-Chilly temperatures are not a reason to miss the great outdoors when you can enjoy Arkansas’ winter beauty with the right preparations. Outdoor enthusiasts Thomas Wallace and Maura Montez of Little Rock take a rest during a day hike in The Natural State.
By Frank Barton :: Photography by Jamison Mosley & Janet Warlick
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]f all of the outdoor assets and activities available in Arkansas, hiking has to take first prize as the most accessible, affordable and diverse. From manicured trails in city parks to the world-class, hundred-plus mile backcountry and wilderness trail systems in the Ozarks and the Ouachitas, you can bite off as much or as little as you care to from this abundant buffet.
What distinguishes a hike from a walk? Most folks would probably define the hike as off pavement in an undeveloped, natural setting. With two large national forests and a wonderful system of city and state parks, we are blessed with plenty of opportunity to get off the concrete. The ability to be surrounded by nature, view wildlife, take in spectacular vistas, see native plants and minerals in their natural setting is available to just about every citizen and visitor to The Natural State.
Preparation and equipment, while minimal, is important and adds to the experience while preventing problems. Although many
hikers start out in their everyday athletic shoes, work boots or even flip flops, a pair of real hiking boots or shoes is highly recommended. These don’t have to break the bank and they don’t have to be overly technical. Do yourself a favor and go to a specialty outdoor shop and get a professional fitting—this is one piece of gear that you do not want to buy online or at a box or discount store. Lowa, Merrell, Salomon, Asolo, Chaco and Keen are good brands to try.
Low quarter hiking shoes with uppers made of a combination of leather and synthetic material are great for day hikes and many experienced backpackers use them for longer range outings. A mid or ankle high boot will provide more protection and support with little penalty in weight or cost. Boots with an integrated laminate of a waterproof-breathable membrane will provide permanent waterproofing while allowing moisture from perspiration to escape.
Socks are easily as important as boots. Wool, synthetic or a blend of those provide insulation in the cold, moisture transfer and cushion. Cotton socks have no place in a hiking boot—the fibers quickly become saturated with perspiration and stay that way,
providing no cushion, no insulation and no protection from blisters.
Hiking is a year-around activity in Arkansas and winter is a favorite time. Our winters are generally mild, ticks, mosquitos and poison ivy are tucked away for a few months and the vistas are spectacular.
Dressing for winter hiking is best done in three layers:
*Underwear or next-to-skin-layer: If the temperature calls for long underwear choose a synthetic like Capilene by Patagonia. Synthetics have the ability to regulate moisture, and will continue to insulate when damp and will dry quickly. Like socks, avoid cotton even when it comes to briefs, boxers and lady things.
*Mid or insulation layer: Synthetic fleece is an excellent mid layer, providing insulation even if damp. It is quick to dry and readily passes water vapor from your skin.
*Avoid cotton (notice a pattern here?) While a cotton sweatshirt feels warm and cozy when dry, they get wet easily and retain moisture for a long time. Lightweight down jackets work well too but be careful to avoid getting them soaked.
*Shell or outer layer: A non-insulated parka of waterproof and breathable laminate is one of the most useful pieces of outdoors equipment in your kit. The fabric is typically a tough
nylon or polyester with a very thin layer of microporous membrane laminated to the inside. An additional layer of nylon tricot protects the membrane. A properly made shell will be completely waterproof while allowing moisture from perspiration to pass through the pores—so you don’t feel like you are wearing a plastic bag. Patagonia, The North Face, Mountain Hardware and Columbia are good brands to fit this need.
A day pack is an optional piece of equipment, but most hikers want to be able to carry lunch, water and maybe a camera to accommodate excess clothing layers. I recommend avoiding the cheap school packs and get something from a specialty store.
Anatomically cut shoulder straps, a minimal hip belt and vented back panels will go a long way after a few miles, not to mention the agony of zippers, straps or hardware failure on a pack that was never meant to leave the city limits. Most day packs made for hiking feature holsters for water bottles or a pouch to carry a Camelback or similar hydration bladder. Patagonia, The North Face, Mountain Hardware, Osprey and Black Diamond are brands to look for. Each brand provides a lifetime warranty.
More and more hikers use lightweight hiking poles to provide stability and to spread the workload to the upper body when climbing. Telescopic, folding aluminum or carbon fiber poles make a wobbly bi-ped into a sure-footed quadruped when crossing streams, ascending or crossing uneven terrain. Leki (pronounced “leaky”) and Black Diamond, both with a wide range of prices and function, are all you need to know.
Other gear should include a basic first aid kit, sun and insect protection, depending on the season and weather. Add to your list a small flashlight in the event you’re still on the trail after dark. A fully charged cell phone (you’re gonna take that anyway, right?) can provide emergency communication and navigation.
Be advised that many backcountry areas do not get a signal. In an emergency, height is your friend when looking for a bar or two. One popular navigation app is “You Need a Map for IOS.” The basic version is free and will work without a cell phone signal but does require a hefty chunk of disc space. Similar products are available for Android.
Where to go is both easy and hard to answer. So many choices. The superb, home-grown guide books by writer/photographer Tim Earnst are a good place to start. His Arkansas Hiking Trails volume covers 78 destinations around the state with complete information on directions, degree of difficulty and what to expect. His Arkansas Waterfalls Guidebook is another essential for day hikers. Guides to the Ouachita Trail and the Ozark Highlands Trail (Earnst was instrumental in the development of the Ozark Highlands Trail) are also superb additions to any hiker’s resource library.
Arkansasstateparks.com has an excellent trail finder tool that allows users to search by location, difficulty and distance. Arkansas.com/outdoors will take users to another wide range of guides and tools that will provide information about more hiking opportunities in settings from deep wilderness to mid-town.
Take advantage of the opportunities in our wonderful little state. The more citizens use and enjoy the resources that we are blessed with, the more likely they will be preserved for future generations. The variety of terrain, sparkling mountain streams and lakes, pristine wetlands and prairie, deep forest and mountain crag are all part of our heritage. Enjoy them, protect and preserve them so Arkansas can always genuinely claim the title of “Natural State.”
For more information on enjoying Arkansas’ great outdoors go to aymag.com/travel.