Ultralight Gear Builders

Today I was looking for an ultralight backpack Jess and I thought was cool, and I had a heck of a time finding the site. It occurred to me that finding the really good ultralight gear manufacturers is HARD. So here's the list Jess and I have built over some time with the help of some friends:
If you're looking for gear we like, don't forget to take a look in our store which contains gear identical to or substantially similar to gear we know and love.

We use sleepingpads from gossamer gear. I had a pack from ULA that I loved (though the owner of ULA changed since then). My bivy is from MLD. Jess' fancy tarp is from zpacks. Jess' sleepingbag (and one of my old ones) is feathered friends. My current quilt is enlightened equipment. I just purchased a vest from western mountaineering based on a backpackinglight review and their general reputation.  The hammock sites mostly come from a friend of mine who's been getting interested in hammocking and has been geeking out on gear.

Look for another post coming soon with more traditional non-ultralight gear :).



When I was at the Buckeye gathering a while back Norm Kidder mentioned that some of the natives had carried around large nets. They'd use these nets to gather things into, to catch game, to throw over trees to pull the trees down, etc. Recently I found myself wanting a gathering bag. So, with this in mind, I decided to give it a try.

I did't happen to have a bunch of flax or nettle around, and didn't want to wait to rhette it and start from scratch, so I cheated and started with twine. I read a few websites and fiddled around, here's a good video for the basic knot http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WW6VlflNbTU.

I didn't have their fancy little board or their fancy netting needle, but after a little poking around I realized I *did* have an old laundry card... bending this back and forth I made a netting spacer the size I wanted.

Next I needed a netting needle. Jess has a very small loom with an appropriately sized shuttle, so for my first experiments I used that. With that kit and some waxed linen twine I made this: IMG_20121031_192323.jpg IMG_20121031_192248.jpg

Instead of using a door or something I tie the far-end to my toe. Tension is critical, so I'll adjust the length of the tie-out cord occasionally to keep the net smooth. Your first net will have extra confusing loops on it... but after a couple feet of netting you'll figure out how to control the size and when you get extra loops. Growing the net is easy, shrinking was a bit less intuitive for me.

I'd used a shuttle I didn't make, so next I had to try making my own. I grabbed a buckeye stick we had lying around the house (yes, we keep sticks lying around the house). I spread a blanket in my livingroom to catch the shavings, and carved the stick down to a short flat board. Then I took the tip of my knife and drilled through the board about 1.5" from the each end, going through from one side, then from the other side until the two sides met. Once I had holes, I widened the holes out, and then cut/split notches going down to the holes.

The end result was a pretty passable shuttle. To make it really easy to use it'll need a bit of sanding (right now it catches a touch when passing it through the twine). But, it's completely functional. A bit of rock could be used to do the sanding, it's also possible to smooth something like this with just a knife, if you're more skilled than I. Anyway, here's the final kit: IMG_20121202_114526.jpg

I haven't yet made the size net I'd need to use it for all of the things Norm talked about, but that's on the agenda. Using this technique you can make flat nets of any size, bags, hammocks, etc. It's very general. By tying it to your toe it's also very portable and can be carried around like knitting. I made a 3.5 foot net while listening to a series of presentations in search and rescue training.

So... give it a try. I'd love to hear any ideas anyone has for what to use nets like this for. What size would be the most useful to carry around in an ultra-minimal kit (say, in a blanket roll on your waste), how big of holes? What would you use it for? I'm hoping to try some uses myself soon!


Felted Winter Ghillie Boots

This weekend after getting back from a lazy camping trip Jess decided she wanted to felt. I haven't felted since I was a little kid and made felt balls, so she showed me the ropes. For my first project I decided to make boot liners, that I could wear with ghillie shoes or something similar... like this: 2012-11-04_16-52-14_HDR.jpg

I made the shoes some time ago at a gathering where I learned from this guy: http://paleotool.wordpress.com/. I wore that pair of ghillies until I wore throught the sole, then glued on the rubber sole seen in the photo.

The felt liners took about 4.5 hours all said and done to make, including setup and teardown time. You will get a touch soggy while doing it, so we worked in the back-yard and bearfoot, and I worked shirtless. It's wet, and it takes a relatively long time, but think about it, 4.5 hours of work to turn wool into thick warm boot liners given nothing but a net, a flat surface, soap, and water. That's the fastest and easiest fabric you'll ever make. Combining this with the ease of ghillie boots and a pair of serviceable winter boots that's lighter and warmer than most of what you'll find commercially feels like it's within my grasp.

In the world of doing everything yourself, felting really is like magic! This was just a first project, something I thought I could use where I didn't care how it looked. Vests, pants, hats, and mittens are all doable with these techniques. In general the process is very forgiving so give it a try.

