Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Navigating by phone

I have written - in many venues - about my dislike of using a phone as our primary navigation tool. I have railed against the problems with this time and time again, so I won't do it one more time, but I recently got an email from Sarah. Sarah wrote the introduction to my latest book and paddled the inside passage with me. As an adventurer she is as good as it gets, and I would do any kind of trip with her. The gist of her email was that she willingly decided to use her phone as her primary navigation tool on a recent cycle packing trip. Here is what she wrote:

For the first time, we decided to navigate by phone. We have the Gaia App and input a GPX track into the app. This ended up being essential, because there were SO MANY additional tracks and forest service roads that had been created- it was really challenging to know if we were on the right track, unless we looked at the GPS track. 

Our back-up to our phone was a map, but it wasn't detailed enough and was missing the majority of these new roads and trails. However, we brought a charge external battery that would use to re-charge our phones. We also brought a solar panel. So, we felt that we had sufficient backup for this system. However, we had not factored in that our connecting cable may fail us! So, night 4 rolls around and we are at 21% battery on both phones. Steph goes to charge our phones and the adapter that she had just bought (and tested at home) no longer works. In the end, we got back to the car with 2% battery left (and the entire 4.5 days we had been ultra careful in how we were using our phones - one phone was always turned off). The navigation in the woods on that final day was hard, and we tried to use the phone as little as possible. Anyway, I had visions of us needing to get rescued because we were lost or ended up miles from the car and had no food left. And, this rescue would have been all due to stupid human error! Luckily, it all worked out. And, since we returned home, Steph has found a great website that allows us to print a much more detailed version of the route without it being 15 pages long! 

So, this really illustrates some of the problems with using our phones as our nav tool. But the fact is that they couldn't have done the trip without that GPX track - that I can only assume they got from someone else who had done the same route. That kind of sharing of information is amazing, and not really available in many other venues. A decade ago that information would have been hand written and maybe included notes on a map. It all would have been horrifically inaccurate. You could make the argument that the inaccuracies and the concern over the route is what makes it an adventure, but I would take the correct info any day.

So I am considering changing my viewpoint on the use of phones. I don't think we are there yet, but we are getting close. Phones need to be easier to charge, and water proof. But their ease of use, and ready data from literally millions of people opens up so many possibilities. I can't help but wonder if I did my Inside passage trip today how much more data I would have access to? 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Gear you have been told you need*

*but don't really need

We sell a lot of gear for use in the backcountry, and there is some pretty amazing stuff. Satellite trackers and beacons. Backpacks that feel weightless. Stoves that boil water in seconds, and HD cameras that weigh mere ounces. But the outdoor industry sells a lot of gear that just isn't necessary. I won't put a price on having a quality rain shell, or base layers. A good a pair of foot wear can make or break a trip. But here is a list of things that we put way to high of  a value on, that we can really do with out.

footprints for tents - A foot prints job is to protect the bottom of your tent. If you pitch your tent on something sharp - a rock, a stick - it will put a hole in the foot print instead of your tent. Foot prints don't add waterproofness to your tent. I use a ground cloth (which is a generic rectangle of material, whereas a footprint is designed to fit a specific tent.) from a tent I had 20 years ago. It works fine. Many people use a piece of tyvek or a thin painters drop cloth. A two person tents foot print can cost between $25 and $60. Spend your money elsewhere.

Pack covers - I am by far, in the minority here. Most people use pack covers. A pack cover is like a shower cap for your pack. It covers your pack leaving the support system accessible so you can wear it. The reasoning is that your pack isn't waterproof so this keeps your gear dry. My response, isn't your sleeping bag in something waterproof? Aren't your extra clothes? So what are you protecting? There is nothing else in your pack you need to worry about? The response from the masses, well, the pack itself will absorb moisture and your pack will get wet and heavy. This is nonsense. Your pack is made of nylon, which is really oil. How well do oil and water mix? exactly. Pack covers are so well engrained into the backpacking culture that I think I am the last person who doesn't use one.

