Off the Greyhound, Onto the CDT

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And so it begins. April 10, 2017 at the Crazy Cook Monument on the Mexico/USA border.

Our Chevy Suburban creeks, groans and moans as her tires bounce and crawl over the red-rocked arroyo gully, deep in the New Mexico bootleg. A long, dusty cloud of red wisps off in the distance behind us. We’re on the official “road” to the Crazy Cook Monument and the start of the Continental Divide Trail, but to call it a road is being generous. It’s a desert two-track: gnarled, raw, dusty, rocky and cactus strewn.

Our driver Juan, is relaxed but focused on the path ahead. Bob Marley eminates from the old stereo, appropriately rebellious and care-free music for our little band of CDT thru-hikers. I’m in the front seat next to Juan, the best seat in the house. He’s quiet and talkative at the same time, like somebody who has a secret he’s dying to share. He tells me about some hikers earlier in the year who got drunk at the start and ended up walking to a Mormon camp across the border in Mexico: a bad start to the biggest and baddest long distance hike in the U.S. We talk more: he lets me know that Lordsburg, New Mexico is a shit hole (he lives in Silver City), and he thinks the U.S. Border Patrol’s effort to round up immigrants is a load of crock. We’re in it now, deep in the desert, in Abbey Country, where immigrants, water and ocotillo plants are the biggest realities and concerns.

Juan drives this shuttle as part of a service the Continental Divide Trail Coalition offers to help hikers get off on the right foot. On a 3,000 mile hike, it’s less than ideal if a bunch of skinny hikers die in the first 100 miles. The Crazy Cook monument, the official start to the trail, is not a place easily reached. To get a seat on Juan’s shuttle, one must make their way to the aforementioned town Lordsburg, tucked deep in southwestern New Mexico. Since hiking the Continental Divide Trail is not a round trip vacation, it can be challenging getting here with no loose ends to pick up later. My wife, Elaine and I, ended up flying to Tucson, Arizona, walking ten miles thru the city slums to the Greyhound station, and then catching the bus to Lordsburg.

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We had a lot of bad ideas on this trip. One of our worst was to walk from the Tucson airport to the Greyhound station. Should have spent the day in downtown eating Mexican food.

Riding Greyhound is an adventure in its own right, a trip to a culture of America that is rarely found in Boulder, Bend or Boston. It’s a lot less white and a lot less affluent. Most folks on-board have a hacking cough of some sort. There is a lot of stress, a lot of bickering. One woman on-board is relegated to a wheel chair. The Greyhound has certain areas where wheel-chaired passengers can sit, and there are straps coming from the floor and walls of the bus to secure them in place. As we exit Tucson and make our way around the twisty entrance lane to I-10, the woman and her wheelchair suddenly go flying across the bus, slamming into the opposite wall, with her rightfully screaming, “stop the FUCKING bus!” It’s not a pretty sight, but it is our first real immersion on this trip into a world that is very different from ours.

After two hours of cramped riding, we get off the bus, breathe the evening exhaust and McDonald’s french fries filled desert air, cross under the Interstate and search for our hotel for the night. Lordsburg is a gathering spot for northbound CDT hikers. It’s a railroad and highway town, located directly on Interstate 10 and the Santa Fe railroad line. While the Continental Divide might evoke images of snow covered peaks and lush mountain meadows, Lordsburg is a far cry from this. It’s a lonely, sun-baked, blown-down, litter-strewn dilapidated town in the heart of high New Mexico desert. The main street in town features an old pizza place and a general American food joint called Cranberries.

There are a few motels, including the Econolodge, recommended strongly in Yogi’s CDT Trail Guide, the one and only real “guidebook” to the trail. In Lordsburg, the Econolodge is the place to be. Juan’s rides to Mexico leave from here and they also hold re-supply packages for hikers. In a town where business is hard to come by, the Econolodge is doing all it can to cater to the small segment of CDT hikers using Lordsburg as their launch locale.

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First steps.

It’s been a long day, catching the bus from our mountain cabin in Eldora, Colorado to Denver, flying to Tucson and then bussing it to Lordsburg, and we are mildly starving. We drop our backpacks off at the Econolodge, and head over to the convenience store to pick up some supplies. While checking out, I ask the teenage boy at the counter what the best eating options in Lordsburg were.