The process

I started with a large'ish sock that didn't have to stretch all that much to fit my foot. On a guess I added about half the width of the sock all around, and traced this onto tyvek on Jess' direction. I cut out that trace, this was my pattern.

Next I took my pattern and placed it on a flat surface that could hold a little water. We used the plastic lids for our gear storage boxes. We had some wool batting bought from a very nice lady at the Buckeye Gathering who raised sheep. I took pieces off of this and layed them onto my pattern, intentionally letting it extend about 1 inch farther or so outside the pattern. I did 3 layers like this swapping directions so fibers would go both ways across the final fabric keeping it strong. The pile of wool was maybe 4 inches thick at this point.

Next I took fairly soapy water (we used Dr Brauners pure castile sope, but anything works) and poured it onto the middle of the wool, the goal is to get it slightly matted down and wet out to the edge of the pattern, while leaving the wool outside that fluffy. I also patted it just a bit with my hand to encourage it to smoosh down and dampen.

I then took the pattern out and placed it on top of the wool. Then, I pulled the wool sticking out around the edge of the pattern in over the top of the batter. I did this wrong the first time, but the right way to do it is to get that edge just damp enough that you can get the wool to bend around and largely stay there somewhat fluffy sticking towards the middle of your pattern. This bend will be part of the final fabric so you want to make sure you get a fair amount of wool here.

Next I layed on another 3 layers of wool about 4 inches thick on the other side, this time (unlike the last layup) not letting it stick out. I then damped this down as well and laying a pice of fine mesh netting over it began to pat it. We used a cut-up laundry bag.

I then patted it for a long time until it started to get a little bit of body to it, enough that I could rub instead.

I then rubbed or a long time until it got enough body to it that I could remove the netting and pat the wool directly without any fibers lifting up out of the fabric.

Then patting again until you can rub

Then rubbing until you have a fabric.

For the whole time you want to keep checking that the wool is staying pretty close to the edge of the pattern. If it wanders too far out you'll end up with what looks like a seam later because it'll felt too a wide strip together. If you pull it in too tight accidentally pulling too many wool fibers off the edge though you can end up with a thinner part of the fabric there. Making both mistakes I found it preferable to err on the slightly too far/slightly too much wool side. I suspect it would come out best with lots of wool pulled around the edge, then pulled quite tight.

In the last phase it goes through several stages, at one point I found that I could pull the fabric around a then smooth out wrinkles easily. This is the perfect time to make sure it's tight around the edges and fix up anything you don't like. You can often kindof shred the material back out and get it to rebind in (especially if you use lots of soap), allowing you to fix mistakes.

Once it's all good you flip it over and repeat on the other side.

When that was done I cut off the top of the super-massive "sock" a bit at a time until I could find the pattern inside the felt. I then carefully flipped the felt inside out, removing the pattern. On the second time I found this to be slightly easier if I squeezed some of the water out of the felt before turning it, to reduce the weight and thus the stretching that it caused. Once it was flipped I reinserted the pattern to keep the layers from felting together, and then repeated *yet again* the felting procedure of petting/rubbing on the inside, this time it's much faster though as the felt is mostly felted already from rubbing the other side.

And now I had a massive soaking wet lump of sock-shaped felt that might fit an ogre... :P. So now comes the fun part. I squeezed it out and rubbed it, as you rub it it shrinks, especially in the direction you rub it in (you'll figure it out playing with it). After rubbing it a bit I stuck it on my foot and continued rubbing (and occasionally squeezing out the heal where the water ended up). The felt slowly shrank down as it dried and was rubbed until it fit my foot just about perfectly.

I then carefully slide it off my foot, keeping the shape, and let it dry overnight.


Things I'd change

If I was doing this again I would triple or maybe even quadrouple the thickness of the wool. What I have now are somewhat warm, but at triple this thickness they could be used as packboots for things like snowshoeing given a trivial leather covering (like a ghillie) to make them robust. That means that the initial pile of wool would be about 1 foot thick before I began felting it! I'm not sure, but I might have to do that in layers. The thickness I made would be pretty good though for mittens or other clothing.

On the second boot liner I didn't use enough wool at all (I tried to get a picture to demonstrate, but it's hard to show the thickness in a photo). On the first liner I'd ended up with thick "seams" at the edges that I had to cut off, so on the second one I erred in the other direction, thus ending up with very thin seems. The combination means that some spots on the second liner are *far* too thin for these to work really well as winter boots. I still intend to test them in snow at some point, but I don't trust them like I would if they were 1/4 thick of solid dense felt.


Diamond Hitch and a Blanket

This weekend Jess and I decided that we just wanted to get out, but we wanted a bit of a twist too.

Recently, while in Seattle for a friend's wedding, we saw a couple of old pack frames for sale on the street. Unable to resist we bought them for $8.00 total (we actually already had 1 each :P).

