Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Occasional Definitions: Fire Ring

  1. A circular barrier used to contain a campfire. The primitive version uses rocks. The fancier version consists of an iron hoop. Not needed for small backpacking fires used for cooking.

  2. Piece of bodily adornment worn on index finger of right hand by the Dark Lord. Has inscription in flaming Elvish characters and contains immense powers of evil. Also known as “The One Ring.” If you’re the one wearing this baby, you don’t have to carry your own pack.

  3. Seldom-heard pristine, bell-like sound that a finely-tuned fire makes while burning smokeless under a clear evening sky when everything is perfect and all is good with the world.

From: Fire In Your Hand

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Occasional Trails: Stomping Along Gichigami

  • Name : The Superior Hiking Trail (SHT)
  • Location : Northeastern Minnesota
  • Length : 205 miles
  • Best season : Probably not winter
  • Features : Runs along ridges above Lake Superior, crossing state, county, national forest, and private properties
  • Permits : Not required
  • Info at : Superior Hiking Trail Association (

About 1100 million years ago, as you recall, the center of North American began to shudder and bulge the way it does sometimes. After many unpleasant events involving stretching, thinning, heaving, tilting, molten rock leaking out here and there, erosion, and massive glaciers banging around and scraping things almost forever, there came to be a big dent in the ground. After a while the glaciers gave up and melted, filling the dent with water.

This became known as Gichigami (big water), Lac-Supérieur ("My lake, she is bigger to yours, eh?"), or as most of us now know it, Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area, and the third largest by volume.

The restless earth left tilted layers of rock around the lake's edge. These are the Sawtooth Mountains of Superior's northwest side. This is where you will find the 205-mile Superior Hiking Trail.

Conceived in the middle 1980s specifically as a long distance foot path, the Superior Hiking Trail has one end anchored in Two Harbors, Minnesota, and the other on the Canadian border. An additional 39 miles of trail wind through the City of Duluth, for a total of 244 miles. Access is via Minnesota Highway 61 or on spur trails associated with it, or along many smaller roads. Seven state parks also connect to the trail and provide their own access points.

Hikers out to bag the most miles can start at Two Harbors, hike to the eastern end of the trail, and then continue along the Border Route Trail, which in turn links to the Kekekabic Trail. These last two trails traverse the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). Permits are not required for the Superior Hiking Trail but are needed for the BWCA. By combining trails a thru-hiker can put together a trip of over 300 miles.

One nice feature of the Superior Hiking Trail is that it is truly for hiking only. No motorized vehicles, bicycles or horses are allowed. It is steep and narrow in parts and there are frequent rocky ascents followed by descents into deep valleys, but bridges facilitate stream crossings.

For those used to tramping well above treeline in high mountains, this trail is a different experience. It generally hugs the ridge above Lake Superior, but at its lowest point it does skim the lake's shore, which is barely 600 feet above sea level. The trail's highest point is 1750 feet, more than 1000 feet above the lake's surface.

Panoramic views of Lake Superior, the Sawtooth Mountains, woodlands, and various other lakes and rivers are frequent all along the trail. And because there are so many streams, and the land is so rugged, there is no shortage of gorges, foaming rapids and waterfalls.

But one peculiarity of this trail is varied land ownership. National Forest, state parks, county holdings, and parcels of private land form a patchwork. Because of this camping is allowed only in designated sites, and extra restrictions apply in some areas. Cooperation and mutual respect keep the trail a viable route.

Speaking of back country campsites, the trail has 81 of these, an average of one every two and a half miles. There are no fees, reservations, or permits required, either to hike or to camp. Leashed dogs are allowed.

Backpackers will see hardwood forests of oak, maple and basswood, stands of balsam, pine, spruce, cedar and tamarack, and groves of aspen and birch. Wildflowers are common in spring, and some persist through the growing season. Blueberries and raspberries show up in mid-summer. Deer are frequent sights and a traveler might also find moose, beaver, black bear, grouse and even eagles.

But what is really distinctive about this trail is one massive, omnipresent feature. Lake Superior. With a surface area close to 32,000 square miles (larger than South Carolina!), this body of water sets its own rules. Three hundred fifty miles long and 160 miles wide, it is not only too big to spit across, it is too big to even see across. It is a freshwater inland sea averaging almost 500 deep. To give another sense of scale, Isle Royale, the largest island in Lake Superior, has several of its own lakes, and some of them have islands of their own.

Drain this lake and you could walk to the lowest point in North America, 733 feet below sea level. But up on top storms routinely generate waves over 20 feet, and some over 30 feet have been recorded. And there is enough water in this lake to cover both North and South America a foot deep. Think about that. This is a different world.

With its length, easy access, cooperative landowners, and varied landscape, no wonder the Superior Hiking Trail is thought of as one of the best trails in the country. And then there's that lake too.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Betty Of The Backcountry

A couple of months ago I stumbled on a forum post asking about a hiking or backpacking book for someone's wife. He wanted something from a woman's perspective so his wife could get a better feel for the subject. That, and join him on the trail, once she got inspired and had some of her doubts smoothed.

Well "Backcountry Betty: Roughing it in style" would have been a good bet. I just stumbled over it a couple of weeks ago and decided to read it myself. One thing that intrigued me is that, flipping through the book I could tell that the author was a good writer. The style is smooth and professional. Most outdoor books plod.

Reading this book is like taking a short run and sliding across clean, flawless, frictionless ice. But it isn't cold. Just the opposite. It's a warm book. The style is breezy and friendly, and you can tell that the author is in charge of every word, each nuance. She knows what she is doing.

Which isn't surprising. She makes her living from writing, has around 20 books out, and writes for major publications. That's hard to do well, and a tough way to earn your pay. Her name is Jennifer Worick. The illustrator is Kate Quinby. The entire editorial and publishing team is female. I thought this would be a good chance to understand the female outdoor perspective a little better.

First let's get some housekeeping done. Here are the chapters:
  1. First things first: hygiene.
  2. Getting your glam on in the Amazon.
  3. Eating out(side).
  4. Camping it up.
  5. Entertaining at Camp Betty.
  6. Wild thing, I think I love you.
  7. Let's get physical.
  8. The wild life.
If you're really interested, read it. I'm not going into excruciating detail. The chapter titles are all teasers, but you can guess about what each one covers. I think I could sum up the book's main themes as
  • How to deal with the icky outdoors.
  • How to throw a party in the icky outdoors.
  • How to decorate the icky outdoors.
  • Nooky in the icky outdoors.
  • Basic skills for the icky outdoors.
  • Assorted things about animals.
It became clear really fast that I wasn't going to learn much about women from this book. I'm sure that somewhere in a film vault, and maybe available now on VHS and DVD is a camping episode of "I Love Lucy". Spend a half hour with that or spend three hours with this book. You get about the same either way. One has sound and moving images and the other is more up to date.

For a while I wasn't sure how to categorize "Backcountry Betty". Categorizing any work of art sucks. It's plain dumb. Anything worth exploring is more than one dimensional, but categorizing something gives it a place to stay, a shelf to put it on. From there it's easy to pull it back down and give it attention. So I had to decide what I'd call "Backcountry Betty", in fewer than five words. Preferably one.

"Manual" is out. This is not a how-to book. No one is going to use the instructions on how to decorate a camp site with stone cairns and sticks, and make wind chimes out of pine cones.

"Satire" doesn't work either, though it's closer. The book, and the author's approach are too earnest. There isn't enough self-consciousness or self mockery. To play the satire game you have to mimic something and either show how ridiculous it is or go out of your way to make it ridiculous. You want satire, try "The Colbert Report". OK, now you get it. Considering the state of how-to books on the outdoors, this wouldn't have been hard, but it probably wouldn't have had much audience either, only a teeny-tiny one.

