The Appalachian National Scenic Trail

What is it?

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, commonly referred to as simply the Appalachian Trail or “the AT” for short, is probably the most well-known hiking trail in the United States. As such it inspires a few thousand prospective thru-hikers and (estimates say) close to 3 million visitors (day hikers, section hikers) to the nearly 2,200 mile footpath each year. Though less than half of the prospective thru hikers actually go on to complete the trek.

AppalachianTrail-Map

Appalachian Trail Map (http://swling.com/blog/tag/best-radio-for-appalachian-trail/)

How do you thru hike it?

The AT is most commonly hiked from its southern terminus at Springer Mountain in Georgia through North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire before travelers reach the northern terminus at Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Although many of those starting later in the year choose to hike southbound from Maine to Georgia to avoid seasonal closure in Baxter State Park that would otherwise prevent northbound hikers from actually reaching the summit of Katahdin if they run behind.

ATinGA-ApproachArch32

Approach Trail (http://cnyhiking.com/ATinGA-SpringerMountain.htm)

Mt Katahdin

Mt. Katahdin (http://www.summitpost.org/katahdin/150219)

What’s the draw?

The Appalachian Trail is iconic and has been the focus of several books, documentaries and a mainstream movie. But what makes people want to start an undertaking of this magnitude? The answer to that question is very specific to the person that is answering. Many people want to say that they thru hiked the grandfather long trail, some want to prove to themselves that they have what it takes to survive in the woods for months at a time. Others are just looking for an escape or change of pace. But one thing remains the same, everyone that starts the trail finds the same rocky path, lined by seasonal flowers, rhododendron tunnels, mixed forest filled with fresh mountain streams and spring water sources, breathtaking mountain views and comradery that most never expect to find in the middle of nowhere.

How long does it take?

The average hiker takes between 4-5 months, or 165 days on average, to finish the thru hike. But it can be done in less time by those determined to skip zero days (a day that you hike 0 miles), and can take longer for those wishing to really experience everything there is to experience on the trail. Many of the trail towns hold festivals. Damascus, VA hold an annual festival dubbed “Trail Days” and offers an opportunity for vendors and past and present thru hikers to come together and celebrate the trail.

How much does it cost?

An AT thru hike costs an average of $4500-$6000 depending on the amount of time the hiker decides to stay in trail towns or in hostels along the trail. The biggest expense along the trail is food, as the average hiker needs to consume nearly 5,500 calories a day to maintain their weight while thru hiking the AT. This constant need for calories has also spawned dozens of traditional eating contests in trail towns along the way. From eating a half gallon of ice cream in one sitting to hotdogs and pancake eating competitions. Thru hikers know how to load up on calories whenever the opportunity is presented to them.

In addition to actual hike costs, prospective thru hikers will spend between $500 and $2,500 on gear before setting out on their epic quest, cost mostly depending on the brand of gear that is purchased. While it is possible to spend less upfront, outfitters like REI stand by the items that they sell and will send thru hiker’s replacement gear while they are on the trail if anything happens to fail.

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Additional Links:

http://blog.rei.com/hike/21-appalachian-trail-statistics-that-will-surprise-entertain -and-inform-you/

http://www.projecttimeoff.com/blog/things-do/more-walk-woods-what-you-need-know-about-appalachian-trail

What is a Thru-Hike?

What is a thru-hike?

This is a question that a lot of new hikers find themselves asking or googling after hearing the term in conversation. But there isn’t always a straight answer, especially depending on what company you’re with at the time. Oftentimes people will refer to themselves as bona-fide thru hikers after completing one of America’s “Big Three” long trails, in one setting. Of course I’m referring to the iconic Appalachian Trail (2,200 miles), the scenic Pacific Crest Trail (2,659 miles) and the mystifying Continental Divide Trail (3,100 miles). If you ask someone who has hiked one of these trails what it takes to become a thru hiker, they will likely tell you that you have to hike the mileage of the trail that they hiked to earn the title, and rightly so.

