Roads Rivers and Trails

Dream. Plan. Live.

Monthly Archives: April 2022


GORE-TEX, PFCs, and Pollution: Harmful Chemicals In Outdoor Gear

Many of us remember the commotion when Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott exposed the dangers posed by chemicals used in the manufacture of Teflon. The nonstick coating on cooking pans was shown to be a danger to the environment and our own health. Consumers responded via a mixture of reactions, with some throwing out their nonstick cookware and others accepting the risks carelessly. To their credit, manufacturers responded by removing the harmful chemical PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) from their newer products. With that victory, America’s consumers were freed from unsafe chemicals in their daily lives. Or so they thought. But it turns out that harmful chemicals in outdoor gear are just as common.

Rain jackets, boots, gloves, and other equipment made using high-performing GORE-TEX waterproofing have historically contained PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) and PFOS (perfluoro-octane sulfonic acid). For those, like me, that aren’t chemically literate, this essentially means that waterproof materials are made with harmful chemicals.

PFOA, PFAS, and PFOS all belong to a broader family of substances known as PFCs (perfluorochemicals). PFCs are unnatural, synthetic chemicals that have long carbon chains and last a long time. The long-lasting nature of these chemicals is what makes them popular choices for manufacturers and what makes these chemicals a threat to our environment; they don’t break down once they leach into our soils and waterways. Further, these chemicals tend to bioaccumulate, meaning they are slowly building up in the bloodstream of animals, and once accumulated they do not disappear. This has led PFCs to be classified under the moniker, “forever chemicals.”

These forever chemicals are here to stay. The chemicals used a decade ago are still circulating in our environment and in our bodies. Studies have shown concentrations of PFCs in nearly every living thing. Regardless of how careful we are not to expose ourselves, our food and water contain traces of them. PFCs are plausibly in each of us, although the research is still out on what that means.

most waterproof outdoor gear contains harmful chemicals.

 

We know PFOA, PFAS, and PFOS to be harmful. But exchanging these known harms for a new variety of fluorochemical doesn’t solve the problem, because by design it will likely have the same hazardous properties. Simply switching our use to a PFC that isn’t listed as hazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency won’t fix the root of the problem. Just because we don’t know if a new PFC causes harm doesn’t mean it won’t. The key is to find alternatives that aren’t PFCs and won’t be harmful.

So what’s this about PFCs in outdoor gear? The properties that make these forever chemicals a threat are exactly why they’re used in outdoor gear. They don’t break down in water and are resistant to flame, which means outdoor equipment containing these chemicals performs well in adverse conditions. Rain jackets made with PFCs keep us dry when mother nature deals us her worst, and tents will keep us protected from the elements and stand up against the Jetboil you left on beneath the vestibule.

Almost all tents contain traces of PFCs. And the GORE-TEX logo that is pervasive in outdoor apparel also means PFCs are pervasive. And it’s not just GORE-TEX that contains forever chemicals. Most waterproof apparel, from rain jackets to boots, will contain PFCs of some variety.

Most tents contain harmful PFCs

Amidst all this confusion, here’s a piece of good news. The rain jacket you wear is not a direct threat to your health. Outdoor apparel has been tested for human health and safety, and your use of a product containing forever chemicals likely isn’t a source of contamination.

Phew, we’re safe from harm. Why, then, should we be concerned about the use of these chemicals in the products that keep us adventuring? Well, the use of these products is harmful to the environment we recreate in. If outdoor equipment is continually manufactured using PFCs, then those chemicals will be added to soils and waters, where they won’t break down. As outdoor enthusiasts, we should be concerned about this.

We can’t settle for seeing our woods, waters, and wildlife degraded by hazardous chemical use in the products that we use to explore those very places. If that’s the case, then we are guilty by association of polluting our treasured lands. The solution is to be responsible consumers. We must demand products that don’t contain PFCs.

If we’ve known for years that PFCs are hazardous, why have we continued to use them? Because they work. The outdoor industry’s brightest minds haven’t figured out the silver bullet solution for a material that is waterproof and breathable yet doesn’t contain forever chemicals. The brands we trust to keep us protected from the elements won’t compromise performance. That’s why we continue to see PFCs in our apparel, and continue to stay dry when the skies open up. Until the perfect solution is introduced, and research indicates we’re close, we must accept the impact of our apparel.

The silver lining here is that the outdoor industry’s best brands also care about the environment. They’re collaborating to develop, research, and test new technologies that are free from PFCs of Environmental Concern and don’t negatively alter the product’s performance. As consumers, we may finally be seeing the fruit of that work.

