Category Archives: Backpacking

Trail Report: Traverse Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

At a Glance: Lakeshore Trail

Length: 43 miles
Location: Part of the North Country Trail, the path is located within Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Trail Type: Out and back or shuttle
Scenery: Northern Forests, massive sand dunes and the park’s namesake rock cliffs

Trail Overview


Pictured Rocks is the setting for the Lakeshore Trail. The path runs the length of the park, approximately 43 miles and is often within sight of Lake Superior and its spectacular shoreline. Sharing tread with the North Country Trail, the trail is generally well marked and moderate in difficulty as it travels between views. Those with issues with heights should note that the trail, at times, is located right on a cliff’s edge. Camping is by permit only with options located five miles apart or less.

Terrain

The route generally stays well above the lake, though dropping down to the waters edge on occasion. Hiking is generally moderate with a few steep climbs. Some mileage back from the lake travels through poorly drained forests. On a spring trip, waterproof boots turned out to be a good choice.

Getting There

For most, head north through Michigan, over the Mackinac Bridge into the Upper Peninsula. From there, take U.S. 2 west to 77N to 28W to the town of Munising . Those coming from Wisconsin and points west can take 28E through the UP. The Munising Falls Visitor Center is located at 1505 Sand Point Road in Munising.

The easiest way to walk the length of the park is to use the shuttle service provided by Altran, http://www.altranbus.com/backpack.html the Alger County Transit system. They are very backpacker friendly and run multiple trips per day between the Munising Falls Visitor Center on the west end of the park to the Grand Sable Visitor Center near the eastern end. The ride is $25 and the driver was happy to take me a mile past the visitor center so I could add Sable Falls to my itinerary. There are other stops available for shorter hikes. Overnight parking is available at either visitor center.

Why Hike This Trail

Hiking the Lakeshore Trail is a great way to see the tremendous shoreline of Lake Superior. In just over 40 miles there are countless epic views of rock formations, a lighthouse, options to stroll the lakeshore on both sand and rocky beaches, massive sand dunes and some quality time in the boreal forest.

As with nearly every National Park, wildlife take advantage of the protected habitat. Wolf and bear are spotted along the trail along with species specific to the northern forests such as the snowshoe hare. The park is also far enough north that viewing the Northern Lights is a possibility as well.

Climate and Weather

As with any far north location, weather can be an issue. I hiked the trail in mid-May and there was still snow on the trail in spots. Starting too much earlier would have been challenging on a heavy snowpack year like 2019. As the snow melts, it also leaves portions of the trail wet and sloppy. At the other end of the season, snow can fall as early as October with an average of 140” falling throughout the colder months.

Timing the hike also includes consideration of insects. Both black flies and mosquitoes show up soon after snowmelt and can be an issue through early summer. I was ahead of them for the most part in mid-May in 2019. Later in the summer, stable flies, deer flies and horse flies all make an unwelcome appearance and can inflict a painful bite. At times, long pants, long sleeves and even a head net may be required.

July and August tie for the warmest month with the average daily temperature range from 56 to 74. Freezing temperature are possible any month of the year. I brought a 30 degree bag and was glad I did.

By fall, the insect populations have dropped considerably. On the flip side though, fall is not always the best time to visit weather wise. The area is the 2nd most cloudy region of the US with much of the cloudiness coming in the fall and early winter. At that time of the year, air traveling over the warm lake hits the relatively cooler land and results in significant cloud cover, fog and rain.

Camping

The National Park Service maintains over a dozen backcountry camp areas on or near Lakeshore Trail. Each camp area has spots for three to six small groups. There are also some larger Group Camp areas. Most, but not all, have access to water, a toilet and a designated fire ring. The park’s Backcountry Trip Planner https://www.nps.gov/piro/planyourvisit/upload/Backcountry-Trip-Planner-2017-accessible.pdf lists specifics for each site.

Each site requires an individual permit for the night you plan to stay there. Spots can be reserved in advance through Recreation.gov. There is a $15 reservation fee for the entire itinerary, plus a user fee of $5 per person, per night. If the plan is to visit on a weekend during the summer, it would be a good idea to make those reservations well in advance.

Water Sources

Water is generally not an issue. You are walking along the largest freshwater lake in the world after all. In addition, the trail crosses a number of streams on their way to the lake. The water sources all appear to be relatively clear, but play it safe. Bring a filter and use it.

