So your adventurous urges have led you to take that first step into a new endeavor, or perhaps you’ve finally busted your big toe through those street-shoe-sized starters, or maybe you’ve already graduated to cooking quinoa outta the car and are merely looking for that precise tool to enhance your climbing style; regardless of what stage of climbing you are in, we all face that crucial and sometimes tedious task of committing to a new pair of climbing shoes. Flat, banana-shape, screaming euro colors, the sea of choices can seem overwhelming for new climbers and a challenging decision for seasoned veterans as well. Fortunately, we enjoy sweating the details about this kinda stuff, and will break the process down into some key points to consider when searching for that metaphorical glass slipper, hopefully cutting down your exposure time with those aromatic rental shoes.
For most of us, a pair of climbing shoes is the first piece of equipment we will ever purchase, as well as the most important in a climber’s toolbox (unless you’re Sylvester Stallone) . You should consider the type of climbing you are looking to do; bouldering, sport, or multi-pitch trad all have their own nuances for which shoes have been designed. For instance, boulderers typically prefer shoes with more aggressive downturn and softer rubber, while that salty old crack climber wants a hard flat shoe for twisting in those toe locks. The different disciplines will also vary in the duration of time you’ll be spending in a shoe, which plays into the type of closure system you might choose. A final point to consider is your experience level. New comers are generally better suited to a flatter shoe with harder rubber while they get a feel for the game and develope that ballerina-like strength in their feet.
Flat shaped or neutral shoes are the most comfortable in that they let toes be themselves. Typically they sport thicker rubber soles, and because of this additional support along with their comfortability, they make a good a companion for those long multi-pitch outings. Flat shoes climb most anything but work best when on slab, vertical rock, or prodding cracks. Due to their versatility and natural shape they make a great option for those new to climbing.
The Ol’all-rounder (aka slightly cambered) shoe is considered a step up in performance as its subtle arch focuses more power to the toe of the shoe. Its increased precision makes it hungry for steep faces and cracks, while it is also capable of tangoing with the overhangs. You will usually see softer and thinner rubber soles accompanying this style of shoe, resulting in better rock sensitivity but quicker wear.
Looking more like raptor talons than shoes, the aggressively downturned style brings a lot of heel tension while also driving the power of the foot to the point of the toe. The dramatic hook shape specializes in wratcheding off the tiniest of divots while your forearms burn from your contest with gravity. This design is intended for steep vertical faces and sustained overhanging climbing, making them the ideal tool for bouldering and hard sport-climbing. Their contorted shape do make them less comfortable however, and they are best used in single-pitch climbing rather than long days in the mountains. Typically this style will be made with the thinnest and softest rubber to enhance performance.
While this feature often comes down to personal preference, the type of climbing of you engage in will also factor into the decision. Sport, bouldering, or gym climbing usually consists of shorter stints on the wall with breaks in between; while in the case of multi-pitch trad, a climber may want to keep their shoes on for the better part of the day.
Laced shoes offer the best in adjustability and can be worn for long periods due to this. They give you the ability to relieve swollen feet during the midday heat, or cinch them down tight for those upcoming crux pitches. Because of their longer dismount time however, they are better suited for longer climbs.
Velcro seems to be the moderator between custom fit and ease of entry. While not as adjustable as lace-ups, they can be taken on and off very quickly, therefore make great shoes for bouldering, sport, and gym climbing.
Slip-ons are a name and the instructions all in one. They feature an elastic closure that make switching back to sandals a breeze. Generally constructed with softer soles, their greater sensitivity is good for precision and strengthening feet. While they are the most comfortable closure system, be careful to fit them tight because they will stretch more than other types of shoes.
Finding the Right Fit
It’s best to do your shoe shopping later in the day after having been on your feet for some time, when they are naturally swollen. Your street shoe size is a good starting point, from here you will more than likely downsize. Toes should be pressed up against the end of the shoe, either lying flat or slightly curled. Make sure other parts such as the heel and midfoot don’t have any loose spots. You want a fit that is snug but not too painful. However, they should feel a little uncomfortable at first, given they will stretch out over time with use. Remember, not all lasts are created equal, and you are in a sense searching for your long lost foot twin; a combination of size, shape, and volume must be met, so not every model on the market will be for your foot type. Be sure to try out a number of different models and sizes.
The material used for a shoe’s upper will play a role in its stretch, stench, and durability. Of the three main materials used, each present an up and downside, making personal preference the ultimate deciding factor.
Leather shoes will stretch most, as much as a full size (possibly more), but this malleability will also produce a customized fit for your foot. The most breathable of the three materials, they rank lowest in the offensive smell category. One potential drawback however, is the chance your feet may emerge the same color as your shoe the first couple of wears due to the dye used on them.
Lined leather has the addition of a synthetic liner which helps reduce stretch after purchase to about ⅓ to ½ size difference. Shoes can come partially or fully lined. In the case of a fully lined shoe, the extra material in the area of the toe is a disadvantage for climbing sensitivity. Lined shoes rate in the middle of the pack for breathability and effervescence.
