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By Michael Lanza

As a parent of teenagers who’s taken his kids on outdoor adventures since before they can remember, I’ll share with you the biggest and in some ways most surprising lesson I’ve learned from these trips: Our outdoor adventures have been the best times we’ve had together as a family—but not only because of the places and experiences themselves. The main reason is that these trips have given us innumerable days with only each other and nature for entertainment—no electronic devices or other distractions that construct virtual walls within families in everyday life. These times have brought us closer together.

That’s a gift we’ve given ourselves as a family, that I’ve cherished every minute of (well, most of the minutes, anyway). I also know our kids will fully appreciate it when they’re older—and, hopefully, pass this gift on to their own children.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, from the brink of Lower Yellowstone Falls.

No matter where you go or what you do with your kids, you can reap that reward. But if you want to share with your family the very best experiences and places in nature, well, I have a pretty darn awesome list for you.

For this newly updated story, I’ve picked out the 10 very best adventures my family has taken and I’ve written about at The Big Outside. This tick list includes seven national parks, three world-class paddling adventures, three trips that should be on every backpacker’s to-do list, America’s most fascinating volcano hike, and cross-country skiing or hiking among the greatest concentration of active geysers in the world.

Not surprisingly, all of trips are extremely popular and require planning and making reservations months in advance.

All are linked to my full feature story about each, which include numerous photos, and a video in most of them. Below the top 10, I’ve included several bonus trips that made this list in previous years but have been bumped as I’ve regularly updated it.

You may also want to peruse my 10 all-time favorite adventures, domestic and international—there are definitely trips that could be on either list (and there’s no overlap between the two).

I’d love to read your comments about any of these trips or the entire list, and other readers and I would appreciate any advice you have on any of these trips. Share your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this story.

Here’s wishing you an adventurous new year and many more years of forging unforgettable memories together as a family.

My teenage nephew and daughter and 80-year-old mother on the Tour du Mont Blanc.

1. Trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc in the Alps

Why not begin my list with one of the biggest, most beautiful and fun adventures my family has ever taken? You’ll find the Tour du Mont Blanc on just about any list of the world’s greatest trails. The main reason is the sheer majesty of this roughly 105-mile (170k) walking path around the “Monarch of the Alps,” 15,771-foot (4807m) Mont Blanc. Passing through three Alpine nations—France, Italy, and Switzerland—and over several mountain passes reaching nearly 9,000 feet, it delivers almost constant views of glaciers, pointy peaks and “augilles,” and the snowy dome of Mont Blanc. Making this trip all the more special was the fact that we had three generations of my extended family represented, including my 80-year-old mother. Read my story “Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc at an 80-Year-Old Snail’s Pace.”

See which section of the Tour du Mont Blanc made my “25 Most Scenic Days of Hiking Ever.”

Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Fall seen from the John Muir Trail, Yosemite National Park.

2. The Magic of Hiking to Yosemite’s Waterfalls

Stand at the brink of a thunderous waterfall that drops a sheer 1,400 feet over a cliff. Hike a trail in the heavy shower of mist raining from a clear, blue sky. Dayhike through one of the most iconic landscapes in America—Yosemite Valley. The Valley’s towering cliffs and waterfalls will awe any adult and even the most cynical teenager. But for kids, there are also the thrills of walking through the mist from a giant waterfall, and moments like traversing the narrow catwalk blasted out of granite on the final steps to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls. Read my story and start planning your trip.

How do we raise kids who love going on outdoor adventures? Read what I’ve learned over the years in my “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids” and “10 Tips For Getting Your Teenager Outdoors With You.”

My kids, nephew, and mother standing at the crater rim of Mount St. Helens, with Mount Adams in the distance.

3. Three Generations, One Big Volcano: Pushing Limits on Mount St. Helens

I’ll make you this guarantee: Mount St. Helens is one of the coolest dayhikes in America, period. Hikers on the standard route, Monitor Ridge, soon emerge from shady rainforest onto a stark, gray and black moonscape of volcanic rocks, pumice, and ash, with infinite views of the Cascade Range, including other snow-capped volcanoes like Hood, Adams, and Rainier. It’s also a tough hike at 10 miles round-trip and 4,500 vertical feet up and down, most of it on rugged terrain that varies from loose stones and dirt to ash that’s like hiking a giant sand dune. We had a special component to our trip up and down the mountain: a three-generation family group with a 66-year spread between the youngest, my 10-year-old daughter, and the oldest, my then-76-year-old mother. When I scored last-minute permits to hike the mountain, I wasn’t sure everyone could make it. Then, hours into the ascent, events seemed to take a bad downturn. Read for yourself how it all turned out.

The Big Outside is proud to partner with sponsors Switzerland Tourism and Backcountry.com, who support the stories you read at this blog. Find out more about them and how to sponsor my blog at my sponsors page at The Big Outside. Click on the backcountry.com ad below for the best prices on great gear.

Campsite below Zoroaster Temple, along the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon.

4. Dropping Into the Grand Canyon: A Four-Day Hike From Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trail

Sure, any trip in the Big Ditch is worthy of a top 10 list—you could fill a top 10 list just with Grand Canyon hikes. But in this rugged terrain and unforgiving environment, choosing the right backpacking route becomes critical; most trails are rough, many trailheads remote. This four-day, 29-mile hike combines two of the most spectacular and accessible trails coming off the South Rim—the Grandview and South Kaibab—with an easier, less-busy stretch of the Tonto Trail that delivers constant, big views. See more photos and read my story about it now.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by USA Today and others. I invite you to sign up for my FREE email newsletter by entering your email address in the box in the left sidebar, at the bottom of this story, or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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By Michael Lanza

Walls of searing, orange-red sandstone towered hundreds of feet overhead in a chasm at times no more than a dozen strides across. A shallow river flowed like very thin, melted milk chocolate down the canyon, spanning it from wall to wall in spots. And the spectacle had only just begun: We were mere hours into the first day of one of the most continually stunning, multi-day canyon hikes in the Southwest: Paria Canyon.

My son, Nate, in the narrows of Paria Canyon.

Over five days in early spring, my family and another backpacked the 38-mile length of Paria Canyon, which straddles the border of Utah and Arizona and joins the Colorado River at Lees Ferry, the gateway to the Grand Canyon.

Lying within the 112,500-acre Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Paria Canyon has become famous among backpackers for its soaring walls painted wildly with desert varnish, massive red rock amphitheaters and arches, hanging gardens where the few springs in the canyon gush from rock, and campsites on sandy benches shaded by cottonwood trees. Its tributary, Buckskin Gulch, is one of the longest, if not the longest continuous slot canyon in the Southwest.

That’s why Paria Canyon deserves to be called one of “The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest” and, many experienced Southwest backpackers would agree, one of the top five.