Next up I thought about comedy. That seemed closest. This book is supposed to be funny, even ridiculous in parts, but it still has truth. It's not grade school level silliness, but it isn't serious. I would guess that the author has gone on some hikes, and stayed out overnight a few times, and hasn't gone beyond that.

The author does a good job of covering the idea of "leave no trace" and mentions the essential items to take along (which is either the "Five Essentials" or the "10 Essentials" or the "16 Essentials", depending on whose list you read these days. There are sound words about how and where to build a fire, and bathe, and so on. This is the interesting part. I'd bet, as I said, that the author has basically no outdoor experience but she has done a slick job of folding in all those things that a knowledgeable and responsible writer should. She's a quick study then, as well as being a fine writer. I liked watching her do that.

But those sections aren't the core of the book. The core is fluff. Interesting, well-written fluff, but goofy. And fluff. Like this: "Looking good is important to women, no matter where we might find ourselves...Some might not consider sleeping in a tent and sporadic showering roughing it. For me, it was like journeying into the Middle Ages."

And later: "To sex up your bunk, consider draping exotic fabrics (which can double as a sarong) on your bed or from the ceiling. Secure it in the center of the tent and gently drape it and pin it to the sides for a billowing 'sultan in a sandstorm' effect...Hang or place camping lanterns or flashlights safely away from fabric and on the lowest setting. Affix acetate or clear plastic stickers to your lantern so that it emits a soft or patterned glow."

Anyone up for hanging a few gasoline lanterns around the tent after a 20-mile day? This isn't serious, and the author clearly knows it. She's playing with the idea of leaving pavement but not leaving sight of it. It's both fantasy and comedy. And it's done really well.

I admit that I didn't get a whole lot of fun out of reading "Backcountry Betty". No doubt there are hundreds or thousands of women who think this book is adorable. Hey, it is. But not so much for me, unless it had really been satirical, like Jerome K. Jerome's "Three Men in a Boat". Then I could have felt invited to the party. Not so much with the book that is "Backcountry Betty".

Try it yourself. Take a quote from Jerome K. Jerome's "Three Men in a Boat", published in 1889: "I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours."

Everyone can get that.

Try a longer quote from the beginning of chapter six:
It was a glorious morning, late spring or early summer, as you care to take it, when the dainty sheen of grass and leaf is blushing to a deeper green; and the year seems like a fair young maid, trembling with strange, wakening pulses on the brink of womanhood.

The quaint back streets of Kingston, where they came down to the water's edge, looked quite picturesque in the flashing sunlight, the glinting river with its drifting barges, the wooded towpath, the trim-kept villas on the other side, Harris, in a red and orange blazer, grunting away at the sculls, the distant glimpses of the grey old palace of the Tudors, all made a sunny picture, so bright but calm, so full of life, and yet so peaceful, that, early in the day though it was, I felt myself being dreamily lulled off into a musing fit.

I mused on Kingston, or "Kyningestun," as it was once called in the days when Saxon "kinges" were crowned there. Great Caesar crossed the river there, and the Roman legions camped upon its sloping uplands. Caesar, like, in later years, Elizabeth, seems to have stopped everywhere: only he was more respectable than good Queen Bess; he didn't put up at the public-houses.

She was nuts on public-houses, was England's Virgin Queen. There's scarcely a pub of any attractions within ten miles of London that she does not seem to have looked in at, or stopped at, or slept at, some time or other. I wonder now, supposing Harris, say, turned over a new leaf, and became a great and good man, and got to be Prime Minister, and died, if they would put up signs over the public-houses that he had patronised: "Harris had a glass of bitter in this house;" "Harris had two of Scotch cold here in the summer of '88;" "Harris was chucked from here in December, 1886."

No, there would be too many of them! It would be the houses that he had never entered that would become famous. "Only house in South London that Harris never had a drink in!" The people would flock to it to see what could have been the matter with it.
I get that too. It teaches me nothing about rowing a boat through Victorian England that I don't already know, from the technical end, and a lot of the specifics of Victorian England are beyond my ken, only strange, incomprehensible, picturesque details, but I can understand three scruffy guys flailing around in a boat, stumbling over each other, being alternately miserable and giddy with elation, and making fun of themselves and the whole damn enterprise.

Maybe I'm just stuck in the guy thing. I hear that women, most women, are disgusted and repelled by the Three Stooges. Most guys choke to death laughing. Jerome belongs on their side of the fence.

So there's some of that. I do not quite get it, "Backcountry Betty". Ultimately I decided that the right category for "Backcountry Betty" is comic books. This is not a put down at all, even though I'm obviously not absolutely tuned to the right frequency on this one. Comic books are now "graphic novels". This isn't a novel, but though the existing illustrations are fine, the book could have done with more. Many, many more. "Backcountry Betty" screams to be a comic book. That would suit it perfectly.

That would be a reasonable and entertaining excuse for how to mix fresh vegetables and sauces with freeze-dried food. Show us! The author pre-cooking and pre-packaging perishable foods for later gourmet meals on the trail. Show us! And what would really happen if she did. A perfect excuse to show us! Although this is a comedy the author deadpans (in a sprightly and entertaining way) most of the time. I would love to see illustrations of settling the back country kitchen into a pack. Here's a rundown of the essentials:
  • Camp stove and fuel [note: not a backpacking stove]
  • Cooler
  • Skillet
  • Saucepan with lid
  • Large mixing spoon
  • Plates
  • Sharp knife
  • Forks, knives, and spoons for each person [note: she doesn't say how many of each, per person]
  • Ziploc (to shake and bake and to secure your aromatic foods)
  • Thermos (for mixing up liquids)
Let alone the exotic draperies or assorted camping lanterns for evening fun. Me, I don't even carry a spoon anymore, or anything resembling a cooking pot, and don't actually cook either, so I would really, really enjoy seeing Betty, in full color, drawn well.

OK, overall I'll say this was a good read. It will never be my favorite book but I don't want one. You want a book that will make you scream and blow snot, check the end of this piece, but favorite books are like best friends. You can have a new one every week. So it's not an issue anyway. So let's get to the issues.

One, the author doesn't know what she's talking about when it comes to the outdoors. This is obvious, and OK by me. Not a defect. I really, thoroughly enjoyed watching a real pro pull together alien concepts and explain them in a clear and simple way without understanding them from bitter experience. (I always have to learn the hard way.) When I say simple, I mean it in the best sense of that short and sturdy word. Forget the idea of whipping up an impromptu Zen sand garden at the end of a day's hike to decorate the camp site. Yeah. Forget it. Not a problem. That's what this book is about, after all.

One thing does bug me, one thing only, which isn't bad. The editor or fact checker should have vetted the sections on poisonous snakes. "If you have a snakebite kit handy, wash the bite and place the suction device over the affected area. Do not suck the poison out with your mouth!" OK, the last sentence is fine. Unfortunately more gangrene, deaths and amputations are caused by people trying to hack themselves up with snake bite kits and do the sucky thing than are actually seriously harmed by poisonous snakes, even if bitten. This advice should be removed.

Sort of off in left field, there are other things buzzing around. "Backcountry Betty" obviously isn't a book on backpacking, and no woman who actually goes backpacking is likely to mistakenly take it seriously, but scents. Let's talk about them. A example: "Scent is important...amp up your tent with lavender and rosemary pillows or sachets...." Not good. In another place the author suggests more of the same, and it's all likely to attract unwanted midnight visitors, even in a drive-up campground.

So I have a couple of issues. One big one and a few tiny ones.

But overall this is a fine book. It's an easy read, it's a smooth read, it's a fine read. The author knows how to write good. I'd like to be so good when I grow up. Me write words good when I big too.

And now for something completely different. Try Mil Millington's "Love and Other near-Death Experiences". It is not about hiking or camping or backpacking. It is about relationships and about life and death and will make you squeal like a happy pig. No point in trying to convince you. Just go take a look. Try finding both "Love and Other near-Death Experiences" and "Backcountry Betty" at your library, and read them together. You ought to enjoy both of them.


