Category Archives: Backpacking

Backpacking is simply self contained travel. In other words, if you need it you are carrying it on your back. This includes clothing, food, equipment, and shelter. Articles in this category focus on topics to help you enjoy and travel safely in the wilderness.

How To Name A Mountain

Sunrise on Fisherman's Peak
Sunrise on Fisherman’s Peak

During my Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru-hike, I took a very popular side trip to the top of Fisherman’s Peak. Perhaps not surprising, this peak was named in honor of the three fishermen, who on August 18, 1873, were the first ever to reach its summit. Surprising to me, however, is the limited respect accorded these high climbing anglers: Charles Begole, A. H. Johnson, and John Lucas. After all, at 14,494 ft, Fisherman’s Peak is the highest mountain in the contiguous United States.

“Wait,” I hear you saying. “I thought Mount Whitney was the highest peak.” Well, yes, I suppose the mountain is also known by that name. This mountain naming business can be kind of tricky.

According to the Geonames website:

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names is a Federal body created in 1890 and established in its present form by Public Law in 1947 to maintain uniform geographic name usage throughout the Federal Government.

Because serious naming conflicts needed to be resolved,

President Benjamin Harrison signed an Executive Order establishing the Board and giving it authority to resolve unsettled geographic names questions.

Perhaps because of his commitment to resolving identity crises, Benjamin Harrison is now the official name for two elementary schools, a post office, a state park and natural preserve, a mine, and a memorial bridge – at least according to theGeographic Names Information System (GNIS) database.

So why do most people associate the highest continental peak with Whitney rather than the first-to-summit fishermen?  It may be as simple as who you know.

Josiah Whitney

Professor Josiah Dwight Whitney of Harvard was tasked with the 1860 California State Geological Survey. He hired a variety of scientist and explorers to help, including William H Brewer, Charles F Hoffmann, William More Gabb and Clarence King. You may also know them as: Mount Brewer, Mount Hoffmann, Mount Gabb, and just to mix things up – Clarence King Mountain.  It must have been exhausting hiking around naming mountains after each other.

Clarence King
Clarence King

It was Clarence King who, in an apparent 1864 career enhancing move, suggested his boss Whitney for the highest peak. To explain King’s relationship with the summit, you could sum it up as: D’oh!

In 1864 King attempted to reach the summit and failed.

In 1871 he returned and climbed the wrong summit, peaking out on present day Mount Langley. He wrote extensively about his first-to-ascend Whitney adventure, only later in 1873 to have rival Goodyear let all the air out of his tired tale.

In 1873, King rushed back to climb the correct peak, to claim his place in the history books. With apologies to Gale Sayers, this new book could be titled I Am Third, as he appears to have been beaten out by both the fishermen and the team of Hunter and Crapo.

King sheepishly added the following to the Mount Whitney chapter of his book Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada:

The preceding pages were written immediately after my return from Mount Whitney, and without a shadow of suspicion that among the sea of peaks half seen, half storm-hidden, I could have missed the true summit.

In addition to the peak, I think he missed the point. King’s problem was that he returned from Mount Langley instead of Mount Whitney.

Given his failure as King of the hill, you might assume he gave ground on claiming the naming rights. Perhaps those rights belonged to the fishermen, who simply climbed the correct mountain the first time, probably encumbered with extra poles and a bucket of worms.

Because of King’s less than perfect navigation skills, the lower peak, now known as Mount Langley, was at that time identified as Mount Whitney.

In Exploration of the Sierra Nevada, Francis P. Farquhar (aka Mount Farquharrecalls a letter written by Goodyear to the Inyo Independent on July 30, 1888:

It appears that when Prof. Whitney was in Owens Valley himself in 1872 for the purpose at studying the effects of the great earthquake of March 26th of that year, he became unpopular with a good many people in the Valley, some of whom took a very strong personal dislike for him. When, therefore, a year later is was suddenly discovered that a lower mountain had for three years been called Mt Whitney by mistake some of these people thought it could be a fine opportunity for revenge upon the man whom they disliked by making his name stick to the lower peak and calling the highest one something else.

Mount Whitney versus Fishermen's Peak
Mount Whitney versus Fishermen’s Peak

It was not until Feb 2, 1891 that the U.S. Board on Geographic Names stepped in and called the fight, in an apparent technical knock out. The hand written decision card can be found on the Geonames website.

Fisherman’s Peak was then relegated to the status of “variant name,” a sort of purgatory waste bin for losing names, recorded in the GNIS database, but never again to be used on any map or official document.

King’s bungling did manage to get his boss some bonus recognition. Mount Langley, the one he accidentally climbed, has a variety of variant names, including False Mount Whitney, Mount Whitney Number One, and Old Mount Whitney.

Although Mount Whitney may have beaten back Fisherman’s Peak, the winds of change continue to howl through the mountains. On October 1st, 2014, white male McKinley was knocked off his (highest in the entire USA) mount, in favor of the local native name Denali. Could white male Whitney be far behind?

The competition for Denali was as high as the mountain.  In addition to Mount McKinley, other now discarded “variant” names include: Bolshoy, Bulshaia Gora, Bulshaya Gora, Bulshoe, Churchill Peaks, Deenaalee, Deenadhee, Deenadheet, Deenalee, Deghilaay Ce’e, Deghilaay Ke’e, Delaykah, Denadhe, Denagadh, Denaze, Dengadh, Dengadhe, Dengadhi, Dengadhiy, Densmore’s Mountain, Densmores Peak, Dghelaay Ce‘e, Dghelaay Ke’e, Dghelay Ka‘a, Dghili Ka‘a, Diinaadhi, Diinaadhii, Diinaadhiit, Diinaalii, Diinaazii, Diineezi, Din-al-ee, Din-az-ee, Doleika, Doleyka, Mount Denali, Mount Doleika, Mount McKinley, North Peak, North, Peak Mount McKinley, South Peak, South Peak Mount McKinley, Tenada, Tenda, Tennaly, To-lah-gah, Traleika, Traleyka.

I was disappointed that Boaty McBoatface did not even make the consideration list.

If local names are to be given preference, then shouldn’t we pay attention to what the California natives called the highest continental peak now known as Whitney? To answer this, Wikipedia quotes from Judge William B. Wallace memoirs:

The Pi Ute [Paiute] Indians called Mt. Whitney “Too-man-i-goo-yah”

Given the extremely high number of people fighting each year for a permit to climb Mount Whitney, the name “Too-man-i-goo-yah” seems “too-good-i-think-yah.” I can only offer it up with a degree of amused skepticism. It reminds me of the public relations disaster when a KTVU anchor read the supposed names of four pilots who crash landed Asiana flight 214 in San Francisco: “Sum Ting Wong,” “Wi Tu Lo,” “Ho Lee Fuk,” and “Bang Ding Ow.”

“Perhaps we do need policies on appropriate names,” mused Ray Cyst Baphuny.

In 1997, The United States Board On Geographic Names released a 56 page document titled the PRINCIPLES, POLICIES, AND PROCEDURES: DOMESTIC GEOGRAPHIC NAMES

It includes ten naming policies.


I suspect POLICY VIII addresses secret names, such as Area 51, and therefore had to be redacted. To make up for it, however, there are two POLICY VII’s, one of which is titled… wait for it… NAME DUPLICATION?!

Our focus, however, is on how to name a mountain. Our attention, therefore, is logically drawn to POLICY IV: WILDERNESS NAMES, which regrettably states:

Within wilderness areas, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names will not approve proposed names for unnamed features, names in local use but not published on a base series map, or unpublished administrative names used by administering agencies, unless an overriding need exists, such as for purposes of safety, education, or area administration.

Name proposals commemorating persons are discouraged…

Before you get discouraged, remember:

… a person must be deceased at least 5 years before a commemorative proposal will be considered.

In other words, you will have plenty of time to get over the injury of your untimely death, before you have to face the insult of your mountain name rejection.

How To Navigate With Your Magnetic Dog

Is your dog a pointer?  I don’t mean his breed, I mean his read.  Can he read the earth’s magnetic field and point the way like a compass?  Well that’s exactly what the folks at Frontiers in Zoology were interested when they published this dog-goned research abstract: Dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s magnetic field.

Dog Magnetic Squat
Photo Credit: Jenny Ricken

Other serious researchers have explored the magnetic sensitivity of various animals, including migrating birds and rodent-hunting red foxes.   Even cows and deer have shown a preference for north/south orientation.

So what exactly did this Czech Republic/German study find?

Dogs preferred to excrete with the body being aligned along the North-South axis under calm MF [magnetic field] conditions.

They do, they do indeed.

This directional behavior was abolished under Unstable MF [magnetic field]. The best predictor of the behavioral switch was the rate of change in declination, i.e., polar orientation of the MF.

After observing backpackers struggle for years with compass orientation, I am absolutely astonished that dogs can not only calculate declination, but can actually detect small changes in it.  Let’s see, for 17 degrees westing, do I subtract or add that to the heading?  It’s gotta be add, right? 17 plus 354, that’s like what 371 degrees? Wait it can’t be more than 360, so… oh, doggy excrement!

Besides revealing their incredible math skills, what’s the big deal about compass dogs? According to this latest report, it is all about availability:

Dogs are widely available experimental subjects all over the world and can easily be trained to react on diverse sensory stimuli.

Clearly they don’t  mind defecating in public, plus many show a willingness to eat their own poop.  Perfect for this study. So how serious was this research?  How’s this for commitment:

We measured the direction of the body axis in 70 dogs of 37 breeds during defecation (1,893 observations) and urination (5,582 observations) over a two-year period.

In order to appreciate the scope of this effort, I conducted research on my own three cats.  Ninety-seven percent (97%) of the time my cat’s prefer to poop unobserved, most likely in the neighbors yard.  When trapped indoors, regardless whether the litter box was oriented on a North-South or East-West axis, they manage to fling all the litter onto the laundry room floor.  I trust this puts to rest any questions regarding my contribution to science.

Given the nature of this magnetic study on dog defecation and urination, it may prove difficult to maintain a straight face while reviewing.  I tested myself by reading the entire study, and frankly struggled in a few sections:

The direction (u) and length (r) of the (grand) mean vector and the p-value of the Rayleigh uniformity test as well as the sample size are given next to each diagram.

P-value? Sample size? In the same sentence?

Pooling is justified in this case because samples for respective dogs have comparable sizes.

And here I thought pooling was the expected result of urination. And apparently sample size does matter… so lay it out there big fella.

Navigation in the wilderness can be quite a challenge, so help of any kind would be greatly appreciated.  Exactly how dependable at navigation are man’s best (and becoming even “bester”) friends?  The research shows dogs are only good at it when the magnetic field is calm.  I’ve personally never felt a magnetic storm, so its gotta be calm most of the time, right?  Well it turns out:

MF is calm only about 20% of the daylight period.

Bummer.  I am not great at math, but I think that means dogs would be wrong something like 80% of the time.  Coincidentally, that is about the average rate of error for most backpackers using a compass. Is there any good news in this study?

Typically, the daily declination comprises westward-shifts in the morning and eastward-shifts in the afternoon, while the magnetic field is rather stable at night.

Great, while I am in my tent thrashing through nightmares about which direction to travel in the morning, the dog’s out pooping directions in the dark. If I brought my cats, I could at least figure out which way it is to my neighbor’s yard.

How To Backpack With Dragons

Legend has it ancient map makers feared white space. Every gap revealed a cartographer’s lapse in geographic knowledge. And like London Underground passengers, mind the gap they did indeed. Artwork became a form of cartographer’s spackle, filling in those unsightly and embarrassing holes.

DragonMapNot exactly sure what’s out there? Quick doodle a giant elephant, a sea serpent, or better yet a really cool dragon. No gap means: relax I’ve got this map covered.  A scary monster means: don’t even think of going there to prove me wrong.

Cartographers with sketchy sketching skills simply wrote HC SVNT DRACONES, which in Latin means Here Be Dragons. In English it means your fingers are probably not lined up on the keyboard. Here be Dragons went on to become the standard way cartographers indicate “terra incognita” or “land unknown.”

