Mountain reads: ‘Backpacking 101’ by Heather Balogh Rochfort

NOTE: This is an installment of an occasional series on books, old and new, about outdoor adventure.

The growing popularity of outdoor adventure, highlighted in famous books and movies, has more people hitting the trail. Many are seeking to travel to wild places for days at a time, but as you might guess, those sorts of adventures aren’t as simple as throwing a few items in a day pack and waltzing through the woods. The gear, knowledge and preparation inherent with backpacking is substantial in its volume. Any cursory search of the internet will reveal that. Often it can feel like drinking from a fire hose.

So how do you pare that down into something more digestible? Enter “Backpacking 101,” a compact tome by backpacker, traveler, blogger and Backpacker Magazine writer Heather Balogh Rochfort. She’s spent a lot of time on the trail and on the road with her life on her back on a few continents and numerous wilderness areas across the U.S. In her book, she seeks to create a primer for people looking to turn their day hikes into deeper adventures.

The book breaks down backpacking into its core elements — the gear and supplies you’ll need, how to pick a campsite, first-aid, hygiene, navigation and more. Included in its pages are diagrams and illustrations, and short breakouts that highlight specific issues of importance related to each chapter. It’s written in an accessible style (it’s absent of the stodgy, “owner’s manual” language of a lot of how-to books on the outdoors), but that doesn’t mean it’s light on details — it’s rich with useful information. I’ve had a decent amount of time on the trail, and I learned new things upon reading it.

I’d mention a couple of things about sections on gear. A lot of equipment comes with different ratings that don’t mean much to the average consumer: temperature ratings, fill ratings, insulation ratings, etc. All of these things are explained or illustrated in the book, thus taking some of the mystery out of gear purchases. And pay special attention to the author’s breakdown on footwear. It’s thorough.

Balogh Rochfort also takes time to explain considerations that are unique to women, be it gear or self-care in the wild. It’s done in a way that breaks the ice on certain topics which, at first glance, can be a barrier for some women when it comes to giving backpacking a try. She solves this by demystifying these issues, breaking them down as logistical problems with simple solutions rather than blowing them up into full-blown warnings.

You’ll also find information on wilderness ethics (where to set up camp, how to store food, and what to do with gray water, for example) as well as a chapter devoted to backpacking with dogs.

Backpacking has a special allure of adventure, but given the cost of gear and the acquired knowledge it takes to do it safely, it can be intimidating. “Backpacking 101” is a good way to educate yourself and hopefully set yourself up for success in the outdoors.

You can see more of Heather Balogh Rochfort’s writing at her blog, justacoloradogal.com.

Bob Doucette

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The art of being a follower: 8 key attributes to being a good role player in the outdoors

You’re not always the top dog out here. But you will have a role, and how you fill it will go a long way toward success or failure.

Last week I wrote about eight attributes of a good outdoors leader. I believe those traits carry into other areas of life, be it at home, at work or in any organization you’re a part of.

But not everyone can be the leader. For every good sergeant, there needs to be solid foot soldiers. Not everyone can be LeBron. Sometimes you need to be a role player coming off the bench. Same goes for the outdoors.

Most of the time, you’re not going to be the leader. For lack of a better term, you’re going to be a follower, and there’s an art to it. Good followers have their roles to play, and when done right, they’re a major part of a team’s success, wherever that endeavor takes them. So let’s take a look at that.

  1. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Do an inventory or your skills and experience. What are you good at? Where could you use some work? If you know your strengths, you know what you have to offer the group. Identifying where you’re weak will give you an opportunity to bone up on skills. Blithely glossing over areas where you’re soft won’t help you or your partners. And if a task on a particular adventure is way over your head, consider bowing out until you’ve gained enough skill to participate and contribute. For me, that weakness is rock climbing. I can do the simple sport stuff, but if people are counting on me to lead climb multipitch routes, they’ll be sorely disappointed. Worse, they might be endangered. And never lie or exaggerate about your experience. As is the case with the outdoor leader, it’s also true with the follower: You’ll get found out and instantly lose credibility, and worse, you might put your group at risk.
  2. Be a good listener. If you’re not the top dog, consider your time on that adventure as a good place to listen and learn from those with experience. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned by listening and watching people I’m with. More often than not, experienced adventurers are willing to share their knowledge and advice. Then you can put those lessons into practice and raise your game. Driving 4WD roads, backcountry diet, ice axe and crampon technique, fishing trout streams – my friends have taught me a lot that I couldn’t gain from reading a book or watching a video.
  3. Speak up. Rarely is there a time when the leader of a group rules with an iron fist and you’re not allowed to give input. If you see something amiss, point it out. If you have an idea on how to tackle a problem, say something. Your viewpoint might just be the key to solving a puzzle others don’t see. Communication is a major factor when it comes to a successful outdoor adventure.
  4. Be a contributor. While it’s nice and all to put in your two cents, you’re going to need to give more than that. You need to carry your weight when it comes to the basics. Whether it’s bringing the proper gear and provisions for a trip or sharing in camp chores, step up. If you only enjoy the fruits of everyone else’s labors, you’re guaranteed to be the type of person who never gets invited to future adventures. And yeah, that includes gas money and trash hauling. Proactively seek opportunities to get things done, then do it.
  5. Be prepared. There’s that old Boy Scouts motto! But seriously, being part of a group means showing up ready. This encompasses a lot. You need to know enough about your trip to be aware of what you should bring in terms of gear and food. You should also have working knowledge of how to use that gear. And you should, as best you can, be in shape to tackle whatever awaits you in the backcountry. If you’re part of a backpacking trip that’s heading into the high country, do yourself and your team a favor and put in some miles before you show up at the trailhead. And don’t be the guy who bogarts other people’s gear and food because you forgot or didn’t know what to bring.
  6. Ask questions. If you’re unsure about something, an unasked question is a wasted opportunity, and potentially a dangerous oversight. Let’s say you’re testing some of your gear before a trip, but it’s not working like it should. Give your more experienced buddy a call, or go to the store where you bought it and find out what’s wrong. That sheepish phone call or the time spent with a salesperson is far better than not knowing how to do something and letting that fester all the way into the backcountry. The same could be said for not knowing how to undertake a specific task. Let’s say you’re going to do some kayaking or canoeing, but you’re unsure how to steer the craft. Find someone who knows what they’re doing and ask for help. You’ll enjoy the activity a lot more, and you might just save yourself from unneeded risk on the water. I could go on, but you get the idea. If you don’t know something and never ask a question about it, your ignorance – and the consequences of it – is on you. But it also might affect everyone else. Even if it’s a stupid question, ask anyway.
  7. Help others who lack your experience. Not every “follower” is a noob. You may be in a support role, but have extensive backcountry experience. Some of your buddies could benefit from that. Some helpful advice or just hanging with your newbie friend can go a long way toward strengthening a team, and this can be done without usurping the role of the leader. I can’t count the number of men and women who have had this role for me, and I’ve been blessed by their guidance.
  8. Be a unifier. Being a unifying influence in a group has less to do with being a cheerleader and more to do with being the kind of person people would travel with again. It’s critical in team environments to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. People who are disagreeable, dominate discussions, lord their experience over others or take advantage of other people’s efforts are fracturing influences. No one wants to make camp with that type of person. But how about the gal or guy who chips in their fair share and then some? Who listens as intently as they talk? Who helps less experienced team members, or who humbly accepts guidance? You know, the anti-diva? Those people get invited back.

