Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Camping for Beginners

I have talked a lot about how to plan for family camping trips and some of it may seem a bit daunting.  Well, I just received an email with a link to a program which may make your first camping experience a little easier.  It is  put on by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD).  I though this was a great idea and kudos to the TPWD  for putting this together.

The TPWD has created the Texas Outdoor Family program, which is designed to teach you and your family the basic outdoor skills you need to enjoy a great overnight camping experience.  Here are some of the skills they cover.

  • How to set up and break down camp (including your tent)
  • Fire starting
  • Outdoor cooking
  • Guided walks
  • Nature activities
  • How to use a GPS
  • Geocaching
  • Introductions to a wide range of outdoor activities (such as fishing, kayaking, wildlife watching) depending on the site location, facilities and the season of the year

Here's a short video on the program.

I hope some of you get to leverage this program and will report back how it went.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Review of Skout Trailbars

I was recently introduced to Skout Natural Foods and their line of 100% Organic Trailbars. I have tried 4 of the 5 varieties they offer, including Cherry + Vanilla, Chocolate + Peanut Butter, Blueberry + Almond and Apple + Cinnamon. They were all very tasty, but I think my favorites were the Cherry Vanilla and Apple + Cinnamon. Here are some of my thoughts on each, in the order in which I tried them.
  • Chocolate + Peanut Butter - This was almost like eating a brownie and was unlike any other Chocolate / Peanut Butter trail bar I've had. While most Chocolate / Peanut Butter trail bars are extremely sweet and/or very chewy, this was soft, moist, nutty with a lot of oats in it giving it a bit of chewability. These would be really good with ice cream.
  • Cherry + Vanilla - This was my favorite. There were generous sized pieces of organic dried cherries full of flavor and, as with the Chocolate + Peanut Butter, it was very moist. This didn't seem to be as oaty as the Chocolate + Peanut Butter.
  • Blueberry + Almond - This was moist as the rest, plus the great taste of blueberries with almond bits. I was thinking this was going to be my favorite because I really like blueberries. The bar I had didn't have a lot of blueberries in it like I was hoping. Dried blueberries are on the ingredients list, so I might have just gotten an unlucky bar. I'm going to give this one another try as it did have good flavor, I was just hoping for some more blueberries.
  • Apple + Cinnamon - This had a great flavor, almost like grandma's apple pie. I didn't notice as much dried fruit as the Cherry + Vanilla, but you could definitely taste the apples and cinnamon. It did seem to have a more nutty texture than the others, as I really noticed some good chunks of nuts. As with the Cherry + Vanilla, it was not as oaty as the Chocolate + Peanut Butter.
  • Chocolate + Coconut - This is the one I didn't try. I'm not a big fan of Coconut, so if anyone tries this one, feel free to post some comments.

Overall, I am very pleased with the quality and taste of the Skout Natural Trailbars. It's also good to know that they are made from 100% organic ingredients. The bars all include a full serving of fruit including dates, blueberries, apples and cherries sourced near where the bars are made in Oregon.

My only concerns with these bars would be getting the energy boost on the trail you need and how they will fare in the backpack. Because they are a very moist bar and have no coating, I am concerned that if you don't position them correctly in your pack they might turn into a bag full of clusters, but they would still be very edible. Also, will they be filling enough to push me through to my next campsite or my lunch break.

I would highly recommend picking up the some online or at a local store that carries Skout Natural products. The Trailbar Sampler is a great item which contains all 5 of their flavors.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Giving Fly Fishing a whirl

I have recently decided to try Fly Fishing. Back in January, I had the opportunity to try it out while on a trip to Vancouver, BC. With the help of a good friend and our fishing guide, I learned some of the finer points of roll casting and the overhand cast. No pun intended, well ok, maybe it is, but I got hooked. I don't anticipate that I'll become an avid fly fisherman or heading out at every chance to the Lower Mountain Fork in McCurtain County Oklahoma, but I do plan on trying to catch dinner occasionally while camping and backpacking. I also don't foresee myself changing my name to FlyMan, either.