This particular legend has a characteristic common with many legends.  Namely, it is untrue. Oh yes, there were real and mythical creatures drawn on maps, but apparently only one marked HC SVNT DRACONES.  Written, or perhaps mistyped, HC SVNT DRACONES appears on the 1510 Hunt-Lenox Globe near the eastern coast of Asia.  As cool as Here Be Dragons sounds, it was unfortunately not a mappers standard. What a drag for the dragons.

Ironically, what cartographers abhor, adventurous backpackers adore – terra incognita. Given advanced satellite imagery and Google Earth delivery, it is hard to imagine what on earth still qualifies as terra incognita. Not only has Google created a world of interactive street views, they have strapped cameras on hikers enabling trail views as well.  Okay, so the entire planet has been selfied. Boring. Short of sporting a winter balaclava, how can an adventurous backpacker feel anything remotely incognita?

Well let’s not forget there are plenty of remote wilderness areas, small and large, with no mapped trails.  If you can’t actually order up a tectonic plate of terra incognita, perhaps you can at least wander in for a reasonable entre of “vestigia incognita”, or “tracks unknown.”  Off trail, cross country, bush-wack, off grid, or vestiga incognita.  Regardless what you call it, getting off the trail may be as incognita as you are going to get.

John Muir loved to wander trail-less in the wilderness.  Ironically, so famous for that was he that a 210 mile trail now bears his name.  This John Muir Trail however, has become so popular that it feels a bit more highway than my-way.  It reminds me of the Yogi Berra quote: “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”  At times I feel like one of those nobodies.  And frankly, backpacking nobodies like to see, well nobody.

DragonAs an alternative to the John Muir Trail, rock climber and outdoor adventurer Steve Roper describes the Sierra High Route.  This should not to be confused with the High Sierra Trail which, though spectacular, is yet another established trail.  Roper’s Sierra High Route is not a trail but rather a suggestion. It is roughly 200 miles in length, though your mileage may vary and batteries are clearly not included. Roper’s route guides you on and off the topographic maps of Kings Canyon, Mono Divide, Mammoth, Yosemite, and Hoover Wilderness.  Roper went out of his way not to define a specific trail.  Doing so would be like taking an ancient map and erasing all the dragons.

There are adventurous dragon-free trails, such as the Appalachian Trail (AT) or the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)  where backpackers can navigate with merely an elevation profile.  These well worn trails are reasonable enough to follow, if you just have the marathon willpower to keep placing one foot in front of the other, for months at a time. What these trodding thru-hikers likely want to know is: How much up and down today? Where’s the next water?  How far to my campsite?  Rarely are thru-hikers in the truly dragon-infested land of the lost.  Lost to them usually means being spun around, heading blissfully down the trail in the wrong direction. It is quite amazing how different a trail appears when traveled in reverse.

Traveling vestigia incognita, however, requires additional skills to root out the route. With no trail or tracks as guides, you must translate map contours to the canyons, peaks and passes before you.  This navigational art and science is also a game.  And like other games, you do not always win.  Be prepared for the defeat known as being boxed-in or cliffed-out. Retreat, regroup, and counter attack are necessary strategies and frankly half the fun.

To some the frustration of not knowing exactly where you are, or where to step next, can be a total drag.  Those willing to walk off the trail and amongst the mythical beasts, however, are more likely to say: Bring the drag on!

How To Avoid HAFE

Sonoma Pass
Staying back for a reason?

Without a doubt elevation gain can do some pretty nasty things to your body.  Most outdoor adventures have heard of AMS – Acute Mountain Sickness.   It can cause severe headaches, nausea, and vomiting.   Fluids accumulating in tissue, known as edema, can make a bad situation worse, much worse.  If fluid builds in the lungs it is known as HAPE – High Altitude Pulmonary Edema.   When it accumulates in the brain, it is known as HACE – High Altitude Cerebral Edema.   Both HAPE and HACE are potentially lethal, requiring immediate medical attention.

Given the life threatening seriousness of HACE and HAPE, it feels somehow inappropriate to worry about HAFE.  But should a legitimate altitude caused affliction be completely ignored simply because there are other afflictions even worse?  That’s like saying you can’t hate the Red Sox because there are Yankees.  Ridiculous, right?

Public awareness of HAFE varies depending on whether you or someone close to you has suffered from it.  By close I mean anything less than about 15 feet.  Let’s face it, HAFE stinks.  I mean literally.  HAFE stands for High Altitude Flatus Expulsion.  No I am not making this up!  Look it up.

Paul Auerbach, MD and York E Miller, MD submitted their observations to the Western Journal of Medicine.  In it they wrote:

“The syndrome is strictly associated with assent…

I had to read that several times to make sure it wasn’t some kind of a pun.  I’m pretty sure it is.  In fact, it may be two.

“… and is characterized by an increase in both the volume and frequency of the passage of flatus, which spontaneous occurs while climbing to altitudes of 11,000 feet or greater.”

So I guess at 10,999 feet you really have no excuse.

“The use of digestive enzymes and simethicone may minimize the hazard.”

May minimize?  Doctors, we really need some answers here.  I smell someone not taking this seriously enough.

“At present, we can advise victims that the offense is more sociologic than physiologic.”

I am not sure what pseudo-logic Dr. Paul and Dr. York are prescribing, but according to my spell checker sociologic is not even an actual word.  My dictionary defines physiological as “characteristic of normal, healthy functioning”.   In other words, paraphrasing the doctors:

The offense is more something that does not exist than it is characteristic of normal healthy functioning

That seems about right, I think.  One thing I do know is that victims are often so ashamed of this abnormal act that they resort to deceit.  Regardless of what your climbing companions are telling you, there are no such thing as Rocky Mountain Barking Spiders.

What to do?

Like both HAPE and HACE, HAFE appears to be caused by excessive and rapid altitude assent.  To reverse the symptoms, descent is usually the best option.  Yes I agree, descent is a very appropriate pun.  If descent is not possible, then you are going to have to find a way to weather this storm.  I recommend using the lightening storm safety model: spread out!  No sense in everyone getting caught up in friendly fire.

Your other option, of course, is to always travel below 11,000 feet.  If you do, however, find yourself still being productive at lower elevations, you are going to have to come up with something better than Barking Spiders.

How To Pack In The Words

Wilderness BackpackingThe word backpacking means carrying all your belongings on your back.  The word by itself, however, does not really tell the entire story.  For example backpacking in the backcountry is very different than backpacking in the frontcountry.  It could mean the difference between:

  • hiking 20 miles and sleeping on the ground in the Desolation Wilderness
  • riding 9 hours on a Eurail train and sleeping on a hostel bunk in Spain

To keep things straight, we need to pack more meaning into our backpacking words. As a service to the confused, I offer my own repackaged definitions of common backpacking terms, uncommon terms, and terms that don’t really exist but should.

Common Terms:

  • Wilderness Backpacking:  Carrying on your back all the necessary food and gear to be self-sustaining and self-righteous in the wilderness.
  • Urban Backpacking: Using a backpack as a suitcase, but otherwise traveling by planes, trains and automobiles.  Also known as “Seriously, this is not really backpacking.”
  • Thru-Hiking:  The process of hiking a very long trail from end to end.  The term typically applies to the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail.  The hiking term may be confusing if it suggests this can be done without staying out overnight. Thru-backpacking actually makes more sense, but thru-hiking is the term used.
  • Ultralight Backpacking: Wilderness backpacking with a base weight under 10 pounds.  This usually involves giving up traditional comforts such as a tent, a stove, and a change of underwear.  Ultralight backpackers value “miles” over “smiles.”

Less Common Terms:

  • Super-Ultralight Backpacking (SUL): Wilderness backpacking with a base weight under 5 pounds.  Seriously?
  • Extreme-Ultralight Backpacking (XUL): Wilderness backpacking with a base weight under 3 pounds.  Oh this is just ridiculous
  • Fastpacking:  Backpacking for speed. Combine ultralight with trail running shoes.  Now get going, you’re wasting time!
  • Slackpacking: Hiking wilderness trails, but being easily distracted by comfort. A slackpacker may day hike between hotels to avoid sleeping on the ground. Slackpackers are often found in pubs discussing the wonders of the great outdoors. They appear conflicted when offered a choice between eating on the patio or indoors.
  • Flashpacking: No this does not involve exposing private parts.  Flashpacking is upscale backpacking.  Flashpackers have larger budgets which they gladly use for gadgets and comfort.  Urban flashpackers stay in fancy hotels and eat in high end restaurants.  Wilderness flashpackers carry the latest technology such as a solar charged smartphone, mapping GPS, fully loaded eReader, and an emergency beacon to summons technical support.
  • Fatpacking:  A marketing term used by to mean backpacking with the intent of becoming NOT fat.
  • Fitpacking:  A marketing term used by to mean backpacking with the intent of becoming NOT NOT fit. In the name of semi-transparency, I have guided for both Fatpacking and Fitpacking, but only because they are in fact one and the same. I imagine that Fatpacking gets more media interest, but Fitpacking is probably what most customers tell their friends they are doing.

Terms That Don’t Exist But Should:

  • Snackpacking:  Backpacking without any cookware or stove.  Snackpackers typically survive on cases of melted Snickers bars from Costco.
  • Meatpacking:  Backpacking with carnivores.  Vegetables?  We don’t need no stinking vegetables.
  • Ratpacking:  Backpacking without any clear understanding of what should be left at home.
  • Plaquepacking:  A form of ultralight backpacking where the participant can no longer cut off any more of his toothbrush handle, so he simply leaves the dang thing home.
  • Statpacking:  Backpacking with the goal of increasing your impressive statistics, such as: peaks bagged, famous trails conquered, and family birthdays completely forgotten.
  • Tracepacking:  The opposite of leave no trace packing.  Tracepacking typically involves burning foil wrappers and cans in the campfire.
  • Flatpacking:  Intentionally backpacking in areas with little elevation change.  Florida is a prime location for flatpacking.  Himalayas, not so much.
  • Quackpacking:  Backpacking with certified Wilderness First Responders.
  • Flackpacking:  Backpacking with people who share no interest in food planning or preparation, yet manage to share observations regarding results.
  • Yackpacking:  Backpacking with parents of genetically gifted children who will not shut up already!
  • Smackpacking:  The results of backpacking with someone yackpacking.
  • Wackpacking: Escalation from smackpacking.  Also known as Sicilian backpacking.
  • Backunpacking:  The process of opening gear and releasing the unmistakeable odors of a backpacking trip.
  • ThroughHiking:  Similar to thru-hiking, but shorter.  A lot shorter.

How to Keep Them in Stitches

Readily available technology, known as photo stitching, is allowing casual photographers to easily create amazing images.  The technical terms used vary by vendor, but to the lay person they end up sounding pretty much like:

Really cool 3D virtual reality things you can spin around in and look at everything from your feet to directly over your head.

If you have not yet seen this technology, you should.  Like the Street View in Google Maps, you can slip into a 3D virtual bubble and look around.  But rather than being of popular street locations driven by a Google car, these are micro bubbles usually created by individuals in strange or remote locations.  They can be inside a museum, an office building, or be deep in the wilderness.

For backpack planning, the possibilities are intriguing.  My middle son loves to backpack but prefers solid granite to lose shale, and he wants inviting water features such as cascades and falls.  A quick pop into a virtual bubble gives us a realistic view of the surroundings.  Google Earth provides us high level visualization, but these photo stitches are micro level.

How Are Photo Stitches Created?

On a Yosemite backpacking trip we were resting near a wooden bridge which spans the Merced river.  A man approached and sat down on the other side of the river, apparently waiting.  For what we had no idea.  Our powers of laziness far exceeded his powers of patience, and he eventually resigned himself to our continued presence.  He ambled onto the center of the bridge, pulled out his smart phone, and began taking a series of photos in an arching and overlapping pattern.

