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Adventure Alan by Alan Dixon - 1M ago

Cerro Castillo Trek Guide

The Cerro Castillo Trek might be the best trek in Patagonia you’ve never heard of.  It rivals drama and beauty of the Torres del Paine W Trek, yet has far less visitors. Why? Well, it just hasn’t been “discovered” yet. The Aysén Region is Chile’s third largest region but also its least populated. Because of this you’ll see far fewer people on the Cerro Castillo Trek than hikes of similar beauty and stature in other areas of Patagonia — like the Torres del Paine Trek, or the Fitz Roy Trek in Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park. As such, the Cerro Castillo Trek is a fabulous place for adventurers looking for the trail less traveled, and a stunning one at that!

The following is a complete trip guide. It gives a complete route description, distances, hiking times — all the essential information you need to do the trek safely and efficiently. In addition, it has downloadable maps, a GPX file with trails, campsites, and key features, and elevation profiles for each day.

Lead photo above: Cerro Castillo (Castle Peak), the gem of this trek,  is a stunning, “ultra-prominent” mountain in the Southern Andes of Patagonia.

View up Rio Turbio near camp at the end of Day 1. The pass for the next day, El Penon Pass, is the obvious notch center-left.

Trek Details

Highlights – Iconic view at the base of Cerro Castillo competes with the best in Patagonia (e.g. Torres Del Paine). High mountains, glaciers, rain forest, deep mountain valleys, grasslands and an amazing variety of terrain and ecosystems.

Duration – 3 to 4 Days. Moderately fit hikers can easily do this in 3 days.

Distance – 34 miles (54 km) classic route [with a shorter option for 25 miles (40 km)]

Level of Difficulty – Moderate

Route Finding – Easy. Almost entirely on trail. Well signed. Only a few sections over rock where you need to pay attention.

Location – Aysén Region of Chile. Nearest large City is Coyhaique.

Challenges: River wading, log, rock and other sketchy river crossings in high water conditions; brief snow travel (sometimes icy), and the usual Patagonia weather and winds.

Camping – There are designated campsites where you pitch your own tent. Some have picnic tables. There is usually an outhouse (toilet). There are no shelters anywhere on the trek.

Water and Food – Water is plentiful along the trail and in camps but there is no treated water. There is no food or other services available along this route.

The start of the climb from Laguna Castillo on the morning of Day 3.

Key Gear for the Trek

We’ve logged a lot of time in Patagonia over the past 14 years — torrential rain, snow and 70 mph winds, we’ve seen it all. As such, we think we’ve got our gear well tuned for Patagonia. So, at the end of this guide we’ve listed some of the key gear that make our trips warm, safe and most important fun!

As you’ll notice in our photos, it rained a fair amount on this trip. That’s Patagonia — it rains! But rain doesn’t mean you need to be cold, wet and miserable. With good gear choices you can be warm, safe and have a crapload fun — even in the rain. And our packs with all our gear and food for this trek were under 17 pounds (8 kg). Those light packs are a big help when you are navigating wet rocks on a steep Patagonian riverbed.

Alan is grinning, mostly dry, and very happy —  even on a day with pouring rain. The key is light but excellent rainwear. This breathable and extremely comfortable rain jacket and pants weigh less than a pound (450 g) combined!

Where is Cerrro Castillo?

Cerro Castillo is in Northern Patagonia. It’s in Chile about 840 miles (1350 km) south of Santiago.

Map of Patagonia showing the location of the Cerro Castillo Trek in relation to other well known treks — Torres del Paine Trek (also in Chile) and the Fitz Roy (Cerro Torre) Trek in Argentina.

Maps and GPX files for the Cerro Castillo Trek

Our custom map of the Cerro Castillo Trek (click on map to enlarge)

We spent a fair amount of time creating a custom map of the Cerro Castillo Trek and a companion GPX file with trails & campsites, etc. You can download the map and print it out on a home printer or at Kinkos. The GPX file is best used with the Gaia GPS Navigation App for iPhone and Android — it’s what we use (read more here…). But it will work just fine with other smartphone navigation apps and handheld GPS units like Garmin.

Note: Our map and .gpx files above are provided free for your personal use. We are happy for you to use them! But please respect our work and don’t republish or distribute them to others. Thanks!

Map of the Cerro Castillo Trek provided at the ranger-staffed entrance station to the park. (click on map to enlarge)

Link to download PDF of CONAF’s map of the Cerro Castillo Trek (82 Mb)

GETTING TO TREK START From Santiago, Chile Airport to Coyhaique

From the Santiago Airport fly into Balmaceda, (BBA). There are two airlines that go to BBA, LATAM and Sky Airlines. Sky Airlines is cheaper, but has fewer flights than LATAM. For both, it pays to book earlier than later.

When you arrive Balmaceda airport, as of this writing, you have three choices for getting to Coyhaique—the three shuttles are lined up at the baggage claim and, as far as we can tell, all do the same thing. We went with T&T as they dropped us at our hotel (the others may do the same, just ask).

Coyhaique is the biggest city in Aysen with many local outfitters as well as a Patagonia and North Face store downtown. The one downside of the town is the supermarket. There is just one (UNIMARC) for a population of 50,000+ which means lines in the grocery store can take 20-30 minutes. There is talk of building a second grocery store, let’s hope they do. Lodging in Coyhaique is diverse. We had no problem finding a place to stay—although during high season, best to book ahead. There is also a CONAF Office in Coyhaique that you can get maps and information for the trek.

Coming down the far side of El Penon Pass with spectacular waterfalls streaming down from hanging glaciers of the high mountains all around us!

From Coyhaique to Las Horquetas (trek start)

There are two options to get to the Cerro Castillo trailhead from Coyhaique: take the bus or have a driver take you. The bus (Buses Sao Paulo) leaves at 9:00am from the terminal and is about a one hour drive costing 5,000 CLP to Las Horquetas (the trek start). If the bus doesn’t work for your schedule, a personal shuttle costs 80,000 CLP. The trailhead for Las Horquetas is in a parking lot, tell the bus driver where you want to go and he will drop you at the lot.

Day by Day Guide to the Cerro Castillo Trek

Trip Start – Las Horquetas
Trip End – Villa Cerro Castillo

Day 1 – Las Horquetas to Segundo (2º) Camping

16.2 km (10.1 miles), 4.5 hours to Segundo Camping
[14.0 km (8.7 miles), 3.7 hours to Primero Camping also called Puesto El Turbio camping]

Much of day 1 is an easy walk up along an old roadbed in this beautiful valley with mountains all around you. There are some wet sections and a few stream wades so don’t expect to keep your feet dry or free of mud.

The trek starts at a nondescript gravel parking lot at “Las Horquetas” along the Carreterra Austral. There are no buildings, information kiosks or other infrastructure to indicate that it’s the start of a major hike. The trail to Cerro Castillo goes through an unsigned wooden gate on a gravel road heading out of the parking lot. You quickly cross a stream and in short distance you arrive at a park entry hut with a ranger. Here you pay the park entrance fee (5,000 CHP per person), and if you don’t have a park map, the Ranger will let you take a photo of the current park map on your cell phone.

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These are two of the most spectacular treks in the world, but are neither strenuous nor difficult to access. This is the best guide to the Torres del Paine W Trek and Circuit Treks, in-print or online. This guide was inspired by Alison and I finding a scarcity of accurate and up-to-date information on how to plan for hiking Torres del Paine. In fact mainstream, supposedly reputable materials about the trek were missing essential information, out-of-date, or just plain wrong. Here is the information gathered from our recent Circuit Trek in Torres de Paine.

Table of Quick Links to Plan Your Torres del Paine Trek
CONAF continues to make logistical changes to this trek over time. Check this grey box for the latest important changes. Below are the top informational items to note for your trek for the 2018-2019 season.

Until we hear otherwise, we expect C. Torres (área de acampar Torres) to be closed for the 18-19 season! This has significant implications for the W Trek, As a backup until this resolves, you could consider booking Campamento Chileno (Área de acampar Chileno) with Fantastico Sur. It’s plus an hour or a bit longer hike up to the Torres de Paine (vs. C. Torres), but still doable. Because they have the monopoly, last year they only booked hikers who paid for full meals. Expect the same for the 2018-2019 season.

In January, 2017, CONAF instituted quotas and we expect these to continue for 2018-2019 for both the W Trek and Circuit Trek

  1. Advance Reservations are Required for All Your Campsites (W and Circuit)

You need to have all your campsite reservations in place before you enter the park. “You need to show reservations at each campsite in order to stay. This is being enforced. There are limited campsites so making your reservation is essential. (Overcrowding last year caused camp latrines to collapse and many people got sick. Due to this, multiple campsites are now permanently closed.)”