About two months ago, I purchased my first fly rod for my birthday gift. I picked up a 4-piece, 4 weight, 8'6" Wright&McGill rod off SteepAndCheap.com. I have paired it with an Orvis Battenkill reel. I'm planning on breaking it in on our family trip this summer to Colorado and Wyoming. I hear there are a few fish in Wyoming near Yellowstone, so wish me luck.

I'll let you know how it goes, but I'm looking forward to giving Fly Fishing a whirl.

Here's a short video of the Bull Trout I caught while in Vancouver. This was caught using a spincast reel, but I did get some lessons with the fly rod.

Here's a picture of the spot where we hiked in to go fishing at about 7am. There was about 3 feet of snow on the ground and it was snowing the whole time.

Planning my big adventures - Backpacking Trips

In my last post, I talked about planning my Family trips. In this post, I'm going to concentrate on how I plan my backpacking trips. Like I mentioned in the previous post, I generally try and plan one backpacking trip with my wife and sometimes my two older kids, and one guys trip. Last year, it was to the Inyo National Forest with my wife and two oldest kids and to Yosemite National Park with one of my buddies. The year before last, I did a trip with my oldest son and a friend and his son to Rocky Mountain National Park and a trip with my wife to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

I thought I would share with you my thought process for planning one of these backpacking trips.

First, I try and determine who wants to go. I do this so that I can determine what is going to be the best experience for all. My wife is a big fan of big mountains, trees and lakes. I've got friends that are desert canyon rats. My eight year old and six year old sons are big fans of the desert as well. Having been in the Smokies as well as the Rockies and Sierras, my personal favorite is definitely out West. In the West, the mountains are bigger and you can actually see the mountains when you're in the mountains. Most places out East that I've been, you get very few good views of the mountains from the trail. Most of the time, you are walking in the woods. For my desert dwellers, you almost can't beat the Southern Utah/Northern Arizona area. Hiking in and out of the slot canyons is other worldly.

Next, I try and plan the duration of the trip. With my wife and kids, 3 nights is a great trip duration. Beyond that, I risk burning them out. It's always best to leave wanting more, than leave wishing you'd left sooner. When it's just the guys, 4 nights is about right. One reason for the difference is that with my wife and kids, I will generally bring more creature comforts (read: more weight). My wife and I enjoy a nice glass of wine at the end of the day and I want to make sure we keep my son and daughter fed with good food that they will eat plenty of. Also, I may bring a change of clothes so my wife will let me sleep in the tent at night. When it's just the guys, we tend to go lighter with less food and fewer of the comfy items. Who cares if you stink, so do your buddies. Also, you can get away carrying a little less Makers Mark than Merlot.

Now, knowing the type of scenery and terrain I'm looking for and the length of trip, I start looking for places that don't make the logistics too hard. Trailheads close to an airport make it easy to arrange a shuttle removing the need to rent a car that's just going to sit at the trailhead for the duration of the trip. Loop hikes eliminate the need to arrange for a shuttle or hitching a ride back to the car. Hiking in a National Park allows you to leverage free transportation from trailhead to trailhead if you need to do a point-to-point hike. If you do have to drive from the airport to the trailhead, you need to evaluate the flight arrival times and know the distance you will do the first day or plan to camp at the trailhead or stay in a hotel. I prefer staying in a hotel after the trip to avoid stinking up the plane on the ride back home.

For finding the right hike, I look again at who is coming with me. For hikes with my wife and kids, I will try and keep elevation gains to less than 500 feet / 1 mile. Anything more than that, I run the risk of burning them out. With the guys, we can take on the 1,000 vertical feet / 1 mile. Also, I look at starting and ending elevation. So far, none of my family members have shown any effects from altitude up to 10,000 feet. If you're going to above around 8,000 feet, check with the members of your party to make sure everyone has been at that elevation and determine if anyone has had issues before. Also, if you're going to that elevation, you may want to plan a night at the trailhead before going to high to allow everyone to acclimatize properly.

