BACKPACKER BTS: Previewing the 2020 Fall Gear Guide

Gear Editor Eli Bernstein takes you behind the curtain and into the BACKPACKER photo cage

A lot of work goes into producing our Fall Gear Guide, but there’s plenty of fun involved as well. One of Gear Editor Eli Bernstein’s favorite parts of the process is getting a ton of supercool, brand-new gear into the office for photographing.

BACKPACKER BTS: Previewing the 2020 Fall Gear Guide (; 3:10) Backpacker

Ask a Thru-Hiker: How Do I Deal With My Post-Hike Depression?

Getting back to “real life” after a long hike can be rough. But if you feel low after coming home, you’re not alone.

Stop just dreaming about a thru-hike; make it real! Our online Thru-Hiking 101 class covers everything you need to plan and finish the long-distance hike of your dreams. Start it instantly, complete it at your own pace, access it forever. Sign up now!

Dear Snorkel,

I just finished my first thru-hike and it was the most amazing time of my life. But I feel like now that I’m back home, none of my family or old friends understand me. I spend a lot of time wishing I was back on trail again. I’ve heard other hikers talk about “post-hike depression” or having the “post-hike blues” and think that is what is going on. Do you have any tips to help get over this slump?

Homesick for my Tent

Dear Homesick,

Congrats on finishing your trail and welcome back to “the real world.” As a thru-hiker, I understand what you’re going through. Returning home after months on the trail can be rough for many of us hikers.

Just like seeing a licensed massage therapist after a thru-hike can help address issues your body may be facing, a few sessions with someone trained in talking through issues with folks could be just what you need to get back into the groove of life back from the trail. I should point out that clinical depression, as diagnosed by a professional, is a serious medical condition that can affect anyone, and it’s different from the “post-hike blues” that many of us feel. If you find yourself dealing with persistent symptoms that impede everyday life, it’s time to talk to a therapist or doctor to learn more about what steps you can take. Even if you don’t experience clinical depression, however, it’s normal to feel like you’re on an emotional roller coaster after you’ve completed your walk.

Once a long hike ends, the biological and chemical signals in your body change. On a thru-hike, your body is pumped full of endorphins similar to a “runner’s high.” When we finish our hikes, there’s almost no way to give the body the same level of positive chemicals that it is used to getting after exercising all day. That’s why one of the best tricks that has worked for me is continuing an exercise regimen, ideally, throughout the day.

Next, I believe one of the things that makes thru-hiking long trails so magical is the connections, friendships, and tramily (trail family) that you build along the say. For many of us, thru-hiking is the first time in our lives where we meet other people who have similar values to us. There’s something special about the type of people who choose to walk for months on end in the wilderness and think that experience is fun. Coming back can be a let-down because often, people who aren’t thru-hikers can’t understand what you’ve been through.

This is why I think it’s important to keep in touch with your hiker community. Don’t just “like” other hikers’ social media. Set up Zoom calls with your trail family. Share photos. Mentor someone who is planning to hike the same trail you did in the future. Do what you can to keep up the human connection with hikers. They likely feel the same as you, and can be your support group.

Hikers who have been able to keep busy—preferably with other people—tend to fare better when coping with post-hike blues. Those lucky enough to start a job right after finishing a trail often find their lows aren’t as serious, although some say that it takes longer to process the experience of the hike. Sitting at home being bored can be a particularly harsh downer compared to the epic views and mountaintops of the trail. If you have the ability, look for places where you can volunteer. If you need to stay put, sort your photos, transcribe journal entries, and document your hike.

For many thru-hikers, though, the most satisfying way to get out of the post hike blues is to have something to look forward to. It’s not uncommon for thru-hikers to return from a trail and immediately begin planning their next adventure.

Finally, consider seeking help from a professional therapist even if you’re not clinically depressed. Just like seeing a licensed massage therapist after a thru-hike can help address issues your body may be facing, a few sessions with someone trained in talking through issues with folks could be just what you need to get back into the groove of life back from the trail. 

—Snorkel Backpacker

I Survived a Lightning Strike

Minko Nikolov, 32, suffered a near-fatal lightning strike while scouting a bouldering objective in Rocky Mountain National Park in August 2019.

