The Art of Winter Hiking

The winter months, after the holidays once the trees have come down the turkey has been consumed and the extended family has been tolerated to your near breaking point. It’s at this point that we find ourselves struggling to stay active or even motivated to go outside and do anything. Maybe it’s the shorter daylight hours, maybe it’s the cold, and maybe seeing family was so utterly exhausting that you need to go into a mini hibernation. Whatever the case is, it usually isn’t until late March or early April that we realize we’re a little heavier than we were before the snow started falling and maybe those stairs are getting us a little more winded than we’d like to admit.
This year we’ve found a way around all of this in the form of winter hiking. While most people might think this is crazy, as long as you’re dressed appropriately and have a little bit of technical knowledge there is really not much difference than any other time of the year. With the exception being that you now have the opportunity to see some truly breathtaking scenery and snap some cool (not cold) pictures. It all comes down to planning and gear. Dressing appropriately is 70% of the battle and probably closer to 90% when you factor in sweat management. But we’ll talk more about that a little later.
If you find yourself wanting to get out and enjoy the outdoors, but are put off by the colder temperatures. A short list of cold weather gear will give you all you need to be successfully active in the cold.

I recommend the following gear / clothing:

Balaclava
Lightweight thermal layer
Waffle (mid-weight) thermal layer
Water resistant jacket or coat
Trekking poles
Flashlight or headlamp
2 pairs of gloves
2 pairs of socks
Yak tracks or ice cleats
Waterproof hiking shoes / boots
Fire starters (lighter/matches + petroleum soaked cotton balls)
Sleeping bag rated to the coldest temp it will get
Single person tent or something improvise a shelter
And a folding or fixed blade knife

You can find a full list of recommended winter camping gear at http://www.outdoors.org/publications/outdoors/2002/2002-winter-gear.cfm

If you have these things, water and food for the trip, you have everything you need to comfortably hike and even stay overnight in on the trail in cold weather. You’ll want to remember though, that you dehydrate quickly in the cold and that your body burns extra calories keeping itself warm. So it’s always a good idea to have a Lifestraw or water purification tablets and extra food for a cold weather hike.

Once you’ve accumulated or pulled out of storage everything from the list above and found a suitable daypack to stuff it all into, you’re ready to hit the trail. One of the most important things to remember during cold weather activity is sweat management. Especially when you’re hiking some distance on a trail. You usually dress to be warm when you’re not doing much outside. But when you’re on the trail that amount of insulation will probably get you sweating pretty quickly and that isn’t good in the cold. Remember that cold temps are uncomfortable and wet clothing is uncomfortable but cold temps and wet clothing is deadly. With that in mind you’ll probably quickly find that even in temps in the mid to low teens, all you really need when you’re moving will probably be the lightweight thermals. But keep the mid-weights close at hand for when you stop, as you will cool off very quickly. You’ll also want to bring an extra hat or remove the one you’re wearing if you find yourself sweating too much. Sweating through your hat will completely destroy its insulating power until it’s dried again.

A lot of trails will be slick and treacherous during the snowy months if you live in a place that gets a substantial amount of snowfall. In these cases pulling out the trekking poles, that I recommend year round, and the shoe spikes will give you that extra traction that you need to get through the more difficult portions of the hike, if you’re on a moderate or rugged trail.

Keeping these things in mind and packing appropriately for YOU will always be the key to a happy hike. But getting out there and actually doing it is half the battle and you’ll likely pick up this information and a lot more as you put foot to trail.

Happy hiking!

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Three Lakes Trail: An Epic Winter Adventure

When we decided to hike the Three Lakes Trail at the Morgan Monroe State Forest over Valentine’s Day weekend we knew that it was going to be a test of our hiking skill and fortitude thus far. This 10.5 mile trail is nearly as rugged as they come in some spots. But in the spirit of making bad decisions so that we have cool stories to talk about later over beer, we decided to tackle this behemoth of a trail (by our standards) during a snowstorm and with day temps dipping down to around 18 degrees. Our plan going in to this hike was to complete the entirety of the Three Lakes Trail, then hike a mile or so into the back country where camping is permitted, as it’s not allowed on the Three Lakes Trail, so that we could test out our winter camping gear.

