New Year, New Ambitions

With the flipping of the calendar about one month ago, the new year has begun, and so has our itch to get back out in the woods and do what we love to do. So far this year has been much stormier and colder than last, so for now we’re in a holding pattern, but within the next few weeks we’re hoping to test out some of our new gear.

We acknowledge that we haven’t gotten out as much as any of us would have liked in the last year. It’s easy to make excuses, and ours is really that life happened. Graduations, classes, new jobs, new homes have all contributed to our schedules really never lining up to get any trips together. This year we are going to do our best to make them happen. Our plan (at least mine anyway) early on this year is to try and get out at least once a month to visit both old and new places, even if it just be a simple day of backpacking. Some of these trips may be in conjunction with or in addition to trips that I take with the local four wheeling club I am a part of, North Shore Jeeps.

The theme for our trips this year is to pack as conservatively as possible. Better put, we’re aiming for a minimalist approach. What this means is we’re putting more of an emphasis on packing only essential items, many of which will serve multiple purposes. We will be taking this approach for a number of reasons.

The first is to test ourselves and our skills. We’ve found ourselves in a number of situations, ranging from snow and below-freezing temperatures to freak 80 degree days in the middle of March, climbing mountains covered in snow and ice in shorts and t-shirts. The one constant throughout all this though has been the large amount of gear that we bring with us. The advantage to this is that we are always prepared and seldom find ourselves without an item we need. The drawback though is the amount of gear we have to carry and the limited space we have with which to bring it with us.

This brings me to reason two: space. As we’ve made note of, the Jeep isn’t the biggest vehicle on the planet, so even with just three of us and our gear things get pretty snug pretty quick. I’ve taken steps to help in this area by installing a roof rail system from a 1997 Ford Explorer onto the hard top of the Jeep. In the coming weeks I will be ordering a roof rack that can be installed to this rail system, which will allow us to store a large amount of gear on it as opposed to trying to cram it all in the cabin with us. He’ll never admit it, but no one is happier about this than Scott. No more taking the back seat out and sitting on our gear for him.

Lastly, but not to be overlooked, is our recent desire to partake in survival situations. Recently we have taken an interest in shows like Survivorman, which as some of you know features survival expert Les Stroud in various situations marooned in the wild. Subsequently, Frank and I have also taken an interest in putting together survival kits, comprised of various items essential in a “worst case scenario” situation. Since we have not the training nor experience in these types of situations, we want to start off slow and hone our skills in this area. We don’t ever plan on purposely needing these skills, but it’s far better to be prepared for them through first-hand experience.

On that note, look for our next blog post to feature some of the survival kits that we have put together, as well as a demonstration of how well the equipment we’ve chosen has performed. Also look for us to be testing some additional equipment we’ve picked up (new tent, camera tripod, emergency bivvy, just to name a few) to see how easy, convenient, and effective the items are.

Happy trails everyone.

We’re baaaaaaack

Hello everyone. We know we’ve been away for far too long, but now we’re back, and if you ask me, we’re better than ever. A lot has changed since we last posted on this website: I (T.J.) have graduated from UMass and am working as an editor for a local magazine; Frank has also graduated from UMass (a semester early I’d like to add) and is working as an executive recruiter for a local firm; and Scott is about to begin his senior year at UMass (the beginning of the end). As you can imagine, things have been a little busy for all of us, and finding time to do the things we love most has become harder than any of us have wanted. We’re gonna do our best to change that.

Also important, the Jeep has undergone some changes as well. Much has changed since our last trip to Gilford, NH, and all of it has been done to make our trips easier on both us and the Jeep. In August of 2012, the Jeep received a transmission swap after the slave cylinder once again bit the dirt and I (though not totally confirmed) ground first and second gear attempting to get it off the highway in a mighty blaze of glory. So combine possibly destroying first and second gear with its already grinding third gear, and something had to give. After much deliberation over selling it or fixing it, I stumbled across a cheap transmission/transfer case combo on Craig’s List from a 1994 YJ, and in it went. (I’d like to add that literally four days before the slave cylinder incident, the sending unit shit the bed and spewed gas everywhere, costing me close to $600 to fix. Believe me I put a lot of thought into getting rid of the thing.)