Closing Thoughts

If you’re looking for a 3-5 day hike with great scenery, simple logistics, an easy to follow trail and camp areas where water and a toilet are accessible, the Lakeshore Trail might be for you. For me, the rock formations are the most impressive I’ve seen this side of the Grand Canyon.

Depending upon when you go, biting insects and/or weather can be an issue, but with proper planning and equipment, the trail is well worth any aggravation encountered.

The National Park Service website has the information needed to start planning a trip to this amazing place. When I had specific questions on snowpack and trail conditions, the folks at the Munising Falls Visitor Center (906-387-3700) were extremely helpful.

Once the hike is over, if you want to see the Pictured Rocks from a different angle, there are both larger tour boats as well as kayak tours locally available. If you have the time, the views from the water are pretty impressive as well.

Feeling Safe Again While Backpacking

The recent murder on the Appalachian Trail of Ronald Sanchez has shattered many people’s confidence in their personal safety while on the trail. Unfortunately, the problems in society sometimes violently intrude even on special places such as the AT. As stated by Suzanne Dixon, President of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, “The Appalachian Trail is a relatively safe environment, a refuge that welcomes more than three million users a year. Unfortunately, like the rest of the world, the trail is not absolutely safe.” 

Statistically speaking, the trail is still very safe. With the millions of trail users per year, there have been 12 homicides over the last 50 years. The US as a whole has a murder rate of five per 100,000 annually. Many major cities have homicide rates up to ten times that overall average. Admittedly, this is an apples/oranges comparison, but the reason the recent terrible incident received so much news coverage was precisely because it was so rare.

Regardless of how safe the trail is for hikers, it can always be safer. In the 40 years since my first solo trip, I’ve considered and practiced a number of techniques to improve my safety. In addition, I’ve recently spoke on the subject with Howard Rahtz, a retired Cincinnati Police Captain. He’s written multiple books on community policing/safety, was the head of the city’s Police Academy and served as a Defensive Tactics Instructor and SWAT Negotiator. He’s also my brother. Hopefully, our joint experience can provide some advice on staying safer on the trail which then can provide some additional peace of mind for hikers, their friends and family.

Before sharing our conversation, I need to say the following: It is not my intention to second guess the actions of those victimized during the recent attack and should not be the interpretation of this article. I was not there and in circumstances such as these, decisions have to made quickly, under extreme duress. My intention is to provide my general thoughts based upon years of backpacking, often alone, and the advice of an expert in the field of community safety.

Keep in mind that these are general recommendations and not guarantees of safety. Each situation is different and there are countless variables that have to be considered as a situation unfolds, whether on the trail or at the local mall parking lot.

Jim: The AT is safer than most American neighborhoods, but reading about this attack was unsettlingly, to say the least. Also, if you are a victim, statistics don’t matter at all. Given that these kinds of incidents are statistically unlikely, what are your thoughts on what hikers can do to reduce the odds of being attacked. And if we are attacked, are there some steps to help us not only survive but to better get through the encounter?

Howard: Criminal acts on the AT are indeed rare, and it is discouraging to even have to discuss this. There are two important factors in avoiding victimization, and they are no different on the AT than they are on the streets of Chicago.

The first is to look and act like a difficult target. Criminals are looking for easy victims. When we look as though we’d be a “handful” for any attacker, the odds of being targeted go down. We can stand tall, speak loudly and look confident. Facial expression, voice control and a calm demeanor carry more weight than physical size. Potential attackers are sizing you up. You want them to look, and decide to move on.

Second, listen to that little voice inside that tells you when things are not right. Author Gavin DeBecker refers to this as the “gift of fear,” our intuition warning us of danger. I’ve spoken to a multitude of crime victims who say, “I knew something was not right.” When the hair on our neck stands up, the hollow in our stomach opens, the beginnings of panic floods our senses — we ignore those warnings at our peril.

Jim: Absolutely, listen to that inner voice. If a situation doesn’t seem right, get yourself out of it. Make up a reason, be rude, whatever it takes to separate yourself from that person or situation.

What about weapons? I get asked all the time if I carry a gun on the trail.

Howard: While it is a personal choice, carrying a gun can be a complicated matter. The requirements for concealed carry vary widely from state to state and not all states recognize another’s permit. In addition, most of us are good people who would find it extremely difficult to shoot another human being, even if the action was necessary for our own safety.

Jim: And there’s the extra weight of the gun itself and the weight of responsibility of bringing a deadly weapon on the trail where it can’t be locked away. You’d have to keep control if it every minute on the trail, a tall order. It just never seemed like a good idea to me.