Spring and fall are the prime seasons for backpacking Paria Canyon; my family did it in the last week of March. This is a popular hike, and the time to apply for a backcountry permit reservation is around the corner if you want to backpack Paria Canyon next spring. Permits are issued to only 20 people per day, so apply for a permit reservation as soon as they become available, which is after 12 p.m. on the first of the month, three months in advance, for example, on Jan. 1 for a trip anytime in April.

View the photo gallery below for a sampling of the breathtaking scenery of Paria Canyon. Then click the link below the gallery to read my full story about this classic trip.

I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Find out more here.

Read my story “The Quicksand Chronicles: Backpacking Paria Canyon,” which has many more photos, a video, and information on planning the trip.

Tell me what you think. I spent a lot of time writing this story, so if you enjoyed it, please consider giving it a share using one of the buttons below, and leave a comment or question at the bottom of this story. I’d really appreciate it.

See menus of all of my stories about hiking and backpacking in southern Utah, backpacking in the Grand Canyon, and my stories about family adventures at The Big Outside.

Don’t miss any stories at The Big Outside. Click here to become a subscriber now!

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By Michael Lanza

If hiking, backpacking, and climbing from spring through fall teaches us the fundamentals of layering our clothing for comfort in variable mountain weather, heading into the backcountry in winter confers a graduate degree in layering systems. In mild temperatures, getting wet with perspiration or precipitation merely risks discomfort. In freezing temps, it can quickly lead to getting really cold and actually become life-threatening. Three decades of Nordic and backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, camping, and trail running in winter have informed my layering strategy, which goes beyond the usual advice, customizing clothing systems according to activity and body type.

A layering system is simply the clothing layers you wear outdoors, and we all understand that dressing in layers allows us to make adjustments—adding and removing layers—as needed for changing conditions. As I write in my story “10 Smarter Ways to Think About Your Layering System:”

“When I first learned the term ‘layering system,’ years ago, I thought I understood what it meant. But it wasn’t until I started seeing my layering system as a dynamic, interconnected whole consisting of pieces that should function together—rather than a static collection of individual apparel items—that I actually figured out how to move more comfortably, and safely, in any weather.”

But those tips, while relevant in winter, apply primarily to three-season conditions. Temperatures below about 45° F compound the challenge of dressing comfortably during exertion, when our bodies sweat, because damp clothing conducts heat from your body, and cold air rapidly accelerates that cooling effect—potentially to a dangerous degree.

In my “12 Pro Tips For Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter,” I offer tips on how to manage your activity level in combination with your layering system to minimize sweating. In this article, I’ll offer advice on how to choose a specific, personalized layering system for different exertion levels and body types in backcountry in winter.

For my top picks in shell and insulated jackets, base layers, and pants I’ve found for being active in winter, with products differentiated according to high-exertion and moderate-exertion activities, watch for my review of “The Best Clothing Layers for Winter in the Backcountry,” which I plan to post tomorrow. Use the recommendations in that review, along with the tips below, to help you make the best choices in winter outdoor apparel for your activities and your body.

You don’t have to be cold at night. See my “10 Pro Tips: Staying Warm in a Sleeping Bag.”

Chip Roser backcountry skiing in Idaho’s Boise Mountains.

Choosing a Layering System

Three variables dictate the layers you need:

• The ambient conditions you expect to encounter—temperature range, wind, and precipitation—as well as how terrain and vegetation cover affect your exposure to the weather (i.e., you’re more protected from wind and weather in the forest than above treeline).

• Your level of exertion, whether moderate (downhill or backcountry skiing or riding, ski touring, or snowshoeing) or highly aerobic (fast Nordic skiing, trail running).

• Your body type and metabolism, or more simply, how easily you get cold.

Think of those variables on a sliding scale. As we all understand, you need warmer layers as temperatures and exertion level drop. But your choice of specific garments will also depend on your body and activity. Some of the apparel pieces I suggest below can crossover between the two types of layering systems, which is why you’ll see some overlap in my recommendations.

Get the right pack for you. See my “Gear Review: The 10 Best Backpacking Packs
and my “Top 5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpacking Pack.”

Keith York backcountry skiing high above Idaho’s Wood River Valley.

Base Layers for Winter

Whatever your exertion level, you want next-to-skin tops and bottoms that do two things:

1. Wick moisture off your skin quickly.

2. Provide at least the minimum amount of warmth you need for the conditions and your body.

In winter, those two traits become especially important. A top that’s too light reduces your layering system’s versatility by forcing you to rely only on your insulation layer for warmth—and insulation that’s warm enough for the coldest temps you face, as it should be, may be too much at other times.

On the other hand, you also don’t want your base layer top to make you overheat, which can happen in the warmest circumstances you might encounter—such as skiing or snowshoeing uphill in sunshine, calm air, and temps around or above freezing. It’s also possible to overheat when skiing uphill in temps just below freezing and snow falling hard enough that it requires you to wear a shell jacket. In that situation, an insulation layer is often far too warm, so you need a base layer under that shell that’s warm enough but not too warm.

You can also combine two base layers, a lightweight one and a midweight, giving you another possible layering adjustment to deal with fluctuating temps. (Or you can moderate your pace, which is another of my “12 Pro Tips For Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter.”) But peeling off and putting on base layers is less convenient in winter than in summer—especially in falling snow or when you’re wearing an avalanche beacon. Better to have one base layer that does the job.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by USA Today and others. I invite you to sign up for my FREE email newsletter by entering your email address in the box in the left sidebar, at the bottom of this story, or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

David Gordon finding powder in Idaho’s Boise Mountains.

Pants for the Backcountry in Winter

We swap out top layers in winter, but not our bottoms. Depending, of course, on the activity and conditions, we generally wear one or two bottom layers and do not change them while outside. Consequently, our pants or bottoms must be chosen specifically for the activity and conditions.

Here’s what I look for:

• For trail running, I prefer highly breathable, fast-wicking tights with some warmth.

• When Nordic skiing, I favor lightweight soft-shell pants that breathe well, block some wind (for skiing downhill), and offer a bit more warmth than tights. This type of pant crosses over well to three-season hiking and climbing in the mountains, too.

• For backcountry skiing or snowshoeing, I want more substantial pants that still breathe well, but are designed to keep snow out of ski boots (with a feature like an internal gaiter) and deliver a bit more warmth and weather protection.

Backcountry skiing into a quiet forest of ponderosa pines in Idaho.

Two Types of Layering Systems for Winter

When it comes to a shell and insulation, most people will employ one of two different types of layering systems in temperatures from just above to well below freezing:

1. Layering for moderate-exertion activities of anywhere from an hour to all day, or even multiple days if you’re staying in a backcountry cabin or yurt or winter camping. That demands a versatile system, with three or more layers, that allows adjustments dictated by changing conditions.

2. Layering for high-exertion activities, which are usually of shorter duration—a few hours or less—and often do not involve making adjustments, such as when Nordic skiing or trail running.

My “Review: The Best Gloves For Winter” covers gloves for both high-exertion and moderate-exertion activities.

Backcountry skiing high in Wyoming’s Tetons.

