“The hills bear all manner of fantastic shapes,” Charles Bessey observed, noting that they sometimes featured open pockets of bare sand in blowouts and were “provokingly steep and high.” Bessey was describing the Sandhills, the area of post-glacial dunes wrought by mighty winds in north-central and northwestern Nebraska. Aided by his botany students from the University of Nebraska (today’s University of Nebraska–Lincoln), he cataloged a treasure of plant species in 1892. Yet besides spurges and gooseberries, herbaceous plants such as smooth beardtongue, and grasses such as Eatonia obtusata, he found the potential for forestation.
“He was convinced that the moist soil of the Sandhills would support forest growth,” the historian Thomas R. Walsh wrote. Nebraska had gained statehood in 1867 but still had enough untouched areas to be “a virgin natural laboratory,” as Walsh described it. And there were so few trees for wood, shelter, or shade. Bessey had been pushing the state legislature to reserve Sandhills tracts for tree planting. In 1891, urged by the top forestry official in Washington, D.C., he started a test plot at the eastern edge of the Sandhills, which encompassed an area about the size of New Jersey. Ponderosa pines were a big component of the experiment’s 13,500 conifers. With the initial indication that they would do fine, he started a campaign to convince people that forestation was practical. After all, as Walsh noted, “the area was once covered by a pine forest that was destroyed by prairie fires.”
Bessey had come to the University of Nebraska in 1884, lured from Iowa Agricultural College (today, Iowa State University) by an offer of $2,500 per year. He was already the author of “Botany for High Schools and Colleges,” the nation’s first textbook on the subject. His motto of “Science with Practice” indicated a teaching philosophy that mixed laboratory and field work with classroom instruction. He was one of a small group of professors at the prairie university, attended by just 373 students in the year he arrived, but he had an outsized and enduring influence through his popular botany seminar. A top student in the 1892 cataloging project was Roscoe Pound, who claimed the university’s first Ph.D. in botany, then distinguished himself as a legal scholar and served two decades as dean of Harvard University’s law school.
Throughout the latter years of the Gilded Age, Bessey kept hammering away at the idea of national forests. To Gifford Pinchot, head of the national Division of Forestry, he wrote, “In the Sandhills, we have a region which has been shown to be adapted to the growth of coniferous forest trees, and here we can now secure large tracts which are not yet owned by private parties.” Pinchot had the ear of President Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1902 set aside 206,028 acres in two reserves in the Sandhills. “This was the first and only instance in which the federal government removed non-forested public domain from settlement to create a man-made forest reserve,” Walsh explained.
The two reserves are 75 miles apart. The northern Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest is on the Niobrara River near the city of Valentine. The southern one, first called Dismal River Forest Reserve, is now the Nebraska National Forest at Halsey and is managed by the Bessey Ranger District. (Nebraskans refer to it as “Halsey Forest.”) Within it are the Bessey Recreation Area and the crucially important Charles E. Bessey Tree Nursery, which yearly produces 1.5 million bare-root seedlings and up to 850,000 container seedlings for distribution in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states. Additionally, the nursery acts as the seed bank for Rocky Mountain Region 2, storing about 14,000 pounds of conifer seeds in case of wildfire or insect infestation.
Carson Vaughan, author of “Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream,” grew up in Broken Bow, about 50 miles from Halsey Forest. It was only after he started writing articles about Bessey and the forest that he comprehended the magnitude of the original undertaking: creating the largest man-made forest in the United States. “Nothing like this has ever happened anywhere else on the planet,” he said. “And it all started because this pioneering botanist, Charles Bessey, had this wild idea and the patience, the dogged persistence, to stick with it over a couple decades and see it come to fruition.”
Vaughan remembered climbing Scott Lookout Tower, near Halsey, and feeling the impact upon viewing a forest amid treeless grasslands. “You get the rolling, billowing Sandhills right next to this very clear, dark, dense forest,” he said. The experience reinforced the concept that “it took human beings planting all of these trees to make this national forest grow out of this sandy, arid region.”
After succeeding in the Sandhills, Bessey turned to other important challenges. In 1903, he was contacted about the effort to save the giant sequoias in certain groves in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. He tried to interest President Roosevelt in the cause, then introduced the matter into proceedings of scientific societies, sending their resolutions on the matter to congressional representatives. Although he helped to set the conservation process in motion, Bessey would pass away in 1915 without seeing his efforts bear fruit. 16 years later, the state of California acquired the Mammoth Tree Grove, which is a principal element of the eventual Calaveras Big Trees State Park.
On the other side of the country, Bessey became involved in the effort to create a national forest reserve in the southern Appalachians. “The cutting away and total destruction of the forests is a crime against the community as a whole,” he wrote. In 1908, a bill to authorize the reserves came before the House of Representatives, but soon died. It particularly galled Bessey that one of his former students, Representative Ernest M. Pollard, was on the agricultural committee, which had deferred action. “It does seem as though we had the most stupid and blinded lot of men in charge of our affairs that has ever cursed any country,” Bessey wrote to House Speaker Joseph G. Cannon. Bessey and others kept working, and ultimately, the Weeks Act of 1911 was passed, providing for acquisition and preservation of forested lands nationwide.
Today, visitors to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln can see an image of Bessey in bas-relief on a bronze tablet at—where else?—Bessey Hall. There’s also a Bessey Hall at Iowa State. And at Michigan State University, Ernst Bessey Hall is named for Charles’s son, who became a professor of botany and dean at MSU’s graduate school from 1930 to 1944. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
Nate Brown’s deep appreciation for the Pacific Northwest stems from a four-day road trip across the Olympic Peninsula in 2013, during which he surveyed snow-capped mountains and lush forests nestled between the coastlines. An Army mission had brought Brown there, and he was captivated by the landscape that stood before him. After retiring from the Army in 2018, he made it his mission to fully explore the Olympic Mountains by climbing 30 summits within a period of just three years. In September 2021, after hiking over 500 miles and climbing an astonishing 160,000 feet, he achieved just that.
While serving in the Army, Brown had set foot in almost every corner of the United States but had not traversed the Pacific Northwest. So after a break from active duty, he decided to re-enlist under the condition that he be placed in Washington. Stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, southwest of Tacoma, Washington, Brown was blown away by the natural beauty of the mountainous terrain. When his mission ended in March 2018, he was ordered to leave his base and serve at a different location—but he politely declined. After 13 years of service, Brown deemed it time to spend the rest of his life in the picturesque Pacific Northwest. Since then, Brown has adopted Washington as his chosen home with no plans to ever leave.
A Passion for Mountaineering
While in the Army in 2015, Brown was trained in technical alpine climbing by The Mountaineers—a nonprofit community on a mission to share knowledge and encourage others to partake in outdoor activities such as alpine climbing, mountaineering, wilderness navigation, sea kayaking, and snowshoeing. Brown’s class lasted for about six months and took place in the evenings at the community center. Students learned technical alpine climbing theory before going down to Mount Rainier for a few weekends a month to put their knowledge to the test.
The most important thing Brown learned was that in order to improve in technical alpine climbing, he needed to find a core group of climbing partners whom he trusted. An individual’s fitness level is important to take into consideration. According to Brown, finding someone with approximately the same fitness level is best, so nobody struggles to keep up during a climb. Another key factor is having good judgment: many people encounter “summit fever” and become adamant about reaching the top regardless of conditions. That mentality presents many hazards, not just for the individual but for the entire group. Lastly, remaining humble is key. As Brown explained, “no matter how much you know and how good you are when you are in a contest between you and the mountains, the mountains will always win.”
While still on active duty, he discovered Veterans Expeditions, a Colorado-based organization that encourages veterans to explore the outdoors. “They [the group] would come to the Pacific Northwest every now and then and climb mountains, like Mount Rainier and Mount Hood,” he said. One day, Brown reached out and offered to accompany them as a photographer on their trips, taking pictures of veterans that they could keep or give to sponsors. So Brown connected with the group and started climbing peaks with them—as “the guy in the background with the camera,” he laughed.
After a year or two, Brown was asked whether he would be interested in leading some trips of his own, as he was more experienced in mountain climbing. So in 2020, Brown led a three-part volcano climb series involving beginner-friendly treks to Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams, and Mount Hood. He and two other experienced mountaineers assumed leadership of groups of eight veterans each. The entire expedition lasted a few months, and the leaders taught veterans important skills like how to use ice axes and wear crampons (metal traction devices that attach to shoes, improving snow mobility).
