All posts by Karen Berger

Mud-Walking in Peru’s Amazon Basin

karen Amazon compreseed
The author in the mud.

I’d been trudging through the Amazonian mud for hours. What had been described as a three or four-mile round-trip clocked in at more than six miles according to an iPhone app that by some miracle operated in a place where there were no power lines, no roads, no engines, no homes.

And we weren’t going fast. When I say mud, I don’t mean some gentle little suburban puddle you can daintily step around; I mean sticking, clinging, jungle mud; the kind of mud that pulls gum boots off of feet and leaves skid marks in your slurping, sucking, sliding wake.

I should interrupt myself here to note that this is the sort of thing I think of as “fun.”

I was hiking with a group of a dozen travel writers, aged mid-30s to 70-plus, and not everyone had their mud-stomping muscles in good working order. According to our guide, one of us moved as “slow as a sloth,” a comparison that seemed a little unkind, as the only sloth we’d thus far seen appeared to have no intention of moving at all, ever. But no matter: Everyone was in good spirits, and it wasn’t as if we had a business meeting to get back in time for.

Amazon luxury in the jungle
The Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica offers peace and respite and an abundance of nature.

I was staying at Inkaterra’s Reserva Amazonica, an ecolodge situated about a half an hour’s boat ride from the bridge at Puerto Maldonado. Outfitted with a provincial airport, Puerto Maldonado is the embarkation point for trips into Peru’s southern Amazon basin along the Madre de Dios River, one of the richest and most diverse ecological zones in South America. One of the key biodiversity areas is the Reserva Nacional de Tambopata, which boasts 1,234 species of butterflies, 592 of birds, 127 of amphibians, 103 of mammals, and 74 of reptiles. Inkaterra, an ecotourism operator that offers eco-luxury with a zero-carbon footprint,  has been operating in the Amazon for 40 years, making it one of the region’s pioneers in sustainable tourism.

Amazon tiver travel
Guests arrive by boat, tour by boat, and are transported to the start of the hike by boat.

Our mud-walk was to take us from the dock on the river, about a half an hour from the lodge. It began with a scramble up a short embankment that immediately got my attention. Fortunately previous walkers had left some discarded hiking sticks in the mud, and I grabbed one, which immediately improved my balance, my outlook, and my odds of staying upright.

The other indispensable piece of gear was footwear: knee-high rubber gum boots provided by the lodge. In the 90-degree heat, I’d opted for the slightly larger of the two pairs I’d tried on. This was a good decision: They were surprisingly comfortable, and, in the foot-swelling heat, I was thrilled to feel no pressure spots that might turn into blisters farther down the line. Even if I’d brought blister stuff with me — my usual first aid kid contains Second Skin, adhesive tape, and scissors — I’d have had a hard time finding a place to sit down and apply it.

Amazon 300 year old ficus tree
A 300-year old ficus tree.

The trek took us through primary rainforest: Some of the trees along the trail were more than 1000 years old according to Carlos, our guide. But the most impressive was a 300-year old “young” one — a ficus with the girth of a western redcedar.  It barely fit into the frame of my camera.

Stinging nettles
What Carlos referred to as “poison ivy” looks more like North American stinging nettles: Either way, don’t touch!

Carlos stopped occasionally to point out shrubs and trees that provide fruits and leaves that are traditionally used for food and medicine, as well as a plant he referred to as “poison ivy,” but which, with its broad flat leaves and tiny hairs, looks like our North American stinging nettles. I didn’t touch it to find out. We paused to catch glimpses of a few birds — macaws, mostly — but to be honest, our eyes were mostly on our feet, which is why most of us took note of the rows of leaf-cutter and army ants that were busy going about their jobs for the day. Only when the howler and squirrel monkeys flew past, crashing through the canopy with reckless abandon, did we look up: That got out attention away from our feet and onto our cameras.

Amazon trail
One of the rare spots where there was a boardwalk leading over the mud but only to more mud.

I won’t lie: This hike isn’t for everyone, at least not in the rainy season. There are no dry spots, and most of us ended up with our butts in the mud at least once. This is a land that floods easily and often: At an elevation of only about 600 feet above sea level, we were far inland from the river’s eventual drainage into the Atlantic Ocean, still thousands of river miles away. So the water, having nowhere to go, creates a flooded-forest habitat that is the most extensive example of this type of habitat in the world. Along the banks of the Madre de Dios River, you can see where floods have torn away at the banks.

Amazon canoes
Simple wooden canoes are used to transport visitors around Lake Sandoval

Two or three miles in, depending on whether you trust the guide or the GPS, we came to a marsh where painted wooden boats were tied to a dock. The man handling the boats, we were told, once fought his way out of the unhinged jaws of a 7-meter long anaconda. The boatman, small and tough-looking, stood knee-deep in the swamp. I didn’t know know if this was a tall tale, and if so, how tall a tale it might have been. Alert to the possibility of reptilian company, my eyes scanned the jungle, but it  was hard to see what might have been lying just in back of that shrub, or beneath that vine. Even at a distance of a few meters, the bright orange howler monkeys and the extravagantly plumed macaws, parrots, and herons. faded into the brush, invisible in plain sight.

We climbed into the dugout canoe. Its tippiness might have been normal for a canoe , but when a canoe is tippy in a swamp said to house caimans and giant anacondas, it seems somehow more precarious. We stayed still as the guide silently floated us on the watery path among the vegetation. A few minutes later, we left the swamp for the lake, which opened wide in front of us,  fringed by its halo of jungle.

