Have you ever experienced your backyard?
Not just peering at the beauty of it through your dismal kitchen window, but really gone outside to stand in the (hopefully) cool, crisp morning air while the finches and chickadees greet you; all around is the scent of wet maple and hemlock mingle with the familiar terpenes emanating from your swath of pine, spruce or fir.
Have you ever stopped long enough to notice the little fungi that flowers (yes, mushrooms do “flower“) on that fallen log everytime it rains?
Do you ever wonder what mysteries lay beyond that 200-year old stone wall that casts a moat of familiarity and would be safety around your property?
Secretly curious why someone, such a long time ago clear cut that path which calls to you daily during your morning commute? Where does it go? Could there be a lost pond at the end of that trail that no one has the time to explore lately, in such a digital world? Maybe that was the trail Huck Finn would take to go catch all of his fish.. you’ll never know if you don’t take the time to explore.
Be the explorer.
Now that the glorious high peaks with their expansive views and spiderweb-like network of trails are off limits for most of us who abide by the ‘no unnecessary travel‘ guidelines put in place by local and state agencies; and yes.. perhaps as you read this you can look out your kitchen window to find an alpine paradise.. but unfortunately, I along with many others, do not.
So, if you’re like me then you may find yourself feeling a little stuck indoors on the treadmill (I don’t own a treadmill.. and hopefully you don’t either!) reading about, and deeply craving the forests once again.
Want to explore local places but don’t know where to begin?
These days there are loads of free GPS and mapping apps that can be installed onto your smart phone. While this is hardly the most reliable method to employ when you are actually away from civilization, it can be the cheapest to start with; if nothing more, just to get an idea of local trails, nearby mountains, dog parks, and even some of the “lesser-used” paths!
Before taking to my local paths, I typically prefer to use any number of mapping websites while I have the luxury of a larger monitor (and somewhat reliable WiFi!) of which to view the network of linking paths; alltrails, caltopo, peakbagger are all some of the pages I will cycle through, you may notice that one source may offer you older logging roads while another may show other details like wetlands, not found on other maps – this is why I try to check as many resources as possible to get an accurate and up-to-date idea of which paths lead where.
Particularly in wintertime it can be nice to have access to trail reporting websites, where users can log in and give detailed (and often very helpful) logs of which trails they have used lately, including important factors as any blowdown to contend with, stream or river crossings and their status (height), even including what gear they recommend for a pleasurable and safe trek into the forest.
It should go without saying though: while it is nice and super convenient to have the access to GPS and mapping apps on our smartphones (many of which do operate in airplane mode, thus conserving battery life), if you don’t have the initial WiFi to download the topo for a region, you may find that your map is blank with you as a blue dot lost in a featureless ocean of nothing on your screen.
Also worth noting, while using a mapping app to track your location is very convenient – these apps have a way of sucking the battery power while using the screen near full-time. It can be helpful enough to simply use your phone’s app as a back up, checking occasionally where you are located at the moment; only if needed – this way the battery power will be conserved for in the event of an emergency, when you may really need to know and follow a certain direction back to safety.
What turf do you want to run, hike or bike on?
Often times it is possible to determine what kind of surface makes up a trail network by reading a topographic map; consult the legend, typically dirt logging roads will have a different line-type, color, or level of boldness than a foot-traffic only path. It may be possible to determine how remote a trail system is by even noting per the map if the area contains man-made bridges or waterbars, all indicators of recent (safe to assume within 10-20 years, this may not always indicate a path is maintained yearly or even monthly, check the date on the map!) trail maintenance.
While it is probably safe to conclude that if it is winter outside then there is likely snow covering the trails – but with a little preliminary digging online or into local maps (check local co-ops or coffee shops for maps or info for local trails!), you may be able to conclude if these trails garner the traffic that will give you a nice packed surface following a good dumping of snow, or if not – perhaps you need to be prepared to step into a pair of snowshoes and break your own trail through 12-inches of freshly fallen fluffy snow.
Some trails around where I currently reside cycle between being host to mountain bike and running trails by summer/fall and ski, snowshoe and even snowmobile trails by winter and spring – a little digging and research should help answer your questions of what you can expect to trek on!
So many trails, so many surfaces!
