Tag Archives: hiking

On Not Getting Lost in the Wilderness (or Dying)

Quebec Run Wild Area. Photo by author.

Quebec Run Wild Area. Photo by author.

 “I was in Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, a 75-minute train ride northwest of Tokyo, with half a dozen other hikers out for a dose of shinrin-yoku,or forest bathing. The Japanese go crazy for this practice, which is standard preventive medicine here. It essentially involves hanging out in the woods.” Florence Williams, in an article in Outdoor Magazine

I’ve been trying to exercise more lately, but I’ve had a hard time finding something that I like to do that doesn’t feel like a chore. I’ve tried running, but have never been able to get into it (probably due to poor lung capacity, laziness, or both). I’ve always liked hiking though, and while searching for new hiking trails I came across a backpacking class offered through the Explorer’s Club of Pittsburgh. Backpacking! Finally, something that appealed to me. I checked my schedule and signed up for the class without a moment’s hesitation.

I’m really glad I did. One thing I love about backpacking is that it can be done by a broad range of people, regardless of athletic ability, age or skill level. The trick is to pack carefully and go at a pace that’s comfortable for you. There are plenty of great day and overnight hikes within a 100 miles of Pittsburgh and there’s sure to be a trail for just about everybody out there ( I recently even discovered this really cool Braille Trail in North Park).

Not being a great athlete, I was quickly won over by one of the more surprising aspects of backpacker culture—it’s nerdiness. Even if you are not a very skilled hiker, you can become an A+ packer. The idea is to include everything that is essential, but to keep your pack as light as possible. There is even a class of extreme backpacking called Ultralight, and these hikers will go as far as cutting the handle off their toothbrush to lessen their load. I’ve already learned a lot from the folks in the Explorer’s Club, although I don’t anticipate becoming an Ultralight extremist. Still, there are other sub-genres of backpacking to get into if you want to get nerdy in the woods. You can become an excellent map reader by joining an Orienteering Club, or a gourmet backpack cook by pouring over tons of blogs and books, or become a master of survivalist skills by taking a wilderness survival course.

Whatever your interest or skill level, there are tons of resources available to get you started. Here are just a few:


The Backpacker’s Field Manual

This was the textbook for my backpacking class with the Explorer’s Club, and I found it indispensable. This book covers all the basics.

The Complete Walker

I’ve been told that this is the old stanby for backpackers. It covers all the basics, with some additional philosophical musings.

60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Pittsburgh 

These are mostly days hikes, but if you’re just getting started hiking around Pittsburgh, I can think of no better book to begin with.


Keystone Trails Association 

A vital website for any Pennsylvania hiker or backpacker.

Venture Outdoors 

These guys are great, and can help get you started with everything from hiking and camping, to kayaking and snow-shoeing.


A great place for gear and maps, and also a few classes.

Explorer’s Club of Pittsburgh 

A volunteer group that currently offers once-a-year classes in backpacking, rock climbing, and mountaineering. The also have gear available for rental for first timers.


Appalachian Trail 

This National Geographic special highlights this great trail, which runs all the way from Georgia to Maine.

Mile Mile & A Half 

This documentary follows five friends who leave their daily lives behind to hike California’s historic John Muir Trail, a 211 mile stretch from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney.

Tell it on the Mountain

This documentary follows a dozen thru-hikers who try to complete the Pacific Coast trail–a trail that is over 2,663 miles long.

Be safe and happy exploring,



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Reading On Hiking

As summer creeps inexorably toward us and the weather in the northeast heats up, hikers and would-be hikers will take to trails near and far to experience the simple joy and occasional serendipity of walking in nature.  As one of those hikers, I thought it might be nice to highlight a few library resources that can help folks get the most out of their outdoor adventures.  While hiking remains one of the most broadly accessible physical endeavors–almost anyone can do it–certain techniques and approaches can benefit experienced and novice trekkers alike.  The following items provide excellent information on all aspects of hiking, and represent just a smattering of what CLP has to offer in its catalog.

Long-Dist-Hiking  Long Distance Hiking by Dan Feldman.  This book will provide critical information on excelling at long-distance hikes.  It covers aspects of nutrition, injury prevention, and camp site planning, and Mr. Feldman’s easy writing style makes it a highly accessible primer.  The subject matter works best for more experience trekkers, but it will prove invaluable for rookies prepping for their first-time long haul hikes!