Synthetic uppers have the upside that they are ready to go out of the box, maintaining their shape with very minimal stretch; the trade off being they will not mould to your feet in the same way a shoe that stretches can. Notoriously the smelliest of the bunch, but notably the most durable, synthetic shoes are a yin & yang of attributes.
When it comes to climbing shoe soles, all of them are the same in that they are made of sticky rubber, beyond that it can become a dizzying array of the different types of rubber, and edge or no-edge technology. For clarity’s sake, you will usually see brands such as Vibram, Stealth, and Trax rubber. One of the main factors to pay attention to is whether the shoe has the futuristic “no-edge” technology or the traditional edge technology.
Just how pants can come pre-worn with rips, tears, and fades, climbing shoes now can come without an edge, however, in the case of climbing shoes, this is not a fashion statement. The main idea behind no edge technology is sensitivity. Thinner rubber sans edge, means the climber’s toes are closer to the foothold, giving the climber more sensitivity and surface contact between the rubber and the rock.
When it comes to precision edging the traditional edge technology remains unparalleled in performance. For those starting out, the simplicity of an edge and the durability of a thick sole could save you from holes as you scuff your way towards better technique, while the extra support gives you the longer sessions to get there.
Shoe Care & Storage
Let’s start by saying you’ll need to curb any involuntary habit of baking your shoes in the trunk of your car following a sweaty climbing session. Not only will it melt glue and delaminate the rand, the heat causes the shoe’s rubber to deform. Be sure to air out shoes in a cool, dry place when finished climbing.
Rock shoes are meant for vertical travel not horizontal, refrain from wearing them on approaches and take them off in between climbs to avoid unnecessary wear and tear. Many shoes, especially downturned models have molded shapes that can be ruined by walking around in them.
After climbing use a damp rag to wipe the soles clean, then wipe them dry. If you notice a loss of grip over time, using coarse sandpaper or a wire brush, and lightly scrub the bottoms of the sole.
Spot clean dirty uppers with rubbing alcohol or a little water, don’t use too much water as it can prematurely break down leather shoes.
Hey, focus on that footwork. Good footwork leads to less dragging over rough rock surfaces and prolongs the life of your purchase.
Try Them on in Person!
There is no better way of knowing what’s a good shoe for you than getting your feet into a variety of them. A good first step is finding a store with a climbing wall (Ahem… Like the GC), so you can test out the real scenario and get a good feel for how a shoe responds for you. If possible try shoes on with no socks on, most climbers go barefooted after they’ve moved on from the rentals. Put pressure on the different parts of the shoe to see how the all-around fit is for you. And ask lots of questions, most people are pretty psyched that they work in a climbing store, and will gladly spray you with the beta.
Everyone has heard of Yosemite and Joshua Tree. People from all over the world come to California to stare in awe of the vertical granite faces of Yosemite Valley, or to walk through the desert wonderland that is Joshua Tree National Park. But California is much more than these two iconic places.
Pinnacles National Park
Photo by Ed Ruiz
One of the newest and least visited parks in America, Pinnacles is a place to behold. This alien landscape was born millions of years ago from volcanic eruptions creating quite a unique landscape in Central California. Pinnacles offers a ton of opportunities to get your outdoor fix, from climbing on spires to hiking and camping. Pinnacles also contains several talus caves that are not to be missed!
Redwood National Park
The Coastal Redwoods are the tallest trees in the world, reaching heights of up to 380 feet. At Redwood National Park, you’ll have the opportunity to walk among these and revel in their size, including the tallest of them all, “Hyperion” (although it’s location in the park is a secret, some curious and adventurous hikers have tracked it down.) Pro tip: bring your belaggles and save your neck when staring up at these magnificent living beings.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Photo by Ed Ruiz
California’s very own version of Yellowstone can be found in Northern California. It is a surreal volcanic landscape teeming with geysers and stinky fumaroles. Hundreds of miles of hiking trails wind their way through the park, offering many opportunities for backcountry hiking and camping. Don’t miss the opportunity to hike to the top of Mount Lassen, an active volcano! Lassen is not just a 3-season destination, it is also known for its epic snowfalls, making it a snowbums dream come true!
Death Valley National Park
Photo by Ed Ruiz
It receives more than a million visitors per year, however, Death Valley National Park is the largest park outside Alaska, making it possible to feel like you are the only person there. Take a walk through giant sand dunes and check out Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the US. Although temperatures reach insane heights, it is still possible to do some hiking in the warmer months through the many slot canyons that provide a reprieve from the scorching sun.
Kings Canyon National Park
Photo by Ed Ruiz
If you want a true wilderness experience, Kings Canyon is the place to go! Only accessible by one road, the majority of the park is pristine wilderness and can only be reached by backpacking. With over 800 miles of trails that run through SEKI (Sequoia-Kings), you can hike to your heart’s content. Hike in to spend a night at a pristine alpine lake, or combine miles and miles of different trails and loops that exist within the park and spend weeks out in the backcountry. Endless wilderness opportunities await!
