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.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Solar for backpackers

I get this question all the time. "I am going on a four day backpacking trip, and I need to charge my phone. Tell me about solar options."

There a large number of problems with this whole situation. The first and the biggest is, maybe you don't need that much access to your phone? Maybe the point of backpacking is to get away from your phone? The counter argument is "I am using it as my camera." Not surprisingly I have a problem with this answer as well. Yes, phones have become amazing cameras. Truly. Easy to use, incredible resolution. Your phone isn't particularly waterproof , which of course can be mitigated with a waterproof phone case, but the real problem is this. If something bad were to happen, you really should have a working phone with a full battery.

But, okay, you're going to bring your phone and you need to charge it. People have this image of "I will put a solar panel on the back of my backpack and it will charge my phone while I hike." I hate to be negative, but a solar panel needs to be facing the sun, which means it really needs to be on the top of your pack, and it needs to be pointed directly at the sun to be as efficient as possible.

Gregory actually released an update of their classic Baltoro backpack, with a solar panel and battery mounted on the top of the pack. They did this in conjunction with Goal Zero.

You see how the sun is directly in front of the hiker, and the solar panel is on the back? Yeah, this setup doesn't work very well. A setup like this will work best at 12 noon and there can't be any trees.

Okay, so that won't work so well, but how about on rest days. I can plant the solar panel in the sun, and charge my phone directly. This isn't a bad idea, you do need to stay on top of it though, about every twenty minutes it would be best if re-align the panel with the sun. It is all about maximum efficiency. This is essentially how we charged batteries during the AGAP trip. every 4 days or so we would take a rest day, and charge batteries, both literally and figuratively. OH! But in the first line of this post I said four days. There probably won't be any rest days.

But if there were, you have to take into account that it will take a few hours to charge the battery in your phone, and during that time you can't actually use your phone.

Okay, option 2 is a little different. You don't actually need a solar panel. really all you need is a battery. For a four day trip how many times are you going to need to charge your phone? twice maybe? Unfortunately we need to do a little math.

An iPhone 6 plus battery has a capacity of 2915 milliamp hours (mAH). That is what we need to charge. If we take a battery pack with us it needs to be able to charge that twice, and good first option is the Goal Zero Flip 20. It has a battery capacity of 5200 milliamp hours (mAH). With this size battery we will just charge it before we go on our trip, and at night when we wouldn't be using the phone anyway, by plugging it into the battery via USB cable. This is far less expensive than a solar panel and far more practical. It costs less too!

If you need more power than that, the Sherpa 40 holds a whopping 12000 mAH. That is enough to charge an iPad mini 2.5 times.

This is essentially how we did the AGAP trip, we had two Sherpa power units and a large solar panel. On rest days we charged the sherpas, and at night we charged our batteries from the sherpas. It worked flawlessly. Let me know how you solve your backcountry power problems.

One final tip, if you are bringing your phone into the backcountry to use as a camera, keep it in airplane mode. This will dramatically extend your devices battery life, and it will also help you separate from the front county. Which is the reason we are in the backcountry after all, isn't it?

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

How to fit a backpack

For the past 12 years I have been employed by a major outdoor retailer, and a big part of what I do is training new staff. One of my specialties is training staff in backpack fitting. I have trained welll over one hundred people and I estimate that I have done between eight and twelve thousand backpack fittings. I think it is one of the most important things I do. If your backpack isn't comfortable you won't be having a good time in the backcountry.

The first thing you have to understand is that backpacks are a lot like shoes. They may look good on the wall, and they may be your buddies favorite. But until you actually try them on and see how they feel you can't tell if they are right for you. People come in all shapes and sizes, and backpack fitting is about how it feels, and how the backpack carries a load. If it doesn't feel good on your back, and doesn't efficiently transfer the weight of the load onto your hips, it doesn't matter how many awards the backpack has won.

Next, you have to understand that backpacks have two sizes. A volume - expressed in cubic liters - and a size as it relates to its wearer, small, medium or large. The volume size of your pack is going to depend on the size of the gear you are putting in it, and is dictated by what we call the 'big three.' The big three is your sleeping bag, pad and tent. (some people say the big three is backpack, sleep system and tent, but for our purposes the backpack size is going to be determined by the other parts of the equation. So I don't include it in the big three.)

If you're an older back packer, like myself, your brain may prefer to work in cubic inches. You can turn cubic liters to cubic inches by multiplying by 64. a 50 liter pack (multiply 50 by 64) is a 3200 cubic inch pack.

Traditionally, backpackers will buy a backpack and then fill it with gear. The big three and the other gear needed. But I think this is backwards. If the volume of your backpack is going to be determined by the things going into it, why buy the backpack first? You risk having a backpack that is either too large (you will end up carrying more gear than needed, which means more weight than needed) or too small (you won't be able to carry all that is needed.) So what I generally suggest is that people buy their big three first, and then their backpack. The size and weight of the big three will largely be dictated by price. As you spend more money, your gear will weigh less and pack smaller. The depressing phrase we use in the industry is, the more you pay, the less you get.

When I started working in this field - over a decade ago - we regularly sold backpacks that ranged from 65 liters to 85 liters, this was the normal range. We stocked packs as large as 105 liters and could get packs as big as 115 liters. Today, after a decade of advancement in materials and design the bulk of the packs I sell are 45 to 65 liters. We still have packs - a few - that range up to 85 liters but I no longer have immediate access to packs bigger than that. The bulk of the AT thru hikers I fit for packs are buying packs in the 50 to 65 liter range. I also see people who started the AT with larger packs and by the time they get to me they are shopping again but this time for a smaller pack.

