Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Occasional Definitions: Camp Coffee

(1) Beverage made from water and dark, bitter substances, usually by adding coffee grounds to a pot of hot water, then drinking the resulting fluid and as little as possible of the bottom sludge.

(2) Camp for adults where everything is made of coffee, or coffee-flavored substances.

(3) Liquid used as a last resort to restore the will to live during bad backpacking trips. Normally contains 98% caffeine, 95% acid, 5% drowned bugs, 11% ash, 27% unknown substances, and maybe a few strands of pubic hair.
From: Fire In Your Hand

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Trail Pokers

Sissy sticks. Woods walkers. Dual canes. Dog attenuators. Pop props.

I don't care what you call 'em. I needs 'em.

Disdain. Utter. I used to have. No more. I never go anywhere without my geezer stilts now.

This started one weekend when I went out to St Helens, one of the trailless side canyons I used to explore. Used to explore in the sense of before all the roads and trails got washed away by two years of rains, and before the canyons got fully packed in solid by new alder and willow growth.

Funny thing about that. I didn't start hiking there until very late 1995, then hit it hard the next spring, and again and again for many seasons. And found good roads, good trails, and lots of land with no one there. Which is when I took to the canyons and went off trail, tramping, scrambling, hanging from a few trees and so on. That first year, 1995, was 15 years after the 1980 eruption, and the place was still barren.

There were pockets and patches that had been only ruffled by the blast, or singed around the edges, and there were plenty of large trees and cool quiet groves even under the mountain's right eyebrow but mostly it was sand, rock, and a little moss. And some willows and alders and weeds where there was water.

Great hiking.

Go up Ape Canyon and once past the log jam at its bottom you walked on smooth clean rock. The stream was the same: smooth and clean. Crystalline. Pure. Refreshingly cool but not cold. Sparkling.

It was easy to see where to go and why. The place was chock full of waterfalls, all out in the open. It was pleasant and calm and small and unique and no one ever, ever went there. It was a happy time.

Then around 2000 the water began showing signs of algae. Here and there.

Around 2002 the canyons began to bristle with short alders. First you don't see them, then they are two feet high, and the next season eight feet, and then you can't get through them after that. It's the way it went. By 2004 the little canyons I had happily explored and camped in, where no one else ever went, were rustling tangled thickets choked by leather leaves and no fun no more.

It was on one of these earlier, happier trips when I cut a hiking staff. This isn't something I normally do, but no one missed the sapling. Several hundred thousand others were willing to take its place. I used it to navigate upstream, to poke at rocks, to lean on, and generally to depend on. It was thick and heavy and flexible. All good qualities. Being green it didn't break or even come close. Its weight held it down, and it was stout enough to hang onto.

After leaving the canyon I picked up two old dry sticks, close in size to what people call trekking poles. Two of them worked better in the open, and being lighter were easier to swing. It was great. I happily tramped along for several miles before one broke, and then the other.

Right after getting home I bought a set of aluminum poles. Insanely fine. I can't imagine hiking anywhere without them any more.

New hikers maybe assume that they're needed, or required, and they never question whether to get a set. Older retrograde mossbacks occasionally ask about them skeptically. They won't believe you if you tell them how good a pair of pansy pins is. They really are. Especially for us older types.

You know. Or if you don't you've seen us. Limping. Wheezing. Grimacing in pain.

One day about 12 years back I hiked to Upper Lena Lake on the Olympic Peninsula. If you haven't been there then it might be worth it, though in western Washington there are maybe 18,957 other places as good as or better, even if you count on only the fingers of one hand. But I went there.

Lower Lena Lake comes suddenly. When you get there you stop and say to yourself "So this is it?" And then you look at the trail to Upper Lena Lake. Can't be far, you think. Have to work off more energy, you think. So you go for it. Not bad at all, really, but about five times farther than I thought. Could be just me, not paying attention to the map at all. My fault. Not bad though.

Fine little lake and all.

But then I had to go down. And it took what seemed like six or seven lifetimes. Partway down my right knee sort of decided to cease cooperating and instead shriek in pain just for the fun of it. That's partway down as in maybe one eighth of the way. And then it kept getting worse and worse and I ended up limping for around four days after.