As far as distances go, with my wife and kids, I try and keep it to around 5-7 miles per day whereas with the guys, I've done as many as 20 miles in a day, but would prefer 10-12 miles per day. I like to stay on the move and see as much as I can each day I'm in the backcountry.

For campsites, my wife and I like to move camps every night and see a lot of different places. Some of my friends prefer the basecamp method of finding a good spot on the first night and day hiking off that spot and always coming back each night to the same campsite. It allows you to go fast and light during the day, but you also end up seeing a lot of the same scenery.

For food, I haven't gotten real adventurous yet. I stick mostly to pre-packaged freeze dried foods from companies like Backpackers Pantry and Mountain House. Some of my personal favorites are the Mountain House Wraps Breakfast Skillet, Mountain House Beef Stew, Flour Tortillas with either Justin's Almond Butter and Jelly or StarKist Smoky Tuna Pouch, and I always bring along some good Chai Tea for breakfast and some Gatorade packets for the trail. I also broke down and bought myself a Bear Vault BV500 to carry it all in in Bear Country.

I might soon add a new trail bar to the menu. I recently was introduced to a company out of Oregon called Skout Natural. I have tried a couple of the bars and have been impressed. I will soon be posting a full review of four of the five flavors they come in, so stay tuned.

As far as the carry weight goes, I try and keep to following total weights carried including food and water:
  • Myself - No more than 30-35 pounds (preferably 28)
  • Wife - No more than 20-25 pounds
  • Son - No more than 18 pounds
  • Daughter - No more than 12 pounds
  • My buddies - I'll load 'em up. Just kidding, we evenly distribute
Maybe I'll post some of my gear lists for the trips going forward. I keep a spreadsheet with the weights of all our gear. While I'm not a true ultralighter by no means, I do try and keep the carry weights down as much as possible.

Finally, one of my biggest criteria is having available water. I would much rather carry water filtration than carry a gallon of water per day. This may keep me from seeing a few places such as Big Bend, but it's a deal killer for me if I have to haul all of my water.

Once I've got my criteria set, I do a ton of research using sites such as Trails.com, Backpacker Magazine, GORP.com, and asking a few friends. Once I've got my list whittled down to two or three potential sites, I look at permit regulations and availability, use Google Earth to do flyovers to see the lay of the land, search for other sites with trip reports and will even pick up topo maps from REI or mytopo.com to look at the contours to see how rugged the hike might be.

Then, it's time to book it. I try to use my airline miles to get me there and back and any hotel points I can. This helps to keep costs down. I think my trip to the Inyo last year cost me maybe $300 (rental car) for myself, my wife, son and daughter to spend 3 nights in the Inyo (1 in the front country and 2 in the backcountry) plus 1 night/2 rooms in a hotel in Reno, NV. We even flew first class home. Not bad for a 4 day vacation for 4.

One big piece of advice I would add if you are going to take your family members backpacking with you. Have everyone try on all their gear, fully loaded, and walk around with it for a while. Walk around the neighborhood, on the local trails, or wherever, but have them do it. Also, try everything you will eat, prior to getting in the backcountry. Nothing worse than getting back there and finding out that the lasagna isn't like grandma makes and the kids won't eat it. Finally, have everyone do some form of exercise prior to the trip. It's tough enough carrying an extra 15-30 pounds or so, but if you haven't gotten up off the couch for the weeks leading up to the trip, you're really going to be in trouble.

I hope this helps you plan your own backpacking trips. I've done a ton of research on a lot of different places, so feel free to post a question if you have 'em.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Planning my big adventures - Family Trips

Every year, I try and plan multiple trips. I generally shoot for a big, one- to two-week family trips, one backpacking trip with my Wife and/or my kids, and one guys backpacking trip. As Summer approaches, I'm excited with the anticipation of our big family trip. This year's trip, a 3,500 mile, 16-day route through Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. I'm going to cover some of my thoughts here on how I plan for my big family adventures and I'll post another entry on how I plan for my backpacking trips.

