Monday, July 28, 2014

Emergency Sun Protection for Your Face and Neck: Bandana and Hat Required

I just returned from a trip to Northern California, where I completed a high-elevation overnight hike in Yosemite National Park. Unfortunately, the broad-spectrum sunscreen I had in the car failed to make it into my pack, which I realized only when I entered the open landscapes above 10,000 feet, where UV exposure is much greater than at sea level. (UV levels increase approximately 10 percent for every 1,000 meter increase in elevation.)

What to do? To protect my face and neck, I relied on two items I always carry: a visor and bandana. (Any snug-fitting hat would work, I'm just partial to visors.)

Bandana in action. Photo courtesy of
To accomplish it and gain maximum coverage, I took my bandana and positioned it so that one corner was directly above the center of my forehead, the opposite corner hung down my neck, and the other two corners extended down over my ears and along the sides of my neck. (I folded the corner under above my forehead to keep it from dangling between my eyes.) I then put my visor on over the bandana to hold it in place and, voila!, I was spared one of the worst sunburns of my life.

Bandanas are inexpensive, lightweight, and useful for many things in addition to emergency sun protection—I definitely recommend carrying one. Personally, I pack a bright orange version that provides me with extra visibility during hunting season and in potential emergency situations.

There's a better option, of course, to keep harmful UV rays at bay. Don't leave your sunscreen in the car!!

Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.  

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Hyperlight Packing: How to carry less than 10 pounds of gear

There's ultralight, and then there's hyperlight. It's possible for all your backpacking gear to weigh less than 10 pounds (excluding food, water, and the clothes you're wearing) but accomplishing it requires some notable sacrifices and expense. Here's what it takes to experience the lightest, rightest, fastest backpacking experience of your life…
This story originally appeared in the June web edition of AMC Outdoors. You can read the complete story here.
Photo by Ryan Smith.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Two Common Hiking Items that DEET Will Destroy

When it comes to keeping bugs at bay, there's no question that DEET is an extremely effective repellent. But it's not without its drawbacks—and one of them is DEET's caustic ability to wreak havoc on plastics. And there are two common items of hiking gear that are particularly vulnerable to damage.

DEET melts plastic sunglasses.
1) Sunglasses
The vast majority of sunglasses feature plastic lenses. If you accidentally smear DEET on them and fail to wipe them clean immediately, the DEET will slowly start to eat into the lenses and create permanent damage that can quickly compromise the clarity (and usefulness) of your sunglasses.

2) Plastic maps
Here's the scenario. You take a break from hiking. Bloodthirsty insects swarm, prompting you to pull out your DEET and apply a layer of protection with your hands. You next use your DEET-coated fingers to grab your plastic trail map, only to discover that the DEET can quickly smear the ink to near illegibility as it chews up the plastic.

So what to do? First, consider using an alternative to DEET such as picaridin, which is widely considered to be as effective as DEET without the plastic-dissolving drawbacks, or oil of lemon eucalyptus, which is the longest lasting natural repellent.

Second, if you do use DEET, keep in mind that you need only a very small amount of it to be effective. There's no need to slather it on like sunscreen. And if you've got it on your hands, do not touch your sunglasses lenses, plastic trail map, or other plastic items. 

Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

Monday, July 14, 2014

How to Keep Track of Your Location on a Trail Map

It's always good to know where you are. If you're hiking on trails, here are the techniques I use to keep track of where I am at all times.

Photo: Flickr Commons, Björn Láczay
Have the best trail map available
Locate, purchase, and carry the most detailed, up-to-date, and accurate trail map for the area you're visiting. Whenever possible, spend the few extra dollars to purchase a waterproof map made from plastic (good) or Tyvek (the best) for their resistance to wear and tear.

Fold your map to cover the area you're visiting 
Don't fold and refold your map repeatedly as you go, which is a hassle and starts to wear out your map along the creases. Fold it once so that most, if not all, of the area you're visiting is face up. And don't be afraid of creating new folds in the process—this actually helps preserve your map over the long-term by avoiding over-use along the existing folds.

Keep your map in a zip-lock bag or map case 
This protects it from wear-and-tear and, if it's paper, keeps it dry. Zip-lock freezer bags are the thickest and most durable.

Carry your map in an accessible spot as you hike
Don't keep it somewhere that requires you to take your pack off to access it, which all but ensures that you will rarely reference it. A deep pocket on your hiking shorts or pants or a pocket on your pack that you can access while wearing it are both common options. (I wear nylon hiking pants with a large and deep side pocket for just this reason.)

Reference your map regularly
Follow your progress and mark your location as you go, especially any time you reach a known landmark or trail junctions. 

Know your pace of travel
Develop a sense of how long it takes you to hike a mile over different terrain, which allows you to estimate your approximate location based on the time you've traveled from your last known location.  For example, I know that it takes me about 20 minutes to hike a mile on gentle terrain, increasingly more over steeper and rougher terrain.

Monitor the direction and steepness of the slopes around you
Staying aware of the angle and direction of surrounding slopes can help you refine your location on the map, especially in areas like the Northeast that feature a lot of topography.

