Back on the Low Gap: 2017 Edition

2017 has been full of excitement so far, but much of it has been away from hiking trails. I’ve found that South Texas gets pretty hot during the summer, and that heat isn’t great for hiking or backpacking like I’m used to. So most of this summer was dedicated to overtime at work and catching up on Game of Thrones so that I could be just as disappointed as everyone else that the last season won’t start for another 18 months. However, the end of August brought with it a month long trip back home to Indiana to visit family. Just after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in our area. Luckily where we live in New Braunfels, TX was relatively mild, getting much less rain than areas further east like Houston. We’re thankful that our area didn’t get hit worse and that we were still able to make the 18 hour road trip home without having to drive through much of the storm.

Once back in Indiana where the temperature is about 20 degrees cooler than back home in New Braunfels, I didn’t waste any time getting back on my favorite Indiana trail: the Low Gap. This particular trip was special because in addition to getting back on trail with my Dad (the other half of Free Range Hiking), I had the opportunity to take my Brother in Law on his first backpacking trip as well as introducing him to hammock camping. The Low Gap trail was a great starting point for him and a good reintroduction to less than flat trails for me. Texas has some great hiking, but most of the trails close to where I live are flat and rocky, a very stark contrast to central Indiana’s heavily wooded dirt paths.

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This hike was great, we got to Morgan Monroe State Forest at about 3, while it was still sunny and in the 70’s. It was forecasted to rain so we intended to make camp early, get a fire going and call it an early night. We managed to put in about 4 miles before the rain hit and the wind started to pick up. But we were still able to put up our hammocks and get the fire started with plenty of daylight left. So I introduced Jt, my Brother in Law, to JetBoil stoves and expensive Mountain House dinners. He wasn’t overly impressed with the food. But I think that had more to do with the fact that his clothes had gotten wet in the rain and less about the quality of the food. Regardless, he opted to forgo the mountain house meal and eat a quick, cold dinner while he got more acquainted with the fire.

 

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Before long we were all snug in our hammocks, lulling to sleep as we listened to the rain pattering on our rain fly’s. This was the 5th night I’ve spent in rainy/cold conditions in my Clark NX-270 hammock and each time I’ve slept more comfortably than I do in bed at my own home. I can’t speak highly enough of these hammocks and how they perform in all 4 seasons. Unfortunately, the Hennessey classic that JT was in didn’t stand up to the temps quite as well as my hammock and he spent most of his first night on the trail shivering from the cold. We’ve all been there, we know how much it sucks. I was hoping for a better experience from his first hammock camping experience, but we live and we learn. The next morning we were up with the sun, warming up around the fire, cooking and eating breakfast (MH Breakfast Skillets and instant coffee), showing Jt how to break down camp and readjust the straps on his pack before hitting the trail to knock out the remaining 6 miles.

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Overall this was a great first trip, the Low Gap was the first trail that I stepped foot on as an adult and it is the trail that made me fall in love with hiking/backpacking. On this trip it was a great reminder that even small hills suck when you’re fat and out of shape, and that being out in nature with great company is the best motivator to keep you coming back.

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

Happy Trails!

More pictures below.

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Winter Hiking: How to Stay Warm

Happy New Year! People always seem to choose the beginning of the year as a time to commit themselves to be more active. Over the last few years I’ve really gotten to enjoy nature during the winter months, specifically winter hiking. If you live in an area that gets snow, hiking in the winter can make your favorite trail seem like a brand new adventure. Hiking in the snow and cold also burns more calories than hiking in temperate weather so it can help you keep off those holiday pounds that tend to creep up on us.

One of the big reasons that people tend to take a hiatus from hiking during the winter months is that they don’t want to be cold, cold is uncomfortable, who wants to be cold? But what people fail to understand is that with just a little knowledge and planning, you can beat the cold and have great day hikes, or even overnight trips. So here are a few tips on how to stay warm that I learned during my years in Alaska and during winter hikes in the Midwest.