Sporks - The argument is that they weigh less, and are more functional. I can't ever remember using the tines on the front of my snow peak spork. I use it more as a spoon. I love my titanium spork. It weighs .6 ounces. It is super light weight. It is super cool. I just went to my kitchen and grabbed a much larger standard kitchen spoon. It is what I grew up calling a table spoon. It weighs 1.2 ounces. I then grabbed a smaller kitchen spoon, what I grew up calling a teaspoon. It weighs .7 ounces. Sorry Snow Peak. You were a waste of ten bucks. Now, a long handled spoon for freeze dried meals is another story all together.

Multiple knives, hatchets and axes - I pack a single folding knife. I actually carry it every day. On very long trips I add a multi tool. You have zero knife needs beyond this. You don't need a hatchet or an axe because you should only be using dead and down wood for camp fires. The rest of this is "I like knives because they are cool." Get over it. Pack a knife that works for you.

1000 lumen flashlights - Ultra bright flashlights are tactical weapons. Not useful in campsite. I use a headlamp which leaves my hands free. My big first aid kit has a small flashlight for checking pupils. See above if you are packing them because they seem cool.

Suture kits, or other med devices you aren't trained for and will never really need - I have been teaching in the outdoors for 17 years. I have been teaching wilderness medicine for 10. You don't need a suture kit. You don't need quick clot (unless you work with a chain saw or other such devices in the back country). Normal people doing backcountry trips need band aids, mole skin and maybe 4x4's.

This one is photography specific. UV filters and Skylight filters on cameras. The reasons we are told we need these, they remove a blue cast from our images. The keep dust and dirt from getting on the lens, and they protect the lens from scratches and impacts. They removed a blue cast from lenses when we shot film. with digital this is no longer an issue. I have been carrying a camera for almost 40 years. I have never broken the front element of a lens. I am hard on gear, and this just doesn't happen. It is just a way to get you to spend more money.

I pride myself on telling people the things they need and the things they don't. The number of people that carry 3 or more knives but don't carry a first aid kit would surprise you. Learn to bring what you need. At the end of your trip make three piles. Gear you used. Gear you didn't use. And Gear you didn't use that still goes on your next trip (this includes First Aid Kits and rainwear.)

If you think you need it... Leave it home.

Bring only things you need.

Now I am sure that things on this list upset people because they like having something I mentioned in the backcountry. That's fine. Just don't live under the illusion that you need it. Call it what it is. You want it, and that's fine. Just don't complain about how much your pack weighs.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Say Hello to GO!

After a year and a half of work I am proud to announce the release of my next book. GO! Planning weekend trips to month long adventures.

Go! gives you a framework to plan adventures from a weekend in length to a month long monster trip. The book uses three trips to illustrate how to use the framework, a weekend hiking on the AT, a week long cycle packing trip on the blue ridge parkway, and a month long kayak trip in Alaska.

Use the skills I have mastered as an outdoor educator and guide to create your own adventures. Using the same process outdoor professionals use to have amazing experiences, while following a safe, logical progression to ever longer, and more complex trips. 

The book covers everything from how to come up with ideas for your trips, and what keeps people from doing big trips. To the details of gear needs, food requirements, meal planning, and the physical prep needed to accomplish our goals. It even discusses how to debrief a trip to learn from mistakes and capitalize on successes.

I had the assistance of both a personal trainer and a nutritionist, as well as several consultants in areas outside my scope of experience, like packing a bike for a multiday trip.

Take a journey with me, through these three trips, so you can take a journey on your own. Safely, while pushing your skill set to a new level.

GO! is available now, on Amazon and the iBookstore.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Safety and risk management in the outdoors

Risk and safety. I think about these two separate things pretty frequently. In part because I spend a lot of time leading novices in the outdoors, and I need to balance the two. If I run a course and it doesn't offer some level of risk, it is deemed boring. But If I crank up the risk, my students/participants may think it's exciting but to a level that makes the outing no fun. Essentially it becomes too scary to be enjoyable. This is a hard thing to balance and even more so for inexperienced individuals on their own trips. Without a good understanding of risk management, you may ramp up the risk way too far, and endanger your own safety. But at the same time, no one wants a trip to be boring. right?