Since that point, I have installed a 1.25″ spring lift and .75″ shackle lift; sold my Smittybilt front bumper and installed a stock Jeep TJ front bumper; gave it some new shoes in the form of 245/75/16 (~31″) General Grabber AT2s on Rubicon Moab wheels; installed JKS sway bar disconnects to help improve articulation; installed some Daystar extended bump-stops to prevent rubbing due to the added flex; undertook the TJ-upper-door-to-YJ-half-door mod to run half doors with the hard top (just for the summer) with the help of the president of the Jeep club I’m a part of; threw on a full-length recovery rear bumper and CB radio to get it up to snub with the requirements of said Jeep club; installed rocker guards to help patch the rust in those areas; and installed some junkyard roof racks from a 1999 Ford Explorer to the hard top to help transport our camping gear, thus leaving room for someone to actually sit comfortably in the back seat. Here are some before and after photos for a comparison:

The Jeep in May 2012

What the Jeep looked like last summer, before the lift and other recent modifications.

A shot of the patched rocker panels and the modified TJ upper doors.

A shot of the patched rocker panels and the modified TJ upper doors.

Jeep power lines

What the Jeep looks like now after a two inch lift, larger wheels and tires, and all the other modifications I’ve made recently.

Needless to say, it’s a whole new animal. This past weekend (August 24-25), Frank and I headed back to our old stomping grounds of Mount Toby State Forest and tested out the more recent modifications, those being the sway bar disconnects and the roof racks. This is the first time I’ve wheeled the Jeep with the sway bar disconnected. I’ve wheeled it since the lift and the tires a few times, but having the sway bar disconnected made an unbelievable difference. It no longer felt like it was going to roll over on the slightest incline, and was able to keep all four wheels firmly planted when climbing obstacles it never could have in the past.

So, check out the video at the top of the page for a look at what Frank and I were up to this weekend, and stay tuned in the next few days for a subsequent post and video of Frank showing off his rock climbing gear and abilities, shot first person using my GoPro Hero 2 camera. You won’t be disappointed.

Video of part one of our trip to Gilford, NH

Hey everyone! The three of us hope everyone was able to enjoy the recent lovely New England weather like we did.

Now, back to business. Follow this link and check out the video of part one of our camping/off-roading trip to Gilford, NH. Check back in the coming days for a write-up about our trip and for a video about part two of our trip to Gilford featuring our trip to Belknap Mountain. Also be sure to check out our Facebook page for pictures from the trip.

Video of our latest trip to Mount Toby State Forest

Hey everyone! Follow this link and check out the video of our latest trip to Mount Toby State Forest in late February!

Also, be sure to keep an eye out in the coming weeks for pictures/video and a post about our Spring break trip to New Hampshire! We wish we could be more specific about where exactly we’re going, but we’d be lying if we told you we had any idea at the moment.

Shutesbury State Forest (Posted by TJ Houpes)

A dull, boring winter has kept the three of us from using the Jeep to its full potential and hitting some snowy trails. Finally enough snow (a whopping four inches) fell on January 12 for us to go out and have some fun, so we packed up some gear, jumped in the Jeep, and began our next trip. All three of us decided that it was time for a change of scenery, so instead of Mount Toby State Forest we decided to check out Shutesbury State Forest in Shutesbury, Mass.

The entrance we used was only about 20-25 minutes from campus and a fairly easy ride down Route 202. We all thought it was worth noting that on the road to the entrance is a tiny house with a signs with the writing “Da Luv Shack” on it. We checked it out, and it pretty much looks like what the sign says. We were all a little apprehensive after this but regardless we pushed forward. We entered the forest through gate NS4 which was conveniently open and made our way down the main trail.  There was nothing too difficult about getting in other than a little bit of ice beneath the snowfall, but it was so minor we didn’t even need to use 4-Lo to get around.