So there you go. If you look at last week’s post, there are similarities to this one, and that’s no accident. Part of becoming a good leader is learning how to be a good follower. And being a good follower is a great way to learn how effective teams work, a lesson that might prove handy when, one day, you become the one people look to for guidance.

Bob Doucette

The newest, most essentially 10 Essentials list for outdoor adventure ever

If you’re going to be one of the cool kids, you better get crackin’ on this newest list of the 10 Essentials. 😉

One of the things that appeals to the outdoorsy set is the authenticity of the lifestyle. There is something that is pared down and pure about setting off into the wild, slowing down and testing yourself against the landscape and the elements.

What gets left behind: the cliques of school and the hierarchy of work. Just you, at peace with the world, with none of the BS of “normal” life.

But there are expectations to be met if you’re going to be a real outdoorist. I’ve done a tour of magazine and website articles, Instagram feeds and everything else that really matters in the outdoors and have compiled this list of 10 essentials (a new 10 essentials!) for the aspiring outdoor adventurer. Read and heed:

  1. The adventure rig: You’ve got to have wheels to get to those prime locales, and only certain types will do. They are the Toyota Tacoma pickup, the Toyota 4runner, the Jeep Rubicon and whatever all-wheel drive Subaru you come up with. What’s that you say? Your whip ain’t on that list? Sorry. You’re on the outside looking in.
  2. #vanlife: If you’re a real human of the outdoors, you can’t be a weekend warrior. Oh no. You need to be #committed. And that means living out of your vehicle, driving from camp to camp as you climb stuff, hike stuff, freelance stuff and take pics of sunrises through the open back doors/hatch of the van or truck you’re living in. Any vehicle can work, but if you’re going to be the real deal, it probably needs to be a built-out ride and should definitely be a van. Bonus points if it’s a Sprinter. If this ain’t you, then you should stay home and stop crowding the beautiful places where the vanlifers gather. Your Ford F-150 totally kills the vibe.
  3. An adventure dog: Just about everyone loves dogs. They’re happy, energetic and affirming buddies all too willing to go anywhere you go. Plus, they’re awesome conversation starters. Just watch someone roll up on a trailhead with their pooch, and instantly everyone wants to meet your furry friend. This, and they can carry stuff in dog packs and keep you warm in your tent, er, van. A discerning dog owner will make sure their prized pet is looking the part, preferably with a bandana tied around its neck like a scarf. That way we know it’s an outdoors dog.
  4. An adventure blog: Your adventures are awesome. So are your photos and videos. And some really profound stuff happens out there that people need to know about. So fire up your site, write some words and slap in some pics. Trip reports, listicles, cooking/fashion tips and think-pieces are waiting to be written. Some of that stuff might go viral, and you’ll get noticed. And that’s when the big bucks happen. Once that occurs, you’ll be able to pay off Nos. 1 and 2 on this list. 😉
  5. A social media arsenal. No one’s gonna read that blog if you don’t promote it on social. And you need Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and, well, I guess a bunch of other things to promote your blog, satisfy your sponsors (you’re a brand ambassador, right? RIGHT?) and generally build your personal brand so folks can relate to the real, authentic, outdoorsy you. You might be tempted to ask yourself if constantly updating all these accounts and building your list of followers is crimping your outdoorsy lifestyle, but don’t. FEED THE BEAST. Cuz, pics or it didn’t happen.
  6. Trucker hats: If you don’t already have a set of these, get crackin’. Not a baseball cap, not a brimmed hat, not anything of the sort. It needs to be a trucker hat, preferably decorated with your favorite outdoors brand (NOT A SPORTSBALL TEAM EVER DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT THAT’S NOT REAL LIFE). These mesh-backed caps became all the rage for trail runners, and it’s only spread from there. Buy ten and be part of the in-crowd.
  7. Adventure drinks: Yeah, you need your water, and I guess some forms of sports drinks are OK. But generally speaking, there are only three outdoorsy drinks. First is coffee, preferably out of your own campsite French press. Second is the IPA (hoppier the better, and it MUST be brewed in Colorado, California or Oregon). Third is whisky. If you’re drinking tea, lagers or tequila/vodka/rum, you’re doing it wrong and should stay away from the trail and off my crag.
  8. The right soundtrack: This is a bit harder to define. It’s going to be kinda hipstery. Maybe with a touch of pop and folk. There should be some acoustic guitar, maybe notes of bluegrass but something you can dance to. But definitely not metal. You can’t be singing Mastodon or Black Sabbath around the campfire. Maybe more Lumineers or Grouplove. I dunno. This is out of my wheelhouse.
  9. The right wardrobe: On the trail, get your clothes at REI (no cotton!). In town, hit the thrift stores. And NO DANG SPORTSBALL TEAM APPAREL (see No. 6).
  10. The right camp games: Of these, there are two. The first is slacklining. This is how you prove your physical prowess while in camp (because proving your physical prowess is important, and doing it in camp is, well, I guess that’s important too). This is the preferred activity of climbers. The second is bocce. You can use plain ole rocks. Or be really cool and pack a set of actual bocce balls. Nothing says camp thrills like bocce and slacklining. Ask anyone.