On an almost daily basis I see people doing things that are unsafe. Particularly paddling. The problem is not perceiving that there is a risk occurring at a particular moment. I have had people tell me that they don't wear a PFD because they don't perceive the risk, or the danger. Not perceiving the risk doesn't mean it doesn't exist, it just means you don't have the experience to perceive it.

A sentence I hear all the time, "I've done it this way a hundred times, so it must be safe" The response to this - whether spoken or not - is, no you just haven't been caught yet. Doing something repeatedly doesn't imply safety, really what it implies is luck. You have just been lucky.

Playing in the outdoors is inherently dangerous. At the beginning of class I ask my students to assess the risks we are facing, I ask them "what bad things could happen today?" This is an interesting exercise because it tells me a) what people are afraid of, and b) how aware of the risks they are. The answers vary wildly from "I will flip the boat, get stuck and drown" to "We could get struck by lightning." Both are real risks, but the former doesn't happen, and the latter happens more often than you can imagine. But if you ask a novice paddler which is more likely, invariably they will say it should be the other way around.

So, how do we learn to perceive the risk, assess it, and respond accordingly? Experience, evaluation, and adjustment.

We have to get out into the world and have adventures. We have to go and do the things we enjoy doing, and have experiences in the outdoors. Because actual real world experiences become the fodder for step 2. Step 2 is the thing no one does. It should be a regular part of every outing.

Step 2, evaluation (some call it reflection). We have to evaluate all that happened on our outing. Good and bad. We need to assess as many aspects of the experience as possible.

When step 2 is completed - remember step 2 is the hard part - we move on to step three. Step 3 is adjustment. We have found the issues from the previous outing, and we can make adjustments for them.

On one of the last NOLS sea kayaking courses I worked, we were doing Independent student travel. This is a particularly difficult thing to pull off on sea kayaking courses. There are just too many things that can go wrong for relatively novice students. We can do it two ways. The instructors stay at the back of the group, just close enough to see what is going on, where there can respond if they have to. You can also break the students into small groups, and put an instructor in each group. The instructor isn't allowed to speak unless there is a risk management issue. On this particular course we were running it this way. I was at the back of a group of four, minding my own business while keeping an eye on the ever changing water environment we were paddling in. they were making the decision about which direction to paddle and how to do an exposed section of water. They spent a few minutes discussing it, before I opened my mouth. I said "ladies, you have 30 seconds to make a decision and then we have to move." They forced the issue and made a call. then proceeded to follow their plan. They did a great job, and the rest of the day went without incident. That night I got a visit in my camp site from one of the students who felt that I had overstepped my bounds by forcing their hand to make a decision. They were processing the data, and were taking their time. I shouldn't have rushed them. I explained why I had rushed them. They didn't realize that as they were making their decision, they were drifting backwards, and in 30 seconds we would have been pushed onto exposed rocks. They didn't notice this because they didn't have the experience. They were locked up in route finding without looking at the rest of the situation. She said now she understood, and accepted my actions. I didn't expect her to be aware of all that was going on, it was why I was there. They didn't yet have the experience to be aware of everything that was happening. Honestly, people rarely look behind them.

After looking at what transpired, you need to adjust the way you do things.

In the outdoor industry we evaluate incidents that occur on classes. Incidents come in three varieties, An incident with a fatality. An incident with an injury, and a near miss incident. I have never had to deal with a fatality on a course. I have handled some injuries, but never anything too bad. I have probably three near misses a season. Frequently weather related. I have a handful of people that I discuss these with, who I trust - in addition to discussing them with my employers. I am actively seeking to learn from my experiences, and if we work or play in the outdoors, you should too.

Lately I have been realizing that the less frequently incidents occur, the more likely we are to overlook the signs that it is possible. Or, the more likely it is we are about to suffer an incident. Just because my company has never used an epi pen on a course doesn't mean we never will, and are probably more likely to have an incident. We are due.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Three tiny backpacking stoves: Part 3 and conclusion

Finally, the last backpacking stove I want to talk about is the Jetboil Mighty Mo. This stove is also $49 and weighs the most of the three, 3.3 ounces. it has a similar design to the others and has the same kind of flame control. It also has the piezo lighter like the Giga Power, but has one feature that the other two don't have, a pressure regulator.