And despite that it still took me roughly six years to catch onto the trekking poles.

And I still have knee problems if the knees don't get toughened by enough early season hiking. But regardless, now I have my sticks. And I use them. Always. I lean on them hard on downhills. With enough conditioning and strong enough arms and sturdy enough trekking poles I can make it down damn near any kind of pile, hill, knoll, hillock, hummock, heap, mountain, escarpment, or what have you.

And live to tell about it. Without moaning.

But that's only part of the story. I've come to love my sticks for other reasons. Because they do so many jobs.

I like the heavy ones, the two-part jobs that you can't buy anymore, mostly. The solid, non-shock-absorbing, unmuffled ones with the hair still left on. I like them tough. Weight isn't really an issue. Each pole is on the ground for about half the time anyway. Strength and durability matter more.

I also have a pair of three-section poles and can't rely on them as much. It's in the essential nature of the beast. The lowest section is slimmer, so much slimmer that it has to be extended far out or it can't be locked in place. Which makes the whole pole whippier and weaker since the thinnest section is extended the most.

Two-section poles don't have that problem so much.

Two-section poles also have one less joint, which helps. Less to go wrong, less to fiddle with, fewer parts to wear out and cause problems.

But that's only part of the story. The rest is what you can really do with trekking poles, besides leaning on them. Here are some things:

I use them as a clothes line to dry socks during lunch breaks. Or to hang a shirt on after rinsing it.

At night I use the poles as gigantic tent stakes. Only since I use a hammock, they become hammock stakes. You can sink one of those suckers 18" or so (46 cm). They extend, too, so you can get one way up or way down, or hang it from a loop in the hammock fly it you want the fly to hang straight down.

I pry things. Rocks, out of curiosity, to see who is living there. Logs, if I have to move one. Other stuff as needed.

I use trekking poles to dig holes. Holes have lots of handy uses on the trail.

I swat flies. No, seriously. You can sometimes hit flies on your legs that your hand can never get near. For some reason flies don't see the pole coming. And it is actually pretty easy to hit one with a pole.

Along with that, poles are good for brushing away mosquitoes. They're harder to swat, but the pole can brush them off your legs, or scare horseflies away. Sometimes you get a fly, or a fly and it whole family, and you carry them with you for miles. They circle endlessly and if you let down your guard they bite. Swing your trekking poles though and you have a fighting chance. Swing high in front with one pole while swinging high in back with the other, and keep alternating.

And trekking poles are good to scratch with. Can't minimize that benefit. Everybody has an itch now and then.

For those times when I carry a tarp and sleep on the ground the trekking poles form the skeleton of my shelter. I also have a sort of long kilt made of bug netting. The idea was to wear it to cover my body from the neck down while wearing a regular bug net over my head. So far I haven't had to go that far, but I have used a trekking pole to support this while I sat and had lunch on the trail, inside it.

For those times when you have a critter that needs poking, the trekking pole is a lot nicer than your fingers. Mostly this is a theoretical issue, but I did have a rattlesnake slither across the trail in front of me once. May happen again. And then there was that wood rat that came around at dusk one day, and wouldn't leave. A few light taps from a stick would have gotten his thinking straightened out.

Trekking poles work to support your pack when you set it down, either to help keep it upright or to set the pack on top of, if the ground is yukky.

But more often I use my poles for balance. Crossing streams comes to mind. Sometimes it's on a log bridge. The best ones are wide and flat. Out here, in western Washington, we get them up to five or six feet thick. Even then though, you might be 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.5 m) over a wet stream or a dry stream bed. Dragging the bottom ends of the poles along the sides of the log helps to stay in touch. For smaller or slipperier logs, slamming the carbide tips into the log is reassuring.

And let's not forget wading. Face up stream, angle from your entry point down stream as you cross, and end up on the other side and a few feet down stream. And while you are doing that, place your trekking poles firmly into the stream bed. That way you have four points of contact and can lean as far up stream as you need to.

For narrow streams or wet spots, lean across, plant your poles on the far side, and vault. This is where stout, two-section poles really shine.