“Well, my favorite place is McDonalds, but the Arby’s is great too,” he informs us. “The pizza place is OK and Cranberries has good Mexican food.”

I’ve learned over time that “OK,” when asking locals for food advice, is somewhat akin to them saying, “It’s goddamn awful but you probably won’t get food poisoning.” Case closed. We were not in the mood for fast food, so Cranberries it is. Turns out the enchiladas and milk shake are indeed pretty good. Test number one, avoiding gastrointestinal sickness on the first day, accomplished.

After dinner we head outside and the sky is simply exploding in a way that can only happen in the great American desert. We’d heard of these New Mexico sunsets, but this was beyond anything imagined. Orange melds into red into purple into a firestorm of western desert magic. Perhaps it was the sky, or the end of a long travel day, but an elation that only total freedom can bring hits us hard. For the next five months, we are about as free as humans can get. From the deep bootleg of the New Mexico desert, our mission, our calling was simple: walk across the wild land, along the spine of the divide, north to the Canadian border. Giddy excitement hits us. We may be standing in a brown desert field littered with trash and needles, but there is nowhere we want to be more.

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Enjoying the ecstatic sunset the night before hitting the trail.

An ecstatic, slightly nervous sleep takes over and before long the alarm is signaling the wake-up call and the beginning of the greatest adventure of our lives to this point. We head to the Econolodge breakfast room, packs in tow, make some of those mediocre waffles hotels tend to serve, and chat with a few fellow hikers at the table. In addition to Juan, there are five other hikers joining us on the ride to Mexico. A guy introduces himself as “Backbone,”, and is definitely the most talkative of the group. He asks where we all are from, what we had hiked before and if we are worried about rattle snakes. At NOLS, we would call him a fluffy bunny, full of energy, perhaps a bit too much for 6 am. There is a nice elderly couple from Canada, a slightly overweight younger fellow from Albuquerque and finally, a Dutch guy who introduces himself as Frank. Frank looks the part, lean, appropriate clothing, and a backpack that looks slightly larger than an elementary school kids day pack. Indeed, in comparison, our packs seem downright behemoth.

In the breakfast room we meet a 50-something year old grizzled man who goes by the name “Radar.” Radar is a trail angel, and there is no place where that magic is needed more for disoriented hikers than Lordsburg. Radar serves many key functions. He drives hikers around but much more importantly, he makes sure water caches are filled. The Continental Divide Trail Coalition, in an effort to ease us into the trail, maintains water caches between the Mexican border and Lordsburg. They are located every 15-20 miles. While it might be possible to do the first part of the trail without these caches utilizing cow troughs and the occasional well, the caches make the experience much more enjoyable. Radar is the most essential person in this section for CDT hikers.

Indeed, this is some of the driest country in the entire United States. The hike begins in the extreme northwestern corner of the Chihuahuan Desert, a massive arid region that extends deep into Mexico and east into Texas. It’s the second largest desert in North America (the largest, we will cross later, in Wyoming). This ecosystem promises to be singularly unique on the entire trail.  Even just north of I-10, the deep desert gives way to the rolling, sagebrush hills of New Mexico, a little more mountain, a little less desert.

Juan our driver meets us, we load up the Suburban and begin the journey to the southern terminus of the Continental Divide Trail. As we head east on I-10, the red fireball sun rises over the horizon, painting the desert in deep oranges and purples. Juan tells us that he had to call border patrol before we left to let them know that we would be out there for the next 4 to 5 days. The area south of I-10 is heavily patrolled for immigrants trying to make their way north from Mexico. There are sensors everywhere, on fence posts, on cacti and on bushes; in addition, border patrol guards are constantly driving up and down the mish-mash of dirt roads in the area, checking on anything that might trigger the sensors – a rattle snake, a cow, an immigrant, a thru-hiker.  Anybody traveling in this area is required to check in with border patrol before departing.

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Elaine hopping the fence over to Mexico and back.