The forest was beautiful with all the snow cover. It was a very pleasant and peaceful ride, albeit a little boring for our tastes seeing as in the past we’ve driven up flowing streams and over decently-sized rocks and hills. It was nice to just be able to cruise around and check out the sights and views without having to worry about getting caught up on a rock or stuck in a rut. We meandered our way down the main trail and checked out a few of the offshoots, many of which were either closed or too small for the Jeep to fit down. Those not of this variety brought us deeper into forest and led us to even more trails, most of which were also impassable.

Eventually we jumped out of the Jeep and explored a little once we were about as deep into the forest as we could get. T.J. jumped out and immediately began to grab some shots of the Jeep (what a shocker) while Frank and Scott checked out a clearing near the border of the forest and Cowls Tree Farm (W.D. Cowls, Inc. Land Company is a local forestry business in North Amherst, Mass.). We spent about 45 minutes to an hour checking out the sights before jumping back in the Jeep and heading back towards the entrance. Before we left we decided to check out the tree farm, only to find the path leading to it to be too tight for the Jeep due to recently fallen trees. We managed to move one out of the with the help of the fancy new Smittybilt front bumper that T.J. installed (shout out to the D-ring mounts in particular).

All in all, all three of us feel it was a very successful trip and an even better way to kill a Thursday afternoon. We’re hoping that many of the closed and currently impassable trails will be open in the spring so we can do even more exploring and see what other goodies Shutesbury State Forest has to offer.

Be sure to check out our pictures from this trip on our Facebook and Flickr pages as well.

Mt. Toby State Forest, Oct. 14-16, 2011 (Posted by TJ Houpes)

INTRODUCTION

We were once again back at it in Mt. Toby State Forest during the middle part of October. Aided by our experiences from the first trip, getting into the forest and making camp was a breeze. This time we were looking to check out one of the areas in the southern part of the forest: Bull Hill. Though not as tall as Mt. Toby (1269 feet), Bull Hill (937 feet) peaked our interest because of the decently challenging route with which to get there. Plus all three of us had a weekend to kill and were looking to have some fun.

SETTING UP CAMP

As mentioned, setting up camp was a piece of cake this trip. We used the same location we did on our first trip, and Frank set up the same rope system we had used previously. Different this time however was the length of our stay: three days as opposed to two. Accordingly we packed more clothes and more food. Extra clothing was especially important this time around as it was once again raining for the majority of the time we were in the forest and during our trip there.

Unfortunately this trip we arrived at the forest a lot later than we did on our first trip (around 5:30 pm) so light was an issue. We set up our tent as fast as we could, and Frank and Scott immediately began working on a fire. Things went a lot smoother this time around in that area, and Frank and Scott got the fire going in no time. After a nice dinner of hamburgers and buffalo burgers, we decided on our plan of action for the following day (what trails to take, what supplies to bring, etc.), relaxed by the fire for a few hours, and hit the sack early to start the following day in the same manner.

CLIMBING BULL HILL

Our day started early on the 15th, and we decided it would be fun to mess around with the BB-gun rifle that we brought along with us this trip. We walked about a mile southeast of our camp and found a campfire site with a bunch of empty beer bottles and cans and took turns taking aim at them. After spending about an hour just messing around, we made the short walk to Powerline Trail and headed due south to Bull Hill.

Having walked Powerline Trail before, the three of us knew what to expect in terms of slick rocks and extremely hilly terrain. After walking the trail for about half an hour, we linked up with the path leading up to Bull Hill. There were a few tricky sections on Powerline Trail though, especially toward the end where the path became very swampy and we needed to work our way through the woods and around. The tough parts are half the fun though so no complaints out of us. There was one stretch where we did get pretty lost attempting to create our own shortcut though, but we don’t have to talk about that.

Much like the trail leading up to Mount Toby, the path leading to Bull Hill was a series of switchbacks. These however were a lot longer than the ones leading Mount Toby despite Bull Hill’s lower elevation. This trail was a much more scenic one though, and because of Bull Hill’s lower elevation the actual hike to the top was fairly easy and enjoyable. Once we made our way out of the forest section, we hit the final stretch and were at the top of Bull Hill.

