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Montbell Versalite Pants Review – Section Hikers Backpacking Blog

Montbell’s Versalite Pants are 2-layer ultralight waterproof/breathable pants that weigh just 3.7 oz (in a men’s XL.) They can be used as rain pants or wind pants or when you want light layer to keep your legs warmer in camp. Montbell’s Versalite Pants have been available for many years, but the company recently switched from an in-house waterproof/breathable membrane to Gore Windstopper, resulting in a big improvement in their water resistance and breathability (more below). That, coupled with their extremely light weight and minimal features, make the Versalite Pants an attractive option for anyone wanting to reduce their gear weight.

Specs at a Glance

  • Gender: Men’s and Women’s models available
  • Weight: 3.7 oz (men’s XL)
  • Sizing: 4 sizes available
  • Water Pressure Resistance: 30,000 mm
  • Breathability: 43,000 g/m²/ 24 hrs
  • 2 layer Gore Windstopper with DWR
  • 10 denier ballistic rip-stop nylon
  • Price: $139

Fabric upgrade

The previous generation of Versalite pants was a 15d rip-stop nylon, 2.5 layer pant that used Montbell’s proprietary waterproof layer called Super Hydro Breeze (Water resistance : 20,000 mm / Breathability : 15,000 g/m²/ 24 hrs). The new Versalite Pants, reviewed here, is a 10d ripstop nylon, 2-layer pant made with a Gore Windstopper waterproof layer (Water resistance : 30,000 mm / Breathability : 43,000 g/m²/ 24 hrs). The waterproofing and breathability performance of the new pants is considerably better.

Design and construction

The Versailte Pants are black and with a grey coating on the inside to protect the waterproof/breathable membrane from oils, suntan lotion, and dirt. The interior of the pants does not feel clammy, even when worn over shorts and directly against the skin. However, the grey coating is easily scratched off, particularly near the ankles if you put the pants on while wearing shoes or boots. Gravel stuck in the shoe sole scrapes against the grey coating and scratches it off.

The pants are cut from a single piece of fabric, which reduces the number of seams that have to be taped in their manufacture. This reduces the chance of water leakage and helps reduce gear weight. The pants do have one taped seam down the centerline, running down the crotch and up the backside.

I added a cord lock to make it easier to close the pants
I added a cord lock to make it easier to close the pants

The fit is relaxed but not baggy in the legs. The rain pants do run a bit long though, maybe an inch. They come in one length: 31.9″. The pants don’t have any pockets and there are no zippers, including ankle zippers.

There is an elastic waistband, augmented by a drawstring. The drawstring does not run all the way through the waistband and is sewn in near the front, which limits your ability to tighten the waist. The drawstring itself doesn’t come with a cordlock to hold any tension, so I added one to keep them snugged tight.

Sewn-in drawstrings are also a common point of failure in pants because they tear out easily and it is quite difficult to sew them back in unless you’re skilled in sewing repairs.  While the sewn-in drawstring on the Versalite Pants has resisted my tugs, and endured field use, I’ve had such bad experiences with pants (from other brands, too numerous to list) that use this type of drawstring anchor that I avoid it whenever possible.

I mainly wear rain pants to keep my legs warm in cool weather.
I mainly wear rain pants to keep my legs warm in cool weather.

Field performance

Montbell’s Versalite Pants are a dream to use in wind, rain, and cool weather to retain warmth in camp. The factory DWR sheds rain very well and they breath well when worn over shorts and lightweight long pants. The legs are also wide enough that I can put them on and take them off easily without removing my shoes (size 10.5 men’s trail runners), with some room to spare.

Elastic cords at the base of the legs help seal the bottom of the leg and prvent it from dragging on the ground
Elastic cords at the base of the legs help seal the bottom of the leg and prevent it from dragging on the ground. I never wear gaiters, so I appreciate this feature.

While the legs are a little bit longer than I prefer, the elastic cords at the bottom of each leg can be used to hold them at ankle height, preventing the hems from dragging on the ground, while sealing out drafts and splash-back. You simply pull on the exposed portion of the cord, twist it once, and pull it over your shoe so it rests around your ankle. The elastic cord doesn’t restrict blood flow and is hardly noticeable. Montbell calls it the Samue Leg Closure System and it harkens back to the technique used by the Zen monks of Japan to adjust traditional work clothing using ties sewn inside clothing instead of elastic cord.

However, the Versalite Pants are easy to tear and my pair already sport tenacious tape patches on the lower legs. I wouldn’t recommend them off-trail or wearing them on trail if you had to walk through waist high vegetation. The 10 denier fabric is simply too thin to rebuff contact with the point objects you find in forests.

Fit is relaxed but not baggy in the legs
Fit is relaxed but not baggy in the legs

Comparable Rain Pants

Recommendation

Montbell’s Versalite Pants are ultralight waterproof/breathable rain pants that weight less than 4 0z and are made with a thin 10 denier ripstop nylon. They’re very basic with a drawstring waist, but no pockets or ankle zippers in keeping with their minimalist vibe. While pants like this are great to wear in rain or as a lightweight warmth layer, they are fragile and easily torn. If the cost of occasional replacement isn’t a barrier, the weight alone is the main reason I’d buy them. The fact that they have superb water resistance and breathability rating is just icing on the cake.

Disclosure: Montbell provided the author with pair of pants for this review.

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MSR Needle Stake Review – Section Hikers Backpacking Blog

MSR Needle Stakes are lightweight aluminum tent stakes with square-shaped shafts, a wedge tip, and a hook at the top. Weighing 9.6 grams each and 6 and 3/8″ long, they’re ideal for staking out tents and tarps that use cords as guy-lines. You can also use them to stake out webbing, of course, but there’s nothing better for staking out cord. The square stake shafts hold best in packed earth or mineral soil, but won’t break if you hit a rock when you pound them in. They’re not good for use in sand or snow, which require a wider stake or deadman for more purchase.

I’ve been using these Needle Stakes since 2016. For a while, they were hard to come by and you could only get them if you bought an MSR tent, which is where I got my first set. But they’re more widely available again and are usually sold in packages of 4 or 6 stakes. I never use the tent stakes that come with the tents I buy or manufacturers send me to review because they deform to easily, they’re too heavy, or the heads have sharp edges that tear my hands when I try to pull them out of the ground.

The red color of the MSR Needles stakes makes them hard to loose.
The red color of the MSR Needles stakes makes them hard to lose.

I’ve never broken one of these MSR Needle Stakes, although I have bent a few, by stepping on them accidentally. The soil where I backpack is usually soft enough that I can insert them into the ground by hand since the points are thin enough that they slide in with a little pressure. I have hit them with a rock in denser mineral soil, but they’ve stood up to the abuse without any issues.

However, you don’t want to push them (or any other tent stakes) into the ground with your foot. That’s a good way to bend a metal tent stake. If you need extra force, find a flat rock and pound them in at a 45 degree angle instead. To pull them out, simple grab the guy-line and pull it out by the cord. That usually does the trick.

MSR Needle Stakes are great for staking out tents that use cords for guy lines
MSR Needle Stakes are great for staking out tents that use cords for guy lines

I’ve probably used every tent stake you can name at one time or another including MSR’s ground hogs and mini ground hogs. but these MSR Needle stakes have stood the test of time. Most of the ultralight tents and tarps I use have cord for their guy-lines and the hooks built into these stakes are great for anchoring them down.

Compare 5 Prices

Last updated: 2018-09-20 19:51:58

Disclosure: MSR gave me these stakes long ago when I reviewed one of their tents.