The Best Moderate-Exertion Layering System

If your primary winter activities are backcountry skiing or ski touring, snowshoeing, or hiking, you need a layering system with great versatility, which usually means three types of layers: base, middle or insulating layer, and shell.

This could consist of just three pieces, and at times, you might only wear one layer over your base top: insulation for warmth when it’s not precipitating, or a shell to fend off falling snow when you’re working hard enough to stay warm without insulation. You might, of course, wear two base layers (one lightweight, one warmer) or even a combined vest and insulating jacket as “middle” layers, with or without a shell.

Insulation The classic middle layer is critical because it provides most of your layering system’s warmth. It should also breathe well, because your outer/shell layer will already be the least-breathable piece of the system; more than one layer with limited breathability can quickly start feeling clammy. The good news is that there’s an ever-expanding array of options in insulating layers that breathe well, some of which also cut some wind. Your middle layer will many times pull double duty as an outer layer when you don’t need a shell.

Shell In winter temps from above freezing down into single digits, I want a shell jacket with superior breathability, because I can overheat skiing uphill in the backcountry, but also built to repel hours of falling snow and block most wind, with an adjustable, brimmed hood that keeps wind and precipitation off my face. While even just a few years ago, these fully technical shell jackets fell on either side of a fine line between soft shell (highly breathable but not fully waterproof) and hard shell (fully waterproof but not quite as breathable), today you’ll find shells that blur that distinction, with the supple feel and breathability of a traditional soft shell while delivering fully waterproof performance.

Lastly, for multi-hour or multi-day adventures deep in the backcountry in winter, far from the nearest road, you need a warm puffy jacket both to prevent you from rapidly cooling off during short rests, and in case of an emergency. The best are stuffed with enough insulation to keep you warm when stationary in temps well below freezing; have a hood that closes snugly around your noggin; and have properties that help them repel moisture and falling snow, like a DWR (durable water-resistant treatment) on the shell, and synthetic or hydrophobic (water-resistant) down insulation.

See my reviews of insulated jackets and “Ask Me: How Can You Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is?

Penny Beach skate-skiing in Idaho’s Boise Mountains.

The Best High-Exertion..
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By Michael Lanza

What adventures did you take in 2017 that reinvigorated you? I had a good year. The 10 photos that follow are favorite images from a list of trips I took over the past 12 months that included trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc in the Alps and exploring the rainforests and volcanoes of Costa Rica, backpacking in Wyoming’s Wind River Range and Utah’s Dark Canyon Wilderness, dayhikes in the Columbia Gorge and up the most beloved peak in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, backcountry skiing in the High Sierra and Sawtooth Mountains, and whitewater kayaking in my back yard on Idaho’s Payette River.

As the people of Costa Rica like to say, “Pura vida,” which is Spanish for “pure life.”

Some of the brief write-ups accompanying the following images link to existing stories at The Big Outside. Watch for my upcoming stories about some of the places in these photos to be published in coming months at this blog, each with numerous photos and expert trip-planning advice.

I think these images illustrate why the outdoors is so central to my life that I’ve built a career around it for more than two decades. I hope you find inspiration in one or more of these pictures for a future trip… or just draw a few minutes of vicarious pleasure from them.

Please share your thoughts about them or any place shown here, or upcoming plans you have, in the comments section at the bottom of this story.

The Rio Celeste in Costa Rica’s Volcan Tenorio National Park.

Adventuring in Costa Rica

For years, I had heard about the national parks and variety of outdoor adventures possible in Costa Rica. So when my 14-year-old daughter, Alex, said she wanted to go there over spring break in March (my wife and our son had already signed up for a school-sponsored trip to Ecuador that week), and then my 80-year-old mother, Joanne Lanza, leapt at the opportunity to join us, we took off for several days packed with adventure.

We went zip-lining hundreds of feet above the rainforest of Arenal Volcano National Park; took a guided tour of the trails and hanging bridges in the cloud forest of Santa Elena; went waterfall rappelling; snorkeled the reefs off the Osa Peninsula; and hiked a rugged little peak named Cerro Chato, on the coast of Corcovado National Park, and along the vividly aqua-colored Rio Celeste in Volcan Tenorio National Park (photo above). We saw a variety of monkeys and other wildlife that were firsts for us. I will eventually post a story about that trip to Costa Rica at The Big Outside.

See a menu of all of my stories about international adventures at The Big Outside.

Buy gear smartly. See my stories “The Best New Hiking and Backpacking Gear of 2017
and “Holiday Gift Guide 2017: 35 Great Outdoors Gifts.”

Backcountry skiing in the High Sierra above Lake Tahoe.

Backcountry Skiing Above Lake Tahoe

For four cold, windy, and sometimes stormy days in February, I joined two old friends and longtime backcountry partners exploring the Sierra Nevada mountains above Lake Tahoe. With the weather upping the avalanche hazard, we stuck to lower-angle, safe terrain, and skied until our legs barely had the strength to board our flights home. With the copious snowfall totals the Sierra accumulates in a typical winter, and the abundant backcountry access around Tahoe, it should be on the radar of all snow-sports aficionados.

Gear up for winter. See my reviews of “The Best Gloves For Winter” and the Outdoor Research Skyward Jacket.

Backcountry skiing high in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.

Backcountry Skiing in Idaho’s Sawtooths

The snow came in frequently and cold last winter in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, which made for some of the best backcountry skiing locals have seen in years. A small group of friends and I, using a cabin several miles from the nearest plowed road (and not open to the public) as a base, spent a few days exploring 3,000-vertical-foot runs down peaks towering well over 9,000 feet, and touring an area of the southern Sawtooths where we saw no other tracks. Frigid temps in the single digits created the kind of blower powder that backcountry skiers dream of.

See my story “Hidden Paradise: Backcountry Skiing Idaho’s Sawtooths,” and all of my stories about backcountry skiing at The Big Outside.

Backpacking the Peavine Canyon Trail in Utah’s Dark Canyon Wilderness.

Backpacking Utah’s Dark Canyon Wilderness

With Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument plastered all over the news for the past several months—as our President Trump considers drastically reducing the area designated by President Obama in December 2016—I decided last May to finally get to a corner of that 1.35-million-acre monument that I’d long wanted to explore: the Dark Canyon Wilderness. So a friend and I backpacked a 40-mile loop down Woodenshoe Canyon, up a stretch of Dark Canyon, and up Peavine Canyon.

We got close-up looks at ruins of stone dwellings built by Ancestral Puebloan people several hundred years ago. We saw natural arches eroded into soaring, castellated walls of Cedar Mesa sandstone, and hanging gardens where water seeped from cracks in those walls. Starting and finishing our hike at over 8,000 feet in the Manti-La Sal National Forest, we hiked through beautiful aspen groves that stretched for miles and forests of thick, old-growth ponderosa pines that stood in beautiful contrast against the red canyon walls.

See my photos from that trip in this short blog post about it, and watch for the feature story I’ll post about it in 2018.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by USA Today and others. I invite you to sign up for my FREE email newsletter by entering your email address in the box in the left sidebar, at the bottom of this story, or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Elowah Falls on the Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge.