- Hiking path – will probably be the most enjoyable for trail running or exploring with your pup; chances are you will find a maintained trail with the occasional rock or small boulder to step around or over; could be wide enough to permit anything from single file all the way up to four or more folks to trekking side-by-side (although with 6-ft for social distancing, this may not be applicable at this time!); likely a marked trail with painted blazes or color-coded discs
- Mountain bike path – similar to a hiking trail with possibly more obstacles to contend with, this can be anything from roots, rocks, sandy trails, narrow wooden bridges to skirt over and through boggy areas; if you know you are on a confirmed mountain biking trail, don’t wear ear buds, stay alert to possible incoming traffic, yield to on-coming bikers if these trails are designated for bike-use; likely a marked trail with painted blazes or color-coded discs
- Snowmobile path – similar to mountain biking trails as far as who has the right of way, at least with snowmobiles you should be able to hear them coming from a distance; these trails are typically groomed flat for snow machines in the snowy months, often times over-grown and appearing out of commission in the late-spring/summer months; can prove difficult to follow at times (especially once ferns and new growth comes in), with a bit of research you should be able to track down a copy (online or at a local convenient/gas store) of up-to-date snowmobile paths, or contact your local snowmobile club for more info; paths can be marked/emblazoned, some clubs will even have signage at trail intersections indicating refueling stations or distance/direction to the next town
- Old logging roads – may not take you exactly where you want to go; certainly be mindful of active logging traffic; logging roads can be quite rugged, hosting stumps, logs or small downed trees laying directly in your path (perfect if you are training for an OCR..or obstacle course race!); underfoot you may encounter a muddy, slushy or sandy path depending on time of year, many logging roads are littered with tree and wood chips which may seem soft for running, but can prove to be strenuous on the ankles; these paths are likely not marked so do your research before setting out on them!
- Herd paths – the forest really only needs three foot steps on the same patch of earth cover before soil becomes so compacted that drainage is impacted and many root structures simply die; mosses become trampled, ferns and saplings all pushed aside with twigs broken from repeated travel; while herd paths are also not marked or blazed (possibly not even listed on recent maps), these trails will begin to test your route finding instincts; if there has been any recent traffic, tracks will be naturally easier to follow in the winter; by the time autumn hits and leaves begin to drop, these paths can become difficult to follow – spend a bit of extra time before setting out really becoming familiar with the direction of travel such as “after the path circumnavigates Pond #1, it will climb East to 2400′ and swing North continuing along a ridgeline Northwest for 1.2 miles before reaching the old Kilkenny farm house and outbuildings”; you may find neon colored surveyors tape from prior parties in these woods, best to not follow or trust unless you placed the tape and are familiar with its direction!
- Bushwhacking (off-trail) – make note of where you depart the marked trail or roadside; be super observant of your surroundings while off-trail, make mental notes of contours and nearby hills, valleys, ravines, steams, ponds as you pass to try to picture where you are currently on the topographic map – this will be easier in winter or early spring before new growth limits how far you can see; leave ‘breadcrumbs’ in your mind of which direction you went, keep the idea of a known object or mountain in the back of your mind such as “Peak #2 should always be to the south during my trek”, if that is true – this may not remain factual on longer traverses or as you crest a number of ridges and peaks, etc
A note on bushwhacking: while it is extremely rare that you will find markings along the trail, this is where having and knowing how to use a map and compass is imperative, this skill may be what stands between you stuck overnight on a trail.. lost, and your warm cabin.
Another option that can be used is to tie a small piece of surveyors flagging/tape every so often to mark your own path into the woods, can be used to follow your way back – but be cautious, if you do not travel in an “out and back” fashion, you absolutely must trek back in your original path and take down all of your flagging, do not leave a mess for others to clean up, or even worse.. for someone else to follow resulting in them becoming disoriented and possibly more lost than they were!
Will I see wildlife?
Depending on the time of year, yes – there could be a good chance on encountering critters as you explore new places! Typically, where there is water: brooks, ponds, bogs, wetlands you will be able to find the beginnings of the food chain. Beginning with lifeforms that live in the water, whether it be stagnant and swampy or flowing downstream there may be frogs, fish, insects or seaweed and mosses which give life to larger forms of life!
Around wetlands can also be a great place to run into moose and bear depending on where in the world you’re located, just outside of my cabin doorstep lay home to hundreds of square miles of protected land – the perfect environment for larger animals (currently my muddy driveway contains what looks like a highway of moose tracks); while you think it may still be winter in your neck of the woods, that doesn’t mean that bear are not beginning their waking cycle, coming out of hibernation in search of berries, wild edibles or your mushroom jerky (if you still consume beef jerky, might I recommend trying mushroom jerky as an alternative, its both healthy and delicious!).
While this article is in no way trying to scare you into believing nature is just waiting to devour your whole being the second you step into the forest, it is simply a pleasant reminder that we are surrounded by nature, upon stepping onto remote trails.. we are entering their world, we are the guests as we trek the woods.
Big animals are all around us, chances are we may just not see them – I think they would want it that way: they have the eyes on us, we are the visitors. Be aware that if you go into their habitat with a fist of salmon and expect to not be followed, you are being really very silly. Animals are naturally curious, especially if they smell something interesting while you have stopped to check your map (as in, you are not ruffling leaves or rattling a bear bell or making some noise), they may just creep in to check out what you are munching on – depending on just how hungry they are can dictate how this encounter goes.
As a good rule that I try to abide by – eat before you enter the woods, wash your hands of all foreign food scents, try to stick with water and things that don’t have strong aromas; save the savory foods for when you get back to your car (it’s a good idea to always bring back up food, but if possible keep it sealed up for an emergency – I do this with my bag of gorp.. Good Ol’ Raisins and Peanuts, it’s there in case I spend longer than anticipated in the woods, but I don’t want to invite the curious to my path!).
