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A Day in the Life Part 5: Shelter from the Storm

A Day in the Life Part 5: Shelter from the Storm

The cool breeze that began blowing across your back a few minutes ago has a scent to it.  It’s the humid, damp scent of wet earth.  Though the incoming storm clouds haven’t quite yet blocked the late day sun, that event is quickly approaching.  With a sigh you heave out of the hammock and walk to your pack, still perched against the tree.

In the bottom of your pack, you dig around until the thin nylon bag that contains your tarp is felt.  Weaving it around the various loose items, you slide out the bag and quickly head to your hammock.  Unwittingly, you’ve left your stakes in the bottom of your pack, but you don’t realize it just yet.  Opening the drawstring, your tarp slides out easily, and falls to the ground.  Being almost asleep when you noticed the towering clouds, your mind is in a slight panic state, and for some reason, your tarp landing on the ground gives you just enough pause to stop and clearly think.

There isn’t much time to waste.

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A Day in the Life Part 4: Home-making

A Day in the Life Part 4: Home-making

As you gaze around from inside the grove of Red Spruce that will be your home for the night, visions start dancing in your head of sitting by the campfire silently.  At this point, you’re slightly conflicted.  Your feet are tired from the hike, and your hammock only takes five minutes to set up.  On the other hand, it’s much easier to gather firewood before you sit down to take a load off, because you know you won’t want to get back up for a while.

Walking over to the two trees that will be your foundation, you drop your pack and unclasp the top pouch.  Shoving your hand into the nylon bird’s nest inside, you feel around and find your folding saw.  Your decision has been made.  Firewood gathering will come first.  After a large swig of water, you wander over towards the thicker trees, secretly hoping you will come across a full cord of seasoned, split hickory that a good Samaritan has left.  A quality fire is all about preparation, so you’ve resolved yourself to 45 minutes of gathering.

Behind a few rhododendrons, you spot a tall maple tree peeking out.  Here’s hoping it’s dropped a few branches.

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How to Take Care of Your Feet

How to Take Care of Your Feet

Without your feet, you aren’t walking anywhere, especially on a trail.  During my time in the Marine Corps, it was pounded into our heads to change our socks and trim our nails frequently.  Our boots were well fitted, and next to our weapons, were considered the most important piece of equipment we had.  “You have boots and a rifle…you can walk into battle”, our drill instructors would say.

With that wisdom, one can see that even an injury as minor as a blister can cause much larger problems when you’re 5 miles from the nearest road.  While most of us are fortunate enough to not be walking in a combat zone, being late for dinner because your feet were hurting can be just as traumatic to some.

That said, I must admit that sometimes, my feet are an afterthought.  I walk around my campsite barefoot or wear the same pair of socks for three days, sometimes just cotton tube socks.  I have been blessed with callused feet that almost never get blisters, but I realize that the term “tenderfoot” is a valid descriptor for many people, especially those that haven’t ever hiked much.

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A Day in the Life Part 3: Pushing On

A Day in the Life Part 3: Pushing On

As you sit on a rock, finishing your lunch, your mind wanders.  Your muscles have cooled by this point, and the warm sun is inviting you to lean back and relax.  This is a rough decision, because you know that you still have about 4 miles left to get to your planned camp area.  Common sense prevails, and with the forecasted rain later, it is much smarter to pack up and move along.

You can relax in your hammock later, and it’s always more comfortable than a rock.

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A Day in the Life Part 2: Hitting the Trail

A Day in the Life Part 2: Hitting the Trail

 

There’s a crispness to the air as you take those first steps.  You haven’t warmed up yet, but you were smart enough to go with just a t-shirt, because you know you’ll be sweating soon otherwise.  Your pace is always a little ambitious at the start; it is a combination of excitement and well rested legs.  As you venture into the green tunnel of trees, you can feel civilization becoming more distant.  The feeling of anxiety suddenly morphs from that however.  Did you lock the car?  Is your bag of snacks still sitting on the passenger seat?  Did you make sure that your headlamp had new batteries?

