Monday, April 27, 2015

Avalanche Lake in Glacier

I finger the bear spray at my waist, which my new coworkers insisted I carry.  I read the trailhead sign again, and glance around the deserted parking lot.  I am alone.
Hiking alone is not recommended.
The guidebook says Avalanche Lake and the Trail of the Cedars are the most popular trail in Glacier National Park, so where is everyone?  It seems really late in the morning to me, like there should already be a ton of people here by now.  Why am I the only one here? 

Alone, I walk up the trail through the ancient grove of cedar and hemlock.  Massive trees block the early sunlight.  It’s incredibly quiet.  I keep thinking of the cautions of the locals I’ve talked to, their grizzly stories have my imagination running wild.  Are there really grizzlies lurking behind every tree?  Glancing around, back over my shoulder, my voice sounds strange as I shout “hey bear, hey bear” into the shadows. 
Big trees.
I should feel safe in this forest, it smells safe, my gut says safe.  I've hiked 1500 miles on the PCT, much of it solo, aren't I a tough hiker?!?  But I am conflicted.  I’ve encountered dozens of black bears while backpacking solo in California (including Yosemite) and in Georgia and North Carolina. I though I’d gotten over my fears of bears.  But apparently these grizzlies are a totally different thing, or so I’ve been told.  Aren’t they?  They require bear spray and constant vigilance and don’t go hiking solo or else.  Is that true?  Or is this like when I moved to Georgia after that murder of the young woman at Blood Mountain and everyone told me not to hike solo, and it took me a good year to realize I just had to ignore that advice.  I discovered the joy of backpacking on my own.  I want to go backpacking here in Montana. I’m so antsy and feeling trapped just doing dayhikes.  I can’t find anyone with my same days off and I want to go alone but is that safe? I don’t know.

 Suddenly, there is something big, huge and brown rustling behind a tree…  OH NO!!!!
Scary wild beast.
Why am I so easily spooked out?!?!  I don’t know what to think.  I miss the safe feeling I find in the woods, miss feeling at home amid the towering trees.  I start to cry.  Fed up with myself, I turn around and trace my steps back to the trailhead.   Back at my car, I pace around, a trapped animal.   I’m driving myself crazy with this fear.  I look at the sign again.  Don’t hike alone.  I can’t tell if my fear is rational or irrational.  So I wait.

Finally, three cars arrive at the trailhead. They are going to Avalanche Lake!  I put on my pack and take off up the trail. Oh silly me.  I can do this.  It’s the most popular hike in the park.  I’ve got hikers behind me. 

I bound up the trail to the lake with confidence through the magical forest.  The forest is now all friendly.  Sunlight streams down.  It’s the opposite of scary.  No shadows here. 
Friendly forest.
There is still no one ahead of me when I arrive at the lake, I have it all to myself for a while.  Deep green water reflects the snow-covered peaks.  Glacier lilies shine brightly in the sun. 
Avalanche Lake.
I take off my shoes and dip my feet in the water and watch the ducks frolic and play.  I breathe it all in. 
I can feel myself being restored.
On the way back, I pass the group from the parking lot and they take my photo and say they will send it to me so I give them my card with my email address and they laugh that my name is “Hemlock.”  They all jokingly give themselves tree names too, and I laugh.  Silly trail names.  But hearing my old trail name reminds of those instant connections that I made on the PCT last year, of those deep friendships, of that amazing trail community that feels so far away. 
Thanks for sending me this photo of myself, K.P.
Further down the trail, there is a middle age guy carrying a fancy camera with a big lens and wearing shinny leather loafers like he just got out of a meeting.  He is a local, and tells me his favorite hikes in Montana, about must-see alpine lakes and waterfalls.
Along the Trail of the Cedars.
As we hike, I relax into friendly chatter.  I ohh and ahh at the trilliums and exclaim about how wonderfully furrowed the cottonwood bark is.  Somehow we end up hiking the whole way back together, go for another loop around the Trail of the Cedars (this time I can enjoy it cause I’m not scared), and then depart ways back at the trailhead. 
Trail of the Cedars.
Then, I start second guessing myself, like perhaps I talked way too much about where I work and live like I didn’t just meet him 15 minutes ago and sheesh I don’t need the internet to meet sketchy people because I can do it all in person.  But what is sketchy anyway?  Am I a good judge of character when I don’t have the protective trail community around me like I did on the PCT to keep me safe?  I don’t know.  My judgement feels out of equilibrium.

