Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Occasional Definitions: Baking

Gingerbread castle.

Baking oven: On the trail, a pot with a lid (nonstick coating optional) that can be used to simulate baking. The pot should be out of immediate contact with a flame to prevent overheating. This is the kind of thing used by urban pansies in drive-in campgrounds. Backpackers and thru-hikers don’t have the time or patience to play with this sort of toy.

Baking: What you can do at home but not on the trail. No really.

Squeez bacon.

From: Fire In Your Hand

Friday, July 24, 2009

Mighteous Lightfulness

Spirit Lake.

Just back from a five day backpacking trip I have a renewed sense of how hard this sport can be.

I'm not a cross-country walker. The idea is appealing, but I don't have the chops. I'm old enough that I can't just take off half a year, do some stuff, and crash with my parents. They aren't around any more.

Not only that, my body wouldn't stand a multi-month trip, much as I'd like to do one. I've reached the point where I can do what I can do and have to let go of the rest. Then again, this isn't so bad. Everyone is only temporarily able-bodied. At least I can get out every now and then and live close to a lot of interesting country.

But given that, I have a fair amount of experience. I've paid attention, practiced, and thought things through. I know the drill, so when I do make a trip I can do it pretty efficiently and safely. If I pay attention.

That helps, but it doesn't cover all the bases. Walking with a full pack is still hard work. Walking with a full pack piled extra full of water in the hot sun, going up one side of a mountain and down the other while being eaten by flies is much harder.

I just got back from tramping across the north side of the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

About a month ago I hiked around the mountain, and don't recommend that until two intense seasons of trail maintenance go by. It's just too torn up.

But north of the mountain things are better.

There is an area called the "Mt. Margaret Backcountry", which got the full force of the blast in 1980 but differs from the land closer to the cinder cone in that it is not flat. It's a series of ridges, peaks, and deep holes. Still, though, everything that was there at the time was blown away or incinerated.

Now, 29 years later, trees are returning. There are shrubs, flowers, grasses, and many small blue lakes quietly nestle in the deep holes among the peaks. And even farther north there is old growth forest (thick, tall, impressive western red cedar, douglas fir, hemlock and other species) and flat, smooth trails.

I wanted to hike across the Mt. Margaret Backcountry, skipping the required camping permit by traversing the whole thing in one day, and then hit the northernmost part of the Monument for a couple of days, and then backtrack out.

It seemed feasible. The first and last days would be about 17 miles. The map showed some up and down but it didn't look too bad. At least there were no deep, crumbling, dangerous collapsing canyons roiling with boulders and clouds of dust as there are all along the Loowit Trail, which circles the mountain. I had enough of those a month ago.

Back side of Mt Margaret.

This is where some principles of backpacking in general, and lightweight backpacking come together to make things:

  • Possible
  • Safe
  • Enjoyable

First, and probably most important, is the reality check. You need to have enough experience behind you (especially if you're going solo) to know what your limits are, what the weather can do, and how to prepare.

You also need to keep current.

The first backpacking trip of the year tends to be a shakedown cruise. You take too much, or not enough. You forget that you really need to be in really good shape. Sometimes you think you can go farther than you really can. Things like that.

A trip or two (even a handful of day hikes) brings you back to reality, keeps you from going nuts and getting hurt. They also get you back into practice. A person needs to stay on top of the game. Given a decade or two of experience the first one or two trips every year bring back enough memories to pull up the focus. This is good.

Ideally, for the sake of sanity, you'd go out and do a trip, wait two weeks, and repeat the same trip. You would be sure to get everything right the second time around. But who would do that?

So you try to remember what you already learned the hard way, and prime yourself afresh with the year's first trip.

Or so you hope.

I kind of blew it. Not terribly, but I wasn't tuned in yet. The trip was too ambitious and the route was harder than I thought. I put on a lot of miles in five days but went only three fourths as far as I'd planned.

But here's where the other stuff comes in. I didn't get hurt, go hungry, get cold, get heat stroke, or get lost. The trip I did wasn't the one I planned but after some mid-course mental adjustments it turned into a shorter trip that was just hard enough and just long enough.

This is where ultralight principles kicked in. They saved my butt.

There wasn't much to do about the weather, the water supply, or the terrain. The weather was warm and sunny but not hot. The terrain was rugged, either going up or down (some of the trail seemed intentionally designed to be infuriating). Most important, water was nonexistent in some areas.

I couldn't control these, but could control the rest.

