Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Backpacking, Survival, and Outdoor Books










I recently took a business trip to Germany and something that helped me pass the time and kept me sane was both listening to podcasts and reading books about backpacking. Backpacking is essentially a huge part of my life principally because it is a great chance to explore what many miss in their busy lives and I believe it connects me with a greater humanity which has been lost with all the frills and technology which swallow us whole. Someone also once said that nature is God's splendor and it simply can't hide His magnificence. Each time I see something I haven’t seen before, like a tiny flower deep in the bush completely obstructed from the rest of the world, I find a great peace within myself and with my own spiritual beliefs. When I can't find time to backpack, I try to find ways to still tweak my hobby through blogs, books, and videos which directly or indirectly relate to backpacking, wilderness safety, and nature.


Fortunately, there are a ton of great books, podcasts, forums, and videos on the available to keep my backpacking hobby well fueled. YouTube even has either parts or whole videos of backpacking or "how-to" films. Some of the stuff I review is strictly for entertainment and others are for education, but in the long run I take it all with a grain of salt and let my mind wander.


Speaking strictly of books because podcasts was a topic I addressed on an earlier blog and I'd like to devote another blog to videos at some point in the future, I've got several books within eyesight which I thought were a worthwhile read. I've got others scattered around the house to ensure their quick availability when the time consuming processing of a bran muffin seems to be on the horizon, so by no means is this intended to be a collection of great masterpieces and should instead serve as merely a cross-section of the types of books I read. These include:

· Lightweight Backpacking and Camping, by Ryan Jordan
· The Journals of Lewis and Clark, edited by Bernard DeVoto
· One Man’s Wilderness, An Alaskan Odyssey, by Sam Keith from the journals of Richard Proenneke
· Trail Food, by Alan Kesselheim
· The Illustrated Guide to Edible Wild Plants, by the Department of the Army Beyond Backpacking, by Ray Jardine
· U.S. Army Survival Handbook, by the Department of the Army
· Trail Life, by Ray Jardine
· Lighten Up!, by Don Ladigin
· Born Survivor, by Bear Grylls
· How to Stay Alive in the Woods, by Bradford Angier
· Walden Pond, by Henry David Thoreau
· The Maine Woods, by Henry David Thoreau
· Cape Cod, by Henry David Thoreau
· Survive!, by Les Stroud
· The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain
· Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
· Various Backpacking Light Magazines (now discontinued)
· Various Backpacker Magazines
· Various Outside Magazines


Some of these are fiction, some of these are non-fiction, some are “how-to’s”, and some are in a category which I typically claim is worth the read even for just one nodule of information I didn’t know before. For example, I recently learned that duct tape offers properties similar to birch bark. It is slow to burn and can serve as a good and long-lasting candle when necessary. Whether for inspirational stories, the chance to get away mentally, or little tidbits like this, I find it all quite fascinating. Just the simple knowledge that my gear has multiple uses is worth the read to me.


Because this blog is dedicated to lightweight backpacking, I figured it would make sense to identify the books which more or less paved my path. “Lightweight Backpacking and Camping”, by Ryan Jordan is, in my opinion, the most fundamentally sound book on lightweight backpacking available. It takes a scientific approach which makes logical sense to me and isn’t otherwise based on the ole “well it worked for me” mentality which obviously leaves a lot to be desired when equipment doesn’t work out while in the backcountry. Although Jordan probably wouldn’t admit as much, I believe his book was built on a foundation provided by Ray Jardine in his books “Beyond Backpacking” and his recent release “Trail Life”. Jardine seems to have been the first to really start putting lightweight backpacking principals on paper, although his ideas were considered a little too radical at the time and he regrettably was labeled as a bit of an outsider even though the movement has come full circle. Lastly, for those of you who don’t like to read technical manuals and learn better through illustrations, get the book “Lighten Up” by Don Ladigin and illustrated by Mike McClelland. I have always enjoyed McLelland’s artwork which has been promoted on various backpacking websites. As an ultralight backpacker and artist, his pictures are often more concise and easier to understand than volumes of words on the issue.


Residing in Virginia means my go-to hiking areas are the Appalachian Trail, Shenandoah National Park, Great Smokey Mountains, Blue Ridge Mountains, etc. Despite spending thousands of hours of these trails, it never gets old. Sure I long to see new places, new environments, and experience new challenges, but when time and gas money is short, I can’t complain about what is in my backyard. One of my favorite books about hiking the Appalachian Trail is a book by Bill Bryson called “A Walk in the Woods”. Several people who read this blog from all over the world (thanks by the way) have commented on hiking the AT. If you really want to get an idea of what it is like and get a good laugh along the way, take some time to read this inexpensive book. I was 200 pages deep before putting it down on my first read because I wanted to know what happened to the various characters introduced in the true story by the author. I also really enjoyed reading about the experiences and places just a few minutes away where I had been many times. In as much as it is a story about the AT, it is also a story about finding yourself, bonding with friends, finding peace in nature, history of the trail and local community, and the general comedic value of different personalities and things in our society which are simply funny.


When the weather outside is rough, when time and career obligations strap you to your chair, consider reading one of the many great backpacker stories or listening to a backpacking podcast and I bet you’ll find a smile on your face more often than not.


Please feel free to comment about your favorite backpacking/outdoor magazines, books, podcasts, or films to hopefully encourage others to explore them too.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Lightweight Backpacking Cottage Industry

One of the things I’ve found that often gets overlooked in lightweight backpacking is the fact that this remains a small cottage industry. Hikers just like you and I, likely on a trek, thought to themselves, “hey, I can make that better” – and then went home and did it. The motivation for someone to take an idea from scratch and not only make it for themselves but to offer it to the masses while dealing with the stresses of running a small business is something that can’t be appreciated enough. “Offices” for these manufactures are often their kitchens or garages and customers are often calling them on their home phones at all hours, day and night. For me, and because backpacking is a hobby I greatly enjoy, I felt it was appropriate the day before Christmas to pass along a well deserved T-H-A-N-K-S as it is these little things which make life just a little more enjoyable. It is also for the sake of these cottage manufacturers that the latest and greatest technology and fabric is available to people like you and I so we don't get stuck with merely whatever sells to the masses from the big name guys.


Because these guys have a vested interest in lightweight backpacking, they are quick to offer innovation and switch product lines with little to no fuss. Their business model is to use the lightest and most durable fabrics and technology at whatever the cost instead of targeting a price and figuring out how they can fall under it with less than stellar parts and fabric. Customer-need drives their products and they almost always offer some of the very best customer service in any market.