I have mixed feelings about this heavy level of security. On one hand, I understand the need to keep tabs on who is coming into the country. But I overwhelmingly feel that if somebody is able to risk life and limb and cross the incredibly dry, prickly and hazardous land between the border and I-10, they deserve to be here, at least in some capacity. It’s much more of a sacrifice than most of us who were born in the United States will ever make. Visiting this area also brings to light how laughable and unnecessary the concept of a gigantic wall between Mexico and United States is. There are sensors on practically every bush. What in the world do we need a wall for? And how exactly are we going to get people and supplies down here to build it? Crazy Cook is a two-hour rough jeep road ride from Interstate 10. Is Juan going to drive all the construction workers down here, towing the concrete behind his Suburban? And where will these workers stay and what will they drink? There is nothing out here but cactus and arroyos. Are we going to build a small city, pipe water in from the Rio Grande so we can build a gigantic wall? A wall seems like an archaic idea – we aren’t in the Middle Ages anymore.

These are the topics of conversation on the ride down between Juan and I. Just before turning off the pavement, we stop at the tiny town of Hachita to fill up water bottles, pee and stretch. And, then onto a wide graded dirt road before turning off onto a spine jostling two-track jeep trail straight across the desolate desert. As we drop sharply into arroyos and back up over slickrock and sand, mountains unfold in front of us. The Hatchet Mountain Range is the southernmost segment of the Continental Divide in the United States. It’s mostly brown and cactus filled, but on the very highest reaches I could make out pine forests, a rising crescendo from tan to deep dark green. Bighorn sheep frequent the high reaches of the range, grazing on the vegetation and basking in the cool, thin air.

The passing landscape is full of gnarled-looking plants and cacti. One particularly stark looking specimen is the Ocotillo plant. The Ocotillo is tall, sprouting up in thin stalks ten feet in the air. The plant itself is covered in sharp needles and is topped off with a bright red flower on each stalk. It’s very beautiful, but you wouldn’t want to accidentally walk into one, lest you end up pulling cactus prickles out of your flesh for the next hour. Our two-track turns southeast, down the rise from the Hatchet Mountains, towards our destination.

Across a massive valley, hills rise to the east. Those mountains are in Mexico. I couldn’t help but think as much of an adventure this was, what would it be like to head SOUTH from Crazy Cook along the Continental Divide thru Mexico? Perhaps in another life. That is not our calling, and honestly we’re not exactly the ideal pair to head deeper into the south. We’re as pale as can be with nordic complexions, light hair and blue eyes. We also live at 8,800 feet and relish the snow. Just two weeks earlier we’d been camping in negative-30 degree temperatures on a high plateau in central Norway. Odd as it sounds, that seemed less foreign and harsh than crossing the Chihuahuan Desert. Cold and snow we understand. Everything about this landscape was new and intimidating.

Just when the bouncing and jarring was getting unbearable, we reached the Mexico border. It’s not a spectacular location and there is no fanfare, just a dirt road paralleling a fence line. There is no border crossing here, no sign, no flags of any type. There are actually three separate “official” starting locations to the CDT, one further east in Columbus and one to the west in Antelope Wells. The Crazy Cook start seems to be the most remote start, and with the shuttle and the water caches is where the coalition is dedicating the majority of their resources. Juan pulls over as we reach a large CDT Monument, dropping us off at Journey’s beginning.

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Out of the Suburban, into the desert.

The crew quickly exits the Suburban and we start unloading packs. I can quickly tell our packs are among the heavier in the group. They say you carry your fears on your back. Well, it would not be an exaggeration to say Elaine and I are afraid of the desert, and in particular, running out of water. Even with the caches, we are well stocked, each carrying seven liters of water from the start. I don’t think anybody else in our van had more than four liters. It’s a significant amount of water weight – a liter weighs 2 pounds. When you do the math, that’s about 14 pounds of water weight Elaine and I chose to carry in the beginning of the hike.

We all take our photos at the monument. We’re informed by Juan that it’s OK to cross 100 feet or so into Mexico and take a photo for posterity sake, so we do. Elaine and I do some re-shuffling of our packs, intentionally going slow so we’d have some alone-time at the monument and start of this momentous journey north. I notice Frank and Backbone left first, then the kid from Albuquerque, then the Canadian couple and finally us. We are a little rusty – our last backpacking trip was seven months earlier in Norway – and it took a little bit to get our systems dialed, our layering figured out, our packs feeling just right.