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10 Best Backpacking Sporks – Section Hikers Backpacking Blog

Sporks are one of the backpacking industry’s greatest inventions. It’s a wonder that they’re not more widely used since having multifunction utensils would be such a great way to cut down on the plastic utensils polluting our oceans and urban landscape. Perhaps more amazing, is the amount of creativity and design ingenuity that manufacturers have applied to making different types and styles of sporks to fit different needs and preferences. But surely there can’t be that many types of sporks! You’d be surprised. They vary by functional capabilities, length, strength, material, price-point, and so on. That’s only touching the surface. The differences are far more nuanced and defy categorization. They’re a mouthful.

So without further delay, here are the 10 Best Backpacking Sporks of 2018!

1. Sea-to-Summit Delta Spork with Knife

Sea-to-Summit Delta Spork with Knife
Weighing just 19.5 grams, the Sea-to-Summit Delta Spork with Knife is the last eating utensil you’ll ever need. Made of food grade glass reinforced polyproplene, it is much stronger and durable than other camp cutlery. Even the knife is multifunctional, combining an integrated spreader knife with a strong cutting edge incorporated into the handle. BPA Free, dishwasher and microwave safe, the Spork profile also matches the inside curve of the Sea to Summit Delta Bowl and Plate, sold separately, so you can scrape your plate clean. 

Check for the latest price at:
Amazon | Campsaver

2. bambu Large Spork

Bambu Large Spork
If you’re trying to kick the plastic habit, the bambu Large Spork is for you. Made with bamboo, it’s hand finished with a light treatment of all-natural, organic, food-safe oil that won’t warp and swell in soapy water. Naturally stain-resistant, this 11.3 gram spork is made without glues or lacquers and USDA certified organic. Just imagine! A compostable spork.

Check for the latest price at:
REI

3. Snow Peak Titanium Spork

Snow Peak Titanium Spork Purple
Snow Peak was one of the first backpacking gear manufacturers to make titanium pots and cutlery and their gear is the perfect match of form and function. You can tell right away that this spork was designed with the human mouth in mind. It’s just the right size to shovel down soup, stew, noodles, Mountain House, Ben & Jerry’s, oatmeal, etc. Super light and super tough, this titanium spork has a small eyelet at the end, large enough to loop paracord through so you can clip it to your pack. Available in purple, green, blue, and plain titanium.

Check for the latest price at:
REI | Amazon

4. UST Spork Multi-Tool

UST Spork Multi-Tool
The Ultimate Survival Technologies Spork Multi-Tool is multi-function eating utensil combined with a can opener, bottle opener, flat screwdriver, pry tip, and hex wrench. Also available in a variety of colors including blue, green, and silver, this durable stainless steel includes a carabiner clip that you can attach to your pack, belt loop, or other gear. Need to repair your stove before you eat? Open a cold one? This spork has got you covered!

Check for the latest price at:
REI | Amazon

5. GSI Outdoors Campware Spork

GSI Outdoors Campware Spork
The GSI Outdoor Campware Spork is durable, lightweight, and amazingly affordable. It isn’t titanium, but it is a fifth the price, and only weighs 11.3 grams. It is comfortable to eat with and long enough to reach deep into a Mountain House meal. Best used for soupy and soft meals, it’s BPA-feee and dishwater safe. This is the spork I use because it’s the lease expensive thing you can buy at REI!

Check for the latest price at:
REI

6. Toaks Titanium Spork

Toaks Titanium Spork
The Toak Titanium Spork features a polished bowl and matte finish, for improved grip. Cutouts in the spork’s body help reduce the weight of the 17 gram spork and provide a way for you to attach it to your gear with a cord or ‘biner. The head’s tines are long enough to spear delicate morsels in addition to slurping down noodles or other soupy meals.

Check for the latest price at:
REI | Amazon

7. Forestry Labs Bamboo Sporks

Forestry Labs Bamboo Sporks
Forestry Lab’s Sporks are an interesting variant on the traditional notion of a spork, which normally combines a spoon and fork tines at the same end of the utensil. The advantage of their approach is that the fork tines are longer so you can get a better grip on foods that are denser and tougher to penetrate with shorter tines. Made with bamboo, each spork only weighs 12.4 grams. They’re also available in two lengths, 6.5″ and 8.6.” Sold in sets of 4, but still quite inexpensive and ECO friendly!

Check for the latest price at:
Amazon

8. Toaks Titanium Folding Spork

The Toaks Titanium Folding Spork is easy to store inside many backpacking cook pots, which is its chief selling point. Weighing 18 grams, the bowl is polished smooth giving it a pleasant mouth feel. It’s a good sturdy spork when open, although it can take a bit of practice to get used to the folding and locking mechanism. You can’t beat the size though!

Check for the latest price at:
Amazon

9. humangear GoBites Uno Spork

humangear GoBites Uno Spork
Another spork variant with a separate fork and spoon end, the GoBites Uno Spork is an economic alternative to titanium sporks. Weighing 14 grams, it’s very comfortable to hold and spin in your hand when you want to use the other end. The sides are shaped to make it easy to scrape food out of bowls and bags so you don’t miss one calorie of your backpacking meals. Made of high-temp nylon that’s incredibly strong, BPA-, PC- and phthalate-free, it’s top rack dishwasher safe.

Check for the latest price at:
REI | Amazon

10. Sea-to-Summit Alpha Light Long Spork

Sea-to-Summit Alpha Light Long Spork
Weighing just 12 grams, the Sea-to-Summit Alpine Light Spork is a long-handled spork, good for use with deep cook pots such as Jetboils (which you’re not supposed to cook noodles in, but everyone does). This spork is made from 7075-T6 aluminum alloy which is hard anodized for excellent durability. It includes a small accessory carabiner so you can clip the spoon (which has an end eyelet – hidden above) to a pack, mug or another utensil.

Check for the latest price at:
REI | Backcountry

How to Choose a Backpacking Spork: Key Criteria

Here are the most important properties of a spork and some guidance about how to select one that will work best for you.

Length: If you need to reach deep into a freeze-dried or rehydrated meal bag, or a deep cook pot like a Jetboil, a long length spoon can be quite desirable. Look for spoons that are 7 to 8 inches in length, as opposed to shorter ones that are 6 to 7 inches long.

Color: Get a brightly colored spork if you’re prone to lose them on backpacking trips. The titanium colored ones are easy to misplace on the ground because they look like sticks. Garish colors like purple or neon green stand out best.

Folding: If you want to have a cook kit that folds completely into a mug or cook pot, getting a folding spork is the way to go. Metal folding sporks tend to be more durable than plastic ones. Don’t try to use them as tent stakes though. They’re not stiff or strong enough.

Multi-purpose: There’s something to be said for having a multi-purpose spork that can open beer bottles or cans, even if they do weigh more than other options. It all depends on your most frequent needs and priorities.

Material: Wood, titanium, aluminum, nylon, or plastic? Metal sporks will be the most durable, as plastic can break. Wooden and bamboo sporks tend to break down with use, but they are usually biodegradable.

Single Head or Dual Head: While traditional backpacking sporks just have the one combined spoon and fork-tined head, there is something to be said for dual head sporks, since you often get a more usable fork with longer tines for spearing food. Most backpackers eat mush though, so having a true fork is often not a requirement.

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Cohos Trail Section Hike: Percy Loop to Starr King

North Percy Mountain

“It is amazing how much trail building the Cohos Trail Association gets done with such limited resources,” said Guthook, as we climbed up the Percy Loop Trail to North Percy Mountain. Guthook has worked as trail crew for the Green Mountain Club in Vermont and I could tell he was in awe at what they’d accomplished. This section of the Cohos Trail, the 170 mile long distance route that runs through Northern New Hampshire, was looking mighty fine indeed with excellent signage and blazes, and new campsites and shelters. A relatively new long distance trail, it’s been bootstrapped into existence by a small but dedicated, almost fanatical, cadre of trail builders and community activists in an effort to bring more commercial activity (ie. Massachusetts visitors) to New Hampshire’s north country.