In the fall of 2021, GORE-TEX debuted a new waterproof membrane technology that was free of PFCs. Those new eco-friendly products should be hitting the market by the end of 2022 and into 2023. The company achieved this milestone through the use of PTFE instead of PFCs of Environmental Concern. PTFE is a fluoropolymer that is more environmentally sound than other PFCs because it does not degrade into the environment nor does it dissolve in water, where it would enter the water cycle and be taken up by animals.

It’s important to note that GORE-TEX’s victory is only a partial one. They eliminated PFCs of Environmental Concern from the waterproof membrane, but every article of waterproof clothing also contains a DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coating. DWR finishes are common across rain jackets, boots, gloves, and even hiking pants and mid-layers. As of now, most DWR finishes contain PFCs, but GORE-TEX has pledged to eliminate those, too.

Hopefully, other equipment manufacturers will follow GORE-TEX’s lead in moving away from PFCs of Environmental Concern. To that end, Fjallraven, the Swedish manufacturer of high-quality trekking apparel and equipment, eliminated PFC-impregnated textiles from their products as early as 2012. They are still working to remove PFCs from waterproof zippers, however. Fjallraven has been transparent in acknowledging that their PFC-free textiles don’t have the waterproof durability of alternatives containing PFCs.

When that waterproofing eventually fades away, Fjallraven products can be treated with an eco-friendly spray that remains PFC-free to restore the product’s water repellency. Similarly, Nikwax, a popular maker of aftermarket waterproofing, cleaning, and conditioning treatments for outdoor gear, is well aware of the hazards posed by PFCs. They have pledged that none of their treatments use fluorocarbon-based water repellency.

Fjallraven uses non-PFC-impregnated textiles in their outdoor gear and apparel.

Rab, a UK-based manufacturer of apparel, packs, and equipment, is a climate-neutral company. Beyond caring about emissions reductions, Rab is shifting away from DWR containing fluorochemicals. They’ve already implemented PFC-free water resistant finishes on products like the Arc Eco Jacket, but are still working on a high-performing DWR finish for more technical products that is free of harmful fluorocarbons. Nearly half of Rab apparel containing DWR is free of PFCs, and 98% of fabrics used for Rab/Lowe Alpine packs are already there.

These are all good things. Equipment producers are on board with going PFC-free, and tent manufacturer Nemo is a step ahead of the competition. In 2022, Nemo launched a proprietary fabric in a few of their best-selling tents that is made from 100% recycled fabric and doesn’t contain harmful flame-retardant chemicals or fluorinated water repellents. They achieved this through a tight nylon and polyester weave that is not only safer for the environment, but also performs better. Their OSMO weave repels water better, dries quicker, and stretches less when wet. You can find this fabric on their popular Dagger backpacking tent or lightweight Hornet tent, but look for it on more products in 2023.

That leaves at least a touch of good news. The outdoor industry clearly still has work to be done before outdoor equipment is completely PFC-free, but they’re already making impressive strides and are committed to solving this puzzle. That leave us consumers with an obligation to be responsible. We must at least be educated and aware of the impact of our purchases on ourselves and our planet, and from there we can choose how to proceed.

Me? I’ll continue to explore new places and spend my free time outside. That means I need gear I can count on. I understand some harmful chemicals in outdoor gear are inevitable and I’ll carry guilt for that, but I value mountain sunsets too much to give up that equipment. My GORE-TEX jacket works well, and I’ll continue to use it. But I look forward to supporting Nemo, Nikwax, Fjallraven, Rab, and other brands that pursue PFC-free products as I upgrade my equipment.

most rain jackets and other outdoor gear contain harmful chemicals

And here’s the last thing we can do: buy high-quality, durable gear. No matter whether the gear we purchase contains PFCs or not, it has an environmental impact. Buying long-lasting gear is not only better for our wallet but also for our planet, since it means discarded equipment ends up in landfills less.

The first step toward change is education. If you learned something about the gear that fuels your outdoor adventures through this article, then we’re on the right track. Now we can move forward to a cleaner, more sustainable future where outdoor adventure remains central to what we do.

 

by: Will Babb

The trails that make up the National Trails System, including these moderately long walks, provide ample thru-hike opportunities for adventurers.

5 Short Long Trails: Lesser-Known Thru-Hikes for the Everyday Adventurer

The long trails of America catch our imaginations: the Appalachian Trail with its steep rolling mountains, the Pacific Crest Trail with its alpine beauty, and the Continental Divide Trail’s rugged wilderness.  These trails span thousands of miles and multiple states, as do most of the other routes in America’s National Trail System.  They are serious undertakings that require money, equipment, and most of all, time. What if you’re short on one or even all of these? These are five lesser-known thru-hikes in the US, all one hundred miles or more, that can get you the taste of a long trail without 4-5 months of walking.