Is there anything better than summer campfires under the stars? Yes, a summer campfire under the stars with a freshly homemade pie you made (even the stream will tickle your tastebuds)! Be the [insert famous chef] of your next camping trip and blow everyone’s mind. This pie recipe is like fishing with dynamite – it’s so easy, it’s not even fair.
1 cup of turbinado sugar (3/4 cup if your berries are extra sweet)
⅓ cup tapioca flour
½ tsp of kosher salt
¼ tsp ground coriander
½ cup melted butter
6 tbsp turbinado sugar
Zest of half a lemon
1 tsp baking powder
1 ⅓ cups all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
Since pies are so dependant on the sweetness of the fruit, maple syrup is a great topper just in case the pie doesn’t turn out sweet enough.
lid lifter to carry dutch oven out of the fire
Parchment paper to line the oven
Large mixing bowl
Build a campfire and to set up the coals.
Cut parchment paper to size and line dutch oven.
Place pie crust in the dutch oven on top of parchment paper. Dock the bottom with a fork.
Par-bake the crust in the fire for 8 min.
Mix berries with lemon juice, sugar, salt, coriander, and tapioca flour in a large mixing bowl.
Once the crust is done par-baking, scrape filling into the prepared pie shell.
In the mixing bowl, combine the melted butter, sugar, lemon zest, baking powder, all-purpose flour, and salt until they’re well incorporated.
Scatter crumb on top and bake for 50 min (rotating dutch oven every 10 min for even distribution of heat). You will know when fruit pies are ready when the filling is bubbling at the edges and center of the pie.
Take out of the fire and let the pie cool close to room temperature with the lid off.
Summer is the season of road trips. Whether you’re rocking a custom Sprinter Van, shoving an air mattress in your Prius, or searching for inspiration for a future project, we’ll steer you towards vanlife enlightenment while helping you avoid the unrealistic romanticism painted by social media.
While you’re out on the trail, where do you address your mail?
Mail is a tricky matter if you do not have family nearby. It is common for people to use their family’s house as a permanent address and then get a P.O. box (the P.O. box has to be in the same state as the permanent address). If you do not have family in the same state that you are living, then you can cross your fingers that you have a close friend who does not mind being your permanent address. If you need a package delivered to you while you’re out “on the trail,” general delivery at the post office is a beautiful thing.
What’s the scoop with your poops?
I generally use bathrooms for my poops. Toilets are a nice invention. I do not have a toilet in my car, so this means that I can have emergency visits to gas stations or fast-food restaurants late at night. When I am out in the wilderness on the weekends I make sure to pack out my TP and dig a hole more than 6” deep.
What are the biggest costs?
The biggest cost is usually the vehicle if you do not already have that! In the build-out process, the biggest cost depends on how deep you are going with the build-out, or if you are paying for it to be done. For those who are attempting a DIY build-out, the deep-cycle batteries are the biggest expense. A good battery is ~$600, with most solar setups requiring 2 batteries. Don’t go cheap with the batteries, it’s a waste of your time and money. I think a close second-place contender could be the refrigerator, often running close to $1,000. If you are going to pay someone to build out your vehicle, it is going to be expensive! This is normal and fair. Keep in mind that you are building a home for yourself – don’t ask a friend to “help” you build out your vehicle and assume he/she would do that for free. You wouldn’t ask a contractor for a custom home for free, the same goes with a van.
How much money do you save in expenses every year?
This is very different for each person and what they’re day-to-day looks like. In my experience, I was paying ~$600 in rent each month before I moved into my van and had zero initial investment to move into my van. So, I have saved a lot each year! Some people have to buy their vehicle and build it out, or some people eat out a lot when living in their vehicle. These things are often overlooked and people think they are saving massive amounts of money when they simply are not. Van life is as cheap as you want to make it, or it can be as expensive as if you were living in an apartment if you’re not careful.
If you’re full-time in the van, where do you sleep while working?
I’m lucky enough to have a climbing gym that lets me sleep in the parking lot. I can also park outside my work. Being aware of city ordinances is crucial because in Costa Mesa it is illegal to live in your vehicle. If that’s the case in your city, make sure you don’t sleep in a residential area. On the other hand, you need to sleep in a private parking lot where police can’t give you a ticket.
What do you do if your home breaks down?
Ugh. I’ve had this happen so many times in the last 6 years. Usually, my friends will offer me their couch, but I feel bad saying “yes” to that; I hate feeling like I am mooching or overstaying my welcome. More often than not I rent a car for the time that my car is being fixed. If nothing else I sleep in the rental car, albeit with a much less comfortable sleep than normal. My job is also really lax about me sleeping inside, so I’ve definitely done that a few times!
Get out, stay cool and embrace the summer spirit of exploration. Whether you’re preparing for an extended road trip or simply planning a weekend getaway, summer is the perfect time to get in on the fun and embark upon an epic adventure.
Marketing & Ecomm Director
What’s your favorite thing about your van?
2 things: First, my bed. It’s a queen size mattress! The bed is also elevated enough to fit some tubs and my crash pad underneath. Second, the shagadelic carpet, however, I don’t think my wife likes it as much as I do.
What would you recommend to someone looking to build out their vehicle?
