Last week my guiding season kicked off in the beautiful — but soggy and unseasonably cold — mountains of West Virginia, with four 3-day/2-night learning-intensive Backpacking Fundamentals courses, split between two guide teams.
Based on the conditions assessment that we performed during the Planning Curriculum, we expected rain and cool temperatures. But I was hoping for better weather than what we got: five consecutive days of precipitation (with unhelpful sunshine on the last morning), and temps in the 30’s and 40’s for the second trip.
Despite the adverse conditions, these trips went spectacularly. What are some of the things that made the biggest difference?
1. Group tarps
At each campsite we created large protected spaces using oversized tarps. The other lead guide, Alan Dixon, keenly observed that the tarps had the same magnetic pull as a campfire — they allowed clients to eat, relax, and converse as a group, instead of being stuck in individual shelters.
I carried two flat tarps for my 10-person groups: Mountain Laurel Designs SuperTarp made of Dyneema Composite Fabric ($380, 12 oz), and a Warbonnet Mamajamba made of silicone-impregnated nylon ($115, 12 oz). On six tie-outs I put 10-foot guylines, sufficient for long spans and high sides; where possible, I anchored the tarps to tree trunks, sturdy branches, and exposed roots using my recommended guyline system, rather than stakes.
In some locations and during some seasons, campfires are rightfully poo-poo’d. But fire restrictions in the Seneca Creek National Recreation Area are relatively lax, since there’s ample combustible fuel and normally low wildfire risk.
We had campfires each night during the colder second session to warm up, dry out, and boost morale. It was also an opportunity to conduct a masterclass in fire-starting. It’s disappointingly ironic that fires are needed most in the same conditions when they’re most difficult to start — when it’s cold, wet, and windy.
On the first night I successfully used my standard method, using a Bic lighter and mylar food wrapper. But on the second night we needed more help, since it’d rained most of the day and since we camped at 4,200 feet atop Spruce Mountain, which had been in the clouds for days. Coghlan’s Fire Sticks ($5, 2 oz) proved key, giving us a long-burning flame that dried out and eventually ignited our kindling.
3. Shell jacket + umbrella
When it became apparent that we’d see rain, I was excited that I’d be able to test the Gore H5 Shakedry Jacket ($400, 8 oz). But I also wisely packed a My Trail Company Chrome Umbrella ($40, 8 oz), which I’ve been wanting to thoroughly test as well.
In cool-and-wet conditions at least, I found the combination of these products to be stellar; they are not mutually exclusive. The umbrella kept me mostly dry — it shielded me from a lot of rain, including most of the the heaviest downpours. But the jacket was also essential — it protected my arms from driving rain, which translated into warmer hands; and I relied on it exclusively when the umbrella became impractcal, like on overgrown trails, during brushy bushwhacks, in high winds, and when the muddy trail demanded two trekking poles.
4. Showa Mitts
The Showa 282 Gloves are among the best $20 purchases that I’ve ever made, a sentiment now shared by many of the clients and other guides. My hands used to struggle badly in cold-and-wet conditions, but they’ve done much better since discovering the 282. On this trip, the gloves were ideal for hiking during the day, collecting firewood in camp, and packing cold wet tarps into stuff sacks in the morning.
The 282 feature a waterproof/breathable polyurethane shell and an acrylic liner. The shell is very tough and mildly textured (for enhanced grip). The acrylic liner is cheap and should be removed completely after it starts to delaminate. I now pair the 282 shells with Outdoor Research PL 400 Sensor Gloves, which is a more versatile system anyway. If your hands are small enough, you might be able to simply buy the liner-less Showa 281 version — but size way up, since they’re not designed with the expectation that you’ll wear liners with them.
5. Bread bags
On the first day of each trip, my shoes were dry for about a mile — until reaching an unbridged creek, an unavoidable bog, or tall rain-soaked grass. For the rest of the trip, my shoes were at least damp, and often soaked. So-called waterproof shoes would not have helped. Water would have entered from the top, or just overwhelm the waterproof-breathable fabric. Our better bet was managing the effects and aftermath of wet feet.
In camp, this meant having dedicated camp footwear, so that we could avoid avoid wearing cold wet shoes for several hours before bed. Some clients brought lightweight slide sandals, but most of us packed bread bags. After arriving in camp, we removed our wet shoes and hiking socks, and briefly let our feet dry. Then, we’d put on our dry sleeping socks and bread bags, then slide our feet back into our wet shoes. This system is remarkably effective and comfortable, in addition to being free and lightweight (about 1 oz).
6. Fantastic groups
Okay, this is where I will get mushy.
Even with all of the right gear (and the oversight of a world-class guide roster), these trips still could have been a bust, or at least a wash. Understandably, it’s difficult to get excited about spending three days outside in inclement weather and whiteout conditions.
But our groups rocked it. For the entirety, they were positive, cheery, and engaged. They were undeterred by the cold and rain; they were generous with each other and worked as a team; and they asked questions and undertook the voluntary challenges that will make them better backpackers.
Since 2011 I have guided over 80 groups. Most have been great, but not all groups would have handled themselves as well. I hope to see many of these alumni again — they are all-stars.
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