2010-06-16

review: bushbuddy woodstove

Jess and are huge proponents of simplicity. The simpler something is, the less ways it can break and the more likely it is we can fix it. So, we've always preferred alcohol stoves for everything but the coldest weather, where the BTU/sec of alcohol is frustratingly slow for melting snow.

In the interest of trying to carry less, particularly less consumables, and detaching ourselves from the bonds to society consumables bring; we've done a lot more cooking on simple open fires lately. It turns out it's really quite easy, though it takes some time to build up a good hot fire that you can really cook on. The big downside is that you need to build up a fire-ring, you burn a lot more wood than you need to for the heat, and that ash is going to stick around when you're done violating "leave no trace". None the less, it's entirely viable in many situations where there are very few users, you have time (both for cooking and burial of ash), and/or you're camping in established sites.

Other times it's completely out due to limitations of fire hazards and such.

So, what do you do the rest of the time? Why are we carrying in fuel when there's perfectly good wood in many scenerios? The idea of being completely detaching from society is right there, but we can't because of time and environmental influence, what can we do about this?

Enter wood stoves. If we can burn wood really efficiently and completely we'll only need a few twigs, and the result will only be a tiny bit of ash. In many situations this won't cause anyone problems at all. Additionally, in so doing we don't need to wait to build up this huge mass of hot coals, because we're getting all of the heat out of the wood fast.

After a fair amount of research I picked up a Bushbuddy Ultra. More information can also be found on BacpackingLight. These sites together have give a lot of details, but the long and short of it is a 5.1 ounce stove with a double-wall firebox, an absolutely perfect draft, that won't scorch the ground. I ordered it with the matching titanium pot from backpacking light.



There are many woodstoves out there, and I haven't tried others. That said, the guy who desgined the bushbuddy is a tinkerer. He lives off the grid and spotwelds these by hand with a solar-powered welder and a home-made tip he developed himself. He's been perfecting the design for many years, and it shows. Additionally, the non-scorching feature is pretty rare and hard to find, this isn't something many of the stoves worry about, and those that do mostly don't supply sufficient heat isolation to achieve it.

So, the obvious question now is... how well does it work?
Well... wonderfully! Given a couple of sticks as long as your arm and as big around as my pinky (I have largish hands), along with some good dry grass or similar to get it lit, I can boil a liter of water in about 10 minutes best case. At worst it may take more like 20 minutes to get it all lit and the water to a hard boil. So far we've mostly used dry manzanita and live oak brush. This is some of the best wood you could have. The worst conditions we've used it in is a dewy morning. So we'll have to report back later with more thorough results.

With a stove like this there's no reason not to really cook your food. Even with those 2 sticks much of the wood used is in getting it up to heat, once it's hot getting a rolling boil is very fast. I'm sure that I can simmer on it with more skill, but I'm still working on that :). So far I'm still carrying my alcohol stove (at a cost of some fraction of an ounce). This means I can use the alcohol if I just want food "now" or can't find wood. The alcohol stove fits in the top of the wood stove for storage, and in fact the wood-stove acts like a super-fancy perfectly drafting high-tech windscreen, greatly improving the efficiency of the alcohol stove (sorry, I don't have numbers on that yet).

So, now that I've raved, what are the downsides. Well, the downsides are as obvious as the upsides. Although this is FAR easier than getting an open fire lit, it's still a heck of a lot harder than an alcohol or butane. You need good tinder. Surprisingly, supposedly you do not need very good wood. I've successfully boiled water using twigs from small dead brush, and I've heard you can use worse. The stove is very well built, and very robust under expected forces. That said it MUST be protected in your pack, the outer walls are extremely crushable sideways (not in the way your pot will put force). I expect it to last for many years, but I'm very glad I got the pot to store it in. Another downside you might expect (though not think of), unlike an open fire you're not going to be doing any baking in the coals. The biggest downside is the pricetag of $145. Handcrafted and designed by someone this meticulous it's worth it, but it 'aint cheap.

Jess plans to try her own designs and compare them to the bushbuddy, expect upcoming articles on the results of those experiments :)

2010-06-11

Minimalist footwear (5-fingers, huaraches, and boots)

There has been a lot of movement in popular culture towards more minimal footwear. This has made Jess and I very happy as it's given a lot more options for us. Admittedly it's slightly annoying since it's also created a lot of things that appear minimal, but really aren't.

