Jason’s Hiking Gear: A Comprehensive List, Organized by the Complexity of the Trip

I’m a fan of the “onion” approach to risk mitigation—consider your situation and your expected time to rescue, then plan your route and your gear accordingly, while assessing everything in terms of overlapping systems of support.

I start with a waist pack or a vest for a half-day trek, then augment as complexity and duration extend in concentric circles of time, environmental risk and estimated time-to-rescue. So the lists that follow are, for the most part, additive, and aligned to the 10 Essentials in the context of the humid continental climate of the Upper Midwest, where I normally adventure. I plan for five different levels of complexity.

I should note, for my gear-porn readers, that I’m not especially enamored of the ultralight approach. Part of this is pragmatic: It’s been my experience that much “ultralight” stuff on the market lacks an essential durability and versatility that I’d prefer. Part of it is also experiential: I used to be much heavier than I am now, so my knees, hips and spine don’t bat an eyelash at a few extra pounds in the pack. They’re accustomed to far worse!

My approach to first-aid planning and the inclusion of some apparently odd items on my list is informed by my certification as a Wilderness First Responder. Even on a well-trafficked area of the NCT, if someone experiences a medical emergency, that person usually must be brought to the ambulance. EMTs are not equipped to evacuate people from the middle of the forest — that’s what SAR teams do. So as a WFR, I also carry “extra stuff” that most people don’t, because if I happen to be present for a genuine medical emergency, I’m trained to either support a compromised hiker in place while reinforcements arrive or to supervise packaging and transport to an evac site where EMTs can then take over.

Attention! I do not recommend gear lists. The choice of what to bring or what to not-bring on a hike is a purely personal consideration. I share my thinking because it’s (a) iterative based on expected complexity and (b) an insight into how I think about risk mitigation in the field. It’s not intended to serve as a best-practice recommendation. The links, below, are not affiliate URLs. Just data to help you contextualize what I’m talking about.

Originally posted 17 Feb 2018; revised 02 Feb 2019 and 24 Feb 2020.

Complexity Level 1

A nature walk of less than a planned four hours in a place like a well-trafficked public park (e.g., the Kent Trails system in West Michigan) where cell coverage is solid and emergency services remain readily available.

  • Everyday carry items — Leatherman Wave multitool, butane torch, Fisher space pen, pocket inspection light 
  • Wallet, iPhone, Apple Watch and AirPods
  • Bottle of water

Add the obvious: comfortable shoes, clothing attuned to the weather, sunscreen and sunglasses if appropriate, etc.

Complexity Level 2

A full or partial day hike in a place where you’ll occasionally encounter other people and are reasonably close to rapid medical evacuation, but where cell service may be spotty or nonexistent. For example, a section hike of the North Country Trail in Newaygo County.

I wear a rugged Coyote paintball vest supporting seven molle-secured pouches, despite that I generally disdain any product that bills itself as “tactical.” But the vest helps because everything’s accessible by hand without taking off a pack. Contents include:

