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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 Survive Hugging A Tree

A Tree to HugWhen most of us hear the term tree hugger, we think of an environmentalists.  Whether we hear the term as derogative or  effective is not the point.  The point is that the tree hugger is trying to save the tree.

There is another tree hugging movement whose objective is not to save the tree, but to save the tree hugger.   The focus of this movement is not big huggers, but little huggers, between the age of 7 and 11.

In Feb of 1981, 9 year old Jimmy Beveridge and his two brothers hiked a popular nature trail on Palomar Mountain.  Merely a half mile from where their parents were preparing lunch,  Jimmy became separated.  The brothers, assuming Jimmy was racing them back to camp, quickly returned.  Jimmy did not.   After 4 days of intensive search and rescue (SAR) efforts, Jimmy’s body was discovered 2 miles from camp.  He had died from hypothermia.

Tragedy and grieve are sometimes catalysts for noble plans of action.  Ab Taylor, who participated in Jimmy’s search, was determined to do something to prevent similar tragedies.  Working with a team, he created the Hug-a-Tree and Survive program targeted at very basic survival skills.  In 2005 Ab donated the rights to the program to the National Association for Search and Rescue.

The principle of the program is simple:  A lost child who stays put is easier to  find than one who keeps moving.  Initial searches typically focus where the child was last seen.  If the child keeps moving, that information becomes less and less helpful.  Once an area is searched, resources focus on other locations.  A moving child may enter a previously searched area, making the search and rescue more difficult.

Targeted for young children, the Hug A Tree program is designed to be delivered in about 30 minutes.   It typically covers these main points:

  • Hug A Tree:  When you are lost stay put.  Find a tree and hang on to it.  Since the tree won’t move, neither will you.  A tree is alive, just like your pet.  You can  name your tree and talk to it.  It will help protect you.
  • Always Carry a trash bag and whistle:  A trash bag is easy to carry in your pocket and easy to make into a jacket.  It will provide you protection from water and cold.  A whistle is easy to carry and can be heard from a longer distance than yelling.
  • Your family will not be angry with you:   Anyone can get lost.  Do not feel embarrassed or ashamed.  Do not hide from your rescuers.  Get comfortable and remain calm, knowing help is on the way.  Your family loves you and will be very happy to see you.
  • Make yourself big: Make it easier for others to find you.  Wear bright colors.  Blow your whistle.  Make a big X in the ground with sticks or rocks.
  • Animals are afraid of humans: If you hear a noise blow your whistle or yell.   If it is an animal, it will run away.  If it is a rescuer, you will be found.
  • You have hundreds of friends looking for you: If you hear people yelling your name they are not angry.  They are trying to find you.  Yell back, or blow your whistle.

Parents also play a key role.  The messages for parents include:

  • Prevention is key.  Make sure your child understands the main points of the program.  Help arrange a presentation at your school, church, or youth organization.
  • Young BackpackerFootprint your child.  A small piece of aluminum foil can be used to create a imprint of your child’s shoe.  Place the foil on a towel and have your child step on it.  It can be an extremely valuable tool for searchers.
  • Call for help right away.  If the child is moving, the search area will be expanding exponentially.  The sooner the search starts, the more quickly the child will be found.
  • Be available for interviewing.  Searchers rely on clues to find lost children.  You are the best source for clues.  Be available to provide them.

There is nothing scarier to a parent than the loss of a child.  A few minor steps can significantly increase the odds of a happy reunion.  If your child remembers to hug a tree, you may very well get another chance to hug your child.

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 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 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 View The International Space Station

International Space Station: Photo Credit NASAA clear night sky in the wilderness offers spectacular views of celestial objects, including the International Space Station (ISS).  After all, the dang thing weighs 954,334.8 pounds and covers an area of 26,909.78 square feet.  I mean you’d have to be practically blind not to see it.

According to the NASA ISS facts and figures page:

The ISS solar array surface area could cover the U.S. Senate Chamber three times over.

Frankly I think they should use some of the extra to cover the House of Representatives.  Both houses could benefit from some heat, but I digress.

When observed from Earth, the ISS is one of the brightest objects in the sky, with an apparent magnitude of -5.9.  It appears as a bright white dot, moving quickly across the night sky.  So why then do so few of us actually see it?

