Wednesday, December 1, 2010

UL Rain Kilt


Zpacks (http://www.zpacks.com/) was really one of the first cottage manufacturers to use cuben fiber. In fact, owner Joe Valesko uses it nearly exclusively and his own backpacking endeavors proved its long-term staying power in the lightweight backpacking industry. When I really want to test how light I can go, I bring along one of his Blast packs and Hexamid Duo tents. Both are so absurdly light that it's nearly comical.


As I've mentioned before, I usually bring a ULA-Equipment Rain Wrap with me for my lower body. To me, it's a multi-use item as it not only keeps my lower body relatively dry, but it is a nice extra piece of sylnylon which I've used as a ground cloth, quilt protector, pillow, and vanity cover when bathing or doing laundry on the trail. I've also rigged it to my Hexamid to serve as a door in severe weather.


Zpacks has decided to make this already great idea a little better by making it out of cuben. The TrailLite Designs Cloud Kilt for $55 is a mere 1.6 oz and is essentially the same product. I've asked Joe to see if he can tinker with the design a bit to make it a dual-use item specifically designed as doors for his Hexamid line.


Now before you start saying a kilt isn't for you, think about it long and hard. Aside from the multi-use aspects which a pair of rain pants just can't offer, a skirt/kilt is easier to put on, offers better ventilation, is lighter, and really keeps the vital stuff dry. As one poster mentioned when talking about gaiters, few seem to care whether their shins or ankles are dry.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Nano Striker



One of the great things about blogging is the collaborative environment it inherently creates as people openly share their knowledge. Backpacking further brings with it a community which shares an unspoken bond of good naturedness and apathy which I've long appreciated.




In a recent blog I talked about a new flint striker that I wasn't thrilled with and one of our readers (Thanks Basti!) brought to my attention another great video by Jason Klass (http://www.geartalkwithjasonklass.com/2009/12/exotac-nano-striker.html) in reference to a product by Exotac known as the Nano Striker.




The Nano Striker is a ferrocerium rod encased in aluminum (or titanium if you have the money). Why is this useful? Well, I carry my flint striker around my neck and the sweat from my chest has degraded it substantially. Rather than have it clanking around outside of my shirt and getting caught on branches, the Nano Stricker is a nearly ideal solution for my needs because it keeps it dry. Course, Jason and his readers figured this out a year ago when he posted his video. SORRY, I missed it!




The Nano Striker is $27 ($75 for titanium) and comes in at 14.5 grams. I like the fact that it comes in multiple colors depending on whether you need it to be obnoxious or not. For example, mine is blaze orange as keeping it highly visible while backpacking is important to me.




The unique aspect of the Nano Striker is that the user essentially unscrews it to gain access to the ferrocerium rod and striker. One end is screwed to the rod side to make the handle longer which overall creates a very nice system. The striker itself is very short, but very sharp and can even be further sharpened if necessary. It claims to last for about 1,000 strikes. The aluminum is aircraft grade and little rubber rings help ensure the contents remain dry. It comes with a lanyard and extra rubber ring in addition to a nice little box and instructions.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Lightweight Compass


A compass is one of those pieces of gear that is critically vital in an environment where getting lost is a reality. Talking about compasses could be quite a lengthy and in depth conversation - one which you won't find here as others have covered it far more effectively.


Oddly enough, a compass is only somewhat useful in the areas I hike due to the extensive tree canopy and lack of observable land features. As a result, I have absolutely no need for a high-dollar compass capable of not only telling me direction, but making me breakfast.


With that said though, that doesn't mean I'd ever leave a compass at home. For example, the Appalachian Trail is a north/south trail. A running joke of AT thru-hikers when getting up in the morning is the silly question of "what direction are you heading today" as the choice is painfully obvious. Still many get lost on the AT and surrounding trails, not because the trail isn't well marked, but because side trails often aren't as well marked and trips into the woods quickly help any sign of a trail or direction disappear.


For as well marked as the AT is, I've honestly almost gotten lost several times. These situations have all occurred after a trip into a densely forested area to look for water, a bathroom area, or a stealth area to set up camp. Unless the ground is perfectly level, which it rarely is, I can walk a couple dozen feet into the forest only to turn around and find that the trail is completely gone from my perspective. Trust me when I say not immediately seeing the trail is unsettling.


To ensure I'm not the next SAR rescuee paraded around on a local newspaper, I generally do two things to ensure my direction. First, and something that works well on the AT, I take a quick look at a button compass I carry and ensure I fully appreciate the direction I'm heading. When I get to where I'm going, especially if I'm staying the night, I often arrange some sticks or stones to point me in the direction out. This may be vital if needing to make a quick escape in the middle of the night from any number of potential issues.


Although some may genuinely need a full-scale compass, a button compass is something I have found to be ideal for my needs. It is smaller than a penny, weighs virtually nothing, and is quite accurate. I like the Mini Tracker Survival Buttom Compass from Best Glide Aviation Survival Equipment (http://www.bestglide.com/). It is a NATO approved liquid-filled compass also endorsed by the Boy Scouts of America. It comes in a 14mm and 20mm size and functions from -20f to 120f and is water resistant to 30 ft. At less than $3, it's one of those pieces of gear which really should never be left home. I carry it regardless even though my Suunto Core watch has a compass built into it, which as I learned about a month after purchasing the watch, the digital compass can be quite wrong.


I always carry a whistle around my neck and I found that adding a button compass to it with some Super Glue makes the compass perfectly available, out of the way, and handy - plenty easy for a quick glance without fumbling through my pack or pocket. On a side note, Super Glue is amazing stuff. Although I usually purchase several button compasses at a time, I recently tried to get one of the compasses off a whistle to relocate it to something else. Bottom line - it wasn't moving, so feel plenty confident in a little glue.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Meet the Exped SynMat 7 UL - Rival to the NeoAir


In July 2010 at an Outdoor Show in Germany, Exped (http://www.exped.com/) revealed a sleeping pad which would easily compete with the famed NeoAir. Personally, I wasn't a big fan of the NeoAir for many reasons, but it does have a following. More correctly, people either love it or hate it and one could probably read between the lines a bit when it was announced that Thermarest was redesigning the NeoAir for the coming future.


The Exped SynMat 7 UL in an insulated sleeping mat which weighs just 16.57 ounces (470 grams) for a rectangular 72.04"x 19.68" (183x50cm) and an intriguing R-value of 3.5. Insulation is synthetic which is laminated to the top and bottom of the inner walls. This makes it significantly warmer than the NeoAir which is claimed to retain an R-value of 2.5 for nearly the same size and weight of 14 ounces.


Like the NeoAir, the Exped SynMat 7 UL packs down to the size of a half-liter water bottle and comes with a unique "flat-valve" system which enables the inflation and deflation valves to be separated and thereby is claimed to be easier to operate.


