Suunto Ambit for Hiking and Backpacking

I never go hiking without my Suunto GPS watch, having accurate distance and altitude on your wrist helps with navigation and on the long days can be satisfying to see

I first got a Suunto Ambit2 for use hiking and backpacking a few years ago and I’ve since replaced it with Suunto Ambit3 Peak which is functionally identical. The core feature of both watches is GPS tracking and they also have a barometer and temperature sensor. For hiking the two most useful pieces of information (besides telling the time) are the distance and altitude.

Suunto Ambit2 at the peak of Mount Diablo showing the time, altitude, and total ascent

The distance is tracked by GPS; Suunto is known for its accuracy and fast to acquire GPS. The frequency of logging can be configured per “activity” with intervals of 60s, 10s, and 1s. The higher the frequency the more accurate the distance and recorded tracks but the more drain on battery life. For hiking 60s is usually more than adequate however I usually use the 1s logging for day hiking as the battery will easily last and it provides for more accurate routes.

My activity home screen shows the distance in the main section with the time above and altitude below

The altitude is tracked by combining both the GPS and barometer sensors, which Suunto calls “FusedAlti”. GPS by itself is much less accurate for altitude than it is for longitude and latitude so having the barometer significantly improves the accuracy. The reading is accurate to within 3ft (1m) and in my experience it’s very accurate (in the photo above at the peak of Mount Diablo the altitude reads 3,835 and Mount Diablo is actually 3,848 so it’s only ~10 feet out).

In addition to providing the distance and altitude the watch will also calculate extra of data from these; the activity time, current and average speed, and total ascent and descent, which are all useful to know as you go. The temperature sensor will show you the current temperature.

One of the activity screens can show a graph of the recent altitude change

The watch comes preprogrammed with a set of activities but you can configure your own to show whichever information you want. The watch face is capable of showing three lines, one enlarged one in the center, a smaller one above, and a paginated smaller one below which can be toggled using the view button over 4 different metrics. For hiking I have 3 screens configured to show:

  1. Time; Distance; Altitude, Average speed, Current speed, Battery
  2. Time; Altitude; Ascent, Descent, Temperature
  3. Altitude graph, which also includes activity time

I find more screens than this a little unwieldy to manage.

Showing the altitude, time, and ascent at Monument Peak in Fremont

The battery estimates that Suunto provides are pretty accurate, it will easily last two days entire days without recharging at the highest frequency. Having a watch that’s designed to record GPS is far more battery efficient than doing so on my phone.

The recorded tracks, or “moves” as Suunto calls them, are synced via a USB cable that clips onto the watch’s side and saved to Suunto’s Movescount website which then displays the tracks on a map along with trip statistics.

The watch also has the ability to preprogram a route and provide simple directions on-screen although I’ve never used this functionality, preferring instead to use the GPS on my phone with offline maps and regular old paper maps for navigation.

The Suunto Ambit range has a plastic nub on the underside that houses the GPS antenna, and the watch is pretty bulky, however it fits comfortably on my (small) wrists. The newer Suunto Traverse, which I believe has all the same functionality and is more targeted towards hiking, now has the antenna built into the body of the watch.

I love my Suunto Ambit and am addicted to it now, I would feel naked without it. It’s really satisfying to be able to glance at your distance and ascent and is a really useful navigational aid.

Long Ridge Preserve to Peters Creek Loop Portola Redwoods State Park

A 15 mile out and back (with a small loop at the end) hike with 2,900 feet of elevation change from Long Ridge Open Space Preserve down to Portola Redwoods State Park and over a ridge to Peters Creek Loop, the route starts with views over the forested Santa Cruz mountains before descending into lush redwood groves along a year round stream.

Peters Creek Loop in Portola Redwoods State Park is one of my favourite destinations in the bay area, it’s a three-pronged loop around the intersection of Peters Creek and Bear Creek with lush coastal redwood forest floor of ferns and clover and towering trees. The route also follows along Slate Creek and the site of Page Mill (there’s nothing there now but a sign) for which Page Mill Road owes its name; William Page lumbered redwood in the 1850s, carting it over to the bay via Embarcadero.