Okay, yes it is 240 miles in the air.  But don’t forget, 240 miles is the same distance Gandhi went for salt.  I have no idea how far he went for pepper, but the point is 240 miles can’t be that far.  The real problem is not the distance up, but rather that the satellite keeps moving.  Not only does it move, but it does so at a rate of 17,500 miles per hour, or 292 miles per minute.  At that speed, when asked to pass the salt, Gandhi could have said give me a minute, and actually meant it.

So how then do we see this really cool moving object?

We just need to know when and where to look.  Circling the earth every 92 minutes, we get quite a few chances.  It is possible, though unlikely, to see it during daylight.  Our best chances are when the sun is reflecting off it brightly and the sky is dark, usually just after dusk or slightly before dawn.  But frankly, we can’t stand out here all night, and we are probably looking in the wrong direction.

Satellite Tracking: Credit NASAOn a two week trip to Yosemite, Scott, a backpacking companion, was carrying a small piece of paper with magical insights:  a list of dates, times, durations, maximum elevations, directions of entry, and directions of exit.  Every night, when the sky and horizon allowed, we gathered and awaited the space stations appearance.  If there had not been prohibitions against erecting structures in the wilderness, we would probably have constructed nightly mini Stonehenges in anticipation.  It was just that cool.

Assuming you don’t have Scott on your wilderness adventures, you are going to have to create your own magical paper.  Luckily, NASA has created a website to help you do just that.

Here you will find factual information about the International Space Station and a wide variety of other observable satellites.  There is even a cool “applet” that will allow you to enter various criteria, including your location on the planet, and with the push of a button create your own list of observation opportunities.

Zvezda_toilet: Credit NASAThe site offers these viewing tips:

For best results, observers should look in the direction and at the elevation shown in the appearing column at the time listed. Because of the speed of the orbiting vehicles, telescopes are not practical. However, a good pair of field binoculars may reveal some detail of the structural shape of the spacecraft.

You may, however, want to limit the power of your binoculars.  After all, as you can see from the picture, some celestial movements are best unseen.

How To Have a Blast as a National Park Service Employee

New employees of any company or organization are faced with digging their way through various policy and procedure handbooks.  Typical tomes requiring shoveling include volumes on workplace health and safety, anti-discrimination policy, sexual harassment, and most recently the dos and don’ts of bullying.  These manuals are typically painful to read and require some sort of mandatory testing to artificially infuse interest.

NPS Handbook CoverOne employee handbook I recently came across, however, sparked my attention like no other.

National Park Service Handbook for the Storage, Transportation, and Use of Explosives

Now I have been fooled by YouTube™ videos where the advertised title and actual content were not in the least bit related.  I carefully kept my giddy expectations in check as I followed this link to the online book:

It is quite possible that clicking this link blasts an automatic warning message at the Bureau of Tobacco and Firearms.  But even if it does, it also magically summons an eleven chapter, 221 page bible of wilderness pyrotechnics.

Many of us who have spent significant time in granite country have wondered in amazement at the trail excavation and armory work of various switchbacks and trail ledges.  We imagine the blood, sweat and tears exerted from the working end of a Pulaski, Mattock, or McLeod.

Blast HoleIn these areas of obvious labor, we occasionally stumble upon mysterious worm holes, the apparent effects of some giant silicon based life form.  Or is it?  Is it possible that in addition to exerting sweat, a subset of these NPS employees is actually having a blast?!

If the official job titles provided in the handbook are any indication, it seems there is no lack of people wanting at least a part of the action.  With no exaggeration positions include:

  • Park Service Blasting Officer
  • DSC Blasting Officer
  • Blasting Inspectors
  • Regional Blasting Officers
  • Chief Park Blasters
  • NPS Blasters
  • Explosive Handlers
  • Magazine Operator

I assume the latter is operating a device that holds explosive charges, as opposed to the latest issue of Field and Stream.

I confess to being a tad confused as to the target audience.  The same manual that explains the formula for calculating borehole depth when subdrilling:

(H = 2.5 x Ve x (B² + J²)½ + T) / Vr

Also explains:

Allow no one to handle explosives while under the influence of liquor, narcotics or prescription drugs that impair performance.

