Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Gear Guide III- Home On The Range


The last installment of my gear guide, just in time for the holidays. Happy hunting!

Part 3: Odds and Ends

Water Purifying- 21st Century-Style
Oh my goodness I have spent a lot of time crouched at the edge of a stream pumping water through a filter. Hours. Maybe even days. Really, a lot of time. I have also drank more than my fair share of iodized water, often only sort of improved by the addition of vitamin C or powdered sports drink and patiently boiled water each evening for use the following day. I have too, foolishly, and not since my youth, drank directly from all kinds of streams. Clean drinking water can be a pain in the butt, regardless of how important it may be. That's just how it is, a chore's a chore.

Unless, like me, you have been out of the loop for a while. I have grown so used to filtering when touring that it never occurred to me to look for an alternative. Apparently, I haven't checked for about 15 years. And twelve years ago, a product called Steripen hit the market. It uses ultra violet light to sterilize water. It's small, lightweight, and incredibly fast and easy. Press the button, stick in water, wait briefly. Amazing. I really wish that this had been around for field work in Mexico.

The irony of a product like this is that there's no real way to prove how well it works other than by the evidence of your own body. So far, so good. But Steripen has a good reputation among long-distance tourers and thru hikers and has been around long enough to prove that it works, its really pretty great. I have heard from some that they can be fragile and need to be packed carefully in a side or top pocket to avoid being broken, but beyond that, its a great alternative to other forms of water purification.

Don't throw out your filter though. Steripens may make the water safe to drink in terms of critters, but it doesn't remove particles like clay and silt. Use your hand filter in deserts and other areas with cloudy water in addition to any chemical treatment.

The Kit
It has been a long time since I have owned a formal first aid kit. I have pretty much always made-do with plastic bags filled with supplies that I would periodically replace or refill. Whenever I have owned a first aid kit they have been purchased from the local drug store and largely geared towards household bumps, scrapes, and burns, rather than emergency wilderness care. The older I get, the more important that difference becomes. So this year I checked out the options and discovered that weren't actually very many. A lot of what is out there is a little bit of overkill for anyone doing less than a week in the back country. What I was interested in was something that was comprehensive enough for a week of car camping or a short backpacking trip and still small enough to throw into a day pack.

I ended up trying out the ultralight travel kit from Adventure Medical Ultralight and Watertight .5

It's, you know, a first aid kit. And a really good one. That it comes in a bright yellow pouch is a plus, especially if someone besides you is looking for it in your pack. The real cool thing about it is how customizable their kits are in general, there are tons of different versions and it's nice to know that a health professional has gone over the list. You still have to clean it out and refill it every so often, but if you are one of those people walking around with little more than a grubby band aid floating around in your pack, pony up and buy a kit, for peace of mind if nothing else.

The Tent Hammock
By far the coolest thing I have seen by way of new, or at least new to me, gear is the Hennessy Tent Hammock. Hennessy isn't the only company out there making tent hammocks, or camping hammocks in general, but they are doing it better than just about anybody. I had vaguely heard about such things in the past, but it wasn't until a friend and Appalachian Trail thru hiker mentioned to me that she had given up her traditional tent entirely for a tent hammock halfway through the trip that I began to take them seriously.

They are really wicked cool. And hammocks come with a bunch of advantages. You will never again sleep on uneven ground or with tree roots digging into your back, they are warmer in winter, and cooler in summer, lighter than regular tents, and don't come with awkward and heavy poles and stakes and they can be used as comfortable seating. Mostly, they are insanely comfortable, which is pretty much the most important thing.

But. There are a couple of things. First, I had to watch not one but four videos to figure out how to really use the thing, rain fly and all, and I'm pretty sure there are things I'm still not doing properly. And, there is the tree problem. You know, the part where you have to be camping someplace with trees of an appropriate size and distance to one another to make it feasible to pitch your hammock. Not such a big deal really, unless you are in the desert, or maybe grasslands. I haven't had mine for very long, but I am still trying to find the balance between separation distance, tree diameter, and how much cord I have to hang it, it feels like a bit much, but so can setting up any new tent. I am hoping it sets up faster as I get used to it.