We paddled along the shore looking for the residents: endangered giant river otters (Pteronura brasiliensis), blue and yellow macaws (Ara ararauna), red howler monkeys (Alouatta seniculus), black caimans (Melanosuchus niger), and a host of bird-life, especially herons and egrets.  More howler monkeys crashed through the canopy. A heron stood motionless, cooperatively posing.  We didn’t see river otters or caimans. There’s another ecolodge on the lake, hidden in the vegetation somewhere, and we didn’t see that, either. The jungle, hides, camouflages, obliterates.

Amazon Heron
A heron obligingly poses.

After an hour or so, Carlos miraculously guided our boat back into the same clump of vegetation from which we had entered the lake, and we glided over the still, brown water to the dock. The walk back was the same as the walk forward, but shorter somehow, as it always seems to be.

If we’d known what was in our immediate future, we’d have walked even faster: The cold Cusqueno cervezas waiting for us in the boat back at the river were perhaps the best any of us had ever tasted.

Alpine Hiking: Skills for Scree and Talus

Rocky terrain in the Pyrenees is a challenge for hikers.

Mountain goats have special suction cup like hooves that grip onto rock and enable them to climb on ledges as precipitous as skyscrapers. We hikers do not.

So while the high mountains of legendary ranges such as the Alps, Rockies, and Cascades attract us with an almost palpable magenetic force, we need a little know-how to get around some of the obstacles we’ll encounter. Indeed, some high-mountain trails may be little more than cross-country routes, sometimes marked by cairns, and sometimes not marked at all. The rocky, rubbly high-country paths twist knees and ankles, challenge balance, and can make the distance of a mile seem to stretch for two or three.

This can be an important consideration when you’re planning your daily mileage and campsites, because travel times on boulders and rocks can drop to little more than a mile an hour.

Traveling on Scree

Scree is the fine, crumbly crushed and eroded rock that slides underfoot, making it seem that the hiker is going up the down elevator. Often, each step up the mountain is accompanied by a corresponding slide down.

When climbing on scree, look for a zigzag path and avoid facing the slope head-on. This helps eliminate the sliding problem typical of a direct assault up a steep scree slope. The mini-switchbacks are also easier on the legs, and require less brute force (to lift bodies and packs) and less stretching of the calves (caused by putting the foot down on a steeply angled slope).

On very steep and narrow slopes, making switchbacks may not be practical. In such cases, the hiker has two options:

  • Kick steps into the scree. This works if the scree is a few inches deep. Dig in with the front of the boot, test to be sure the footing is stable, then shift weight and repeat on the other foot.
  • Look for larger rocks that appear to have come to rest at a stable angle of repose (the place at which friction, angle, and gravity all come into balance and an object stops following gravity’s imperative to keep sliding downhill). If these rocks are stable enough, they may be able to hold a hiker’s weight. Test your footing before committing any weight.

Descending on scree is a bit faster -– sometimes too fast. The quickest technique down a scree slope is called screeing, which is a little like skiing on hiking boots. The deeper the scree, the better. Limit this technique to slopes with few obstacles, because big boulders can be difficult to steer around. The basic technique is to bend the knees, then launch into a sort of slow-motion combination jog and slide. Hopping from foot to foot helps with balance, as do trekking poles. Gaiters keep scree out of the boots. If you’re not wearing them, you’ll end up with a boot full of rock junk.

Alpine Trekking Through Talus

Talus comprises chunks of rock. It is the larger rubble that often is found on mountain slopes, especially at the base of cirques and bowls.

The biggest challenge in traveling on talus is to keep in balance. Often, boulders are irregularly shaped and pointy, and sometimes, they move underfoot. Walking on and around them can involve big steps up, down, and sideways. Keep knees bent and balance low, and, as with skiing moguls, always look several steps ahead. It is often easier to step down slightly sideways than straight down forward. Going straight forward puts more stress on the knees and forces your balance (sometimes too far) forward. The easiest progress involves a fluid but controlled movement from rock to rock.

Hikers picking their own route up or down a talus slope should look for cairns, small piles of stones that are made by trail planners or other hikers, and which often show the easiest way through the maze.

When cairns are not available, pick a diagonal route rather than going straight up and down. The straight-up route may be more direct, but it is more difficult to travel straight up or down on talus, The direct route is is harder on both knees and balance, takes more energy and concentration, and can put hikers below in danger of being hit by dislodged and falling rock.

Hiking sticks or trekking poles are the alpine traveler’s best friend (unless the landscape is covered in snow, in which case, that honor goes to the ice axe). Trekking poles can help a hiker maintain balance and take pressure off the knees, especially when hiking downhill, and particularly on talus.

My most sage advice: Trek slowly, rest often, and be sure to stop often enough to look up from your feet and take in the views.

Thru-hiking Lingo for the Appalachian Trail

The plaque at Springer Mountain.

Thinking of hiking the Appalachian Trail? (That’s “AT” to those in the know). It’s not enough to walk the walk; you gotta talk the talk, too.

Here’s some lingo you’re going to be hearing for the next, oh, five or six months.

(The following list is mostly directly related to the Appalachian Trail; I didn’t include “regular” hiking terms. If you’ve got some to add, please put them in the comments section below this post!)

