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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 LNT.org 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

Why 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.

wil·der·ness
ˈwildərnəs/
noun
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.