The same goes for snow. Sort of. Late season snow doesn't flow, but it can be treacherous. Trekking poles are like spindly ice axes. If you can't dig your feet into the surface of the snow you can plant your poles and then place each foot on the uphill side of the corresponding pole to keep your feet under you.

Like snow and unlike water, rocks are solid. But they move too. Poles are excellent for keeping your balance on the jumbled rocks of a lava field, though you do have to pay attention not to get them caught between rocks and bent. I've gotten the tips of two poles snapped off so far, once in a stream bed and once on a wooden foot bridge.

And then there is weed whacking. This will keep you happy. See a big devil's club leering at you from trail side? Give it a big fast swing and chop it in half with your ninja trekking pole. The same goes for overgrown trails. If it's four feet high and all weeds, hack at them to reveal the groove of trail worn into the shaded soil underneath.

Let's not forget using one pole in my left hand held tight against the other one stuck into the ground as a camera platform. An informal monopod. I like panoramas. Sometimes I also use the two of them as two legs of a tripod, with my body being the third leg. Either way helps a huge amount.

And no doubt there are lots of uses for trekking poles that I simply haven't been clever enough to figure out just yet. I guess I need some more experiences out there, encountering new things. Maybe in a week or so, while the sun is still shining and the weather is warm.

Have to think about that one.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

How Gassifiers Work

As noted before ("Gassify Me"), this is about the simplest wood-burning stove that’s worth building. This stove is extremely simple, much more so than a can with a battery and computer fan, but yet it is also extremely sophisticated, and still has absolutely no moving parts whatsoever.

The operating principle of the wood gas stove is that burning wood produces smoke, and it is also actually not the wood but the smoke that burns. The stove is dead simple. Once you get it built, that’s it – nothing to adjust or maintain. In preparing a new book ("Make Your Fire", which is an excerpt of the stove making part of "Fire in Your Hand"), I edited a diagram I found elsewhere to show the principle this stove works on.

Light it at the top and the wood burns from the top down. The heat of the flames at the top vaporizes the wood below the flame, and the open bottom of the stove allows fresh air to rush in and create a strong updraft. Additional air holes near the top of the stove mix in more air. All these vents, combined with keeping the cooking pot two inches or more above the top of the stove allows complete combustion.

When loaded, lit, and used properly this stove will burn almost without smoke, totally unlike the average wood fire or can stove, which has to be constantly tended, and which smokes constantly.

The wood gas stove burns cleanly, and quiets down from a roaring blowtorch to a cool smolder once all the volatile gases have burned off. At the end you get a clean, warm charcoal glow, which eventually burns out, leaving a little clean ash behind.


Fire In Your Hand (at Amazon).
Fire In Your Hand (at
Zen Backpacking Stoves.
ZZ Manufacturing, Inc. (Sierra stove).

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Butt Warmers

One thing you learn quickly when hammock camping is how to get really, thoroughly, unconditionally, incessantly cold on your backside.

Well, strictly speaking you don't learn how. It's one of those things that comes naturally to everyone. Like death. Or being jammed into the back seat of a car between two people who seem to have spent their entire lives up to that exact moment eating rotten dead things. Or at least their breath says that.

But you don't have to do anything. It just happens.

Likewise being cold in a hammock.

My first time out I used a Therm-a-Rest. Therm-a-Rest is the puffy one. The expensive puffy one. I snagged a three-quarter inch thick one some time ago and now don't think they make them anymore. So hey it works.

I need something like that, me. I can't hardly sleep on the ground at all, even with my big even puffier two and a half inch thick Therm-a-Rest. My light one is dicier.

I got back problems, most of which I was born with. Luckily I can walk, walk hard, walk far, but I can't sleep.

Over the centuries I've gotten injured every now and then, and keep getting stiffer somehow. It must be like tree rings. I guess I have too many at my age and don't bend so good no more. And now my nose runs and my feet smell. Everything is getting upside down these days.

But I can handle a night on the ground if I have to, though I swear a lot.

Anyway, I used that light Therm-a-Rest my first night in a hammock and found out what doesn't work. I pretty much used it my first season, as well as I recall. Took a while to get tuned in to possibilities.