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So we got underway at about 2:30 on Sunday (valentine’s day) and got our first taste of the trail while the snow fell pretty heavily. Now, when we went into this, we knew that the trail was supposed to be tough. Definitely a test of our fitness level thus far. In any case, carrying a 50lb pack full of everything you need to survive in a subfreezing environment for a day or two is a test of anyone’s fortitude. On this occasion we definitely didn’t take into account how much the snowfall was going to slow us down. Having to trudge through 2-3 inches of fresh snow and deal with slick ledges on narrow portions of the trail slowed us to nearly a crawl at some points.

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As it was we had seriously underestimated this trail. After making it about 5 miles in and with night quickly closing in on us, we made the decision that we would have to find a suitable place to wait out the night, test our gear and hike out safely in the daylight on Monday. We could have tried to make it out and not break the no camping rule. But portions of the trail that we’d already been on had become so slick that we didn’t want to chance one or both of us getting injured in the dark with temps in the high teens. So we hiked as far off trail as we could and found a nice camping spot.

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The night went by without a hitch, we got a nice fire going, heated up some food for dinner and warmed up before turning in. We listened to the haunting call of the local coyotes in the distance bouncing off the trees of the otherwise silent forest. Our 0 degree sleeping bags held up to their promise of keeping us warm and alive through the frigid night.

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The next morning we packed up and were back on the trail by 8:15. We rounded the second lake, snapped a few pictures of the scenery. Then both experiences our first winter hiking “oh shit” falls on the trail. Luckily no one was around to laugh at us except for a few hundred Cardinals and some rather unhappy squirrels. We had tackled the southern portion of the trail on day one, we hadn’t known at the time but most of the serious hills were now behind us as most of the northern portion of the trail is flat. This was a blessing for me especially, being over 300lbs with all my cold weather gear and my pack. My legs will be about the size of tree trunks before our next hike. But at this point they were screaming like kids in a toy store when mommy and daddy are on a budget.

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We kept a slow and steady pace for the remainder of the trail, stopped a few times to get water at some of the semi-frozen creeks and to try to talk the fatigue out of my very unhappy calves and quads. But we finished the trail after another 3 hours, we walked off the trail right around 11am on Monday. At this point we were greeted by one of the local DNR employees who told us he’d seen that my truck had been sitting overnight and was about to go check some of the shelter houses to make sure we weren’t stranded somewhere. We recounted the story of our miscalculation, lamented how tough the trail had truly been and got a bit of a scolding where we were told that under most circumstances there is a $200 fine for anyone caught camping on the Three Lakes Trail. But because of the situation he said he understood the necessity. We took the warning, dropped our packs at the truck and ended the first real epic adventure of the year for the Free Range Hikers.

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/three-lakes-trail

 

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Complete photo gallery and the GPS map from this trek are linked below.

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Tents Vs. Hammocks: The Great Debate

One of the subjects you’ll hear debated the most between hikers and backpackers is the preference between tent camping and hammock camping. This is probably something that you don’t think about a whole lot until you do some research, talk to someone who enjoys hammock camping, or have enjoyed using a hammock while out in the wilderness before. On the surface this doesn’t seem like it would be something that would require a whole lot of thought either way. But the more you dig into it the more you see that there is a wealth of information for both sides and avid supporters of both.
One of our biggest concerns as hikers / backpackers is the weight of our packs. For this reason alone a hammock seems like the logical choice for overnighters in the back country. Without the added weight of tent poles you can easily save yourself precious pounds and make those steep uphill climbs and downhill treks a little less painful. As anyone can tell you that’s ever hiked any significant distance. A few pounds can mean the difference between feeling a little tired at the end of the day and feeling like your legs have been utterly destroyed.

