Bear Country: Hanging vs Canister

I used to hate going to areas with bear canister requirements.  The extra couple of pounds of weight in the pack felt like 10, and they just don’t pack that well in any backpack, and plain old don’t fit in some.  In bear country, I was much happier hanging a bear bag. In fact I used to take pride in picking out a campsite with a good bag tree and got even more satisfaction from a “good hang”.

As the years have passed and the back country has got more popular the inevitable increase of human-bear interactions has likewise increased the number of areas with canister requirements.  This is not a trend I was appreciative of, but it was counteracted by another trend: my journey to lighter weight backpacking.

Now that I have shed pounds off my pack weight, I find the addition of a canister not as much of a burden.  In fact, I really like not having to bother with bear bag hanging at camp, and in real bear country now prefer the canister for convenience and as a handy camp stool.  After fiddling around with multiple packing scenarios, I have found a couple of good methods to fit a couple of sizes of canisters (BV-450 and 500) in a couple of different packs (ULA Ohm 2.0 and Gregory Z55) for trips up to 6 nights.

In the Ohm, I put the BV-450 in sitting upright on short trips and pad around it.  For longer trips with more equipment it works better on its side (which avoids it pushing out toward your back.  For the BV-500, it only fits in the Ohm upright.  In the Z-55 it fits the same way and still has room for up to a 6 day trip.

If I could only figure out a way to rig up a backrest on a canister (a “chair canister) I am convinced I might bring one on every trip!

 

Fresh Backpacking Bread

OK.  It doesn’t look pretty, but there is absolutely nothing I like better on the trail than fresh bread.  My standard recipe is “bannock” – a Scottish word for a type of flat bread.  Despite being born in Scotland, and moving to the US at age 10, I didn’t hear of bannock bread until the early 1980s as I started backpacking.  An old 1960’s book by Bradford Angier, “Home in Your Pack”.

Within this little book, with much outdated information, is almost a whole chapter on bannock including the simple recipe:

A little oil in a pan/pot, the right amount of water mixed in the ziploc with the ingredients, and about 5 minutes later you have fresh hot bread.  I eat it sometimes on a long lunch break with some cheese and bacon bits or other protein.  Most often, I cook it fresh for breakfast and eat it with a bit of string cheese or just on its own – breaking off nice warm pieces between sips of coffee on a frosty morning.

Variations that I seldom use but are excellent

  • add some berries picked along the trail
  • add less water and make more of a biscuit
  • drop it on top of cooked fruit like apples and it will quickly cook into a cobbler

This is not an ultralight meal, but it hits the spot on cold days.  There are few things better to satisfy hunger and warm your insides than this!

Solo Backpacking Safety – Decision Time

A couple of recent trips and non-trips got me thinking about my favorite way to travel in the backcountry – solo – and how that may affect decision making on, or off, the trail.  A couple of examples:

A few weeks ago I went on a trip to Shining Rock Wilderness in western NC while my wife was at a four-day event mid state.  I planned to drop her off on the way and pick up on the way back and have three nights in the woods.  Starting on day two, I began to feel excessively tired and also began to get a constant heart burn.  By night two, it was difficult to eat and I had no energy.  A decade or so ago (I am quickly approaching 50 now), I would have soldiered through and toughed it out.  However, since I was on my own and in a relatively untraveled part of the wilderness, I decided to leave a day early at a slow pace.  Turns out that I was definitely feeling sick and got a little worse, but luckily the heartburn was just that (and coincidental with trying a new dish in the field rather than at home like I usually do).  I don’t regret leaving a day early – better safe than sorry when solo at my age, and I have always promised my lovely wife that I would be careful to ease her worries.

Here we are a few weeks later, and due to bad luck I cancelled a weekend trip to VA to another wilderness area.  I was going to leave on Friday after work and have a short two-night exploration of an area I hadn’t been to in a couple of decades.  Woke up Friday morning feeling awful and stayed home from work.  It was difficult, with my trusty pack already to go and in mid-afternoon feeling a bit better, but I held with the initial decision to postpone a week.  Good decision as I slipped back on Friday night and am still feeling kind of puny on Saturday – not the fitness level you need to tackle several steep climbs and waterless ridges.  The pack is staying by the door ready for next weekend!

