This past Saturday Mike and I did our first joint training hike for our upcoming mid May Appalachian Trail section hike. We hiked at Giufridda Park in Meriden for about 4 hours in the rain covering 5 miles and approximately 3000 feet worth of elevation gain and loss. Our purpose was to test ourselves and our gear and get a better idea of what our average pace will be. This is important because we need to cover 10-12 miles each of the three days of our trip so knowing our pace will allow us to make sound decisions about when we get up and how long we take for meals and breaks along the way. Of course the whole reason for hiking at all is to have fun but that goes without saying now doesn’t it.
My REI Flash 45 pack was loaded with 29 pounds of gear and old camp t-shirts to simulate my estimated pack weight at the start of our 3 day trip. I also lined it with a trash bag and everything in the brain(top portion of the bag) was in a ziplock bag. I wore my Icebreakers merino wool t-shirt, LL Bean Cresta zip-off hiking pants, Outdoor Research Swift Hat, LL Bean long sleeve running shirt, Chaco Z/1 Unaweep sandals, Marmot Precip rain jacket, and REI Powerflyte gloves. I took the running shirt off at the top of Chauncy peak because I was too hot but my rain coat, zip off pants, and merino t-shirt kept me comfortable in the rainy 50 degree temperatures.
Neither of us had ever done an extended hike in the rain but we both had fun. Our only moments of discomfort came when we stopped moving and sat down for lunch. We both tossed on a warmer layer but the damp cold did catch up to us a bit. Fortunately, by the time I felt cold I had my chili/oriental mix of ramen flavored noodles cooked up and half in my belly. I also brought along some powdered hot apple cider that helped warm us both up. I cooked the ramen in a quart sized freezer bag instead of a bowl. I tossed it in a neoprene pouch while it cooked and then ate right out of the bag with my long spork. It worked great but I will have to figure out something to put the bag in to shape it and make it a little easier to hold. I also uses my Alight Monarch chair during lunch to relax and get off my feet for a while. There is nothing quite like sitting on top of a mountain in a comfortable chair eating a hot meal. I think this picture of me setting up my chair is going to become a staple of these trips. The picture on the left is from October and the one on the right is from this weekend.
On thing I learned(again) is that I have a tendency to pack way too much food. The pretzels, peanut butter single, granola bar, half of my trail mix, and a third of my water went unconsumed. This may not sound like much but if you multiply the weight of all that by three days and add it to an already heavy pack you’ll have issues. I’ll have to remember that when packing for our trip. Mike brought along a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and he was finished eating almost as soon as I had my water boiling so he decided to do a little exploring around the summit area of Lamentation Mountain. I have no idea how this thing got up there but I imagine it involved a lot of booze, a lot of determination, or both. The Goat Lives!
Thanks to my insistence on cooking my lunch we stayed up there about 15 minutes longer than we had planned so I packed up as quick as possible and we started back down the mountain. I kept my wet swift hat off in favor of my dry merino beanie. I also kept my merino buff and a lightweight LL Bean fleece pullover on to keep the chill away on the way down. The wind picked up a bit as we started hiking again but I still assumed I would shed the fleece layer before getting back on the lake trail. I was wrong but happy to be so since I was comfortable and warm as we worked our way down the ridge. We had to stop several times along the way so I could check the map and verify which way to go. The trails intersect in confusing ways as you traverse the near side of the ridge so I thought taking extra care here was a good idea. We made good time down the ridge and zoomed our way back to the car. One handy tip for day hiking is to bring a water bottle to drink on the way to the trail head and another to drink after you finish. Sometimes I use a large water cooler for this but I didn’t want to bother with it this time.
All in all it was a good day despite all the rain. We learned that we can hike for 4 hours in the rain and still have a blast and that the gear we brought worked well for each of us. We also learned that with minimal breaks and a 45 minute lunch we can cover 5 miles in 4 hours under challenging conditions. I swam laps and stretched yesterday with no soreness and I feel great today. I would call our first training hike a success!
Today we hiked Penwood State Forest in Simsbury Connecticut. This state park has a fairly extensive trail system that runs along the ridge and includes a road with several connector trails for easier hiking in case the kiddos get tired. There are other trails indicated on the trail map that we did not explore including the Metacomet Trail. There is also a small outhouse style bathroom at the trail head. We started out below the lot on the Yellow trail, hiked out for about a mile and a half before backtracking a short ways and switching over to the road until were back to the lot. Our hike was approximately 3 miles and took 3 hours with one break half way for water and snacks.
The yellow trail was easy overall with some short moderate climbs. I would not recommend this trail to anyone who is not a fan of steep drop-offs since the one side of the trail gets close to several along the way. There were more nice views along the way but mainly because the leaves are not out yet. I imagine that in the summer you would not be able to see as much as we saw today. The overlook was beautiful and is featured in a few of these pictures. It’s locationis indicated on the trail map.
We saw some pretty cool stuff along the way including this very weathered log and some amazing views.