Don’t go newer than the 90’s, anything newer just isn’t hipster enough.
What’s your favorite thing about your bus?
My favorite thing about Van Gogh (my bus) is the inexplicable aura it has. I wish I could pinpoint what it is, but it defies words; life is simpler, slower, and more enjoyable when hanging out in Van Gogh. Whenever I get into a new car, I notice how bad traffic is, or how long a drive feels, but in Van Gogh these things seem to disappear.
What would you recommend to someone looking to build out their vehicle?
My theory has always been the more time you spend building out your vehicle, the less time you’re actually climbing. Keep it simple. I’ve lived in Van Gogh for 5-6 years and all I have done with him is put a little desk in there.
What’s your favorite thing about your Prius?
What I love is that I can leave my AC or heater on ALL night! I do this all the time! Basically, if it’s cold out and I don’t have my warm sleeping bag, I’ll just leave my car on all night with the heater on (or AC during the summer) and the car will only turn on 15 minutes every hour. I’m always comfortable no matter how hot or cold the night is.
What would you recommend to someone looking to build out their vehicle?
Wait, people build out their vehicles?
Tess & Justin
Associate Category Manager & Data Analyst
What’s your favorite thing about your truck?
Our awning is amazing. Since we built out our truck instead of a van, we don’t have a space to hang out in while it’s raining outside. The awning has been a life-saver because now we can chill outside even during inclement weather. Staying dry and having a shaded place to relax keeps us from experiencing claustrophobia in our truck.
What would you recommend to someone looking to build out their vehicle?
Think about storage and ways to improve efficiency. Our drawers go all the way to the front of the bed of the truck meaning there is no wasted space. At the same time, we had to focus on the size of the drawers and what exactly we would want to go in them; planning and prioritizing storage ensured we didn’t have any dead space.
She cruises dirt roads. There’s plenty of clearance for overlanding, allowing us to get wherever we want to go.
Our solar setup is clutch, keeping us off the grid and deep in adventure.
She’s pretty incognito to sleep in. Keeping a low profile is key to undisturbed sleeping.
What would you recommend to someone looking to build out their vehicle?
Building out a vehicle is a money pit. Save up, do your research, and plan according.
Christine & Seth
What’s your favorite feature of your van?
That’s a tough one. I have a few favorites but they change season to season. In the summer, our dual ceiling fans are crucial, keeping us cool even when the mercury rises. The forward-fan in the common area is on remote, which allows for different blade speeds and direction of airflow. We are able to leave this fan open or running without checking the weather forecast thanks to a self-closing moisture sensor. Of course during the winter, my favorite feature is our cubic wood-burning stove.
What would you recommend to someone looking to build out their own van?
First, be aware that each van has its own advantages and drawbacks, especially in the build-out process. For example, the modern Promaster makes insulating easy, while it measures smaller when compared to its counterparts and also has poor road clearance. The Transit is tallest and has ample living space, yet insulating the walls is a nightmare. Make sure you research and prioritize what is most important to you.
After choosing the van, your next focus should be preventing mold every step of the way! This is best accomplished by choosing a mold resistant insulation with excellent R-value such as R-Tech. Consider a sandwich construction when insulating; you want a reflector on the outer and inner walls with a great R-value in the middle. For the outer-wall I prefer Fatmat RattleTrap and for the inside I used classic reflectix. Lastly, make sure all the wood is protected. From baseboards to the framing in the ceiling, preventing mold is key. If I sound like a broken record it’s because I’ve known horror stories.
Why live in a van? And how long have you lived in it?
My girlfriend and I already enjoyed an adventure-athlete lifestyle before the van. After so much time traveling and camping with only the bare essentials, going full-time in a van didn’t seem like a huge change. I’d be lying if I didn’t say there were moments when our hard-wired sense for social norms made us feel like we were crazy, but the benefits confirm we made the right decision.
Without a doubt, our greatest pressure for ‘vanlife’ was the cost of living in California; rent became grossly unreasonable. With compounding student debt and my costly applications to medical school, it made logical sense for my partner and me to make a change. Furthermore, the concept of our money going toward our own property as opposed to paying-off someone else’s mortgage felt good.
Now entering our 19th month of van-life, I can confirm it’s been a great move, both financially and in the way it compliments our lifestyle: traveling, rock climbing, surfing, backpacking, fly-fishing, skiing, etc.
What does making dinner look like?
At the moment, our van lacks the Dometic marine-style stove-top/oven that we bought. Our final crux is completing the propane locker and gas piping so we can install our cooking appliance and enjoy the creature comforts of a fully functioning kitchen.
In the meantime we have been using a mobile camper stove on our countertop, occasionally featuring dualling jetboils for complicated meals. Due to this hassle, we’ve been eating-out more often than we would like. Finishing the kitchen is the last major project and will revolutionize our cooking situation.
How do you stay cool, when it’s hot af in the summer?
Since we run entirely off-grid with solar panels, our van is kept in the sun on even the hottest days. To compound the problem, we have a Dometic refrigerator/freezer that operates 24/7, so the van must be kept cool even when we are not present.