On the drive home, I start to cry. I miss feeling safe in the woods.  I miss feeling comfortable about my place on the food chain, and not being scared of bears.  I miss my hiking buddies, my friends scattered around the country and I miss everyone I’ve ever loved.  I miss laughing so hard my belly aches.  Because I don’t know anyone yet who I can belly-laugh with here.  Yet.  But maybe it’s getting closer, yesterday hiking with someone I could bushwhack with, that was close.

Patience.  Making friends takes patience.  Getting comfortable hiking in grizzly territory takes patience.  I know I’ll get there before I know it.

More information about these hikes in Glacier National Park, Montana:
Avalanche Lake
Trail of the Cedars

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Great Bear Wilderness Hikes

After all the warnings about grizzly bears, I am delighted when an internet friend puts me in touch with her sister in the next town over who is interested in going for a hike.  L. suggests Skiumah Lake in the Great Bear Wilderness of Montana.  It’s somewhere she has been reluctant to go to on her own due to possible grizzly bears.  See, I'm not the only one who is cautious!
Bears are even in the name.
I'm happy all we see are trillium on the Skiumah Creek Trail.
It’s always tricky finding compatible hiking buddies.  I am so relieved that L. seems to have a similar pace, and that she doesn’t seem to mind silence.  I forget how much I like being around other people who don’t talk nonstop.
Up the Skiumah Creek Trail.
As we climb higher, the trail disappears under snow.  Scanning up and down does not reveal any logcuts or obvious signs of trail. Should we try the dense vegetation or postholing through snow?  Turns out, we’ll get our share of both.
Honestly, I am laughing with delight to get lost in the dense undergrowth, to get swallowed up by forest.  To have a bit of adventure. To finally emerge at the shore of the lake!
Skiumah Lake.
Skiumah Lake is still partially frozen over.  On this overcast day, with clouds hanging low over the tops of the mountains, the clouds and snow a blur of white where does snow end and sky begin.

Why is the lake so low? Why are the banks so tangled with logs?  And where does the trail come out?  We find no answers.

It is still early when we arrive back at the trailhead.  So we head up to the Stanton Lake Trail (#146) which is not much further up the road.  However, the forest around Stanton Lake is a whole nother world.  Smaller denser trees but more open understory.  A much bigger lake with more yellow of glacier lilies.
Stanton Lake.
Every forest has subtle, and not so subtle, differences.  I try to figure out what factors of elevation, slope, exposure, maybe fire history explain the variation in plant distributions.  Back in the southeast, I could anticipate where to find various plants.  Here, there are so many new surprises.

I’ve only been here a short time, but already I am longing to stay here. I want to walk these trails over and over and watch them change.  I think I will find answers to some of my questions here.

More information on these hikes in the Great Bear Wilderness of Montana:
Skiumah Lake Trail #204
Stanton Lake Trail #146

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Arriving at Glacier

At my first glimpse of the high mountain peaks surrounding Lake McDonald, my heart skips a beat and I feel the flood of emotion wash over me.  I am finally here!  Glacier National Park!  A long-time dream finally becoming a reality.  That sense of things falling into place.  That solid feeling of knowing that you are exactly where you need to be.  
My first view of Lake McDonald.
I’ve felt the tug of Glacier National Park since early in grad school.  I remember watching a program on PBS about the lodges that were build by the CCC (back when I used to watch TV-that tells you how long ago it was!).  The rugged landscapes, the wildflowers, the glacier carved valleys and alpine lakes— all of this called to me.  I’d even booked a trip out here, researched trails, got backcountry permits and everything, and had to cancel for reasons I can’t recall. 

But now I’m out here for the summer.  You might say the stars finally aligned.  Or you could say that I’m working my way through my bucket list, that I am methodically making my dreams a reality.   I did that exercise where you imagine you won a the lottery:  what would you do if you could do anything right now, had absolutely no financial constraints?  Then, realize that you really can do anything (well, you know… especially if you don’t have kids), that you can make it happen if you really want and it’s that important.  So I am here in Montana.  Life is short.  The glaciers are melting.

The roads are deserted, the parking lot at Lake McDonald Lodge (which is closed still) has only one other car.  How can this be Glacier?  Where are the crowds of people?  Apparently they are not early birds. 