So you have a pack in mind you would like to try, in an appropriate volume, but how do you know what size (small, medium or large) you actually need. Well, to use the shoe analogy again, you need to get your torso measured, just like you would get your feet measured before buying shoes (you do get your feet measured, right?!) A torso measurement is best accomplished with a tool designed for the purpose. Because you are measuring from your iliac crest, on the side of your body, to C7, the large bump on the back of your neck.

It is almost impossible to measure yourself and difficult to measure someone else using just a tape measure. Any reputable backpacking store should have a measuring device to use for a torso measurement - they are provided by the backpack manufacturers at no cost. If your retailer doesn't have one, you need to find a new shop to frequent. The torso measurement spans from 16 inches to 21 inches. 16 and 17 are "small" 18 and 19 are "Medium" and 20 and 21 are "large." These measurements are not gender specific. Your torso measurement is also not correlated to height. You can be 6'4" and be a medium (with long legs) or 5'8" and be a large. Most men, about 80% are mediums. 15% precent of men are Larges, with the remainder being smalls. Most women (about 80% as well) are smalls, with 15% being extra small and 5% being medium.

Time to try on a pack in both the size that suits our torso and the volume that will work with our gear. Don't ever try on a pack empty. Let me repeat that. DON'T EVER TRY ON A PACK THAT IS EMPTY! It is a complete waste of time. Every pack feels good empty. To try on a pack the retailer you are visiting should have both pillows and sandbags to load a pack with weight. When I see a person take a pack of the wall, without checking its size, and then putting it on without weight, or making any adjustment to the pack I know immediately the level of knowledge of the person trying on the pack.

To be a knowledgable customer, come into your outfitter and say "I am shopping for a pack in 50 to 65 liter range and I am a medium, measuring 18 inches." If you don't know your size, say "I need a pack, and I need my torso measured."

When I do a pack fitting I generally open the divider between sleeping bag compartment and main compartment and the put two large pillows in the pack (I find it easier to stuff the pack from the top than to put one in the bottom and one in the top.) Then on top of the pillows I put a ten pound sand bag. This should be right behind the shoulder blades of the pack wearer, close to their center of gravity. (incidentally, this is mimicking the way you should pack your backpack for a trip. Heavy stuff right behind your shoulder blades, light stuff - like your sleeping bag at the very bottom) I then close the pack and tighten all the compression straps snugly. Then, before allowing the wearer to put on the pack, I loosen all the straps. This forces you - the wearer - to tighten the straps for themselves instead of just buckling them and going, which prevents them from just assuming they are set correctly. After loosening all the straps I confirm that the wearer knows where their iliac crest is - the top of the hip bone on their side - and I tell them that the iliac crest should be in the middle of the hip belt on the pack. I have them put on the pack, and get the hip belt in the correct location, and t then have them tighten it. We are then going to work our way up the pack tightening straps. Shoulder straps are next, The sternum strap is optional, and I tighten the load lifter straps above the wearers shoulders.

A lot of people want more weight in the pack when they are trying it on. Some pack fitters I know use 15 pounds, I generally use 10. Here is the thing. We are using a sandbag. Dead weight. Yes I can put 30 pounds of sand in your pack so you can see what it feels like, but it isn't going to feel like a real load. Gear just feels different. But 10 pounds is enough weight to that if there is a fit problem, I will be able to see it, and the wearer will be able to feel it. If they still want 30 pounds of dead weight, I will add it after an initial fitting.

Shoulder straps should be snug, but not tight. The sternum strap pulls the shoulder straps towards the center of the body, and it keeps them from rolling off the outside of the shoulders. It is optional, most people like it, but it makes me feel like I can't breath. Load lifter straps are the straps that get people in trouble.

Load Lifters go from the top of the shoulder strap to the top portion of the pack bag itself, usually connecting to the frame. When someone first puts on the pack I make them just snug. There used to be a rule that load lifters had to be at a 45 degree angle, but this is no longer true. With some packs they go straight back, and frequently with the current line of Osprey packs they may angle up at more than 45 degrees. The tighter you pull the load lifters the more it pulls the top of the pack towards your center of gravity - which feels good. The pack feels like it is part of you. But, the tighter those straps are, the more weight is shifted from your hips to the front of your shoulders, which will quickly fatigue your shoulders. This is the strap that you want to be adjusting throughout the day. If the terrain is flat, leave them looser, and allow the weight of the pack to be on your hips. If the terrain is steep, and you are using your hands for balance it is time to tighten them up. When you are walking, if you feel the pack wobble back and forth, they need to be a little tighter.

When someone comes to me and says "this pack hurts me when I wear it" the first thing I check is the load lifters, and 90% of the time they are too tight. Because it feels good when you pull them tighter, people do it all day, until they are completely tight, and their shoulders are exhausted. We want 50 to 60% of the packs weight on our hips.