  • Attached to the vest independently, or stuffed inside the back panel:
    • Whistle
    • Small LED light with red and white lamps and a swivel clip (attaches to hat brim)
    • Four 25×7 KN locking climbing carabiners
    • Sunglasses
    • Buck 119 fixed-blade knife
    • Heavy-duty, extra-large waterproof survival blanket
  • Pouch 1 (comms):
    • Yaesu VX-6R submersible radio with water-resistant microphone (I’m an amateur radio operator; plus, I’ve programmed relevant frequencies into the radio, including the frequencies used for local search-and-rescue teams and club repeaters)
  • Pouch 2 (personal):
    • Space for my phone, ID card, car key, cash
    • Sanitation items — travel tissues, hand sanitizer, wet wipes
    • Pepper spray (dog defense!)
    • HikerSnax — granola bars, nuts/gorp, etc.
    • Green chemlight stick
    • 1-qt. freezer bag for trash pack-out
  • Pouch 3 (first aid):
    • Just inside for easy emergency access:
      • The Field Guide of Wilderness & Rescue Medicine — annotated with helpful tips
      • Freezer bag with a dozen non-sterile exam gloves
      • Cloth triangular bandage with pins
      • EMT shears — the good kind that actual EMTs use, not the cheap plastic ones you get in the drug store
      • Emergency CPR mask
      • Timex watch (timing a pulse or respiration with an Apple Watch is a fool’s errand; you need a persistent second hand)
    • Zipped, hard-shelled first-aid kit containing:
      • Tweezers and sticky tape
      • Pills (loperamide hydrochloride, diphenhydramine, ibuprofen, glucose, calcium carbonate)
      • Drops (liquid bandage, lubricating eye drops)
      • Triple antibiotic ointment
      • Assorted small sterile gauze pads, bandages, sterile gauze rolls, cotton swabs, sting-relief pads, alcohol pads, moleskin
      • (To be added — Narcan, epinephrine ampules, syringes)
  • Pouch 4 (navigation):
    • Flashlight (Fenix PD35) with fully charged battery
    • Suunto MC2 compass
    • Rite in the Rain pencil, pen and all-weather notebook — because you do need to take notes in all conditions!
    • Maps (I print them in advance through CalTopo, on Rite in the Rain 4.7-mil waterproof paper) — 1:24000 scale, covering the planned itinerary
    • 1:24000 UTM grid
    • Laminated quick-reference cards (identifying my emergency contact info, radio reference, primary patient assessment quick reference, SOAP note template, etc.)
  • Pouch 5 (survival)
    • Gerber Suspension multi-tool
    • Several chlorine dioxide tablets for water purification
    • Duct tape (1.25-inch by roughly 20 feet)
    • Heavy-duty flint-and-tinder
    • Small, heavy-duty, half-ounce Tupperware container with cotton balls smeared with Vaseline
    • Emergency “space blanket”
      • Significant space blankets are useful. However, the tiny little fold-up 4-foot-square versions you buy at the supermarket that collapse into packs sized like a deck of cards, are practically useless. But I include one of the cheap ones to serve as fast-accessed ground cover for someone who’s injured and needs to lay on damp or dirty forest floors, or who needs a quick waterproof or sunscreen cover during medical triage. I don’t consider them to be a “blanket” in any meaningful sense of the word.
    • Bandana
    • Pair of backup AAA batteries for the clip light, taped together
    • Backup battery and red/green/blue lens filters for the Fenix light
    • Insect-repellent wipes (some with DEET, some with Picaridin)
    • A half-dozen foot-long plastic zip ties
    • MapTools ruler
  • Pouch 6 (water)
    • 1L wide-mouth Nalgene bottle
  • Pouch 7 (cordage & shelter) [it’s a bigger pouch, on the back of the vest]

This kit, fully assembled, weighs in at 10 lbs without water. And yes, I know I look a bit like a prepper. Nevertheless, I’ve found that the vest (even though it is, by far, the heaviest part of the setup) more evenly distributes weight over my hips and knees than either a backpack or a waist pack. I can — and have! — done easy 6-mile treks along the NCT with this setup and never felt pain or discomfort anywhere, whereas smaller daypacks (without good hip straps) and waist packs really irritate my lower back. Most importantly, everything I need to access, I can access without removing a backpack or digging for stuff. The only downside is that it’s a wickedly efficient insulator, so a fast hike at the peak of summer isn’t the most enjoyable outdoor activity with this set-up.


  • Obviously, dress for the weather. I’m a fan of my light leather boots in all conditions because they offer just enough ankle support. If it’s super hot and the trail is in good shape, I’ll wear my trail-running shoes.
  • Hats! In the summer, I wear an oiled cotton fedora with a chinstrap. It offers “face space” if I need to bring a mosquito net. In the winter, I wear my Ukrainian ushanka. It looks funny — a giant Siberian-style fur hat! — but it’s toasty and with the flaps up, it’s not too hot, either. Plus,l the ushanka makes me immediately obvious to new folks when I’m leading an NCT day hike.
  • I always carry a 5-foot varnished hickory hiking staff with a brass point. It’s literally saved my life before, on a steep muddy incline on Isle Royale. No joke. I cannot imagine using collapsible trekking poles.

Some things many people carry on day hikes, but I do not —

  • Lighters and matches. Both can fail, particularly in adverse weather conditions. A flint-and-tinder, with an appropriate ignition source, will not.
  • GPS units. Often fail, and they sometimes prove inaccurate depending on conditions. Never, never, never, never, never go on the trail without an appropriate map and compass. Print maps at 1:24000 scale and learn how to orient yourself and to navigate with maps and compasses. It’s an essential skill, one that can’t be magically done for you by a piece of delicate, energy-sensitive electronics.
  • Portable emergency communication devices. It’s rare you’ll encounter an emergency on a day hike that justifies such a device. A radio that can transmit on 2m and 70cm frequencies (provided you’re licensed, that is!) can help in emergencies as well as in non-emergency situations if you’re out-of-range of cell towers. Plus, if another person in your party is a radio operator, you can better coordinate leading and sweeping on spread-out hikes.
  • Firearms. I’ve never encountered a trail scenario where a gun did more good than harm. I’m not at all opposed to firearms, but for a day hike? Too close to civilization, with too many inexperienced people in the mix; the risk-reward ratio isn’t favorable. In a deep backcountry setting, however ….