They do seem to be every bit as sturdy and water tight as any other kid of tent, even more so when you eliminate ground seep and flooding problems and Hennessy has lots of options for bells and whistles from ultra lite models to full fledged tents with thick insulation pads. Again, pretty much too cool. Check back in another six months to hear how it makes through the winter camping season.

And that's it! Now go update your gear.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Gear Guide II- A Decent Cup Of Joe


A continuation of my adventures in new gear. For the background to this series read this:

Part 2: The Kitchen Gadgets

The only thing I really need in order to be happy outside, at least in terms of food and drink, is a hot, strong cup of coffee in the morning. For years (like 15) I have used a camp french press in the style of old plastic travel mugs made by Big Sky Brewing. I have wandered in my affection during that time, sure, trying single-cup drips and small Italian-style espresso pots, but I pretty much always come back to the french press. This year, I went in search of an update for both my brewing system, and my travel mug, which was of the cheap, whatever you find at whatever store you happen to be in variety. Meaning that it leaks, falls apart, and keeps my coffee warm for about two seconds. I like to set a low bar.

The Brew
I tried all manner of outside coffee makers, including making single serve 'coffee bags' by tying up coffee filters filled with grounds with kitchen string, every portable drip system I could find, and even a plastic french press or two. But I kept going back to my Big Sky Bistro original. Eventually though, the nice people from Planetary Design sent me an alternative.

Planetary Design makes coffee and tea presses and travel mugs in addition to kitchen storage containers. While they make larger presses, they sent me the travel mug double shot version. It was a little smaller than the Big Sky version, but it was made of stainless steel, and a much nicer design, especially in the deep green that I have. The press works well, though I would prefer a larger cup, especially if I need to use it to make coffee for two or three on the trail. But for just myself, it made a pretty good cup of coffee. Better than the press feature though, is the cup itself. It actually comes with a warning label about how hot the contents are kept, and they mean it. There's no heat being lost through that mug. I've never seen anything like it. There is no doubt that you can keep your cup of coffee hot for a long time even while snow camping with their gear. Though for your average summer weather, it does seem like a bit of dangerous overkill. The other odd feature of the press/mug is that the bottom has a hidden compartment that screws off, presumably to hold an extra dose of grounds or packets of creamer and sugar, but given how much of the total volume of the mug it takes up, and hot hot the contents are kept, it seems like an unnecessary feature. Also, it doesn't apply very well to the outdoors,what's the point of having extra grounds at hand if you still have to unpack and set up your stove to boil water? Most of the people I show it to mention that it looks like a great place to keep your stash.

I also received the Commuter French Press/Mug from GSI Outdoors. I actually had to watch this Youtube video to understand how to work this product, but once I did, it was pretty easy to use. Instead of the traditional plunger, this mug is nested, with the removable inner cup acting as the press. It's a clever design and a nicely balanced, large travel mug that 's a good cup of coffee. It doesn't lend itself to sharing as it doesn't pour well, but that's not its real intention. What's great about it is that it keeps your coffee ground free, but I found that the pieces can be difficult to separate, especially if you like your coffee strong and use a lot of grounds. The biggest selling point is that it is leak-free, I was able to pack it in a pack and ride my bike with it safely stowed and completely filled.

In the end, I decided that for brewing at camp and with more than one person, Big Sky is still the best bet. But Planetary Designs is making some great mugs, and their features seem to be of more benefit to tea drinkers and GSI is great for single-person use. All o f them make a stronger, hotter cup of camp coffee that other techniques.

In another coffee-related development, the folks over at GSI started offering a camp-kitchen coffee mill last spring, and it's really pretty great. It's small, sturdy, hand powered and a great addition to any car camping kitchen. It's heavy, so I wouldn't recommend in for touring, even it it is super compact and you are a devoted coffee aficionado. Hang onto the instructions when you first unpack it, it's not as self explanatory as it seems, it took me three or four tries before I really remembered how to use it, but it isn't complicated either. What I love best about this product is that it lets me store whole beans in my camp bin and grind them fresh in the morning instead of relying on stale grounds that are prone to absorbing moisture. It is far from a necessity, and really edging towards glamping, but it is the best stocking stuffer idea for outdoors people that I've seen in a long time.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Gear Guide I- What's The Expiration Date On That?