  1. There is an 80 Person Per Day Limit on the Circuit Trek (and it can only be done counterclockwise).

There is a 80 person per day limit for the “Backside” (non-W portion) of the Circuit Trek. This is passively regulated by the campsite reservation system (that is, if you have all your campsite reservations you are part of the 80 people per day allowed). This is being strictly enforced! There is a guard house (Guardería Coirón) on the backside operated by CONAF and and you’ll be asked to show proof of your reservations to proceed. Note: We have received reports of trekkers without reservations being sent back. [see Official 2017 Park Trekking Map]

  1. Reservations for the free Park (CONAF) Campsites Fill up Well in Advance

Per CONAF: “If you are unable to book in all the camps you want to visit, you must adapt your itinerary according to the camps you could get. Consider that there are two other camping and shelter providers where you can book:Fantastico Sur* and Vertice*. We remind you that if you do not have the corresponding reservations you will not be able to access the mountain trails and you should plan other visit options, as there will be control points where you must show the voucher or confirmation email of your reservation.”

*Note: Can’t get a site on Vertice/Fantastico? Switch to ‘book in chilean pesos’ – yes it switches to Spanish, but google translate can help you out.

  1. There are now cutoff/closing times for most trails

The back page of the Official 2017 Park Trekking Map now has cutoff times listed for many trails—that is you need to start hiking before that time to reach your destination. This is now strictly enforced. This map will still get you everything you need for the trek.


Fantastico Sur: have not posted their dates yet and they do not look like they are taking reservations. For the 2017-2018 season, their refugios in the W were open October 1-April 30, Circuit October 1-March 31.

Vertice: Has their 2018-2019 dates posted already and it looks like they are booking reservations. Their W refugios are open September 1-April 30, Circuit November 1-March 30. Check their website for latest prices.

CONAF: Says that reservations can be made only six months in advance (180 days before you go) for their sites of Italiano (open October-April) and Paso (open November-April).

WHEN DOES THE PARK REALLY OPEN? Over the years we have received reports of some confusion and disarray in TdP, particularly around opening dates. So, keep in mind that the required booking system is still somewhat new to the park and clearly causing a lot more work for Fantastico and Vertice employees. As such, there is bound to be a difficult transition from the older, more free flowing system to this new stricter one. Our advice would be to continue to try and keep the communication lines open by contacting all parties, CONAF, Fantastico, and Vertice using all email addresses, Facebook, and phone. Also keep in mind that all three of these agencies are distinct and most likely do not communicate amongst themselves. You are the only thing they have in common which puts the burden on you to figure out what is going on.

Finally this is a trip guide. We are not a booking agency and have no special access to V, FS & CONAF. As such, your best strategy is to deal directly with V, FS & CONAF yourself. Wishing you a great trek and we will continue to post information as we receive it. Warmest, -Alan and Alison

CLOSED AS OF April 30, 2018: Most Refugios and Private Campamentos close for the season. Backside of O/Circuit guided only.

As of April 30 Most, most Refugios/Private Campamentos (Fantastico Sur and Vertice) are closed for the season. You can still camp on the W but obviously there will be far fewer resources. The “Backside” of the O or Circuit Trek (Serón, Dickson, Los Perros, Paso John Garner, etc.) is closed unless with an official guide. These will re-open to general use/travel at the start of the 18-19 season

Overview of Torres de Paine W Trek and Circuit Trek

The Torres del Paine W Trek and Circuit Trek (or ‘O’ Trek) have a well deserved reputation as world class backpacking trips. The Torres del Paine Park has the goods, with stunning views at every turn. Massive glaciers, including the vast Heilo Sur (Southern Ice Shelf) the second largest non-polar ice field on the planet. There are immense towers of rock, rushing mountain streams and waterfalls, huge azure lakes, and sublime fields of wildflowers—Andean Condors with a wingspan of over 10 feet soar overhead. Finally, you’ll meet interesting people from all over the world. The Torres del Paine provides true global trekking.

The Torres del Paine W Trek the Circuit Trek are more accessible and more manageable than other world-renowned treks like the John Muir trail or Tour de Mont Blanc. The Torres del Paine treks are shorter and less strenuous. The classic W trek can be done in as little as 3 days. And we comfortably did the Circuit Trek in 4.5 hiking days with plenty of time to gawk and take photos. The treks do not have a lot of elevation gain or loss. All the hiking is near sea level so there’s no altitude to deal with. The park has excellent trails with good signage. It is almost impossible to get off route or lost. Water is plentiful and in the campsites can be drunk without treatment. You are never far from help. There are ranger stations and/or campgrounds about every four hiking hours. In fact, the Torres del Paine would be a trek in the park if it weren’t for periods of nasty Patagonian weather and strong winds—very strong winds. Even so, the Torres is an entry level trip for many backpackers and trekkers. It is also a great way to start trekking in South America which has almost endless opportunities for more fantastic treks!

Glacier Grey, a 7 km (4.5 mile) wide river of ice that flows down from the immense Heilo Sur (this Southern Patagonian Ice Field is the second largest non-polar ice shelf). Glacier Grey’s origin from the Heilo Sur is at the upper right of the photo between the snow covered mountains of the Southern Andes. If you only do the W you will miss this view. It was our favorite part of the trek. Alan’s HyperLite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest Pack is carrying less than 12 pounds (6 kg) at this point in the trip.

Current and Accurate Information for Torres del Paine

This guide was inspired by Alison and I finding a scarcity of accurate and up-to-date information on how to plan for hiking Torres del Paine. In fact mainstream, supposedly reputable materials about the trek were plain wrong. We hope to correct this with current and accurate information from our recent completion of Torres del Paine Circuit Trek (which includes the full W Trek). Much of this information is especially needed in high season when some park facilities (especially on the W Trek) are full, or near capacity and camping reservations well advised.

  • The top ranked Amazon guide and map for Torres del Paine are seriously out of date. The Cicerone Guide (updated 2013) & Standard large map of TdP (Zaiger) both have out of date trail and campground info. e.g. recommending camping in closed campgrounds. Listing nonexistent campgrounds and suggesting hiking on trails that are now closed to travel.
    • We provide a current park map with correct campground & trail information (jump to Park map)
  • Hiking times in most guides and park maps are too conservative. If you are a moderately fit hiker you will likely do better than these times. This is one case where hiking too fast is as problematic as too slow (since you need to reserve your campsites ahead of time). The major complaint that we heard was of people hiking faster than expected and arriving at their reserved campground around noon (and it doesn’t get dark until after 10:00 pm in the summer!). That is they could have easily hiked to another stage that day to the next campsite. (Here is a listing of our less conservative hiking times and distances for Torres del Paine)
    • The W Trek can easily be done in 3-4 days vs. the usual 5 days—with plenty of time to take photos and gawk at all the wonders of the Torres del Paine. (See our suggested 3-4 day W Trek Itinerary here.)
    • Circuit Trek can easily be done in 6 days vs. the 8-13 days recommended guides. (See our suggested 5-6 day Circuit Trek Itinerary posted.)
    • Bus/Ferry logistics – we also optimize bus and ferry logistics so that these times are round trip from the door of your hotel/hostel in Puerto Natales!
  • Gear – Almost all guides will have you ridiculously over pack gear. Yes, the weather can be rough at times in Patagonia. Fear of this causes many (most) folks and even so-called “experts” and guide books to recommend massively over packing gear.  But there’s no need to stagger around with a heavy pack to deal with Patagonian weather. Rest assured, you can pack much lighter and still be warm and safe.
    • Alison’s pack with food was under 15 pounds (under 7 kilos) and Alan’s pack with food was under 17 pounds (under 8 kilos). Our gear easily handled the rain and strong Patagonian wind. (Here is a detailed list of gear we took.

We loved the backside of the Circuit Trek. Less people. More varied terrain. Idyllic valleys. Superb vistas. Pictured are wildflowers in full bloom in Valle Encantado (enchanted valley). We walked though fields of them for miles. They started as we dropped into the valley on our way to Campamento Serón and continued to Refugio Dickson. Along they way you get great views of the Patagonian Andes and even peeks at Heilo Sur, the vast Southern Ice shelf. Alison’s ULA Ohm 2.0 Pack is probably carrying less than 11 lb (5 kg) at this point in the trip.

Planning Your Torres del Paine Trip

Fair warning, not all days are sunny in Patagonia, but that doesn’t mean the Torres del Paine is any less beautiful. Clouds and mists swirling around the high peaks are every bit as stunning as a sunny day. Glacier Frances (a hanging glacier) from near Mirador Frances. The summit of Paine Grande the highest mountain in the park at 3,050 m (10,000 ft) is already obscured by clouds mid-afternoon. It’s typical in Patagonia for peaks to cloud in later in the day, even in good weather. Early starts are best if you want unobstructed views of the peaks.

