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October through December 2012

Post date: Dec 30, 2012 1:08:25 AM For those of you who may have received a gift or two related to backpacking during the holidays, we have a suggestion. Now is the time to put those gifts to good use. No, you don’t have to wear them out before summer ever arrives. But this is the perfect time to wear those new boots around the house, or on a relaxing stroll through the local park.

You might even put on your new backpack and wear it too. Set your tent up in the back yard, and take it down a few times. Light the new stove and see how fast it boils water—at least at sea level.

We do this, and we do it for two reasons. One of the reasons is obvious—it is much better to find out that something doesn’t work or gives you blisters when you are close to home and not trying to get back to the trailhead that is twenty two miles away. The other reason is that it’s fun.

Break in your boots now.

Post date: Dec 20, 2012 4:25:43 AM Following our post on who's been nice this year, we got a ...well, a NICE note on one of the message boards from Peter McClure, of the Interpretative Guides Association at Rocky Mountain National Parks, Canada. Peter suggested that there were a few more people to thank....

"I'd like to add a bunch, too.

All the organizations that promote and lobby to protect the wilderness, like the Nature Conservancy, EcoJustice, LeaveNoTrace, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Association, the Jasper Environmental Association and Wildsmart, the Interpretive Guides Association and the AMG/ACMG/IFMGA, and all the Alpine and Mountain Clubs around the world.SAR Techs, (often unpaid volunteers) who get called out in the very worst weather at the most inconvenient times, to rescue the people who, for whatever reason, get lost or injured in the backcountry.

More volunteers - all the people who take a day or a weekend to get out and maintain the trails we all enjoy. People like Dieter Kepper, who with just his mountain bike and chainsaw made it his mission to cut the deadfalls off all the 1,000 km of trails in Jasper. All the people and the companies who donated material or money to help them all do it.

And a personal thanks to Hostels International, which provides inexpensive accommodation in the mountain parks. I sure couldn't afford to be out there every weekend if I had to pay hotel prices in a resort town!"

Thank you Peter, for some excellent suggestions. And if we're ever up in the Blue Canadian Rockies...,we certainly look forward to giving you a call.

Post date: Dec 19, 2012 4:50:27 PM Who is nice?

The National Park Service and USFS rangers, staff and volunteers who are unfailingly nice and helpful—often in the face of some of the very idiots we mentioned yesterday. These are really good people, and don’t get the credit (or money) they deserve. Remember those knuckleheads in DC?

Game wardens everywhere. A thankless and dangerous job. Thank you!

Outdoor writers who encourage everyone to get off their behind and out into the wonderful world. And anyone else who does the same.Hikers on the trail who offer help, guidance, encouragement, or even food and water to those who need it. How nice is that?

And a shout out to those on the many backpacking message boards on the internet—who offer their time and expertise over and over again. We love to read their trip reports, equipment reviews, trail advice, and clever solutions to the problems we all face.

Anyone who takes someone else hiking or backpacking. Yeah, we worry about some of the campsites in the Sierra, and the traffic they get. But the more people see these amazing places, the more they will vote to protect them. And we need all the votes we can get! This absolutely includes Boy and Girl Scout leaders, despite their organizational policies on sexual orientation.

Those who make trails or maintain them.

Competent sales staff at outdoors stores—those who really try to give you good advice instead of just selling you whatever is latest, trendy, or overstocked. They are becoming rarer every day, but they do exist. Those wonderful and crazy people who are continually trying to find new ways, lighter materials, and multi-use equipment to lighten our loads in the back country. Your ideas may be completely bizarre…but if they work, we are interested!

And yes, despite our comments in yesterday’s blog, we also sometimes appreciate those who place a few small cairns to lead us out of the wilderness when we are wandering and wondering. Sometimes, it‘s nice to know the route can be done…

Post date: Dec 18, 2012 4:10:10 PM Every year we make a list of people who really should know better. May Santa bring them coal for their stockings and a plague of mosquitoes wherever they go:

The bumbling and criminal idiots who butchered the historic petroglyphs near Bishop in order steal them. They destroyed a priceless part of our national heritage.

The clown we met in the backcountry of Yosemite with his young son and two dogs…and who explained that he knew about the regulations, but they didn’t really apply to him. After all, his dogs were well-trained, yadda yadda yadda.