As I am getting ready, a couple arrives at trailhead and we strike up a conversation.  I luck out and they are extremely knowledgeable hikers who offer advice on trails, answer my questions about grizzly bears ("Carry Bear Spray."), snow conditions (they’ve hiked this the previous week, and tell me to pack microspikes), AND it turns out they are botanists (they have a native plant nursery)!  I guess I should no longer be surprised when I meet EXACTLY who I most want to run into, who I most need— seems to happen a lot out here.  (Though I’m still reluctant to call this fate.  I don’t believe in that.  Nope.  I just smile and enjoy the coincidences that life throws at me.)
Red cedars.
Anyway, the couple offers to hike with me.  I am treated to an hour crash course in Montana botany.  I breath sighs of relief at the familiar plants whose cousins are on the east coast.  Rattlesnake orchid, indian pipe, pipsissewa, round leaved violet.  I take notes as quickly as I can on all the new plants.  What a delightful introduction to Glacier—meeting wonderful people and being introduced to the  natural history of the area!
After the couple and I part ways (they take another trail), I start to climb into deeper snow.  I put on my microspikes and continue on alone all the way to Snyder Lake.  It feels like wilderness, even though I know I am on a “popular” trail because there are few footprints, and no people. 
Climbing to Snyder Lake.
Majestic peaks rising around me, the deep snow, the crunch of microspikes on ice, the eery sound of streams beneath icebridges.  Then the ice covered lake, tree wells, wondering if I should be here by myself.
Snow drifts.
I assess my skill level and the terrain. I’ve crossed the snow of the High Sierra, taken a snow skills course and avalanche awareness in Colorado.  But, NO I don’t know the snow in these mountains, and probably would be smarter to be with someone else.  But I love the solitude.  I love having this place to myself.  I continue on.
I could get around this ice bridge OK.
Snyder Lake is full of ice, surrounded by huge peaks.  I try to skirt the edge.  I turn around when I hear the ominous deep sound of snow shifting underfoot.  No, I should NOT go further around the lake.  I backtrack, heart pounding.  It’s not a long hike, but it makes me feel alive and fills my heart with joy.
Snyder Lake.
How incredible to be alone in the snow, to be in Montana, after dreaming of this place for so long.  It feels beyond words.  Still not quite comprehending that I will be here in Montana all summer.  It's going to be so different from last year when I spend my summer on the PCT, but yet... I am still living the dream.
This is how deep the snow is.
For more information about the Snyder Lake Trail:  see this website

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Arizona Trail Gear

My Arizona Trail gear was similar to what I used on the Pacific Crest Trail last year.  To avoid redundancy, I will only describe my favorite gear for the Arizona Trail and the specific aspects of my clothing system that were well suited for this trip.  Otherwise, just refer to this post on my hammock gear and this post on everything else.

Here is a spreadsheet of my Arizona Trail gear.

Environmental conditions on the Arizona Trail
Temperatures varied substantially over the course of a day and with elevation.  I know it's hard to imagine, but it dropped below freezing several nights (the northbounders we passed said it got into the 20s for them). We woke up with frost-covered tarps a couple times.  Other nights stayed warmer.  I’d often hike for the first hour in my down puffy coat and gloves, with long underwear bottoms or rainpants.  At higher elevations, I’d keep my puffy handy to wear when we stopped at rest breaks.  Do not underestimate how cold it will be on the Arizona Trail!
Wearing all of our warm clothes while hiking during cold mornings. Photo by Jan.
Daytime temperatures swung wildly- from the 30s to the 80s, but we lucked out an it can got much hotter for the hikers that left a few weeks after us.  The sun and heat were intense. Because I am fair-skinned, burn easily, and have a family history of skin cancer, I cover up in loose clothing, carried a sun umbrella, and applied frequent and copious amounts of sunscreen.
Staying covered up and using my umbrella hands-free.  Photo by Jan.
Spines and nasty, sharp, overgrown brush on the trail were a huge factor in clothing choices.  Abrasion-resistant fabrics helped (but didn’t totally prevent) skin from getting scratched and slashed up.
Overgrown trail.
Biting and stinging insects were not much of a problem.  Though I admit I’m a person who is not normally bothered by insects.  Had a few gnats swarming around a couple days, but not enough to put on a headnet.  No mosquitoes.  Lots of bees but I only got one sting and it was because I went near a pothole where water was scarce and I figure the bee was just defending a rare water source.

Rain was more frequent than I’d expected— rained several days in the afternoon, and two nights we got a soaking rain.  This was an unusually wet spring.  Condensation soaked us a few nights when we camped down low.