The area surrounding the “peak” of Bull Hill looks like it’s in the middle of some sort of construction project. There are lots of downed trees and forested areas, and because of this the actual appearance of Bull Hill isn’t anything special. It doesn’t seem like the clearings and downed trees could have been caused by a storm or other weather occurrence, and the three of us figured it might be a forestry project through UMass since the university uses sections of the forest for its environmental conservation classes.

Our return trip was unfortunately not as easy as the trip going because Powerline Trail was an uphill walk back to our camp. And toward the end of our walk back it began to rain (as it always seems to do when we’re in the state forest) making us rush back and get our gear into the dry tent. All in all, the trip was about 6 miles total, and took us about three hours there and back. It was a worthwhile way to spend an otherwise boring Saturday afternoon.

NIGHTFALL AND RETURNING TO CAMPUS

The rain passed about half an hour after we got back to camp making it easy for Frank and Scott to get the fire started again. Other than the little bit of rain on Saturday afternoon, the weather was exceptional for a weekend in mid-October. All three of us took turns chopping up wood to keep the fire going and keep ourselves entertained. The rest of the night went much like our first trip, with us cooking dinner over the open flame and relaxing until we felt like heading to bed.

The next morning, we took down the tent and packed all of our things back into our bags and formed the human conveyor belt and loaded everything back into the Jeep. The trip out of the forest and back to campus was once again a breeze, but it’s worth noting that the foliage in just two weeks had become a lot more intense and noticeable. We arrived back on campus around 12:30, just in time to catch the Patriots game.

Check out our Facebook or Flickr pages for photos of this trip as well as others we’ve taken.

Mt. Toby State Forest, Oct. 1-2, 2011 (Posted by TJ Houpes)

INTRODUCTION

Our first trip took us to the lovely Mt. Toby State Forest located in Sunderland, MA. The forest itself is actually property of UMass Amherst and is used for a variety of natural sciences classes at the university. We ordered a few necessities from 4WD.com to ensure that the Jeep wouldn’t get stuck in any mud or on any rocks, and hit up Eastern Mountain Sports for some climbing supplies to use for our hike, i.e. hiking straps. After scouting out a good route and hitting some of the trails a few weeks back, we grabbed a trail map from the web, packed up the Jeep, and headed out bright and early Sat., Oct. 1.

ENTERING THE FOREST

After about a 30 minute drive from campus, we arrived at the outskirts of Mt. Toby. We entered into the forest through Gunn Mountain Rd. off of Route 47 in Sunderland. Just a heads up for anyone who wants to take this route themselves, it goes from pavement to dirt and rock in literally 150 feet. The trail up this road isn’t an impossible one, but prior knowledge in off-roading and most importantly a high level of understanding in your vehicle’s capabilities are definitely needed here. In other words, don’t take your parents’ Ford Escape up here. Of course if you don’t have access to an off-road vehicle like we do, parking is available off of Route 63 on the eastern side of the forest. The only real difference is the path you take to the summit of the mountain, but regardless the journey up there is equally fascinating.

After making our way over the rocks and through the mud pits of Gunn Mountain Rd., we linked up with North Mountain Rd. and followed that up to Summit Trail. We gathered up some firewood along the way and threw it on the front of the Jeep to make all of our lives easier. This turned out to be a smart move on our part since up the trail was a nice river of water due to all the recent rain, along with some low-hanging branches and a decently sized rock that Scott had to He-Man out of the way so I could attempt getting the Jeep as far up the trail as I could.

Here’s some more advice from the three of us: always keep in mind where you’re walking, especially in a forest where there’s sure to be lots of insect species, including but not limited to, pain in the ass yellow jackets. These decided to show Frank who the kings of the forest were. But like the true man he is, Frank rubbed some dirt in his four or five stings and carried on like it never even happened. I wish I could say I would have done the same, but I’m going to be completely honest with you and tell you that wouldn’t have been the case.