Guthook and I (yes, THE Guthook) were on a three-day backpacking trip from the Nash Stream Forest followed by a Kilkenny Traverse in the northern most section of the White Mountain National Forest. It was a reunion of sorts, since we haven’t done any hiking together for a few years, due to busy schedules and life demands. He was doing a little work on this trip actually, finishing up mapping the Kilkenny Ridge Trail and its side trails for Guthook’s Guide, which has emerged as the most complete and easy-to-use trail guide for the National Scenic Trails in the US (AT, PCT, CDT, and many others).

Excellent Cohos Trail Signage
Excellent Cohos Trail Signage

Guthook and I weren’t strangers to this section of trail and have both hiked it before multiple times. He’s actually thru-hiked the Cohos Trail twice, I believe. We chose it for its remoteness, because it’s a nice long stretch where you can backpack without the crowds that flock to the White Mountain National Forest (down south) in summer. We didn’t see anyone for the first two days of this trip (which is pretty incredible) and only ran into some friends (maniacs, themselves) near the end.

Some 40 miles in length, this was a sizable route for a three-day trip, with many 4000 and 3000 footers to climb along the way, starting with North and South Percy, the two bell-shaped peaks that dominate the Nash Stream Forest skyline. If you’ve never been to the state-run Nash Stream Forest, it’s worth a visit, if only to hike the Percy Peaks and climb nearby Sugarloaf Mountain. It’s a wild place, only accessible by a gravel road, and home to many of the trail-less 3000 footers on the New Hampshire 200 Highest Peakbagging List. I have yet to fully explore it myself, but the times I’ve hiked through have all been memorable and left me longing for more.

Hot and Hazy view of South Percy Mountain
Hot and Hazy view of South Percy Mountain

We parked my beat-up trail car at the bottom of the Percy Loop Trail and proceeded to climb up to the peak, ascending steeply, in miserable heat and humidity. The real feel was easily up to 100 degrees and I was soaked with sweat in 10 minutes. I was also feeling a recent knee issue, probably a meniscus tear, that got progressively worse as we journeyed south. Looking back now, it was painful, but only slowed my pace down to book time, not that bad when you think about it. It’s still plaguing me even though my doctor has concluded that I don’t need surgery or a cortisone shot, just RICE. Try getting me to sit still for a week or two, though.

We climbed up North Percy and admired the northern view, then descended over its steep ledges, and climbed its sister peak, South Percy. From there we ambled along the Cohos Trail, which is technically a route, over pre-existing trails. The trail snakes along trails which double as snowmobile routes in winter. We popped up to Victor Head, a pleasant side trail and view-point, before crossing the railroad tracks and Rt 3 to get to the South Pond Recreation Area. This recreation area has a huge sand beach, changing rooms, rest rooms, and a picnic area. It costs $7 per car to enter, but we got in free because we walked in.

Cooking dinner at South Pond
Cooking dinner at South Pond

We’d arrived just at closing and the weather was looking mighty nasty, with dark rain clouds above. We’d been monitoring these closely all day, but been spared their wrath farther north. After a quick dip in the lake to wash off the day’s sweat, we hunkered under the front awning of a building and cooked up dinner while the skies unleashed their fury. It rained heavily for about 45 minutes before tapering off to a drizzle. After checking out the resulting rainbow, we hoofed it past the recreation area and pitched a hurried camp before the rain came down again. There was no chatting after that and I crashed, sleeping through more torrential rain at night.

We were both up early the next morning but waited for another torrential rainfall to subside before packing up and heading out, at about 8:00 am. After a brief diversion into the Devil’s Hopyard, a rock-filled canyon filled with “boulders scattered in picturesque confusion”, we headed south along the Kilkenny Trail towards Willard Notch. Our first major stop was a cliff called Rodger’s Ledge where we spread out our wet gear to dry in the sun.

Guthook in the Devil's Hopyard
Guthook in the Devil’s Hopyard

With the exception of Mt Cabot (a 4000 footer), most of the Kilkenny Trail is seldom hiked, making it a much wilder looking trail than most White Mountain hikers are used to. Blowdowns across the trail are common and the trail often needs a good brushing, to beat back the baby spruce trees and ferns that threaten to overwhelm it. While benign, this vegetation holds a lot of rain water, so we were quickly soaked when we brushed up against it as we made our way south after the recent rains.

Once dry and warmed up, we continued south stopping at the Roger’s Ledge Campsite and the Unknown Pond Campsite for brief breaks and so Guthook could map the side trails. From there, we climbed The Horn and The Bulge (two 3000 footers), before summiting Mt Cabot and scrambling up the avalanche slide on its north side. After a brief visit to the Cabot Spring and the Cabot Cabin, we climbed the three peaks of Terrace Mountain before descending steeply to a campsite near the Willard Trail near dark.

Drying out Gear on Rogers Ledge
Drying out Gear on Rogers Ledge

Time for camp chores. We filtered water from the nearby water source, cooked dinner, hung our Ursacks, and crashed. We both slept deeply but my knee was definitely hurting and I was dreading the climb we had to make up North Weeks Mountain the next morning.

We woke early and broke camp by 7:15 am. We still had a 10 mile hike ahead of us, including climbs up North, Middle, and South Weeks mountains, Mt Waumbek (a 4000 footer) and Mt Starr King. The climb up North Weeks was the biggest (about 1500′) one followed by Middle Weeks, but after that it was mostly flat or descending down to Rt 2.

My knee was better this morning, but it still hurt. I’d brought along some extra Ibuprofen on this hike, just in case, but it really had little effect. Every once in a while, I’d twist it and cougar scream in pain. But I kept going, hopeful that it wasn’t anything too serious. Knock on wood, it’s not, although I have been out of action most of this week.

Philip at the end of his 48 x 4000 Direttissima White Mountain Round
Philip at the end of his 48 x 4000 Direttissima White Mountain Round

As we approached the summit of North Weeks, we encountered three hikers. Guthook knew one of them, I knew another, and the third, Philip, was just finishing an 8 day supported Direttissima, a complete traverse of all 48 of the White Mountain 4000 footers in one continuous hike. My hats off to him. It’s a non-trivial hike, hundreds of miles long. I’ve tried it twice unsupported and given up while I was ahead.

We parted ways and continued climbing, only to be greeted by massive blowdown mania on North and Middle Weeks. It’s the worse I’ve ever seen it. The Forest Service and Randolph Mountain Club trail crews had been through and cut out a trail again, but the destruction was far worse and larger than the blowdowns I’d encountered on the Kate Sleeper Trail earlier this year, or South Carter last winter. Thank god for our trail crews.

Blowdowns on the Weeks
Blowdowns on the Weeks
More blowdowns
More blowdowns
Trail through the blowdowns
Trail through the blowdowns

Once past the blowdowns and the Weeks, we arrived at Waumbek, where we dried out more gear in a viewpoint that’d been opened up since I was there last. Then onto Starr King Mountain and Jefferson, which has a nice little store and gas station on Rt 2. Their pizza is fantastic and went down real nice with a Classic Coke.

Guthook had been great company on this hike and I’m glad I finished the route despite my knee pain. The north country can be a real tonic if you ever need to get away from it all and I think we both benefitted from the respite.

In you’re interested in our route, take a look at the Kilkenny Ridge Traverse Route Plan in my free guidebook, Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 footers. For our route through the Nash Stream Forest refer to the Cohos Trail Guide from North Percy Mountain to the South Pond Recreation Area.