Once the wearer has the pack on and straps are adjusted I check three things. I physically confirm - by sticking a finger into the space between waist belt and wearer - that their iliac crest is below the top of the waist belt. You have to physically touch the persons hip bone. Another good indicator of waist belt position is the location of the buckle. It should be over, or at least close to the belly button. Next, can I slide my fingers under the the shoulder strap with only a little resistance? Too much resistance means there is too much weight on the wearers shoulders, no resistance means the pack is probably too high. This is almost impossible to do on yourself. Find someone to do it for you. Finally, I check the location of the buckle that tightens the shoulder strap. It should be closer to the waist belt than the arm pit. This is a general indicator of pack size versus wearer size. If it is all the way down at the waist belt (meaning the shoulder strap is as tight as it can get, or close to it) it is an indicator that the pack might be too big. If it is up near the arm pit there is a chance it will rub the wearer while they are walking! - This is an indicator that the pack is too small.

Then you should take a walk in this pack for at least ten minutes. Is anything rubbing? pinching? binding? if it is doing it a little now, how will it feel after ten miles? Perhaps this isn't the pack for you.

Some packs offer adjustability in the back panel itself. I generally only have to adjust this if your size is on the border between medium and large or small and medium. Likewise, some packs have removable shoulder straps and waist belts. You generally only have to swap out sizes if your waist size and torso size is greatly different, or if you have particularly broad shoulders.

I generally discourage people from trying on more than three packs in a day. I find the memories of what was good and what wasn't gets muddy. If you don't have a definitive answer after three packs, take a photo of the tag of the pack that felt the best and come back in a couple of days and try it again, and then continue trying on other packs to compare to your previous best. Keep notes on what you tried, and what felt good and what didn't. Also, when going to try on a pack, dress like you are going hiking. I have had people come in for fittings who are dressed inappropriately, and let's just say it is awkward for everyone.

Here are the bullet points:

• Get measured
• Try on a pack with weight in it
• Check (or have checked) three land marks (hip bone, shoulder, and shoulder strap buckle)

Do everything you can - without sacrificing safety - to keep your pack weight low. We used to use the range of a quarter to a third of your body weight, is an effective load for you to carry. Today, using modern gear this is way to high of a number. In general, for most weekend backpackers, your pack weight should be between 23 to 35 pounds. I did 3 days on the AT last year, and my pack weight was 32 pounds with real food (not much lighter freeze dried) and a heavyish stove - an msr whisperlite.

Finding the right pack fit takes some time, and patience. But I have yet to find someone that can't get a good, comfortable fit out of a backpack. It is about finding something that fits your shape. Let me know if anything needs clarification.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Satellite Communicators

Communication in the backcountry is becoming a huge business, that is effecting huge businesses. Garmin (The GPS company) purchased Delorme (the map company) just to get their hands on the Delorme inreach satellite communicators. That should be an indicator of the growth of this market.

When I was a NOLS sea kayaking instructor we carried satellite phones for communications during an emergency. This would be the mid to late 2000's. To be polite about it, I would say this, they sucked. The audio quality wasn't great. They dropped calls all the time, they were heavy and expensive. But at the time they were the only game in town. For a lot of companies this is still the first choice for emergency communication in the backcountry.

Another company, ACR (now ACR Artex) was a long time maker of EPIRB's. (Emergency position indicating radio beacons) These were most usually found on aircraft and ships at sea. Generally a bit bigger than a coffee can, they were one time use devices that you could either trigger manually or they would trigger automatically when they hit the water. They send a signal on 406 megahertz which is a frequency specifically used for world wide search and rescue. In the 1970's a group of major nations joined to gather and split the cost of putting satellites in orbit, solely for search and rescue. They would listen for signals on 406 mhz and transfer that signal back to earth, for the coordination of a rescue. These kinds of EPIRB devices would get rescuers within about a mile of you. Then they would have to use the Mark 1 eyeball to pinpoint your location. In the Early 2000's you only had two options, an EPIRB or a Sat phone, and for the casual outdoors person they were both horrible options.

Then a little company released a new device. The SPOT. The SPOT device was inexpensive ($150) and you would have to pay for a service contract, also about $150 a year, but it was small, lightweight  and powered by a pair of AA batteries. It was easy to use and a little irreverent, which sat phone companies and epirb companies certainly weren't. The box that the spot came in, said on it "by opening this box you guarantee you don't come home in one." Besides irreverence what made the SPOT different was it offered more options than what I call the "get me the hell out of here" button. It offered three options for communication. First, it offered an SOS feature that would send info via satellite to SPOT headquarters. It would show them where you are, and that you needed help and they would hand off your location and personal info to the appropriate authorities. Which is essentially what the ACR EPIRB's do, but SPOT doesn't use 406 mhz. They use a different system that is lower in power. But the Spot offered two other options. You could hit the OKAY button. Which would send an email or a text message to people on a preconfigured list. It would say something like, "this is where I am, everything is okay" and it would also send along a link to google maps showing your location. Finally there was a "help" option. This would send a message to a different preconfigured list of people, and it would say something like "Hey, I need help" and with the link to your location on google maps. But it doesn't notify the authorities. I think of this button as the "Hey, my car won't start button." In fact on the current device this has been renamed the SOV or Save our Vehicle button. SPOT was a huge step up in terms of cost and usability. But this opened the flood gates for this market space. Which bring us to where we are today.

The current crop of satellite communicators has four competitors.

The first is the only one way communicator, the SPOT Gen3. ($149) plus a user subscription that starts at $149 a year, and you have to buy a year, you can't just buy a month of service for your big trip. It works like the device described above with a  few more feature options around tacking your movements. Not that different than the original but smaller, lighter and more reliable.