In appreciation for their continued diligence, I wanted to publicly recommend the following vendors. Each offer great products and have provided great customer service to me over the years. I should mention that this list is incomplete as no doubt there are many who have provided me great service along the way which included telling me that their product would not be the best option for me. Some of these vendors, without prompting, even provided me their products for free when I described to them an idea I had as they too were equally interested in the various uses and durability of their product. With that said though, I also must admit a complete lack of sharpness in my own mind, a fact my wife reminds me of with some frequency, and therefore others of equal merit were simply forgotten at the time of this posting:


Backpacking Light – http://www.backpackinglight.com/
Gossamer Gear – http://www.backpackinglight.com/
Mountain Laurel Designs – http://www.mountainlaureldesigns.com/
Six Moon Designs – http://www.sixmoondesigns.com/
Titanium Goat – http://www.titaniumgoat.com/
Brass Lite – http://www.brasslite.com/
Bushbuddy - http://www.bushbuddy.ca/
Feathered Friends – http://www.featheredfriends.com/
Anti-Gravity Gear - http://www.antigravitygear.com/
Ultralight Backpacking Equipment - http://www.ula-equipment.com/#
Granite Gear – http://www.granitegear.com/
Western Mountaineering - http://www.westernmountaineering.com/
Wild Things Gear – http://www.wildthingsgear.com/
GoLite – http://www.golite.com/
McHale Packs - http://www.mchalepacks.com/
Adventure Medical Kits - http://www.adventuremedicalkits.com/

Now that I've got my holly-jolly all geared up, I wanted to wish everyone who spends even just a few seconds every now and then reading my rants a big ole THANKS and Merry CHRISTmas!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Lightweight Sleeping Pads




With winter grabbing hold across the country, I figured I’d address one of the most important topics regarding winter sleep systems – the sleeping pad.

Sleeping pads come in all shapes and sizes and are manufactured with different materials. Some are foam (like PVC or Evazote), others have Aerogel or are lined with down or foam, and others are merely a lightweight inflatable nylon shell. Others are a combination of all of these and even newer technologies offer a reflective coating.

99.9% of the time, my preference is a lightweight Evazote foam pad like those manufactured by Gossamer Gear (http://www.gossamergear.com/). They are light, durable, inexpensive, and do the trick. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of inflatable options, not because I don’t think they are comfortable, but because I don’t like sitting up so high as it causes me to roll off it, I don’t like the potential for it to pop, and I don’t like the extra weight. In the winter months, however, I take a long hard look at my sleeping system to ensure my pad will keep me warm as what I use during non-winter months likely won’t be sufficient year-round.

“R-value” is a measure of thermal resistance and becomes an important consideration when sleeping outdoors in colder weather. In a nutshell, the higher the R-value, the better off you’ll be when it comes to your body heat being transferred to the cold ground. As you can imagine, increases to higher R-values pads often costs more and is more expensive. Since the goal of lightweight backpacking is to cut weight wherever possible without sacrificing comfort or safety, fortunately there are some good options.

For me, once the warmer months start to dwindle, I choose other options based on the environment and temperatures. Many times I don’t discard my Gossamer Gear 3/4” Evazote pad. Instead, I merely add another similar pad to it. Carrying two pads is not only usually enough, but it still remains lighter (and less expensive) than purchasing an alternative. When it gets really cold, I either discard this system, or replace the lighter Evazote pad with a Stephenson Warmlite DAM (http://www.warmlite.com/bags.htm) to be used in conjunction with my Gossamer Gear 3/4" pad. The Warmlite DAM comes in a variety of sizes which can be as little as 18 ounces for a pad with an R-value of 9. Many shorter folks also like the TorsoLite from Bozeman Mountain Works (http://www.backpackinglight.com/). At 10 ounces for an increase of 3.5 in R-Value, it is really the best lightest alternative for folks who can stand a 32" pad.



As I was researching this issue in the past, I tried to get as much information as I could so I could make an informed decision before I started to waste money on expensive purchases that wouldn’t keep me warm. The chart above represents information I came across during my research. This information came from manufacturers as well as others who were interested in compiling the same information. With that said, I cannot say with absolute certainty that all the information is absolutely correct, but it is as accurate as I can make it for these purposes. I am also aware that other pad manufacturers are not identified on this list which may be just as good, simply, I didn’t have the time to research “every” option, just the most “popular”. Lastly, there was no good way to organize this information, so I did it alphabetically. I figured weight and R-value were the two most important pieces of information, so that’s what I included. I also included "ranges" for several as the manufacturer offered different sizes which changed the weight. Obviously cost, length, cut, materials, preference, and other options come into play, but that’s for everyone to decide on their own merits.




Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lightweight Shelters

































If you read BACKPACKER magazine, you’re likely convinced that a good lightweight, even ultralight shelter, should weigh between 4-6 pounds. If you then head to your local Walmart or REI, you’ll notice most tents are in this range which clearly means either BACKPACKER doesn’t own an accurate scale, doesn’t know the market, or doesn’t understand the options available to lightweight backpackers. I’m guessing it is a combination of all three. Despite being a subscriber to BACKPACKER and enjoying aspects of it, I’m convinced their editors live in an underground shelter which prohibits them from really knowing the market.



Although there aren’t a ton of lightweight tent options, there are some very good products on the market. Six Moon Designs (http://www.sixmoondesigns.com/), Henry Shire’s Tarp Tent (http://www.tarptent.com/), and products by Oware USA (http://www.owareusa.com/), ) no doubt lead the race for enclosed tent-like structures. Other options, such as those offered by Mountain Laurel Designs (http://www.mountainlaureldesigns/) utilize a tarp with an optional mosquito insert which essentially makes it a tent. Both Backpacking Light (http://www.backpackinglight.com/) and Gossamer Gear (http://www.gossamergear.com/) offer tarps of various configurations and frills. Another industry leader is GoLite (http://www.golite.com/) which offers everything from tents to tarps and everything in between. A couple lesser known, but fully qualified are, and Black Diamond Equipment (http://www.blackdiamondequipment.com/). My personal favorite is the Lunar Duo offered by Six Moon Designs, the Alphamid by Oware USA, and tarps such as those offered by Gossamer Gear or Mountain Laurel Designs. There are also other others for shelters in the form of waterproof bivies and vapor barriers such as those offered by Integral Designs, which will be discussed on a later blog.