Jennifer Worick
"Prairie Tales" blog by Jennifer Worick
Another woman's perspective on life, and traveling: "Dork Whore", by Iris Bahr
Jerome K. Jerome books online
"Things my girlfriend and I have argued about" web pages by Mil Millington

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cherry Picking A Pot

I love my pot because it's part of me. How could I not? Even though I hate it too.

You get older, you get softer. Sometimes you get bigger. It's the pregnancy of age. Can't hardly avoid it.

Get older and you don't feel so much like getting out every 15 minutes. Sometimes not at all. And on top of that your body starts doing things on its own. Getting cranky. Hurting when it shouldn't. Going flabby when you aren't looking.

Hence the pot.

No, I don't like having it, but it's here so I have to deal with it, and I've decided that it's food already paid for, so that helps. I just have to carry it around all the time. That's my penalty. But have someone cut it off? No. No suction either. None of that. It's part of me after all, so I have to love it.

But not too much.

Not like my cooking pot, which I really love. That there one, it was love at first sight, a few years back now, and we've been happy together ever since. I can't believe how lucky I got. Sometimes it just happens. You can't really plan it. Love is sweet.

Gooseberry. That's my pot's name. Gooseberry Patch. Gooseberry Patch 2-Cup Cherry Measuring Cup (K320). Boy, I saw that cup and I bought it. I knew right away that it was for me. I've been good to it and it's been good to me.

Sixteen ounces. Aluminum. Marked in one-third cup increments on one side and half cup increments on the other. Red handle. Built wide and low. Flat bottom with a cherry design stamped into it. We get along just fine, me and my cup.

Granted, she's not for every one.

No lid, for one thing. That's a bother. Well, a bit of a bother. Can't really complain. I use a piece of aluminum foil folded over three or four times. Not too classy but I'm not either. It works. I get by.

The handle. It's there but it doesn't fold. It doesn't fold but it's there. Pick a point of view.

The handle is good for when I use the cup as a cup. And, shucks, it's good when I use the cup as a cooking pot too. Though the handle gets in the way when I stow the cup back in my pack. Can't have everything.

The price was right. Five ninety-five. U.S. dollars, cash, which is what I paid.

I knew this cup was right for me. I knew we were meant for each other. So right away I looked up the company, Gooseberry Patch, and bought me two more, just like that. Now I have three cups.

My first one is darkened from use. I used 'er over wood a few times, though mostly I make do with an alcohol stove (clean), but I did use wood a few times. The smoke and soot stained 'er. I scrubbed most of it off but you can't get it all, so it shows. No dings yet, though. No dings. That's good. My cup is tough, and I'm careful too.

Oh, sure I've tried other things. Had a big pot early on to go with my big stove, but they're both gone now. I loved that brass stove, but after half a dozen years of not using it and knowing I never would again, I donated it somewhere. The pot too.

Then I tried the Wal-Mart grease pot. Got two of them, cut one down, almost by half. Both work fine, the full-height one is especially good for steaming. But it's still pretty big, and relatively heavy. Something like five and a half ounces for the pot, sans the plastic knob in the lid. Good for steaming though. Wide. Flat. Lots of room inside. The steam circulates.

But you know, I don't really cook. Not mostly. Mostly I boil water. Not even that, really, just get it hot. Almost boiling. To the point of boiling, but not over it. No sense in boiling water unless you need it boiling. Just wastes fuel.

Same with food. No need to cook it if you don't have to, so I don't. I take foods that work by adding hot water to them. I do just fine. Heat some water, add it to the food, like instant mashed potatoes, or ramen, or bulghur wheat and so on. (You might call it bulgur but I kind of like the wonky spelling.) Anyway, the instant foods. It works.

It's clean and simple that way. Quick. Add hot water to something in a plastic bag, a zip lock bag, and eat it. The pot stays clean. No washing up. I like that too. I make tea in the cup and rinse it out afterwards. Don't even have to wash it then. It works good. Nice and simple. It suits.

So there's my cup.

I did some checking this morning against other stuff out there. Most all is titanium these days. Can't say why. I have not a clue. Aluminum is so cheap and so light and everyone sells titanium. Which is not cheap by any definition. Or light. So shoot.

Anyhow, I did a little comparison table. My cup, no lid. But aside from that, it stands up real well to anything out there. Especially since I got one on deck and two in the hole.

Though a week or so back I did spot a nice grease pot at Kmart of all places. Much nicer than the Wally's World Wal-Mart grease pot. I should buy one. Just to have. But I'll stay faithful to my Gooseberry Cherry, for sure. Mostly.

Volume Weight Cost volume/$
oz ml oz g
Gooseberry Cherry 16 473 1.8 51 $ 5.95 100 Al
REI Open Country Pot 40 1183 9.0 255 $16.95 70 Al
Snow Peak 700 24 710 4.25 120 $34.95 20 Ti
Snow Peak Trek 900 30 887 3.7 105 $47.95 18 Ti
MSR Titan Tea Kettle 28 828 4.0 113 $49.95 17 Ti
REI Ti Ware Teapot 27 800 4.6 130 $49.95 16 Ti
MLD Titanium Pot 29 850 3.2 90 $65.00 13 Ti

Specs for "Gooseberry Patch Exclusive 2-Cup Cherry Measuring Cup":

Volume: 2 cups / 16 oz / 473 ml
Weight: 1.8 oz / 51 g
Price : $5.95
Height: 3.2 in / 80 mm
Width : 3.7 in / 95 mm (outside diameter)
3.5 in / 90 mm (inside diameter)
Handle sticks out 0.98 in / 25mm
Lip: rolled and smooth


Gooseberry Patch 2-Cup Cherry Measuring Cup (K320)
MLD 850 ml Titanium Pot
MSR Titan Tea Kettle
Open Country 2-5 Cup Coffee Perk
REI Ti Ware Teapot
Snow Peak Titanium Trek 700 Mug
Snow Peak Trek 900 Titanium Cookset

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Nibble Of Luminosity

Good ideas don't have to be simple, but simple ideas are easier to explain. Simple things are easier to use. And simple things made from simple ideas have a nice symmetry.

Humans are lucky. We have lots of grabby bits. No tentacles exactly, but we do have five of these wiggly things on each hand, and some more on our lower appendages, though those others are not as useful at dinner parties.

Even though each of our upper extremities has a mop of flexible grapplers there are times when we could do with more of them. One of our design failings is that fingers can't be used independently of our arms. Think about it for a bit.

What is the point of having a hand with five fingers on it, but to use any one of those fingers requires you to use not only the whole hand but also the whole arm that it's attached to?

This is why it can be frustrating to wiggle out of a sleeping bag in the dark of night and hobble off into the bushes while trying to manipulate a flashlight. Or a pen light. Or a button light. Any light. We simply don't have enough hands to deal with all the technical issues involved.

Maybe this one case is easier for women. I am not one so I can't say. I haven't even tried to think through it from a woman's engineering perspective. That would be awkward at best.

I do know, based on several years of right hand experience, that, for a male, stumbling around in the dark trying to whiz off into the darkness while not tripping over a log, falling into a hole, or wetting my own pants is fairly hard to do with only the two upper manipulators.

My firing hand is fully occupied with issues of traversal, elevation, range, trajectory, and dispersion. One slip brings disaster. My left hand (and all of its fingers) is busy meanwhile keeping pants and shirt tails out of the line of fire. Both feet are completely booked with support services and the need to remain nimble in case of sudden side spray.

That leaves no way to handle the lighting, except for two lips and some teeth. Drooling interferes with this. Even a waterproof light ends up as an unfortunate slime dripping lump.

It might be time for Mr. Cord Lock Light.