The Olympic Mountain Project
In May 2019, Brown decided to embark on a new endeavor. A friend asked him what his favorite place in Washington was, and Brown instantly replied the Olympic Mountains. But as they sat down and peered at a giant folding map of Washington, Brown observed that though he claimed it as his favorite place, he hadn’t ever fully explored the Olympic Peninsula. “I realized I had really only been on the outside edges—because the Olympic Mountains are a circular cluster,” he explained. “I should climb enough mountains spread out throughout the entire Olympic complex to say without a shadow of a doubt, I have seen the Olympics.” He immediately started planning his project. He set out to explore 30 mountains, not only from the outer edges but also from the hard-to-reach interior areas.
Through the expedition, Brown, who has a full-time job working for a federal government agency, also hoped to raise awareness of the issues facing the Olympics, including underfunding and climate change, by partnering with Washington’s National Park Fund (the official philanthropic partner of the three major Washington National Parks including Olympic National Park) and donating 25 percent of the profits from selling his photo prints to the organization. He wanted to use those funds to support the organization in keeping the parks open for all to enjoy.
Planning such an extensive project was no easy feat; Brown admitted that he spent more time researching than actually climbing the mountains—as the inner mountain peaks were relatively uncharted. Of the 30 peaks he would climb, only four of them had trails leading to the top. Brown had to research the rest and plan for unexpected obstacles as much as possible, hoping to ensure safe paths through the wilderness. After many hours and days poring over various maps of the Olympics, he finally mastered the layout of the mountains. “I don’t even have to reference a map anymore. I have it memorized,” said Brown.
Cruising Through Rocky Paths
In 2020, Brown was hit with an unforeseen predicament: the pandemic. National parks faced extended closures from April to July, due to measures set forth by the Washington governor. According to Brown, those months are considered prime climbing season; as some of the snow has melted, travel is easier and the risk of avalanches is low. During that time, he also had difficulty convincing climbing partners to join him on his trips, which sometimes required hiking 60 miles just to climb one peak. As a result, he went on several trips by himself. Brown’s drive to achieve his goal of exploring the Olympics was the fundamental factor that led him to continue his great expedition. “This is my favorite place in the entire world, and I’m going to see the whole thing. I just needed to see it through,” he said.
Mountain climbers often travel in groups for safety. On his trek up Mount Olympus, Brown was accompanied by six of his friends, and together they formed glacier rope teams. A six-person team is the standard for safe glacier travel, Brown explained. “If you had two ropes, each rope would have three people on it—then you can get yourself out of any tough situation,” said Brown.
His mountaineering project lasted for nearly three years, during which time Brown encountered much wildlife, including black bears, elk, and marmots. “I encountered so many bears that I would come to be completely numb to them,” he laughed. He explained that there are mostly black bears in the Olympics, which are often less aggressive than grizzly bears. He also photographed pikas in the Cascade Mountains. Brown said that he even spotted paw prints belonging to mountain lions, though he never saw one in the flesh.
When he’s not climbing mountains, Brown is often seen, camera in hand, capturing the beautiful landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. He admits that on any given trip, he shoots a minimum of 300 photos. On longer trips, it’s not unusual for him to return with upwards of 1,000 photos. The pandemic has allowed Brown ample time to revisit images and reflect on the memories and places he captured. Through this, he discovered photos he had previously overlooked.
The 30 Peaks
The path to success is seldom smooth, and Brown learned that there are many unforeseen obstacles even after extensive planning. Bodies of water are typically represented on maps by squiggly blue lines, but one never truly knows whether those might represent a creek, a two-foot water ditch, or a raging river, Brown admitted. The seasons also play a big part in the depth and intensity of water features, with spring bringing increased water flow compared to fall when water tends to evaporate more quickly. “There were several times where I got to a point where I had to cross this body of water and there was no safe way to do it,” said Brown. He would have to turn around and reevaluate his plan, or completely remove a peak from his list and replace it with another one. “That was a benefit of choosing my own peaks—I got to move the pieces around as I thought fit,” he said.
Upon visiting certain peaks in the summer and revisiting them in the colder months, Brown noticed striking differences in appearance and captured them through photos. A mountain slope usually covered in bushes, shrubs, and small trees would appear entirely flat in winter, buried under a thick blanket of snow. The few trees that remained uncovered would take on different shapes, blown by icy gusts and frozen in place.
Brown carefully handpicked the 30 peaks, making sure they spanned the entirety of the Olympics, but he had to consider many factors to make the expedition achievable. He said that the Olympic Mountains are known for having brittle, crumbly rock composed of ancient seafloor, so the danger of rockfall is always imminent, especially during vertical climbs. Whenever possible, Brown and company would climb side-by-side, so no one would be in front of another. The few times when this wasn’t an option, whoever was behind would hide in a cubby, or hole, while the person in front climbed up, stopped, and gave the all-clear. Communication was very important in those instances; otherwise, said Brown, one might send rocks flying down onto the person below.
In early September 2021, Brown concluded his expedition by climbing Mount Steel. As he stood at the summit over 6,000 feet above, the sun rose from behind the distant mountains and thick clouds swirled down below. “I stood eye to eye with each of the peaks I had climbed previously. It felt as though they were all standing in silent unison, giving me this one last moment to forget about everything below. One last morning where for a moment, nothing else existed; just me and the Olympic Mountains I have spent so much time in,” Brown wrote in a Facebook post. He scanned the horizon, naming and thanking each peak for seeing him safely up and down its jagged slopes. After climbing over 160,000 feet and traversing 500 miles, Brown had safely and proudly made it to the finish line. He felt relief and gratitude. Although the adventure ended, Brown would never forget his time in the Olympic Mountains, and the photos he captured during his journey would remain a testament to his accomplishments.
Growing up in Minnesota, outdoor activities never ended despite the cold winters. We just had to adapt to the weather and changing seasons. With the right equipment and know-how, you can camp all year, even during the coldest months!
Entering any new type of outdoor recreation, even as a seasoned camper or backpacker, can be intimidating. Throw in a few life-threatening conditions like extreme cold and snow, and it’s even harder to make that leap.
Cold weather camping doesn’t have to be scary or even really that dangerous! This guide will help you break into cold weather camping with confidence and prepare you to invest in the right equipment before you go.
What is cold weather camping?
If you research cold weather camping, you’ll find varying definitions. As a general range, anything below 50°F (10°C) can be considered cold weather camping. Other experts and winter enthusiasts may express that temperatures should be closer to freezing (32°F/0°C) to fit in that category.
To me, the best distinction between those discrepancies is to classify cold weather camping and winter camping differently. When cold weather camping, temperatures may be low, there may be some moisture, but it’s likely not cold enough for snow.
Freezing temperatures are expected when winter camping, and may include some snow and ice. A lot of this boils down to the climate and area you are camping in. For instance, winter in the Sonoran desert may have cold temperatures but will likely have less snow than winter in the Cascades.
Get to know the area, climate, and weather patterns. Then, you can begin to prepare for the journey ahead.
Considerations for winter camping
Since temperatures and weather patterns are the main differentiating factors from warm weather camping and winter camping, there are varying considerations when prepping for a trip or buying gear.
Things to think about before you go winter camping:
Weather conditions: keep an eye on the weather and consider bringing a GPS device with satellite weather information.
Terrain: if there is lots of snow, know how you will cover ground and pitch a tent in the snow, as well as if there is ice, rocks, or glaciers in your path.
Getting enough calories and food: eating and drinking enough is vital in winter conditions, and eating nutritious meals can help you stay warm. Plan warm meals for morning and night and pack additional nutritious foods to eat throughout the day.
Water sources: remembering to hydrate can be hard when it is cold outside, so schedule breaks that include drinking water. Plan water sources accordingly, knowing they may be frozen and what to do in those situations. Pack a few warm drinks like tea to up your water consumption as well.
Cold injury prevention: a first aid kit is a must in the back-country. Familiarize yourself with cold-weather injuries like frostbite, wind-burn, and the signs of hypothermia.
Cold weather gear: pack the appropriate sleeping gear, boots, shelters, stoves, etc., for the conditions at hand. For example, not all fuels work at high altitudes or low temperatures. Not all shelters are built for winter conditions. Get to know your gear and invest in equipment that will keep you warm and safe.
Dress appropriately: your wardrobe needs to reflect the weather. Invest in proper boots, gaiters, traction devices, and learn to layer your clothing to cut down on the volume and optimize heat retention and warmth when hiking and when you’re in camp.
Many of these considerations overlap with standard backpacking preparation but are applied to a cold-weather setting.