Tents or shelters made from Cuben fiber seem to be the next generation in going ultralight. Six Moon Designs is one manufacturer already offering a 27 ounce full coverage tent known as the Refuge X (http://www.sixmoondesigns.com/shop/shopexd.asp?id=58). At $400 it isn't cheap, and there are plenty of unanswered questions about long-term durability, but it does provide a niche to those who have the ability to own one. It looks very similar to the Lunar and Lunar Duo models, of which I'm a huge fan, so it will be interesting to see how this tent and others shake out in the future. Oware USA also offers several options with Cuben.






Some very inventive folks use Tyvek, the material commonly used during home construction to wrap a home to aid in weather protection, to make a shelter. I've frequently used it as a ground cloth and it works great. It is very inexpensive, lightweight, and might have a market in the right circles. If you're interested in trying one, just head down to your local hardware store and buy a sheet. If you can figure out how to seal the and fasten joints and get it upright, you might just have a product for market.



Each of these offerings is made lighter through sensible design and lightweight fabrics. Each also uses other gear carried, for example, trekking poles, which serve as the shelter’s support while cutting down weight. When pitches correctly, there is no reason these lightweight shelters can't stand up to the elements as well as other mainstream options.



For the acquired taste, and spine, hammocks may also be a great lightweight shelter option. Some very capable manufacturers include Hennessey Hammocks (http://www.hennesseyhammocks.com/), Jacks R Better (http://www.jacksrbetter.com/), Speer Hammocks (http://www.speerhammocks.com/), Eagles Nest Outfitters (http://www.eaglesnestoutfitters.com/), Jungle Hammock (http://www.junglehammock.com/), Mosquito Hammocks (http://www.mosquitohammocks.com/), and The Travel Hammock (http://www.thetravelhammock.com/). Each system offers a little different variety, different sizes, and other frills, but each is for one occupant only an offers minimal storage. Each hammock can be hung between two trees or other objects regardless of ground conditions and packing is often no bigger than a volleyball. Course, heat loss is a reality with no ground contact and the wind will always be a factor in heat retention. Some manufactures allow for a pad to be slipped into the bottom or even a cocoon-like structure to be tied around the user from the bottom. Unfortunately, with the more options needed to stay warm, the heavier this shelter gets without offering more space or storage to more users.





Much like with any piece of backpacking gear, the choice of which shelter to carry depends on the experience of the user, environmental conditions, and affordability.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Staying Warm With Lightweight Gear

If you’ve ever backpacked in anything other than warm summer temperatures, there is a strong likelihood you felt cold at one time or another. Feeling cold is a great equalizer as it not only makes you uncomfortable, but it pushes you towards feeling miserable. Fortunately, there are a handful of things you can do to give yourself the best odds of keeping warm even with lightweight gear.

The key to staying warm is to understand why you are cold. Backpackers lose body heat though evaporation (sweat), conduction (cold ground), convection (atmosphere), and respiration (breathing in cool air and/or changing the humidity of a closed area such as a tent). Most people erroneously think they need a heavier sleeping system, heavy clothing, heavier tent, or at the very least, to find some place where wind isn’t as prevalent. Although each of these would contribute to being warmer, it makes a lot of sense to try making smart choices before bringing your entire bedroom suite with you while backpacking.

For me, the first decision I make when trying to stay warm is to ensure I have a sleeping system which functions collectively with everything I’m carrying. This means the clothing in my pack needs to be worn while I sleep as otherwise it doesn’t make a lot of sense to carry it. Secondly, I want to ensure I’m not going to be laying in any moisture, so I make sure I bring a bivy with a waterproof bottom and breathable Pertex-type top (as to ensure the ground moisture doesn’t bother me and to allow my body to breath to avoid the build-up of cooling condensation). Next, I want to make sure I’ve got a healthy “R-value” sleeping pad. The higher the R-value, the warmer I know I’ll be. In the interests of staying lightweight, I usually carry two torso-sized closed-cell foam pads in winter and that’s sufficient to protect me against the cold ground. Closed-cell pads, in most cases, offer a higher R-value than their inflatable counterparts (and are cheaper and lighter too). I place my pad, stuff sacks, and anything else I can find under my legs, and my lower body is fine. Picking the right spot is also essential. Finding a place with a nice fluffy bed of pine needles, tall grass, or uncompressed duff is ideal. I also avoid staying next to bodies of water as it negatively affects the humidty. Camping within the tree line also helps avoid winds which blow across peaks and up valleys. If in the snow, camping under a big tree may give you some luck in finding softer ground with less snow, but be careful as things overhead may come down at any time. Going to bed shortly after getting off the trail is also a good idea as your metabolism continues to push along a little faster which aids your body's ability to stay warm. Your metabolism also works to your benefit if you eat shortly before going to bed. Adding “hot” spices to your dinner is also a smart choice as they too push your body’s warming system into the evening hours. I also personally find great comfort in having a set of merino wool/SmartWool top and bottom just for sleeping. They are clean, free of grease and sweat which would otherwise impair performance, and they are dry. Sleeping in anything wet is always a quick way to get cold. It is also a good idea to dry your bag/quilt out each day to help maintain its loft as any degradation of loft will lower the effectiveness of your bag/quilt. Don't put your head inside your sleeping bag/quilt either as your breath will cause water vapor internally which will hurt your ability to stay warm. Instead, give yourself a "mouth/breathing hole" and cover your head with your sleep system, or my preference, a nice warm fleece or down balaclava. Keeping hot water in your water container and placing it next to your body also makes a wonderful heat source as you try to sleep. Many will argue that a double-walled tent is a necessity, but for a few days on the trail, I’d stick with a single-wall if merely only for the ventilation. A tarp continues to function well even in snow, as long as it is pitched tight and at the right angles. If I choose to add ounces to keep me warm, it will be in the form of a warmer sleeping bag/quilt and clothing layers, not a tent. If you were wondering, a vapor barrier (VB) is really only needed in sub-zero conditions which I think is a rare situation for most backpackers to encounter unless they intentionally hike in environments where this will be the case.

Before putting yourself in a bad position, try these suggestions in your backyard when an escape into your warm home is an option in case your plans don’t work out. Once you’ve found a system that works, give winter camping a shot and find the beauty of solitude in the wilderness. With winter camping especially, there really isn't a "one size fits all" because extreme low temperatures affect each of us differently. However, with the right plan, gear, and smart choices, you can give yourself the best shot at being warmer than others who didn't think it through.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Lightweight Footwear



















Anyone who has ever worn uncomfortable shoes will no doubt confess that attempting to find any joy in a walk with barking feet is nearly impossible. In these situations, I highly recommend being carried on the shoulders of adoring fans (i.e. Cleopatra-style). If this is unavailable, the next best option is to get a good pair of shoes with a padded wicking sock.