The pack

So, this weekend, we decided to take them for a spin. We've played with blankets tied around our waists on a couple of trips now http://www.blog.smalladventures.net/2012/07/backpacking-without-backpacks.html and found it to be *okay* in nice weather, but a bit uncomfortable. So, how about something in between? My mom told me stories about how she used to backpack with a piece of canvas tied to a pack frame using a diamond hitch. So we decided to give it a try, but with a large blanket instead (larger than is comfortable around the waist).

So... why was this idea appealing to us? We're always aiming to carry less *stuff* and be more dependent on and involved in the environment we're in. We've also seen some great designs for pack-frames made out of sticks. If you can make the frame, the string, and the straps, and you have something warm to sleep under... You have a pack that can carry a few more items.

Here's a descent description of how to tie a diamond hitch, and the one I learned from on friday, I found this by doing a quick search. http://www.itstactical.com/skillcom/knots/hitches/versatile-option-for-securing-a-load-with-the-diamond-hitch/ I feel like it's *almost* right but I feel like you should complete the diamond. So Jess and I both ran the twine back up the far side at the end making the whole shape balanced.

And what we got was this: IMG_20120907_154552.jpg

FYI: This frame is unusually small, which is part of why I bought.

That was my first attempt, after tying it several times a day over the weekend I got a bit better and much faster. We discovered in using it that it works slightly better if the strings go over the bottom panel. Note that the flap on top is also on top of the pack, this lets you "open" the pack and re-close it by tucking it back under the strings. It's surprisingly easy.

Sorry I don't have any pictures from the trip, I forgot to bring a camera. I brought:

  • shirt (forgot to leave it behind), shorts, boxers, socks, shoes
  • sweater, hat
  • pack frame
  • blanket
  • twine
  • cookpot, spork, sparker, alcohol stove, bandana
  • knife, iodine, salt, bandana, emergency bivy
  • fishing kit
  • "emergency kit" (needle, twine, knife sharpener, pills, keys, etc.)
  • medication
  • 3 meals and some snacks

I changed gear slightly, but based on when I weighed it I believe this is ~10 lbs base, ~15 lbs total.

How'd it work?

Getting things in and out

This was surprisingly not annoying. The flap isn't much harder to open than many backpacks are. This is what we usually did when getting water bottles, knives, or other smaller items. When we had to get out say, the food and cookpots, it was usually easier to undo it and retie it. This takes a minute or two to tie and untie, but really... 2 minutes isn't a big deal. From this perspective I would do it again.


The first night we arrived at a back entrance to Henry Coe after dark. We hiked in a short distance and went to sleep. We each curled up in our own blanket, lying on it and flopping it over us. It wasn't cold until later in the night, but it did get cold enough that we both put on our sweaters and hats. It was okay, but our feet were numb in the morning, that night we were kindof roughing it, as it were.

As an important side note, both nights we were careful to fold the blankets so that the side we slept against was on the inside on the first fold of the blanket, before bundling our gear up in it. This kept the burrs on the person side of the blanket to a reasonable level for sleeping.

The next night was a different story. We slept in a great little meadow near a lake. The meadow had tons of dry grass, mostly oats. We gathered a bunch of grass and made a huge cushy mattress for the two of us. We layed one blanket over the mattress, lay down on that, and lay the other blanket on top of us. THAT night was almost as good as sleeping at home on our expensive futon mattress. It was slightly harder on our hips, and it wasn't quite warm enough, but in many ways it was comfier than a normal sleeping-bag. Had it gotten colder we probably would've moved both blankets on top of us for warmth and gotten a bit more poked by straw. That night was *not* roughing it, it was wonderful (and cuddly).

Overall opinion

Surprisingly good. Overall we both decided that we really want to try this approach with tarps and sleepingbags/quilts. The blankets were usable, but basically either they aren't as warm as we'd like (when we can't have fires) or we haven't figured out some magic trick :). The diamond hitch itself was great though, and I really like not depending on an expensive backpack body.

Stop for a second... Look at the list of gear I brought and consider every time you've heard someone say "I can't backpack, it's too expensive". This backpack cost me ~$25.0. $20 for the blanket $4.0 for the frame $1 for the twine. I brought my favorite knife at $20. I made the stove that Friday from two soda cans that were in my recycle bin. I have an expensive sweater and cookpot, but any sweater and cookpot would do. The emergency bivy was backup because I was experimenting. The iodine (~$25, but no longer available) was only because we couldn't have fires, and water in Henry Coe was very scarce.

Future work

I really want to try this with a tarp. I also want to try making a pack frame from sticks. I've also seen people do a similar trick with no frame at all, just tying things up in a bundle. Many things to try!

I know diamond hitches used to be THE way to backpack... I'd love to hear about any tricks anyone else has discovered!


