Monday, September 17, 2018

Want to see what paddling the Inside Passage is like?

I thought it was time to dust these off.

Paddle North - Episode 3 from Paddling Otaku on Vimeo.

I was reminded by watching the @paddlingnorth women on Instagram what an amazing paddle this was. Even with the bears. And the flu... And the cruise ships.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Who made it possible to predict storms and save lives.

As I write this hurricane Florence is dancing in a large circle around me. I am in central North Carolina and a few days ago it was predicted that this storm would race ashore and pass right over my head, dumping literally tons of water on the way. Then a couple of days ago meteorologists predicted a change. Florence would curve south, and head inland slowly, followed by a sweeping curve north. Her wind would also drop dramatically, causing less damage - though the slower movement meant she had more time to drop more water. Everything is a trade off. And guess what? That is exactly what happened. It looks like I won't see much more than her outer bands.

I spend a lot of time maligning meteorologists. I teach my students - unfairly - that meteorologist in English translates to liar. It always gets a laugh. I can't tell you how many times bad weather reports have ruined perfectly good plans. But the fact is, that particularly for events like a hurricane the predictions are better now than they have ever been, and ultimately it saves a lot of lives.

How does this happen? How do we have the ability to predict the actions of killer storms. There are three things that happen, to make this possible.

The first, is the advance of computer technology. Ever faster computers, make it possible to work with all the data sources and variables that make weather happen. Research in the 1960's and 1970's in chaos theory and supercomputers made it possible to figure out what was going on. Today we see the outcome of all this work with accurate weather system prediction and spaghetti models for how storms will move. This is chaos theory and supercomputers at their finest.

The other thing that occurs is people decide to dedicate their lives to scientific research. They go to work at research institutions, which are almost all publicly funded universities.

The by-product of all these things, studying an extremely abstract concept like chaos theory, working to make computers infinitely faster and more powerful, and students becoming scientists give us better understanding of weather, and how it effects us. Which means local governments have a better idea of what is going to happen and can better prepare themselves, their towns and their people for major weather events like a hurricane.

I want to apologize to every meteorologist I have used as a punchline. It won't happen again, and I appreciate the advances you have made in the field of weather prediction. The nature of my work - outdoor education - means that I rely on accurate weather information and tracking all of its changes. I have the ability - from my phone, while sitting in the cockpit of a kayak, or standing on a SUP - to see recent satellite photos, and predictions on wind and rain. The ability to do that is because of the hard work of the people mentioned above. I literally have in the palm of my hand significantly more computing power than was used to go to the moon, and I utilize it give people good, exciting (and safe) experiences in the outdoors.

Finally, the next time someone says to you they don't believe in global climate change, or global warming, explain to them that people have been working hard for decades to understand the incredibly complex system of weather and climate that we are surrounded by. We know, all too well, the effects of what we have done to our environment. All you have to do is open your eyes, and see those effects around you every day. If they don't listen, just walk away. They will understand when we run out of food, and their house is underwater. Just don't let them knock scientific research and publicly funded research. They do amazing work, and make the world a better place. We need more people taking up hard sciences like this, as a nation we are falling far behind other countries.

If you are interested, here are the apps I use for weather prediction. Dark Sky is a micro weather app that gives hyper-localized information. My Radar is just that, and while it is free I paid for the hurricane tracking update. Well worth it. Windy is an amazing weather app that gives a visual representation of direction and velocity of wind. I have started using Predict wind which is very popular in the sailing community but the free version of the app is rather limited.

Be safe out there people.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

I'm not your Billboard

Years ago, I was folding clean laundry when I made a startling realization. I had a pile of T-shirts, which is primarily what I wear, and I realized I hadn't paid for any of them. They were many different colors and all had garish logos or pithy sayings on the front or the back. All of them were shirts I had gotten from either my employer or product vendors for free. The unwritten understanding is this. You will give me a shirt to wear for free, and I will wear it. In doing so I am subtly implying an endorsement for your product. Over the years I have received many items for free from vendors. The company I work for has a policy that I can't receive a gift greater than $50. I have received a lifetime supply of stickers, key chains, beer cozies (and I don't drink beer!) and more bottle openers than I will ever need in a lifetime. (Seriously, the outdoor companies need to think outside the box. Bottle openers? Really? Yakima puts them on their car rack accessories. What does that say about the outdoor industry?) These days after a conversation with a vendor rep, when they dump out their bag of free goodies, I generally just walk away. There is rarely anything I would like in that bag. There is almost certainly nothing I need.

