A Fresh Start, and Some Updates

I have been away for too long! Over the last several months I have bee very busy with professional obligations and have forgotten entirely about this blog. I had resolved not to let this happen, but alas. Things seem to have regularized at work for now, so I will return. Now for some updates:

(1) We have bought a treadmill so there is no excuse when the weather is bad. And we have had a rough winter so far here in Pittsburgh, so I’m glad we have that option. In the short term I would like to set weekly distance goals: weekly so that I have several days’ wiggle room and distance so that I don’t need to worry if I’m not in the mood to jog. For now I’m working on a half-marathon a week, but ideally I’d work up to a marathon each week, preferably outside but when necessary on this:

(2) As for a long term goal, I think I will try to hike the first stretch of the Appalachian Trail in GA over spring break next year, from Springer Mtn. to Unicoi Gap (at GA 17/75). Logistics will still be difficult with two children, but I want to try for it. Especially in March the first stretch of the AT will be very exciting, with several dozen thru-hikers starting each day. I would solo-hike with confidence since the trail will be very populated.

(3) I have recently updated my gear list. Except for the two most expensive and central items (pack and sleeping bag), I have a complete kit for most 3 season conditions in Eastern forests. My plan is to save up over the next year to buy the GoLite Jam 50, if nothing else.

OK, that’s enough for now. Let’s see what comes of this…I hope I can stick with it!

Hiking Sticks & Trekking Poles

Any recommendations for a good hiking stick?

This is a loaded question for me. I own the following hiking sticks, and am very attached to three (or four) of them:

sticks 1Standard-size garage door for scale

The first two (from the left) are DIY wooden sticks. I believe they are both Dogwood, but I can’t be sure about the small one. Both are cut down from live trees, which is not recommended anymore. The shorter one (#1) I cut down, carved, and treated with polyurethane back in 1993-4, and it was my hiking stick all through elementary school.

high knoll brand

Stick #2 with a brand from when I hiked the High Knoll Trail at Camp Daniel Boone.

I forget precisely when, but sometime in middle school I decided I needed a bigger stick (#2). So I went out after a “big snow” (2-3 inches in NC is a “big snow”) and found a decent looking dogwood tree. If you’re going to do this, it’s best to go looking in the wintertime since there isn’t any green to distract your eye from your quarry: a straight trunk. I don’t recommend this method anymore, but if you must, make sure you are on your own property with your own trees. I removed the branches, let it dry some, carved the bark off, let it dry some more, and then sanded it down. The whole process took a month or so for the wood to be sufficiently dry and I didn’t use unnatural poly this time. So this larger stick has served me well on many treks and may be my favorite — it’s the perfect size, weight, durability, and is the product of my own handiwork.

Bottom line: if you find the right kind of wood, a DIY natural hiking stick can be perfect if you have the time, patience, and natural resources to make it happen.

The middle three are wooden but have been purchased. All three were gifts of sorts. The first (#3) was a gift from my parents who found it somewhere in Appalachia at a gift shop. The head is carved like a fish and two little beads are glued in for eyes. It is a nice size for more serious treks but has been treated with something so that it is very slick. More of a cool souvenir than a useful tool.

stick with tracks guide

Stick #5 with guide to tracks.

The other two are very similar: one was my late grandfather’s (#4) and one was a recent Christmas gift from my in laws (#5). They are both shorter, simple and durable, with rubber feet glued on. The one from my mother and father in law is nice because it has a thick leather wristband that features a concise guide to animal tracks, a cheat sheet for when I’m out with the scouts. While not ideal for really serious hikes, these shorter sticks are great for casual walks in the park where there will be some tricky portions or stream crossings, but nothing too difficult. And the rubber feet protect the wood on paved or gravel surfaces.

In general I think these commercial-but-natural wooden sticks have a more limited range of use than DIY, but they are perfect for family outings and less intense activity if that’s what you’re going for. And there’s no work for you! (except the cash up front…)

The last two (well, three) are metal trekking poles. Next to last (#6) is a trekking pole I bartered for in Boy Scouts. They typically sell these poles in pairs just like ski poles, and my buddy didn’t want his second one so I bought it off of him. It’s telescoping: I have it set to its longest length in the photo, 145 cm, and can collapse as short as about 45 cm. It has a built in shock absorber, a rubber grip, a foam hand grip at the top, and a wrist strap. I don’t know what materials it’s made of or any detailed technical specs since I bought it second-hand over 10 years ago. It’s pretty heavy, being an early model (~2001) and tricked out with unnecessary shocks, so I wouldn’t go on a backpacking trip with it now that I have alternatives. But it is nice to keep in the trunk for spur-of-the-moment day hikes, since it breaks down compactly.