On the Trail

  • Lean-to: (Also called a shelter): A primitive three-sided structure for sheltering hikers. First come first served, and the ethos is to squeeze as many in as possible, especially in bad weather.
  • Stealth camping: Camping in such a way that you can’t (easily) be seen. It doesn’t necessarily mean camping illegally — but it sometimes does.
  • Water bars: Stone bars that help channel; water off the trail.
  • Double blazes: indicate a change of direction.
  • Relo: A change in the route of the trail: Can be temporary or permanent.
  • PUDs. Pointless ups and downs. Many blue blazers (see below) try to avoid PUDs.

Trail Folk: Who We Are

  • SoBo and NoBo: Southbounder and northbounder; indicates a hiker’s direction of travel.
  • White blazer: A hiker who assiduously follows the exact, official  marked (white-blazed) route of the Appalachian Trail.
  • Blue blazer: A hiker who takes alternate routes, such as old AT routes that have since been relocated (often marked in blue); often blueblazers are blueblazing to avoid PUDs..
  • Yellow blazer: A hiker who “cheats” by hitchhiking (following the yellow marks on a highway).
  • Purist: A hiker who white blazes. often expresses a critical attitude about people who blue blaze, and let’s not even talk about yellow blazing.
  • Triple Crowner: A hiker who has completed the Appalachian, Pacific crest, and Continental Divide national scenic trails.
  • Hiker trash: What we all affectionately call each other when we’re covered with grime and headed for the nearest bar.
  • Thru-hiker: Yup, we spell it wrong. We’re into the lightweight thing; we get rid of stuff (like letters) we don’t need.
  • Section-hiker: Hikers who hike the entire Appalachian Trail over a stretch of several or many years.
  • 2000-milers: Anyone who has hiked the entire AT.
  • End-to-Ender: Same as above.

Thru-Hiking Gear and Stuff

  • Ultralight: A style of hiking where gear is chosen according to weight; the goal is the lightest pack possible.
  • FSO: From-the-skin-out: A measure used by weight-obsessed ultralight hikers to account for every ounce they carry, right down to their underwear.
  • Hiker box: A box maintained in some hostels or other trail service providers where hikers can donate food and equipment they no longer need to those coming after them.
  • Flyer: A box of  supplies you mail to yorself, to a location farther up the trail.
  • Mail drops: Boxes you prepackage when still at home and bribe a friend or family member to send to you at various post offices and hostels along the way.
  • Resupply: Going into town to get more food, pick up your mail drops, or  stock up or repair gear.
  • Vitamin I : Ibuprofen: What you need to carry all that stuff.

Trail Culture

  • Trail Daze: Hiker variation of Trail Days, the annual town festival in Damascus, Virginia, which brings hundreds of current and former thru-hikers into town.
  • Ruck: A ruck is technically an informal gathering, but in recent years, informal gatherings have become scheduled events at various places along the trail.
  • Register: A notebook left in a lean-to, trail head, or hostel, where hikers record pretty much whatever they want to. it’s the hub of the  non-digital hiker communication system.
  • Taking a zero: (zero-mile day): Taking a full day off in town or on the trail, where you do no hiking at all. (A “Nero” is a “nearly zero” day.)
  • Getting off: The polite way to say someone is quitting their thru-hike, the implication being he may get back on.
  • Flip-flopping: Continuing to hike the trail, but driving to another location and resuming hiking in a different direction. (“He was going NoBo, but he’s going SoBo because he realized he’d never make it to Katahdin in time, so he flip-flopped.”)
  • Slackpacking: It used to mean hiking at a leisurely pace, but on the AT the term has gotten commandeered to mean hiking without a pack (by getting someone to deliver it ahead for you).
  • Yogiing: Good naturedly trying to get day-users to give you food or drinks without actually asking.
  • Yoyoing: Doing back-to-back thru-hikes of the A.T., one in each drirection.
  • Trail name: It’s like a truck driver’s “handle.” You can try to name yourself — or you can “acquire” a name on the trail. (Do that at your own risk!)

 Trail Communities

Katahdin, the northern terminus.
  • Trail towns: Towns that are very close to the trail and are popular re-supply and rest stops because they have what hikers need and/or are especially friendly to hikers.
  • Ridge runner: Usually a paid summer position in crowded sections of the trail: Think of them as A.T. rangers.
  • Maintainer: Volunteers who keep the trail cleared of blowdowns (downed trees), cut down widow makers (hanging branches) and build puncheons (bog bridges).
  • Trail magic:  The serendipity of meeting someone on the trail who offers hospitality or help, usually when you need it most.
  • Trail angels: Purveyors of trail magic.
  • Hike your own hike: What we tell each other to let people make their own decisions about whiteblazing, flip-flopping, and other crucial issues of the thru-hiking world.

Hiking Destinations and Best Trails is HikerWriter’s sister site.

Here are links to some of the hiking stories there… There are a ton more in the hiking archives there.

Tramping Tongariro and Climbing Ngauruhoe in New Zealand

Tramping Tongariro and Climbing Ngauruhoe in New Zealand
The North Island of New Zealand’s most popular day hike — and a four day circuit for the hard core.

Hiking Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park

Hiking Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park
The Continental Divide passes through the park, but there’s so much more, including geyser trails and opportunities to see Yellowstone’s famous and abundant wildlife.

Hiking New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington

Hiking New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington
What’s it like to hike a mountain where trailhead signs warn: “STOP!” (in all caps.) “The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died there from exposure, even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad.”?
Walking Coast-to-Coast in England via Wainwright’s Route
This two week trek takes in some of the best of Britain’s scenery, including the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales, and the North York Moors. You can imagine Heathcliffe in the fog. .