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We go north (actually, we started off heading west. Minor details.)

And then, after a final photo and hug of the CDT Monument, we take our first steps north. When we first talked about hiking the CDT, during a 2012 hike of the Colorado Trail, we probably didn’t even understand what it would require to even get to this point. And while a 3,000 mile thru hike is a physical beatdown and a mental trial, one of the hardest parts of any thru-hike is just getting to the start. It took Elaine and I five years. We had comfortable jobs at a popular Boulder outdoor shop, a dog and a great life at home. To actually quit your job and to leave everything behind to essentially live a quasi-homeless lifestyle for about half a year is not a decision most people make. But it was a decision we made, and as a result, it is time to walk north, across the New Mexico desert.

The trail in the beginning traverses a flat plateau dotted with cactus plants and Ocotillo. Massive, almost comically large “CDT” trail signs are placed every 100 yards or so, perhaps in response to the guy who got drunk and headed to Mexico in the first ten minutes of his walk.

One disadvantage of the van ride is it left us starting off at 10 AM, well into the part of the day where temperatures are rising to a crescendo. On a normal backpacking day we’d be up well before that, taking advantage of the cool of the day to make early miles. That isn’t an option on this first day. As we head into the desert, the Hatchet Mountains guiding us along, it starts to swelter.

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With signs like this, it was a bit hard to get lost. They were much appreciated.

Up on the horizon, we see a couple walking ahead – the Canadians. They are a couple in their late-50’s, well covered in long pants, long sleeve shirt and gloves for sun protection. This is not their first rodeo. Indeed, they inform us they had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail as well as a number of smaller trails.

Making the Continental Divide Trail a debut long distance hike, as Elaine and I are doing, is quite rare. It’s almost always a second hike, and often the final adventure in the “triple crown.” The triple crown is awarded to hikers who hike the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail. There is some debate in the hiking community if the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail are harder. There is no argument about the CDT however – it’s considered the most difficult of the three. It’s remote, it’s high, it’s long, it’s mountainous and, of the three, it’s the trail that will offer the most opportunity for real adventure.

For Elaine and I, it was a relatively easy decision. From our home in Eldora, Colorado, a tiny town of 50 people that sits at 8,800 feet above sea level, the CDT is practically in our backyard. An eight mile hike from our front door takes the hiker to the top of Rollins Pass on the Continental Divide Trail. We see the trail multiple times every year, and every time we would wonder what it would be like to link the whole thing up from Mexico to Canada. We have no such fascination with the PCT or AT. The CDT was burned into our heart and soul long before our first step on this thru-hike.

We continue on past the Canadians, finding a hiking rhythm after a long hiatus. This is our first real hike in more than seven months. During the winter months, Elaine and I are avid skiers, and spend much of the year traveling up, over and down mountains in the winter landscape. And while there are similarities, skiing is not hiking. A plastic ski boot feels different on the feet, the stride of a kick and glide is less impactful than a hiking step and skiing is much, much cooler on the feet. It feels good to be walking again, a little foreign, but not completely alien either, buried under a few layers of muscle memory.

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Into the Chihuahua Desert.

The route begins to rise slowly and we leave the wide open plain of nothing. Small canyons rise to our south and ahead the terrain gets more hilly. As we hike along, we see the guy from Albuquerque sitting on the side of the trail, taking a snack break, umbrella in hand protecting him from the sun.  We exchange hellos, comment on how it is warming up and tell him we’d see him up trail. As it turns out, we never did see him again.

We are ready for our first break and looking to get out of the sun. There is little shelter from the sun, so we crawl into an arroyo with prickly brushes and contort our bodies in such a way to get a little bit comfortable while eating a bag of chips in the sand. Just as we are wrapping up lunch, the Canadians come walking by. They are ready to take a break as well and take our just vacated spot: shade is a hot commodity out here. Like the chap from Albuquerque, we tell them we’d see them up trail. We never did.

The trail now rises in earnest into a desert canyon reminiscent of something out of an old Cowboys-and-Indians movie. Fueled by our snack break, we begin to hike with more rhythm, gliding up the mountain, using our trekking sticks like nordic ski poles to help us up the mountain. We’re both much more comfortable on the up than on the flats, and it is nice to hit the first real hill of the Continental Divide Trail.