Remote-Exposure-cover  Remote Exposure : A Guide To Hiking And Climbing Photography by Alexandre Buisse.  Expert photographer, explorer, and adventurer Alexandre Buisse offers a primer on getting the best pictures out of your outdoor adventure experiences.  A veteran of numerous excursions, Mr. Buisse discusses advice on getting the most out of your digital photography, including choosing the best gear, managing your time and photographic methods, and working without a tripod.

Hiking-Backpacking-cover  Hiking And Backpacking by the Wilderness Education Association.  A host of experts offer articles on the basics of preparation and techniques for getting the most out of your hiking adventures.  This primer provides ideal advice for beginning hikers, including handy quizzes at the end of each chapter that will test your knowledge of the material as you read it.

Solo-Hiking-cover  Basic Essentials. Solo Hiking by Adrienne Hall.  If you’re anything like me you might enjoy the idea of hiking alone.  This combines awesome exercise with the opportunity to think and move without the concern of companionship.  Sometimes you need that, but solo hiking offers its own challenges, and Adrienne Hall’s book addresses these issues.  Safe solo treks require planning, preparation, and care.

Complete-Walker-cover  The Complete Walker IV by Colin Fletcher & Chip Rawlins.  When Field & Stream magazine  dubs your book the “hiker’s bible,” you know you’re doing something right!  While perhaps a trifle dated for 2014 (this was published in 2002), this handy little book has sold nearly a half-a-million copies throughout its publishing history, and much of the advice it dispenses includes timeless wisdom on making a successful camp, wildlife, and many other aspects of the hiking hobby.

I cannot write a post about hiking without also suggesting perhaps the most valuable hiking book ever published for Western Pennsylvania trekkers:

60-Hikes-cover  60 Hikes Within 60 Miles, Pittsburgh : Including Allegheny And Surrounding Counties by Donna L. Ruff.  Ms. Ruff’s book provides the most critical component of any hiker’s plan: a destination.  As the title suggests, this book offers sixty destinations to be more precise!  For folks who live in the Pittsburgh area, every entry represents an accessible escape not more than an hour’s drive from your front door!  You cannot ask for much more than that!

Finally, I’ll leave you with a quote from the great John Muir, America’s greatest naturalist and wilderness preservation advocate:

Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature’s darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.  John Muir, Our National Parks

Happy hiking!



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When It’s Very Cold Outside

When it’s very cold outside I like to read books about people who are even colder than I am. When I sit by my heater and ponder the insanity of those who go outside on purpose, I feel much warmer by comparison. So let’s consider, if you will, the band of hikers in this book.

Dead Mountain

Looks cheery, doesn’t it?

Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident is the rousingly weird story of a group of Soviet students who died under very mysterious and very suspicious circumstances in the Ural Mountains in January 1959.

Basically, they went out on their merry way, caught rides on clunky Soviet trucks and buses, sang lots of folk songs, tramped into the wilderness, and… never returned. A search party eventually found their bodies scattered about their wrecked campsite – food was left unprepared, boots and pants were abandoned, and someone was missing a tongue. Ew. Better yet, tests conducted at the time showed that the bodies were surprisingly radioactive – now things are getting interesting!

The story alternates between the hikers in 1959 and the author in the present, so you get a little about their trip and then a little about the author’s investigation. The chapters are pretty short and often feel disjointed, though I suppose you could just call it “suspenseful” and deal. It’s not quite enough to make you throw the book across the room; rather, it gives you plenty of opportunities to stop and get a fresh mug of hot tea.


What’s that? It’s roentgenizdat! Image from an article at boston.com; click the picture to read it.

The chapters set in 1959 include a Cold War crash course, with just enough information about the era to help you make sense of things – though as a librarian, I was mildly horrified by the lack of a bibliography. But still, there are some mighty Fun Facts in here. For example, did you know that Soviet students with a hankering for Western music would make their own records out of used x-ray film? They’re called roentgenizdat (“bone records,” more or less) and they are amazing. That one weird fact, now lodged forever in my mind, totally makes up for the short chapters and occasional authorial digressions.

The present-day chapters introduce you to the lone survivor of the group (who turned back early due to illness) and to a fellow who maintains a whole apartment/museum dedicated to the incident – he’s the source of the pictures that appear throughout the book. You also get to see what happened to the formerly swanky university town of Sverdlovsk (like many Russian cities, it’s had a few name changes).

The hikers and a clunky Soviet truck, from the camera found at their campsite. Image from the book's website.

The hikers and a clunky Soviet truck, from the camera found at their campsite. Image from the book’s website, deadmountainbook.com.