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Backpacking Survival Gear Checklist – Section Hikers Backpacking Blog

Backpacking trips and day hikes don’t always go as planned. The weather can change unexpectedly. You can injure yourself and you might come across someone who needs help. Different times of year can also necessitate carrying different types of survival tools or supplies. While you can technically view all of the gear that you bring on a backpacking trips or day hikes (including food, layered clothing, etc) as survival gear, many people leave out items that you’d want in true emergency, when your trip plan goes off the rails. It happens, even to people with a lot of experience.

Here’s a checklist of survival gear to help you decide what to bring, annotated with suggestions about their purpose and utility. A non-annotated PDF version of this checklist is available for download.

Emergency Communication Devices

Cell Phone: Dialing or texting 911 on a cell phone is the most effective way to summon search and rescue assistance in locations that have cell tower access. It should be tried before contacting search and rescue services with a satellite messenger or personal locator beacon.

Satellite Messenger: These devices include the Garmin inReach and inReach Mini, the Spot Gen 3, and Spot X. They provide two-way text messaging or email communication via a satellite communications link in areas where cell phone or land lines are unavailable. They operate over private networks and require a subscription fee, like a cell phone. They can also summon public Search and Rescue services in an emergency. Garmin inReach Explorer+, Garmin inReach mini, SPOT Gen3.

Personal Locator Beacon: These devices will send an SOS message via satellite over a public network, They are less expensive than Satellite Messengers because they run on public satellite links, but also more limited in their functionality. People carry a satellite messenger or a personal locator beacon, but not both. Arc ResQLink+GPS PLB.

Walkie Talkies: Good for medium distance person-to-person communications (up to 30-35 miles), although they are sensitive to local landforms and geography which can interfere with signal strength. Motorola T460 Two Way Radios (Pair),  Midland GXT1000VP4 Two Way Radios.

Loud Whistle: If you need to get someone’s attention, you can blow a loud whistle far longer than you can yell. They’re very handy to use when you lose site of a hiking partner but know they’re nearby. Fox 40 Classic Whistle, SOL Rescue Howler Whistler.

Signal Mirror: Used for signaling search and rescue aircraft to help them locate your position when flying overhead. UST Starflash Mirror, Coghlan’s Featherweight Mirror.

Emergency Shelter and Insulation

Emergency Blanket/Bivy Bag: Reflects your body heat to help keep you warm. Also good for warming a hypothermic person. An emergency bivy sack is warmer because it provides better wind protection. Space Emergency Blanket, Space All-Weather Blanket, SOL Emergency Bivy Bag

Sleeping Pad: Provides insulation from ground in case you unexpectedly need to spend the night out. Also good to prevent hypothermia induced by cold ground contact by an injured person. Foams pads are the most durable and lightest weight. Therm-a-Rest Zlite Sol, Blue Foam Pad

Bivy Sack: Minimalist emergency shelter in case you unexpectedly need to spend the night out. A significant step up from an Emergency Bivy in term of durability. Outdoor Research Molecule Bivy Sack, Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy.

Tarp: A tarp can provide a minimalist shelter at night or give you a place to shelter under during the day in heavy name. REI Camp Target 12, All Purpose Blue Tarp.

Tent: On long day hikes, it can be prudent to bring a tent if there’s a significant chance you’ll have to spend the night out. Carrying the rain fly of a double-wall tent may be sufficient by itself because you can wrap yourself up in it together with your insulation like a bivy sack.

Tools and Protection

Folding Saw: Good for cutting firewood or fashioning a splint. Silky Folding Saw, Sven Folding Saw.

Magnetic Compass: Reliable form of direction finding. Baseplate compasses like the Suunto A10 or the Silva 1-2-3 are inexpensive, reliable, and break resistant.

Paper Map: For local area.

Emergency Matches, Lighter or Sparker: Provides method for generating sparks to start a fire. Learn how to start a fire with tinder if you don’t know how. UCO Stormproof Matches, Bic Mini Lighter, Light My Fire – Fire Steel.

Fire Starter/Tinder: Vaseline dipped cotton balls, drier lint, or commercial fire starters like Lightning Nuggets, Wetfire Tinder.

Headlamp or Flashlight: One of the 10 essentials. In addition to being a psychological comfort, a headlamp or flashlight allows you to safely move around outdoors at night without falling. Petzl e+Lite, Fenix LD02 Flashlight.

Backup Water Purification Method: A second water filter or purification method in case your primary method breaks or fails. Chlorine Dioxide Tablets, Steripen, Lifestraw.

Extra Batteries: Match batteries to all of the vital electronic devices you carry, or carry a multi-purpose power pack with different recharging adapters. Ravpower 10,000,mAh Power Pack, Anker 10,000 mAh Power Bank.

Multi-Tool: Includes folding knife and basic tools. Good for gear repair, particularly in winter for repairing damaged skis or traction. Scissors can also be helpful for applying first aid. Leatherman Micra, Leatherman Squirt, Swiss Army Classic, SOG Baton Q2

Survival Knife: Sturdy knife that can be used to cut material, feather-stick, and split firewood. Mora Companion Knife, Gerber StrongArm Tactical Knife.

Bear Spray: Spray a cloud at the head of a charging bear as a deterrent. Primarily for use in brown or grizzly bear territory, only. Counter Assault, Frontiersman.

Extra First Aid Kit Items

These items are often left out of consumer first-aid kits or are not provided in sufficient quantities to be applied more than once. In a true emergency, you’d want multiple doses.

Anti-Diarrhea Medication:  Helps prevent runny stools and dehydration and increase personal comfort if you contract a stomach disorder or have eaten something that disagrees with you. Loperamide Tablets, Imodium tablets

Anti-Allergy Medication: Reduce allergic reactions to insect stings and other substances. Can also be used as a sleep aid. Benedryl tablets, Diphenhydramine Tablets

Anti-Inflammatory Medication: Helps reduce pain and swelling.  Ibuprofen, Allieve.

Aspirin: Specifically as a blood thinner to prevent a heart-attack.

Quick Clotting Agent: Trauma aid used to stop massive bleeding. Quick Clot

Sam Splint: Lightweight split that can be bent to splint many common injuries. Sam Splint.

Blister bandages: Padded and slippery to increase comfort, accelerate healing, and prevent additional irritation after blisters have occurred. Band-Aid Hydro-Seal Bandages, Compeed.

Blister Prevention Tape: Protective tape applied to the skin and over hot spots to help reduce foot friction and prevent blisters before they occur. Leukotape Sports Tape, Moleskin

Irrigation Syringe: Plastic syringe useful for irrigating cuts and wounds to clean out debris and prevent infection. Best used with clean and purified water. Also useful to back flush water filters. Plastic syringe.

Medical Exam Gloves: Protects caregiver against potentially infectious body fluids of patient. Nitrile Gloves.

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10 Best Freestanding Tents – Section Hikers Backpacking Blog

Freestanding tents are the holy grail of backpacking and mountaineering tents because they can be set up quickly just about anywhere, on wooden tent platforms, rock, sand, snow, and even climber’s portaledges, without having to be staked to the ground first.

Because they’re so desirable, many tent manufacturers claim that their tents are freestanding when in fact they’re not. This practice is common among double-wall tent manufacturers that make inner tents which are freestanding, but require that the outer rain fly be staked to the ground. These tents do not have the advantages of a truly freestanding tent and are not included below.

Most freestanding tents are wedge or dome-shaped, making them highly weather and wind resistant. However, truly freestanding tents tend to be slightly heavier than non-freestanding ones because they have to be self-supporting, with long tent poles that add additional weight. Some two-person models can be cramped, particularly ones designed for mountaineering where comfort is often sacrificed in the name of reduced gear weight. Still, the experience of setting up a freestanding tent is liberating because you can pitch one anywhere there’s flat ground. That kind of flexibility is highly valuable when you need to get out of the weather and into a secure and stable shelter.