Leave No Trace
Always follow Leave No Trace principles when camping or backpacking. Cold weather camping includes the same general rules, with some modifications.
A few of those modifications include:
Only travel on trails when the ground is exposed, otherwise, travel on deep snow as much as possible.
Camp on deep snow if possible and only in designated areas.
Pack out all waste, especially human waste. When camping on snow, wag bags make this easy to do.
When having a fire, use dead and down wood. Never cut or break tree limbs.
See all Leave No Trace Winter Recreation ethics and best practices on their website.
What do you need for cold weather camping?
Among the planning considerations for winter camping and backpacking, gear will significantly impact your experience. A part of getting the right equipment for your trip is knowing what to expect in terms of weather and terrain.
One aspect of winter backpacking specifically is that you will be carrying more bulky gear. You need more layers of clothing, more options for traction devices, a thicker and more durable tent made of less meshing, and likely a thicker, warmer sleeping bag. All of this will add weight and bulk to your pack.
So, if that is too daunting as a beginner, I recommend starting with a few car camping expeditions until you can hone in your gear and practice packing and carrying the additional weight.
The main focus areas for cold-weather outdoor gear includes two things:
It keeps you warm.
It keeps you dry.
That means certain materials, like cotton, that absorb moisture or take a long time to dry must be omitted. Your tent needs to keep you dry and warm, even during storms, and your sleeping bag should ensure warmth and continue to insulate when wet. There are even cold-weather sleeping pads that help you retain more heat.
Cold weather camping gear list
New gear is expensive and can be hard to justify buying if you’re unsure whether you like an activity or not. Consider renting gear from an outfitter that can provide expert knowledge not only of the equipment but of best practices in the back-country and current trail conditions.
Much more can be said about the types of gear you need, but here is an essential list to get you started.
A lot of planning and preparation goes into any backpacking trip, and plenty of thought should be put into your food beyond the gear and location logistics. Food is fuel on the trail, and you can only carry so much! That’s why a well-thought-out plan consisting of nutrient-dense, lightweight, and non-perishable foods is a must.
If you’re not used to planning out your meals for days at a time, like anything, you’ll get better with a bit of practice. Read on for field-tested tips to help guide the way.
Meal planning and preparation
Before you choose the foods you’re packing, ask yourself a few essential questions:
What is the intensity of my trip?
How many people are going?
How long will I be gone?
How much time do I have available to spend prepping food for my trip?
Identifying these specifics helps you start the meal planning process. Once you know the length of your trip, how many people are going, the intensity level, and how much time you have to spare, then you can start planning out the rest.
Although I often backpack alone, if I do go with a partner, we create a plan together. I find it easier to plan meals together to cut down on the number of things we need to carry and to save fuel when cooking.
Before the trip, we often schedule a phone call to discuss food options, likes and dislikes, and when we will do physical prep. Then, we add our ideas into a sharable document like Google Docs or a shared note.
Here is an actual meal planning document I’ve used for a trip as an example:
Oatmeal + coffee
Oatmeal + coffee
Pita with hummus, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc.
Dried mangoes, peanut butter/banana wrap
Trail Mix, Date Balls, granola bar+peanut butter
Trail Mix, granola bar, dried mangoes
Tomato Basil Couscous
On this trip, I went with another person, and we planned to eat many of the same things along the way. Underneath this chart on our shared document, we listed what we would need to buy for each meal or snack. That way, our shopping list is also made.
I always plan an extra day before and after the trek itself. The day before is vital to help you gather your gear and get all of your meals together and packed.
What type of food to bring
When planning a trip, no matter the length or number of people involved, simplicity is key. It can be tempting to want to plan for variety, but this can mean you’re buying more and carrying more. For most hikers, the easiest areas to repeat are breakfast, lunch, and snacks. Since supper is often the most calorie-dense and largest meal of the day, it’s the easiest place to add variety.
The type of food you choose to bring should first and foremost be foods you’ll eat! Don’t choose a snack or a meal option because you think you should eat it while backpacking. For instance, if you don’t like Clif bars, don’t pack Clif bars! Choose foods you enjoy to ensure you will reach your nutritional needs.
After that, consider these other factors:
Portability: Opt for dehydrated, freeze-dried, or powdered foods. Backpacking food can consist of perishables (like in my example above). However, those are eaten on the first day. The rest of the food should have a long shelf life to ensure it will not spoil as you hike.
Weight: keep in mind you are carrying everything you need! Avoid foods that have heavy packaging (i.e., cans) or contain a high water level. Gathering food from bulk bins, using pre-made meals, and repackaging some items can help you have more control over the weight.
Nutritional value: the main things you’re looking for in backpacking meals are calories (unsaturated fats), carbohydrates/sugars, protein, and antioxidants. Among those focus areas, unsaturated fats and carbohydrates tend to be what your body craves most. Protein is important for recovery, but complex carbs and good fats are needed for sustained energy. Then, sugars help with bursts of energy, while antioxidants boost your immune system function.
Cook time/method: many pre-packaged meals are designed so that all you have to do is add hot water, let it sit, and eat. If you are gathering and prepping meals on your own, then the cooking time may differ and include simmering food on the stove. Try to find foods that only use boiling water, and if it has to be cooked longer, keep it under 20 minutes. Longer than that, and you’ll find yourself carrying a lot of extra fuel.
Where to get backpacking food:
Prepacked meals from online shops or outdoor retailers
Bulk food sections in grocery stores
Small packaged foods in grocery stores (i.e., power bars, tuna packets, etc.)
Bulk food sections are my favorite place to make backpacking meals. You can often get the exact amount of certain foods like dehydrated refried beans, dehydrated hummus, and they have tons of seeds, nuts, and dried fruits to create your trail mix.
How much food to bring
Before getting into the number of calories to bring and how much to eat, breaking it down into sections will help you determine the exact amount of each to carry.
Knowing your body and your needs will also help beyond simple calorie calculations. As you go on more trips, you’ll know your eating habits and how much you need to be eating to fuel the adventure.
The amount of food you should be eating will also be influenced by your body size, weight, level of intensity of daily activity, your metabolism, and the weather. Since most folks like to have numbers to reference, a good rule of thumb is 1.5-2.5 lbs. of food or 2500-4500 calories per person per day.
Now, those ranges are broad because so many factors impact your individual dietary needs. For instance, someone hiking four miles on flat terrain may not need to eat as much as someone hiking 12 miles through mountain passes.
How to pack it
Pre-made meals, power bars, and other items will come in an easy-to-carry package. Other foods will need to be repackaged, especially when buying from grocery stores or bulk food sections.
To cut back on packaging, try to utilize the packaging the food comes in, but if that is not an option, repackage items in reusable bags or reusable food wrap. When that is not an option, or it is adding too much weight, you can also use resealable plastic bags.
For organizational purposes, I prefer to have one large food bag in my pack and one snack bag that is easily accessible. I use individual cloth or mesh bags to organize meals within my larger food bag. In some areas, a bear bag or canister is needed, so store all food in that.
Keep in mind, what you pack in, you must pack out. So, pack a garbage bag to carry for the duration of your trip and follow Leave No Trace guidelines.
Camp kitchen checklist
Need a backpacking camp kitchen or are not sure what to pack?
One big issue that beginner all-season hikers struggle with during the fall and winter hiking seasons is how to dress appropriately. Part of the problem with not wearing proper clothing while hiking is that it can ruin your experience. After all, if you’re uncomfortable the entire time, why would you want to keep going and make that discomfort a regular part of your life?
Knowing what to wear and how to wear it during each season and for all climates is essential. Especially in the shoulder seasons (spring and fall), when you will experience a wide range of temperatures throughout the day. To avoid carrying unnecessary weight, layering is the best way to stay comfortable and safe during the hike.
Winter hiking will likely require more layers or different types of layers than hiking earlier in the fall. Still, many of the basics will overlap as far as types of materials to wear and how to layer for the best protection. For instance, hiking during the first week of October in the Cascades may require layers that can keep you comfortable in 30-60° F weather, both when you’re moving and stationary. Then, factor in any precipitation, and you could end up carrying a lot of extra clothing if your layering system isn’t quite honed in.
Anytime you are layering, you’re going to balance the right combination of base layers, middle layers, and outer layers. It can take some time to find the right combination for you, and everyone’s comfort level will differ.
Before we jump into the best practices for layering clothing for cold weather hiking, you need to know what types of materials to wear. When choosing hiking clothing for any season, gravitate towards moisture-channeling and quick-drying materials like wool, alpaca fleece, Tencel, and synthetic blends (polyester, spandex, and nylon). Avoid cotton, including denim and cotton blends, due to their inability to dry quickly and how easily they absorb water. The adage “cotton kills” is especially applicable to cold environments where hypothermia is a threat.
