Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Giving Back

This might just be my shortest blog yet – and consequently likely the only one which I will urge that you DON’T go lightweight.

In a nutshell, the world is in a pretty tough spot right now. Here in the U.S., the housing and financial markets are pretty much in free-fall and unemployment is rising. When I’m in a difficult pinch, I tend to run outdoors for the quiet simplicity that only nature can provide. Unfortunately, with so many other demands on our world, the need to keep our wild places, well, WILD is often overlooked. My biggest fear is that my two sons won’t be able to see the same wilderness as I do much in the way that my grandfather feared that I wouldn’t see the same wilderness he did.

For those reading this blog, I can only assume you get quite a bit from nature too. Well, how about giving back. Something as simple as maintaining a trail is a fulfilling and worthwhile experience. It is also a great place to meet friends. Facing facts, little else is as rewarding as a day of hard work and selfless volunteering in any walk of life. If this is too much dedication, how about simply walking down your neighborhood with a trash bag and picking up all the senseless trash and junk carelessly discarded. For those with deeper pockets, give monetarily to one of the many groups which make it their mission to preserve nature. For me, two groups I presently contribute to are The Nature Conservancy ( and The Appalachian Trail Conservancy ( These two institutions are sound and proven institutions which are accountable in my view and there are plenty of others who have equal merit and support other important causes.

In the end – just give – whether time or money and ensure the next generation has a shot of experiencing the same wilds you enjoy.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Lightweight Survival Kits

To a lightweight backpacker who counts every ounce, one of the first things to get cut are items from what many consider to be part of a “survival kit”. This means the 10 pound Rambo-replica knife, the 4 gallon water jug, the 60” plasma, the inflatable raft, the solar still, and the pre-cooked rump roast must all be left behind.

Lightweight backpackers realize that most survival kits contain “extras” and most survival books list dozens of unnecessary supplies which are inherently redundant. These things are essentially made for someone genuinely lost without any other appreciable supples. For example, do you really need an emergency poncho when you likely already carry rain gear, a tarp, a ground cloth, and possibly even other clothing which could pull you through a brief rain? Do you really need an emergency blanket when you are already carrying several layers of clothing and a sleeping bag/quilt? Do you really need 50 feet of extra rope as if you needed to hang something which the guy lines from your tent or bear bag rope wouldn’t already cover? Do you really need a trash bag when you already have a ground cloth, sleeping pad, shelter, pack liner, and rain gear? Do you really need a giant knife, a flare gun, a personal locator beacon, satellite phone, or even a gun? When I honestly take a look at these things, I simply can’t justify carrying any of them and some simply don't work well enough to carry anyway. Sure they’d be good to have if I didn’t mind carrying the weight, but so would a lawn chair, a stocked refrigerator, and a Swedish masseuse. I guess if I’m planning on carrying all these extras, I’m going to hire a Sherpa or camel to carry them instead.
The reality is, marketing gimmicks have caused many of us to believe that we need to fear the outdoors and prepare ourselves for what is essentially a doomsday scenario. Marketers have us fearful of bear attacks, yet most people have never even seen one in the wild. Marketers have us fearful that our equipment must stand up to a fall off a cliff or in the middle of a hurricane. I figure if I'm in either of those two situations that the durability of my equipment will likely be the last thought in my head as I'll be too busy trying to figure out how to genuinely survive and get out. My grandfather would likely get a kick out of outdoor product marketing nowadays as he would reflect on his backpacking experiences which only required a bedroll, some matches, a canteen, and some food. Well folks, the same wilderness he experienced is available to all of us in one degree or another and our level of safety is far more achievable with less gear than product manufacturers would lead us to believe.