Well, we were in stitches.  That’s not to say we were laughing, though we might have been, but we were being stitched, as in photo stitched.  Once I realized, I apologized for ruining his visual knitting. He simply smiled and said he was using Microsoft‘s Photosynth™ application.  He went on to say that in about a month we should go to Bing Maps, find this bridge, and there find a 3D panorama of us on our lazy rear ends.  Okay, I added that rear ends part.

Photosyth: Relaxing At FootbridgeFrankly, I was not sure I could remember my name in a month’s time, let alone to come to this bridge on Microsoft’s Bing Maps.  Apparently, the thought of seeing myself sprawled for eternity in a virtual wilderness wonderland was powerful indeed.  For I did remember to come.  I found the bridge and spun myself around on it like a whirling dervish.  I zoomed in and out and eventually landed on my chillaxing virtual self.  I marveled.  Not at the amazing technology, but rather at how happy and relaxed I seemed.

And yet I somehow also felt violated.  There I was, happy to be in a place I had worked so hard to reach.  Nearing the end of what had been 2 weeks of rigorous backpacking, I was marveling at the raw beauty.  Much of my thrill, I now admit, coming from the realization that very few people in the world have ever seen this place.  And of those who have, they certainly earned it… made painfully clear by the sweat on their brows, and a little less clear in other places.

Mousing around in my virtual wilderness, I realize that every common sofa spud within an arms reach of a computer can now come play here too.  Not only can they see what I saw without any effort, but they can do so with the smiling approval of virtual me!  I click on virtual me in an attempt to make him protest: “You have to earn this!”  But oblivious virtual me remains blissfully silent.

Upon further examination, however, I realize this virtual world is not an entirely accurate representation of what I worked so hard to see.  For example, notice the legs to the right and below me.  They are missing a torso and head.  I am pretty sure I would have remembered that.  The good news, however, is that in the lower left part of the frame, near the waters edge, there appears a head missing a torso and legs.  This virtual slaughter house is made slightly worse by the realization the head is that of a woman and the legs are that of a man.  I leave it to you to determine which, if either, is improved by the addition of the other.

So for now at least, if you want to see what actually exists in the wilderness, with heads and legs attached, you are going to have to get off the couch and work for it.  But like most technologies, I am sure these virtual representations will continue to improve.  In fact it might not be long before virtual me in the wilderness is able to see actual you on your couch.  I’m thinking at that point you are going to want to turn the technology off, leaving me virtually alone.

To see the actual Bing Photosynth of the bridge follow the attached link.  But while there, please remain quiet.  I am clearly resting.

Bridge Shot in Yosemite

Also check out:

Virtual Parks

How To Backpack Paleo Style

BaconLet me start by saying that I am neither a caveman nor an expert in paleolithic food consumption.  I have not published a PhD dissertation comparing The China Study with benefits of dino-dining.  I leave dietary science research to the more qualified, or at least the more openly opinionated.  I’m just a simple minded outdoorsman, trying to make my way through the wilderness carrying as many calories in as few grams as possible.

What is the Paleo Diet?

Mixed VegetablesPerhaps oversimplifying, the Paleo Diet consists of foods that were available and consumed during the paleolithic period.  In the unlikely event you’ve forgotten, paleolithic refers to the Stone Age, starting 2.5 million years ago and ending 20,000 years ago.  The Paleo Diet is generally described as the diet of the hunter-gatherer.   In other words, Paleos had to either kill it or find it on the ground.  I am guessing the 3 second rule was longer then, maybe more like 3 weeks.  At any rate, the diet was made up primarily of meat, vegetables, and seasonal fruit.  Products of the future agriculture age, involving food processing and probably government labeling, were not included.   Grains, pastas, and breads are not considered part of the diet.  So in other words, hamburger yes, hamburger helper no.

I have no idea how we know exactly what these homo sapiens did and did not eat.  Perhaps anthropologists have examined cave drawing banner ads, or conducted internet polls.  These experts seem pretty confident that forbidden items include: refined sugar, grain, dairy and legumes.  Some actually say the only vegetables Paleos can eat are ones that do not require cooking. It is okay to cook and eat vegetables not requiring cooking, just not to cook and eat the ones requiring cooking.  My stone age cerebral cortex is throbbing.

As a side note, I have found no reference to cannibalism.  I assume if it occurred during the paleolithic period it would still be okay today, but cannibal helper would be strictly forbidden. Assuming of course I got all this right.

Paleo Backpacking

As I consider them, the similarities between Paleo-sapiens and Backpack-sapiens are indeed eerie.  Both are clearly:

  • mobile wanderers
  • opportunist gatherers
  • occasional hunters
  • fire makers

They are also

  • usually hungry
  • dirty and stinky

Paleo-Packer Compatibility

Many of the traditional backpacking staples are clearly non-Paleo.  The modern Paleo-Packer would have to brutally club to death his desire for oatmeal, ramen, and even the peanuts (legumes) from good old raisins and peanuts (GORP).  Many of the things we consider non-perishable and light weight are disallowed, where as things that are perishable and heavy, such as fresh meat, vegetables, and fruit are just fine.

Sweet PotatoesSurprisingly, almost every Paleo recipe book includes sweet potatoes.  Apparently the paleolithic landscape was simply littered with wild yammers.  I am not sure how wild; for example, were they gathered or actually hunted?  At any rate, they must not have required cooking, but they probably were, since all of today’s recipes call for it.

Another popular modern Paleo dish is called PemmicanPemmican is a supposedly nutritious concoction of fat and protein.  Used as a high energy source by arctic explorers, it can be made from whatever resources are available: beef, bison, deer, elk or moose.  Pemmican is basically 50% dried pulverized meat, combined with 50% clarified (melted) animal fat.  In some cases berries, such as  chokeberries, are added.  Seriously?  How much choking can one energy concoction contain?

Paleo Backpacking Options

As I hunted through various resources, websites and books, I was able to gather a list of traditional or at least common Paleo Backpacking food choices:

  • Pemmican (though it may melt in warm climates)
  • Foil packed tuna
  • Foil packed chicken
  • Jerky (beef, turkey, elk)
  • Summer sausage
  • Salami
  • Sardines
  • Almond butter
  • Dried fruits (apples, apricots, bananas, mangoes, dates, etc)
  • Raw or dehydrated vegetables (sweet potatoes, yams, broccoli, onions, peppers, mushrooms, zucchini, etc)
  • Coconut Oil
  • Almond flour products (muffins, pancakes, whatever)

Unsolicited Advice

Through my research I also gathered there is a non-believing splinter clan whose advice can be summed up as:

Hey caveman, shouldn’t you be spearing and clubbing your way through the wilderness?

The problem here of course is the word advice.  According to the North Carolina Board of Dietetics / Nutrition, offering advice on Paelo diets without a license is illegal.  They have aggressively gone after Steve Cooksey, clubbing him over his Paelo diet blog.  The Institute for Justice has joined the fray, offering their hairy-knuckled support for the Paleo blogger.  They are now representing Steve in a free speech lawsuit against the North Carolina nutrition board (Cooksey v. Futrell).  You just cannot make this stuff up.

It is ironic that a caveman has launched a free speech lawsuit against a modern science board, whose intellectual beef against him appears to be “ugh“.  That of course is merely my opinion, and not advice.  In fact, nothing in this Paleo diet article should be construed to be advice.  Personally, I would advise against anyone offering advice, if doing so were not clearly illegal, at least according to the North Carolina Board of Neanderthals.

I do wish the caveman Steve well in his lawsuit, and hope the North Carolina board ends up consuming a significant portion of humble pie.  Is it okay if I recommend the Paleo sweet potato pie?  Probably not.

How To Decrease Risks In The Wilderness

In terms of wilderness safety, there is only so much you can do.  And yet, there really is so much you can do.  If doing so for yourself is not motivating enough, then do it for someone else.  Do it for a loved one waiting at home, or a traveling companion depending on you, or a total stranger, such as the Search And Rescue volunteer who may be called into harms way.

Satelite PhoneAs a commercial guide I have an obligation to do all I can to ensure the safety of my traveling companions.  I have to be Wilderness First Responder certified, CRP certified, and even Food Handler certified.  I carry an expedition sized emergency kit and usually a satellite phone.  I am an Eagle Scout, and “Be Prepared” seems fairly apropos.

This summer I helped guide a two week trip into the backcounty of Yosemite.  On the trip, one of my companions was carrying and reading Eric Blehm’s The Last Season, the tale of Randy Morgenson.  If you are not familiar with the story, Randy was a Backcountry Ranger with 27 years of experience in Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon.  He was an expert in Search and Rescue (SAR) operations, yet ironically disappeared, causing one of the largest SAR efforts in Sequoia and Kings Canyon history.  It was 5 years before his remains were finally discovered in a remote part of the park.  Circumstantial evidence suggests he may have fallen through a snow bridge and died of hypothermia.

Randy was 51 years old, the same age I am.  Sometimes it is the little connections that make things real.

Helicopter RescueI recently joined a LinkedIn™ group called Pack6 Science Drop for Hikers and BackpackersPack6 was founded by Honor (Kori) Boone to honor her brother Michael Ficery.  When I Googled Michael Ficery the first link presented was for a website called Instant People Finder.  Oh, if only it were so easy.  Further down the list reality sets in.  On June 21, 2005 Michael Ficery, who was backpacking in the Yosemite backcountry, was reported missing.  A massive SAR operation was launched, reported as the most expensive in Yosemite history ($452,000).  Michael’s backpack, map, and camera were found near Tiltill Mountain.  Nothing else was ever found.  John Dill, probably the most famous and experienced Yosemite SAR, was quoted by the San Francisco Chronicle as saying of the case:

“It drives us nuts, of course,” Dill said. “Our goal is to find them, first because we want to save them, second for the benefit of their families and third for our own egos.”

Like Randy Morgenson, Michael Ficery was 51 years old.

The stories of Randy and Michael bring home the sobering reality that wildernesses are wild and things can happens.  Bad things.  It is also this wilderness wildness, however, that attracts us.  So what can we do to maintain the thrill of being in the outdoors, and yet at least partially decrease the risk?

Emergency Essentials

The mission of Kori Boone’s PACK6 is to educate the public while offering compact, pre-assembled kits of essential tools for hikers.  It’s more than a business opportunity.  It’s personal.

Certainly carrying emergency essentials, whether the PACK6 six items, the Boy Scout 10 Essentials, or your own experience-based outdoor essentials kit, provides two major advantages.  The first is the actual utility of the items themselves, but perhaps as important is the conscious reminder that being prepared matters.

Appropriate items banging around in your pack, however, means nothing if you do not know how and when to use them.  HowTo training is critical.  Also, as you can imagine, a kit of safety items is only one part of a plan to reduce risk.

Although not a comprehensive list, as you purchase or pack your emergency kit, consider these additional recommendations:

  • Plan your trip appropriate for the skill level of the participants
  • Plan for likely risks including health, weather,  swift water or avalanches
  • Ensure reliable and safe water sources
  • Plan bailout routes for each campsite
  • Share your itinerary, including dates of expected entry and exit
  • Ensure each participant is carrying their own personal essentials, including food and water
  • Agree on an action plan in the event of separation
  • Carry appropriate communication devices (2-way radios, cell phones, beacons, satellite phone)
  • Carry emergency contacts and medical treatment / insurance information

It would be naive to think that simply following these and similar precautions would have prevented the tragedies of Randy and Michael.  We will never know.  Not knowing, however, is not our excuse for not knowing what we should do.  Reducing risk may prevent a tragedy.  And even if it doesn’t, knowing you did what you reasonably could may bring some small form of comfort.

How To Treat Water Using Solar Water Disinfection (SODIS) Method

Removing harmful pathogens from questionable water sources is a challenge for any outdoor enthusiast.  The most common methods are boiling, filtering, chemically treating, and exposing to UV light.  When most of us think of UV light, we think of an expensive battery powered device, such as a Steripen™.  The sun, however, is also a pretty good source of UV light, and given enough time to do its thing, can be just as effective as its artificial counterpart.