Eventually I got some info on under quilts. That's what hammockers call butt warmers.

You make half a sleeping bag (the bottom half) then hang it under the hammock, on the outside. Some people make fancy ones. In fact I believe that they are all fancy. Those with Hennessy hammocks do that split down at the foot end to make room for the Hennessy's bottom entry. Hennessy even makes one these days.

For other hammocks with the traditional top entry, there is no need for that, but people still add all kinds of tensioners and tie outs and make them full length. A lot of them are really sophisticated, and a few are full coverage. Like a sleeping bag that ate the hammock.


I didn't do that. I'm a barbarian. I do simple.

Technology kind of left me behind when people started getting away from pounding the rocks together. After that I couldn't keep up so good. Makes it hard. Me have to find own way, me.


What's wrong with a Therm-a-Rest? Or anything else like it? Like, you know, one of those blue pads? Eh?

OK, here goes.

They are too short and too narrow. Short isn't so bad. They aren't that short, but you have to be careful. You get a choice about whether your head or your hinder gets to contact the uninsulated bottom of the hammock. Here's a secret: it's easier to wear a fleece sleeping cap on your head than on that other thing. Try it, you'll see.

Me get smarter already, me.

Narrow is bad in a major way. For good reasons. Standard pads are 20 inches wide (51 cm), which is enough for those of us who are still recognizable as humans. For the rest, don't call me and I won't call you. Won't call you anything. Please don't hurt me, please.

Narrow is narrower in a hammock because a hammock is like a sausage casing. You hang in it like ground meat and the weight of you body causes the sides to curve up steeply and close in around you. Simple physics. It has to happen that way.


Well, the hammock embraces you, and what looked like the bottom before you got inside is now not only the bottom but the sides as well. And they want to get close to you. And they do. And all night you are embraced by this single layer of uninsulated fabric and any part of you that touches it gets cold.

Funny how that works. You can wiggle around until the only part of your entire body contacting the side of the hammock is your left kneecap, and that will be enough to keep you awake all night, because it is a little bit cold. Let alone one of your thighs, or an arm, or a butt cheek.

Once you feel that cold you can't push it far enough out of your mind to fall asleep. So you don't. And that makes you ever so much fun to be around the next day. And the day after that. And then you begin murdering your companions because you really are that ornery and frustrated and just plain cranky.

So let's say that somehow you figured out how to make your body, a hammock, and one 20 inch by 48 inch (51 by 122 cm) sleeping pad play well together. Heh.

There are still more problems. Oh, yes.

Every time you get up to water the flowers at night you have to thrash around to get out of your sleeping bag and find the door, and locate your shoes, and all that stuff, and then you have to get in again afterward and everything is all akimbo. In other words you have too many parts. It all keeps shifting around. Even, sometimes, if you try to lie very, very still and hardly breathe.

Somehow (and I'm not at all sure how this happens, but somehow) your pad will kind of sneak off to one side. Sneak, sneak. A teensy bit at a time. And then you wake up with a cold behind and have to fight like crazy against the pad and your bag, and your own weight holding everything squashed together, and the hammock and all, and you go nuts.

It really is a struggle.

Happens right in the darkest, scariest, gloomiest part of the night when the only thing you want to do at all is pray. Or maybe pray and also survive until morning. Because of what you heard out there in the bushes somewhere. And because of remembering that you are hanging in this bag at a convenient munching height.

Struggle, right? Am I right? You know I am.

But wait, there's more.

Let's say you get all that worked out. You figure out some magical way to use a sleeping pad, and then you also figure out how to keep it in place. And then there is more crap to put up with.

Minor crap, but...

Somehow (don't ask because I have no clue here), somehow when you use a regular sleeping pad it always accumulates grit underneath it. No matter how fastidious you are.

You shake out your sleeping bag. You clean your sleeping pad. You brush off your clothing. You take your shoes off without getting them anywhere near the inside of the hammock. And then, and then, in the morning when you're packing up again you find all the pine needles and dust and grains of sand under the sleeping pad, between it and the delicate fabric of the hammock.