Personal style
I am a lightweight backpacker with a baseweight of 12 pounds.  I carry a hammock because it allows me to sleep soundly, but I do NOT recommend a hammock on the AZT (see my article here).  I carry a lot of insulation because I get cold easily.

Favorite gear items for the Arizona Trail: Umbrella, Comb, Tweezers, and Sunscreen

Umbrella: Chrome Dome (8 oz)  (see my post for how to rig the umbrella on your pack)

Hands down my favorite piece of gear on the Arizona Trail was my umbrella.  The sun out there is fierce, intense, and relentless.  The umbrella kept me significantly cooler and allowed me to hike during the heat of the day without passing out from heat exhaustion.  At rest breaks, it provided shade when none was available.
Rest break under the shade of umbrellas.
Umbrellas also provided us countless hours of entertainment and/or protected us from mountain lions and other dangers.  The umbrella also kept us dry in the rain.  Who knew it rained in Arizona!?!?  I can’t imagine hiking the Arizona Trail without an umbrella.
I thought Arizona would be sunny all the time.  So, what is this wet stuff falling from the sky?
Comb (plastic, from the hiker box) and tweezers (from my Swiss Army Knife, classic)
A comb removed cactus spines more easily than tweezers, but both were essential on the Arizona Trail.  Jumping cholla and burrs could be brushed off immediately with the comb before they’d work themselves in further.  Using your fingers for spine removal hurt too much--don't even think about it these spines have barbs.   When you’ve got a cholla sticking out of your skin, you want it off RIGHT NOW.  I kept my comb in the hipbelt pocket of my pack for easy and quick access. 
Removing a jumping cholla with my pink comb.
Tweezers extracted problematic spines that would embed in your skin. They also removing a bee sting from my cheek. 

Sunscreen: 3 oz bottle of Neutrogena Ultra sheer dry-touch SPF 70
I tend to be fairly thrifty, but I’ve learned not to skimp when it comes to sunscreen.  This type has a non-offensive odor and goes on thick but doesn’t feel gross.  I carry the 3 oz bottle because I need to apply it every two hours in copious amounts so I don’t burn to a crisp, even under my umbrella and hat.  Do not underestimate the Arizona sun.
If you are fair skinned like me, just suck it up and carry the 3 ounce bottle.
Clothes System

Hiking shirt: Railriders adventure shirt (6.5 oz)
Loved this shirt!  Great abrasion resistance for the brushy, thorny parts of the trail.  It prevented my arms from getting slashed up.  Provided great sun protection, side vents were good for cooling, roomy cut felt comfortable and breezy.  My major complaint with this shirt is that the sleeves are too short.

Hiking skirt: DIY skirt (4.5 oz)
A skirt worked really well for me.  Skirts are cooler, so prevent problems with heat rash.  I also love the versatility of being able to take off or put on long underwear/ rainpants over or under my skirt.  It also makes it very easy to go pee standing up.

Gaiters: DIY tall gaiters (3 oz)
These tall gaiters that I sewed myself were ESSENTIAL for protection from spines and nasty brush.  I can not emphasize how overgrown some parts of the trail were, and how many prickery, pokey plants are out there waiting to attack your flesh.  Having tall gaiters to protect my lower legs allowed me to wear a skirt, which together with the gaiters is a versatile system.  This combination was cool in the heat, and then in the cold I would wear my long underwear under the tall gaiters. 

Fleece Hoodie: Melanzana Micro grid  (9 oz)               
I love the warmth and coziness of sleeping in my fleece hoodie.  The material feels great against my dirty, sweat-encrusted skin.  The front pouch keeps my hands warm.   Some people might get away with sleeping in just long underwear, but I sleep cold so prefer to sleep in my fleece layer.

Long underwear bottoms: Patagonia capilene 4 (5.5 oz)
Wore these every night and hiked in them the first hour or so in the cold. 

Down coat: Montbell UL (7 oz)

Went with my lighter-weight down coat this trip and that worked well.  Wore this for hiking the first hour every day, and used it at rest breaks at higher elevations.  My down coat is an essential part of my sleep system because I use it as a hood with my top quilt.

Down booties: Goosefeet socks (2.8 oz)

Love my down booties!  Keep my feet from freezing at night.  I no longer question the extravagance.  These are an essential part of getting a good nights sleep.

Down hat: Black Rock Down (1 oz)
OK so maybe this was excessive.  But I wore it most nights and mornings, and it sure felt good to not be freezing cold.  This hat provides lots of warmth for just an ounce.  Love the band, and it stays on when I sleep.

