Tuesday, January 27, 2009



(1) The U.S. Forest Service defines underburn as "a burn by a surface fire that can consume ground vegetation and 'ladder' fuels." Since those folks get paid for what they do, this definition probably means something.

(2) Let's try that again.

Underburn: A fire limited to 'surface fuel' which therefore has a low to moderate intensity. Underburns are often prescribed for dry forest types such as ponderosa pine or mixed conifers to reduce fuel but leave the trees intact. These are usually classified as low-severity fires. When the professionals in charge actually know what they are doing.

(3) Partially-cooked food.

(4) The sensation you get from the very bottom part of your body the day after you've eaten something really really spicy, and it has suddenly decided to leave you in order to set out on its own. Suddenly. Emphasis on suddenly here.


Have anything worth adding? Then try sosayseff+eff@nullabigmail.com
Me? Still running.



so says eff: sporadic spurts of grade eff distraction
definitions: outdoor terms
fiyh: dave's little guide to ultralight backpacking stoves
boyb: dave's little guide to backpacks
snorpy bits: nibbling away at your sanity
last seen receding: missives from a certain mobile homer
noseyjoe: purposefully poking my proboscis into technicals

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

So Dis Is Weightless Water Treatment?

Traditionally backpackers carried iodine tablets to treat back country water. Some used ordinary chlorine bleach, even though it's less effective. Some claim they never treat their water, but during the last couple of decades expensive and heavy water filters have become the standard solution. These days hardly anyone blinks an eye at spending a hundred dollars or more for a water filter, or bothers to think about carrying an extra pound or two of dead weight.

Instead of having a pocketable green glass bottle containing a few brown iodine pills, which take a while to render water reasonably safe, backpackers these days normally tote a gizmo the size of an espresso maker, complete with hoses and pump. Waiting 15 or 20 minutes is too long. People would rather squat by a stream, hook up the filter, and work up a sweat horsing a reluctant trickle into bottle after bottle, saving no time, and carry several pounds of water as they resume hiking.

Go figure.

There are several side effects to carrying a filter. One is weight, of course. Another is bulk. Expense. We already mentioned that one too. Complexity. Check. One thing people seldom talk about though is risk. It's easy to screw up while using a filter.

A filter relies on two things. One is the filter's designed ability to remove critters, gunk, and yucky chemicals. The other is cleanliness. User responsibility there. You have to keep the filter clean, folks.

Obviously, but few people think enough about this. After all, a water filter for backpacking use is helpful, healthful, and is cleanliness itself. It seems to generate spotlessness just by being there. Only it ain't so.

A filter is a tool. A machine, and is simply ordinary matter inhabiting a particular form. There is nothing magical about a water filter. It is not perennially pure. It does not create goodness. It can become contaminated, and can then pass that contamination on to you. Tricky.

Every filter has a dirty end and a clean end. I have very little experience with filters, but I have tried a couple of gravity-powered ones that I rigged up, and even based on my vanishingly small range of experience I feel absolutely confident in saying that it's hard, hard, hard to keep the dirty end and the clean end apart. Every day. All day. Without fail.

I can't imagine a perfect way to do this, but I can remember the times I've seen people filter water, then wind everything back into a nice tight package and stuff the whole shebang back into the pack. Wet. Where the contaminated end of the apparatus can work its magic on the clean end. Out of sight, out of mind. Until the diarrhea hits.

And I've seen someone use a communal filter, first pumping water then dragging the outlet hose through dirt, ashes, and finally horse manure before hanging it from a tree where it would stay safe and clean (too late!) for the rest of the party to use later.

Personally, I've settled on a small water bottle with a built in filter, with chlorine dioxide to back it up. I can stop, scoop up water, and drink it immediately, use the bottle with filter removed as a bath bucket, or carry raw water in the bottle, with the filter in place, for later sipping. The chemical treatment is handy to treat a bunch of water overnight, or simply as a backup.

That's all pretty good.

But something interesting came along recently. A way to treat water without a filter, and without chemicals. Practically speaking, without anything.

Let's first take one step back and praise Ray Jardine.

If he didn't invent light backpacking, then he at least reminded the world that it was possible. I'm easy with saying that he reinvented it. In some circles these days he's denigrated for various reasons, one of which seems to be that though he either invented a lot of techniques, or at least popularized and promoted them to a skeptical world, in some ways his techniques seem stuck in the middle 1980s. Be that as it may (or may not) be, one of his ideas in the water world is really cool.

And that is carrying plastic soft drink bottles instead of huge aluminum canteens or those thick, bulky, ponderous Nalgene bottles that seem to be required kit for backpackers. Sure, I'm dated myself. Things have changed again. Nalgene is now out. Today, if you want to be a cool backpacker, you have to carry the equally expensive, bulky, and heavy Lexan bottles. But you now have designer colors. Aerodynamic shapes. Coming soon: tail fins.

