Meet the (Scaly, Feathery, Blubbery) Neighbors in Everglades National Park

A weeklong paddle through Florida’s Everglades National Park is chock-full of wildlife encounters.

Roseate spoonbills grab a snack.

I startle awake at dawn to the sound of heavy breathing an arms-length from our tent. Heart pounding, I bolt upright, ready to fend off sharp-toothed swamp monsters lurking under our chickee—a 10-by-12-foot wooden platform on stilts that serves as a personal island in Everglades National Park. But once I unzip the door, instead of an invading alligator, I spy two bottlenose dolphins circling, probably in search of snapper for breakfast. I breathe a sigh of relief, wonder replacing my worries, as I take in the 360-degree view of water reflecting the calm golden light of dawn.

This chickee in Oyster Bay is our first overnight stop on a 50-mile circumnavigation of Whitewater Bay in the southern half of the Everglades. It’s my husband Rob’s dream trip: a week of canoeing through a wilderness of tidal flats while casting his fly rod for redfish and snook hiding under mangrove roots. I, on the other hand, prefer boating in reptile-free mountain lakes. But locked in yet another eternal Montana winter, I had found myself intrigued by the idea of exploring somewhere warm. Then I read Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country, an epic historical novel about outlaws who escaped the authorities by hiding in the Everglades. After that I was hooked on the idea of seeing Florida’s most famous park for myself—its beautiful birds, abundant marine life, and rich cultural heritage.

Yesterday, just after Rob and I pushed off from the Flamingo Visitor Center in a beat-up aluminum canoe loaded down with a week’s worth of water and food—our 3-year-old son, Talon, safely ensconced between us on a nest of dry bags—a crocodile as long as our boat had surfaced 6 feet away. I gasped, instinctively reaching back to grab hold of Talon as the croc sank back beneath the water. It wasn’t an ideal way to begin our trip, but we paddled on, determined that the year we spent planning this remote family adventure wouldn’t go to waste after just one startling wildlife encounter.

Back in Oyster Bay, Rob and Talon are still asleep beside me in the tent, both of them sprawled atop their sleeping bags in the humid December heat. Mosquitos coat the mesh overhead, making me wish I didn’t have to answer the call of nature—or face the 3-inch-long banana spiders that live in the chickee’s porta-potty.

I quietly make coffee and oatmeal, gazing toward an endless horizon broken only by flat-topped mangrove islands scattered over still, gray water. A morning chorus of birds tunes up within the mangroves. As I listen to the trills and rustles of invisible wildlife, I start to understand why the Everglades have a history of sheltering bandits and desperados. These swamps could swallow secrets whole.

Later that morning, we’re back in the canoe, watching the water become clearer as we wind our way inland from the Gulf of Mexico. Our son giggles each time he spots a new bird; great egrets, tricolored herons, and roseate spoonbills swoop by, their plumage vivid against the dark mangroves. I learn how to judge the depth of the water by its color: amber in the shallows, greener as the bottom drops away, then finally a deep gray. After an easy 5-mile paddle, we set up camp on the Shark River chickee, where I do yoga while the boys swing in our hammock.

As the week goes on, I relax into the rhythm of our days and my once-looming fears are now diminished by the simplicity of the landscape and the way we travel through it. The world has shrunk to the size of my family, our canoe, and endless vistas of water and sky. We go days without seeing other paddlers, and spot only one alligator after our initial crocodilian sighting. I fall asleep easily each night under the sweep of the Milky Way.

The last morning we opt to take a shortcut back to the Flamingo Visitors Center via the Hells Bay Canoe Trail. As we turn out of a wide bay into the narrow waterway, we find it overgrown with spiderweb-laden thickets of red mangroves. I pull our bow forward by grabbing branches while Rob pivots the stern around what feels like hundreds of hairpin turns.

Then, I see something rocketing toward us in the narrow channel. The V of its wake is longer than our canoe. I strain to make out the shape beneath the murky water. Shark? Crocodile? Python?

“Hold on!” I call, adrenaline pumping. Rob quickly grabs the gunwale. Talon squeals.

A big dolphin races beside our boat, so close I can see its smile. I laugh aloud, half in relief, half in wonder, as it bolts away toward the open water behind us. As we pick up our paddles to head back to land, I find that my usual sense of satisfaction after a week off the grid is magnified by my pride in facing my wildlife fears with each paddlestroke. These wetlands may have a dark side, but it only serves to highlight their beauty.