The Cord Lock Light is a cord lock with an LED light built into it. At first this seems like a great idea. Then it seems like a greatly dumb idea. Then it seems like an idea for something that might be useful at the right time, in the right place, and it might be great if you are the right kind of person.

The Cord Lock Light is made by Black Crater LLC, of Portland, OR. It weights 0.25 ounces, or 7.5 g. Its plastic case is bright yellow, though some pictures hint at red or orange. It is water resistant, has a stainless steel spring, and uses two lithium CR1220 batteries. Rated battery life is 12 hours on high beam, 20 hours on low, and 50 hours of flashing. That's a lot of whizzing time. The switch is on/off, so you don't need to keep squeezing the little sucker.

Granted, standing there in the dark with one of these dangling from a swinging neck height drawstring wouldn't be the best way to get light on the ground but it might be good enough, and you could simply leave the dang thing permanently attached, for just those midnight trips. Never leap out of bed and find yourself SOL on a sudden blind urine soaked commando mission in the deepy dark woods.

I happen to have enough lights at the moment, so I won't be checking into this one, but it looks like an option. We all need options.


Black Crater LLC
Doug Ritter on the Cord Lock LED Light
Women's back country issues: Backcountry Betty
Cord Lock LED Light at Mountain Laurel Designs
Cord Lock LED Light - 3 Pack at

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Occasional Definitions: "Little Dandy stove"

Nimblewill Nomad stove (a.k.a. "Little Dandy stove"): Invented by Eb Eberhart. A solid fuel stove made from five flat, thin steel plates that assemble without fasteners, and unhook again and fold flat for storage. Used by him in 1998 during his 4400 mile, 10 month walk from Key West, Florida to Cape Gaspe, Quebec. This stove allowed him to burn anything at hand, and thus to carry no fuel. Smart guy, that one.

From: Fire In Your Hand
Nimblewill Nomad's Little Dandy Wood Stove
Nimblewill Nomad's Wood Burning Stove Template (alternate source, PDF download)
Ten Million Steps: Nimblewill Nomad's Epic 10-Month Trek from the Florida Keys to Quebec, by M.J. Eberhart at

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Being Of Unbelievable Lightness

So far it's been fun.

I've been swimming in the light end of the pool since late 2000. It started with seeing someone cook for two on an alcohol stove. Up until then every source I read, if they included a mention of alcohol stoves, treated them as a cute footnote. A pointless plaything. Interesting but too cool, too slow, and too crude to bother with. Lame.

Yet here were two people, right in front of me, making it work. Odd.

In following up, and trying to find a seller of Trangia stoves (what they were using), I tripped over a lot of other things. Shelters, small flashlights, packs, a whole philosophy. The preeminent spokesperson was Ray Jardine, who a few years earlier, along with his wife Jenny, had reintroduced to the world the idea of traveling light, traveling simply, and traveling cheaply, often using equipment they made, and doing without a lot of things that everyone else knew were essential.

This was inspiring.

Back then, in 2000, and for a while after, there was a real shortage of light shelters, packs, sleeping bags, clothes, stoves, cook sets, and so on. But there was a serious supply of enthusiastic experimenters. People felt liberated. They felt like explorers at the border of a new world. They were filled with possibilities. Unbounded possibilities. Backpacking began to evolve.

Fringe Loonies

In the beginning was the weirdo. Some people would try anything. Go without food? OK, see how light you can travel. Sleep in a trash bag. Sure, let's do it. Shave your whole body to save time and expense by ignoring any fuzzy regrowth until the finish line. Yeah, that too. Don't cook. Bathe in the rain. Shop at rummage sales. All of the above.

Just Like That But Different

That generally hurt too much. Not all the time -- some things worked, but throwing out every sacred cow meant no steak dinners either.

So here and there, every now and then, a mind buzzed with thought, and some new thing came along. The obvious place to start was with existing designs of real stuff. Just do it smaller, lighter and better somehow.

So you started to see some home made shelters and packs. People tinkered. Instead of a big double wall tent, maybe a small one. A 30 liter pack of 500 denier fabric instead of an 80 liter pack of 500 denier fabric. Carbon fiber poles to hold up the tent, instead of fiberglass. Smaller canister stoves. And so on. The first glimmerings.

Ideas From Space

And they saw it and it was good. But not good enough.

Converting from high, heavy leather boots to high, not so heavy fabric boots helped, but there was more to do. Somebody tried trail running shoes, then sandals.

Shelters evolved from copies of double wall designs to new single wall designs. And these were easy enough for most anyone to make at home.

Then a few people stood out under the starry night skies and looked up. They wondered "What if?" Eventually the cold air got to them and they went back inside for warm cocoa and cookies but they kept on thinking. Then in the dark, while they slept, the ideas came gently to them.

Silnylon. Spinnaker cloth. Empty soft drink cans. Hmmm.

How about using radically different materials to make truly innovative items? We got the GVP Gear G4 pack, the Pepsi Can Stove, the Gearskin, the Tarptent. Hobbyists started rethinking everything from the ground up.

"Hmmm", someone thought, "What if I took a tiny amount of this newfangled waterproof fabric and made a shelter with no seams in it?" Carol "Brawny" Wellman designed the "Brawny Shelter".

"Hmmm", someone thought, "What if I took some brass and my jewelry making skills and made a small, durable alcohol stove?" So Aaron Rosenbloom started Brasslite, LLC in 2002.

Scott Henderson released his designs for the Pepsi Can Stove, and although he never manufactured them the ideas caught on. Who, before then, would have thought to make stoves from aluminum can garbage?

Glen Van Peski was interested in packs. He designed one for himself. Then he made it. Then he offered the pattern, free, to anyone else who was interested. The materials were light, the design was simple and effective, and practical, and it was a different sort of pack -- it used a sleeping pad for a frame, you could pad the shoulder straps and hip belt with spare socks, it was covered with pockets of light mesh.

Money From Space

But not everyone wanted to make their own equipment. Glen Van Peski couldn't give away his plans. People wanted him to make and sell packs. Henry Shire's original tarptent plans floated on the internet for a long while before he rethought and rethought again, and began selling even more radical shelters.

People actually wanted to buy these.

Kim and Demetri Coupounas found Ray Jardine, liked his ideas, and thought they could make a business based on them. GoLite. Still going. Still light.

New Age Light Industry

Before long there was Moonbow Gear, Six Moon Designs, and Then Gossamer Gear turned Glen Van Peski's ideas into a commercial venture. Count AntiGravityGear, Hennessy Hammock, Mountain Laurel Designs, Oware, Speer Hammocks and Ultralight Adventure (ULA) Equipment among the contenders.

Hey! We've got a whole new industry. First a few who would try anything. Then serious thinkers who shared around what they thought. Then a small crowd of people who thought they could make an out-of-garage living. Then after all that some full time businesses actually supporting their owners, with investors and warehouses and all.

A whole separate industry. Whooda-thunkkit?

Tiptoeing Toward Production Quotas

Now the big guns like North Face, and Sierra Designs and Kelty and REI all have "ultralight" equipment. Take a pack. Only four pounds, nine ounces (2 kg and a hair). Ultralight! Amazing! Unbelievable lightness of construction! Designer colors! Cupholders!

Nevertheless, the smaller manufacturers hang on. They have become established. They are closer to their markets, part of the team. Real backpackers. They know what their customers want because they are their own customers. They do their own thinking. They are the innovators.

In September I asked Ron Moak where his ideas came from. "Do you get a lot of requests from your customers?" I asked. "Is that where you start?" No, he said. He thinks about what he would like, and goes from there. Feedback, sure, that's invaluable, but he's a backpacker and he starts from his own experience.

