Category Archives: Skills

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 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 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 Take Decent Wilderness Photos

Leave No Trace principles limit our wilderness take home pay to memories and photographs.  Since memories quickly fade with age, we should probably give these photograph things a snap more exposure.  Professional photographers aside, most of us set our artistic dial on decentDecent seems to be the minimum level necessary to achieve a Facebook like.

CamerasMost casual wilderness photographers are more concerned about camera weight and battery life than the light gathering capabilities of a 300 millimeter lens.   After all, cameras are lower on the survivalist’s hierarchy of needs than say food and water.  We certainly want our memory maker to perform in the wilderness, but if it approaches the size and weight of a lunch box, we may be tempted to simply open it up and eat all 32 mega bytes.

Assuming a small camera with some easy to use features, what can we focus on to improve our decent-cy?

Before we zoom in on that, we should explore the difference between impact and intentImpact is what the observer thinks and feels examining our photograph.  Intent is what we actually meant to convey.  Not surprisingly, these can be in conflict.  For example, a dark shadow can create a partially obstructed view filled with ominous feelings of voyeurism.  Or it can simply mean our fat finger got in the way and ruined the shot.

Understanding how the camera can be manipulated to create various emotional effects can increase the odds that impact and intent, if not married, are at least dating,

Rule of Thirds

Photo with Grid of ThirdsThe first place to start is the frame.  Regardless of any camera settings, if what we are pointing at is not particularly interesting or pleasing, the final picture probably won’t be either.  Some argue that with today’s high mega pixel density, we can shoot wide and improve by cropping later.  But let’s be honest.  We are probably going to post this straight to Facebook, so let’s just act like we give a crop.

The little autofocus cross-hairs in most cameras encourage us to point directly at our subject.  After all, if we are taking a frantic shot of an approaching black bear, we want it to be in focus, and we want it to be in the frame.  Unfortunately, humans do not find dead center particularly pleasing.  Research, probably involving cruelty to animals, eventually revealed the rule of thirds.  If we divide a picture frame into horizontal and vertical thirds, main subjects along the lines and at the intersections are more aesthetically pleasing.  For example, a face looking left appears pleasing positioned on the right third.  A face looking right appears pleasing positioned on the left third.  To highlight an impressive foreground, we place the horizon on the top third.  If we want to irritate the observer subconscious, we place the horizon dead center, or even worse, tilt it slightly.

Dive With ThirdsIn this action landscape, the water is positioned on the lower third line.  My cliff-diving son is pleasingly positioned in the upper left sweet spot.  If we compare impact and intent, we may find in this case that the impact is, well, frankly just impact.  And pretty darn painful impact if I remember right.

Beware of the Digital Zoom

A convenient way to crop a picture is to use the zoom.  Some cameras have an optical zoom, some a digital  zoom, and some have both.  Both zooms make the target seem closer, but they do so in very different ways.  Where possible, turn off the digital  zoom.  It is not increasing the amount of data you have to render a quality picture, it is simply blowing up the pixels that are already there.  Anything you can do with a digital zoom can be done better in software later.


Photography literally means writing with light.  The more dramatic the light, the more dramatic the write.  Mornings and evenings, with impressive long shadows, are a great times for pictures.  Where practical, we should inform our wildlife friends that we prefer they perform during these magic hours. Regardless of the actual performance time, as we compose our decent pictures we should be conscious of the primary lighting source.  Is it side lit, top lit, back lit, or front lit?  Each creates a very different feel.  Front lighting is the safest, albeit most boring form.  Our flash can be used even in daylight to provide fill, but given the proximity to the lens, beware of the dreaded red eye.  Unless of course the devil monster look was indeed our intent.


Nothing changes a picture from decent to indecent more quickly than lack of focus.  Well, actually there may be some things, but we are certainly not going to uncover them here.  Most point-and-click cameras offer autofocus.  In the uncontrollable wild, where nature appears and disappears in an instance, autofocus may mean the difference between Bigfoot and Bigblur.  When less urgency is required, we can have both focus and pleasing cropping by pointing at our main subject, pressing half way down for auto-focus, and then re-framing the picture before pressing the rest of the way.