The agreement we are all making, is that you will give me a shirt (or some other giveaway) and I will be excited to use this free item. I will like it, because it makes me part of an exclusive club. But in reality I am unpaid marketing for you. I am a walking billboard, and I don't want to be a walking billboard. Particularly for free. In essence though, I am not doing it for free. I am getting paid, in the form of the free stuff I am receiving. The schwag is my payment. If you ask me, that is a lousy deal.

This was a big part of the reason I developed a "uniform" of a grey T-shirt and blue jeans for everyday wear. I started by recycling all those T-shirts. Some became rags, some went to good will. The old ones went right in the garbage. I simply don't want to be a billboard for your outdoor company. I wanted to get away from what I think of as an implied or "soft" product endorsement.

A big part of my job is recommending gear to people, and I am absolutely fine with that. I have no problem telling you what piece of gear works well and what piece of gear is a waste of time and money. It is one of the reasons I started doing product reviews on this website. None of those are sponsored by the manufacturer. If They are my sponsor, I am beholden to them. Gear Junkie used to give real reviews listing what worked and what didn't. Then they got popular and got a ton of sponsors and they could no longer be honest about products. I'm sorry Gear junkie but my dream truck isn't a diesel chevy pick up truck. Just because you got paid this month by chevy doesn't mean that is a piece of outdoor gear.  That said I still read GJ and understand what they do, and have to do. Business is business.

I understand how this happens in the outdoor industry, most of us who work in the outdoors don't make a lot of money and free clothes are awesome. What really upsets me is when I see this outside of the outdoor industry. I see yeti stickers on the back of cars and trucks. This makes my brain ache.  You just spent $30 on a coffee mug, and want to tell the world by putting the sticker on the back of your car? Or you decide to wear a Yeti hat? So after that purchase you feel you owe the company so you will wear their brand name? No coffee mug is that good. But that isn't actually what is happening though, is it? People put a yeti sticker on the back of their truck because it gets them entrance to a club. The cool outdoor club. I feel bad for these people because they desperately want entrance to a club that isn't that cool. You want to join a cool club? Go climb El Capitain. That's a cool club, and those people know how to party.

Here is another example. You spend $40K on a new car. On the back of that car is a sticker with the name of the dealer, and maybe even a license plate frame with the name of the dealer. So I spend all this money and I have to advertise for you? I just gave you $40K you should be advertising for me! I can also tell you from experience the stickers are supremely difficult to get off, without ruining the paint on your car.

To be honest though, I have to come clean. I have been sponsored in the past by gear companies. I was never asked to say anything specific about a product, but I have been given products for particular projects with the manufacturer fully aware that 10,000 people would see their product in a picture or a video. That I consider a fair trade. I am getting something I need - an actual piece of gear as opposed to a key chain or a T-shirt. They are getting something they need, exposure.

I also make exceptions if the product is the best option. I recently had to replace the long sleeve, sun protective shirt that I wear when I teach paddling. I grabbed every piece of clothing I could find that met my criteria and took them to a fitting room. I tried on 12 shirts from 5 brands, and was upset that the best option was actually made by Patagonia. Now, there is nothing wrong with Patagonia, they are a great company that make great products but the shirt that met my needs had a large Patagonia logo on the back. I would have rather a shirt without a big logo. The shirt is amazing though!

I have been saying for close to a decade, if you want to market a product, give it to the people who use it. If it is any good people will tell their friends. If you think outdoor instructors and guides don't sit around a campfire talking about products that work and products that don't you are crazy. GoPro exploded in 2008 because they offered a really good prodeal to outdoor professionals. They made a good product, everyone saw us using them, and we talked about how great the product was. I consider that a fair trade.

I still see a lot of people in my industry who will take anything if it is free. "if it's free, it's for me!" is a phrase I have heard in the past. By all means, go for it. But if you want me to represent your product, and tell people how great it is, Your going to have to give me more than a beer cozy.

Friday, September 7, 2018

GO! in paperback

For the first time I have written a book that doesn't require an E-reader. For the first time I have produced a physical book. I didn't think this would seem like a big deal, but it really seems like a big deal.

I am extremely excited to say that GO! Planning weekend trips to month long adventures is available on Amazon. Follow the kindle link on the right and there is an option to buy it in print.

I am extremely proud of this book, and hope you enjoy it. I hope it helps you bring outdoor trip plans to fruition. If you are one of the many people that have bought the book already it would be incredibly helpful if you could review it wherever you bought it.