Solar Water Disinfection, or SODIS, is supported by the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the Red Cross.  It has become more and more popular in developing nations as a cheap and effective water treatment solution.  The required ingredients for success are fairly simple and readily available:

  • A clear Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle
  • Water
  • Sunlight
  • 6+ Hours

SODIS Water Purification MethodThere are of course a few minor important details.

  • Pet Recycle Code 1The bottle must be clear, unlabeled, unscratched and no larger than 2 Litters.  If the water is deeper than 10-12 inches, the UV light penetrate is decreased, and results less effective.
  • In the US, PET or PETE bottles are usually labeled with recycle code “1”.
  • The water being treated should be relatively clear.  Cloudy or turbid water should be filtered prior to treatment.
  • Bottles should be placed on their side, not upright, to ensure maximum exposure to sunlight.  Placing bottles on reflective surfaces have proven even more effective.
  • The sunlight should be relatively unobstructed.  If clouds cover more than half the sky, the exposure time will need to be increased, typically doubled.
  • This technique works well on common pathogens, which can cause life threatening diarrhea, but it is not effective against poisons or toxins.

Clearly this method was designed with developing nations in mind.

What about outdoor adventurers?

The question of SODIS for backpackers really comes down to practicality.  Although there certainly is plenty of sunlight in the wilderness, adventurers are often on the go, making 6 hours of undisturbed solar exposure a challenge.  Many are already struggling to figure out how to recharge their smartphones with clunky portable solar panels.  The thought of adding rows of water filled PET bottles in to the mix is perhaps just too much to ask.

Also, backpackers may not have the required easy to find in the front-country bottles.  Although some ultraliters, and some ultra-cheapskates, may carry reused ultra-thin Code-1 PET bottles (the Gatorade™ type), most of us have been trained to carry indestructible Code-7 BPA Free bottles (the Nalgene™ type).  Unfortunately Code-7 bottles do not allow the UV light from the sun to work its magic.

Is any of this relevant to backpackers?

Take Water from Top of LakesPerhaps.  When most outdoors enthusiasts think about gathering water, we tend to favor fast moving streams.  The assumption is that the aeration and filtering will produce a purer, healthier water source.  Assumptions, however, are not always correct.  SODIS has proven that extended undisturbed exposure to UV light can disinfect pathogens.  Water in swift flowing streams is far from undisturbed exposure.  Lakes, however, are a different matter.  Is it possible that lake water, relatively still and exposed to repeated daily doses of UV light, is a better source of safe water?

According to Robert W. Derlet, MD, a Sierra Water researcher and author:

The UV rays from sunlight are powerful killers of microorganisms. For this reason, the first twelve inches of surface lake water have the fewest microorganisms. In nearly 300 samples of water from Sierra wilderness areas, our research group consistently found fewer total bacteria in lake surface water when compared to streams. In addition to sunlight, other factors may also reduce bacteria including settling effects, or ingestion of bacteria by zooplankton or other small organisms.

In other words, even if we do not carry PET bottles, and line them up for 6 hours of exposure, we can benefit from the cleansing SODIS-like method of UV light, if we are careful where we gather our water.  It turns out, the tops of lakes are better than the bottoms.

So as you sing your way towards the wilderness water, remember: 

Take it from the TOP!


NOTE:  The SODIS Initiative is part of the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Sciences and Technology.  For more information, consult their website:

How To Treat Found Items

It seems during the biblical “wilderness of the wandering” six items could be found in the Sinaitic Tabernacle:

  • an ark – a gold overlaid chest of acacia wood
  • a table of shewbread – a gold overlaid bread board
  • a lampstand – a seven branched light stand
  • an alter of incense – gold overlaid alter / deodorizer
  • an alter of burnt offering – a bronze alter
  • a laver – a bronze basin

Found Tent StakePersonally I have done a fair amount of my own “wilderness wandering” and I too have found items.  Such as:

  • a bag of tent stakes
  • a mosquito net head gear
  • a dirty wool sock
  • a walking stick
  • a set of earbuds
  • a change of plans note from Troop 60

Perhaps not quite as impressive, but certainly as mysterious to me.  What meaning can I give to these apparent gifts to the wilderness gods?  Who concludes, 26 miles from the trailhead, they suddenly no longer require the means to secure their tent to the ground? Or that mosquitoes should now have free reign to partake of blood from their neck and face?

On a recent trip my son and I came upon a strange shiny bolt, in very close proximity to a three rock duck.  It is perhaps logical to conclude that the discoverer of the bolt, finding it of no particular personal value, constructed the monumental stone beacon in the hope of attracting the attention of the returning and frantic bolt loser.    I suppose it could also be that the finder discovered three lost rocks, and placed the shiny bolt to call attention to them.

How do we decipher the intentions of what we find and more importantly how do we decide what, if anything, to do with these found items?

Wilderness TrashMy natural tendency for obvious litter is to “pack it out”, in a pay it forward “leave no trace” manner.  This pile of junk was discovered on a Yosemite trip, and packed out by a reasonably good Samaritan.

But hold on little doggie, is litter as easy to identify as we think?

According to the Bureau of Land Management:

Gathering or collecting historical or archaeological artifacts…  on public lands is illegal. Violators may be prosecuted under a variety of federal laws. Vandalizing, defacing or removing scientific, cultural or historical items from sites is also prohibited.

Svalbard - Pile of Protected JunkOn a Svalbard arctic expedition, we were informed that before us lay an historical whaling site, fully protected from disruption by penalty of law.  Seriously?  This pile of drums and junk?

In Joshua Tree National Park, we came upon a very similar pile of rusting food cans.  Was it historical, or was I merely hysterical?

Ear Bud HeadphonesSome items in the wilderness are probably not protected as historical.  For example, I am not sure how old these wilderness found earbuds are, but I seriously doubt they are on a national registry.

So what would Ms Wilderness Manners advise a finder to do?  Leave it, in hopes the owner will return?  Carry it forward, hoping to find the music deprived hiker along the way?  Turn them in to authorities?  Who are the earbud authorities anyway?

According to the National Park Service:

Items left on park property will be considered abandoned property and will not be the responsibility of the National Park Service.

But then whose responsibility is it?  Are found items available for anyone to take?  According to BLM rules:

If you leave personal property unattended for more than 24 hours in a day-use area, or 3 days in other areas, it may be considered abandoned and disposed of by BLM.

Three days seems like a reasonable amount of time, but how does a finder know how long an item has been lost?  Surely I cannot wait 3 days on a trail to be certain.  Is there some trail side carbon dating system?  Single headphone, adventurous, outdoorsy, seeking new owner with deeper pockets and a stronger sense of responsibility.

Bear Box SignSome items left in the wilderness, such as food caches placed in bear boxes, should and often do display a date.  In most cases food past this advertised date is considered abandoned.   On a Yosemite trip we discovered a bag of resupply 4 days passed its date.  It contained pudding mix, energy bars, and a jumbo sized Snickers.

What to do, what to do?

Technically it was up for grabs.  But what if that poor late backpacker was on his way, delayed by injury.  Perhaps only the thought of the awaiting Snickers was keeping him alive.  We decided to let it go one more day, but after that, it was ours.

Suddenly, a Ranger appeared from nowhere, and began going through and collecting “abandoned” food.  When we inquired what happens to the found lost treasure he smiled and simply replied “we eat it.”

Shared Snickers BarPanic set in as the vision of a Snickers bar dancing in our wee little heads… vaporized.  Mustering the most pathetic and desperate expression he could create, Jesse begged the ranger if we might at least have the Snickers.

I will never know the name of the ranger who saved, if not our lives, at least our souls by handing over that bar.  What could have easily divided us, was quickly divided amongst us.

I may still lack clarity on how exactly to treat wilderness found items, but this found treat found a place near our hearts… though slightly lower, creating a surprisingly satisfying gurgle .

How to Survive – Logan Bread

Ambiguity is fun.  Is Logan Bread the answer, or simply part of the question?  Or perhaps, both?  I was at a dinner party recently where a woman, after sampling a brownie-like item declared:

Logan BreadThis tastes healthy.

There was immediate recognition, by all within ear shot, exactly what was meant.  Needless to say this pronouncement did not create a mad rush towards the serving tray.  The feeling was one of reverent respect for the apparent wholesomeness, combined with a surprising decline in actual desire.

To sustain life, backpackers eventually require sustenance.  Classic conflicting forces are usually at play: bulk, weight, calories, nutrition, shelf life, and taste.  How do you create a compact, non-perishable, quality source of tasty calories?  Is it even possible?

According to legend, in the 1950’s this very challenge faced an expedition team set on summiting Mount Logan.  The resulting recipe, Logan Bread, meeting all desired requirements, is now referred to as the pinnacle of do-it-yourself energy bar-dom.  Given its historical predecessor, known as hardtack or sea biscuits, one could claim the competition was not particularly stiff.  Others counter, however, it was in fact the stiffest thing imaginable – 6 parts flour, 1 part water, and 2 parts broken teeth.

Bread RationIf the Logan Story indeed cracked our long toothed desire for outdoor substance, it must be an amazing tale, climaxing in an amazing recipe – one in which we can confidently entrust our backpacking lives.  Recipes are full of details, and details are important.  It can mean the difference between the rise and fall of our daily bread.  As I delved further into this expeditionary tale, I found nagging conflicting details.  The shear variety of recipes claiming the title Logan Bread, calls somewhat into question their validity.  How can there be so many different recipes claiming this one momentous 1950 event?

Most claim the event was an expedition to the top of 19,550 foot high Mount Logan, Canada, the second highest peak in the Northern Hemisphere .  Impressive.  Others, however, refer to Mount Logan, Alaska.  To many of us uneducated, there is probably not much difference between Canada and Alaska.  There is in fact a Mount Logan Alaska, however, it stands a mere 6,204 feet high, making it the 17,576th highest peak in the US.  This hardly rises to a level worthy of legend.

If details are important, how can we intrust our detailed recipe for life to someone who cannot tell the difference between 6,204 feet and 19,550 feet?  That percentage of error is over 68%.  If we calculate the error based on difference between peak rankings of 2 and 17576, the percentage error approaches 100%!  So exactly how much wheat flour are we really suppose to add?!

To make matters worse, you can find a Mount Logan in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Ohio, Washington and Wyoming.  Perhaps this explains the plethora of recipes purporting to be Loganesque.

There does appear to be some common ingredients.  Almost all  Logan Bread recipes contain some combination of the following:

  • WLogan Bread Ingredientsater
  • Wheat Flour
  • Brown Sugar
  • Powdered Milk
  • Honey
  • Molasses
  • Oil
  • Salt
  • Baking Powder

As fibrous filler, they recommend a variety additions including:

  • Dried Fruit
  • Oats
  • Nuts
  • Seeds

To spice it up, many include

  • Cinnamon
  • Nutmeg

One major area of divergence seems to hatch from eggs.  Some included them, many do not.  The argument against eggs seems to be one of shelf life and sickness.  Backpackers appear to have an irrational fear of eggs and salmonella, which if I am not mistaken is caused by salmon eggs, which is why I prefer to use a spinning lure.

More concerning to me is the complete lack of chocolate chips.  Seriously, are we expected to believe life is worth living without chocolate?  For my Logan Bread, I have added a healthy dosage of dark chocolate chips.  Luckily, chocolate contains antioxidants, so a healthy dose can be a lot.  I base this improved recipe on an expedition to my own backyard compost heap, which I coincidentally call Mount Logan.  To me, without the chocolate, standard Logan Bread tastes a tad too much like the smell of my own Mount Logan.

Check out this recipe at:

Or other recipes at:

How To Survive the 5 Stages of Laundry

As with most griefs, there are five stages of wilderness laundry:

  1. Denial:  I don’t smell anything.  Why are you sitting way over there?
  2. Anger: Seriously, it is not that bad!  Besides, you don’t exactly smell pine scented!
  3. Bargaining: Listen, I’ll take a quick dip in the lake when we get to camp, OK?
  4. Depression: You really do think I smell bad.
  5. Acceptance: Ok, Ok.  So what do you want me to do about it?

