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  • Writer's pictureEmily Ford

The Ice Age Trail: My Third thru hike

This is the hike that changed my life. I've always loved winter as a person who grew up in the throws of 29 Minnesotan winters. My grandparents had a farm in the northern middle part of the state. Located in Jacobson sitting just above the Mississippi River, their land was subject to brutal snowstorms and ripping winds that created snowdrifts that would swallow my little kid body whole if not for snowshoes to help me float. My mom was the classic midwestern mother that bundled her kids up and brought us outdoors to enjoy all weather.

As an adult I never questioned if I could spend 69 days hiking 1200 miles through a midwest winter because the people of my childhood set me up to believe that I could achieve anything. I know it's not the mountains, but winter in the flatlands can be just as brutal. They just look different (but also the same... windy, white and cold).


I started preparing for the IAT in October of 2020. I happily get laid off my my gardening job in December. I focused on what gear I needed for the temps and distance and gathering calories.

Here is a short-list of some of the things I used:

  • Baffin borealis boots (they have a fully removable liner) and solomon gortex boots for when I trashed my Baffins on the 500 miles of road walking

  • Many many base layers. I asked for long undies for Christmas like mad

  • Merino wool socks, shirts and hats. Thank goodness for merino wool. It wicks sweat from you and keeps you warm even though its thin

  • Wind/rain jacket. I wore this every day. The wind will steal your heat in an instant.

  • Thin puffy jacket. I wore this when it was below -10°F or too windy. I wore it over my wind jacket.

  • Fjallraven pants. The brand is not necessarily needed, but I like having pockets and they have a stretchy but durable crotch. I have big thighs and good outdoor pants are hard to come by.

  • Puffy pants. I found some military surplus puffy pants. I was running out of funds at this point and they were $10 USD. They work great! I wore these for really cold sleeps and frigid hiking days

  • Wind pants. I wore these nearly every day. They kept the heat in on my legs pretty well. I would layer the puffy pants underneath to make something like an insulated snow pant.

  • Colombia mittens and cheap $1 gloves. My colombia mittens are pretty old at this point and tattered, but they do the job on cold days (I say this because I don't know which Colombia they are, but they do have the omni-heat dots). I will forever bring those cheap gloves with me on any trip. They are cotton so they're not my main go to, but they kept the cold off my hands when I was too warm for my other mittens. I also have a lot of dexterity with them to work on Diggins' clasps and such.

  • Western Mountaineering -30°F down bag. This was my biggest expense, but it was worth it!

  • Sierra Design 1989 Clip Flashlight 2 person tent. At this point I was out of funds and my former boss let me borrow this tent. It is a bit on the heavy side for a 3 season tent, but it withstood some wind weather. They still make this tent, but just an updated version.

  • Thermarest xerotherm and Thermarest z-lite sleeping pads. The xerotherm is awesome and kept me happy the whole way through. The Z-lite served a bunch of functions: I sat on it while cooking or kneeled on it while packing bags. It went under my xerotherm for extra warmth. I ended up cutting off a chunk of it for Diggins to keep her heat in.

  • Granite gear backpack. I named her Glenbulah. She is a beefy 70L total bag. I ended up not pulling a pulk after my first week and shoved everything in my pack. It was heavy, but worth it. The pack I used is no longer made by Granite Gear, but they still have a fantastic collection of packs that are really comfortable to wear for miles and miles.

  • MSR whisperlite international and MSR super fuel. In other seasons or on shorter trips I use my MSR pocket rocket, but in such cold weather it is best to use a fuel canister that you can pump pressure into. It was heavy to carry, but it was worth it.

Other Misc. gear: Petzl Tikka headlamp with rechargeable batteries, one extra battery, 2 battery packs to charge my phone and headlamp, Katoolah microspikes (better than yak tracks I promise), trekking poles (unknown brand, they were a Christmas gift), snow goggles, buff neck gaiters, boot gaiters, books (A Wolf's Trail) and a journal.

Diggins was a fantastic addition to my trip. She hails from Beatty Family Farm in Minnesota. I put a call out on social media asking to borrow a sled dog to help me along on the trail. My dog, Zulu is not suited for such conditions. When we embarked on our journey she was 2 years old. He position on a sled team was the lead dog. Heady and out front. Her gear list is pretty short:

  • Sundog x-back harness. A Minnesota company that loads of people use

  • Ultrapaws skijoring belt and lead. It is pretty comfortable to wear and has a bungee in it to protect both of us in challenging conditions.

  • Redpaw kibble. 2 cups at every meal. She could have eaten more. This kibble has a very high kCal count. Many sled dog kennels use it.

  • Fleece lined jacket. Only used twice. Her BTU's are off the charts.

  • Balloon booties. Ultra difficult to put on a dog, but these are so worth it to keep the snow from balling up in between the pads. They also don't slip off in the snow. There are videos online that will help you learn how to put them on.

Food was the thing I feel like I failed at the most. I will not go through my list here because I do not feel that it is a good enough list for others to work off of for a winter trip. I looked at a lot of forums and I thought I had enough calories, but I know now that I could have used much more fat. Here are a few things I brought: Hot cocoa with Nido added, oatmeal, trail mix (my creation), dry meals for dinner. I hope to have a more comprehensive list for my next trip.

Photo time!

Diggins and me before we left

Day 1!

Sleepy girl

The windy Lake Michigan

The End!

I learned heaps about myself on this trip. Being solo can be great and tough at the same time. There were many battles that I worked through in my mind. Even though it was a solo trip, so many people helped out! A very special thank you to Granite Gear, Fjallraven, Northern Waters Smokhaus and Beatty Family Farm for being sponsors. Thank you to those who love me so much that they drove all over Wisconsin to resupply me. Also to the new friends that I met along the way. Without you, I would have been much colder and lonelier. Thank you to the Ice Age Trail Association and all of the chapters for keeping the trail alive!

And finally I wish to acknowledge that all of the land that I tread across was initially indigenous land, peace to you. It was an honor to walk your lands.


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