If you aren't a fan of lighter and cheaper (but more bulky) closed cell foam pads, and the NeoAir isn't in your gear closest for one reason or another, the Swiss Exped SynMat 7 UL might just be an answer for you...when they are put on the market. So when it that? Well, in north America it won't be until March. At that time, two sizes will be available (Small 64"x21" and Medium 72"x21"). There is discussion on a larger size which is believed to be 78"x20".

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Swedish FireSteel 2.0 & Whistles


If you backpack, there is a good chance you carry something to make a fire. If you are responsible, you likely have some redundancy being that the ability to make fire may be the difference between life or death, or more likely, a tasty marshmallow or warm meal. Redundancy in fire tools usually includes matches, a lighter, fire plug, or some kind of flint.


Like many backpackers, I generally carry a necklace with a few things on it. Whether as a last ditch effort for safety or peace of mind if I ever get separated from my backpack, it's something I always have. On it is a flint striker, whistle, and microlight. On the whistle, I glued a button compass which has probably been more useful then anything else when I need a quick direction reference. I've gone back and forth with whether to include my Swiss Army Knife mini as it is a bit cumbersome to have all this stuff around my neck even though I find it to be very useful and far more available if not otherwise stuffed in a pocket or sack.


About a month ago I was studying my necklace for wear and noticed that my flint was pretty worn both from use and likely from my body sweat. I also noticed the molded handle was cracked. As I tinkered with it to see how bad it was cracked, it came completely apart. I think it's fair to say that holding more on the flint than the handle in the future will probably be a smart choice.


With that, I needed a new flint and decided to look for another Swedish FireSteel to replace the one that I had just broken. To my surprise, there was a new FireSteel on the market listed as a "2.0". It was a little bulkier than my previous FireSteel. The striker was shorter in length, but was incorporated into a whistle. The molded grips on both were much thicker than previous versions, possibly because others had the same problem I did.


The whistle I carry is an ACR because it was dubbed one of the loudest pealess whistles by the Coast Guard. Oddly enough, and having used it several times to get the attention of friends or scare off an unfriendly bear, I really don't find it to be that loud. In fact, the pitch itself is more annoying than anything and the sound really doesn't travel that well. I do like the fact that it doesn't require a ton of effort to blow, as it seems air seems to be better controlled. For many years before college, I refereed youth basketball. Any time I blow my ACR, I wish I had my old referee whistle which was easily capable of deafening anyone within the building. With a pea though, it is susceptible to freezing, so I leave it at home. I think the whistle most similar to my old referee whistle is the Fox 40 as it seems to have a rolling sound, although it exhausts air pretty quickly. Comparing the ACR whistle to the new FireSteel 2.0, they really aren't that similar as the FireSteel 2.0 sounds doesn't really generate a loud enough sound to be useful. The ACR is a little easier to blow because of the way the FireSteel 2.0 tried to incorporate it into a handle with a lanyard punch right next to the whistle part which gets in the way a bit.


Regardless, it's always nice to carry gear which is multifunction and the FireSteel 2.0 (http://www.light-my-fire.com/) may be perfect for your needs. As for me, I'll stick with the better whistle (either ACR or Fox 40 depending on my whim) and I'm debating on whether to carry the more robust flint stick.
UPDATE: One of our fine readers suggested the Exotac Nano Fire Starter (http://www.exotac.com) which is a lightweight and waterproof solution to fire rods otherwise damaged by sweat and moisture. I've got one on the way. They are a little more expensive, but it's nice to still be able to carry it around my neck and know that it isn't going to get damaged.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Oh Crap....Again.


When I started this blog I had many ideas running around in my head about what topics I would write about. Over the course of time, many topics addressed were out of obvious necessity while others were more organic and often based on an experience or a new product on the market.


One topic that has received several entries is one that I honestly can say I never anticipated writing about once, let alone multiple times. Yet the topic keeps rearing its ugly head and no doubt someone is going to imply that I may need to seek counseling. That person would probably be right.


Unexpectedly, Rob "Qiwiz" Kelly (http://www.qiwiz.net/), a fellow BackpackingLight.com member, sourced some titanium and was able to shape it into a trowel. Titanium holds a great place in the world of lightweight backpacking and quite honestly is a technology that really needs to be more integrated into this industry.  He offered the trowels to anyone with a couple dollars to spare and I was happy to have one.


The trowel was pretty unfinished, so I used my Dremel tool to smooth everything out, take away the straight edges and angles, and ultimately smooth the edges so it would be a trowel and not a weapon. I also purchased a rubbery dipping compound from my local hardware store which is used to put a grip on handtools as I was concerned about getting a nasty cut in the wilderness from the edges. After a few dips, I had a very nice and non-slippery handle that was plenty easy on the hands. Using a high speed drill, I punched a hole in it and added a reflective piece of Kelty Trip Tease. The trowel itself was the same size and shape of the famous Monbell Handy Scoop.


If you were wondering, the Monbell Handy Scoop weighs 39 grams and mine is 6.6 grams as a blank and 14 grams with the handle and cord. Consequently, a MSR Ground Hog stake weighs 15 grams, so needless to say I'm pretty intrigued with this little shovel. I've used it several times now and quite honestly it is really a great lightweight digging tool. It is plenty sufficient to get the job done and having something a little more substantial to dig cat holes with is a nice luxury.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Seirus Softshell Lite Gloves


For the most part, I would describe myself as a poor excuse for a four-season backpacker. The reason I will win no awards for my year-round backpacking activities is because I rarely backpack in the heat of the summer where there is only an abundance of bugs and hotness and not water. I also rarely backpack in winter, although not for lack of interest, as I have not yet quite developed the skills that I feel comfortable with for multi-day trips in sub-freezing temperatures. Something as simple as learning how to avoid freezing water bottles, how to control sweat, layering, etc. are not only topics of practicality, but in the case of extreme cold, I may very well be testing the limits of my safety. So on that front, I'll keep trying and learning.



With that said, I've found a pair of lightweight gloves work very well for me for the seasons I backpack. I have two pairs of gloves that can be pretty much used interchangeably as far as I'm concerned. The first is a pair of SmartWool liners (www.rei.com/product/755628, $18, 45 grams) and the second is a pair of New Zealand PossumDown liners (www.shopnewzealand.co.nz/en/cp/gloves, $15.30, 46 grams). Both are a no frills and very lightweight option. They aren't meant for much more than simple warmth in conditions where I won't be getting them wet. By the way, add the Mountain Laurel Designs eVENT Rain Mitt(www.mountainlaureldesigns.com/shop/product_info.php?cPath=37&products_id=51, $45, 35 grams) and you'll have a downright solid system in a wide range of conditions.




