backpacking

How to Make a Backcountry Sauna

Today’s topic is backcountry sauna construction. Buckle in.

First, make sure you physically victimize yourself over terrain like this:

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That’s me in the front, scanning the lay of the land for a proper sauna location.

Then, after you’re done feeding the troops tacos and instant refried beans, effectively putting an end to the bitchin’ and moanin’, you’ll want to get a fire going. Break out the whiskey, because things are about to get weird.

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Where’d that dog come from?

When you’re about a quarter of the way through your whiskey stash, ask your buddy if you can borrow his tarp. Your wife might roll her eyes and say something like “what are you doing with that thing?” Never mind the skepticism. Just wait until your sauna is steaming and they’re fighting for space. You’ll get the last laugh, trust me.

Start heating a few large rocks in the fire. I read somewhere that you’re not supposed to heat river rocks because they’ll explode in your face. So don’t do that. You should be fine with a few dry rocks.

As your rocks are heating, you’ll want to choose a proper sauna location, preferably near the fire. Here I am, a self-proclaimed backcountry sauna genius, using what the good Earth gave me:

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Hey, it’s all that was available.

By now, your fellow campers are at least curious. They might even get in on the construction phase. Which is good, because up to this point this was a one-man sauna (boring). High five your friends for letting their sauna guard down.

Now on to the minor details. Figure out a way to transport your super hot rocks. Load up on icy cold snowmelt from the nearby stream. And then hop in, robe or no robe. Doesn’t matter. You’re in backcountry sauna mode, dude!

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Sauna sesh in progress.

Slowly pour water over the rocks. Magical steam will appear. Nature is so mysterious like that.

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That’s a pretty crappy set-up, I’d say. But come on. It works. Not bad for a fist timer. I’d use a bigger tarp, and maybe heat my rocks a little longer next time. And kick all those bums out.

How to camp in bear country

A food chain demotion does not always make for a comfortable camping experience.

Face it, bears are big, strong, fast and wild creatures. And they live in the woods, where people typically do the majority of their backpacking.

Have no fear. With a little preparation and know-how, you can camp (somewhat) comfortably in bear country. Read on for a few tips.

Tip 1: Buy a bear canister.

You’ll spend more time playing camp food Tetris with your bear canister than actually using it on the trail. Sure, these things are kind of a pain in the butt to organize and load in your pack, but they’re designed to keep bears out of your food stash.

A bear might investigate your canister by stomping on it, nudging it it off a cliff, juggling it, or gnawing it like a chew toy. He might even use it as an ottomon. Who knows with bears sometimes.

Try as he might, he won’t even come close to cracking the seal. Bad for him. Good for you.

Tip 2: Smelly stuff is a no-no.

All your smelly stuff needs to go in the bear canister before you turn in for the night. Yeah, the already-brimming-with-food canister. I told you they’re a pain in the butt sometimes. So good luck with that.

Sunscreen, chap stick, hand sanitizer, scented condoms—these items need to go in the canister. Be vigilant. Double check your campsite for the not-so-obvious.

Bears have completely destroyed tents and cars to slurp down a tube of SPF 30. Weirdos, those bears.

Tip 3: Don’t cook anywhere near your campsite.

Because if you do, Mr. Bear will be mad you didn’t invite him to the diner party. And you don’t want Mr. Bear mad and feeling left out.

My suggestion: Cook somewhere along the trail, then continue hiking a ways until you reach your campsite. It’s certainly not the most convenient option, but at least your tent won’t smell like bacon. Bears love bacon.

If you do set up camp and then cook, be sure to do so downwind a few hundred yards. Bears have an uncanny sense of smell. They can smell those tasty camp enchiladas you’re cooking up. Bears love enchiladas, too.

Tip 4: Strip.

Get naked. Well, at least take off those smelly clothes once you’re done cooking. Put on your jammies and break out those s’mores. Which will go right back into the bear canister post-s’more session.

I don’t think bears are interested in crazy naked people dancing and chanting around the fire. Something to consider.

Tip 5: Scared of the dark? Wear earplugs.

Thank my wife for this one. She’s not so much scared of the dark as she is slightly worried about being dragged out of her sleeping bag at 3 in the morning by a bear with a tube of sunscreen hanging from his tooth.

She doesn’t hear a thing all night. I don’t wear earplugs and I hear pretty much everything. I’ve freaked myself out once or twice, too. She’s smarter than me. By a lot.