But what really happened to the hikers? Of course, conspiracy theories abound – weapons test gone awry, crazed animals, serial killers, and (yes, I know) aliens are mentioned, and since the book is set in the Soviet Union there are suggestions of evil government cover-ups. In the end, the author decides to drag Science into it and comes up with a plausible new theory – but since Eleventh Stack is largely spoiler-free you’ll have to check it out and read it yourself (note: it wasn’t aliens; I don’t mind telling you that much).

– Amy, slightly chilled


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Guys, I have a proposal for you…

Trek. Afrikaans, from Dutch trecken to pull, haul, migrate; akin to Old High German trechan to pull
First Known Use: 1835
: to travel by ox wagon
: to migrate by ox wagon or in a train of such
: to make one’s way arduously
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary

Group of men on Nepalese mountainI took some vacation time earlier this month and spent eight days trekking in Nepal with some friends. We spent our time climbing and descending the Gosainkunda Trail in Langtang National Park north of Kathmandu. You’ll notice I didn’t use the word hike or walk; that’s a deliberate omission, this wasn’t hiking or walking. I did this with 6 other men I’ve known since 1984. We met in basic training in the Israeli Army, and spent 18-24 months together in a variety of conditions. Between us we’ve developed one of those extraordinary bonds, it isn’t necessarily defined by friendship as much as by shared experiences (good and bad,) implicit trust and loyalty. We’ve gotten together pretty regularly since 2006, once the kids were old enough and we were a little settled. Usually there are more of us; we spend a week together – typically in Israel – biking, hiking, climbing, swimming, swapping lies, family stories and catching up on our adult lives. This trip was different.

Young Nepali girl washing basin

Our venture to the Himalayas began in 2008 during one of our ‘normal’ trips. One of our band spoke to us of plans he and his brother used to discuss to see the Himalayas before they were 50. In 2007 the brother was killed in a car accident; would we be interested in doing this journey? Six of us said yes, we would. Could there any other answer?

view down to a mountain villageFor me and I think for most of the others, this was the hardest thing we’d ever done, including 65 and 90 kilometer forced marches (with stretchers, an IDF specialty) in the army. Back then we were physically fit and immature. It isn’t until the 4th or 5th time you pull an all night exercise that you realize psychological stamina is often more important than the physical kind – it’s a mind game. 25+ years of emotional development and maturity – careers, families, good-times, crises, life… – these paid off for us two weeks ago.2 men dringking tea at a mountain lodge

In preparing for this trip we learned of things that most of us hadn’t really considered. I was surprised to learn that our route was going to require graduated ascents. Somewhere between 2500 and 3000 meters altitude you just don’t keep climbing, you need to regulate the ascent so as to minimize the risk of AMS (Altitude Mountain Sickness) or even worse. I learned the hard way that above 3600 meters I virtually can’t breathe at all; blinking sent me into a panting frenzy, sucking down great droughts of O2 depleted air.

I wasn’t alone; several us completed uphill and downhill sections taking baby-steps. Or half baby steps if needed. Anything to keep the breathing normal and regulated.

Nepali women sorting corn

I’m not sure if I’d known ahead of time how difficult it would be, whether I’d have gone. The trail as such is mostly gullies, washes, streambed and copious amounts of displaced rock and shale. Other sections are deliberately constructed steps, but ones seemingly designed for someone with the build of a giant – not the average Westerner or Nepali. My guess is even had I known then what I know now (good old 20/20 hindsight) I would have gone. Why? For the same reasons that motivated us almost 30 years ago – loyalty, a chance for adventure, and the unspoken given: that you don’t let your mates down.

Two men in Nepali kitchen

Along the way we met many interesting people, beginning with our Sherpas and porters. The head Sherpa, Lakpar, besides being an experienced guide is also a Hindu priest. He tried to explain to us the significance of various shrines we came across, and what the different practices were as we moved into the hills. There was Tendi who was a guide-in-training, and who’d just finished two years at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan working as a contract employee for NATO. The porters, men and boys carrying up to 160 lbs. using head slings maintained senses of humor and obviously weren’t affected the way we were by the high altitude, though they certainly broke a sweat. Nepali woman preparing a mealTheir roles as porters are first steps on the road to becoming guides and Sherpas later on – all very respectable professions in Nepal – at least in the mountain communities. We met Australians who taught in Tibetan refugee centers, an Italian woman and her Dutch friend who’d just completed a nursing practicum in Pokhara and were trekking before returning to Europe. There was an Israeli family who were friendly with the parents of one of my closest friends from my kibbutz days who had died of cancer in 1985. We spent the better part of an evening with another Dutch fellow and a German woman hearing about their adventures over 18 months of trekking and all the people they’d crossed paths with. What was very special about this period was that all of us were defined by where we were and what we were doing, and not by where we came from,  what our passports said, or what languages we spoke.  If you find yourself one-day with an opportunity to set off – anywhere – and get off the usual path, with friends or by yourself, to do something that outside your envelope, I recommend you go for it.  Of course, 9 times out of 10 I’m going to err on the side of wanderlust.