The pressure regulator helps with two problems that canister stoves have. The cold and altitude. When fuel canisters get cold it gets difficult for the isobutane (which is a propellent) to push the propane out of the canister. The same thing happens at altitudes above 8000 feet, the decrease in air pressure makes it harder to get fuel out of the canister and the stove can't light or offers an unusable flame. The pressure regulator maintains pressure in the canister making it easier to get fuel out. The short of it is, the stove works better in the cold and at higher altitudes. But this adds a bit of weight which is why this is the heaviest of the three. It also packs the biggest of the three, but honestly, by a couple of tenths of an inch.

For the third test, 72º water again, with a canister that read as 90% full. Lets see how it did:

2 minutes and 3 seconds. For all practical purposes it was the same as the pocket rocket. I started the timer a second late, and I think it was boiling more robustly a moment after I turned off the timer. I guess the next time I do this I will need a digital thermometer to really be exactly sure when it reaches 212º. The other part of this, is the pressure regulator. I need to do this test on a cold day to see if there is a difference, and we will do that this winter. But first I want to do one more test:

At the end of the test the canister read as 80% full. I wanted to do one more, with a full canister. I also used a 230 gram canister as well. Let's see if that makes a difference. 2 minutes and 3 seconds is the time to beat.

...and it was actually 2 minutes and 23 seconds.... slower. Maybe there is a variable I am missing. I actually decided to test the pocket rocket on the larger canister, and I came up with 2 minutes 6 seconds. Very consistent times.

But at the end of the day - a warm 70 degree day - both the pocket rocket and the Mighty Mo are great stoves. Lets check back in December to see how they do in the cold!

But wait, there is a bonus test! Just out of curiosity, because I had everything set up, I decided to test my very old Jetboil, and see how it did. The final number 2 minutes and 52 seconds. Pretty respectable time for a stove that is about ten years old and has a lot of miles on it. It is actually faster than the GigaPower stove.

Okay, a couple of things for clarity, I made sure the pot was cooled down between each test. I made sure the water temperature was the same before each test. To really do this correctly, I should have done each test with a brand new canister. The jetboil is using a different pot than the others so that effects the boiling times.

All of these stoves did a great job, and any of them would be a good choice. I was really hoping for something definitive. Maybe the cold will do that.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Three tiny backpacking stoves: Part 2

In our comparison of tiny backpacking stoves, our next option is the Snow Peak GigaPower 2. The follow up to the GigaPower, the new stove is slightly lighter (it weighs 3.2 ounces) compared to the original at 3.75 ounces. Besides that change in weight I can see no difference between GigaPower 1 and 2. They both list the same boil time for one liter of water, 4 minutes 48 seconds, which is significantly slower than the Pocket Rocket. They also say a canister will burn for 1 hour and 25 minutes, which is more than the 60 minutes listed for the Pocket rocket.

Something I particularly like about the GigaPower is that it has four pot support arms instead of three. It is also the shortest of the three stoves making it more stable combined with the slightly better grip on the pot it is supporting.

It offers similar flame control to the other stoves we are comparing and costs $49. But, it offers one feature that the Pocket Rocket 2 doesn't have. A piezo lighter, so to light the stove you open the valve and press a button, which in my book is well worth the $5 higher price.

Lets see how it does in the boil time test. Once again, 72º water, 100% full fuel canister. Same pot, same conditions.

3 minutes and 24 seconds! Significantly slower than the pocket rocket. A minute and 20 seconds slower, you could almost boil another two cups of water with the pocket rocket. Color me surprised. At this point you have to decide whether the time penalty is worth the piezo lighter.

At the end of this test I weighed the canister again, and after no changes for the first two tests it was now reading 90% full after the third test.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Three tiny backpacking stoves: Part 1

Canister stoves are by far the most popular stoves currently being used by backpackers. Their light weight, low cost and ease of use make them very popular. I wanted to highlight three of the most popular stoves and what differentiates them.