exped grips

exped tips

The final set of poles (#7) are my most recent acquisition, purchased with this year’s REI dividend. They are Exped Alpine 125 trekking poles. They collapse telescopically rather than breaking apart like a Z — I prefer this method of collapse to reduce clutter. They are made of aluminum and with a length range from 95 cm (37 in) to 125 cm (49 in) they are perfect for me. Any longer and I’d be carrying dead weight. As for weight, they come in at 13 oz / pair, which is pretty good for a mid-range trekking pole at $125 (NB: I spent only $100 of my dividend by using my 20% off coupon — REI memberships are totally worth it). These poles come with two sets of baskets, which I don’t usually have much use for, along with carbide tips which provide great traction. They also have a very high quality foam at the top of the pole; simple grips around the pole and then a shaped grip up top with an adjustable wrist band. As I will show in a future post, these poles make up part of my tarp system, a very lightweight shelter kit.

Metal trekking poles are expensive but can be a good investment for those who are doing more advanced hiking and/or snowshoeing. They are also ideal for those who are working toward a tarp system as a lightweight alternative to traditional freestanding double-walled tents. Neither kind of natural stick above can serve this purpose as easily or consistently.

One thing I’ll mention in closing is that I do not recommend counting on finding a stick in the woods while you’re out there. While you can do this if necessary, I do not recommend relying on this. A comfortable, familiar and reliable stick is too important on longer treks for this kind of impromptu move.

Your Kit (Follow Up)

This is an important follow up to Twelve Outdoor Essentials and some of the questions that came up in the com-box.

I mentioned there that I prefer a “systems based” approach to your kit than a simple list of items to bring on every trip. I want to explain a bit more what that means. In the past we would just have a canonical list of items you had to bring on every trip — items like “compass” and “pocketknife.” In recent times, however, there has been a move to emphasizing systems — instead of “map and compass” we now put “navigation” on the list. This is for several reasons, but two in particular.

First, items given on detailed lists are neither always necessary nor always sufficient. On *on some trips* a map and compass (for instance) will not be enough. Beyond a map and compass, I often find that having a watch is an essential tool for keeping track of how long and how far I’ve hiked (Skurka also considers a watch under the heading of “navigation” in his book). Even more importantly, hikers often find themselves using altimeters and more advanced navigation technology like GPS units in more remote areas. While I don’t own a GPS unit (beyond my cell phone’s limited capabilities), I wouldn’t want to rule the item out as “inessential” for every trip. Alternatively *on other trips* a map and compass might be too much or wholly unnecessary, perhaps in a well-traveled park with well-blazed trails.

“Item based” lists also downplay the varying range of item types. “The list says I need a compass, but do I need an emergency button compass, a baseplate compass, or a tricked out orienteering model?” You might ask the same questions for varying degrees of map detail: “will the park map suffice or should I supplement with USGS quadrangles?” “Items based” lists do not offer easy answers questions like this, while “systems based” approaches force you to decide what items to bring each time you go out. One way to think about it is that “items based” lists offer cheap and superficial preparedness, the bad kind (like in the video below). The style, location and circumstances of each and every trip should determine what particular items you bring, while on every trip you should have each of the “essential systems” covered.

Second, lists which are “item based” downplay the most essential thing: your mind. Tools are useless if you can’t use them. “Items based” lists give us a false sense of comfort — “I have my compass, I can’t get lost!” This is silly. The mere having of a map or compass guarantees nothing, and this goes for most items in your kit. They are tools that you must put to use, and if you lack the necessary skills they become dead weight and offer a false sense of security. Imagine carrying bear spray, coming upon a bear, and only then fumbling to read the instructions.

Furthermore, if you are in a park that you know well, or have studied the map ahead of time, you may not need one in the field. If you don’t expect difficult navigation, and you learn basic compass-less navigation skills ahead of time, you can use the sun or other cues to figure out which way is which. Your navigation system, in some limited cases, can be limited entirely to what is in between your ears.

(not willing to pay for this image)

In my view, then, “systems based” approaches are far superior since they force us to develop our kits to be trip-specific and user-specific.