So there you have it. If you don’t have/do these things or aren’t getting them lined up, get a move on, will ya? Otherwise, please stick to the night clubs and golf courses you’re used to.

DISCLAIMER: My dream car is a four-wheel-drive Tacoma and I love dogs. I’m a whisky guy and have partnered with a shoe company. I’d slackline if my balance was better and have played bocce at camp. If you’re reading this, then it’s obvious I’ve got a blog and you’ll find me on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, and my playlist includes all four bands mentioned above. If you’re offended by any of this, recognize that truth and farce can coexist as long as we don’t take ourselves too seriously. And you’ll only pry my Broncos trucker hat out of my cold, dead hands.

Bob Doucette

The best stuff I own: Five all-stars from my personal gear stash

Some of the best gear I’ve ever owned is in this photo. Keep on reading…

I don’t do many gear reviews, mostly because I don’t have access to a lot of new gear. What I buy, I make it last.

But what I can offer you is something different. Call it a shout-out to the products I’ve used that have become standouts for my outdoor endeavors.

I own a multitude of tents, sleeping bags, hiking boots, running shoes, backpacks and a whole bunch of other gear for hiking, backpacking, camping and climbing. Almost all of it has performed well.

But there are a few things in my gear cache that stand out. So what I’m offering you is a roster of my all-stars. Here goes:

MSR Pocket Rocket stove, attached to an Iso-Pro fuel canister.

MSR Pocket Rocket camp stove: When the Pocket Rocket debuted, it was dubbed the lightest camp stove on the market. At just 3.5 ounces, it held that title for a long time. I bought mine 13 years ago and have used it on every overnight outing in four different states, and in all sort of conditions. It’s simple, effective and durable. Unless MSR discontinues the style of fuel cans that the Pocket Rocket uses, I can’t see replacing mine anytime soon. It’s shown virtually no wear, does its job efficiently and well, and barely makes a dent in my pack weight. You can read my review of this stove here.

I’m sporting the Columbia Omni-Wick pullover on the slopes of Mount Sherman. Nice and toasty.

Columbia Omni-Wick pullover: Another one I’ve had for a while, along with other Columbia gear. The Omni-Wick pullover has been my go-to softshell for all seasons, and in several locales. It’s warm, durable, lightweight and versatile. It’s an essential piece of gear for mountain hikes and climbs as well as for any winter activities. It kept my toasty during a marathon that was 26 degrees and windy. Enough said.

Comfortable, versatile, durable: the Merrell Moab Ventilator.

Merrell Moab Ventilator hiking shoe: I’ve been a Merrell fan for years, and this particular hiking shoe has been one of the most reliable pieces of footwear I’ve ever owned. It’s rugged enough to handle more severe terrain (think Talus-hopping above treeline, or bushwhacking in various wilderness areas) but still comfortable, warm and breathable. I might trade it out for other footwear I own given the conditions of a particular adventure, but the Moab Ventilator is my default hiking shoe for good reason.

The Salomon Sense Pro trail running shoe. Best trail runners I’ve ever owned.

Salomon Sense Pro trail running shoe: Another durable, light and high-performing piece of footwear. Unlike the other pieces of gear mentioned here (all of which were purchased), I got a pair of these through a testing program the company had going up until a couple of years ago. You can read my reviews of the Sense Pro here and here. They’re comfortable on various types of terrain, let you feel the trail and protect your feet. They’re great as lightweight hikers and drain water well. And they stay comfortable, even at long distances (I’ve run mine as far as marathon length). Of all the trail running shoes I’ve owned, these have been the best, and it’s not even close.

Me sporting the Solaris 40 backpack by The North Face. Simply put, the best piece of outdoor gear I’ve ever owned, ten years and counting.

The North Face Solaris 40 backpack: One piece of gear to rule them all. I’ve got several backpacks from a number of high-quality brands. All of them are excellent. Some are expedition-size packs, others are day packs. The Solaris 40 is in that latter category, and it might not be fair to compare it to the others. But I have my reasons for giving it the crown. I’ve owned it for 10 years. It’s been all over the world with me. It has all the features you expect in a great day pack: hydration sleeve, an ice axe loop, a lower compartment for ultralight sleeping bags, backside ventilation, and multiple pockets designed in a streamlined fashion. It’s been a reliable summit pack, day hiking pack and is the right size for hauling electronics for more urban uses. It’s also my daily use bike commute backpack. I use it almost every day, and aside from a scuff here and there, the Solaris has shown no signs of wearing out. It was the best $80 I’ve ever spent on ANY piece of gear, and defines the term “versatile.”

So there you have it. My starting five, so to speak. What has been your best gear? Let’s hear it in the comments.

Bob Doucette

Return to the Wichitas, Part 1: Hiking Elk Mountain and Little Baldy in Oklahoma’s rugged Wichita Mountains

Brian checks out the views on the way up Elk Mountain.