But there are others in the sport that argue that completing any “long trail” in the United States will earn you the title. The truth is that it really depends on how you feel about it. Hike your own hike, if you complete a 100 mile trail in one setting and you want to call yourself a thru hiker, call yourself a thru hiker. As long as you feel comfortable with your accomplishments, that’s what the sport is all about. Getting to be one with nature, learning survival skills and bonding with new and old friends. You might not be a thru hiker to someone who has hikes one of the big three, but others who have hiked the trail you hiked might agree that you should call yourself a thru hiker. At the end of the day, it comes down to what you feel you are. If you feel like a section hiker, be a section hiker. If you feel like a thru hiker, be a thru hiker. Don’t base how you label yourself or your adventures on anyone’s views but your own. When it all comes to a close, you are the only person that lived your life and the only one who will remember how your adventures felt to you.

So whether you’re a day hiker, a section hiker, or a thru hiker. Enjoy the adventure and don’t stress over titles. Once you’ve gotten your trail name, you can revel in the fact that you’ve made it into a very prestigious group of people who care more for experiences than outward appearances and that is a very good place to be indeed.  Whatever you do, remember to hike your own hike (HYOH).

Happy Trails,

Aaron

*HYOH is a term also used to tell a fellow hiker that is offering unwanted advice to mind their own damn business*

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Need an excuse to get outside?

We don’t own this, but it is great enough to share. Spring is almost here, my hiker trash buddies longing for sunlight filtering through green canopies! Have a laugh, then go prep your gear.

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Hike Safety: How to Protect Yourself from Two-Legged Predators.

There is a lot to love about hiking, and the outdoor community. From the solitude of the forest to the unique and breathtaking mountaintop views that only the dedicated and slightly crazy (most of us) enthusiasts get to see. The hiking community is one of brother and sisterhood and we often greet each other as long lost friends even if we’ve never met before. But this sometimes lulls us into a false sense of security and an assumption that everyone we meet on the trail is a harmless thrill seeker like ourselves. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Sometimes people enter the forest trail with sinister intentions, and while we hate to admit that those people walk amongst us, it’s an unfortunate reality that we must face.

I didn’t want to write this post for a multitude of reasons, but the topic has been constantly on my mind since the news of the murder of two young girls on a trail in my home state this past month made it to my ears. Without going into detail out of respect for the young women and their families all I will say is that the murderer is still out there. Now I often find myself thinking of ways to spot these types of people before they reveal their intentions and think of what I would have done in the same situation. But truth be told, I’m a large intimidating figure on the trail, not a young teenage girl. This alone makes me less likely to become the victim of this type of crime. But not everyone on the trail is a 6 foot 270 pound man, so what can we do to make sure that we stay safe while we enjoy our favorite outdoor recreation?

Here are a few basic precautions that you should always take when you go hiking.