Lightweight backpackers identified the value in hiking with running shoes long ago as the need for heavy lugged boots is best left to construction sites. After all, walking along a dirt path is no different whether in your yard at home or in a National Park. Once past the stigma of needing boots, users will quickly realize their feet are far more comfortable and they will be able to walk longer distances and step more safety on difficult terrain. Running shoes also allow the user to fatigue less because of foot flexibility, breathability, and weight. “Camp shoes”, such as those clown shoes known as “Crocs”, can also be left home as they are unnecessary which cuts down on the weight of yet another unneeded piece of gear.


Much like with any piece of gear, opinion differs between running shoe choices. After absolutely hating a pair of Merrell’s and not having much luck with finding a size 14 elsewhere, I have found extreme comfort in a pair of Inov-8 Rocklite 318 GTX (http://www.inov-8.com/Products-Detail.asp?PG=PG1&L=27&P=5050973156). By far, these are the lightest shoes I own and they are terribly comfortable. They have a very good tacky sole and tie snugly enough to avoid blisters. I broke them in on a 20 mile hike and I only realized my feet didn't hurt when I was trying to fall asleep and discovered my feet had never felt better. I have been very impressed with these shoes and only time will tell if they stand up to the abuse of backpacking. Other popular lightweight footwear includes Salomon XA Pro's, Montrail Hardrock, and Montrail Vitesses. GoLite also makes amazing stuff and started making shoes within the last two years. Unfortunately, it is uncertain whether their footline will continue as their manufacturer (Timberland) decided to discontinue making shoes for GoLite.


Some choose to avoid waterproof membranes such as Gore-Tex, which exist in the Inov-8 Rocklite 318 GTX, because it causes the shoe to be a little heavier, breathe less, and it doesn’t dry out inside as quickly. These things may contribute to blisters. These are valid points. To me, however, I have stumbled and bumbled my way into too many puddles during all seasons to know my best option was a waterproof shoe. To me, the chance of having wet feet while trying to hike was a much worse option. A good Merino Wool or SmartWool wicking sock and some deodorant on the bottom of your feet will also make all the difference in the world to a cushy, supportive and blister-free hike. My personal favorite is the “Darn Tough” (http://www.darntough.com/onmountain-1409.html) brand of socks and “Body Glide” (http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/body_glide_45_anti_blister_stick.html) brand of anti-chaffing deodorant for feet. Hydropel Sports Ointment (http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/hydropel.html) is also a great option for stopping wet feet before they start sweating which cause blistering and hot spots. Another solid option is to add a thin sock with a heavier sock over it. With this configuation, any chaffing will occur between the two layers of socks and will otherwise be minimized on your foot.
For winter hiking, many incorrectly believe they need boots. The reality is, running shoes are again a solid option. In this case, a Gore-Tex membrane is preferred along with a heavier wool or Merino/SmartWool sock. Add a pair of appropriately sized waterproof gaiters and you've got an excellent winter foot system. If conditions are just too soggy or snow is too deep for your feet to be comfortable in this system, then snowshoes would probably be more appropriate.
Many folks may feet that this kind of option doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense when dealing with a lot of creek crossings. I'd actually argue that it makes perfect sense. When I approach creeks, I roll up my pants, take off my socks, take out my insole, take off my gaiters, unbuckle the hip belt of my pack...and cross the creek. When my shoes get wet, usually they are almost 100% dry by the time I put my gear back on, or are only minimally wet, since they are mostly waterproof anyway.


With the right footwear system, no doubt a lightweight backpacker can enjoy more of the scenery and adventure instead of worrying about a tire change.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Lightweight Hats











It seems like the topic of hats is a bit of an idiotic discussion for a backpacking blog, or at the very least, an underappreciated topic. The reality is, the right hat can make quite a bit of difference and can do everything from block the heat and damaging UV rays from the sun, offer shelter from the rain and snow, sweep sweat from your eyes, keep branches from poking you in the face, repel wind, mosquitoes and other bugs, make a good barrier against spider webs, and can even serve as a container in a pinch for water or berries.

To some, any hat may seem “good enough”. This blog isn’t dedicated to “good enough”; it is dedicated to making smart lightweight choices. Fortunately, there are some options worth discussing.

Tilley (http://www.tilley.com/thumbnail.asp?catId=13&gender=m&extractBy=CategoryId&id=1) is a Canadian manufacturer who offers a variety of full coverage hats. As far as I know, they are also the only hat manufacturer which boasts an owner’s manual, has insurance, floats, and offers lifetime replacement. I can say with certainty that it is the best hat I’ve ever owned and has made a tremendous difference from that of a standard baseball cap. Worth mentioning is my own acknowledgment that I look like an idiot wearing one. Some people look good in hats, I don’t. In fact, I tend to argue that I look my best from a far distance, in poor lighting, and with heavy fog. Fortunately, backpacking doesn’t require a tremendous sense of style and the functionality of the hat far outweighs any personal desire I have to otherwise look good. Tilley hats come in a variety of sizes and styles with different colors and breathability options. I’ve found that the Mesh option works best for me as it keeps me cooler and still handles most rain events.

The GoLite Mesh Cap (http://www.golite.com/product/proddetail.aspx?p=AC0214&s=1) is a great breathable option for people who wish to use a lightweight baseball cap style hate. The colors from GoLite have always been poor in my opinion, but again, it is a very functional hat.

Head Sweats (http://www.headsweats.com/productcart/pc/viewCategories.asp?idCategory=50) is a manufacturer which caters to the running crowd. They offer all kinds of lightweight and breathable hats and visors to include some with drop tails consisting of cloth to protect the neck area.

Outdoor Research (http://www.outdoorresearch.com/site/browse/Headwear/Rain.html) offers a product call the “Seattle Sombrero” and others which offer full protection in a Gore-Tex shell. I’ve found this hat to be impervious to rain even in a downpour and is amazing in the snow as it is like having an umbrella overhead.

If you really want to use your hat to its greatest capacity, treat it with Permethrin, a synthetic chemical used in insecticides and insect repellant. It won’t hurt you or most mammals or birds and lasts for weeks.
And yes, I know the words run into the picture on this particular blog, I don't know why, I just know that the automatic settings on blogger.com makes me mental because there are so many code issues which a general user can't resolve. Oh well.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Lightweight Flashlights, Headlamps, and Other Light Sources
















Picking the right flashlight for lightweight hiking is a chore many have grappled with as there are so many options. These options seem to get heavier, costlier, bulkier, and more confusing the more this topic is considered. Fortunately, some flashlights have edged their way to the top and they don't include the old MAG light which is a useful tool for bludgeoning an attacking grizzly but not for much else.

