it won’t be the pack company’s fault.
As I mentioned above, a properly fitted pack will not hinder your dog’s natural movements. They should be able to stand, turn, walk, trot, jump, duck, and lie down as if the pack isn’t even there. Thanks for modeling, Aggie!
*SOME GENERAL TRAIL RULES FOR DOGS TO FOLLOW
Do not encroach on passing hikers’ space. Teach your dog to go to the side (mine know “Left Side” and “Right Side” as commands and will go to the indicated side of the trail/obstacle/tree/whatever when told) or to sit and politely let people pass. It is NOT okay for your dog to lunge at people or other dogs. NOT ALL HIKERS LIKE DOGS. Be respectful of your fellow people, and your dog’s fellow dogs because not all dogs like other dogs in their faces. It’s true.
Leave no trace. Always pick up your dog’s poo in a baggie and dispose of this baggie when you come across a trash can. Even the backwoods has trash cans if you’re in a state or national park. I promise. They’re usually near shelters or bath houses on the main trails. Hold onto that baggie in a pouch or tied to the leash or wherever until you get to a trash can. DO NOT leave the baggie on the trail.
Keep your dog on a leash. I know everybody wants to feel that connection to THE WILD THOUGH and have your dog rambling along with you off leash. But, as above, not all hikers and dogs like other dogs. I can’t tell you how many dogs I’ve come across on trails that are bounding around off leash and the owner is shouting “It’s okay, they’re friendly!” as their dog comes charging up to my dog. My dogs are also friendly. But my old dog Riley has been attacked by smaller dogs before and gets skittish, and my rottie Aggie is very protective of both me and Riley and doesn’t take kindly to some stranger in her face. She won’t start a fight, but you know damn well she’ll finish one if that “friendly” dog doesn’t like her suspicious side-eye. For your dogs’ safety and other dogs’ safety, keep your dog on a freaking leash.
And always, ALWAYS, whenever you train your dog in a new behavior (and both hiking with you and carrying a pack count as new behaviors) REWARD YOUR DOG!!!
Hiking with your dog should be an enjoyable experience for both of you. If that means they can carry a pack, great because that means YOU don’t have to carry their food, water, and stuff! (Although you better make sure you’re carrying the stuff that exceeds that 1/3 body weight ratio.) If they aren’t comfortable carrying a pack, then you’d better be prepared to carry their necessities along with yours. IF YOU AREN’T, then don’t bring your dog hiking. Really.
Feel free to post pics of your hiking dog in the comments below! For reference, Aggie’s pack is the Palisades Pack from Ruffwear, and Riley’s harness is the Front Range Harness, also from Ruffwear! They’re a brilliant dog gear company and I highly recommend them.
Clothes make the man! People say that, right? I’m pretty sure I’ve heard someone say that. Anyway, for backpacking and hiking in general, it’s absolutely true.
Lightweight, packable, comfortable: these are key words to keep in mind. You’re going to be carrying enough weight in your pack in the form of water, food, tent, and everything else. For a 7-day trip I generally pack: 1 rain shell, 1 midlayer insulator, 2 base layers shirts, 1 pants, 1 shorts, 2 pairs of socks, and (unfortunately) 2 pairs of underwear, 1 pair of gloves, 1 insulating hat. LEAVE YOUR BRA AT HOME. Fuck it, throw your bra away. Fuck bras.
A rain shell is a lightweight packable jacket that is waterproof and, preferably, windproof. An example of a midlayer insulator would be a waffle fleece or suchlike; I pack my trusty ArcTeryx Atom LT jacket. You can get one HERE: https://arcteryx.com/ca/en/shop/womens/atom-lt-hoody And honestly, I do recommend getting one. It’s absolutely worth the price. I love mine!
This is more than a love-fest for the Arc’Teryx Atom LT jacket though. My laundry list above of the clothing I bring on a 7-day backpacking trip may look minimal, but it’s really all you should need. The trail doesn’t care if you stink. Honestly, neither my partner nor I smell our stink until we’re back in the car (where you should absolutely have a change of fresh clothes and a thing of deodorant available upon your return.) The trail doesn’t care if you’re dirty. The trail doesn’t care if you walked around wearing the same outfit just two days ago. And you damn well better not care because if you bring extra stuff then that’s just more weight to carry and more stuff to take up valuable room in your pack that could otherwise hold another pouch of freeze-dry dinner or another bag of water.