Right where they will do the most damage. Every time you shift your weight or even move a little, this abrasive grit is down there grinding around on your hammock.

And you can't get it out. Can't.

Try sweeping with your hand and that only creates static electricity and the stuff wants to permanently bond with the hammock. You can't pry it out with a crowbar after that.

Shake out the hammock after taking it down and this detritus just collects in one end and then rushes back to the middle the next night when you hang the hammock again. The only thing that comes close to doing the job is to empty the hammock and use the sleeping bag as a big brush, just throw it up to the head end and then pull it out through the entry, and sweep away most of the offending matter. And this works only with a Hennessy hammock.

Under quilts. I've never used an official one. I made mine, and it works.

Going on the theory that non-breathable fabric would lessen moisture problems, I used some left over spinnaker cloth from a shelter I'd made. That formed the shell. Inside went one layer of synthetic insulation, about an inch thick.

I started with a flat quilt, then refined it later to conform to the shape of the loaded hammock, sort of boat-hull shaped. I've got some elastic line on each end, and running along the sides of the quilt to hold it up, and some tensionable elastic down where my tail goes.

It's roughly four feet wide by four or four and a half feet long (122 to 137 cm), pointy where my head goes (so it fits right) and wide where I'm wide (where my tail comes out). The hammock is also narrow where my head is, and widest where I'm widest, so it all seems to work out.

This is a lot shorter and somewhat narrower than what I've seen of other people's work, and that has been only in pictures. My quilt is not elegant in any way. It isn't very thick either, but so far it has been warm enough. Somehow it doesn't take much insulation under me. I've even gotten up a couple of mornings to find frost, without having gotten cold in bed.

This is a good sign.

I do have to be careful, but I have a lot less bulk and weight than if I carried a full length under quilt. Some of the others are up at two or three pounds at least (0.9 to 1.4 kg), like carrying a second sleeping bag. Mine weighs around 12 ounces (340 g) which is a lot compared to a wispy slice of blue foam just large enough to inhabit on the ground while lying on your side, if you don't breathe too hard and tip over, but it's weight well spent.

Part two about being careful is to keep my empty pack inside. I stuff that into a plastic bag, tie it shut and keep it under my hind legs. My feet stay out of contact with the hammock and then they don't need to be insulated. The sleeping bag is enough. The plastic bag keeps the dusty sweaty pack away from everything else and blocks any scents coming off the pack, in case critters might be tempted to stop by for a midnight snack. Or just claw their way in to find out what that smell is.

There is no wiggling around to keep my insulation in place. I don't have to rearrange things every time I roll over, or get back in after a midnight excursion. Somehow there is always much less grit inside, and what it there is either pushed into my soft clothing (if I use the sleeping bag as a quilt) or pushed into the bottom of the sleeping bag. Getting out of the hammock also seems to sweep it out.

And (oh, yes, there is more) it is so much easier to get in and out, and move around inside the hammock. Get rid of that pad that's meant for sleeping on the ground and the hammock is a smooth chute. You can slide up or down or turn over to one side or the other and it's all silky smooth and slippery. Nice. Really nice.

No need to wonder about all of the above, plus what effect even a squeaky clean sleeping pad will have on the fabric of your hammock. After all it is rectangular and sort of has some rough edges, especially the hard plastic air valve. Without the pad there aren't any problems. So I don't worry too much any more.

No inflation/deflation cycle. No fussing about where to pack the sleeping pad. Simply leave the under quilt attached to the hammock and slither it all inside a set of snakeskins, and then stuff the whole thing into your pack.

Much nicer all around.


How Do I Stay Warm in a Hammock?
Cold Weather Use Of Closed Cell Foam Pads In Hammocks.
Backpacking Hammock.
Guide to Making a Bridge Hammock.
A hammock you can sleep in with a straight spine!
Camping Hammock.
My Take On DIY Hennessy Hammock. A Tutorial.
How to Make a Homemade Hammock.
The Garlington Insulator for the Hennessey Hammock.
Risk's WarmHammock.
Sgt. Rock's Hammock Camping 101.
Speer PeaPod III.
Speer SnugFit UnderQuilt.