For that matter, all of those who know that the regulations don’t really apply to them: from fishing in closed waters (or with illegal equipment) to camping in illegal places (too close to the trail or water.) Yes, the rules do apply to you, too. And even if the people you meet don’t say it, they think you are complete jerks. They are right.

Those who bypass road closures and trail closures because they know better. Especially those idiots who then need help getting rescued. Not only do they place themselves in danger, but they risk the lives and health of those who are then required to go search for them. Anyone who leaves food unprotected in the mountains. Especially those who do it because they hope it will attract wildlife. Follow the regulations, and nobody gets hurt---not even the bears.

Those who cross high water streams because they think they can get across. Then again, they aren’t with us anymore, so it doesn’t really matter. You don’t have to cross. There is always a Plan B, even if Plan B means going back the way you came.

Those who litter, even a tiny little bit, along the trail. We can’t remember the last trip we’ve taken that didn’t show us little bit of trash, and often bigger bits. We try to pick it up—but sometimes it is just too much. Pack out your trash.

Those who build fires (or fire rings) where they are illegal. Why do we find so many of these above the elevation limit in the Sierra?

And a special note of disapproval for those who refuse to follow the rules about hygiene and toilet paper. May you find some used TP under your tree, just as we have found it behind our campsites in the Sierra.

Curmudgeons who insist that their way is really the only way to backpack, whether that be ultra-light, take the kitchen sink, or just take a rifle and an axe and build everything you need. Hike your own hike…and let others do the same, as long as it is within the regulations.Large groups. 'nuff said.

Those who build needless cairns in the backcountry as a way of marking their territory off trail and leaving a string of ridiculous rock towers in an otherwise pristine environment.

And finally, those knuckleheads in Washington who couldn’t find El Capitan from Yosemite Valley if it required asking for directions or working together. Let’s take them all out on a long hike and…oh, nevermind. They’d never leave the trailhead. Heck, they’d never make it TO the trailhead.

Hey---that gives us an idea!

Post date: Dec 15, 2012 4:05:28 AM Does it really have to be ten? We’re not so sure. We’ve certainly seen a lot of lists that include things we would never take backpacking. Like what, you might ask? Well, since you asked…A lot of these lists include a big heavy knife.

Why? The explanation is that you need the knife to chop kindling for a fire, ward off bears, and maybe look more masculine on the trail or something. We find that tiny pocket knife does just fine to cut our salami and cheese for lunch. We don’t make fires, don’t whittle down trees for fun, and don’t imagine using a knife to ward off any wildlife except for the occasional dead trout.

What about a multi-tool? What is it going to fix? The sleeping bag? The tent? We’ve used our sewing kit to fix all sorts of things on the trail, and we’ve never found ourselves wishing we had a pair of pliers or a screwdriver. And it weighs a lot. Leave it at home. We don’t take a cellphone on the trail, because where we hike, there is never any cellphone coverage. We do usually leave one in the car at the trailhead…but we usually have to drive at least an hour before we find any cellphone coverage. What DO we take on a day hike? Let’s make the list, and see if we get to ten items;

1. Water. Always enough to get to our next water source. That's our water filter in the black bag above.

2. A first aid kit. The basics (we’re not going to be doing any surgery on a day hike—we would go get help instead) but it does include band-aids, painkillers, an elastic bandage, a roll of gauze, some antibiotic cream, and a sewing kit.

3. A map and compass. We like to know where we are going, where we’ve been, and where we are. So should you.

4. Snacks. Because low blood sugar is a bad thing, and makes for lousy hiking.

5. A bandana. You cannot imagine all the uses it has.

6. A jacket of some kind, just to keep us warm and possibly dry. So that if we have to leave someone for a couple of hours to get help, that person won’t freeze.

7. A mylar emergency blanket/shelter—helps keep you warm, dry, and can be used as a reflector to signal.

8. A small pocketknife and nail clippers---because your toenails can cause you grief on the trail.

9. Some kind of flashlight—just in case it all goes to hell, and you are still walking after dark.

10. Sunscreen/bug lotion. Obvious. Don’t forget it.

11. Matches. Just in case it all goes to hell, and you decide to stay put until daybreak.

OK—that’s eleven. Let’s see…what are we missing? Bug nets for our heads, camera, binoculars, foam pad for sitting, an extra chocolate bar as a surprise, a Sudoku book—no, wait, that’s the firestarter…Look, the main thing is to not get stuck out there with no hope and no help. Always take a little more than you think you'll need, because it doesn't weigh much, and when you do need it, it will make a HUGE difference.