  1. Be familiar with the area that you’re hiking in. Unless you’re an experienced outdoorsman or outdoorswoman, always head into unfamiliar areas with a group. Either take friends or join an established group of hikers from a site like meetup.com, but always check the group reputation before heading to any remote locations. Look for active groups with a lot of people that frequent the outings. Make sure to visit places in groups several times before planning any extended solo adventures. Knowing the lay of the land and where you can hide without being found by others is an essential survival skill. Running, hiding and being able to camouflage  is your first line of defense if things go amiss. Never underestimate the power of camo, I’ve been standing on a creek bed filtering water 5 feet off the trail in camo and had people walk right by me and not notice that I’m there until I move.This can be invaluable when someone is looking for you and you don’t want to be found. Finally, don’t plan solo trips until you know the area well and are comfortable in the terrain.
  2. Tell a friend or family member exactly where you’re going. Even more specifically, tell a friend or family member that is capable of meeting up with you or finding you in that area should you fail to check in. Leave a map of the area with a detailed plan for where you plan to be at what time and any intended stops along the way. Be sure to check in with this person at a set interval during your trip. This is especially important when you’re going on a multi-day solo trip. Even the most experienced hikers and outdoor enthusiasts do this, so add it to your plan before you go.
  3. Carry something for self-defense. Always be prepared for other people’s bad intentions, being in the middle of nowhere doesn’t always make you safe. Even on the most popular and heavily trafficked long trail in the Nation has seen 11 murders in the last 40 years. The truth remains that we’re far more likely to be harmed by 2 legged animals than any number of the 4 legged animals on the trail. Plan for this before you go out and make sure you take something with you. I always hike with at least a knife and mace spray, no matter what trip I’m planning or the duration of the trip. Mace is effective against most of your smaller predators, and will give you a leg up if you’re attacked by a person while hiking. You can also carry a firearm if you’re old enough and have been through a firearm safety course, or have at least been taught by a competent person and have any licenses required by your state to own and carry and conceal a firearm. A .380 is small and lightweight enough that you can conceal it in a pocket without noticing the additional weight too much even for smaller built individuals. If you’re underage or have an aversion to firearms, you can carry a small pellet gun for emergencies. Catching a pellet or metal BB to the face will stop most people or animals in their tracks. Also remember that if you are attacked, make as much noise as possible while the attack is going on. Most hiking packs have a built in emergency whistle on the chest strap that can alert other hikers in the area to the attack so that they can assist you.
  4. Hike with a dog. Nothing says “don’t mess with me” like man’s best friend. Hiking with your dog is therapeutic for master and pup, but also serves as a deterrent to people who may have bad intentions on the trail. Strangers are often weary of dogs that they don’t know and the threat of having a set of jaws clamped onto their body is enough to keep most people at bay. Besides being fiercely loyal and willing to give their lives to protect their owners. Dogs make a hell of a lot of racket when something upsets them. A barking dog along with the sound of a commotion and an emergency whistle will be enough draw help from miles around. The attacker having to deal with a dog will also give you extra time to ready your personal defenses.
  5. Improvise, fight and commit. If you can’t elude the person and you don’t have a firearm or more lethal weapon, trekking poles are a walking stick can be used as weapons. Aim for the groin, the middle of the chest, the neck and the face. If you have trekking poles, pop the rubber guards off and jab like it’s a spear. Continue to make as much noise as you can, and never allow the person to force you off the trail. If they are planning to harm you, make them stay in the open where someone can see the altercation and help. Oftentimes help is just out of sight, if you go off trail your chances of being seen go down dramatically. Once you’ve determined that you must fight, do not stop attacking until you can safely get away. As soon as that opportunity presents itself, make a run for it. If they follow, keep making as much noise as possible.

Above all else, remember that there is safety in numbers. Even if the attacker has a gun they can still be overpowered by a group. Most times a group of 3 or more will deter a would-be attacker, so when you’re planning a trip somewhere new, remember the more the merrier. Always be prepared for the worst and plan accordingly. Not everyone has the best intentions, but a little planning can keep you happy, safe and enjoying nature for your entire life. Above all, stay safe and enjoy all that the trails have to offer.

Please feel free to comment any additional advice below, this post is not all inclusive, merely some of the skills I’ve learned and personally use when I’m out. Don’t forget to share this advice with your friends in the outdoor community, it could save a life.

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8 Reasons That Not Hiking is Probably Killing You

Hiking is an all-around great workout. Walking is one of the most beneficial exercises that you can do for heart health according to the American Heart Association, when you add a weighted pack into the mix as well as negotiating (sometimes) strenuous paths in the forest the benefits only increase. But even knowing all that, we still find ways to put that next hiking trip on the back burner in favor of less strenuous activity. So here are 10 reasons that putting off that next hiking trip is probably killing you.