The Light Benders

It’s fairly obvious that all cameras require light to create an exposure.   The amount  is influenced by three inter-dependencies:

  • the size of the hole – aperture
  • the duration of the exposure – shutter speed
  • the sensitivity of the sensor – ISO speed

These light causes create a variety of photo effects, which are either blessings or curses, depending on our intent.  Almost all point-and-click cameras offer ways to influence these settings, though it may not always be obvious how.


Large Depth of FocusAperture is simply the size of the opening which allows in light.  The primary effect from aperture is depth of focus.  The larger the opening, the smaller the depth of focus.

A tiny aperture can create a landscape picture where the plants in the foreground and the mountain peaks in the background are both in sharp focus.  This picture calls attention to everything and nothing at the same time.

Lizard with blurred backgroundA large aperture create a narrow depth of focus.  In this photo, a large aperture creates a image where the blue tongue lizard is in sharp focus, but everything in the background is blurred out.  Dramatic attention is drawn to the objects in focus.

Shutter Speed

Risk Balance

Shutter speed determines how long the picture is exposed to light.  A fast shutter speed will freeze the action in flight.  It is great for limiting blur for fast moving subjects or shaking hand held cameras.

Falls Slow ShutterA slow shutter speed will allows us to take photos in lower light, and create a blur effect which enhances the illusion of movement in a still picture.  For extremely slow speeds, a tripod may be necessary so that only the moving objects are blurred.

Film Speed

Film speed (ISO speed) determines the sensitivity of the light gathering process.  In most cases there is a trade off between speed and image graininess.  The lower the speed, the finer the grain.  The higher the speed, the larger the grain.


There are inter-dependencies between all of these settings.  A choice in one will impact the others.  For example, for a low light landscape demanding great depth of focus, we set a very small aperture.  To make up for the decreased amount of light coming through this tiny aperture, we either need to set the shutter speed lower (increasing motion blurs) or the film sensitivity higher (increasing graininess).  Similarly, if we want to freeze a water fall we set a high shutter speed.  To make up for the limited time for light exposure, we have to increase the aperture (decreasing the depth of focus) or increase the film speed (increasing graininess).

There has to be an easier way!

PresetsBecause these controls are so fundamental to photography, most point-and-click cameras offers them, but in a much more friendly mode, such as presets.  Presets are control settings which offer sweet spot combinations, organized by their most common situation.  Since the digital camera can deal with the inter-dependencies, we just need to set the priority, and the other settings will be handled automatically. Although not standardized, there are some common icon images to identify each.  Here are some examples:

  • Action Mode (a running man?):  Forces shutter speed to fast to create a blur free picture.    Results:  Image frozen in time.  Helpful for hand held shots
  • Landscape Mode (a mountain range?):  Forces aperture to small to create a large depth of focus.  Results:  Foreground and background in focus.  In low light, this may require a tripod if shutter speed is too slow.
  • Portrait Mode (a person profile?):  Forces aperture to large to create narrow depth of focus. Results: Target sharp but background blurry.
  • Night Mode (a star?):  Forces shutter speed to slow to increase light and fill flash turned on.  Results foreground well light, background darker but in focus.

Given that preset do not really know what we are photographing, we can trick them into other uses.  For example, portrait mode will likely result in a picture with the background blurred.  If we want a portrait with the background in focus, we can use the landscape mode.  Do not fear, it will not make our subject look like a mountain.  Unless, of course, they already do.

The Photo Finish

Unlike the days of development fees and limited film stock, digital pictures are cheap and instant.  If we don’t like the landscape picture we just took, we delete it and take another.  We can try the same framing with each of the available presets.   We can vary the framing.  Taking a wide variety of pictures not only lets us throw a handful of darts at our target, it also lets us draw the target after we have thrown the darts.