Complexity Level 3

A weekend excursion in the non-remote backcountry, where emergency evacuation may be expected within 120 minutes of a distress call. Likely includes a mix of hiking on established and primitive trails and camping at planned but rustic sites, or basic off-trail bushcrafting.
The vest goes away at this point because wearing the vest with a backpack is a recipe for shoulder-friction agony. I keep all the stuff from the vest but redistribute it between my backpack and a waistpack. So assume that everything at Level 2 also appears in Level 3, but I won’t belabor it by listing things twice.

Here’s the thing about the waistpack: I treat it like a medical fastpack. It contains my version of the survival 10 essentials plus medical triage stuff (gloves, notepad, shears, CPR mask). It only comes off when I’m in the sleeping bag. If I leave the bag, even to pee at 2 a.m., the waistpack comes with me. Because what if you get turned around in the dark?


  • I’m a fan of the Kelty Coyote 80 because it fits my hips in just the right way where it doesn’t feel like I’m carrying a monkey behind my shoulders. (I own the much more robust 2011 version, not the 2016 redesign, which seems to be a significant step backwards. Mine features heavier-weight material and more durable zippers and stitching than the current iteration.)
  • Pack rain cover.
  • Appropriate netted bags or compression sacks to consolidate, segregate and compress the gear inside your main pack.
  • Waistpack. I use a Kelty Oriole, a now-discontinued 6L lumbar pack that I wear facing the front.
    • The stuff from bags 2, 4, and 5 from my vest go into the waistpack. The items individually attached the vest do, too. The radio clips to a side strap. The material from bags 6 and 7 go into the waistpack. Very few first-aid items (triage only) goes in the waistpack; the rest hides in the backpack.

Insulation (organized in backpack)

  • Appropriate footwear—broken-in boots or shoes for trekking and light camp shoes for lounging at base or crossing small streams
  • Wool socks and appropriate undergarments (x2)
  • Appropriate hiking shirt, long sleeve (x2)—fishing shirts with quick-dry material and roll-up sleeve loops work well, as do the kind with built-in sun protection
  • Appropriate hiking pants (x2)—I like the kind with heavier material, quick-dry, with pockets and zip-off lower legs
  • Gaiters as needed
  • Light sweater in case the night gets breezy
  • Fingerless gloves, to protect your hands against abrasions
  • Two-piece breathable rain suit, if the forecast suggests a storm, or an oversized poncho just in case

Bag 1: Cooking & Hydration

  • Camp stove with 4 oz. fuel for every day of the trip
  • Mug-slash-pot for boiling water, mixing soups, etc.
  • Spork
  • Containers for 3L of drinking/cooking water per day, plus an additional liter for every five miles hiked (however, individual needs vary) — I use a 2L hydration pack with a bite valve, with a pair of backup 1L nalgene bottles carried in external pouches

Bag 2: Food

  • Food for one day longer than you plan to be out on the trail — fast one-small-pot meals that you can eat hot or cold — with calories sufficient to support each day’s exertion
  • Easy-to-access snacks for energy on the trail
  • Coffee or tea

Bag 3: Sanitation

  • Small spade for digging catholes, if outhouses aren’t available along your planned route
  • Small roll of camper’s toilet paper (remember: bring a heavy Ziploc bag on the theory that you pack out all your inorganic waste to Leave No Trace)
  • Biodegradable camp soap
  • Moist towelettes
  • Quick-dry towel, if you expect to get wet
  • Toiletries kit for your specific needs (contact lens stuff, feminine hygiene products, toothbrush, medications)
  • Bug spray (I prefer 100 percent DEET)
  • Sunscreen
  • Decent multi-purpose gloves for working with wood, debris, cordage, hot pots around the fire, etc.
  • If you suspect there’s a reason (snow, rain, bugs, fear of trash pandas) you won’t want to leave your tent in the middle of the night to urinate, consider a bottle with a cap
  • Additional heavy freezer bags for packing out trash