Oklahoma is a prairie state. That’s its identity, and for the most part it’s accurate. But that also discounts the fact that the state contains wooded hills, desert-like terrain and in its southwestern reaches, rugged, ancient crags we know as the Wichita Mountains.

They’re not lofty by any stretch. Having stood for over half a billion years, you’ll forgive the effects of erosion over time. The Rockies, the Appalachians and the Ozarks are babies by comparison. But the venerable Wichitas still stand, popping up from the flatness of the Southern Plains between the military towns of Lawton and Altus. They’re out of place: craggy, alien forms that don’t match the sweeping plains dominating this part of the state. You might say there’s a geological generation gap going on there.

I’ve spent a decent amount of time there, hiking the wide valleys and rocky slopes inside this range, sharing the space with buffalo, elk and other prairie wildlife that call the Wichitas home. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees and wildlife refuge here, and within that refuge is one of the state’s few true wilderness areas. It’s not big, but it’s definitely wild.

I moved to Tulsa seven years ago, and since arriving, I haven’t been back to the Wichitas. A real shame, because that’s the place I spent time hiking and climbing in preparation for bigger adventures in the Rockies. What I’ve learned is that the Wichitas are a fine destination of their own. I missed this place, my Oklahoma happy place, and yet hadn’t set foot there in some time.

That changed recently. I have a friend who had never been there, someone breaking into the world of hiking and backpacking and eager to test his gear and his legs somewhere. After spending some time on the trails of northeast Oklahoma, he was willing to give the Wichitas a try.

The plan: drive to the refuge, make camp, and hit a few of the easier highpoints before calling it a night. Then get up the next day and do a deeper dive into the wildest patch of the range.

After seven years, I just hoped I wouldn’t get us lost.

A.T. OR BUST

I met Brian Hoover a few years back, probably at one of the races his company puts on. He got into trail running several years ago, began organizing events, and eventually TATUR Racing became one of northeast Oklahoma’s bigger race sponsors and chip timing providers.

More recently, backpacking and bushcraft has captured his interest. Being a goal-oriented fella, the lure of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail hooked him hard. He’s done a lot of research and beefed up his gear stash with his eye on attempting the AT in the not-too-distant future.

When I put out some feelers on social media about going to the Wichitas, he was keen to do it. The plan, in his mind, was to see a new place, don his new gear, and test it out. He also wanted the extra burden of loading his pack and doing our day hikes with the same gear he intended to carry on the AT.

The drive from Tulsa to the Wichitas was a quick three hours. We’d hoped to get a backcountry camping permit, but the refuge intentionally keeps permit levels down. Ten were issued, and that was all they could take. We settled for the established campsite at Doris Campground, which was fine by me. I joked that this meant we could use an outhouse rather than pooping in the woods.

After setting up camp, it was time to hit some trails.

ELK MOUNTAIN

There are loads of hiking and climbing areas throughout the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Most of the trails, while scenic, are also easy walks. The gateway to the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area – the most rugged part of the range – has long been the Sunset trailhead at the foot of Elk Mountain.

Looking at the Sunset Massif on the way up Elk Mountain.

The mountain itself looks more like a broad mesa from a distance. It’s only when you get up close that the mountain’s rugged nature is revealed. Its southern face is steep, slabby and in spots sheer, and rock climbers can find numerous technical routes there. The northern slopes are gentler, and that’s where the Elk Mountain Trail goes. It ascends several hundred feet to Elk Mountain’s broad summit, where commanding views of Mount Lincoln, Sunset Peak and numerous other high points in the wilderness play out.

Looking north on Elk Mountain.

I opted for a day pack, but Brian went ahead and hiked in his full backpacking kit. Practice makes perfect, and there were going to be plenty of places on the AT where you’d gain hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of feet uphill on any given day. May as well get used to it now.

Bouldery terrain at the top of Elk Mountain.

The trail ends atop Elk Mountain, but doesn’t hit the summit. That would require more off-trail hiking and a little boulder hopping west, toward the steeper cliffs on the south and west sides of the mountain. Stiff, chilly breezes greeted us and a few other hikers on the hill that day. Curiously absent: wildlife. Aside from a few birds, Elk Mountain was quiet.

Brian records some video and sound on the summit of Elk Mountain. Wind is noisy.

West views from atop Elk Mountain.

Brian checks out an overview looking east.

Summit view, looking east.

We headed back down, but still had some daylight to kill. One more minor summit would do.

LITTLE BALDY

Away from the wilderness area but still in the refuge is Little Baldy, a minor summit that guards over the dam at Quanah Parker Lake. Unknown to me at the time, but there’s a trail that leads from where we camped on the other side of the lake to Little Baldy, but I don’t think we would have been able to complete that hike before sunset.

Quanah Parker Lake as seen while hiking up Little Baldy.

Anyway, the dam is this cool concrete structure that looks like a miniature version of the Hoover Dam, built high in a ravine to impound the waters that now make up the lake. We parked at the dam, then hiked up the trail to the granite dome that is Little Baldy.

For such a small point, it commands excellent views of the refuge and the lake. I opted to take a tougher scramble to the top; Brian wisely chose not to, seeing that he was hiking in his bigger pack (Brian would do a lot of smart things on this trip without any prompting from me).

Looking northwest from the top of Little Baldy. This is a low-commitment, high-payoff summit hike.

Little Baldy’s breezy summit and the lowering sun cued us to hike down and make some dinner before turning in. I’m a night owl, but when I’m camping the setting sun is my sign to hit the sack.

After scarfing down dinner, we stayed up a bit, chatting about hiking, running and gear. I brought a six-pack of beer, a nice after-dinner treat to enjoy with the conversation (Shiner black lager – yum).

With that, we turned in. It would be a cold night – and quite memorable – to set the stage for a more ambitious outing in the morning.