The first day I began hiking at 8 a.m. and didn't get to bed until 10 p.m., partly because I had to carry a full day's load of water. This was about six quarts or 12 pounds (6 l at 5.5 kg). Ascending a couple thousand feet (610 m) in the sun with that water weight added onto a five-day supply of food and all your gear makes it a completely different kind of party.

Although the air was cool, there were long stretches in full sun and dead air, which made it seem 20 degrees hotter.

The Dome

Fine. Enough whining. Here's the rest of the story.

By practicing light hiking you can prune the stress level back and do more with less, which is what I had to do. The categories are:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Thoughtfulness
  3. Efficiency


Simplicity means taking only what's needed, and only enough of it to get the job done. Take the smallest, simplest, lightest items that can possibly do the job.

For example, I carry an LED light instead of a traditional flashlight with incandescent bulb. In fact I take two. They're only a quarter ounce (7 g) each, so the redundancy doesn't hurt. Since there is no substitute for light, taking two adds a nice safety margin. In a pinch I can use a piece of duct tape instead of medical adhesive tape (or vice versa), but can't replace light with anything else.

With everything else, though, I either take the lightest, simplest thing I can find, or leave it out altogether.


Thoughtfulness is the key.

Thoughtfulness is based partly on smarts and partly on experience. To get really simple and really light takes thought. And good ideas are just that. Most good ideas fail on the first try, since they're really bad ideas, so experience is necessary as a filter. Once you get a handle on what works, what doesn't, and what's best your your very own self, you can break your gear and processes into categories and continue to think through them.

I have ten categories:

  • Shelter. No need for a tent, most of the time. Drop it and save two to four pounds (1 - 2 kg). Small tarps are the lightest way to go, but I can't sleep on the ground any more. My hammock is heavier than a tarp but intensely comfy and still lighter than a tent.
  • Bedding. A down bag works, preferably one that is too light. Wear all your clothing to bed and also stay out of the wind. A two-ounce (60 g) Mylar emergency blanket, folded and kept against the chest adds a lot of warmth without weight. Or use it as a bag liner.
  • Pack. Some are barely there. I make my own and although they aren't the lightest available, mine are less than half the weight of mainstream packs, and do exactly and only what I need. My packs are also getting smaller as the seasons go by as my philosophy moves toward using external stuff sacks for temporary overflow rather than having a big pack.
  • Food. Keep it as dry as possible, with as much fat as possible. I'm experimenting with two cold meals a day, for speed and simplicity though this might not be the lightest way to go. We'll see.
  • Water. For mass loads of water I use the 2.5 l Platypus bladders, which fold flat and weigh nothing when empty. Mostly I use an Aquamira filter + bottle for on-the-go drinking.
  • Cookset. My rig weighs around six ounces (170 g): stove, on-ground reflector, pot stand, wind screen, pot, lid, lighter and matches. It's about the size of my two fists put together. Tiny and light.
  • Clothing. Never take more than you can wear at once but always have dry clothes to sleep in, or come as close as you can. Overnight, clothes fill in as half of my insulation.
  • Protection: Rainwear and a wind shell. My full-coverage wind shell weighs six ounces (170 g). I wear it to bed, in the morning and evening, and during stops (if cool enough, to keep off bugs). If the weather is guaranteed dry I'll leave rainwear at home, or escalate by taking any of several outfits depending on what might come along.
  • Sundries. These are things like rubber bands, safety pins, a tiny blade, some bandages, emergency water treatment backup, extra line, needle and thread, and so on. Also a bottle of liquid soap, a square of fleece to wash with, maps, nail clippers. All things you can do without unless you need them or don't want to be dangerously filthy. Rubber bands, safety pins, and duct tape can be real life savers.
  • Footwear. I haven't worn boots for nine years, and shudder to think of going back to them. Trail running shoes work for everything I've come up against, and save huge amounts of walking energy while being much easier on the feet.

Mt Adams from Coldwater Peak.


Efficiency kicks in when I've got all the above sorted out and remember how to do everything right. I try to focus on speed without sacrificing fun.

Going light means that on the trail you can go fast. Climbing is easier, descending is not so hard on the knees and ankles, and on level ground you can really howl with a light pack.

Efficiency means quick and organized setup at a campsite in the evening, and quick packing in the morning. With my hammock I simply pull a sleeve over the whole thing (hammockers call this a "snake skin") and the fly, the hammock, the under-quilt, and the supporting lines are all converted to one long sausage for easy stuffing into a pack.