Tip 6: Chill out!

Sleeping in what basically amounts to a bear’s guesthouse can be an unnerving experience. Relax. Bear attacks are relatively rare, especially if you’re aware of your surroundings.

Bottom line: Don’t be a slob. Don’t smell like bacon.

Survive a Grand Canyon rim-to-rim hike

A rim-to-rim hike in the Grand Canyon is not to be taken lightly.

Every wild place disguised as a national park seems to bring out the collective poor decision making skills of the people who visit.

And while many of them make it out alive, this hike can be deadly if not planned properly.

We hiked the classic route from the South Rim to the North Rim along the South Kaibab and North Kaibab trails, for a total of 20.9 miles.  The mileage may be manageable. The conditions, however, are what you need to be concerned with.

What makes hiking the Grand Canyon different from any other national park?

For starters, it’s hot.  Unbearably hot. Midday summer temperatures soar well past 100°F.

There are dozens of heat related warning signs in several languages along any given trail basically saying you will die if you do not take the appropriate precautions.

Sadly, people do die every year simply because they were not prepared.

“I totally regret not studying a foreign language in high school right now.”

You’re asking for trouble when you combine an unforgiving desert environment with steep, rugged terrain and an ill-prepared hiker.

Of course, there are a few steps you can take to enjoy your rim-to-rim trip. Many successful hikers have gone before you. Follow their lead.

WATER/FOOD

You need to stay hydrated, obviously. Plan on drinking at least one gallon per day. Don’t wait until you feel thirsty. Drink water at regularly scheduled intervals. Know where water is available (for the most part, it’s not).

You’ll be amazed how many dehydrated zombies you’ll encounter deep in the canyon with only a small water bottle in hand.

Keep in mind that drinking too much water can cause hyponatremia.

To prevent hyponatremia, eat plenty of salty snacks and drink sports beverages containing electrolytes. We carried one small container of powdered Gatorade to mix with our water.

Forget about your diet. It’s no fun, anyway. Your body will require a ton of fuel for this trip, so load up as often as you can.

Warning: Don’t be an idiot.

PLANNING

Getting to the bottom is optional. Getting to the top is mandatory. Give this concept serious thought.

Once you reach the bottom, you are essentially at the mercy of the canyon. You must hike out. Chances are slim the park service will call in a helicopter unless you really are close to dying.

Hiking in (that is to say, going downhill) is almost more challenging than hiking out. Your knees and ankles will be completely shot by the time you reach the Colorado River. Consider using trekking poles to alleviate pressure on your joints.

Take your time, and rest often. This is not the place to be an overzealous macho power walker. Listen to what your body is telling you.

Most importantly, hike within your abilities, and do so with a few good friends. An inexperienced solo hiker will probably be beat down, Grand Canyon style.

No matter what you do, the terrain here will kick your ass. Always keep this fact in mind.

CONCLUSION

People routinely underestimate the Grand Canyon. And they die. Simple enough.

It all boils down to respect for the canyon.

Know that for the numerous hardships and twists and turns of a rim-to-rim hike, you will be rewarded with nonstop awe-inspiring scenery. Highly recommended.

Enjoy your walk.

Room with a view.

Leave the cowboy coffee to the cowboys

Cowboy coffee tastes a bit like blackened kitty litter.

Any serious coffee drinker like myself is willing to take down a cup or two of the caffeinated sludge when left with very few options.

What is cowboy coffee, you ask?  Great question.

According to our good friends over at the always reliable Wikipedia, “cowboy coffee is made by heating coarse grounds with water in a pot, letting the grounds settle and pouring off the liquid to drink, sometimes filtering it to remove fine grounds. While the name suggests that this method was used by cowboys, presumably on the trail around a campfire, it is used by others; some people prefer this method.”

In other words, gross.  I’m not sure who these “some people” are who “prefer this method.”  Come on folks. Backcountry coffee preparation has come a long way!  There is no need to suffer anymore.

So it was with this concept in mind that I sought an acceptable alternative.  Enter Starbucks Via Ready Brew.

Now before you rightfully question my manhood, let me just say I’m not a devoted “must go daily” Starbucks freak fan.  In fact, the place scares the crap out of me.

I don’t know if it’s the annoyingly peppy baristas, or the price point, or because I can never remember which drink and in which size I prefer, thus having to sheepishly rely on my wife to order for me—whatever it is, Starbucks just kind of gives me the creeps.