The wind was pretty intense today in Connecticut but it was especially strong at Penwood because the park was on exposed ridge and there were no leaves on the trees to help break the wind. The boys and I don’t mind a little wind but this time it was a different. There were blown down trees everywhere at Penwood and some were clearly recent. We even passed a very large creaking tree within easy striking distance of the trail that had massive 8 foot crack in it’s trunk. I would not recommend going to this park on a windy day and if you do make sure to look up and be aware of any widowmakers.
We started back on the trail but Oscar decided he wanted to finish walking back on the road. It was nice to have a relatively flat and easy walk back.
Edgar normally does well in the backpack and today was no exception. He was pointing at everything and telling me what he saw as he bounced his way down the trail on my back. “Daddy I see trees! Daddy I see rocks! Daddy I see trees AND rocks!” He got a little tired towards the end so he slept for the last half mile or so. Oscar was happy to have my undivided attention for a while so I collapsed one of my poles and strapped it to the side of the pack so he could hold my hand.
We were all tired at the end but another snack and some water cured what ailed us. I would do this hike again but I think next time I’ll go on a calmer day and bring more water and snacks. We were all a bit hungrier and thirstier than I would prefer at the end. I would rate Penwood 3 out of four stars on a calm day and two out of four on a windy day. The views are amazing and the trail is well maintained but there was a lot of blow down and that cracked tree is a safety concern on a windy day. The lot is also a bit small so I would have a backup hike in your back pocket if you try to hike here on a busy day.
Two years ago I decided to purchase and try out a pair of Outdoor Products trekking poles from Wal-Mart. I figured that my $20 would buy me a pair of garbage poles that might last a couple of hikes and then fall apart. They are heavy with cheesy grips, uncomfortable wrist straps, and an unreliable locking mechanism but at the end of the day they still work 99% of the time and never irritate me enough to stop using them mid hike. Mine came with a pair of rubber tips, clips for storage, and mud baskets one of which I lost. Here are some things to be aware of before purchasing these.
- Weight: My pair comes with shock absorbers and tips the scale at 26 ounces. That may not sound like a lot but consider that you have to lift those poles roughly 1700 times per mile and 13 ounces per pole adds up real quick. If you have to hang one or both off of your pack that affects your pack weight and you may already be maxing out on weight if your budget for such an essential piece of gear is 20 bucks.
- Grip: The grips on these poles are simple plastic and have a shape that is intended to mold to a hand that is holding them perpendicular to the ground. If your hands get wet from sweat, rain, or boogers this plastic grip will offer no traction. The ergonomics are off as well since you will not be planting your pole perpendicular to the ground very often.
- Strap: The wrist strap bears much of the weight as you push-off with your poles so it is important that it fits well and is made form a comfortable material. Outdoor Products has chosen to use rather thick and narrow nylon webbing and place the adjustment buckle so that it falls on the back of my wrist and rubs against the back of my hand, wrist, and randomly pushes the buttons on my watch.
- Locking Mechanism: My poles are equipped with an internal “twist lock” mechanism which uses rubber rings attached to twist actuated expanders to prevent the pole sections from collapsing under weight. I have had mine fail 3 times in the last two years. You may not think this is a big deal but if you are using one of these poles while descending with a kid on your back as his brother holds your hand you would find those three collapses very disturbing. The twist lock mechanism is prone to failure because you cannot reliably verify that it is fully locked. It also relies on rubber rings that will inevitably dry rot and break down over time. You cannot be sure of their condition which creates a situation where you know they are going to stop working but you don’t know when.
- Tips: The metal tips are not replaceable. You will inevitably wear through the tips of any trekking poles after using them regularly. Almost all trekking poles have replaceable tips and the best have tip assemblies that are designed to be weaker than the shaft of the pole. They will break away before your pole snaps. These have neither so once you have worn through them your only option is to toss on the rubber tips. They are great for rocks and pavement but almost useless on dirt so you might as well trash these poles once the metal tips wear through.
These poles do have a few advantages over some other options. While I am not sure they outweigh the negatives they are certainly worth considering.
- Anti-shock Mechanism: I like the springs in these poles, though they do make them heavier. They add a nice bounce when I lean on them and reduce vibration in the poles when I plant them. The springs do nullify some of my exertion when I am going uphill but I don’t really mind that.
- Price: I paid 20 bucks for these so who cares if they aren’t perfect. I wanted to try out some trekking poles to see if I liked them and I did. The price was right for an experiment and I am impressed that they are still holding together after 2+ years. They come with some serious drawbacks but all in all I feel like this was a good $20 spent.
- Availability: I purchased these from Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is everywhere! Not all stores are going to carry them but odds are you can find one near you that does. I have seen mine for sale at a few different Wal-Marts but it looks like they have stopped making the specific model I bought. If you are interested they make an almost identical model without the shock absorbers that is 2 ounces lighter per pair.
