How to Not Get Lost on the Trail

Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.  ~Psalm 25:4 (ESV)

On a recent day hiking trip to the Red River Gorge Geological Area in the Daniel Boone National Forest, we met a couple at the trailhead who were on a multi-day backpacking trip.  As we were loading our gear into the car after the hike, a man approached us and seemed to be asking for directions.  After a brief discussion, though, it turned out he and his wife were hoping to get a ride to their vehicle because they had taken a wrong turn on the trail and were now 3.5 miles off course.  We happily gave them a ride, and our conversation on the drive inspired a few thoughts on how to not get lost on the trail.

Before You Go:

Learn how to navigate using a map and compass and carry them as a backup:  With today’s amazing GPS technology and the availability of some excellent smart phone apps, many people rely exclusively on these devices.  As much as I am a fan of digital technology, there are limitations:  batteries run out, devices break, software fails, and GPS signals can be obscured by rough terrain and heavy foliage.  For these reasons I strongly recommend learning how to read a topographic map and navigate using a magnetic compass and carrying both as a backup especially when exploring more rugged and remote areas.  There are plenty of good books to get you started, but hands-on experience is important if you ever have to count on these skills.  Check with a local park, outfitter, or hiking club to see if they know of classes available in your area, or if you live near an REI store they typically offer a Map & Compass Navigation Basics course several times a year.

Research the trails and parks you plan to hike:  Research is amazingly easy with many great online sources for topographic maps, guides, and park information.  One of the most important things to understand before loading up your gear and heading to a new destination is the difficulty of the trails and terrain you will face so you show up prepared with appropriate maps and trail guides.  In parks with good signage and well-blazed, easy-to-follow trails, a simple overview map showing roads, trails, facilities, and a few geographic features may be sufficient.  But, in rugged terrain with twisting, turning, or poorly marked trails, a detailed topographic map and possibly a descriptive trail guide may be necessary.

Although visitor centers and park offices are usually a great source of maps and information, do your homework rather than just showing up.  Hours of operation can be unpredictable and many isolated or smaller parks close facilities in the off season, while some have no facilities at all.  Also, some parks require reservations or advance purchase of permits, especially for overnight stays, and may require you to check-in when you arrive.  Knowing and preparing for these things ahead of time will avoid disappointment later.

Map Detail ComparisonThree maps of the same area in Red River Gorge showing different levels of detail.

Download and print hardcopies of maps and other information:  You can likely find everything you need online, but make sure you download it to your devices before you go as cell service may be limited or non-existent on the trail.  Even if you are using your electronic devices as your primary navigation tool, print and carry hardcopies as a backup.  If you are a fan of physical maps and guide books, like me, rather than bringing the whole map or a toting a heavy book in your pack, make copies of the sections and pages you need, seal them in a zip-top bag to keep them dry, and carry them in a pocket so they are easily accessible on the trail.

IMG_0269Map sections and guide book pages ready for the trail.

Leave a trip plan with at least one responsible person:  Not every hike requires extensive planning, but the further you venture away from civilization the more intentional you need to be.  Even on short trips with minimal preparations, it is good to let at least one responsible person know where you are going, who you are with, the trail(s) you intend to hike, and when you expect to be home.  On longer trips let two or three people know, and include more details, like vehicle information, local agencies to contact, and a daily itinerary with trailheads, routes, and specific campsites if possible.  An easy way to send all this info is by marking up a map with these details and attaching it to an email.  This may not keep you from getting lost, but if something goes wrong it will help rescuers find you.  Make sure you contact everyone after you return home or if you decide to extend your trip so they don’t get concerned and start alerting the authorities.

Trip Plan ExampleExample trip plan with detailed maps.

On the Trail:

Orient yourself at the trailhead with your map:  Once you arrive at the trailhead, take a few minutes to look at the map and orient yourself as things tend to look different in person than they do on a screen or in a book.  Start by finding the trailhead on your map.  As ridiculously simple as this sounds, I have actually run into people on the trail who were not sure where they started their hike, not a good position to be in if you find yourself lost and in need of help.  After you know your starting point, study the trails you will be hiking, as well as nearby trails, especially those intersecting your route.