Don’t sweat it

Wilderness LaundryIt appears that by itself sweat does not smell, at least not mine.  However, micro organisms which interact with sweat, like an unwanted occupy movement, can create quite a stink. Wilderness cleaning strategies are as varied as the bacteria bathing most backpackers.  To tackle this load I think in terms of three laundry baskets: delicate, permanent press, and regular


Delicate is the least interventionist laundry solution.  In fact, you can think of it as mostly prevention and wishful thinking.  The theory is pretty straight forward.  Wilderness smells come from bacteria grown in sweat.  Decrease lingering sweat and you decrease lingering smells. Since sweating is a natural process to regulate temperature, we need to do everything we can to control temperature first.  Proponents wear clothing in layers and quickly remove them as they heat up.  Better to be too cool than to accidentally sweat.  Antiperspirants can be deployed in all the normal places, and some of the abnormal ones as well.  Wicking clothes can accelerate the evaporation of sweat.  Removing boots and letting socks dry out during hiking breaks may also help.

Most multiday backpackers who use this delicate laundry approach, are referred to as “stinky”.  To mask reality you may be tempted to apply deodorant.  Frankly, covering your body with a bouquet of sweet scents may not be the best approach when traveling in bear country, unless you desire a hug.  In that case, I recommend honey scented or perhaps maple sausage.

Permanent Press

Permanent press is the next level of intervention.  It involves an acknowledgement that sweat prevention probably did not work, and we need a way to press this bacteria causing solution out of our clothes on a continuous, one could say permanent, basis.  Wash and WearDue to environmental concerns, proponents of this free press are agitated by the thought of soap, even biodegradable.  They prefer a proactive yet minimalist approach.  The most common solution to remove bacteria is to thin it in water and then squeeze it out.  This could be accomplished by removing clothes and rinsing in the river, beating clothes against a rock, or simply jumping in with clothes on in an organic strategy known as “wash and wear”.


For the regular folks, who believe soap can be used responsibly in the wilderness, a more aggressive approach is taken. The challenge is that normal amenities like a laundry sink or tub are noticeably lacking, and using soap in a river or lake is completely out of the question.  Creative approaches are therefore required.  I have seen or heard tell of various containers in which to soak soapy clothes:

  • Plastic ziplock bag
  • Emptied bear canister
  • Cooking pot
  • Wide mouth Nalgene bottle

To achieve warm water for cleaning some carry black plastic jugs or containers which convert the suns ray to heat.  In any case, the rinsing of soapy water should be thorough and at least 200 feet from the water source.  Needles to say extra precaution should be taken to clean any improvised laundry containers you plan to eat or drink out of later.

Solar Sterilization

Regardless of the cleaning approach, a simple clothes line and the sun are typically used for drying.  If you do not dry your clothes quickly and thoroughly, you risk growing mold which frankly pretty much defeats the purpose of washing to begin with.

Solar CleansingThere is a growing scientific debate, however, regarding the effectiveness of using the sun not only to dry clothes, but to actually clean and sterilize them.  It starts with anecdotal memories of Grandma’s lovely laundry, where stained diapers hung on the line were magically sun bleached.  Not only were smells removed, but the actual stains vanish!  Backpackers have ample access to the sun, and the thought of removing smells and stains by simply offering them up to the sun god is, well frankly, too good to be true.

The scientific debate usually goes something like this:

  • Sun light contains UV light, which is really powerful stuff causing sun burns and in extreme cases, skin cancer.
  • UV light has been used for years in water and sewage treatment.  Surely my backpacking laundry is no worse than urban sewage!
  • UV light is proven to disrupt DNA.  Organisms with single celled membranes such as bacteria and fungi found in clothes are particularly vulnerable to UV disruption, rendering them unable to reproduce or sustain life.  Stinks for them.
  • Grandma’s laundry line is actually a slow cooking UV sterilizer.
  • Problem solved!

Soiling the party, however, are observations such as:

  • If the sun can really sterilize my backpacking clothes, then why are my sun baked shirts stinking to begin with?
  • UV works best with direct hits.  Even small particles in liquid can shadow pathogens, allowing them to survive.  One can only image what shadowy things lurk in a backpackers pants.
  • The UV spectrum used in water treatment plants operates at 2537 angstroms, or 254 nanometers.  This spectrum, though present in sunlight, is usually absorbed by our atmosphere. It’s presence on earth therefore is extremely rare.  For practical sterilization purposes, it has to be artificially created with UV lamps.

Damn you science!  Stop teasing me!

But don’t give up quite yet.  The promise of simple sunlight cleaning and sterilization is just too good to give up on.  I came across an ACS Publication of Applied Materials and Interfaces article titled: 

Realizing Visible-Light-Induced Self-Cleaning Property of Cotton through Coating N-TiO2 Film and Loading AgI Particles.

It seems two Chinese scholars, Deyong Wu and Mingce Long, are plotting to turn the entire Chinese laundry business on its head.  Others, including researches in Australia and US are also exploring coatings of Titanium Dioxide Nanoparticles for self-cleaning anti-bacterial clothing.  If successful, the five stages of laundry could be condensed in to one solar blast.

Oh sure, there still needs to be research.  I am personally skeptical we will be able to harness the moon any time soon for required ironing and folding.  Perhaps we should also be a smudge nervous that manufactures are adding chemicals to our pants that enable basic sunlight to vaporize dirt.

After all, applied to a hat, who knows what would become of my dirty mind.







How To Be a Wilderness Flashpacker

BackpackThe term flashpacker usually refers to an urban backpacker with an upscale budget.

An urban backpacker, as opposed to a wilderness backpacker, is someone traveling in a low cost manner with the primary objective of extending the trip.  Imagine a college student resting his weary head against a ragged old backpack on the floor of a European train station, holding a piece of cheese in one hand and a youth hostel guide in the other, and you pretty much got the picture.

A flashpacker maintains the urban backpacker’s adventurous attitude, but does so with bit more money and a significantly higher standard for comfort.  The flashpacker would more likely lounge by his new gadget filled backpack in the hotel lobby, iPhone in hand, multi-tasking between surfing for the nearest zip line, and updating his Facebook status.

A traditional wilderness backpacker is often motivated by a desire to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday urban life.  The objective is to connect with nature in its rawest form.  In the past, limitations of weight and bulk required backpackers to strip their life’s possessions down to the bare necessities. For many this minimalist existence and the powerful feeling of simplified self-reliance are part and parcel to the wilderness backpacking experience.

What happens when the wilderness backpacker has access to discretionary funds, and an itch for techno comfort?  A wilderness flashpacker is born.

iPod NanoAdvances in technology have significantly changed the items which will easily fit into our backpacks, if not our skimpy budgets.  These devices often represent, on steroids, the very things we previously jettisoned in exchange for our mobile outdoor experience.  After all, how much does an iTune actually weigh?  How much physical space is taken up by an electronic book?  How about 100 of them? or 1,000? or 10,000?  The potential economies of scale seem frankly ridiculous.  I will not likely be in the back country long enough to listen to 100 books on tape or 50 days worth of classic rock, but what the heck, they fit.

Garmin GPSSome items are simply high tech versions of things we previously carried.  A set of physical topographic maps can be replaced by a handheld GPS.  A collection of nature field guides can be loaded on our eReader.  Our clunky 35mm SLR camera with film for 48 pictures can be more than replaced by a tiny digital camera with the potential to take 32GB of still and video memories.  As these gadgets find their way into our packs, we begin to take on the flashiness of a wilderness flashpacker.

More impactful than the modernization of existing clutter is the inclusion of things never before possible in the wilderness.  With advances in electronic connections, whether satellites, cell towers, or emerging technologies, escaping the hustle and bustle of everyday life now requires a conscious effort.  You carried your PDA because of the built in GPS and map, but what the heck you seem to be getting some bars, why not check your email or shoot out a quick tweet?  After all, everyone  deserves your status update.  Surely they are desperate to know how many calories were in that snack, the size of the fish that just got away, or how your last bowel moved you in the wilderness.  Right?

It is difficult to discuss the use of technology in the back country, without sparking a bias which often roars into a wildfire.  Smokey the eBear may need to reminds us: only you can prevent flashpacker fires.  Disagreement usually come down to “good witch” versus “bad witch” conclusions.

  • The iPod music distracts me while hiking, leaving me much happier and more pleasant to be around.  Good Witch!
  • The music distracts me and I do not hear your cries for help as a bear mauls you.  Bad Witch!
  • After getting bite by a rattlesnake, the electronic beacon allows me to quickly reach out to search and rescue.  Good Witch!
  • The beacon provided me a false sense of security, and I pushed way beyond my skill and training, placing both my party and the entire search and rescue team at risk.  Bad Witch!

The ability to leap from cause to effect is an imprecise art.  Generations face off from opposite sides of a continental divided. The young whipper snappers pitch their ultralight tents in the pro tech camp, while the old fogies dig in their high laced leather boots.  How can the same flash of facts result in such different reactions?

Technology in the wilderness is likely to be more than a mere flash in the pack.  In the immortal words of the King… Rodney actually: “Can’t we all just get along?”  And if we can, how long is it, and who’s gonna carry it?  Frankly, there really should be an app for that.

How To Backpack with Small Children

Young BackpackerBackpacking with small children is mental, and I mean that in every possible sense.  To do so requires Olympic class mental gymnastics and probably some mandatory drug testing.  Consider for a moment oil and vinegar.  At first they don’t seem to go well together, but if you shake them really really hard it can be absolutely fantastic. Well its the same way with backpacking and children, minus the really hard shaking.  My lawyer and therapist recommended I add that last part.

Approached in the right way, backpacking with children can indeed be fantastic.  Seeing the outdoor world through their curious eyes can open ours in ways we never knew possible.  Assuming you are mental enough, as I was, to take these wild ones into the wild, here are some things you may want to consider.

Did I mention it is mental?

Age and physical strength are not the most important factors in determining if someone is “ready” for backpacking.  It’s mental.  With the right mindset, children can do amazing things.  A properly motivated tiny tyke can pound out mile after mile, and smile after smile.  However with the wrong attitude even a 5’10”, 160 pound teenage boy is a nothing more than a whining baby about his twisted shoulder straps, chaffing hip belt, and missing wireless game controller.

Physical conditioning can enhance safety and improve your overall enjoyment.  Limiting backpack weight to no more than 25-30% of body weight is a pretty good guideline for children.  However before you care for any of those, first evaluate mental state, both theirs and yours.

How to carry on when children are carrying on?

Most parents of small children are well aware their bones can liquefy.  We have all seen it. A child expresses desire at the local grocery store.  You explain calmly and rationally why it is not appropriate at this particular time and zap, the bones are liquid.  Suddenly you are Steve McQueen in 1958, trying to act cool before the amoeba-like blob at your feet. Clean up on isle six is not going to cut it.  Minus a hand held fire extinguisher, you are at a total lose as to what to do next.  Now imagine a similar scene playing out three miles down a mountain trail.  The good news is the grandmother death-gripping a shopping cart walker, mumbling something about your parenting skills, is far far away.  The bad news however is so is your car.

Surely it is more than coincidence that patience and patients sound so similar.  Dehydration is probably the most common wilderness cause of emotional melt down.  One solution is a good swift punch,  preferably Gatorade fruit flavored.  If not, water is a viable option.  One personal piece of advice is to avoid water purification techniques which render water “disgusting” to children.  Filtering or boiling water does not leave an after taste, and kids might actually drink it.  Treating with Halogen leaves water tasting eerily like a community swimming pool.  If you do flavor water, make sure the purification process is complete before you add the Crystal Lite or other additive.