Then you remember that there are a thousand things that can go wrong, but just being out here is worth it.  “If my headlamp dies, I’ll just crawl into my bag”, you tell yourself.  “If the car is unlocked, at least a thief won’t break the windows” flashes across your mind.  Something about the leaves fluttering in the breeze and the birds singing can make you find a silver lining from any possible what-if.

You walk on.

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A Day in the Life Part 1: Stepping Out

You wake up this morning at 4:00 AM.  Twilight hasn’t even begun, but the screeching of the alarm, coupled with your subconscious excitement jolts you from sleep.  The air is still and dry, as it usually is inside, and you feel overly warm, almost claustrophobic.

Quietly, you roll out of bed, trying not to wake others, and creep to the kitchen.  The foresight to load the coffee maker the night before is suddenly much more appreciated.  As you press the button and wait for the hissing sounds and smell to fill the kitchen, you don your clothes and brush your teeth.  In far too much of a hurry, you pour your cup of coffee before the pot is done brewing, and place the carafe back on the coffee maker to let it finish.  You mind is racing, wondering if you’ll have everything you need for the day, and you’re pacing around the kitchen.

As the first sip of coffee hits your lips, the warmth now brings a quiet comfort to your mind.  You’ve researched, read articles, pored over information, and spent hours going through different scenarios.  “I’m ready”, you silently say to yourself.

The items you packed, unpacked, and repacked numerous times over the past few days are picked up and carried to the car.  You’ve even thrown an extra change of clothes in.  Having them out of the house and in the vehicle is a milestone, because all that’s left is to pour a cup for the road, quietly say goodbye to your loved ones, and walk out the door.

You’re going backpacking today.

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A Day in the Life: Introduction

A Day in the Life: Introduction

In The Complete Walker, Colin Fletcher and Chip Rawlins describe a day and night out on the trail from the hiker's perspective.  I've always found those passages able to put me in the mindset to pack up and get outside.  I can see myself being out there with them, enjoying every step, smelling every pine, and feeling every breeze blow across my face.

Just the same, writing about it has also put me in that same space.  Not quite as good as being there, but still enjoyable to think about.  I can not only daydream about the places I'll go, but I can remember the places I've been.  Not every trip is the same, but there are always some things that remain similar throughout them all.  It may be my morning routine, driving to the trailhead, or how I enjoy my lunch on the trail.  It could be stoking the night's fire, or listening to the sounds of the dark woods.  Each trip is unique and familiar at the same time.

With that said, I've decided to share what a typical day in the life of a backpacker may be, from a third person perspective, as if I was watching myself and narrating it.  I have titled this A Day in the Life.

Read More

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One Overlooked Material with Numerous Backcountry Uses

One Overlooked Material with Numerous Backcountry Uses

Outdoor retailers are overflowing with gear designed to do two things: perform a solitary function, and sell.  In some cases, this is inevitable.  A tent can’t cook a meal for you, and a stove can’t put a roof over your head.  The accessories that surround camping and backpacking gear however can nickle and dime you to the poor house.

There is one material though that can replace a ton of different “specialty” items, and the best news is that it’s cheap, light, packable, durable, and readily available!  In the gear world, that’s an enigma.  Those into the ultralight backpacking discipline may be familiar with it, but for most people venturing out into the woods for the first time, it is all too simple to go to REI, purchase the “essentials”, and then stand in wonderment at all of the extra “comfort” accessories designed to make your life easier and your wallet lighter.  They can walk out of the store with a $200 tent, and $300 worth of items that get used for one single thing.

So what is this wonder material I’m talking about?

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Use your Smartphone to “Connect” with a Trail

Use your Smartphone to “Connect” with a Trail

We hike, partially, to disconnect from the always connected world.  Between computers, cell phones, and Facebook, it seems that our entire lives are one giant reality show, published for public consumption.  So why do I carry a cell phone, always powered on, on the trail with me?  What good is it to find true wilderness, only to pull out an electronic device and stare blankly into a screen?

It “connects” you with the wild.

Now, I don’t mean that you will be able to take a picture of a sycamore, and have the tree tell you all of its information.  That is still up to you to learn and retain.  What I mean is that you can connect with that trail in the future, when you’re no longer out in nature.  Many of us are experts at identifying the “here and now” when we’re in the backcountry.  We can identify trees, look at the lay of the land presented to us and locate water, or select the perfect campsite or stream crossing.