When considering a lightweight flashlight, the user needs some general understanding of things that work and things that don’t. For example, a red filter on a flashlight can save your night vision once it is turned on. When a white light is used, it will take anywhere from 15-30 minutes for your night vision to be restored. Therefore, a simple red filter on any light is a good idea for simple nighttime map checking, reading, or camp chores. For hiking, white light seems to be the best choice as it is most visible. Similarly, different lighting levels may also be important as it makes as much sense to try to read with a blazing light as it does to try to hike and navigate with something very dim. Of course, how much light is desired is based on the individual hiker and conditions. No doubt there are people who would like to bring a spotlight while others would be plenty comfortable with no light at all. Over time, I found that I gained little comfort with more light yet still felt uncomfortable with too little light. Mentally, I figured more light would make a huge difference, but the reality is that all light disappears into the mass darkness of the wilderness, can't get past trees, or otherwise doesn't reach whatever the destination I'm seeking to highlight. For me, minimal light is necessary, but no light at all doesn't make a lot of sense. Having the ability to obtain light is as much about useful utility as it is about making yourself more visible to search and rescue teams if necessary.

Batteries are also important and users are encouraged to use the same batteries for any items they carry so they can be interchanged in a pinch with one another. It is also important for the user to be able to change batteries on their own, in the field, with little to no tools which in many cases is impossible either by design or by lack of special implements. Also standard Alkaline batteries have less power than Lithium, but Lithium tends to cost more.

The type of bulb is also an important topic as a standard bulb has multiple fragile implements and is subject to damage quite easily whereas an LED bulb has often been described as indestructible and able to last for decades. The key to any good bulb is the measurement of the “lumen”, or the unit of luminous flux which is essentially a measurement of the perceived power of the light based on the sensitivity of the human eye to different wavelengths of light.

A couple other good tips when searching for a flashlight is to determine the climate it will be used and the utility necessary. For example, due to fluctuating temperatures, condensation, rain, snow, and the inevitable drop into a creek bed, having a waterproof, floating, or highly visible flashlight might be a good idea. Similarly speaking, a flashlight mounted in a manner to wear on the head (i.e. a headlamp) might be the most practical hands-free method to use any flashlight for any reason. Thru-hikers would likely argue that some kind of belt-mount mechanism is equally important as having the light beam closer to the ground is often preferred during night hikes.

Knowing all these things, there are a couple options available which are solid choices for lightweight backpackers.

The manufacturer Photon Light (http://www.photonlight.com/) offer multiple options, but one of the lightest is the Photon Micro-Lite II. Weighing in at just 6.3 grams, it brags to be visible over 1 mile with an on/off button and the whole thing is about the size of a U.S. quarter. The battery lasts 12 hours and the entire unit is only $16 or so. An available hat-clip likely makes this the most lightweight option on the market.

The “NEW Photon PRO Flashlight” (not to be confused with older models) boasts 1000+ lumen candle power from 2-watt Cree LED, 4 safety modes, weighs in at 46 grams with a single AA Lithium battery. It lasts for 1.5 hours at full power or 250 hours at reduced brightness and costs roughly $50.

The manufacturer Fenix (http://www.fenixlight.com/newping.asp) also offers a lightweight favorite in the LD01 Fenix which weighs 14.8 grams with just 1 AAA battery. It is waterproof and has three light settings: 10 lumens (8.5 hour life), 27 lumens (3.5 hour life) and 80 lumens (1 hour life). It uses a top end Cree Q5 LED and costs around $45.

For those interested in strictly a headlamp, the manufacturer PETZL (http://en.petzl.com/petzl/LampesAccueil) has many offerings with one of their three lines of headlamps (TIKKA, TACTIKKA and ZIPKA). Each of these offers numerous different options and frills for varying costs. One item, the Petzl e+LITE has quickly become popular because it weighs only 27 grams which is a quite a bit less than the 65-98 gram weight which is common for other headlamps. It also only costs $24 instead of $60+. It claims to shine up to 19 meters and lasts for 45 hours or so. It even has a red filter and strobe signaling mode. Princeton Tec (http://www.princetontec.com/) also offers some nice options, of specific note, a 78g headlamp known as "Fuel".

The manufacturer SureFire (http://www.surefire.com/) makes a variety of lights which are very powerful and durable, but few are lightweight or practical to cover in this venue.

Another option which doesn’t require batteries is something like the UCO Mini Tea-light (http://candlelantern.com/mini.html) which is nothing more than a small candle within a fairly windproof glass/metal container which weighs around 3.2 ounces and costs less than $15.


Lastly, lightweight backpackers may consider a natural light source (i.e. moon, fire, etc.) which, depending on your needs, may be plenty sufficient. In the end, it depends on the preferences, needs, budget, and competency of the user.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

St. Mary's Wilderness










Over the weekend I hiked St. Mary's Wilderness which is a trail consisting of 10.1 miles with an additional 5.4 mile option to see some waterfalls in the complete opposite direction of the principal loop. I decided to hike the entire 15.4 because I figured the more I could squeeze into this trip the better it would be.


St. Mary's Wilderness is essentially a 10,000-acre plot of protected land on the western slope of the Blue Ridge Parkway just outside of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. "Wilderness" isn't a nickname, it is actually a designation which means the area is NOT maintained and is intended to shift and grow as nature intended with the only interference by man coming as a result of a fire or insect infestation. In summary, there are trails, but if they disappear into the wild, then so be it.


Unfortunately, this hike did not turn out as I had hoped and quite honestly it was a bit of a disappointment. I hiked it on a November day which had temperatures in the 50's during the day which was quite comfortable. Regrettably, I missed the best time to go hiking in the fall as I was strapped down at work for the last couple weeks. Although the brilliant colors were gone, many of the maple trees still maintained amazing colors which were quite a sight from the distance. Higher up on the summits, however, brown was the principal color still on the trees with some color hiding on the duff floor. The weather was about the only thing that seemed to work out as otherwise my trip was easily stumped by trails which were very overgrown, trees crossing the path which required constant efforts to go over, under, or around them, and a very challenging navigational efforts as the unmarked and overgrown trail was only further hidden by the fact that fall had embraced the area with full force and leaves and branches covered everything to the point that it was nearly indistinguishable. My biggest regret is that I added the extra 5.4 mile loop to St. Mary's Falls as I simply never found it. I could hear it in the distance, but the trail was no where to be seen after several miles in. After some efforts to bushwack towards the sound and coming to the reality that it was a roughly 2,000 foot drop off very steep terrain with poor visibility and footing, I decided to cut my losses in favor of not getting injured or lost and instead finishing the rest of the hike. As such, the gloriously described falls consisting of a healthy drop onto massive boulders and mountain laurel will be left for another day.