Glen Van Peski is a backpacker. So is Henry Shires. Brian Frankle, Carol Wellman, Ron Bell, Jonathan McCue. And the others. They not only have a clue about what backpacking is and what kind of stuff backpackers want, they have a different business sense. Ruling the world isn't the goal. Neither is removing a forest to expand the corporate parking lot.

Some are gone now. Brasslite is closing. Aaron Rosenbloom is a psychotherapist and he prefers to do that. Carol "Brawny" Wellman no longer sells shelters. I heard that the sewing got to be too much. She has a YouTube presence now. Glen Van Peski consults and designs for Gossamer Gear. Some others have come and gone.

Even Scott Henderson's Pepsi Can Stove plans are off the internet now. That hurts. That was my biggest inspiration. But Mini Bull Design is going strong.

This is a new industry, grown from nearly nothing in a few years, but it's also a new kind of industry. It appeals to skilled practitioners of the trail arts. It may stay small, or smallish. But it looks like it's here to stay, and like it will stay lovable.

Meanwhile, I continue to learn.


Brasslite alcohol stoves
Brawny and Rainmaker at Trailquest
Brawny on YouTube
Glen Van Peski
Ray Jardine
Ray Jardine

(See links sidebar for everything else.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Under This Shall Ye Sleep

Even though I'm writing a book on packs, I can't stop thinking about shelters. I have to admit it -- shelters are endlessly interesting.

A pack is a utensil. It's a utility item. A pack is indispensable, like clothes, but somehow it seems hard to love a pack. I respect packs. I form close relationships with packs. Since I've been dabbling in pack making I've imagined, designed, cut and sewn them, and then used them, and through that process I've learned a lot.

But to me packs are tools, and though I can admire the intelligence that goes into the design of a well-formed tool, and even depend on the tool for my comfort and safety, I don't have much passion about tools. I like and honor good tools but don't love them.

Shelters are different. Shelters are also tools, I guess, but maybe there is something about the way they are used. Boots go on the feet, pants go on the legs, a knife cuts things. Sunglasses block glare. But a shelter enfolds. A shelter is a home. Put up your shelter and you instantly have a place that cares for you, and, in a way, a place that seems to care about you.

Maybe that's why I'm fascinated by shelters.

Maybe not, but it sounds good.

In the past few years I've been exploring ultralight backpacking, and a huge part of that is shelters. Shelters are the biggest of the big three: shelters, packs, and bedding.

If you want to make a switch to light backpacking the best way to start is by looking at the heaviest things you carry, and trying to do something about them first. Don't cut labels off teabags or saw toothbrushes in half. Focus on the big three: shelters, packs, and bedding.

It's likely that you can get the biggest benefit from going to a light shelter.

I did it a little backwards, switching from a four pound, 14 ounce pack to a 12 ounce pack. Then swapping out an 18 ounce stove/cook pot combo and aluminum fuel bottle for a half ounce stove and two ounce cup/pot. Soon I bought a one pound down bag.

Only at the end did I move out of my tent.

It's hard to find a double wall two-person tent under six pounds. Two person tents are convenient, and using one is dumb because they're big and heavy. But they are understandable luxuries in a rainy climate. Understandable after you spend hours each day with rain dancing on your head.

My first shelter move was to buy a single person double wall tent. This helped with bulk, but the weight savings was only a pound and a half. The double wall design can't be pared back very far.

I eventually moved to a hammock, so I'm not typical. I won't shoot for ultimate weight savings because it hurts me to sleep on the ground. The hammock is heavier, and I accept that, because it works for me.

But the big way to save weight and gain convenience is to switch from a double wall tent to a tarp shelter. The average backpacker saves four to six pounds at one shot. Even a huge 8X10 tarp weighs less than a pound. The space under it is like a parade ground. And there are lighter options.

Let's look.

The easiest way to classify tarps is by how you get under them: end, side, or elsewhere. This goes for plain tarps and the various shaped tarps and tent-like tarps.

Traditionally most tarps (and most tents too) have an entry on one narrow end. And it's low. You stoop to enter, or more likely, you crawl. One nice thing about Hennessy hammocks is that you enter on the foot end, underneath. You stand up inside the entry slit and roll backward into bed. Pop off your shoes, hang them outside on the guy line, and you're snug and set for the night.

With a traditional shelter on the ground you have to crouch and crawl, often in wet rain gear, and then you drip all over everything. With a sewn in waterproof floor you have to sleep with the water you bring along in.

Floorless tarps are good with water. Alongside your bed is bare ground. Get a mess on your ground cloth, or some water drops, you sweep it off. Set your wet footwear to the side, let it drain to its heart's content. No wandering water creeps into bed with you.

Most tarps have a traditional rectangular shape, and a traditional narrow-end entry. The rectangular shape fits the body. Lie down and you will be a lot longer than you are wide, and a tarp shaped like this gives good coverage with little waste. A flat tarp with enough tie outs can be jiggered to handle all kinds of weather. See Oware's illustrations. Ray Jardine's tarp book is good too.

A step beyond is the catenary cut tarp. These can be pretty much the same as flat tarps with scalloped edges. Or they can be fairly spacey looking things. The more extreme examples have such deep curves that useful area under them is almost imaginary.

Get something like the Integral Designs "SilWing" or the Kelty "Noah's Tarp" and you have a petty cool device, with a taut pitch. Able to withstand all kinds of gusty winds. But pretty skimpy against rain. Especially with the latter. Catenary cut tarps, at least the more extreme examples, are best as sunshades, though Oware takes a conservative, functional approach, obviously designed by a backpacker.

Just a note: catenary cut means that the fabric is cut so that it hangs naturally. A catenary is a hyperbolic curve that forms when something like a heavy rope or a chain is suspended from its ends. Planning for this by taking slack out during design means that you can pull a tarp tight and have it actually be tight. The cables of a suspension bridge are an example of a catenary curve.

So. We've got variations on the flat tarp, and entry at an end.

Move to the shaped tarp. Ray Jardine is a big proponent of this style. This has gables, or "beaks" as tarpers call them. The beak is an overhang, almost a vestibule, that partly closes off the ends. The tarp (and the beaks) can either be straight cut or catenary cut. The effect is the same either way. These tarps are still rectangular.

Slightly more extreme is the "Patrol Shelter" from Mountain Laurel Designs. It has a beak on the head end and a closed off, squared off foot end. This makes for a quick pitch and a slightly stronger shape offering good protection as long as you point the foot end at the wind. Again, see Oware for examples of pitching flat tarps for best effect. Entry remains at the end. Rectangular tarps are also supported at the ends, either externally by guying out to trees, or by using trekking poles.

Another sort of shape is more cylindrical. More like a hoop tent. Or like some of those bivy sacks with fabric-tensioning wands. The best example of this style is tarp tents from (where else?) The "Squall", "Cloudburst", and "Rainshadow" all follow this design.

Fabric is stretched taught between a hoop at the foot end and other support at the head end, where the door is. These are slippery and aerodynamic. They can handle lots of wind. But this is still a stoop-and-crawl kind of design. Support, like that for flat tarps, is at each end.

The next group of single wall shelters is harder to categorize. Let's call it generally "tent like". Tent like because these resemble traditional tents even though they aren't. Their heritage lies between tents and tarps.

This category has variety. Many designs. Take Integral Designs' "Sil Shelter". It's a tent that isn't. It's a sewn together piece of silnylon supported from inside by a single trekking pole. You get in through the generous doorway (at one end), and close the flap behind you. Then you get soaked by condensation. That's pretty well it.

Other designs are also simple, with varying degrees of usability, like Carol Wellman's "Brawyn Shelter", one seamless piece of fabric with a combination vestibule and doorway stitched to one side. Pretty clever. The fabric comes in a 65 inch width, which is good but not quite wide enough to make a shelter all by itself. If you were really small, and the rain came down vertically without any wind, and gently, you could make this idea work without door flaps.