Proof that I am getting somewhere, I have already found an illegal PDF version of it available online. Please don't buy it there. Thanks.


Tuesday, September 4, 2018


No, really.

I need three people who have a kindle (that can view color photos) and three people who have iPad's.

If you feel like helping me out with a project - some cash will be involved! - send me an email.


Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The future of Yeti

Recently I was training new staff, people who would be working for the major outdoor retailer that I work for. A big part of their training is learning the multitude of products that we sell. When it was time to talk about Yeti - the expensive cooler company - I had us sit in a circle and talk about how we felt about the company.

For the record, I own a Yeti tundra 65 that lives in my van. I am very happy with it. My dog has already tried and failed to chew her way into it. If it is full, the ice lasts a very long time. If it is half full it is no better than a $40 cooler. But for what I need a cooler to do, I am very happy. My biggest complaint with cheap coolers is that I end up replacing them every 12 to 18 months because they can't hold up to the amount of abuse my work puts them through.

My sister has a theory. A toaster theory, that I think applies here. She thinks you can buy a $12 toaster, or a $300 Dualit toaster. If you buy the $12 toaster it will work fine, but you will replace it yearly. If you buy the Dualit, yeah it costs a lot more, and really they both just make toast, but for the rest of your life, you never have to go through the trouble of buying another toaster.. This is how I feel about Yeti coolers. At the end of the day it is just a cooler, but I will probably never have to buy another one.

So we were sitting in a circle, talking about Yeti and everyone agreed they were a good product, but pretty much everyone makes a Yeti style cooler, that costs less. The reason for this is that Yeti is a company owned by fisherman, who aren't great businessmen. How shall we say, they have had some patent issues. That is a story for another day.

What I said to these new hires was that I was curious to see how Yeti pivoted - which they would invariably have to do, to survive - and what markets they tried to slide into. My question was answered two short days later with the announcement of three new Yeti products.

First, the Yeti Boomer Dog bowl.

Built like a Yeti Rambler mug - and all the durability that goes with any Yeti product - this dog bowl will survive the perils of life with a dog that chews everything. Like mine. Oddly, I have an all metal dog bowl that has survived the perils of living with a dog that chews everything. It cost me $8. Which is $42 dollars less than the Yeti Boomer.

Next, The Tocayo Backpack.

A commuter backpack designed to shed water, and stand upright when you put it down on the ground. It also has rambler pockets - designed to hold their rambler mugs - and 360ยบ protection for a laptop. It looks like a capable backpack. But at $249 it is almost double the price of other commuter packs with a similar feature set.

and finally. The Lowlands Blanket. This highly durable, and padded blanket is water proof, and designed with pets and rough ground in mind. But at a staggering $199, I think I will be skipping it.

Now admittedly I haven't used any of these products. I have no doubt they are impeccably manufactured, and work as designed. But I can't help but think that this is not the direction that is going to save this company. I think they were doing better in the duffel bag market - the Pangea bag is really impressive, admittedly the waterproof duffel market is pretty small.

As a paddler I would love an insulated dry bag from them, like a tin 15 liter hopper bag. I just don't think this is the way to go. Sorry Yeti.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Trip Planning Workshop

Next week I will be teaching the first workshop solely devoted to trip planning. Obviously in conjunction with the release of my trip planning book. I am teaching it at Piedmont Hiking and Outing Club, which is a very active outdoor group located here in central North Carolina. 

I am in the early stages of creating a web based workshop, which will probably have two different levels. A self guided video version, and a more interactive version with one on one time to fine tune your plan. (I am looking at as a host for both of these, but if anyone has any recommendations I am in - no pun intended - uncharted waters.) 

This is something I am excited to teach, because at the end of the day my goal is to get people actively, and safely having amazing experiences in the outdoors. For years I have been hearing the reasons why people can't do trips. There are a lot of reasons people give for not doing a big trip - keeping in mind that a week of backpacking could be considered a big trip to a lot of people. Here are some of the big ones:

  I don’t have the (Fill in the blank). It could be money, time, ability, or another big one: permission from a partner or family members. 
Money is a good one. A lot of people say they don't have the money to do a big trip, or they don’t have the time to take off from work, giving up that income to do a month long (or longer trip.) We all have bills to pay, right? Mortgages, car payments, phone bills. Life insurance. Health insurance. College debt. Not having enough money is a perfectly valid reason. 
Except, it isn't. Money should never be a reason not to do something. The truth is, that it doesn't really cost that much to do an outdoor trip. A month of time is nothing. If it means you live lean to put money aside to cover your bills for a month, isn't that worth it? Of course it is. 
The other part of money is related to the gear. I don't have the money to buy the gear I need to do an epic trip. Except, it's a lousy reason. Gear can be purchased slowly, over time, to help defray cost, but here is the best part - once you have the gear, you can keep doing trips. Yes, my expensive kayak set me back, in terms of cash reserves, but once I had it, I didn't worry about having the gear I needed to do trips. I bought my Delta Seventeen because it was fun to paddle when empty, but could easily handle a month worth of food and fuel. I bought a drysuit by redirecting the money from my daily cup of coffee. It took about 4 months to save the money I needed. Money isn't the reason people don't do epic. Or at least it shouldn’t be a reason. 
Time. You don't have the time. No one has the time. We are all way too busy. Right? Doing something big takes time. Time to plan, to train, time to just get your mind around the idea that for a month you will be paddling a kayak or hiking a trail or climbing a mountain. Start there. But really, having the time to take a month off isn't easy. 
Except, nonsense, this is completely doable, and I’m going to tell you how. The “time” excuse is really a permission problem. See #5. You have the time. It is making the time a priority that is difficult. 
What about skills? I don’t have the skills to do this. I can't ride a bike, I can’t hike 1000 miles. I can't paddle 500 miles in a month. Maybe I should work on my forward stroke and rescue skills, and paddling in surf, and wind and cold water. And cycling, maybe I need to be stronger to climb hills, and learn to descend big hills safely. Mountain biking definitely has a skill set that needs to be learned. As does rock climbing, and mountain climbing. Skills or the lack thereof will certainly keep you from doing an epic trip. 

Except, guess what? Skills can be learned. Skills are supposed to be learned. We can use the process of learning new skills to build the foundations we need to do amazing outdoor trips. It can become part of the training for your trip. You want to climb El Capitan? Spend a couple of days climbing Cathedral Wall in New Hampshire. You want to ride cross country? First ride across your state, and before that, ride across your county. Before that, ride across your town. By starting with small trips and building to bigger ones, you will learn all about your needs while performing. You will learn what your food and fuel requirements are. What kind of seat you like in your boat, or on your bike. You will make all sorts of mistakes and learn from them. Wouldn't you rather do that paddling on a lake near your home, than on the coast of Alaska? With some hard work, and honest judgement, skills will come. 
Permission. I don't have permission. From my partner, from my work, from my family, from my dog to take a month off. I simply have too many responsibilities. Guess what? Nonsense.
All of these reasons, time, money, responsibilities and skills are problems of insufficient resources. Insufficient resources can always be overcome by resourcefulness. Always. So what are the real reasons we don't do big trips? It isn't a lack of money. It isn't a lack of time. It is a lack of resourcefulness, partnered with fear. 
Fear. It is really that simple. I won't be able to do this. I will look stupid. I’ll be ridiculed. I will fail, and people will make fun of me. I don't have enough knowledge. Fear. Fear is real. It sounds counterintuitive, but don't be afraid of fear. Fear is a driver. Fear is a motivator. Fear will help you think through every detail for your trip. Fear will help you prepare. Fear will get you to take that wilderness medicine course, which almost guarantees that you wont need any of those wilderness medicine skills.
 Fear can be a motivator, if you allow it to be. But fear can also paralyze you, keeping you from doing that trip you always wanted to do. Embrace fear, and work through it. 
There is one other reason why people don't do epic trips. Age. Regardless of what age you are, age becomes a reason. You are an adult, and having the ability to take that kind of time off is only possible if you are a teen or not yet in your "real career." Unfortunately, when you are a young adult, done with high school perhaps, but not finished with college, you may have the time but you don't have the money, or the discipline to be careful with your money to do a trip like this. I used to work freelance, and when I had the time I didn't have the money and when I had the money I didn't have the time, or at least that was the excuse. 
All of the previously mentioned reasons for not doing a big or epic trip, can be beaten by doing one thing first. One simple thing. It is hard at first, but once you do this simple thing it makes all the other things easy. It is deciding that you are going to do an epic trip. That is it. It is having the realization that you can work through any problem put in front of you, to get to a goal. Once you decide you are going to do it, really decide, you will let nothing get in your way. 

For more information on how to make a big trip happen, check out my book. 

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.