JMT trip report

Jess and I throughhiked the JMT August 2'nd to August 18'th. So here's a bit of what happened. P1020345

Jess did the planning for this one, so there should be an article coming on that topic at some point. I'm going to focus on the results ;). Nick, Jess' friend from highschool joined us for the first part of the trip. As background, we loaned him an 8x10 tarp setup, and a thin sleeping pad.

In short, the trip was absolutely gorgeous, I still need to filter through the photos.

The hike starts at 4000 feet in Yosemite, and ends 210.4 miles later (according to wikipedia) at 14500 feet on top of mount Whitney. In between, most days go from ~9000 feet through a pass at ~12000 feet and back. We did ~16 miles most days. In contrast to previous trails there are relatively few trees (just in the valleys) and a lot of marmots. We were surprised at how few birds of prey that are up there. The high Sierra are rather striking in that you regularly can see ~20 miles to where you were or will be, but rarely can see much more than that due to other mountains obscuring the view.


  • It's really the John Muir Route: _1010584
  • Goosberries can be found anywhere: P1020162
  • Shoes do wear out: P1020307
  • Anything is comfy if you're tired enough: P1020279
  • It rains in the Sierra in August: P1020016
  • Tarps are clearly for mountaineering: P1020305
  • Fishes!
  • We can start fire in the rain!: P1020031
  • Sunsets combined with storms are amazing: _1010781 _1010925
  • Good people:
  • The Sierra are just incredibly gorgeous: _1010944
More photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/smalladventures/sets/72157631148273610/

The whole story:

We really weren't sure how long we'd take, we had 3 mail drops, and Jess and I had off through the 23'rd. Nick had to get back a bit sooner, so figured he'd hitch or grab a bus (more on this is Jess' post). Suffice to say, we had no place to be for bit.