Step 1 – Pick your trip: W Trek, Circuit Trek or ‘Q’
  • The W Trek is by far the most popular. Most people do it in a relaxed 5 days but it can be done in 3 days. It covers the standard highlights: Glacier Grey, Valle Frances and Glacier Frances, and of course the Torres de Paine, the gem of the Park. There are a lot of trekkers on the W Trek in high season. In addition to a many backpackers, the W Trek can be swarmed by day hikers going to the same key miradors (viewpoints) as the backpackers. W Trek campsites can be filled to capacity. On the bright side you’ll meet a lot of fun and interesting people from around the world.
  • The Circuit Trek or ‘O’ Trek does all of the W Trek, then continues around the back of the Torres del Paine to complete a full loop. We believe many backpackers could easily do it in 5 to 6 days. (We comfortably did it in 4.5 hiking days). We prefer the Circuit Trek. The “backside,” non-W part of the Circuit Trek, is every bit as beautiful as the W Trek but with fewer people (since its limited to 80 people per day). And you see a lot more of the park, which is more varied than just the W Trek. For instance, you walk for miles above Glacier Grey, a 7 km (4.5 mile) wide river of ice that flows down from the immense Heilo Sur (the vast Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the second largest non-polar ice shelf). This was our favorite part of the trek. And finally, the Circuit Trek gives you more time to enjoy this stunning park! [The tricky part of the Circuit is getting over Paso John Garner. This pass can sometimes be closed to travel by rangers due to high winds and/or low visibility.]
  • The ‘Q’ Trek is the ‘O’ plus the section between the Serano Visitors Center (see park map here for details) and Refugio Paine Grande. This section forms the tail of the ‘Q’ and adds a bit more hiking and sight seeing for those so inclined.

Our GPX map nicely shows the trek options: the two main Torres de Paine treks–the W Trek is in red and covers Glacier Grey, Valle Frances, Glacier Frances, and of course the Torres de Paine themselves. The Circuit Trek is the W Trek plus the ‘Backside’ which is in blue. It includes the Valle Encantado, Lago & Glacier Dickson, Paso John Garner, and walks along the incredible Glacier Grey–note this map shows Campamento Torres which is now closed. [click on image to enlarge]

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5 pound Practical Ultralight Backpacking Gear List

Are you looking to reduce backpack weight to the absolute minimum? Then you’ve come to the right place. This ultralight backpacking gear list has the lightest possible gear that still makes practical sense. If used properly, a five pound ultralight pack will keep you just as safe, warm and dry as heavier, more traditional gear. In fact, the core of this list can be used with great success on most three season trips around the world. Welcome to the freedom of super ultralight backpacking.

Benefits of a 5 lb pack

When it comes to hiking, few things are more freeing than an ultralight backpack. Carrying only five pounds of gear puts so much extra spring in your step (compared to a traditional pack) that it mimics the effects of being in phenomenally good shape. However you prefer to adventure in the backcountry, you will have more energy to do it with an ultralight pack. Many opt to hike farther or faster. But others with all the time and/or energy they save with their ultralight pack, may want to pursue photography, side trips, birding, journaling, sketching, or even an afternoon nap. Hike your own hike!

The 5 lb paradigm shift

It’s a significant paradigm shift to get a complete backpacking kit down to 5 lbs. As such, you need to be open to trying new types of gear and new ways of doing things. Canister stoves, framed backpacks, and conventional tents are likely out. Instead, you’ll pack an alcohol stove, sub-1-lb frameless backpack, a down quilt, and either a pyramid shelter, hammock, or tarp. This system may also force you to rethink your approach to luxury gear, food, hydration, and campsite selection. But I promise it’s worthwhile. Learn more about using the 5 lb system in this companion post, Technique and Philosophy for Practical Ultralight Backpacking.

Want to reduce weight, but stick to traditional gear? Try my 9 Pound Full Comfort Lightweight Backpacking Gear Checklist for lightweight/ultralight versions of traditional tents, packs, sleeping bags and stoves.

FUN – Being cold, wet, hungry or getting a crappy night’s sleep sucks. I want no part of it! My first priority is to enjoy myself and appreciate the terrain I’m walking through. Hiking at my own comfortable/efficient pace and watching the ever changing landscape unfold is my favorite way to fully appreciate the beauty of the backcountry.

PRACTICAL – This gear is selected to be practical. As such, there are no compromises to keeping you warm, dry and getting a good night’s sleep. And it avoids “ridiculous light” gear that requires too much fiddling and wastes time, or breaks when you look at it cross-eyed.

OPTIONS – Hike your own hike! Knowing that people are different, I’ve included a number of great choices for most of the major categories. I’ve indicated my top picks with a checkmark. But that doesn’t necessarily mean  they are the best choices for everyone. Some of my choices, like a frameless backpack may require compromises people are unwilling to make. And some of my picks, while great long term values, are initially expensive. As such, I’ve included gear that is less “extreme,” and one or two budget options for expensive gear. That being said, this is an ultralight gear list. So if you find that you are having to make too many hard choices you will want to look at 9 Pound Full Comfort Lightweight Backpacking Gear Checklist.

PRICE – While some ultralight gear is less expensive, e.g. a tarp or pyramid shelter vs. a tent… other gear, like a high-quality down quilt or sleeping bag is going to be more expensive. Again for most categories of gear I will include one or two lower cost options.

AVAILABILITY – A few of my choices are from cottage vendors who generally don’t stock gear on-the-shelf (all are established with good reputations!). They usually deliver in 4-8 weeks but it can be longer during high hiking season. As such, plan ahead and order in time to get your gear at least a few weeks before trip start. Again I have tried to include alternative gear available on-the-shelf, from well known retailers like REI or Amazon.

Weight Summary – 5 Pound Practical Ultralight Backpacking Gear List
Gear Category Breakdown (for weights) Lbs
Backpack, Stuff Sacks, etc. 0.7
Shelter: Tarp, Pyrmaid Shelter, or Hammock 0.7
Sleeping: Down Quilt, Sleep Pad, etc. 1.8
Cooking Gear: Stove, Pot, Water Storage & Treatment, etc. 0.8
Clothing in Pack (Rain jacket, warm jacket, gloves, etc.) 1.0
“Essential” Gear: Maps, SOS dev., 1st aid, headlamp, knife, sunscreen, etc. 0.6
Food for – 3 day trip: see Best Backpacking Food and Sample Backpacking Food List 4.2
Fuel: 1 fl oz alcohol x 2 (dinners + breakfasts) = 2 fl oz 0.1
Water: Amount carried depends on availability. See Best Hydration Drink When Thirsty  –
Total of Consumables  4.3
TRAIL PACK WEIGHT (BPW + consumables) 10.9
Clothing Worn and Items Carried (not in pack)  3.9
Camera Gear see:  Best Backpacking Cameras 2018
The Category Details for 5 Pound Ultralight Backpacking Gear List
Backpack (10 to 14 oz)

An 11 ounce Mountain Laurel Designs Burn pack in Dyneema fiber holding my 5 pound kit. I used this setup to cover all 100+ mile on the AT in Shenandoah National Park in three days. Trip report is here.

Tips: You’ll likely need a frameless pack of ~40L capacity. Not a big problem since your total pack weight with food, fuel and water is likely to be 10 to 15 pounds. Dyneema fiber packs have the advantage of being nearly waterproof. When combined with Dyneema fiber stuff sacks you won’t need a rain cover. Finally, more parks are requiring hard-sided bear canisters. I have included a section at the end of this post listing the lightest bear-canister-compatible packs as well as bear canisters.

Note: Excellent general purpose lightweight packs like Hyperlite Mountain Gear SW 2400, the ULAOhm 2.0 Pack, and the Osprey Exos 48 Pack, are overkill for the light loads of practical ultralight backpacking. In addition, at ~2 pounds for these packs you won’t make the 5 pound weight.

For more reading: 

For budget backpackers: The 11 oz Gossamer Gear Murmer 36 Hyperlight Pack is likely your best inexpensive option. Alternatively you can sew your own rucksack for around 8 oz (and I have used such a pack effectively for 7 day trips even with a bear canister!)