Next, identify major, extended geographic features in the area such as roads, rivers, and ridgelines.  When paralleling your route, these features are called “handrails,” and when perpendicular to your route they are called “backstops.”  These features are helpful to keep you oriented along the way, but also provide easy-to-find destinations to navigate toward if you get turned around.

IMG_0243Rough Trail (#221) trailhead in Red River Gorge.

Check your progress using the map:  As you hike periodically check your progress against the map.  Pay close attention at trail junctions and always be on the lookout for distinctive landmarks such as a prominent bends in the trail, high points like peaks, ridges, and cliffs, and low points like ravines, creeks, and lakes.  It is also good to look behind you on occasion as another means to stay oriented.  Even on a loop trail this could prove useful if you ever need to backtrack.  Paying attention as you go and noting each point on the map ensures you will never be too far off your desired path at any given moment.

Proceed cautiously at poorly marked trail junctions:  There are situations where extra precaution is warranted.  Areas with poorly marked or numerous unofficial trails can be particularly difficult.  Also, be aware that signs and markers are sometimes damaged by weather or vandals.  If you end up at a questionable trail junction, proceed with caution and use your map and compass to determine which path coincides with the direction you are traveling.  After choosing a route, proceed a short distance and look for trail blazes (or cairns in some environments), signs, or recognizable terrain features.  If you find a clear indictor that you are on the right path press on, but if nothing appears or the trail starts to fade, return to the trail junction and try a different direction.  If you find yourself at a particularly confusing trail junction be sure to mark the direction you came from in a non-destructive fashion to help you backtrack if you do not find a clear way forward.

IMG_7016Weathered trail marker on Buck Trail (#226) in Red River Gorge.

Don’t take unnecessary risks if the trail is obstructed:  Another situation demanding extra precaution is when you encounter obstructions on the trail such as creek crossings, blown down trees, slides, or wash outs that require you to detour around.  If an obvious path is not evident take your time looking for a safe and clear way through, but don’t venture too far and risk losing the trail completely.

IMG_7357One of many creek crossings you’ll find in Red River Gorge this one along part of the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail.

Turn back if you are in doubt or daylight is running out:  If you are in doubt or travel becomes too difficult or hazardous, it is always better to turn back and try another day.  Also, pay attention to the time as well as the distance you have traveled and the distance you still need to hike to reach your destination.  If it looks like you will lose daylight take the fastest and easiest route back to the trailhead.  Carrying a headlamp or flashlight is an essential precaution, but even with a light source night navigation is difficult and can be downright dangerous in some circumstances.

IMG_2678Night navigation is dangerous in areas with high cliffs.

Don’t panic and stay put if you really are lost:  If everything I have suggested here fails you and you believe you are lost, you need to stop, take a breath, and assess the situation.  Pull out your GPS, smartphone, or map and compass and perhaps after resting a few minutes to clear your head you will be able to figure out where you are.  If not, it is time to start thinking about shelter and other resources at your disposal, including ways to signal for help, but these are topics for another post.  If you really are lost and searchers need to be called in the worst thing you can do is to wander aimlessly.  Stay put!  If you rush around in a panic you might end up getting injured and you will ultimately make it harder for a search team to find you.

IMG_3567How prepared are you to spend the night if you get lost?

As for the couple we helped that day, their two biggest problems were inadequate planning and a serious lack of awareness on the trail.  By their own admission they did not know the area very well and did not do much homework or come prepared with a good map.  On the trail, after they veered off course, they passed through two trail junctions, a trailhead and parking area, and crossed a gravel road all of which were marked even on the basic overview map they were carrying.  Had they been paying more attention, any one of these features should have alerted them to their mistake and allowed them to take corrective action sooner.  With a more detailed map they also would have had a few more opportunities to right their wrong because they could have seen where their route was either paralleling or crossing a creek and they would have had a better understanding of the terrain they were traversing.  In the end they were fortunate they remained on the official trails (there are many unofficial trails in Red River Gorge) and that their detour led them to a trailhead where they were able to find assistance.