In the fall, you’ll want clothing that allows for enough air flow to be comfortable mid-day when it is 50-60° F but will keep you warm in the morning and night at camp. You can still wear breathable layers in the winter, but your main focus is water resistance and heat retention.
To break down the basics of layering, you need to know the purpose of each layer and how to differentiate between them:
Base Layer: to wick sweat and moisture off and away from your skin (also known as the underwear layer)
Middle Layer: to help you retain body heat and insulate or protect from the cold
Outer Layer: to shield you and your other layers from wind, rain, and other elements (also known as the shell layer)
The primary purpose of a base layer is to keep moisture away from your skin and to dry quickly. In colder weather conditions, the base layer will usually be a long underwear style and is intended to keep your skin dry to avoid a drop in body temperature that could lead to you feeling chilly or suffering hypothermia.
Materials like merino wool and silk are natural fibers that have this ability along with natural anti-microbial properties. Polyester and nylon can also be good options, but all fabrics and blends will vary in drying and wicking ability, odor retention, durability, and comfort. For cold weather hiking, wear a base layer on both the top and the bottom.
The mid-layer or insulating layer is what will help you trap body heat. This is especially important when you are not in motion and aren’t producing as much body heat. Both synthetic and natural insulating materials exist, and it is often up to personal preference on which one you choose. In general, the puffier the jacket, the warmer it will be. However, other types of mid-layers like wool sweaters can help as well.
You may need more than one mid-layer, depending on the weather. For instance, say you have a base layer that you plan to wear consistently on your hike. You may also pack a Smartwool sweater to wear on top of that, but you’ll likely still need a puffy jacket for the morning and evenings in camp. The wool sweater and the puffy jacket are both still considered mid-layers, so don’t be afraid to bring more than one insulating layer depending on the forecast.
Since you won’t only be wearing long underwear on the bottom for hiking, having a durable pair of hiking pants to wear over your base layer is important. You can often get away with three-season pants made from a synthetic blend of materials that is quick drying and still breathes for fall hiking. For winter hiking, opting for less breathable thermal moisture-resistant pants will be ideal for regulating body temperature and keeping moisture out.
Finally, your outer or shell layer is the protection piece to keep the wind, rain, and snow away. Most outer layers will be a rain jacket of some kind that is treated with DWR (durable water repellent). This type of treatment on the jackets or rain pants helps the water bead up and roll off the fabric. Over time and with use, DWR wears off. So, be mindful of when and how to reapply if necessary.
Outer layers can still offer air flow (i.e., rain jackets with vents), and the types of outer layers will vary from softshells, waterproof, water-resistant, and more, depending on climate and intended use.
The shell layer is vital in cold weather hiking, especially if you get caught in a storm of any kind. The outer shell, whether it is a rain/snow jacket or pants, is designed to protect you and your other clothing layers from getting too wet and cold. If too much moisture is allowed to penetrate your inner clothing layers, you will struggle with regulating your body temperature.
Other clothing to consider for cold-weather hikes include:
Winter specific socks
There is a lot to learn when you start to get into outdoor recreation like camping and backpacking. No matter the type of camping, there are some things you should know when it comes to setting up your tent.
First things first, you’ll need a tent! So, how do you choose the right tent for your camping needs? If you’re new to camping and have no idea where to start, talk to a friend with camping experience. Better yet, have them take you camping and teach you a thing or two. If you don’t have any connections that can mentor your camping purchases and experiences, look into outfitters. Gear outfitters often have gear to rent and can take you on guided trips. This helps ease anxieties surrounding the new activity and ensures that someone more knowledgeable can help guide you.
If you decide you are ready to buy your own tent, there are a few things to consider before purchasing:
Season of use
Tent style and height
While all of these things are important to think about when shopping for a tent, identifying the intended use will be a priority. Are you camping with a family? Do you need a three-season tent? Do you bring your dog camping? Are you car camping or backpacking? Start asking and answering these questions to help guide your purchasing decisions.
A three-season tent is sufficient for most beginner campers as you’re more than likely planning to camp during the spring, summer, and fall. These tents will keep you dry in the rain and light snow, provide privacy, shield you from bugs, and have enough ventilation.
The size of the tent will depend on how many people and pets are going camping and whether you have to carry the tent or not. For instance, if you are car camping with you and your dog, a 1-2 person tent should work just fine. However, if you plan to go with you, a partner, and a dog, you may want a 2-3 person tent. If you are backpacking, the tent’s weight comes into account because you have to carry it from campsite to campsite.
Once you’ve chosen a tent you feel fits your needs, practice setting it up. If you bought the tent new, the manufacturer will include instructions on how to set up the tent properly. Follow these instructions. It can be tempting to try and figure it out on your own, but some tents are more complicated than others, and it is easy to miss a step, forget a piece or two, and even damage the tent if you set it up improperly.
If you bought a used tent, are renting, or are borrowing a tent from someone else, you should still practice setting up the tent at home before you go. These tents may not have instructions included, or they’ve been lost over time, so to find out how to properly set up that tent, look on the manufacturer’s website for resources. More often than not, there will be digital instructions to guide you. With used tents especially, the pre-trip practice setup ensures that you have all the correct pieces and that no part of the tent is damaged.
At the campsite, no matter the type of camping, follow Leave No Trace guidelines regarding the best practices for minimizing your impact in that natural area. Best practices for setting up your tent according to LNT include:
Always camp at least 200 feet away from lakes and streams.
Seek out existing campsites, especially in well-traveled areas
Pitch your tent in an area where vegetation is absent and keep campsites small.
In undisturbed or remote areas, minimize the impact by spreading out tents, finding durable surfaces, and changing sites each night.
Other considerations for choosing a tent location include minimizing stressors like wind and rain. Your tent is built to withstand these elements, but that doesn’t mean that it cannot be damaged, especially in serious storms. Look for natural windbreaks like trees, hills, or rocks to protect the tent and avoid camping under trees with dead or broken limbs. The time of year will guide how you orient your tent in accordance with the wind. For instance, during hot summer months, you may orient the door towards the wind for more of a cooling effect. Then in high wind conditions, you should have the side with the strongest pole structure facing the direction the wind is coming from.
When it is raining or rain is forecast, try to find higher, dry ground under tree cover. Higher ground generally means less moisture and less condensation in the tent, and tree cover creates a micro-climate that tends to be warmer and drier. Always avoid camping in low areas where water can channel or collect during a storm, and orient the door away from the wind during rainstorms.
Now that you’ve found the perfect spot to pitch your tent, it’s time to set it up! First, clear the area of any debris that can damage the tent’s floor or make for uncomfortable sleep. These items include things like sticks and rocks. Once this is established, place the footprint down and then roll the tent out on top. If it is exceptionally windy as you set up the tent, have another person help you or stake down the corners to hold it in place and readjust later.
Once you have followed the manufacturer’s instructions for getting the poles into the tent and up, stake the tent. Most stakes will have the best holding power in soils if vertical when pushed into the ground. On surfaces that are hard to push a stake in, use a rock or a mallet to hammer it down. Push the stake in just far enough that it is close to the ground, but enough of the top is exposed to attach a cord over it.
After you’ve staked the tent, decide if you need the rainfly or not. A rainfly may not be necessary for the middle of summer, and having it off will give you a great view of the sky and a much cooler sleeping situation. However, knowing how to attach the rainfly in a pinch is necessary if you go this route. If you need the rainfly, then secure the rainfly wraps first. These typical velcro strips attach the fly to the tent poles to make it a sturdy cohesive piece. Attach the rainfly to the tent corners and then tension the fly evenly.
If bad weather is forecast, it can also help to add guylines to your tent setup. Guylines are generally optional, but they can help keep your tent more secure and protected. If you’re unsure about the severity of the wind, at least add one guyline on the side of the tent the wind is coming from. For a more stable shelter, attach guylines evenly on all sides of the tent.
Check the setup each night before bed to ensure everything is stable and in place, and enjoy the camping experience.
Nature has always been at the forefront of photographer Colin Tyler Bogucki’s life. Growing up, he and his family lived in Outing—a small town in “Lake Country” in Northern Minnesota. Surrounded by woodland and lakes, he felt it was the perfect place to grow up. “I was outside all the time and always connected to nature,” he said. Swimming, fishing, and hunting were a few of his passions. In 1991, Tyler attended college, studying psychology. After completing his coursework in 1995, he traveled to Alaska for an internship at a counseling center, where he immediately fell in love with the untamed wilderness.