Our camp was on the lake shore, and we had these fellas as neighbors. They were cranky when we got too close.

In the next installment: Brian and I wake up to bitter winds, cloudy skies and a busy day hiking through the heart of the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.

Getting there: Take Interstate 44 to the State Highway 49 exit and go west. The highway will take you to the refuge.

About the route on Elk Mountain: From the Sunset parking lot, cross the first bridge to the Elk Mountain Trail. The trailhead is well-marked, and the trail itself is easy to follow. Class 1, about 2.2 miles round trip.

About the route on Little Baldy: From the Quanah Parker Lake Dam parking lot, follow the paved walkway to the dam and walk across the dam to the trail. The trail is mildly defined from here, and going to the top is a matter of easy route-finding to the top. Route length is 0.6 miles round trip. Class 1, with some minor boulder hopping close to the top.

Things to know: The Wichita Mountains are home to abundant wildlife as well as a managed herd of longhorn cattle. Of particular note are bison. Give bison and the longhorn cattle plenty of room, as they can be dangerous when spooked or angered. The range is also home to rattlesnakes, so be on the lookout for them during warmer months. The range is also dry. All creeks and waterfalls are seasonal, so opportunities for filtering are relatively few. Bring plenty of water, regardless of season.

Bob Doucette

What went right, what went wrong: Five lessons learned on the trail

All revved up and ready to go.

Experience can teach you a lot about hiking, and as the years go by, understanding yourself, your skills and your limitations goes a long way to being a safer hiker. Mistakes often turn into lasting lessons that make future outings much more enjoyable. And while that newbie phase can be fun and exciting, it can also put you in a world of hurt.

It’s one thing to use those lessons to help yourself. But what about the people you’re with? I hike solo from time to time, but many times I’m with other people, with varying levels of experience, ability and ambition. Mix a bunch of these folks into one outing, and you can have a comprehensive, positive experience, or you can have a hot mess.

Those years on the trail have given me a mix of both. I’ll summarize a few scenarios and go over what went right, and what went wrong.

BACKPACKING TRIP

View hiking up Wheeler Peak, NM.

Books, movies and tales told face-to-face can make outdoor adventures appealing to a wide group of people, and my own stories of hiking New Mexico’s highest mountain, Wheeler Peak, drew some interest. I took my wife, Bec, her sister, and two friends and we hauled our gear to the trailhead of the Middle Fork Trail. It is a 16-mile round-trip hike.

Our plan: Hike five miles to Lost Lake, camp there, summit the next morning and then head back down for steaks and high-fives in nearby Red River.

In terms of, well, everything, this group was all over the map. My friends had done plenty of backpacking in the western U.S. and in China, but were a little light on their fitness. The same could be said for Bec, who was also new to backpacking. Her sister, Liz, was also a relative noob in backpacking, but was in marathon-ready shape. People’s gear was anything from high-end to inadvisable.

In terms of our objective, all of us summited the peak and made it back to Red River safely. Success! Right? Well, sort of. My friends had their moments of altitude sickness. Liz did great. Bec’s boots lacked proper support and her socks gave her blisters early on in the hike. By the time it was over, her feet were wrecked and the back side of her foot was shredded. What should have been a tired but happy scene at the trailhead was really some dazed folks and no shortage of tears.

What went right: We got most of the gear right, and the scope of the trip was (barely) within the level of everyone’s abilities. We reached our objectives, and got back safe.

What went wrong: Plenty. Only two of us were really in shape for this effort, and it’s asking a lot of new hikers to embark on a higher-altitude backpacking trip in the Rockies. Footwear was obviously an issue. I’d say we got away with a lot of mistakes, and this easily could have bred more serious situations.

Being the leader of this group, a lot of that is on me. I could have easily picked a different objective more within the group’s collective abilities, and a pre-trip gear check would have saved my poor spouse a lot of grief. As for the others, they are responsible for their own conditioning, and to a degree, everyone is accountable to do the proper research on gear. We all learned from this one.

WEATHER ON THE MOUNTAIN

Marching up toward the Keyhole on Longs Peak, CO.

As you grow in your outdoor experience, bigger and tougher goals become more appealing. Easier walk-ups give way to scrambles, which often lead to exposed, airy climbs. Before you know it, the newbie hiker of years past is boasting summits of big Latin American volcanoes, or Rainier, or maybe Grand Teton while eyeing Denali.

That’s not me, but the progression is similar. I went with some friends to tackle Longs Peak, Colorado, a couple of years ago, hoping to knock off a tougher peak.

Longs Peak is a lengthy route. Alpine starts often have you hitting the trail at 2 a.m., with thoughts of beating the weather around this notoriously unpredictable mountain. It has a big stretch near the top where you don’t want to be when the weather goes south.

We set off at 2:15 a.m., and made OK time to the Boulder Field, a bumpy section just before the standard route’s famous Keyhole. The Keyhole is where hiking gives way to scrambling, climbing and exposure en route to the summit.

But we’d heard from others that a previous day’s storms had dumped some wet, sloppy snow over the upper portions of the mountains. Clouds were swirling around the summit. Winds were up. A couple of us (me, for one) were dragging a bit. When we got to the Keyhole, we took a peek around the corner and saw, with dismay, that the reports we heard were true. The route conditions looked bad, especially since some of us weren’t as salty as the rest.

The de facto leader of the group, a fella named Dillon, saw it right away. And he’s the one who called it. We munched our summit food at the rock shelter by the Keyhole, packed up and headed down the mountain, stopped well short of our objective.

What went right: We listened to the voice of experience. Dillon has it in bucketloads. Even though we were equipped for the task, those of us on the lower level of experience might not have been ready for the route conditions. And the weather’s unpredictability made it an obvious no-go. Any protests were weak and short-lived. We knew the truth.