But what about the “There and then”?  How do we remember where that campsite was for the next time we’re in this special place?  Where were we standing when we took a picture of a mountain horizon, and when did we step off on the trail?

 

Use your cell phone

We all have them.  They’re ubiquitous in today’s world, and are considered as essential as a good knife was two hundred years ago.  They’re our phones, calculators, maps, music players, and calendars, in a little electronic package.

They’re also fragile, expensive, and not exactly waterproof.  So why do I always carry mine, and how do I work around some of these limitations?

In addition to the functions above, my cell phone (an LG G4 as of this writing) is the primary piece of gear I use to remember my trips by.  While I always carry a paper map and compass (and know how to use it!), my phone is the item I reference the most.

Using my favorite app, Backcountry Navigator, I have a topo map, track log, and orienteering abilities that go beyond what any paper map can do.  As I always plan my trips beforehand, I can download the maps to my phone before I leave, and when I get to the trailhead, place my phone into airplane mode, saving battery.

GPS uses a sizable amount of power, and having the cell radio and other devices turned off while hiking gives a decent boost to battery life, as well as keeping the phone QUIET.  If I come across a cool place, or a beautiful view, I can simply click the “add a waypoint” button on the app, and attach a photo right then and there.

Speaking of photos, I’ve ensured that the “location” or “geotagging” setting is turned on.  This lets me view my photos at a later date, and have them placed on a map precisely where they were taken.

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Taken at 35.5660308,-83.5653669

 

If nothing else, use your phone to take pictures.  Even if you don’t use GPS, don’t geotag your photos, and never keep an electronic note, you’ll have pictures to remember your trip by.  Most smartphones have decent cameras on them.  Some of them even allow you to manually set photo parameters that only dedicated cameras used to have.  Almost every single photo on my site was taken with a cell phone.

As far as a recommendation, I personally stick with Android.  Removable batteries are a big plus, as you’ll will see later.

Wear a smartwatch?

A smartwatch is a relatively new addition to my gear list.  I’m even still on the fence with it now.  It’s awful pricey and fragile, and the jury is still out on if it truly can be relied upon as a timekeeping device any longer than a day.  Mine (an LG GWatch Urbane) generally needs to be charged every two days, making it all but useless for anything more than a dayhike.

But, that said, it also extends the battery of my phone that much further.  With a quick glance, all of the information about my trip (distance traveled, elevation gain, speed, etc) is automatically displayed on my watch, and I don’t need to pull my phone out to see it.  I can even say “Note to self” to my magic watch, and it will record via voice-to-text to a note application of my choosing.

 

Accessories:  Keeping turned on and tuned in while dropped out

As mentioned above, cell phones and other electronics are fragile and expensive, not to mention that they use batteries, and the last I checked, an Elm cares little about providing a USB port for you to charge with.  So there are trade offs and accessories that I carry with me do alleviate some of these frustrations.

The first is a good case for your phone.  This is something you should already have if your phone cost any more than a few bucks.  Most cases excel at protecting the device from scratches and damage from drops, but are lacking in the waterproof department (other than Lifeproof, but they only make covers for a limited range of phones).  So the second accessory is heavy-duty ziploc bags.  This will keep your phone dry, and amazingly, most touchscreens will still work through the plastic.

I also carry an extra battery for my phone, fully charged before I leave.  I’m experienced enough to know that my phone’s battery will last a full day of hiking with GPS on, as long as I’m also in airplane mode, and not taking thousands of pictures.  When I get to camp, generally, the phone is powered down.  I’m not out there to post to Facebook or call my buddies.  My phone is another tool or piece of gear at that point.

But batteries are heavy, so carrying five of them for a week long trip might be a feasible option, but I’d rather have gear that can serve more than one purpose.  I have a Goal Zero solar panel that I can strap to the outside of my pack when I hike.  Rather than use it to keep my phone running throughout the day, I use it to charge the extra battery.  Since it’s under no load, it will charge to full over four or five hours with only the sun.  Once it’s charged, I can use the solar panel to charge my headlamp (a Black Diamond Revolt), or to plug my phone into for a little extra life.