Packing Item Oz Comments
 Pack Mountain Laurel Designs Burn in Dyneema (11 oz), Silnylon version is less $ (13 oz)  11.0
38L, light, durable, good pockets. Dyneema almost waterproof. Some may prefer the larger volume of the 48L Prophet or 58L Exodus Packs
Pack alt. Gossamer Gear Murmer 36 (11 oz) Another good choice and a good value
 Stuff sacks For sleeping bag, clothes, etc. 1.0 Dyneema fabric: keep gear organized, clean, & dry
Food storage Aloksak OP Sak 12.5″ x 20″ (1.0) Control food scent – attract less animal attention. Note: In areas that have special bear requirements you must also use an approved storage method or container. 
Bear food storage (opt)  Ursack Bear Bag (7.6 oz) The very lightest and the first choice for food storage in areas that have special bear food container requirements. But only if the Ursack is approved in your park! So check the reg’s. Otherwise checkout the bear canister section below.
TOTAL 0.7  Lb

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 Pack 11.0 oz | Mountain Laurel Designs Burn in Dyneema (11 oz), Silnylon version is less $ (13 oz) | 38L, light, durable, good pockets, Dyneema almost waterproof. Some may prefer the larger volume of the 48L Prophet or 58L Exodus Packs
Pack alt. | Gossamer Gear Murmer 36 (11 oz) | Another good choice and a good value
 Stuff sacks 1.0 oz | For sleeping bag, clothes, etc. | Dyneema fabric: keep gear organized, clean, & dry
Food storage opt. | Aloksak OP Sak 12.5″ x 20″ (1.0) | Control food scent – attract less animal attention. Note: In areas that have special bear requirements you must also use an approved storage method or container. 
Bear food storage (opt) | Ursack Bear Bag (7.6 oz)  | The very lightest and the first choice for food storage in areas that have special bear food container requirements. But only if the Ursack is approved in your park! So check the reg’s. Otherwise checkout the bear canister section below.
0.7 lb | TOTAL
Shelter: Tarp, Pyramid Shelter or Hammock (~12 oz per person)

Pyramid shelters work. A 2-person MLD Pyramid Shelter after a storm in the High Sierras.

Tip: To get near a 5 lb base-weight, forget about a conventional tent. Instead, choose from one of the pyramid shelters, tarps or hammocks below. The good news is that Pyramid shelters (and tarps) work! Alison and I used only pyramid shelters for our Alaska and Patagonia trips, and in some dreadfully harsh conditions. For the east coast and other areas with trees, a hammock is our preferred shelter.

For budget backpackers: An 8-12 oz Silnylon tarp, like the Mountain Laurel Design Grace Tarp is one of your best inexpensive options. The MLD Grace Duo tarp in SilNylon comes out to be 6 oz and $80 per person. I’ve used this setup all over the country, at high altitudes and in extreme conditions.

For more reading see:

Why no tents?

The short answer is they are too heavy to make the 5 lb weight. For solo camping they are much too heavy. But when shared between two people they are closer to making target weight but still no cigar. Here are the details:

  • If you are solo camping, one of the lightest solo “tents” is the non-conventional Zpacks Solplex Tent. It’s around 20 oz with 8 solid Y stakes. And the lightest conventional tents are 27 to 28 ounces [a Big Agnes UL1 tent, or the TarpTent Notch]. This is about two to three times the target weight of ~12 ounces for a shelter. In addition, the small volume of solo tents make them very prone to condensation.
  • If you are sharing a tent, things are somewhat better. One of the lightest 2-person “tents” is the non-conventional Zpacks Duplex Tent. It’s around 25 oz with 8 solid Y stakes. And the lightest conventional 2-person tents are 31 to 38 ounces [a Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL2 Tent , or BA Copper Spur HV UL 2 Tent]. Shared between two people that’s 16 to 19 oz per person, above the ~12 oz target for a shelter.
Shelter Item Oz Comments
1-person shelter options
Pyramid Shelt. Mtn. Laurel Des. Solomid XL (12 oz) A great choice for solo backpacking, especially in harsh conditions. Total wt 12 oz in Dyneema, 17 oz in Silnylon. 
Tarp MLD Grace Duo Tarp Dyneema 8 MLD tarp in SilNylon 12 oz but only $140! 
Tarp HMG flat or shaped tarp (8 oz)  8 Another solid Dyneema tarp made in the US. 
Stakes 6 MSR Groundhog Y-stakes (.5oz ea)  3 Hold better than skewer stakes. Can pound into hard ground with a rock. Red easier to find!
Guylines 3mm MSR Reflective Utility Cord or 2.4mm reflect cord (8×4-ft lines)  1  2 to 3mm – all work well – diameter your preference. 
Shared 2-person shelter options (tarps above also qualify!)
Pyramid Shelt. HMG Ultamid (17 oz) great shelter for two. 1/2 lb/person shared. 
Pyramid Shelt. MLD Duomid XL Dyneema (16oz) no pole between sleepers! 1/2 lb/person shared. 
Hammock options
Hammock Dutchware 11 ft Netless Hammock
or Hammock w bugnet  w (7 oz)
9 oz with kevlar suspension. Netless hammock $42! Hammocks best for East Coast & other wooded areas. 
Hammock Tarp Hammock Gear Dyneema Hex
+ Zing-it ridge-line w hardware, + 4 MSR Groundhog Y-stakes (.5oz ea) and cordage
Light, hammock specific tarp, huge protected area. 11′ Dyneema fabric. 
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This Guide to the AT Section Hike – Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry, is an installment of our no-car-needed, low carbon AT hiking Guides.  This beautiful section has the infamous roller coaster, along with great vistas like Raven Rock and Sky Meadows Park. It connects two popular AT trailheads—Shenandoah National Park (Front Royal, VA); and historic Harpers Ferry, WV. When combined with our Low Carbon Section Hike via Train – Harpers Ferry to Harrisburg PA , you have ~180 great miles of the AT easily accessible by public transportation. Hike green!

(lead photo: late afternoon at Raven Rocks overlook. Fall colors just starting)

The hike ends in historic Harpers Ferry, WV and it’s well worth an overnight stay and exploration. “Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is considered one of the best walking parks in America. The views are sublime, the history compelling, the restored town a work of historical art.” (from the National Park Service Website)

A Series of Guides to Low Carbon Section Hikes on the Appalachian Trail

We are big fans of leaving the car at home when we go hiking. Because the AT goes through or near urban areas, it’s not difficult to section hike portions of the AT using only public transportation. Many of these are among the nicer sections of the AT. This guide is for an AT section hike that you can undertake solely using public transportation from Washington, DC. This 54 mile AT section could be done in one long weekend (3-4 days, e.g. an extended Memorial, or Labor Day weekend). It would also be a great hike for fall color viewing as it has somewhat less foot traffic than the adjacent Shenandoah Park.

Installment 1: Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train – Harpers Ferry WV to Harrisburg PA, 124 miles
Installment 2: This post – Low Carbon AT Section Hike – Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry, 54 miles

Stay tuned as we add more Low Carbon Section Hikes on the Appalachian Trail…

The start of The Roller Coaster, an infamous section of the AT with over 10,000 feet of elevation change in only 13.5 miles! And that was only part of our FUN for the day. Alison’s face says it all.

Top 5 Highlights of this Section of the AT
  1. Blue Ridge Vistas: This section of the AT is just gorgeous. There are numerous overlooks including the famous Raven Rocks, and the endless ridge top vistas from Sky Meadows Park. Because of the wonderful overlooks and clearings on this section, it would be a great hike for fall leaf viewing.
  2. Blackburn Trail Center: When you arrive at the Blackburn Trail Center, you are greeted by the trail boss and his wife. More often than not, trail magic will appear making the end of the roller coaster that much sweeter.
  3. Bears Den Hostel: This rustic stone building from the 1930’s is a gem on the AT. The hiker deal for $30 includes: bunk, shower, laundry, soda, pizza and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Our trip didn’t allow us to overnight there, but we did stop for the $0.50 Cokes out of the fridge and a lovely break on the lawn for a snack and rest at a covered picnic table.
  4. Ride the Roller Coaster: The world renown roller coaster is a 13.5 mile section of trail that closely resembles a roller coaster. Ok, not really. It’s really about 10,000 ft of elevation change in a very short distance that will keep you fully entertained.
  5. Harpers Ferry Overnight: Any hike that includes an overnight in Harper’s Ferry is a good hike. The town is so lovely, it is always a highlight.

Overview map of the 54 mile route.

Quick Trip Stats
  • The trip takes between 3-5 days
  • 0 mile – trip start, Shenandoah Park N Boundary near Front Royal, VA
  • 54 mile – trip end, Harpers Ferry, WV
Transportation Time
  • START: 2.5-3.0 hrs downtown Washington DC to trip start near Front Royal, VA (via commuter bus and Uber),
    • NEW OPTION: Megabus has a new Washington to Front Royal direct run (2.2 hours)
  • END: 2 hrs from trip end in Harper’s Ferry, WV to Washington Union Station (via train)

Beautiful mountain meadows and views: Alison hiking up to one of the many great vistas at Sky Meadows Park.