How to Not Get Lost Infographic

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2017.


Online Sources for PDF Topo Maps

If you venture outdoors, especially in more rugged and remote locations, you really need to carry a good topographic map and a compass and take the time to learn how to use them both.  For anyone old enough to remember the days of ordering paper copies of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) 7.5 minute (7.5’) quadrangle topographic maps, quads for short, and waiting for these prized treasures to arrive via snail mail, or hoping you could find an outfitter nearby that had your needed maps in stock, the digital world of the 21st century is an amazing place!

There is a plethora of online sources for maps, guides, and reviews of hiking and backpacking destinations both popular and obscure.  Not only can you access this information in mere minutes from the comfort of home, you can also download high quality digital versions of many documents legally and for FREE!  We are not talking about bootleg copies created on a home scanner by some computer savvy geek with cheese-puff-dust encrusted fingers here; no, we are talking about direct access to the most accurate and finest cartographic sources on the planet beamed directly to an electronic device near you!

While there are many sources out there, I have chosen the three I use most frequently to review in this article.  All these sources provide downloadable USGS 7.5’ quads in PDF format.  For each source I have provided the link to locate and download maps, another link to a representative map (Slade, KY Quadrangle which encompasses part of the Red River Gorge Geological Area in the Daniel Boone National Forest) to use for your own comparison purposes, a list of what I see as the pros and cons for each one, and finally some tips for printing and using these maps.

In my quality assessments I used common sections of a map printed with a Canon PIXMA MX892 inkjet printer on plain paper at the standard print quality setting.  I focused on printed maps for two key reasons.  First, and foremost, I believe you should always carry a hard copy map (and compass) when in the backcountry because electronic devices can and will fail you in critical situations!  And second, the onscreen display quality is equally good for all three of these sources, so I have no reason to comment individually on this aspect.

National Geographic Maps

  • Link:
  • Sample map (Slade, KY Quadrangle):
  • Approximate file size:  5-6 MB
  • Note:  While these downloadable quads are free, National Geographic also offers a number of hard copy trail and travel maps and guides for sale, a number of which are waterproof.  These are well worth looking into if you are planning a big trip to one of the areas covered.
  • Pros:
    • This is an easy to use website with an interactive map to locate and select specific maps followed by a simple download process
    • The PDF files are formatted for printing on standard 8.5″ x 11″ letter size paper
      • Page 1 is a 1:100,000 scale index map of the quad
      • Pages 2-5 are standard 1:24,000, 7.5’ quads divided into four equally sized map sections formatted to fit a standard printed page
    • Shaded relief makes it easy to visualize the general topography of an area
    • Includes official hiking trails and other facilities in quads that cover national forests and national parks (at least for the ones I’ve looked at)
  • Cons:
    • Maps are based on older USGS quads, ranging from late 1970s to late 1990s vintage for the maps I have downloaded
    • The shaded relief feature is a pro from an overview perspective, but makes it more difficult to read map details like individual contour lines, roads, trails, and text on the printed maps
    • These maps are copyrighted material which is not an issue for personal use; however, they cannot be distributed freely, nor can you use the map images for blog posts or other such purposes without permission.  This should not be a problem for most people, but it is why I have not included an image of one of these maps in this post.

United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service (FSTopo Map Products)

  • Link:
  • Sample map (Slade, KY Quadrangle):…
  • Approximate file size:  4-5 MB
  • Pros:
    • Easy to use website with an interactive map to locate and select specific maps followed by a simple download process
    • Includes significant detail of national forest facilities, hiking trails, etc. not found on the standard USGS topo maps
    • Because these maps are produced by a US government agency, they are considered public domain and can be reproduced and distributed freely.  If you do include a section of a map in a blog post, or another document you should still cite the source as common literary courtesy, though.
  • Cons:
    • Only includes lands managed by the US Forest Service
    • Contour lines are faint and very difficult to read when printed (at least that is the case on my home inkjet printer)
    • Map must be pieced together when printed full size on standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper (see tips for printing and using maps below)

United States Geological Survey (The National Map Download Client)