Bag 4: Fire, Water, Light & Tools

  • Black Diamond Storm headlamp plus a set of replacement batteries
  • I sometimes bring my 12×25 compact glasses if it’s an especially scenic trip
  • Camp lantern, if you wish (I’m a fan of the small/light candle lanterns—just enough lumens to read by)
  • Mosquito headnet, if the season calls for it
  • Method of normal water purification (depending on context, I’ll carry either a travel hiking filter or a UV treatment kit)
  • Small beeswax candle in a tin, with waterproof matches inside
  • Additional firestarter material
  • Small hand saw
  • A few extra chemlights

Bag 5: First Aid
I augment my stock first-aid kit with additional materials depending on where I’m going, when I’m going, with whom I’m going and who else has some degree of first aid or medical training. It varies every time. I base it off a proprietary list shared with me by a small Canadian adventure-sports organization, which optimized the list for WFR-prepared explorers in light of expected-time-to-rescue for different climate conditions, although the NASAR 48-hour pack list is a good starting point, too.

Shelter & Environmental Protection

  • Groundsheet (I use a 6-foot-by-8-foot tarp I bought at Meijer — and get the blue one; nothing’s blue in nature like that, so you’ll be more visible if you need rescue)
  • Tent or bivy or hammock
  • Sleeping pad (I use a now-discontinued Therm-a-Rest inflatable model)
  • Light blanket or heavy blanket or 0°F sleeping bag, depending on the season
  • Sunglasses
  • Small inflatable travel pillow (optional)
  • Sitting pad (optional)

Complexity Level 4

Between three and six nights in the remote backcountry, especially in a period where it’s likely to become cold. Evacuation is expected than four hours after contact and immediate recourse to emergency services (by cell phone or ham radio) may or may not be possible. The trail may or may not exist, or may be challenging to pass in places given terrain or environmental conditions. Camps may be established at existing primitive sites, or you’ll need to clear your own camp. Example: Isle Royale National Park in the off-peak season.

Assume everything listed for Level 3, with exceptions/substitutions noted below.


  • As the temperature drops, you’ll need to plan for base layers (wool or technical material)
  • A cold-weather hat and mittens protect against the chill
  • Heavier-weight wool socks
  • Gaiters, if you’re forging your own trail
  • A windproof and water-resistant shell jacket
  • Medium- or heavy-weight wool sweaters or technical fleeces to layer up while wicking away moisture
  • A balaclava, if you expect it to get really cold
  • Rain gear, regardless of the forecast


  • Meals-in-a-mug are okay for a day or two, but if you’ll be out longer, or you’re out with friends, a more robust cookware set makes sense — a stackable pot, pan and kettle set opens the door to other kinds of meals or cooking for more than one


  • Pack for a day extra than you’re planning, and remember that hiking burns more calories than normal, so higher-calorie, denser foods offer a better weight-to-volume ratio than a bunch of crap
    • A set of emergency ration bars can be a life-saver; a compact, vacuum-sealed brick offers 3,600 additional calories while taking up 1.6 lbs and just a handful of cubic inches of space
  • You’ll need a bear canister if you’re venturing far enough north


  • Enough consumables (batteries, drops/tablets) to keep your water clean for an extra day or two longer than you plan to be on the trail
  • Even Nalgene can either crack or vanish under adverse conditions, so consider packing an extra collapsible water bottle just in case


  • The longer one’s on the trail, the more likely it is that some method of bathing will prove valuable



  • A portable GPS unit that can summon help or check-in with loved-ones makes sense — I use the Garmin InReach Explorer+, which includes a (rudimentary) GPS mapping tool with satellite-based text messaging and global SOS services


  • Enough consumables (batteries, candles) for an extra day or two of unplanned trail time

Repair & Support

  • If you plan to stay in the same place for a while, you might bear the extra weight of a camp chair
  • A small fishing kit, if you’ll be by water and are inclined (and are lawfully allowed) to fish for your supper
  • Seam/patch repair kit for your tent, in case the tent gets a puncture or a tear

Complexity Level 5

Extended time in the remote backcountry of a week or longer, where challenging terrain and isolation are expected and there is little to no recourse to emergency services within the first twelve hours after a critical incident. Example: Zone hikes at Denali National Park. 