For those of you who have followed me for a while, I've posted trip reports on our past two Summer trips, including trips to Rocky Mountain National Park, Sequoia Kings Canyon, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. There's a lot of planning that goes into pulling off a 4,000 mile, 16-day trip with 6 people. There's hotels to book, campsites to reserve, trails to scout and more. It takes me and my wife probably 2-3 weeks to get everything solidified and we have to start early to get the best deals and the best spots. Here are some of the steps we go through.
  • Where to go - My family is very fond of the mountains and lakes, so I try and find places that will satisfy our thirst for this type of outdoors experience. Our favorite places so far have been the Rockies and the Sierras. I recommend finding out what your family's favorite things to do are and look for destinations that will meet your expectations, such as fishing, beaches, meadows, wildlife, snow, rivers, canoeing, etc. We also like visiting the National Parks, but many State Parks are very nice as well.
  • How to get there - I look for driving routes that will allow us to cover a lot of sights in about two weeks. I generally look for leaving on a Friday or Saturday and returning two weeks later on a Saturday or Sunday. This gives us about 16 days to work with. Google Maps allows you to draw your route and look at driving distances and times. I try and drive no more than 8-9 hours per day. I don't do the overnight driving bit as it's a little too risky. We just plan on leaving early and arriving before dinner.
  • Where to stay - We plan for camping for around three consecutive nights, with at least one night in a hotel between. I identify the National Park Campgrounds in the area we want to be in and then start looking at the reservation policies. Here, you have to be a bit flexible. For instance, we were too late last year to book sites in Yosemite, but we could get a great site in Sequoia. We opted to stay three nights in Sequoia and do just a day in Yosemite Valley. Also, some campgrounds are available only on a first-come, first-serve basis, so I recommend arriving mid-week for these campgrounds and possibly booking a hotel nearby allowing you to get up early one morning to go grab your spot. I have also found resources such as TripAdvisor have ratings by members on certain campgrounds and sometimes even recommend the best sites.
  • What to do - For planning our activities such as hiking and fishing, I depend a lot on resources such as Trails.com, Backpacker Magazine and GORP.com. I look for appropriate trails for my family. I'm a bit ambitious sometimes, and think we can go farther and faster than we can, so I look for trails with options for bail outs and don't disregard opportunities to leverage bartering. For example, I may use a beautiful alpine lake as destination that may push the young ones, but promise to let them take a good long break and have a snack and maybe even get in the water if appropriate. In Rocky Mountain National Park, I even resorted to promising ice cream to everyone when we finished the hike. While in camp, the kids will usually keep themselves entertained digging in the dirt, finding bugs, playing tag, tying each other up with rope, and whatever else they can find to do. Even whittling a stick will keep them busy for a while. As they get older, they can even take on camp duties. My oldest son, now known as FireMan, is in charge of setting up and lighting the camp fire.
  • How far to go and where - A general rule of thumb I go by for my family is to average around 1 mile per hour and spend no more than 5-6 hours any given day on the trail. The kids enjoy hanging around camp, making camp fires, and finding bugs. We'll usually plan to be on the trail by 10am, have lunch on the trail and be back in camp by 3pm or so. Also, because my young ones will be 6 and 8 this year, I would stick with trails that gain no more than 300-500 feet of elevation over 5 miles. I've found that anything more than that gets a bit too steep and I end up carrying them most of the way. If you are sticking to National Parks and well known areas, I would invest in a good Trails Illustrated map of the area. They generally have the trails marked on the map and you can get a good sense of the terrain. Also, check out the National Park Service web site for trail descriptions. Finally, use Google Earth to do a 3-dimensional walk through of your trail. This is really cool.