  1. Heart Disease. Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in men and women over age 40, much of this owing to our increasingly bad diets and a tendency to get less and less physical exercise as we age. The more we sit and watch television, grab artery clogging fast food and generally avoid strenuous activity, the higher our risk of heart disease climbs. But, hiking is one of the best cardio workout around. Nothing gets your blood pumping like carrying extra weight on your back and negotiating fallen trees, mountain paths and burbling streams with views so beautiful, you’ll forget that you’re exercising. So not only will your eyes thank you for going on that trip you’ve been putting off, your heart will too.
  2. Blood Pressure/ Blood Sugar. High blood pressure and irregular blood sugar are becoming more and more common with younger and younger patients every year. We have an endless supply of starchy, sugary snacks at our fingertips and more and more series piling up on our “binge list” on Netflix. This combination of bad habits can lead to a few extra pounds piling on before you even realize it and aside from bad eating habits and lack of exercise (I hope you’re seeing a pattern here) excess body weight is the leading cause of high blood pressure and those bad habits going on for too long can wreak havoc on your pancreas, eventually leading to irregular blood sugar or even Type 2 Diabetes. But, one of the best ways to drive off high blood pressure and blood sugar problems is to start living a healthier lifestyle by eating better and getting more exercise. So instead of reaching for that soda and binge watching the next season of The Walking Dead, grab a bottle of water, some of your favorite trail snacks and head out for a short hike instead.
  3. Weak Bones. As we grow older our bodies naturally stop funneling calcium into our bones. A problem that is further compounded for women who have children, because a growing baby will leach the calcium out of their mothers bones if not enough is present in her diet. Inactivity also leads to decreased bone density, which in turn makes it easier to break bones in the event of a fall or other minor accident. But weight bearing exercise is a great way to increase bone density. When our muscles are forced to lift or bear more weight than what they are used to, our bones are forced to support greater weight loads, so our bodies increase our bone density to accommodate the increased load bearing needs. This is why Doctors tell people with bone density problems to begin lifting free weights. But instead of heading to the gym and lifting weights, backpackers carry that weight in their packs.
  4. Weak legs. Much like the stomach and arms, the legs tend to be one of the first areas that our body looks to store excess body fat. Extra leg and butt fat is less than flattering and are two of the areas that most people wish they could shape and change. Smaller leg muscles and excess body fat in this area also contribute to heart disease and high blood pressure. However, increasing the size of your leg muscles by walking with a weighted pack will help you trim away the excess fat from your legs and butt, and is also good for your heart. Many of the largest muscle groups in your body are in your legs. Your hamstrings, glutes and quads move a lot of blood when they are active. This blood has to be moved by the heart, causing an increased heart rate and improving heart health. It also leads to strong, good looking legs, and who doesn’t want that?
  5. Weaker core muscles. Your core muscles, i.e. you abs, obliques, hip flexors and back muscles, affect every movement we make in our daily lives. If you’ve ever done an intense core workout, you likely became painfully aware of just how much you use your core in the days following. Not only does a strong core help balance and stability, it also leads decreases your chance of heart disease, diabetes and a long list of other maladies. The opposite is also true, a weak core burns less fat as fuel, makes hernia-type injuries more likely to occur, leads to unflattering belly fat and makes you more susceptible to a laundry list of chronic preventable disease. But, shouldering a weighted pack and navigating your favorite trail passively builds up these muscles groups by holding the weight securely in place while you maneuver with your legs. Carrying weight long distances will quickly build up your core muscles.
  6. Poor Coordination. We gain absolutely nothing from watching television or sitting around the house. We lose time, gain weight and miss out on cool opportunities to make unforgettable memories. Walking on flat, level ground all the time lulls us into a false sense of security and leads to weaker auxiliary muscles in our legs and core that help up maintain our balance when we’re negotiating difficult terrain or maneuvering over boulders, fallen trees or unstable rocks. But hiking forces us to move over difficult terrain, often up and down gradual to step slopes and across all sorts of rocks, boulders, tree roots, branches, water hazards and undergrowth. This forces our minds and bodies to think and act quickly and builds cognitive awareness that increases our balance.
  7. Excess body fat. Being sedentary in our daily lives leads to a quick increase in body fat. Any time we don’t burn what we eat, we put on weight in the form of excess body fat and while it is not detrimental to have a little extra body fat, obesity is one of the most deadly chronic diseases in America and thousands more a year are falling into its clutches due to more and more people living sedentary lifestyles. But it’s no secret that hiking burns calories, thru hikers on the AT often lose between 20-50 pounds on the trail, and many are in great shape when they start. With a loaded pack and on moderate to difficult terrain a hiker can burn well north of 3000 calories in a day. Even a one to two hour hike can burn between 800-2000 calories depending on your body weight, the weight in your pack, and the difficulty of the route you’re on.
  8. Psychological health. We’re biologically designed to live in nature. We’ve evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to find our homeostasis in an outdoor environment. So naturally, when we’re deprived of the environment that our bodies developed to live in, we begin to see negative effects on our psyche and mental health. Because our ancestors lived for so long in the wilderness environment, many of the aspects of being outdoors effect our well being. They became basic needs over a very long time, basic needs that are no longer met by our man made environments. Another basic need that is not met as often as it was in decades and centuries passed is our connection to the community. Human beings are social creatures, but outside of our immediate families, people rarely get outside human interaction anymore. Society teaches us that we should be staying in and consuming artificial entertainment by ourselves or with a few members of our immediate family instead of going out with friends to seek entertainment outside of the home. Hiking is a great past time that only gets better when you include friends. Sitting by a campfire, having a few adult beverages and laughing and talking with friends is a great way to satisfy our need for human interaction and to be out in nature. This is a great way to get your blood pumping and stave off depression. Additionally, getting out and hiking and camping on your own or with close friends is a great way to build confidence in your ability to provide for and take care of yourself in harsh or uncomfortably situations. This builds confidence in what we can do, and helps alleviate anxiety.