Know your elevation
One of the most useful tools I use to identify my location is an altimeter watch. When you're hiking on trail, knowing only your elevation (and the trail you're on) is often all you need to pinpoint your location. (This information is not very helpful on long, level stretches of trail, but such sections are definitely less common.)

Keep tabs on your general orientation
On sunny days, you can keep track of this as you move by monitoring the sun's location. On cloudy days you'll need a compass. This is helpful to ensure that you're hiking the right direction on the right trail.

Use a GPS and plot your location on the map
Of course, knowing your precise coordinates makes it easy to pinpoint your location on a map, but it does take a small amount of time and hassle to do so. If you're carrying a GPS unit, by all means use it from time to time, but consider it a secondary tool to the skills and basics outlined above.

Stay found!

Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Tips and Tricks for Hiking with Kids

Youth on the Trail: Tips and Tricks
  • Ask if they want to go on an “adventure” not a “hike.” 
  • Let them set the pace. 
  • No death marches! 
  • Take breaks based on kids’ needs and wants, not yours. 
  • Carry an arsenal of distractions: lots of games, lots of enticing snacks. 
  • Have a destination at hike’s end. Water locations (lakes, rivers, waterfalls) are particularly good, especially if the kids can play in them. 
  • Children up to age 3 tend to “wander” not “hike.” 
  • 3-year-olds may be able to hike up to a mile on easy, flat terrain. 
  • At age 4, longer hikes may become possible, with distance increasing from 1 mile to several miles over the next few years.

This column originally appeared in the print edition of AMC Outdoors along with the column "Youth Gone Wild: Essential outdoor gear for kids."

(Photograph by Paty Cullen Wingrove/

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Least Useful Item in the Ten Essentials?

I recently wrote about the Ten Essentials, which includes quite a few extremely, ahem, essential items. But which is the least useful? From my perspective, it's the one I've carried for more than 20 years and barely ever used: a compass.

Why do you need a compass?
A compass allows you to very quickly orient yourself if you become turned around in dense off-trail woods; during low-visibility, fogged-in conditions; or for other reasons.

It can also be used to triangulate your position if you have clear views of known landmarks, and to identify an unknown peak or object by marking its precise direction and plotting it on a map.

A base plate compass (read: no batteries required) is recommended.

Why don't you need a compass?
Unlike most other items in the ten essentials, the functions of a compass can be largely replaced with other skills and essential gear.

First, if the sun is out and you know the time, it is extremely fast and simple to orient yourself if you know the basics of how to navigate with the sun. Short story is this: The sun is due south when it reaches its highest point in the sky (high noon), which usually occurs sometime between noon and 1 p.m. It moves a rough 15 degrees per hour from east to west (left to right if you're facing the sun).

Around 3:30 p.m., for example, the sun would be in the southwest. This works even if you are in mostly shaded (forest) conditions. All you need is a glimpse of the sun or a good shadow on the ground to indicate its location. Of course, this doesn't work in cloudy, stormy conditions (when a survival situation is more likely to occur).

Second, you should always carry the best trail map your can find for the area and keep close tabs on it (and your location) throughout the day. If you're like me, then the vast majority of the hiking you've done in the Lower 48 has been on trails, rather than bushwhacking adventures in dense woods. For on-trail hiking, good map-reading allows you to have a good handle on your location at all times and essentially negates the need for a compass.

Third, in the event of socked-in conditions—which do occur regularly on New England's high peaks—you will likely still be on established trails, which in many places are backed up by large cairns at relatively short distances. (If you're hiking outside of the region in trail-less wilderness, a compass is definitely a good idea; one of the few times I've used one is in the Alaskan backcountry).

Fourth, there's a good chance you already have a compass (or an alternate way to identify your location) on one or more of the devices you're carrying. I have a useful wrist-top compass built into my altimeter watch, for example. Most GPS units and smart phones have them as well. Yes, they are prone to breakage and battery failure, but having multiple back-ups (altimeter watch and GPS unit, say) minimizes the risk.

The Takeaway
Can you get away without carrying a compass? Most of the time, yes.

Should you carry a compass?  It depends. Definitely carry a compass if you are heading somewhere where becoming disoriented is a possibility. Two of the most common scenarios for this include off-trail travel in dense forest or vegetation; and travel to areas where low-visibility conditions may occur, such as above-treeline or in a snowstorm.

Hike on.

Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

How to Sleep Well in the Backcountry

Small things can make a big difference for quality shuteye, especially on a cold night. Here are some tips:
  • When camping on sloped ground, pitch your tent head end up to avoid slipping sideways. 
  • Make a pillow by filling your stuff sack with extra clothes. Wrap it in fleece for softness and warmth. 
  • Use straps to secure your pad underneath you. Many sleeping bags feature small sewn-in loops on the sides for just that purpose. 
  • Eat a high-calorie snack right before bed to keep your heat engine going all night. 
  • Add outside heat sources for extra warmth. Place a bottle of hot water or chemical heat warmer in your bag an hour before bedtime. 
  • Wear a liner balaclava or hat that stays put on your head, even when you shift around.
This column originally appeared in the print edition of AMC Outdoors along with the column "Nice Pad: Sleep warm, sleep comfy."

(Photograph by Ryan Smith.)