What went wrong: Nothing for anyone else. I’d criticize my level of fitness for that one. I know better now. Aside from that, I have memories of a big, burly mountain, Chasm Lake, and sunrise over one of the nation’s iconic national parks.

PACING A NEWCOMER

Hiking down Mount LeConte.

A couple of years ago, my sister-in-law Jen wanted to go with me to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to hike Mount LeConte. While not the Rockies, the bigger mountains of eastern Tennessee can have long routes with plenty of elevation gain. LeConte was no different, with the route we chose being the Alum Cave Bluff Trail: 11 miles with nearly 3,000 feet of gain to its summit.

Jen’s a gamer, but she’s also new to this. We took off on the lower part of the trail, and I set my usual pace.

Not long after you hit Arch Rock, the route steepens. We live around 800 feet above sea level, and by this time we were getting into the upper 4,000-foot level. It was right about there that I figured it was wise to slow things down.

Once we got to Alum Cave Bluff, we took a break. I wasn’t sure how much further Jen wanted to go, but after catching her breath, we decided to keep going. With a more measured pace and breaks every 20 to 30 minutes, we topped out on one of Tennessee’s highest peaks. It turned into a spectacular day that lit a fire under her for more adventures.

What went right: Recognizing that our early pace was too fast, and breaking the hike down into more manageable chunks. This is what I have to do in the Rockies, and it would make sense to do that here where the elevation was significantly higher than at home. It was also important to “read” my hiking partner: She’s got a lot of heart and a true competitor’s spirit, so her capacity to endure some physical hardship was going to be greater than others. That, combined with the right pace, got us to the top and back safely.

What went wrong: Really, it went about as well as I could have imagined. Had I insisted on keeping a faster pace, our trip likely would have ended sooner, and might have led to some hard feelings. I can’t emphasize how important it is to observe your partners. Glad we nipped that in the bud early.

NOT FEELING RIGHT

Late light at Hobbs State Park, AR.

I’m going to rat on Bec again with this one.

We were out in Arkansas recently, having a very chill few days in the hills and woods near Bentonville. We wanted to spend one day hiking some trails, and I found some good ones at Hobbs State Park.

But Bec was suffering from allergies, which led to some allergy medicine being taken the night before our planned hike. It did great in helping her sleep. But it left her in a fog the next day.

My plan was to get out there and hike as long as she saw fit, then turn around and head back. In more recent months, she’s gone on day hikes with me that went anywhere from two to five miles, with our most recent outing in New Mexico. She handled five miles at 8,600+ feet just fine, so I had no real worries.

I wanted her to lead for a few reasons. First, I figured it would be more fun for her if she had something to look at other than my backside. Second, it would allow us (force us) to go at her pace. And third, she wouldn’t be pressured to keep going if I was plowing away in the lead.

But dang, that medicine. It left her groggy and her head was swimming. She was kicking rocks the whole way, just short of tripping on, well, everything. It was a gorgeous day with good temperatures, and the forest in this park is a fantastic mix of hardwoods and pines. No matter. The medicine’s after-effects were making this outing a big case of “nope.” A mile in, we turned around, headed back to the car and hunted down some dinner.

What went right: Making her lead was the right decision. I wanted this to be fun for both of us, and crashing down the trail as fast as I can wasn’t going to do anything for me. I was just happy to be out there, regardless of how far we went. Having her set the pace and lead the way gave us the best chance of both of us enjoying it. When that became impossible, it made sense to pack it in when she was ready.

What went wrong: Really, nothing. We missed out on the overlooks further up the trail, but had we pushed through and done the whole four-mile loop, would it have been any fun at all? Nope.

SICK AS A DOG AT 14,000 FEET

I wish I could say I was feeling great about this summit in this pic. I wasn’t.

Now I’m going to tattle on myself. Back in 2008, a group of us decided to take a shot at Mount Yale in Colorado, a 14,000-foot peak near Buena Vista.

I’d been battling respiratory issues in the weeks leading up to the trip. A hacking cough pestered me to no end. But I figured I could give it a go.

We backpacked in a mile, set up camp and set out for Yale’s summit the next morning.

Early on, things seemed fine. I started slowing down more around 12,000 feet. Nothing unusual there. But at 13,000 feet, I started feeling side cramps. Normally, cramps like that occur when you’re running or sprinting, not when you’re hiking. Leg cramps? Sure. A side-stitch? No. But that’s what I was feeling. With no real idea what was going on, I pushed on.

The cramps got worse, and by the time I topped out, I was gassed. Here’s where things got weird.

Those side cramps, which came with the expected heart/lung stress of going uphill at altitude, didn’t go away. Anytime I got moving, the cramps would take hold. When I stopped, I was getting strangely cold. Soon, symptoms of altitude sickness were taking hold. I was moving slowly down the mountain, and weather was moving in. Treeline seemed incredibly far off. My declining physical state, and the conditions moving in, got me worried.

I knew if I got to treeline, I’d be OK. But I also knew I needed to eat something. I did, though I almost barfed it up. Having been on the mountain much longer than I thought, I was running low on water.

Eventually I got to treeline. I ran into a group of hikers, swallowed my pride, and asked if they had anything they could spare to drink.

When I got back to camp, my condition only worsened. Back at home, a hospital visit revealed a severe case of pneumonia, pleurisy and fluid around my heart. Recovery from this mess took a couple of months.

What went right: Well, I did summit! In all seriousness, though, not much. It was good that I recognized my predicament, kept heading downhill and, when available, asked for help. I ate when I needed to. I put myself in a position to get home safely, see a doctor and get treatment.

What went wrong: Almost everything else. This trip is a laundry list of avoidable errors. For starters, I should never have gone. The hacking cough was a good sign that whatever was ailing me wasn’t done. Those weird side cramps should have been a big enough red flag to turn me around. The two liters of water wasn’t enough. Pneumonia is a serious condition anywhere, and downright dangerous at altitude (that’s what prompted the altitude sickness). Fluid around my heart and my right lung could have been lethal. Mount Yale is a beautiful mountain, but it’s not worth my life. It was good that I humbled myself and asked for help when I saw those other hikers. But that humility would have been better served by staying home.