Do It: Trailhead This route circumnavigates Whitewater Bay from the Flamingo Visitor Center. Rent canoes from Flamingo Adventures Season December through March to avoid hurricane season and the worst of the heat and mosquitoes. Permit Camping permits for backcountry chickees ($15 plus $2/person per day) must be reserved in-person at the Flamingo Visitor Center. Backpacker

What Backpacking Lost in the California Fires

California’s catastrophic wildfire season left some of the state’s most vaunted hiking areas charred and impassible. With the climate changing and wildfires continuing to intensify, it may be a taste of what’s to come.

Black Mountain Hotshots hiking into the northwest side of the Slink Fire, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, California.

On a dark August night pulsing with heat, the skies over Northern California erupted in a rare lightning storm jumpstarting a wildfire season that was still technically weeks away. The next morning, the chaos began. It wouldn’t stop for another three months.

Between those first CZU, SCU and LNU Complex Fires in August and October’s Silverado and Blue Ridge Fires, more than four million acres burned in California this year. It’s the biggest fire season in modern history, and it more than thirty lives and thousands of buildings.

But while the fires’ effects on populated areas were profound, by sheer square mileage, it’s California’s parklands, forests and open spaces that have borne the brunt of the damage. Within days of the storm that launched the fire season, flames had enveloped Big Basin State Park, a land of ancient redwood groves in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Nearby, both Butano State Park and Little Basin suffered severe damage. Nearly all of the San Vicente Redwoods, a more than 8,000 acre old-growth forest co-managed by the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), burned. With trails blocked by debris and the high risk of falling branches from affected trees, it was mid-October before it was safe enough for even officials to visit the property.

It will take months, in some cases years, for park officials to clear out the most dangerous tree-falls, address high risk landslide and mudflow areas, and repair enough of the trails and facilities for hiking and backpacking to safely resume in the Santa Cruz Mountains and other recreation areas hit hard by this year’s fires. And when they do, things will be different. Repeated fire events could even turn once forested sections of the state’s iconic Pacific Crest and the John Muir into hot, sunny shrub fields.

“All these hikes we take for granted, that forest is going to be big-time changed,” says Scott Stephens, professor of fire science at University of California Berkeley.

Fires, even large ones, aren’t new to California. According to Kristen Shive, director of science at Save the Redwoods League, prior to the violent removal of indigenous communities in the 19th century and Forest Service policies which put an end to controlled burns and fire rotations in the early 20th century, low-grade, restorative wildfires—some of which sparked from lightning and heat events, others of which were intentionally set to refresh the forest—burned around 4.5 million acres annually in the state.

The fire, itself, is not the problem. In fact, explains Noelle Chambers Thurlow, vice president of conservation at POST, “in some cases we may see actual benefits from the fire such as the activation of fire-dependent seedbanks, the creation of new animal habitat, reduced competition among trees for water and nutrients and other regenerative effects.”

The problem is the intensity of today’s wildfires compared with those in the past. Over the last several decades, a build-up of flammable materials has caused wildfires to burn hot enough to reach the fragile upper forest canopies instead of just scorching their more fire-resistant trunks. In any wildfire, individual trees die, but the more severe the fire, the more damaging it is to the forest as a whole, including keystone species like the California redwood and giant sequoia. And because forests can take decades, if not centuries, to recover from intense fires, they have a greater effect on the entire ecosystem.

Simultaneously, climate change is turning California from a Mediterranean climate marked by wet winters and dry summers to something more desert-like. Droughts, like the one that lasted from 2011-2019, are now longer and more frequent than in the past, and warmer winter temperatures have decreased snowfall in the mountains, choking out a key source of water for the state. With less moisture all around, the length of the fire season has increased exponentially, with wildfires sparking earlier and burning later into the year.

There’s not yet a means of measuring which regions are likely to suffer more extreme damage prior to a wildfire, but looking at changes in near-infrared and shortwave-infrared data over time with a technique known as a normalized burn ratio can indicate the severity of a wildfire after the fact. A study conducted by NASA’s Ames Research Center on the complex fires sparked by lightning in August showed that CZU fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains burned at such a high intensity that in significant swaths of the forest, all that remained was soot, ash and charred stumps.

Like the forests, those of us who are drawn to backpacking and hiking California’s famed coastal redwoods and granite peaks will experience effects from ever longer, more intense fire seasons. In August in the Bay Area, “the air quality alone was responsible for significant recreational limitations for a nearly three week stretch where it was unhealthy to go outdoors,” says Chambers Thurlow. At 7,000 feet of elevation in the Sierra Nevada, that kind of wildfire smoke would make backpacking virtually impossible.