Backpackers are often obsessed with ounces of weight.  Backpackers with small children should obsess over ounces of prevention.  Prevention is key to avoiding mental breakdowns, whether yours or your kids.  The ability to anticipate problems and head them off at the wilderness pass is a worthy skill.  Here are some approaches to consider:

Happy Meal Approach

Young BackpackersHappy meals are fun because they are small, well packaged, and contain a prize.  When selecting wilderness outings for children, make sure to include all three.  Avoid super sizing. Don’t bite off more miles than your kids can shoe. Make sure the trek is easy enough for their little legs, or your larger tired ones when you need to carry them. Position the trip as an adventure.  Walking under burden of load, though perhaps a personal joy for you, is understandably torture for a child.  Know your child’s interest and find ways to trick them into walking.  Identifying lizards, chasing frogs, or hunting geocache treasures are all legitimate reasons for kids to move.  Backpacking is not.   When one motion motivation wears out,  come up with another quickly.  Try not to lose momentum.   Also make sure the destination is a prize in its own right.  A swimming hole, frog pond, or waterfall are potential worthy destinations.  If your child cannot tell the difference between the final destination and where you were 30 minutes earlier, you have failed.

Bendable Buddies

Be flexible.  Sure you probably had it all planned out, and yes it is frustrating when it does not go as planned.  But frankly, kids don’t measure conformance to plan as an indication of pleasure, and neither should you.

Gaming their Systems

Entertainment can be an effective distraction.  When little mouths are engaged in rhyming games, I spy games, or silly singing, they are not available for I’m tired, when are we gonna get there, and you said this would be fun!  Think of games as potential solutions to these boredom problems:

  • Driving to and from the trailhead
  • Actually hiking on the trail
  • Staring at each other in camp

However, do not assume what is entertaining to you is entertaining to your child.  Do not mistakenly believe you can create a passion for wild flower identification just because the television is too far away to see.  Take something you know they will like and let them push it a little further.  Water, fire and throwing things all offer great potential.  For example, don’t explain why you can’t throw rocks here. Find a different place you can throw rocks and spend time throwing them together.  Just not at each other.


Our life comes pre-loaded with a  limited number of potential backpacking days and nights.  It is fairly clear that when our founding fathers proclaimed the right to pursue happiness, they were specifically referring to backpacking.  Do not deny yourself or a child the opportunity to maximize this pleasure.  Besides, when you are old and weary, how will you possibly convince your children to carry your backpack if you weren’t willing at some point to carry theirs?

Dismissed.  Carry on!

How To Acquire a Wilderness Permit

Permits? We don’t need no stinking permits!  Or do we?

Land Owner LogosBackpackers love to travel in spectacular remote wildernesses.  These highly desirable lands however are not controlled by a single entity. Understanding the mountainous range of permit requirements can feel as wild as the wilderness you want to backpack.  As an example, your target land may be private, a State Park, a National Forest, a National Park, a designated Wilderness, or controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.  To make matters worse, even where wilderness areas are controlled by the same land agency you may find completely different rules and regulations.

Navigating your pre-trip permit adventure without the equivalent of a trail map and compass can leave you lost and confused.  To assist in your journey for a journey, I offer from my own experience a list of questions to ask the land manager.  The variety of responses may surprise you.  After each question I share various answers I have received, not to confuse or discourage you, but rather to motivate you to seek the clarity necessary to avoid the high altitude headache of wilderness permit sickness.

Is a wilderness permit required?

Perhaps surprising, the answer is not always yes.  Parts of some National Forest lands do not require camping permits at all.  The most popular areas usually do, but not always for the same seasons or activities.  Some areas, such as the Emigrant Wilderness, only require permits for overnight trips in the back country.  Others, such as the Desolation Wilderness, require permits for any activity including day hikes.  Some require permits all year round, while others only during certain peak seasons.    Other areas may require additional permits for specific activities, such as climbing the cables to Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

How do I acquire a permit?

Sample PermitThe adage “ask and you shall receive” is true in many but not all wilderness areas.  Some, such as Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, do not have a quota.  The demand is typically well within the “capacity” of the wilderness, and you can simply ask for and receive a permit on the day of your outing.  Others, such as Joshua Tree National Park offer self-registration walk up kiosks, making the task particularly simple.  In high demand areas such as Mount Whitney you will find strict quotas controlling the number of people per day per trailhead.  Yosemite National Park uses an advanced registration lottery system, with hopeful backpackers requesting dates and alternatives as far as 6 months in advance.  Some land agencies hold back a certain number of “walk on” permits to be issued each day, but you are not guaranteed to receive one.  You can literally find yourself all dressed up with no place to go.  Some land managers require you to appear in person to pick up your permit, while others will send the permit to you in advance or place it in a drop box where you can pick it up outside of normal business hours.  Rummaging with a flashlight through a ranger station drop box at 4 am, hoping to find your name, adds an element of excitement to any adventure.

Are there wilderness permit fees?

The simple answer is some charge and some don’t.  The Carson-Iceberg Wilderness has no permit fees for individuals and family’s, while the Desolation Wilderness require fees for everyone.  Most require fees for commercial use. If you are going to make money off the land owner they will want their fair share, typically in the 3-5% of revenue range.   The King Range National Conservation Area requires fees for every organizations, even non-profits such as the Boy Scouts.  If fees are charged they may be on a per trip basis or on a per person per day basis.

Are there any other fees?

Money CollageAlthough you hate to ask because it might encourage them to think of additional fees, it usually is better to know in advance.  Land managers using third party reservation systems, such as Yosemite National Park, may include registration service charges. National Parks and State Parks often have entrance fees, not covered by your wilderness permit.  Some spots, such as Big Sur Ventana Wilderness, also have parking fees.  Some special use permits such as Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome permits require additional fees.  Even if you have a current state fishing license, you may find some land managers and regional parks charging additional fish stocking fees.

Although you will spend the majority of your wilderness time far from vendors and services, you may need to pull out your wallet several times just to get there.

Are there any location restrictions?

Possessing a wilderness permit does not actually mean you can camp anywhere in the wilderness.  There may be area restrictions, sometimes marked on your map and other times described in the fine print of your permit.  The restriction may describe the only places you can camp, or perhaps the only places you can‘t.  For example in Henry Coe State Park you may only camp in designated campsites.  In other parks you may be able to camp anywhere but certain areas.  For example in the Emigrant Wilderness you can camp close to Buck Lake, but not Emigrant Lake.  In Yosemite National Park you can not camp within 5 miles of the trailhead.  To help disperse backpackers in the Desolation Wilderness your permit requires that you spend the first night within a certain designated “zone”.  In almost all areas, you are required to camp at least 100 feet away from water.

Are there any time limits?

Although some of you may want to live in the wilderness permanently, land managers place time limits on how long you can stay.  This covers your overall trip duration, but may also include limits to specific hot spots.  For example, in the Emigrant Wilderness you can camp at Maxwell Lake for weeks at a time, but only 1 night at popular Bear Lake.  Wandering rangers will check your permit and chase you out if you overstay your welcome.

Are there group size limitations?

Although I have never heard of a height or weight limitation, there are certainly limits to the number of people in a group.  These can also vary greatly.  For example, in the Emigrant Wilderness the limit is 15 people traveling together, yet in the Desolation Wilderness the limit is 12.  In Yosemite National Park if you are traveling “cross-country” you are limited to 8 people, but if you agree to stay “on-trail” at all times, you can have a group of 15.  To prevent people from simply requesting multiple permits to overcome these limits, land managers may require groups that know each other to have different itineraries and never be closer than 2 miles from each other.  There are also limitations to the number of pack animals and pets in a group.

Are there fire permit requirements and restrictions?

In some areas your wilderness permit is also your campfire permit.  In others such as National Forest lands which do not require a wilderness permit, you are still likely required to acquire a campfire permit.   However even if you have a campfire permit, there are often campfire restrictions.  Some areas, such as Desolation Wilderness, require that you only use backpacking fuel stoves.  Others require that you only build fires in existing fire rings.  Many restrict fires in areas with limited natural fuel sources, such has highly impacted popular lakes or when camping above the tree line.  For example in the Emigrant Wilderness you are not allowed to have fires above 9,000 feet or within 1/2 mile of Emigrant Lake.  Some areas, such as Joshua Tree National Park, do not allow you to gather wood for fires, even for use in designated fire rings.  Areas that do allow fires, may require that you carry a shovel.

Are their specific bear protection requirements?

Bear CanistersIn order to protect both humans and animals, backpackers are responsible for keeping food out of their reach.  In some areas, such as the Emigrant Wilderness, backpackers are encouraged to use various bear bag hanging techniques.  In other parks, such as Yosemite National Park, bears have learned to foil such techniques and land managers require the use of approved bear canisters.  This may also be true in areas where there are not trees available for hanging food, such as above 9,000 feet elevation or in locations such as the California Lost Coast.

What about crossing land manager boundaries?

Many adjacent land managers have reciprocal agreements.  For example, a permit for a trip starting in one wilderness may be recognized in another wilderness.  You will be responsible for knowing and following the rules and regulations of each wilderness you enter, but will in all likelihood not require multiple permits.  For example when issued a permit for the John Muir Trail, you may cross through Yosemite National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, and Sequoia National Park.


As you can see from the above examples, what is actually permitted, even if you are wilderness permitted, can vary greatly.  Knowing what questions to ask before hand can help you acquire and actually understand your wilderness permit.

How To Pitch a Tent

Camouflaged Tent
Camouflaged Tent

There are a wide variety of tent shapes and sizes, each reflecting the personality and style of their owner.

In spite of their apparent differences, most tents are designed to solve a common fundamental challenge – how to efficiently protect the tent occupant from the elements.

A wilderness shelter can be thought of as a collection of layers, each with a specific purpose.

Eureka Tent
Eureka Tent

These typically layers include:

  • A relatively flat durable surface to provide stability
  • A tarp to serve as a moisture barrier and tent protector
  • A main tent body to provide insulation and protection from insects
  • Poles to provide structure and strength
  • And a rainfly for added protection from rain, sleet and snow
Sleeping Under Stars
Tarp Only – Under Stars

Depending on the weather conditions and your tolerance for adventure, you may or may not deploy all of these layers.  If the weather’s great and you like to sleep out under the stars, you may want to use only the tarp.  If weather’s great, but mosquitoes aren’t, you may setup a mesh tent with no rain fly.  If you are traveling ultra light, you may have only brought the tarp and rainfly, and left the tent body at home.

Rain Fly Only - Shelter
Rain Fly Only – Shelter

Regardless of what you deploy in the field, a good understanding of your layer options is critical.

Durable Surface

Selecting an appropriate location for your tent is the first step.  You want to make sure the location is safe, not in an area prone to rock slides, water runoff, lightening strikes or falling tree branches.

Durable Surface
Durable Surface

To decrease your impact on the environment, you should follow the leave no trace principle of camping on durable surfaces.  Select an area that is relatively flat.  You can remove surface stones, pine cones and sticks, but gone are the days of digging and excavating a tent platform.  Do not dig trenches.  They scar the environment and rather than protecting you from water runoff are more likely to create miserable muddy trenches and moats.

Moisture Barrier

Once you have established your ground layer, it is time to setup a moisture barrier. There are a variety of tarp options.  They may be designed specifically for your tent, including structural elements such as grommets and precise sizing.  In general, a tarp should be slightly smaller than your tent.  Tarps that stick out from your tent can actually catch rain water and moisture, and channel it right under your tent. That changes your tarp from being a water barrier, to a swimming pool liner.  If the tarp is too big, fold it under.

Tarp - Moisture Barrier
Tarp – Moisture Barrier

You can create your own tarp from hardware store plastic sheets.  6 mm thickness seems to be a nice balance between durability and weight.  I prefer clear plastic tarps because they make it easier to find and remove stray sticks and stones you missed when clearing the ground, but black works fine too. A tarp not only keeps ground moisture from making you cold, it also protects the bottom of your tent from damage and wear.  It is much cheaper to replace a tarp than a tent.

Tent Body

Tent Body
Tent Body

Tent bodies come in a variety of shapes and sizes.  When removing from the bag pay attention to how it was folded so it will be easier to repack later.  Some tents are folded in thirds, some in fourths, etc.  When spreading the tent out on the trap arrange the door in the direction you want, usually uphill.


