Matthew Clay: Blog en-us (C) Matthew Clay (Matthew Clay) Sun, 08 Nov 2015 19:29:00 GMT Sun, 08 Nov 2015 19:29:00 GMT Matthew Clay: Blog 120 80 Winter hiking in the Rockies Shortly after arriving in Calgary in 2008 we bought a few hiking guidebooks and started dropping into visitor centers to get advice on where to hike.  As we arrived in the summer nearly every hiking route was snow-free and we had a wonderful time hiking where we pleased until early October.  Then it snowed (and snowed, and snowed).  People at the visitor centers informed us that hiking was no longer possible and we soon discovered that "shoulder-season" hikes described in guidebooks were really only accessible early May to late October, leaving 6 months or more apparently inaccessible to hiking.  Not being the type to be trapped indoors we bought snowshoes and started snowshoeing, but bashing our way through knee deep Rockies sugar snow each weekend got tiring quite fast and we longed to get out and just hike. 

Then a few years ago I started browsing hiking websites and noticed that some people were heading out hiking in the dead of winter.  Just a report here or there, but I started to notice a geographic pattern to them.  Coupled with my improving knowledge of mountain weather patterns I started to realize that some areas of the mountains got huge amounts of snow while others hardly got any.  Chinook winds also tend to melt most of the snow in some areas and the prevailing winds can blow all the snow off some hikeable ridges.  We'd been spending our time in the snowy areas because they have the best summer hikes and thus are most frequently described in guidebooks, never realizing that there were areas nearly devoid of snow we could have been exploring as well. 

Now I know where to hike late fall through early spring and I figured I'd share those spots with you!  Obviously many of these hikes might not be all that hikeable after a big snowstorm, but they cover a vast geographic area so chances are quite good one area will always be hikeable.  Keep an eye on the weather and be prepared for the unexpected and you'll find you can have a great time hiking in the winter in the Rockies.  I strongly recommend microspikes to deal with icy conditions and we usually have snowshoes in the car (and sometimes we carry them) just in case conditions aren't quite what we expected when we get to the trailhead.  

Highways 546, 549, and 532

The further west you go along these highways the more snow there is, but we've hiked in the dead of winter at the winter closure gates on each without any difficulty whatsoever.  Some wind-sheltered areas and places with hardwood trees tend to have lots of snow, but the evergreen forests and the rolling ridges are often nearly or completely snow free.  Even if there is a lot of snow many of the trails are likely to be packed by other hikers (or even elk), meaning hiking is still possible and enjoyable.  Check out our reports on Foran Grade and Windy Point Ridge, Mount McNab, Mount Dyson, and Carry and Muley Ridges along the 546, Mesa Butte and Mount Barwell along the 549, and Stimson Creek Hills, Indian Graves Ridge, and Corral Mountain along the 532 for some ideas.

Hiking towards a western summit of Mount McNab in early March 2014.

Highway 66 (west of Bragg Creek)

This highway closes down west of Elbow Falls in the winter, but before the gates close we've found several places to hike, including Moose Mountain and Powderface Ridge.   After the highway closure we've hiked Prairie Mountain and Prairie Creek, often as a loop.  There are other possibilities here too, including the Canyon Creek Ice Caves (it's on our to-do list!), several shorter trails in the Bragg Creek area, or just walking along the closed portion of the highway.  The whole area is pretty close to the city too, so it works well even with the short days of winter. 

Sandra on the summit of Prairie Mountain at the end of December 2012.

Highwood Junction (intersection of highways 40/541/940)

The area around the southern closure of Highway 40 often has surprisingly little snow and there is some spectacular hiking to be had.  We've been there in almost every winter month and have always been able to hike, although it is prone to more snow than some other winter hiking areas.  Bull Creek Hills is likely popular enough to have a packed trail to the pass, Junction Hill is often packed by sheep, and Hell's Ridge and Gunnery Mountain are likely hikeable as well, although Gunnery is a bit scrambly at times.

View south from the summit of Junction Hill on a fine mid-February day in 2013.

Eastern Bow Valley

The Bow Valley from Canmore eastwards generally gets plenty of warm Chinook winds to melt away enough snow to keep many trails hikeable for most of the year.  Mount Lady MacDonald (to the former teahouse site) and Ha Ling Peak are popular trails right outside Canmore and are guaranteed to have packed and icy trails, so be sure to have microspikes for these ones.  Further east and accessible from Highway 40, 68, or 1A winter hikes include Yates Mountain and Jewel Pass (likely packed and icy to the summit), Hunchback Hills and Lusk Pass, Baldy Pass, and Eagle HillCox Hill is a favorite of ours, but the snow can get deep near the top and there is a risk of small avalanches, so only tackle it if you're prepared. 

Lovely hiking along the Cox Hill ridge in the third week of February 2013.

