Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Garmin FDR (Fun Data Recorder)

This is something I think Garmin should start selling. Yet another new product idea from someone with no ability to make it real.

I teach a lot of people how to use GPS, and a fair percentage of people expect two things from a GPS device that they don't do, or don't do well. The first, people expect them to be accurate to within a couple of feet. They just don't work that way. The best accuracy I have ever seen from a handheld GPS unit is about 9 feet (keeping in mind that is a circle with a radius of 9 feet, so a diameter of 18 feet! An 18 foot wide circle!) The device I saw do 9 feet was using the US GPS satellites and the Russian GLONASS satellites. GPS's that can't use both generally have an accuracy of around 30 feet, and for most people that is enough. In GPS class I am find of saying "if you can't find your car from 30 feet away, you have bigger issues." The second is, they are dismayed to find out that if they turn off the GPS it doesn't continue to track where they are. People regularly state that they want to use a GPS 'To track my position" so after a day on the trail, or the bike, or the boat, they can see where they were. There are several apps that do this, but then you have to bring a relatively bulky and relatively fragile phone into the outdoors.

Most GPS devices will do this, but there is a problem. Most GPS units use a flat patch antenna, located at the top of the unit above the screen. This needs to be facing up so it can 'see' the satellites. Leaving it on all day long will also use a lot of batteries, as battery life is around 20 to 30 hours depending on device.

While my imaginary Garmin device the 'Fun Data Recorder' (or should it be flight data recorder?) can't fix the first problem, it can fix the second problem. Here is what it should do.

It should be small. Around 2 inches square, black plastic with no screen. The top of it will house a small GPS receiver, it will also have two small LED's and two buttons. The bottom has a water proof seal to at least IPX7, inside that seal is two AAA batteries, and a mini USB port. The bottom will also accommodate different mounting options. For instance, you should be able to mount it to the top of a pack, or a bike helmet, or the deck of a kayak, or maybe around your cats collar!

You depress the power button to turn it on. the led Flashes yellow until it receives enough satellite signals to get a location. When it has location information, the led turns green for one minute and then turns off. You press the second button when you want it to start operating. When it is operating, it flashes green for one minute and then turns off.

Here is what it does. It uses a high sensitivity GPS receiver and a pressure based altimeter to track your speed, location, and altitude. While you are moving it generates a track of your speed and movement in three dimensions - well four, with the fourth being time. With no screen, I would like to think that two AAA batteries could keep it running for a couple of hundred hours.

At the end of what ever activity you have chosen (or your cat has come home) you open up the bottom compartment and connect it to a computer via USB. you can download a GPX file with all your trip information, and use it either in Garmins Connect website to see where you went. Or you can upload the data to Google earth, or Strava, or whatever other app or software you are using.

It is only used to track, not for navigation, so it isn't eating into their core market. You can't access any of the information without a computer, but it should have a large memory so you could use it to track multiday trips. It is small and light weight, once it is attached and running you forget about it. But it gives people the ability to track their own movements and share the data with the world.

Garmin, if you could get to work on this I would appreciate it. Next summer I have a big trip planned.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Valley Etain - quick test

A couple of odd things happened yesterday. I had a lesson with a student I have worked with before who is prepping for a paddle trip on the Yukon. We were working on skills, but this time he also wanted to paddle my Delta and a Delta 15 that I had access too, he still needs a boat. At the same time a friend offered up his brand new Valley Etain (plastic) for a test paddle. I thought I would take the opportunity to give you feedback on it. I paddled it for about an hour and half. I used it during the lesson, and for a few minutes afterward.

My first impression is that it is a beautiful boat, with a gracefully upturned bow - it should ride over waves, instead of punch through them. Soft chines,  and very smooth lines. I couldn't find a sharp edge anywhere. It is rotomolded plastic, but looks to be multiple layers with an inner layer and an outer layer. A beautiful and simple finish. The boat I was paddling was outfitted with a skeg, a stern hatch, a rear day hatch (both bulkheaded) and smaller day hatch in front of the cockpit (as seen in the picture above) and a bow hatch. It also has a recessed compass point.