Another dual-use piece of gear is a biolite stove.  I have one, and it does in fact work surprisingly well to charge a battery, using only wood.  I can also cook a meal at the same time, and it burns the wood very cleanly.  The drawback is that it is heavy.  At over two pounds, I could carry ten batteries for my phone and my Emberlit wood stove and still not cross that weight.  I generally only use this in winter, when the sun is low, and I’m constantly melting snow for warm drinks, so “unlimited” clean fuel is a very big plus.

With a little planning, and the right outlook, the phone that pesters you throughout the week to always be connected can also be one of the most valuable tools to help you remember when you should disconnect!

Posted by Mike on

What’s Your Excuse?

What’s Your Excuse?

I’ve made my share of excuses over the years as to why I couldn’t go for a hike. It ranged from not spending money even on fuel to get to a trailhead, to just plain being too tired.

My go-to excuse was that I couldn’t leave my wife and daughter home alone while I went off playing in the woods. I was sure that they simply couldn’t function without me, and if I left, I would never hear the end of it. Then I realized something…

Just go outside.

That’s all there is to it.  You may live in the city, or the country, but outside is where you should be.  Human beings have lived on this planet for hundreds of thousands of years, and most of that time was spent outside.  We’ve survived ice-ages, droughts, epidemics, and disasters, and we’re still here, dominating the planet.  It is only recently on our evolutionary timeline that we spend more time indoors than out.  We are built to be a part of nature, not to just visit it or drive through it on our way to the local fast food place.

So why do so many people make excuses for why they don’t spend more, if any time at all, outside?  What are some excuses that are given, and how can we get around them?


It’s too cold/ hot/ muggy/ rainy/ snowy.

No way am I going outside today, not even to my mailbox.  I heard it might rain.

Do you not own a raincoat, umbrella, poncho, or even a towel?  Is there a flash flood warning for your sidewalk?  Look, rain happens, and we’re pretty waterproof.  We don’t shrivel up or melt when some water hits our skin, like those aliens in the M. Night Shamalamdingdong epic Signs.

 

signs water shyamalan (Custom)

I got 99 problems, but a drip ain’t one.

 

Embrace the rain.  Embrace weather in general.  We’ve developed methods for battling any kind of weather the planet can throw at us.  Humans have walked to the South Pole, the top of Everest, and the length of the Amazon River.  They weren’t naked, but they also didn’t have the modern clothing and equipment that we do.  So, if it’s too cold for you, put on a coat.  If it’s too hot, wear lighter, breathable clothing.  If it’s raining, take a rain jacket or umbrella.  If you’re reading this, you have access to this wondrous website.  Go there, put your location in the search box, and be amazed that we have evolved far enough to actually PREDICT the weather a few days in advance! Science!

That will tell you what you need to wear or take to do something as simple as walking around your block or in the park.  Go outside.


There isn’t anywhere for me to go.

I live in Bigcity, UrbanState.  The closest wilderness area is 150 miles away.

While it may be true, especially in the northeast portion of the United States, that there aren’t any sizable National Parks within a few hours or so of a given city, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any natural areas nearby.  New York City has Central Park.  Philadelphia has Fairmount Park, and the Baltimore/ DC area has tons of public acreage.  I’m not saying you’re going out to the wilderness and roughing it overnight, but you’re not going to be staring at concrete and cars the entire time either.

 

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Pictured: Gorge Metropark, between Akron and Cuyahoga Falls, OH…two cities with a combined population of 250,000. Not Pictured: Cars and concrete.

 

Even in the largest, most urban city imaginable, the sun still shines (yes, and it rains too), the wind still blows, and weeds grow in the cracks between chunks of sidewalk.  If we humans ever ceased to exist, nature would take completely over in less than a century, because it has always had a foothold, no matter how much we bulldoze and pave over it.  Parks are places where we’ve made an agreement with nature that we’ll let it stick around in some form, as long as we can play ultimate frisbee or sit on a bench and read the newspaper in its domain.  I have yet to travel anywhere in the country, or even internationally, where there wasn’t some form of park or open space within a few minutes.  All you need to enjoy it is your senses…it doesn’t have to be Yosemite.  Do a Google Maps search for parks, or hell, you can even ask me, and I’ll find you something.