Howard: On the other hand, I think pepper spray is great tool. It works really well on almost everybody. It is easy to use, causes no permanent damage and some brands even leave an ultraviolent trail that can assist in identification of a suspect. It can be used from a distance of 10-15 feet.

The key factors are to keep the spray readily accessible. Also, practice spraying a few times to avoid dosing yourself. When you need it is not the time to be reading the instructions.

Jim: I agree with that. I’ve backpacked, often solo, for decades now and have never had a problem. I’m also 6’ 3”, weigh 180 and, to put it politely, don’t look like a victim. However, I always carry a small container of pepper spray. It weighs 2 ounces, is legal (per the Pepper Spray Store) to carry anywhere on the AT and will work on a threatening black bear, dog or human. I think of it like a seatbelt. I’ll probably never need it, but if I do, I’ll be very glad I have it.

Anything else you can suggest?

Howard: Studies show people will fight harder for family members and those they care about than they will to save their own lives. We had police officers keep pictures of family members and those they loved in their hats or attached to the dash of the patrol car. When someone tries to hurt you, they are attacking the people who love you. Those pictures are a reminder of what is at stake.

Lastly, mental rehearsal. Think of situations that may arise. Picture yourself responding forcefully and effectively. Imagine it in as much detail as possible. When a crisis situation arrives, you’ll have the benefit of mental planning to help you overcome.

Jim: There are also a number of things hikers can do on a daily basis to increase their safety. For example, keep a charge in your phone. No matter how great the episode is, don’t use the last 10% of battery power listening to Backpacker Radio. If nothing else, you might need the battery power to order a pizza.

Howard: Also with phones, don’t hike with both ear buds in. Keep one ear available to hear what’s going on around you; situational awareness. Plus, to a predator, both ear buds in signal that you can’t hear, making you look like an easier target.

Jim: Concerning electronics; I also carry a Spot Satellite Tracker when I hike alone. There’s not always a cell signal on the trail so it’s great to send messages back home for peace of mind. And, if something ever happens such as a broken leg, I can let first responders know my exact location. That way, the search part of “search and rescue” is eliminated. At 5 ounces, it seems like cheap insurance to me.

There’s also non-electronics; the shelter register. If anything strange is happening in the area, odds are good someone wrote about it in the register. It’s a good idea to look over recent entries.

Howard: Getting on and off the trail is another area where it pays to be cautious. I’m not a big fan of hitchhiking. I’d look to use shuttle services and established trail angels whenever possible.

Jim: True, but sometimes the only feasible way to resupply is to hitch. For some hikers, meeting these new people is a positive part of the thru-hike experience that they don’t want to give up. Keeping a few items in mind can make hitchhiking safer though.
• Hitch with another hiker, or as part of a group.
• If you are hiking alone, don’t share that information.
• Keep your phone out and visible while in the car.
• As mentioned before, trust your gut. If you walk up to a ride and something just doesn’t seem right, don’t get in the car. Have an excuse in mind (I forgot my food bag.) to easily decline the ride and wait for one that seems better.

As a reminder, Report any incidents by calling 911 for emergencies, as well as the National Park Service 24-hour dispatch at 1-866-677-6677

All in all, hiking the AT is a nearly always a positive experience that can change your life for the better. A little preparation and awareness of the (unlikely) problems that can occur will improve your safety, your confidence as you hike and the peace of mind of the folks back home.

Gear Review: Sierra Designs’ Convert 2, Two Person Tent

Sierra Designs’ Convert 2

I was recently given the opportunity to test the Sierra Design’s Convert 2, four season tent. I had not used a four season tent in the past, but was painfully aware of some of the shortcomings of using a very lightweight three season model during the winter months. By contrast, this was one solid shelter. There was a price to pay in the weight department, but not a terrible one.

Basic Specs

MSRP: $499.95

Packed weight: With vestibule 5 lb. 12 oz. Packed weight: w/o vestibule and 4 less stakes 4lb. 9 oz

Shelter Type: Four season, self standing

Dimensions:

Floor: 84” long x 55” wide (head), 49” (foot)
Interior: 30.3 square feet
Vestibule: 16.4 square feet
Peak: 43 inches

Materials:

Floor: 68D 210T poly ripstop nylon
Fly: 20D ripstop nylon
Mesh: 15D no-see-um
Poles: Yunan UL aluminum

The Tent

As always, before heading out into the field, I try new equipment at a location where my house is an easy fallback. Everything was packed nicely in a “burrito” bag not much larger than a similar three season tent. The 15 stakes and three poles all fit within a single compartmentalized sack inside. I immediately noticed everything about this shelter was heavier duty than I was used to. Overall “fit and finish” was excellent. It was obviously well made.