Good insulation is the first step towards combating the heat and we also have strategically located fans and windows to help keep the van reasonably cool. On hot summer nights or mid-day naps, the dual fan system continuously pulls fresh air from above the van and blows it directly on top of you; it’s a glorious experience. Following unusually hot summer days, we often park for the night among our wealthier neighbors at our favorite beach so we can enjoy the cool coastal breeze.
What’s your sleeping beta? Both for location (since you’re in a city) and in bed supplies (do you use a sleeping bag, sheet, comforter? Does it change with the seasons?)
Our sleeping arrangement is fantastic, minus the convenience of restroom amenities. The bed is a futon-style mattress that looks and feels like a cozy cloud when placed in our sleeping cabin. Our bedroom is probably most similar to the fully furnished sleeping quarters on a small sailboat. We use traditional bedding, i.e. sheets/blankets, and a stow-away comforter for the cooler nights. If it gets uncomfortably cold in winter, we will toss a block of wood in our Cubic mini-wood stove.
The greatest attribute of van-living is mobility; we can change locations to accommodate the weather, such as staying near the coast on hot days.
*When scouting for ideal overnight locations, it’s important to be aware of city ordinances and laws.
What does an average day look like in the van?
For the most part, an average day in the van is like any other from my stationary past. In the mid-week, I wake up in my favorite bed to the warm glow of morning light filtering through the curtains; I still usually get dressed for work with a toothbrush in my mouth. Before leaving with my breakfast snack, I’ll open the side window a crack and put the ceiling fan on low before leaving. If we happen to be parked near Christine’s work, I’ll take my personal car for the day. At some point in the day a decision is made regarding the evening’s sleep-spot, although it’s usually one of two locations. Just as before the van, I look forward to my evenings in bed, beside my partner, propped-up with a good book or my Mac.
Spring has sprung and that means sport climbing season is in full bloom. Whether you’re pulling plastic indoors, traveling to your favorite limestone destination crag, or simply putting in burns at your local spot, embrace the warm temps, long days, and consider updating your belay device (even crusty trad climbers can get it on the goodness). If you haven’t dabbled in the dark arts of assisted braking have no fear; the technology isn’t magic but the ingenuity and efficiency are sure to blow your mind (or at least make belaying a breeze). Check out our pros and cons to make sure you get the gear that is right for you.
Like most new product offerings from Black Diamond, the Pilot is a resounding success straight out of the gate. Substantial research and development shine through and secured this device as a favorite amongst our testers. Simple design, steel construction, and no moving parts make the Pilot a minimalist’s dream.
Why we’re stoked
3.25 ounces make this the lightest assisted braking device we tested
Ease of use: no moving parts mean it’s easy to control lowering your partner
An excellent option for climbers looking for versatility, the Lifeguard operates just like a GRIGRI while being more compact and slightly lighter. The perfect option for trad climbers and sportos alike, the Lifeguard can belay from an anchor, ascend a rope, and single rope rappel all while delivering reliable and soft catches.
Why we’re stoked
Small size makes it easy to bring along on multi-pitch routes
Tried and true, Petzl knows a thing or two when it comes to assisted braking devices. Hailing from a long lineage of excellence, the GRIGRI+ offers all the best features of a regular GRIGRI while managing to add an extra layer of protection: the anti-panic handle. Climbing with a less experienced lead belayer? Petzl has your back, designing the brake-release handle to automatically re-engage if it’s accidentally held open.
Why we’re stoked
Same design as GRIGRI2 with the added security of the anti-panic handle
Really shines for super safe top-roping
Multiple settings for either top rope or lead climbing
A gripe and a grouse
The anti-panic handle makes feeding rope quickly difficult
New users will find an adjustment period before dialing in smooth lowering
Final Grade: 85/100 (B)
The GRIGRI+ is a really solid device for beginning climbers and/or those focused on the joys of toproping; lead climbing with the device is not nearly as intuitive or efficient. If you’re worried about the competency of your belayer, hedge your bet and invest in the GRIGRI+ (but you should also just find a competent belayer).
The ultimate in safety with some luxury functions as well, the Matik is ideal for cautious climbers looking to guard against as many risks as possible. The anti-panic handle prevents accidentally bring dropped by frantic belayers while the camming system gradually engages a rope during falls, making for soft catches and reducing force in the system. The CAMP Matik cannot be clipped to a carabiner unless the device is completely and properly closed, adding an extra layer of safety.
Why we’re stoked
Pinnacle of safe belaying technology, with numerous features designed to prevent accidents and guard against beginner belayers
Super durable, robust design means the Matik will be with you for the long haul
Ease of use right out of the box
A gripe and a grouse
Weight! The Matik is really heavy (almost 10oz) making it unlikely this will accompany you on adventures far from the car.
Price! Far and away the most expensive device we looked at. Of course, if you’re sporting top of the line gear across the board, the Matik may be a status symbol you’ve been searching for.
Final Grade: 82/100 (B-)
While the selling points for CAMP Matik should not be overlooked, the price and bulk render this device a true niche offering. If you’re climbing close to the car and demand the highest level of safety money can buy, the Matik is for you. Most climbers will find comparable devices for less cash, lighter weight, and same overall functionality.