As with Level 4, with the following amendments:


  • You’ll be carrying in a ton of food (and maybe a bear canister!) so more of your gear may have to be attached to the outside of your pack—and as such, your pack should have enough straps and loops to get the job done
  • Consider a pauk if you’re going in the snow


  • Three complete changes of clothes (i.e., two in the pack and one on your body)
  • Wear boots and bring gaiters to protect against snakebites, ticks and wet vegetation
  • Plan for significant temperature variation for the place and time of the hike


  • Deliberateness about food choices is crucial — balance variety, nutritive value and caloric density against weight/volume in the pack
  • Plan for two extra days’ food if you’re extra-special isolated from rescue


  • You will need to clean yourself at some point, whether it’s with at least moist towelettes or with a solar shower


  • An understanding of the terrain is crucial before you depart. Will a normal tent work, or should you carry a bigger tent in case of unplanned camp days on account of weather? Will you need a hammock if you’re stuck traversing very wet ground?


  • GPS units and professional-grade topographical maps matter, as does redundancy—relying on one electronic device that could lose its juice or break on a rock is much more dangerous than using that device but having a backup map and compass handy as well as some basic orienteering skills

Repair & Support

  • Your first-aid kit will probably shift a bit in terms of what you’d carry, based on the need to stabilize and assess injury before evacuation—e.g., you might add a tourniquet but ditch a rescue breathing mask

Special Considerations

I keep some stuff handy that aren’t a default part of my equipment list, but are available if special circumstances warrant it:

  • If I think I might be near a place with a non-trivial fire risk, I might bring an N-95 mask. For example, if I knew I was going to do section hikes of the Pacific Crest Trail, I know that wildfires are an unpredictable hazard, so the mask will help if I’m downwind while I need to evacuate to safety. Likewise, if winds will be brisk and sand plentiful, some sort of eye protection makes sense.
  • Cold-winter travel often requires specialized tools like an ice axe, snowshoes, crampons or snow goggles.
  • Travel through swamp or marsh terrain would benefit from a hammock instead of a tent. Don’t forget to check for leeches!
  • Travel in very hot terrain—lookin’ at you, desert Southwest!—might require an umbrella for shade and extra oral rehydration salts.
  • Light sleepers might pack some earplugs. Nothing like being alone in the forest with 100 billion very loud insects singing you to sleep.
  • Adventuring in bear territory? You’ll need a bear canister for your food and plan your campsites appropriately to minimize human-ursine interaction. Grrr.
  • Speaking of bears, you will probably want to also carry bear spray.
  • Some folks carry a pistol in the backcountry. It’s worth checking the statutes about bringing firearms into Canada, if that’s your jam.
  • Group travel means some gear might be distributed differently. For example, one person could carry the group first aid kit, another the group cookware, etc. Minimizes the need for individuals to fully self-provision everything while traveling in a pack. (Of course, you’ll want to carry survival basics on your own.)

Isle Royale: A Recap and Reflection

Late last night I returned from a five-day, four-night solo hiking trip to Isle Royale National Park. The island — actually, a very rocky archipelago — lies in northwest Lake Superior, not far off the U.S.-Canada border; its lush boreal forests, glacier-scraped basalt and abundant wildlife contribute to the park’s highest per-acre backcountry usage of all the National Parks, despite being the least visited of them all.


Monday. I departed from Grand Rapids around 4 p.m., after having celebrated a surprise 80th birthday party for my beloved grandmother. With gear stowed and cats provided for, I set out for Houghton, Michigan — an 8.5-hour, 500-mile journey that ended up costing about $90 in gas. I routed north on US-131 until somewhere in Charlevoix County, whereupon I connected through side roads to I-75 until I crossed the the Mackinac Bridge. From St. Ignace, I took US-2 to M-77, then M-28 (including the infamous never-ending, perfectly straight road between Singleton and Seney), then US-41 to Houghton. Ended up snoozing around midnight in a rest stop just outside of Houghton.