Just because it is easy to capture a massive quantity of varied images does not mean they represent quality.  We should find in our virtual pile the very few decent ones, the ones we really like and post those.  With any luck, others will Facebook like them too.

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 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 become a certified Wilderness First Responder (WFR)

What is a WFR?

WMI Wilderness First Responder Certification Card
WMI Wilderness First Responder

A Wilderness First Responder, sometimes referred to as a “woofer,” is an individual trained and certified to provide extended emergency medical care in a wilderness setting.  In comparison think of an urban first responder as focused on providing care during the “golden hour” – that critical hour of support before definitive care arrives, usually in the form of an ambulance carrying equipment, EMTs and paramedics.  By definition a wilderness setting is more than an hour from care and depending on the remoteness of the setting and communication systems available, it may be days or weeks away.  The nature of the wilderness activity may also limit the equipment and resources available.  For example long distance backpackers, mountain climbers, and whitewater kayakers do not usually have readily available things like traction splints, backboards, spinal collars, blood pressure cuffs, or automated external defibrillators (AEDs).  A Wilderness First Responder has to be very creative and resourceful when providing extended care.

Who is a WFR?

Woofer’s are usually individuals who are in leadership positions for outdoor adventures such as backpacking, mountain climbing, river rafting, skiing, and similar remote activities.  They may be in roles such as trek leader, river guide, or ski patrol.  Many reputable outdoor organizations now require Wilderness First Responder certification for their outdoor employees.

Who certifies WFRs?

There is no one certification body for Wilderness First Responders.  A variety of medical and wilderness training organizations appear to have co-operated fairly well in creating training and testing standards.  A typical WFR certification requires 72-80 hours of classroom and practice training, as well as both a written and practical exam.  Although all certified individuals are called WFRs, the actual certification is controlled and tracked by the organization providing the training.  Most require re-certification within 2-3 years, and not all organizations recognize the others certification for re-certification, although the major players (such as NOLS/WMI, SOLO, and WMA) appear to play nice.

What content is covered?

Each training provider’s website offers a detailed course outline, but some common themes include:

  • Patient Assessment System
  • CPR
  • Head and Spine Injuries
  • Bone and Joint Injuries
  • Soft Tissue Injuries
  • Shock
  • Common Illnesses
  • Treatment Planning
  • Evacuation

Topics are covered with a combination of lecture and mock rescue practices, some of which are very elaborate and surprisingly realistic.

What is the difference between the organizations?

Because the schedule and location worked for me, I certified through NOLS/WMI.  They are the only organization with which I have first hand experience, but during my research I found very strong advocates for each of the major players and some of the smaller ones.  I suspect their curriculum and exams are similar.  One piece of advice I got early on was to focus on the quality of the instructor, as that would potentially have a greater impact on my experience.  Although I agree, I am not sure how practical that is to implement.  I lucked out and ended up with an excellent instructor.

I recommend you do your own research, but to help you out I offer these potential major providers and their own website positioning statements:

  • National Outdoor Leadership School – Wilderness Medicine Institute  “The nationally recognized standard in wilderness medicine education”
  • Remote Medical International  “We are a medical and rescue services company specializing in remote areas.”
  • Stonehearth Open Learning Opportunities (SOLO)  “The oldest continuously operating school of wilderness medicine in the world.”
  • Wilderness Medical Associates  “The definitive wilderness course in medical leadership and critical thinking for outdoor, low-resource, and remote professionals and leaders.”

You should also consider quality smaller regional providers, although cross-organizational re-certification options may be more limited.  As an example, in the San Francisco Bay Area Foster Calm has an excellent reputation.  There are probably others in your area.