Summertime is fast approaching, and I’ve been saving those vacation hours for another adventure on the John Muir Trail! Around this time every year, I fax in my permit application and then sit and wait. It never fails to be a nail-biter because I know the success rate of acquiring the permit is lower than 2%! You are more likely to run into Sasquatch on the trail than nabbing that permit!
Backpacking through the “Range of Light” can be a life-changing experience – only if you are lucky enough to secure that permit, which, essentially, comes down to the luck of the draw. Try again next year. Well, if you are still dead set on backpacking through the Sierra here are 6 alternatives that can be just as life-changing, or, at the very least, they can still indulge your wanderlust appetite through another year.
Note: Most of these still require a permit, but it is much easier to obtain through early reservation or walk-up.
JMT NoBo(Technically not an alternative)
Coming down from Forester Pass on the JMT NoBo
Even though my SouthBound (SoBo) application was denied, this year I will still be going back to the JMT for the 5th time. Before you get mad at me for stealing your permit, let me explain! Out of the 5 times, I will have hiked through the JMT, only once(!) has it been SoBo, this year I will be going NoBo (NorthBound). The NoBo application process goes through the Inyo National Forest and is much easier to apply for. If there is a spot available for your start date, you can claim and pay for it in real time, rather than waiting for an email from the NPS, which is the case for a SoBo application. Also, there are several entry points that you can take, which increases the likelihood of nabbing a spot. While it is true that you can also go SoBo through other entry points, most of these will skip the section out of Yosemite Valley – a highlight, that, in my opinion, should not be missed.
Make sure to remember that going NoBo through one of the various entry points actually adds to the hike, rather than taking away from it, so factor in a couple of more days to your itinerary. If you manage to grab a permit entering at Cottonwood pass or lakes, you are also able to summit Mt. Whitney, and Half Dome, without having to apply for those separately *wink*. Although going SoBo on the JMT is suggested as the traditional way of hiking it, take it from me, going NoBo is just as amazing, and to be honest, my preferred orientation of hiking it. Going NoBo, however, is more difficult – you start at a much higher elevation and go over the bigger passes earlier on. This, among others, is the reason SoBo is recommended.
Tahoe Rim Trail
Echo Lakes on the Tahoe Rim Trail
Just a few dozen miles shorter than the JMT, the TRT is a worthy alternative. It is a loop around Lake Tahoe, the biggest alpine lake in the country. It may not be the “High Sierra” but it is still quintessential Sierra terrain. It offers stunning vistas, beautiful sections of alpine hiking, pristine lakes, granite peaks, and some challenging passes. Start at Kingsbury Grade, and begin hiking clockwise. Logistically, planning for the TRT is easier – re-supplies are plentiful and you can leave your car at the trailhead since you’ll be returning at the end of your loop. Around midway, the trail comes within a few minutes-walk of Tahoe City, a perfect resupply location. Some highlights include Desolation Wilderness, Dicks Peak, Star Lake, and of course Lake Tahoe. After your hike, you can relax by the lake and reminisce on the 170 miles of pristine beauty you just experienced!
Sierra High Route
Roads End – the start of the SHR
If you think the JMT is the only trail/route that traverses the High Sierra, think again. There are several routes you can take. The SHR runs parallel to the JMT but instead of going over a pass and dropping into the adjacent valleys like the JMT, it stays above the treeline for most of the hike. Having excellent cross-country navigation skills is essential to tackle this route, but the experience and majesty you will experience are worth the extra planning and skills. At 195 miles, it is almost the same length as the JMT, but the comparisons stop there. Often described as the hardest hike in America, it was first proposed as a route by the famed Yosemite climber Steve Roper, who wanted to avoid the crowded places of the Sierra. It goes over a whopping 33 passes and only makes its way down to a trail when it is forced to. If you’re looking for a challenge, this is it!
Theodore Solomons Trail
Top of Elizabeth Pass
Not yet established as an official trail, but it’s gained momentum in the past few years as an excellent alternative to the JMT during heavy snow years. The TST also runs parallel to the JMT, starting in Yosemite Valley and ending at Horseshoe Meadows. It has a much lower average altitude but still offers the challenges. Albeit, somewhat different ones, than the JMT does. Since this trail isn’t fully established (it combines existing trails), it requires a bit more navigation and know-how so that you don’t accidentally take a wrong turn onto another trail. Some of the highlights of this trail include going through Tehipite Valley (which boasts the largest dome in the Sierra), Mineral King, and crossing over Elizabeth Pass. There are plenty of resources to figure out the logistics for this trail, but the best place to start is the Facebook group under the name “Theodore Solomons Trail.” If you enjoy planning and also want to experience a bit more solitude than the JMT can offer, this is your trail!
Emigrant Wilderness near Sonora Pass
Right where the JMT ends, another trail starts. The TYT starts in Tuolumne Meadows and ends in Lake Tahoe, taking you through Northern Yosemite, Emigrant Wilderness, and the surreal Mokelumne Wilderness. As you make your way North, the ground beneath you begins to change. As you draw closer to the end of the Sierra you see hints of the Southern Cascades and its volcanic features. Logistically, it is also easy to plan – permits are easy to acquire, re-supplies are plentiful, and once you arrive at the end of your hike in South Lake Tahoe, you can take a bus, or even a plane, back home.