Tail fins, I miss. Not that I ever liked them, but they were big once, during a time I remember well. And you could be sure that if you saw tail fins, a car was attached. In the tail fin era cars were ugly, a situation that the fins did not tend to ameliorate. At all. Not even a little. But in those days cars were big, had shiny bumpers the size of sofas, and were slow to maneuver. And easier to avoid. Life was simpler. But their day has passed, as has the era of Nalgene bottles, and as the era of Lexan bottles will too.

For bulk water, I avoid the above by using Platypus bladders. Get one as big as you can stand to think about and empty it, it folds flat, and never weighs more than an ounce or two. Jardine's idea was similar though slightly bulkier. He simply used garbage.

Buy a liter of any fizzy soft drink, and you get a free bottle. It doesn't fold flat when it's empty but it weighs next to nothing, and the price is always right. You can even scrounge them if you prefer not to pay. I've tried carrying them too, and they work, though I prefer another solution, as noted above.


Jardine applied some original thinking and reached an elegant solution. So did Aftim Acra, a professor at the American University of Beirut, in Lebanon, who began experimenting in 1979 with three elements: clear bottles, water, and sunlight. As odd as it sounds he and his co-researchers developed the simplest and cheapest form of water purification possible. Using the same kind of bottle that Ray Jardine came to favor.

Here's what you need to do.

Put water into clear plastic bottles. Lay the bottles in the sunshine for six hours. Drink.

Bright sunshine, ultraviolet radiation, and heat do the work. The water should be clear (not turbid), and it needs to get enough sunlight, but the process works even on days that are half cloudy. If the sky is overcast the process works, but needs two days to complete. This is called "SODIS", solar disinfection. It uses plastic bottles, the same sort that Jardine has been touting. The material they are made from is PET, polyethylene terephthalate. It is light, tough, available everywhere (these days, as ready made bottles), and mostly transparent to ultraviolet light.

Professor Acra's results were first widely published in a booklet put out by UNICEF in 1984, but I bet you haven't heard of them before, or him. Since 1991 The Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology has been testing this process, which is easy for almost everyone to use, though it's practical only on small scales (so far).

Sounds too good to be true? Here's what SODIS has been proven to kill:

  • Bacteria: Escherichia coli (E.coli), Vibrio cholerae, Streptococcus faecalis, Pseudomonas aerugenosa, Shigella flexneri, Salmonella typhii, Salmonella enteriditis, Salmonella paratyphi
  • Viruses: bacteriophage f2, rotavirus, encephalomyocarditis virus
  • Yeast and Mold: Aspergillus niger, Aspergillus flavus, Candida, Geotrichum
  • Protozoa: Giardia, Cryptosporidium

As long as the water is clear, the bottles aren't damaged or opaqued by scratches, the sun shines, and the water inside the bottles can warm up a moderate amount, the process works. PET plastic leaches almost no stray chemicals or heavy metals into the water, and the process imparts no strange tastes or smells.

Well, sounds perfect if you have six hours every day to sit around and let your water purify. True, this is not going to be used on many backpacking trips, but it is an option, another trick to keep in your pack for those times when you just might need another option. I'm guessing that a Platypus bladder might work even better than a round soft drink bottle, which does not have an ideal shape, so a stray lightweight backpacker laid up for a few days might find this viable.

One that requires no mechanical skills or pumping. A self-sterilizing miracle.


More info.

The Sodis Reference Center

SODIS at Wikipedia

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Yumdog Muffin Bunny

I found a new toy, and it is alien technology.

A thread in science fiction for decades has been creatures or whole ecosystems based on silicon standing in for carbon. In our world carbon is handy, and not only because it makes good charcoal briquettes (which are just about 100% carbon). No.

Carbon is handy because it makes life possible. Life as we know it. Life that is good to eat. Life that is good with gravy.

Not surprisingly, carbon has some peculiar characteristics.

Such as the ability to bond to itself, and the ability to form long chains, which makes polyester underwear possible, and plastic bags. Carbon is handy. Octane is an eight-carbon chain -- along with some hydrogen flavoring -- that makes internal combustion engines run happily.

Sure, we now have some problems with carbon floating around in the atmosphere and mucking up the climate, but as your mother should have taught you, there can always be too much of a good thing. Someone wasn't listening.

But that's beside the point. Carbon is really nifty. It combines not only with itself in all sorts of interesting ways, but it combines with all sorts of other things in equally clever configurations. Carbon is all over, doing all kinds of things, both inside your body and everywhere else too.

But carbon has a few problems in some applications.

Make rubber out of it (or let a tree do it for you) and you get something that is flexible, waterproof, stretchy, bouncy, and pretty much impervious to decay. For a while. Eventually it breaks down, crumbles, gets gooey, and rots.

And heat is hard on it too.

But silicon is related to carbon. In a close way. Silicon is like an older sibling. It sits right below carbon in the periodic table of the elements. The periodic part is important. This table is set up to put similar things together. So if one element shows up on a different row but in the same column, that's because the two are related.

Elements lower down in the table are more massive. They have more neutrons and protons in the center, and more electrons whizzing around, but it's the way the outer electrons are arranged and not the number of them that accounts for chemical properties. The family resemblance.