As a side note, I found no guidelines regarding performing the actual borehole calculations while under the influence.  Go figure.

Blastbore RemnantFor the backpacking layman, these procedures and people have something to do with removing big rocks by drilling holes in them and blasting them into new locations.  Pretty cool.

Most of us have seen remnants of these endeavors, without ever considering the science.  Let’s consider at least a portion of that burden.

In rock blasting, the term burden refers to the rock between the borehole and the open face or edge.  To successfully move it requires knowledge of the interrelations between the depth of the hole, the velocity of the explosive, and the velocity of the rock.

Blast Bench UpBy delaying charges in the boreholes, the total burden can be increased and direction controlled.  For example to move a large burden up off the bench, a series of rows can be timed in sequence.  The borehole row 1 is discharged, removing the burden from it to the face, freeing up the second discharge to take the burden from row 2 to 1, followed by row 3 to 2 and so on.

Edge Bench DiaganolSimilarly, if delaying in diagonal rows, the burden can be moved up and to the right.

So there really is a science to blowing up rocks.  So much so there are multiple levels of certification programs (NPS/65) for people who do this for a living.

All this requires basic physics and applied mathematics.  It occurred to me that if more teenaged boys were allowed to apply math in this explosive way, this next generation would be prepared to easily blow away our countries competition.  With burden removed, we would rock!

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 Forage the Forest

Those of us of a certain age remember Euell Gibbons, a man of seemingly normal human intelligence, declaring on network television:

“Ever eat a pine tree?  Many parts are edible.”

Pine Tree with Food BowlWhat an idiot!  Not Euell, me.  Years I wandered through thick pine forest, lugging my rolled oats and dirt flavored granola bars, never once realizing I could simply eat the trees.  This fruit of knowledge, however, raised new concerns for me, such as:

Which goes better with fresh trout, red fir or white fir?

Still something in the back of my mind was just not right.  The same could also be said for most of the front.  If our forests are enormous arbor buffets, minus the sequoia sized sneeze guards, surely they would be filled with herds of grazing obese Americans.  In my wilderness wandering, most white trash trail-ers I encountered were small, scrawny, and seemingly starving.

If I remember correctly my Latin roots, forage comes from the words fore, meaning in front of you, and age meaning unavoidable death.  For the Greeks, forage derives from the word forge, meaning to make falseForage therefore loosely translates to:

before you lies certain death because this is all totally false.”  Loosely.

manzanita berriesThere are two reasons to forage in the forest, neither of which is particularly appealing:  revival or survivalRevival is an increased spiritual interest in something.  It is true we have become disconnected from our natural food chain by, well, our grocery food chains.  Food magically appears hermetically sealed in plastic, completely removed from its source, usually by underpaid migrant workers.  Reconnecting to our wild food roots, regardless of how bitter they taste, is the dream of the forage revivalist.  For the survivalist, well I guess we just got ourselves into such deep doo-doo that we need to eat a few logs to get out.

There must be food in the wilderness.  After all, birds and squirrels are eating something.  Some of it sounds surprisingly similar to their plastic wrapped relatives:  wild strawberries, blackberries, asparagusonions, and miner’s lettuce.  Some things seem totally lacking. I have never found miner’s croutons or miner’s lettuce dressing.  Also, some of it seems down right weedy: dandelions, cattails, and oh come on, seriously, nettles!?

The forest foraging marketing department could use some serious revamping.  I have reviewed a wide variety of foraging books, guides, and websites, and offer up some of these apparent pearls of wisdom:

  • Braken fern tips, when tightly curled are delicious.  As they begin to uncurl they become bitter and poisonous.  Recent studies have also linked consumption to esophageal cancer.
  • Wild asparagus is delicious steamed or boiled, unless leaves have formed, in which case it become toxic.  Eaten raw, it causes nausea and diarrhea.
  • Nettles should be cooked to remove the stinging hairs.  If undercooked, even slightly, they can cause miserable tissues swelling in your mouth and throat.

Warning Sign - Poison OakFrankly, it is difficult to image that Mother Nature has not been sued, let alone the authors of these foraging guides and books.  One author strongly recommended that new foragers maintain a yearly journal.  Based on the labyrinth of risks to life and limb, I declare optimism has never been so bold.