Journey to Alaska
Equipped with a Minolta point-and-shoot film camera, he drove all the way to “the last frontier” in his little Toyota pickup truck. Tyler considers that trip as the greatest journey of his life. Struck by the natural beauty and scenery, he was hit with newfound inspiration. Words flew from his pen onto paper, taking the form of elaborate poems. “And I just had to keep pulling over and writing all these lines that were coming to me as I was driving,” he said. Tyler would go on to spend many days capturing the many wonders of wildlife through pictures and poems. “I didn’t want it to end. I didn’t want to arrive in Anchorage—I just wanted to keep journeying because it was so inspiring,” he said.
After finishing his internship, Tyler decided to stay as a substance abuse assessment counselor. However, he was far from happy. “It just wasn’t for me,” he said. Outside of work, he would take every opportunity to practice his photography skills. It was not until a few grueling years that he decided to take the plunge and leave his job to work on his art. In 1996, after being gifted his first professional camera for Christmas—a Nikon SLR film camera—Tyler had one of his photos published in the Anchorage Daily News. Even when offered a lucrative career opportunity with the federal probation system in Alaska, Tyler instead chose to follow his heart. “I knew I was walking away from financial stability,” he admitted. “But I could not bring myself to do that work.”
Struggles and Setbacks
Tyler spent the next few years in Minnesota, juggling between bartending and manual labor jobs while honing his photography skills. Finally, in 2007, Tyler moved back to Alaska and found work in a small portrait studio where he learned portrait photography and studio lighting. “I ran that for about five or six years in the little town of Eagle River, which is where I live now,” he said. While Tyler enjoyed the skills and techniques he learned while working at the portrait studio, he primarily sees himself as “a nature and wildlife guy.” After leaving the studio in 2013, he was once again at a crossroads, battling for financial stability. He fought off many moments of regret for not going on to graduate school or seeking what he called a “professional career.” Despite many things seeming hopeless, Tyler was very grateful to be renting a small cabin on two acres of land in the woods of Alaska, located on the end of a road, with a creek running in the back of it. Tyler and his cat, Spike, lived a life that many would only dream of. In the summer, wildflowers and strawberries would grow all around the house. “There was also a deck out back where I could play my guitar and listen to the creek,” he said.
April 22, 2013—Earth Day—Tyler was awoken to smoke alarms screaming. The cabin was on fire. “And I did everything I could. I had a couple of fire extinguishers and I started in the front,” he told me. “I emptied the extinguishers, I threw snow at it from outside. I couldn’t control it.” At some point, Tyler ran out of the back door but then attempted to go back in for his cat, who had gotten into the basement; however, a blast of smoke and heat nearly knocked him over. This was the point when it dawned on him that he would probably not be able to rescue his beloved friend. “I stood there and yelled and yelled for him,” he said, his voice breaking.
He spent the next few hours in his neighbor’s house, who had called the fire department after waking up early and witnessing the horrific event. Tyler explained that where he was living, there were no official firefighters—only volunteers. “So it was more than an hour before they were there spraying; then a tree came down, power lines came down and blocked their path so they couldn’t get near it because of the live power lines,” he said. As the fire got bigger and bigger, Tyler’s hopes became smaller. “I was at my neighbor’s, watching, thinking okay, they get here soon, maybe the house can be salvaged. Okay, maybe not. Maybe my cat can be saved, maybe not.” By the time the firefighters were done battling the fire and smoke, the cabin had been reduced to rubble. Spike had also passed away due to smoke inhalation. This event left Tyler pondering the reasons for such a catastrophe during a time when he was already experiencing so many setbacks. Today, he realizes that he had to go through this to discover his life’s true purpose.
Rising From the Ashes
Tyler always expressed a deep desire to travel and explore the world. He was often approached by friends asking him to accompany them on their photography travels. He would always decline. In 2012—the year before the house fire—a good friend of his from Montana invited him to explore India with him for two months. “I said, man, I’d love to join you but I can’t. I have this house, I have a cat—I can’t leave for two months,” he explained. A year later, after the house fire, Tyler was reminded of his friend’s offer and realized there was no longer anything stopping him. He had kept important documents in a file cabinet, but most of the contents in it had been destroyed in the fire—except for his passport. Firefighters found the document on top of the snow, completely intact. “I didn’t realize how significant of a sign that was until a few weeks later. I called my friend and said, well, you know, if the invite is still open, I want to join you. I want to go to Asia and India with you.”
The pair traveled to Thailand and Cambodia before spending a whole month in India photographing tigers in various national parks. Tyler considers his trip to India as an inspiring, transformational journey that allowed him a means to express himself through his photography like never before. In India, they visited four parks and only managed to spot a tiger in their third park. During this time, he found that many people on social media waited eagerly for new updates on his journey. “People were following my story with anticipation. They would learn on Facebook every day and see what happened next,” he said.
The day they had their first encounter with a tiger, Tyler said that he could almost feel it nearby. “It was like I was hunting again, waiting for something. I just had this feeling in my gut that my cat was there with me and that today was the day.” When attempting to locate tigers, one should try to listen out for any warning calls from other animals. Sure enough, the call from a nearby deer confirmed his instincts. “We drove up the road, and there was this giant male Bengal tiger right in front of the jeep,” he said. The pair of friends were ecstatic by their discovery after all their effort. By the time Tyler sat back down in the jeep, he was trembling, and his eyes were watering. “We went all this way for this reason,” he said. Tyler had brought some of his cat’s ashes to India in a little container that he carried with him inside his camera bag. The day after spotting his first tiger, he returned and left his companion’s remains in a watering hole close to where he had spotted the tiger. That same day, either through fate or a stroke of luck, he had a rare encounter with another big cat, this time a leopard.
Before the fire, Tyler admitted that he never would have thought about traveling around the world, but “life changes really quickly.” After his trip around Asia, he spent a brief amount of time back home in Minnesota before embarking on yet another extended trip to New Zealand. There, he took part in a program designed to connect willing workers with organic farms around the country, in exchange for food and lodging. “Sometimes it’s just a home with very elaborate gardens and landscaping. Others are actual farms or wineries,” said Tyler. He noted that it was a great way to meet locals and other travelers and that none of this would have been possible if it hadn’t been for the fire.
From Hunter to Photographer
After a summer in Valdez, Tyler decided to move to Eagle River Nature Center in Alaska—close to where he had been living before—in October 2014, as a resident volunteer. He has since been living there as a resident staff member and has acquired the position of Assistant Manager. His backyard now consists of the beautiful Chugach State Park with its abundance of wildlife.
Living in Alaska and observing the wondrous wildlife caused Tyler to view animals through a different lens. Hunting with family used to be one of his favorite pastimes; however, through photographing animals, Tyler developed a new admiration for them, and a softer, more compassionate side of him was awoken. Having the opportunity to express himself through various creative outlets played a great role in this transformation. “I had an English composition writing instructor who really inspired me with poetry. And that was in high school. He had a profound influence on me,” he said. Years later, Tyler sent him copies of his poetry, and the pair stayed in touch for a brief period. After the fire, he was pleased to discover that his little book of poems, which he had worked on during his first drive up to Alaska, had remained intact. “I thought they were gone forever,” he said. “I was just so overwhelmed that I was in tears.”
Some of his first wildlife photographs took place in the late ‘90s in the vast natural plains of Alaska, particularly in Denali National Park. He was just starting to learn about composition and lighting—which were all new to him. A significant turning point for Tyler was when he traveled to Katmai National Park and Preserve in 1999 to photograph bears. “I just had a wonderful time because there was beautiful scenery and just bears all around,” he said. He loved photographing those bears and felt very connected to them. “I just gained a great appreciation and respect for them.” To this day, Tyler considers this experience pivotal in helping him establish his passion for wildlife photography.
Photographing wildlife helped Tyler experience a greater connection to nature than ever before. Through collecting pictures, rather than trophies, he began to appreciate nature for what it truly was. By appreciating smaller aspects of the scenery, smaller animals, and even insects, he has developed a keen interest in animal behavior, and his relationship with wildlife has only increased. “I’ve learned to read their body language, and just developed such a different appreciation for the natural world because it’s no longer just a target.” Now, he simply wishes to capture these brief magical encounters with wildlife through his photos, and share them with the rest of the world. What initially started as a hobby has blossomed into a full-time career, a passion, and a goal. “People appreciate what I do and what I share as it brings them joy, inspiration, and a sense of serenity,” he added. For this reason, exploring, creating, and sharing his photography with the world has become a central focus of Tyler’s life; it is in these moments when he truly feels he is accomplishing what he was born to do.