For winter conditions when I need something a little more substantial, I've been experimenting with the Seirus Softshell Lite (www.rei.com/product/743105, $45, 83g). They are made from Polartec Power Shield which block 98% of wind, which is my biggest gripe with the SmartWool and PossumDown gloves identified above. The Seirus is lined with polyester fleece and is made of 49% polyester, 35% nylon, and 16% spandex which essentially means they are stretchy, comfortable, and highly water and wind resistant. I also like the fact that it has a piece of fabric on the palm which helps with grip and long-term durability.
A couple of thoughts on the information herein. First, note that the Seirus gloves are nearly twice as heavy as the other two I mentioned. They are a far warmer and more durable glove however, and they are still very lightweight. They also do far better with water. Second, of all the gloves I mentioned, really the SmartWool glove is the only one that I'd feel comfortable with handling items off a fire. Synthetics melt - something I can say from experience when I badly burned my finger several years ago while picking up a cup from over a fire which quickly melted my glove causing one of the few times in my life where I needed to give myself backcountry first aid.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Camping with a 3-Year Old



Over the weekend I took my three-year old son camping at Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park in central Virginia. At a young age, my parents exposed me to this wonderful place and I have returned several times per year for as long as I can remember. It was only fitting to me that this would be my son's first overnight trip in the park as I wanted to start the tradition early and impress upon him the importance, fun, and beauty that only the outdoors could provide.




Initially I interpreted my own actions to be equal to brain-washing, a practice utilized by most parents in one way or another as they try to shape their children to the people they want them to be. Much like with my favorite NFL team who hasn't been a real contender in nearly two decades and yet my children both wear t-shirts and hats bearing their logo, I wanted my children to love the outdoors as I do. Fortunately, the outdoors has a way of enticing young and old without much effort. The drive up Skyline Drive, known for its expansive vistas into the valley's below, was enough for my son to start remarking how "pretty" the view was or how "cool" it was to see farms far off in the distance. His positive comments continued when we arrived to camp with every passing deer or with general camp activities. By the time he was barefoot, stuffing s'mores in his face, getting memorized by the fire, or tackling me as I tried to sleep in our tent, I was pretty sure he was hooked.




The campsite I selected for this outing was one that I am all too familiar with and consider it to be one of the best in the park. It's a deep walk-in site which opens up to a field of oak trees which really no other site offers. The site is as secluded as it could possibly be for a public campground which proved to be worthy of this designation even during the peak season of October which packs the entire park with leaf-peeping tourists.




Oddly enough, it was the site itself that proved to be the most entertaining. At a young 3-years old, my son wasn't about to "hike" in any real sense, so our entertainment needed to come from the area surrounding our tent. I brought a soccer ball, his velcro baseball glove, several kid books, and plenty of food that neither he nor I should eat should we desire to be anything less than a sphere in our old age - yet keeps a 3-year old's interest quite well. Fortunately, entertainment was quite easy to come by without all the stuff I brought from home.




Throughout our time, especially during the night, we were visited by an endless amount of wildlife. I had a point-and-shoot camera with me which did nothing more than capture darkness when the sun was anything but high in the sky, so I have little tangible evidence of the remarkable nature encountered of our trip. Deer were as close as 1 foot to our tent at any given time often doing little more than crunching away on acorns as I had casual conversations with them explaining to them that my son and I were trying to sleep. We had a visiting owl who apparently felt the need to be quite conversational. We had a fox who used the area as his personal racetrack and and endless number of chipmunks who proved to be terribly illusive to my son who otherwise had never seen one before and did his best to capture one to hold it still long enough to have a good look at it. Coupled with a strong variety of birds, leaves of every shape, size, and color, and the comedy routine of me trying to cook kid foods over a fire and grill (lightweight cooking is so much more simple folks), my son didn't lack for entertainment.




Probably one of my personal favorite moments, although disturbing in the middle of the night, was when two small bucks decided to test their antlers against one another. This practice first started next to my tent in the middle of the night and then progressed to no more than 50 feet away once the sun came up.
video
Funny enough, I was amazed at how un-scared and un-bothered my son was with all the new things around him. He didn't care that he was sleeping outside and actually considered it to be quite fun. He didn't care that animals were making noise all night or that bugs made themselves known every now and then. Simply, he was camping and enjoying himself which was an experience I hope he continues to embrace in the future. I know I will and I look forward to the time when he is able to carry his own backpack, hike for more than a run around the campsite, and participate in the greater wilderness experience.
Regardless of the age of a child, whether wholly dependent on their parents or knee-deep with their own family, I think camping and outdoor experiences can't help but offer unique and memorable experiences that should be sought throughout a lifetime. It is more entertaining than any TV show or movie and fills volumes of dialogue with no verbal communication whatsoever.
Upon returning home, my son filled my wife with stories of what he saw and things we did. Before bedtime, unprompted by anyone, he grabbed several pillows and a couple blankets and organized them in our living room into what he described as his "tent". He then told me he wanted to sleep in our backyard tent at some point this week. Calling him "my little camping buddy" seemed to be plenty fine by him too and he seems to be a little more loving and happy since we returned.
One last thing worth mentioning which I say for young parents in a similar situation - at 2am while snuggled under warm blankets and sandwiched between cheap sleeping bags suitable for a kid, there is a huge difference between "I think I peed my pants" and "I peed my pants". Fortunately for us, it was the former.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Lightweight Backpacking Pants


One of the first books I read about lightweight backpacking was Ray Jardine's "Beyond Backpacking". As I slowly started evaluating my own pack contents, oddly enough I was mentally stuck on the fact that Jardine suggested a collared hiking shirt for the principal reason that it looked fairly responsible for trail towns. Having educated myself on the benefits of merino wool, I spent a good amount of time trying to find a collared shirt made of merino wool in a size big enough to fit me. By the time I did, the price alone was enough to scare me off and I still don't own one (I do take donations however).

Along the lines of clothing options and their relevance to both the trail and town, I thought I'd mention a pair of pants that are plenty fine for backpacking, possibly three and even four seasons depending on conditions and preferences, as well as around town. Last year I found a pair of Marmot Scree Pants (www.marmot.com/products/scree_pant) at an end-of-summer sale at a local camping retailer which meant I got it at a great deal. I do love those sales. It is a softshell pant which is both water repellent and breathable. It is a double weave of 90% nylon and 10% elastane. It comes in a variety of colors with several zipping pockets, ankle zippers, etc. They even come in nearly any imaginable size and even a "long" version which is great. With articulated knees coupled with the materials, they are just a great three to four season pant which oddly are hardly noticeable when wearing them.

This pant is very similar to other more expensive options and I'm learning that they really cover a wide variety of both weather conditions and also social conditions as they are a nice fitting, nice looking, and very comfortable pant that really fit in anywhere. They work quite well on the trail and look plenty fine in town and in social settings. Although the "MARMOT" name is a little obnoxious, like many manufacturers who like to use you and I as their personal billboard, I still think it's a great trail and "other" option.