– Richard


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Plenty to Celebrate

It seems that a lot of people are mourning the loss of summer right now.  I’ve never been a fan of the excessive heat and humidity, but I can understand the reluctance to let go of activities we traditionally associate with warm weather.  So rather than packing away your gear with a heavy heart, why not find ways of extending your favorite hobbies into the colder months?

For example, even though you may be scrambling to collect the last of your harvest right now, your gardening days don’t have to be over when you run out of zucchini.

Fallscaping: Extending Your Garden Season Into Autumn by Nancy Ondra

A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons by Philip Harnden.

Speaking of which, those of us who enjoy cooking (and eating!) local, seasonal foods have been looking forward to that harvest.  In addition, dropping temperatures signal the return of baking season.

The Taste of the Season: Inspired Recipes for Fall and Winter by Diane Worthington

Autumn: From the Heart of the Home by Susan Branch

The Fearless Baker: Scrumptious Cakes, Pies, Cobblers, Cookies, and Quick Breads That You Can Make to Impress Your Friends and Yourself by Emily Luchetti

And people who love the outdoors know there’s no reason to head inside yet.  Hiking, birdwatching, and many other activities can become fresh again with the change of seasons.  (In fact, depending on your sport, the ability to wear more protective gear and clothing can be a plus!)

Fall Color and Woodland Harvests: a Guide to the More Colorful Fall Leaves and Fruits of the Eastern Forests by C. Ritchie Bell

The Bumper Book of Nature: A User’s Guide to the Outdoors by Stephen Moss

Backyard Bird Secrets for Every Season: Attract a Variety of Nesting, Feeding, and Singing Birds Year-Round by Sally Roth.

So even though summer’s days are numbered, autumn gives us plenty to celebrate.


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Momentum Shift

According to Wikipedia, the March Equinox occurred last night at 7:26 PM local time.   We can finally stop thinking about the groundhog; spring is officially here.  All I want to do is go outside and play.

Even though the nights are getting shorter, they’re warming up enough to do some serious stargazing.  The Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh has published their 2011 schedule of Star Parties at Wagman Observatory and Mingo Creek Park Observatory.  I personally recommend visiting the Wagman site and using the telescope that was commissioned by Andrew Carnegie and built by John Brashear.  But if you can’t make it to a party, or if you just can’t get enough of that night sky, you can always come to the library and grab a guide.

Viewing the Constellations With Binoculars: 250+ Wonderful Sky Objects to See and Explore by Bojan Kambic

Another exciting part of spring is the local Peregrine Falcon nesting season.  Pittsburgh’s National Aviary hosts live Falcon Cams at the Gulf Tower downtown, and Cathedral of Learning in Oakland.  If you want to know more about what you’re watching, Kate St. John of WQED has put together an incredible Peregrine FAQ, as part of her blog Outside My Window: A Bird-Watcher’s View of the World.  She also covers general bird anatomy and behavior, and describes happenings in the local environment down to the appearance and function of the weeds in the winter.   If you find yourself wanting to get a closer look at Kate St. John’s world, we’ve got books that can help you make your little piece of habitat more inviting.

The Backyard Bird Lover’s Ultimate How-To Guide: More Than 200 Easy Ideas and Projects for Attracting and Feeding Your Favorite Birds by Sally Roth

I’m also looking forward to hitting the local trails.  I’ve always been a hiker, but this year I may actually get myself a bike and explore some of the nearby rail trails.  Of course, when starting any new fitness routine, your doctor should be your first stop.  But after you’ve been declared healthy, we can help you figure out what to do next.  Here’s the book I’ve had my eye on –

Knack Cycling For Everyone: A Guide to Road, Mountain, and Commuter Biking by Leah Garcia and Jilayne Lovejoy.

Are you getting ready for any fun outdoor activities?