Eating a cold breakfast and supper (pre-baked at home) means no need for cooking or any cleanup at all for those two meals, and less fuel carried.

Washing is efficient because I carry a bottle with a water filter in it. Pull out the filter and the bottle becomes a handy scoop for pouring water over myself. A small square of fleece fills in for sponge baths on cold days or when there's no opportunity to disrobe and splash.

So what's my conclusion? I did screw up on the last trip.

My plan was too ambitious and I wasn't fully prepared. I had to carry huge loads of water uphill for miles. This was hot, tedious, and slow.

The up side was that if this had been the old days when I thought a 40 pound (18 kg) pack was light, I wouldn't have made it past the first day.

By honing my technique and doing some thinking over the past several years I haven't achieved any miracles. While I'm getting tuned in and smarter I'm also getting older and weaker, but the advantages of traveling light, simply, and efficiently mean that I can still do better than at least 90% of backpackers out there, with less, and still have fun.

So it's OK for now.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Fire, Can It Be Fitted Nasally?

Fire, Can It Be Fitted Nasally?

Fire making is a complex process, as you know if you've ever tried to start one.

Harry Houdini said "That fire could be produced through friction finally came into the knowledge of man, but the early methods entailed much labor." No kidding.

This man had been around. If anyone knew, he did. If you don't think so then try rubbing things together and see what happens. Not much.

You will get bored, and tired, and blistered. To break the tedium try rubbing a balloon and sticking it onto the cat. You'll get excitement, heat without light, and some scratches. But no fire.

When you finally get fire it's because you did everything right. You need the atoms of one thing (fuel) excited enough to go and fight with atoms of another thing (oxygen). They get all mixed up, give each other lots of black eyes, and produce lots of heat and light. You want this. This is fire.

You need three things for fire: oxygen, fuel, and heat. This is true. Ask any firefighter. They know.

Luckily for us the atmosphere is 21% oxygen, and available worldwide, but things weren't always this convenient.

Fire, Can It Be Fitted Nasally?

It took billion of years for disturbingly odd nameless blobs mucking around blindly to come up with the idea of oxygen at all. Then more millions and millions of years until they produced enough of it to matter, and it turned out to be toxic, killing most of them, but they kept at it, all so you could cook lunch.

So next time you see a wad of pulsing slime working away, churning out oxygen, how about a kind word? Maybe a kind word and a handful of granola? You can spare it.

OK, item two: fuel.

Fuel is what burns. Look around and you'll see plenty of it. For example, if you've ever set your pants on fire you've discovered fuel. Fuel is often the limiting resource in the fire equation, especially if you're wearing shorts.

Finally, the magical third ingredient, the hot stuff, heat. It starts things going and keeps them going.

So you have a fire, but the ideal, if you want a good, hot cup of coffee, is a controlled but self-sustaining fire. For this you need to be good at math, but not all that good. No adding or long division needed, just balancing this simple, three-element equation: heat plus oxygen plus fuel equals fire.

Or, if your higher faculties are more limited than that (possibly due to hunger, or because you're a backpacker) just remember that when you see wood and air and a flame you get a yummy cooked treat. Arf! Arf! Arf! Arf!

Fire, Can It Be Fitted Nasally?

The theory of fire (there is such a thing), calls this "ignition continuity".

Here's how it works. Heat from the fire (the bright, wiggly, hot part that burns your paws) cycles back into the fuel and oxygen mix and keeps them hot enough to continue doing that thing that they do. Adults may know this as an "uninhibited chain reaction", but a full description is not available here.

Another interesting fact: solid fuel does not burn, and neither does liquid fuel. Only the whiffy, stinky, smelly stuff does. The whiffy, stinky, smelly stuff may be visible (smoke, from vaporized wood) or invisible (vaporized white gas, naptha, alcohol, benzin, kerosene, butane, or whatever you call it where you live).

Now, time for a quick review.

If you want a hot lunch you need oxygen, and fuel, and some kind of energy to kickstart things. Then when burning begins it throws off more heat, which keeps the process going. And this process continues until something runs out. Run out of fuel, or oxygen, or heat, and you're done. You need all three. So it pays to be quick with the weenies or you'll have to eat them cold.

Now you know why you can put out a fire by throwing water or sand on it (cuts off oxygen and cools it) or by pulling sticks out (removes the fuel). Or by taking off your pants (if you made a terrible mistake).

Of course there is more to it than this, and if you promise to be very, very good we may continue our story later some time.

Based on Fire In Your Hand

Fire, Can It Be Fitted Nasally?


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