Overview – Low Carbon AT Section Hike – Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry – No Car Needed

This guide is meant to supplement the many excellent general guides to the Appalachian Trail (AT). As such,

  1. Our guide gives more detail to this specific section of the AT, and in particular how to access it by train and bus from much of Northeast US.
  2. Lighten your load: The GEAR (link) and  FOOD (link) for the light packs we used to efficiently and comfortably hike the AT. We believe this will make the hike more pleasant for others.
  3. And finally, we discuss the places we most enjoyed on the hike in both text and photos.
What’s in this Trip Guide Waypoint and Mileage Table

The table below is in scrollable window or you can see the table full page here, as a Google Sheet

Maps and Guides

The Appalachian Trail is possibly the most documented trail in the world. There are many excellent guides. Our favorite guide is David Miller’s (AT trail-name, AWOL) “The A.T. Guide Northbound.”

We supplement it with the following AT  Pocket Profile Map(s):
Appalachian Trail Map AT-11 Front Royal VA – Harpers Ferry WV AT

$13 Train: From tip end at Harpers Ferry, WV, it’s only an hour and $13 via train to our front door in Washington DC!

Logistics – Getting to and From the Hike Trip Start

This hike begins at the northern end of Shenandoah National Park. You don’t need to enter the park, just begin on the outskirts of it on the more easily accessed AT crossing of US 522. Unfortunately, as of this writing, there was no public transportation directly to Front Royal from Washington DC. So we had to string together two transportation modes to get to the trip start at around 6:00 pm.


  • A Omniride commuter bus leaves from multiple locations in downtown DC and goes directly to a commuter parking lot in Gainesville, VA. Cost was $6.50 using SmarTrip card or $8.75 with cash. Heading out of the city, commuter buses only leave in the afternoon “after work.” First bus leaves DC at 3:30pm ish (depending on where you pick it up) putting you in Gainsville around 5:20pm.
  • From there, you can Uber (about 30 min) to the start of our trek (ask to go to Trumbo Hollow Hike Trailhead). This Uber trip costs about $50. Not cheap, but worth not having to shuttle, thus allowing us to do a one-way trek while still going low carbon. And the train ride back is only $13.
  • Using public transportation, the earliest you can expect to arrive at the hike start will be around 6:00pm. You should still be able to reach the Jim & Molly denton shelter by dark. (See more options in description below.)


  • Megabus has one trip a day from Washington Union Station, leaving at 9:20am arriving Front Royal Crooked Run Park & Ride at 11:40am (cost $30).
  • From there, you can Uber (about 15 minutes, $20) to the start of the trek (ask to go to Trumbo Hollow Hike Trailhead).

NOTE: The combination of Uber/Lyft with the train (or bus) is a game changer for low carbon hikers. The ability to hook into a scheduled train or Greyhound route makes what used to be a “close-but-no-cigar” hike, into something quite doable.

Trip End

The easiest thing is to overnight in Harper’s Ferry and catch an early morning MARC train (Brunswick Line) back into Washington DC’s Union Station (or a few Suburban Maryland stops before DC). The MARC trains are super early, but that’s OK as you’ll get back into DC in time to catch many of the early trains and commuter buses to your final destination.

A crisp fall morning on Day 2, perfect for some hiking on the AT!

Brief Route Description and Trip Highlights – a Photo Essay

The section between Shenandoah National Park and Harpers Ferry is a rather popular section hike. The multiple overlooks and great overnight camping options make it a very nice section the AT. It follows the Appalachian Ridge for 54 miles through the State of Virginia culminating in a breathtaking walk across the Shenandoah River Bridge into West Virginia and the city of Harper’s Ferry. There is only one park you walk thru, Sky Meadows State Park (which has its own stunning overlook). Otherwise, this section is a nicely challenging walk on the AT.

Relaxing on an Adirondack “Bench” at the recently renovated Jim & Molly Denton Shelter. It has a covered picnic pavilion and a solar shower!

If you start hiking in the late afternoon/early evening, you will likely stay at the Jim & Molly Denton Shelter. It’s a straight 5 mile shot from the trip start at US 522. You’ll be rewarded with a newish shelter, a lovely picnic pavilion, and a solar shower! Overnighting in Front Royal is another option and there are several hostel/hotel options there as well. (Front Royal hotel owners are well acquainted with AT trekkers and often provide a ride to/from the trail.)

First Full Day

Your first full day (if you started hiking the nite before) will be lovely. Keep an eye out for great overlooks because you come upon them very quickly. Sky Meadows State Park, really does have superb mountain top meadows and views. It’s a great lunch spot. After that, you also get to cross the not-so-lovely, first of two death-defying major highways on this section (no bridge, no stop signs, just put your big boy pants on and run for your life) at John Marshall Highway (VA55). We ended our day at Rod Hollow Shelter in prep for roller coaster day. Several nice campsites and hammock hanging areas are available at this shelter.

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2018 is forecast to be the worst year for tick/Lyme disease*. But don’t let fear of Lyme or Zika keep you off the trail! This article has tips on the clothing, gear, repellents, and techniques that will maximize your Lyme and Zika Prevention as well as other tick/insect diseases when hiking or backpacking. Includes section on new Picaridin lotion which is more effective than DEET with none of the downsides.

* new 2018: The CDC reported in May that illnesses like Lyme and Zika from mosquito, tick, and flea bites have tripled in the US.

Lead photo: 2015 map of prevalence of Lyme disease [source US Centers for Disease Control (CDC)]. Superimposed on the map is a blacklegged tick, the primary transmitter of Lyme disease to people. Zika is also on the increase as noted here (CDC Map of Zika), and here Harvard Medical School Article on the rise of Zika.

This Article in Five Parts
  1. DON’T GET BIT – DON’T GET SICK: Why not getting bit is your first and best strategy for lyme and zika prevention.
  2. Best Ways to Protect Yourself from Lyme & Zika While Hiking: The Cliff Notes version
  3. New Picaridin Lotion. More effective than DEET with none of the downsides!
  4. What to Do if You Get a Tick Bite
  5. Non Chemical Ways to Reduce Bug Bites: For those leery of chemicals. But this content improves the effectiveness of all methods to reduce bug bites, chemical and non-chemical.

Why it’s hard to check for ticks in the field: Blacklegged tick nymphs which can transmit Lyme disease (second from left in photo) are exceptionally hard to see in the field. It’s extremely difficult to find them on your body during an evening check in camp and showering is not usually an option. For instance, how would you find the second from left blacklegged tick on your scalp or in body hair? Keeping them off of your body in the first place is your best strategy. BUT! by all means,  (just don’t expect it to be 100% effective in the field). AND if you remove a tick quickly (within 24 hours) you can greatly reduce your chances of getting Lyme disease.

1. Don’t Get Bit – Don’t Get Sick

The best strategy to reduce your risk of getting a bug-transmitted diseases like Lyme and Zika is to not get bit in the first place. I know this sounds obvious, but some bug-transmitted diseases are not preventable. That is, if you get bit by a bug carrying some diseases you may get infected despite the best medicine. And if you contract a disease there may be no medications to effectively treat it. Consider the following:

  • Lyme Disease: Currently, there are no vaccines to prevent tick-carried diseases like Lyme disease, or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Fortunately per the CDC, “patients treated… in the early stages of Lyme disease usually recover rapidly and completely.”  (But note: there is some controversy about the effectiveness of treating Lyme disease if undetected/not-treated in time.)
  • Zika & West Nile: There are no vaccines to prevent mosquito-carried diseases such as Zika, and West Nile encephalitis today. And there are “no specific medicines” for Zika or West Nile if you contract them.
2. Best Lyme and Zika Prevention for Hiking
Permethrin Treated Clothing
Per the CDC
 a key element for maximum tick and mosquito protection is wearing Permethrin-treated clothing. Treated clothing can be of thinner, cooler fabrics and still provide protection. This is crucial to staying cool and comfortable when hiking in warm weather—the conditions when bugs are prevalent & disease most likely.

The following is SAFE and effective. The “Best Lyme and Zika Prevention” techniques in this post are are based primarily on information and recommendations from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). E.g the CDC’s section on “Maximizing protection from mosquitoes and ticks:” But they are also based on Alison’s and my experience hiking long distances in hot, humid environments with high disease risk. Examples include the tropical jungles of South America—or spring in Shenandoah National Park (lots of Lyme!).