One piece of supposedly helpful advice:

Eat only what the bears will eat. 

First, why are we close enough to their dinner table to see what they are eating? Second, if they really want it, I am pretty sure they are going to get it.

Perhaps this advice simply means we should behave like a bear, focusing on things easily recognizable and digestible such as berries and fish.  I have to point out that bears also eat grubs, and frankly if your hiking partner Steve get’s between bear and cub, he is pretty much in play as well.  I suppose we can indeed take lessons from the bear.  Given a strong enough driving hunger and the element of surprise, we might be able to take out Steve ourselves.

Foraging appears to be growing in popularity, though I am not sure how successful these scroungers actually are.  A suspiciously significant amount of coverage is given to creating brews and teas from pine needles and manzanita berries.  I am not sure too many people are actually starving in the wilderness from a lack of boiled twigs.

Black OakPlants with seeming potential, such as oaks which sustained centuries of Indian tribes, begin to generate reservations when you realize their acorns have to be harvested, sorted, dried, stored, mashed, leached, boiled, shaped into a patty, and only then cooked on a rock.  My instant oatmeal pack is looking pretty good about now.

Maybe the skills required are so refined, that commercial providers are better suited for foraging.  There is a restaurant in California called Forage in the Forest that serves, get this, hamburgers. Call me cynical, but it seems this hunger game has crossed over from gathering to hunting.  If hungry enough, I suppose poached food will have to do.

We now return to Euell Gibbon’s pine nuts.  I have to confess that by now I am no longer sure if this refers to edible seeds, or simply the people like him who think pine trees are edible.

I am slightly embarrassed to say I experienced perverse pleasure when I first heard Euell Gibbons died of malnutrition.  I am not completely convinced this is true, so I personally refuse to Google it for fear of spoiling the immense irony.  I suppose it is possible old Euell simply passed away in his sleep, bludgeoned to death by troop of starving backpackers.

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 Camp with Glamour

Wilderness adventure brings to mind two conflicting persona’s – the rugged outdoor survivalist matching wits with Mother Nature, and his cousin the Nature Channel HDTV voyeur.  Each labors for his love.  The former hacks free his boulder trapped arm with a penknife, while the latter pries free his remote control trapped under the cushion.

Glamor Tent CabinIs it possible, or even desirable, to bring these two nature fans together on the same adventure?  Can the safety and comfort of the couch be transported into the boulder fields of the wild?  According to the proponents of glamour camping… the answer is right there in your wallet.

Inside Tent Cabin“Glamping” combines glamour and camping, creating a travel adventure which enables participants to be as close to their nature as they are to their nurture.  You can be Sir Edmund Hillary by day, and Conrad Hilton by night.  Imagine sleeping in a canvas tent on the plains of Africa, just a few feet away from a pack of howling hyenas.  Now imagine the tent has an attached bathroom, shower, and running hot water.  Imagine the bed is not a stiff foldout cot, but rather a memory foam mattress, with toasty hot water bottles to keep you snug and comfy all night.  You are starting to get the picture.

Wilderness Banquet TableFor some this glamour camping creates a bizarre juxtaposition, like two nature lovers staring at each other from opposite ends of civilization.  Vendors have paired up to meet this odd couple of demand.  It’s a market where Abercrombie meets Kent, and Lindblad meets National Geographic. The service offering is primal luxury.  The stark and rugged gum tree plains are decked out with banquet tables, as if daring nature to crash the party’s aristocracy.

For some,  the excitement of the wilderness is water down slightly by the pampering.  Like that all too new pair of boots at the cattle dude ranch, these adventures can seem real and yet unreal at the same time.  Authenticity requires a little more dung on the heels, but frankly, you might be surprised at how well you can giddy up without it.  The glamor camping magicians make incredible wildernesses accessible to the inaccessible.   Our family adventures have provided shared remote wilderness memories for groups ranging in age from 5 to 80.

Given the growing surge of glamping dedicated websites, facebook pages, and even pintrest boards, this trend appears to be one with legs.  And these legs seem more than willing to carry the rest of us into the wilderness on a litter, for the right price of course.  Gratuity not included.

