Posted by Shelby on

Pyro’s Posts: Watch out for Tornadoes

Periodically, my 9-year-old daughter, Shelby (trail name: Pyro) will be writing something for Backcountry Mentor, allowing her to describe and share about her views on hiking, camping, and backpacking.  What follows is her second installment.

Shelby at Ash Cave, Hocking Hills State Park, OH

Shelby at Ash Cave, Hocking Hills State Park, OH

Posted by Mike on

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.

Posted by Mike on

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?

Posted by Mike on

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.


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.



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!


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.


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.


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


Posted by Mike on

Quotes of Hemingway Guide to Enjoying a Weekend in the Woods.

Quotes of Hemingway Guide to Enjoying a Weekend in the Woods.
Warning, shameless Ernest Hemingway name dropping ahead…  

Ernest Hemingway was born in 1899.  Through his years, he was best known for his writing, but he was also a boxer, solider, U-boat hunter, war correspondent, deep sea fisherman, and a general adventurer.  He did all of this while having 4 different wives, 3 children, and 5 grandchildren that were born before his death in 1961.  Needless to say, he wasn’t the most doting father and husband.  However, from a philosophical sense, his writings and quotes hold numerous meanings to me with regards to enjoying a calm, relaxing weekend in the woods.

I’m 33 years old, the father of a 7 year old, and married to a woman who received a double lung transplant a few years ago.  Unlike Hemingway, I tend to feel guilty about going away for a long weekend to someplace without cell phone service, leaving them to fend for themselves.  I’m sure that without me there, the dogs will run away, the house will burn down, and they’ll both die of starvation by Saturday night because I wasn’t there to order a pizza. 

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

This quote of Hemingway means so much in so many different ways.  The only way I can trust that the dogs won’t run away, is to give them the chance to do so, and then see that they don’t.  I have to put trust into my wife that she is a wonderful mother, and will make sure that they are fed, clean, and having fun while I’m gone.  She’s never let me down.

When I get it in my head that I want to go to the woods, it starts with weeks or even months of planning, a month or so of buying “essential” gear like the special backpacking stove that I REALLY need because “Look! It can charge my cell phone!”, followed by a few days of packing, unpacking, repacking, remembering that the sleeping quilts should be on the BOTTOM of your top loading pack, unpacking again, and finally repacking and throwing the pack in the damn car before you realize that you put your cell phone in the bottom of the pack, and you aren’t leaving for 2 days.

But what really throws a wrench in the mix is the final 24 hours before I leave.  I tend to ask my wife 4,000 times if she’s OK with me going, because I feel like she secretly doesn’t mean it when she says “I’m fine with it, just go so I can have a weekend to myself with Shelby.”

So, how do I finally get up, get out, and get going without just calling the whole thing off?

“The shortest answer is doing the thing.” 

Look at him.  Just enjoying being out, without a worry in the world.

So for all the planning, buying, packing, preparing, and asking “permission” to go away for a few days, I just have to go.  And you know what?  That always works out just fine.  The minute I hit the road, I feel better.  My mind clears, and I can already smell the pine trees, and hear the babbling of the stream I’m lying beside.   

What about that gear I just had to buy?  Well, I generally find that having that stove that charges my cell phone, is more trouble than it’s worth when backpacking.  It’s heavy, noisy, finicky, and I don’t even have cell phone service.  Sure, it boils water faster than a regular wood stove, but then again, so does my canister stove.  I use the gear once, and then it sits in my basement, only used sparingly for a “change of pace”.  

“The man who has begun to live more seriously within begins to live more simply without”


When you’re in the backcountry, you have a lot of things with you.  The thing you have the most of is time, even though it can sometimes feel like you never have enough.  With this time, one tends to think.  I think about my family, I wonder what the species of trees are that my hammock is hung from, and, perhaps from my military background, I think about “debriefing”, all the time.  It’s only after the day’s hike that I begin to tear down my packing list, and realize that half of the things I carried were never, and will never be needed in the woods.  Once I’m home, the gear gets stashed, almost never to be seen again.  Once I sit down and seriously think about what I’m doing and what I need, I begin to simplify my life.  The trick is doing this BEFORE I start packing.

“My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.” 

  No special notebook, no typewriter, just pen, paper, and time.

This is the most important “non-philosophical” quote of this whole post.  Keep a journal, or a “travelogue”, of your trips.  It can be a stack of index cards, a small spiral notebook, or a nice rite-in-the-rain field journal.   Not only will it be nice in your golden years to read, reminisce, and perhaps even publish somewhere, but it can also be useful for the next trip you are planning for.  The point is to put pen to paper, and clear your mind of everything that’s running through it.  Only when you’re sure your thoughts, observations, and events are captured outside of your mind can you truly clear your mind and enjoy the weekend.  You can shrug off the problem of carrying that heavy stove 7 miles back to the car by ensuring that you’ll just deal with it at home upon your return, and never carry it again.  

This post was never intended to be a technical “how-to” (although the title may be a little misleading).  It’s more of a philosophical mind-hack.  But, if you want a quick checklist to summarize, here you go:

  1. Don’t worry about what others will be doing.  Trust them completely and honestly, and enjoy your weekend.
  2. Plan your trip, smartly and simply, but don’t obsess over things that really don’t matter.  JUST GO, and enjoy your weekend.
  3. When you’re finally out there, reflect on where you are, what you’re doing, what you’re carrying, and if you really need all of that gear to enjoy your weekend.
  4. When you feel like you’ve got it all figured out, write it down for future use, clear your mind, and just ENJOY THE WEEKEND.
  5. See the words in all caps?  There is your ultra simple, handy guide to “Just go, and enjoy the weekend”.  You never know when you’ll get another chance.