A short list of Clothing and Bug Protection (a cool set that you won’t overheat in)

Yes, the outfit might look slightly geeky (although bright gaiters spice things up). But having contracted Lyme disease on the AT, I can say without reservation it is an illness you never want!

for best viewing of this table on a mobile device, turn phone sideways (or view on a laptop or tablet)

Item Description Comments
E G Bug repellent on face neck hands Sawyer Picaridin lotion 14 hrs!
Pocketable Picaridin 0.5 oz spray
Lasts 14 hrs! No odor. Won’t melt plastic. Small, pocketable, easily applied.
A Hat (repellent) Exofficio Bugsaway Hat Bug repellent for upper head area
 B Shirt hiking* RailRiders Men’s Journeyman Shirt w Insect Shield & Women’s Oasis Cool fabric, mesh side vents, sun protection, Lifetime insect repellent (vs. sprays 8-14 hrs)
Shirt (alt) Exofficio Bugs Away Halo Long Sleeve Shirt Men’s and Women’s Widely available: Campsaver and other sources like Amazon. Lifetime insect repellent.
C Pants hiking* ExOfficio BugsAway Ziwa Pants Men’s and Women’s Available in both Men’s and Women’s. Light, cool, sun protection. Lifetime insect repellent.
Pants (alt) RailRiders Men’s Eco-Mesh Pant with Insect Shield RailRiders pants have huge side vent on legs for cooling. Lifetime insect repellent.
E G Bug repellent on face neck hands Sawyer Picaridin lotion 14 hrs!
Pocketable Picaridin 0.5 oz spray
Lasts 14 hrs! No odor. Won’t melt plastic. Small, pocketable, easily applied.
 D Physical Prot.  Tuck pants into socks Prevents tick entry into pants. Stops pants legs from “gapping” and exposing ankle to mosquitos
F Physical Prot.  Tuck shirt into Pants Prevents tick entry into pants and lower shirt area.
 H Gaiters Dirty Girl gaiters (fun colors!) or
REI Co-op Activator Gaiters
Seals pants against tick entry. No ankle gaps. Can be treated with permethrin spray.
H Gaiter trap shoe
Altra Lone Peak shoes or
Altra Superior shoes
Velcro “gaiter trap” permanently attached to heel of shoe. (adhesive ones that come with gaiters only work for a while)

* You can treat your own clothing with Permethrin Spray (REI) or at Amazon  This lasts for up to 6 weeks or 6 washings. (For comparison: factory treated clothing is good for up to 70 washings, essentially “life-time” use). Both clothing treatments far exceed the 8-14 hours of skin applied repellents like Picaridin and DEET. And they don’t require the time/attention needed to properly apply repellents to large areas of skin each day.

Picaridin – A New Repellent Better than DEET

Picaridin (lotion) lasts 40% longer than most DEET products and lacks the downsides of DEET. It has no odor and doesn’t melt plastics or degrade clothing. In Hand: Airline friendly 0.5 pump sprays, last 8 hours are small, pocketable and easily applied in the field. Right rear: Picaridin lotion lasts 14 hours, and can be repackaged into small 1 oz squeeze bottles.

Picaridin is a new (2005) “pepper-based” insect repellent that lasts up to 40% longer than most DEET products. And perhaps more important, it lacks many of the downsides of DEET. Picaridin has no odor and doesn’t melt plastics or degrade clothing. It is registered as safe and effective by the US EPA. More about Picaridin here

Important: Make sure you closely follow the directions for applying repellents, including knowing how long an application will last! Skin applied repellent effectiveness greatly depends how well and how often you apply it.

Treated tents and camp mosquito netting

Note: The EPA has also approved Sawyer permethrin spray as an insect repellent treatment for tents. As such, you may want to consider this option if you are in an area with high risk of disease and/or you are a person super concerned about ticks and mosquitoes. This spray treatment might be especially useful to treat the bug netting on the door(s) of your tent where insect entry would be most likely and where mosquitoes want to hang out. As always, follow the package directions to the letter!

  • National Institute for Health (NIH) study indicates that “Permethrin treatment of tents is an effective, inexpensive public health measure to reduce mosquito bites.”
  • The CDC says: “[bug] nets are most effective when they are treated with a pyrethroid insecticide.”
3. What to do if you get a tick bite – per the US CDC

Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.
Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin. Avoid folklore remedies such as “painting” the tick with nail polish or petroleum jelly, or using heat to make the tick detach from the skin. Your goal is to remove the tick as quickly as possible–do not wait for it to detach.

  1. Here are the complete instructions for how to best remove the tick (and send it in for testing if you wish)
  2. In most cases, the tick must be attached for 36 to 48 hours* or more to transmit Lyme disease
    [*Note: There may be no established minimum attachment time for Lyme transmission. Rather, This study from the National Institutes of Health suggests that the chance of Lyme transmission increases the longer the tick is attached, with no minimum time.]
  3. Here are the Signs and Symptoms of Lyme Disease to look for
  4. And always check carefully for ticks each hiking day

“If you develop illness within a few weeks of a tick bite, see your health care provider right away.”
“Patients treated with appropriate antibiotics in the early stages of Lyme disease usually recover rapidly and completely.”

 4. Non Chemical Ways to Reduce Bug Bites

While this section is non-chemical, its content is important and applicable to all methods to reduce bug bites, chemical and non-chemical.

  1. Non Treated, Bug Protective Clothing: Wear clothing that bugs can’t bite through and/or ticks can’t enter. There are some challenges here when hiking in warm weather.
  2. Where and When You Go: Be smart about where and what time of year you take your trips. (also has a short section on international travel)
  3. Where You Camp: If possible, camp in areas with few bugs (some nearby camps, just a few minutes away can be much better than others!)
  4. Shelter bug netting: Includes tips you may not know about using a tent or shelter with bug netting
a) Non Chemically Treated yet still Bug Protective Clothing
The difficulty here is to: 1) prevent tick entry with seals on entry points for pants and shirt and 2) have clothing thick enough to stop mosquito bites.  By the time you’ve met both criteria, your clothing is usually too hot and uncomfortable for warm weather hiking—the exact weather when bugs are prevalent & disease most likely. In summary, this is not an optimal warm weather option. It is listed here as an alternative for hikers who are leery of chemicals.

I have used this non-chemical clothing system with success for some intense mosquito hatches in the Western Mountains in summer (Rockies/Sierras). It works well for camp, and is OK for moderate paced hiking as long as temps don’t climb into the 60’s or higher. The beauty of this system is that includes clothing I would normally bring on a hike (e.g. a windshirt/rain jacket and baselayer/hiking shirt).

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2018 Buyers Guide to Lightweight Backpacking Quilts

Down quilts are cheaper, lighter, and have a higher warmth-to-weight ratio than traditional sleeping bags. As such, they’ve become a staple in ultralight and lightweight backpacking kits. The lightweight backpacking quilts in this guide are the best on the market. They can accommodate users on virtually any trip, anywhere in the world, in any season and any budget!

The standout value is the $159 Hammock Gear Burrow Econ 20 ºF down quilt. It’s one-half the cost and half a pound lighter than a comparable down sleeping bag.

What is a Backpacking Quilt?

No, it’s not just a flat blanket! A modern down backpacking quilt strips away the heaviest and least effective features of a sleeping bag — leaving you with a supremely efficient and light cocoon of warmth. As such, it is a hoodless, backless, zipperless sleeping bag with a fully enclosed foot box opening at knee level. The upper 2/3 of the quilt can be loosely draped over the user for comfort and venting, or tucked in with a seal for maximum heat conservation. And of course they are 1/2 the cost and about a half pound lighter than a down sleeping bag.

The warm and super puffy Hammock Gear Burrow showing the detail of the top and bottom of a backpacking quilt. Note the longitudinal baffles (purple) that do a better job of keeping down over you at night vs. the standard horizontal baffles.

Why Lightweight Backpacking Quilts are Better than Sleeping Bags 1) Quilts Are Lighter

On a sleeping bag, the down under you is “wasted.” That is, that down is compressed by your body reducing its warmth to near zero. It’s your sleeping pad that keeps your under-body warm. A down quilt simply removes the down under you (and the fabric enclosing it) saving nearly half a pound vs a sleeping bag. Finally, quilts don’t use a zipper, which is a surprisingly heavy component of a sleeping bag.

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Desert canyons are some of the most stunning places on earth. And contrary to the hype of high adventure and disaster in technical slot canyons, with flash floods & amputating arms—many beautiful canyons are low risk and perfect for backpacking and hiking. No rock climbing or rope needed. As such, you should seriously consider non-technical canyon backpacking in Utah.

  • Best time to go: mid-March to May | mid-September to October (or even November)
  • Special skills needed: This post covers much of what you need to know. It includes tips on how to purify and best manage your water in a dry desert environment (don’t stress it’s not that bad!).
  • Navigation: Explains how canyon navigation is different from regular hiking/backpacking and what you’ll need to know.
  • Special gear needed:  While there is no need for ropes or climbing equipment, our section on the Right Gear will make canyon travel easier and safer. And there’s a section on desert canyon clothing tips, including sand resistant shoes that are also good for wading.