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 Keep Wilderness Food Sanitary

Food Handler Cert CardIn most of our United States anyone serving food to the public, including a wilderness guide preparing meals in the backcountry, should be Food Handler Certified.  The goal is preventing food borne illnesses.  The industry certification covers standard topics such as causes of food borne illness, factors that contribute to food related diseases, and basic food safety measures to decrease risk.  Like water born bacteria in the wilderness, food bacteria cannot be seen, smelled or tasted.  The appropriate approach is better safe than sorry.

The Partnership for Food Safety Education refers to their food safety strategy as the FightBAC!™ Guidelines.  Get it?  Fight back and fight “bac” – as in bacteria.  The four principles are:

  • Clean
  • Separate
  • Cook
  • Chill

Adventurers who have spent any time in the wilderness will immediately recognize the challenges to these four food safety tenets.

Clean –Wash Hands and Surfaces Often

Wildernesses contain a far greater abundance of dirt than of clean.  In fact, I am pretty sure my fingernails have never been packed with clean.  For environmental reasons, soap is discouraged in the wilderness.  Even so called bio-degradable camp soaps can have a negative impact.  It is possible to create a sanitizing solution with 1 teaspoon of bleach to 1 gallon of water, but wilderness disposal may be an issue.  So what’s an ethical packer to do?  Two effective sanitation techniques are ethyl alcohol (such as Purrell®) for hands, and boiling water for food surfaces (including pots, pans, and cutting utensils).  It may be possible to clean hands with boiling water, but it probably involves the extra resources of a first aid kit.  One thing you may have to get used to is the idea that clean and sterile are not the same thing.  It is possible to sterilize some pretty dirty surfaces, including you hands.

Separate – Don’t Cross-Contaminate

Raw FishThe push for separate but equal food is designed to prevent raw meat contaminates from migrating to other foods and surfaces. Cross contaminated foods such as produce, which are not cook, will significantly increase food illness risk.  Fortunately most backpackers do not bring raw meat on outings, and dehydrated foods are far less likely to cross-contaminate. Even so, you should clean surfaces and utensils when switching between the types of food being prepared.  If you catch fresh fish, it should be treated careful, and cooked and consumed quickly before bacteria can develop.

Cook – To Proper Safe Temperatures

When it comes to food bacteria, the smart approach is retardation.  In other words, we want to keep food in a state that retards bacterial growth.  Oxygen, temperature and moisture are key factors.  Dehydrating food retards growth, and allows us much more flexibility in wilderness storage temperature.  Once food is re-hydrated, however, we need other means to increase safety.  Two ways to keep food out of the danger zone are cooking and chilling.

Most meats are safe if cooked to an internal temperature of 145 F. degrees.  Ground meats and poultry should be cooked to 160-165 F. degrees.  For some backpacking food, the pre-trip cooking, dehydrating and storage are probably bigger risk factors than the wilderness “re-heat” temperatures.   However, better safe than sorry, so reheat foods to the appropriate and safe temperature.

Chill – Refrigerate Promptly

Unless you are snow camping, refrigeration is probably not an option.  This means foods which normally require refrigeration may not be appropriate for backpacking.  Some items, like air sealed hard cheeses for example, are probably safe for a few days.  Dehydrated foods are safer (and lighter to carry) than foods with moisture.

Leftovers, although useable at home, can be dangerous in the wilderness.  Once re-hydrated, many foods become unwanted growth opportunities.  Fortunately, most backpackers are hungry enough to consume the food they have carried.  This is especially true when reminded that if they do not finish it, depending on local regulations, they may have to bury it or carry it – neither of which is particularly fun.


Being in the wilderness makes sanitation challenging.  Being far from the civilized comforts or your own personal bathroom makes the consequence of poor sanitation even more challenging.  Do yourself and everyone else on the trip a favor – remember to clean, separate, cook and chill.  In fact, chilling in the wilderness is the primary reason I backpack.

For more information on food safety, check out:

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 Be a Rock Star Gazer

Star Struck

By Vinish K Saini from Chandigarh, India (Moon n Venus played hide-and-seek) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Moon and Venus (credit: Vinish K. Saini)
You don’t just want to be a star gazer.  Anyone capable of tilting their head back at night can be that.  You want to be a Rock Star Gazer.  A Rock Star Gazer  is a gazer who says:

That red star is Betelgeuse.  It represents the arm pit of the great hunter Orion.