Gloves: Surplus Wool Liner Gloves (1.5 oz)
Wore these while packing up and hiking the first hour.

Sun hat: Sunday afternoons sport hat (2.5 oz)

It was sometimes too windy for the umbrella, so the wide-bimmed hat was essential for sun protection..  This one has excellent coverage and ventilation.  The chin strap held the hat on in strong wind.

Sun wristies: DIY fingerless (1 oz)
Essential for sun protection.  Protected my hands from spines, abrasion, and windburn too.

Sunglasses: Oakley Juliet  (1.8 oz)
Wrap around, good quality sunglasses were also essential.  Also helped for wind, dust, and bug protection.

Raincoat and Rainpants: Zpacks Cuben jacket and pants  
Just right for the few times it rained.  Plus wore for extra warmth and while doing laundry.
Raincoat, rainpants, and umbrella--because it does rain on the Arizona Trail.
Trail Shoes: Keen Voyagers and Altra Lone Peaks
I prefer low-cut trail shoes that are highly breathable and NOT gortex.  But I have major problems with finding shoes that fit my huge feet (they are so big I have to wear men’s shoes) and my bunions.

I love/hate both of these shoes.  The keens give me blisters on my pinky toes when I carry more than 5 L of water.  I got a stress fracture last summer while wearing the altras with microspikes, and while I thought my stress fracture had healed completely (hadn’t felt anything in 6 months), wearing the altras again started to aggravate the old stress fracture injury two weeks before I started this hike. 

On the Arizona Trail, I started with the keens but got annoyed with how hot they felt and with my pinky toe blisters.  So after 100 miles I picked up the altras and carried TWO pair of shoes, and alternated during the course of each day.  It felt ridiculous carrying two shoes, but this was the healthiest option because I’ve struggled so much with my feet.
Shoe frustration.
Carrying two shoes for a little while allowed my blisters to heal and my feet felt great in the altras, but I hoped that wearing them only part of the time would not put too much stress on my feet.  Unfortunately, my stress fracture site started feeling weird after a few days of wearing the Altras-  not painful, but I could feel it.  It was so frustrating because the altras feel awesome otherwise and give me no other problems, but I was not gonna mess with that stress fracture.  So for the last 100 miles I wore only the keens.  Since I was carrying less water and doing low miles, I had no foot problems.

For future hikes, I dream of finding trail shoes that give me neither blisters nor stress fractures, and that don’t hurt my bunions.  Is this too much to ask? If anyone has suggestions for me, please comment below...

That's it for the gear talk.  As I said, my hammock gear was reviewed in another post, this post is on everything else, and I talk more about my water system for the Arizona Trail here.  Let me know if you have any questions or comments!

Disclaimer: I am a Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador, and I got the Mariposa pack from them for free.  All other gear was purchased by me.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Next Generation DIY Hiking Skirt

Holes are erupting on my old hiking skirt after all the use it got on the Pacific Crest Trail and Arizona Trail this past year.  Time to sew a new version of my favorite hiking skirt!
Next generation DIY hiking skirt--in upsidedown tree print!
I made two skirts this time in case I don't get back to my parent's house for a while.  The downside of traveling, couchsurfing, and life on the road is that I don't see my sewing machine very often, since I'm storing everything at my parents' house.  Thanks Mom and Dad for letting me transform your living room into a spacious sewing workshop for a few days!
A second glitter camo DIY skirt.
I took some photos while I was sewing so you can see how I made my hiking skirts.  I’ll also include a mock-up of my homemade pattern and include comments on fabrics and design notes for all you DIYers out there.

Advantages of hiking skirts
   - Prevent chafe and upper thigh heat rash because they are breezy.
   - Easy and fast to pee.  Allows peeing standing up.
   - Versatile- add long underwear underneath in the cold.  Wear rainpants over them, tucking extra material down into the pant legs.
   - For thick undergrowth and bushwhacking, wear with tall gaiters.

I am not bothered by biting insects while I hike in a skirt.  In camp, rainpants worn over my skirt prevent bites.

My skirt design features
   - Side pockets with double layer of material, sized to hold a map and smartphone.
   - Low-profile elastic waistband comfy beneath backpacking hipbelt
   - Cut to allow freedom of movement.  Plenty of material and flare to allow big steps.
   - Fabric in prints, colors, and glitter to make me smile.


Considerations in choosing fabrics:
  - Stretchy for motion (lycra).
  - Abrasion resistant for bushwhacking and overgrown trail (ripstop). 
  - Doesn’t chafe when wet.

