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