Sitting just off the trail is another hiker from our van ride, lounging in the shade of a tree. It’s Frank from the Netherlands. We don’t say words, just exchanging a quick wave before continuing onward. We climb further still and come upon yet another hiker, Backbone, relaxing under a Cottonwood. We exchange greetings and he asks us if we’d like to join him for lunch. We gladly oblige, happy to get out of the desert heat for a bit.

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Desert Rose.

We chat for awhile about the adventure and how we all got to this place. Backbone is from New York and is taking a hiatus from life to hike the trail. His wife and kid are at home, and his parents are following him, at least at first, in a RV for the summer. It sounded quite nice, but I can’t imagine leaving my spouse and family for five months. Backbone asks us if we have trail names, and we reply no, so he bounces a few ideas around. None of them really appeal or stick.

At that point Frank comes by. Before continuing, I should point out that over the course of the hike Frank became one of our best friends during the entire hike. He is extremely knowledgable, has high integrity, and once you figure out his direct personality, he is really an enjoyable guy to hang out with, However, first impressions did not go so well. His first question to us is, “So is this your first thru-hike?” We respond no, that we’d hiked the Colorado Trail a couple of times. Frank had mentioned earlier that he had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail the year before, so I was curious where this line of questions was going.

“So this is your first thru-hike,” he say, mincing nothing. He continues, “If you were an experienced thru-hiker you would know that it is better not to hike during the heat of the day.”

Whether or not it was meant as a slight, we took it as such. If there is one thing to know about Elaine, it is that she is no wilting flower. She is also very, very strong physically. When annoyed or angry, that strength can go thru the roof. The next hour we spent hiking at a ballistic pace, fueled by a fair bit of angst and “what the fuck?”  We may have never done a 3,000 mile hike before, but we were not exactly newbies either.

In some ways, that moment feels like the start of the real hike. The honeymoon ends after a few hours, and emotion takes over. It would certainly not be the last time that happened on the trail, where raw emotion fueled us when the body was tired.

After hiking down a rocky arroyo for a few miles, we reach the first water cache. It is a beautiful thing – fresh gallon bottles of water absolutely filled to the brim. We drink and fill up, preparing for a night of dry camping. Dry camping is spending the night somewhere where there is no water source. Lack of water excepted, it’s a phenomenal way to spend the night. There is less condensation to deal with, less concern about aggressive animals and it’s generally a bit warmer. Of course, one must carry enough water to get through the night, but it’s usually very doable.

Up until this point the CDT has been relatively benign. Now, however, as the day grows late, the trail starts benching north along the foothills of the Big Hatchet Mountains. The massive CDT signs disappear, replaced instead by bushels of ocotillo plants, prickly and waiting to grab a hiker. The “trail” dips in and out of arroyos, side hilling the whole way. It isn’t a trail at all, however, simply a direction, and I quickly shift out of the mode of following the GPS and checking it every minute. It is far better to pick something on the distant horizon, a peak or a distinct landmark and head directly towards it.

Adding to the challenge are huge groves of cacti forcing big detours from our goal to head in the “most direct route possible.” The dips seem to get bigger and the Big Hatchet Mountains rise to our west. At one point we have to lower ourselves down a small cliff, hike up a slick rock arroyo, and then scramble back up the other side, all the while avoiding ocotillo plants. Snakes are a constant concern as well, but we do not see any on this day.

We continue on as the sun drops low towards the horizon and the sky turns a fire red. We are in Abbey country now, god’s country, the land of the Apache and tribes even more ancient. The sky and earth turn a blood red, and soon it will be dark. We decide to use the next good spot to camp, as areas devoid of cactus and massive rocks are few and far between.

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Sunset over the Hatchet Mountains, the southernmost range on the Continental Divide in the U.S.

After another half hour or so, we find a level spot on the plateau with flat ground for setting up camp. It’s a perfect evening out, with not a cloud in the sky (not to mention that the ground in the area is so hard I doubt we can get a stake in it without breaking one) so we opt to lay out our sleeping pads (after a very thorough cleaning of the ground for sharp things), sleeping bags and sleep out under the stars, cowboy camping in the New Mexico desert.