Because Peters Creek is many miles into the park it’s not very busy although on the weekend you’re very likely to see groups of hikers walking over. On memorial day the backpackers camp at Slate Creek was full.


The trailhead for Long Ridge Open Space Preserve is just parallel parking along both sides of the road on Skyline Boulevard.


  1. The route starts following Hickory Oaks Trail from the trailhead. This trail is well used by mountain bikers on the weekends. The trail starts off partially shaded but quickly leaves shade behind and follows the ridge around exposed grassy hills. In summer it can be blisteringly hot, the hike starts at the top of a ridge so the first few miles are mostly downhill but this means the final few miles are back up, make sure you have enough water for this last bit, particularly in the summer.
  2. Hickory Oaks trail connects to Ward Road Trail which descends down, out of Long Ridge and turns into Slate Creek Trail as it enters Portola Redwoods State Park. As it descends it turns into single track and meanders down through the forest eventually turning once it reaches Slate Creek.
  3. Slate Creek is also redwood lined although not quite as pretty as Peters Creek. Shortly before the intersection with Bear Creek Trail is a plaque showing the site of Page Mill. The Slate Creek backpackers camp is also located at the intersection.
  4. Bear Creek Trail leads up and over a ridge and descends down into Peters Creek. Along the upwards trail there’s the abandoned wreckage of an old car off to the side.
  5. Bear Creek Trail by first crossing over Bear Creek and then joining up to Peters Creek loop which crosses over Peters Creek twice. The Bear Creek crossing has a bridge but neither crossing of Peters Creek does, but the creek is usually low enough to hop over using stones. The creek is beautiful and a great stopping point for lunch.
  6. After following Peters Creek loop retrace your steps back up to Long Ridge, there’s a lot more climbing on the way back, and the end in particular is exposed.

Maps and References

The Long Ridge Open Space Preserve map shows the first section of the hike to Slate Creek Trail and the Portola Redwoods State Park brochure shows the second section from Slate Creek Trail to Peters Creek loop. Redwood Hikes Press prints a map of Skyline Ridge which shows the complete trail, and is also available digitally using PDFMaps.

Stinson Beach to Mount Tamalpais

A 16 mile figure of 8 with around 3,500ft of climbing, starting at Stinson Beach in Marin climbing to the East Peak of Mount Tamalpais, offering great views north over Marin and south over San Francisco, the trail travels through redwood forested valleys, grassland hillsides, and manzanita scrubland.

I hiked this route on Memorial Day which meant Stinson Beach, the parking lots, and the trails were quite busy. The highlights of this route for me were the Steep Ravine Trail, which has incredibly lush redwood undergrowth, and the views from the summit of Mount Tamalpais. It was neat to check out the Mountain Theatre on the way up, and I ended the hike by grabbing some food and sitting on the warm sand of Stinson Beach looking at over the Pacific Ocean.

When I started in the morning Stinson Beach was covered with the ocean fog, but I quickly climbed out and the temperature climbed with the elevation as the trail gets more exposed. I was really rather hot by the time I reached the peak. The trail back down was actually probably slightly more exposed, but the Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Trail and Matt Davis Trail both go through more exposed and heavily shaded cool sections as they contour around the mountain. The final section of the Matt Davis Trail is also heavily shaded and the temperature dropped as it got nearer to the Pacific Ocean again, which was a very welcome break from the sun.


The trailheads are just off Highway 1 at Stinson Beach, there are three places you can park;

  1. There’s an area for street side parking where Dipsea Trail crosses Panoramic Highway
  2. There’s on street parking where Matt Davis Trail meets Belvedere Avenue
  3. There’s multiple large National Park Service operated lots at Stinson Beach

All of these are free, but Stinson Beach can be popular on nice weekends so the parking fills up quickly. I got to the Stinson Beach lot at 8:45am just as it opened and a large stream of cars poured into the lot on a holiday weekend.