Dayhiking in the Columbia Gorge

On a half-day hike with my wife and daughter on the Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge, our first stop was the base of Elowah Falls, which plunges more than 200 feet over a cliff of black rock into a lushly green base along McCord Creek. Just a 1.5-mile round-trip hike to the waterfall’s base, this is an easy one for families with young kids, but can be combined with other trails for a longer outing.

See my story “Nature in Your Face: Hiking the Columbia Gorge.

Don’t miss any stories at The Big Outside. Click here to become a subscriber now!

My 19-year-old nephew, 14-year-old daughter, and 80-year-old mother on the Tour du Mont Blanc.

My daughter, Alex, on the Tour du Mont Blanc in Switzerland.

Trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc

In July, my family, joined by eight friends and extended family, including, once again, my 80-year-old mom (we just can’t seem to keep her in her house), took a nine-day trek on one of the most popular and majestic trails on the planet, the Tour du Mont Blanc in the Alps of France, Italy, and Switzerland. A roughly 105-mile footpath encircling 15,771-foot Mont Blanc, the TMB crosses 10 or 11 mountain passes (depending on which route variants one takes), the highest approaching 9,000 feet.

Besides being one of the most stunning..

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By Michael Lanza

Staying warm while Nordic, downhill, or backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, or hiking in winter is a constant challenge: We sweat, our clothes get damp, then we get cold. But as humans have known for thousands of years, it’s a matter of smartly managing and insulating our body’s furnace (and today we have much better technical clothing than animal skins). As someone who runs hot when moving, cools off quickly, and gets cold fingers very easily, I’ve learned many tricks over three decades of getting outdoors in frigid temperatures. Follow these tips and you will be vastly more comfortable outdoors in winter.

Backcountry skiing in Idaho’s Boise Mountains.

#1 Move

Clothing only helps trap heat; your body is what keeps you warm. Anytime you get cold, the single best strategy for rewarming is to start moving or increase your pace. Watch others in your group for signs that they’re cold, especially children, who have less body fat and mass and cool off more quickly than adults. When you take a break, make it short, to avoid cooling off. If someone has visibly cooled off faster than others during a break, have that person start moving ahead of the group; you will regroup before long.

 Buy smart. Read my “5 Tips For Spending Less on Hiking and Backpacking Gear.” #2 Pace Yourself

Minimizing how much you perspire in cold temperatures is critical to keeping warm, because wet clothing conducts heat away from your body. Try to set a pace that keeps you warm without causing you to overheat and perspire heavily; I try to strike a balance between producing enough heat to keep my toes and fingers warm without sweating copiously in my core, which generally has me breathing heavily but not panting.

If sweating is unavoidable on a long, strenuous ascent, then as you get within maybe five or 10 minutes of the top, slow down just a bit, to a pace at which you stop sweating but still generate enough body heat to dry your base layers. When camping in winter, I do that 20 to 30 minutes before stopping to camp.

What touches your skin matters. See my picks for the best base layers for any season.

Nordic skiing in the Boise Mountains, Idaho.

#3 Adjust Layers

Sometimes, whether climbing uphill on backcountry skis or snowshoes or in high-exertion activities like running or Nordic skiing, it’s impossible to avoid sweating, so adjust your clothing layers. For example, if there’s no wind and you’re exerting hard, you may only need a breathable insulation layer (like fleece) over a fast-drying, wicking base layer. If it’s windy, you may want a waterproof-breathable hard shell over a midweight insulation layer, like a fleece or a vest, to prevent you from cooling down.

For a high-exertion, high-speed activity like Nordic skiing, where your motion creates wind against your body, or a moderate-level activity like snowshoeing, wear a somewhat windproof and more breathable soft shell or a jacket with breathable insulation, to prevent excessive sweating and move moisture off your base layer more quickly.

Find the right outer layer for your purposes and you may only have to adjust layers infrequently. I’ve reviewed several pieces of apparel at this blog that performed that well, including these:

Arc’teryx Atom SL Hoody (read my review)
Outdoor Research Uberlayer Hooded Jacket (read my review)
Outdoor Research Skyward Jacket (read my review)
Patagonia Dual Aspect Hoody (read my review)
Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hybrid Jacket (read my review)
The North Face Desolation ThermoBall Jacket (read my review)
The North Face Novelty Denali Jacket (read my review)

See all of my reviews of outdoor apparel and my “10 Smarter Ways to Think About Your Layering System.”

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by USA Today and others. I invite you to sign up for my FREE email newsletter by entering your email address in the box in the left sidebar, at the bottom of this story, or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

#4 Eat More

Your body needs more fuel in freezing temperatures to keep your internal furnace burning. Eat high-fat snacks like chocolate, cheese, and nuts, because fat is a slow-burning fuel that keeps your body going for the long haul, which becomes even more important in the cold. Keep snacks handy so you can refuel frequently; feeling a chill or fatigue is often an indicator that your body needs food.

#5 Drink Up

In cold, dry conditions typical of winter, you become dehydrated more quickly than you realize, even if you’re not sweating much. Drink frequently. Carry a thermos with a hot drink. Add sugar to it (for quick energy) or a little dollop of butter for flavor and fat.

Don’t let red tape foil your plans. See my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”

My son, Nate, skiing the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, Yellowstone National Park.

#6 Don’t Freeze Your Water

I use a hydration bladder in temps down into the 20s Fahrenheit without the hose or mouthpiece freezing—if I keep the pack on my body (which helps warm the hose, especially when it’s running through a tunnel in a shoulder strap of my pack, a design feature of many packs made for winter activities). I also make a point of blowing back into the hose after each time I drink, to clear water from the mouthpiece and hose, which are more likely to freeze up quickly.

But in colder temps, the hose will likely freeze, so use wide-mouth water bottles instead. Store the bottles in an insulated sleeve inside your pack, upside-down, so that when you hold them upright to drink from them, any ice that has formed will be at the bottom of the bottle. When camping in freezing temps, don’t leave a water bottle out or it might freeze solid (and take a long time to thaw). Either empty your bottles, or preferably, fill them with hot water and put them inside your sleeping bag as heaters.

Get the right gloves. Click photo to see my “Review: The Best Gloves For Winter.”

#7 Carry Spare Gloves

Do your fingers get cold easily, then become difficult to rewarm? (Mine do.) Carry two pairs of gloves, keeping the second pair in a zippered or secure jacket pocket, so that your body heat keeps them toasty. (They would be like blocks of ice in your pack.) If your fingers get cold, remove the gloves you’re wearing and warm your bare hands against your belly or in pants pockets against your thighs. Once the blood has returned to your fingers, put on the gloves you’ve kept warm inside your jacket, and put the cold ones in that pocket.