Section hike the PCT
PCT near Mt. Shasta
There’s a pretty famous trail that runs from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington. You might have heard of it – the Pacific Crest Trail. You can chop it up any way your heart desires and do as many miles/nights as you want. The JMT itself is a section of the PCT! Because it traverses the entire country, you have the option of choosing from a variety of terrains. Want to backpack in the desert? No problem, head to the SoCal section. Want to take a walk in the woods? Head to Northern California. You can explore other sections of the Sierra as well, that don’t get as much love as the JMT. If you want to head out of state, the sections in Oregon and Washington offer just as much beauty and rugged wilderness as the High Sierra.
Wonderland Trail – Washington. This trail loops around Mt. Rainier.
Colorado Trail – Crosses most of the state of Colorado, South-North, or vice-versa.
High Sierra Trail – starts in Sequoia National Park and traverses the Sierra West to East ending at the summit of Mt. Whitney. Note: might also be difficult to obtain permits for this trail.
Cover: Rae Lakes in Kings Canyon National Park
Photo by: Edward Ruiz
An Earth Day lesson about environmental health and safety in the manufacturing of textiles
Name your favorite holiday. Christmas, Thanksgiving? Big surprise, our’s is Earth Day.
If we could we’d spend all of our time outside, exploring our Earth. Us Coopers are climbing, skiing, and hiking all the places our vacation hours allow us to. Sadly, sometimes our hours run out and we find ourselves parked behind a desk and screen. Well, maybe not sadly, secretly it’s our second favorite home. Because in reality we couldn’t climb the monstrous faces of Yosemite without some comfy, flexible pants or hike the mountains of Peru without a jacket to stay warm. We all need gear. At The Coop, our lives are defined by gear. We are either using, buying, or selling it to the rest of our amazing community, gear runs our lives. Today we have more of a responsibility than ever to make sure all of our clothing meets and exceeds standards that are protecting the environment. This is where Blue Sign comes in.
Bluesign is the emerging standard for environmental health and safety in the manufacturing of textiles. The Switzerland based organization evaluates textile mills and determines if their procedures are detrimental or harming the environment. Some processes evaluated include energy consumption and water/air pollution.
“It eliminates harmful substances right from the beginning of the manufacturing process and sets and controls standards for an environmentally friendly and safe production. This not only ensures that the final textile product meets very stringent consumer safety requirements worldwide but also provides confidence to the consumer to acquire a sustainable product.” -Bluesign.com
Gear Coop is a third party retailer, meaning we buy products from brands and sell them to you. We sell jackets, snowboards, hats, skis, cams, ropes…if it’s outdoor equipment – our hands are in it. Because of this, we are heavily involved with the textile industry. We are a section of the supply chain that is delivering jackets, shorts and tees to your doors. We recognize our relationship with the Earth needs to be a part of this chain as well. And that is what bluesign is making sure happens. Bluesign’s vision is to see textiles from beginning to end be made responsibly and safely:
The elimination of harmful chemicals in textile processing from beginning to end ensures there are no toxic materials being irresponsibly dumped into rivers around the world.
Resources are expected to be used responsibility and with an understanding that they are limited
Both the makers and the environment need to be safe when processing textiles
We find it our responsibility to care for our Earth, on all days and on April 22. We host events to support cleaning up local crags. We promote the well known principles of Leave No Trace. And, Gear Coop carries brands who have been audited by bluesign and are working towards a more sustainably focused textile manufacturing system.
Bluesign is an incredible organization who audits and certifies that companies are doing their part for the environment. It is your job to go the extra bit and find the companies who have been certified and support all they do to protect the planet. Easy to identify, bluesign approved products carry a little blue tag signifying their approval to the strict safety and environmental requirements of the bluesign criteria. We ask you to seek out this little blue tag. We ask you to support companies who have been audited and are paving a path to more sustainable gear.
After all, this is our Earth. It is our home, our playground. We need to keep it clean and healthy the same we would our own homes or our own bodies. As outdoor enthusiasts, as dirtbags, as Coopers, it is our responsibility to shop for sustainable and long lasting clothing pieces. We have to say no to single use plastics. And more than anything, we have to get outside.
The Earth needs to stick around for a while and in a condition we are proud to leave for future Coopers. Spend your Earth Day celebrating all that this world has to offer.
4 Ways to Celebrate Earth Day
Take a hike – Duh! Get your butts outside and enjoy this beautiful place we call home.
Donate your unwanted clothes to charity (or breath life into old stuff and wear it again!) – Because manufacturing clothing requires both energy and water we can reduce the amount of resources used by keeping clothing in use longer.
Use a refillable water bottle – Say no to one use plastics! Lifestraw is an incredible company in the water bottle game. With every Lifestraw purchase, a child will receive safe drinking water for their entire school year.