Ya Ha Tinda (west of Sundre)

We just discovered this area last year, but it holds great potential as a winter hiking destination.  There are vast meadows that offer scenic and relaxed hiking or moderately challenging mountain ascents such as Maze Peak or Evangeline Peak.  Along highway 40 between Ya Ha Tinda and Cochrane there are also several other hikeable areas that we'll be exploring in the years to come.  Our first foray into this area was a hike along Lesueur Ridge on which we had a great time. 

Mid-February hiking on Maze Peak in 2015. This was a dry year, but this area generally receives less snow anyway.
So there you have it, or at least a sampling of where you can hike in the winter.  If you've found yourself needing to get back into shape in the spring because it was "too snowy to hike" during the winter, well, you've just lost your excuse! 



]]> (Matthew Clay) Bow Valley Hiking Kananaskis Winter hiking Ya Ha Tinda microspikes Sun, 08 Nov 2015 19:28:40 GMT
The best thing you can buy for winter hiking Hiking in the winter is far easier than many people think.  We've managed to hike every month in the Rockies, actually.  If there is a lot of snow we'll go snowshoeing instead of hiking, but if we're heading to an area with just a little snow or tackling a popular trail that is sure to be packed solid we need something to give us good traction.  Not only is it dangerous to hike without traction in slippery conditions, it's also not fun waddling along like a penguin and paying more attention to your feet than to the actual reasons you might be out hiking, such as admiring the scenery. 

Microspikes and wolf tracks on our ascent of Evangeline Peak. There are many traction devices available, but we find one is far superior to all others:  Kahtoola microspikes.  They've got more bite than any of the competition (with the exception of mountaineering crampons) and handle solid ice, crusty snow, and packed snow with ease.  The only time we've even come close to slipping in them is in sugar snow, but everything will slip in that.  They even work great in mud!  We originally thought the sheer size of the spikes would make walking in them uncomfortable, but we've never had a problem using them on any terrain we've encountered, including bedrock.  Last winter we wore them the entire length of a 19 km hike even though only patches of trail had any ice or snow, walking with them through dry forest, rocky river beds, brush, and muddy trail.  They're incredibly durable and the polymer part stays flexible down to at least -25 C, below which I can't see why we'd go hiking anyway! 

We regularly pass people bushwhacking alongside the trail trying to avoid the ice and generally having a miserable time as they try their darndest not to fall.  Don't be one of them!  MEC sells microspikes for $75 per pair and they're worth every penny.  And don't be tempted to buy something cheaper.  Cheaper options are generally meant for walking along icy city sidewalks or trail running and just don't work well on actual hiking trails. 

]]> (Matthew Clay) Kahtoola microspikes Winter hiking hiking Sun, 08 Nov 2015 19:18:55 GMT
The best backpacking food system There are entire books written on cooking while backpacking, hundreds of prepackaged dehydrated meals available at most outdoor stores and even more online, lightweight stoves and backpacking ovens for baking, and an enormous number of other online resources offering ideas and advice on backpacking foods.  This blog post is entirely different from them all and you're either going to hate or love what I have to say.  This rice & chicken meal is supposed to feed two people at 400 calories each. That's enough energy to hike for perhaps one hour.

We've been backpacking for 7 summers now and for the first four and a half we tried a lot of food options.  We bought a lightweight stove (MSR Simmerlite) and cooked soups, stews, pizzas and other great-sounding hot meals and baked baked biscuits, muffins, cinnamon buns, and cake on our lightweight Backpacker's Pantry Outback Oven.  We were often the envy of other campers as the smells of our baking drifted through the campground.  It thus might surprise you to know that we don't do any of that anymore, and for trips up to 5 days in length we don't even carry a stove.  Instead we carry fresh food that doesn't require cooking.  It might sound crazy, but let me explain the events that led us to start doing this. 

1.  It was windy, raining, and the temperature was near zero degrees.

Not only that, our seldom-used rain gear turned out to be only marginally waterproof.  Absolutely freezing we managed to set up the tent, crawled into our sleeping bags to warm up, and most definitely did not feel like sitting out in the sleet for an hour cooking and eating dinner.  Instead we ate a lot of our tasty high-calorie snacks in the tent.  We got our energy back, warmed up, and had a wonderful evening watching a wolverine forage nearby.  While you might be thinking it's terribly unsafe to eat in a tent, what with all the bears waiting to eat you, the scents from the uncooked dry foods we had were certainly less potent than the smells our clothes would normally absorb from being near a hot meal. 

This chocolate bar has 600 calories and I'd rather eat it than any rehydrated meal.

2.  We realized how gross most of our meals actually were.

Many backpackers brag about how great their food tastes, but in reality it's gross.  They'd never eat it at home or feed it to their friends outside the woods because it's just plain awful.  We were the same, extolling the virtues of the new dehydrated meal we were eating while pretending to be nice to each other by asking "do you want some of mine?" while in actuality we were searching for a way to avoid eating the stuff.  Then we'd fight over who got the most dessert, which was really the only good part of the whole meal.