  1. Follow Dipsea Trail for 1.25 miles from the trailhead.
  2. Take a right onto Steep Ravine Trail at its intersection with Dipsea Trail. Steep Ravine Trail follows Webb Creek up a steep sided valley which is lush with green vegetation and redwood trees. There are a couple of footbridges over the creek and one section with short climb up a ladder.
  3. Steep Ravine Trail ends at a State Park parking lot at an intersection, cross Panoramic Highway and follow Old Stage Road a very short distance to Easy Grade Trail.
  4. Follow Easy Grade Trail for 0.6 miles which takes you to the Mountain Theatre, a large open air theatre. There are water fountains at the theatre, up to this point the trail has mostly been shaded but from here the trail starts to go through more scrubland and is more exposed.
  5. Loop around the Mountain Theatre and follow Rock Spring Trail for 1.5 miles to Old Railway Grade and West Point Inn.
  6. Take the lower Old Railway Grade trail, which is a fireroad, for around 1 mile to Fern Creek Trail
  7. Fern Creek Trail which follows Fern Creek up to the summit parking lot and is steep with many steps and switchbacks. Follow the for 0.75 miles to the parking lot.
  8. From the parking lot at the top it’s around 0.25 miles up the Plank Trail to the summit where there’s a watch tower. The distance from Stinson Beach is around 7.25 miles.
  9. From the summit retrace your steps back to the parking lot and then follow Verna Dunshee Trail clockwise around the summit, past the Gravity Car Barn which has one of the old railway carts on display, to the intersection with Temelpa Trail.
  10. Temelpa Trail switchbacks down the side of the mountain and is quite exposed, after a mile take the Vic Haun Trail which meets the “Double Bow Knot” where Old Railway Grade switchbacks on itself twice.
  11. Follow Old Railway Grade briefly to Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Trail which connects to the Matt Davis Trail after 1 mile.
  12. The rest of the hike follows the Matt Davis Trail for almost its entire length back down to Stinson Beach, it first follows the contour of the mountain inclining ever so slightly up to connect back to the intersection with Panoramic Highway from the route up, here cross over Pan Toll Road and follow the trail first continuing around the contour of the mountain inclining slightly down through grassy hillsides and then the final 2 miles switchbacks down through another redwood forest following a stream to the trailhead at Stinson Beach.

Maps and References

For reference the Mount Tamalpais State Park shows all the relevant trails. The Pease Press Trails of Mount Tamalpais, Muir Woods, and Marin Headlands map is a very detailed walking map of the entire area, and it has some additional historical facts for a number of the trails, which I picked up from REI.

Gossamer Gear Type II 26 Summit Pack

The Type II pack is my favourite day hiking pack, it’s comfortable, lightweight, and easily swallows a day’s worth of gear for a long jaunt in mountains.

The Gossamer Gear Type II is a 26 liter day pack in Gossamer Gear’s ultralight pack range. It’s the perfect size for day hiking and large enough to hold the 10 essentials, extra layers, lunch, water, and other stuff for a hike into the front or back country. It’s also light enough to not feel overkill when only hauling a few items on a short walk on a local trail.

The main compartment features a simple drawcord closure and the lid folds over and buckles, and there’s a grab loop on the top. On either side are two stretchy mesh pockets which hold water bottles and any other items that you need quick access to on the go (I tend to have a water bottle in either side, my phone, a map, and a mini tripod in the side pockets). The side pockets are a little high when reaching back, especially when compared to my backpacking pack, but this is a much smaller pack.

There are two zippered pockets integrated into the pack, one in the lid and one against the front of pack (which Gossamer Gear refers to as a “Napoleon” pocket). Both are very flat and pretty small, I tend to put my wallet and headphones in the top pocket and map or permit in the front pocket. You could probably put a phone in one of the pockets but nothing bigger than that.

The hip belt and shoulder straps are both backed by a spongy mesh which is comfortable and doesn’t heat up

The back of the pack has a very thin foam pad on the inside and I find that the pack naturally sits off of my back (when using the hip belt) so I haven’t had any issues with getting too hot with contact between my back and the pack, despite the fact there’s no mesh. The shoulder straps have a padded air mesh which is all day comfortable to wear with the loads this pack can hold. The sternum strap keeps them in place.