So with all of the benefits that hiking brings to the table, extending our life, making us stronger and staving off depression and anxiety. Why do we continue to put off those next hikes? Do we really have anything more important to do? Probably not, so the next time you think of putting off that next hiking trip, remember all of the benefits that you’re passing up.

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Five Reasons You Should Be Hammock Camping

Hammock camping has been quickly gaining popularity in recent years. Owing its increased success and visibility to updated designs, increased affordability and a few books like Lost on the Appalachian Trail by author and AT/PCT Thru Hiker Kyle Rohrig (highly recommended) who rave about their successes hammock camping on famous long trails. For a lot of people hammock camping is simply something that they have never been introduced to, let alone tried for themselves. But in my personal experience it’s something that you try a few times before realizing you’ll never go back to tents. So here are 5 reasons that you should be hammock camping.

  1. Leave no trace. If you’re the outdoor adventure type you’ve probably read and follow the “leave no trace” principals. Those of us that love the outdoors want to continue loving the outdoors and share than love with others for as long as possible. In a lot of cases people take “leave no trace” as simply packing out what you pack in and picking up trash here and there. But there is a lot more to it than that. Our forest ecosystems are fragile and every plant serves a multitude of functions and purposes that are invaluable to the ecosystem. When we set up tents, the first order of business is usually clearing away weeds, twigs and other undergrowth so that we have a relatively flat, even place to sleep. But on top of further altering the environment the clearing and smashed undergrowth is a spotlight to other hikers that someone slept there recently. Using a hammock, especially with the use of tree straps, completely eliminates this problem because the straps won’t harm the trees and the only thing that the hammock compresses is air. I especially enjoy this because it allows me to camp in areas that just wouldn’t work with a tent due to undergrowth or slope of the ground. It also allows you to remain better hidden from others in the forest or along the trail. Since we all crave that “alone with nature” feeling, staying hidden to other hikers outside of your group is a must. It also keeps you safer, since strangers can’t find you easily.
  2. Hammocks are light weight and don’t take up much room. Tents inevitably come with tent poles, and even the lightest tent poles still take up more room and weigh more than fabric. They’re also rigid and difficult to compact past a certain point. Hammocks on the other hand, are either mostly or all fabric. Even the higher end hammocks like the Clark Jungle Hammocks (pictured above) that come with small poles to eliminate the need for a ridge line are still easy to compact and store. When you’re planning an overnight backpacking trip anywhere space is critical, and the three biggest demands for space in your pack come from shelter, food and warmth (sleeping bag, clothing). These are also staple items that you always need to carry, so anytime you can cut weight or space taken up by these items you’re doing yourself a favor. If you intend to hike ultralight, meaning you base back weight is at or below 20 pounds, a hammock is probably for you. Even the heaviest 4 season hammocks weigh about 2 and a half to 3 and a half pounds and most are substantially lighter than this and if you’re not into cowboy camping or sleeping on the ground under an open tarp, then hammocks are your best friend.
  1. Setup time, especially with the use of tree straps, is a fraction of the time it takes to set up a tent. After the third or fourth time you set up your hammock, when you start to get comfortable with it. The process takes about 3-5 minutes. If you use carabiners and tree straps the time is cut down to less than 2 minutes. Once you’ve been out on a few trips, setting the ropes becomes second nature and it takes even less time. A tent on the other hand takes 5-7 minutes even when you’re practiced and sometimes upwards of 15 minutes when you’re new to wilderness camping. If you’ve ever hiked a 20 mile day in the winter, you know that fighting dusk to get camp set up and a fire going is never fun. You want to have a shelter system that you can set up quickly without cutting corners. The last thing you want to do in the middle of the night after a 15 or 20 mile day is have to get up and fix your tent in the cold darkness because you set it up too quickly and had it fall apart at 2am.
  1. Great sleep. Have you ever slept on a cloud? I have, and so has anyone else that has gone through a blissful night in a hammock. I tent camped for the first 25 years of my life, and I can’t tell you how many times I searched and searched for the perfect, flat, grassy area to set up my tent, just to crawl in at night and be right on top of a hidden root or jagged rock that I didn’t see when I set the tent up. Even if you manage to find that perfect rock and root free spot, you still have 8-10 hours of sleeping on thousands of feet of compacted rock and dirt. My lower back hurts just thinking about it. You never have that problem when you sleep in a hammock. No roots can touch you,  not rocks can prod you awake and no unpleasant pressure points to stiffen your joints and dampen your spirits. There is also the added benefit of not being on the ground when the rain comes, because it always does. A properly setup hammock and rain fly combo will keep you tucked away, dry and warm even in the most torrential downpours.
  1. No critters or bugs. One of the biggest turn offs to hammock camping in the past was the bug aspect, and the fear of waking up with a raccoon or possum sitting on your chest wanting to know where the food is at. Fortunately, I recent years the hammock camping professionals have wised up and added integrated bug nets as a standard feature on almost all dedicated camping hammocks. Even if you want to go the budget route you can buy a few yards of noseeum netting and attach it to an ENO hammock with a quick and dirty ridgeline for pennies on the dollar compared to what you pay for a dedicated overnight hammock. Nothing feels as good as laying in your hammock at the end of a long day hiking and seeing the mosquitos on the other end of your bug net, cursing you for outsmarting them.