This is also a good method for drying wet gloves, but put wet gloves in a pocket of a waterproof-breathable jacket, where the dampness won’t make contact with your body. Plus, carrying a spare pair of gloves is a smart safety precaution in winter—you never know when a gust of wind, a fall, damage like a tear, or even an avalanche could cause you or a companion to lose a glove or two, quickly leaving you without the functional use of your hands and putting you at risk of severe frostbite.

Lastly, mittens are warmer than gloves because fingers benefit from their collective warmth, and get cold more easily when isolated. Whenever dexterity isn’t critical, or in extreme cold, wear mittens instead of gloves or over light gloves.

Gloves I recommend:

Marmot XT Glove
Ibex Kilometer Glove
Outdoor Research Luminary Sensor Gloves
The North Face Triclimate Etip Glove
Outdoor Research Afterburner Gloves

For reviews of these gloves and others, see my “Review: The Best Gloves For Winter.”

Backcountry skiing in the Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho.

#8 Bring Two Hats

For any outing on which my exertion level or the temperature will vary, I always bring two hats: a really warm one for when I’m resting, skiing or snowshoeing downhill, or exerting in really cold temperatures; and a lighter one for when I’m exerting hard in moderately cold temps and don’t want a hat that’s so warm it makes me overheat. When I’m wearing the warm hat, I keep the lighter one, which may have gotten damp from sweat, in a pocket close to my torso to dry it quickly.

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By Michael Lanza

Will 2018 be the year that you hike the John Muir Trail? While next summer may seem very far off, an ambitious undertaking like a thru-hike of “America’s most beautiful trail”—more than 220 miles and anywhere from under two weeks to over three weeks—requires significant advance planning. Take your first step on that adventure right now by watching this video from my thru-hike of the JMT, and then click the link below to my story about that great trip, with my tips on how to do it right.

Calling the JMT “America’s most beautiful trail” can sound hyperbolic, given the competition in places like Grand Canyon and Glacier national parks, southern Utah, and even elsewhere in California’s High Sierra.

But the description has stuck hard to the John Muir Trail for many years, nonetheless—and it’s hard to argue against the claim.

Get the right backpack for a hike like the JMT. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs
and the best thru-hiking packs.

Meandering 211 miles from Yosemite National Park to the summit of Mount Whitney (where you then face an 11-mile descent to finish the trip), it crosses a landscape dappled with thousands of lakes, and mountain passes over 13,000 feet high (like Trail Crest on Mount Whitney, in the photo above) below peaks soaring to 14,000 feet. Sheer granite cliffs loom everywhere, and roaring waterfalls are too numerous to even all have names. The JMT passes through contiguous, pristine wilderness in three national parks—Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia—and two federal wilderness areas, the John Muir and Ansel Adams.

I’ve backpacked all over the U.S., and I still consider the JMT one of “My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips.” I think you’ll see why in this video. After watching it, scroll down to the link to my story about that trip.

I can help you plan this or another trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.

John Muir Trail movie - YouTube

Wondering whether you are up to it? Read my story about my thru-hike, where you can view lots of photos and get detailed advice on planning this adventure of a lifetime yourself.

The JMT has grown enormously popular, making it increasingly difficult to get a permit for a thru-hike, and the time period for applying is coming up soon. See my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.” Find more info at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/jmtfaq.htm.

Tell me what you think. I spent a lot of time writing this story, so if you enjoyed it, please consider giving it a share using one of the buttons below, and leave a comment or question at the bottom of this story. I’d really appreciate it.

Visit my Youtube page, where you’ll find many more videos from other great trips I’ve written about here at The Big Outside. You may find some ideas for your next big adventure. You can also scroll through menus at my All Trips page of all of my stories at The Big Outside.

Don’t miss out on any stories at The Big Outside. Click here to become a subscriber now!

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by USA Today and others. I invite you to sign up for my FREE email newsletter by entering your email address in the box in the left sidebar, at the bottom of this story, or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

You May Also Like:

Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites


10 Tricks for Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier


7 Pro Tips For Avoiding Blisters When Hiking


10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit


Ultralight Backpacking’s Simple Equation: Less Weight = More Fun

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By Michael Lanza

A twisting gorge 277 miles long and averaging about 10 miles wide and a mile deep. A national park spanning more than 1.2 million acres. More than 100 named rapids on the Colorado River. The Vishnu Schist comprising the canyon’s inner gorge is some of the oldest exposed rock on Earth, some two billion years old, or about half the age of the planet. Statistics, however impressive, barely begin to describe the experience of hiking down into the Grand Canyon. But pictures help, as I think you’ll see in this gallery of photos from my backpacking trips there.

Few places boggle the brain so tenaciously as the Grand Canyon. Its vastness overwhelms you, and yet you can never see more than a fraction of it. Hike for days and you will observe the strange phenomenon of rock monoliths and temples thousands of feet tall expanding like a dirigible inflating until they dominate your field of view, and then shrinking as you walk away until they disappear into the larger landscape. The unforgiving heat and aridity seems ill-suited to any life, but beautiful wildflowers bloom in the open desert, and lush gardens of greenery blossom in narrow, shady side chasms with perennial streams.

In the words of John Wesley Powell: “You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it, you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths.”

Hike stronger and smarter. See my stories “Training For a Big Hike or Mountain Climb
and “10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier.”

You may not have months free to toil through the Grand Canyon’s labyrinths, but a few days or a week can give you a pretty good sampler of the place. And if you’re thinking about a backpacking trip next spring—an ideal time to visit—you should be looking into a backcountry permit right now. If you want to backpack anytime in April, for example, the first date to apply for a permit is Dec. 1—and all available permits for popular trails and campsites get claimed very quickly.

View my gallery of photos below from several backpacking trips in the Grand Canyon—and some long dayhikes that are normally done as backpacking trips—and find links to my stories about all of those trips below the gallery.

I’ve helped many readers plan unforgettable backpacking trips all over the U.S.
Want my help with yours? Click here.
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Hi Michael,

I’m looking for a backpack for my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. I am considering some Osprey packs and others. What to you recommend as the best thru-hiking backpack?

Thanks.

Bruce

Hi Bruce,

Congratulations on your plans to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, I hope it goes really well for you.

As I wrote in my “Top 5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpacking Pack,” when ultralight backpacking, as you’ll do on a thru-hike, I want a lightweight backpack, which means minimal features like pockets and zippers. Still, I like the convenience of quick access for some items, like a lid, side, and/or hipbelt pockets for snacks, map, sunglasses, and sunblock, and a mesh front pocket where I can stuff a jacket.

Packs made for ultralight backpacking and thru-hiking, typically weigh between two and 2.5 pounds, and have support for carrying 20 to 30 pounds—and as you probably know, you should only carry the upper end of that weight range on longer stretches of trail where you have several days’ worth of food. Get a pack somewhere between 40 to 60 liters capacity. You’ll want gear that is light and compact. (See all of my reviews of ultralight backpacking gear, backpacking tents, hiking shoes, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads, and my Gear Reviews page for numerous stories with my picks for best gear and tips on buying gear.)