I've seen them anywhere from $40-$90 which really isn't too bad for this kind of active pant and are advertised at 17oz which I presume is for a medium.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Lightweight Collapsible Spoon


I received a lot of comments about my recent blog regarding my Trail Designs Sidewinder cooking system. Apparently, there are a lot of you out there in bloggerland who share the same affinity I do for simple and lightweight cooking systems that are flexible and take up little space.
A question I received several times was about what kind of utensil (spoon) I used with the system as the inference was that my entire cooking kit fit inside the 900ml cup. Well, in the the past I used the Backpacking Light long handled titanium spoon which I really liked and continue to use quite often. I have yet to find another option lighter than 10oz for a long-handled titanium spoon. Unfortunately, it doesn't compress at all, so therefore I can't really carry it inside the Sidewinder system because the diameter of the pot isn't wide enough. Initially I just hooked it to the outside of my pack or put it in another pocket, but I found it a bit annoying to try to hunt it down and the risk of losing, damaging it, or misplacing it seemed to grow exponentially.
With that, I searched for another option which could fit inside my 900ml pot. Initially, I switched between a short-handled titanium spoon and/or a spork, but didn't really like either principally because the shortened length caused me to put more of my hand into my boil-in-a-bag meals which was both not terribly sanitary and a bit messy being that I always needed to wash my hands afterwards. Bugs also seemed to have a field day and it wasn't an option for gloves being that my finger and knuckles often dragged inside the bag.
The option I'm currently using is an expandable spoon made by JetBoil (www.rei.com/product/756489) which can generally be found at most camping stores for anywhere from $5-$15 depending if you purchase just the spoon or the entire three piece set (spoon, fork, and spatula). The spoon expands from 5.2" when closed to 8.5" when open and it weighs just a single gram more than the BPL spoon (11g) which is still lighter than most other long handled spoons. And yes, it collapses enough to fit in my pot which was the goal. MSR makes a very similar option (same weight, price, materials), but it folds down instead of retracting which I didn't feel was as stable. REI makes a titanium spoon that retracts (same weight, double the price), but it only expanded to 6.5" (although it collapsed to just 3.5") and I felt the extra two inches I gained from the JetBoil spoon were a better option.
Although I'd rather have titanium and cleaning it is a little more cumbersome because food does get caught into the expandable sections, it works just fine otherwise.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Confession: I own a Kindle 2.



Anyone who reads this blog or hikes with me knows that I'm not a huge fan of technology in the wilderness. I think phones are mostly unreliable and serve as dead weight while headphones often distract from the wilderness experience and can even create a dangerous situation if, for example a cracking branch is an unheard warning of a forthcoming head injury or an unnoticed growl is an indication of pending unlawful carnal knowledge by wildlife. Yes, I'll acknowledge that they are nice to have in an emergency and headphones are fun to use while trying to sleep. Sure an eBook on the smallest iPOD is really weight negligible as a whole, so these things have their place.
Recently I picked up the latest generation of Amazon's Kindle 2 eBook reader (http://www.amazon.com/) for school and general reading while traveling. At 8.5oz for so much frill, it's tough not to make the mental leap for backpacking.
The latest Kindle (third generation despite being called the Kindle 2) is a pretty neat piece of technology, although it does have the look and feel of an early generation Atari where the iPAD runs circles around it in sheer attractiveness and function. But, the Kindle is $139 whereas a similar iPAD is $700+ and significantly heavier.


Right now I have 89 books on my Kindle which is capable of holding 3,500 electronic books each which download is less than 60 seconds. For this abundance of literature, I spent about $15 because all but 5 were completely free. In fact, of the five I purchased, one was $10 while the other four were less than $1. Amazon offers over 15,000 free books, many which are classics (Treasure Island, Pride and Prejudice, Red Badge of Courage, etc.). I also found several books by John Muir and Henry David Thoreau which was wonderful being that I have brought those kinds of books with me on non-backpacking trips merely to keep the outdoor memory alive while otherwise swamped in an increasingly concrete world. I found it interesting to note that in the long list of free books, nature books and religion books dominated much of the landscape (in addition to the classics). These two themes have always sat at the same table for me personally, so I guess it doesn't surprise me to see these topics related in this sense.
The battery life on the Kindle is absurd too: 3 weeks with the wireless function on or an entire month with the wireless function off.
It comes with a dictionary, highlighting function, notes function, bookmark function, text-to-speech (fun to use when tired of reading, when driving, or when desirous of romantic whisperings from a semi-robotic voice). It also has a very crude web-interface which is frustrating to use, but functional (well, barely functional). With the optional 3G unit, this might be a novel accessory for someone on the go if they could use it to send e-mails too, especially if the battery life is so impressive.
Overall, I must admit that I really like it despite very obvious and numerous flaws. It's basically early technology for this kind of thing and I guess I am willing to accept the remedial handling, not perfect layout, and design flaws that make it far from the amazing technologies we have in our modern society because in bulk it is just an electronic book and handles that function just fine.
With that said, I continue to be biased about technology in the wilderness because often I think it is impractical, but it does have some benefits much like the Kindle. With that, I admit that as a solo backpacker uninterested in hiking from sun up to sun down every day to check my wherewithal against high-thigh chaffing as I fly by the very sights I want to spend time to see - I have brought my Kindle with me while backpacking and found the extra 8.5 ounces to be (most of the time)...wonderful.



Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Behold....The Sidewinder


As many of you know, I have a love affair of my Titanium Ti-Tri cooking system which I purchased from Titanium Goat (http://www.titaniumgoat.com/) but inspired and designed by Trail Designs (http://www.traildesigns.com/). Now that Trail Designs has the ability to work with titanium, they sell both aluminum versions and titanium versions of their famous cooking cones.


The reason I love the Ti-Tri is fairly simple: it cooks with esbit, with alcohol, and with wood. It provides me with wonderful peace of mind to know that if I run out of whatever fuel I'm carrying that I can just forage and likely find a suitable replacement. It is also the best windscreen on the market because it encompasses the pot completely being that it also serves as a very stable pot stand.


My only real gripe with the Ti-Tri was that the cone was long and required some kind of lightweight sleeve to carry it. Even then, it took up a little too much pack space for my preference.