Next is the Garmin InReach Explorer+ 2 way satellite communicator. ($400), plus a user subscription that starts at $11.95 a month (but really gets usable at the next level which is $24.95 a month) It does everything the spot does, but when paired with a smart phone you can send custom text messages via satellite. You can receive weather reports via satellite, there are tracking features and it works as a full featured GPS for navigation. With this one you can purchase service by the month (but on the monthly "Freedom" plan, the costs are higher.

But Garmin didn't rest on its laurels, they just released the InReach Mini ($350). It shares similar plans as its big brother and does everything its big brother does but in a much smaller package. It will also pair with Garmins high end watches like the Fenix 5.

Spot didn't want to get left out in the cold, so it just released something new. The SPOT X 2 way satellite messenger. ($249.95) A bit bigger than the Spot Gen3 it has a built in keyboard that looks like an old school Blackberry. This gives you the ability to send custom text messages via satellite without having to pair it with another device like a smartphone or tablet. It too has a service plan that starts at $150.

So which of these devices would I choose to take on my next adventure? The answer is obvious. None of them. I don't really need the two way communication. I have used a number of SPOT products and they work well enough. I know people that love their InReaches. But I don't really want that kind of contact in the backcountry. I go to the backcountry to avoid that kind of contact. But I do like the idea of the emergency rescue features. If the poo really hits the fan, I think it is a good idea to have an option. I would choose this.

This option is a little different. It uses the 406 mhz signal of the older EPIRBS but adds a secondary signal at 121.5 mhz which brings rescuers right to you. It also provides a strobe so you can be found at night. More waterproof, and impact resistant than any of the other options we have discussed. The device is about $250 but doesn't have a user subscription. It also doesn't offer any communication other than the 'get me the hell out of here button.' No text messages, no okay messages, no my car won't start. Just call the cavalry, and get me out of here. But if that is the kind of device you are looking for there is no better. And that is what I would want.

Monday, June 25, 2018

10 easy things you can do to help the environment

This effects us all, but if you work or play in the outdoors you are more effected than some others, for now. I am speaking about the state of our environment and how little our government in United States is doing. We used to be world leaders, and the current administration is reversing most (if not all) of what the last administration did. We, as enjoyers of the outdoors have to take up the slack. We need to be proactive about the way that we look after the planet. There is, after all no place else for us to go. If you think these aren't real issues, it is as simple as you aren't paying attention.

Here is a list of 10 things you can do to help the environment. They are easy, and may seem like they couldn't help, but as part of a vast movement they will be. Plus, at the end, I have a one month challenge for you.

#1 - Wash your clothes in cold water (you may need to use a cold water detergent). This is simple and will reduce your use of electricity. It has also been shown to actually clean your clothing better than in hot water. Simple to do, it will lower your electric bill, and decrease the amount of carbon being released (unless you are powered by renewables). For bonus points, ditch the drier. Hanging your clothes to dry outside will also use less (far less) electricity and actually extend the life of your clothes. It is the drier that shortens your clothings life, not the washer! You want proof? Check your lint trap.

#2 - Be mindful about getting around. Avoid single person car trips, use mass transit, or bike commute, walk or run. This can also be as simple as making sure you can do multiple errands at once instead of making multiple trips.

#3 - Avoid single use items. (This is one I struggle with!) Plastic spoons, forks and knives, and even containers from take out. They all get used for a few minutes and then end up in land fill. This can be as easy as packing your own multi-use utensils. If you are a backpacker you probably already have a spork you can use. Avoid the salad bar, and bring lunch. That way you aren't using take-out containers. Here is a very simple one. Just stop using straws. Just stop. There is nothing good about straws.

#4 - Buy used items, or sell old items. Reduce, reuse and recycle. Everyone knows this saying, but few give it much thought to realize that reduce and reuse comes first. Simply buying used things or even selling your old things reduces the amount of things being created and things going into landfill.

#5 - Eat less meat, particularly beef. Beef production is probably the single worst thing we do to our environment. They are responsible for more (far more) greenhouse gas emissions than cars or power plants. We cut down forests to have grazing land for more beef production which also removes trees which remove carbon dioxide. So it's a double whammy. This can be as simple as picking one day a week where you don't eat meat. This is how I started and it wasn't long before I was a vegetarian. This is the single biggest thing you can do to help the environment.

#6 - Switch to LED light bulbs. You will use 75% less electricity, and they last 25 times longer. Easy.

#7 - Buy local produce. This will help local farmers, and dramatically reduce the carbon impact of flying or trucking fruits and vegetables all over the planet.

#8 - Use less water. Don't let the sink run, take shorter showers, don't water your lawn. And while we are at it, no bottled water. Buy a reusable water bottle. We know the water isn't any better than what is probably coming out of your tap, but plastic single use water bottles are a nightmare. People use a million water bottles a minute. A minute! For more info check out this.

#9 and #10 go together.

Watch this video.

Let's do this challenge with Sailing LaVagabond. One month of no plastic bags, and no single use coffee cups. Use the #plasticfreewithslv or even #plasticfreewithPO. Post your pics to instagram. Lets see if we can turn one month into a lifetime.

Lets do this.

I really think that at some point we are going to see a global change int he way that we view the environment. I think there is going to be a seismic shift, and the world is going to come together and change dramatically the way we do things. There should be solar panels on every roof. Plastic bags and paper cups should be illegal. I hope that I live to see it, and it isn't too late to save our home.

Right now, as people active in the outdoors we have to take a leadership role in this fight. We need beautiful places to work and play. Let's make everyone else play catchup. Lead the way!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

How Black Diamond Equipment forces change in the outdoor world.