  • Link:
  • Sample map (Slade, KY Quadrangle):
  • Approximate file size:  30+ MB
  • Pros:
    • These are the most current US topo maps available (all of the ones I have recently downloaded were updated in 2016)
    • Highest resolution, best quality downloadable maps available (these are straight from the ultimate source)
    • These PDF files also include a satellite imagery layer you can turn on and off if your PDF reader has the requisite functionality (I am currently using Adobe Reader XI, Version 11.0.13)
    • Of the three sources discussed here, the individual contour lines on these maps are the easiest to read when printed (see photo below for a comparison of US Forest Service and USGS maps)
    • Generally these maps are public domain with no copyright restrictions; there are a couple minor exceptions but, “even those that include commercial data, may be reproduced freely and used for any purpose, provided copyright notices…are retained.”  Full details can be found here:
    • Historical topo maps dating back several decades are also available from the USGS
      • I find these maps useful for locating features no longer marked on newer maps such as old logging roads, that can make off-trail navigation and travel easier, and abandoned structures, that make interesting sites for adventure and exploration
      • You can also find historical topo maps dating back well over a century in the USGS National Map Download client
  • Cons:
    • More complicated website, the process to locate and download maps is not as intuitive as the other two sources (if needed instructions can be found here:
    • These maps do not include hiking trails and other facilities (at least not in the national forest and national park areas I have viewed or downloaded, though some of the historical maps that I have looked at do show trails)
    • Map must be pieced together when printed full size on standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper (see tips for printing and using maps below)

Tips for Printing and Using Maps

Note:  this method assumes a moderate level of computer literacy and skills using Microsoft PowerPoint or some similar software application.  Describing the computer and software application skills needed is beyond the scope this article.

  1. Set the zoom magnification to at least 100% in your PDF reader (I typically use something between the 100% and 150% zoom setting depending depending on whether I want more area coverage on a page or clearer details).
  2. Center the screen view on the area of the map you want to print and capture a screen shot of that section.
    • If the area of interest will not fit on a single screen you can use a lesser zoom magnification or you can capture multiple screen shots and print your map on multiple pages.
    • I typically create multiple detailed pages at a higher zoom magnification, and then print a smaller scale overview map of the larger area that fits on a single page.
  3. Paste the screen shot into PowerPoint where you can crop, size, and format it properly for printing, as well as overlaying your own information such as campsites, emergency phone numbers, and other details you might find useful on the trail.
  4. Make sure you capture a screen shot of the map scale at the same zoom magnification as your maps so you can incorporate it in your customized printed version, and be aware that if you enlarge or shrink your map images you also need to enlarge or shrink the map scale image at the same time to ensure they remain scaled identically.
  5. I also recommend capturing an image of the UTM grid coordinates around the margin unless your map image already includes the edges with this information. I usually trying to maximize area coverage on my maps so I just grab a quick screen shot of the margins that I can use for reference and then I actually overlay my own text so I can position it for minimal interference with the actual map.
  6. You should also capture other marginal information such as legends, magnetic north declination, and the UTM zone designation to incorporate in your map, but the scale of this information is not critical and can be sized to fit as desired.
  7. Finally, you can print out your maps on waterproof map paper, purchase a waterproof map case, or do what I do, and seal them in a zip lock bag, to ensure they remain dry and readable while on the trail.

img_6960Comparison of a printed section of the 7.5′ Pomeroyton, KY Quadrangle maps from the US Forest Service (left) and USGS (right).  The US Forest Service map includes details on trails and facilities, while the USGS map has much more readable contour lines.

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2017.

Hiking Devils Garden – Arches National Park

Arches National Park is a treasure trove of incredible landscapes and amazing geological features. According to the National Park Service website, “the park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins and giant balanced rocks.” The Devils Garden Trail includes all of this and offers the most challenging hike in the park, even for a seasoned hiker.