But there we were standing in line one day, ordering a ventiwho vannila whatchamacallit, when I found the solution to my cowboy coffee dilemma.

We tried the Italian and Columbia roasts on our backpacking trip through Rocky Mountain National Park, and honestly, I was impressed.  This isn’t your average, watered-down instant coffee.

I won’t bore you with a vague flavor profile, mostly because I have no idea how to describe a cup of coffee. Just know that this a tasty, compact alternative to kitty litter sludge.

Have you made any similar “outdoor” product discoveries? Please tell me you have, and that it was instant beer.

A hundred and one uses for a bandana

Is there another piece of travel/backpacking gear more versatile than a bandana?

I bet we could come up with close to a hundred and one uses for a bandana.

I’ll kick off the first five:

1. Coffee filter

2. Glasses cleaner

3. Pot holder

4. Use to put pressure on wound

5. Emergency repair for broken strap on pack

 

 

 

The Basics: Backpacking 101

Backpacking is a lot fun if you know what you’re doing. You’ll gain advanced skills and know-how over time, but it’s best to have a basic understanding of what you’re getting into beforehand.

With that said, let’s go over a few pieces of backpacking gear and the skills you’ll need to stay safe.

Good Boots

It all starts with good boots. Go to your local outdoor store and have them fit you for the right boot. Boots come in a variety of price ranges, from the inexpensive to the tricked out high tops only the richest hiker could afford.

There are plenty of quality mid-range boots, though. I’ve easily put hundreds of miles on my $85 Hi-Tec boots. They’re broken in to the max, and I have no intention of buying new boots any time soon.

A lot of long distance hikers prefer lightweight shoes in place of bulky boots. Your call, really.

Tip: If you experience any sort of regular foot pain on the trail, I recommend trying a pair of Dr. Scholl’s inserts. I did just that, and it made a huge difference.

A Good Backpack

The second most important backpacking item after boots is a quality backpack. Don’t skimp here. You can spend a lot of money on packs, but like boots, a mid-range pack is perfectly acceptable.

It seems like there’s a million packs to choose from these days, and it can be a frustrating experience finding the right one for you. Size should probably be your biggest consideration. What kind of backpacker are you? A lightweight minimalist able to do more with less, or a “bring it all” type? (Hint: If possible, aim to be a minimalist.)

When it’s time to purchase your pack, don’t risk the online buy unless you’ve been to the store, know your measurements (very important!), and have tried on packs. Only then would it be OK to buy a pack online, especially if you found a killer deal.

I have an Osprey Aether 60, and I’m pretty stoked with it so far. I used to have a Gregory Z65, but over time, I started finding things about it I didn’t like. Choosing a pack is ultimately about personal preference.

Tip: Learn how to property pack your pack. It makes a huge difference.

Maps & Compass

Having a map is one thing. Having a map and knowing how to read it is another. Your map is worthless if you can’t identify symbols, contours, and features.

I can’t stress this enough: know how to use your compass! It takes practice, but once you get the hang of it, a compass is an extremely valuable tool.

GPS units are a good investment, as well. The thing is, a compass and a map do not run out of batteries.

Tip: Many outdoor stores offer map and compass lessons. It’s worth your time and money as a backpacker to sign up.

I check my map often. Especially when I can't see 5 feet in front of me. Fogged in, Sequoia National Park.

I don’t want to bombard you with too much information right away. So next time we’ll talk about tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, food, route planning, and anything else you can think of.

What’s in your first aid kit?

Better question: do you even have a first aid kit?

If so, is it store bought, or did you piece it together like we did?  Do you take it everywhere, or do you only pack it in certain situations? We take our kit backpacking and on the road with us.

If you don’t have a first aid kit, the list below should be a decent start.

Our kit contains the following materials, carefully prepared by my wife, the physician assistant:

Continue reading

3 steps to enjoying the woods with your lady

Guys, let’s say you’re slowly starting to coax your apprehensive wife or girlfriend or mail order bride out into the wilderness.

You’re essentially in a “make or break” situation here. Make, and the two of you will be frolicking hand in hand over long dusty trails for years to come. Break, and you’re on your own buddy.

Follow these three easy steps to have your gal pal skipping showers and snagging fish barehanded in no time.

1. Comfort

The great outdoors isn’t always so great when you’re uncomfortable, especially if you’re camping. Remember, a little preparation goes a long way.