The pack you choose will depend on some personal preferences regarding design features, price, weight, and capacity. There are several backpacks that stand out in this category.

Osprey Exos 58

For a good thru-hiker pack, especially if you like Osprey, I suggest you look at the Osprey Exos 58 ($220, 2 lbs. 8 oz.) or Exos 48 ($190, 2 lbs. 5 oz.). I used the Exos 58 on a four-day, 86-mile backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park, carrying up to 25 pounds, and on a weeklong hut trek in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains. (My friend, Todd, is carrying the first generation of the Exos 58 on the Pacific Crest Trail at Glen Aulin in Yosemite in the lead photo, above.) I’ve liked that pack a lot since the first version of it came out in 2008. Read my review of the Exos 58.

I’ve used and reviewed the new for 2017 Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60 ($200), whose signature feature is a compression system that allows you to alter the pack’s capacity to fit whatever you’re carrying, making it more stable with a small load. At 2 lbs. 9 oz., it’s a legitimate ultralight backpack, but I’ve found it comfortable hauling 30 to 35 pounds, thanks in part to a sturdier (though still streamlined) hipbelt than is found in some ultralight packs. It has quick, one-zipper access to the main compartment, and five external pockets (lid, side, and hipbelt). Read my review of the Flex Capacitor 40-60.

Planning your next big adventure? See “My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips” and my All Trips page.

The Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider backpack in the Wind River Range.

The Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider ($340) weighs just two pounds, has removable aluminum stays and a harness system that I found comfortable carrying 30 to 35 pounds, and is made with waterproof (and practically bulletproof) Dyneema fabric. Its minimalist design features three roomy, exterior mesh pockets and zippered hipbelt pockets, and a roll-top closure with top and side compression for stabilizing under-filled loads. For its weight, it offers unique carrying comfort and capacity for long trips. Read my complete review of the 3400 Windrider.

REI Flash 45

The REI Flash 45 ($149), newly updated for 2017, is not only a steal, but it sports nice design features for ultralight backpacking, including six external pockets; it also weighs close to three pounds, heavier than others listed here. A steel, internal perimeter frame with one horizontal stay, plus a contoured hipbelt and well-padded shoulder straps make it comfortable carrying 25 to 30 pounds, and REI’s UpLift compression system squeezes the load from the bottom to draw it closer to your hips. Read my complete review of the Flash 45.

I used the Bergans of Norway Helium 55 ($189), which comes in a 40L version ($168), on a 34-mile backpacking trip in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and while it weighs just 2 lbs. 3 oz., I found it carries up to 25 pounds comfortably. It has five inches of torso adjustability, rare among ultralight packs, and men’s and women’s versions. I like the full-length, vertical front zipper accessing the main compartment.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by USA Today and others. I invite you to get email updates about new stories and gear giveaways by entering your email address in the box in the left sidebar, at the bottom of this post, or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The ULA Circuit ($235) weighs in at 2 lbs. 9 oz., but it’s spacious at 68 liters, and its roll-top closure extends farther than many competitors, giving you more capacity when needed. With a carbon fiber and Delrin suspension, a dense foam frame and an aluminum stay, it will carry up to 30 pounds comfortably, and the hipbelt and shoulder straps come in multiple sizes for customizing the fit for men or women. ULA’s 210 Robic fabric is highly durable, and the pack has a huge external front pocket.

The Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 ($215-$260) has more capacity than many two-pound packs, comes in a wide range of torso lengths and hipbelt sizes, and has side pockets made of more-durable fabric, rather than mesh. It has a removable internal frame and seven pockets, while weighing under 2 pounds, and comes in three torso and three hipbelt sizes.

Do you like my blog? Get full access to all stories at The Big Outside. Become a subscriber now!

The Big Outside is proud to partner with sponsor Backcountry.com, who supports the stories you read at this blog. Click on the backcountry.com ad below for the best prices on great gear, and your purchase will support my work on this blog.

If you scroll through all of my backpack reviews and my review of the 10 best packs for backpacking, you’ll find other models I really like, but most range from around three-and-a-half pounds to five pounds.

See my “5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpack,” “Video: How to Load a Backpack,” all of my reviews of backpacking gear at The Big Outside.

Good luck with your thru-hike. I’d love to hear what you pick for a pack and how the trip goes for you.

Michael

Tell me what you think. I spent a lot of time writing this story, so if you enjoyed it, please consider giving it a share using one of the buttons below, and leave a comment or question at the bottom of this story. I’d really appreciate it. I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life.

Got a question about hiking, backpacking, planning a family adventure, gear, or any topic or trip I write about at The Big Outside? Email it to me at michaelalanza79@gmail.com. For $60, I’ll answer your questions via email to help ensure your trip is a success. I will also provide a telephone consult for $75. Write to me and I will tell you whether I can answer your question (I usually can). You may find helpful information in stories on my Ask Me page and All Trips page, and in my skills stories and gear reviews.

—Michael Lanza

You May Also Like:

Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites

My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips


7 Pro Tips For Avoiding Blisters When Hiking


10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit


Ultralight Backpacking’s Simple Equation: Less Weight = More Fun

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The Going-to-the-Sun Road near Logan Pass, Glacier National Park.

By Michael Lanza

Beginning next year, the cost to enter 17 flagship national parks—including Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Glacier, Arches, Olympic, Acadia, and Denali—could more than double under a proposal from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. The goal is to tackle an enormous maintenance backlog in parks that has built up for years.

But as structured, this plan won’t accomplish that goal, and burdens people who can least afford it. When it comes to confronting a problem that has become the shame of the Interior Department, this plan represents nothing more than throwing a rug over a crisis and calling it good.

Released last month by the National Park Service (NPS), which falls under Interior, the proposal would raise entrance fees only during the peak season (the busiest five-month period) at 17 popular parks:
• Beginning in Joshua Tree as soon as possible in 2018.
• Beginning May 1, 2018, at Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Denali, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Olympic, Sequoia-Kings Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Zion.
• Starting June 1, 2018, Acadia, Mount Rainier, Rocky Mountain, and Shenandoah.

If the plan is implemented, the cost to visit during peak season would rise from the current $30 to $70 for a private, non-commercial vehicle at flagship parks like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Zion. The cost would go to $50 for a motorcycle and $30 per person arriving on foot or a bicycle. An annual pass to any of the 17 parks would run $75. The cost of an annual America the Beautiful—National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass, which grants entrance to all federal lands, would remain $80 (which seemingly would all but eliminate demand for a $75 annual pass to any one park).

Planning your next big adventure? See “My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips
and “The 20 Best National Park Dayhikes.”

The view from Angels Landing, Zion National Park.

Admission to most national parks would remain free; only 118 of 417 NPS sites charge an entrance fee, which were previously increased at more than 100 NPS sites in 2015 and 2016, after a months-long period of public input. In August 2017, the cost of a lifetime senior pass was raised to $80. That cost had been $10 since 1994.