You’ll get mixed recommendations on wool vs cotton vs synthetics vs etc. Whatever. They’re all right, and honestly they’re all trying to sell you something. Lightweight, packable, comfortable. Lightweight, packable, comfortable. Lightweight, packable, comfortable. These are the keys. I don’t get any more philosophical than that.
Oh, and one more thing: if you’re going into the mountains (which honestly is where most backpacking trips go isn’t it?) then do not pay attention to the weather forecast. Or, if you do, take it as a general guess; which honestly is always how I treat weather forecasts anyway. The mountain does whatever the fuck it wants. The trail conjures up whatever weather it fucking wants. If you layer as advised, you should be prepared for temperature fluctuations. Remember: you WILL warm up as you hike. TRAPPED SWEAT IS YOUR WORST ENEMY. If you are sweating, shed a layer. Your sweat is designed to cool you as it evaporates. If it can’t evaporate, you will be miserable.
Obviously, the sport is called backpacking, so the backpack is one of (if not THE) key pieces of gear to make sure you get right. I’m not even going to touch on the argument of external versus internal frame. When you think of the old school Boy Scout backpacks that have a big steel frame to which the backpack and other gear are strapped, that’s an external frame. Most modernly constructed backpacking packs are internal frame packs, which have a rigid structure built into the portion that touches your back and that’s it, generally.
The key things that make a backpacking backpack (or, “pack”) different from a school bag (or, “daypack) are this frame, the hip belt, and the sternum strap. A pack is designed and meant to hold up to 1/3 of your body weight comfortably and without putting excess strain on your back and shoulders. A daypack is not designed for this purpose. Therefore, if you’re planning on bringing enough stuff to survive in the woods for at least a day and a night, make sure you’re looking at a pack.
I use the Osprey Viva 75, which apparently isn’t being made anymore. Here’s a picture from 2015!
That’s legit the only picture I have of my pack without a rain cover on it, and right now it’s in the storage unit, so that’s what you get. PRO TIP: Get a rain cover that fits your pack size. These are great for rain and also for keeping the pack relatively clean when you put it on the ground.
Key thing 1: The hip belt should generally be at least an inch wide and padded with ventilation for optimum comfort. This is designed to wrap AROUND (not above or below, but AROUND) your Iliac crest, which is the portion of your hipbones that stick out. This area is the most structural part of your entire body and the place that will bear the weight of your pack.
Key thing 2: The sternum strap is typically much thinner and is meant to help balance the load of your pack from shifting on your shoulders. It should be comfortably snug and positioned in roughly the middle of your breast.
Key thing 3: Your pack should be sizeable. If it’s not, MAKE CERTAIN that you get the correct size for your measurements. Your outfitter should measure from your C7 vertebrae (the one that sticks out when you tilt your chin down) and your Iliac crest (see Key thing 1). This measurement is what you will use to select your pack size. An improperly sized pack will not fit correctly, will not distribute weight correctly, and will cause pain and possibly injury over a longer trip.
Key thing 4: CARRY ONLY WHAT YOU ACTUALLY NEED. Don’t buy a pack with a bigger liter volume than you actually need. If you do, you will be tempted to carry additional things that you don’t need, and TRUST ME, that weight is better off being water than additional shit you don’t need. Water is the heaviest thing in your pack. Water is the heaviest thing in your pack. Water is the heaviest thing in your pack. When you’re preloading and weighing it, make damn sure you include however much water you’ll carry, because it’s the heaviest thing in your pack.
PRO TIP: When you are wearing your pack and the hip belt is secured, it should feel relatively weightless. This is because your hips are meant to be supporting the weight. If you feel a pull on your shoulders, adjust the fit and hip belt until you don’t. AT THAT POINT, tighten the shoulder straps until they are comfortable and prevent the pack from wobbling around. You may need to adjust the straps and belt throughout your trip as the composition of your pack changes (you use water, add water, just shove everything together because it rained and everything sucks, repacked everything neatly because it was sunny and breezy and everything is grand, etc).