Knowing that this was probably an issue for other backpackers, Trail Designs recently came out with their "Caldera Sidewinder Ti-Tri Titanium Cone System" (www.traildesigns.com/caldera-tt-sw.html) which offers a stouter cone capable of fitting in a 600ml, 900ml, or 1300ml pot. Essentially, the cone is the diameter of the pot and they package it in a tyvek sleeve. Trail Designs will also make one to other sizes, as long as the diameter of the pot is reasonable enough.
To me, this is an ideal cooking system because the pack size of my whole cooking kit is just the stove itself and I get all the benefits of my longerTi-Tri system.
Because I already had the gram weenie esbit stove (3 grams) and the two extra stakes which allow for wood burning, I only had to purchase the cone and the pot (with lid). Unfortunately, good gear is pricey. The cone alone was $45 (36 grams) and the Evernew Titanium 900ml pot was $53 (100 grams) which came with a lid (37 grams). The tyvek sleeve which holds the cone is 1 gram and likely won't last too long because it is a very tight fit on the inside of the pot when the cone is in it. This may also cause problems for the non-stick surface. I am strongly considering using a pot without the special coating for this reason, and because it shaves a small bit of weight (20 grams). I'm also thinking of swapping out the lid for some heavy duty tinfoil or something equally light to further cut out unnecessary weight.
I almost always carry a 900ml pot or cup because it is a perfect size for my needs. For example, using freezer-bag cooking options, I generally need around two cups of boiled water for a meal. A 900ml cup can hold more than three. So, I pour off two cups into my meal to hydrate it and add some tea mix to the rest of the cup and can have a hot meal and hot beverage together without wasting time or effort. This system also brings 3 cups to a boil on only one esbit. Beautiful.
Although one could use a lighter system overall, like tinfoil for a windscreen, and aluminum pot, and the Backpackinglight Esbit wing stove (http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/titanium-esbit-wing-stove.html) (which can also be purchased from places like Gander Mountain and others), the Sidewinder system offers a more robust option that will likely last substantially longer.
If you've got the cash and you like getting packages with a Yosemite mailing address which include a free Trail Designs rubber wristband, consider this option.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ultralight Cat Hole Tool



It's been discussed before, to include on my blog (http://jolly-green-giant.blogspot.com/2009/04/lightweight-gear-tips.html), but I wanted to briefly mention a new tool I found to dig a cat hole. Yes, we're going to talk about taking a crap in the woods boys and girls.


As many of you likely know by now, my personal belief is that going lightweight doesn't mean being personally stupid nor irresponsible towards the environment. I feel it is the intrinsic obligation, duty, and responsibility of a backpacker to be a good steward of the environment even if it means taking a few extra steps (or extra pieces of undesired gear) to keep nature as pristine (and ecologically safe) as possible. This includes when "self-evacuating".


So yes, you can dig a hole with a stick or a rock and leave a more conventional shovel or digging tool at home. To me though, I'm not really interested in playing a game of beat-the-clock with an old school digging stick which may or may not be immediately capable of digging a decent hole 6-8" down. If it fails, all you do is spoil the environment and likely cause grief for the flora and fauna of the area. So with that, I support bringing some kind of digging utility.


As with anything carried by a lightweight backpacker, my goal is to find the lightest option if I feel I need to carry it. In the past, the most responsible and lightest hole-digging tool I used was the Montbell Handy Scoop (1.4 oz, 6.5", $8), which I still think is a great tool. Other options were either too bulky or I just couldn't dig a decent hole with them.


Many UL'ers have suggested using a tent stake, like the MSR Groundhog or a winter tent stake which has a much more robust scoop. Well, I've found it is tough to dig a good hole with the Groundhog principally because it is three-sided and a winter tent stake is just too big and heavy.


I happened to be in Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) the other day, just snooping around, and came across a brand of tent stake I hadn't heard of before - "DAC". EMS sold a 7" "V" tent aluminum tent stake by DAC which was $1.30 (http://www.ems.com/product/index.jsp?productID=3655464) for a variety of colors and weighed a mere .5 ounces (14 grams). The length is a little longer than similar stakes and the "V" is a little wider. As a result, I've had some success digging holes in my backyard with it and plan to use it as a replacement for my Montbell Handy Scoop which is substantially heavier. And as a nice expected bonus, I can use it as a tent stake in a pinch (one which would likely need to be beaten into place with a rock unless the ground is very soft).


If you're looking for a digging tool, give it a shot. I decided to tie a piece of shock (elastic) cord to the end of mine. In the past, I kept my digging tool in a plastic bag with my toilet paper merely to keep it all together, but the tool was usually dirty and soiled (or stabbed) the toilet paper. With the shock cord, I can put the toilet paper in a plastic bag and cinch the stake around it on the outside with the shock cord to keep it all together without spoiling the toilet paper. And yes, I carry toilet paper.....most of the time. What can I say, my butt prefers it over a nice abrasive pine cone.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

TRIP REPORT: AT & South River Falls (SNP)

Responding to reader requests to post more trip reports, I figured I'd casually mention a 20-mile hike I recently did off the Appalachian Trail and in the South River Falls area of Shenandoah National Park. I personally have a tough time with most trip reports because I find them a bit silly to discuss the act of hiking or seeing this or that when pictures do such a better job of illustrating the point. Course, everyone doesn't bring a camera with them and often the great pictures are missed because of poor lighting, camera problems, user problems, or limited windows of opportunity to snap the perfect picture. Personally, I have a pretty remedial Sony camera which I'd love to upgrade, but just haven't found one that is small enough, lightweight enough, and high-performance enough to make the switch. I have a "professional" Nikon camera, but I'm not about to lug that backpacking.



So for what it's worth, I figured I go into a couple of random thoughts for those of you that like this sort of thing. First off, despite the weather being miserable for a good majority of the summer, I found the mountain temperatures to be completely and totally welcoming. Hiking in the middle of the week ensured I'd be alone on the trail, which I was, but it also ensured my face would be reluctantly thrown into duty as the trail magnet for at least 40 spiderwebs. One of the reasons I use trekking poles is to clear out spiderwebs and my Tilley hat also helped forgo eating most of them, "most".



I think the thing that always surprises me when hiking is that there is always so much to see when there is really nothing to see. In the middle of summer, few things (plants or animals) really want to come out and play. And yet, the views are still amazing, the water is still pristine, and guess what, there are plenty of plants and animals that make an appearance if you take the time to look.



On this trip, I was continually surprised at the number of small things that I would blow by if not paying attention. Whether it be a simple slug crossing the trail, a field mouse oblivious to a giant hiker close enough to pat it on the head, a garter snake basking in the sun, endless butterflies carelessly floating around, brilliantly colored caterpillars, and wood frogs that figure they can blend into the environment if they sit still enough, it all makes for a plenty fine outing in my book.





In my neck of the woods, I think it is fair to say these critters are common. Equally common are deer and black bear. I've actually hand-fed apples to deer in the same area many times in the past as apples trees are scattered throughout the mountains and the deer are infinitely familiar with human visitors taking in the views. Although it is not the smartest choice to combat the urban-wildlife interface by feeding wild animals which can create a problem, it does create memories to last a lifetime.