I’ve been shot, I thought. I lay on my back, and a light rain mingled with the blood trickling from my mouth and ears. Someone must have shot me—why else would I be incapacitated in the middle of the woods? I didn’t yet realize that what had actually happened was just as scary.

When I moved to Colorado, I fell in love with the snow-flecked peaks and granite boulders of Rocky Mountain National Park, and spent as much time there as I could, hiking and climbing almost every weekend.

One Saturday in August, I packed my bag to hike up to Lower Chaos Canyon in search of boulders to climb. I threw in a thermal shirt, a rain shell, some food, a headlamp, and water. One last look at the forecast revealed only a 20 percent chance of rain. Perfect.

But by the time I got to the parking lot around 1:30 p.m., dark clouds of a clockwork thunderstorm were cluttering the sky. I sat in my car, watching rain and hail rattle off the hood. Colorado storms never stick around for long; 15 minutes later, the sky brightened. I grabbed my pack and started walking.

As I hiked, patches of blue sky widened above me. About halfway up the trail, around 2:30 p.m., I passed two climbing rangers. We stopped to chat, and one of them warned me that there was another cloudburst on the radar, about an hour away.

In retrospect, I should have turned around then, but I was still below treeline and my destination was less than a mile away. After seven years in the Rockies, I had learned that there’s a certain regularity to summer storms and had grown comfortable with taking shelter under large boulders or below treeline until they passed.

At Lake Haiyaha, the trees opened up, revealing views of prow-like Hallett Peak and the Continental Divide. The rangers had been right—clouds were building on the western horizon. Normally, I would have pushed through, but I needed to get home and pack for a weekend trip to celebrate my mom’s 61st birthday. I didn’t want to be late. This isn’t worth it, I thought, looking at the incoming front. I’ll just hike down.

I’d been descending for about 10 minutes when it started to drizzle. I stopped to pull out my rain jacket. That’s where my memory goes blank.

When I regained consciousness, I lifted my head and could feel the blood oozing down my face. What happened? Why am I in the national park? Then I felt the pain flood in. It was a burning sensation, more intense than anything I’d felt before. I thought that my leg had been severed, and that my arm had been broken or shot.

I wanted to move but couldn’t. My muscles felt fused together, and any stretching of my skin caused searing pain. I was surprised to see that my leg was indeed intact—and that it was steaming. I smelled burning flesh.

“Don’t move!” I heard voices up the trail. It was two hikers, a man and a woman. “You’ve been struck by lightning!”

So that’s what happened, I remember thinking, eerily detached. I wonder if I’m going to make it. If I lose two limbs, I could live.

Later, I found out that lightning struck the aluminum frame of my backpack and entered my body through my left shoulder. It exited through my left big toe, missing my heart by inches and burning 30 percent of my body. The blood came from facial wounds, an injured eardrum, and my jawbone, which had cracked when my head hit the ground.

The hikers called 911. They asked me questions and, after a while, details started floating back. The time of year. My itinerary that morning. My name.

While we waited for rescuers, I asked the hikers to turn me into a more comfortable position. Afraid that I was somehow still sizzling with electricity (which is impossible), they wouldn’t touch me. I begged them for help, but they refused.

Aside from feeling helpless, I don’t recall much emotion going through my head. The pain was so bad, I figured I’d be a goner before help arrived. I thought of my family and felt vaguely sad that my mother would learn about my death so close to her birthday. But mostly I felt calm. I wanted to live, but accepted that I might not.

After 45 minutes, the first ranger arrived, followed by the two climbing rangers from before. I could see on their faces that my situation was grim.

But as they asked questions—name, age, date of birth—I began to relax. At least I’d get off the mountain. The rangers cut off my clothes and lifted me onto a stretcher, careful to avoid damaging the burned tissue.

I was airlifted to the emergency room, where doctors discovered that a good chunk of my left deltoid (where the lightning entered my body) was blackened, dead tissue. They removed 50 percent of it. That was the first of six surgeries and 25 days in the hospital. But a few months later I was back on the rock.

It’s rare to get struck by lightning, but it’s even rarer to survive and make a full recovery. I paid for my luck with pain, but that’s the price of getting a second chance at life. 