1. The North Face Assault 2

The North Face Assault 2
The North Face Assault 2 is a rugged, single-wall expedition tent with a pole-supported ventilation system for increased stability. Sized for two, the 3 lb 4 oz Assault 2 is made with a breathable laminate to vent moisture, with a font door and rear escape hatch. Crossed poles make setup fast and easy. Dual top vents increase breathability, while ample ceiling tabs allow for hanging a stove, gear loft, or drying lines.

Check for the latest price at:
REI | Backcountry

2. Hilleberg Unna

Hilleberg Unna
The Hilleberg Unna is a 1-person dome-style freestanding tent that weighs 4 lbs 7 oz. It is ideal for trips in any season where low weight is a high priority, but where the terrain makes for tricky pitching conditions. Rather than a vestibule, the Unna has a spacious interior that easily accommodates the occupant and gear. The corner of the inner tent can be detached to create a large protected area to cook, pack, or store gear.

Check for the latest price at:
Campsaver | Moosejaw

3. Black Diamond El Dorado

Black Diamond Eldorado
Black Diamond makes several other freestanding tents that look like the El Dorado, but it is the roomiest, longest and strongest, designed for taller individuals and more gear. Weighing 4 lbs 8 oz, the El Dorado has two crossed aluminum poles which are secured in the tent’s interior. The walls are made with a breathable waterproof fabric to help vent condensation while front and rear top vents promote greater airflow. A separate front vestibule is also available, but it is not freestanding.

Check for the latest price at:
Campsaver | Black Diamond

4. MSR Advance Pro 2

The MSR Advance Pro is lightweight, freestanding tent that weighs just 2 lbs 14 oz. Designed for high altitude mountaineering, its steep sides maximize interior room while shedding winds. Dual carbon fiber tent poles are anchored in sleeves and crossed overhead, providing the ability to handle heavy snow loads. In addition to the door, front and rear vents help remove moisture and reduce internal condensation, even in the harshest conditions.

Check for the latest price at:
Campsaver | Moosejaw

5. Hilleberg Soulo

The Hilleberg Soulo is a one person double-wall freestanding tent designed for 4 season use. It has a large front vestibule that provides access and ventilation and can be used for cooking or gear storage in poor weather. Weighing 4 lbs 7 oz, it is tremendously strong and can be pitched just about anywhere. The inner tent can hung inside the outer rain fly after it has been set up, a desirable feature to keep the inner tent dry if it is raining during setup. Most Hilleberg tents have this capability.

Check for the latest price at:
Campsaver | Moosejaw

6. Exped Orion II

Exped Orion II
The Orion II is a sturdy three-pole dome tent with two doors.  The full length ridge pole reaches the ground for enhanced wind stability and creates a high canopy with comfortable living space. Two large vestibules hold loads of gear and the wide doors make entry and exit quick and simple. Weighing 6 lbs 2 oz, the Orion is designed to withstand high wind speeds, with crossed poles, pole sleeves, and durable fabrics for maximum strength.

Check for the latest price at:
Campsaver | Moosejaw

7. Rab Latok Mountain 2

Rab Latok Mountain Summit 2
The Rab Latok Mountain 2 is a single wall tent made with breathable 3 layer eVent fabric. It has two internal crossed poles for strength and is easy to set up in poor weather. A rear vent provides additional airflow and internal humidity reduction. Weighing 4 lb. 1 oz, the tent can be guyed out for use with skis and mountaineering tools, while a 70 denier nylon floor is provided for enhanced durability and waterproofing. A separate front vestibule is sold separately.

Check for the latest price at:
Campsaver | Moosejaw

8. Big Agnes Shield 2

Big Agnes Shield 2
Weighing in at 3 lbs 12 oz, the Big Agnes Shield 2 is a single wall, four season tent made with a breathable fabric to vent moisture. It has a front door with a transparent front window so you can observe weather conditions before exiting. Crossed DAC poles, held in place by fabric sleeves, provide a strong shelter while over-sized guy loops let you anchor the tent with backcountry skiing or mountaineering gear instead of stakes.

Check for the latest price at:
REI | Campsaver

9. Hilleberg Allak

Hilleberg Allak
The Allak is a comfortable and rugged two-person freestanding dome tent with two large vestibule doors and large ceiling vents that provide excellent ventilation and livability. Deep pole sleeves ensure excellent wind resistance and are large enough to accept double poles for maximum strength. Weighing 6 lbs 2 oz, the Allak’s comfortable ceiling height and long length will also appeal to taller users. If you’ve never owned a Hilleberg Tent, you’ll be blown away by the quality of the materials and construction.

Check for the latest price at:
Campsaver | Moosejaw

10. Fjallraven Abisko Dome 2

Fjallraven Abisko Dome 2
The Fjallraven Abisko Dome 2 is a double wall tent with 2 vestibules for maximum comfort and wide open views. The large vestibule provide ample gear storage and room for cooking and other activities in poor weather. The structure is set up with three poles which slide through sleeves for added strength and durability. The fly can be set up before the inner tent, allowing it to stay dry even if it’s raining. Ventilation openings at different heights provide superb airflow, enabling use in warmer climates as well as winter.

Check for the latest price at:
Campsaver | Amazon

Freestanding Tent Evaluation Criteria

When evaluating freestanding tents, it helps to research the climate conditions you expect to use the tent in, as this will inform the degree of tent pole strength and breathability required.

Ventilation: Important to minimize and reduce internal condensation. This is achieved by keeping the door(s) open when feasible, through peak and side vents, and in some cases through the use of breathable wall fabrics. You can never have too much ventilation in a tent, although the addition of doors and zippers can result in increased weight.

Pole Architecture: Most freestanding tents have a two or three crossed poles, anchored inside or outside the tent walls. Exterior poles that are anchored in sleeves are much stronger that poles that connect to an inner tent using clips or velcro tabs. They’re much more wind resistant and capable of withstanding heavier snow loads.

Interior Space: Freestanding tents designed for high alpine mountaineering use are often smaller and more cramped than those designed for four season use because weight savings are so critical when you have to climb many thousands of feet to reach your destination. When selecting a tent be realistic about your length and width requirements, particularly when choosing a two-person wedge style tent.

Number of Doors: Tents designed to hold two occupants are more comfortable and convenient to use if they have two doors and vestibules because you can come and go without waking your tent partner. Dome style tents often provide greater covered vestibule storage, which can make a significant different in livability.

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Backpacking Sleeping Clothes – Section Hikers Backpacking Blog

I carry a separate set of clothes to sleep in on backpacking trips because it feels nice to put something on that’s clean after perspiring in my regular daytime hiking clothes. They also serve double duty as an extra baselayer in cold weather or if I need to change into something dry after my regular clothes get wet, like when I have to hike in rain.

Wool or synthetic, it doesn’t really matter what kind of fabric they’re made of, although you probably want to avoid cotton unless you’re backpacking through a hot and dry climate like the desert where they can dry quickly if they get wet. I use a long sleeve synthetic jersey and long underwear (Lightweight Patagonia Capilene) because they won’t shrink in a dryer and they basically last forever. They also pack up small and are very lightweight. I also send them out for Insect Shield Treatment because they’re my baselayer when I sleep in a hammock, usually deep in the woods, in tick territory.

I also change into a relatively clean and dry pair of hiking socks each night and wear a fleece beanie cap, since I usually sleep in a hoodless sleeping bag if I’m on the ground or with a quilt, in a hammock.