Since people like to hear about bears, I figured I'd mention them. I came across two adolescents on the second day of my trip after seeing plenty of scat and fully assuming I'd see one. I think in general, I come across a bear around 50%-75% of my hiking adventures. Unfortunately, apparently I am woefully stupid because I don't own bear spray and quite honestly I am not a model citizen around bears. I find them fascinating, so I get too close and often invade their personal space. This has twice resulted in being charged. If you've never been charged by a bear of any size, here are a couple things I'll tell you. First, it is scary as hell. Take whatever machismo you think you have and toss it right out the window. By the way, they can run much faster than you and can climb a tree about as quick as you can blink. The theory of showing the bear that you are boss and standing your ground turns quickly instead into a grown man damn near peeing his pants and acting like a school girl. The snorting and aggressive demeanor coupled with the raising of back hair the the showing of teeth very quickly helps a human understand they aren't nearly as close to the top of the food chain as they think. AND YET, despite this illustration and my stupidity, my interaction with bears has always been otherwise uneventful (meaning I didn't get killed or injured) with exception to perhaps a few undesired pee stains.


This is a video of a bear I came across which I had very little time to react. Just as I grabbed my camera and started shooting, I realized I was standing on the intersection of my trail and an animal trail. As I'm evaluating my options and fully believing I was about to surprise a bear walking towards me paying attention to everything but me, sure enough I watched the bear turn slightly and start heading my way. I slowly start reacting which included taking a step to get off the intersecting trail and the sound of my movement startled the bear immediately as the video shows him high-tailing it out of sight.

video

Because I'm a gear guy, I'll mention that I was wearing a pair of Simblissity Leva Gaiters which I wrote about previously. I really like the fact that they don't have a cord on the bottom and can stay reasonably secure around my shoe. This trip I also found that the water-repellent treatment worked quite well.


By the way, if anyone has any better way of displaying pictures, I'll be happy to switch. I've tried other options and I don't like it. I may actually switch this blog to an entirely different format (WordPress) as the auto formatting of these blog templates and limited control has been testing my good-natured "jolly-ness" for quite awhile.


Anyway, happy trails.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Thoughts on Emergency Kits and Cordage


Lightweight backpacking requires individuals to think out-of-the-box and break from traditions likely taught for generations. For example, many "traditional" backpackers often carry emergency kits which may consist of an emergency tube tent or emergency blanket in addition to other items. I too would love to have an emergency shelter or blanket if put in a survival situation with no other gear. But these items are more for people who are in an emergency situation without gear, not for those carrying a pack full of stuff already. In my opinion, quite a bit of what traditional backpackers carry with them are very redundant and arguably unnecessary. Part of going "lightweight" requires the exercise of common sense, which sadly, is a fad that went out of our landscape long ago. It means giving up redundant gear, not because it couldn't help in a bad situation, but because it is often terribly unnecessary even in an emergency.




For me, there are many backpacking items I often think about quite deeply. I think moving towards a mini Swiss Army Classic knife likely was the something that required the most angst, and quite honestly, I'd still love to have a more robust knife with me because there is a side of me always thinking I'll be pressed into a serious survival or emergency situation despite the fact that my current gear would likely serve me just fine. Before going lightweight, I had carried a beautiful SOG knife which I still love despite the fact that it sits in my knife box along with several others which have become obsolete over the years. Oddly enough, I rarely use the mini knife I do carry and actually use the toothpick and scissor function more than the knife part.




My change to a lightweight knife was one of many choices I needed to make which I thought was a practical move. Yet, some lightweight backpackers take a far more hardline than I do, quite literally bringing only the big three with them (shelter, sleep system, pack) and often that's it with few exceptions (cooking systems are a pot over an open fire, rain gear is often unnecessary in the summer, a healthy yell can replace a whistle, skilled folks can start a fire without matches, etc.). But this style doesn't sit well with my sensibilities and I think it is important for each lightweight backpacker to make decisions based on their own skills, gear, and relevant to the environments they will encounter.
For example, one of the things I carry that I rarely see on any lightweight backpackers gear list is a very small mirror. Over the years, I have found it invaluable. It's great to look at for ticks on my backside, it's great to help pick a gnat out of my eye, it helps identify the seriousness of any wounds to my face (bee stings, fallen branches, etc.), and probably of greatest importance to me, it works as a signal mirror which is tremendously tough to duplicate in the backcountry. As a solo backpacker, I often can't rely on someone else to help with many of the functions that this mirror handles.




My personal thought about going "lightweight" is that it does NOT involve dumping every potentially useful item from your pack. Instead, it focuses on finding lighter and smaller solutions which are more reasonable and accomplish the same goal while otherwise cutting out redundant gear. So for me, the mirror remains in my pack, albeit small and light, but it remains.




One item that I've thought a lot about recently was cordage because it can offer so many dymanic uses. The only cordage I carry is that which I use for my bear bag. It is 50' of URSA Aircord Pro dyneema which can hold up to an absurd 1,400 pounds! It's light and strong...and completely overkill. I purchased it when I didn't want to bring along the heavier 550 paracord and probably should switch it out for something even more practical (and light).




My problem with the 550 paracord is the weight and the fact that it is susceptible to water retention (the dyneema cord is coated with urethane). Yet oddly enough, I think it is more useful overall. Being able to cut it open and have access to several strands of thinner cord is invaluable in a legitimate survival situation for snares, lashing, fishing line, bow, guylines, medical brace, and numerous other things which is one of the reasons I really want to carry it...yet I just can't make the mental leap to put it in my pack. Sure you could make cordage out of of braided saplings, vines, reeds, and all kinds of things nature provides...but the time and energy it would take to make something like that and the likelihood for it to be immediately functional isn't something I'll willing to roll the dice on when faced with a real survival situation.




Well, a handful of survival merchandisers have taken an old idea and made it mainstream. They have fashioned 550 paracord into belts and bracelets which can be unraveled as needed in a pinch. Bracelets offer around 24' of cord and belts around 125'. In fact, many manufacturers will actually give you a new one for free if you ever need it in an emergency, a marketing ploy that would require you to tell them your story so they could entice other potential buyers which your periling ordeal. Having this as a dual-use item, especially one not actually carried "in" the pack, may be a solution for a lightweight backpacker especially if it replaces a piece of gear you're going to be carrying anyway without any appreciable downside.




My point is that if you're someone like me who refuses to carry something like 550 paracord in your pack because of one reason or another....but you still want to figure out a way to have the flexibility it offers, perhaps you could use something like a 550 paracord belt or bracelet as a dual use item to justify it. That's not to say I'll be on the cutting edge of paracord fashion in the wilderness this season, but I am putting it in the "maybe" pile.