As we were about to fire up dinner, Frank comes by, looked worse for the wear and coughing. He laments to us, “that was absolutely brutal travel.” Despite our rocky beginning, we invite him to stay at our camp, as flat spots are hard to find. We learn that evening that he is suffering from a bad cold. We offer him some tea but he politely declines.

Frank is a good guy and we let our emotions get the better of us that first day. In retrospect, he was right. The Colorado Trail, while amazing and challenging, is nothing like the 3,000 mile Continental Divide Trail. We just didn’t know it at the time. It did indeed become a source of conversation as we made our way past the 1,000 mile mark, the 2,000 mile mark: no, hiking the Colorado Trail is not the same as a “true” long distance hike.

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First night journal writing.

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Full moon rising over Mexico.

As night settles in, the stars explode in light, Polaris, the North Star, guiding us to Canada. As we write the final words in our first day journal entry, as the Milky Way emerges and satellites cross over the sky, a content yet excited feeling sweeps over us.

We are on the CDT, we have survived our first day, and we are on the greatest adventure of our lives. Now the only job is to walk along the spine of the country, day in and day out, the end impossibly far away. And then, as coyotes serenade us to sleep and the full moon lights up the Big Hatchet Mountains, we sleep.

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The adventure begins.

Gear Review: Fjallraven W’s Abisko Trekking Tight

 

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Life is good when you have a good pair of tights and a swing!

As any woman who has ever done anything even remotely outdoor-oriented knows, finding clothing that is functional (helloooo – pockets, anyone?), fits (we don’t have to look incredibly frumpy, do we?), and is durable is about downright impossible. And I get some of it. Clothing is mass made now, cut to the “average” person, and the truth of the matter is that us women have a million plus one size and shape combinations. Some of it I don’t get – why do the men always get great pockets that they can actually fit things in, and the women’s version of the exact same item from the exact same brand has little tiny useless pockets that you can barely fit a tube of lip balm in?

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Pockets, anyone? That right pocked housed my breakfast bar every day.

For this reason, I gave up on hiking pants years ago. Honestly, I was just sick of the constant search, and I started wearing leggings. I struggled with it a little bit at first – there’s a certain consensus that you’re not wearing enough if you just wear leggings, so my first foray into the legging wearing world included shorts worn over them. However, I gradually began to not care what others thought. I’m out hiking or running, and leggings cover me perfectly, if someone else is going to judge me for it, well, that’s their problem.

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DGAF – Ima wear leggings.

This summer, before starting out on our thru hike of the Continental Divide Trail, I was poking around for the pair of tights that I wanted to bring with me. I have done most of my hiking, running, and backpacking with the Lululemon Speed IV Tight (can I say awesome pockets), but I have one problem with those tights. They have a zipper pocket on the back of the tights that sits right on the bones that stick out on either side at the base of the spine. Literally, the beginning and end of this zipper coincides perfectly with those bones. Normally, for running or hiking (without a pack), this is no big deal. However, when Dan and I hiked the Colorado section of the Continental Divide Trail in 2015, I wore those tights, and ended up with pretty bad sores there, and that was only a month. I was worried about what I’d look like at the end of 5 months.

Literally a couple of days before leaving on our trip, Dan and I stopped into the local Fjallraven shop, just looking around, when I saw the Abisko Trekking Tights.

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These tights were made for train tunnels!

Enter Love at First Sight.

Now, these tights were not cheap. But, there were several features that sold me on them.

  • First – no zipper in the back! No sores on those bones! (There is a tiny little pocket on the front of the tights, but my belly is soft, and I did not have a problem with this pocket.)
  • Second –  the pockets! A girl could dream forever about these pockets! One flap pocket on my right thigh, where I kept my bar before eating it for breakfast, and one zippered pocket on my left thigh where I often kept my phone handy. Imagine, pockets big enough to fit things in. Can you hear the choir?
  • Third – the reinforced zones! Another concern I had had was that, well, this was going to be a really long trip. Every piece of gear was going to go through the wringer. These tights have great reinforcements on the rear-end (if I may say so, I think it also helps that area look better, always bonus points) and on the knees.
  • Fourth – the back panel is wide, so the possibility of seam rubbing while wearing a pack is greatly reduced.
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How’s that for versatile? The Abisko tights made a decent ski pant, too.