Tyler’s work has often been recognized in National Geographic, where he won numerous photography competitions over the years. His image of a male Bengal tiger was selected as one of the winning images in National Geographic’s “My Shot” photo contest, out of a total of 12,000 entries. His Northern Lights photography also captured the attention of the United States Postal Service and was featured in one of their commemorative stamp sheets as part of a collaborative arctic climate research project.
Sharing the Magic of Wildlife
With the successful sales of his photography prints, Tyler managed to travel again. He visited Australia for a few weeks, and then Cuba, where he provided photography tours to keen wildlife enthusiasts. This new endeavor brought Tyler newfound joy and inspiration. Traveling to different parts of the world and photographing wildlife had become his passion, so he and a photographer friend decided on creating Nat Expo Tours. According to their website, their mission is to share the amazing natural wonders of the planet while offering photo tips and techniques to touring participants. Future tours are planned to take place in three exotic locations: Iceland, Cuba, and Namibia.
The tours allowed Tyler to look inward and share his knowledge and appreciation of photography with others. “Seeing them grasp the concepts and start to understand things is a great feeling,” he said. Tyler believes the best feeling for him is when people attend the tours and come away with something that they wouldn’t have otherwise captured. “It’s just wonderful.”
Tyler enjoys exploring different creative media to express his art, with videography being his newest venture. In late 2021, he released a mini-documentary featuring the active Fagradalsfjall Volcano near Reykjavik, Iceland, during one of his photo tours. Tyler looks forward to incorporating this new form of storytelling into his art.
Constantly on the move, traveling from one location to the next and photographing stunning wildlife while meeting people from all cultures and backgrounds, Tyler has established lasting connections with the world around him. Pursuing a career in wildlife photography has led to each day being different from the last.
Through loss and grief, he has discovered adventure. His travels have taught him more about himself and led him into discovering his true purpose in life, and while he often misses his furry companion, he believes that he was liberated from a life of fear and uncertainty to one full of excitement and creativity. “As long as I’m exploring, creating, and sharing, then I feel like I’m where I need to be,” he said. Today, he proudly displays a tattoo of Spike’s paw print on his right shoulder—a tribute to their everlasting friendship.
On the American side, Niagara Falls brings in about 9 million visitors each year, according to Western New York Connect. With more than 13 million visitors on the Canadian side, the combined total is roughly 22 million yearly visitors. The park offers a great deal: one-of-a-kind scenery, live entertainment, walking and hiking paths, boat tours, and more.
The area around Niagara Falls has a rich history, from the beginning of America to the industrial revolution. The Erie Canal, the first canal in the United States to be constructed with public financing, runs nearby, connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. Niagara Falls was the site where Nikola Tesla and Westinghouse Corporation in 1895 built and installed the first-ever alternating current hydroelectric generator.
“We have many a monument of past ages; we have the palaces and pyramids, the temples of the Greek and the cathedrals of Christendom. In them is exemplified the power of men, the greatness of nations, the love of art and religious devotion. But the monument at Niagara has something of its own, more in accord with our present thoughts and tendencies. It is a monument worthy of our scientific age, a true monument of enlightenment and of peace. It signifies the subjugation of natural forces to the service of man, the discontinuance of barbarous methods, the relieving of millions from want and suffering.”
Depending on how you travel to the falls, you might cross a small bridge from which you can see Bridal Veil Falls and American Falls. When you arrive at the main entrance, a short walk will take you to the highlight, Horseshoe Falls, and as you approach, you’ll begin to feel the mist created by the tremendous volume of water flowing over the precipice. On sunny days, you can always see rainbows there.
What we know today as Niagara Falls was formed by receding glaciers more than 16,000 years ago. Before that, ice sheets almost two miles thick covered the Niagara region. These glaciers carved out the Great Lakes and the area of the three waterfalls. Erosion over the past 12,000 years pushed the falls seven miles downriver, a process that continues at a rate of about one foot per year.
Niagara Falls consists of a group of three waterfalls at the southern end of Niagara Gorge, between the state of New York and the Canadian province of Ontario. The largest of these, Horseshoe Falls, straddles the U.S.-Canada border and is the most powerful waterfall in the United States, followed by American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls, both of which are in U.S. territory.
One of Niagara Falls State Park’s oldest attractions is the Maid of the Mist boat tour. Originally a border-crossing ferry christened in 1846, the vessel was the primary means of travel between Niagara Falls, New York, and Toronto, Canada. The modern-day tour begins with an elevator ride down the Prospect Point Observation Tower to the boat-loading and launch point. The boat takes riders past American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls before approaching Horseshoe Falls. As the boat nears the waterfall, the roaring sound gets louder, and a spray of mist picks up. The waterfalls have a combined maximum of more than 6 million cubic feet of water per minute flowing over the crest of their 167-foot drop. The boat travels close to the edge for a breathtaking face-to-face with the falls.
The park is open year-round and in addition to its water features, has a variety of attractions throughout the year.
The falls in winter are a sight to behold. With large swaths of the falls frozen, and the mist freezing on contact with anything near it, the scene becomes a winter wonderland. The falls don’t completely freeze during the winter, however, and visitors are still welcome, weather permitting, to see them shimmering with the mist-formed, fantasy-like glaze coating all around. There are also winter activities, including touring the snow-and-ice-covered Cave of the Winds, and even renting snowshoes to hike the snow-covered trails.
As soon as the snow melts in the spring, a number of activities open up: golf, fishing, day trips down the historic Erie Canal, visits to Old Fort Niagara, and regular Revolutionary War re-enactments. Goat Island, with almost 20 miles of trails of varying difficulty around the falls, offers strolling and hiking for all ages and skill levels. You can also take the kids to the Niagara Aquarium or embark on the Maid of the Mist boat tour.
Goat Island is a perfect place for summer picnics, for viewing Bridal Veil Falls or taking the Cave of the Winds tour. You can even zipline down the side of the falls or play a few rounds of golf. There are many other adventures to discover, as well as a casino with live entertainment in the city of Niagara Falls. There are wax museums, walking tours of the historic sites of the area, and jet boat tours on which you can explore Niagara Whirlpool and see other nearby sites.
The entire Niagara region lights up as autumn approaches. Surrounded by a state park, Niagara in the autumn is simply beautiful, with burnt-orange, brown, and red spreading in all directions as fall colors take over the area. The man-made Dufferin Islands, abundant with nature trails and quietude, offer enjoyable autumn forest sights, sounds, and smells. A walk to Green Island and Luna Island, which sit between American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls, gives another vantage point of the smaller two waterfalls. Finally, the Rainbow Bridge provides a better view of the whole Niagara Gorge area.
Old Fort Niagara
A highlight of the region is Old Fort Niagara, with a history spanning more than 300 years. Built in 1726, and at various points controlled by the French, British, and American militaries, the fort today is a historic site that offers visitors Revolutionary War re-enactments, educational programs for local students, period-accurate cooking, and demonstrations of life on the frontier.
The re-enactments, which are based on historical documents, are as accurate as possible and involve hundreds of costumed participants, including adolescents playing drums and fifes, and would-be soldiers with cannons and muskets, all across the old battlefield. The galley, blacksmith’s shop, and other parts of the fort, which showcase the manner in which different jobs and tasks were historically carried out, are also open to the public. The barracks, in particular, give a glimpse into the provisions and daily life of the average soldier.
Niagara Falls State Park has something for everyone, at any time of the year. It is rich in history and culture, and there are activities for people of every age and level of ability (many attractions are accessible). There’s plenty to do outside the park as well. The Niagara area undoubtedly makes for a fun and memorable visit.
Despite being a lifelong equestrian, I was greatly challenged by an early July horseback excursion into the Teton wilderness of Wyoming. Due to a connection with a pack-trip guide at the almost 100-year-old Triangle X Ranch, which overlooks the Grand Teton mountain range just outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I was asked to join what promised to be a “trip of a lifetime.”
The group of seven, six of my family members and one friend, had to sign detailed waivers specifying “hold harmless” details regarding every imaginable accident scenario involving wild animals, weather, unforeseen dilemmas, and so on, and we also had to state our level of horseback riding experience. All in the group had been in the saddle since childhood, so we were confident we could handle the planned five-day horseback riding excursion that left from a trailhead just outside Grand Teton National Park and ventured 20 miles to a base-camp location in the Teton Wilderness.