  • What to eat - For food, we look to make food that is not to different than we make at home. Since we are car camping on these trips, food weight is not a big issue. Our menus for the trip usually consist of the following:
    • Breakfast: Pancakes, bacon, eggs, biscuits (in a dutch oven), sausage, cereal, oatmeal
    • Lunch: Ham sandwiches, summer sausage, leftover grilled chicken from dinner the night before, tortillas, crackers and cheese, apples, clementines
    • Dinner: Grilled chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, baked beans, Ranch Style beans, green beans, corn, macaroni-n-cheese
    • Snacks: GORP, trail bars, Clif Z-Bars for the kiddos, clementines, apples
    • Desserts - s'mores, popcorn, cobbler, cake
  • How to cook it - For cooking, I have the Coleman Dual-Fuel 2 Burner Stove. White gas is easy to find and relatively inexpensive. We cook most of the meat over the fire at night and peel the labels off the canned food and stick it in the fire to cook. I recommend carrying a pair of welding gloves for placing them in and out of the fire. Also, use the can opener to only open it about 3/4 of the way. Then, you can close the lid back when you put it in the fire and keep the ashes out. My recommendation is to practice cooking on it at home. Also, try any recipes out prior to getting to your destination. Make sure everyone will eat what you are making. Nothing worse than tired, hungry, cranky kids in camp.
  • For Java junkies - For boiling water fast for coffee and tea, I carry my Snow Peak Giga Power canister stove and my GSI Dualist kit. It lights in a jiffy and boils about 4 cups of water in a few minutes. That makes the first round of coffee for my wife and son and a cup of Chai for CanyonMan.
  • How to transport your kitchen - I have two hard plastic trunks that I carry all of the food and cooking gear in while we travel. I can store it on the top of the truck or on the back platform. They are buried under the stuff on top of the truck in the picture above. You can see the platform where the coolers are. The top rack is the Yakima Mega Warrior with the extension. This has been a life saver on these trips.
  • Tent arrangements - Regarding tents, I will usually pack two tents. One is my REI Base Camp 4 and the other is the REI Half Dome 2HC. Again, since this is car camping, I will go with the deluxe Coleman air mattresses. I use a double in my Half Dome and a Queen and a Twin in the Base Camp 4. We still use our sleeping bags to sleep in though. I will probably post an entry reviewing all of our sleeping bags sometime in the future. Just be aware of where you are going and plan for sleeping bags rated to 10 degrees below the anticipated low temperatures. I have found that it's almost always colder than you expect. Remember, you can also sleep in additional layers to boost the ratings as well. Last year, my wife slept in her down parka while camping at 10,000 feet in a 25 degree bag when overnight lows were in the low 40's/upper 30's in June. For the kids, don't forget their pillows from home and their "lovies". Sleeping outdoors is sometimes a bit of a challenge, especially for the little ones, when you're gone for two weeks. Sleeping on their favorite pillow with their favorite stuffed animal helps them sleep a little better. If they enjoy reading, be sure to pack a few of their favorite books. And, while we don't typically allow the kids to watch movies while camping, an iPod with some good music is not a bad thing to have either.
  • Hotel arrangements - For hotels, I travel quite a bit and accumulate hotel points with a variety of hoteliers. I use points for the one night here and there where we'll be staying. Last year, I think I had 3 free nights at Holiday Inn Express, One night at a Marriott and one at a Hilton Doubletree. This helps to keep the costs down. Considering the camping is generally $20/night or less, these vacations are a bargain, even if we have to pay for a night or two in a hotel. Don't discount the value of a hot shower and a bed after spending three nights in a tent with 4 kids. We look for hotels that will include breakfast. It gets expensive feeding 6 people when you are eating out for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Finally, we will book two rooms on the final night before heading home to let the kids have their own room and let Mom and Dad have a bit of peace and quiet and down time. This is worth the extra expense.
Here are a few other things to think about.