The first is the MSR Pocket Rocket 2. The follow up to what is probably, the most popular stove in history, the original Pocket Rocket. The PR2 is $45 and weighs all of 2.6 ounces. It offers great flame control, and easy use. When it replaced the original Pocket Rocket they made it ever so slightly lighter and changed the design of the pot support arms, which makes the stove pack smaller. So it is smaller and lighter than the original.

It comes in a small plastic case, or can be stored inside any number of pots with a fuel canister. Pots like the GSI minimalist, soloist, etc and the MSR line of small pots. The pot in the video is the GSI Halulite 1.1 liter boiler.

This stove was a great update to a popular stove, with the best thing being the way the pot supports now fold, making the whole stove pack smaller.

The specs listed online show the average boil time for a liter of water is 3 minutes and 30 seconds. But who boils a liter? Lets see how fast it can boil 2 cups of water, which is a much more practical volume.

starting with 72ºF water and a full fuel canister: The first time I used the lid, and at 3 minutes exactly it was a rolling boil. I decided to do it again with the lid off so we could see when it started boiling, and what the time difference between the two was.

The second time the canister still measured 100% full and once again the water was 72ºF:
At an amazing 2 minutes and 9 seconds I had a rolling boil. Seriously fast. This completely negates that first test with the lid on (because it should be faster with the lid on). Of course this is ideal conditions, no wind, a 70º room. But two minutes and nine seconds is really fast. The fuel canister still read as 100% full using my Jetboil Jet gauge.

Tune in two days to see how the Snow Peak Giga Power 2 did in the same test.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Paddling Otaku is now Adventure Otaku

This day has been long coming.

With the coming release of my latest book - which will be available on the iBook store for iPad and Amazon for Kindle - it was time to make a change. I no longer want to limit myself to paddle sports. Kayaking is still my first love, but for a long time I have worked in other sectors of the outdoor industry. I have spent most of the last twenty years teaching in the outdoors, it is time to let some of that knowledge out in this venue.

Otaku is a Japanese term, meaning someone with an obsessive interest. This website has been the face of my paddling obsession, but this entire time I have been almost equally involved in other outdoor pursuits. Camping, hiking, backpacking, wilderness medicine, stand up paddle boarding and navigation are where I live. So it is time to let those activities have some equal time.

There will be more gear review and tests. A little more delving into trip planning, to coincide with the release of GO! Coverage of other outdoor sports that I currently teach as well as entering into a few new arenas for teaching.

Got something you want to know about? A piece of gear, a destination, a skill. Let me know. If I don't have the answer I know someone who does.

You can find your way here through or

There is a lot to come, so stay tuned in.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Volunteers Needed!


No, really, I need your help.

With the pending release of my next book, "GO! Planning Weekend to month long Adventures" I am branching off into some new territory. While I have been teaching in the outdoors for close to two decades trip planning as a course topic is new. Eventually I would like the offering the course type in a weekend long, in person, workshop. I would also like to offer it in an online version.

Before I do either of those things I have to finalize a curriculum, and specific exercises for the workshops. I am in the early planning stages of that curriculum, but I want to test some things out. So I am looking for some volunteers in the central North Carolina area to do a one day workshop. It will give me an opportunity to play with the curriculum and see what resonates with students.

The best part of this is you can take this workshop for free!

If you are interested, drop my an email at AdventureOtaku(AT)

Yes, that is a new email address. Big changes coming.


Thursday, July 12, 2018

The future of PFD design

As you know I am a stickler for the use of PFD's. It is far too easy to die in the water if you aren't wearing one. Even if you are a strong swimmer. The single biggest hurdle to getting people to wear pfd's is fit. To a lesser degree, they need to look cool, but really it is fit. They have to be comfortable when you are wearing them, or you won't wear them. PFD design is something I have been thinking about for a while, I have recently felt like a revolution in PFD design is right around the corner, and this morning I saw the first sneak peak. But first, a little of my personal history with PFD's.