Previously I posted a detailed list with specific items given, and I should explain that. This list is designed for 3-season conditions in Eastern forests and fields for day hikes (not including an overnight stay). Ideally you evaluate every item for every trip, but as I’ve posted on before you don’t want preparation to get in the way of action. It’s helpful to have a ready kit in your trunk or garage to go for a quick 3 hour excursion into the woods, and not have to worry about whether you can start a fire, heal a wound, repel bugs, or signal for help if you get into a bind.

packs differ

Five different kits, five different purposes.

Everyone’s kit is going to be different based on what you plan to do, and for any substantial trip you should revisit what items you take. While everyone will prepare and have some kind of navigation system, not everyone will carry a compass or a GPS unit.

Detailed “items based” lists are always derived from more general “systems based” lists PLUS certain specific conditions, goals, and circumstances. Items based lists are NOT, and can never be, one-size-fits-all.

In the coming weeks I’m going to provide detailed posts on each of the “systems” and offer some of the principles I use in choosing which particular items to bring.

Here they are again:

  1. Knife, Tools & Repair Kit
  2. Navigation
  3. Fire & Ignition
  4. Illumination
  5. First Aid
  6. Signaling
  7. Sun Protection
  8. Insect Protection
  9. Insulation
  10. Shelter
  11. Nutrition
  12. Hydration

The Twelve Outdoor Essentials

[NOTE: this post has a sequel]

Where should I begin developing my outdoor kit?  What do I need to bring on every trip outdoors?

Perhaps you’re just getting started and need to know what to bring for your first substantial day-hike in a state forest.  Maybe it’s been a long time since you hiked and you’re just getting back into it, and you want to be sure to be prepared and not forget anything as you dig through all your old gear.  And maybe you’re a parent of a new boy or girl scout and you want to make sure they’re ready for the outdoors.

As usual, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel here.  The scouts and outdoor organizations have often made lists of “outdoor essentials,” usually of 10 key items that you shouldn’t leave home without.  Unfortunately, these lists don’t exactly match up.

scout outdoor essentials

Boy Scouts (also here)

Mountaineers (the original list)

REI (includes a cheesy video)

What I’ve found is that the newer “system” based lists are helpful, as opposed to the older “item” based ones, but they tend to miss two key “systems.”

So here is the Jon Trails 12 Essentials, including the following 12 systems, very clearly inspired by the above sources but including the missing two.

  1. Knife, Tools & Repair Kit
  2. Navigation
  3. Fire & Ignition
  4. Illumination
  5. First Aid
  6. Signaling
  7. Sun Protection
  8. Insect Protection
  9. Insulation
  10. Shelter
  11. Nutrition
  12. Hydration

I have added Signaling and Insect Protection, for obvious reasons, I think.

I find it easy to memorize the list in pairs, as listed: knife and compass, fire and flashlight, sun and insect protection, etc.  This can help if you’re throwing together a pack for a trip.  I keep my daypack in the trunk of my car at all times with these items, plus other non-essentials like binoculars and a notepad.  Water bottles are kept full.  The idea is to have a kind of “go bag” so that I’m always ready to hike around if the opportunity presents itself.  The only difficulty I’ve found is with food — you don’t want to leave food in a hot trunk.  I must admit, though, that I’ve been caught more than once wishing I had some trail mix back there!

my pack

I keep really essential items in the top zipper so that if I don’t need to carry the whole pack or I can quickly grab what I need (knife, compass, whistle, lighter, small flashlight).

There are also these helpful lists from REI:

Day Hiking List

Backpacking List

My Gear Lists, Or Why Excel is Indispensable

Things are about to get serious…no pictures of cute kids in this post!

As promised, here are my gear lists.  I have a “semi-ideal gear list” and an “actual gear list.”  They are in pdf format for internet use.  Please contact me if you’re interested in my excel spreadsheet for your own use (it’s not too hard to program yourself).  As usual, the organization is very much inspired by the gear lists in Skurka’s very helpful book, although I’ve tweaked some things for myself.

The list is organized in 6 sections: items worn or carried, clothing packed, sleeping system, cooking system, small essentials, and pack system.  The math works out as below:

gear list totals

Some detailed info:

“Base weight” refers to the weight of one’s kid not including items worn or consumed.  You can see that my actual kit has a 50% heavier base weight than my semi-ideal kit, coming in at 16+ lbs.  This is because my semi-ideal kit lists the weights of two of the “big three” which I have not yet upgraded: my pack and my sleeping bag.