 If you’re still not convinced that hammock camping is the way of the future, find someone who is doing it already (we call ourselves hangmen, we’re everywhere) and ask if you can take their hammock for a spin on your next overnight adventure. They can probably show you some cool knots to use to make the experience a lot less painful too.

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A Disease Called Modern Society

For the first time in the history of our species we live and spend most of our time in a synthetic environment. Everything is climate controlled, the lighting is dictated by the blinds and electricity. We listen to the wind and rain on the façade of our gaudy abodes instead of feeling it and experiencing it on our skin. People today would rather sit in front of a television, stare at a computer or a phone screen for a dozen hours a day than actually hold a conversation with another person. We find ourselves living in a time where we are more connected than ever before, but we communicate less. Meaningful relationships are failing to exist. Marriages end, families alienate each other and EVERYONE is depressed.

My personal opinion is that this happened because we started putting more importance on THINGS than we did relationships. The worst part of this entire problem, this disease; is that we don’t realize we have it. If you’re reading this right now you’re probably plugged in enough to realize that sometime in the recent past, probably within the last 12-24 hours, you’ve sat next to someone that you care a great deal about, in complete silence while you stared at a phone, tablet or computer screen. I do it too, frequently, and it’s wrong.

Human beings weren’t designed to live on our own, we aren’t autonomous. We need friends, we need family and we need community. Whether we like it or not we’re rapidly approaching the coming of age of a generation of human being that will be the first to go through their entire childhood caring more about technology, their phone, tablet and computer; than they do about their friends and family. If that thought doesn’t scare you, I honestly don’t know what will. We’re set up to fail, because we focus more on what we want now, than what we need.

I’ve been a party to several conversations in the last few years when my peers or other people in my specific age group try to explain to me that we have it so much harder than our parents and grandparents did, “we can’t afford to live” they tell me. “When our parents or grandparents were getting married and raising their kids they could afford to feed a family on one income and still afford a vacation every year. I can barely afford to support myself”.