Black Diamond equipment has a knack for shaking things up. A talent for it. I'll explain, but first, a little history.

Black Diamond equipment was originally Chouinard Equipment. It was founded by Yvon Chouinard who also founded Patagonia Clothing. In the 80's he owned both companies, and then someone died. A climber on the Grand Teton stopped to take a leak, and when he was done he didn't rebuckle his harness correctly. The guide - an amazing climber named Jim Bridwell - wasn't in a position to see it. He didn't know the guy stopped to take a leak and didn't know his harness wasn't secured properly. When the climber leaned back and weighted his harness, it unbuckled and he tragically fell to his death. The lawsuit that followed cost Chouinard ownership of Black Diamond equipment. It also changed the way climbing harnesses buckle, and the way people tie into them, but that is a story for another day.

Chouinard sold Black Diamond to its employees, essentially it transitioned to an employee owned company and that was when things started to change. The first target on their list was Petzl, a French owned climbing and caving equipment company. The two companies were already competitors, but it wasn't climbing gear that Black Diamond decided to go after. It was something new for them. Headlamps.

I remember in the early 90's descending the back side of Mt Washington in New Hampshire in the dark with a full pack over rough terrain. I had a pair of maglight flashlights, the two people I was hiking with had early Petzl headlamps. They had use of their hands and I didn't. I vowed I would never use a flashlight again, and I have never hiked with one since then.

Petzl brought the headlamp to the United States from France and for quite some time they owned the market. I can't say for sure, but I suspect the headlamp for climbers, campers and backpackers comes from caving. Black Diamond saw an opportunity and entered the headlamp market, and they quickly took it over. Offering brighter headlamps at lower prices. Headlamp brightness used to be measured in watts - which I can tell you from experience is how most industries measure brightness, by the watts the bulb is using. This is how the photography and film industry historically measured brightness in lamps. Petzl was the first to switch to Lumens (which has its flaws as a measuring unit for brightness) and I suspect they did it so they could be measured on a different scale than the ever more powerful watt rating on a competing Black Diamond headlamp. Black Diamond switched not that long after Petzl did. We have been living in the  "lumen wars" every since. Every six months or so Petzl will update the brightness of its headlamps and a couple of months later Black Diamond will do the same. Price points generally stay the same but light output jumps and Petzl always ends up just behind Black Diamond. For example the Black Diamond Spot and Petzl Actik are both 300 lumens and the Spot is $10 less. For example, to use the Black Diamond Spot as an example again - it is a super popular headlamp - Three or four years ago the Spot was only 40 lumens, compared to the 300 lumens it is today. It simply just kept doubling every year or so. But I can tell you from experience, 300 lumens around camp is a lot of light. If you are talking with people while wearing a headlamp, at that brightness it needs to be dimmer, or pointed at the ground or both.

Black Diamond wasn't content to be slapping around Petzl though. They decided to go after another company that owned a market space. That company was Leki, makers of trekking poles. Black Diamond recognized the inherent problem with the internal twist lock used on trekking poles. The internal lock was simple, as you twisted it, the sides of the lock expand, pushing against the inside of the pole. This worked great, until it didn't. Admittedly, they are easy to fix, but you have to have the gumption to forcefully yank the pole apart, and do that without losing any parts. Black Diamond pioneered the external flick lock, which while heavier and more prone to snagging things on the trail they were far less likely to malfunction, and far more secure. The rest of the industry eventually switched to similar locking mechanisms, but it was too late. BD took over the trekking pole market.
Then BD kicked it up another notch. They released folding poles with a cable running through the middle. They packed small and light, and once again the industry is playing catch up with Black Diamond.

You have to wonder, what does Black Diamond have its sights on next? They have a proven track record for both innovation and being able to pull off practical gear. They are a company that I watch just to see what they are going to do next. Innovation is in their DNA. The company was founded by a man who was able to both envision how things should be and the gumption to make it happen. Chouinard reinvented piton manufacturing, and then created the concept of clean climbing (using protection that is removable from the rock without damaging the rock or the gear.) Yvon Chouinard also revolutionized climbing techniques. Literally changing the way we climb. What will Black Diamond come up with next? A venue where I would like to see them move is backpacking. They already make packs but they are usually climbing or skiing specific. If they brought there level of innovation to backpacking packs, they could give osprey a run for their money. Personally, I wish they would get into the kayak business.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Why backpackers should try kayak camping

You are a skilled backpacker. You have your gear wired. Your weight is just right. You know your systems and they work well, and most importantly you can cover ground with ease. You should try transitioning to kayak camping. Why? Here are ten reasons:

1) No crowds. You want a taste of real wilderness without having to travel across the globe? There are far fewer people kayak camping than there are backpacking. The A.T. has seen 155% growth in the past couple of years. Backcountry campsites are full. So many people are hiking and backpacking that is recommending that people put rubber tips on their trekking poles to prevent damage to trails. As a kayaker you will have campsites to yourself.

2) You already have the gear. Yes, you need a boat and paddle and pfd, but other than adding some dry bags (and there are even ways around this!) you are good to go. Just about any backpack is smaller than the storage of any kayak. All of your backpacking and camping gear will transition nicely to kayak camping.

3) Ready for adventure? You are used to walking on a trail, that even in the worst rain is usually predictable (with the occasional mudslide not withstanding). Transition to the water makes everything a little more exciting. Adventure awaits.