Backpackers often talk about the “big three” as the three most significant sources of weight: sleep system, shelter, and the pack itself.  While my shelter system is pretty light at 22.4 oz (not including trekking poles), my sleeping bag is very heavy at 51 oz. and my pack is very substantial at almost 6 lbs.  I don’t mind the heavy pack: my Gregory Baltoro is indestructible and very comfortable, but I hope to upgrade the sleeping bag soon.  What I have is perfect for car camping, but not ideal for backpacking (more on this in future posts).

All of the other ways to cut unnecessary weight are relatively cheap, and often involves eliminating redundancies (more on this, too, in future posts).  Upgrading the small stuff is a gradual process you can do over time: the lines marked with orange in my lists are flagged for gradual upgrades of minor items.

Both lists are suited for 3 season hiking in Eastern forests, since that’s where I live.  If I were planning a trip elsewhere, these lists would look very different.  But here, when hiking from spring to fall, what I take is influenced by several factors:

  • temperatures from the 40s at nighttime to 90s during the daytime
  • high humidity and a fair amount of precipitation
  • relatively low elevations, rarely getting over a “mile high”
  • sunlight from 12 to 16 hours a day
  • generally soft ground terrain, with rare rocky bits
  • generally good coverage from the sun, with rare exposed sections
  • abundant water sources
  • bears are usually not a problem, depending where you go; insects can be
  • it’s hard to get really remote in the Eastern US, so civilization isn’t far

I hope to share more in the future, but for now, I hope you enjoy my lists!

What outdoor gear would you like to acquire or replace?

Sleeping Bags

[NOTE: this post is about proper sleeping bags, excluding liners, blanket systems, and quilts]

I’m currently in the market for a new sleeping bag. New gear! So much to consider. I’ve used the same bag for over 10 years. My current bag is a Coleman mummy that my parents bought me when I first became a Boy Scout. It’s a good 3 season bag, probably 25 or 30 degrees F. I’ve found, though, that it’s not as light or as packable as I’d like. This hasn’t been a problem so far I’ve just used my liner on long trips. But now that I want to do more 3 season backpacking, I figure it’s time to replace the bag.

There are really 5 factors that go into choosing a sleeping bag:

1) Cut – Most backpackers will opt for a mummy style since it saves on weight and volume. If you’re just car camping you might go with a rectangular or semi-rectangular cut.

2) Fill – Down or synthetic? A tough choice for some, others swear by their choice. The problem is, there are zealots on both sides. Down keeps you warmer with less filling, is lighter, more packable, and generally lasts longer than synthetic filling. It is a little amazing that we still haven’t developed a fiber that matches down feathers in these respects. That said, down doesn’t do as well as synthetic fiber in damp conditions and down bags are more expensive. Lots of things to weigh (!). But if you have a mild allergy to down feathers (like me) the choice is easy for reasons beyond such calculations.

3) Temperature Rating – When will the bag be used? Summer-only (rating 35 degrees and up), 3 season (15 to 35 degrees), or also in colder conditions (below 15 degrees)? Every bag comes with some sort of manufacturer’s temp. rating. The accuracy of these ratings will vary according to sex, body size, tent style, whether you’re sharing a tent, whether you’re using a bag liner, what style of sleeping pad you’re using, etc. For instance, I tend to sleep warm, so I can usually sleep comfortably even if it drops 10 degrees below the bag’s rating. There are also independent ratings that help keep manufacturers honest about their own ratings…because sometimes the bags don’t turn out to be as warm as advertized.

4) Weight and Packability – Some bags pack better than others, and some are lighter than others. If you want a bag for backpacking, these two factors are especially important. The differences among bags are due to either the filling type or the shell. There can even be a great deal of variation among down bags or among sythetic bags, too – some down bags are heavier than other down bags and some sythetic blends weigh more than other synthetics. So even after deciding for (or against) a down bag it’s still important to pay attention to the weight specs.

5) Price – Simple enough. The problem is this: you can have a light bag, a cheap bag, or a warm bag – pick 2. If the price is held constant, as the temperature rating goes down, the weight goes up. If you want to stick with a low weight, as the temp. rating is warmer, the price goes up. And among bags with the same temp. rating, the lighter the bag, the more expensive. So these three factors – weight, rating, and price – are indirectly proportional.

I think I’ve settled on this bag – a mummy synthetic, with a medium temperature rating able to keep me warm even if it drops into the 20s, weighing about 3 lbs, with a pricetag of only $90 bucks.

Marmot Bag