There is nothing like writing a book about camping to force you to take a good look at your own gear. First and foremost, I love my gear. Every piece I have is functional, multi-season, and well tested. A lot of it is also more than ten years old. Wow. I have no idea how that happened. It seems like only a few years ago that I was making fun of my Dad for still using a 30 year old set of fishing poles and a similarly ancient Coleman camp stove. As I recall, his response was along the lines of, who cares? It still works doesn't it?

Which happens to be true. Really good outdoor gear shouldn't have to be replaced but every so often, when your needs change, something tragic and destructive happens, or it just gets so dirty and worn out that you can't handle it anymore. I will be the first to admit that this year, upon inspection, most of my gear is functional, but also well past ratty. There are day packs crusted with fifteen years of dust, sleeping pads with slow leaks, down jackets with broken zippers and unidentifiable stains, and a coffee press I think I have been using since undergrad. I had also heard that there had been some improvements in the ten or so years that I was out of the loop. So I figured that what with the book and all, it was time to spend some time and money testing out some new gear.

Between birthday gifts, a sizable investment in my own updating, and some very generous donations from outdoor companies looking for real-person reviews I finished the summer season with an abundance of shiny new outdoor toys, and a lot of ten year old gear that proved it still has it where it counts.

The very best of what I found has landed in the book, along with interviews with the designers and innovators that created them. You'll have to wait a bit for those, but there were a lot of great products that I didn't have space to highlight in the book but still deserve to be mentioned before everyone starts buying for the holidays.

Part 1: The Clothing

Thirteen years ago I bought my first vest, a rust-red Patagonia fleece with a pink collar and zippered pockets. And I loved it. Today it is still my go-to for all kinds of cold weather, but after years of washing (or not) it has started to lose it's shape and take on dirt that just doesn't come out. It is also an inch or two shorter than it was, which is likely due to my sticking it in the dryer, but still. Maybe time for a replacement. While looking for outerwear I also decided that my puffy coat, a raspberry pink down jacket by REI, while only three years old, was looking a little thin and had picked up some stains as well, and since I wear it all the time, three years seemed like a good time for an update. And lastly, my Helly Hanson rain gear, which I have had since 2007 and love more than any other piece of gear, finally started to deteriorate on me entirely, forming cracks and fissures in the water proofing.

So I went and tried on every fleece vest, puffy coat, and set of rain jackets and pants I could find, including the no-name brands they sell in places like Bi-Mart. Here's what I ended up with (notice I didn't manage to stick to just jackets).

The Vest
My fleece vest got replaced with one from Columbia Sportswear, its a little thinner than what I had, but comes farther down my back while still fitting comfortably around my hips. I the thinner fleece makes it layer a little easier, and I choose a basic black, which can be a hard color to find in outdoor gear, so that I can wear it around town with whatever I have on. It's pockets still zip, it comes with great Columbia manufacturing, and it was about 30% cheaper than other outdoor brands.

The Puffy Coat
Honestly, as long as you are comparing down (or synthetic down) jackets of a similar thickness/heat rating, there really isn't very much difference, even the colors are the same from one company to another. Except in fit, which if you are only planning on wearing it under a snow jacket or rain coat, doesn't really matter. But my problem, and the problem of all the other women I saw trying on these jackets, is that they are universally too tight across the hips, especially if you are wanting to layer. The best fit at the right price, turned out to also be from Columbia,go figure. The other thing I love about their jackets is that they come with thumb hooks and are made out a a fabric that is slightly more water resistant, extra important in the rainy northwest.

The Rain Gear
Honestly, I'm still looking. I have ordered two different versions from Helly Hanson, but neither of them seems to be the deliciously soft fabric that my old gear was. I am beginning to suspect that I am going to have to drop some serious cash (like more than $300) on a set of rain gear, which makes me sad. And wet.