 

  1. Stay Hydrated: When you’re dehydrated your body doesn’t work as efficiently. In a cold environment this leads to headaches and cold extremities. Just because its cold doesn’t mean you’re not losing water. In fact, because the air is less humid during the winter you’re actually losing a little bit more water through respiration and evaporation. Take enough water to get through your trip or be familiar with fast running water sources along the route that will not freeze all the way through. DO NOT attempt to eat snow if you run out of water. This will lower your body temperature and does not provide you with enough water to benefit you. In a pinch you can fill a bottle full of snow and place it in an interior pocket of your jacket until it melts. When this happens, repeat the process until your bottle is full of water.
  2. Layer your clothing: One of the biggest mistakes people make in this specific area is attempting to put on every layer of clothing that they have. But over layering actually makes you feel colder. The air between the layers of clothing is what keeps you feeling warm, so if you condense that air pocket by adding too many layers of clothing you will actually be colder than if you had layered correctly. In most cases a poly blend base layer (long tops and bottoms) with hiking pants, a long sleeve midweight top layer and a microdown jacket will be more than enough to keep you warm in all but the northernmost states.
  3. Layer on, Layer off: Only use what you really need in that moment. If you start to sweat while hiking, take off your hat, gloves and outer (or middle) top layer. The big tip here is to avoid excess sweating. Wearing too much and sweating through your clothing will destroy the insulating properties. So when you stop to take a break you will get cold. Instead of doing this, take off the excess layers and put them in the top of your bag before you start sweating. Then put them on when you stop. Your body heat will be retained by the dry layers and you’ll stay toasty warm even when you stop. Improper layering and use is the biggest reason that people have unpleasant winter hiking trips.
  4. Know your feet: Cold feet tend to be a pretty consistent problem in cold weather hiking. But there are a few tricks of the trade that you can use to beat this nuisance. 1. Bring extra socks on long trips. Dirty clothing loses its insulating properties. Bringing a change of socks for each day of trail time, plus a spare, is always a good idea. Loosen your laces. We’re back to the insulating layer of warm air again. When your shoes are tied too tight it hurts you in two ways. The first is that it compromises blood flow to the area, making your feel work less efficiently and allowing them to get cold quicker. The second is that it compresses the fabric in your shoes. When you compress the fabric too much there is no room for the air warmed by your feet to get caught in the fabric of the shoe. It’s the same reason your butt gets cold when you sit in the snow, the compressed fabric doesn’t trap heat as well as it would if it were not compressed.
  5. Clear snow from sleeping areas and bring a sleeping pad: You can sleep comfortably in the snow if you remember to clear away the snow under your sleeping area. Additionally, you’ll want to use a sleeping pad since the sleeping bag that is compressed under your body weight will not insulate you as efficiently. When you go to bed, strip down to your base layer. This will be cold at first, but when you wear too much clothing to bed it doesn’t allow your body heat to reach the sleeping bag and insulate you the way it was designed to. You will always sleep warmer in fewer clothes. To avoid that morning shiver when you get up, pull your clothes into your sleeping bag with you in the morning and allow them to warm up passively before you get dressed. If you plan on warming your tent with a fire source, always remember to open one side of the tent for ventilation. Once the tent is warm, removed the fire source before sealing the tent. If you hammock camp, a sleeping pad, sleeping bag and an underquilt will get you through even the coldest nights in relative comfort.
  6. Always bring tools for a fire: Know the area that you will be hiking in and what you will need to make a fire. In the event of an emergency this is an absolute must. I recommend taking waterproof matches or a ferro fire starter, some quick tinder like dryer lint or dry moss and a tea light candle. Before you attempt to start a fire scavenge for your firewood and arrange it next to you from smallest to largest. The biggest being about the circumference of your wrist. Build a teepee with your smallest twigs and keep finger size twigs nearby to add once it’s going. Light your tinder in the open air. Fire needs a lot of oxygen to burn and placing the tinder in the teepee cuts off precious oxygen that the fire needs to start. Once you have an adequate flame place the tinder under the teepee. Slowly add twigs of increasing size until your fire is established. *If you are attempting to start a fire in the snow, you MUST dig down until you are on soil before attempting to start a fire. Placing a fire on top of the snow will put your fire out when the snow melts from the heat.* **In areas that receive a lot of precipitation it will be easier to scavenge firewood and tinder from standing deadwood in the area. Firewood on the ground will likely be wet and will be difficult to light. In a pinch you can use a knife to cut away the outer layers of wet wood in order to get a fire started. But always look for standing dead wood first.**

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It only takes a little bit of knowledge and preparation to keep you warm and happy in nature, even in the cold.  I hope these tips help you get out and stay warm on your own winter adventure.

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Happy Trails,

Aaron

Clifty Falls

Back before the promotion and move to Texas we hit the creek bed trail at Clifty Falls in Indiana.