The original design had only a beak, and a permanently open doorway. A later design has a closeable door. But this, like the Sil Shelter, has no ventilation system, so it can get pretty damp inside.

Henry Shires of and Ron Moak of Six Moon Designs both make innovative and well thought out tent like shelters. The Six Moon Designs "Lunar Duo" has a hexagonal shape. It is nearly round in floor plan, with a big entry taking up two of the six sides. It has a big door, and built in vents to defeat condensation. Tarptent's "Rainbow" and "Double Rainbow" follow the same basic design. Gossamer Gear's "The One" is similar to both of these, but more rectangular, resembling a refinement of the "Brawny Shelter" idea.

These all have side entries.

Integral Designs' "Sil Dome" is a spindle shaped single-hoop, single-wall tent. It looks as though it could have ventilation problems as well. But all single wall tents and all tarps can collect huge sopping amounts of interior condensation.

That's it for end-entry and side-entry shelters. The next group falls in between. These are pyramidal tents. Or pyramidal shelters. Or pyramidal tarps.

Pyramidal thingies.

The Pyramidal tent is an old design. It is reappearing, done up with new fabrics like silnylon, spinnaker fabric, and Cuben Fiber. All pyramidal shelters have one central, internal support, and a large, tall door.

Since this style of shelter has a squarish floor plan, its entry method falls between side and end. Both Mountain Laurel Designs and Oware produce classical pyramidal shelters, with Oware also selling the "Alphamid", a pyramid cut in half vertically. This has a no-overhang vertical doorway so there is no way to leave the door open during a rain. But for solo hikers this shelter is smaller and lighter than traditional pyramids. The internal support is in the doorway rather than the middle of the floor, which is nice.

We could say that the last type of single wall shelter has no ends at all. You can enter from any side. Call this an umbrella design. Mountain Laurel Designs has a pentagonal model called "Trailstar". It's something like a pyramidal shelter with an extra side. Support is in the center where all five panels of fabric join. A second, helper support can go at the apex of two panels to make a vestibule for calm weather use.

This design should be extremely stable since the shelter has solid central support and is guyed out well. Put a stake in the ground at the end of every seam, add one in the middle of every panel, and you have 10 stakes, evenly spaced, each pulling evenly against a central support, like spokes of a wheel. Five seams is a lot, and could cause problems if not sealed religiously.

Other companies, like GoLite, make six sided shelters. These have yet more seams. With the even number of sides supplemented by actual doorways, hexagonal shelters are close to the pyramidal design.

Beyond all of the above there is one last category not really fitting anywhere. The poncho tarp. Six Moon Designs has a "Gatewood Cape" named after the legendary Emma Gatewood who used a plastic shower curtain as her shelter. Six Moon Designs' shelter is fitting as a no-nonsense tribute to her technique. And this sort of dual use clothing is smart for mild conditions, when used by an seasoned traveler, but once it's set up as a shelter the wearer no longer has rain wear available. Entry is along one side. Anyone wanting to experiment can easily make one by sewing a hood into a single piece of fabric. No seams needed.

Check out the links below to see what's available. Maybe you can invent a new style. Let me know. I'm interested.


Brawny Tarp at
Gossamer Gear
Integral Designs
Mountain Laurel Designs
More Oware
Six Moon Designs
The Ray-Way Tarp Book

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Bite Me, Quick!

Traveling light means traveling fast.

Traveling fast doesn't mean walking in a hurry or getting out of breath. And it doesn't mean running your trail life by a stopwatch. You don't even have to keep notes. You don't have to graph your performance when you get home and compare against last time.

But it's still fast.

Traveling light means less of everything, including complexity. If it's less complex it's easier to do, and faster too, so traveling light means traveling fast. Even if you're going slowly. Got that?


Now let's get back to my favorite unsolved problem. Which is food.

Face it, you have to eat. I do too.

I like eating. Most people do. It helps pass the time.

If I eat the right stuff I get a nice feeling in my mouth, and another one in my tum-tum, and for a while I'm not bored. Eating is the fun part, though getting hungry isn't. On the trail it just happens, but in town real, honest, hollowed out hunger is hard to come by.

Which is too bad, since hunger before a meal means that your body needs food to live. And boredom before a meal means only that your brain has too many idle cycles to use up. Eating while bored doesn't relieve the tum-tum pangs, it only makes Mr. Tum-Tum get bigger and wigglier. Without any beneficial effects.

For me, food is fuel. Or should be. Used to be.

When things work out right, food is fun to eat. When things don't work out right, I still eat food, even if it's anonymous and tasteless. Because it's still fuel.

Mostly. It used to be like that. All my life I've been slim and right on the edge of starvation. Each meal came at the right time and none too soon. Now that I'm older, slower, and hang out indoors even more, food is tending toward entertainment, but it's still necessary. Mr. Tum-Tum likes it even if he isn't hungry, because he gets bored really easily.

If I could do without things, I'd choose sleep first.

Long, long ago I saw an episode of Nova on public television. It was about sleep. It seems that there are some people who need only about four hours. And there are some who need less. Like two hours. And there was one man who needed only 15 or 20 minutes, once a day, and he could hardly stand to do it. He hated the time he lost daily to unconsciousness.

Yeah, so I need eight and a half hours, maybe nine, so that's out.

Second, if possible, I might give up food. Food can be fun, but if it's only fuel think how much a person could save not having to buy it or prepare it. Hike all day and never have to stop. And if you need no sleep, then hike all night too, or do something else. Have a cup of tea every now and then, or coffee, just for fun, and skip all that chewing and dishwashing.

Life would be different though. Without dreams, without lying in bed in the morning and listening to the early birds, without those aromas, without sizzle. So we sleep and eat because we have to, and in a way we eat because we are.

So food is still a problem. But I have a couple of new ideas.

Shortbread is new to me. It is not a food of my people. I first had it about a year ago, and it's taken that long to sink in.

Before this I've tried the traditional trail foods (I'm thinking more of breakfast here). You get up, thrash around, try to get organized, packed, washed up, get your day planned, check the maps and the weather, and then, and then, waste endless amounts of time heating some kind of glop, and waiting for it to cool, and eating it, and cleaning pots, and putting things away, and all that.

There are shortcuts, like adding hot water to a plastic bag of pre-mixed food, or taking along some dry stuff like crackers. But cooking on the one hand is...still cooking. And taking "some dry stuff", pre-made and pre-packaged, ends up being expensive, usually. And it's hard to manage the expense to calories to edibility to nutritional balance ratios. Take along some manufactured no-cook food and it's too easy to come up short.

So the shortbread thing.

This is basically flour, sugar, and butter. Sounds yummy already.

I was already on this track a few years back, when I made some stuff with flour, oil, powdered milk, peanut butter, raisins, dates, cinnamon, and so on. Then I tried adding some high octane peanut butter. Then adding lots of cocoa powder to make it into brownies.

They were both fantastic. Yummy. Edible. Lots of energy. Pretty well balanced with carbohydrates, proteins, fats, sugar, and tasty bits.

One problem though. The stuff was heavy.

I mixed it all, and baked it in flat pans, and then left it in the oven on low forever, and it never really dried out. There was always a minimum amount of water left in the stuff, except maybe around the edges, and that turned to concrete.

But mostly it stayed heavy and chewy. And since it was a little damp there was a chance it could go moldy on a longer trip.

So the shortbread thing.

I finally got smart and tried mixing ingredients without using water. I think I've got it. Whole wheat flour, brown sugar, butter, and powdered milk. Mix. Make sure there is lots of butter involved. Mix and slide into the oven for half an hour, and then crumble it or slice it into bars or whatever.

You have about as many calories as you can get into a given volume without converting it into pure neutronium first. Sure, it isn't a totally balanced diet, but there is lots of fat for energy, with sugar and flour balancing that out. (No need to sweeten it beyond your personal taste limits.) The powdered milk all by itself is a complete protein and complements whatever is in the flour.