Hiking the High Sierra Trail in California

Hiking the High Sierra Trail in California
Crossing the “Range of Light” from giant Forest in Sequoia National Park to the John Muir Trail.

Heli-Hiking in British Columbia

Heli-Hiking in British Columbia
Heli-hiking in big Canadian Rocky Mountains is, in a word, awesome. And the adventure course? Could you? Would you?

Hiking Among the Redwoods in California’s Muir Woods

Hiking Among the Redwoods in California’s Muir Woods
 Day-hiking among the tall trees is a peaceful experience. This park has some of the biggest groves anywhere.

Trekking Mt. Kenya: Chogoria, Naro Moru, and High Peaks Circuit

Trekking Mt. Kenya: Chogoria, Naro Moru, and High Peaks Circuit
One of the world’s best hikes, bar none. Unbelievable scenery, plant life that looks like it sprang from the imagination of Dr. Seuss,  and the possibility of see monkeys, hyraxes, and even cape buffalo and elephants.

Tramping New Zealand’s Milford Track: The World’s Finest Walk?

Tramping New Zealand’s Milford Track: The World’s Finest Walk?
It earned the moniker “finest walk in the world” a century ago. Is it? Find out here.

Hiking in the French and Spanish Pyrenees

Hiking in the French and Spanish Pyrenees
From the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. This is a summer-long hike that brings you into western Europe’s wildest landscapes and quaint mountain villages. And the food is fantastic!

Trekking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal

Trekking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal
A three week trek around the Annapurna Massif gives views of some of the world’s highest peaks. An additional trek into the Annapurna Sanctuary brings you to snow-covered base camp.

Climbing Mt. Rainier in Washington’s Cascades

Climbing Mt. Rainier in Washington’s Cascades
This is a classic climb of Washington’s highest peak. if you tackle it, be in top shape: it’s a rugged climb, complete with ice axes, crampons, and ropes.

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro on the Machame Route

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro on the Machame Route
 At 19,340 feet, Kilimanjaro is Africa’s highest peak, which means that it’s one of the so-called “seven summits” — the highest peak on each continent. The Machame Route is a good way to climb it and avoid altitude sickness.
Hiking Arizona’s Grand Canyon, Rim to Rim
The Grand Canyon, Rim-to-Rim. 21-ish  miles, 5000 feet down from the South Rim then another 6,000 up the North. HIking it reveals two billion years of geologic history.

Tips for Solo Hikers on Long Trails

We all know the benefits of the buddy system; they’ve been drilled into our heads since childhood. Virtually every instruction guide you’ll read on almost every activity — hiking, diving, swimming, caving, mountaineering — urges outdoorspeople to stay with at least one partner, and sometimes more.

But what happens when partners aren’t available? On a long-distance hike, it’s not always possible to find a compatible partner who has the same several-month time-frame off. A hiker may start with a partner, but become separated by injury or incompatibility. And some people simply prefer to experience the solitude and personal growth of a solo long-distance hike, and the independence of not having to negotiate every decision of daily mileage, how long to stop for lunch, or where to camp.

Solitude on a Long-Distance Trail

Even hikers who choose to hike alone sometimes get lonely. But being independent on a trail doesn’t mean being alone all the time.

One possibility is to choose a trail where there’s a social scene. Trails with a hut, shelter, or lodging system are found throughout Europe, New Zealand, Nepal, and (less commonly) in North America. Trails with permit systems that require hikers to stay in designated camping areas are also good places to meet others — or at least, to have the security of camping with other people around. On the popular Appalachian Trail, for example, sociable hikers can find companionship almost whenever they want. Solitary types can hike alone and camp alone, but they can also drop into trail towns, hostels, or trail shelters if the silence becomes too deafening.

Another advantage of the Appalachian Trail (and increasingly, this is happening on the Pacific Crest Trail, as well) is that it is relatively easy to find a partner en route. Hikers who start solo might join up with informal groups of others for a while, or may form partnerships that last for the duration of your hike. On less traveled trails, there are fewer opportunities to form such partnerships.

Hikers who remain solo might experience occasional bouts of loneliness. Some simple strategies can help.

  • Bring a book. A long trail is a great time to read one of those heavy-weight classics that real life so seldom makes time for.
  • Bring music. Not everyone likes listening to music in the woods, but for hikers who do, an Ipod provides entertainment.
  • Write in a journal. Some hikers get even more creative, by composing haiku poems, drawing what they see, or writing songs.
  • Bring a project. Some hikers use the time on a long-distance hike to reevaluate their lives. A project book (an example would be Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, which includes many pages of creative exercises) may be a great way to use some of the time in camp in a productive and creative way.

Safety Strategies for Solo Hikers

  • Choose a trail with a fair amount of traffic.
  • Sign in at permit stations at the entrance to wildernesses. Permits tell rangers where and when hikers arrived, and can help them search for a lost hiker.
  • Sign trail registers. These are informal notebooks left on some trails in shelters, at trailheads, and even in hiker-friendly businesses and hostels. They are another way to know when a hiker was last seen.
  • Don’t take unnecessary risks. This means avoiding the temptation to tale shortcuts, waiting out extremely bad weather, and being vigilant about environmental ailments such as altitude sickness, hypothermia, and dehydration.
  • Make sure someone at home knows the itinerary.
  • Bring a cell phone or a satellite phone. International travelers should make sure they have international cell service on their phones, or a dedicated international moblie phone.
  • Know standard ways of signaling, such as using a mirror, lighting a fire, using the color orange, and sending out signals in bursts of threes.
  • Solo women travelers should be especially vigilant about who they tell their plans to.
  • Carry an emergency kit with the “10 essentials” in it.