Here's my story:

I in highschool I ran cross-country and track, and, like so many, I a lot of shin-splint problems. I really got into backpacking around the same time, and discovered that the outside of my right foot always hurt when I walked a long distance. As it turns out my arch goes all of the way across my right foot. A little odd, but everyone has something. In college my knees started causing me enough trouble that I could barely run at all. My girlfriend at the time noticed that I walked and ran duck-footed (feet pointed outwards). I had no apparent bio-mechanical issue (I hoped), so I did some research and retrained myself to walk with my feet pointed forwards. This also involved changing my normal spine alignment and basically my entire posture. I also training myself to run toe/forefoot strike style. The toe-strike running solved my shin-splint problems, which (as I discovered after a 50-mile day and subsequent hospital visit) turned out not to be bone fractures at all, but were actually a complaining overstressed tendon.

While learning to toe-strike, I read that you should practice bearfoot running to improve your running form so it's less damaging to your joints (it hurts if you do it wrong barefoot). I started running barefoot and it felt good. I figured maybe I didn't need shoes and got up to running 2 miles or so barefoot. Then one time I hit bad rocks on a sidewalk and got blood blisters deep in my heal. At that point I realized my feet couldn't easily get tough enough for barefoot running anywhere, and I did in fact need shoes. I also realized around this time that cherts (the stone) exist in many places, and can be razor-sharp. No matter what, shoes will take that better than my foot.

I needed footware.


Okay, but what KIND of footware? By this time I had found that the higher the heal on my shoe when running toe-strike, the less well I could run. In my experimentation I had also discovered that if I ran in a non-supportive shoe and then hiked in the same shoe, my feet hurt far less than if I ran in a supportive shoe and then hiked in that same shoe. Basically, my feet were better at taking the force than the shoes were - if I gave my feet practice.

So, ever since then I've been on the hunt for thin-soled non-supportive shoes without extra "features" that add weight, and make a natural stride less comfortable. In the process I have discovered numerous other advantages. For example the lower the heal on the shoe, the harder it is to roll your ankle, and the less material in the shoe, the faster it dries.

The Shoes


Trail Racers

The first type of shoe I discovered was the trail racing shoe. Trail racing shoes, as it turns out, come in quite a wide variety. As the "minimal" thing got popular a lot of not-at-all-minimal shoes started getting marketed as minimal lightweight trail-racers. I didn't like those, I liked the ones with almost nothing - like this:

I've had a few pairs that were even more minimal, but those shoes always got more "shoe" added in the next model year, these are the best I've found that have lasted any time. I also tried road-races, but I found that they wear out a bit too fast.

Leather Boots

Jess wears mostly high-ankle leather boots, similar to older forest combat-boots (I haven't found any that fit me well yet), kind of like this:


The key is that both of these solutions have a wide sole so they are stable, little to no padding to absorb water, a flexible ankle to aid in natural stride, and NOTHING ELSE. The leather boots are heavier, but last longer and shed water better.
Either of these solutions can be used in cold weather with the addition of waterproof socks
, and warm socks.

5-fingers

Jess, myself, and several of our friends have been wearing 5-fingers regularly for a while:


Overall we find they're like being barefoot. The downsides: they stink after a while (you can wash them, and wearing toe-socks helps), and the cloth on top wears out too fast. A friend at work found that the KSOs are worse than other models and theorizes that its due to added tension of the upper. In any case, they seem to wear out, and they are not cheap. The upsides: Jess and I have both actually backpacked in these (though on shorter-distance trips) and found it to work extremely well even on rock. The only issue is that the ball of your foot has to be a little tough. They are absolutely attached to your foot, and get incredible traction. As a result 5-fingers are awesome for running, parkour, rock scrambling and hiking. I'm a pretty big fan overall, but expect to spend some moeny.

Huaraches




Recently I was talking to someone who pointed me at this website: http://www.invisibleshoe.com/. This site describes how to make Huaraches. Well, we had some decent chap leather in the house, and some twine. So Jess and I immediatly made pairs of our own... and we love them!

