Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The future of Yeti

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

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

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

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

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

First, the Yeti Boomer Dog bowl.

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

Next, The Tocayo Backpack.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Trip Planning Workshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Navigating by phone

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Gear you have been told you need*

*but don't really need

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring only things you need.

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

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Say Hello to GO!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.