Tuesday. Finished the last 30 minutes of the drive to Houghton. Swapped my misprinted tickets for the ferry with Ranger Barb. She was totally awesome and makes me feel happy about paying taxes for the National Park Service. Watched the USNPS Ranger III get loaded. The ship — a 165-foot, twin screw behemoth displacing 835 tons — provided a quiet, comfortable ride. Which is good, considering it’s a six-hour trek across Lake Superior. We got a late start but arrived early because we skipped a port call at Mott Island. One of the dedicated volunteers, a sweet 18-year-old girl who says she has “lived” on the island all her life because she volunteers her summers there, said that her only real advice for first-time visitors is “to give it a chance, despite the cold.” Our voyage proceeded without incident; the 10-knot winds gave 1-to-3 foot waves that barely ruffled the 60-year-old ship. While on board, I received my backcountry permit from Ranger Paul. He very gently suggested that my original itinerary, which included a day of off-trail hiking, might be less optimal than a route that he suggested. He was proven correct. After we arrived at Rock Harbor, around 2:45 p.m., we got our stuff from the cargo hold and all six of us — me and a five-man party of young dudes from Purdue University, the only hikers in that scheduled voyage — hit the trail by 3:30. I covered 6 miles in about 3 hours, stopping occasionally for water and photos. I went from Rock Harbor to Daisy Farm by the Tobin Harbor Trail and the Rock Harbor Trail. The terrain was damp and steep, with much of the trail either muddy or an honest-to-goodness rivulet from snow runoff. I set up camp around 7 p.m. and had the entire site to myself. While preparing dinner, I learned that double-insulated steel mugs don’t heat on a white-gas stove, and also that my tent site was some sort of central party zone for many of the island’s massive population of snowshoe hares. Hares, more to the point, that have no fear of humans whatsoever. Two rabbits meandered around my camp, cool as cucumbers, and got close enough that I could have touched them. Bed by 9 p.m.

Wednesday. After studying my topo map in greater detail, I altered Ranger Paul’s planned expedition in favor of my own (to his prior approval; he said our agreed-upon route was “Plan A” but I was free to make my own “Plan B” as circumstances required). I awoke at 7 a.m. and broke camp by 8:35. It had rained intermittently throughout the night, but my tent stayed dry — glad I brought a tarp as ground cover. Pumping drinking water from Lake Superior wasn’t bad until I slipped on a rock and fell into the sub-40-degree water up to my calves. Good thing I was wearing my neoprene-and-rubber camp shoes at the time. Breakfast consisted of hot oatmeal and hot tea punctuated by another hare visit. After I broke camp, I trekked from Daisy Farm to the top of Mt. Ojibway by around 10 a.m. Although the elevation change was steep, the scenery was beautiful and the trail, away from the lakeshore, was challenging but not wet. The mountain ridge was warmer, with temps in the upper 60s and a light breeze. Few bugs. I enjoyed a lunch of canned tuna along the Greenstone Ridge Trail between Mt. Ojibway and Mt. Franklin — there was a huge, flat basalt boulder just off the trail, so I took off all my gear, including my boots and sweater, and laid on the rock for like a half hour just soaking up the sun and enjoying the sounds and smells of the backcountry. The ridgeline is much drier and as much as 30 degrees F warmer than lakeshore trails, so I had a great time just sunning myself. Later on, at Mt. Franklin, I ran into the Purdue gang and then went down to Lane Cove. After seven difficult miles and two major elevation changes (lake to Mt. Ojibway; Mt. Franklin to lake), I made camp at Lane Cove around 3 p.m. Camp setup there was more interesting — a consistently stiff, warm breeze off the bay required some creative use of rocks to get my tent set up. My little camp site was a mere 20 feet off the lakeshore, and again, I had the site to myself. The fun thing about Lane Cove is that it shelters a bunch of loons — and I saw plenty of them. Only downside: I kept hearing some bird call that sounded like one of my cats, and that made me sad. I missed them. And I spilled two-third of my dinner on a log. Spent the afternoon enjoying the sun, journaling and reading some of The Nicomachean Ethics. Bed by 9.