“The infrastructure of our national parks is aging and in need of renovation and restoration,” U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a statement released by the NPS. “Targeted fee increases at some of our most-visited parks will help ensure that they are protected and preserved in perpetuity and that visitors enjoy a world-class experience that mirrors the amazing destinations they are visiting.”

The proposal’s public comment period closes Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 23. To comment, go to parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?documentID=83652.

The Park Service estimates that the peak-season price hike could increase national park revenue from entrance fees by $70 million per year, a 34 percent bump up from the $200 million collected in fiscal year 2016. Under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, 80 percent of an entrance fee remains in the park where it is collected, and 20 percent finances projects in other parks.

Todd Arndt atop Half Dome, Yosemite National Park.

These 17 parks draw the vast bulk of total national parks visitation, and collectively bring in 70 percent of all entrance-fee revenue for the entire Park Service. Entrance-fee revenue from these parks in fiscal year 2017, which ended Sept. 30, ranged from $2.8 million at Denali to $14.6 million at Yellowstone, $24.8 million at Yosemite, and nearly $26 million at Grand Canyon.

The argument for hiking fees sounds good at first blush. Without question, our government has allowed the maintenance backlog at all parks to mushroom for far too long; the NPS now estimates it at $11.3 billion. More than half of that consists of transportation infrastructure like the Arlington Memorial Bridge, the Grand Loop Road in Yellowstone, and roads in mountainous terrain, which are very expensive to maintain. But it extends to visitor centers, trails, and campgrounds. Some 41,000 of the 75,000 NPS assets nationwide are in need of repairs, according to the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).

That must be addressed, both to fulfill the Park Service mandate as well as arguably for safety. And the problem steadily worsens as people keep coming to the parks in droves. In 2016, national parks set a visitation record for the third year in a row, with nearly 331 million recreation visits, surpassing 2015’s record of 307.2 million. Some say the Uber-inspired model of implementing the fee hike only during peak season at each park could motivate some people to visit outside the peak season.

The proposal has drawn blowback from some members of Congress, including the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, Republican Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, where four of five national parks would see entrance fees go up. Bishop told The Salt Lake Tribune his committee would hold hearings on the proposal, because allowing an agency to impose a fee hike on the public without congressional input “(is) troublesome to me.”

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by USA Today and others. I invite you to sign up for my FREE email newsletter by entering your email address in the box in the left sidebar, at the bottom of this post, or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Skyline Arch in Arches National Park.

Many haven’t overlooked the fact that the proposed increase— the largest since World War II—comes as President Trump’s 2018 budget would slash nearly $400 million from the NPS, a cut that American Hiking Society Executive Director Kate Van Waes calls “unacceptable.” (Full disclosure: I’m a volunteer ambassador for AHS.)

“Entrance fees are a necessary part of national park funding, and they instill a sense to the visitor that this is a sacred place, worthy of pride and protection,” Van Waes wrote to me. Those fees are “luckily, still orders of magnitude cheaper than many theme parks. But those fees shouldn’t go so high as to be prohibitive to lower-income families and individuals.”

NPCA chief executive Theresa Pierno said in a statement on the group’s website: “We should not increase fees to such a degree as to make these places—protected for all Americans to experience—unaffordable for some families to visit. The solution to our parks’ repair needs cannot and should not be largely shouldered by its visitors.”

Kris Wagner backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop.

The argument for the proposal has more holes in it than Carlsbad Caverns. Most people visit parks during peak seasons because that’s when they can. Raising the cost of entry then won’t change that reality for most people, especially families whose kids are out of school during summers.

This fee hike’s impact falls most heavily upon people who make less money. Meanwhile, many people most able to afford it will face no cost increase, because the $80 annual America the Beautiful—National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass is not going up. The family that can afford one national park visit will see their cost more than double to $70, while people with the means to visit numerous parks in one year won’t pay even a dollar more for the $80 pass that gets them into every park.

Is it fair or appropriate to place the burden of a fee hike on the people who can least afford it?

Already, the average age of visitors tops 50 in many parks: 54 in Yellowstone, 57 in Denali. While the NPS doesn’t track visitor demographics, a survey in 2008-2009 found that 20 percent of visitors self-identified as Hispanic, African-American, or Asian-American, which is only half of their representation in the general public. Anyone frequenting national parks—especially parks not located near major cities—can see that most visitors are white and, by all appearances, relatively affluent.

This plan conveniently shifts the burden of paying for that maintenance backlog from Congress, which bears the responsibility for funding parks, to users, who are already paying taxes to support their parks.

Do you like my blog? Get full access to all stories at The Big Outside. Become a subscriber now!

Dave Simpson hiking into Garnet Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.

But the proposal’s biggest flaw is that it’s a finger in a crumbling dam. These increases won’t raise nearly enough money to accomplish Zinke’s stated reason for them. The additional $70 million in annual revenue comprises a mere 10 percent of the $700 million the NPS estimates it needs just to stop the backlog from continuing to balloon. The $264 million in total revenue from all national park entrance fees in fiscal year 2016 made up just 8.1 percent of the Park Service’s $3.2 billion budget for that year.

Expecting a fee hike to make a serious dent in that shortfall is like having your kid sell lemonade on the street corner to help cover your mortgage.

Entrance fees must be part of a larger formula for funding the operation of parks—everyone agrees on that. But national..

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By Michael Lanza

My first two-person tent set me back only about 75 bucks. It weighed several pounds and was bulky for backpacking. I called it the Wind Sock for its propensity to snap loudly in the slightest breeze, and because its poles bowed disturbingly in strong gusts. (I learned to choose protected campsites.) When it rained hard, I’d wake up to a puddle covering the floor.

But I used it for six summers of car camping and backpacking. At a time when I could not afford good gear, that tent was good enough. It sheltered me for probably close to 150 nights and got me through many wonderful experiences. For its swan song, my girlfriend (now my wife) and I spent three months hiking, backpacking, and climbing throughout the West—and slept a total of one night indoors. I used the Wind Sock until it all but disintegrated in the last campsite it ever saw. My cost for that tent worked out to about 50 cents a night.

In fact, all of the very first gear and clothing I bought when I started dayhiking and backpacking was of similar quality, from my boots to my backpack. I’ve been reminded of that gear while reading questions from readers of The Big Outside asking how to outfit themselves or a group of kids or teenagers inexpensively.

That’s not easily accomplished, because you usually get what you pay for. But there are certain times of year when you can find good gear pretty cheap—including now.

In this article, I share the strategies I’ve learned over the years for getting decent or even very good gear cheaply. If you’re much shorter on cash than on eagerness to get out dayhiking and backpacking, or you just prefer paying less for your gear, read on.

You can help support my work on this blog (while scoring excellent bargains) by making any gear purchases through the retailer links in this story. Thanks for your support.

Todd Arndt above Thousand Islands Lake on the John Muir Trail.