I use more stretchy material on the sides for nice movement as I hike.  Lycra isn't as abrasion-resistant as the ripstop.  The ripstop on the back panel is good to sit on and provides more protection in front when bushwhacking.  Using the two fabric types together is a compromise.

Front, back, and pocket fabric:  Ripstop Supplex nylon from  More abrasion resistant, but only comes in solid colors.  Has slight stretch.

Side panels:  Lycra (tree print from a pair of leggings, glitter camo from Joann's fabric).  Fabric stores have limited selection of print fabrics, so I used a pair of lycra leggings with gorgeous tree print (my trail name is "Hemlock" because I love trees).  I cut them apart to use the material, but had to use it upside-down so it would be the right size.   Thus, the "upside-down" finished skirt. 
Ripstop material (left).  Cut open lycra leggings (right) to provide fabric for the side panels.
Basic Pattern
The pattern is my own design, and I've only ever made this skirt to fit me (about 34 inch waist--varies between 32 and 36 inches depending on weight gain/loss).  See Megan's notes below in the comments section for how to alter the pattern to fit your waist size.

This skirt was about 21 1/2 inches long when finished.  
Cartoon of the pattern for the front and back panels.
Cartoon of the pocket and side panel pattern.

Cutting out the material
Be sure to cut on the grain of the fabric.  I tried doing a skirt cut on the bias, and it stretched out too much.

My actual patterns are works in progress.  Years ago when I was obsessed with my pack weight and dropping ounces, I'd make the skirt short to keep the weight of the skirt down.  When I saw how much sunscreen I kept having to apply to keep my knees from burning, I decided to sew the skirts longer to provide more coverage (but I haven't weighted the new version- I know it has to weigh more but now I just don't care).

I allow for about 5/8 inch seams on the sides.  The top waistband allowed for about 1 1/2 inch.
Cutting the front and back panels out of ripstop on the fold.
Cutting pockets (left) on the fold.  Cutting side panels (right) out of lycra on the fold (cut 2).
Cutting the front panel (right) out of blue ripstop material.
Constructing the skirt
Simple slip pockets were constructed by sewing two pieces of material together (left) with a hole at the top to flip the material through.  Then topstitching the fabric around the edges.  I sewed the top again using the coverstitch on the serger as decoration.
Sew two fabric pieces right sides together (left) then flip and topstitch (right).
Attach the pockets onto the side panels six inches from the top, centered.  I sewed them on with several passes of the machine to provide extra stability.
Sewing pocket onto the side panels.
Reinforce the edges of the pockets with some ribbon on the inside.  The top of the pockets need extra durability or they will tear the thinner lycra.
Rainbow ribbons to reinforce the tops of the pockets (inside view).
Outside view of top pocket reinforcement.
Topstitch used the wide cover stitch on my serger.
Putting panels together
I used a serger to attach the side panels to the front and back.  The differential feed setting prevents puckering on stretchy fabric.  If you don't have a serger, you could use a narrow french hem.
Sewing the side panel to the front (and back) panel using a serger.
A narrow elastic waistband has less bulk to fit under the pack waistbelt.  I did a rolled hem but didn’t close off the channel.  Then I topstitched around the first seam with the serger for decoration.  Then, I threaded 1/2 inch elastic through the channel and tied it off with a knot that I can untie and adjust as needed.
Leaving the elastic band open allows quick adjustments to accommodate weight changes on the trail.
Bottom hem
Length of the skirt depends on preference.  Sunburned knees convinced me to lengthen this skirt a few inches to a final length of about 21 1/2 inches.  Previous versions used a small handkerchief hem (narrow hem twice).  For this version, I did a narrow hem and then added detail with the cover stitch on my serger.
Hem detail (inside view).
Comments, questions?  Please email me or use the comment feature if you have any questions!  I'd be especially interested to hear from anyone who tries this out!  Happy sewing!

References and further information

My first hiking skirt (made from an old hiking shirt)

My 2nd Generation skirt in Durastretch camoflague with DWR finish (from Rockywoods).

Can’t sew?  Here are two hiking skirts you can buy: 

This Melanzana fleece skirt was inspiration for my design, but I’ve modified it over the years.