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This trail literally follows the creek bed from the terminus all the way to the waterfall.

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The waterfall is technically off limits because of the risk of falling debris from above. But we’re not the type of people that find a waterfall and don’t have a little fun.

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Aside from the AT, this was the coolest hike I went on in 2016 and I hope to make several more trips in the future.

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/parks/us/indiana/clifty-falls-state-park?ar%5B%5D=10164113

Happy Trails,

 

 

Government Canyon: Back Country and Nature Reserve

For the last month I’ve been itching to get my pack back on and put in some good miles. My wife Britni and I have both been putting in 60 hour work weeks for nearly the last two months. I’ve been listening to all of the thru hike audiobooks that I can get on Audible, and I reread Lost on the Appalachian Trail (my new signed copy) to try to get me through. But nothing but being out in the wood can get rid of a craving like this. Over the last year I’ve really grown to resent the city, modern conveniences are nice, but dealing with traffic, crime, and hoards of people all the time are enough to make anyone want to run for the hill. Both figuratively and literally. But since I’m still in peak season at work my weekends are reduced and my time off is next to non existent. Nonetheless, I was determined to put in some miles anywhere other than on the industrial concrete floors at work. So I decided to hit up Government Canyon yesterday and hike the biggest loop I could construct from all of its interconnected trails.

Since my foray into the Smokys I’ve redoubled my resolve to get back into shape and lose all the weight that I picked up in Alaska and shortly after separating from the Army. I’ve used hiking to destroy nearly all of my PTSD symptoms, aside from occasional nightmares that broke through even when I was heavily medicated, and seem to be commonplace for other sufferers as well. But hiking helps in that aspect and in the weight-loss department. I was about 285lbs when we made our trip to Tennessee to test ourselves against the mountains. They broke me off, bad. I left feeling demoralized and ashamed of what I’d let myself become. But I knew then and I know now that it wasn’t the last time I’ll be in those mountains, and when I go back, I’ll be taking on all 70 miles and not looking back.

Shortly after the trip to the Smokys, when my resolve was the lowest. I took a promotion that landed me in a huge Amazon building in Florida. I went from having a sedentary 10 hour a day job to having a heavily active (15-20 miles of walking a day) 11 hour a day job. This was all in preparation to launch a new warehouse in South Texas. Where I currently reside. It was hard at first to go from sitting in an office treating sick and injured employees to constantly being out trying to fix the problems before they happen. After my first month of walking close to 50 miles a week I was exhausted and every part of my lower body hurt. But after a while it started to hurt less and less. Now it’s routine, and instead of being a hefty 285lb hiker, I’m a streamlined 265lb hiker (kidding, but I really lost 20lbs from walking at work).

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So 20 pound lighter me decided to get back out on the trail yesterday. Government Canyon was my destination and I was determined to walk all over it. When I first got to the nature area there was no guard in the guard shack where they usually have you pay. It was a brisk 26 degrees in San Antonio and as far as I could tell all of the locals had begun to hibernate. I only encountered 1 other person as I was coming into the park. A lady looking to be a little older than myself was heading out with a day pack, I followed her to the Visitors Center where the only employee, a retiree aged woman was happily passing out park maps and car passes (so you don’t get towed for being in the park illegally). As I was waiting I glanced over at a small bucket full of walking sticks and began to wonder to myself if I should give one a try instead of my trekking poles. I’ve been carrying trekking poles since I started hiking again but I only ever use them in inclement weather, and even then I usually just use one.

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Once I left the Visitors Center, put the car pass in my windshield and got my pack on I had to fight the urge to run down the trail. After about a quarter mile of walking along the access road I hit the trail head and started down one of the many connected trails that I would be on today. The access trail was just a gravel road, like most of the trails that I’ve been on start out. But once I got to the trail I was surprised by how rocky it was. The other portion of government canyon in the front country had been a flat dirt road. The back country was undeniably “hill country”. I haven’t been on rocks like this since the Smokys, it definitely wasn’t as steep as our ascent to Clingman’s Dome, but there were some decent level changes for being in Southern Texas.

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The main trails were all rocky like this and had a few steep climbs leading up to some spectacular views of the surrounding area.

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Once I got back to the nature trails (only open October-May) the rocky terrain changed into soft dirt roads and overgrowth. You could immediately tell that this portion of the trail see’s significantly less traffic. Besides being off limits most of the year, the trailheads to these specific trails are 7 and 8 trail miles into the forest respectively, so most hobby hikers don’t want to put in the extra miles when they get to them.