Visit a local farmers market – Food takes energy and resource like any other product. If you purchase organic apples from Honduras, those apples need to be shipped all the way to your store. Not to mention, the nutrient value of produce decreases every day after the plant has been harvested. An apple picked in your state will have a much higher nutrient value than on that had to travel for days just to land on your local Whole Food’s shelf.
EXTRA – Check out the bluesign website. Make sure your other favorite brands are bluesign approved!
Ahhhh, spring. Quite possibly my favorite time of the year. As the snow melts and the days get longer, I begin to daydream of strapping a backpack on again, hitting the trail, and spending my nights around a campfire. Spring is a great time to assess what the backpacking conditions for the remainder of the year are looking like, because, at this point, I know how much rain or snow the winter delivered. If I plan on heading into the higher elevations, I can estimate when the passes will be passable; if I am heading into lower elevation areas I can determine whether there will be water available in the streams/rivers. This also goes hand-in-hand with assessing what gear I might need that I don’t already have.
Mother Nature decides
Let’s take 2017 (in California), as an example. Last year, we had one of the wettest seasons on record. When I started planning a backpacking trip to the High Sierra for July, I knew I would need different hiking shoes and gear than what I used in 2016 or 2015 – an average snow year and a dry year, respectively. There was sure to be more snow, more river crossings, more bugs, and overall more gnarly conditions. It was more important to be prepared last year than the year before.
Going over Muir Pass during two differnt snow years
Gear to Consider
Experience is merely the name we give to our mistakes
Unfortunately, last year, despite knowing about the conditions, I made the mistake of choosing the wrong shoes for my trek into the High Sierra. This mistake probably cost me a broken foot and having to end my trip early. I opted for waterproof shoes, a great choice, but because they were low-rise shoes they did not provide enough ankle support to tackle the more demanding conditions that the heavy snow year brought. If faced with similar conditions on my future treks, I would opt for a more supportive mid-rise shoe that might have prevented a similar injury.
Not everything learned is through mistakes, though, a lot of learning happens by just getting out there and figuring out what works for you. Up until 2015 I had backpacked with a 65 L pack, but after that season, I decided that I didn’t need so much carrying capacity and I decided to convert to ultralight. By 2017 I had downsized to a 40 L, and cut my overall base weight to make the hiking more enjoyable. Understanding what gear you need and don’t need is something you learn through experience and you can decide what you value the most – more comfortable hiking or camping. This will also depend on the nature of your trip – are you limited on time off work but still want to crush all 211 miles of the John Muir Trail? Or are you hoping to spend a few days next to an alpine lake soaking up the sun and views? Having a clear goal in mind will help you be better prepared.
Train for backpacking and hiking… by hiking! Unable to get outside? No problem, hit the treadmill. Hiking is essentially just walking but with a purpose. So get walkin’! Not only for the physical reasons of being fit, but also to test out your gear. Even if you are going on a short half day hike, take your full pack and see how it feels. Look for how the pack sits on your back and if it feels too heavy don’t be afraid to cut some weight. Get a feel for your shoes as well! Don’t just break them in. Hike different distances in them. They might feel great after a 10 mile hike, but how do they feel after 15 miles? Or what about 20 miles? Knowing the limitations of your gear will not only better prepare you, but it will also give you more confidence.
Take your backpack, for example. Some backpacks provide enough support to handle 40+ lbs comfortably, but if you opt for an ultralight pack, anything over 30 lbs will begin to feel uncomfortable. Maybe not at first, but considering you might be wearing your backpack for 10+ hours everyday, knowing how well your pack handles the weight is crucial. Take it out on a hike with a full load and see how well it feels after the hike, that will be a good indication of how you will be feeling at the end of the day during your backpacking trip.
There is a famous saying among thru-hikers: Your base weight is, in essence, the sum of all your fears. Do you really need to bring two water filters, three headlamps, and an extra stove? The short answer: No. Gear is extremely reliable nowadays. However, be sure to always test out your gear before hitting the trail to make sure it works properly. You shouldn’t be ripping off the tags the night before your big hike.
Part of preparing for your backpacking trip is understanding your gear and being efficient with everything you will be carrying. Look for gear that can be multi-functional. For instance, you know that heavy bear canister you will be carrying into the Yosemite backcountry? Well, that can double as a stool to sit on! What about that mosquito head net? That can act as a stuff sack for organizing clothing in your pack when you’re not using it! What about that extra pair of super soft and comfy camp socks you are bringing? I like to use those to store my camera lenses and extra batteries! Finding ways to get the most use out of gear is one of my favorite parts of preparing for a trip. Not to mention it makes organizing my pack a lot easier. Whether I am going backpacking for a couple of nights or a couple of months, I find satisfaction in living out of a backpack and finding ways of doing more with less. Give it a try!
Preparing for a backpacking trip can be a daunting task but if you manage to follow the basic tips outlined above, you will have a more enjoyable and memorable time. You will remember the amazing sunset you witnessed from a lakeside rather than how much your shoulders hurt that same night from a heavy pack. Remember: prepare for specific conditions, apply previous experience, stay in shape/know your gear, and trim down your pack weight!