Be aware of how long it may take you to adventure in these newer trails; you may want to slow your pace and really observe your new surroundings, take photos or just hang out at that new pond you just discovered! Being aware though, while you are planning your adventure, a clear path that has not had recent rain or flooding can be traversed much faster than a trail that just received 6-inches of snow that you now have to break through.
This is where having the luxury of recent trail reports can pay off, just so you have some heads up as to what you are getting yourself into.
Will you have to break trail through fresh powder?
Are the temps rising in the afternoons forcing you to glissade across melting snow that sticks itself like super glue to your snowshoes, adding pounds of unanticipated weight to each step and wearing out your leg muscles that much faster?
What about that recent windstorm that knocked down an entire growing season worth of leaves, camouflaging your path with a sea of wet orange, red and yellow leaves that slide like ice when you step on them?
Maybe this windstorm also brought branches and limbs.. or even worse.. entire stands of trees down that you will now have to climb up and over to gain any progress.
Whatever the current conditions are can either make your adventure a smooth one, or can slow you to a crawl; maybe you brought water and food for an hour long run while you find yourself stuck in a half mile of 10-foot deep blowdown forcing you to crawl under, over or around to get back to your car – turning your hour long adventure into a full afternoon (or more!) out in the forest.
Dress for the Temps
Think about what time of the year you are heading out into the forest; is it summer where the temperatures don’t typically drop below 65 degrees overnight, and you’ll retain good visibility underneath the forest canopy until 9pm, or is the calendar creeping toward spring or autumn with temps dropping as much as 30-60 degrees as the sun drops below the horizon, maybe once the sun starts to go down you only find yourself with half an hour before stuck in complete darkness.
A little planning can go a long way and make you much more comfortable should you find yourself being out on the trails longer than you anticipated!
What do you need to bring, if you are only planning on being on these new trails for an hour or two to stretch the legs, why bother weighing yourself down with any extra gear? Why would I pack a jacket if its sunny and 75-degrees now? I can last all day without food and water, should I even need to bring a pack?
There was a time I sounded exactly like this, that was.. until I learned the hard way that bringing extra is never a bad idea!
Sure, if you are planning on trail running, why would you want to be weighted down by a pack or with extra water sloshing around?
Be realistic when you make your plans to explore and just let the thought enter your mind for a moment: what will I realistically need to comfortably spend an unplanned night out?
Hopefully you won’t actually need your whistle to signal that you are lost without cell service. Seeing as prices have dropped significantly in the past years, many folks these days carry a Spot or InReach – some type of personal location beacon in case things really go wrong and cannot get themselves to safety under their own power.
But.. back that thang up! Before you let yourself need to be rescued, think about what you would need should you be stuck and not able to get yourself out until the sun comes back up.
During this wild time we find ourselves, with COVID-19 reeking havoc throughout the world – do not expect the same Search and Rescue efforts to even exist. Should you find yourself needing their help in the forest, it may take considerably longer to amass a team to rescue you, or even worse – this help may never come.
Do not expect anyone to have your back, pack extra because you need to.
Do you have extra snacks?
What about that spare jacket you didn’t think would be needed at 1pm when you set out?
Did you actually bring a pack with a map and compass that you know how to use, do you really know where you are or did you just run wild through the forest thinking the trail was 50-feet that way when it was really 50-feet in the opposite direction?
Wouldn’t it be nice to have brought extra socks, or a buff to wrap around your head or neck?
What about the headlamp that you didn’t think you would need, I’d bet now you do!
Did you carry your trekking poles that you never leave the trail head without? Sure, they may help with balance.. but what if you need to secure a twisted ankle, it sure would be helpful to have the poles then!
Remember those hand and toe warmers that you never left your car without all winter, why not toss an extra pair in your pack for an unplanned overnighters?
While not even large in size any longer, it has become so easy to carry a good blade with us into the wild to be used as needed: cut sticks into a smaller size, open plastic packaging on that candy bar that you cannot grip since the sun went down and left your fingers without all of their natural feeling capability; while you no longer need to look like Davy Crockett running mad through the forest with a machete, there are hundreds of multi-tool companies out there these days, and with such lightweight materials (metals or ceramics), why not carry one – likely you will never need it, but when you do.. you’ll be happy it went along for the ride in your bag!
So many little things that can be tossed into a pack and thrown on your back that weigh next-to-nothing, can all either be never needed, or that extra little detail that make survival possible – or just endurable enough to get you through the night as needed.
On top of carrying extra things to make your survival life easier, take the extra couple of minutes while at home and learn how to use everything that goes into your pack, likely amenities and various equipment can be doubled into dozens of other uses.. with a little ingenuity and practice-work before entering the forest!
And lastly, just remember that nature is like a second home to us; respect nature and we will be rewarded ten-fold. But nature is truly wild, anything can happen – and if we spend enough time in nature, everything will happen; things will go wrong, we will get hurt, we will run into big creatures in the forest.. but if we prepare our minds and bodies and try to learn from others mistakes.. we will be that much more likely to turn a negative experience into an opportunity; to remain calm, learning and growing with nature.
Stay healthy and found out there!