Okay, hey fellow tomboys, don’t look at me like that. If your feet aren’t happy, then your hike is GOING TO BE MISERABLE, guaranteed. Out of sheer stubbornness I wore my Vibram Five Fingers on a backpacking trip one November. We had to do some stream crossings (because OF COURSE we did, there is always a secret stream crossing that you didn’t expect) and after that moment they NEVER dried out. My feet were wet the whole trip. I brought two pairs of socks, but because it was generally misty the whole time those NEVER dried out, and my feet were wet the whole trip. I legit don’t remember much of that trip except that my feet were wet the entire time. It makes THAT MUCH of a difference.
So, I’ll wear my Five Fingers on future day hikes, but maybe not backpacking trips where you want to limit what you’re carrying. For backpacking trips, I wear my Ahnu boots. I got them so long ago I can’t remember if they’re the Sugarpine or Montara model. Whatever they are, they are genuinely waterproof and breathable.
As a section-hiker, here are my key tips for how to pick the best pair of shoes for your hiking/backpacking trip:
DON’T BE STUBBORN. Don’t pick a pair of shoes just because you like how they look or a friend told you they LOOOOOVE their pair of Kangaroo Tree Hopper Bullfrog-Skin Skyboots. Okay? Don’t do it. I did it, and all I remember of that trip (reminisced above) is that my feet were wet the whole time.
CHOOSE COMFORT. You want your feet to be comfortable. If the pair you tried on is too snug in the toe box, try a different pair. Sure, they MIGHT stretch out, but you’re not going to spend the right amount of effort breaking them in before the trip, ARE YOU? So try pairs on until you find something that makes both feet stretch out and relax.
TRY SHIT ON. I feel like this goes with the above tip, but seriously, don’t just order shit online. Go to a store and try shit on. And preferably buy from the store at which you tried shit on, instead of then going online to buy the same shit. Support local businesses.
BREAK THEM IN. Spend a mile or two at home, BEFORE YOUR TRIP, wearing your new shoes in as many different environments as you can. This will tell you via blisters whether the shit you bought is going to be comfortable on the trail. Blisters suck at home. THEY ARE TEN TIMES WORSE ON THE TRAIL. Especially when the shoes that caused them are the only things you have to wear.
MEASURE TO YOUR ARCH LENGTH. This is a thing that surprisingly most folks have zero clues about. At a proper store, they will have a device called the Brannock device which rather looks like a torture implement but is not. In the right, educated hands (SUPPORT LOCAL BUSINESSES!!) this device can be used to measure 1) your arch length, 2) your toe length, and 3) your foot’s width. There are Mens and Womens Brannock devices. If you are buying a pair of Mens shoes, use the Mens Brannock device for sizing. Likewise with Womens. I don’t give a fuck if you’re a woman buying a pair of Mens shoes because the toe box is always wider or the colors are better, use the Mens Brannock device if you’re buying Mens shoes. Gender is stupid. Hiking shoes are designed to bend where your foot naturally bends, and this region is called your arch. If you measure to your toe length and your arch length is DIFFERENT (which it generally is) then your shoe will be bending at your toe and that’s going to result in painful, unhappy feet at the end (or, indeed, middle) of a hike. If the store you’re at doesn’t know how to use the Brannock device, fucking pull out your phone and Google/Youtube that shit. It’s not hard.
HIGH-TOPS DO NOT GUARANTEE ANKLE SUPPORT. In most cases, they don’t provide it at all. Think about it. If the bit that comes up around your ankle is SOFT MATERIAL THAT IS PLIABLE AND BENDS, it is NOT going to prevent you from rolling an ankle. If it’s thick, sturdy leather, then okay maybe there will be some support but you ABSOLUTELY have to make sure that the lacing is done correctly so that the upper wraps around your ankle with COMPLETE CONTACT IN THE BACK AND SIDES. If there is room between your leg and the upper material for air to move around, let alone a finger to get in there, it’s not a good fit and will NOT prevent you from rolling an ankle. Worse, it’ll make you THINK it’ll prevent you from rolling an ankle, which will make you take risks, which will INCREASE your risk of rolling an ankle. True story.
WEAR WOOL SOCKS. Wool socks help to regulate your body temperature, they wick away sweat which helps prevent blisters, and they are less prone to getting an odor. Wool is great. If you’re about to comment that wool is itchy, fuck you, that’s what Merino wool is for. (If you genuinely have an allergy to wool, consult your doctor.)