Trail #1 – John Muir Trail (JMT)

State: California

Length: 211 miles

Duration: 16-21 days

Northern Terminus: Happy Isles, Yosemite Valley

Southern Terminus: Whitney Portal/Mt. Whitney

Best months: Late May – Mid July

I’ll start with the well-known and obvious on this list and then move to the more obscure. The JMT traverses 211 miles through Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks as well as multiple national forests and wilderness areas. You climb almost a dozen alpine passes, spend your evenings enjoying beautiful alpine lakes, and see some of the best mountain landscapes the US has to offer.  Hiking from north to south, as most do, the trail culminates with a climb of 14,502’ Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous 48 states.

I had the pleasure of hiking the JMT overlap of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2021 and it was an incredible experience that I would happily do again. In the early season (May-Mid-June), snowpack and raging rivers can be of concern to unprepared hikers. In the late season (end of July-August), wildfires have closed trails the past several years. It’s best to look at this trail months in advance so you can evaluate snowpack, drought conditions, logistics, and the competitive permit system before booking your hike.

California's JMT is a short thru-hike that's sure to provide challenge and beauty.

Trail #2 – The Long Trail

State: Vermont

Length: 273 miles

Duration: 21-30 days

Northern Terminus: US/Canada Border near Jay, Vermont

Southern Terminus: Clarksburg, Massachusetts

Best Months: May – October

This trail winds through the beautiful Green Mountains of Vermont and shares its southernmost 100 miles with the Appalachian Trail. Completed in 1930, it’s one of the oldest trail systems in the United States and was the inspiration for other long trails like the AT and PCT. The trail traverses six wilderness areas in Green Mountain National Forest and ascends Vermont’s highest peak, 4,395’ Mount Mansfield. In spring and late fall, the trail can be muddy and treacherous, and in the summer the ridgelines can be parched of water. If you’re lucky, you can hit the Long Trail at the perfect time, catching summer wildflowers or amazing New England fall colors.

The nation's oldest long trail is a thru-hike teeming with history, scenery, and mud.

Trail #3 – Colorado Trail

State: Colorado

Length: 486 miles

Duration: 30-40 days

Eastern Terminus: Waterton Canyon (near Denver)

Western Terminus: Durango

Best Months: June – Late September

The Colorado Trail (CT) is the longest on this list and as close to a long thru hike as you will get without being gone for multiple months. The trail crosses vast alpine landscapes; even in late spring snow can clog the trail at higher elevations. During the summer you have afternoon thunderstorms to contend with; in the fall, snow can sneak in as soon as late August.  The trail reaches a high point of 13,271’ as it traverses eight mountain ranges, six national forests, and six wilderness areas. The CT shares over 200 miles of trail with the Continental Divide Trail, meaning you’ll probably cross paths with longer-distance thru hikers that can share wisdom.

The Colorado Trail is a thru-hike that won't disappoint, showcasing the splendid Rocky Mountains across its 486-mile length

Trail #4 – Uinta Highline Trail

State: Utah

Length: 107 miles

Duration: 10-11 days

Eastern Terminus: McKee Draw

Western Terminus: Hayden Pass

Best Months: June – Late September

The Uinta Highline Trail is the shortest trail on this list, but it has its own set of challenges.  The first 21 miles of trail from McKee Draw to Leidy Peak can be devoid of water in the late season, creating a challenge right off the bat as hikers try to gain their trail legs while hauling two days’ worth of water. Once you reach the water, the real fun starts. Nine alpine passes stand between you and the finish line. The trail can be incredibly rugged and remote, with much of the eastern portion unmaintained and sometimes poorly marked. The Uintas offer amazing views and a great opportunity to test your skills in the mountains. I attempted this trail in 2020 but had to bail due to poor planning and injury, although it is on my list to go back and try again.

This lesser-known thru-hike of Utah's Uinta Mountains should be on every hiker's bucket list.

Trail #5 – Superior Hiking Trail

State: Minnesota

Length: 310 miles

Duration: 21-30 days

Southern Terminus: Wild Valley Road Trailhead

Northern Terminus: US-Canada Border near Grand Portage

Best Months: June – Late September

The Superior Hiking Trail is a hidden gem of the Midwest. It traverses rocky ridges overlooking Lake Superior and wanders through lush pine forests. This is least primitive of all the trails on this list with 93 developed backcountry campsites available fee-free to hikers.  The trail is incredibly well marked in most parts, but there are rugged sections of trail near the northern terminus.

One thing to be aware of is black fly season, the scourge of the upper Great Lakes. Black flies typically infest beaches, inland lakes, and anywhere without a steady breeze from late July to early August, when the temperatures drop and they die the death they deserve. You’ll want to pack a bug net, Deet, and thick clothing if you plan to hike the trail during that time of year. Other than that, the trail is incredibly accessible off Highway 61 with frequent spurs leading to trailheads and towns.