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The Joys of Summer

I have vacation on the brain, but I don’t leave for a week.  At this rate, it’s going to be very hard to get any work done.  So this post is dedicated to all the things I love about summer.

It’s the height of the growing season, and right now your garden might be a little hard to keep up with.  To stay focused, check out Keeping the Garden In Bloom: Watering, Dead-heading, and Other Summer Tasks, by Steven Bradley. Once that produce starts rolling in, you’ll want to read The Summer Cook’s Book: A Guide to Planting, Harvesting, Storing, Canning, Freezing and Cooking Popular Fruits and Vegetables by Brenda Cobb.  And if you’re unable to garden, you can still reap the benefits – visit the library’s CSAs, Farms and Farmer’s Markets page.

Of course, there’s more to summer dining than just produce.  If you want to put together a quick, satisfying, and in-season meal so you can spend more time having fun, try Summer Gatherings : Casual Food to Enjoy with Family and Friends, by Rick Rodgers.  If your interests lie in taming the flames, and wielding your skills everywhere from the stadium parking lot to  the middle of nowhere, check out How to Grill, by Steven Raichlen (of PBS fame).

Many people spend the summer hiking on trails all over the Pittsburgh area.  Whether you’re looking to get started, or you want new trails to explore, there’s something for you in Best Hikes Near Pittsburgh by Bob Frye.  You can even take your buddy, with Doggin’ Pittsburgh : the 50 best Places to Hike With Your Dog in Southwest Pennsylvania by Doug Gelbert.

Birdwatching is a fun summer hobby in both backyards and state parks.  If you want to develop your own personal wildlife habitat, there are many ideas in North American Backyard Birdwatching For All Seasons: Feeding and Landscaping Techniques Guaranteed to Attract Birds You Want Year Round by Marcus H. Schneck.  Once you’ve found the birds, you’ll want to know what you’re looking at – and hearing!  Bird Songs: 250 North American Birds in Song by Les Beletsky is unique among bird guides, in that it contains a little computerized gizmo that will play the sound of each bird.  It’s definitely worth trying out if you have even the most passing interest in birds, or if you own cats.

Great vacations usually make great photos, but brushing up on your skills doesn’t hurt either.  Take a look at Digital Nature Photography Closeup by Jon Cox, or the National Geographic Photography Field Guide to Landscapes : Secrets to Making Great Pictures by Robert Caputo.

And if none of these ideas tickle your fancy, visit the Carnegie Library’s Outdoor Activities page.  You’ll find general and local resources on everything from camping to caving to water activities.  Or you can always come into the library to browse the collection, maybe take in a free event, and soak up some air conditioning.

– Denise

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Happy Trails

One of the things I love most about living in Pittsburgh is the abundance of nearby choices we have for hiking, camping, and backpacking (not to mention biking, horseback riding, or rafting!). There are books on every aspect of hiking, camping, backpacking (and more!), for both the novice hiker and the seasoned backpacker.  Below are a few that I turn to for inspiration or advice.

  • Anything by John Muir. If you weren’t already itching to go hiking or spend a night in the woods, you will be after reading his books.  The Yosemite is a classic, and Muir’s descriptions are so vivid that reading this is the next best thing to actually getting there.  For a selection of Muir’s writing, try Nature Writings.
  • Backpacking Pennsylvania: 37 Great Trails, by Jeff Mitchell: Divided by region, this book summarizes several trails throughout the state.  The trails listed are of varying difficulty and mileage, and the descriptions, though brief, give you just enough information to get a feel for each route. Some other books to look at for information on hiking in the area are 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles, by Donna L. Ruff or 50 HIkes in Western Pennsylvania, by Tom Thwaites.
  • Backpacking, by Adrienne Hall: Before you stumble out into the woods with your pack on, it’s probably a good idea to learn a little bit about some basic issues the backpacker might encounter.  There are hundreds of books that will give you the basics; I like Hall’s books because she writes specifically for the woman backpacker. 
  • A Field Guide to Eastern Trees: Eastern United States and Canada, by George Petrides: I love field guides, and this title could just as easily be subsituted with a title about mushrooms, or wildflowers, or birds, or butterflies…you get the idea.  Field guides are small and don’t take up too much space (or weight) in a pack, and they’re nice to have along on a hike so that when you see that plant with the beautiful flowers, you can figure out what it is.  

For more reading suggestions, check out one of our reading lists on the subject, or browse the library’s display (on the second floor hallway).


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