This answer always baffles me, because we don’t even register the fact that we’re completely wrong. 50 years ago, the biggest expenses in a family’s budget would have been their house, THE car and food. Outside of that you had insurance, utilities and basics like food and hygiene. That was all that families paid for, that was all they needed. They got their entertainment for free, right outside their homes. Families might have 1 TV with a few channels if they were lucky, and a radio with local stations. There weren’t two car payments, they didn’t have to have a TV in every room, no internet, no $400 cell phones for every member of the family on top of a data plan that costs $200+ a month. Meals were cooked in the home almost every night from products that mostly came from close by. No smart watches, no tablets, no need for 5 or 6 pairs of $60 designer jeans to be “cool”.

The truth is, we’re just as capable of living today as our parents and grandparents were. We just don’t understand the difference between needing something and wanting it. We can live without a cell phone, we can live without a computer, or internet. We don’t need a 60” flat screen TV with a DirecTV HD bundle and a Netflix, HULU and Amazon Prime account. All of these wants that we look at as needs are the reason that people feel like they can’t get by on what they make.

This is where getting back to nature helps us come back to what is really important. When you start backpacking or camping, you find yourself distracted from modern distractions, distracted by what is really important to us. Natural life and human interaction. When you go on an overnight hiking trip with your significant other or with friends you take a step away from the modern world and everything that distracts us. You breathe the fresh air that we’re biologically designed to run off of, the sun on your skin produces vitamin D that gives you energy and the exercise and feeling of adventure produces dopamine in your brain that makes you happy, naturally.

You also get to see how you and your friends / significant other deal with hardship and critical thinking. If you’re a novice backpacker or camper. You’ll forget to pack things that will seem essential once you realize that you don’t have them. Even if you’re not a novice you’ll still run across situations like this. It’s inevitable, but it shows us how we work together to solve problems. Or maybe it shows us that we don’t work well together, that in itself can be a blessing. I went on a camping trip with my wife about a year ago. We’ve been out camping dozens of times over the course of our relationship and we know what we’re doing. But about a week before this particular camping trip I reorganized all of our camping gear and decided to consolidate our tent poles in a slightly larger bag than the one that the tent came in, to cut down on the time it takes to break down camp. For whatever reason, I didn’t communicate this well when we were packing up for the trip. So when we drive 90 miles north to our private camp site, as the sun is setting on the day, we realize we have no tent poles… and we were expecting rain.

I’ll admit I didn’t handle that news well at first, I over reacted, got angry. More at myself for not double checking our gear than at anything else. But in my moment of self-loathing and lamentation for the ruined trip, my wife asked “why don’t we just set up the rain fly over the bed of the truck”. It took that voice of reason from someone else, to point out that the trip wasn’t ruined at all, it was just a little different from what we usually did. As I look back on all the trips we’ve taken over the years, this trip is the one that I remember the most vividly. It took me out of my comfort zone, but it was fun and original and memorable. But if I’d been by myself on that trip I probably would have packed up all of my gear and gone back home cursing myself. Sometimes problem solving works better when there are two people, and it really teaches you that it’s okay to be a little codependent on your friends and loved ones. Especially if you’re the one prone to getting hot headed and not thinking logically.

The first step in breaking free from this modern disease, getting back to what’s really important, and forming and testing those meaningful relationships, is getting out and making yourself a little uncomfortable for a change. Break away from the climate control, learn to dress appropriately and start a camp fire when you’re cold, sit by that fire and watch the sun set instead of closing the blinds because it’s casting shadows on the TV screen. Get out and enjoy the free adventures that Mother Nature put here for you. You won’t regret it.

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The Lone Star Hiking Trail: Day 3

My third day on the LSHT ended up being my last on this particular trip. From the minute I woke up to the heavy tapping of rain pouring from the forest canopy onto my rain fly I knew that this day would be different than the past two. The ground at my feet was soaked, the temperature had dropped during the night and my gear and clothing was still damp from the day before. The worst of it all was the fact that I no longer had dry shoes or socks to wear, and my feet were worse for wear now. On the previous day’s pursuit of the 20 mile day I had neglected my feet for the entire second half of my day and I now had several large, painful blisters on each foot. I spent most of the first hour of daylight doctoring my feet with moleskin while I boiled water and cooked the mountain house meal that I had skipped the night before. Once I got my hammock broken down and stowed, cleared as much of the standing water off of my rain fly as possible and stowed it, I was on my way. After another 4 miles on the sandy, flooded trails that had swollen to a full blown creek with all the rain of the past 2 days the trail came out of the woods and followed a forest road for most of the next 4 miles.