The zippered hip belt pockets are made of the same stretchy material as the side pockets and are large enough to fit a couple of energy bars each

The hip belt has two stretchy zippered pockets integrated, one on either side. The backs of the pockets are lined with the same mesh as the straps and are very comfortable. The stretch material is similar to that of the side pockets and they are well sized, I can easily store a few bars and snacks in the pockets to eat on the go without having to take the pack off. The belt is removable, it’s attached via a slider, although I always hike with it on.

The pack has a couple of loops sewn into either side designed to allow lashing additional gear to the outside of the pack. When I ordered the pack I also got some shock cord, hook clips, and cord locks to thread on the sides to compress the bag a little when empty and secure extra layers if the bag filled up. My previous daypack frequently ran out of space and I had to stash my jacket under the lid but in practice the Type II easily holds all the gear I take on a day trip and I’ve never needed to use the shock cord.

The lid buckles to a purple strap which is attached with a daisy chain stitching, it definitely adds a splash of color to the pack

The features I haven’t used are ice axe loop or the hydration bladder pocket/routing loops on the straps (I prefer to use water bottles so I know how much water I’m drinking/have left).

I bought this pack for the extra space and side pockets compared to my previous pack and it hasn’t disappointed, there’s very little that can be improved on this pack for day hiking, it’s my go anywhere and everywhere pack, I take it on hikes from a few miles to 20+ miles. I love this pack.

Motorcycle Backpacking

Have motorcycle—will travel; combining my two hobbies of motorcycling and backpacking.

For many years now my motorcycle has been my only (powered) form of transport. My first motorcycle was a Kawasaki Ninja 250, just about the smallest practical motorcycle you can get away with but still looks the part. It certainly wasn’t ideal for going long distances but they always say the best thing is the one that you have, and a Ninja 250 is what I had.

Ninja ready to hit to road

I loved my Ninja though, and took it to the Sierras multiple times, including a trip all the way to Big Pine in the eastern Sierra. I also rode it on a handful of backpacking trips, loading it up with my backpack bungee corded to the back of the bike. As you can see in the picture I also took an empty waterproof holdall to stash my riding gear and padlocked it to the bike while I was away. I usually took my bike cover as well because I was a little nervous about opportunists seeing the holdall on my bike and figured they’d be slightly less likely to look underneath a cover, but at the end of the day if someone wanted to mess around with my bike there’s not much I can do about it.

A couple of years ago I sold my Ninja 250 and replaced it with a Suzuki V-Strom 650. As well as being a larger bike the features I most wanted were the ABS brakes and fuel injection (my Ninja still had a carburetted engine and when getting into the mountains the oxygen lean environment tested the already small engine on the steep inclines).

The other difference between them is the V-Strom is styled as an adventure bike whereas the Ninja as a sports bike, this meant the V-Strom has a more upright seating position (good for longer trips on the highways) and much more luggage options (the Ninja effectively having close to zero) which meant I now also have a hard top case.

The top case I use is a 52 liter Givi Trekker which nicely fits my riding boots, riding suit (an Aerostitch Roadcrafter), and gloves. I then lock my helmet to the bike (usually I will also put my helmet in a trash compactor bag to keep it dry if it rains and also keep it slightly out of sight). I also leave a wheel lock on the rear disc brake.

In terms of security a bike is definitely slightly more vulnerable than a car (if a few people had a truck lifting it into the back and driving off is possible) and I have considered also taking a sturdy chain to lock it to something anchored, but in reality I haven’t had any problems on any of the trips and in a lot of ways it’s just as easy to steal stuff from a car.

Riding a motorcycle in many ways is much less practical than a car; you need special safety gear, you’re much more exposed to the elements, the cold and heat and the rain, and it can be less comfortable when doing the big miles on the freeway. But on the flip side you can lane split to beat the traffic, it’s a lot more fun and nimble on the windy roads that approach most trailheads, and it’s a lot easier to squeeze into popular parking lots when you get there.

Also if you cross over into motorcycle camping (which is a natural fit) backpacking gear is ideal, just like with backpacking space and weight come at a premium on a motorcycle, having smaller gear means you can load up on some luxury items, my favourite one being a camp chair which is bliss to settle into with a hot or cold drink (depending on your mood) after a long day in the saddle.