Solo hiking isn’t for everyone. But with some experience, the right gear for the conditions, and the common sense to stay safe, it can be an intense and rewarding experience.

Beginning Backpacker’s Overnight Gear List: Big Ticket Essentials

Backpacking is one of those gear-intensive activities that lends itself to “GAS” (“Gear Acquisition Syndrome”). Any passionate hiker is bound to have a couple of tents, sleeping bags in a range of ratings, a few different stoves, and countless pairs of boots in various stages of disrepair.

Indeed, it’s hard not to shop when a hobby has so many different kinds of tools and toys. Just look at what’s available. Backpacker magazine’s annual gear issue lists literally thousands of models of backpacking equipment every year.

But the funny thing is that once you’re out on the trail, you quickly learn that the gear that may make you the happiest is the gear you left home — and don’t have to carry. What looked shiny, new, and functional in the outfitting store may look like nothing more than a painful burden on the trail, especially if you never actually need it.

Backpacker’s List of Major Gear Essentials

Bottom line: It’s not necessary to have the latest and greatest gear to get outside for an overnight, especially in the summer time in temperate and warm climates.

Let’s start with the basic list of the big- ticket essentials. These are the items necessary to transport your gear, sleep out of the weather, and eat.

  • Tent, tarp, or bivvy sack. Even hikers who prefer sleeping under the stars or in trailside shelters need to carry some sort of shelter in case of rain or in case the lean-to is full. The smaller and lighter, the better. A tarp is the lightest choice, although perhaps not the best choice in areas with a lot of mosquitoes.
  • Sleeping bag: The standard “one size all” bag is a three season bag, rated down to about 20 or 30 degrees Fahrenheit, but that’s a little much for the Appalachians in July or northern California in August.  A 40- or 50- degree bag is much lighter. Use the heavier three-season bag for the shoulder seasons of early spring and late fall, as well as high mountains. For winter, an even warmer bag will be required.
  • Sleeping Mat: For sleeping comfort and insulation from cold ground. Thickness depends on your comfort requirements. A Thermarest inflatable pad is a standard item for three season camping. Some lightweight backpackers choose an even lighter closed cell foam pad.
  • Stove: A liquid fuel gas stove, a propane cartridge stove, or an alcohol stove. For beginners, a cartridge stove is inexpensive, easy to use, and lightweight. Note: The now common propane-butane blend stoves work well in most conditions, including cold and high altitudes, although liquid fuel is more efficient in very severe conditions. Alcohol stoves (which you can make yourself; Google it!) don’t work well at high altitudes, but they are a good choice for lower mountains. Brasslite makes them commercially.
  • Backpacks: Backpacks should be selected after all other gear is bought or assembled for the simple reason that all the gear has to be able to fit. Backpacks come in two styles, internal or external frames; external frames are “traditional” but internal frames are by far the most common choice among long-distance hikers. The lighter the gear you are carrying, the flimsier your backpack can be. But comfort is also an issue. Those stays and straps add weight to your pack, but they DO help distribute the lod more ergonomically.
  • Boots: Contrary to tradition, thick heavy hiking boots are not always required for backpacking, especially not on gentle well-maintained trails in the heat of summer! Trekking shoes do just fine for many overnight hikers. If conditions do require boots, buy them – don’t try to rent or borrow. Boots need to fit properly to prevent blisters.
  • Accessories: For a list of other essential backpacking gear, check  Gear and Accessories for Beginning Backpackers.


Gear for Beginning Backpackers: Accessories

So you’ve got your big-ticket items under control: tents, hiking footwear, backpack, sleeping bags and mats, and stoves. Beyond this basic hiking gear list a number of other items will help you stay safe and comfortable.

Backpacking Essential Equipment

Not all of the following items are used by all hikers all of the time. Backpacking gear selection depends on climate, season, length of hike, and hiking style, among other things. But the following list is a good place to start planning for a backpacking trip.

  • For sleeping: In addition to tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping mats, use a ground cloth (sometimes called a “footprint” if it comes in the exact shape of your tent) to keep out water and prevent the tent bottom from tearing.
  • For eating: In addition to a stove and fuel, hikers need a pot with lid, a pot grabber, a spoon, and a pot scrubber for cleaning up. A bowl or cup are useful too. Titanium equipment is expensive, but lightweight.
  • For drinking: Backpackers must have water bottles, hydration systems, or water bags, as well as water filters, purifiers, or purification pills. Hydration packs such as those made by Platypus are popular and ergonomic, allowing you to drink while walking. The cheapest choice: empty plastic water bottles (but they can spring links and easily crack).
  • For weather protection: Rain gear (at least a jacket) is usually necessary except perhaps in the hottest driest places (think Arizona in July). The choice of rain jacket, rain pants, poncho, or rain hat will depend on the climate.
  • For warmth: For high mountains, create a layered hiking clothing system. Depending on the environment, it could include insulating long-johns, wool socks, thin wicking sock liners, gloves and hat, a lightweight jacket or pullover, and two sets of hiking clothes (usually shorts and T-shirts). For hot summer hiking, a couple T-shirts and of pairs of shorts should be all you need, with a super-light windbreaker or water-resistant jacket just in case.
  •  For camp comfort: This is a luxury item, but I like having a pair of flip flops. Even lightweight trekking shoes start to feel imprisoning after a big-miles day.