Prior to leaving - Here's a recommendation from my wife. She has done a great job with this and my daughter even pitched in this year. Gather pictures, web sites, articles, books, maps, etc. on the areas you plan to visit and the route you intend to take. Compile them in a binder where everyone can see the plan and anticipate the sights they will see. It also keeps them interested along the way.

While on the trip - Collect memories such as photos, trinkets, etc. along the way. The $10 stuffed snake may seem a bit extravagant, but 2 years later, when your child remembers the time he was sticking it in your ear after visiting the desert, it seems worth it. Stopping to look at every rock and every bug on the trail slows things down, but when your daughter remembers the purple rock that looked like a heart that you found while walking the trails, it's special. These little things add up to big memories. I have pictures from trips taken 5-10 years ago and can quickly glance at them and remember the precise moment that they were taken and it takes me right back to that point in time. My kids are the same way.

Upon returning - Share your memories. This is one of the main reasons I started this blog. Additionally, I have been using services like those offered by Costco and My Publisher to create small photo albums of our trips as well. We keep them out around the house and our kids can share their trips with their friends and family when they come over. Google Picasa and Picasa Web Albums is another great service for sharing online photo albums.

These trips are a special time and I hope you can plan your own adventure and share your stories with me when you get back.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Wool socks - they're not just for Winter anymore

Living in Texas my whole life, I don't believe I ever owned a single pair of wool socks. Over the past 10 years, as I've spent more time in the outdoors, especially in the colder climes and I've grown an affinity towards wearing wool socks. Now, it's pretty much all I wear, year round.

If you have been reluctant to or have not thought to try them, I would recommend getting a pair or two. I have found they aren't hot, dry, scratchy or any of the other things I thought they would be prior to wearing them. They are great year round for a few reasons.
  • Moisture wicking and water resistant- this is good when it's warm and your feet are really hot and sweaty. This will keep your feet drier and prevent blisters. Plus, even when it's cooler outside and you have to make a river crossing, your socks are going to dry out as you walk (assuming your shoes are breathable and your not walking in puddles)
  • Breathable - this will help you regulate your temperature and also keep you from getting jungle foot.
  • Odor resistant - this will make your tent mates happy at the end of the day, and even around the house, you don't have to stink up the rest of the laundry or wash a special load just for your smelly socks.
  • Durability - this will help you protect your investment. I will go through about two or three pair of cotton socks in the time it takes to wear out my wool socks.
  • Softness - the new wools on the market today are as soft if not softer than the cotton socks you'll find. This will also cut down on the blisters and hot spots.
My recommendation for wool socks are the REI Merino Wool Low Light Hiker Socks.

The price is right and I can wear them every day as they look great with my Vasque Blur trail runners.

Review of the Vasque Blur shoes

I was the third person in the household to get a pair of Vasque shoes. My son and daughter are both sporting the Vasque Breeze light hikers. I already had a pair of light hikers and was looking for a good trail runner that could also be used on day hikes and some overnights where I didn't need waterproof boots or additional ankle support. I picked up a pair of Vasque Blur on SteepAndCheap.com and was immediately impressed with the comfort, stability and weight (or lack thereof as they weigh only 12.6 ounces).

I would not consider myself any sort of endurance runner by any stretch of the imagination, but do enjoy a good 3-4 mile trail run every once in a while. There are some great trails by my house and I try to find solid trail running paths whenever I travel. These are great for taking with me when I travel because I can hike or trail run in them and they fit nicely in my carry on, unlike my light hikers which are a bit more clunky.

The shoes breathe really well, keeping my feet from getting too hot while on the trail in the Texas heat. The breath-ability has also helped me when I've had to ford streams and rivers by draining well and allowing my feet to dry quickly.

I get good traction on all different types of terrain including mud, sandstone, granite and grass. I've had shoes before that felt like they were going to come out from under me if the rock was slick at all, but not with these.

I feel these shoes are great for the person looking for value and getting multiple uses out of their gear. In addition to trail running, I've worn these on a 21-mile, 3-day backpacking trip in the Inyo National Forest in California and multiple day hikes in Arkansas, Colorado and California.

Me kicking it with my family in the Inyo with my family making dinner wearing my Vasque Blur's

Finally, I can't say enough about Vasque's customer support. About a year after I purchased the shoes, the inner part of the heel began to bunch up causing blisters. I contacted Vasque and was immediately shipped a new pair as a replacement. I apparently got a defective pair, but Vasque took care of me. I've had the replacement pair for over 2 years now and have had no issues whatsoever.