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The best part about the entire trip, aside from getting to spend 5 hours out in nature, was that this was the first time I’ve ever completed a 15 mile hike and felt like I could have kept going. As it turns out, walking 15 miles a day and climbing countless stairs for 11 hours a day 5 days a week actually translates hiking fitness.

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/texas/government-canyon-loop

Happy Trails,

 

2016 Hikes: My Favorite Pictures

We had a very active year in 2016, logging hikes in Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee/North Carolina and Texas. We put hundreds of miles on our trail shoes and even more knowledge in our heads. These are just a few of my favorites from the hundreds of pictures that we took during all of our hikes.

Be sure to follow our social media links to see the rest.

Lytle’s Loop at Government Canyon

Back in October, before things started to get crazy at work. My wife and I found Government Canyon not far from where we live, just South of San Antonio.  There’s an entrance fee of $6 a person for the day, I don’t like it, but I pay so that I can get my fix. There are a handful off trails ranging in length between a few miles and 8-10. Both split between the front country and back country areas. We have to hike in the front country area on this day because we have our dogs with us and they are only allowed in this portion of the park.

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Up until this point the majority of my hikes have been in cold weather since renewing my love for the past time in January while still living in Indiana. Indiana hikes were through heavily wooded areas with running streams and small hills throughout. The few summer hikes I managed before leaving to Florida for work in June had been mild, with the exception of one 90 degree day. South Texas is altogether different than what I’m used to. The temperatures remain in the high 90’s to low 100’s most days but we get lucky today and the temp stays in the low 80s, the terrain in flat and rocky and the soil here is heavy with clay. I’ll find over the course of the next few months following this that the soil is the reason for the frequent flooding in San Antonio following just about any significant rainfall. There are very few hills in this particular area even though we’re in the “Texas hill country”. Most of the trail is flanked by wildflowers this time of the year and there are many cactuses lining the trail as well, which is new for me so I enjoy seeing them.

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I do have a heightened fear of rattlesnakes in this rocky terrain, not because I’m afraid of being bitten. Because I have my dogs with me and I know they will not know the danger and will try to investigate if we come across one. Today the trail was very lightly trafficked and we only come across a few other hikers on the 5 mile loop. We decided to choose a shorter trail because this is first hike that our dogs have come on and they are not ready for a longer trek. As it is we finish the 5 miles dragging the dogs behind us because they’re tired of walking across the rocks and are used to being idle in a small apartment every day, so they’re unprepared the sudden increase in physical exercise. They complete the trail and are happy to jump back into the air conditioned truck, once we get back home they move slowly and sleep often for the next couple of days. I’m not sure they appreciate the trail quite as much as Britni and I do.

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

Happy Trails!

 

Beginning the Knobstone Trail

Over the past two weekends, I’ve been hiking the northern loops of the Knobstone Trail (KT) and I’m quickly falling in love with it. On Black Friday, a small group of us Midwestern adventurers will be trying to see how much of it we can knock out in three days.

All of this is in prep, of course, for a later week-long trek of the Knobstone Hiking Trail (KHT) which is cleverly acronymed to represent the Knobstone, Heritage, and Tecumseh trails, all linked together to form the longest continuous trail in Indiana. Some of it is still on country roads, but the KHT trail advocacy group is acquiring easements (rights-of-way) from land owners and getting more and more of it back up the hills.

I will thru-hike the KHT before I thru the Appalachian Trail, both of which are goals. For now, enjoy the eye candy.

~Greenlight

DePauw Nature Park

After last weekend on the AT in Tennessee, we had an easy Sunday hike planned out in advance  since we knew we would probably be a little sore and tired from the Smokys. DePauw is a nice set of loop trails right off a college campus about 45 minutes from us. The trails are paved with pea gravel and there are very few hills on the course.

12985389_260054681000043_7346857328926076736_nWhile vastly different from the landscape we were on a week before, there are still a lot of cool things to see at DePauw. Including the rock quarry, amphitheater and some of the buildings around the area.

12974422_260054354333409_4922801034615557386_n13015375_260054464333398_5733136739480225073_n12987204_260054494333395_2499709800428002331_n12990900_260054477666730_5934513700554002211_nAside from the rainy (sometimes snowy) and generally cloudy weather that comes with April in Indiana, we did get to enjoy some of the spring flowers and only had to endure a light sprinkle for about 30 minutes.