After experiencing through mock rescues and practice the wide variety of things that can go seriously wrong in the wilderness, I find myself wanting to add more and more things to my first aid kit.  The reality, of course, is that my pack has limited space, but my brain is still relatively empty.  The sign of a good “woofer,” I guess, is a continued focus on practice and skills rather than gear.  I think being a Wilderness First Responder is a life long journey, but one I am willing to undertake.  Besides my kids would probably say, a life long journey for me might not in fact be all that long.  I may now be a First Responder, but somehow the my kids always have the last response.

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.

Art and Science of Trails

When I come upon a bird I don’t recognize, it flutters in and out of my consciousness with very little impact.  I make no emotional connection other than to notice: a bird.  However when I come upon an old friend, a bird I recognize and know, the reaction is completely different.

Ah look, a little nut hatch.  One of those amazing acrobats who can forage through trees upside down.  I remember the time my kids, using sunflower seeds, coaxed one to land on my wife’s back as she slept on a lounge chair.

The same thing happens to me with trees.  When I see one I do not know it is nothing more than a big stick with leaves.  But when it is one I know I experience a connection.

Oh look, a Jeffery Pine.  The one with gentle pine cones that don’t prick you like the Ponderous cones and if you stick your nose right into the bark it smell’s like vanilla.  I remember showing my kids how to to that, and they still do it today.

Backpacking Pacific Crest Trail

Crazy as it sounds I feel the same way about trails.  Most of us walk on them without really ever noticing them.  With limited knowledge of the art and science of trail making we miss an opportunity for a connection, not only to the trail, but to the people who poured their sweat into it its creation.  I suppose on the one hand our lack of noticing is a validation of good design.  If and when we notice, it is usually for the wrong reasons:  massive ruts, standing water, washboard surfaces, or collapsed switchbacks.

So what makes a great trail?

Some of it comes down to simple things; things that don’t require new knowledge or insights; things like:

  • Is this trail going where I want to go?
  • Is the trail through an area I find aesthetically pleasing?
  • Is the trail appropriate for my skill level and mode of transportation?

There is also, however, an entire language of trail design and maintenance.  Knowing some of these terms can raise our consciousness.  You are probably well familiar with some, such as switch back.  Used in a sentence: Oh no, not another switch back.  But what about other terms like grade reversal, kick, slough or partial bench.  They are all a part of the language and science of trail design.

Design science is required to make trails low maintenance.   What is it that conspires against a trail?  Erosion – from wind, and walking, and critters, and water… but mostly water.  Water is the true enemy of the trail.

To know a trail is to know the water.  Where does it come from?  Where does it go?  What can we do to keep it off the trail?  Water is like a lazy person, it takes the path of least resistance.  The goal of the trail designer is to make sure that path of least resistance is not path of the trail.

Basic Terms

  • Tread, Slough, Berm: Credit USDT
    Tread, Slough, Berm: Credit USDT

    Tread is the part of the trail you travel on.

  • Slough is the stuff that collapses down on the tread.
  • Berm is the build up on the downhill side of the trail

Trail creep is what occurs when the slough is not removed, encouraging the traveler to walk closer to the down slope.  Unless corrected, over time the trail has a tendency to creep down hill.  If the berm is not removed and the trail’s proper out-slope maintained, water will be trapped and travel down the trail.  A trail that becomes a river will experience significant rutting and erosion.

Sheet Flow

Sheet Flow: Credit USDT
Sheet Flow: Credit USDT

When rainfall saturates the ground it travels down the hill in sheets, known as sheet flow.  A good trail design, using outward sloping, will encourage the water to quickly flow across the trail in sheets, and not alter its course to join the trail.

Half Rule:

Half Rule: Credit USDT
Half Rule: Credit USDT

One technique to encourage sheet flow rather than trail flow is the half rule (made popular by the International Mountain Biking Association).  The half rule states that the slope of the trail should be no more than half the side slope.  So if a hill is sloping at 16%, a trail crossing the hill should be sloped no more than 8%.  When a trail is sloped with a grade similar to the hill, it is known as a fall line trail.  Fall line trails are most susceptible to water erosion because they are almost always the path of least resistance, at least for water.