At about 14.5 hands (equine height measurement), my leopard Appaloosa horse was the shortest of the bunch. A few of the horses were draft or Friesian mixes, meaning they were tall and wide, and one horse was a trained mustang. The others were quarter horse mixes and paints. And then the guide packed and pulled along another five large mules with our bags and miscellaneous items. Two other guides, including the cook, had ventured into the wilderness alone earlier that morning—at about 5 a.m.—to take supplies of food and other sundries that we would need during our time in the middle of nowhere.
While the ride started out calm enough, meandering from a corral and through a lengthy campground, we quickly climbed a hill, and before anyone had a chance to begin to navigate the narrow, rugged trail, we crested an apex overlooking the Buffalo River at least 1,000 feet below. The path turned sharply to the right so that it appeared, from just below the apex, that the trail disappeared over the cliff. We proceeded to ride along a ridge that descended straight down on one side of the path, which was just wide enough for the horses and mules to step. It was at this high point that we collectively realized this was going to be no ordinary horseback ride. Among the group, we had spent years showing, raising, training, and even racing horses. But what we encountered during that recent summer trip tested our mettle.
We ventured within tight passageways of tiny canyons, through dense, fragrant fir forests, and over arid, almost desert-like terrain. Resplendent and unexpected were wildflowers of every shape and hue. And when we found ourselves in the eerie and charred remains of a 20-years-ago burned landscape, the juxtaposition of the vibrant floral colors and the coal-black toothpick trees was other-worldly.
After almost eight hours of riding, we entered the base camp: an expansive and lush “Eden-esque” meadow with a hillside that swept up and up on one side and on the other the Buffalo River and the solid rock Pentagraph Mountain, likened to another impressive rock mountain, Devils Tower in Wyoming, which was the very first official United States National Monument. Pentagraph appeared to be chiseled on all its sides and then lopped off to create a flat top. Instead of July 4th fireworks, we witnessed reverently a rainbow form over the stone precipice.
We learned, after we peeled ourselves out of the saddle and attempted to stand on our aching legs, that the base camp was at 9,800 elevation. Tents were already spread out in private spots among willowy bushes and along a natural spring stream. And a large canvas tarp covered the “kitchen” and eating area.
We freshened by the stream, refilled our filter water bottles, housed belongings in our tent, and were treated to the first of many semi-gourmet meals that were a far cry from the pork and beans we expected so far from civilization. And, despite knowledge that we were inhabiting temporarily the habitat of grizzly bears, timber wolves, moose, elk, and other large creatures (although the guides assured us they “usually” keep to even higher elevations during summer months) most of us slept exhaustedly that first night.
After the first grueling day of horseback riding, perhaps we all thought privately that we wouldn’t want to get back on a horse until it was time to pack back out. However, the guides had us up early and, after a hearty breakfast, we were back in the saddle and heading toward Buffalo River, which we forded, and around Pentagraph Mountain. As we had the day before, we traveled through every imaginable geological landscape—from high-grass, natural fields, where we saw a mule deer bedded, to a barren hillside of large lava boulders to vertical forests of downed trees that we had to navigate over and around. We were “off trail,” but what the guide eventually directed us to—as cliché as it may sound—literally took our breath away. Another 1,000-2,000 feet higher than our base camp and tucked behind thick Fraser fir trees was a brilliant aqua glacier lake. It was so pristine we could clearly see large schools of rainbow and cutthroat trout.
Just after we tied our horses to trees, a bald eagle soared down the middle of the lake and perched uninhibited to watch us. Another eagle glided above the lake after the first one lost interest. With compact poles, some of the riders began fishing and quickly caught large trout—which were taken back in saddlebags for the evening meal.
After several hours of enjoying the almost ethereal setting, we braved the steep downhill descent and experienced some precarious events—such as my horse bolting down the mountain because the horse behind me jumped a log overzealously and landed on my horse’s haunches. For a few split seconds, I was hanging on the side of my saddle, but I managed to strain myself upright and pull the horse to a halt behind the rest of the party.
By the time we entered our base camp, we had ridden another 20 miles. For the next few days, some in the group rode to where centuries-old glaciers and the previous winter’s snow refused to melt in the summer sun. Another glacier lake enabled two riders to catch and release more than 70 fish. The guide said that since few humans had likely ventured to such remote spots, the fish were captivated by the shiny lures and bit them practically every time they hit the water.
Every evening around the enormous campfire, with the horses grazing freely (large cowbells affixed around their necks) we talked about the day’s riding highlights, perils, and challenges.
On the last day, the guides awoke at 4 a.m. to begin packing up all the tents, sleeping bags, tarps, clothing, and food onto 14 mules and horses, and we rode out at 9 a.m. We were more aware of what to expect during the 20-mile ride back to civilization, and we tried to absorb the imposing landscape—realizing we may never have an opportunity to return.
After farewells to our mounts, who had carried us sure-footed and safe over miles and miles of rough terrain, we traveled back to the five-generation, family-run Triangle X Ranch and arrived just in time to witness the daily ritual of releasing at least 100 horses from corrals so they could trot and gallop across many acres and a highway, to spread out on a great plain for an evening of grazing with the Grand Tetons as looming sentries. Families who stay at the ranch to enjoy more mild horseback riding experiences lined up and cheered the cowboys and cowgirls who herded the horses safely to their destination.
My not-for-the-faint-of-heart Grand Teton wilderness horseback riding trip was so memorable that all future rides will certainly pale in comparison.
Backpacking can seem like a daunting undertaking if you’ve never done it before. So, I almost always recommend a short overnight trek or a weekend outing for people wanting to try it out for the first time. That’s just enough time to experience backpacking without the intensity of an extended adventure.
If you’ve never gone backpacking before, then it is likely you also need to get some of the gear. Before you jump to buying everything you might need for an overnight backpacking trip, borrow or rent first. These options are more affordable since they give you the chance to try out the activity without the pressure of financially investing fully. Renting or borrowing gear from a friend also gives you a chance to try out different gear options before investing in your equipment as well.
Eventually, you’re going to want a few of your own things. And a great starting point for beginner backpackers is first to get your backpack.
Choosing a Suitable Pack
While the best option when starting any new activity is to start with what you have, even if you have a backpack for school or commuting on your bike around town, the chances are that it isn’t suitable for a backpacking trip.
Standard backpacks for day-to-day travel can work when you first start day hiking, but as you graduate to backpacking, you need more room and better support. Most backpacks we use for daily activities only have shoulder straps, have limited organization, and have no back support. On the other hand, backpacking packs are designed to help you comfortably carry heavy loads over long distances.
There are three main areas to look at when choosing the right backpack for your trip needs:
The size of the backpack you need will depend on the length of your trip and what you need to carry. For instance, if you are backpacking in the summer, a smaller pack could work, but in the winter you need to carry more layers, bulkier sleep gear, and maybe more fuel for cooking.
When looking at backpacking packs, the size is labeled in liters. For an overnight or weekend trip, a 30-50L pack should work just fine. For overnights specifically, a pack less than 35L can work. Liters are the standard measurement for backpacks because it discloses the volume of the bag. An easy way to think about the size of a backpack then is to imagine a standard Nalgene water bottle. One water bottle is one liter. So, a 35L backpack hypothetically should be able to hold 35 Nalgene’s worth of water. I don’t recommend pouring water into your pack though, that’s for visualization purposes only.
The features of your pack will vary depending on the style of the bag and the intended use. That’s why backpacking specific bags work best. They’ll have more features like exterior attachment points for gear, a frame to support the weight, various pockets for organization and easy access, a hydration reservoir, padding on the back and straps for comfort, and a hip belt to take most of the weight off of your shoulders. There are other possible features and additional accessories, so when shopping for a bag, look at all options to see what works best for your needs.
Finally, the fit of the bag needs to be specific to your body. They make male and female-specific backpack designs to better fit differing anatomy like broader shoulders or wider hips. There are also unisex options. Going to a gear shop to try on backpacks is recommended, even if you don’t buy them there. Most sales associates in those stores are trained to help customers find and fit backpacks to their body types and size. Although backpacks may be labeled as gender-specific, don’t let that stop you from trying them. For example, I am a female but use either male or unisex backpacking packs because I have broader shoulders, and female-specific bags don’t fit my body as well.
Renting backpacking equipment can also help you find the right bag for you as the outfitters will help find and fit a backpack to your body. Not all outfitters will have the same options, but if there is one with several brands and styles, try on a few and see which ones feel best. That way, you essentially get a test run of a bag before you buy it.