4) Float and gloat. This is the reason I transitioned to kayaking. I was tired of carrying a heavy pack. In the early 90's my pack weight was 52 pounds, and at the time it couldn't really get any lighter than that. I used an 85 liter pack. Today I am using a 48 liter pack and my pack weight is 32 pounds with real food (not freeze dried.) But in a kayak I just have to get my gear to the water line, I am making distance without carrying any gear on my back. I can also go further, the max for a backpacker is about ten days of food and fuel, and even then the load is monstrously heavy. I kayaked 21 days on the Inside Passage (though we had food and fuel for 30!) and it all fit easily in my Kayak. The boat was a little slower, but actually more stable when loaded. How big is your backpack? 65 liters? My boat can hold a little more than 215 liters of gear, and more importantly, none of it is on my back!

5) The food is better! When weight isn't an issue I can eat whatever I want for dinner. I generally make pasta with a sauce from scratch. I don't have the skills, but I know people who bake in the backcountry. Which can be cakes, or pizza from scratch. And let's not kid around, you want a glass of wine with dinner, pack in a bottle. It will fit perfectly in the bow of your boat!

6) Big, exciting, epic trips are closer. It is far easier to do an epic trip in a kayak. A week of paddling on the NC coast where you see dolphins and not another soul is easy to make happen. Similarly - also in NC you could hike the Grayson highlands where you will see wild ponies - or as I call them, land dolphins! - but you will do it with a crowd of people around you. I think the path from novice paddler to extended trip is shorter in a kayak than it is in the backpacking world.

7) It'll make you cool. All your friends are backpacking. (and you can still backpack with them!) but you can also be the person that goes on amazing paddling trips. Far fewer people are doing kayak trips, so you will stand out in a crowd.

8) A different perspective of the world. When I am backpacking I feel like I spend the day looking at the ground, three feet in front of me. I have to think about taking time to look at the view. But in a kayak you are paddling while looking up and all around you at all times.

9) It will push your skills as an outdoors person. You will learn about water and tides and more about weather and wind and rain. It will kick your navigation skills to the next level and lets not forget that you get to learn all about propelling and controlling a kayak.

10) It's easier on achy knees and problematic backs. If you think kayaking is a sport of arm power you have never been taught how to paddle a kayak. Kayaking is at first about core strength, and eventually with practice and skill about leg strength. That is where the real speed in a kayak comes from. What kayaking will give you is amazing core strength and good posture. All without straining your tired knees. If you have back problems, make sure to support your back in the beginning, but soon you won't need the additional help. Think of Kayaking as cross training. Your backpacking workout is very "legs and lungs" but kayaking is back and core.

Bonus 11) It's fun!

Friday, June 15, 2018

I think the Appalachian Trail is dead.

The Appalachian Trail. The AT. 2200 miles of history. I have a fairly good personal history with this trail, as does every hiker on the east coast worth his salt. I've hiked most of the trail from the New York State line heading north. Since moving to the south I have also hiked a lot of the trail down here, though I am not hiking as much as I did in the 80's and 90's. You may recall that last year I hiked the first 25 miles of the trail, I had seen the northern terminus and wanted to see the southern terminus. I wasn't disappointed, as it was a spectacularly beautiful hike.

So it may surprise you to hear that I think the A.T. as we know it, is dead or dying. I have had this conversation with a friend who is also an outdoor educator, he has hiked the entire trail and he vehemently disagrees with me, so I may have the minority opinion, but that doesn't mean I don't get to express it.

For clarity sake, let me say that I don't think that the A.T. as we know it as a physical trail is going anywhere soon. I think the trail will continue to be a pathway leading up the eastern seaboard for decades to come, though I am concerned about the talk of a pipeline cutting across the trail. If there is a pipeline at some point there will be a leak. If I were in charge - and I am clearly not - The Federal Government would purchase all the land and turn it into one big National Park (the trail is a national scenic trail and managed by the NPS, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), the U.S. forest service and numerous state agencies, but I think it needs to be run under one roof. So what do I mean by the A.T. is dead? Well before we get into that, lets look at some facts:

Between 2010 and 2017 the number of people attempting to thru hike the trail went up by 155%, but the number of people completing the entire trail is dropping.

We don't know how many people use the trail for a couple of days, a weekend or a week, but the number has to be in hundreds every weekend. This is a huge impact on the trail and the surrounding environment.

On my three day weekend, from the start of the trail we were constantly flip flopping with between 30 and 40 thru hikers. Upon getting to a shelter it was a party like atmosphere. There were just so many people.

This impact, at some point is going to have to be dealt with. The Pacific Crest trail deals with it's growing popularity by making people get a permit to get on the trail. The A.T. is going to have to - at some point - do the same thing.

According to the ATC on average you cross a road every 4 miles. I know this is an average and in practicality they are further apart than that, but you are never very far from a road, and therefore a town. Which means there will only be more people, vendors, stores and resources for hikers encroaching on the trail.

Okay, here is the sentence that is going to piss people off. In my opinion -and it is a minority opinion I know - the Appalachian Trail barely counts as "wilderness." For me, a wilderness experience includes some measure of solitude and lack of access to resources. But hey, that is just my definition, let's see what Websters has to say.

an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region.
synonyms:wilds, wastes, bush, bush country, bushland, inhospitable region;

Uh huh... Does that sound like the Appalachian Trail to you? I spent three days on the start of the AT (keeping in mind I haven't hiked the whole trail, probably a third of it, but I have hiked thousands of miles all over the planet, I am not a neophyte hiker, okay?) and in those three days do you know how much wildlife I saw? One snake. I didn't see so much as a cool bird. I didn't see a squirrel. I didn't see a chipmunk. I had better odds of getting athletes foot than seeing a bear. The reason I didn't see any wildlife was the amount of people on the trail. That isn't to say it isn't a beautiful trail, it absolutely is. but as far as I am concerned it isn't wilderness. 