Post date: Dec 13, 2012 5:34:42 PM This time of year, people like to spend time planning their next backpacking adventure. We certainly do. And we hear from a lot of other people, too. We are delighted that they write us and ask lots of questions. These tend to fall into two basic categories:

1. Where should we hike? These are fun questions to answer. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of destinations in the Sierra, and we love researching them, staring at topo maps, and joining them as they hike the trail in their minds. What fun. The map at right is a photo taken at Henry Coe State Park...and by using the zoom function on the camera, it actually works as a complete trail map. Cool.

2. Will we run into terrible problems? These are easy to answer. Because there are not really any major risks to backpacking in the Sierra. But every year we get so many questions about these. People want to know if they will have problems with bears, or mountain lions, or rattlesnakes, or mosquitoes, or high water or low water or snow or hanta virus….!


Bears: Only if you camp in very heavily trafficked areas, and refuse to use a bear canister. Then you might lose your food. Follow the rules, and you’ll be fine. There have been twelve bear attacks in California in the last twenty years. None of them fatal. None in the High Country. Mountain Lions: Far rarer than bears. No attacks in the High Sierra that we know of.

Rattlesnakes: Leave them alone, don’t pick them up. Most bites occur to young men on their hands and arms. Ahem.

Mosquitoes: yes, there will be mosquitoes. And they can vary in intensity from day to day and season to season. Best is late summer or early fall. Worst is late spring and early summer. Wear bug juice, use a head net when they are really fierce, and camp away from open meadows and wet areas. The more you can get into the breeze, the better you can survive mosquitoes.

Above all--be prepared! These head nets cost a couple of bucks or so and weigh next to nothing. But when you need them, they are heaven! Water and snow: yes, there will be water and snow this summer. How much depends on what happens in April and May of 2013. The good news? You never have to cross a stream or a snowfield. You can always just go back the way you came.

The bad news? High water and slippery rocks are the second biggest killer of people in the Sierra. Every year somebody makes that same mistake. Don’t let it be you.

Hanta Virus: Okay, this is a new one, based on the media reports out of the tent cabins in Yosemite. It is a dangerous disease, but it is contracted by breathing the feces and urine of deer mice. Done much of that lately? This is an issue for poorly constructed and badly cleaned buildings in the Sierra. It’s not an issue in the wilderness.Did we miss something?

Oh yeah—the single biggest killer of people in the Sierra by far is the ferocious automobile. If at all possible, avoid it!

Post date: Dec 12, 2012 3:49:34 PM Some myths die hard. We’re referring to that old chestnut about the warmest way to sleep in a down bag. Legend has it that you should sleep naked. Legend is dead wrong. This probably stems from suggestions about how to treat hypothermia or frostbite. In that case, the patient’s own body isn’t generating enough heat to warm the bag, and the solution is to put someone else in the bag with the patient. Presumably someone who is warm enough to generate some hear, and not averse to icy hands and feet rubbing up against his/her body. It’s not as much fun as you might think.If you're inside your tent...who cares what you're wearing?

But when it comes to perfectly normal people trying to stay warm, more insulation is better. It’s really just common sense. The down bag provides a level of insulation. So do your clothes. And those two, in combination, provide more. It is no different from your attic.

So why doesn’t this legend die?

Let’s see. If I were a young man taking a young woman backpacking…Oh, I see now!

Which brings to mind that wonderful old campfire song, sung to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic:

Oh I wear my pink pajamas in the summer when it’s hot

And I wear my woolen undies in the winter when it’s not

And sometimes in the springtime, and sometimes in the fall,

I jump between the covers with nothing on at all!

Glory, glory, hallelujah; Glory, glory, hallelujah,

Glory, glory, what’s it to ya, if I jump between the covers with nothing on at all!

Post date: Dec 11, 2012 4:11:21 AM But this is not the sleazy television show--this is real life. In case you missed it, a couple of adventurers drove their 4wd up into the snowy mountains a week ago...and then got stuck.

He climbed out after a few days and went for help. She waited a full six days before finally hiking out. The good news is that she was found, and alive. She is now recovering and will tell her tale in more detail. But her friend died on the way for help.

Here's most of the rest of the story, from the local Reno newspaper: The story does drive home a few good points about winter travel.