Munge the basic recipe by adding peanut butter and cocoa powder to the mix and you have extra flavor and alternate sources of carbohydrate and protein. You're pretty well set to go.

Easy to eat for breakfast, especially the sweeter versions. Same for lunch, and it can do for supper too. Not the only food to take, but pretty handy.

Easy to make at home. About all you have to do is buy the ingredients, mix a little, and briefly brown it in the oven. Do this and you have a food with no water content, that you can carry in a bag and break into portions of any size and eat at any time of the day. About all you need is some water to help wash it down.

And it goes a long way.

On a trip this season I had some shortbread brownie mix for breakfast around 7:00 a.m., and didn't get a chance to stop for lunch until 2:00 p.m., after hiking strenuously uphill most of the day. And I wasn't particularly hungry at that point. I just happened to be near water and it was a "now or never" situation. So I cooked lunch.

So this stuff looks good. I'm going to be working with it some more to make sure it pans out, but so far it looks like a great option.

Cheap too.

Recipes and References:

Water-based trail food: An approximate recipe:
5 pounds whole wheat flour
4 cups brown sugar
2 tablespoons salt
2 pounds Adams peanut butter (this stuff is just ground peanuts)
1 cup oil
6 tablespoons cinnamon
2 cups raisins
2 cups dates
2 cups powdered milk
5 cups water

Mix dry ingredients, then add water and knead briefly.
Bake at around 300 to 325 degrees until cooked through, with a good level of browning on top.

Plain shortbread (fortified):
1 cup butter (salted or unsalted, according to preferences)
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups flour
1 cup milk powder

Mix ingredients with your hands.
Press into a flat pan.
Bake at 325 degrees for about a half hour or until golden brown.

Some recipes to use as a starting point. (Try leaving out eggs and any liquids. Use extra oil or butter instead.):

Nutty Brownies
Chocolate Brownie Recipes
Butterscotch Brownies
Mom's Blonde Brownies
Butterscotch Bars with Chocolate Chips
Index of Brownies and Bars
Classic Scottish Shortbread
Index of Shortbread Recipes
Shortbread at "Undiscovered Scotland: The Ultimate Online Guide"

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Occasional Definitions: Lint

Lint: A fibrous substance that collects in the bellybutton and can be used as fire starter, or even as a primary fuel if you are a super-ultralighter and have especially modest cooking needs. If the latter, it still helps to have lots of friends along on a trip in case you run out of fuel and need to go burrowing for more. Make sure your friends aren't ticklish.

From: Fire In Your Hand
The National Lint Project
The Incredible World of Navel Fluff

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Safety In Pins.

Going ultralight involves some sacrifices.

You have to sacrifice mediocrity. Stupidity. Ruttwise thinking. Being ordinary.

Even if the ultralight (or just seriously lightweight) trend becomes an accepted part of the backpacking scene, it will still involve sitting down and thinking things through. Right there we have a limit.

At the moment we're coming to the end of a turbulent presidential election season. The economy is full of warts, and each one of those is exploding into a running sore. This is a good time for everyone to sit down and think things through from the beginning. Read, talk, think, plan, and vote.

That isn't happening. People don't do that. At most, for most, they lock onto a phrase that represents a basic prejudice, maybe hear something repeated often enough (whether true or not), and go with that. In other words, if something sounds familiar it must be good so it must be right.

Which is the opposite of critical thinking.

And is why ultralight backpacking will never be mainstream. To do it you have to do it right, and to do it right you have to think it through, and then experiment. You might get dialed in after two seasons of honest effort. Some do it but not many. I'm in my seventh year.

Doing it right is important. You can get lucky a time or two when the weather is nice and the trails are smooth, but find yourself in the middle of a ripping storm in the middle of the night with no shelter and skimpy clothes, out of food, too far from home, and then you have a new appreciation for what not right is all about.

Light backpacking takes thought and effort to get right. Get over the hump and you'll never go back. But first you have to get over that hump, and it's work.

Luckily the sacrifices are up front, in the thinking end.

"Be prepared", say the Boy Scouts. "Of course", says the ultralighter.

One part is building in flexibility. You want to take things that have at least two functions. For example, my trekking poles, which I've written about. I use them while walking and also as giant tent stakes. That's one example of dual use. (Trekking poles for me have about a dozen different uses.)

Another part of being prepared is building in redundancy. Take something that does basically one thing, but that can be used different ways. For me, safety pins.

I especially like diaper pins. The sturdiest, heaviest, most reliable.

OK, how impressive does this all sound? Not much.

Not like miracle $200 last-forever socks, or a weightless tent, any of that stuff. Not impressive but important. Like so much of real life.

I always carry a dozen or so safety pins because they do so many things.

If I get a thorn or a splinter the point of a pin can tease it out. And a pin makes a good toothpick for that one time every season that I need one.

I made a little light fabric pocket once, just enough for a map and a couple odds and ends, and pinned it to a shoulder strap. Eventually I got tired of it, and just unpinned it. No remodeling needed.

When I wash socks or a shirt my hammock line serves as a clothesline. Pins keep clothes positively attached. They can't fall into the dirt or blow away.

Likewise, during the day I transfer wet clothes to my pack and keep them out in the sun and breeze, using safety pins. In deep shade or on cloudy days my flat-brimmed hat rides back there too, kept out of the way and safe by a couple of pins. The hat stays flat out back.

When freshening up I use a small square of fleece, rinsed in water. But then it's wet. No problem. I hang it on the pack too.

Have a long webbing strap whose free end dangles? Use a pin, keep it out of the way. A pin can also lock a strap, keeping it from working loose, or keeping one of those odd bits of plastic hardware from slipping off and running away.

Every now and then you want to poke a hole in something. Big fat safety pins are good for that. Maybe you've pulled our your needle and thread for a repair and need a hole to run the needle through. But needles don't have handles. Safety pins do, built in. You can push as hard as you want on a safety pin.

Speaking of repairs, I once made a pack and had a shoulder strap start to rip loose about halfway through day three of a 14 day trip. I shoved two safety pins into it and had no more problems. The pack design turned out to be a dud. During that trip I learned all I needed to know about the design, and never had to finish the repair. Tossed the pack but kept the pins.

When zippers fail, pins are there.

You need something a little bit tighter, like a choker-type shirt collar on a cold, windy day? Add a safety pin. Remove when done.

And when I'm not using the safety pins for anything else, One of them hooks the rest together. They stay organized in my possibles bag. I organize other small things the same way.

Nice tricks. Anybody can do them. Good for first aid too.

Practically no weight.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Living By Light

"Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." -- Henry David Thoreau

Something that might be interesting in general is a web site devoted to ultralightness. It's called "UltraLight Living".

"UltraLight Living means less waste, less consumption, fewer possessions, a simpler life, and reducing our impact the planet. It means reducing the burden of materials in every aspect of life. With six billion human beings, we have to be smarter about how we use the planet’s resources."

It is owned by John Aebi-Magee.

There isn't much else to say except that it's worth taking a look. You might find something you never imagined.


UltraLight Living
Review of UltraLight Living at
Other sites of John Aebi-Magee:
Convert units with's conversion utility
Dee Williams: "Say Hello to My Little House"

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Occasional Trails: Dancing with Mammoths

  • Name: Ice Age National Scenic Trail.
  • Location: Wisconsin.
  • Length: 1200 miles (600 are complete).
  • Best season: Probably not deer season, when some sections are closed.
  • Features: Kames, eskers, kettles, drumlins, moraines, widely scattered mammoths, and the occasional cave lion (mostly dead).
  • Permits: Varies by jurisdiction.
  • Info at: National Park Service, Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation.

The United States has eight National Scenic Trails. The Ice Age National Scenic Trail in Wisconsin is the only one not ashamed of its eskers. The trail, 1200 miles long when finished, will skirt the southern edge of the last ice age in a winding route.