I don’t have time to waste.

I’m far too busy to go to the park or waste time just sitting outside.  I’ve got a job, kids, bills, and dog.  It would take me ten minutes to drive to the park, and I need that time to “kill it” on my treadmill.

 

Try this exercise.  The next time you walk outside to your car/ bus stop/ hovercraft, stop to take a look for anything that wasn’t placed there by human hands.  It’s impossible to not find something.  Did you see a blade of grass, or maybe even a *gasp! tree?  There, you just appreciated nature, and all it took was 3 seconds of your time.  It wasn’t even wasted.  You were still on your way to wherever you needed to be, and you multi-tasked!  Give yourself a pat on the back.

But what if you decided to “kill it” by going for a 30 minute walk, with your dog, and having your kids come along?  I haven’t met a kid that doesn’t enjoy being outside, even when they seemingly are glued to the Xbox all the time. You just multi-tasked even more, and provided benefits for all!  We’re awarding you the title of efficiency champion!

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Here’s your prize.

 

Yeah, but my kid is too young to even walk, so there!

And?  Haven’t humans been carrying around their kids, outside, for millenia?  We’ve got modern solutions to that too.

Kinzua 12

They see me rollin, they hatin

 

Kids should never be an excuse to not go on a hike.  In fact, they enhance the experience.  They’re closer to the ground (unless they’re on our backs, of course), and so much more observant than we think.  Shelby was six months old in that picture, and already enjoying the woods.  There have been countless times she has pointed something out to me that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise, because she, like many kids, is interested in things she’s never seen before, and wants to share it with an adult.


I’m too out of shape.

I can barely walk 100 yards without getting winded.  Any temperature over 45 degrees makes me sweat to the point of dehydration.

There really is no excuse here.  If you’re out of shape, walking will only help.  Take that 100 yards, and walk it.  Next time, walk 150.  Then 200.  You may sweat, or pant, or feel like you’re about to have a heart attack, but for the most part, it is GOOD FOR YOU.  It’s a free gym pass.  I’m not suggesting that you try to through-hike the Appalachian Trail.  It’s perfectly understandable that there may be some physical pain and discomfort involved when you take a walk for the first time, but just like any workout regimen, your body adjusts quickly.  Look for places that have level ground…even a walk around a small park can get you started.  The goal is not to lose weight.  The goal is to be in nature.


I’m disabled.

I have/ suffer from insert disability here.  It is physically impossible for me to hike.

OK, this one hits close to home.  My late wife was disabled.  She suffered from cystic fibrosis.  I was nigh impossible for her to be outside in the cold, or to deal with the humidity of summer.  She sure tried though.

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My late wife, Megan, on a backpacking trip in Dolly Sods, WV, enjoying the campfire.

 

But what if you can’t walk?  I’m happy to say that there are numerous handicapped accessible trails, all through our national, state, and local parks.  You don’t have to walk to enjoy nature; you just have to BE in nature.  This may mean getting creative.  There are tons of accessible places around that one can go that don’t fit the mold of a traditional rocky, root filled path, yet still let you experience nature.

  • Arboretums/ Botanical Gardens
  • Garden Centers
  • Zoos/ Aquariums
  • Natural History Museums
  • Google Street View (yes, really!  Many of the most popular trails have street view available for you to hike!  Hey, it’s better than cat videos.)

Even for those that are bedridden, just opening a window and placing a few houseplants around can bring nature to them.  It’s amazing what some sunlight, birds chirping, and plants within view can do for someone who otherwise is confined to the indoors.


I don’t like nature.

Trees are dumb.  The wind messes my hair up, and I sunburn easily.  I don’t want to go outside.

I can’t help you at this point.  Just stay inside and play video games and watch TV.  I’ll be in the woods if you need me.

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Though to be fair, even this guy has figured out a creative way to do so while being outside.