What You Need to Bring
This is an overnight or weekend trip, but the basics of any backpacking trip will require similar gear. How much of each thing and the type of gear will depend on the length of your trip, the climate/weather, and your personal needs. I’m not going to break down each type of gear in detail, but instead, provide a brief list so you have an idea of what you’ll need to fit into your backpack while you’re packing.
Items to include on a backpacking checklist:
Tent (or other shelter)
Stove + Fuel
Other camp kitchen supplies
Enough food for the length of trip
Water bottles + reservoir
Water treatment supplies
Personal hygiene products
First-aid and emergency kit
Other items can be included or even necessary to bring pending the type of terrain you encounter, the time of year you’re hiking, and to fulfill other personal needs.
How to Pack Your Backpack
Even though the list above isn’t exhaustive, it can still seem like a lot to fit into a 35L backpack! You’ll be surprised how much you can carry comfortably as you start to pack and hit the trail.
When packing your backpack for any trip, the first thing to do is gather all of your supplies and lay them out on the floor. This gives you a great visual to ensure you have everything you need. You can go down your checklist and double-check that it is all there. Then, you can begin packing your bag.
Bottom zone: usually a sleeping bag compartment, this zone is designed to fit bulkier gear items that you won’t need until you get to camp. Core zone: this is the middle of your pack, above the bottom compartment. Pack heavier items here like your food, bear canister, and camp kitchen. Top zone: near the top of your pack is where you can store items that may be somewhat bulky, but may still need while hiking. These items include extra layers, a water filter, a toilet bag, and your first aid kit.
There are other usable areas on the backpack, like the accessory pocks and any exterior attachment points. Some packs have straps designed to attach a foam sleeping pad to the base of your pack, and others will have a brain with pockets that sit on the top of the pack.
These accessory pockets and lash-on points are ideal for items you need often or in an emergancy. They could be front pockets, hip belt pockets, water bottle holders, side pockets, or brain pockets. Each backpack will have varying designs. Examples of things often kept in accessory pockets include a map, snacks, pack rain cover, compass, headlamp, or your ID.
Don’t be afraid to pack, unpack, and repack your bag multiple times or change things around when you are on the trail. You want the pack to feel comfortable and be easy to carry.
The last thing to do before you put the pack on after it’s packed is to compress things as much as possible. Most backpacks will have compression straps to help press things together and make the bag more compact and easier to carry.
The Montana mountain air was cool and fresh, and as I breathed it in, something inside of me awakened: evasive like magic or childhood. I pulled on my rain boots and walked quickly to keep up with my daughters, who had already raced off the porch and through the mud to the purple sky in front of us.
Alpenglow was a word I never heard before my trip to Dancing Spirit Ranch, but it’s one I won’t soon forget. As the sun sets, mountains exposed to the direct sunlight undergo an optical phenomenon and assume a color wheel of orange, yellow, and finally violet, creating an illusion of the air being tangible enough to reach out and grab a handful of it.
In the northwest corner of Montana, at the edge of the Mountain Time zone, it was half-past eight in the evening in the middle of March and I could still see my parents, children, husband, and sister walking around the water in a hazy pool of light that reflected off the mountains behind them.
I paused, scanning the jagged horizon formed by movements in the earth’s foundation, punctuated by swans taking off in unison from the small pond in front of me. After a year of far too few visits with my family, we were together again, lost not in worrisome, despairing talks about our nation or the pandemic that have become commonplace in the past year, but simple, soul-filling wonder.
Dancing Spirit Ranch is a family-owned retreat center and vacation rental outside of Whitefish, Montana, America’s playground for skiers, nature lovers, hikers and fly fishers. On the edge of Glacier National Park and boasting 150 acres of gardens, ponds, walking trails, and mountain views, the ranch is a place layered with beauty.
Katherine and Gordon bought the ranch nearly 30 years ago, but only in the past few years has it been opened up for retreats and vacations. Guests can stay in three of the carefully built or renovated houses on the property. The Bunkhouse, a perfect accommodation for a larger family reunion, sleeps up to 14 in high-end rustic style, while The Schoolhouse is perfect for a couple or solo retreat.
From our windows in the Cedar House, a four-bedroom cabin on the edge of a 14-acre pond, we watched birds and deer navigate the early Montana spring against the stunning backdrop of the mountain range.
The food at Dancing Spirit Ranch sits in a league of its own. Ananda Johnson, the head chef, has a seemingly endless repertoire of healthy, delicious, plant-based recipes: rosemary paleo biscuits, garden lasagna, made with layers of zucchini, butternut squash, and eggplant between lentil brown rice noodles, oatmeal energy bites, and buckwheat granola, to name a few.
Prepared and served with gracious hospitality as we ate in the dining room of the Barn, next to a crackling fire while the sun beamed through the large windows, Ananda—full of humor, stories, and warmth—made us feel like old friends by the end of the week.
There are more food plans in the works. By the end of 2021, Dancing Spirit Ranch hopes to be completely farm-to-table. They’ve built gardens and greenhouses to this end, thoughtfully arranged in geometric patterns. Dancing Spirit Ranch takes pride in its working relationship with the land—caring for the soil correctly and planting sustainably so that the ground remains fruitful for years to come.
We could have gone the entire week without leaving the property of Dancing Spirit Ranch, enjoying the bubbling of the Whitefish River, the first signs of buds along the walking trails, sitting around the large communal fire pit where we enjoyed s’mores after dinner in the sunset, the white, sugary fluff of the marshmallow sticking to my daughter’s chin.
We did venture off, to ski Whitefish Mountain, which still had an ample snow base of 100 inches in March, and then to Glacier Park, where we drove 10 miles alongside the clear waters of Lake McDonald. But every time we turned back toward Dancing Spirit Ranch, it was with the anticipation of coming back home.
Katherine told me that the ranch has a way of bringing in the people who need it, a sort of magnetic pull. That might be true, but I think equally crucial to the equation is the way visitors are received when they arrive at Dancing Spirit Ranch. I think it matters that Dancing Spirit Ranch is family-owned and -operated because the staff and owners know inherently what visiting families and guests most need.
After so much time apart, my family craved a beautiful, relaxed setting to enjoy one another and the world around us, and the ranch delivered tenfold.
Watching my dad swing my daughter up onto his shoulders as they walked through the grass in the evening light, my mom laughing with my youngest as they ran in circles, my husband and sister standing together, talking about how good their dinner was, I decided that Dancing Spirit Ranch was a place I could return to again and again.
To quote the poet Wendell Berry, the place is full of the “peace of wild things.”
The author was a guest of Dancing Spirit Ranch.
Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She is currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website, RachaelDymski.com
Shenandoah National Park is Virginia’s crown jewel. Scenic overlooks, forested mountains, and open valleys are interspersed throughout 197,411 acres along the Blue Ridge Mountains. More than 500 miles of hiking trails are woven through shaded forests and green meadows, rising to the highest peak, Hawksbill Summit, at 4,049 feet.
The nearly 360-degree view from the peak of the 2.2-mile Hawksbill Summit trail is well worth the walk. There are also plenty of options for short hikes of less than five miles.
However, if you are looking for something more challenging, try the 9.8-mile Riprap-Wildcat Ridge Trail. Part of the Appalachian Trail, it is a rugged hike across rock formations and stream crossings that shows off waterfalls, and also offers a break in the form of a swimming hole.
This Park features rock walls, overlooks, picnic grounds, campgrounds, and trails built during the Great Depression of the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC also planted the mountain laurel that lines the park roads and built the 105-mile Skyline Drive that runs the entire length of the park, along with more than 340 structures located within the park. If you would rather explore the park on foot, more than 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail, which is 2,200 miles long from Maine to Georgia, traverse the park.
Unlike most national parks, settlers lived and farmed in Shenandoah. The state acquired over 1,000 tracts of land, and over 400 families moved, or were moved, out of the park boundary.
Lodges, cabins, and campgrounds stretch from one end to the other, offering lodging options within the park. Just 75 miles outside Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park provides an escape from city life into almost 80,000 acres of designated wilderness.
Size: 197,411 acres
Annual visitors: 1.4 million
Activities: hiking, camping, scenic drives, overlooks, waterfalls, fall foliage
Other attractions of note: Overall Run Falls, with its tallest waterfall at 93 feet, is accessible by trails from Hogback Overlook or Matthews Arm. Beahms Gap Overlook is near where the Appalachian Trail leaps across Skyline Drive.
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