TheBigOutside Blog

Michael Lanza, creator of and Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, writes about hiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, paddling and other self-powered outdoor adventures

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The Big Outside Launches a New Look

Hello reader,

I have moved The Big Outside onto a new WordPress-based platform at Please visit it and follow my website there, as I will no longer be posting at this blog.

Thank you.

Michael Lanza


Finding Nordic Nirvana in Sun Valley, Idaho

The groomed white track tilts sharply upward and continues for a discouragingly long stretch before disappearing around another bend in the lodgepole pine forest. Climbing this relentless hill on my skate-skis, my heart wails loudly enough to scare off birds, while alarming sounds and fluids spew from my mouth. I feel like I’m locked in mortal combat against gravity and the battle isn’t going so well for me right now.

But I finally crest the hilltop and stop in an open meadow buried in deep snow. A view that’s become familiar over the years—and never less than exhilarating—spreads out before me. Central Idaho’s forested Wood River Valley, dappled with fields of white, meanders south for as far as I can see, and then some. Two long ramparts of jagged, snowy, 10,000-foot peaks frame the scene, the Boulder Mountains on the left and the Smoky Mountains on the right.

Nate Lanza gives his grandfather, Henry Lanza, a skiing lesson.

Every time I see this valley, I wonder how it can be that I don’t get out here more in winter. Little wonder this place has become one of the West’s skiing meccas.

Then I take off on a screaming downhill—on a trail appropriately named “Psycho”—my skinny skis chattering and wind filling my ears as I set out for a couple of hours cruising around one of the biggest, most varied, and prettiest Nordic trail systems in the country.

Read the full story and see a photo gallery, as well as other stories and images about outdoor adventures, at

Gear reviews: waterproof camera case, microspikes, and a backcountry umbrella

Paddler-photographers, rainy-destination backpackers, and hikers headed for icy trails will love these three accessories that made it onto my gear list after trips this year. To see photos, go to

Aquapac waterproof SLR case no. 455

$130, 9.5 oz.

The dilemma: I was going sea kayaking for five days in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park this summer, and needed a way to shoot with my digital SLR without subjecting it to constant sea spray and the risk of an accidental dunking. If I had to constantly pull it out of a dry bag (or two) or a watertight hard case to shoot, I’d inevitably miss many shots.

The solution: this flexible SLR case from Aquapac. Several hundred photos later, I’m convinced that—from a photographer’s perspective—my trip would not have been the same without it.

In a nutshell, it’s a completely watertight, flexible plastic bag with a clear, hard window that fits over the end of your camera lens. Its watertight closure uses three tabs that lock tightly with a quarter-turn, preventing accidental opening. I could fairly easily manipulate all camera functions, turn a zoom lens, and look through the viewfinder with my DSLR inside the case. (Tip: By experimenting, I found that allowing a little air inside the sealed case—not squeezing most of the air out, nor sealing the case with a big bubble of air inside—gave me the greatest ease with managing camera controls and zooming a lens.) Photo quality was consistently comparable to the quality I got shooting on land without the case. I took the photo at of kayakers in front of the Lamplugh Glacier in Glacier Bay from my boat, with the camera in the case. (See the photo at Aquapac says you can shoot underwater, to 15 feet; I didn’t attempt that in Alaska’s freezing waters. As for size: The case fit my Nikon D90 with an 18-200 zoom fully extended.

No, it’s not as easy to shoot as it is without a case; and occasionally the rim of the case’s lens would sneak into the corner of a shot, because I didn’t have the case pushed up snugly against the lens (which you have to monitor). But the case allows you to travel in or on water with your camera constantly ready to shoot (the case comes with an adjustable strap); no dry bag or watertight box offers such convenience. Aquapac’s website provides a sizing guide so you can know whether your camera will fit inside the case. The Aquapac waterproof SLR case will be part of my camera kit on all water trips from now on.

Kahtoola Microspikes

$59, 13 oz. (medium)

XS-XL (fit boots from youth size 1 to men’s 16, or insulated boots up to men’s 13.5)

Conditions on the Grand Canyon’s Grandview Trail were—as a ranger warned us when we picked up our permit—“treacherous” for our late-March backpacking trip. Hard ice and frozen snow covered the trail’s uppermost couple of miles, where you frequently traverse sloping ledges a foot or two wide, with huge drop-offs. “Microspikes are mandatory,” the ranger told us, and he was right. Without them, we’d have risked becoming tomorrow’s news—or, more likely, have aborted our four-day trip.

The ranger hadn’t recommended a specific model, but the Kahtoola Microspikes proved ideal. The stretchy rubber upper slides easily over most lightweight and midweight boots, and the 10 half-inch metal spikes below my forefoot and heel never slipped out of position. They bit very securely into ice and snow, hard and soft. They are lightweight and compact enough to not affect how you walk or present a burden to carry once you take them off. They’re not crampons for technical climbing (notably, they lack frontpoints), but they’re perfect for shoulder-season hikes in the Grand Canyon or anyplace where you need a little security on frozen ground.

Davek Traveler umbrella

$79, 13 oz.

When the skies opened up at Mt. Rainier National Park and we faced two hours of slogging through steady rain before reaching our next campsite, I was very glad to have Davek’s Traveler umbrella—not for me, actually, but for my nine-year-old son. It made a big difference in his outlook toward hiking in the cool rain. In fact, he thought it was pretty cool just to have the umbrella, and I think he was secretly hoping for rain and a reason to open it. If he wasn’t with me, I’d have happily used it in that rainstorm, too.

An umbrella is one of those “luxury” backcountry items you often won’t bother bringing along—most are too long when collapsed, too heavy, or too fragile to survive mountain winds. The Traveler, though, cast a ray of sunlight on my previously skeptical attitude toward a backpacking umbrella. Its sturdy design is readily apparent when pushing the handle button to open or close it. The umbrella snaps open and was unfazed by light winds; with a steel shaft and reinforced seven-rib frame, looks like it could withstand a pretty good blow without bending. The 40-inch diameter provides great coverage. Measuring just 9x2x2 inches when closed up and weighing south of a pound, it easily disappears unnoticed into a backpack pocket. Plus, it comes with an unconditional lifetime guarantee. It’ll be in my pack for all potentially rainy trips.

—Michael Lanza