The typical star gazer is more likely to say:

Oh, that pretty one is twinkling, I think it’s… ops, no it’s just an airplane.

The primary requirement to be a Rock Star Gazer is that you appear to know more than your gazing companions.  One strategy of course is to simply hang out with slightly stupid people.  The reason I caveat “slightly” is that if they are actually “totally” stupid they may not be able to appreciate and acknowledge your star stardom, which pretty much defeats the whole purpose.

Assuming your companions have cleared the 70 IQ hurdle, you probably need to actually learn something about star gazing.  If on a hot summer evening you say with confidence:

Castor and Pollux sure look bright tonight…

and one of your gazing companions mumbles something remotely sounding like idiot, it should be clear you have given up your Rock Star Gazer title. Otherwise you would have known Gemini appears in the winter evening sky.  Lamely offering up that you meant  from Australia is not enough to recover.

Our goal here is not to teach you everything you need to know about stars, but rather to give you a framework to accelerate your journey.  Remember you don’t have to actually get there, you just have to be ahead of the others.

Star Gazing Applications and Tools

Yes, I am aware there are star gazing applications which allow star wannabes to point their PDA towards the sky and declare: “There is Cassiopeia!”  The problem is that pointing the PDA and reading is a dead give away.  It is clear you have no idea what you are looking at other than what you are reading, which the woman gazing over your shoulder can do faster and frankly with better retention.  Use these applications to practice your star gazing skills, but never let others see you.  It’s too much like the Wizard of Oz begging us to “ignore that man behind the curtain.”  Too late, star status lost.

There are some other freely available study resources that can help rock your star world.  Sky charts can be found and printed at  The charts show the current month view of sky, including location of visible planets.  Again, great resource, but study at home.

Rock Star Basics

Establish some street cred by working these facts into the conversation.  At times it may feel awkward and forced, but more than likely they will be mumbling “Wow, I never realized that.”

A star is a burning ball of flames so far away it appears to us as a point.  As such, it has no real shape and is subject to atmospheric interference, causing it to “twinkle.”  Magnifying with binoculars may reveal additional stars, but does nothing to provide more details for the ones we can see.  The color of the star revels its relative temperature.  Hot to Cold, Blue->White->Yellow->Orange->Red.

A constellation is a region of the sky as viewed from earth.  There are 88 modern constellations. Any star within the region is considered part of the constellation.  It does not matter if the star plays a role in some bizarre connect-the-dot version of a flying horsey or a mythical dragon.  If it is in the region, it is in the constellation.

An asterism is a subset of stars that make a well known shape.  The Big Dipper is an asterism, not a constellation.  The constellation Big Dipper is in is Ursa Major (Big Bear).

A planet is a sphere circling the sun.  Those visible to our naked eye are close enough to have a shape, which is a small disk or sliver of a disk depending on the phase.  As such, they do not really “twinkle” like the “pointy” stars.  The color of a planet does not reveal its temperature, but rather the color of its surface or atmosphere.

Remembering stars and constellations is a challenge because most of us don’t do it often enough, and the dang things keep moving.  Or at least they appear too.  To help with navigation, we will divide the sky into 3 regions:

  • circumpolar north
  • zodiac belt
  • southern sky

Finding North
Star Rotation

Your first opportunity to present as a rocker is to point out that the earth rotating on it’s axis makes the stars appear to move.  Everything appears to rotate around the north star like a giant backwards twenty four hour clock.  Great, but since the clock is moving super slow, it’s not like you can look up and tell which one everything is turning around.  Therefore, being able to identify the north star is your first and most important sky skill.   Contrary to popular belief, the North Star (Polaris) is not a particularly bright star, and most people rely on the pointer stars from the Big Dipper to find it.

Circumpolar North

Since everything appears to rotate around the North Star, there is a disk of the sky that is visible all year round. The North Star is the center of this disk (or rather close enough).  The radius of the disk is equal to the distance from the North Star down to the horizon.  The further north you are on the planet, the higher the North Star appears in the sky, and therefore the larger the circumpolar region.  As you move south, the North Star gets lower, shrinking the size of the “always visible” disk.  Side Note: the angle from the ground to the North Star tells you your latitude.