  • Day -1)
    • Nick Arrives by plane, Jess picks him up and brings him home, we take 5 hours to get to San Francisco on Public transit and crash with Kempy (Thanks kempy!)
  • Day 0)
    • We get up at 6:00 am, to catch a 6:30 BART train to Richmond where we got on amtrack to Merced. From Merced we got on bus from Merced to Yosemite. We get off at the visitors center and pick up our passes. Here we met a couple who'd been out for a while and said there was good water, hooray!
    • We discovered Nick left his fleece at home, so we went to the gearshop in Yosemite so Nick can buy one.
    • In the valley we did a tiny bushwhacked due to a rockslide. We'd ended up on wrong side of loop with a huge rockslide halfway around. I thought Jess knew about it so didn't comment and Jess was a bit spacier than normal and didn't see the signs (oops). Oh well, who doesn't like a good bushwhack?
    • We hike out of valley, and sleep on rim. It was a bit of a hot hike.
    • Nick got really sick that evening, dry-heaves and can't eat dinner. He appears to be suffering from heat exhaustion from climbing out of the valley to fast, and not drinking quite enough water and electrolytes... oops. At least Jess and I can finish his dinner for him.
  • Day 1)
    • We met a guy who'd done the trail in 14 days with a 45 lb base-weight. He was starting a trip doing it slower... impressive!
    • Reached Tuolumne Meadows. The last mile of trail was a sand-pit from mule-trains. Not unwalkable, but rather difficult walking.
    • Resupplied from the store
    • Camped in Tuolumne where a nice guy let us crash in his site. We also met a group of 4 women camped nearby that we'd later name the "blue-crew".
    • A Bear woke up the camp in the middle of the night. Everyone was yelling at the bear, someone was slowly driving it saying "yah bear" and blowing an air horn. This seemed eminently stupid to us as it would desensitize the bear really quickly, but we didn't have a better answer really. The bear got treed and someone called bear patrol, though I think they didn't have much they could do either *shrug*.
  • Day 2)
    • Nick lost his spoon (later to be found in his protein shake mix... oh well :P). He bought new spoon at the store
    • We went through our first pass, and left Yosemite (end of map 1)!
    • We met Mary Ellen who couldn't find her group at the time
    • On the far side of the pass we met Susanne and her friend. Her friend had blown her knee (looked like a snapped MCL or something) and twisted her ankle going over the pass. We chatted with them but couldn't figure out how to help (despite Jess' EMT) so camped a bit further on, just a bit past Donohue pass.
    • Thunder and lightning that night with pretty sparse tree cover it was a little exciting. That was Nick's first night in a tarp! Happily everyone stayed dry and safe :).
  • Day 3)
    • We called 911 for Susanne's friend, but Susanne had beat us to it (happily), so the operator informed us.
    • We hung out at Garnet lack for a while Jess rested her hip which was acting up a bit (she sometimes has trouble with it "crunching", something we're slowly figuring out, she's knock-kneed and it may be related.)
    • We camped on shadow creek
    • Brewer caught 3 small rainbow trout which we ate. We fried them in the pot with some difficulty, but they were still tasty. They were a bit small so the bones were annoying, oh well, food we didn't carry!
  • Day 4)
    • We passed through Devil's Postpile where there was a huge stripe of downed trees. Someone told us that the best explanation anyone had was that the Jet-stream had dropped down. Apparently there had been sustained winds ~170 mph. Pretty incredible.
    • We reached Red's meadow
    • We met Marry Ellen again. She still hadn't found her crew and was missing a stove (she just had whitegas fuel). We tried to give her an alcohol stove, but just after that her friends turned up.
    • We heard Susanne's friend got out by helicopter. Apparently they'd asked for just a mule to come in, but I guess the SAR team's mule didn't have the insurance set right on it or something?
    • We ate burgers and I had a milkshake! Tasty!
    • We got our first resupply! More fooooood!
    • Red's also had a pretty good hiker bin.
    • On our way out of Red's we got directions out from nice lady. As it turns out this was very good for us. We met several others who got lost leaving Red's Meadow, one went ~15 miles out of his way.
    • We met lady doing the trail in 1 month going northbound, She told us about a good book for planning the trail, the type Jess had looked for forever and finally given up on finding. It exists!
    • As we were thinking about stopping for the night a guy passed us doing the trail in 7 days. He talked to us a bit before running off, apparently he was going to be running late into the night.
    • Nick wanted to do a bit more milage, hooray! He was excited about the idea of trying to hit Whitney before he had to head home.
    • We camped near an awesome spring and slept under the stars next to a campfire in upper crater meadow. That spring was some of the best water I've had.
  • Day 5)
    • We stopped early on and hung out at a lake where we did some laundry, ate, and had lazy lunch of mountainhouse chicken fajita we'd gotten in a hiker bin.
    • Nick's knees started having some problems, so we stopped at Lake Virginia.
    • Brewer caught 2 13" golden trout. These were absolutely delicious, the whole skeleton just pulled right out after they were cooked.
    • Susan hung out with us that evening and we got to chat until it got dark. A beautiful storm rolled by but missed us.
  • Day 6)
    • Nick's knees were really causing him problems today. We weren't not sure what the problem was, so there was fretting. He was taking a lot of IB profen, but we don't know if he could push it or not. We all decide he has to get out of the backcountry.
    • So, we pull a 20 mile day to VVR (Vermilion Valley Ranch)... possibly not the best idea, but it's what happened.
    • The Lake trail down to VVR is NOT FLAT. It's rocky tricky and surprisingly slow trail. Not a problem normally, but a bit frustrating when we're trying to get someone out.
    • As we near VVR, we don't know how close we are yet. Brewer runs 2 miles to VVR to shuttle packs. By the time he gets back he meets Jess and Nick 1/2 mile from VVR and shuttles the pack that 1/2 mile.
    • We have a free (good!) beer each, and eat some delicious pie and ice-cream. Hooray!
    • A (knee specializing) physician's assistant who's also hiking the trail looks at Nick's knees. She says it's almost certainly tendinitis. That's a great thing to hear.