—as told to Corey Buhay

Skill School: Weather the Storm

Avoid getting struck by lightning with this advice from Kathy Kupper,
spokesperson for the National Park Service and a former ranger.

Seek shelter. As soon as you notice lightning or thunder, evacuate exposed areas. Head downhill and to a car or building if possible.“If you’re camping, get out of the tent,” Kupper says. The best option for shelter is a stand of shorter trees at low elevation. Try to avoid contact with anything that conducts electricity, like water or metal.

Single yourself out. When traveling in a group, stay 50 feet apart. If lightning strikes, the chance of multiple injuries or casualties will be minimized.

Act fast. If someone is struck by lightning, contact help. Make sure the scene is safe, then assess the person and treat wounds to the extent that you are capable. Lightning strikes often result in cardiac arrest—administer CPR if you’re able to. You will not be harmed by touching someone who has been struck. Backpacker

Pass/Fail: Master Glacier Travel

Can an expert hiker face her fears to reach new heights?

Two climbers ascending Mt. Rainier

“OK, now pretend I’ve fallen into a crevasse,” Wes said. I did my best to picture it. And I started to cry. 

Wes, my partner, was sitting on the floor of our local climbing gym with a loop of climbing rope clipped to his harness. I was clipped to the other end. We were practicing techniques for crevasse rescue—basically, creating a pulley system to haul someone out in case of a fall—to prepare for an upcoming trip to the Pacific Northwest. 

We hoped to round-out our adventure resumes by tagging a few dream summits, including Mt. Hood and Mt. Rainier. But glaciated peaks were something neither of us had encountered before.

Wes stared at me. “It’s just a drill—it’s not real,” he said.

“But it could be,” I sniffled. “We’re going to fall into a crevasse and die.”

The blubbering was new for me. I’d skied 14,000-foot peaks, climbed towering rock faces, scaled vertical waterfalls, and tagged countless summits in my home state of Colorado and beyond. Mountains didn’t scare me. But glaciers did. 

To me, glacier travel was the key to unlocking mountains I’d wanted to visit for years—but it was also a walk through a mine field. I pictured dozens of unseen, hundred-foot-deep rifts just waiting to open beneath our feet. And if Wes was the one to fall, I’d have to pull him out—60-pound weight difference and all.

“It’s so late in the season, all the snow will have melted,” Wes reassured me for the umpteenth time. “If there are open crevasses, we’ll be able to see them from far away.” I knew he was right. Besides, Wes was the more experienced climber. The likelihood of him being the one to fall was low.

I swallowed and nodded. I could do this.

On July 3, we loaded up the car. During the drive, I closed my eyes and pictured every step of the crevasse rescue drill over and over. I pictured myself kicking steps, building dead-man anchors, and self-arresting. But most of all, I turned up the music to drown out the nervous chatter in my head. 

Our first objective was 11,250-foot Mt. Hood. We woke up at 3 a.m. to give ourselves plenty of time. Despite accidentally walking up the ski area’s half pipe in the dark, and encountering smoking fumaroles that stank worse than a 3-man tent post-Zatarains, the hike was casual; the only open crevasse was about six inches wide. 

“That wasn’t scary at all,” I said back at the base. Wes tried really hard not to say, “I told you so,” but he did anyway.

Next up: Mt. Sahale in North Cascades National Park. After huffing up the steep bushwhack to the Boston Basin cirque, we set up camp and looked around. A papier-mâché halo of mist hung over our summit, but I could see exactly what I needed to: its glaciated base, jagged and creased with the gray and electric teal of crevasses. I took a deep breath.

The next morning, I took the lead and set a slow, steady pace. Six-foot-wide cracks peered at us like half-lidded blue eyes in the glacier’s wrinkled face. 

We noticed they were forming on convex slopes, so we traced a path across flatter areas below the fissures. I marched behind Wes now, doing my best to keep plenty of distance and knotted rope between us so that if one of us fell, the knots would have more of a chance to catch on the crevasse’s lip. But Wes was right—the cracks were easy to avoid.

We spent the next few days ticking off summit after summit. The Shark’s Tooth. Mt. Torment. Forbidden Peak. After a week, we’d climbed everything in the basin, and both the glaciers and the local colony of marmots had become comfortably familiar.