I guess the moral of the story is when going solo, and especially as you advance in “experience” (age), playing it safer is probably the best option for you and your significant others.

Esbit vs Alcohol for Backpacking

I have read a bunch of blogs and comments about the benefits and negatives of alcohol vs esbit solid fuel as alternatives for lightweight backpacking stoves.  Here is my two cents after running a comparison at home.

I have been using the Caldera Ti Tri Sidewinder for a couple of years – primarily using wood burning mode in the evening and alcohol mode for breakfast and a quicker getaway onto the trail.  I only used Esbit a couple of times and decided it was less efficient.  In looking back, I don’t think I gave it a fair shake as it was a cold and windy trip (15-20 deg F).  So I decided to run a test today and compare the heating and burn times of an Esbit fuel tab and alcohol.  Here are the results:

Test Method:  Heat to boiling (2 cups of tap temperature cool water) and burn time of one 14g Esbit fuel tab and 2 tablespoons of alcohol.  Outside conditions:  no wind and around 65 degrees.

Esbit Fuel:

9 minutes to bring water to rolling boil.

16 minutes to use up entire tab.

Alcohol:

5.5 minutes to bring water to rolling boil.

10 minutes to use 2 tablespoons of fuel.

Fuel comparison:  while the Esbit weighs only 14 grams, it seems to be relatively equal in weight to the alcohol, which weighed slightly more but needed less time to boil.  The Esbit also didn’t continue the boil the last couple of minutes but died down to a simmer as it shrunk.

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Esbit tabs weigh a bit more than a tablespoon of alcohol, but significantly less than 2.

There is some residue left by Esbit on the pot, but it was easily removed.  Didn’t bother me as my pot is already blackened from years of wood fires.

This simple test is not really conclusive or scientific.  I didn’t do multiple tests (too cheap to burn that much Esbit without eating something!), orient the tablet in different directions, etc.  However, my general conclusion is that the weight difference is negligible for a short trip and it “boils” down (pun intended) to your personal preference.

 

Backpacking Lights – Extra batteries or backup light?

While packing for a weekend trip, I realized I have been packing extra batteries for my headlamp (or previously flashlight) as a standard item in my “Repair Kit” for a long time.  This approach has a couple of flaws:

  • On a short trip, there is no need for additional batteries unless the ones in the light are already worn down or you expect to do a lot of night time activity.
  • The extra batteries don’t address a failure in the light except for dead batteries

So I decided to alter my gear list, and take just the headlamp with fresh batteries.  At the last minute while at the outdoor store, I saw a clip light for baseball caps.  On a whim I bought one and threw it in my pocket for the weekend.  Turns out, I like this little light – the Amphipod Swift Clip Cap Light – for a short trip.  I am working on a full review for Trailspace, but in short this thing weights a half ounce, takes up almost no room, and is a serviceable light for around camp.  I threw it on my ball cap in the evening to try it out and it worked fine for camp chores and walking around a bit.  It was also nice to have in my pocket when I arrived at camp in dusk and didn’t want to dig out my headlamp.  I would not hike with it at night as it isn’t super bright and has only one setting except for strobe.  You can’t pack it tightly as it doesn’t have a lockout, and it also has to cycle through the annoying strobe before turning off.  But for short trips with no need for extra batteries, the Swift Clip might be worth the half ounce in the event of a headlamp failure.

Don’t take my negatives above to be a detractor of the Swift Clip for its primary purpose. Amphipod does not market this as a backpacking headlamp.  It is probably much better suited for running and other activities for which it is designed.  However, I am always looking for items that have additional uses for hiking, and this is a great little backup light with no real weight penalty.

Greatest Backpacking Stove Ever?

With the exception of tents, maybe, I don’t think there are any other pieces of backpacking equipment that bring out more passion than stoves when folks talk about gear.  That is obviously a biased opinion of an admitted stove-junkie.  If you looked in my gear closet you would see a history of stoves including white gas, multi-fuel, canister, alcohol, and wood burning.  But after 30 years of searching I think I am done, and have fallen in love with….drum roll please….