Outdoor Products trekking poles from Wal-Mart are cheap and easily available. They are a great option for people who want to try using trekking poles but don’t want to shell out the money. BAFX also makes a set that fit this criteria as well. They have significant drawbacks that can make them less safe and more difficult and less safe to use long-term. They are functional but these drawbacks I’ve outlined combined with the abundance of other options leave me with no choice but to give these poles 2 out of four stars.
Trekking poles are one of my must have pieces of gear for any hike. They make the uphills and downhills much easier and they are essential when tackling tricky terrain with or without kids in tow. In a pinch I can also collapse one or both of them if I need my hand(s) free and they can be used on almost any type of surface.
When I use my trekking poles by myself the focus is on speed, stability, and weight transfer. My poles are adjusted so that my elbows are at a ninety degree angle when I hold with them with the tips in contact with the ground. I plant each pole at the same time as my opposite foot strikes the ground, driving the pole back to propel myself forward. On the uphills I plant one or both of my poles slightly ahead of me to help push me up and on the downhills I plant the slightly ahead to help steady myself and transfer some of the shock and weight from my knees and ankles to my shoulders and core. This has the added advantage of providing stability on steep ascents or descents allowing me to hike longer and with more weight on my back than would be otherwise possible. Here e is a brief tutorial on the basics.
Trekking poles make difficult trail obstacles much easier. Everything from stepping over a large log to fording a stream can be significantly safer and less difficult when you have a pair of trekking poles at the ready. The preferred method is to use the wrist strap but I often switch my grip to “palm” the top of the grip when I need a little more reach because I am walking on something slightly raised, because I am traversing a particularly steep descent, or if I have to step down off of something raised. These activities sound simple but when you have a heavy pack on the chances of becoming unbalanced or rolling and ankle go up. The stakes are even higher when you have a kid on your back and one in tow. This is the main reason why I always use trekking poles. I want to be able to show my boys and experience the wonders that New England’s great outdoor spaces contain and my poles help me keep them safe while pushing all of our limits.
When I hike with my kids my poles give me several advantages. They allow me to hike longer with a load on my back then I could otherwise which is especially helpful when you have 25-30 pounds of child, carrier, and gear on your back. My trekking poles also extend my reach to provide my son with short-term assistance or to guide him away from a hazard or pile of dog poop. The last and most important advantage of using poles is that they provide me with additional stability on tricky trails which allows me to more effectively help my son traverse difficult terrain. He usually hikes without holding my hand but when the trail gets tough I collapse one of my poles, strap it to the pack frame, and hold his hand to get him through it. I pivot my body and keep him above me and a pole firmly planted on my downhill side. This position provides the most stability while allowing me to keep him steady and safe as we work our way up or down. We have safely traversed remarkably difficult trail sections using this technique while going slow and assessing the trail immediately in front of us. Ascents and descents require focus, confidence, and deliberate action. Save enjoying the views for when you reach the top and take your breaks at the bottom.
I hope you are itching to get yourself a pair of poles and hit the trail. You can buy an inexpensive pair from Wal-Mart like I did or invest in a set that will last you years and provide greater comfort. Either way you will be better off than you were before!
I tend to over think things and hiking trips both big and small are no exception. Some days I spend an hour or more trying to plan out all the things I should bring along in case of hunger thirst or emergency and I drive myself and everyone around me nuts. This spring has helped me realize something that I hope will begin to permeate the rest of my life. STOP THINKING ABOUT IT AND JUST GO DO IT!
I used to fret so much over bringing things I never ended up using and it took some of the enjoyment out of getting outside and walking in the woods. I am a bit of a gear geek so I do get a kick out of inventing novel solutions to the various problems that hiking with children presents. At a certain point though the excitement and sense of accomplishment give way to anxiety over forgetting that one supposedly crucial item and it ruins our hike.
These days I keep everything I need in my car other than items that come with us every day like weather appropriate outer wear, our water bottles, and some easy snacks like granola bars and apple sauce pouches. My trekking poles, frame pack carrier, first aid kit, and space blanket are all in the car and ready to go whenever I feel the itch to go disappear with the boys down a trail somewhere. Not needing to plan makes a big difference in lowering my stress level and allows me to more easily enjoy hiking with my kids.
I don’t generally decide where we are going anymore until the morning of our hike. I find that this prevents me from over thinking and allows me to better enjoy hiking with my family. I’ve noticed that the boys have more fun and are able to stay out longer when I am relaxed and not stressing over packing up or picking a route. We figure out our destination an hour or so before leaving and we pick our final route once we get there. There are a variety of ways to do this but if you are hiking somewhere new I recommend looking at a topographical map of the trail and downloading a hiking app like Alpine GPS before taking your kids on it.
Despite all this the most important thing you can do to make hiking with your kids easier is to have everything ready to go so that you can hit the trail at a moment’s notice. One of the great joys in hiking is the unexpected. You can hike the same trail a thousand times and you will have a thousand different experiences and a sense of freedom and joy that nothing else can really provide. You’ll never have the same variety of experiences if you sit at home or choose to go to a playground or library. So stop thinking about getting out and hiking. JUST GO DO IT!