Arches is not considered a backcountry park, other than a few outlying areas accessible only in a high clearance vehicle, but this trail is your best chance of getting away from the crowds, even if it is only for short periods of time. This is the longest trail in Arches National Park. The NPS brochure for this hike places the total distance at 7.2 miles, including all of the side trails to the various arches and the primitive trail. It also includes some reasonably challenging rock scrambles, several steep climbs/descents, and narrow sections of trail with significant drop offs. If you reach a point where you do not feel comfortable traversing the terrain, I recommend you turn around and return via the primary trail. We encountered a number of hikers who did just this on the day we were there.

For your own safety and the protection of the sensitive desert landscape, stay on the trails! The sandstone fins are an amazing feature in the Devils Garden landscape, but they also present some interesting challenges to navigation. Pay close attention to the cairns that mark the way, especially on the primitive portion of the loop. Generally, the cairns are not too difficult to find, but make sure you locate the next cairn before you proceed, and backtrack to the last marker you observed if you are unable to find your way forward

At one point on the primitive trail it is possible you will encounter a pool of water that you will need to cross depending on the season (it was waist deep when we visited in mid-May). You will either need to drop into and wade through the water or scramble over the steep rock to one side. We chose the rock scramble which proved quite a challenge. It could easily have resulted in a dip in the pool we were attempting to avoid, but we successfully navigated the obstacle and remained dry in the process.

If you plan to do the full loop, I recommend following the primary trail out to Double O Arch and Dark Angel first and returning via the Primitive Trail. This allows you to visit most of the major landscape features first, just in case you encounter a section of the trail where you are not comfortable proceeding due to difficult conditions or your own skill level.

Don’t forget to pack plenty of water and enjoy the hike!

The first two arches you will encounter are Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch both of which are accessible down a side trail that adds 0.5 miles to the total hike. Even though this is a short and easy trail, I suggest visiting these arches on the outbound trip as you may be inclined to bypass them if you are too tired on the return trip.

IMG_6432Tunnel Arch


GOPR0080-0001Pine Tree Arch

The next landmark you will encounter is Landscape Arch one of the best known arches in the park. Now at this point in the trail you will likely be thinking, “this is easy!” You may also be wondering if it is possible to escape the crowds, especially during busier times of the year. Not to worry, keep hiking because there is plenty of great scenery ahead, and the farther you go, the more likely you are to escape the crowd.


IMG_6438Landscape Arch

Just past Landscape arch you will encounter the first obstacle that will cause some to turn back…we witnessed this when one member of a party decided they would rather return to the trailhead than continue on. At this point on the trail this is a perfectly safe thing to do, even for an individual person. The scramble up the relatively steep face of this sandstone fin is not really that difficult; however, if you have a fear of falling or a poor sense of balance it can be rather intimidating.


GOPR0081-0001Climbing a steep fin…the first major challenge

Shortly after reaching the top of this fin you will encounter a side trail that leads to Partition Arch and Navajo Arch. This trail adds an additional 0.8 miles to the hike and like the other side trails is worth the effort.


IMG_6446Partition Arch

IMG_6452Navajo Arch


On the next section of trail, you traverse the top of a narrow fin with a serious drop off on both sides. For anyone with a fear of heights this will be a challenging section of trail, but the views are worth it! Descending off the fin also takes a bit of strategy so keep an eye out for markers that indicate the way down, as it is not the easiest route to find.

GOPR0085-0001Traversing the top of a narrow fin

 A little further along you will encounter Double O Arch. The area under the arch was closed off when we visited due to a large chunk of rock breaking off and falling away from the arch a few weeks earlier during a period of significant rain…just part of the ever changing landscape.

IMG_6466Double O Arch


The next landmark to visit is Dark Angel, a towering pinnacle, that requires an out and back side trail of 0.8 miles round trip, though I highly recommend not skipping this as the sweeping views at the end of the trail are well worth it!

IMG_6471Dark Angel


IMG_6473The amazing view looking back from the end of the Dark Angel trail

After backtracking on the Dark Angel trail, you have the option to return to the trailhead via the primary trail by which you came, or you can complete the loop on the Primitive Trail. If you found the main trail was intimidating and pushed your limits, then I do not recommend taking the Primitive Trail. If you are up to the challenge the effort is worth it, and make sure you don’t miss the only side trail out to Private Arch.