Useful Accessories for Backpackers

Each hiker has an idea of which pieces of outdoor equipment are essential and which are not. Here are some items found in many experienced hikers’ packs:

  • Army knife or multi-use use tool (a mini is fine).
  • Sun hat, sun screen, sun glasses, lip protection.
  • A repair kit : The repair kit should include spare parts, (such as pack buckles and shoelaces), thick sewing needle and ultra strong thread, safety pins, cord, seam-seal compound (acts as glue), repair patches for tents, raingear, and duct tape. Pare it down to bits and pieces.
  • First aid kit: A commercial kit can be modified (read: stripped down) to fit the hiker’s needs. Be sure prescription medicine is included.
  • Walking sticks or trekking poles.
  • Pouch or pack pocket to wear in front of pack for keeping personal daily items close to hand.
  • GPS, map, compass; See-through plastic case to protect map (Zipper-locking bags are a lighter, but more fragile, option).
  • A bandanna can be used for multiple tasks in camp (grabbing a pot); it can also be used as a bandage, a sweatband, and a handkerchief.
  • Extra zipper-locking bags to keep things dry (especially electronics like cell phones and cameras; most cases aren’t waterproof).
  • Stuff sacks for separating and organizing hiking equipment.
  • Bug repellent.

Note that this is a starter list. In desert, high mountains, snow, and winter, other specialty equipment will be needed. Plus, every gear list becomes modified over time as a hiker’s skill level grows, hiking style and priorities change, and new gear is introduced by manufacturers.

Long–Distance Hiking: Just the FAQs, Ma’am

Here I’ve collected and answered some of the most common questions heard on long trails. These questions — and plenty of others — are discussed in more detail in my books. Advanced Backpacking: A Trailside Guide  and Hiking the Triple Crown

I’ve always wanted to do a long hike. How much does long-distance hiking cost?

The High Sierra in June

Good news and bad news: Let’s start with the bad news. Backpacking equipment can be quite expensive, especially if you go for the top-of-the-line stuff. So if you’ve got to start from scratch and you buy everything new, you can expect to spend at least $1000 on the basics: (tent, sleeping bag, pack, boots, stove, and raingear). That budget will get you solid middle-of-the-road gear, especially if you can hit some sales (Check out our article on cheap hiking gear for some ideas on stretching your budget). High rollers can easily spend $500 or even $1000 more. Then there’s clothing, pots and eating utensils, first aid and personal gear, maps and guidebooks, transportation expenses to and from the trailhead, and — don’t forget — food for 5 – 6 months, postage for resupply boxes, plus money for lay-over days in town.

Ready for some good news? Once you’ve bought your gear, your ticket, and most of the food you’ll send to yourself in resupply boxes, there isn’t much left to spend money on. Hikers figure $2.00 per mile and up for on-trail expenses. (Another way to figure it is $100 per town stop per person, if you’re staying in hostels or sharing hotel rooms with one or more other people; in some regions of the country, like new England, you’ll spend more.) Couples or hiking partners can lower the cost by sharing share some of those expenses, like the occasional night in a motel in town, or postage for sending unneeded equipment home or up ahead.

There are ways to minimize the expense. Some hikers make their own gear. Some cook and dehydrate most of their meals in advance. Some pay attention to their budgets during town stops by staying in campgrounds and hostels rather than hotels.

How do people manage that?

All different ways. Some save money for a couple of years by deliberately living a simpler life than they can “afford.” Some drive an older car or don’t go out to eat so much. Buying used gear is also an option (check the bulletin board at your local retailer, or join a hiking organization and list your request for gear in its newsletter). Many people sublet their apartments or rent out their homes while they are away.

How do you prepare for a long-distance hike?

The best favor you can do for yourself is to get in shape BEFORE your hike. Some hikers claim that that’s impossible: They say that the only way to get in shape to carry a pack up mountains all day is to carry a pack up mountains all day. I say hogwash! Sure, no matter how fit you are, you’ll have a few break-in days as your body gets used to doing something different. But there’s a huge difference in how you’ll feel if you start in good aerobic shape versus how you’ll fell if you start in slug shape. Believe me — I’ve done it both ways!

How many miles a day do hikers walk?

Depends on the terrain, the hiker, and the load you’re carrying. The average AT hiker completes the trail in about 5 1/​2 months, which means averaging between 14 and 16 miles a day (it depends on how many rest-days, or “Zero” days, you take). The longer PCT and CDT have to be completed in about 5 months because of snow, meaning that the average mileage on those trails has to be higher — about 18 to 22 miles a day. That’s a LOT, by the way, if it’s not something you’ve ever done before.

Averages aside, there are huge variations in how much mileage people can do. Some extremely fit and motivated hikers cover 30, 40, or (very very occasionally and often painfully) even more miles a day. The most I’ve ever done was 35 miles with a VERY light pack, and I wasn’t happy at the end of the day! But on easy terrain when I’m broken in, I can comfortably do mileage in the mid-20s. But not day after day after day.

When you think about mileage, though, always consider the terrain and the elevation gains. Most people can cover 30 – 50 percent more mileage on the PCT than on the AT because the grades are more gentle and the footway is smoother.

How do I know how many miles a day I can walk?