The handles on front and back are secured with bungies that have a lot of spring. If you use them to lift the boat, which you shouldn't, they will quickly wear and break. Sliding into the cockpit it has a very nice seat with a low profile seat back. just enough support in the seat back, but it stays well out of the way. For this paddler, 5'7" and 170, the rear deck height is a bit too tall for me to do a layback roll - the owner is a much bigger person than I am. The cockpit was incredibly comfortable, with all those smooth edges. the thigh braces were placed well, but were hard plastic with no padding. By the end of my hour my right knee was already sore.

The hatch covers are rubber, and pop over a lip, or coaming and do so easily enough - which concerns me that they leak, or will with wear when they are even looser - though the do have a very solid and secure feel. They are a much nicer cover in both design and use than the similar Wilderness systems covers, but not as nice as on my Delta Seventeen.

Paddling this boat was a joy. It wasn't the fastest seventeen foot (17.7 in fact) boat I have paddled but even with the skeg up it tracks better than most. The soft, rounded chines make it roll onto edge very easily, but those round chines make it a little harder to hold there. On edge it turns readily enough, if just a little bit slow.

The water was still a bit cold, and I chose to paddle without my drysuit, so I didn't roll the Etain, but I am sure it rolls easily with those rounded chines. It had slightly lower initial stability compared to my Delta but I got used to it very quickly. I had no problem spending the hour in it for the lesson I was doing, and didn't feel hampered in the normal movements that I would do in my familiar boat with this now unfamiliar boat around me.

We had a fairly heavy wind on the small lake we were paddling, which made for great teaching opportunities, and the boat performed well. Just once I put the skeg down during a particularly bad cross wind that was causing a weathercock, but it was no more than I would have to do in any other boat.

Speaking of the skeg, it is a solid feeling mechanism that both deployed and retracted with ease. I generally don't like skegs for the single reason that I do long trips and need every cubic inch of space in my stern hatch. I don't like giving up space to the skeg box, this one, thankfully is very small, with the cable pretty much completely out of the way.

All in all, this is a great boat. Fun to paddle, and I am sure awesome on short trips. It doesn't offer enough dry storage for my long distance needs, but still an awesome paddling kayak. If I were looking for a second, 'just for fun' kayak this would be a good option.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Optimum, not maximum.

Recently I began mountain biking. In part because a lot of my friends were making it look like too much fun, and in part, because this past year was a rough one in terms of weight gain. For years I was an avid bike commuter, unfortunately my bike had to be retired a couple of years ago. So I made a purchase a couple of months ago and immediately started bike commuting again. Then I ventured out onto trails.

Trail riding immediately struck me as very much like whitewater kayaking. You have to been very in tune with your bike, and very alert to the terrain around you, just like in whitewater, you have to be in tune with your boat, and aware of the water around you, and what it is doing. I am enjoying it a lot, and have a number of friends who are skilled mountain bikers who are guiding me along a new path, and recently one of them sent me a link to a video.

Now, I'll be honest with you, I have no idea who Fabien Barel or Steve Jones are. By the way they are talking however they are clearly very big in the world of mountain biking. But listen to what Fabien is saying. I don't think he is saying anything I haven't said before, but here is someone else illustrating it, and illustrating it in a different venue, with different tools. If you Change out the word bike for kayak he is speaking about what I have been teaching since the start of this blog.

Fabien says "the main mistake of the average rider is that they believe to go fast you mast peddle to accelerate"

If you change the nouns and verbs to fit paddling. It goes like this:

PO and Fabien say "the main mistake of the average paddler is that they believe to go fast you must paddle hard to accelerate. If you have been visiting me here for a while you know that I teach that to go fast requires the right technique, not working really hard with a paddle in your hand. He goes on to talk about a couple of things I really like, and that resonate with my teaching style. Listen to what he says about 'maximum effort' versus 'optimum effort', and flow. It all fits very well into the Enlightened Kayaking dogma.

I used to spend a fair amount of my time in a dojo. In a dojo you learn static movements. A punch, A block, a kick. Or for comparison to us in a kayak, a forward stroke, a sweep stroke, a brace. The skill lies not in being able to do a block, and then a kick, or doing a forward stroke, and a sweep stroke, it comes from sliding fluidly from one to the next. Flowing from one to the next. Not because you practiced it a hundred, or a thousand times, but because at that moment it is the right thing to do.