I am seeing more and more people - literally helping to outfit them - prepping for the Pacific Crest trail. This year I helped four, which doesn't sound like much, but is a 400% increase from any other year I have been doing this. I am also seeing a lot of thru hikers. A LOT! 

I think there is a social aspect to hiking the trail. Getting a trail name, and the like. I think it is becoming a club. A club that to get into it you have to hike 2000 miles. And I am not trying to diminish the achievement of completing a thru hike. It is an amazing achievement. 

A friend of mine is currently hiking the trail, but she is taking a break to go hiking in Alaska with her boyfriend. I am curious how she compares the two. 

We have to take steps, including a permit process, to lessen the impacts on the trail and protect it for future generations, but I fear it is in the beginning phases of the process of becoming a theme park. Like Philmont Scout ranch. 

There, now two groups of people can hate on me. Thru hikers and the Boy Scouts. Have at it. 

On Monday you can come back here to read about why you should transition to kayak camping. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Pack and Go! or Hell No! Jetboil Jet Gauge

This edition of Pack and Go! or Hell No! is debating the jetboil Jet Gauge.

This product made by Jetboil is a a small battery operated scale for measuring the amount of fuel remaining in a single use fuel canister.

Fuel canisters are by far the most popular fuel type used by backpackers and other outdoors people, but they have some inherent flaws. As I mentioned above they are single use. They can't be refilled, and without a special tool - the crunchit tool, also made by Jetboil - they can't be recycled. But they offer easy use, and great flame control. But, there is no way to a actually know how much fuel is in a partially used canister.

Yes, there are a couple of methods for estimating the remaining fuel, but none of them are particularly accurate. That is where the Jet Gauge comes in.

Screw the canister onto the bottom of the gauge, turn it on, and allow the canister to hang. It can be set to work with any of the three available sizes of canister and despite the fact that it is made by jetboil it will work with any brand of isobutane fuel canister.

Due to the types of courses I teach I end up with a bunch of half used canisters, and no way to know how much fuel is in them. One test of the Jet gauge and I was sold, and at $14.95 I felt that it was a steal. The jetboil jet gauge is inexpensive and fixes a problem in the market.

The Pluses - Easy to use, fills a hole in the gear world. Inexpensive. I can finally figure out how much fuel is left in a canister.

The Minuses - Um.... I don't actually have any. I love this product.

The verdict is definitely a Pack and GO! (but don't really bring it with you, use it to test canisters before your trip.)

UPDATE: I just learned that this is a Backpacker Magazine 2018 editors choice product. So I am not alone in my love of this simple, and usable, piece of gear.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Setting Goals

Yesterday I taught a Stand Up Paddleboard class. I have only been teaching SUP about 4 years, and I have to say I really enjoy it. It is a very different experience than kayaking. I was actually surprised to be teaching yesterday at all, I am pretty obsessed with watching the enrollment on my classes and yesterdays SUP class was empty right up until Thursday night or Friday morning. I thought the class would cancel. But come Friday afternoon I had a participant. But just one.

A lot of times it doesn't make financial sense to run a class with just one student, but in a case like this with very little set up time, I would imagine we break even. I am always happy to teach, particularly a fun class like this.

Yesterdays class was actually the first SUP class of the year for me, and so before hand I took some time to refresh myself not he curriculum and then I started thinking about my goal for the day. I always start a class by a sling that of my students. What is your goal for the day? What brought you to my class? For a lot of people it is just something fun to do, but in reality the answers can be many and varied. Not for SUP specifically but for any class, it may be a lead into a bigger outdoor outing, or it may be something along the lines of I am missing this skill in my personal skillset. I want to know what those needs are before the class so I can make sure I give you what you need, or are looking for.

Yesterdays participant was really just wanting to try something new. Simple. As we got onto the boards I realized she had some slight mobility issues with her right knee, and it made the transition from sitting to standing on the board difficult. We spent about three quarters of the class trying to get her to a point where she could move that knee in a manner to get her from sitting or kneeling to standing. In the process she got proficient in turning and even a good forward stroke. We practiced getting back onto the board after she fell off in the process of trying to stand. She had a great attitude and despite not being able to stand up, she was having fun.

We talked more about goals, and I realized that for both the student and myself it isn't so much about choosing a goal, it is about defining success. What does success look like in any given situation? She made it clear that her definition of success was having a good time, something she felt she had already accomplished. I too had already accomplished my goal for the day, which was to have a nice day on the water. Success doesn't require lofty goals.

As I thought about her problem I knew I really wanted to get her standing on the board. I thought about something one of my friends said about our current fleet of boards, she didn't think they were very stable. I thought about what other more experienced SUP instructors would do in the situation. There's a line from a Gene Hackman movie - When I get in jam, I like to think of a guy smarter than me. And I think "what would he do?" So I paddled along and realized I needed to get her on a bigger and more stable board. I needed to give it one more shot to get her standing. The board I was paddling was an older board that while only 6 inches longer was a bit more stable than her board. But back in my storage container - which is at the lake we were paddling on - we had an 11 foot board. We headed back to where we started and I went and grabbed the other board. I quickly switched the fin to the new board and attached her leash to it as well. Then I thought of my friend who is a better SUP paddler than me, and I thought what would she do? I pulled her board out into about 2 feet of water, and straddled the front of it, making it more stable. With the wider, longer board and me supporting it she was able to make the transition to standing. I then gently got off the board and allowed her to paddle away. I quickly got onto my board and followed her.