You’ll learn from experience. People who complete long-trails are by and large just average folks of varying ages and fitness levels. If you are reasonably fit, and don’t have any specific problems, there’s no reason to think you can’t do the “average” required mileages listed above for the three trails. Of course, the point of a long-distance hike is the quality, not the speed with which you get to the destinations. You may well find that you enjoy a more leisurely page. On the PCT and CDT, that may mean that you’ll have to complete the trail over two seasons.

When you start your hike, plan for some low-mileage break-in days if possible. (On the AT, it’s a good idea to plan 10-mile days for the first week or so. It’s not always possible to do this on the PCT and CDT because of the distance between water sources.) And don’t forget to factor in the terrain: More mountains means less miles!

How many pairs of boots do you wear out?

It depends on the type of boot and which trail — and on how you walk and how much weight you carry. The AT is the hardest on boots because it has the rockiest, muddiest, and gnarliest footway of the three trails. However, it’s also shorter. If you use old-fashioned leather hiking boots, figure that you’ll need two pairs. If you’re using trail runners or sneakers, you may go through three or four pairs. If I’m using (lightweight) boots, I always break in two pairs of boots before a thru-hike, but this may not work for everyone because if it’s your first thru-hike, your feet may grow a full size (or even more) during the trip.

What do you eat on the trail?

Some hikers find that packing ALL their food in advance is a bad idea. Your body’s needs and tastes may change over the course of a hike. You might get sick of all that Ramen you packed six months ago!

Some staples you’ll see a lot of: Pasta. Lipton noodles-and-sauce packages. Ramen noodles. Instant oatmeal. Instant potatoes. Freeze-dried meals. Stove-top stuffing. Dehydrated meats and veggies. Snickers Bars. GORP (Good old raisins and peanuts). Crackers and cheese. Salami or similar sausages. Peanut butter and jelly. Instant soup mixes. Most of these are available in stores in towns along the way. You might also carry some fresh veggies (onions and carrots last well) for a little variety. Or dehydrate your own food.

Have you seen bears?

Yes, on all three of the Triple Crown trails. Bears are wild animals and will usually run from people. However, they can become problematic if they are defending a food source such as a berry patch or a cache of carrion, if they are surprised or frightened, or if a mother bear perceives you as a threat to her cub. If you see a cub, remember that Mama Bear is undoubtedly around and watching you very closely — retreat so she doesn’t feel threatened.

Over the years, bears have learned that backpacks are a great food source! They may try to get at your trail rations. In bear country, hanging food high in a tree using the counterbalance method is always a good idea, as is cooking and eating 100 yards away from your campsite. In “bear problem” areas such as Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks, bears may be more aggressive and the park may provide bear lockers for food storage or have regulations requiring the use of special bear-proof canisters.

Do you worry about safety?

Backcountry travelers should always be attentive to safety because if you get into a jam you may have to be the one to get yourself out of it. That means being careful crossing tricky terrain like snowfields and rivers. It means keeping an eye on the weather. It means paying attention to where the next water source is. And it means exercising common sense when dealing with strangers. All that said, I feel safer in the backcountry that on a city street.


Lessons on Altitude Sickness from the Himalayan Rescue Association

Annapurna Base Camp, at over 15,000 feet

A group of us trekker are sitting in a circle in a health clinic in the town of Manang, which sits at elevation of 11,500 feet in the Nepal Himalayas. A few look drawn and tired; a young woman is complaining of headaches. Outside, a group of porters walks by, one with his head wrapped in a towel soaked in cold water. He insists he is okay.

What we are learning here, at this class for trekkers given by the Himalayan Rescue Association, may tell us otherwise.

The Himalayan Rescue Association was founded in 1973 as a collaboration among volunteer visiting doctors, Nepali health officials and doctors, and representatives from trekking companies. The founders recognized that Nepal’s trekking routes were drawing more and more tourists to the high altitudes of the Himalayas – but at a cost.

The most common trekking routes reach dangerous altitudes for inexperienced hikers: up to nearly 18,000 feet at Everest Base Camp and at the Thorong La on the Annapurna Circuit, and more than 16,000 feet on other popular routes. The first foreign visitors to these high mountains were skilled outsdoorspeople with experience at altitude. But as trekking became more and more popular among “lay people,” it became clear that many trekkers had no idea how to recognize and respond to the symptoms of altitude sickness. Some became seriously ill. Some died.

Mt Everest and Annapurna Himalayan Rescue Association Aid Stations

The first aid  station was opened in 1973 at the hill town of Pheriche in the Khumbu region, on Nepal’s Mt. Everest Trek, at an altitude of about 14,000 feet. During the trekking seasons, it was manned by volunteers who lived in yak herders’ huts and tents.

A second station was opened in 1981, in Manang, a town on the Annapurna Trek, a two-day walk from Thorong La, the 17,800-foot pass that is the Annapurna Trek’s highest point. In 2008, another aid station was opened at Thorong Phedi — the foot of Thorong La, the pass that is most dangerous on the Annapurna Circuit. At these aid stations, doctors provide education, screening, and treatment; if necessary, they also aid in rescues of afflicted trekkers.

Educating Nepal’s Trekkers About Altitude Sickness

Nepal’s High altitudes can be dangerous.

Where altitude sickness (also called acute mountain sickness) is concerned, prevention is always the best course of action. This is particularly true in Nepal, where rescue is difficult because there are no roads into the trekking areas. Air-rescue is expensive and often impossible because of weather conditions and terrain.