The Socks
So, the last time I remember spending money on actual outdoor socks was sometime in graduate school. Like ten years ago. In their (and my) defense, they are still around and kicking. I bought a few pairs of a couple of kinds of synthetic hiking socks that picked up every piece of dust and hair on every floor I walked across and a few pairs of truly heavy-duty all-wool socks that made my feet itch and break out into a rash. Both kinds kept my feet warm when wet, which was the ultimate goal, and both were generally ill-fitting, sagging at the heels and stretching out after a couple of hours of hiking. I lost a couple of pairs to shrinking as well, because who has the time or energy to sort your socks? I have done a lot of my hiking in sandals the past few years.

So when the really friendly people at Point 6 were kind enough to send me some samples of their products, I was skeptical. I had decided over the years that hiking socks, generally priced well above $10 a pair, were something of a scam. But then the really nice sock people called me, and talked to me about their socks. And dang it, they were pretty convincing. Point 6 uses merino wool blended nylon and a small amount of spandex in those parts of the foot that need a little more stratch, which means that while still keeping your feet warm when wet, they also hold their fit better and stretch right back into shape when you pull them out of the dryer. And really, they are so very very comfortable.

I actually couldn't believe it. Socks were perhaps the last thing I would have expected to see significant improvements over time, but there was an actual notable difference in the comfort of my feet, especially when I first made the transition from hiking sandals to closed-toe shoes, the period in which I am most likely to get hot spots and blisters. The medium weight is a great general socks, though perhaps a little too warm for anything over about 60 degrees and the heavy weight boot socks are thick and warm enough to be worn by themselves inside rain boots and still keep your feet warm in below freezing temperatures. They are not, in general, what I would call “fashion socks”. But of all the gear that I have tested this year, the socks are the only thing I would say are a new essential, especially the Point 6 brand, which are more affordable than most, usually between $8 and 12 dollars a pair.

The Headband(s)
I have super long hair, so you would think that a head band might be overkill, but on windy days outside, nothing can drive you mad faster than the wispy ends of your hair ending up poking you in the eye or getting in your mouth every few minutes. The seemingly simple solution? Wear a headband. Here's the deal though, it is really hard to find a headband that actually stays on your head if you are doing anything more intense than needle point. Or that doesn't look like it's designed for a six year old.

I have tried everything from drug store headbands (Scunci wins there) to sports headbands from brands like Nike and Adidas, to the super wide outdoor headbands and head covers that have become popular over the last few years, I think because of shows like Survivor? The one headband that I found that prevents slipping without using a super tight rubber band that can pull and break hair is Sweaty Bands. They aren't made specifically for the outdoors, but they do have a line that is designed especially for sports. And they work really well. The band at the base of your skull still slips a bit, but that can be fixed with a clip or wearing a low pony or braid. And, they come in tons and tons of designs, so if you're picky, it's a good brand to go to. You can get them online or pretty much anyplace that sells women's clothing, from Target to Nordstrom's for $15.

The Anti-Chafe Solution
Here's a thing that no one ever talks about. Chafing. You hear about it every so often when someone runs a marathon or something, and I have had a couple of run ins with it in very hot and humid environments, but other than that, I never really thought much about it. Then I started talking to other women, and it turns out it can be a real, and constant, problem. And it doesn't just happen to women that are overweight. I've talked to plenty of skinny chicks with sensitive skin or a little extra at the upper thigh that suffer from it as well. So I did a little digging and found this awesome blog post that discusses the topic in detail and reviews every possible solution

Some of the solutions are pretty scary, like non-stick cooking spray and powders that gum up kind of scary. But I suppose it depends on how big of a problem it is for you, for me, it's not something I regularly worry about, so anything chemical was something of a turn off.

Two new products that I did try were Bandelettes and Undersummers. Both of these companies design physical barriers to chafing, really the best solution of all those I encountered. Undersummers are basically slip shorts. They are made of a light weight, breathable slip fabric and are thin enough to wear as shorts under pretty much anything. They were not as comfortable as wearing nothing under my summer dresses, but they were certainly more comfortable than chafing. They also come in a variety of colors and styles, so there might be versions that were more comfortable than what I tried. They did a pretty good job of staying place, not riding or rolling up from the base, but the waist band was a little snugger than I would have liked, but again, that might be personal preference.