    • We met more people! Delia, and Morgan and his mother (the physician's assistant).
  • Day 7)
    • We eat a tasty breakfast at VVR. VVR has a bit of a bad rap for being too expensive. We concluded that it's really just psychological due to billing your credit-card just once for the whole time you stay. They were really friendly, and their prices were actually quite reasonable, but they have a lot of things you want :).
    • During breakfast we chat with 2 guys who do a lot of trail maintenance. One of them also spends his whole summer in the high country. He was just visiting with his parents and resupplying when we saw him. Neat people!
    • The free-bin was pretty uninteresting.
    • This was not our planned resupply, so we had no drop here, we rejiggered food and decided Jess and I had enough (as it turned out plenty actually) to get to MTR.
    • The store was nice store, though not great for resupply. Good food, good beer, good people, only a tiny store.
    • There was no shuttle 'til saturday, so Jess and I left Nick to hitchhike back to our place. He'd hitched some before, so we knew he'd be fine :).
    • Jess and I walked out to bear creek cuttoff. That was a pretty trail. We generally had a lazier day, bathed a bit and chilled out.
    • At the trail intersection we met a group taking a break. They had a guitar which they offered to let me play. I wasn't about to pass that up, so we hung out for some time chatting. One of them, named Peter, it turned out lived in Palo Alto and had taken a course with BOSS! Cool!
    • That night we camped next to bear creek (the creek) on the JMT. We were in a low spot as it turned out. There was a wildfire on the far-side of the ridge that had been burning for a while. We knew about it, and it was well under control at this point, but the smoke and CO settled in our campsite! Neither of us could sleep and ~3am we got up and moved up the hill. After moving we both realized we had pretty bad headaches and were REALLY glad we'd moved. We talked to several others and apparently it was just our specific site... oops! CO poisoning while on the JMT cowboy camping.
  • Day 8)
    • Went over Seldon pass
    • We saw a log cabin after the pass and checked it out. It said it was a snow survey shelter, neat! That could be a fun job.
    • Reached Muir Trail Ranch
    • Got our mail drop (a 5 gallon bucket packed with food for 3!). After consideration we decided we could skip going out to independence for the 3'rd food drop, we'd aim for 8 days to Whitney from here.
    • We'd mailed ourselves potato chips and cookies. The cookies were pretty good, but the chips were awesome and we shared them around with the other hikers (Delia, Morgan and his mom, and a couple others). We also ran into the Blue-Crew again, and met a 14 and a 10 year old who were doing the trail with their dad.
    • We *thought* we had sufficient fuel, so didn't get any more.
    • Morgan and his mom got off trail here. Apparently Morgan had gotten into college, and he had to start soon!
    • After refueling we forded the river to a hot spring, climbed in and chatted with Joey, who was hanging out there. He told us about lazy/simple forms of flyfishing which Jess got super excited. We also swam in a wonderful hotspring fed warm lake where I started teaching Jess the breast-stroke.
    • We met a family hiking with 9 and 10 year old girls and chatted with them for a while. The girls had, by their choice, pulled an 18 mile day into Red's meadow so they could get hamburgers. Awesome! They also told us about a fire-ban that ran from Yosemite to, well, just about where we were now. Oops! The Yosemite ranger hadn't told us anything about this, though they had a huge handout they'd given this family. Oh well, we'd been careful and/or lucky with our fires at least
    • That night we ate so much food! We'd raided the hiker bins for a bit of extra :D.
  • Day 9)
    • We stop by MTR again to buy a couple of flies for Jess to fish with (Brewer had spin-casting gear). Brewer also grabbed some soap as he'd lost his bottle. We rolled out with ~30 lb packs, the scales said 25, but that simply wasn't possible (since we started ~24 and we had way more food this time), so we decided it was wrong.
    • We ran into a lot of short-trippers on this section.
    • We found the Muir memorial cabin... It was kind of falling apart.
    • We entered Kings Canyon, which was very pretty.
    • In Kings canyon we passed a ranger station. We decided to stop 'cause the cabin looked neat. There was a ranger there we chatted with, he told us the monsoons were coming in late this year and it'd be stormy the next few days.
    • As we got close to evolution lake Jess got tired, but she wanted to fish. We passed up the last good campsite below 10k so she could fish. Later Jess wanted to stop, but Brewer's stubborn so we kept going. Eventually we ended up offtrail looking for a site... Well, we accidentally went up the wrong pass and into darwin's bench.
    • It was gorgeous. We slept between 2 waterfalls in a lovely bed of duff. The weather looked stormy but stayed dry. The sunset was incredible with awesome Alpenglow.
  • Day 10)
    • We started go upwards, this is when we realized we were in darwin's bench. We saw the lake we wanted over in a different pass... oops! Well, what to do now? We weighed our options and decided to go direct.
    • That worked out pretty poorly. The going was just too rough. Eventually we bailed on that idea and decided to drop back, but not via the pseudo-trail we'd come up. Instead we'd just bushwhack it biasing the direction we wanted to go, but going downwards. That worked out pretty well and we hit the trail fast.
    • Then we went through Muir Pass, it's LOONG and beautiful.
    • Muir Shelter is really cool! It's a round all rock-structure.
    • Someone had leaky containers with almond butter and jelly. They didn't want to deal with it and gave them to us at muir pass hut, at 12000 feet! Yay food I didn't carry!
    • In the hut we chatted with some cool people who'd done a lot of crazy canoe trips as well. They had very-very light packs. We also met Jim again, someone we'd met earlier. He had a granite-gear pack that was modified with a home-made hoop-frame.
    • After a while the hut was filling up. A storm had moved in and it started hailing. As the hut kept filling up I decided we really ought to go. There'd been no lightning and the hail showed no signs of letting up. So we pushed off