The tent went up intuitively and quickly. Being four season, there was no exposed mesh. I did not turn the hose in it, but it seemed obvious that the tent could be set up in the rain without much water intrusion before the fly could be put on. Staked down and even using just some of the guylines, the pitch was rock solid.

The sides and doorway are nearly vertical, making the tent seem extremely roomy. Two pads and bags fit side by side with floor to spare. The high (43 inch) peak height was outstanding as far as comfort. The 16.4 square foot vestibule was cavernous, with the door set to one side to cheat the winter wind when entering or leaving the shelter. This was a tent I could see being livable through a winter storm if necessary. It packed up easily and fit back in it’s storage bag. It was time for a real world test.

Testing the Sierra Designs Convert 2

Former co-worker and fellow backpacker Bill and I were planning a November trip, but the weather doesn’t always want to cooperate at that time of year in Ohio. However, since I wanted to test the tent, the forecast of rain turning to snow, high wind and a low in the mid-20s wasn’t a deterrent.

We would be hiking the backpack trail at Tar Hollow State Forest. Despite the touristy name, the trails are fairly rigged for the Midwest. It was pouring rain on the drive out, so a second breakfast at McDonalds was in order. The delay ended up giving us around six hours of light to hike the 12+ miles we had planned. A light rain was falling as we began.

Bill, trying out Umbrella Hiking

Bill was carrying his Nemo 3 season tent, so I decided that I’d have no need for the Convert’s vestibule. That decision saved me a bit over a pound in the pack. That was a good decision as the trail was wet, creek crossings were numerous, the hills were steep and switchbacks were non-existent. It’s not often a trail is steep enough that I feel I’m hiking face to face with it, but that was the case in a few spots.

Conditions slowed us a bit, and with the late start, we arrived at the designated camp area in the dark. As no one else was enjoying the Tar Hollow camp experience, we had our choice of spots on the ridge and found a nice flat area without any standing water or apparent widow makers.

The rain had quit, replaced by occasional showers of ice pellets while we set up our tents by headlamp. Again the tent went up quickly and my sleeping bag, pack and all my gear fit in with room to spare. The large doorway is waterproof when closed, so the vestibule would not be missed.  I christened the tent, The Palace.

The Palace

With the wind beginning to howl, I made sure to guy out the sides of the tent. Utilizing a sliding ring, high and low guy out points are both used while only needing one stake. The Palace was quickly locked down and steady.

We kept a fire going for a while after dinner, but eventually the increasing wind, dropping temperature and ice pellet showers drove us to our respective tents. Since I’d be needing every bit of my 23 degree bag’s warming power, I kept The Palace zipped up tight with the foot area venting closed. It would be a good test of the material’s winter weather breathability.

Night’s are long in November, but I slept through the night, warm and dry. Despite the wind, the Convert’s fly remained taut and quiet. The temperature was in the mid 20s by morning. In Bill’s tent, his water froze. Mine did not. In addition, I had no issues with condensation whatsoever. For cold weather camping, this was one impressive tent.

Summary

Additional time spent with the tent only reinforced my positive initial impressions. The convert 2 is a well made, roomy, livable 2 person, 4 season tent. For one person, It’s downright palatial. However, as with any tent, there are compromises. While light and price competitive with other four season tents, it is heavy and expensive compared to most three season models. It all depends upon what you are looking for. This is not the tent to take on a summer thru-hike. However, if you’re thinking about expanding your camping horizons into the winter months or well into snowy mountains, this is a great piece of equipment.

  • The two-wall design with a breathable (not mesh) inner wall works well to keep in warmth and let out moisture vapor.
    • The weight, while heavy compared to a three-season tent, is light compared to other four-season tents of its size.
    • The removable vestibule can reduce weight when not needed but adds significant covered space.
    • The vertical walls and high peak make the tent very livable during bad-weather days.
    • Tent stakes are T-shaped, tough, and grip well. However, the tops were not machined off at all and are sharp. You’ll need to wear a glove when sinking the stakes by hand.
    • Two small pockets are adequate, but no more.
    • The suggested retail price is in line with comparable tents at $499.95.
    • A footprint is available. It will add nearly ½ pound to your pack and subtract $30 from your wallet.

Tent body w/o fly