The theory behind a lightweight backpacker’s survival equipment is acknowledgement of the reality that you’re already “out there”…so 99.9% the gear you carry should be the gear you’ll need to use on a daily basis regardless of the situation. But alas, some “extras” are necessary for a responsible hiker and your decision to carry them should be based on common sense, safety, and experience. It is worth mentioning that you SHOULD carry different things for different environments as what I carry on the east coast of the US may be different than what I'd carry on the west, or elsewhere in the world for that matter. Most hikers do not intentionally put themselves in a “survival” situation as most hike on established trails often a few hundred feet (or at most a few miles) from a road or public structure. In fact, there are very few parts in the U.S. where you can be more than 10 miles from some form of civilization even if our most distant wildernesses. This fact alone should mitigate much of the concern. However, those with known medical problems, those who bushwhack, and those who intentionally push deep into the wilderness or in dangerous conditions should take more safety precautions.

It’s tough to nail down exactly what is, and what isn’t, “survival gear”. For me, everything is pretty much just “gear” because many items have multiple applications. For example, I carry a Swiss Army Knife Classic ( which provides scissors, a tooth pick, nail file, tweezers, and a knife. I carry a Mora knife ( any time I know I’ll need to make a fire multiple times as I’ll need it to cut wood, especially if I need small and dry stuff to put inside my Bushbuddy Ultra Stove ( I also carry a signal mirror which is right next to my half-sized tooth brush as I think it is important to take a good look at my over voluptuous face every now and then to make sure my head is still attached. It is also good for daily tick checks. Essentially, lots of gear has more than one purpose and can also be considered survival gear.

Obviously skimping on things like first aid and survival stuff depends a lot on your experience and other gear you carry. For me, the stuff in my survival kit is fairly minimal. My kit isn’t minimal because I strive to be obsessively lightweight as truthfully I could leave many things at home. Truth be told, I just can’t reasonably justify carrying more than I already do. I carry dry tinder, an ACR whistle, a button compass, a signal mirror, some needles, safety pins, thread, and buttons, waterproof matches, an LED light, a mini lighter, a mini Classic Swiss Army knife, some waterproof paper with a mini waterproof pen, a bit of duct tape - and that’s about it. I store all of this inside a waterproof bag or I fashion items I need to a necklace for easier access. A bandana can also be considered a survival item and I intentionally have one that is orange in the event I ever need to use it to try to signal for help. On the bandana I wrote various phrases in large print which can be folded to show only one phase at a time. The phrases include: “TO TRAIL”, “TO TOWN”, “NEED PHONE”, “MEDICAL HELP”. For those of you who ever needed to leave the trail unexpectedly, these simple phrases used when attempting to gain the attention of passing motorists is the difference between getting a ride and help…or walking. Obviously a bandana doubles as a towel, pot holder, trainer, tent/tarp condensation dryer, sweat band, sun blocker, etc. too.

Even with what I’ve already mentioned, there is a lot of crossover gear for me. My medical kit includes a few things I’d need in a genuine survival situation. My stove kit includes some things too. I intentionally choose my gear for utility and if it doesn’t have more than one use, I actually consider leaving it at home in many cases. For example, I use a 1 gallon SilNylon 1 gallon water bag by Anti Gravity Designs ( which is the sack I use to carry my extra clothing. To me, this is actually a luxury as I don’t really need the sack and I could always find something that’s lighter. This is light enough for me, however, and affords me the luxury of moving around 1 gallon of water very easily which is great when cooking, bathing, or doing laundry. Again, I wouldn’t call it “survival”, just useful.

As with most things, experience and environment should be your guide.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Preventing and Treating Blisters

According to the folks at Adventure Medical Kits ( whom have been very informative and generous with me over the years, the most common complaint of hikers is blisters. A blister is essentially a reaction of your skin to heat, whether actual heat such as a flame or generated heat such as friction. A blister is actually a second degree burn. To protect against a blister, the body releases a liquid between the inner and outer layer of skin which forms a bump which is often red and painful. I’m going to assume very few of us hold our toes over open flames unless unless we’re trying to recover from severe cold or toe-kebabs is on the menu, so I think it is fair to say most of us receive blisters which are friction related. If our blisters are friction-related, that means we probably got them while walking or hiking. Let’s face it; it is awfully tough to hike when you’ve got a flat tire.