So the Himalayan Rescue Association program focuses on prevention. They publish a series of educational pamphlets, available in Kathmandu hotels and trekking agencies. And during the trekking season, doctors hold a daily lecture on altitude sickness at the hill-town aid stations. By screening trekkers as they come through the high hill towns, the Himalayan Rescue Association has been able to decrease the incidents of mountain sickness.

The lectures teach trekkers to recognize symptoms of altitude sickness, and stress the importance of gaining elevation slowly and taking rest days. This advice is particularly important on the Annapurna Trek, because the Thorong La reaches such high elevations, and on the Everest Trek, because today, many Everest trekkers fly to the airstrip at the high-altitude village of Lukla. They therefore forego some of the essential acclimatization that is one of the main ways to prevent altitude sickness.

Himalayan Rescue Association doctors also stress that Nepali porters and guides are also susceptible to altitude sickness. While many Sherpa people native to the Sol Khumbu region near Mt. Everest are well-acclimated to the high altitude, porters and guides from lower elevations near Pokhara or Kathmandu are often just as susceptible to altitude sickness as trekkers – but may be less likely to admit to it, since their jobs depend on their strength. Trekkers therefore, need to be alert not only to their symptoms, and those of their trekking partners, but to symptoms of porters and guides as well.

Volunteer Doctors and the Local Communities

In addition to providing preventative care for trekkers, guides, and porters, the Himalayan Rescue Association has done comprehensive research on the subject of altitude sickness. It also provides free and low-cost medical care to local villagers who live near the stations (sometimes, the staff even tries to treat sick animals brought in by villagers!). These are remote towns, far from any roads, and the health care provided by the volunteer doctors is the only western medical care available. Donations collected from trekkers are used to support the medical care given to local people.

Thriving in the Deep Freeze

Winter is the season of all things cold and white: skiing, sledding, skating and sliding in all its guises. It’s also the season of endless hysteria from the news media, which has figured out that the louder the weathermen scream about snowmageddons and snowpocalypses, the more eyeballs they score. Somewhere along the line, we’ve become a region of wimps who cancel school at the first threat of a flake.

So yes, I get it…  we’ve seen a lot of snow this year.  Where I live, the accumulations are indeed higher than average, although not quite the record-setting city-stoppers that have paralyzed nearby Boston and coastal Maine.  And it’s been cold here — it was well below zero this morning when I put on my ski boots to head out for a few hours.

But as they say in Iceland, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.

The right gear makes skiing comfortable, even in below 0-degree Fahrenheit temperatures.
The right gear makes skiing comfortable, even in below 0-degree Fahrenheit temperatures. And do you see how empty the parking lot is? When the temps dive into single digits or negative numbers, you’re almost guaranteed to have wide open empty slopes!

Well…. within reason.  There’s probably some type of weather that gets everybody down. We all have our sore spots. For me  21 straight days of 95 + degree temperatures on an Appalachian Trail thru-hike was nearly unbearable.  25 straight days of drizzle and fog sapped my spirits on the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington one September. And I can get weary of that sort of drizzly “wintery mix” that can’t decide whether it’s ice or snow or rain and ends up being the worst of all three — wet, cold, AND slick.

But here’s the thing: While the weathermen are apoplectic and the schools are shuttered, somehow the die-hards make it to the ski areas — with big smiles on their faces.  Are they a different breed of human? Somehow impervious to the cold? Bereft of normal never function? Doubtful: They simply know what to wear.

Quite simply, the key to enjoying winter is to embrace it. And the key to embracing it is to have the right gear.

Gear List for Extreme Cold Skiing

I skied this morning in single digit temperatures with a serious windchill, and I was cozy and warm. Here’s what I wore:

Ski boots and lightweight socks. Ski boots have their own insulation, and thin socks give toes plenty of room in which to wiggle. If you get cold, wiggle your toes while on a ski lift for a few minutes (not just a few seconds). Or use chemical toe warmers, which stay activated for several hours.

Leg Layers: One layer of stretch ski leggings, and an overlayer of  insulated windproof ski pants. If you’re moving around a lot, the large muscles of your legs are doing most of the work; mine seem to stay warm.  When it’s warmer (say, over 15 degrees F) I ditch the insulated pants and wear a layer of Goretex instead.

Torso Layers: I wore four layers today: A mid-weight four-way-stretch wicking layer, an Underarmor sweatshirt, an Icewear wind-and-water-resistant lightweight softshell jacket, and a Wild Things mega-heavy-duty jacket. This is a mountaineering jacket, with a heat reflective inner lining, a thick layer of high quality down, and a Goretex outerlayer. It keeps me warm until — well, I don’t actually know, since I’ve never actually been cold while wearing it I can vouch for temps as low as -20 F.

Face: A very lightweight poly balaclava, a fleece neckwarmer, and my ski helmet. When I didn’t get everything organized just right, I had some fingers of cold poking at me between the gear gaps.  I think I’d be better off if I added with one of those face masks that covers the nose, and has little breathing holes.

Gloves: I wore old-school heavy duty insulated leather mittens — they  look a little like boxing gloves. Mittens are warmer than gloves. And if you’re still cold, add a lightweight glove liner and/or chemical hand warmers. (You can keep them in your jack pocket and just use them if needed.)

And of course, stopping in at the lodge for a few well-timed hot drinks breaks is never a bad idea!

All told, I think my outfit today would pass muster with the Taliban — not an inch of skin was exposed. But  I stayed completely warm.  So can you.