Thursday. Up at 7. Broke camp at 8. Occasional showers the night before left the camp cool and damp. Oh, and I had a huge spider in my boot. The trek along the trail from Lane Cove to Mt. Franklin was easier than I had been dreading. I guess I was starting to get used to the 40-lb. pack strapped to my back. That, and I was taking greater care to keep properly hydrated. The difficult part of that 2.4-mile segment was the roughly 500 feet of elevation gain in the last half mile; the trail consisted of a series of steep switchbacks that included large boulders, roots, mud holes and the prospect of tumbling down one side of the 18-inch-wide trail hundreds of feet to your gruesome death. Arrived at Three Mile by 11:30 — I knocked out a 5-mile hike with all that elevation change (lake to Mt. Franklin; Mt. Franklin to lake) in just a few hours. The downside, however, was that the entire journey was conducted in a light but consistent cold rain and I neglected to bring a pack cover. So I used my poncho to cover my pack, but by the time I got to Three Mile I decided to skip on the tent and make use of one of the shelters. Chilled to the bone, I realized that even my sleeping bag had gotten slightly damp, and the ambient air hovered in the low 40s. At one point, I contemplated breaking camp and making for Rock Harbor because I was worried about hypothermia. Then I remembered that I had an emergency bivy bag in my waist pack, so I put that inside my sleeping bag and put myself in the bivy. The trick worked; my “dry heat” warmed up my bag, and the bivy warmed me. By nightfall, I was confident that I’d have a warm, dry place to sleep. Plus, some hot tea at 5:30 helped boost my spirits. I read more Aristotle to pass the time, and did a lot more journaling. Plus I watched a trio of large birds — I don’t know the species, but they were jay-sized, with dark grey bodies, white necks and black faces — eat worms at my camp site. They paid me no heed; they even perched on the table within an arm’s length of me on several different occasions. A group of six campers stayed at Three Mile near me, but the consistent drizzle kept them quiet and in their tents most of the afternoon. In the bag by 7 p.m., reading by candlelight until sleep-time at 9 p.m.

Friday. Up at 6:50. Used the outhouse and obtained more water from Lake Superior. Broke camp at 8:25 and made the 4-mile trek to Rock Harbor by 10:15 with no stops and only two slight falls on wet, mossy basalt. Set up shop in shelter No. 6 and hoofed it to the general store to get more stove fuel plus some chips and sour-cream dip. The day was sunny and warm, and I was in a great mood. I spent most of the day — after paying $6 for a 5-minute hot shower — journaling and working on various possible novel plots for this year’s NaNoWriMo. In the early afternoon, the Purdue Five grabbed the shelter across from me. And I had repeated visits from my “pet” red squirrel. He had no fear of humans; he often hopped up on the picnic table with me, or brushed by my ankles. I didn’t feed him, but I think he was on the lookout for crumbs from my bag of Ruffles. Then another snowshoe hare visited later. Then I watched a curious 10-minute battle between a black fly and some small ants: The fly kept molesting the ants, and the ants kept trying to grab the fly. It was odd. I retired by 8 p.m. when a sudden squall line moved in. The lightning was awesome.

Saturday. Up at 7 a.m., and a bit sore. I have a great zero-degree bag, but it’s a mummy and it constrains movement. I toss a lot, and often fall off my Thermarest pad and getting back on while you’re cocooned requires some gymnastics skill. Broke camp by 7:45 and made it to the dock by 8. Boarded at 8:30 and we were out for early departure by 8:45. We did, however, stop at Mott Island this time. The passage back to Houghton was quiet. The entire lake was in a fog and waves ran 2 to 4 feet. Around 1 p.m., Ranger Paul entertained me, the Perdue Five and one of the grad students departing from Mott with some self-composed songs and poetry readings. It’s stuff that you’d expect from a park ranger with a guitar and a fascination with Dylan. Still, he is clearly passionate about Isle Royale and his job and cares deeply for the hikers he shepherds. Good fellow. By 2 p.m., I got a cell signal again. I had left the dock on Tuesday with true Inbox Zero; by the time I returned to Houghton I had 669 unread emails in four different accounts. Of which, I responded to just two — both, my mother — and kept a mere 13 for later action or response. Puts email connectivity in a different persepective. Arrived at Houghton by 3:10 and after a welcome-back hug from Ranger Barb, I was on the road by 3:30. Stopped for gas in Christmas, Michigan, and was sorely tempted to stop in a moment to see the Indian casino there, because given its size I would have expected to see three slot machines and one table game. Happy to see Lake Michigan again at Naubinway. Route through the U.P. was the same as on the way North. However, the southbound trek through the Lower Peninsula was different — I-75 to US-127, connecting to US-10 between Clare and Reed City, then US-131 at Reed City back home. I have no idea why Here Drive (Nokia’s vaunted GPS routing system) recommended two radically different routes between Grand Rapids and the Bridge. Got home by 11:45 — much later than I hoped — and found Fiona in the kitchen. I petted her a bit but Murphy didn’t show up. So I said, “Murphy, I’m home!” and then I heard him meow and then scamper into the kitchen. I petted them for a long time because I missed my little fuzzy buddies. I’m glad my mom and my friend Stacie were willing to alternate days to come and check on them.