And then there are the standing snags, the charred remains of trees damaged in wildfires that remain upright for five to 15 years before crashing to the ground. “They’re very dangerous,” says Stephens. “You do not want to have to camp when you’re in a snag field.” A ranger told me the same thing last summer at Lassen Volcanic National Park in the southern reaches of the Cascade Range, when my planned route took me through a swath of snags that had burned about ten years before.

It’s true that wildfires will change when and where we backpack in California. Fire closures will leave us clamoring for smaller slices of forest in summer and fall. But the state’s rugged, rich beauty will survive. The wildfires will change how we backpack in California, but it won’t change why. Backpacker

The 3 Best Softshell Jackets of 2021

Find the sweet spot between weather protection and comfort with these flexible shells.

If you’re moving, you’re sweating. And if your layers don’t breathe, that sweat has nowhere to go. Whether you’re hiking, climbing, or skinning up a peak in the backcountry, a comfortable, versatile softshell should be part of everyone’s kit, and strides in materials and construction mean that the compromises of swapping out your hardshell are minimal. Grab one of these three jackets and get moving.

When you make a purchase through our site, we may earn a commission. Backpacker

Arc’teryx Trino SL Hoody/Anorak

Most breathable softshell jacket

Our take This lightweight softie nails the breathable-flexible-durable trifecta, earning it favorite status on trail runs, snowy hikes, and rock climbs across Colorado. Nylon/spandex sections under the arms and on the back kept the air moving, even on climbs in Clear Creek Canyon that saw temps inch into the 50s. Gore-Tex’s windproof Infinium material everywhere else let us wait out drizzles without leaks, and kept us comfy when 30-mph winds blew in. Ample stretch let us easily reach for holds, and though it’s light, the Trino withstood abuse. “My daughter even used it as a sled on multiple glissades, and it looks new,” one tester says.

The details Fit is trim, with room for just a baselayer underneath. The streamlined design offers a one-way adjustable hood (it fits under a helmet) and cinchable hem that both defy wintry winds, plus hand pockets. Note: The anorak-style women’s version is tricky to pull on because of its slim cut (but fits well once you do); the men’s has a full zip.

$225; 12 oz.; m’s S-XXL, w’s XS-XL Backpacker

Maloja WangM / PunaM

Most versatile

Our take Even during yo-yoing weather conditions, there’s no need to break stride for layering adjustments with this shell. “On a ski tour up Turnagain Pass I started at -22°F and, due to an extreme inversion, was soon skinning in sunlight at 25°F,” says an Alaska tester who wore the WangM (the men’s version) with a baselayer and midlayer underneath. “I never had to take it off.” Three-layer, windproof Gore-Tex Infinium fabric kept us comfortable cross-country skiing at 30°F, and blunted 65-mph gusts in Chugach State Park. A fleece-backed mask protected our nose and mouth on colder outings.

The details Ski-friendly features like pockets for a beacon and skins make this a top choice for backcountry tours. “The inside pockets were key for keeping my skins sticky when the temperatures dipped below zero,” one tester says. Fit is slim, but four-way stretch means the shell never hindered movement.

$289 (women’s $259); 15.2 oz.; m’s XS-XL, w’s XS-XL Backpacker

Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Hybrid Shell

Most protective

Our take When you want enough protection to shield you from the dreaded wintry mix, but don’t want to sacrifice breathability, go for a hybrid shell. This one strategically employs proprietary, three-layer waterproof/windproof material on the chest, shoulders, and hood (unlike the original Dawn Patrol, which is a full softshell), while an airy double-weave softshell fabric with DWR anchors high-sweat zones. The combo kept us warm, but not steamy, on the skin track up to about 30°F.

The details The Dawn Patrol comes loaded with smart features. It has arm gussets for unrestricted movement, an easy-adjusting hood that fits over a helmet, and three pockets (two 10-inch-long chest pockets that fit skins, plus one interior). We especially liked the double main zipper: One zip fully closes the shell, and the other exposes a mesh strip down the front for added venting. Ding: A wrist gaiter with thumbholes uncomfortably squeezed average-sized hands.