I could go on, but that’s a good sampling of scenarios I’ve faced, along with the good and bad about the decisions that were made. Experience is a great teacher, and hopefully it’s made me a better – and safer – hiker.

Bob Doucette

Hiking Arkansas’ Magazine Mountain Trail

Craig takes in the scene from an overlook on the trail.

Between the briars slicing open my shins and picking off a couple of ticks, there was one thing that I failed to notice, something my hiking partner Craig noted.

“What’s great about this is we haven’t seen another soul.”

He was right. We’d been on the trail for a couple of hours, and the only non-insect beings we saw were a couple of snakes, a few lizards, and some turkey vultures riding the air currents high above a steep, heavily wooded ravine.

Solitude is something I expect in the remote parts of the country, but not in the South. Sparsely populated western states offer plenty of alone time if you want it. That’s tougher to find in states where small towns dot the landscape and paved highways take you to the tops of mountains.

So it was remarkable that this hike, going up the Magazine Mountain Trail in northwest Arkansas, was one in which we were the only humans around.

I’ll take that every time.

Looking out over a rocky outcrop three miles in, I uttered what became the de facto humorous slogan of the trip: “This does not suck.”

ARKANSAS’ HIGH PLACE

A view looking south from near the top of Magazine Mountain.

Magazine Mountain (alternatively, and interchangeably, called Mount Magazine) is the highest mountain in Arkansas, rising to 2,753 feet. It was named by French explorers who, after witnessing a landslide on its flanks, likened the sound to a munitions magazine exploding.

It’s the monarch of the Ouachita Mountains, an ancient band of east-west ridges and mesas that once soared to heights equal to that of the Rockies, back before tectonic movement pushed it away from the Appalachians and into the heart of the interior highlands of Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

The Ouachitas are separated from the Boston Mountains and the rest of the Ozarks by the Arkansas River. Clothing the entire region are dense hardwood and lodgepole pine forests filled with life.

The mountain itself dominates the skyline south of the river. It’s a long plateau crowned with a rim of rugged cliffs at the top, offering spectacular views of the Ouachitas all the way into Oklahoma to the east and the Boston Mountains to the north.

The mountain is mostly inside national forest land, though the top of the formation is land owned by the state, Mount Magazine State Park. The state park and the National Forest Service have a great partnership here, and part of that is maintaining a route that is one of Arkansas’ classic hikes, the 9.7-mile Magazine Mountain Trail.

Most people hike the peak from campgrounds at the top of the mountain down to Cove Lake, 1,500 feet below. But a downhill hike is not what Craig and I are accustomed to.

In some ways, Craig and I are similar hikers. We’re both flatlanders who have found ourselves at home hiking Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, and have a similar number of summits. But we have key differences, namely that he’s much faster at altitude and is seemingly tireless. Me? Not so much.

Thankfully, the altitudes of Arkansas aren’t nearly the factor that they are in Colorado. Otherwise I would have been eating Craig’s dust most of the way yet again.

A WALK IN THE WOODS

The low part of the trail, maybe a mile from the lower trailhead.

Our plan was to drive one of our cars to the lake, hike to the top, then use the other car to retrieve the first. The only other option would have been to do a round-trip hike that would have approached 20 miles. Both of us had done that before, but we were looking more for fun rather than something more demanding.

The trailhead at the lake is easy to miss, but a small parking area (big enough for two cars) revealed the start of the route. I had to remind myself that spring is the time where every fallen tree branch could be a snake. And that turned out to be true. Less than a mile in, a two-foot black snake sat in the middle of the trail, sunning itself, and not at all concerned with us. We were cool with that.

The trail was mostly an up-and-down affair, and then about three miles in, we climbed up to a cliff side that revealed some sweet views of nearby ridges and woodlands. Someone had set up a fire ring at that outcropping, so I suppose you could consider that place as a potential campsite. I guess that would be fine, but there wasn’t a water source nearby, and I’m all about having somewhere close to filter water so I don’t have to haul it all in. We were just passing through, so we snapped a few pics and Craig caught me saying something goofy on video.

“Say hello for the camera,” he said.

“’Sup, camera,” was about as witty as I could get.

A scenic overlook about three miles in.

I figured that our hike up the ridge was the start of ascending the mountain, but I was wrong. Every bit of elevation we gained there we quickly surrendered as the hike went on. As it turned out, this was just a stop along the way and we’d yet to reach the foot of the mountain. So while the maps showed the elevation gain from Cove Lake to the trail’s end at about 1,500 feet, you can easily tack on at least a couple hundred feet more, given this little feature and the constant up-and-down along the way.

Another thing we noticed: This was a very watery hike. For starters, route descriptions mention creek crossings, and there were several. You could cross some without getting your feet wet, but others, not so much. There was a lot of water coming down the mountain that day, a byproduct of frequent rains that had pounded this part of the state in the preceding week.

Some of the pines here were more than a hundred feet tall.

That also made the trail muddy in numerous spots. And in others, water flowed down the trail as if it were a creek itself. Any illusions of keeping our feet dry were quickly dispelled. Once you’re good with that, it’s not a problem. Otherwise, only high-top boots with waterproofing would have provided a chance at staying dry. And that would have been a big if.

The trail is well-marked. There were mile markers (though a few were missing), and white diamond-shaped blazes were nailed to trees frequently. The only tricky areas were, believe it or not, road crossings. The first one of those had the trail reappear in a grassy area across the road (they were all gravel access roads for National Forest Service work). The second one, however, gave us a little trouble.