I'm wearing them now. I've been wearing them to work a lot lately, and find them great for work and city use. Jess and I have also now both worn them for some miles while backpacking. Jess loved them even for backpacking. I found them to work *okay* but they picked up a lot of rocks. Our feet got sore of course, as they're still toughening up, but they protect you from bad thorns and sharp rocks. Basically, imagine a super-light teva sandal you can make at home for no money, with an ultra-flexible soul that pretty much stays perfectly on your foot through a normal step. The other downside (besides the rocks) is that when you do slide on the sole, the ropes can be a bit uncomfortable; though, this only happens when on very steep hills and in certain types of mud. We had no problems bushwhacking down river-beds (and didn't need to care about our feet getting wet).

Conclusion

So, that's what we've found to work. Your mileage may vary, and keep in mind that some people really do have bio-mechanical problems and need supportive shoes or orthotics. That said, you'd be amazed what your body can do when left to it's own devices for a while, and made to toughen up a bit. There's nothing like walking and running the way your body was meant to do it. It quickly becomes clear that foot-based locomotion is what human's are good at, one of the best in the animal kingdom in fact. It just feels good. If you can, give it a try sometime!

2010-06-10

thoughts on ultralight backpacking

So, there seems to be a lot of confusion and FUD about ultralight backpacking. So, here, I'd like to talk about why from my perspective.

What is ultralight?

This is one of the most often misunderstood things about ultralight, especially by those who don't do it. Maybe the real confusion is definitions, so let my define what I mean by ultralight. Ultralight backpacking is about understanding what you "need", and what you don't, paring down what you need, and then getting the lightest thing you can to fill that need. Most people define ultralight as below some weight range, but really... it depends on what you're doing. The numbers get picked more by where you end up with a certain mindset, then by any absolute scale. If you carry 15 lbs of gear, safely, in northern Alaska... go you! 12 lbs of gear in the whites is hot shit. 8 lbs of gear in the mid-west is quite impressive... whatever. So lets not go into any specific weight numbers, and consider the mindset instead. Unfortunately, there's no good term for the mindset :), so we'll stick with ultralight.

What do you gain?

So now the real point. Ultralight isn't so much about going without, but about knowing what you are giving up. If my base pack weight is 8 lbs, then what am I doing with the rest of my pack weight? Here are some examples.

1) On the AT, you can think of every pound as half a days food... For an AT through-hiker that is a VERY interesting thought ;-). When you consider "I could have tent... or I could eat more nutella" it really puts things in perspective.

2) Once I'm good at keeping my weight down, say I want to go on a weekend trip. That guitar will cost me 2 lbs. Well, I can still keep up with my friends and do an strenuous hike with that 2 lbs!

3) Now I'm going on a kayak trip. I've thought through what gear I need. Maybe I trade some heavier things for bulkier things, but I've already done most of the work. 10 lbs of pack weight can't take that much space. Suddenly you find your gear fits anywhere!

4) My friend gets injured while we're out, she can walk, but only with no weight. Well, her pack currently weighs 20 lbs, mine weighs 20 lbs. I can haul 40 easy. So, I combine the two and walk out.

If, on the other hand, you start dropping important gear. That is, things that will keep you warm and dry and safe in case of exceptional circumstances you haven't gotten many of the gains I discussed above. And besides nearly killing yourself, you're a drain on resources like other people's good will, and Search and Rescue. Don't simply go without something that you think you need, that won't help anyone. It's people like that that've given Ultralight the somewhat dubious reputation it has now. Practiced carefully ultralight can be SAFER than heavyweight backpacking. It's about carrying what you need - not more, and not less.

Philosophy

So, as mentioned elsewhere, Jess and I really like being outdoors. We backpack for 2 reasons, because we love being in the wilderness, and we love to walk. Walking until you're ready to sleep, and then simply laying down your bag at the first flat spot, and sleeping under the stars (likely having eaten an hour ago), is a very different experience than hauling into a preset camping spot, pitching a tarp, setting up the kitchen, pumping a couple gallons of water, pitching your tent, and crawling into it to not see the outdoors until your 4 hours of walking the next day. I'm sometimes really taken aback when I backpack with other people, I forget that not everyone wants to spend all their time wandering and playing before laying down.

Now we're actually trying to move away from "ultralight", and towards "less stuff" mindset. My goal is to not be a visitor in the woods. I want to go out without caring how long I'll be out, such that whether I'm there for 3 days, or 2 months doesn't matter. The idea is to carry even less. To become more of an animal. As jess likes to put it, we want to be ferrel humans.

It's all about what you are there to do.