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But when it comes down to it, it’s being out of the house and keeping your feet on the trail that really matters. Whether it be on a flat paved trail in Northern Indiana or scrambling over rocks in the mountains, being out of the house and away from the noise of the cities and the fast pace of modern life is what counts.

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

 

Pictures from our recent hike at Depauw Nature Park

Posted by Veteran's Outdoor Collaborative on Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Measuring up?

IMG_1700I was listening to thru-hike audio books in the car before and after my first hike on the Appalachian Trail, trying to figure out why this is so important to me. It’s the question thru-hikers get all the time from admirers but also from detractors. “Why are you doing this?” Ultimately it’s a statement, heavily underlined, that defies the nature of the question. The true meaning stems more from the person asking than it does from some inherent cliche or from the hiker being asked. Maybe the heavy underline contains more of the answer than does whatever answer lies atop. Grandma Gatewood was asked that question a thousand times and gave a different answer each time. She hiked the AT the first time when she was 67. Then she thru-hiked it again. Then she section hiked it a third time. Then she hiked the Adirondacks. She took seventeen pounds of equipment with her, slung over her shoulder in a sack. That made her not only one of the first thru-hikers, the first woman ever to thru-hike the trail, it also made her the first ultralight thru-hiker and even the first ever woman ultralight thru-hiker. She just got up each morning and walked the blazes. Earl Shaffer hiked the AT to put WWII behind him. The upswell of thru-hikers every year since the Sixties attests a simple truth. We need these wild places. And we need people willing to put aside conformity to love them not by reading articles about them in Outside magazine or Sports Illustrated, but to make all other considerations secondary for a time and love them with their feet. With their whole soul…by doing something amazing. Becoming something just a bit beyond ordinary. The people who have thru-hiked a long trail were already a bit beyond ordinary. The youngest thru-hiker was six when he started. The trail has been thru-hiked by a blind man and by old men with no cartilage in their knees. It’s been hiked by people dying of cancer and people healing from physical and sexual abuse. I think, and this is just my own opinion, the the AT, or any such undertaking, is something we measure ourselves against. Knowing that we are two completely different things, us folks and the mountains, and that the hills will outlast us in the end, but just for a season we outlasted the hills. That is a measurement to be recorded on paper for a time through shelter logs and ATC certificates, but forever in the heart or the human spirit or whatever sappy else you might want to call it. I am not yet a thru hiker. I’m just a middle aged man who loves to hike and camp, and my reasons for hiking are my own. But I will measure myself against the mountains, and one day soon I will measure up.

Sycamore Loop Trail

This was the first hike of the year where things were really starting to green over and a lot of the plants and flowers in the woods were in bloom. I love winter hiking, but I’m really glad the cold weather is seeing its way out the door.

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I’m starting to find little things about each new trail that I hit week after week that I really enjoy. This week on Monday we took a trip to the Sycamore Loop Train in the Charles C. Deam Wilderness that’s located in the Hoosier National Forest. This is the first trail that I’ve been to in the HNF and it stuck out to me because of the designated camp spots marked throughout the trail. Most of which have been built up to the point that they rival most improved camp sites that you’d find right off the roadway in many places. The coolest that we saw was definitely the 4th or 5th one in, located about 5 miles into the trail. People have taken the time to assemble a limestone table and chairs. No doubt very hard and heavy work, but one of the coolest things I’ve seen.

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Sycamore Loop is a 7.7 mile trail and stays incredibly flat in the back country. The only real climbs on the trail are located on the fire access road leading back to the parking lot and those are small hills at that. Another cool part of this trail, and something I’ve seen at the last few trails in less spectacular fashion are the pine tree forests dispersed throughout the trail. Even in the spring there seems to be something magical about being surrounded by these needle clad green giants.

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I’m definitely starting to see a lot more people out and about on the trails. Boyscout troops are a staple during the weekend hikes and some even on the weekdays. There is also no shortage of fishermen out around the water. It’s good to see that people are getting over their cabin fever and getting back out into the world. The more you’re out in it, the more you realize that this is really where we’re meant to be.

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

Until next time,

Happy Trails.

We hiked the Sycamore Loop trail in the Charles C. Deam Wilderness Area at the Hoosier National Forest.

Posted by Veteran's Outdoor Collaborative on Wednesday, March 30, 2016