IMG_6480Private Arch

Even though you won’t completely escape the crowds, especially on the easier portions of the trail, this hike is a must do for any serious hiker visiting Arches National Park. You can hike nearly all of the shorter trails in the park in the span of a single day, but make sure you carve out at least half a day (more if you are a photography buff) to do the entire Devil’s Garden Trail, including the Primitive Trail if you are up for the challenge!

IMG_6504View from the back side of the Primitive Trail, looking up at the fin we crossed earlier in the hike…those are hikers up there!


© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2016.

Enter by the Narrow Gate

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” ~Matthew 7:13-14 (ESV)

IMG_6480Private Arch, Arches National Park, Moab, Utah.

Private Arch is located on a side trail off the Devil’s Garden Primitive Loop in Arches National Park.  As the name Devil’s Garden suggests, this trail traverses a fairly harsh landscape and the primitive loop is an even more challenging trail that fewer visitors to Arches NP actually hike.  On the day we visited, private is exactly what we got.  Though the parking lot at the trailhead was bustling with visitors, and the easier sections of the Devil’s Garden trail were filled with a continuous stream of hikers, because we chose to take “the road less travelled,” we really had an opportunity to spend a little extra time enjoying the beauty and solitude of this hidden little corner of God’s creation.

Like the passage from Matthew’s gospel suggests, good things don’t always come easy.  Whether it is enjoying the beauty and solitude of a remote, less visited place in a busy national park, or the eternal life offered by following our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the best destinations often require us to travel a more difficult path.

If you want to find your way to the less visited, scenic corners of our amazing national parks you either need to hire a guide who knows the trails or have a good map and the skills to read and follow it.

In our Christian walk we are equipped with the best map available, the Bible.  But more than that we have the Master guide himself, who has gone before us, paying the price for our sins, and who through His mercy and grace is ready to show us the way.

Christ is the narrow gate through which we enter, and though the path may at times be hard, the reward of this challenging journey is nothing less than eternal life with our Master in His glorious kingdom!

Yours in Christ,
Todd the Hiker

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2015.

Air Travel Tips for Hikers & Backpackers

IMG_20150511_065141If you have flown anywhere in recent years you likely know the list of items you cannot bring along in your checked or carry-on luggage is rather extensive. For the average business or vacation traveler the challenge of packing is complicated enough; however, for those of us who like to spend our vacation time tromping through remote wilderness locations with a backpack full of gear, the challenge is even greater!

In this article I will focus on domestic air travel in the US, not to exclude anyone, but rather because the rules and regulations of international air travel include not only the safety and security concerns of our own US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) but also those of similar agencies in other nations. Keep in mind that customs and immigration laws unrelated to air travel safety will also apply, so even if an item can be transported in a carry-on bag, it may not be legal to bring that item through customs; for example many countries, including the US, ban the import of certain food items. My only recommendation, if you are planning an international trip, is to start your research early.

Do I Need to Check Baggage?

The short answer is yes! If you are flying and bringing your own gear it is safe to assume you will need at least one checked bag for your gear if you are day hiking, and likely one checked bag per person if you are backpacking. You need to research the checked baggage policies and fees when booking your flights as checked baggage fees can add up quickly, often $25 or more, per bag each way depending on the airline. Some carriers like Southwest Airlines offer two checked bags per ticketed passenger at no extra charge. With their already low prices for airfare and the bonus of not having to pay extra for checked bags they are my personal favorite for our adventure travels whenever routes and schedules allow!

IMG_20150511_072601On the ground at Denver International Airport

Other Gear Transport Options

There are other options such as shipping your gear via a land based carrier, though, based on what I have paid to send Christmas gifts through various shippers in the past few years, the costs are significant, and there are still restrictions that apply. In addition to the cost, there are many logistical and timing issues you will need to work through if you go this route. Another option I will mention is working with an outfitter who rents gear at, or will ship it to, your destination. I have done a cursory look around the internet and know there are a number of companies who do this, but cannot comment on the cost or availability of these services, which I expect vary significantly depending on where your adventures take you and what time of year you travel. Even if you use one of these options there are still items you will need to purchase at your destination, so planning and research are always a must.