Back in town, we looked at our tick list and realized there was only one peak left: Mt. Rainier. 

A local guide had told us that there were several open crevasses—deep ones—and one was so wide that guides had installed a rickety metal ladder over it to make it possible to cross. I was nervous, but not just about the ladder.

In 2012, a friend of mine was descending Rainier when she slipped and survived a 40-foot freefall over a wall of ice. Before I left for Washington, our mutual friends requested I not tell them which day I was climbing the mountain. “We’ll worry too much,” they said. “Just tell us when you’re done.”

The day of our ascent, we woke up at 2 a.m. and ate oatmeal in the parking lot. I was quiet. Wes and I took turns leading the way up Muir Snowfield and to the base of the glaciers in the dark.

Then the sun rose. I looked up and found myself standing beneath the arc of a bergschrund, at once as cold and raw as the flesh of a mountain trout, and as ancient as the Pacific seabed. Suddenly, I understood. Glacier travel wasn’t just a means to an end.

We did eventually summit Mt. Rainier, but in that moment, I no longer felt I needed to. Looking into the ice felt like looking into the soul of the mountain. And that’s what I’d been after. 

Verdict: Pass

Weeks of preparation meant we arrived with the right gear and emergency know-how to pull off a summit of Mt. Rainier without incident—other than catastrophically sunburning the insides of our nostrils.

Essential Skills: Cross a Glacier Safely

1. Hit the books. In practice, glacier travel is the same as hiking—but you do need a few extra emergency skills. Learn how and where crevasses form, and rehearse crevasse rescue and self-arrest skills until they’re second-nature.

2. Do your research. Crevasses form differently every year. Look at recent trip reports and talk to local guides and rangers about current conditions.

3. Bring the right gear. Pack crampons, ice axe, helmet, harness, a few locking carabiners, a few nylon slings, and 30 meters of rope. Don’t forget sun screen and glacier goggles.

4. Rope up early. Put on your harness and rope up before you near terrain you’re unsure of. That way, if the slope gets too steep to safely take off your pack, you’re already prepared.

5. Use a GPS or GPS app. Record a track on every glacier crossing so you have a path to follow if you encounter white-out conditions or fog on the descent. Backpacker

SABRE Frontiersman Bear Spray 9.2 oz. With Practice Spray

Gear 360 gives consumers the best available product information all in one place, through independent editorial and reader reviews, and verified consumer ratings. Brands pay a fee to be included in the Gear 360 program but have no influence over the reviews or scores we publish. We may earn a commission on purchases made through our site.

BACKPACKER Gear 360 Review

When it comes to bear safety, distance is everything—always keep at least 100 yards away if you can. But sometimes you can do everything right and still round a turn in the trail and come face to face with a bruin; in that case, you’ll want a bear spray that acts as a quick and effective deterrent. That’s why this spray from SABRE gives us peace of mind during hikes in bear country, especially habitats where grizzlies roam: It has an effective range of 35 feet, one of the longest distances on the market. The canister is noticeably larger than most sprays, which we found a bit distracting at first but eventually got used to as the miles piled up. Removing the glow-in-the-dark safety using just your thumb is smooth and easy, so you can activate the spray at a moment’s notice. The Frontiersman is available in packages that include a holster and/or a canister of practice spray; we appreciated being able to get a feel for the kickback of the canister by using the practice spray, but our testing sample did not include a holster (we carried ours in a pack pocket, which is less than ideal). 

Consumer Reviews from Around the Web

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Jim Pierce
The Frontiersman brand has a longer range (35 feet) than my other bear spray (Counter Assault; 30 feet). But the bottle is also a bit bigger and heavier. The best part of this spray is the holster. All my other sprays have a holster designed to go on a belt. I can put them on my hipbelt, but every time I take off my pack, the can slides off. I almost walked away from it once when taking a break. It may not sound like much, but it could be a very bad thing. However, the Frontiersman spray has a clip so you can attach the holster to a pack strap or somewhere else.

I had my wife shoot the training unit. She said it was easy enough to flip the safety off and shoot it with one hand.