Purple rain skirts are gaining in popularity.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Using a Smartphone for Navigation on the Arizona Trail

Many long distance trails have navigation apps for smartphones.  But what do you do if you are hiking a trail where there are no dedicated apps (like Guthook's Guides)?  Here, I describe the navigation problems we had on the Arizona Trail and give an overview of how to use your smartphone as a GPS.
Which way do I go? Photo by Jan.
How navigating on the Arizona Trail was challenging

If you have hiked well-established long distance trails like the AT and PCT, it might be hard to imagine why navigating on the Arizona Trail could be challenging.  For being such a new trail, the Arizona Trail is remarkably well-signed and we were impressed by all the good, clear trail there was. 
Brown carsonite Arizona Trail signs were always a welcome sight.
But because the Arizona Trail is newer and not as heavily traveled, navigation was more tricky than what I’d encountered on the AT and PCT.  It is important to understand the situations where navigation is difficult so you understand why it could be helpful to use the your smartphone as a GPS device.
Faint, indistinct tread sometimes can make it hard to distinguish the Arizona Trail from cow paths.
The Arizona Trail uses a combination of trails and roads pieced together, in addition to parts that were constructed specifically for the Arizona Trail.  Therefore, the character and signage of the trail changes as it goes through different areas.  You might be on well-graded single-track tread, then pass through an area with cow paths galore heading off in all directions, then turn onto a steep ATV road, and then follow paved roads into town.  Signage and ease of navigation is constantly changing.
Paved roadwalks were often unsigned, and were where we used our smartphones often.
Because there are few hikers of the Arizona Trail, you cannot assume that the most well-traveled path is the Arizona Trail.  In places with more cows than hikers, animal trails can be bigger than the Arizona Trail and form complex networks that get confusing and are unsigned (cows apparently don’t need signs).  In other places, dayhikers use the trail systems most often so their trails are clear and well-trodden, and the Arizona Trail junctions may be hard to find.
Which trail is the Arizona Trail?
The signage doesn’t always tell you which trail or road is the Arizona Trail.  This was most frustrating in popular hiking areas like Saguaro National Park.  Local trail names were shown, but nothing showed which way the Arizona Trail went.  Other times only the way north on the Arizona Trail was indicated, southbounders needed to figure it out themselves.  The guidebook and databook do describe the way to turn at each junction, but we were going southbound so it wasn't straightforward to reverse the directions in some cases.
Arizona Trail sign pointing in only one direction.  What's a southbounder to do?
Finding off-trail water sources was also a challenge.  On the AT, signs and blue blazed trail led the way to water.  On the Arizona Trail, the majority of off-trail water is unmarked, and you’d have no indication of how to find it unless you keep your eyes peeled and follow the water report or databook’s directions  “0.3 m NW” to the tank.  But when you get to the mileage listed for the watersource, there are multiple cattle paths up the wash.  I’d pull out my compass but couldn’t figure out which NW route to take. 
The databook (from the AZTA) and water report provides a rough guide for where to get water.
All of this means that most of the time you will follow your databook, but there will also be several times throughout the day where you will stop and wonder, “which of these two trails at a junction is the Arizona Trail?” or “am I still on the Arizona Trail?” and “where the heck is the water?”

Using your smartphone as a GPS

Many experienced northbound hikers that we met were also frustrated by navigation on the Arizona Trail.  They’d gotten off trail frequently, and been confused at unmarked trail junctions.  Several of them had hiked the AT or PCT using Guthook’s Guides on their smartphones, and wished they had a navigation app on their smartphones that would work without cell service.  I was surprised so many experienced hikers didn’t know that they can use their smartphones as GPS units and store topo maps for offline use!

Smartphone can function as a GPS unit offline (i.e. even if you don’t have cell phone service) by using one of several navigation apps.  I will not review the various apps here (I use Gaia GPS and Jan used Trimble), but their use is similar.   First, download the GPS tracks and waypoints (usually a .gpx file) onto your smartphone.  We got the GPS files for the Arizona Trail by becoming members of the Arizona Trail Association.  Then you transfer the GPX file to your smartphone (I save it in my google drive folder for offline use) then open the GPS file using the navigation app.  The interface then looks very similar to a GPS unit.  Next, download the topo map files to the smartphone manually so they can be used offline.

Then on the trail, you can use the smartphone like a GPS to locate your position on your topo maps.  This is because even without cell service, your geographic location is still figured out once you take your phone off airplane mode.
Even without service, I could checked my location (yellow triangle) to find I was not on the right trail (light blue solid line and red dots), and had missed the turn and had to backtrack.
We usually only used our smartphones to navigate when we were at unsigned trail junction or when we suspected we were no longer on the trail.  Usually just a couple times a day.