I wrote an article a while back about buying good gear, and will always recommend companies that stand behind their products. Vasque is one of those companies.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Altering The Ten Essentials?

There was a great discussion posted on another board regarding altering the Ten Essentials. "Is there anything that you would change (add or remove) to the Ten Essentials? Thanks to KAYOTIC for posting the original question. I posted the following response.

I don't know if it's so much as adding or removing as much as being flexible depending on your adventure.

I do a lot of dayhikes on the trails around my house that average anywhere from 1-5 miles, but are never more than 1/2 a mile from a neighborhood or street, and the trails are highly used. I will typically bring extra water and snacks, but will not bring all the 10 essentials.

If I'm traveling and going on a day hike to an unknown location, I will bring most, if not all, minus the tent or shelter, although when traveling for business, it's often hard to bring a knife or matches due to travel restrictions.

On any overnight, I bring all of them.

Regarding the map and compass, it's great to have them, but if you don't know how to use them, they are useless. Bone up on your map and compass skills at Backpacker.com's skills site. Additionally, having only a map or a compass does you little good. I guess if you are going to only have one, the map would be the one to have. You can use the sun to gauge direction as well as other options such as celestial navigation, but a compass makes it much easier and isn't dependent on weather.

Regarding repair kits, duct tape can fix almost anything including cuts, blisters, shoes that become flip-flops, broken tent poles, even holes in your sleeping pad. If you use trekking poles, you can easily wrap some around the pole, or if you use a water bottle, wrap some around it. You will have it when you need it and it weighs nothing.

In addition to Sunscreen and Sunglasses, I would also include a hat and lip balm.

One that I would add, I almost always carry about 50 feet of lightweight rope/cord
www.rei.com/product/767607/new-england-3mm-utility-cord-package-of-50-ft tucked inside a small mesh bag with a couple of carabiners. I've had to use it for a variety of things such as lowering packs down when it was too precarious to downclimb with them on, stringing up wet clothes to dry them out, and hanging food / gear to keep the varmints out. The small mesh bag is great fro putting a rock in to heave it over a tree branch and keeps the rope and biners nicely organized. I've also used the rope as a tow when my hiking partners weren't keeping up. The rope can also be used as shoelaces in a pinch. I can find lots of uses for it.

Finally, on any long day hikes or overnights, I always pack my water filtration system. I use the Katadyn Hiker Pro.

New Trails.com mobile app

I'm a huge fan of the website Trails.com. I use this site for researching trails on almost all of my trips. Recently, I discovered that Trails.com, one of my favorite sites on the web, released a new mobile app. I was very excited to give it a try. I was first disappointed that it was an iPhone app only, so it wasn't specifically designed for the iPad. This simply means it doesn't take full advantage of the entire real estate on the iPad, it assumes it will have a small amount of space to display content and interact with the user. It doesn't even rotate as most other apps do, but I can live with it.

One of the first steps to using the new app is to pick your regions, which equate to states and even parts of states, such as Northern California and Southern California. Once you've picked your regions, the app automatically downloads trail descriptions and some basic information locally. This makes doing initial research fast and doesn't require an internet connection. I can look through trail descriptions on the plane and even set them as favorites which allow me to easily come back to them later.

When connected to the network, I can download the full trail guide and see nearby trails to do even more research into finding the right trail for my next trip. Viewing the trail guides on the app is very nice. I can zoom in and look at elevation profiles and trail distances, plus detailed descriptions.

Overall, so far, I've been fairly pleased with the app.