If you'd like to take a look, go to http://www.survivalstraps.com/ or take a look at much less expensive options on eBay. Course, this might be an item worth making yourself (http://www.wonderhowto.com/how-to-make-bracelet-with-550-paracord-362761/. You can purchase 1000' of cord for around $35 if you really look for it and the buckles are less than $1 each. While you're at it, make me one too...


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Thanks - TO YOU!

Over the course of the month of August, the acknowledged readership of my blog passed the 100 mark. These readers are from around the world and bring with them a vast amount of knowledge and experience which have been welcomed. What started nearly 2 years ago has spiraled to a point that I couldn't ever have imagined. I've made numerous friends, learned a lot, and reaffirmed my belief that the backpacking community is one of the most giving and selfless groups I've ever encountered.
Although I have no delusions that my blog is little but the smallest blip on the radar of the lightweight backpacking cyberspace community, I wanted to express my appreciation to all those who spent any amount of time reading my ramblings and particpating in the community we all enjoy. For anything you have gained personally, I have gained more. It was through my initial research on blogs like this which drew me into the lightweight backpacking community. I proudly represent blogs dedicated to this subject and the cottage manufacturers which support these interests to the right of my blog -------> which I too continue to learn from.
I am particularly proud of the fact that readers found my blog singularly through a grassroots effort, search engines, and word-of-mouth as I did my best to avoid advertising my blog elsewhere because I felt it was a bit cheesy and narcissistic to try to draw people in by using the foundation of established websites merely for personal gain. Unfortunately, the tactics of self-advertisement in this setting have become more the norm and organically grown readership is frequently replaced with tacky in-your-face hijacking of your favorite websites and blogs. I think part of respecting this industry as a whole can be shown through exercise of tact which often means operating under the belief that if something said deserves attention, people will find you. This perhaps isn't a success-model for a fruitful business, but this isn't a business and readership is voluntary.
Looking back at my first post http://jolly-green-giant.blogspot.com/2008/09/welcome-to-my-blog.html, which also tells readers about me personally and helps explain the focus of my blog, I think I've stuck to the original goals I set out for myself. I can't say how long my blog will continue, but for now I will keep blabbering and I'd like to thank everyone for continuing to read and participate. It is through this collaboration that we all gain the knowledge, experience, and skills to help us have the most fun in the safest most dynamic manner.
As for me, I'll be returning to the woods for some backpacking on the Appalachian Trail for the remainder of the week. Hopefully you too can escape. If not, find happiness in one of the many wonderful blogs and resources which exist that I too use to peak and maintain my interests while otherwise trapped in the giant gerbil ball of life.
Best wishes,
JOLLY GREEN GIANT

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Two Person Cuben Mid


www.mountainfitter.com has recently joined the lightweight and ultralight backpacking scene with several cuben products. Instead of copying the designs of others, the owner (thankfully) thinks out of the box and doesn't rush to market with anything but well thought out products. For example, MountainFitter was one of the first to pursue a cuben hammock which was tested with the intent of going to market for the masses. After some testing, it was determined that the weight of the cuben fiber wasn't durable enough and the project was abandoned because the heavier cuben fiber needed was already equilavent to existing products (Grand Truck Nano 7). Rushing junk to market helps no one.
I've mentioned MountainFitter in the past because I found their cuben products to be much more reasonably priced than other manufacturers. I also like the bonding method used as it doesn't puncture the fabric like stitching. If you haven't checked out their large stuff sacks and waterproof sacks, both made of cuben, take a look....when they are in stock.
MountainFitter has another great product on their hands which is a soon-to-be-released cuben duo mid. MountainFitter is bringing to market a 108"x54" 8.5 oz version which reminds me of my old GoLite ShangriLa 2. I figure this product will be quite desirable to those who aren't quite comfortable with a tarp and want 4 walls while accepting the limitations of a floorless shelter. Unfortunately, with trekking poles, this product likely won't make it into my gear closet because I'm guessing the length just isn't long enough and I'd ultimately kick out the trekking poles while trying to sleep like I've done with every other shelter of similar design. However, for those of you who aren't too big for the modern world, this may be an excellent option for you.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

New Lightweight Gear on the Horizon

For most of the year, I've been quite content in my belief that the lightweight outdoor industry had slowed in sense of product development. A cuben Haven or Vamp by Six Moon Designs never came out nor did a similar shelter from Gossamer Gear - both of which I figured would be out by now (although I believe we'll see them by next year at the latest). Even products which were debuted at other earlier shows this year, such as the Ridgerest Solar which I mentioned in another entry, still hasn't made it to the consumer market.

Fortunately, this time of year brings with it a variety of outdoor shows both in the U.S. and abroad which have offered some new products worth once again hoping to see in the consumer market. Giving credit to where credit is due, Backpackinglight.com and hrxxlight.com have both done great jobs at posting observations for you and I to appreciate. Below are a couple of things that caught my eye:

Terra Nova is coming out with a cuben version of their Laser 1 making it officially the lightest double-walled tent on the market which will come in at just over a pound.

Sea-to-Summit is coming out with a tent that is very similar in appearance to SMD's Vamp and/or Haven...which to be fair, is a very similar design to other tents too. With tents, it is tough to reinvent the wheel. The Specialist, coming in both a solo and duo version, is a silnylon tent that will come in at 22 and 29.8oz respectively.


Terra Nova is also working cuben into their pack line with their Ultra 20 100g pack.








Probably one of my favorite products is the new Pacific Outdoor Equipment Peak AC inflatable pad. It should compete quite well with the NeoAir which has both detractors and followers. The Peak AC, like the NeoAir, uses a radiant barrier to increase the r-value and will start at $65 for a 10.75oz version.



I also like the Pacific Outdoor Equipment Peak Oyl Lite sleeping pad which boasts a 3-4 r-value and will no doubt compete with the BPL Torsolite which I found to be laughably small...although the Peak Oyl is only 37"x18" for 9oz.




For those of you who like to carry a more substantial knife than just a Swiss Army mini or a razor blade, check out the Baladeo knife which comes in at just 1.19oz for a knife with 4+ inches of blade. I should mention that I personally wouldn't carry this knife principally because it seems a little too frill-less to me (dangerous) and I also think the locking mechanism isn't as robust as it could be, but it may very well be a good option for some of you. Personally, for a lock blade, I like the Benchmade 530 at just 1.8oz.

Sand Socks Inc. is coming out with "Grip Socks" which is a product for folks that want some basic footwear whether for camp or water. It is literally nothing more than a neoprine sock with some foam at the bottom. A pair of mediums weigh 3.3oz.



Trail Designs has listened to their customers and redesigned their wonderful Ti-Tri system into a cone that fits into a 1.3l, 900ml, and 600ml pot which makes packing a lot easier. Hopefully Titanium Goat will follow suit.