So, I bought them, obviously – and proceeded to wear them almost every day for five and a half months.

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I mean, literally, every day.

Pros: Overall, I really loved these tights. They were comfortable, functional, looked good, and had great durability. They were one of the few clothing items that I not only wore throughout the whole trail, but also can continue to wear post-trail, as they have no holes! They were a great layer for traveling through the snow and putting on during those chilly mornings. The durable panels added on were a lifesaver. I didn’t have to pay much attention when sitting down, or kneeling on things. Also, they made it through climbing through/under/over/around a ton of deadfall while on the trail. That is saying something. Tights being tights, I also believe these would fit a variety of outdoor ladies.

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They were great lounging around the camp fire tights, too!

Cons: Only a few (very small) downsides existed with these pants. I really did not spend much time sitting in these tights – surprisingly, a thru-hike consists mostly of hiking! But if I did spend a decent amount of time sitting, I felt my bottom become a little agitated by the coarseness of the reinforced material in that area. The other thing was that over the course of not washing these for a week on end, they became quite baggy in the knees/rear-end areas. I also rated these a bit lower on versatility because they are a slightly warm tight. When temps warmed up, I was generally changing pretty quickly.  For me, these cons were fairly insignificant.

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Chillin’ with my shades an’ my tights!

(Scales 1-10)

Price: $175

Mobility: 10

Durability: 10

Features: 9

Versatility: 7

Weight: 10oz / 284g (size XS)

What is my end take away?

If you are looking for a new tight to hike in, or perhaps are utterly sick of dealing with the rubbish that is hiking pants for women right now, look no further.

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Review: Fjallraven Keb Gaiter Pants

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Fjallraven is a Swedish company that makes outdoor apparel and gear. While their best known product is the somewhat “hipster” Kanken day pack, they actually produce a full line-up of highly technical products. While I have not actually laid hands on one of their tents, they look like a dead ringer for Hilleberg tents, which are in my opinion the best in the business for serious cold weather expeditions.

Fjallraven makes some dynamite outdoor pants, but they are “old school” in many ways. They eschew Gore-Tex and other high tech fabrics for something called G-1000 – essentially a robust cotton with a slicker outside than your average t-shirt. The advantage of G-1000 comes from it’s breathability. Bottom line – cotton breathes well. Yet in the outdoors, some waterproofing or at least resistance is often needed. Fjallraven does this by promoting and producing something called Greenland Wax, which is an environmentally friendly paraffin. Waxing is simple – rub it onto the areas where water resistance is desired and then iron it in. Want more waterproofing? Put on more wax. Want less? Use less – or even no – wax. This method is cool because one can customize garments. I’ve always found certain areas of clothing get more wet than others – the shoulders, the bottom of the coat, the thighs, the butt, etc. Fjallraven says you can melt in your wax with your camp stove or over an open fire for field application. This method sounds slightly terrifying, but seeing how these pants are produced by Vikings I can see how they would recommend that.

The waxed cotton theory could be ideal for spring and fall in the Rockies. I do find that their pants are a little too warm in the dead of summer, which might have something to do with their origin – they are from Scandinavia where 90° days are rare. Also, I’m not sure I’d trust the wax as my only waterproofing solution in a super wet climate like Alaska, Norway or the Hoh Rainforest…for those locales I’d prefer Gore-Tex active or something to the like. That said, I need to test that and report back. It rains a lot in Sweden and these are the pant of choice for the outdoors over there. Theoretically using these in very wet conditions seems flawed – but theory and practical use don’t always mesh.  More on this topic as I get it.

Back to the Keb Gaiter Pants. These are probably Fjallraven’s most technical hiking/mountaineering pants. They feature G-1000 in all the areas where reinforcement is needed – the thighs, bottom of legs, etc, and a stretchy material on the more motion driven areas, like the butt and inner thighs. They work well and provide a great range of motion.