About four miles in, we came to a road crossing that had one side of the road going uphill and the other splitting into a Y. One of those splits led to a gate, the other downhill. We looked up and down the road and saw no clear indication where the trail picked back up, and our map wasn’t altogether clear.

A fella in a truck pulled up, so we flagged him down. Looking at our map and compass, we took a guess, went up the hill and guessed wrong. We figured that out after Truck Guy drove back up the hill to tell us he saw where the trail left the road – down the hill, the opposite direction we were going. We were grateful for the assist. Who knows where we would have ended up had we kept trudging up the road. I made a mental note that I need to work on my orienteering skills.

With Truck Guy motoring down the road and us back on track, all signs of people vanished again. Every now and then, deadfall blocked our route. My guess is high winds from recent storms took down sick or dead trees along our path.

Somewhere past Mile 5, we hit another high point where two small clearings overlooked a steep, wooded slope. We could hear a creek rushing below us. The clearings also had a fire ring, and this seemed like a good place for someone to camp. The Magazine Mountain Trail is popular with backpackers, and some people turn the hike into a two-day, overnight excursion. We plopped down for some grub, did a tick check (we performed a few of those) and let the sounds of the rushing creek below wash over us.

We encountered a lot of creek crossings, including this one where our map indicated a bridge.

We were in for one more “major” creek crossing where the map indicated a bridge. I saw footings for a bridge on either bank, but something tells me that structure is long gone. It was just another soggy creek crossing, but we were used to that by then. No biggie, just squishy feet for a few minutes (and the promise of really rank socks back at camp).

Shortly after that, the trail started heading uphill in earnest. Nothing too steep, but we did hit two sections of switchbacks that were reminders of some of the more formidable trails we’d experienced in the Rockies. After the second set of switchbacks, the trail ascended the mountain in a steeper – and at times, soggier – straight line.

We knew we hit the state park boundary once the nature of the trail changed. Instead of the partially overgrown singletrack we’d been on all day, more stone stairs appeared.

The “up” gave way soon after, and before long camp had arrived, and with it, the promise of a good nap, fresh clothes, and the best camp food of all time, bratwursts with mac-and-cheese made by yours truly. Not like I’m biased or anything.

I could tell you that the scenery stole the show, and indeed, this is a great hike. It’s not often you can trek on a longer trail in the South and have nearly absolute solitude in a place that was so lush, so green, and so alive.

Craig takes a break near the end of the hike.

But as is the case with most hikes, it’s often the company you keep that makes the trip. All along the way, Craig and I compared stories from the mountains, our solo ascents, or the more memorable peaks. We talked about how we first got into hiking the Fourteeners, who we met, and what mountains we’d like to climb next. A lot of times, sharing these mountain tales leaves many of those we know a little glassy-eyed. I think they’d rather see a couple of pics and move on.

But within our little fellowship, these stories are the spice of life. They often intersect with big lessons learned, shared experiences with family and friends, and time to process big ideas. It’s made easier when there’s no cellphone service, so any urgent texts, emails or notifications are held at bay, leaving room for good conversation or quiet reflection. We don’t get enough of that, you know.

And all that would indeed come. We’d go back to families, back to jobs, back to the noise of daily life beyond these ancient woods. But for a time we let the forest take us in, block everything else out and send us back in time before people tried to tame these lands. Wild places can be savage, but they can also soothe.

ABOUT THE ROUTE

From Cove Lake, start the hike at a small parking pullout near the dam. The trail is well-marked and easy to follow, with very few side trails, most of which are partially overgrown.

About two miles in will be your first road crossing. Tall grasses obscure the trail on the other side of the road, but it will be slightly to your right.

Continue another mile to reach a rocky outcropping. This is a potential camping area, but also a good spot to rest, eat and evaluate the weather, as the bulk of the hike still lies ahead.

Another 1.5 miles up the trail is another road crossing. To your right, the road splits into a Y, with the right-hand fork leading immediately to a gate while the other fork goes downhill. Take the downhill fork. The route includes a small section of the road, but less than 200 yards downhill, the trail will appear to your left and leaves the road for good.

From here, a general uphill climb begins, with some elevation loss and gain. About 5 miles in, you’ll reach two clearings that have been used as campsites. This is just past the halfway point of the route, so it’s a logical place to stop and camp if you’re backpacking. It’s also a good point to evaluate the weather as well as your progress, as the hardest part of the hike still awaits.

The woods reflected on the still waters of a pond.

Past the campsites, the trail continues another two miles before going uphill in earnest. You’ll go uphill for a time and the route will flatten out and take you between two ponds.

Upon leaving the ponds behind, you’ll arrive at the first set of steeper switchbacks, of which there are four. The route eases for a bit, then hits another set of three switchbacks. Leaving those behind, the route eases momentarily, then steepens again. A series of rock steps will appear as you leave the Ozark National Forest and enter Mount Magazine State Park. Continue a steep hike for another mile before the terrain eases and leads you to the boundary of the Cameron Bluffs campsites.

Route length is 9.7 miles, all Class 1 hiking with minimal exposure.

EXTRA CREDIT

Hike south through the campsite, cross the main road and go a half mile up the Signal Hill Trail to the summit of Magazine Mountain and the state’s high point.

Or, if you’re up for it, make it a bigger day by hiking from Cove Lake to the summit, then back down to the lake. 19-21 miles, depending on if you tack on the Signal Hill Trail hike.

THINGS TO KNOW

There is no motorized travel or biking allowed on the Magazine Mountain Trail. Hiking only.

The mountains of Arkansas are bear country. Talk and make noise to alert bears of your presence, and do not attempt to feed them (or any wildlife, for that matter). Give any bear plenty of room, especially if it is a mother with her cubs. If you’re camping, be sure to hang any food or fragrant possessions (toothpaste, deordorant, soap, etc) in a bear bag away from your campsite. Never store these items in your tent.

Bob Doucette