10 Percent Rule

There is a practical limit to the slope of a trail, and most designers will suggest that it should not exceed 10 percent.  So even if the half rule allows for more (a side slope of 30% would allow an trail slope of 15%)  it’s probably not a good idea.

Grade Reversals

Another technique for keeping water off a trail is a grade reversal.  A grade reversal is a temporary reversing of the trail slope.  On a downhill trail there is a short uphill portion, before continuing down.  If you are coming the other way on the trail, the opposite is experienced;  on an uphill trail there is a short down hill section, before continuing uphill.  Designed well, a grade reversal will seem completely natural, nothing more than matching the rolling contour of the surroundings.  Rest assured, however, that trail designers take particular care in looking for and creating opportunities for these rolling grade reversals.  Not only are they aesthetically pleasing, they force the water, which only travels down hill, off the trail during these anti-gravity portions.

Water Bar

Oh so long ago, when I was a young scout, we occasionally did trail maintenance work.  At that time one of the key techniques for moving water off a trail was a water bar.  The idea was to create an obstacle on the trail which diverted the water off.  The obstacle might be a log, a row of rocks, or even a built up berm of dirt.  The problem with most water bars is that they are not built at the correct angle.  When water rushing down a trail hits a bar causing a sharp redirection, it often deposits the sediment it is carrying.  This sediment builds up and eventually spoils the bar, allowing future water to overflow it.  It turns out that in most cases a water bar is not a very good low maintenance solution.  Thinking back on all the probably completely incorrect water bars I helped create, I could just, well, kick myself.


Kick: Credit USDT
Kick: Credit USDT

Standing water is also a significant problem on a trail.  Not only does it create the potential for a muddy bog, it also encourages traffic to step around the mess, widening the trail and the size of the mess.  It is actually better for a trail if you walk right through a puddle rather than around, but not many do.

A kick is a technique to create a slopped exit for the water from a puddle prone area.  Well designed, it is a subtle large dug out semi-circle, with significant enough drainage slope for the water, but not so significant it trips the traveler.

Tread Bench

Partial Bench: Credit USDT
Partial Bench: Credit USDT

When a trail is cut into a slope, it can be with a full or partial bench.  If the tail is built with a combination of removing dirt from the uphill side, and re-using that dirt to build up the downhill side, the results is a partial bench trail.  In theory it takes less work to create, but results in a less stable and sustainable tread.

Full Bench Tread: Credit USDT
Full Bench Tread: Credit USDT

In the full bench tread the dirt is removed until the trail has the appropriate out-slope, and does not require artificially building up the downhill side.  More digging and removing of dirt is required, but the end result is a much more stable and sustainable tread.  Most trails created now use a full bench approach.

Rock Armour

In areas where the ground is particularly susceptible to erosion, rocks may be used as reinforcement.  Examples include creek crossings, switchbacks, or trails on extremely steep side slopes.  A tremendous amount of manual labor goes into these stone jigsaw puzzles.  If only as an excuse to rest, occasionally stop to admire this amazing work.

Social Trails

Trail Design Considerations: USDT
Trail Design Considerations: USDT

Travelers do not always stay on the trail.  Some land managers see these creative travelers as the problem, some travelers see the trail designer as the problem.  When a trail  meets the needs and expectations of the travelers, they tend to trod on the tread.  However, a poorly designed trail will encourage travelers to find their own path.   This may be a perceived minor improvement, a short cut or slight re-routing.  Or it may be the creation of a entirely new trail.  These user created trails and routes are often called social trails.

Well designed trails subtly prevent this socialization.  If travelers can see far ahead, and the trail seems the most logical route, they will stay the trail.  If they can see a better way, a shorter or easier path, they will be tempted to alter the course.  Switch backs are common areas where a short cut is tempting.  By limiting sight lines to the trail ahead, and by intentionally routing switch backs around obstacles, such as rock outcrops and trees, the short cut becomes less alluring.