Psychological benefits

While wearing sleeping clothes will help you keep your sleeping bag/quilt and sleeping pad cleaner, there’s more to wearing sleeping clothes than meets the eye. When I take off my daytime clothes and switch to my sleeping clothes, I relax. It triggers a psychological response and helps me kick back in preparation for sleep. I sleep really well outdoors and feeling “cleaner” has a lot to do with it. My daytime hiking clothes get crusty with salt, sweat, and dirt, and they’d be nasty to sleep in. While I wear a thin shirt and pants that I rinse and will usually dry (mostly) overnight, they’re wet when I go to sleep.

Health benefits

There are also health benefits to sleeping in cleaner and drier clothes at night, because they give your nether regions and feet a chance to gently reabsorb body fluids and heal. If you sleep in your salt-encrusted daytime hiking clothes at night, even if it’s just your boxers, the salt will continue to draw moisture from your skin. Wearing clean clothes and socks will reduce any ongoing irritation and help your skin recover its natural resiliency. Plump, resilient skin is much more durable, blister, and chafe-resistant than dry irritated skin.

Sleeping naked

What about sleeping naked on backpacking trips? Whatever floats your boat. I’d still recommend bringing along an extra baselayer shirt and long underwear that you can layer with if you get cold or wet, or you can use to augment your sleeping bags/quilts warmth on cold nights. I don’t bring any extra daytime shirts, pants, or underwear on my backpacking trips, so my sleeping clothes are my only fall backs.

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Vintage Backpacking Gear Reviews – Section Hikers Backpacking Blog

It’s SectionHiker.com’s 10th anniversary this year. During that time, I’ve hiked a lot of miles and written a lot of backpacking gear reviews, including gear that could now be considered vintage, since it’s no longer made. I find it fascinating to trace the evolution of different backpacking and hiking gear designs over time and see how they evolve as manufacturing materials and processes change. I took a lot of art and architectural history classes in college and was always enthralled by that sort of thing. Here’s a selection of some of most historically significant products I’ve used and reviewed, with links to the original gear reviews.

Brooks Range Mountaineering Rocket Tent

Brooks Range Mountaineering Rocket Tent
Brooks Range Mountaineering Rocket Tent

The Brooks Range Mountaineering Rocket Tent was a 22 oz, 2 person, trekking-pole winter tent made with aluminized cuben fiber. It was pretty innovative for its time, but ultimately failed because of manufacturing and material defects. Priced at $549, it was considered very expensive in 2011. Compare that to the price of DFC (formerly called cuben fiber) tents today, if you want a laugh.

Link to Review

The Original Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Sleeping Pad

Therm-a-rest NeoAir Sleeping Pad - Size Regular
Therm-a-rest NeoAir Sleeping Pad – Size Regular

The original Therm-a-Rest NeoAir kicked off the inflatable air mattress/sleeping pad revolution in 2009. Backpacking has never been the same since. That first NeoAir weighed 14 oz, it had an R-value of 2.5, and was 2 and a half inches thick. Before the NeoAir, most backpackers still slept on foam or self-inflating sleeping pads. The original NeoAir was subsequently end-of-lifed and replaced by the NeoAir XLite, which weighed 12 oz and had an R-value of 3.2.

Link to Review

Zpacks Blast 32 Backpack

Zpacks.com Blast 32 Backpack
Zpacks.com Blast 32 Backpack in Scotland on the TGOC 2010

The ZPacks Blast 32 was a precursor to the current generation of ZPacks Blast external frame backpacks that the company sells today. It had a pretty standard ultralight backpacking design with two side mesh pockets. The interesting thing about this pack was the fact that it had external cuben fiber stays in the corners that you could add to the pack to help prevent torso collapse when carrying heavier loads. They worked rather poorly actually and always popped out of their velcro holders, but they were an early iteration of ZPacks external frame concept.

Link to Review

The Tarptent Squall 2

Tarptent Squall 2
Tarptent Squall 2

The Tarptent Squall 2 was one of the first tents made by Henry Shires at Tarptent.com. It was a spacious and well-ventilated single-walled, two-person trekking pole tent that weighed 34 oz and cost $230 in 2009. The Squall 2’s design embodied many of the design elements that are common in ultralight backpacking tent to this day, including a front beak, floating floor, and catenary cut ceiling. Tarptent halted the Squall 2’s manufacture a few years ago, but you can still download Henry’s plans to make a similar tent from thru-hiker.com.

Link to Review

The Sierra Designs Mojo 2

Sierra Designs Mojo 2 Person Tent
Sierra Designs Mojo 2 Person Tent

The Sierra Designs Mojo 2 was a 2-person hybrid single wall/double wall design that looked like something out of Tolkein, but was actually quite a livable tent. It failed in the market because mainstream buyers were freaked out by the exposed portion of the inner tent. While the 3 lb 2 oz Mojo 2 was made with conventional materials, Sierra Designs also had a few prototypes made up in cuben fiber. Compare this to the ho-hum dome-style tents made by Sierra Designs today.

Link to Review

The REI Dash 2 Ultralight Tent

The REI Dash 2 ultralight tent - a radical departure from the signature REI dome tent design.
The REI Dash 2 ultralight tent – a radical departure from the signature REI dome tent design.

The REI Dash 2 is still the lightest weight tent ever sold under the REI brand  at 2 lbs 7 oz and was quite similar in outward appearance to the Sierra Designs Mojo 2, described above. It had two vestibules but was still a tight fit for two people. It never gained much traction in the market though, probably due to its odd appearance and partially exposed inner tent.

Link to Review

Garmin Geko 301 GPS

Garmin Geko 301 GPS
Garmin Geko 301 GPS

The Geko 301 was a great little monochrome-screen GPS sold by Garmin that could fit in the palm of your hand. While it was rudimentary by today’s standards and could only store 500 waypoints or 20 routes, it was a great way to get a position fix when used with a map. I especially liked the feature that would let you switch between country-specific coordinate systems (the equivalent of UTM coordinates) when I hiked across Scotland the first time in 2010 and could use OS Grid coordinates the confirm my location. I bought mine refurbished back in 2009 for $99, but you can find them for even less today on eBay.

Link to Review

Six Moon Designs Starlite Backpack

Long side tent pocket. Six Moon Designs Starlite Backpack
Long side tent pocket. Six Moon Designs Starlite Backpack

The Six Moon Designs Starlite Backpack was my first ultralight backpack and had a strong following in the ultralight backpacking community. It had an adjustable length torso, an internal sleeping pad pocket located behind the shoulder pads, a large stretch mesh front pocket, a long side tent pocket (like the Gossamer Gear Mariposa) and large hip belt pockets. I hiked mine to death. It’s too bad that Six Moons killed the design. It’d probably do very well today with updated fabrics and materials, and a male and female build.  Six Moon Designs is the one of the only UL backpack manufacturers that’s consistently offered backpacks with adjustable length torsos, when there’s such a crying need for it.

Link to Review

The Kelty Cloud Backpack

Myriad of Attachment Points
The Kelty Cloud had many attachment points for optional components.

The Kelty Cloud was ahead of its time. This all white backpack was made with Spectra fabric, an ultra high molecular weight polyethylene, similar to Dyneema DCF (formerly called cuben fiber). Kelty made numerous versions of The Cloud, which have since become collectors items. The model shown above was highly modular, with different external pocket configurations that could be mixed and matched for different needs. It had a base weight of just 20 ounces, which was pretty impressive for a 66L internal frame backpack made in the 1990’s.

Link to Review

Jetboil Sol Ti Backpacking Stove

Cooking Dinner on the Jetboil Sol Ti
Cooking Dinner on the Jetboil Sol Ti

The 9.9 oz Jetboil Sol Ti was Jetboil’s attempt at including titanium in its product line of camping stoves. If you’ve ever used one of their stoves, they use aluminum cook pots that have an aluminum heat exchanger welded to the bottom. This helps retain the heat of the flame to make the burner more efficient, and acts as a sort of wind shield. The Sol Ti stove was different because it had a titanium cookpot, to reduce the weight of the system, which was welded to the aluminum heat exchanger. JetBoil had to pull the product from the market for safety reasons because the welds holding the heat exchanger would melt if the cook pot got too hot. This could happen if you cooked or boiled something besides liquid water in the pot. While Jetboil supposedly warned people not to do this, they did it anyway. People are like that.