1. Please be careful, and understand what you are doing. If you don't have a viable plan B, stop until you think of one. If there isn't a plan B. get the heck out of there now.

2. You can live for six days without food, but you can't live that long without water. Despite what those idiots on the TV do and say, don't worry quite so much about foraging for edibles, and make sure you know how to walk out

3. If the road is closed, the road is closed. We aborted a hike last weekend because the road to the trailhead was closed. Yeah, the weather had improved, and we probably could have made it just fine. But if we got into any trouble at all, nobody would have known where we were or how to get there. And get the picture.

4. This is not the first time that the man has left the woman behind in the car, and the woman survives while the man does not. Frankly, I think we'd always stick together in a situation like this, and work together to get out of it. Winter is a lovely time in the Sierra, and this story should just caution you to enjoy it safely.

Post date: Dec 4, 2012 10:29:25 PM Today's paper brought wonderful news for those of us who love the Sierra. Just north of Lake Tahoe, the region has now been protected in perpetuity.

We've hiked, camped and fished in this general area for years, and it is really lovely.What a great gift. Kudos to all who helped make this happen!

Here's the full story from SFGate, the website of the SF Chronicle.

Post date: Nov 28, 2012 5:13:26 PM Read this first, from the Canadian Avalanche Centre. (The speak funny up there, dontcha know, and they spell funny, too.)

But they know their snow.If you want to understand some of the dangers of avalanches and how to avoid them, this is a great on-line course. It isn't quite the same as getting out on the snow with a real expert, but it does a very good job of underlining the key factors in avalanches and your responsibilities in avoiding them.

And at the end, there is an excellent section on going out into the mountains as a group. Well worth the time it takes to run through it:!

Post date: Nov 26, 2012 6:33:58 PM The day after Thanksgiving we headed up the mountains, to stop in at our cabin and do a little work. We had been hoping that elves would magically appear and finish the stonework in the front of the cabin...but that didn't happen. So we took on the job ourselves.

Of course that meant that we had to find more stone, and that meant a trip up beyond Dodge Ridge into the beautiful area below Sonora Pass. The pass itself was closed, but there was no problem with the road up to Donnell Vista...and we suspect it is probably fine all the way to Kennedy Meadows.

We found rocks. We ate lunch. We saw glorious mountains. And we got some exercise. (Lifting rocks at 6,000 feet does get your heart pumping.)

And then we came back to the cabin and put the stones in place. It's not quite like the CCC work on High Sierra trails, but it does seem to do the job. And we love the look. What a nice way spend the weekend!

Post date: Nov 16, 2012 1:32:01 AM Of course, you have to be somewhere that has cellphone reception, which leaves out most of the High Sierra...But in this case it worked...

From the Napa Valley Register:Two 19-year-old teenagers were rescued Wednesday evening from the Oat Hill Mine Trail near Calistoga with the help of the Napa County Search and Rescue team and a California Highway Patrol plane, Napa County Sheriff’s Capt. Leroy Anderson said.A CHP plane was dispatched shortly after the hikers used a cell phone to call for help at 5:47 p.m. after getting lost off the trail, Anderson said.

The plane spotted the hikers at 6:50 p.m. and a Napa County Search and Rescue team, knowing the hikers’ GPS coordinates, hiked into the area, he said.Search and Rescue volunteers found the man and the woman at about 9:30 p.m. and led them out of the area, he said. The teenagers, whose hometown is unknown, were not injured.

(And check out that first sentence. 19-year-old teenagers? Whatever happened to editors?)

Post date: Nov 9, 2012 6:06:08 PM Since we are both pretty darn interested in the world of food and wine, we try to bring a little bit of luxury along on our hikes, especially a treat or two for the palate. A dark chocolate bar seems to hold up just fine, as long as we keep it pretty well insulated in our bear canister.

And we've been known to take wine as well, now that we have a few lightweight plastic bottles that we have saved from the garbage heap or an airline. Chilled in a mountain stream, wine is a wonderful way to celebrate dinner.

(These bottles work great, by the way, as long as the wine is young and fresh--not recommended for aged Bordeaux.)

Of course, that's still a lot of weight on a longer trip, so for those we've taken to filling a few of the miniature bottles with Scotch, Anisette, or even Absinthe for our hikes. It only takes a small amount of the good stuff to give us a nice lift after dinner.