Overnight temperatures dipped below freezing and my ultra-light sleep system stood up to the weather with the only exception of my feet being "less than warm". Nighttime seemed to last forever as the sun dipped behind a mountain around 3:30pm which left my campsite with a twilight scene for about the next 90 minutes until the sun set shortly after 5:00pm and didn't make another appearance until 7:00am the following morning. After drinking some hot tea and chow warmed nicely from my alcohol stove, I decided to light a fire to pass the time, stay warm, and to dry my sweaty Tilly hat and SmartWool shirt. Normally I don't get the chance to have a fire being that they are prohibited in most national parks, but I was fortunate to be in a designated area where they were allowed since I wasn’t in any part of the national park system. The coals remained glowing most of the night as it was quite windy and offered some entertainment as I tried to sleep.


The following morning I had a 6 mile hike out which I can honestly say was one of the easiest hikes of my life as it was on a nearby park service road which was well graded and wide, despite being full of rocks of all sizes and shapes. I was back to my car within about 2 hours which surprised me how quickly I could move given the right conditions and motivation...and was a testament to lightweight gear.


The picture of the bear above was one I came across about 100 feet from the entrance to St. Mary's Wilderness. It was about 20 feet from me and my unprepared fumbling and bumbling for my camera while facing the blazing sun did nothing but ensure my picture was fairly poor. It was a nice sight, however, and was much more welcomed then the unseen bear who growled at me while I was about 5 miles into this hike. The bear was hidden behind a row of rhododendrons which were as intimidating as walking down an ally between two tightly wedged buildings in the city. If the bear decided to do anything then strike up a conversation, I would have had little options other than to hope I digested poorly. Fortunately, black bears are relatively decent to deal with, unless you have officially overstepped your boundaries or got between it and a cub. As soon as I started talking to it calmly, it quieted down and I pushed forward.
Despite this not being my favorite hike, getting out was better than any day hiding behind a keyboard. I just prefer having as many things to see as possible (valleys, vistas, summits, waterfalls, wildlife, flowers, etc.) as otherwise I’m not sure I’d know the difference between a bad hike and a night in my own backyard.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Lightweight Backpacks












































Shelters, sleeping bags, and backpacks, aside from representing the “big 3” in backpacking, also represent the products with the most new innovation and changes in recent years. Until the lightweight backpacking movement took hold, I carried an 8-pound Gregory backpack. The suspension was great, it was extremely durable, and it held pretty much everything except my car. And, it was unbearably heavy. It was so heavy, in fact, that I was miserable. My legs, knees, and back always hurt and I almost always didn’t get very far or move very quickly. I think I would have won a gold medal in sweating too if it were an Olympic event. Aside from the fact that it was killing my body and ruining my experience, the reality was that it was also very unsafe. Sporting a load of 40-60 pounds ensured that any misstep would leave me face down or hurt. Fortunately, lightweight manufacturers have saved you and I from this problem by revamping gear which ultimately serves the same function, it just happens to be lighter.

Although Gregory, Osprey, The North Face, Mountain Hardwear, etc. all continue to offer very bombproof and comfortable packs, the reality is they are overly heavy, overly big, and end up hurting your backpacking experience more than helping it. Now, instead of carrying an 8-pound pack, I have found plenty of comfort and support in packs which weigh anywhere from about 13oz made of SilNylon to 2 pounds made of extremely durable ripstop fabric.

To me, lighter packs make all the difference in the world and small things like having hip belt pockets to access my compass, snacks, maps, etc. are really convenient. Lighter packs are also often water resistant because of their fabric and waterproofness can be virtually guaranteed with something as simple as an internal trash compactor bag instead of a pack cover or multiple interior compression sacks. With these options, crossing a stream won’t be so treacherous and no doubt going further, faster will be a real possibility. Many lightweight backpackers even often shed additional ounces by removing unwanted straps or buckles, or even the hip belt.

Some packs which have really peaked my experience include those made by Ultralight Equipment (http://www.ula-equipment.com/), Golite (http://www.golite.com/), and Six Moon Designs (http://www.sixmoondesigns.com/). McHale Packs (http://www.mchalepacks.com/) are known to be equally competent and offer custom options. Granite Gear (http://www.granitegear.com/) is a favorite amongst lightweight backpackers and offer a unique middle zipper to ease access to gear. All of these options are under 2 pounds.

For those looking to go lighter, and even break the one pound barrier, some manufactures offer a variety of SilNylon and even Cuben Fiber packs which are the lightest in the industry. These manufacturers include Gossamer Gear (http://www.gossamergear.com/), Mountain Laurel Designs (http://www.mountainlaureldesigns.com/), Z Packs (http://www.zpacks.com/), and Cilo Gear (http://www.cilogear/ ) to name a few. An unconventional but lightweight choice is offered by Luxury Lite (http://www.luxurylite.com).

Choosing a backpack is like choosing any other piece of gear which should be driven by experience, environment, competency, and budget. The mainstream manufactures are slowly catching up, but they aren’t there yet so I can’t recommend even the lightest offered by these guys.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Lightweight Sleeping Systems (bags, quilts, pads, bivys, etc.)







One of my favorite backpacking topics is “sleeping systems”. To the inexperienced or uneducated, “system” may seem like a bit of a stretch to describe what most people assume to mean merely a sleeping bag. The reality is, there are better (warmer and lighter) options than just a sleeping bag and this is one of those issues you have to try to believe as many people simply cannot fathom “less” being “more”. Cold weather also seems to be a very quick way to evaluate whether going lightweight was a smart idea because getting cold not only can be devoid of fun, but it can also be life threatening. Lightweight backpacking requires an educated consumer who is willing to make smart choices based on their experience and environment.

A sleeping bag is a plenty decent option when sleeping in the wilderness. Unfortunately, it isn’t a terribly efficient system. First off, the mere pressure of your body on the bottom portion of your sleeping bag does nothing but compress whatever insulation you are using to keep you warm. Being that warmth comes from loft, whether it is down, synthetic, pine needles, or whatever, no loft equals no warmth no matter what it is. With that said, and you guessed it, the bottom part of your bag serves pretty much no function other than dead weight – so why carry it. Sleeping bags are also constrictive and no doubt users have been known to fight all night with a zipper to be comfortable. Lastly, sleeping bags often trap dampness, both inside the bag from the user and outside the bag from the environment. If the bag gets wet, the loft may be degraded. If the loft is degraded, so will its ability to keep you warm. Simply put, a sleeping bag is an option, just not necessarily the best one.