Now, some items I wish they would fix in the next version, assuming there's a next version.
  • Improved search - The search now is limited to the name and the city as far as I can tell. It doesn't seem to search on the description, which isn't the full description anyway.
  • Filtering and ordering search results - I'd like to see the ability to filter or order the search results by trail distances, difficulty, rating, etc.
  • Rating from the app - It would be nice to be able to view Member Ratings and Member Comments and be able to rate trails directly from the app
  • Like Trails - It would be nice to suggest trails that are "like" trails I've looked at based on distance, difficulty and region.
  • Recommend Trails - This is something I'd like to see on the main site as well. Based on my profile and trail viewing history, recommend trails that I might want to see.
  • iPad specific app - Viewing the trail guides would be much easier if the app was built for the iPad, leveraging the larger screen size.
One of the keys for Trails.com to make this a killer app, would be to invest some time in data quality and add some much needed features. For example:
  • What's the difference between difficult and strenuous?
  • What is moderately strenuous?
  • What type of person are the difficulties rated on? I'm assuming that they are based on fit, experienced hikers.
  • Maybe allow members to rate their physical ability and in addition to rating the trail as 1-5 stars, maybe rate it for difficulty.
  • Separating out Backpacking (overnight) from Hiking (day hikes)
  • Adding several search/filter criteria, including starting and peak elevation, elevation gain/loss, type of hike (loop, out-and-back, point-to-point, etc.), overnight (and typical # of days) vs. day hikes, trail distance, mixed use trail or not (are you hiking with pack trains or not), water accessibility
I think a lot of this data is going to need to come from the community. It would be nice if it were made sort of like a Wiki where members could edit / correct trail beta.

If you haven't checked it out, I highly recommend Trails.com and their new app. And Trails.com, if you happen to read this, I'd love to talk to you about enhancement ideas.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Choosing your Water Filter

First, full disclosure, I'm a huge fan of my Katadyn Hiker Pro.

I've been asked on other forums about water filtration and thought I'd post some of my thoughts over here.

Pumps: There's two main categories, ceramic filters (like the MSR) and non-ceramic filters (like the Katadyn Hiker Pro). The ceramic filters are great for cleaning in the field, but are often slower to pump and can get clogged up a bit easier. Pumps are great for solo hikers or maybe even 2 people. However, if you are having to use one pump to fill up 4 people, it's a going to be a good long snack stop when you need to fill up. It also helps to have a pre-filter for getting some of the gunk out prior to getting to the main filter. A neckerchief works great for this.

Gravity devices: I believe MSR makes one of these and Platypus as well, I'm sure there's a lot more. These are great for larger groups because you can generally filter multiple liters very quickly. I think the Platypus advertises filtering 4 liters in 2.5 minutes. Cleaning is generally easily accomplished by just backwashing the filter. These are light enough for one or two people to carry. Be sure, if the bags aren't already labeled, to label the source and target bags.

As you sip filters: These are filters that either fit on top of your water bottle or on your outlet hose from your reservoir. They filter as you drink. I've never personally used these, but I would only use it if you knew you were going to be able to fill your water bottle with non-silty water. After hiking in some of the slot canyons in Utah, I wouldn't want to put that murky water in my water bottle then sip on the go. You'd probably end up clogging your filter every third sip. But, pulling water out of a side stream in the Tetons would probably be no problem.

SteriPen: Same as above, you'd want to have some clear water to use this bug zapper type device. I hear rave reviews on these little items. They are light weight, kill everything, but do have some things to consider. 1.) They require batteries. If the juice is gone, you better have a backup, or your boiling water the rest of the way. 2.) You've got to have a wide-mouth bottle to reach the pen into the water. Your Sigg aluminum bottle with the small opening isn't going to work too well with this, unless you dangled down in the container by a string, assuming it will fit through the opening.

Tablets: PotableAqua is probably the leader in this space, but these are small tables, generally Iodine or Chlorine Dioxide, which zaps the bad stuff in the water. As with some of the others, I've never tried this, but have friends who have and complain of the taste of the water. Plus, as with the previous two, As you sip and SteriPen, you might want to only use this if the water is clear. Otherwise, you'll be drinking safe silt. Lastly, some of these take a while to work, so you may be waiting a while to drink that ice cold, clean mountain water.

Boiling: I don't hear of too many people doing this, except in emergency situations. Easy principle, take your water and get it to boiling. Once it's boiling, it's safe. Only, you need to let it cool to drink. Also, before boiling, you might want to get the silt out or it may be dirty soup.

Anyway, these are just some of my thoughts that I've passed on to others.