Learning to use your smartphone as a GPS requires a bit of a learning curve, so we suggest you try it well before you head out for a trip.  It took me months to learn the finer points and become a skilled user (and to figure out how not to rapidly drain my battery).
The topo maps on my smartphone show exact locations of water sources relative to the trail.
Downloading topo maps

When you download the topo maps manually, you choose how much coverage you want and how far out from the trail you want to download.  You also need to select the type of topo map to download (each “layer” shows different information).  For a long trail, you will end up with a bunch of different saved maps, all with potentially multiple layers.  If you download a larger area, it requires larger file sizes.   If you end up hiking further away from the trail beyond the extent of your downloaded topo maps, you will literally be in a gray zone- you will see your position relative to the gps tracks, but you will not have the topo lines or map for where you are.  This is why it’s important to practice using navigation apps before you hit the trail so that you can learn how much map to download and which layers you find useful— there is definitely a learning curve to this.  File sizes for the maps may be large, so you may need a system for downloading them during resupply stops.

Battery use

Navigation apps are notorious for draining smartphone batteries.  This varies by app, smartphone, and usage.  There are many articles written about this topic (see below).   Again, practice before you hit the trail to learn how to reduce battery usage.  When used efficiently, I had no problems.  But this is because I know what settings to use and I also only use the app sparingly, checking location only a few times a day and never leaving it on for more than a moment.

The GPS tracks are not always right

Several times there was conflict between what the GPS and our instincts indicated was the trail. Follow your instincts over what the GPS says.  The GPS tracks and waypoints contain errors. The first time we noticed this was on passage 15 (between 15-123 and 15-125).  Cow paths and dirtroads crisscrossed this area, but we were following dirt road and rock cairns.  At an unmarked dirt road junction, both Jan and I check our location on our phones, and both of us saw we were off the GPS track.  We backtracked all the way to our last trail sign, and saw that the GPS tract couldn’t be right- it led off into the cactus and scrub.  This convinced us that the tracts were wrong, and to follow our instincts and the cairns.  Of course it would have been easier if there were actual trail markers at junctions, but for areas like this one where there were so many indistinct old roads and animal paths, that would be tough.
Following the rock cairns, not the GPS tracks.
The GPS tracts and cairns didn’t match a second time in the Wilderness of Rocks area (Passage 12).  Again, we backtracked, and saw the tracks led down a wash where the cairns clearly indicated another route.  We concluded the trail had been rerouted and the GPS tracts hadn’t been updated here either.
Here I was on the trail, but the GPS line is wrong.
Another time (near the Gila River) we noticed the waypoint indicated we’d only done a few miles, but our instincts said we’d hiked more.  We suspected a mistake in the waypoint labeling, and at the end of the day, we confirmed our instincts had been correct.

Take home message: Know your pace, be able to estimate your mileage, and trust your route-finding ability over your electronics.
The Arizona Trail follows lots of dirt roads where we'd cruise and be prone to missing turnoffs.

Using your smartphone as a GPS provides a good solution to the navigation challenges of the Arizona Trail.  If you are already used to using your smartphone as a GPS to supplement your databook and paper maps, you can still do so if you can find GPS tracks for your trail.  For the Arizona Trail, these can be downloaded from the Arizona Trail Association website (if you become a member).  You still have to use your brain, but using navigation apps can make your hike much less frustrating when the junctions are ambiguous or when you get off-trail.

Note that dedicated apps are coming out for the Arizona Trail, and that the Arizona Trail is constantly changing.  I hope that this article serves as a useful guide for those interested in planning a trip on the Arizona Trail or other long trail without a smartphone app.

Also, remember that it is always advised to use paper maps and not rely solely on electronics.  We navigated with the databook primarily, and used our smartphones for navigation only a few times every day.  For a less well-marked trail, better topo maps and a dedicated GPS unit would have been a better choice.
Helpful signs are being added all the time to the Arizona Trail as this trail develops.  We're happy this trail is improving all the time due to the efforts of trail maintainers, volunteers, and the Arizona Trail Association.
Further information

Adventure Alan’s how to use the iphone as gps mapping device (provides details and is an excellent reference for how to save battery life)

Guthook gives tips on how to get the most from your smartphone battery.

Discussion of GPS device vs. Smartphone navigation on Section Hiker

Gadget’s Guide to selecting a smartphone for long distance hiking

Support the Arizona Trail by becoming a member of the Arizona Trail Association or by volunteering!