Special Considerations

If you have special dietary needs or require special medical equipment, supplies, or medications you need to do your homework regarding air travel restrictions. If there are items you plan to purchase at your destination, I expect most cities large enough to have an airport will also have places to purchase whatever you need, but do not take this for granted, especially in more remote destinations. Spend some time on the internet researching options, and by all means, follow up with a phone call, especially for highly specialized or critical items.

Planning Ahead and Preparing to Pack

Start gathering your gear at least two weeks before your trip. Our dining room becomes a staging area for gear before any backpacking trip, but this is especially true for our trips that include air travel. Waiting until the last minute is a sure way to forget a critical piece of gear or leave something in a carry-on bag that causes TSA agents and local police to take unwanted interest in you at the security check point! The later situation is certain to result in confiscation of the overlooked item, like a favorite pocket knife or multi-tool, or still worse, it could turn into a complete search of your person and baggage, a missed flight, and potentially a fine or even arrest, depending on what the item is.

IMG_5815Backpacking gear gathered in our dining room before a trip.

Check all the pockets in your backpacks and clothing to make sure there isn’t a spare lighter, fire starter, knife, or some other restricted item tucked away. And keep in mind that some outdoor clothing lines have hidden pockets and compartments for survival gear built into their clothing, so extra diligence is warranted with these types of items.

Packing Your Bags

The weight limit on checked bags is generally 50 pounds, with additional fees for oversize and overweight bags. As you pack your gear consider the fit as well as weight of each item. Once your bags are packed you should weigh them and make adjustments as needed.

IMG_5817Packed bags ready for weighing.

Having more than one checked bag gives you flexibility as you can shift items between bags to balance the weight and keep them all below the limit. If you check only a single bag you will need to closely watch the weight or just plan to pay the overweight baggage fee.

IMG_5820Hanging the bags on a luggage scale to ensure they are within the weight limits.

Guidelines for Specific Items

The following table is my attempt to cover the some of the most common items hikers and backpackers might carry.  Though this is certainly not an exhaustive list, I tried to include many of the pieces of gear I have personally had questions or concerns about in the past. With a few items I could not find specific TSA guidelines.  In those cases I have given you my personal interpretation and practices, which generally err on the conservative side. I prefer the no hassle approach and would rather not risk losing valuable gear! If you have specific items you are concerned about I suggest reviewing the TSA’s list of Permitted and Prohibited Items yourself or using their “Can I bring my…?” tool, that allows you to search for guidelines on specific items. If you review these resources and still have questions I suggest calling the airline or contacting the manufacturer of the item.


At Your Destination

Another practice I recommend is spending some time before your trip searching the internet for outfitters, grocery stores, and other vendors where you can purchase supplies once you arrive at your destination. This saves time, allows you to find the stores closest to your road travel route, and gives you an opportunity to call ahead to check hours and make sure any special items you need are available. I usually plug the addresses into my GPS unit before the trip, as well, making navigation quick and easy.

We tend to purchase most of our supplies in the cities where our flights take us. Cities with airports tend to be larger so the stores have a better selection and usually cheaper prices. That said, the stores we have patronized in and around the national parks have not had significantly higher prices. And, although the selection of items is usually limited, you should have no problem finding the basics of food, water, and fuel. Taking the time to do a little research in this area will save you time, frustration, and disappointment which is not what any of us want when we are tired from spending hours in airports and sitting on a plane!

Final Advice

If you want to avoid hassles, delays, or the loss of an important piece of gear, I strongly suggest you err on the conservative side and leave questionable items at home or plan to purchase them at your destination. Consider every item you take, large or small, and finally make sure you check and double check your gear to ensure you don’t forget anything critical or leave a restricted item in a carry-on or checked bag that will cause problems going through security screening at the airport.

Travel safe, hike safe, and by all means get out there and explore this vast, amazing, and beautiful world that God has blessed us with!

Todd the Hiker

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2015 & 2017.