Silicon and carbon are chemically pretty similar. But silicon is a little less nimble, and slower to get involved in new relationships than carbon, so it's probably not the basis of life anywhere in the universe (but we're open to pleasant surprises). So all those science fiction stories about silicon based life forms are still good stories, but not predictors of what anyone will ever find. Maybe.


Silicon can still be made into some products that are like the carbon versions, but a little different.

Like silicone rubber.

If organic chemistry is based on carbon and what mischief it can get up to (and it is), then silicones mimic it, in a way. One thing you can make with silicon is a form of rubber. This rubber is even better for some things than the rubber made from carbon. It's flexible and mostly inert, like real rubber. But it's also heat resistant, to the point that it can be used for spark plug covers. They get hot. But so do baking utensils.

OK, there, we have an "Aha!" moment. Someone started making cake pans and other baking utensils from silicone rubber. And liners for muffin tins.

Which brings us up to date, because I'm talking about rubber muffin tins today.

I think it was Dan Ladigan's and Mike Clelland's book "Lighten Up!" that first inspired me to try steaming food on the trail. Briefly, what you need is a wide, shallow pot, some pebbles in the bottom, or a hardware cloth tray, food, and a bit of water.

Steam is especially efficient at transferring heat into food, much more so than water, because to get steam you need to heat only a little water, and as the steam condenses when it hits relatively cold food, it transforms from a gas back into a liquid, and gives off huge amounts of heat. To boil food instead, first you have to cover the food (takes lots of water), then you need to boil the water. Then when you're done, you throw away all that hot water.

Inefficient, unlike steaming.

For steaming, you still need to boil water, but you need to boil only a little.

So I tried it. Worked fine. Only one problem: what to put the food in while it cooked. I made some tiny muffin tins from cut down aluminum cans, and they worked, but were easy to over fill, and they overflowed as they cooked and the batter rose, so then I had extra cleanup duties. Usually when I cook I heat water and then add it to food in a zip lock bag, and carry the bag home with me. No cleanup at all.

Paper liners were too flimsy. I tried steaming food inside plastic bags, and that worked, but it was hard to keep the bag away from the sides of the pot. The bags melt on contact, and it's not good to eat melted plastic.

So that idea kind of sat.

Until now.

I've tried some silicone rubber muffin cups. Great. So far I've used them at home, but they should do fine on the trail. They are stiff enough to stand up, and big enough to hold a decent amount of batter, and the food doesn't have to be anything fancy.

Cleanup is easy. On the trail it should be workable to simply put the cups away without cleaning, inside an odor proof bag, and let them sterilize themselves at the next meal, but they are simple to clean. If you get a muffin fully cooked, and work with only a bit of care, the cooked muffin pops out without leaving chunks of itself stuck in the cup.

At home, some warm water, detergent, and a bit of rubbing gets them clean. All you need to do is let the cups air dry and pop them back into the cupboard until next time.

Here's what I've tried so far for seven muffins, which about the right number for the rice steamer someone gave me.

  • Corn meal: 8 tablespoons
  • Milk powder: 6 tablespoons
  • Baking powder: 1/2 to 1 teaspoon
  • Sugar or honey: 1/2 to 1 teaspoon
  • Oil: 1 tablespoon
  • Fruit, usually raisins

Mix the dry ingredients, then add the oil and mix thoroughly. Add water, maybe 1/4 cup or less, and mix thoroughly. Spoon into the silicone cups, then add raisins, which will sink down into the batter as the muffins cook. Steam throughly, and let sit in the warm pot for awhile.

Other fruit works too, besides raisins. Chopped apple is great. Today I chopped some canned peaches, and they were fine too. Raisins rehydrate as they cook, and get squshy soft.

The baking soda puffs up the muffins. The oil adds calories and seems to toughen the corn meal and make it more like well-kneaded bread. I think the oil also reduces the corn meal's natural bitterness and makes the taste smooth out.

Other ground grains should work too, but I haven't tried anything else yet.

On the trail I'd take everything pre-mixed and add water, then knead it all inside a bag, and use the bag to squeeze batter into the cups. Steaming in a wide pot should work fine, since the silicone cups stand up by themselves, and are small enough so I think I could get three or four into my Wal-Mart grease pot.

If you don't have one, you might be able to find them in your area, though around here it looks like Wal-Mart is no longer selling them. KMart is selling one though, better than the original, and I might buy one and check it out. But any pot that's big enough will work fine.

And the cool thing is that steaming works well over a small alcohol stove. I've done it. It takes more fuel than simply heating a cup or two of water, but not a huge amount more, and the steaming gives a person a lot more flexibility in preparing food.


Wal-Mart silicone muffin cups (The web site says it's online only but I got mine in a store, for about $2 less than the online price.)

Ask.com "Silicone Bakeware Basics - Tips on How to Use Silicone Bakeware"

Silicone Bake Ware, the Hype and the Truth

Wilton's Silly Feet Silicone Baking Cups at Michael's craft supply