Keb2

These are zip-off pants. Zip offs are high in functionality and absolutely the pits in fashion. Is there anything more dorky than a zip-off? Well, believe it or not, Fjallraven did a good job with these. They don’t really look like zip-offs – they “almost” look cool. Compared to offerings from Outdoor Research and Kuhl…well, they are downright stylish! I chose the U.N Blue color, which looks spiffy. The only problem is my normal hiking ski shirt and hat are also blue, so it’s not hard to go out their looking like a smurf!

While they are maybe only quasi stylish, there is nothing quasi about the functionality. They are simply an awesome Colorado pant for the high country. Start the morning off in the cold with the pants fully intact, and when it warms up, zip ’em off and have a nice pair of shorts. My only complaint with the zip-off function is the seam near the knees is a little uncomfortable when they are in pant mode. Not bad, but they are not pajamas. I have sensitive skin and little things like that bug me, so for most it probably wouldn’t be a problem.

As I mentioned, G-1000 is a warm material, but fortunately these pants have a long, almost seductive outer thigh zip. This is a nice interim as the day is warming up (or you are exerting more effort) but it’s not warm enough yet for shorts. The ability to control the thermostat in the Keb Gaiter Pant is the best I’ve ever seen on any pant.

Another feature of these pants – that I admittedly have not used, is you can make them full-on Gaiters when they are zipped off. The lower part has a latch to connect to laces and the upper part of it has a draw strong cord to synch it over the calf. If one is serious about using this feature I would recommend attaching a little cord to the existing eyelets at the bottom of the cuff to create a strap under the boot.

The pockets on Fjallraven pants are the best I’ve ever seen. They are large and on the thigh, perfect for a camera, map, compass, food, dog leash, etc. This is one of the best features on the Keb Gaiter Pants.

Fjallraven sizing weird weird. They use a European system that is detailed on their website. Basically, I wear a 31 in the U.S. pants and a 46 in Fjallravens. I have a 32 inch inseam and the pants are the long version – they also come in regular. The long length seems to work well for me. They fit very well, although I must say they are a little snug around the butt. My wife loves it, but it’s a big difference from North American fits. It seems to be a trait on most Fjallraven pants, especially the Keb models. It’s odd, because the waist is perfect, if not even a little loose. I wear a belt with them, but I’m honestly not sure I need to. The fit is highly functional…it’s just different.

Keb3

I’ve been using the pants for about a month now on hikes in Indian Peaks wilderness. I pushed them a little bit by using them for a backcountry spring ski as well. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the cuff fit just about perfectly over my Dyanfit TLT-6 boots. There was no loose fabric to catch a crampon on…always a nice thing on steep snow climbs. Note however, that this doesn’t seem to work with the regular Keb (non-gaiter version). My wife has a pair of those and they do not fit over her TLT-5’s. This could be a size thing too…my boot is a 27.5 and hers is a 22.5. Best to test them out in the shop if you hope to use them for this application.

While I’ve only had them a month, durability seems outstanding. There is no piling or tearing or any tell-tale signs of wear. I also notice they dry very quickly…there is something to this G-1000 stuff. One application where materials like G-1000 works great is mid-winter nordic ski touring. Water proofing is nearly a non-issue in these conditions, but breathability is a big issue, especially if you move fast or run warm. I’m not sure I’d use the gaiter version for nordic ski touring – I doubt I’d ever want the zip-off function when it is 5° F in January – but I’d have zero hesitation using the standard Keb pant for a tour on the Asnes Nansens.

I’m a fan of these pants. I love the versatility, the look and the durability. I also think Fjallraven has a cool, environmentally friendly story. I’m going to give them 4.5 stars out of five, with the little deduction being a result of the tight fit around the butt. I’d say I could lose some weight, but I don’t have much to lose! They are a great option for somebody who wants a classic hiking pant with lots of versatility. For cold mornings and hot days they are hard to beat! And as the temperature gets a little colder in mid-August and beyond, I think they’ll be even better. They are not cheap – they retail for $225 – but I suspect the durability and functionality could make them an outdoor wardrobe staple for a decade. There are not too many outdoor pants out there that I can say that about, and the cost is actually comparative. While not cheap, they are a good value.

More info: http://www.fjallraven.us/products/keb-gaiter-trousers