#1 Shop Discount Online Sites

This is the way to score higher-quality gear and apparel from top brands for bargain prices. These sites offer deep discounts on product that has been discontinued (replaced in a company’s line by something similar, newer, and improved) or was made in a color that didn’t sell. This stuff went on sale new at higher prices just months earlier—it’s current technology, not ancient crap.

Anyone shopping for new gear or apparel would be wise to begin by visiting sites like backcountry.com and the backcountry.com outlet storemoosejaw.comREI GarageSierra Trading Post, and theclymb.com. Wait for seasonal sales (spring, late summer, and holidays) at those sites and ems.com, rei.comsunnysports.com, AppOutdoors.com, campsaver.com, NRS (for water sports gear), and Uncle Dan’s. Follow these sites through the social media you use.

Even Amazon and overstock.com sometimes offer name-brand gear. I’ve heard from some of the many indie, non-brand gear makers who sell their backpacks, daypacks, tents, and other gear at bargain prices on Amazon. Of course, it’s difficult to evaluate quality from an online description and photo. I think some of this stuff would perform like my first, cheap tent, and potentially last a few seasons or longer. Frankly, I’d advise buyer beware, especially if you’re looking for gear you intend to use a lot and use hard. You can find brand names you know and good-quality products at discount prices.

If you’re looking for a specific product, you may not find it; and sizes available are sometimes limited. But if you’re on a more general quest for a rain jacket or a backpack, you may well find something that was cutting edge last year at a price that fits into your budget, or is too good to pass up.

Backpackers on the Teton Crest Trail, Grand Teton National Park.

#2 Lower Your Standards

Big rule of life in general: Beggars can’t be choosers. But that’s okay—you can get by with cheap gear, you just have to accept more discomfort and be careful about how you try to use that gear. (I certainly would not have pitched the Wind Sock anyplace exposed to strong wind.) Cruise eBay and Craig’s List for used gear. (Example: My teenage son found a nearly new, high-end whitewater kayak for half its usual retail price on Craig’s List.)

Look into whether there’s a used-gear exchange near where you live. I have an app on my phone from myresaleweb.com that lists exchanges (of all kinds, not just outdoor gear) in many states. Some local outdoor-gear stores may hold used-gear sales or garage sales, where people can bring stuff they want to sell cheap. Some REI stores host garage sales occasionally for members; go to rei.com/promotions/garage-sale. Local and regional hiking and outdoor clubs may do the same thing.

If you can’t afford new gear, equip yourself with gear you can afford. It may last long enough to see you through a few seasons, until you save up enough to gradually start acquiring better-quality gear.

Nonetheless, be choosy about which cheap gear you buy. Read reviews of quality gear to educate yourself on how to distinguish between gear that’s poorly made and gear that’s reasonably well made and won’t fall apart on your second trip with it.

The tradeoffs for paying much less are often less-expensive and heavier materials, a less-precise, boxier fit (in boots, packs, and apparel), performance compromises, and often a shorter lifespan. Look for gear and apparel from those respected brands, like Kelty and REI, that offer lower-priced products that are nonetheless well made.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by USA Today and others. I invite you to sign up for my FREE email newsletter by entering your email address in the box in the left sidebar, at the bottom of this post, or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Hikers on the Peek-a-Boo loop, Bryce Canyon National Park.

#3 Inspect the Gear Closely

You don’t have to be a gear expert to examine a piece of gear closely. Handle it, pull and tug on seams and zippers, move any moving parts. Assess whether you think it look flimsy or well made.

With a pack:
•    Does it fit you? (Learn how to choose and fit a backpack in my “Top 5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpacking Pack.”)
•    If you intend to carry more than 25 or 30 pounds, does the pack have a decent framesheet, wire frame, aluminum stay, and/or any kind of structure that gives it structure and support, so that it doesn’t just hang off your back when loaded?
•    Does the hipbelt have either a few inches of width, or some structural rigidity, to distribute or support the weight inside the pack?
•    Does the backpack have the features you need?

With boots:

•    Does the rand on the boot’s toe appear ready to delaminate (or separate) from the upper?
•    If you attempt to wring the boot like a towel, can you twist it around with ease, or does its midsole have some rigidity to it (suggesting good support and lateral stability to help keep your ankles from rolling)?
•    If you place one hand inside a shoe and press on the outsole with the other hand, can you feel your fingers through the boot’s midsole (indicating little to no protection)?
•    Is the heel rigid and stable (good) or soft (bad)? (See my “Pro Tips For Buying the Right Hiking Boots.”)

Find links to the best prices on quality outdoor gear on the Web in my gear reviews at The Big Outside. With a tent:

•    Does it have a rainfly that extends nearly to the ground, to keep rain off the interior canopy?
•    Do the poles assemble smoothly, and feel strong or flimsy?
•    Are the rainfly seams taped or sealed to keep water out? (If not, you can do it yourself with a product like Seam Seal, but know the answer to that question.)
•    When pitched, does the tent looked taut and strong or is fabric loose and sagging? (See my “5 Tips For How to Buy a Backpacking Tent.”)

With a sleeping bag:
•    What’s the insulation material? With less-expensive bags, you’re often choosing between lower-grade down (around 600-fill) or a synthetic, the latter including a variety of materials, some much lighter and more compact than others.
•    How heavy and bulky is it when inside its stuff sack—and will it fit easily inside your pack?
•    Does the zipper move smoothly or snag easily?
•    Does the hood closely smoothly and neatly around your head and face? (See my “Pro Tips For Buying Sleeping Bags.”)

With boots, daypacks, and backpacks, fit determines a large part of comfort. You can get blisters with expensive boots, or sore shoulders with a high-end backpack, too. Always try on gear and apparel before buying, no matter what you’re spending.

A hiker at Fontanillis Lake in California’s Desolation Wilderness.

#4 Shop at Big-Box Stores

Yes, it’s demoralizing, and in truth, most of the stuff they offer does not cut it for backcountry use. But you might be surprised at the functionality of some products you find in the camping-equipment department of a big-box retailer. This search can require some time and visiting more than one store. But if you have more time than money, this strategy offers potential, especially for finding a useable daypack (maybe a backpack), backpacking stove, or rain jacket.

A backpacker on the Piegan Pass Trail in Glacier National Park.

#5 Get Good Boots First

If you have the means to outfit yourself with one higher-quality gear item and you’re trying to decide which one thing to spend a little more on—tent, pack, bag, boots, or rain jacket—I recommend boots. Here’s why: Protecting and supporting your feet is more important than having a comfortable pack or storm-worthy tent, both for avoiding injury and for affecting your comfort every step of the way.

The truth is, you can actually get a pair of decently made, waterproof-breathable footwear with the support for dayhiking or light backpacking, from a respected brand, for under $150—sometimes well under, such as in a closeout sale. Cheap, poorly constructed boots or shoes may blow out after one or two rugged trips, which doesn’t save you any money when you have to replace them so quickly, whereas a $120-$150 pair from a good brand is likely to endure for at least 400 trail miles.

Bonus Tip #6 Get Stronger

When I carried cheap backpacks loaded beyond their..

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