The Trail Designs Caldera Sidewinder Ti-Tri with Inferno insert!

A full review from me and several others can be found on Trailspace.  I reread that review and feel it is still valid.  I have had this stove for 2 years now, and it is the longest time I have gone without surfing and shopping around for a new one.  Why?

Versatility – the Sidewinder Ti Tri, with Inferno insert, can use alcohol, Esbit, and wood.  To be honest I still haven’t tried the Esbit option more than a couple of times.  I use alcohol for quick stops and wood for camp except when conditions don’t allow.

Here is the stove in “alcohol mode” with the pot sitting well down in the cone and the efficient heating and windscreen created by the form fitting your pot.

Simmering – The downfall of most stoves is an inability to simmer well, although not an issue if you are boiling water and using freeze dried options for dinner.  I dehydrate a lot of my own food and simmer that, or some store bought items for a fresher approach. This is a great option with the Ti Tri Sidewinder after some practice.  You can boil water quickly with a small wood fire, then let it die down to mostly coals for a simmer and just add a little fuel here and there to keep things hopping.

Even the alcohol option has simmer capability if you futz around a bit and raise the pot to the wood burning setting. Here is the stove simmering dinner the other night in Shining Rock Wilderness – apologies for the lighting but it shows the simmering over coals well.

Weight and Packability – At around 4.5 ounces and fitting inside my Vargo 1.3 L pot, the Ti Tri is about as light as I really need and doesn’t impact my packing even for a long trip.  The pot holds my stove and my GSI mug holds my “fire kit”.

Enjoyment – One intangible about the Ti Tri with Inferno, which may not apply to everyone, is the satisfaction gained from using it.  I backpack a lot in wilderness areas with fire restrictions, but (after checking with each ranger’s office to make sure) wood burning stoves often don’t count as a fire.  Building a small fire well in this stove is as satisfying as building a campfire.

Here is one of the many “after dinner fires” I like to keep going for a few minutes.  It’s not exactly a camp fire, but provides some of the same enjoyment (and heat on a 10 degree night last winter).  Again, make sure this is legal in a campfire restricted area before using the wood burning mode!

Negatives are few for me:  a little complex to set up, very pricey if all you want to do is boil water, and the ubiquitous blackening of pots with the wood burning mode (a ziploc or stuff sack cure that for the most part).  To achieve LNT principles, you have to be careful of the ground surface when using wood burning mode.  The titanium base plate does protect the ground but can scorch grass or leaves.

I can’t recommend the Ti Tri highly enough…it is definitely my favorite piece of gear.  If you are not a boil in the bag cook, and enjoy some of the nuances of a campfire, this may be the stove for you too.

Birkhead Mountains Wilderness Trip Report

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I just updated the trip report page with a short weekend trip from last year to one of my favorite local spots…the Birkhead Mountains Wilderness in the Uwharrie National Forest in the middle of North Carolina.  This is a great spot for a day hike or 1 to 2 day backpacking trip.  The mountains are some of the oldest in the world and therefore are very low.  Water sources are good, and campsites are frequent especially off trail (but please use Leave No Trace principles unless you use an established site.  It’s an area I have taken several beginning backpackers for a first hike, but also has great off-trail bushwacking options as the hardwood forests (mostly second growth) are relatively open.  My wife and I have taken short weekend trips here to get out of the house and just spend time in the woods without traveling too far.  It’s nice to have something like this so local to the three major areas in NC (Triangle, Triad, and Charlotte).

Water bottles and more bottles

I hopped down the street at lunch today and bought a new water bottle from the local Sheetz.  I always find myself checking new bottles out in the racks a couple of weeks before a backpacking trip but hold off buying them as much as possible due to their lack of sustainability and potential health issues associated with release of chemicals over time. However, on the few days when I am out of water and have to buy one, I try to go with one that I can reuse for hiking.  This one is a Core hydration bottle.

I will refer you to their website for information on the water and electrolytes, as I don’t pay much attention to that.  The water bottle is what caught me – pretty sturdy but flexible with an interesting cap that might be used as a measuring cup.  It’s going on my next backpacking trip in a couple of weeks.