3.  I read the nutrition labels.

For some reason I thought expensive dehydrated meals were full of calories.  They're not.  When I realized the hot, unusually flavored meal I'd just eaten had fewer calories than the very tasty chocolate bar I was eating for dessert, I asked myself why the heck I didn't just eat two chocolate bars and go to sleep full of energy and happy.  And then there is the salt content.  Most prepackaged meals are loaded with salt, and while you do need this while hiking the meals often had way too much, meaning we had to get up repeatedly during the night to pee. 

4.  We got tired of cooking. 8 Breton crackers with this fantastic cheese has 400 calories, the same as the dehydrated meal. Delicious, no-cook, high calorie food.

Cooking dinner is complicated and time consuming while backpacking.  First, if you're staying at an official campground you need to wait for a table, and you wouldn't believe how long some people like to take.  Then you must set up the stove, cook the meal (requiring perhaps 30 minutes or more), eat it (easier said than done), and then pack up the stove and wash the dishes, the latter task involving a walk down to a stream for water and then freezing your hands, which were probably already cold from sitting around waiting for dinner to cook.  The whole process just isn't any fun.  Plus those prepackaged meals generate a lot of garbage that you've then got to carry for the rest of your trip.

All this led us to completely reevaluate how we fed ourselves while backpacking. After a bit of experimenting we've reached the point where we don't carry a stove, fuel, pots, most dishes, dish soap, or backpacking oven (which was optional before).  It takes us less than 5 minutes to prepare a meal, we can eat it in the tent if the weather is terrible, and the meals taste really good and are more nutritious than anything we had before.  In fact, we eat most foods we take backpacking at home too.  It's just normal food, so why wouldn't we?  On cold mornings we do miss the stove and the hot chocolate it could make, and in the evening our fresh-baked treats are missed, but we've decided it's just not worth carrying the stove, pots, oven, and fuel and the trouble to cook and clean up to be worth it. I'd also bet that one of the main reasons you think you need a hot drink on a cold morning is because you spent so darn much time sitting around cooking that you got cold! 

So what do we eat?  Breakfast staples include bagels with hard cheeses, jam or peanut butter, dried fruits, various granola mixes with powdered milk, and muffins.  Lunches include homemade multigrain buns with hard salami, trail and nut mixes, crackers and cheese, and carrots with peanut butter.  Dinners can be any combination of the above or a multigrain baguette or rye bread topped however we like with dried meats or pepperoni.  Chocolate bars and Pringles often serve as dessert.  For short trips we also include heavier items like fruit cups, fresh apples, and if fires are possible we'll bring hotdogs for the first night too.  This all packs very well, generates very minimal waste, and for trips up to four days in length the weight is the same or less than what we used to carry to cook hot meals.  The only downside is that the higher calorie content and edibility of the food means we no longer loose weight while backpacking, but that was never a goal anyway! 

]]> (Matthew Clay) Backcountry cooking backpacking food hiking Wed, 02 Sep 2015 21:05:00 GMT
Purifying water when backpacking Backpackers heading into the Rockies are advised to purify their water before drinking to avoid infection by bacteria and parasites such as giardia.  Personally I have my doubts about the likelihood of getting sick from contaminated water in the Rockies (have you ever actually seen a study on this?), but have always used a filter "just in case".  The filter we've used for years is the MSR MiniWorks EX filter, a very popular "lightweight" filter that screws onto a standard nalgene bottle.  Filtering water to get a drink involved getting the filter from the pack, sitting down by an often cold stream, screwing the filter onto the nalgene bottle, pumping for a few minutes to fill the bottle while holding the cold filter in your colder hand, then unscrewing the filter and repacking it.  We'd often get mosquito-bitten too as both our hands were tied up pumping and unavailable to swat the buggers.  The entire process was cumbersome and frustrating when all we wanted was to get a drink.  Not only that, the filter weighs 439 g when dry and the nalgene another 172 g, meaning I was lugging around at least 611 g (~1.5 lbs).  For 6 years it annoyed the heck out of me. 

The MSR Miniworks and naglene bottle setup we used for many years. So this past winter I (once again) tried to find a better water purification option.  I didn't waste time considering any annoying pump-based filter, nor any of the dead-simple gravity filters as these are meant for use in-camp, not on the trail.  Chemical treatments seemed like a good bet as they're the lightest and easiest option, but to treat water at a typical Rockies temperature - 4 degrees or so - would require several hours, a ridiculously long time to wait when you're thirsty! Next up were UV-light treatments, but they are only effective in crystal-clear water and thus aren't likely suitable for the often turbid water of the Rockies. They also use both batteries and a lightbulb, two things I don't particularly trust to always work when I need them too. 