The trail starts at Interstate State Park in the west, only 45 miles from Minneapolis/St. Paul, and on the east, 45 miles from Green Bay, it stops at Potawatomi State Park on Lake Michigan, in Door County (where a large exit sign shows the way out).

Right now only about 600 miles of trail are complete, in sections from 2 to 40 miles long, but connecting routes exist, so hiking the entire 1,200 miles is possible today. In fact the first thru-hike was done in 1980. You can do day hikes, section hikes, a thru-hike, or slack it in style at the many inns and bed-and-breakfast outfits along the trail.

First some bad news then some good news.

OK, this is a multiple use area. Depending on where you are, and when, there might be bicyclists, cross country skiers, snowshoers, or snowmobilers on the trail. And some sections (not all) close during Wisconsin's nine day deer hunting season in November. A thru-hike will require 530 road or sidewalk miles, for now. But on the other hand the trail is for hiking, is open year-round, and the finished sections do not allow any motorized, wheeled vehicles at all.

Permits and fees vary all over the map because the Ice Age Trail is all over the map. It crosses a patchwork of ownerships and has to accommodate all of them. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation (IAPTF), county parks, state parks, local municipalities, and hundreds of private landowners all own a piece of it. Some places charge entrance fees. Some don't. Camping registration and various permits may or may not be required.

But the winding route and mixed ownerships are also an advantage. People have a stake. The trail was designed to connect communities statewide and not to bypass them, so almost two thirds of Wisconsin's citizens live close by, within 20 miles of the trail.

Raymond Zillmer, a force behind the Ice Age Trail, imagined a long park used "by millions more people than use the more remote national parks." To this end he founded the IAPTF in 1958. The National Park Service was intrigued. But Zillmer died too soon, and the Park Service dithered over a thin ribbon of park land more than a thousand miles long. Not until 1980 did the efforts of hundreds of volunteers and private land owners pay off when the Ice Age National Scenic Trail was formally established by law.

The landscape is varied, as you would expect in glacier country. From the IAPTF: "The Ice Age Trail courses like a river for a thousand miles through a varied landscape. Walk the Ice Age Trail to witness hundreds of crystal lakes and thriving prairies, productive farmlands, towering white pines and diverse wetlands, ancient Native American effigy mounds, remnant oak savannas, charming cities and many of the world's finest examples of the effects of continental glaciation. Geologic features along the route include: kames, lakes, drumlins, ice-walled-lake plains, outwash plains, eskers, tunnel channels, and other older landforms."

The IAPTF sells its "Ice Age Trail Companion Guide" which lists towns, post offices, connecting roads, trail head access details, resupply, dining, and lodging information. Shuttle services are available, mostly informally, through volunteers. The IAPTF's "Ice Age Trail Atlas" has 105 color maps in shaded relief showing parking areas, toilets, campgrounds, shelters and dispersed camping areas.

Downloadable county by county maps are available for free, as is GIS data. Hey, what's not to like?

Oh, yeah, about those eskers: harmless. Kinda cute, really. They're the snaky rounded ridges of sand and gravel dumped by streams in secret meltwater tunnels under glaciers. Cool. Maybe more trails should flaunt theirs.


National Park Service - Ice Age National Scenic Trail
Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation
Ice Age Trail Companion Guide 2008
Ice Age Trail Atlas

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Poo Papers

By golly now we got a lightweight topic. Every time you're out in the woods and you make a short side trip farther out from there, you come back lighter. And you're feeling better too.

The good feeling might wear off if you don't take care of yourself though. Monkey butt is so serious a problem that there is an entire company devoted to fighting it. If you are wondering, yes, it's called the Anti Monkey Butt Corporation. And it has a colorful web site. With real products. Like Anti monkey butt powder available in six-packs. And ladies' tank tops with the Anti Monkey Butt logo (oh, god, how sexy is that). And (temporary) monkey butt tattoos.

Getting to monkey butt country is a little beyond where we are right at the moment. Right now we are at one of the earlier stages in the process, before the rot sets in. You can easily do a lot to stop things from getting ugly by doing things right, from the beginning.

As for the standard party line, you already know it. First you dig a hole, 200 feet or 70 paces from surface water (streams, ponds, lakes), and away from traveled places.

Look for dark, soft organic soil. This kind of soil is already natural compost and is full of roots and bugs, fungi and bacteria. They will love what you leave them and quickly take care of it. Given all that, try to pick as your spot a place that gets lots of sunlight, to keep all those busy bodies warm and active.

Dig a hole six to eight inches deep and four to six inches across and use it, then fill it in with the original dirt and kick some debris over the top to disguise it.

Done, except for a couple of details.

One is that if you leave paper (which is getting to be frowned on more and more), it may hang around for a very long time, even if buried correctly. Sometimes for years, long after your own bodily waste is part of the local vegetation (and that can take a year or more in some cases).

Paper is cellulose, a long polymer made of zillions of sugar molecules strung together. Bacteria can break down these molecules only by eating them from the ends, one atom at a time, and that's slow.

Think of a fallen tree. Trees are cellulose too, and they take forever to decay. Sometimes new trees sprout on fallen ones and grow up over them. That's how long it can be. Toilet paper left behind won't last quite that long, but it could be a couple of years before it's all gone, even in a moist forest environment.

One approach is to use tougher paper.

Sounds odd.

But instead of taking traditional toilet paper, which is thin and flimsy and sometimes disintegrates during use, before it can do any good at all, try using less of something stronger. Maybe? In 2004 Ryan Jordan of was recommending blue, disposable shop towels (Home Depot and auto parts stores sell rolls). These are are just paper but tough enough to use as wash cloths, though they wear out fast. But we're talking about the other end.

Jordan's technique: cut a full sheet into quarters. "One ounce of these tough babies (you can get three wipes with some ingenious folding) will get you through a week of nasty intestinal adventures." Some readers complained about the blue color and the toughness of the paper -- that it would take even longer to decay. But the point for Jordan was to use less and leave less.

You want to get cleaner faster with less, and maybe two quarter-sheets left in a hole are better than six or eight feet of traditional TP.

Another option, less brightly colored, is to use thick, tough paper towels, also cut into quarters. They are thicker than the blue stuff, as tough, and cheaper.

One trick, no matter what you use, is to herd the used paper into a stack with the tip of a trekking pole, and then shove it all straight into the soil as one wad. Sometimes you can get it down four or five inches, and it will stay put.

If that was the light option for paper, then there is an even lighter option: using no paper. This takes practice. Practice with snow, smooth stones, lichens, grass, moss, leaves, and pretty much anything else that's handy. Eventually you'll work out a system, if you really want to.

Mike Clelland, an instructor with the National Outdoor Leadership School, is a proponent and teacher of toilet paper free expeditions. In case you pursue this option you don't have to worry about paper. Bury whatever has come to hand and it will continue on its course through time as though you never had been there.

Clelland is fond of wooly lamb's ear: "It's a rather homely plant with a dull purple flower, but the leaves are like the wings of an angel. They are big, thick, strong, fuzzy and satisfying."

For the non-squeamish even a bare hand and a full water bottle can do the job, but usually you don't want fingers as the first line of attack. You save them for the second phase. A dribble of liquid soap and some rinse water will finish your cleanup and leave you feeling sparkly clean. Gelled alcohol hand cleaner or a few drops of alcohol from your fuel bottle serve as a final disinfectant for your hands, and you're set.


Anti Monkey Butt
Backcountry Hygiene for Ultralight and Long-Distance Hikers by Ryan Jordan (requires paid subscription)
How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art (Paperback) by Kathleen Meyer
Leave No Trace
Toilet Paper Free Expeditions by Mike Clelland! (requires paid subscription)
Trail Hygiene by Sgt. Rock