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Walking on the forest road was much quicker than navigating through the underbrush and around dead fall blocking the trail in the forest, in a futile attempt to keep my already soaked feet as dry as possible. The down side to walking on the forest road was that with the absence of mental stimulus that comes with trying to find a dry, clear footpath in a rainstorm. I was now painfully aware of each and every blister on my feet, I was also becoming painfully aware of how hard it was raining on this day. That terrible, heavy rain that makes you think “I’ll wait this out, it can’t last forever”. The truth is that it doesn’t last forever, but sometimes it lasts all day. This was one of those days. I decided to listen to an audible book to help pass the time and keep my mind occupied. After a little over an hour and a few road changes I came back to a forest path that was mostly dry, but my feet were still wet, I was cold and wet and my spirits were in the tank. But  I kept on the path, a little while into the path I passed the 30 mile marker. That was a small victory for my morning. I tapped it with my hand as I passed, like I’d done with all of the others and thought “only 16 more for the day”, as I continued down the path.

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There were many stretches of trail over the next 5 miles that switched between dry pine needle strewn forest path and deep pools of water that required you to soak your feet up past your ankles or walk a good distance off the trail through the underbrush in order to keep your feet dry. At this point I was painfully aware of how badly I’d neglected my feet up to this point so I opted for the latter option. I had done a decent job of keeping all new water sources out of my shoes for most of the morning. That was until I got to the spillway. Out of the blue there is a portion of the trail where you come to a paved road and several houses. There are no tree markings at this point, just a T in the road. So after pulling out my trail map and finding where I was, I saw that I needed to go left about 200 yards to the pump house that sits on the “lake”. The trail map says that there is a hose behind the pump house where you can fill your water without having to filter. This was great news to me since I had been out of water for the last couple of miles. After a quick refill my spirits rose, for all of about 2 minutes, until I got to the path that crosses the spillway. At this point just a moss covered concrete slab with water rushing quickly over it. The moss made the path slippery so I had to move slowly to avoid being swept away in the current of water that was leading off into the forest to my right. The water was already ankle deep and fast moving. The combination of the two quickly soaked my shoes and socks once again.

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After this my spirits were at an all time low. But I continued on into the forest until coming to parking lot 8 where the trail forks, one path leading to the highway and the other leading down into the forest. I took the path into the forest for about a mile before realizing that I couldn’t remember seeing a trail marker since leaving parking lot 8. As I was telling myself I would follow the path for a little longer to see if I could find a trail marker I came face to face with one of the only other hikers that I encountered on this trip. We exchanged “afternoon” before he let me know that I was indeed off of the LSHT and was currently on an ORV path. “Its a big loop I like to hike to add miles to my day hike” he told me before asking how far I was going today. After I told him that I was planning on thru hiking the trail he came back with “You know they’re calling for tornadoes tonight don’t you? I wouldn’t want to be out in the woods if one of them comes through”. After this I agreed that I, in fact, did not want to be in the forest if a tornado came through. Especially given my already miserable conditions. At this point I made the decision to hike the mile or so back to parking lot 8 and call for a taxi ride back to my truck, about 35 highway miles away. After fighting waterlogged fingers and a wet phone screen for about 10 minutes, I managed to get a  hold of a taxi company that knew where I was at, and managed to snap a crappy quality picture of what the trail looked like at this point in the afternoon, after over 24 hours of continuous heavy rain.

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In the end, the trail got the best of me on this trip. Both physically (feet) and mentally (rain). But I left trail head 8 happy that I had spent the time that I did on the trail and looking forward to coming back at a time when I can walk ON the trails instead of next to them because of all the rain, and without the fear of windstorms blowing over the tree that I’m attached to while I sleep. I’m looking forward to getting back out and finishing the rest of the trail, but next time I’ll take a few more pairs of socks just in case.

If you’re interested in hiking the Lone Star Trail, additional information and directions are available in the link below.                                                                                                      http://lonestartrail.org/

Happy Trails!

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

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,