One somewhat newer class of filters looked particularly interesting:  Those that can filter on-the-fly as you sip water through them. No pumping, unpacking, or waiting required! They're just as or more effective against bacteria, cysts, and protozoa as the other types of filters too. Some contain a carbon filter to remove any undesirable tastes, but these ones typically only last for ~100 L and new filters cost ~$30. They're heavy too and require proprietary bottles. Others do not contain a carbon element, but can filter 1000 L or more before requiring replacement. Two of the most popular options here include the LifeStraw and the Sawyer Mini, but the Sawyer product lasts longer (over 100,000 L) and could screw onto a standard disposable pop bottle, negating the need for heavy nalgene bottles, so I ordered a few from for about $25 each. 

The Sawyer Mini and a 1 L disposable water bottle we use now. I've now used the Sawyer Mini on several trips this past summer and it is absolutely wonderful!  It's possibly one of the best purchases I've ever made.  The filter + bottle weigh just 82 g, or 13% of what the MiniWorks assembly weighs.  Better still, it's ridiculously easy to use.  I fill the water bottle in a stream, screw the filter on, then squeeze the bottle to squirt out water.  I don't even need to remove my pack!  On trails with lots of streams I can fill up at each one so I always have cold water too.  While the filter hasn't yet clogged, it can be cleaned by backwashing with an included lightweight syringe.  The only drawback to this setup is that after each drink the filter must be loosened to allow air back into the bottle, but the 5 seconds this takes is negligible.  I very strongly recommend this setup to anyone tired of carrying the weight of a heavier filter and the frustration of pumping water, or really anyone that wants a simpler way to purify water. 

]]> (Matthew Clay) Rockies Sawyer Mini Water filtration Water purification backpacking camping hiking Tue, 25 Aug 2015 02:32:00 GMT
Photography and hiking A lot of people message me to ask what camera I use, so I thought I'd do up a quick post on the topic to explain how I got to where I am when it comes to photography.

Me and my D90 setup. That's a lot of straps and weight I realized I don't need. While I've always been interested in photography, I didn't actively get into it until May 2010 when I bought my first digital SLR, a Nikon D90 with a 18-105 mm lens.  At the time I did a lot of reading on the technical aspects of photography, practiced a bit, and watched my photography slowly get better. Things improved further when I began to shoot RAW and process in Adobe Lightroom.  But one thing bothered me:  I didn't seem to enjoy hiking and photography as much as I thought I should!  In part it came down to the only practical setup for carrying the SLR camera, which was to have it strapped across my chest.  This made adding or removing clothing layers frustratingly complex and the camera, lens, filter, and carrying case setup weighed nearly 4 lbs, which is no small amount of weight to lug up a mountain!  The net result was that my enjoyment of hiking suffered because of my photography.  It took a long time, but what I came to realize was that I am a hiker who wanted to use photography to document my adventures, but had been trying to be a photographer who used hiking to get great photos.  And it left me oddly unhappy. 

Once I realized this I set out to find a camera that would still take nice photos with full manual control, but that was also very lightweight and easy to carry.  Generally speaking cameras like this are known as compact enthusiast cameras as they're aimed at people who enjoy photography, but who abhor the price and bulk of professional gear.  A bit of research revealed a consensus that the Sony RX100 was by far the best camera in this class.  Newer versions of the same camera also exist, but they all have features unnecessary for hiking photography, so I picked up an original RX100 for a bit under $500.  I've used it exclusively since March 2014, so every photo on this site since then has been from that camera. Me and my RX100. Tiny and convenient!

After nearly 2 years I can say without a doubt that I love the RX100!  It really is the perfect camera for a hiker.  The camera and case weigh just 325 g, a whopping 1500 g less than my D90 setup, and it easily attaches to the shoulder strap of my backpack.  I don't even notice it when I'm hiking, but it's always there ready to take a great photo when I'm suitably inspired.  It's just plain easy and fun to use.  I still shoot RAW with full manual control and process in Lightroom too, so I have complete control over the photography.  There is, of course, a difference in photo quality between the D90 and RX100, however.  The RX100  photos have more noise, are a little less sharp, and have more chromatic aberration, but in order to see any of this I need to view the 20 MP image full size on my computer.  In any normal viewing situation I can't see a difference, so for me the pros vastly outweigh the cons. 

So if you've been wondering what camera I use, now you know!  If you were wondering because you liked the photos on this site and wanted a camera of similar quality, I strongly recommend the original RX100, which you can still get new for under $500.  But before you buy anything, consider whether you're a hiker or a photographer first.  It should influence what camera you get.  If you believe you're a photographer first, get a DSLR.  Nikon makes some great ones. 

]]> (Matthew Clay) Nikon D90 Sony RX100 hiking photography Mon, 17 Aug 2015 22:27:00 GMT