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There are clear positives and negatives to each, for example in order to use a hammock you need to find a place with grown trees that are spaced in a way that allows you to hang the hammock. In the same regard you have to be in an area that has trees in the first place. A lot of people on the hammock side of the argument will pose the question “If there are no tree’s is that a place you really want to be camping anyway?” which is a point that I see eye to eye with, but doesn’t necessarily hold true in every situation. Something else to contend with is the fact that you’re suspended in the air all night. While this can do wonders for people with back problems, it does make it a little more challenging to stay warm on cooler nights, unless of course you invest in a pricey underquilt. There is also the issue of bugs and rain that you have contend with when using a standard camping hammock. There are however much more cutting edge hammocks that address these concerns and the problem of heat loss if you’re willing to pay for the technology. A great example of these cutting edge hammocks are available online at https://www.junglehammock.com/ by Clark Hammocks. These are really more of a hybrid between a tent and a hammock and some models can even be used as a tent if you’re in an area that doesn’t have trees.  Another added benefit to our more patriotic hikers is that Clark is an American company that uses American material to build its gear, they also stand behind everything they build 100%.

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On the other side of the argument are the tent campers. If you did any kind of outdoor activity as a family when you were growing up, you’re probably more than accustomed to tent camping. This is generally what we think of when the word camping comes to mind. However, for the hiker / backpacker there are some extra considerations to consider when you decide to drag the old tent along. Foremost among these concerns is the fact that you need to find a suitable place off trail to pitch the tent. This means doing your best to clear the ground of twigs, rocks and debris. Only to find out in most cases, in the middle of the night, that you missed one or two of them. At which point you spend the rest of the night with a rock or stick in your back. However, you do get the added protection of being enclosed in the tent, which conserves warmth and usually does a fantastic job of stopping the wind and rain if you’re stuck in bad weather. While single person tents tend to be lightweight and easy to assemble and disassemble, they can get a little pricy. In most cases you’re going to get what you pay for, unless you get lucky with an Amazon deal or find a gem somewhere in the discount section.

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At the end of the day (literally) it comes down to trying both and sticking with what you prefer. I recommend playing around with both tents and hammocks to find what fits your needs and your style the best. I know I intend to get plenty of campfire time with both this year. Hopefully you get the chance to get out and do the same.

Product reviews

It’s been a fun week for the Free Rangers, if you consider 104 fevers, spinal taps, and lopsided Super Bowl victory after-parties fun. I’ll let Aaron explain more (HIPAA violations anyone?) at his leisure, but…

I will say that the plan for this weekend, this Valentines Day weekend, involves sub-zero hiking, overnight camping, and product reviews.  And mea culpas to the women in our lives for rushing through the whole hearts and flowers scenario on Valentine’s Eve.

My reviews support my goal of paring down what I’ll need on the Appalachian Trail, and honing in on the most versatile and useful items to carry.  I should start with my pack, and the stuff protecting my feet.  I’ll give you the whole scoop in this weekend’s product review video, with maybe-just-maybe a bit of horseplay thrown in for good measure.

Stay tuned.

Fort Harrison State Park

Come along and see some of the mid-winter beauty of Indianapolis’s only state park.

Esbit CS585HA 3-Piece Lightweight Camping Cook Set for Use with Solid Fuel Tablets (Esbit 1300 Degree Smokeless Solid Fuel Cubes for Backpacking, Camping and Hobby – 20 Pieces Each 4g) Included as add on through Amazon.com

I want to start this post off by saying that anytime you buy something that you intend to use on a hike, while camping, or anytime you are going to have to rely on the product whatsoever, you need to be sure to test the product before you’re in a situation where you need to use it. In this review I’ll be talking about my experience with