Link to Review

Therm-a-Rest Haven Sleeping Bag

Therm-a-Rest Haven Sleeping Bag
Therm-a-Rest Haven Sleeping Bag

The Haven was one of Therm-a-Rest’s earliest attempt to create an ultralight quilt, but one that stayed true to the hooded mummy design pattern. It was lightweight but tight-fitting and hard to get in and out of. Alas, the world wasn’t ready for a hooded quilt-style sleeping bag and the product failed.

Link to Review

Inov-8 Terroc 33o Trail Runners

Inov-8 Terroc 330 Trail Running Shoes
Inov-8 Terroc 330 Trail Running Shoes

The Inov-8 Terroc 330 Trail Runner was a backpacker favorite in the UK until Inov-8 changed turned it purple and completely changed the product design. It was the first trail runner I switched to from hiking boots and I went through many pairs of them. It was perfect for hiking in Scotland because it drained quickly and had excellent sticky traction

The reason manufacturers keep the same product names when they change a product, often drastically, has to do with Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Once a name gets lodged into Google’s search index and people’s heads, the marketing people want to keep it alive because they know people will keep searching on the term, even if it’s a very different ‘updated’ product in every other respect.

Link to Review

Scarpa Omega Mountaineering Boots

Scarpa’s Omega Mountaineering Boots were one of the only plastic boots available that were not shaped like cinder blocks, but like real boots. They weighed 5.2 pounds and ran for $360/pair back in the day. Plastic boots were popular before the advent of lighter weight winter footwear and traction-aids like Kahtoola Microspikes came on the scene because they were super warm (down to -35 below zero), and completely waterproof.

The Omegas were popular with walkers as well as ice climbers because they were so agile and had the requisite front and rear welts required for step-in crampons. The boots consisted of an outer plastic shell and a separate insulated liner, made by Intuition. I wore mine for about 5 winters until I blew out the liner. By then Scarpa had dropped most of their plastic boots and stopped selling replacement liners, in favor of lightly insulated Gortex mountaineering, integrated with a high insulated gaiter/overboot for extreme cold. I still have my Omega shells buried in my gear closet, but I wear very lightweight, waterproof, insulated boots for winter hiking now, like virtually everyone else.

Link to Review

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The Maine Mountain Guide – Section Hikers Backpacking Blog

The Maine Mountain Guide is the hiker’s bible for the mountains and hiking trails of Maine. It provides detailed descriptions of more than 625 trails, on 300 mountains, totaling close to 1500 trail miles in length, ranging from easy woodland strolls to strenuous mountain traverses. Now in its 11 edition, it’s been 6 years since the guide was last updated and reflects the trail expansion boom that’s come to Maine in the intervening period. With 450 updates to existing trails, and 175 new trails on 50 new mountains, the guide provides a wide variety of hiking opportunities for every interest and fitness level.

The Maine Mountain Guide (MMG) splits Maine’s hiking trails into 12 separate regions, providing a vast range of hiking opportunities no matter where you’re in the state, along the coast, near the lakes of central Maine, or along the border with Canada or New Hampshire.

  1. Baxter State Park and Mt Katahdin
  2. 100 Mile Wilderness and Moosehead Lake
  3. Kennebec and Moose River Valleys
  4. Western Lakes and Mountains
  5. Mahoosuc Range and Grafton Notch
  6. White Mountain National Forest and Evans Notch
  7. Oxford Hills
  8. Southwestern Maine
  9. Midcoast
  10. Acadia National Park
  11. Downeast
  12. Aroostock County

Planning Information and Maps

The MMG includes a list of suggested hikes for each region, sorted by effort level, with easy to read icons that help you find ones that are dog-friendly, are kid-friendly, have waterfalls, firetowers, whether they’re good cross-country ski trails, and so on. Each trail is then described in turn-by-turn detail, including its length, elevation gain, and the distance to each major trail junction or landmark along its length.

While this information is very helpful for selection a trail and planning hikes, it’s unlikely that you’ll to carry the entire book in your backpack when you go hiking. When hiking, it’s best to carry a map, so you can check landmarks as you pass them to verify your position. The MMG  includes two of these, but they’re made of paper, which is far less durable than waterproof maps made of Tyvek, which can survive hundreds of uses. Frequent hikers will probably want to upgrade to the waterproof versions of these maps: Maine Mountains Trail Map 1-2 and Maine Mountains Trail Map 3-6.

Detailed Driving Directions

While all of the Mountain Guides published by the Appalachian Mountain Club include detailed driving directions to each of the trail heads they cover, no where is this more important than in Maine, since so many of the roads are unpaved and only open seasonally. Forget trying to find them using Google Maps or your car’s GPS system. Updated and verified, these “analog” style directions are one of the most valuable sources of information in the MMG and something you’d be hard-pressed to replicate on your own.

About the Editor

The current edition of the Maine Mountain Guide was compiled and edited by Carey Kish, a retired newspaperman, and lifelong hiker who’s hiked the Appalachian Trail twice, once in 1977 and again in 2015. A longtime Maine resident, he’s a friendly and rambunctious character, who’s highly accessible on social media, is an active trail maintainer for the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, and guest speaker who makes frequent guest appearances around the state.

Recommendation

If you love Maine hiking and want to expand your horizons or love the adventure of exploring Maine’s wilderness areas, be sure to pick up a copy of the new Appalachian Mountain Club’s Maine Mountain Guide and its associated waterproof maps. Rich in detail and painstakingly edited, it provides an invaluable launch pad for exploring what the great State of Maine has to offer for hikers and backpackers, alike.

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Last updated: 2018-07-26 14:31:00

The author received a free copy of this book for review, but would have gladly purchased this exhaustive trail reference for his New England hiking guide and map collection.

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AT Section Hike: The Mahoosucs and Old Speck Mountain

“Pull on my ankles!”, I shouted to Ken, from under a house-sized rock in Mahoosuc Notch. I’d dropped a water bottle as I scrambled between the giant boulders in what is often referred to as “the hardest mile on the Appalachian Trail” and didn’t want to leave it behind. Situated in a deep chasm, this one mile section of the Mahoosuc Notch “Trail” is a jumble of broken slabs that have fallen from the cliffs above. They make a fun, but slow and formidable scramble, bookended by a steep climb and descent at the ends. Laughing, Ken pulled me out of the hole and we continued on our merry way.

Bridging the White Mountains and Southern Maine, The Mahoosuc Trail is part of a 31 mile section of the Appalachian Trail that runs from Gorham, NH to  Grafton Notch in Maine. This section of the trail is quite rugged hiking, even more strenuous than the Presidential Range in the White Mountains to the south. My buddy Ken and I hiked it from north to south in two and a half days this July, during a pleasant stretch of cool sunny weather. Ken’s a professional mountaineering guide who’s hiked and climbed all over the world. He works out of North Conway, NH and is one of my frequent hiking and fishing companions.

The biggest difference between hiking on the Appalachian Trail in the Mahoosucs and the White Mountains is the amount of slab that you need to climb up and down on trails. What’s slab? It’s less-than-vertical rock face that requires a lot of friction and balance moves to ascend and descend. While it’s short of rock climbing, it’s often slower than normal hiking and more strenuous because it requires a lot of big leg muscle moves and hand holds. Slab hiking also puts much more pressure on your heels, since your feet and ankles are cocked up for extended periods of time when climbing slanted rock. This can lead to painful hotspots or blisters, even if you’re a seasoned hiker and have tough feet.