I am not promoting the use of these bottles as health effects have been suggested. But there is also new evidence that it is not just BPA (Core bottle is BPA free) but also BPS and BPF that we may have to worry about. These are prevalent in all types of plastic, the health effects are debated, and exposure to BPA is much higher in the shiny receipts we get when shopping.  I am not stating opinion here – just letting folks know.  Do your own research and make your own decisions.

This got me thinking about my progression of water carrying devices over the last 30 years of backpacking…here goes:

Scouting in the early 80’s – Standard “issue” round canteen with fabric caddy.  Didn’t stay long with this one.

Boy Scout Vintage Canteen : Factory 20

Mid-1980’s to early 1990’s – The classic plastic bottle – eight sides with an inner plug and outer screw cap.  Can’t find a photo of this one right now.

1990’s through mid-2000’s – The still prevalent Nalgene – from the classic wide mouth bottles to smaller mouthed “sipper” bottle I attached on my shoulder strap.  In winter I still go back to the Nalgene due to its indestructibility.  I can melt snow and pour boiling water right into these babies.  See their website link above.

Last 10 years – Disposable water bottles from Gatorade to Smartwater.  I don’t keep these for a long time as they aren’t BPA free, but they weigh almost nothing and some are very durable.  I hope the Core is like that and look forward to testing it out.  Not sure it will ride as well on the shoulder strap but I’ll enjoy finding out.

Current (Updated):  Now that I have been on a 4 day excursion with the Core bottle, I am making it a part of my routine gear list.  The cap is exactly 1/2 cup for cooking measurement purposes.  The bottle slipped easily into my side pocket just like the Smartwater bottles.  It’s only disadvantage that I have found so far is that it doesn’t fit a Sawyer water filter.  However, I carry a Platypus bag for that as well as a Sawyer bag if it is needed in dry times.  I’ll revisit this after a few more trips…

Gear Review Page Updated

I just updated the gear review page and now have links to Trailspace for the following reviews:

  • Trail Designs Sidewinder Ti Tri Stove – 5 STARS
  • Lightheart Gear Solong 6 Tent – 4 STARS
  • Feathered Friends Osprey UL30 Sleeping Bag – 5 STARS
  • REI Campware Cup – 5 STARS
  • Princeton Tec Sync Headlamp  – 4 STARS
  • NEMO Astro Insulated Lite Sleeping Pad – 4.5 STARS
  • Marmot Tungsten 3P Tent – 4 STARS
  • Sea to Summit Delta Insul-Mug – 3 STARS
  • Merrel Moab Mid Waterproof Boots – 3.5 STARS
  • Trail Designs Ultralight Glasses – 4 STARS
  • Vargo 1.3L Titanium Pot – 4 STARS
  • Rite in the Rain All-Weather Memo Book – 5 STARS

Hope some of these reviews are useful in your gear quest, as well as the over 30,000 other reviews on Trailspace!

Headlamps & Flashlights

So I used a flashlight with a headband for almost 20 years of backpacking before finally switching to a headlamp several years ago.  I started off cheap with the Princeton Sync and am considering upgrading. But in looking at the other options for headlamps I am drifting back to my flashlight headband combo and considering buying a new flashlight. Why?

Headlamps make so much more sense…generally they are lighter, more adaptable in angle of projection, and more convenient.  But sometimes I want to hold the light or shine it in a different direction from where I am looking.  In those cases I would prefer a flashlight.  With the old reliable Nite Ize flashlight headband, I can use the flash as a headlamp or flashlight. It doesn’t have the ability to change angle but serves as a decent light for camp chores.

Since I avoid night hiking like the plague, I don’t need the long term hands free use of the headlamp. Nothing against night hikes, but as most of my trips are solo I don’t like to risk much. I think there is no logical reason for me to switch back from lamp to light, but it’s a personal comfort thing and probably just old habits coming back.

I might invest in a good flashlight and a good headlamp and carry both for a while…I see a couple more reviews in the future.

Backpacking reviews, trips, and random thoughts