    • Just a bit after we left we heard thunder and the hail picked up... CRAP! We ran down the mountain as fast as we could hearts beating. It was so pretty, all the waterfalls down off the peaks around us, but we were very happy when it started to let up and we got down lower where it was warmer. I'd been getting pretty badly chilled and finally gave in and put on my sweater under my poncho
    • In the valley we saw some people with a fire, and as we walked by the offered to let us warm up. We weren't about to refuse that offer so we stopped and dried off, hooray!
    • Their filter and broken and they were low on iodine. We told them we'd been drinking the water straight, but also gave them some tricks on using iodine more efficiently, like using half the dose but waiting longer. Hooray for being able to give *something* back for their hospitality :P.
    • We found a nice campsite near the river. With a bit of doing we got a fire started using half of a "cheating stick" (that is some good commercial tinder we carry for such situations). We talked to some other groups later who'd failed, it was nice that, while we felt we were cheating, we could start a fire without worrying if it would work even after a heavy rain.
  • Day 11)
    • We were still blown out from the run down Muir Pass and took it easy. We were both tired.
    • We walked down the valley and camped next to mather pass.
    • We ate dinner and went to sleep at 3. After that Jess tried to flyfish and we realized we should've checked the time and had to eat again before turning in for the night. It turns out watches ARE useful sometimes.
    • Quite a few people camped at that lake, but all on the other side from us.
  • Day 12)
    • We crossed Mather pass in the morning. Jess did not enjoy this pass.
    • Someone we met on the top said Glenn was worse and dryer (it's not).
    • We then Crossed pinchot pass as well in light rain. It was a crazy barren other world on other side, really neat.
    • This was a 19 mile day, we were a bit tired but not bad! it was kind of an accident ;P
    • We camped *just* below 10k so we could have a fire. This time Jess started a fire in the rain. The rain picked up as we cooked dinner and our fire had no problems. Our campsite on the other hand was a terrible choice, we'd picked a puddle on a slab of granite. To stake the tarp out I'd tied it out to rocks, and our site wouldn't drain. Ooops We did a little trenching in the shallow soil and hoped. Luckily the rain let up early that night and we only got a bit damp. Trenching is for crappy campsites... lesson learned.
  • Day 13)
    • The trail down the valley that day was kindof terrible. It was beaten up with lose rock everywhere and very up and down on what amounted to flat terrain. Trail's trail but some is a lot easier walking.
    • The trail got nice around Rae lakes area and stayed nice from then on
    • We met someone we later dubbed shoe-goo. He had a pair of boots that were held together entirely by shoe-goo. He said he could repair the nearly worn-through spot on my shoe and we hung out and chatted. The group was fascinated by our packs and we sat down and showed them what we were carrying. Eventually we hiked on after the shoe-goo had hopefully set, sadly it tore right off again :(.
    • We hiked through Glen pass. On the far side we slept in really established site. Again we got below 10k feet and could have a campfire (we're worried about our fuel by this point as we realized we were running low). We pitched the tarp just to dry it out and hung out a few other items.
  • Day 14)
    • Went over Forester pass. This pass is truely epic; amazing barren landscape on the other side, and just no trees. It really messes with your sense of distance.
    • Lots of menacing of clouds, but no real rain, yay!
    • We passed a lot of bear boxes in this section. We had cans anyway, but they're nice to know about if we come back.
    • We camped by tiny lake, and I tried fishing but there were no fish, oh well.
    • Jess took a nap without even bothering to lay out a pad. I think she was kinda tired or something.
  • Day 15)
    • This was intentionally a "lazy" day. The plan was a nice light day to set up for Whitney. We'd eat lots, sleep lots, and hike just a bit and be nice and fresh the next day early in the morning.
    • Jess and I had a bit of emotional drama. Probably good overall, but I guess sometimes you have to change the stresses to get it all to come out.
    • Talked to 2 rangers. One of them hadn't treated his water in 20 years. He'd spent 16 years at that location and been a ranger for 22. Neat! Both of the rangers commented on our tiny packs. We took this to mean they must actually be unusually small, cool!.
    • Grabbed wag-bags at crab-tree. There was a bin on trail which was nice, no side-trip to the ranger station needed.
    • Chatted with a trail maintenance guy. He said the prediction was for bad weather early the next day and we'd want to be up and down before too late.
    • We slept next to Guitar lake. Went to sleep at 5:00pm after eating a huge dinner. We were both dehydrated and drank a lot that night to try and get ready for the next day
  • Day 16)
    • Summited witney!
    • Woke up at quarter to 6 and hit the trail by 7 after a huge 3x oatmeal breakfast. We felt like we'd be rolling to the summit. We hit the summit ~10:00, with weather menacing. On our way down there was some hail but happily no lightning.
    • Jess had no problems with summiting this time. Hooray!
    • Guy on top says there shouldn't be any lightning, as the thunderheads haven't built, the clouds were still thin. I'm not used enough to the Sierra so couldn't see it.
    • Lots of people were trucking stuff up the mountain to repair the shelter. We chatted with several trail maintainers on way down. Neat people, and doing good work. It was great to hear that they felt respected by the hikers. Yay!
    • At the portal we get food and a shower. I have a beer.
    • Sitting around we met a guy who'd done it in 8 days, and he'd never backpacked before. He was a runner though. Interesting guy, we talked a lot about gear and such. The 9 and 10 year old girls came in just a bit behind us as well. We also re-met some people we'd met on the summit who say they'll give us a hitch clear back to the bay area from lone-pine if we can get to lone-pine like... leaving now'ish. Woot! Now we just needed a hitch there.
    • We picked up a hitch down past the next campground, and from there picked up a second hitch to lone-pine where we found the hitch to SF waiting for us... hooray!
    • We then drove all night! We pick up that group's other car in crescent meadow Seqoia. During the night Brewer took a driving shift as well.
  • Day 17)
    • 7am we get home and SLEEEEEEEEP!