  • You don’t appreciate just how remote the Upper Peninsula is until you spend some time there. In all my years as a Michigan resident, this trip marks the first real experience I’ve had in the U.P. It’s telling that between St. Ignace and Marquette — nearly four hours of driving time — I may have seen exactly one fast-food joint (in Munising, I think). Many of the towns along the way consist of one stoplight and any three of the following: A gas station, a trading post, a sit-down local diner, a church, a 1950s-era motel or a generic service outlet like a barber or an auto garage. Grocery stores? Hard to find. Unless you live near the larger cities, like Marquette or Sault St. Marie, you don’t have a lot of places to go that aren’t The Great Outdoors. Cell service is spotty. And I’ve decided that “Up North” in a cultural sense begins around Gaylord.
  • Be very, very careful with pack weight. My gear weighed in somewhere between 40 and 42 lbs., which was still below the recommended maximum by the National Park Service for my weight. Still, Isle Royale has lots of difficult trail with sudden elevation changes, mud bogs, wet basalt and the like. Every unnecessary pound makes the trek that much more miserable.
  • Do not attempt a hike at Isle Royale unless you’re in decent cardiovascular condition. If you can’t run a 10k, you won’t really survive an average hike on an average trail on the island with a heavy pack. See my photos, above, for some snapshots of the trail. Then mentally picture miles and miles and miles of it.
  • Do not attempt a zone hike (off-trail) unless your last name is Grylls. Despite the appearance from satellite imagery, the terrain on the island is astonishingly dense. You will absolutely need at least a good machete — kissing Leave No Trace principles ‘tween the buttocks — and expect a slow slog. I’m not kidding: The terrain is wildly erratic with elevation changes, dense undergrowth and giant boulders. Even the rangers say they’ve done it once, and once was enough.
  • If you hike solo, make sure you’re OK being alone with yourself. When you’re on the island, you’re on the island. There’s no going home until the next boat departure. There’s no firing up the cell phone for Twitter therapy. Just you and your thoughts. I think I wasn’t quite prepared for my initial feelings of loneliness — when I spilled my chili on Wednesday, I spontaneously burst out in tears and screamed at the trees, “I don’t want to be here anymore!” — but after I had some time for reflection and journaling, I was in good shape. If they told me on Friday afternoon that the boat wasn’t sailing for another week, I’d have been totally cool with it and plotted my next destinations on the trail. Just have to get through that first 48 hours of being with no one but yourself. On the bright side, I had some deep insight on the island that absolutely will stay with me and has already begun to color some of my long-term goals.
  • Visit the island only after you understand map-based orienteering and have a bit of trail sense. Except for a few discreet wooden posts at major intersections, none of the major trails (at least, on the east side of the island) are marked or blazed. In some places, rangers have left small, discreet rock cairns to mark the trail when no other option would suffice (e.g., when you’re crossing a large field of mossy basalt with no dirt to mark the way). Generally, though, you need to survey the terrain ahead of you and just figure out where the trail leads. Which is easy to do when you know how to do it. Likewise with map-based orienteering. If you want to known where you are, you can’t point to a marker that says “half-mile to camp, go that way.” Instead, you’ll need to pull out your map and either orient by taking bearings against landmarks like the lighthouse or the observation tower on Mt. Ojibway, or by looking north or south and comparing the topography of the train against the topo lines on your map.
  • Gear correctly. I wore my trusty Doc Martens and had no foot-related problems; one of the Perdue Five wore Vibrams and said he was fine, except I saw him apply ointments and moleskin to his feet on Friday. Although NPS has its standard gear list, I’d go a bit further and say that the following items should be considered standard for an Isle Royale visit: A sturdy staff (not collapsible trekking poles), waterproof boots with solid ankle support, a tarp as groundcover, a pack cover, fuel at the rate of 4 oz. per day per person, a good technical base layer, clothes and a bag for 20 degrees cooler than you expect, food for one day longer than you plan to visit, and the capability to haul 4L of water if you plan to go anywhere near Greenstone Ridge. Save weight by skipping most redundancies; just go with the 10 Essentials and, possibly, an emergency bivy bag in case stuff gets wet.

Hiking at Isle Royale National Park wasn’t what I expected. The scenery was even more lush and awe-inspiring than I imagined. The terrain was tougher. The isolation hit harder. But I’d go back again in a heartbeat, especially if I had some fellow travelers and suitable cat-care lined up back home. Ranger Paul’s folk songs about how the island touches you might be a bit of an overstatement … but not by much.

Chalk one more item off Ye Olde Bucket List.