Canyon travel or canyoneering is mountain climbing in reverse. Rather than striving for the highest point to look down, you are in the bottom of a canyon with the world above you. It is a more intimate and enfolding way of viewing your surroundings.

Utah Canyons offer some of the best hiking & backpacking in the world

These canyons are stunningly beautiful and except for a few, lightly traveled. I can think of few places that offer as much solitude. Alison and I find the sparse beauty and solitude of desert canyons a deeply spiritual place. One that draws us back year after year for their peace and serenity.

Gems like Paria Canyon, Buckskin Gulch, the Zion Narrows, Coyote Gulch or Grand Gulch are just few of the big name canyons that are easily accessible to anyone with basic hiking skills. But the list of equally superb but lesser known canyons that await you in the Southwest US goes on and on. The Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument may alone have a lifetime’s worth of superb canyons and side-canyons to explore. Many may have only a few visitors every 10 years.

High above the Escalante River: Dawn reflection in a slickrock pool in a remote side canyon. This canyon sees fewer than 10 people per year.

Tips for Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah

The good news is that many of your backpacking skills will work for canyoneering. But there are some things that will be new and different. Here are a few to consider:

  1. Canyon travel can be technical and non-technical – This article is only about “Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah.” This non-technical canyon travel, or what I call “canyon backpacking” is low risk and similar in difficulty to regular backpacking. You don’t need a climbing rope. In some canyons you might need to do occasional calf-deep wading, a fun but safe scramble, or some bushwhacking. But nothing to get excited about. Technical canyoneering with ropes and rock climbing will not be discussed in this article.But at the end of this post I have included a section on tips for the more adventurous canyon traveler.

    What this guide is NOT ABOUT. There’s no need to do this to see many spectacular canyons!

  2. When to go – Most of the year it is too cold or too hot to backpack in the canyons. Most canyons in Utah have a short season, the middle of spring (mid-March to mid-May) and middle of fall (October-November).
  3. Gear for Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah – Having the right gear makes canyon travel easier and more fun. Here’s a link to the Gear List that we use. It’s excellent for non-technical Canyon Backpacking or hiking in Utah.

    A section dedicated to clothing is below.

    Paria Canyon

  4. Don’t stress too much about drinking water – Water, or lack of it, is not the big a deal most “knowledgeable professionals” make it out to be. See: “The Best Hydration – Drink When Thirsty.” Many of the better known canyons have well documented water sources so you’ll know how far it will be to your next good water. As such, you won’t be humping a ton of water or in dire risk of dehydration. My wife and I over the last 15 years have routinely carried far, far less than the recommended gallon of water. We have yet to go dry or thirsty. Note: Most canyon river/stream water, if it’s running at all, is too silty and hard with minerals to make good drinking. You’ll get most of your water from springs and from the few clear-drinkable sources of canyon river/streams. For treatment, I prefer the Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter System.

    Neon Canyon, Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument

  5. There is a low risk of flash floods in most “backpacking” canyons – most of the better known “backpacking” canyons are not slot canyons. As such, they are less prone (but not immune) to sudden and devastating flash floods. A slight risk of a flash flood (or far more likely, just high water) still exists in almost any canyon. So you still need to be aware of the weather. During the rare big storm, water levels may rise considerably but not so fast or so high that you won’t have time to find suitable high ground. They will also recede quickly. (Buckskin Gulch is the exception big name canyon with a significant flash flood risk, but the Ranger’s won’t give you a permit for Buckskin if there is the slightest chance of a flash flood. And many hundreds of people hike it safely every year.)
  6. Start small and build – Take some canyon day-trips and expand your skills—locating canyon entrances and exits, finding and managing drinking water, walking through sand, river wading, bushwhacking—generally learning how to make intelligent and efficient progress in a desert environment. Even two or three canyon day-trips will give you great insight to prepare for and execute your first multi-day canyoneering trip. Oh, and day-tripping in canyons is great fun!

    Grand Gulch, an open air cultural museum of Anasazi pictographs/petroglyphs and ancient dwellings. Note: If you find any artifacts; pottery fragments, arrowheads, etc. please leave them where you find them. The same goes with structures and dwellings. Do not enter them, walk on walls, etc. General rule is don’t touch, don’t move. Leave it as you found it.

  7. Guidebooks to get you startedSteve Allen has the best and most respected series of guidebooks on canyoneering in Utah. While some of his trips are technical, there are plenty of non-technical trips. And his general advice about canyoneering is among the best for both the non-technical and technical traveler. I have used the Falcon Guide “Hiking Grand Staircase-Escalante & the Glen Canyon Region” for canyons that Steve Allen doesn’t cover like Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon, and Grand Gulch. The guide’s specific information on the canyons is adequate but I would defer to Allen for general information on Utah and canyoneering.

    Hiking in shorts, short sleeves and hatless is a terrible idea! Complete clothing coverage is better.

  8. Clothing for Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah – The desert can be a hot, scratchy, prickly place with intense sun. Wear long desert/travel pants like these , long-sleeve desert/travel shirts like these or a Rail Riders Adventure (or EccoMesh) Top, and a hat with complete sun coverage including neck and ears (e.g. Outdoor Research Sun Runner Hat). Light smooth fabrics (like thin nylon) slide easily through brush, absorb little sweat/water and dry quickly. Apply strong sunscreen to unprotected areas like hands or wear sun gloves like these OR ones. For more info See a detailed list of clothing we normally wear.
    Footwear – Boots are not needed or even desirable. Take light trail running shoe like Altra Lone Peaks or Altra Superiors. Fine mesh outer fabric is best (our favorite shoes are the Altra Superior Trail Running Shoes which have a very fine mesh that slows sand entry but lets water drain quickly after wading. And beware, the large-weave mesh popular on many trail runners lets too much sand in. Gore-Tex shoes do poorly. They are too hot, do not breathe well and don’t drain water after wading. (But they do have the advantage of being sand-proof!)
  9. Navigation in Canyons is different than other backpacking areas
    Navigating Canyon Bottoms takes a bit of getting used to. (Don’t worry, you’ll get better at it over time.) There are no signs, no blazes and almost no trails. One might think it’s simply a matter of following the canyon bottom like a train on its tracks. But for those new to it, walking in the bottom of a many branched canyon system can seem more like navigating a hedge maze. At the bottom of a canyon you have limited visibility and to the uninitiated the main canyon can be almost indistinguishable from its many side canyons. It’s much easier than you think to walk by and completely miss your exit ramp or exit side canyon. Over time you’ll get more observant, and pay better attention to small details. Travel in many canyon bottoms is a combination of river walking/wading, bushwhacking through willows (easier) and tamarisk (harder), and sandy bench walking. There is no “right” route: you just figure out what works for you.Navigating Benches Above the Canyon should likely wait until you are a more seasoned canyon traveler. It is usually more challenging than traveling the canyon bottom—with more difficult route-finding, hard to find entrances and exits, potentially technical sections and a likelihood of impassible side canyons and slots blocking forward travel.Note: Contrary to common belief GPS can work in canyons! So with some caveats, the section below explains how to best use your GPS in many canyons — just don’t rely on it!!

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When you haven’t backpacked in months & months, getting your systems dialed back in can be overwhelming and challenging. Between gear, food and logistics, it’s easy to lose track of things. But with these 12 tips for your first backpacking trip of the year you’ll quickly find your stride and confidence. A successful first trip of the season awaits you!

Related content | tips for your first backpacking trip of the year 12 tips for your first backpacking trip of the year – make it easy – have fun!

Getting ready for a backpacking trip is not rocket science or brain surgery. Use the following tips to make it a lot easier to pack and get out on that first backpacking trip of the year. And this is supposed to be fun — even the pre-trip preparation!

1. Pack to a Gear List!

There are any number of good checklists for bringing the right gear. Print one out and use a pencil to check off each item. If you have a spare room (or even the living room) lay things out clearly in groups; sleeping gear (tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad) in one area, clothing in another, cooking gear in another, etc. When it’s laid out like this I find it substantially easier to make sure I have exactly what I need.

Related content

Make it fast and easy to pack all the right stuff and forget nothing: Use a gear checklist and lay things out clearly in groups in a room dedicated to the task. I usually leave stuff laid out until I leave for my trip.