There are a lot of other unique and interesting things on the horizon to include quite a bit of new clothing (ultralight down and rain options) and even new sleeping pads such as the redesigned NeoAir and superminimal pad called the Inertia X-Frame by Klymet which claims a weight of around 9 oz , but I just wanted to identify a few things that I found interesting. Hopefully we'll see some of these innovations by early spring if not sooner.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

EDUCATION: Fire


Many of you know that my once weekly blog has turned into something that I try to fit in between the responsibilities of life which have been dominating my personal landscape as of recent. One of the more pressing of these responsibilities is my pursuit of a Graduate Degree in Natural Resources. How does this have anything to do with lightweight and ultralight backpacking? Well, many of the topics I learn about I find have parallels to backpacking. After some consideration, I've decided I would mention some of the more relevant topics within the confines of my little blog for the simple fact that I think my readers would be interested. My intent isn't to imply I'm on expert on any topic, but merely to provide some of what I learned in areas where I perceive there to be some widespread misconception. I have no foresight as to what topics will be addressed or how frequently they will be posted, so for the most part my blog will continue to be dedicated more directly to lightweight and ultralight backpacking gear and trip reports.
With that, for my first topic under the Education category, I thought I'd address wilderness fire. To use the correct terminology, the term "wilderness fire" or even "forest fire" is obsolete. The correct term is "wildland fire".
For the most part, I think the perception of the general public towards wildland fire is that any fire in our precious forest environment is a bad thing. We've all seen various television programs peppered with images of firefighters working valiantly to keep our forests as they appear today. Preventing fires and suppressing those that do flare up has been policy in America for over 100 years.
Unfortunately, there are several problems with this policy. First, nature NEEDS fires. It stirs nutrients, fosters new growth, keeps overgrowth in check, provides for habitat, and many animals and plant species have actually evolved to the point where they too NEED fire to survive and thrive. Fire actually allows trees to grow bigger because forests aren't so dense that they compete against one another. It also allows forest landscapes to be more spaced out, meaning trees aren't packed together and look more "park-like" instead of the highly dense forests we see now. Ask yourself whether you'd rather be able to walk through a forest without bumping into tree after tree and whether whether you'd like to avoid having endless bugs on your feet from overgrown vegetation and you might very well find yourself supporting fire.
If you think about it, we've been told for a very long time that fire is bad. We all agree that fire in our homes, workplace, vehicles, or in places that could otherwise hurt humans, property, or things of value are bad, but we've also been told that fire in our wilderness areas are bad. Think back to the movie Bambi where forest fire was a major part of the storyline which scared the crap out of anyone who watched Bambi's and Bambi's family cope with what was implied to be a highly destructive and damaging fire capable only of killing and ruining. Think of Smokey Bear's message and the stress he put on preventing any kind of forest fire. TV, news, radio, and printed media thrive on telling stories of heroic firefighters and influence public opinion by showing pictures of dilapidated forests impacted by fire. In the end, most of us would easily support efforts to stop fire. After all, we don't want our pristine wilderness ruined.
Here are some thoughts worth pondering. First, firefighting efforts are largely useless. In fact, most wildland firefighters would be the first to tell you that their efforts are more for public display to show that the government is doing something against the perception that fire is evil. Firefighters also help support the firefighting budget which many would argue is a cyclical system representing American government where money is spent on fire policy that is largely ineffective to put people to work (firefighters, manufacturers of firefighting equipments, bureaucrats to write policy, scientists who investigate and make recommendations, etc.). Essentially, fire and firefighting justifies their existence. Believe it or not, the WEATHER plays a far more significant role than anything else. Out west, you'll notice that most fires only eventually end when seasonal changes bring rain or snow despite the efforts of firefighting. Many would also argue that firefighting creates many more problems than it tries to solve. First, it puts lives at risk. Second, fire lines, trenches, thinning, etc. all could be damaging to a forest ecosystem and may contribute to erosion. Fire retardants could hurt plant and animal life. Roads needed to get to fires could lead to erosion and allow poachers access to an area which was otherwise secluded.
Logging operations have also convinced much of the American public that they help to reduce fuels by removing trees. Fuels, and the accumulation of them, do indeed contribute to fire. However, commercial logging operations have a tendency to remove trees of value and not the smaller trees or vegetation that actually needs to be removed to make a significant impact to fire prevention. Much like roads leading to a fire, logging roads can also allow access to an area by poachers. Logging equipment can bring with it seeds and insects from other areas which may have a devistating impact to the new environment. Logging also takes away tree canopy which allows the woody debris left behind to dry out causing an increase to fire risk. There is also something to be said about the argument that reducing fuels makes little difference because the weather (specifically drought and wind) play a far greater role. Using Alaska as an example, they have a substantial built up of fuels but have little fire because of the differences in weather. If the assumption is that logging is bad, many people want to know why logging usually isn't permitted in an area that is destine to be set on fire (human-caused) anyway because valuable timber would be turned into ashes for seemingly no good reason. The answer is because the removal of what is likely valuable commercial trees actually feeds the soil for up to 100 years if allowed to burn and contributes to the local ecology. If it is removed, the nutrients go with it.
So am I implying that we should allow places like Yellowstone to burn if ignited by a careless camper or lightning strike. Well, yes. I realize this isn't a popular answer because we all like seeing the scenery, but the bottom line is that the ecology needs it. If we want future generations to see our wonderful world, fire cycles need to be allowed much in the same manner as they existed as part of nature before human intervention. How important is this? Very. For those of you who have visited the Great Sequoias, you'll note that there are many huge trees and virtually nothing else. This is because of our century long fight against fire, we stopped the very thing that allowed them to reproduce. Logpole pines work the same way and require fire to open their cones to distribute their seeds. Many root systems also require fire to allow them to grow and spread. Fire also provides bountiful nutrients to water systems for many generations which helps feeds fish and other acquatic life.
To me, it is all quite literally that simple. We as a society need to recognize that we must shift our focus from preventing fire and suppressing it to allowing it. This requires a HUGE shift in public understanding and education. Instead of spending tons of money on firefighting efforts, this money should instead be focused towards the very things that should be protected - human life. Essentially, for homes near fire-prone areas, money should be spent on building them to be impacted in a fire as little as possible. This would include using building materials and landscaping efforts around homes and communities. Did you know that wildland fires usually aren't responsible for lighting homes on fire despite what you see in the news. Actually, fire jumps from treetops to treetops. Being that few homes have trees right on top of them, the fire instead spreads on landscaping likely installed by the homeowner who actually make their home more susceptable to fire. I'll also mention a personal belief that I think homeowners who willingly live in fire-prone areas should be required to pay for insurance to protect them so people like you and I aren't left footing the bill. But what about all the smoke if we allow these fires to burn? Well, they WILL have an impact to global warming, at least initialy, but as new vegetation grows, the end result will actually reduce global warming.