Tent Pole Structure
Tent Pole Structure

Every tent needs a structure.  It may be old school poles pushing up on the tent, poles feed through sleeves in the tent body, or more popular now, free standing pole structures which the tent body can be clipped to and hung from. Most modern poles have a built in elastic cord which keeps the pieces together and ensure proper alignment. These poles are surprisingly flexible and strong, but fiberglass can break, and metal can bend if mishandled.


Some tents require stakes to hold the poles in place, but most modern tents are free standing structures.  This means even after erected, the free standing tents can be moved and repositioned.  Stakes are required to keep these tents from being blown away in the wind, like giant and expensive tumble weeds.  To prevent stakes from being pulled out in the wind, they should be pushed in at an angle, somewhat perpendicular.  You may need to reposition the tent slightly if you encounter resistance from underground rocks.  Try to avoid pounding stakes into the ground with a rock.  They are likely to bend, and weaken.  Also, make sure your stakes do not become tripping hazards.

Rain Fly

Tent with Rain Fly
Tent with Rain Fly

A rainfly provides an additional layer of protection from severe weather such as rain, sleet and snow.  To be effective the rainfly should not come in direct contact with the tent body.  Where the rainfly and tent touch, water can seep through.  It is important to stake out the rainfly to maintain the proper spacing.  To avoid the buildup of condensation, many rainflys and tent bodies have vents.  Some rainflys also provide additional protection at the entrance in the form of a vestibule. The patio like covering can serve as a great place to keep your backpack or other gear dry.


Brush out the tent before taking it down.  Free standing tents can be picked up and shaken over your head, letting the debris fall out the unzipped door.  Just watch your eyes!  Tents stored wet will develop musty mold, shortening their life and making them miserable to sleep in.  Whenever possible, tents should be taken down and packed away completely dry.

Before putting a tent back into long term storage, it should be set up in a controlled environment and throughout checked out.

  • Wipe down any dirt
  • Verify poles are correct and in working order
  • Very the number of stakes and tie down ropes
  • Check for and make any minor repairs to zippers and seams
  • Make sure tarp, tent and rainfly are thoroughly dry before re-packing.

When well maintained a tent should provide years or sound sleeping service.


These guidelines are generally true for most tents, but you specific setup may be slightly different.  Follow the manufacture directions and check out our demonstration videos to see if your specific tent is covered.  Better to struggle setting up a tent in the comfort of your own backyard or living room, that to find problems in the wilderness.  Practice makes perfect, and will help ensure you pitch a tent, rather than pitching a fit.

How To Cache Water

Joshua Tree Desert
Joshua Tree National Park

I recently helped guide a 50 mile trip through Joshua Tree National Park.  If you have not been to Joshua Tree, you may not know it as a national park made up of two distinct geographic terrains, both of which happen to be deserts – the Mojave and the Colorado.  Yes, there are some places in the world where one desert just isn’t dry enough, you have to have two!

Because water is so sparse in these deserts, even if you can find it you can’t legally drink it.

Rare Desert Water
Rare Desert Water

It is strictly reserved for the local wildlife, who clearly knew enough to make advanced reservations.

So what’s a thirsty backpacker to do?

Carry On Luggage?

MSR Dromedary Bags
Dromedary Bags

One option for water is simply to carry it.  In a hot desert there are probably not many things you will be carrying more important than water.  Traveling in heat most backpackers require at least a gallon of water a day.  In the unlikely event that you don’t remember, a gallon of water weighs 8 pounds.  On this particular trip we came across a solo female backpacker who was carrying 4 gallons of water.  Yes, 4 x 8 = 32 pounds of water.  This was of course in addition to the rest of her gear, bringing to mind two words: stud and nutjob.

Our week long trip in the desert would therefore require 7 days x 8 pounds = 58 pounds of water per person.  A standard rule of thumb for pack weight is 25% to 30% of your body weight.  So if your body weighs 150 pounds, your pack (with water, food, tent, stoves, fuel, sleeping bag, etc) should weigh between 37 pounds and 45 pounds.  Unless you are carrying a lot of helium, I am not sure how you squeeze 58 pounds of water into that total weight range.

So again, what’s a thirsty backpacker to do?

Cache for Gold?

Water Cache Jug
Water Cache Jug

Although cache sounds like cash, it’s not about money.  It is, however, about a hidden treasure even more valuable, water.  By hiding water at strategic locations along your route you significantly decrease the amount you need to carry.

This perhaps raises some immediate questions I will attempt to anticipate and address.

If I can’t carry enough water during my trip, how can I carry enough to go hide it?

Good point.  Caching water does not usually mean hiking the exact same route carrying all the water you will need.  It usually involves multiple shorter trips, carrying only what you will need when you reach that particular location.   For our 50 mile hike we made a cache advance deposit of water in 3 different locations.  Between each location, we got back in our car and drove somewhere closer to the next cache site.  Although our total ultimate trip would be over a 50 mile route, the furthest we had to carry water jugs for caching was a couple of miles.

How do I know the water I hide will still be there when I need it?

Short answer: you don’t.  Long answer: you hide it well enough that no one else will ever find it.  As a practical matter most fellow backpackers who stumble upon your cache will respect your need and leave it alone.  If however, they feel an even greater need than yours they may be tempted to make a cache withdrawal.   It is possible you may find a thank you note or an apology note instead of your water.  I highly doubt it though.  No one writes notes anymore.

If I hide it really well, will I be able to find it?

Joshua Tree Rocks
Where did I put that water cache?

Good question. Maybe you won’t.  One point in your favor is that you will be highly motivated to find it.  Some techniques to help find it, in ascending order:

  • bring someone with a really good memory and sense of direction
  • take really good written notes, describing milestones and markers
  • take a digital picture of the location and surroundings
  • take a GPS waypoint of the cache (my preferred method)

As encouragement for your search, I offer this tale of truth.  On our Joshua Tree caching expedition the lead guide remembered caching water 3 years previous, which was never retrieved.  Given there is no time limit on leave-no-trace guilt, he was determined to find the stray plastic jug.  His search strategy was based on the following:

  • I think it might have been up this wash
  • No, wait, actually it might have been that one
  • I remember a tree, but I think it was bigger than this one

I am happy to say he did not take me up on any of my financial offers regarding the odds of a find.  To my total amazement he dipped behind a Joshua tree (which looked to me no different than the thousands of others available) and calmly said “found it.”  In case you are wondering what three years of UV light in the desert does to a plastic water bottle, let’s just say it did not improve it.  The water, clearly tired of waiting to be found, was long gone.  None the less we carried out in victory the remaining pieces, restoring the desert to its original pre-plastic state.

Are there rules for caching?

Cache Jug Tied to Pack
Pack Out Cache Jugs

Yes.  Each land manager has their own cache and carry rules, but they usually involve:

  • what, if anything, can be cached (water, food, gear)
  • how it must be marked (name, date, phone number)
  • how long it can be cached (how far in advance, total time)
  • pack it in, pack it out

As you recover and use your cached water jugs, you will have to carry out the empties.  You can simply cut them up and hide them in your stash of trash.  Another option to consider, however, is to display them proudly on your pack, making your water caching cleverness clear for all to see… or at least to the two or three others backpackers you might stumble across in this wonderful waterless wasteland.

How To Poop in the Wilderness

When You Gotta Go, You Gotta Go

This is without doubt the number one or number two challenge in the wilderness.  Many of us wish we could avoid the subject, but in the end, it’s not our call; it’s nature’s call.  Try as we might, there is simply no avoiding voiding.

Does a Catholic bear poop in the woods? And what about the Pope?  What does he do? This picture ought to remove all doubt.  Or at least some of it.

Bear Scatt
Bear Scatt

If it is not of bear, it certainly bears something ickumenical.


There are standard hygiene practices which should be followed in the wilderness.  Although urine is relatively sterile, most of us do not want it in or near our water.  After all, this is the same water we use for our hot chocolate, coffee, and pea soup.

Feces carry pathogens which can make their way into our body via various routes including hand-to-mouth-contact or soiled-water.   After doing your business, it is highly advised that you wash your hands far from any water source.  To decrease the odds of contamination, the US Forest Service recommends disposing of human waste:

far from lakes, streams, and campsites–at least 100 feet (200 feet recommended).


Knowing that our call of the wild may be just around the corner, what are our options?

Avoidance Option

The avoidance option is simple: don’t go.  And by don’t go I mean don’t go in the wilderness.  For health reasons, it is better not to go in the wilderness, than to go in the wilderness and not go.

Number 1 Option

It seems nature was kinder to men than women, at least regarding equipment to support  option number 1.  You might say that women got hosed, but it turns out it was actually the men.   Marketeers have funneled in to provide women aiming options mother nature simply missed.  These funnel products and their names are real.  You can not make this stuff up.

  • GoGirl (
  • SheWee (
  • Magic Cone (
  • Urinelle (
  • WhizFreedom (

You realize of course what this means.  When you see Jerry or Terry or Sam written in the snow, you’ll be left wondering if it was a he-weer or a she-weer.

Note:  You can find YouTube demo videos for these products, and no I am not providing those links.  Even I have to draw a line in the snow.

Number 2 Option

Cat Holes

Cat hole for human waste
Cat hole

For most wilderness settings, cat holes are the preferred method of human waste disposal.  A cat hole is a 6 to 8 inch hole dug in the ground with a small travel trowel.  In this wilderness version of putt-putt, your goal is to make a hole-in-one.  Efforts requiring several strokes with a stick are rightly shrouded in shame.

The theory of a cat hole is that it should be dug in bacteria rich soil which will help breakdown the waste.  Burying waste in a cat hole also spares the rest of us the sights and smells of your latest production.  In some areas, toilet paper can be buried along with your waste.  In other areas, it may need to be burned or packed out.

In the Trenches

Rather than individual cat holes, some backpackers prefer a group latrine.  This does not mean the backpackers go together at the same time, but it does mean they share a common location.  This typically involves digging one long trench.  Each person who uses the latrine makes a deposit at the end of the trench and buries it, leaving the remainder of the trench for future customers.  The downside to this approach is that rather than scattering the impact over a broad area (as with individual cat holes) it concentrates the human waste.   On the plus side, however, it may be easier for some children or inexperienced packers.  They do not need to figure out where or how to dig, and if they do not cover their load properly others are likely to discover and correct.


Believe it or not, there are some people who rationalize a dogpile technique.  Rather than digging a hole they simply make a surface deposit.  The theory is that exposure to direct UV light will accelerate the decomposition of the human waste.  In fact, some go so far as to recommend increasing the UV surface area by use of a smear campaign.   Suffice it to say I do not think you will see official literature recommending this approach.  I have a feeling most people that use this technique are also known as “solo hikers.”

Doggie Bags

In some environmentally sensitive and high traffic wilderness areas personal deposits are no longer legally accepted.  In other words, after you are done holding it, you will still need to be holding it, only now in your own personal carry on bag.  By the way, contrary to perhaps other times in your life, if someone offers you paper or plastic, choose plastic.  Pack It In and Pack It Out has just taken on a whole new meaning.


As an experienced cat-holer I offer the following advice:

  • Dress Appropriately.  What you are about to do will probably involve taking off some clothes and perhaps your shoes.  Shorts and sandals are easier to deal with than long pants and high laced boots.
  • Toilet Trowel and Paper
    Toilet Trowel and Paper

    Take The Necessary Equipment.  You will want a small trowel, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer.  If you are near mosquitoes you may want to apply insect spray to certain areas before you get out there.