I did not have to use this spray on a bear, but I did use it on a moose. At 2 in the morning, a young bull came into my camp by a lake in the Mallard-Larkins area of North Idaho. He ended up not being aggressive, but he was stubborn, and it is hard to sleep when there is a bull moose walking around near your tent. I tried to shoo him away a couple of times, but he came back within minutes. I decided to give him a quick puff of bear spray. He did jogged off… but came back again in a few minutes.

Suzanne Panzica
When I initially tried out the bear spray, the canister seemed oversized and I felt like I had a baby-carrier on. I’m a short woman, so I loaned it to my 6’4″ male friend who said the same thing. It’s noticeably bigger than other bear sprays. I compared Frontiersman to Counter Assault and UDAP, and the canister was larger than both. I prefer something more compact, however others may feel safer since it presumably holds more spray.

I used this while dayhiking, fishing, backpacking, and berry picking in Montana. It stayed in its holster well and didn’t slip when I was bending over to pick berries. For ease-of-use, it came out of the holster more readily than the canisters that use a top loop to secure the spray; you can take it out in one fluid motion rather. I have lost multiple bear spray canisters while bushwhacking and I don’t think that would be a problem with the Frontiersman.

I used the test canister with a friend who had never deployed bear spray before. She said it made her feel more confident in carrying spray and was thankful for the opportunity to test it. The inert canister deployed as any other spray would. I also like the glow-in-the-dark safety latch and wish all sprays would have this feature.

The holster may be good for running if you are a man and don’t have a large chest to interfere with the fit. I am small-chested so this wasn’t a major issue, but I feel like this bear spray would be difficult to use for women with a C-plus cup. Backpacker

SABRE Frontiersman Insider Bear Canister

This new-look bear canister is easy to pack and carry.

Gear 360 gives consumers the best available product information all in one place, through independent editorial and reader reviews, and verified consumer ratings. Brands pay a fee to be included in the Gear 360 program but have no influence over the reviews or scores we publish. We may earn a commission on purchases made through our site. 

BACKPACKER Gear 360 Review

Bear canisters have looked the same for decades, so this model from SABRE caught our attention. It’s tall and thin in shape—rather than the usual squat, keg- like profile—which facilitates packing and provides a better center of gravity. “I slid it into my 50-liter pack vertically, and then simply filled in the space around it,” one tester says. He also reports that the Insider is easier to completely fill than other bear canisters he’s used (it’s 11.9 liters and can hold enough food for a two-person/three-day trip). “I never had any dead space in the middle, which usually happens with most other barrel-shape containers.” While the three-screw system is uber-secure, we found that opening and closing the canister takes more time when compared to other models we’ve used with threaded lids or more shallow screws. Bonus: “The 19-inch-tall Insider makes a much better camp chair for taller folks like myself than its more squat brethren,” one 6’ tester says.

Consumer Reviews from Around the Web

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Matthew Wise
I used this canister in Olympic National Park, on the Royal Basin Trail. I liked how it distributed weight down the center of my pack’s main compartment and close to my back. It carried well that way. At camp, it can be used as a small table, which was handy. For its size, the Insider is lighter than canisters with similar capacities. This one takes up a lot of vertical space, though, so if you don’t have a large enough pack you won’t be able to close the main compartment and might have problems securing the pack’s toplid. I think the three screws are a pain to work with. It takes too long to unscrew them. You also have to carefully line up each of them with their respective holes to put the lid back on. Backpacker

SABRE Runner Pepper Gel with Adjustable Hand Strap

A compact safety device for solo hikes and runs

Gear 360 gives consumers the best available product information all in one place, through independent editorial and reader reviews, and verified consumer ratings. Brands pay a fee to be included in the Gear 360 program but have no influence over the reviews or scores we publish. We may earn a commission on purchases made through our site. 

BACKPACKER Gear 360 Review

This compact, gel-based pepper spray is the perfect size for runners and hikers who want peace of mind—and, if necessary, protection from would-be human assailants— when hitting the trail. The can is compact, and easily fit into the palm of our hand or into a pack pocket without feeling bulky or weighty. An elastic strap fits snugly around the hand without cutting off circulation—we were able to run with it and keep the spray handy without having to hold on too tightly or worry about dropping it. In addition, adjustable Velcro on the strap makes it easy to fit snugly onto most hand sizes.