And whenever we do, we remember the lines from the great poet Omar Khayyam, in the Rubaiyat:

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,

A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse---and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness---

And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

Post date: Oct 25, 2012 4:17:53 PM If you've read this blog (or these website pages) at all, you know that we are big fans of finding cheap lightweight equipment wherever we can: thrift shops, yard sales, etc. And we have long favored using plastic soda bottles instead of paying real money for something that usually doesn't work as well, and weighs more.

No heavy Nalgene or sexy aluminum bottles for us!

But we have to admit that we have found something better than soda bottles. These platypus folding bottles actually weigh no more than a large mouth soda bottle, so weight is not an issue. But these bottles also roll or fold up when they are not full. This may not seem like a big deal, but it is at least a small deal, for two reasons.

1. Even when partially full, they take up less space in your pack that then soda bottle. We each carry two bottles in our packs, but we don't always fill them, and this does leave more room in the pack. And the form themselves to the shape of our packs, so they fit in the outside pockets much better.

2. Even more importantly, when you roll them up, you eliminate the airspace in the bottles. And that means that you no longer have to listen to sloshing water with every step on the trail. As we drink, the bottles get smaller, and they still don't slosh.

Is that a big deal? Maybe not. But if you go into the wilderness to hear the sounds of nature, a sloshing bottle or squeaking pack are an annoyance. And these bottles aren't annoying.

We've used these now for a couple of years, and we're sold on them. Nope--we didn't get any money for saying that. sigh.

Post date: Oct 23, 2012 5:08:35 PM There have been some interesting conversations on the internet over the past few days about the best equipment for backpacking, and we thought we'd share some of the discussion here. It all began with that old question: If you had all the money in the world, what would your backpacking equipment look like? And you might expect that the answers would be full of super lightweight, space-age material products that cost a fortune-and-a-half: the stuffbags of dreams.

You would be wrong.Most of the veteran backpackers had very similar answers: "I've tried a lot of different things over the years, and I am pretty happy with what I have."

That works for us, too. We hiked for years with pretty basic equipment. At one point our entire packing list cost us less than $500 for the two of us--and that included a $60 water filter, a $70 bear can, and a $50 stove. Of course, we offset those with clothes from thrift shops, a homemade tent, and bargain backpacks and sleeping bags.

The packs were Eureka 3900s, and cost us under $50 apiece from a box store. And the sleeping bags were ExtremePaks that we bought on-line for under $75 each. They've kept us warm down to about freezing.

We've upgraded over the years. The packs are now a pound lighter, as we paid $75 each for Go-Lite 50s. And the sleeping bags now weigh less, thanks to our REI Sub-Kilos that we bought on close-out for $170 each. We love the bags, and we are getting used to the fewer pockets on our lighter packs. The cost for our current outfit is about $750 for both of us. But we still have that homemade tent, water filter, stove, and BearVault. Although we did upgrade to a professional Tarptent after a few years, and one torrential rainstorm.

And we don't see any reason to change. So if we had all the money in the world...Back then, we said that we would probably just quit our jobs, so that we could backpack more. Now we're retired. And we can do that. With the same equipment we already have.

Post date: Oct 10, 2012 10:12:08 PM If you have ever taken a long backpacking trip, you have probably dreamt about food--especially the meal you are going to eat once you get back to civilization. Pizza, hamburgers, steak, cold beer, salad....they all seem to find a place on the menu, once you get started on the idea. Shoot, we know people who have spent most of the last night of a trip talking around the campfire about what they are going to eat the following day at the nearest restaurant.

And speaking of restaurants, there are a few that have quite a reputation among backpackers as well. The gas station at Lee Vining, the Old Priest Grade Inn, Pizza in Yosemite Valley all have their advocates. We've come to really like Patty's Gourmet Cafe between Sonora and Columbia.

But there is one restaurant that stands out in a completely different way. We have eaten there at least five times in the last ten years, and every single time it has been worse than disappointing. Sometimes the service has been absolutely rude and incompetent--waiting forever for a table in an empty dining room. The last time we had perfectly nice service, and absolutely dreadful food--cold food without even a hint of sauce or seasoning. And the amazing thing is that this restaurant is pretty much the only show in town in a National Park.

You'd think they'd want to do better.

It's the restaurant at Grant Grove Village in SEKI. We can only wonder what amazing arrangements have been made to make sure that it has been so bad for so long. Anyone else have a least favorite place to eat? Let us know, so we can avoid it!

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