What it lacks in elevation the Superior Hiking Trail makes up for in beautiful forests and lakes.

by: Ben Shaw

Marble Mountain Wilderness in Northern California

Thoughts on Wilderness: Protecting a Sanctuary

Wilderness, the word itself is music. Edward Abbey states more eloquently than I our feelings about wilderness, a sanctuary that beckons me relentlessly. But what is wilderness? 

According to Merriam-Webster, wilderness is an area undisturbed by human activity. By that definition, there’s almost no true wilderness left in the lower 48 states. On the other hand, there are 765 designated National Wilderness Areas in the US states and territories. 

Federally-designated wilderness areas like Goat Rocks Wilderness are a glimpse of the grandeur of past times.

Federally-designated wilderness areas like Goat Rocks Wilderness are a glimpse of the grandeur of past times.

True wilderness is scarce, but I’m content to enjoy the remnants left behind as protected areas. There are some amazing wilderness areas scattered across the country that feel as remote and undisturbed as they must’ve a few centuries back. These are pristine and beautiful areas like Bob Marshall, Boundary Waters, Pemigewasset, and Ansel Adams wildernesses. A visit to one of these places will leave you feeling as if you’ve stepped back in time and entered a realm far from civilization, even though you might not be all that far off the grid.

Just as there are varying views on what wilderness is, there are differing views on how to manage it. Is a hands-off approach to management best, or should it be manipulated? Preservation or conservation? Conservation implies managing an area for sustainable use, whereas preservation is the idea of letting nature take its course. 

Oregon's Mt. Thielsen Wilderness has incredible scenery.

I tend to think of a preservationist approach. Leave wilderness be, don’t manage it for timber or mineral resources, and let things revert to how they once were. But this is an unrealistic, utopian ideal. To some extent, wilderness must be managed and used because we live in an expanding society with an above-average standard of living. Further, some ecosystems have been altered to the point where they would collapse were it not for human intervention. Even still, I am grateful to live in a country where natural areas that cannot be exploited are set aside for recreation. Because I recognize the inherent value of these places, I will always support their protection. 

When it comes to recreation in the wilderness, I have cognitive dissonance. Should these areas be open to the public or restricted? As the number of people hiking, camping, climbing, and kayaking increases, the potential for damage to our lands does as well. As a result, there are permits in place that restrict the number of visitors in areas like Zion National Park, Baxter State Park, and the John Muir Trail. In the future, more of these sensitive environments will have permit requirements. It’s inevitable, and as of now it seems like the best measure to allow access without further damage to the ecosystem. I’m glad to see more people enjoying the same things I do, but there are times when I can’t help but long for lonely trails unspoiled by crowds. 

 

One of the most remote wildernesses, Washington's Pasayten Wilderness offers respite from everyday life.

On top of permits, there’s the move to make natural spaces more accessible to everyone: roads through every mile of our national parks, cement pathways to views, hotels on site. I hate to visit a park and fight through crowds of people; I head to the wilderness to escape from that. Sometimes I come to a view and wish that everybody in the world could see it; other times I step out of the woods at a bustling mountaintop and want to be alone. 

The ongoing debate over our wilderness areas inevitably involves accessibility. Do we make roads instead of quiet backcountry trails and build hotels where primitive campsites once stood so that the beautiful areas are accessible to all? Or do we leave them accessible to only a few? Making national parks and forests a tourist attraction will degrade the wilderness and come with negative environmental impacts. But there are strings attached. If these areas are not accessible, then there will be no public support for preserving them. I love having to hike into an area to see jaw-dropping vistas, but why should I be the only one that gets to see that? Shouldn’t anyone that wants to but might not be capable of hiking be allowed to see the same view? And thus the debate rages on. 

Our treasured lands will have more public support and their future will be ensured if everyone enjoys them. After all, most of these wild spaces are public land, owned by each and every one of us. I’m not fully able to accept the consequences of that tradeoff yet. I want those natural areas to remain wilderness, but I also want them to last for future generations. Wilderness is a special thing; it’s a shame that there isn’t a better way to protect it than to open it up. 

My thoughts on wilderness are rambling and incoherent in the way of a glacial stream. I have a lot of opinions and unrealistic solutions for the problems inherent with public lands. Wilderness is a complicated subject, and my own opinions do nothing to make it simpler. All I can do is plan my next trip, get out there, and enjoy the wilderness that is left. I’m going to enjoy every moment in the mountains. If I have to share those mountaintop sunsets with a dozen other people, I’ll accept that consequence. Wilderness has a value that’s larger than me or the people I share it with, an intrinsic value that can’t be taken away by human hands. 

Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington protects one of America's most stunning landscapes.

Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington protects one of America’s most stunning landscapes.

by: Will Babb

X
X
X