A quilt is an excellent replacement for a bag and ensures you have only what you need to stay warm. Without the unnecessary weight of the bottom portion of your sleeping bag, by default you just lightened your load. By definition, and much like your bed at home, a quilt is designed to lie on top of you instead of going completely around you. When fit properly, it drapes around your sides which traps warm air just like the bundling effect of a sleeping bag. Most backpacking quilts also offer a footbox to keep your feet in place and help keep you warm. Insulation choices range from down to synthetic with synthetic winning out in wetter climates and down tending to be warmer and lighter overall.
Several manufacturers make very good quilts which are also very lightweight. These include Nunatak (http://www.nunatakusa.com/), Jacks R Better (http://www.jacksrbetter.com/), Backpacking Light (http://www.backpackinglight.com/), Feathered Friends (http://www.featheredfriends.com/) and others. If you really like the bundling effect of a sleeping bag, try the Sleeplight offered by Gossamer Gear (http://www.gossamergear.com/cgi-bin/gossamergear/sleeplight.html) which is essentially a sleeping bag without insulation on the bottom. Being a person much taller and wider than others, I decided to go with the Caribou sleeping bag from Western Mountaineering (http://www.westernmountaineering.com/) which is just slightly bigger than the other quilt options listed above, but in some cases, it is lighter. The zipper was removed, saving some ounces, and two elastic straps were sewn on to cinch it to my sleeping pad. It functions extremely well in cold weather as I intended - as a quilt.
I should mention some people use a 3/4 length bag or quilt especially if they have warm upper layers as it further reduces unnecessary pack weight.

The next part of the sleeping system is a good ground pad to take out floor bumps and to provide insulation from the cold ground. Many people seem to think they need expensive inflatable pads and mattresses to be the most comfortable. The reality is, an inexpensive foam pad has a higher “R – value” (measure of thermal resistance), than most fancy and expensive options. Personally, I find foam pads to be a little more comfortable too as they don’t sit up so high and I don’t feel like I’m trying to sleep on a rubber raft. Because they are lightweight and fairly easy to carry, many people use them as a backpack frame of sorts by placing them inside their otherwise frameless or internal frame backpacks. Some manufacturers are putting things such as down feathers or special gels which have low freezing points in their pads. There is some debate as to whether these methods work, but not of any debate is the fact that these options are always more costly and heavier than a simple foam pad.


When picking a pad, pick one which is about the size of your torso. This may seem counterintuitive, but the reality is your legs don’t contact the ground in the same manner as the rest of your body and they also don't get cold as easily. Without a full length pad, you can save valuable weight. I’ve also found using my pack under my legs accomplishes the same task and uses something that would have otherwise just been lying around. Part of being successful at lightweight backpacking is using all your resources to their fullest extent. Gossamer Gear is one manufacturers who maintains several options for foam pads http://www.gossamergear.com/cgi-bin/gossamergear/pad_matrix.html.

The last part of the sleep system is a bivy made of a waterproof bottom (such as SilNylon) and breathable and water resistant top (such as Pertex). The bivy will help bundle you like a sleeping bag, but it will also allow you greater movement as it is cut larger than a standard sleeping bag which works perfectly for active quilt sleepers. It will also ensure your quilt doesn’t get wet which allows your loft to stay intact and that your body condensation can escape through the breathable fabric. Backpacking Light (http://www.backpackinglight.com/) offers some of the lightest bivys. Some manufacturers, such as Integral Designs (http://www.integraldesigns.com/) offers bivys made of eVENT fabric which allow the user to forgo the need for a conventional shelter and instead stay warm and dry sleeping under the stars.

I’ve used my system in below freezing temperatures and the entire system weighs far less than most sleeping bags and offers me much more comfort and flexiblity. I was personally shocked to find out that with merely a base layer of merino wool that I needed no other warming layers despite the cold temperatures. It is also worth noting that the choice of your sleeping system and its warmth rating should not go overboard because users should consider any clothing items carried as part of the system. For example, a sleeping system doesn't necessarily need to be improved if the user is cold at 30 degrees but can be plenty warm by adding a jacket buried in their back. Lightweight backpackers need to utilize all their resources as otherwise carrying something rarely used serves little greater purpose than dead weight. Much like an empty backpack can be used as a sleeping pad for your legs, a jacket can be used while sleeping and socks make excellent gloves in a pinch.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Lightweight Knives



























If you ask any good survivalist what one item they would want if placed in a wilderness survival situation, likely all of them would argue a good knife. A good cutting tool helped shaped most civilizations and started with crude objects like flint knives, sharpened bones, rocks, and wood, and eventually became the knives we’re more familiar with today made of metals and hard plastics.

The lightweight backpacker often finds themselves in quite a quandary when deciding which knife to carry while backpacking. Some people who count every ounce often don’t carry one at all assuming they will not need it due to personal knowledge of their environment or the reality that they may be hiking close enough to civilization that a survival situation requiring a knife is irrelevant. For the rest of us, we must make a choices based on experience, environment, and personal comfort, as each may use a knife for different reason (survival, utility, protection, etc.).

There are many lightweight choices for backpackers concerned with counting ounces. Some may seem more practical than others, but it depends on the person. Some choose to go to the extreme of carrying a single razor blade and others have been known to use a single razor from a broadhead (bloodletting arrowhead) attached to something.

Likely one of the most lightweight options is a simple razor such as the Derma Safe Folding Utility Knife (http://www.derma-safe.com/folding-utility-knife.html).

Swiss Army makes a ton of various “multi-tools” which contain at least one cutting blade as well as other options. Many lightweight backpackers seem to prefer the “Classic” (http://www.swissarmyknifemall.com/product/53181-mo) which consists of a cutting blade, nail file, scissors, tooth pick, and tweezers. Ultralighters often cannibalize this knife to obtain only that which they need and to discard other parts which cause unnecessary weight.

Building off the “Classic” model, some prefer one which offers a whistle (http://www.swissarmy.com/MultiTools/Pages/Product.aspx?category=originalswissarmyknives&product=53933&). The pealess whistle does sound, but it isn’t quite as loud as a Fox 40 or other survival whistle.

Still others who like the “Classic” model lean towards having a light source integrated into the system like the “Swisslite” (http://www.swissarmy.com/MultiTools/Pages/Product.aspx?category=originalswissarmyknives&product=53020&).