SETTING UP CAMP

After making it as far up Summit Trail as we could with the Jeep, Frank and Scott jumped out and began scouting the area for a suitable place for us to make camp. While they ran off, I checked out the Jeep to make sure nothing was falling off and that all the tires were in fair condition. It’s always a good idea to give your vehicle a good one-over to make sure you aren’t going to run into any significant problems the next time you have to move. Frank and Scott decided on an area about 200-300 feet from the Jeep across a small stream that had formed because of the recent rain.

The area was surrounded by birch trees, which Frank and Scott informed me was the perfect type of wood to get our fire started. It had a nice flat clearing where we could set up our tent and was elevated higher than the surrounding areas to help ensure that a flash storm wouldn’t flood the site. The one issue however was getting our gear from the Jeep to the camp. This is where Frank’s brilliance struck once again. He took some of the hiking strap we bought at EMS and created a secure line for us to hold onto while we crossed the stream with the gear so we could climb the slopes on both sides.

This nifty little manuever helped us keep all of our gear and ourselves dry but allowed us to set up a safe and secure campsite. Later in the day I gathered up some rocks from the nearby stream and pieced together a make-shift fire pit that we would use to cook our food and dry our soaked off shoes later that evening. Frank and Scott, the determined souls they are, tried for about 25 minutes to get the fire started without using our matches, resorting simply to flint and steel. But after Frank managed to slice his thumb upon and the two of them determined the wood to be too damp to catch, they whipped out the matchbook. After countless attempts to get this to work, and with only two matches left the tinder finally caught and we it was smooth sailing from that point on.

CLIMBING MOUNT TOBY

It might sound a little ridiculous, but climbing to the top of Mt. Toby was actually the easiest part of our trip. The trail leading to the top of the mountain was just a short walk from our camp (yes we planned it that way) and fairly easy to access. The trail took us through some swampy and muddy areas, but nothing we couldn’t handle. The ultimate ascent to the “peak” (Mt. Toby is only about 1270 feet according to our map) was a series of switchbacks that took us up the hillside. Though not so pleasant on the legs, the climb was very scenic and incredibly enjoyable. The top of the mountain was also a little bit of a let down with a very bland few and no particularly exciting landmarks. The most noticeable of these was the Sunderland Fire Tower which did give us a nice lookout over a decent chunk of the forest.

We stayed at the top of the mountain for about 45 minutes before we headed back to camp. We walked along a road trail on the opposite side of mountain to check out the scenery on the other side of the forest and to get a better understanding of what surrounded the mountain if we were to come back and explore some more. And even though it was damp and dreary the day we went, the sights were still spectacular and making the trip was well worth it.

NIGHTFALL AND RETURNING TO CAMPUS

After making it back to camp, we immediately began prepping for dinner. After a nice dinner of hamburgers and buffalo burgers, we hung out around the fire until about 11:15 when we all decided to call it a night. Now, it had been quite some time since I had been camping, so it took me awhile to fall asleep in a fairly unknown environment. Frank and Scott immediately passed out though, but I didn’t keep allow them that luxury for long. About 25 minutes after we all jumped in the tent, something began blocking out the fire-light around our camp. I being the only one awake began to get slightly freaked out. I won’t go as far to say panicked, but I will make it known that this barely caused any reaction in Frank and Scott after I woke them up. Eventually whatever it was moved on, and I eventually fell asleep like those two with my knife tightly clenched in hand. Later during the night, we all woke up when something was sniffing around the outside of the tent. None of us were too worried about this though, we just assumed it was a fox or something else small that was just as curious about us as we were it.

We started packing up the gear around 8 in the morning on Sun., Oct. 2. We exited the forest around 9:30 after packing the gear back into the Jeep and carefully putting  out our fire and checking camp to make sure we left as little a footprint as we could. The drive out was a breeze seeing as going downhill over rocks and through streams is a lot easier than driving uphill in the same fashion. We were back on campus by about 10, giving us plenty of time to rest before watching the Patriots game later that day. Overall, the weekend was an overwhelming success and left us hungry for more like it.

Check out photos of our trip to Mt. Toby State Forest here, and visit the Photos tab on our main page to view pictures from other trips we’ve taken as well.