Friction blisters are essentially areas stressed by the constant rubbing of our shoes or socks. If our shoes or socks are wet, this softens or skin and makes our feet more susceptible to damage. Lightweight backpackers have long embraced the need to wear lightweight and breathable running shoes instead of clumsy hiking boots for many reasons. First, most hiking boots offer very poor air circulation (ventilation) and those which have a waterproof layer tend to hold body sweat and moisture even more. Second, boots take longer to dry than lightweight breathable running shoes. Lastly, lightweight running shoes are easier to maneuver and don’t stress our foot as much because they are cut lower and of made of thinner fabrics. It should go without saying that breaking in footwear before a hike is always a smart choice.

Apply Moleskin ( to sensitive areas before hiking. Wear thin liner socks under heavier outer socks so the friction occurs between the two sock layers and less on your skin. Ensure all socks wick well and change them for a dry pair each time you stop and before you go to bed. Make sure your feet get some ‘sun time’ too to kill bacteria. If a blister does develop, stop immediately and treat it. First, don’t pop the blister if you can help it. If it is large or cumbersome, drain it with a sterile needed and massage the fluid out with a sterile alcohol wipe. Put a treatment over it such as the product Glacier Gel ( which adheres to your skin and offers a protective pad. It is made of 50% water which helps cool your blister and is as simple to apply as a band-aid. Switch out the pad a couple times a day and this should be sufficient. If the blister continues to drain and becomes more painful, discharges colored fluid, or otherwise just doesn’t look right, consider seeking professional medical help.

Other than using moleskin ( on sensitive areas, I’ve also had luck with a couple different items. Body Glide ( looks like a mini deodorant and helps reduce moisture and chaffing both on the feet and elsewhere. It also has antibacterial aspects. Hydropel ( is specifically good for people who sweat a lot or whose feet will be wet much of the time. Lastly, Leokotape can be used in place of Moleskin…course, so could duct tape. In either case, be sure to be careful how you apply it as you don’t want to rip off your blister or cause it to be too inaccessible for treatment. Course, before needing to jump on the first-aid bandwagon, “prevention” should be a high priority. Blister prevention should include applying anti-fungal/sweat-control options as described above and keeping your feet, footwear, and socks dry. It is always a good idea, if practical, to switch out socks several times a day and before you go to bed. In fact, most lightweight backpackers rarely carry two of anything including underwear – but socks are the exception. Long-distance hikers will no doubt agree that receiving a pair of new socks at each supply pick-up is near heavenly. Wearing a liner sock under a sock reduces friction on your skin. Using highly breathable and broken-in shoes ensures your feet stay drier and are more comfortable. A good orthotic such as those offered by Superfeet ( are also a good choice for overall foot comfort and to prevent foot slippage from inside the shoe due to poor fit. Smartly crossing bodies of water and avoiding getting your feet wet will be the difference of 10 more miles versus just a few. To keep my shoes dry, I have been known to carry a homemade pair of Tyvek shoes which have felt on the bottom just to use to cross through water. They aren’t comfortable or terribly durable, but they get the job done, weigh nearly nothing, and save my shoes. Another preventative tip is to ensure socks and shoes receive adequate drying time. When possible, leave them in the sun during breaks. If you think you need a camp shoe to allow your hiking footwear time in the sun…but you don’t want the weight of bringing extra footwear, consider puncturing three holes (one between the big and second toe and one on either side of the front third of your foot – like a flip flop) in your shoe insole and add some yarn or rope. You’ll essentially have a pair of lightweight flip flops without any further appreciable weight. Course, you could always bring a pair of those God-awful Crocs clown shoes and hope no other hikers beat you for the sake of pure fashion sense.