and
Respectively.
I’d like also like to say that the solid fuel used and pictured here came as an add on to the cook set for $4 on Amazon.com and that I did not have very high hopes for this solid fuel as a standalone heat source, for good reason.
The solid fuel tablets are very small, about 1/3 the size of most that are on the market at a comparable price. The packaging states that a single solid fuel tablet will burn for 8-12 minutes and boil water on its own. Unfortunately this claim is not even close to being true. Had I not tested these and been in a situation where I needed to boil water to drink or cook with in the backwoods I would have been very much out of luck. As it was I set this cook set up in my garage to reduce wind but with the door open and an ambient temperature around 30 degrees. The first tablet burned for about 11 minutes and managed to get a small bit of steam off the top of the water, but little more. I decided that maybe because it was so cold I would try more fuel to see if I could truly get the water to boil. So the next go around I used 2 or the tablets, which burned for approximately 10 minutes, but only got the water up to 155 degrees Fahrenheit before burning out. It’s also worth noting that the solid fuel uses some sort of fish oil as a base and will make an area about 10 feet around where you’re cooking smell like you’re processing salmon. Needless to say, I was less than impressed with the solid fuel, but as an add on I wasn’t too upset about the price.
I did go back later with the cook-set, used the solid fuel as a starter and fed small sticks into the opening at the bottom of the cook set and got water from a semi-frozen stream to boil in about 20 minutes on one of my earlier hikes. So, because of the small size of these fuel tablets and the fact that you get 20 of them, they can be useful to get a bigger fire going in pinch. While I absolutely do not recommend them as a standalone fuel source, they might be work keeping around your fire starting kit, since they start easily and will burn even when wet. However, strong wind will put these out so if you’re using any type of solid fuel source be sure to setup a wind screen or dig a hole about twice the size of your cook stove and about 5-6 inches deep, then use the dirt from the hole to heighten the barrier around the cook stove to keep the wind at bay.
Below are the links to the products on Amazon.com

Rock Shelter Trail 1-31-2016

This past weekend we decided to hike the Rock Shelter trail at Morgan Monroe State Forest. This has quickly become one of my favorite destinations for quick weekend hikes and I’m looking forward to better weather so that I can start doing some overnights on the Low Gap and Three Rivers trails. I hiked about 3 and a half miles into the low gap a few weeks ago and actually went through a portion of the rock shelter trail. Since the smaller loops connect the larger 10+ mile Low Gap trail.
Anyway, the scenery was so striking last time that I knew we should hit this hike together. They call this the rock shelter hike because of the large walk through cave in our pictures. It’s been signed in several places and looks to be a pretty popular destination for anyone hiking in this area. The center of this trail that is in the backwoods area is absolutely phenomenal. It’s well maintained and the scenery is absolutely beautiful, even in mid-winter when everything is dead. We did get lucky this weekend in respects to the weather. It was a balmy 55 degrees and we quickly shucked our cold weather gear as soon as we got to the trailhead. Of course the weight of our AT packs still makes for a sometimes sweaty hike. While we’re accustomed to carrying weighted ruck sacks from our years in the military (4 for me, 20+ for dad) you really can’t control how quickly you heat up when you’re scaling a backwoods will with 50lbs strapped to your back.
When we first started the hike we followed the trail head about an 8th of a mile to a paved road that takes you about a mile into the backwoods of the state forest. This is an underwhelming portion of the hike as it’s paved with rock and tends to be pretty muddy. There is also a lot of logging going on around this particular trail so it’s not exactly what you want to see on your weekend out in nature. But after about a mile the trail turns off into the backwoods where you zigzag down a large hill into a large ravine with a stream meandering through it. The stream crosses the trail in many spots, so if you aren’t wearing waterproof boots like I have been, you have to get a little creative to keep your feet dry. As you follow the trail through the ravine you’ll notice the terrain change from steep hills to rocky cliffs, the whole time you continue to hike though the ravine following the trail towards the caves at the center of this trail. Now this week we decided to take out our GoPro cameras and record the hike, so most of this will be published to our YouTube channel in a few days, I’ll be sure to link to it from here and vice versa so that you can see the real beauty of this trail.
Once you get past the caves you start heading uphill, this will be challenging for those of you who haven’t been hiking in a while as climbing these hills with weighted packs works your legs more than anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. The trail then follows a ridge for another ¾ mile or so before you come to a fork in the trail leading to the backwoods or back to the trailhead. Since we were just hiking the rock shelter trail, we took the left fork back to the trailhead. After about 300 yards that direction the forest trail turns back into a paved (rock) vehicle trail that leads you right back to the parking lot at the trailhead. The whole thing takes about an hour, maybe longer if you take a lot of pictures or decide to stop for lunch. All in all this is a beautiful trail and a much better way to spend a Saturday and Sunday afternoon than sitting around the house.