We also like the idea of pepper gel instead of spray. While we never had to use it on an assailant on our solo runs around Boulder, Colorado, the gel is intended to be effective at longer ranges than traditional spray, and it’s not blown back into the user’s face as easily if there’s a breeze. We found the safety switch intuitive and easy to flick into spray mode at a moment’s notice.

Consumer Reviews from Around the Web

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Caroline Deans
I’ve taken this spray into the woods a few times, as well as on dog walks. It’s a terrific pocket size. The strap is designed to wrap around your palm, making it easy to have on your hand and at the ready. This might be good for runners, but I don’t like having something in my hand at all times. I’d like to see a clip (like a belt clip, or a carabiner) of some sort to attach it to my person but still keep it easily accessible. I do like the safety toggle, which operates easily and quickly; just a quick flick with your thumb and you’re ready to spray. The spray goes about 10 feet (some trees might have been harmed as targets).

Carrie Randall
This compact unit measures approximately 3 inches tall and 1 inch wide, with an adjustable side loop. I took the gel hiking and on runs. The unit stayed firm but not tight around my palm, even when I was running and sweating. The holder is stretchy and allows for easy removal and re-holstering, even with one hand. I tried these actions numerous times and had consistent success. The safety lever stays in place when in motion yet is easy to maneuver (also one-handed) when needed. There was no kickback upon deployment of the gel. If you exercise outdoors alone or in remote areas, this might be a tool to add to your list. Backpacker

GCI Outdoor Slim-Fold Cook Station

This storage-heavy table is a mini-kitchen for car camping meals.

Gear 360 gives consumers the best available product information all in one place, through independent editorial and reader reviews, and verified consumer ratings. Brands pay a fee to be included in the Gear 360 program but have no influence over the reviews or scores we publish. We may earn a commission on purchases made through our site. 

BACKPACKER Gear 360 Review

There’s a particular, indulgent joy to car camping. You get a taste of backcountry bliss and simplicity—without abandoning some creature comforts. Case in point: Our Editor-in-Chief toted the Slim-Fold Cook Station on trips outside of Rocky Mountain National Park and a dispersed camping zone near the base of Colorado’s Mt. Shavano and found it an ideal solution for organizing a camp kitchen for small groups. Compared to a full-size folding table (which he often packs for car camping or overnight river trips), this unit folds smaller, packs easier, and provides clutch storage solutions, which enabled him to cook for a group of four and keep a clean and organized campsite.

The aluminum-slatted main surface holds up to about 50 pounds and is perfectly sized for a standard double-burner car camping grill. Four plastic side tables (two high, two low) each hold up to 30 pounds. All four have recessed areas to stash beverages or condiments, and have tapered notches that can nest a stemmed wine glass or the knotted top of a garbage bag. The upper right-side table also has a bungie to hold a roll of paper towels. A lower center table is great for housing food, cooking and cleaning supplies, or your cook-kit storage container (though the table’s criss-crossing frame prevents it from holding large containers or a hard-sided cooler). Bottom line: If you’re playing camp chef for a large group in the frontcountry, this table is a fitting command center. 

Consumer Reviews from Around the Web

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Libby Di Sesa
The table is heavy, and it would be hard to lift for someone who doesn’t have a strong back. Even though the table folds slim, it is still cumbersome, making it difficult to carry up and down stairs. But once completely unfolded, the station is a sleek addition to any cookout. Also, I could sense the sturdiness right away as I unhinged the tabletop features. This table is very durable. The center rack easily supports a small electric or small portable grill without a problem. Because the frame is constructed of sturdy, powder-coated steel and the countertop is made from heat-resistant aluminum, you can leave the table outside, rain or shine. I recommend it for car camping and tailgating, and the station would also make a great mate for your grill on the back porch. Though purposed for cooking, once done with dinner you can store all of your camping gear throughout the system. The bottom shelf makes a perfect drying rack for wet boots.

Amanda Cooper
The table was sturdy once it was set up, and had a lot of space to organize and store cooking items. It is pretty heavy, and the crossbar at the bottom made it hard to fit a cooler under the main table. I used it both camping and tailgating and it provided good extra space. Since most car camping ventures have picnic tables, I tend to use the end of it for cooking, but see the benefit of having a separate cook area away from the table when small children are around. Backpacker