This circumpolar region is your friend.  Learn the stars, constellations, and Greek mythology of this region.  It is time well spent.  Regardless of the season, you will always be able to show off your incredible knowledge of this always-visible region.  Focus on the Ursa Major (Big Dipper), Ursa Minor (Little Dipper), Cassiopeia, and Cepheus.  For extra credit, point out Thuban, a minor star that used to be the pole star long before the current one.

Zodiac Belt

The Zodiac Belt (aka ecliptic) is where the action is.  Because our solar system is relatively flat, with all planets circling in essentially the same plane, everything appears to pass through this belt.  The sun, the moon, and the planets all travel along this solar super highway.  The reason this is important is to keep you from looking like an idiot.  If you ever look for a planet outside this belt, you are in fact looking like an idiot.

Using your sky chart aides, you can determine if and where the five visible-to-the-naked-eye planets are located.  The five visible are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.  Mercury and Venus are on closer orbits of the Sun than Earth.  That means we have to look kinda towards the Sun to see them. Therefore, you can only see them just before sunrise or after sunset.  Mercury is ridiculously hard to see but Venus (the brightest object in the sky after the Sun and Moon) is often refereed to as the Evening Star or the Morning Star.  If you are looking for Mercury or Venus in the middle of the night, you are again looking like an idiot.  The other three (Mars Jupiter and Saturn) are in further out orbits of the Sun than Earth and therefore have the potential to be visible at any time during the night.

The ancients recognized the importance of this action packed belt, and started tracking where the sun was relative to the stars behind it.  This constellation / sun connection defines the calendar of the zodiac.

Constellation Description Date Brightest Star
Aries Ram Apr – May Hamal
Tarrus Bull May – Jun Aldebaran
Gemini Twins Jun – Jul Pollux
Cancer Crab Jul – Aug Al Tarf
Leo Lion Aug – Sep Regulus
Virgo Maiden Sep – Oct Spica
Libra Scales Oct – Nov Zubeneschamali
Scorpio Scorpion Nov Antares
Sagittarius Archer Dec – Jan Kaus Australis
Capricorn Sea Goat Jan – Feb Deneb Algedi
Aquarius Water Bearer Feb – Mar Sadalsuud
Pisces Fish Mar – Apr Eta Piscium

A challenge of being a Rock Star Gazer is that people will often say something like, “I’m a Libra.  Where is my constellation?”  This is where your study aid can help.  If you know during the evening of a particular month which Zodiac Constellation is rising and which is setting, you can approximate the location of the visible ones in between.  And for goodness sake, do not get caught looking outside the Zodiac belt for a Zodiac Constellation.

Southern Sky

The southern sky is like the astronomical clearance rack.  None of the major brand Zodiac constellations are available there.  None of the big wig wanders (Sun, Moon, or any planets) are ever caught passing through.  Unlike the consistent and reliable Circumpolar North, the Southern Sky is constantly changing with the seasons.  Here you may find little known irregulars such as Eridanus, Lupus, and Grus.

That’s not to say there aren’t some great deals in the southern sky, because there are.  The great hunter constellation Orion (a crowd favorite) is there every winter season.  The spectacular winter hexagon of stars (Sirus, Rigel, Aldebaran, Capella, Pollux and Procyon) are also on full display.

Star Showers

By C m handler (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Meteor – Credit: C m handler
After slimming your way to Rock Star Gazer  status, you may feel the need to cleanse your soul with a meteor shower.  A meteor is a small piece of dust or dirt brilliantly burning up in our atmosphere.  Passing through the tail of an old dirty comet increases the chance of “dust ups” creating spectacular displays.  Some of the more common displays include:

Name Constellation Viewing
 Lyrids  Lyra  April 21-22
 Pereids  Perseus  Aug 12-13
 Orinids  Orion  Oct 21-22
 Leonids  Leo  Nov 16-18


To be a Rock Star Gazer is a great responsibility.  Simpleton star gazers will be looking up to you, then back at the stars, then back again to you.  Probably with a puzzled expression.  Your ability to speak confidently, if not actually competently, is critical.  Information is dangerous and you now have enough to be on the night time wilderness most wanted list.  Congratulations.