While I am new to mountain biking I think Fabien is talking about flowing from one turn to the next, one obstacle to the next without losing energy. You don't go faster by peddling faster, you go faster by peddling when advantageous, and using momentum to carry you through. You don't go faster in a kayak by paddling harder - if you think you do, click the big button on the right that says 'start here' - you go faster in kayak by paddling in an optimal way, and flowing up and down waves, and into and out of turns. Taken to the ultimate expression of things people struggle with in a kayak, rolling is not achieved by big muscles, it is achieved by flowing from one position to the next. from rolling the boat over, while your head is still under water. As he says, you need to understand it (it's four steps, it's not that hard) you need to apply it, you need to feel it. If you think about it - meaning if you think your head is underwater, and life would be much better is it wasn't! - your done.

The same person that sent me this video, also asked me a question this week. He said, if you had to turn a kayak really sharply, how would you do it. I explained that I do most of my turning with edging. Changing the shape of the hull, and the pressures on the hull to make the boat go where I want it to. A long kayak wants to go straight, so I am going to put the boat on an edge to make it not so long. He asked if I would then drag a paddle to turn the boat, and I said I wouldn't. Dragging a paddle is very common in canoes, and I hate doing it in my kayak for one very big reason. I don't want to bleed off all that momentum into the water when I want to turn. I then have to work harder to get the boat moving again. Dragging a paddle works against optimum effort. But if after edging the boat, and maybe adding a sweep to get the boat moving where I want it to go, If I still needed more turn, I would use a cross bow rudder. That is, with my boat edged to the right, with my left knee raised, I would reach the paddle across the boat, so my chest is facing left, and plant the blade vertically in the water. This then acts as a rudder, turning the boat sharply, and it doesn't bleed off as much energy as dragging it.

When I get the boat moving, I want to keep it moving. Particularly when it has 300 pounds of gear in it.  Fabien is right. Optimum is much better than maximum. Every time.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Clean thy water.

A lot of people worry about water. I guess that makes sense as you can't live more than a few days without it, but we really shouldn't worry. When I am doing trips this is how I deal with water.

The things we are worried about contaminating our water are primarily Giardia, and Cryptosporidium. Both cause intestinal distress. There is no real data on how much of the free running water is contaminated in the United States, but it is always best to treat your water*. Some people worry about viruses in the water, but short of 'Katrina-esque' situations, we generally don't see viruses in the water in the US. All the major commercially available filters will get Giardia and Crypto though, so no worries there.

I usually have the ability to carry a lot of water in my boat. On long trips I have the capacity for close to five gallons of water. Three liters in a reservoir for drinking while paddling. A gallon in an MSR dromlite. 2.5 Gallons in an MSR dromedary. I find the 'droms' easy to deal with in the boat and easy to work with around camp, and I like the platypus big zip for my personal drinking water when I am paddling. But how do I treat it? I use a couple of different methods.

I own a sawyer two bag, gravity fed system. It is fast and easy, and I never have to replace the filter cartridge. Guaranteed for a million gallons. I like this because there is no pumping. I was once on a backpacking trip when someone said "I will wash every dish, but I am not pumping anymore water!" So with big groups I like gravity systems.

Sarah and I also used Aqua Mira in Alaska - which is what NOLS uses and how I learned about it. A great chemical system. Mix seven drops of "A" with seven drops of "B". When it turns yellow add it to your water. 30 minutes later you are good to go. It was great when we were paddling past water, and didn't want to get out of the boats to hang a filter bag. Do it all in the cockpit.

For my uses, I don't like steripens. Primarily because they use batteries (or charge via USB) and are an electronic device that can break. They also don't work if the water isn't clear - though you can pre-filter the water and then use the device. They are very light, and very convenient. if you can work around their short comings they are awesome.

I have used the sawyer squeeze, and it is a great product, but it is surprisingly hard to fill the bags. I am a big fan of the MSR sweetwater. Fast, reliable. light. Great option for shorter trips with smaller groups. It is really about finding what works for you.

*unless you are in a life threatening situation. It is always better to treat untreated water, than to die of dehydration.

Monday, April 1, 2013

This month in 'The Leader'

I am extremely excited, and honored that the NOLS alumni magazine - The Leader - decided to review  my book. Particularly excited that this blog is referred to as 'influential'. Coming from the world leaders in outdoor education I am flattered. 

You can read the entire issue of the leader here, and if you haven't already taken a NOLS course, maybe it's time.