Trail Maintenance

Even a well designed trail requires maintenance.  Crews of workers, paid and volunteer, are required.  With a raised consciousness of trail maintenance you can help by spotting and correcting minor problem in the field.  Or at a minimum, you should know enough not make them worse.

Great source of trail design and maintenance information:

U. S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration: Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook:

Getting Fired Up

Only You Can Prevent Forest FiresSmokey Bear used to warn, “only you can prevent forest fires,” as if the whole dang wilderness were spontaneously com-busting like a drummer from Spinal Tap. Why is it then when you desperately need a cooking fire that even the tiniest hint of moisture makes it seem impossible to light anything, including the frigging match?

Apparently fires when you don’t want them are readily available, yet fires when you do takes some serious coaxing. To increase your burn rate, we offer up a few basic tips to get you fired up.

Fire Basics

Fire requires heat, oxygen and fuel. It is most likely to occur when treated as a gradual progression: from ignition source, to tinder, to kindling, to fuel. If you have ever tried to light a log on fire with a match, you understand the difficultly in bypassing the progression.

Ignition Source

Lighter and Matches

Ignition starts combustion by providing a burst of heat in the right conditions. The ignition source may be as simple as a friction match or a lighter, it may be as primitive as flint and steel or rubbing sticks together, or it may be as creative as focusing the sun through a magnifying class or touching a 9 volt battery to steel wool. For most of us, a boring match or lighter will do just fine.

Love Me Tinder

Fire Tinder

Tinder is the high school romance of fire: it starts easily, burn hot, and dies quickly. It is often described as material which can be ignited with a match. The purpose of tinder is to catch the ignition and create a flame hot enough to be transferred to the kindling.

Sources of tinder readily available in the wilderness include leaves, dried grass, and pine needles. Beware that some bark shreds such as redwood may look like great tender but actually contain tannins which naturally protects the tree from fire. That is great news for the tree, but not so great for the tinder. Another enemy of tender is moisture. If it is raining, or has rained recently, you may have to dig to get passed the surface moisture. Some people carry their own backup dry tender, such as laundry lint, in a plastic bag. It burns great and it is more practical than harvesting from your own navel.


Fire Kindling

Kindling is the next step in our pyro-progression. It is larger than tinder, but smaller than fuel. Kindling is usually made up of small sticks, the diameter of a pencil or finger. It does not catch fire as easily as tinder, but it will burn longer, and is much better at sustaining enough heat and flame to catch our fuel.


Fire Fuel

Fuel is wood ranging from your finger to your arm. Anything bigger than your arm is probably not appropriate to burn in the wilderness. As a young scout I was taught the politically incorrect saying:

White man make big fire – sit way back, Indian make little fire – sit real close.

When it comes to fires, we were always taught to be Indians. Now days we would probably have to be indigenous people and purchase carbon offsets just for thinking about making a small cooking fire.

Fire Construction

There is no right way to construct a fire. Any structure that works will do. Once properly constructed, a good scout can light the fire with 1 match. In fact, if you tell a scout he only get one match, he will probably take much more time in the preparation phase. Or he may just be tempted to soak it with white gas first, so you really got to watch em.

Some common fire structures are the tepee, the log cabin, and the lean-to.

Tepee Fire

A tepee is sort of a free for all pile. Start with a pile of tinder. Lean kindling size sticks against the pile, with the tips pointed to the center. Continue adding progressively larger sticks until you reach the small fuel size.

Log Cabin Fire

For a log cabin, you start with the kindling size wood. Place two sticks on opposite sides, about 4-6 inches apart. Then stack two more sticks across the other sticks completing the square. Continue stacking opposite parallel layers as if you are making a log cabin. Once you have a reasonably sized box, fill it with a handful of tinder. Place sticks across the top of the cabin, covering the tinder.

Lean-To Fire

In the lean-to you place the tender next to a medium sized log. You then lean the kindling against the log, across the tinder. After multiple layers of tinder, lean several fuel size wood on that.