Bandelettes are a little different. They are basically the top portion of a pair of thigh-high stockings, snug bands that fit around the widest part of your thigh. They are actually kind of ingenious. And pretty. As long as they fit. I tried a couple of different styles, one of which is unisex, and preferred the lacy version designed for women, but had a couple of friends try them as well with varying degrees of success. Again, I think it has more to do with the balance between the discomfort of chafing and the discomfort of having something around your thighs and for that, either of these products is a simple and easy solution.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Little House


Occasionally I return to a book, or a series of books that impacted me in the past. For the last few weeks it has been the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. It had been more than 20 years since I had read the 'Little House' series and what I discovered is that more than being sweet stories of an idyllic and forgotten age, they are acute recountings of daily life, survival, and ecology from an era all but erased by the industrial and technological revolutions.

The books describe an alien world in which hard work is inevitable, and the nature of that work is largely determined by season and weather. In winter there is the harvesting of ice, large blocks cut by hand from the lake and hauled home to be stored, packed tight with straw in an outside shed til summer. With the thaw comes sugaring as the sap begins to flow into the trees. In spring and summer, there is plowing and planting and the early harvest. In fall, there is the hunt.

I wonder what it means that we have given up the connection between the rhythm of our daily lives and the rhythm of the world around us, that we no longer take responsibility for providing for our own sustenance in any kind of tangible way. How and why, in less than 150 years, have we changed so much of how we live? Is it servicing us? Or has it just blinded us from our ability to be content and have gratitude for hard earned pleasures?

A fiddle, a rag doll, an evening by the fire. It could be so simple.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What's The Score?


Last week, nothing went as planned. It was a week of mishaps, things forgotten, cancellations, and miscommunications. Also at least one ruined pair of jeans in a laundry catastrophe, a broken but seemingly unnecessary car part, and the accidental flooding of a room of the house. Sigh. Not what I planned. Not how it was to go. 

I may have chosen to sink into a foul mood, to shake my fist at the sky, take it out on those around me, or generally grump and moan. But it wouldn't have done any good. Regardless of our hopes and best-laid plans, life follows no rule books or direct paths. It hands us what it has to hand us,regardless of our agendas or how inconvenient it may be. It forces us to improvise based on a score to which we may not be privy. 

So this week, instead of forcing my own intentions and will upon the world, I choose to listen, look, and ask. What is the score? What is life handing me? What are the turning points and opportunities? What is the tempo of this week? How might I play along?

There is only one dance to be danced at a time. Do it well.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Simple Solutions


Being one-third of the way through my 36th year has my thoughts turned to symmetry and divisibility, synthesis and divestment. I am interested in the shedding of excesses, the rounding of the edges of my life. I am aware of being a sum of my own parts, a collection of experiences, patterns, and multiplying events that have guided me on and derailed me from my path. 

More than ever, I am aware of my own operational agency. Truths, remainders and inequalities are the result of my manipulations. 

Today, I choose to subtract and simplify. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Soggy-Footed and Full-Bellied


This is the time of year I love the most. I love the leaves, the arrival of the rains, pumpkins, and the excuse to drink hot tea all day long. But mostly, I love the mushrooms. I like the secrecy of mushroom hunting, that it gives me an excuse to go out by myself, at odd times of day, and in the middle of the week. I love the excitement of finding a blooming cluster, knowing that my hiking hasn't been in vain. I love the necessary days of cooking, mushroom tacos, soups, and delicate sauces, the small of drying fungi permeating the kitchen. This part of the season appeals to the child in me, the little girl that likes surprises, scavenger hunts, and still believes in the magic of the forest. Each year I take the arrival of the mushrooms as proof that simple pleasures, small rewards, and things beyond my understanding and control are still alive and well in the world. 

You've gotta get it somewhere.