Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Three New Hiking Aids for the Season

The sleeping woods, ready to awaken
Yesterday was the first day of spring. The chives are just pushing up in my yard, and the lilac buds are swelling. Spending the day cutting back the clematis, planting greens in the coldframe, and casting some lawn seed in weak areas, I also spent some time thinking about my last camping trip of three nights at Geode State Park. I camped last week for three days, one day with the temperatures up to 70 degrees. This week I'm at home, with rain all night after a windy day, and rain and even a chance of snow forecast for the rest of the week. Such is spring in SE Iowa. 

I have gotten out recently, though, and have managed to get some fresh air and blue skies. One challenge for spring camping, beyond the unpredictability of the weather, is the spring thaw. When the stone-hard soil thaws, it becomes a mire, the frozen moisture in the soil suddenly transformed to a mix of water and earth--and hiking becomes a muck-slog if you're not careful. Hiking the trails becomes a tentative walking, testing the ground with each footstep for stability. Not only is this a muddy mess, but hiking in these conditions can damage the trail and promote erosion. Some trails are better than others, though, so it is possible to hike in the early thaw, one just has to be careful with trail selection. And it's a joy to hike at this time of year because early spring (and even late winter) promises warmer weather yet lacks ticks, chiggers, and mosquitoes . . . and also lacks oppressive humidity. It's a great time to hike; just watch your step. Often I even hike off the trail, picking my way through the brush and using the leaf mulch as a track, the covered forest harder because of the leafy insulation. 

My last couple of hikes I've added three items to my day out: a hiking vest, a walking stick, and a small set of binoculars. I've talked with my wife about these additions for several years, and this season I've finally pulled it all together for the purchases. Having newly geared up for my most recent spring walks, I have to say I'm pleased with these new additions to my hiking equipment.
With vest, trekking pole, and binocular in pocket

Hiking Vest

I have three little knapsacks that work just fine to pack gear around for the day. However, backpacks, even small ones, have some drawbacks: my back can get sweaty, weight can dig the straps into the shoulders, and equipment is not readily accessible. With a backpack, often while hiking with my wife, I'll have her dig into the backpack for some item we need while I stand there, back turned. My larger pack makes a water bottle more accessible, but . . . it's a larger backpack that I'm hefting down the trail. 

Having used the vest a couple of times, I've found that weight is more evenly distributed, the mesh vest cloth allows for air flow, and equipment is much more accessible. I can now place my binoculars in a side pocket for quick and easy access. I bought my vest online--advertised as a hiking or photography vest. It can be used as a fishing vest, although it lacks several fishing-specific accessories that I've seen on other vests. I chose this particular vest because of the mesh construction, which will be cooler in the heat and humidity. The pockets allow me to distribute weight well--and like all the best utility vests, there are a lot of pockets, big and small. 

Naturally if I list the negatives, the most obvious is that I wish the pockets were a bit larger. This particular "negative," though, is probably a rabbit hole I could go into and never find my way out. Will there ever exist a utility vest that wouldn't be better if the pockets were just a tad bit larger? Also, the zipper is on the opposite side from what is usual for me, the "women's" side, which is probably more related to country of origin (China) than any gender issue. During my hikes, I found not zipping the vest was most comfortable. 

Out trekking with the trekking pole
Trekking Poles

Trekking poles come as a pair, but so far I've only hiked using one pole. Especially on my hikes with climbs or descents during this wet thawing spring, I wanted to have a "third leg" to steady myself on slippery ground. I'm not really afraid of falling except that in catching my balance I might wrench my back, which has been a bit touchy lately. Suddenly twisting my body and tensing muscles could cause me to cramp, and I don't want to be out alone on a trail suddenly incapacitated. How I've used the single trekking pole is to plant the pole prior to traversing an unstable section of trail. If a foot slips out, then I can lean on the pole to catch my balance without doing my imitation of a hog on ice.

The poles are adjustable which allows for getting the height just right. Shortening the poles provides for easier storage. An additional use I've put a pole to is that of a "dog stick" when bicycling. Adjusting the trekking pole to about three feet in length and then slipping the end in my bike pannier bag allows me to whip out the pole if a dog gets aggressive. Keeping the end of the stick pointed at the dog's face keeps it from advancing too closely. There were many trekking pole options at REI. I cannot state that they poles I bought are better than others; however, I can say that the ones I bought work well.
Compact, lightweight binoculars


I have an old set of Bushbell binoculars at home that work well; however, they are large, heavy, and awkward. This year my wife and I wanted to take a set of lightweight binoculars with us on our walks so we could more closely observe our forest friends, especially birds. We've constructed two bird feeding areas at our home, and throughout the winter the feeders were constant entertainment as we watched the activities of our avian neighbors. We want to take that curiosity into the woods also, and already it is happening. My last trip to Geode State Park provided the opportunity for me to watch a Barred Owl that perched near my campsite--brought up close by my new pair of binoculars. 

From REI we bought a pair of Vortex Vanquish 8 x 26 binoculars. I'm certainly not an expert when it comes to binoculars. The reviews were good for the Vortex binoculars; however, there were also quite a few other brands available with good reviews. The pair I bought are lightweight, small enough to fit into my vest pocket, and provide a clear field of view and magnification. I've found on my few forays into the woods with the new binoculars that they fit my hand so easily that at times I found myself continuing my hike while keeping the binoculars in one hand, ready for use. 

My experience after having used these three hiking equipment additions a few times is that my outings were easier and safer. I feel it's important to travel light; there's no reason to take off for a day hike unnecessarily loaded down. I'm also old enough now that I'm a bit more careful when I engage in physical activity, especially when I'm on my own. I take my cellphone, not just for photos, but also for emergencies if there's cell reception. I like to take along an emergency kit that includes first aid materials, toilet paper, some food and water, and a knife. Also a map of local trails and a compass are standard gear. Sometimes I include a bird field guide. The addition of vest, hiking stick, and binoculars adds to my pleasure and safety when hiking, and at this time I have not found that these items are burdens that outweigh their utility. This is how I "stroll"; how about you, what gear do you find essential?

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