  • Seek Higher Ground.  You should plan to be at least 200 feet from camp, trail, or water.  Given a choice go uphill.  It is better to find a place where you can look down on others, rather than the other way around.  Besides, windier high points have fewer insects.
  • Find an Appropriate Dig Site.  You want soft bacteria rich soils.  Do your best to avoid roots and rocks, which make digging difficult.  Watch for ant hills.  The soil may be easy digging, but the resulting frenzy may be more than you bargained for.
  • Dig a 6-8 inch deep hole.  The depth of the hole is to ensure you get down to the proper soil and have room to bury your offering.  The width of the hole will depend on the size of your burden, but 6 inches is usually enough.
  • Clear the Runway.   Take time to remove tall grasses, sticks, twigs, or other things that may rub you the wrong way when you squat.  Do it before you remove your clothing.
  • Toilet Paper within Reach.  Keep toilet paper within reach and in its plastic bag until you are ready.  After you have started is not a good time to realize you left the paper way over there.
  • Remove your clothing.  Do not simply drop your pants to your ankles and expect a successful outing.  Get your pants and underwear completely off and out of the way.  The last thing you want is a constant reminder all over your clothes.
  • Balance and Aim.  Straddle the hole and squat.  You may want to put a hand down on the ground for balance.
  • Be Patient.  Do not expect results right away.  Stage fright takes on a whole new meaning in this position.  Also, many people have delayed this moment so long that it may take a while to get it going.  Look around.  Enjoy the view.  The wilderness is spectacular.
  • Adjust Your Aim.  If you do miss, shift your position.  This is a skill you will acquire over time.
  • Cat Hole with Paper
    Cat Hole with Paper

    Use Toilet Paper Sparingly.  Be mindful of the days left and the number of people sharing the paper.  Leaves and soft pine cones can be used, but they are not my first choice.  If appropriate for your location, deposit toilet paper into the hole.  You can also use it to guide any off target items into the hole.

  • Get Dressed.  Most people feel uncomfortable naked in the wilderness, so will want to put clothes back on quickly.  Others may relish the cool breeze.  The sense of urgency is up to you.
  • Cat Hole Covered
    Cat Hole Covered

    Bury your Evidence.  Fill the hole with the dirt you removed creating the hole.  Many people like to place a large rock on the spot to discourage animals from digging it up.  Just remember, the rock you just pick up may be the marker from the previous persons efforts.

  • Wash Your Hands.  Use hand sanitizer.
  • Declare Victory.  Congratulations.  Now go back and join the group.  They are all probably waiting to hear how it went.


How To Measure Up

100 Feet from Water Marker
100 Feet From Water Marker

Although a strong urge to perform math is probably not what drove you to leave civilization, there are times when guess-ti-mating is an important skill:

  • Your wilderness permit says your campsite must be at least 100 feet from water.
  • You are  wondering if that tree branch is really high enough to counter-balance a bear bag 10-12 feet off the ground.
  • Your son wants to jump of a cliff into the lake and you want to know how high it is, either for bragging rights or for potential insurance paperwork.
  • You have just finished setting up your camp and you want to know how much time you have before the sun sets behind that ridge line.

Whatever your reason, the skills to estimate measurements in the wilderness can come in handy.

Body Part Measurements

Okay, that may not have come out right.   I am not referring to what you do in the privacy of your own home.  I am however referring to how you can use socially acceptable body parts for quick measurements in the wilderness.

Body part measurement has been used for centuries.  It did not take long to figure out that humans come in a variety of sizes, including different than me.   To solve the standardization challenge important people, such as kings, were used for “good measure.”

  • Inch = tip of King’s finger to first knuckle
  • Hand = width of King’s hand, about 4 inches
  • Foot = length of King’s foot, heel to big toe
  • Yard = tip of King’s nose to thumb, or some say circumference of kings waist (though that would certainly be subject to inflation)
  • Common Cubit = distance from King’s elbow to tip of middle finger

Since you probably will not be bringing a king with you to the wilderness, knowing your own standard measures can be helpful.  If nothing else you will be more convincing when describing that spectacular rainbow trout:

I am telling you it was four hands wide.  The thing was practically a cubic.

Pacing Yourself

For wilderness measuring, knowing the distance of your own stride is probably the most helpful.   Certainly your stride will vary depending on the steepness of the grade and the burden of your load, but with a little practice you can acquire a fairly consistent “measuring stride.”

Stretch a tape measure across the ground, then casually walk ten steps.  Don’t exaggerate your steps, don’t reach for maximum distance, just keep it very natural.  After 10 steps look down, identify the distance, and divide by 10.  (If you do really enjoy math, take 13 steps and divide by 13 instead).   For me, in 10 steps I travel about 25 feet, or 2.5 feet per step.  So a campsite for me should be about 40 steps from the water (40 x 2.5 = 100 feet).

Measuring Up

Stick Turn Measuring (Stick Up)
Stick Turn Measurement

It is a lot easier to pace out a distance on level ground than to say walk up a tree or the side of a cliff.  To convert a height to a pace-able ground distance, you can use the “stick tilt” method.  Hold a stick at arms length such that the tip of the stick is at the top of what you are measuring and your hand grips the stick at the bottom.  By keeping your arm fully extended you keep the visible ratio of the stick and the object being measured consistent.

Stick Turn Method (Stick Down)
Pace off distance to measure height

Once you have the correct ratio, tilt the stick 90 degrees (from vertical to horizontal) so you can pace off the distance on the ground.  It works best if you have a helper you can position (a little to the left, no no your other left, that’s it, perfect) otherwise you need to look for visual clues on the ground to pace if off yourself, all the while wondering why you no longer have any friends.

How many Brian’s tall is it?

Cliff is 5 & 1/2 Brian's High
5 & 1/2 Brian’s High

Another technique is to use an object or person of a known height, positioned the same distance away.  For example if Brian is standing at the top of the cliff you can use him as a reference.  To improve the accuracy, position yourself a reasonable distance back from the cliff.  (Besides, if Brian happens to fall off the cliff you will be able to time how long it takes him to reach the bottom,  figuring acceleration at 32 feet per second per second.) Holding a stick at arms length you can measure how many “Brian’s” tall the cliff is.  If Brian is 6 feet tall, you multiple the number of Brian’s by 6 to get the height.  Five and a half Brian’s equals 33 feet (5.5 X 6 = 33).  Personally, I recommend bringing someone along who is 10 feet tall, making the math much easier.

New Meaning to Wrist Watch

Fist at arms length
Fist at arms length = 10 degrees

A quick estimate of time can be made with your hand stretched at arms length.  The earth rotates 360 degrees in a 24 hour period.  In other words, every hour is represented by 15 degrees of movement across the sky.   Assuming you have relatively normal body proportions, a fist at arms length is equal to about 10 decrees of the sky.  (Yes, if you are a big person your fist will be bigger, but your arms will also be longer, so the ration is about the same for most people.)

Estimating degrees with open fingers
Open Fingers at arms length = 20 degrees

If your fingers are spread out as wide as possible, they cover about 20 degrees of the sky.  Whatever method you are using, test it by measuring from the horizon to straight over your head.  If you have worked it out correctly, that should be 90 degrees.

When you are setting up camp or preparing dinner and wondering how long the sun will be up, you can simple measure the distance between the sun and the horizon in degrees.

  • 30 degrees means you’ve got about 2 hours
  • 15 degrees means you only have 1 hour
  • A beautiful sunset means you’re pretty much screwed

How To Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace, taken literally, would mean Leave No House.  To have no impact on the wilderness would mean never to enter.   Never hike the trails, never climb the cliffs, never paddle the waters, never fish the streams, and never camp out under the stars. Even the basic credo to “take only pictures and leave only footprints” would violate a literal reading.

Fortunately, Leave no Trace is not a No Trespassing sign on a barbed-wire fence, but rather a philosophy and guiding principle of conservation for those encouraged to enter.  John Muir said, “The mountains are calling and I must go.”  I’m pretty sure he meant go into the wilderness and not a demand to go out.

Leave No Trace: the Seven Tenets

Once you overcome the confusing title, the principles of Leave No Trace are pretty easy to embrace.  There are seven basic tenets:

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare
  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  • Dispose of Waste Properly
  • Leave What you Find
  • Minimize Campfire Impacts
  • Respect Wildlife
  • Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Together they could be thought of as how to minimize your impact when traveling in the wilderness.  In fact that might be a more accurate name for the cause, but it’s not very catchy. Besides, they already have a Leave No Trace organization and pretty cool website (

There are a variety of organization that provide Leave No Trace training, including the Boy Scouts of America ( and the National Outdoor Leadership School (  I will not attempt to compete or repeat what these organizations offer, but encourage you to explore them.

I will share from my own experience a few observations on each tenet.

Plan Ahead and Prepare

Poor planning can lead to poor decisions in the field.  I didn’t bring my rain fly, so I am going to just dig a big trench around my tent.  I didn’t bring a bear canister, so I am going to just leave my food on the ground.  I didn’t bring a trowel so I am just going to leave my excrement behind that big rock.  Proper planning can significantly reduce unnecessary environmental impacts.

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Durable Surface for Tent
Durable Surface

Although it may sound like you are suppose to march and camp in the trailhead parking lot, that’s not exactly the point.  It is true that trampling can damage plants and create erosion in sensitive areas, but let’s face it, some areas are pretty much pre-trampled.  Hiking trails and existing campsites are pre-trampled.   Clustering in pre-trampled areas actually prevents them from expanding.  When traveling or camping off trail, in un-trampled areas, your strategy should be the exact opposite:  spread out.  By not clustering, you decrease the concentration of trampling in one spot.  An area will recover quicker from wide minor trampling than concentrated major trampling.

Dispose of Waste Properly

Cat Hole for human waste
Cat Hole

Most of this can be summed up as: pack it in, pack it out.  If you brought it, then take it when you go.  And speaking of when you go, in most areas human waste should be deposited in 6 to 8 inch deep cat holes.  These holes are deep enough so as not be be disturbed, but shallow enough to mix with top soil micro-organisms which help break down the waste.   Some high impact areas require you to carry out all waste, including human waste.  It gives a whole new meaning to the term “holding it”.  Either be at peace bearing this load, or plan your trip to a less impacted area.

Leave What you Find

Wilderness Trash
Ballon Trash in the Wilderness

Let’s clarify.  If what you find is trash, don’t leave it.  But in most wilderness areas, plants, flowers, rocks, and animals should be appreciated where they are and left for others to enjoy.  In areas that allow fishing and hunting, participate legally, carry your license, and know that your fees are used to help sustain the resources for future generations.

Minimize Campfire Impacts

Let’s not go all crazy here.  The philosophy is to minimize, not eliminate.  There are areas in the wilderness where campfires are allowed, and areas where campfires are prohibited.  Campfires are usually prohibited where wood is scarce, either naturally (such as elevations above the tree line) or in areas of heavy use (such popular lakes and camping spots).  In prohibited areas campfires should not be created, plain and simple. In other areas, however, small cooking fires may be an acceptable part of the outdoor experience.

Small Stove - Durable Surface
Small Stove – Durable Surface

Fires are a natural part of the wilderness life cycle.  Certain plants can only reproduce when exposed to fire.  Past land management experience has shown when we over suppress fires, the underbrush fuel builds up to dangerous levels.  When natural fires eventually occur, and they always do, excessive fuel can cause extremely hot fires which overwhelm the natural fire resistance of large trees.  Fires are not inherently bad.

Minimizing campfire impacts means if you don’t really need a campfire then don’t make one.  Use a small stove instead.  If you need a small campfire for cooking, try to use an existing ring.  If you need to create a fire without a ring, do so in a way that all traces can be eliminate when you leave.

Respect Wildlife

Not that they have a Rodney Dangerfield complex or anything, but animals should be quietly observed from a distance, and never fed.  At least not by us.   In addition to hygiene, a reason to camp 200 feet from water is so animals can easily access it, undisturbed by us.

Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Basic common courteous and respect will care for most of this.  One area people struggle with is what do with stock?  Yes, I know, buy low and sell high, but what about on the trail –  horses, mules, lamas and goats.  Livestock have right of way on trails.  If they, however, are dead, I assume you can go first.  Where safe to do so, hikers and backpackers should step off the trail to the downhill side.  The objective is to make yourself as small and nonthreatening as possible to the animal.

Leave A Legacy

My father backpacked.  I backpack.  My three boys now backpack.  I think we are in fact leaving a trace.  And it’s one I hope will continue.