Be sure:

  • the “bed” is cozy. Passing out in the dirt is a respectable trait, but it’s unacceptable for her.
  • to build a fire. Keep her warm.
  • to pack fun stuff from home such as boxed wine, cards or a good book.
  • to pack bug spray that works.  I recommend All Terrain Herbal Armor Insect Repellent.
  • to plan tasty meals.  One of my favorites in camp is Backcountry Thanksgiving.

2. Confidence

Look, you know you’re lost.  You know that’s an aggressive bear defending her cubs.  And you know there’s always a slight chance you’ll be struck by lightening.

The key here is to not show it.  Don’t act like a sissy.

That bear hurling lightening bolts your way? Not a problem.

Things will only get worse if you’re not confident.  Don’t compromise your decision making with a weak mind.

3. Game Plan

Don’t just dive into the woods willy-nilly.  Go over maps, distances, routes, and weather together.

The worst thing you could do is say “babe, let’s go bushwhack our way through a mosquito-infested swamp in the hopes of finding somewhere suitable to camp before the sun goes down and we freeze to death. Cool?”

See, I told you it would be easy.

I hope I’m not coming off as a sexist pig who thinks women are incapable of holding their own in the woods. I know better than that.  There are plenty of women who would put my skills to shame.

And of course there is more to this than making the bed and getting your wife drunk on cheap boxed wine.

Bottom line: it’s best to be considerate. You’re working as a team, after all.

Fine dining is possible in the backcountry

Have you ever purchased one of those Mountain House pouches of freeze dried food, and wondered later on in camp why you paid 8, maybe 9 bucks for a bag of mush?

I know I have.  More than once, actually.  You’re in a pinch.  You’re not feeling like the creative camp chef everyone makes you out to be.  The pressure is on. A pouch of food looks easy. Done deal.

But you’re better than that. You are an informed, intelligent consumer. You cruise the cheap-o aisles at the grocery store.  You’re perpetually on the lookout for a deal. Maybe you even shop the dusty expiration rack in the back corner by the employee break room (hey, there’s no mold!).

So you know you can save on backpacking food if you’re smart. There are entire sections devoted to cheap, edible food in pouches: meats, veggies, fruits, spices. Mix and match, and you won’t necessarily have to sacrifice your fine dining standards. Creativity goes a long way here.

Here is one perfect example. It’s called Backcountry Thanksgiving.  We’ve made this recipe a few times on the trail. If I wasn’t snoozing in a sleeping bag out in the middle of nowhere, I’d swear I was at grandma’s house for the holidays.

Backcountry Thanksgiving

  • 1 packet of Stove Top band stuffing
  • 1 7-ounce pouch chicken
  • 1 cup dried cranberries

This is where things get really difficult.  Stay with me. Boil 1.5 cups of water, then stir in stuffing. Add chicken and cranberries. Serves two. Or one, if you’re the hungry boy (like me) in camp.

Do yourself a favor: steer clear of the Mountain Mush.

How about you, Pilgrim? Surely you know of a few gourmet backcountry recipes that are both cheap and delicious. Please. Do Share.

Walk amongst giants at Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park is like no place in the world.

The park is located in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Created by Congress on Sept. 25, 1890, it is the second oldest national park in the United States (bonus points if you know the first).

Hike or drive?

You can reasonably experience the big trees and never leave the comfort of your car. The Generals Highway weaves its way through the park, passing many impressive trees. There are plenty of places to pull off to enjoy the scenery for a moment, and a few of the best specimens feature paved walkways.

Separating yourself from the throngs of daily visitors to the park is nearly impossible if you choose to drive. Though its famous national park neighbor to the north receives far more traffic, there may be times when you are competing for elbow room to view some of the more popular trees, such as General Sherman. Don’t worry, though. There’s no need to crowd around the base of the tree in order to take it all in.

Driving is a perfectly acceptable way to see the park if you only have a day.

But if you truly want to soak in the magic of this place, I recommend hitting the trail for an overnight stay.

You have dozens of quality routes to chose from, many of which will take you through some of the most beautiful groves in the park. Study a good map to get a feel for the area.

We began our trek at the South Fork Campground, located in the southwest corner of the park. From there, we hiked to the stunning Garfield Grove and beyond, before snow complicated our progress. You can find maximum solitude here.

You will need a permit to camp outside of a designated campground. Call the Wilderness Office at (559) 565-3766 to make arrangements.

And be prepared to take on gigantic sugar pine cones at 5:30 in the morning.