You may not always be able to prevent blisters, but you can be proactive by reducing your risk and treating those you do get with proper first-aid so your hike can continue.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Lightweight First Aid

First Aid and backcountry medical care are huge issues for anyone because an accident can happen at any time to even the most prepared. Humans are far from perfect and each of us makes mistakes constantly. It is also unrealistic to claim we can control our environment (weather, animals, shifting rocks, etc.). With that said, if you haven't received an injury in the backcountry yet - you will. Fortunately, planning ahead, using the right gear, and educating yourself on how to deal with certain issues is often the best solution to helping yourself. As a Search and Rescue member, I can say with conviction that historically many people who require wilderness rescue often have with them the implements they need to survive. Unfortunately, many in need of rescue struggle with the one thing that must work – their mind.

I was on a recent search for a lost hunter deep in a National Park. Regrettably, he had a problem with substance abuse which no doubt contributed in his choice of heading out for some nighttime activities while under the influence. Night came and went and he never returned to join his friends at their nearby cabin. As our search widened, one of the teams found his jacket, then a shirt, then a sock, then a pair of pants. It was clear to us that this wasn’t a late night effort to streak, it was the effects of hypothermia taking over the reasoning skills of the man and it was these skills, or lack there of, which ultimately claimed his life. In any situation, the mind is the number one most important tool, skill, and resource. Without it, each of us has very little opportunity for success. In this search, the man felt like he was burning up and therefore he discarded his clothes. What he didn’t know was that he was hypothermic and his body was sending him the wrong signals in an effort to protect itself to keep functioning. Search teams found his body about a week later.

Lightweight backpackers are no different than the lost man in that we each must make smart decisions to be successful. Gear choices are one thing, but education is entirely another. Fortunately, people who have stretched their limits to lightweight backpacking usually have a better understanding than most of how to make the most out of their resources. It is for this reason that lightweight backpackers can often carry with them a minimum of first aid supplies and still be successful.

Before going nuts on planning for every possible injury, ask yourself what you really need. If you think long and hard about it, I bet you'll come up with some anti-inflammatory pills, pain killers, stomach-calmers (Immodium AD has good “plugging power”), triple antibiotic ointment, minimal gauze, and some athletic tape or leukotape to cover everything up. A sheet of moleskin and possibly some Glacier Gels also go a long way for blister care. I also know people who swear by a small tube of Super Glue as it can seal a wound very quickly and efficiently. A sterile scalpel and irrigation syringe may also be something worthwhile to carry, and something that usually can’t be duplicated in the field. With all of this stuffed in a water tight bag such as an Aloksak most hikers could be prepared for things they are reasonably likely to encounter. Really, anything more is redundant unless you're going to pack a pair of crutches or a full SAM splint which is a little silly as these implements can come from branches or a sleeping pad. Even a snakebite kit is overboard as the latest guidance for a snake bite is simply to leave it alone and seek help as cutting it will only hurt you more and spread the venom. Trying to suck it out will only push more of it into your system and into other areas at a quicker rate. Even wrapping it uniformly, which is the latest method, is often done incorrectly and it ultimately creates more problems. They key is to pack what you can't duplicate in nature or with other items you're carrying. Obviously, your daily medication or allergy medicine should be included as well as anything else of specific importance to you. Those who suffer from life threatening allergies should carry an EpiPen (Epinephrine) which can literally be the difference between life and death.

The key with first aid, must like every other piece of equipment, is to bring with you what you need based on your experience and environment. Likely a kit purchased from an outdoor store would be a good start, but a homemade version would likely be more appropriate for you. The folks at Adventure Medical Kits ( have a lot of experience with medical options needed in the backcountry and one of their kits in a pinch would be a good start. If you're interested in a small packable medical guide, my advice is to pick up "A Comprehensive Guide to Wilderness & Travel Medicine (3rd Edition) by Eric Weiss, MD. It's fairly packable and covers most anything you could experience in the backcountry.