$349; 1 lb. 1 oz.; m’s S-XL, w’s XS-XL Backpacker

Keep Your Fingers and Toes Warm on Winter Hikes

Cold fingers and toes cause quick misery in the backcountry. The key to feeling as warm as possible is keeping your digits toasty. Take care of your hands and feet and you’ll have a much more pleasant winter camping experience.

The numbness you feel in your extremities when you get cold results from a lack of blood flow and stressed nerves. There is no set temperature at which this happens, since blood circulation varies from person to person, but it can be expedited by restrictive clothing, wetness, or lack of insulation. Combat the cold with these quick-and-easy remedies:

• Cover your head. Wear a hat that goes over your ears. Keeping your whole body warm is the first step to maintaining bloodflow to the extremities.

• Swap out damp socks and glove liners. Sweaty, wet liners and socks will keep you feeling cold and can cause frostbite, so change into dedicated dry pairs at camp.

• Loosen your boots. Tight footwear can cut off circulation. Go for a relaxed fit in camp, but tie your laces so you don’t trip.

• Use toe and hand warmers. Toe warmers with sticky bottoms work great, as they’ll stay in your gloves or footwear. Stick them on top of your hands and toes for maximum effect. Rechargeable heating elements work too, but they are heavier. Backpacker

Deep Dive: Waterproof/Breathable Membranes

Everything you need to know about keeping dry.

Hardshell jackets are one of the products we receive the most questions about: How do they work? What’s the standout technology in the category? Why are some shells more breathable than others? What the heck is 3-layer construction? Keep reading for all the info you need on the gear that will keep you dry when the weather turns.

How do waterproof/breathable membranes work?

Waterproof/breathable membranes are called as such for a reason: They don’t just keep precip out, but also allow your sweat to evaporate from your body as well. (A plastic poncho, on the other hand, will only do the former, so you’ll swamp out quickly.) This is because the microscopic pores of the membrane are small enough that they don’t let water droplets through, yet large enough to let sweat vapor out.

How does one type of membrane differ from another?

It’s all in the design. The standard method for creating a waterproof/breathable membrane is using expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE), a type of polyurethane (PU). ePTFE was popularized by Gore-Tex about 50 years ago, and the company—along with many other competitors—still uses it today. While ePTFE and PU membranes can be exceptionally breathable, they’re not air-permeable; that is, a certain amount of sweat vapor has to build up on the skin side of the membrane to create sufficient pressure to push the vapor through to the outside. Electrospun membranes, on the other hand (such as Outdoor Research’s AscentShell or The North Face’s FUTURELIGHT) use a different construction process that makes them air-permeable. As soon as you begin to sweat, the moisture is released away from your body. Membranes created by eVent and some from Pertex are also air-permeable.

So, air-permeable membranes are always the way to go?

Not quite. The other major factor in how a waterproof/breathable membrane performs is what it’s attached to. With a couple notable exceptions, membranes are bonded to a face fabric (the outer part of the shell) that can vary in density and thickness, and protects the membrane from harm. The more robust this fabric is—higher-denier materials are generally more durable than lower-denier ones—the more the membrane beneath it is handicapped in terms of releasing sweat vapor.

Then, there’s what’s beneath the membrane. You’ve probably noticed that shells come in 2-, 2.5-, and 3-layer constructions. These numbers refer to the layer that’s on the inside of the shell. In a 2-layer waterproof/breathable shell, the membrane is lined with a second material—usually mesh, and sometimes nylon. It helps protect the membrane from body oils and other wear and tear, but is not bonded to the membrane itself. A 3-layer shell’s lining is bonded to the membrane, which aids in the moisture-moving process: The lining will absorb sweat vapor and move it up through the membrane, which is why 3-layer shells are more breathable (while usually slightly heavier and more expensive). Finally, a 2.5-layer shell splits the difference between the two with an ultrathin inner lining that, while bonded to the membrane, is not as effective as a 3-layer design.

In recent years companies have also introduced shells that have the waterproof/breathable membrane outside, with no face fabric covering it. These technologies—like Columbia’s OutDry or Gore-Tex’s Shakedry—are extremely breathable, but suffer a durability penalty due to the lack of protection from a face fabric.

That’s a lot of info to take in.

Right? Just keep in mind that all the options above will keep you protected from rain and snow. As long as you remember to factor in the other pieces of the puzzle—the fabric and weight of the jacket itself, and the type of its layered construction—you should be able to pick the right shell for your adventures. To start, here are some examples of shells the BACKPACKER team has enjoyed and reviewed recently. Backpacker