She left the course ecstatic. Literally dancing on air, with her definition of a successful day extremely elevated. I guess you could say the moral of the story is to set your goals high, but honestly I think it is to have a good time, and work hard to give others a good experience.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

2017 Recreational Boating Statistics - good news and bad news.

The 2017 Recreational Boating statistics are out, you can view them here. There is good news and there is bad news.

The good news first. Paddle sports related deaths are down in 2017 from 2016 by almost 6%. That is actually pretty good news. Yeah, that's all I got. It's pretty good. Not great. 

Okay, the bad news: 76% of fatal boating accidents, the victims drowned. Of those fatalities 84.5% weren't wearing PFD's. 84 percent would have had a better chance - not guaranteed, but far better - of living if they were wearing a PFD. These numbers include all boat types. the vast majority are open motorboats, but second (15% of fatalities) were kayaks.

81 of 94 total fatalities in kayaks were drownings. That is 86% of all kayak fatalities. Now it is possible to drown while wearing a PFD. If it isn't properly fitted your mouth and nose can end up underwater. If you are too tired or unconscious and can't hold your head above water you can still drown. But if you are a paddler, these numbers should scare you. This number goes up to 91% for Stand up paddle boarders! For the love of your own neck SUPers, wear a damn PFD! 91%

Operator inexperience was also a large factor in kayak related fatalities, which translates to, paddlers without enough experience to either competently handle the situation, or recognize that they were in danger were getting killed while paddling. 

Hypothermia was also a factor in a number of fatalities. 

The lessons from this are simple:

Seek instruction and build your skills. Learn to assess danger and don't be afraid to back off. Have respect for the power of wind and water. Dress for the immersion, meaning dress for the temperature of the water, not the temperature of the air. Finally, wear a PFD. 

Now go out there and have fun. Paddle safely.

Note: This data comes from the US Coast Guard, and the full report and all the data can be found here. 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Is there anything less exciting than insurance? this is actually exciting!

You may know that to supplement my income I do drone based photography and film work. The fact is that there isn't great money in the outdoor instructor game - if I had been smart I would have been an outdoor guide. The pay is better for guides and they get tips! But alas I am an outdoor educator, and so I try and find other revenue streams. Since my background is in photography and film, when the FAA started the commercial drone "part 107" certification I was literally the first on board. I passed my FAA test on the first day it was possible to take it. In fact I have to recertify this august.

When I work a commercial flight I use a company called Verifly for insurance. As you can tell be the name they started as a company specifically to offer flight insurance to commercial drone pilots. Just before I get airborne, I open the Verifly app and based on my location I pay for an hour of insurance. It ranges between $10 and $25 an hour (usually in the $10 to $15 range). It is simple, inexpensive and easy to use. 

So what does this have to do with the outdoors or kayaking? Before I worked for a major outdoor REtaIler (see what I did there!) in their outdoor education arm, I taught kayaking privately. I did this for years. It was all cash, and I actually made pretty good money. When I lived in New York, I charged $125 a lesson, with a lesson lasting around 2 hours. When I moved to North Carolina I had to drop my price to $75 a lesson. NC is a very different market. There was also less demand, in NY people have no problem paying an expert in their field a lot of money for private lessons, in the south it seems that people prefer a group environment. But I digress, I did all this private teaching off the books and without insurance. I kept my fingers crossed and prayed nothing bad happened. The reason being that insurance was incredibly expensive and I would never know when I would need it. 

But while I was cooking dinner tonight I got an email from Verifly, announcing a new product. Actually a new app, called Verifly - general liability. You can use their app to be general liability insurance from an hour to a month, starting at $5. I checked the list of occupations that it works with and was thrilled to see under the title of "Guides" 

  • Canoe & Kayak Guides
  • Fishing Guides
  • Float Trip Guides
  • Hiking Tour Guides
  • Nature and wildlife Guides
  • Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP) Guides

Now I would like to check and make sure that "Guides" includes instruction, but I am assuming it does. This opens up all sorts of possibilities for private or self employed paddlers. 

I find the list of occupations that it won't cover really interesting. From the outdoor perspective it doesn't cover rock climbing which is a shame. Here is a partial list:

Ineligible operations
  • Acrobatic, aerialist, or stunt performers
  • Amusement device, rides or inflatables operators
  • Operations involving non-domestic animals
  • Exotic dancers, strippers, or adult entertainment
  • Operations involving weapons
  • Hypnotists
  • ATV tours
  • Horseback trail rides
  • Hunt clubs
  • Rock climbing
  • Skiing or Snowboarding
  • White water rafting

I find this list interesting, because it doesn't seem to make a distinction between flat water kayaking and whitewater kayaking, it just says kayaking guides. But it excludes white water rafting, which would lead me to believe they should really eliminate white water kayaking guides. I also find it odd that hypnotists are on that list of ineligible operations. 

This service isn't available yet in my state - which was the same case for the flight insurance at first - but I am sure within a few months it will be.

UPDATE: I asked Verifly if Canoe/Kayak guides included instruction, they quickly got back to me and said that they had updated the list. It does in fact include instruction.