Others who want something a little heartier lean towards the “Swiss Army Trekker” (http://www.swissarmy.com/MultiTools/Pages/Product.aspx?category=lockblades&product=54854&) which offers a locking blade and a nice saw feature.

For those convinced they need a fixed-blade knife, my recommendation is for the Mora of Sweden line. These knives are made with incredibly hard and durable steel, carbon, or stainless steel and are very low weight compared to others. They are also very inexpensive, usually less than $12.00 (USD). Laminated carbon options, such as the F780 (http://www.bensbackwoods.com/servlet/Detail?no=60) are excellent field knives and hold an edge well, but are subject to problems with moisture. If around moisture, a better option is a stainless steel blade such as the Mora M545 (http://www.bensbackwoods.com/servlet/Detail?no=165). Compared to other more conventional knives which weigh anywhere from 8-12 ounces, these weight around 3.2-3.8oz with their sheath.
Many other people carry genuine "multi-tools" like those made by Leatherman, Gerber, Buck, and others. Although these tools offer a tremendous variety, they come with the cost of weight and therefore aren't often a realistic option to lightweight backpackers. There are many other knife manufacturers which offer better blades, but they too tend to be heavier and fancier than necessary and not really appropriate for prolonged wilderness conditions. Some near tiny options include key chain knives which aren't very stable and don't offer a realistically useful blade for backwoods needs.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Backpacking PODCASTS

To stay current with outdoorsy stuff without reading all the blogs and websites, I enjoy listening to PODCASTS. Podcasts are audible files which can be taken nearly anywhere and the content covers everything from personal opinion, to experiences, to industry trends, and many even chat with manufacturers who will explain how to use their gear and what to expect in the future. Below is a list of my favorite PODCAST sites:

AT Hiking - http://athiking.libsyn.com/

Backpacking Light - http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/podcasts.html?id=ZLsZAi8c:192.18.240.12

Doing Stuff Outdoors - http://doingstuffoutdoors.com/

Hike it All - http://www.hikeitall.com/

Practical Backpacking - http://www.practicalbackpacking.com/blog/

Southeastern Backpackers - http://www.southeasternbackpackers.com/

TrailCast - http://www.trailcast.org/

Wilde Beat - http://www.wildebeat.net/

Friday, October 10, 2008

Food & Spices

It doesn't take much effort to be miserable in the woods, so why allow food choices to do anything but enhance your trip. Unless you have a dehydrator and vacuum sealer at home, you'll likely need to either prepare your own food or purchase it. The key with any meal is nutrition and all efforts should be made to eat healthy foods in the backcountry if for no other reason than to ensure energy and overall fitness. Keep in mind, eating the right foods at the right time will also keep you warm on a cool night. For example, you don't need to drink a hot cup of coffee just before bedding down to stay warm as it will only be temporary. If you stay hydrated with ample water (which ensures your blood vessels stay large and open helping to circulate blood) and eat something with carbohydrates (which your body will take a while to burn and therefore keep you warm), you'll have much better luck. Eat small amounts, eat often, and add spices to bring life to your meals. Don't be scared to carry fruit either as fruit is a "wonder" food which not only helps with energy, but it also repairs damaged muscle tissues and can provide you with valuable antioxidants to fight off colds. If you don't want to carry the heavier hydrated versions, get the dehydrated kind which will take up a lot less weight and space. Below are some healthier options for trail food (in no particular order):

http://www.minimus.biz/
http://www.harmonyhousefoods.com/
http://www.justtomatoes.com/
http://www.packitgourmet.com/
http://www.backcountryfood.com/
http://www.edenfoods.com/
http://www.worldspice.com/
http://www.importfood.com/
http://www.truelemon.com/
http://www.kingarthurflour.com/
http://www.penzeys.com/
http://www.myspicer.com/
http://www.beprepared.com/
http://www.alpineairefoods.com/
http://www.alltravelsizes.com/
http://www.wildernessdining.com/
http://www.waltonfeed.com/
http://www.gibbswildrice.com/
http://www.sprouting.com/
http://www.thespicehouse.com/
http://www.hunyhunks.com/
www.decacer.com/sale-points.aspx

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Big Meadows, Shenandoah National Park









After heading off on my own over the last two weeks to take on some solo hikes, my wife and I had the chance to hike an old stomping ground - Big Meadows, in Shenandoah National Park. As a kid, I went to Big Meadows with my family many times. More often then not I was more interested in what I could put in the fire then what I could see on the hike. Oddly enough I also don't remember ever hiking the actual 70 acres of the "big meadow" which gave this destination its name. Located 3,510 feet above sea level, this area was known for wandering elk and buffalo prior to the 1900's. Climate change and population increases in Virginia ultimately ran these guys out and replaced them with deer, brown and black bear, and fox to name a few.

During our trip I wanted to make sure I paid attention to the little things often missed during a hike where the intent is to cover distance. The hike of the meadow proved to be a great opportunity to take a look at over 200 different types of plants and all kinds of animals. I also learned pretty quickly that finding an old apple tree ensured I could nearly put a saddle on most of the fairly tame deer in the park.

On the way back from dinner shortly after sunset, a mama bear and her two cubs ran across the road and disappeared into the woods. Against my better judgment, I immediately pulled off the road and dove into the brush without a second thought. Armed only with a camera that couldn't take a picture in such poorly lit conditions and my clearly tiny skills to make a sound judgment, I headed off in the direction of snapping twigs and snorts. My wife stayed behind which was a smart call because she probably would have needed to point rescuers in my general direction once my curiosity officially got the better of me. As I batted away thorn bushes and silkweed, and hoped that there were no snakes under the fern-laden ground cloth which made viewing the path impossible, I saw a cub shoot up a tree, take a look at me, then head off into the darkness. I quickly ran after it as thoughts of being digested by a bear ran through my mind. In the darkness I could hear twigs snapping and rustling seemingly right around the corner and I slowly made my way towards them. About 20 feet in front of me another cub went scurrying down a huge tree and ran off again into the darkness. I could still hear something up in the tree and made my way closer. As I stepped nearly under the tree to gain a better vantage point being that I couldn’t see anything until I moved pass other foliage, I came face-to-face with the absolutely gigantic mother bear who was so far out on a limp I couldn’t imagine how the tree didn’t topple over. The bear took one look at me, growled loudly, and made an instant jump as if it was going to charge me. Short of soiling my pants, I quickly decided that was enough and immediately headed out while talking as kindly as I could to the bear so she knew I was human, a human headed away, and a human not interested in her or her cubs. When I got back to the car, my wife said she could hear me talking to the bear and knew that I was yet again trying to find a way to test my life insurance policy.