2. Don’t go crazy spending money on a bunch of new Gear

I suggest that you only buy a new piece of gear if you really need it and know exactly what you want. Otherwise, borrow from friends or rent gear until you have enough information to make a good decision. Early season trips are a great way to gather information about what gear works best for you — and what doesn’t work and needs to be replaced. That being said, if you know what you want, early season sales are a great place to look for stuff on closeout or steep discount. For instance:

3. Keep Your Food Simple

Almost all the food you need for a backpacking trip is at your local supermarket or in your kitchen cabinets at home. Nuts, PB&Js, Chocolate, Dried Fruit, Energy bars etc. And for a three day trip you don’t need to vary food all that much. Alison and I usually eat most of the same food each day for short trips which keeps things easy and simple. Again packing to a Food List helps. Many meals can be made at home with commonplace ingredients. We have a number of simple and easy to make meal recipes here. For those who don’t want to make their own meals, there are some simple and healthy freeze dried meals that work great like this Black Beans & Rice. We doctor it up into one of our favorite dinners by adding grated cheddar cheese, corn chips and possibly some hot sauce. The recipe is here.

Bonus tip: As a reality check, weigh all your food before the trip. It should add up to 1.5 to around 1.8 pounds/person/day. If it’s outside these limits, something is likely wrong.

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A simple and quickly assembled set of food for a 6 to 7 day trip. Aligning food in rows per/day helps to organize and provides a useful check that you’ve packed correctly. Almost all the food was purchased at Whole Foods and our Local Supermarket.

4. Don’t wait until the last minute to assemble gear and food!

Have all your gear sorted at least three days before your trip start. That way if you can’t find an important item you’ll still have time to go to a local store or order it from Amazon Prime. (It’s always something small and essential you can’t find like a headlamp, compass, pot, or fuel bottle…) And this will also allow you to make sure everything fits in your pack. Note: If you might order gear from cottage manufacture’s (I do), you’ll need to order 6 -8 weeks in advance.

5. Do some pre-tip hikes | Use the socks and shoes you intend to wear on the trip Related content

If you buy new shoes and socks do it weeks before your trip so you can have some time to use them—at least walking around the neighborhood. This is the #1 way to prevent blisters! Note: Get trail runners! They’re light, easy on you feet and will make your trip a more fun. Don’t forget to use your trekking poles on your hikes. Our favorite trekking poles are the $40 Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon Trekking Poles. They are as good but 1/3 the price of the best trekking poles.

Altra Lone Peak shoes

Altra Lone Peak Trail Shoes, M’s & W’s @REI: These are Alison’s and my favorite backpacking and hiking shoes. These are the most comfortable shoe after a 30+ mile day on the trail. One key is the massive toe room that is so kind to trail-swollen feet at the end of the day. They are light and have a zero drop heel for a more natural stride. These come in both Men’s and Women’s models. Some of our favorite socks are  SmartWool PhD Light Mini, Darn Tough 1/4 UL w cushion or DeFeet Wolleators.

6. Get a Weather Report

This will give you some peace of mind that you will be warm safe and dry. That is, the weather report will let you pack a tent, clothing, and sleeping bag, etc. appropriate for actual weather conditions. (Note: For most trips of 3 days or less, this weather report should be fairly accurate. But, If you are going to the mountains make sure you get a mountain forecast as mountains tend to be cooler and wetter than lower areas.)

Related content 7. Bring  a book, some tunes (with earbuds!), podcasts or other nighttime diversions

It’s human nature not to sleep the best your first night out and early season nights can be long . Having something to entertain, distract and relax you can be a big help to getting to sleep early.

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Fun fact: when sleeping in a new place the human brain alternately sleeps one side of the brain less than the other. This keeps you more alert while you sleep—presumably to keep you safer in a strange place. But this makes it harder to get to sleep and a lighter sleep once you are asleep.

Always Bring a Backup Battery!

With its built-in cables the Jackery Bolt can charge a lightening device and micro-USB device at the same time.

Yeah, it seems like just about everything needs some juice these days. And many people are using their smartphones as their primary navigation device. As such, it’s a huge bummer if you drain the battery all the way down. (always bring a set of paper maps and real compass tho!) My three favorite lightweight and high capacity USB backup batteries are:

  1. Jackery Bolt 6000 mAh USB Battery (pictured right)- With two built in cables (lightening & micro-USB) it will charge just about any backcountry electronics. It has a faster charging rate than the EasyAcc below but has slightly less overall capacity.
  2. EasyAcc 6000mAh USB Battery This has slightly more capacity (tested) than the Jackery battery but has a slower charging rate & only a built micro-USB cable (altho you can attach your own lightening cable to charge an iPhone). It can charge a large phone like a Galaxy S7 about 1.4x and a smaller phone like an iPhone 7 2.3x.
  3. Anker PowerCore 10000 (only 6.4 oz) this is the lightest option if you need to recharge your electronics a lot.  It can charge a large phone like a Galaxy S7 ~2.5x and a smaller phone like an iPhone 7 ~3.5x. Its limitation is that it only has one USB port for a cable.
  4. And of course for a SPOT messenger and many headlamps a spare set of lithium AAA batteries.

8. Evaluate the following before your trip
  • Prior to the trip, setup your tent*, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad in the backyard or a local park. Preferably with your hiking partner. This makes sure you have all the parts and pieces and everybody knows what they are supposed to do. Inspect the tent, rain fly and floor for any damage. Get into the tent and lie down side by side and make sure everything is copacetic, air pads don’t leak etc. Do you feel comfortable enough to get a good night’s sleep? Is the tent too small and claustrophobic? Early season has longer nights and the possibility of spring rains so you might be in the tent for a while. As such it’s nice to have enough room. [*Note: it really helps to have the tent setup instructions. If you don’t have them you can usually download them online for your tent or one close to it.]
  • Fire up your backpacking stove and heat some water. Make sure your fuel canister is full.
  • Check that your water filter pumps water easily and/or that your water treatment chemicals are in date.
  • Try on your clothing and make sure it still fits, doesn’t have rips and tears and doesn’t smell funny. [yeah, occasionally I put away unwashed clothing!]
9. Keep your Trip Short

A 2 to 3 day weekend trip is likely the best option for your first trip of the season. And don’t overreach on distance. Most of us haven’t reached our peak conditioning early season. Keeping the miles reasonably short will make walking fun and prevent temper flare-ups from exhausted trip members. In addition, since it’s the first trip for the year — you’ll want to be in camp with plenty of time to set up the tent, collect water, cook dinner. An added benefit of the shorter hiking days is that you’ll likely have time to savor a sunset over a cup of hot chocolate.

10. Keep your trip local

There are far less logistic issues with arranging a local trip. And shorter travel time to and from trip trailheads leaves you more time to enjoy the backcountry. Also, it’s likely a local area you are familiar with, making many things easier. And while early season has fewer backpackers, you may still have other campers at the most desirable campsites. My suggestion is to embrace the company and make friends with your fellow outdoor enthusiasts — enjoy the evening. [There will be plenty of time for longer more aggressive trips later in the year where you can have your solitude.]

There are many local options for lovely areas to backpack and camp. This beautiful waterfall in Dolly Sods is by an extremely popular backcountry campsite easily accessable to people from the Washington DC Area. Even in early spring, you may have company. My suggestion is to embrace the company and make friends with your fellow, like minded outdoor enthusiasts.

11. Don’t Worry So Much About Wet and Cold

If you have the right gear (see gear list below) you’ll do fine. And a local trip in a more controlled area is the perfect place to practice and get good experience in these conditions. Finally, if for some reason things do get intolerable, it’s likely not all that far to hike out to the car.

Related content 12. Take notes on what worked and what didn’t work

After the trip, change out gear and modify your technique as required. If you do need new gear, don’t wait until the last minute to buy it before your next trip. Clean and wash your gear after the trip and then properly store it in a dry area.

Closing Thought – Embrace Your Mistakes!

One of the main purposes of an early season trip is to shake-out your gear and technique. As such, it’s OK, even desirable to make mistakes. Better to make your small blunders in a safe, controlled local place than on your big destination trip of the year. That way you can start that trip on the John Muir Trail ready to roll, with your kit and technique dialed in.

Bonus Tip – Keep your Trip Fun

The overarching principle for this post is to keep your trip and trip planning as enjoyable as possible. Alison and I have one rule for every trip: If either of us is NOT having fun it’s time to stop and make a NEW plan. That is, a plan that puts FUN back into the trip.

Wishing you a great start to the backpacking season, -Adventure Alan


This post contains affilate links. If you make a purchase after clicking on the these links, a small portion of the sale helps support this site at no additional cost to you. I do not receive compensation from the companies whose products are listed. For product reviews: unless otherwise noted, products are purchased with my own funds. I am never under an obligation to write a review about any product. Finally, this post expresses my own independent opinion.

The post 12 tips for your first backpacking trip of the year appeared first on Adventure Alan.

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