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/low-gap-trail-loop

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Southwestway Park 1-24-2016

Our goal is to get out and hike SOMETHING every weekend this year. Sometimes we plan big, sometimes we plan small. This week was a small week. We decided to hit up Southwestway Park for a number of reasons. Chiefly for me being that it’s only 10 minutes from my house. When we got there we immediately noticed that this park is well travelled. There were people out walking their dogs, in fact we almost witnessed a dogfight as soon as we got out of our cars, as one of the patrons didn’t realize that just because your dog is nice and you think he doesn’t need to be on a leash, doesn’t mean that every dog he encounters is going to feel the same way.

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Anyway, right of the bat we understood that we were probably going to stick out a little with our loaded packs, hiking “city trails” that are never more than a mile away from civilization. Immediately the gentleman walking with his dogs off leash noticed the same thing and said asked if we were training for something because “[he] can’t imagine your serious otherwise.” We get it, we look funny. But if you don’t spend time getting used to walking on trails carrying a weighted pack, you’re going to regret it when you try to do it for real.

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Moving on, we started the trails and immediately noticed that the trailhead was not well maintained. There were dog “deposits” right in the middle of the trail in several spots and noticeable trash along the trail at the trailhead. That however, is not at all uncommon, since generally speaking people these days are slobs. We decided to take the mountain bike trails as they were a little bit longer and the terrain was a little bit more rough than the almost paved dedicated hiking trails. All in all we spent about an hour and a half exploring the area and especially liked the portion that runs next to the White River. If you’re looking for a casual nature walk I would recommend this trail, if you’re looking for a true hiking experience I would steer you to one of the State Parks instead.alltrails-southwestway-park–11 

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/recording/southwestway-park–11

 

 

Low Gap Trail Southwest Loop 1/19/2016

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Today’s trip was along the southwestern portion of the Low Gap Trail (blue loop on the map). This is a very scenic trail in Morgan Monroe State Forest, but is definitely not for the feint of heart. It’s full of challenging terrain and steep climbs. I hiked a little over 3 miles into it (almost back to the southern intersection with the paved road) before doubling back to my starting point. I was planning on hiking a larger portion of the trail, but it was incredibly cold in the morning, to the tune of negative teens with wind chill according to some weather sources. So I waited until afternoon to start the trip. As it was it only got up to 18 degrees as a high but with the terrain I was on it really didn’t seem that cold. This solo trip was more for conditioning and just to see what there was to see in this area than a serious hike. I know I plan on doing a few thru hikes on the full 10 miles of the Low Gap once the weather warms up a bit and I can do some camping in the backwoods. Definitely looking forward to that. But for now, I got a hell of a workout and some pretty awesome pictures.

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Winter Low Gap Trail: 1-10-2016

Low Gap Trail

My father and I hit the Low Gap Trail in the Morgan-Monroe State Forest (Martinsville, Indiana) this past Sunday for a short “get into the swing of things” hike.

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This was my first dedicated hike since I was a kid. We planned this out a week ahead when we heard that we were getting a decent amount of snow, in the hopes of seeing some of the Indiana backwoods in a different light; it didn’t disappoint. While we only actually went about a mile (maybe) into the Low Gap Trail, it was still a workout in the fresh snow. It’s a lot like walking up hills of very fine sand and would be challenging enough for someone in much better shape than myself. As it was, I sweat a lot, got out of breath, and was exhausted at the end of the trip. However we did take the opportunity to get some cool pictures of the scenery since we were the only ones out, aside from a couple of squirrels, in the aftermath of the snow storm. It was a short trip, but was definitely a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

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Additional information and reviews of this trail are available at https://alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/rock-shelter

I don’t get paid to say that, I just enjoy the site.

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