Relevant TSA Website Links:
Permitted & Prohibited Items:
Liquids & Gels:
“Can I bring my…?”:

He Has Put Eternity into Man’s Heart

What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.  ~ Ecclesiastes 3:9-13 (ESV)

IMG_6059View along the Grand View Overlook Trail, Island in the Sky District, Canyonlands National Park, Moab, Utah.

The open spaces and seemingly infinite views of the American west provide us with many iconic landscapes that encapsulate our nation’s deep seated spirit of independence and freedom.  Our recent trip to Canyonlands and Arches National Park fully met, and perhaps even exceeded, my expectations of amazing vistas and endless photo opportunities.  I have yet to decide whether these places are a photographer’s dream or nightmare, as incredible scenes surround you every step you take along the trail.  The real challenge is deciding what not to photograph!

As we would pause on our hikes to gaze out upon yet another magnificent panorama, I could not help but reflect on the vastness of the wilderness that lay before us, and ultimately my thoughts would turn to my own smallness in contrast to the infiniteness of our mighty God who created all of this.  What is it about scenes like the one in this photograph that give us pause and lead us to great moments of reflection?

Beautiful places like this serve multiple purposes in God’s sovereign plan.  On one hand they are simply a gift from God given for our enjoyment and relaxation.  On the other hand, they are also intentionally designed to stir deep feelings within us. As the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us, these feelings come from God, who “has put eternity into man’s heart.”  God has made us in His own image, and part of that image is a mind that allows us to consider things beyond ourselves, beyond the physical horizons before us, beyond the moments in which we currently live, and eventually to things eternal.

And yet, while we may ponder the eternal, we will never have all the answers, in fact this passage tells us we “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” We cannot know the mind of God, nor will we ever fully understand His ways, but thankfully he has given us hearts that desire eternity.  Ultimately that longing we feel is a longing for God, a longing for a personal relationship with the Almighty Creator, Himself.  In our fallen, sinful state, though, our desires lead us to pursue things other than God as we try to fill the void within us.

But praise God, because he has not only given us a desire for eternity, he has also given us a means to fulfill this desire!  He has given us an amazing creation that points us to Him.  He has given us his written word, the Bible, that tells us how to fulfill this desire.  Above all He has given us  the Living Word, His own Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ who, through His perfect life, undeserved death, and glorious resurrection, gives us the only way to fulfill this desire and spend eternity with Him beyond our brief and tiny lives here in this world.

To God be the glory, forever and ever!  Amen!

Yours in Christ,
Todd the Hiker

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2015.

He is Risen!!!


But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” ~Luke 24:1-7 ESV

Wishing you a blessed and happy Easter!

Yours in Christ,
Todd the Hiker

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2015.

Rocky S2V Ambassador!


The past couple of weeks have been quite eventful for me, to say the least. After the ambassadorship with UST Brands announced last week, this Thursday I was contacted by Rocky S2V (Smart, Strong, Versatile) about joining their team of ambassadors. Once again, little time was required for me to formulate my response, another quick and hearty, “Yes!”

Rocky has been well known for making top quality boots for the military and outdoorsmen since WWII, and in recent years they have adapted and expanded their line into an “integrated system of outdoor apparel, footwear, and outdoor essentials.” I have already had the opportunity to try out a couple of items from this product line the Agonic Mid-Layer Jacket and Dead Reckoning Trek Pants I am wearing in the photo. The Agonic has already become my every day spring jacket and go to for hiking on cooler days. Given the great performance of these items, I am really looking forward to putting the rest of their gear through the paces.

One other thing that makes this such an exciting opportunity for me, aside from Rocky’s well-known name and long-standing reputation for quality and ruggedness, is the fact that they are based in Nelsonville, right here in my home state of Ohio. They are just a couple hour’s drive from home, and also quite near one of Ohio’s scenic treasures, Hocking Hills State Park. Somehow I sense a visit to ROCKY BRANDS™, Inc. and a hike at Hocking Hills may soon be in the making; I can’t wait!

IMG_0803Cedar Falls, Hocking Hills State Park, Logan, Ohio.

Todd the Hiker

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2015.