Before I was an outdoor educator I worked in the photography industry (and film production before that.) I lived in New York City's West Village in a tiny apartment up a flight of stairs. I was already a kayaker but obviously couldn't store a seventeen foot touring kayak in my small apartment - it would actually fit in the apartment but there was no way to get it in the door! So what I did was rent kayaks as often as I could. Two or three times a month I journeyed out to Long Island and rented kayaks. Inadvertently this gave me a great background in how different boats paddled. What I did to make this a little more fun, was I bought myself a nice PFD and paddle, that I would travel with.

My first PFD was a Lotus designs Locean. It was side entry, and low profile and had a good pocket arrangement, and I loved it. I wore it long past when I should have retired it.

The reason I wore it as long as I did was I couldn't find a PFD to replace it that was of equal quality and fit. Lotus had been bought by Patagonia and within a few years had been shut down, and then Patagonia for out of the paddling business - which is a shame because they made some great paddle gear. It wasn't until I found the Astral Buoyancy 300r whitewater vest that I knew I had a replacement. I later learned that the reason that I liked the 300r - and Astral products in general - is that the founder, Phillip Curry was also the founder of Lotus designs. I then moved on to the Seawolf from Astral - which is the non-rescue version of the Greenjacket. Clearly Mr. Curry's design ethics sing to me. 

But part of the reason that people don't like PFD"s is that they look bulky - all pfd's do. I have never worn a PFD that was as comfortable as my Seawolf, but from the outside it looks uncomfortable and that is enough  reason for people to not try them on, let alone wear them. We need to fix that, and that is where the future of PFD's is headed. It should be near invisible when I am wearing it, but offer enough flotation and protection when I need it. 

Which is where I was mentally, this morning, when the following things occurred. I am following two women on Instagram who are doing the inside passage, their username is @paddlingnorth which is very similar to the title of the short films I released after my trip on the inside passage. They were called Paddle North. These two ladies are using drysuits made by Mustang Survival. Mustang Survival is famous for making what people call "Gumby Suits." Which are ocean going survival suits. Your oil tanker sinks in a hurricane in the North Atlantic, you put on a gumby suit and jump overboard. The suit keeps you warm and floating until the Coast Guard comes and saves you. 

The part of this that surprised me, was that I didn't know that Mustang made paddling Dry Suits. I know that a good function drysuit is hard to make, and that it is way more difficult than making a racket and pants for paddling. I also thought I knew everyone that made paddling drysuits, so I headed over to Mustangs Survivals website, and it turns out they don't make Paddling dry suits, yet. The Paddling North ladies are using prototype suits. Which is cool, something new is coming to market. But while I was on Mustangs website I realized that they are branching out to a lot of markets besides survival. The first thing I saw was this amazing sailing gear! Check out this Ocean Racing Drysuit!

This is the Darth Vader Suit of extreme ocean sailing! I'm telling you, this is going to end up in a sci fi movie. Okay, but then I found this. 

This is a combination of two things. The ugliest PFD I have ever seen - okay, maybe that is a little harsh, but it's boring, that front pocket seems useless, it doesn't have a real lash tab, and the adjustments on the side and top are lazy design. Sorry Mustang Designers, but unlike Gear Junkie I tell the truth. So ugly is the first thing, but what is the second thing? I said a combination of two things. Well, it is BRILLIANT! This ultra thin, and low profile PFD offers traditional foam floatation - albeit not much of it - but then offers the ability to inflate via co2. So it can be invisible (almost) until you need it to save your life. After pulling a handle the front of the PFD expands dramatically (it looks like a small section behind the head also inflates) increasing the amount of floatation. 

Here it is in action.

This idea is brilliant. But I would love to see what a designer like Phil Curry could do with this concept. Their target audience is SUP and Kayak, but for me as an educator it doesn't offer quite enough of a feature package to make it work for my day to day. But I suspect people will jump on this idea and run with it.

Apologies to Mustang for being a little harsh on the design, but those were my honest first thoughts. Want to change my mind? Send me one and I will review it here. An honest review. You could also send me one of those Darth Vader suits.