Climbing Old Speck Mountain (left)
Climbing Old Speck Mountain (left)

Day One: Grafton Notch to Full Goose Shelter

We dropped a car at the Rattle River trailhead off Rt 2 in Gorham, NH and drove north to Grafton Notch State Park in Maine to start our hike southward. While you can hike this route in both directions, going north-to-south gets the hardest parts over sooner while you have fresh legs. We packed three days of food and planned to hike about 10-12 miles per day, which is a fairly aggressive pace for this terrain.

On day one, we started off by climbing Old Speck Mountain, the massive 4000 footer on the south side of Grafton Notch. It’s a steep climb, gaining 2850′ feet in 3.8 miles. While it was sunny, the wind was blowing hard and cold, and I wished I’d brought gloves for the climb. We set a good pace though and were soon at the fire tower on the summit.

Speck Pond
Speck Pond

Next, we hiked down to Speck Pond. The 900′ descent down to the pond is all slab and we were thankful that we had dry conditions for it. Speck Pond (3400′), according to the AMC’s Maine Mountain Guide, is one of the highest elevation ponds in the State of Maine. We visited the new AT shelter, which had been built since my last visit to the pond in 2017.

Mahoosuc Notch runs along the base of these cliffs. Mahoosuc Arm is the rounded peak on the right towering above it.
The Mahoosuc Notch Trail runs along the base of these cliffs. Mahoosuc Arm is the rounded peak on the right towering above it.

From Speck Pond we climbed up the North side of a mountain called Mahoosuc Arm, before descending steeply down its north face to the north end of Mahoosuc Notch, considered the hardest mile on the Appalachian Trail. Most northbound AT thru-hikers have to climb Mahoosuc Arm after they hike through Mahoosuc Notch. While the Notch has a fearsome reputation, thru-hikers are more frightened of the Arm than the Notch. Well they should be, because it’s a steep 1500′ climb up steep slab, that is probably even tougher in wet weather. Ken and I hiked down the Arm headed south, so we were spared this climb, although we had a grueling 1000′ climb after the Notch up to Fulling Mill Mountain.

Once we were down at the base of the Arm, we hiked to the south end of Mahoosuc Notch. The route through the boulders is not as heavily blazed as the rest of the Appalachian Trail, but the steep side walls of the chasm prevent you from wandering off the route. While this section of trail is a long 0.9 mile scramble from rock to rock, under giant boulders and through lemon squeezers, it’s not insurmountable by most hikers. However, I wouldn’t recommend it for dogs, people with very large backpacks, or doing it in the rain, when the rocks are slippery. Some of the transitions are high consequence if you fall the wrong way.

Scrambling through Mahoosuc Notch
Scrambling through Mahoosuc Notch

Ken and I made it through the Notch is about 90 minutes, but we were starting to seriously tire and we still had to climb another 1000′ of elevation up Fulling Mountain though to make it to our next water source and the Full Goose Shelter. Once there, we set up camp, ate, and went to sleep. We’d had a big day, but we’d also put the hardest part of the route behind us.

It's not uncommon to find ice in Mahoosuc Notch, as late as July
It’s not uncommon to find ice in Mahoosuc Notch, as late as July

Day Two: Full Goose Shelter to Dream Lake

While the temperature had gone down to 40 degrees during the night, the sun shone brightly the next morning without a cloud in the sky, perfect conditions for the long stretch of above-treeline hiking we had to do that day. While Mahoosuc Notch gets all the fame along this section of the Appalachian Trail, the open summits south of it are my favorites, including the Goose Eye Mountains, Mount Carlo, and Mount Success, with their miles of sub-alpine boardwalk. We counted our blessings since we were hiking in a clear 3 day weather-window, without rain or thunderstorms to hamper our progress. The last time I’d hiked this stretch of the AT in 2009, I’d been scared witless here by thunder and lightning

Our goal for the day was to hike another 10 miles to the Gentian Pond Shelter and campsite, or time-permitting, past it to a dispersed campsite in the vicinity of Dream Lake. After breakfast, we climbed out of the col where the Full Goose shelter is situated before hiking over slab and boardwalk to the north peak of Goose Eye Mountain, near the head of the Wright Trail, a lovely side trail that leads down toward the Sunday River ski area.

Approaching the Goose Eyes above treeline
Approaching the Goose Eyes above treeline

The views were tremendous on this clear day and we could pick out many mountains over 50 miles away that we’d both climbed before including the Percy Peaks, Cabot, The Horn and the Bulge, Saddleback, Washington, Adams, Madison, Jefferson, and Clay. After summiting the Goose Eyes, we travelled over Mt Carlo, and hiked down to the Carlo Col AT Shelter, just off the main trail to resupply our water.

While the water sources along the Mahoosuc Trail are known to run low in the summer, we had to use every trick in the book to get water out of the shallow and tepid brook. While I carry a pot to cook my dinners, it sure does come in handy when you need to scoop up water from shallow pools along slow creek beds.

New Hampshire - Maine State Line
New Hampshire – Maine State Line

We returned to the main trail and continued south toward Mt Success, crossing the New Hampshire/Maine state line. After passing an AMC trail crew, digging ditches and hoisting rocks to make water bars, we arrived at the Gentian Trail Shelter and Campsite by about 4:00 pm. The shelter had been taken over by a youth camp which had taken all the tent platforms, dispersed campsites, and the shelter, so we decided to press on to Dream Lake instead rather than deal with them.

Despite our fatigue, the trail got much easier to hike after we passed Mt Success, resembling trail conditions in the White Mountains proper, with far less slab. Still we were gassed when we arrived at Dream Lake and found a nice dispersed campsite. I ate the Ritter Bar I’d been saving for desert before dinner, to give me enough energy to make dinner, before hitting the hay.

Sunset on Dream Lake - Mt Washington in the far distance
Sunset on Dream Lake – Mt Washington in the far distance

Day Three: Dream Lake to Rattle River (Gorham, NH)

While the leg from Dream Lake to Rattle River was the easiest on our north-to-south Mahoosuc Traverse, our legs were still pretty smoked when we broke camp the next morning. But we only needed to hike 9 more miles and climb about 1000 feet total to get over Cascade Mountain and Mt Hayes, nothing like the elevation gains of previous two days.

We popped into the Trident Col campsite after two hours to get water and the stream was also running pathetically low. So low, that I started warning the thru-hikers we met on the trail about the lack of water at the shelters. The ascent up Cascade wasn’t bad, but the water source in the col between Cascade and Mt Hayes was a muddy puddle and the thought of drinking the water, even filtered, was off-putting. It was hot enough though that we both resupplied, since it was the last sure water source before Gorham.

The climb up Mt Hayes was fairly benign and we soon made it to the Centennial Trail Junction, which leads downhill to North Road, the Androscoggin River Damn, and the Rattle River Trail junction just down the road. After a quick descent, we shuttled back up to my car in Grafton Notch and were soon sipping beers at the Sunday River Brewery, planning our next adventure.

While many parts of this trip were quite strenuous, it was good to hike the Mahoosucs again and re-experience this portion of the Appalachian Trail. While I remembered many parts, I’d forgotten several parts of the trail and scenery after such a long hiatus. There was a time that I would never have considered re-hiking trails that I’ve hiked before, but my attitude about that has changed in the past few years. It was good refresh my memory of the portions I’d forgotten and to do it with a friend.

Total Mileage: 31 miles with 10,650 feet of elevation gain.

Recommended Trail Guides

Route Map

Grafton Notch to Rattle River - Appalachian Trail USGS
Grafton Notch to Rattle River GeoPDF – Appalachian Trail – Click for Download (Scale 1:100,000)

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