Review: Squeeze tubes

This is going to be a quick review... don't buy them. IMG_20120819_134004.jpg

We were in Muir Pass Hut on the JMT at >12000 ft. Chatting about food, someone gifted us a pile of almond butter and Jelly... Let me say that again, someone gave us food they had carried to 12000 feet... As a backpacker this should seem surprising and odd.. Why did they do this?

Because they were leaking all over the place! We figured we didn't care, and in fact carried them a ways without them leaking much (after they weren't very full). That said, if you "overtightened" the lid of either (that is, if you got it even near tight) it would pop past the threads. The backs of the tubes surprisingly didn't seem to leak, but the threads at the front were just crappily made.

So, what should you use instead?... Anything else. How about a plastic jar from cheap peanutbutter?

Actually, On second thought... do use them, and give them to me at 12000 feet :D.

(These tubes have been safely disposed of in a trash can).


Backpacking computer: first attempt

Why a backpacking computer

This may seem a bit out of charactor... but secretly (or maybe not so secretly) Jess and I are currently software engineers by day.

While we were hiking the JMT we got to chatting and came up with the idea. As I thought about it the idea of a backpacking computer got more and more enticing, here's some uses we came up with:

  • Writing blog-posts while on the trail.
  • Store piles of reference books. Think edible plant, tree guides, and bushcraft books.
  • General reading for fun.
  • Maybe do a little hacking for fun or profit.?
  • I have a HAM radio license, so I was thinking about how cool it'd be to get a computer that speaks PSK31. PSK31 works at very low powers and can reach very long distances, so it could be really useful for contacting the outside world.

Of course, there are some requirements. To be useful we'd want wifi so we can upload when in towns, some good IO for things like radios, a good keyboard for typing, a display you can see in the sun, and most importantly incredible battery life.

Lastly, I'm a computer nerd, it has to run Gnu/Linux, or to me it just isn't useful.

My initial idea was to build something from scratch with a black/white passive segment display (you know, old-school style). After poking around a lot and looking at what devices *do* exist, what's easy to build these days, etc. I eventually decided before getting to crazy I should just start with my "cellphone". That is my Samsung Nexus Galaxy Android phone (basically a tiny tablet). I actually carried it on our last trip anyway in case we needed to look stuff while trying to hitchhike home.

Here's what I got: P1020366

My cellphone is a gnu/linux box! (and still a cellphone).


First step was to unlock my phone and install CyanogenMOD. I simply followed the directions here: here . Cyanogen is just an open-source android, which I wanted anyway. It comes with a more feature-full Linux kernel and it's already rooted, both of which are needed for Gnu/Linux to work.

Next I tried a couple things, but the winner was the "The Android Complete Linux Installer" available on Google Play. This tells you how to set up a chroot environment, gives you a link to some system images, includes some nice scripts for starting things, and allows installation of Debian among other distros. 

For some reason it installed Debian "Lenny", but whatever it's a starting place. Next step was to ssh in from my laptop (thus giving me a reasonable keyboard) remove a few bits of junk I don't want (dbus, xcfe, etc.) and upgrade the system to unstable. This took a bit of doing, I ran out of disk once, crashed the system a couple of times, a few freezes etc. Eventually it worked though and since I successfully upgraded everything's been stable.

The installer sets up a vnc server running xfce. It turned out just removing xfce and install fvwm was sufficient to swap the window manager. I prefer fvwm and it's plenty lightweight.

Next I did a bit more hacking to lock down root, switch to a modern sudo environment, install a proper vim, copy configs from my other machines for vim, bash, and generally set things up the way I like. And what I now have is a fully up to date proper debian install, with X support and all running on my phone. I simply vnc into it from the phone itself and I can swap to debian as a normal android app, no problem!

Note that before using debian you have to start it up, this is *good* because it means I won't burn any battery power when just carrying my phone around as... you know... a phone.

Future Work

I have a usb adapter on the way to see if I can get my old usb folding keyboard to work on the device. If not I can use bluetooth if I have to. I need a solar charger so I can keep the battery topped up while I'm out.

Once I have a basic computing device I can really use, I can try it in the backcountry.

If it all works out I may look into software controlled USB HAM radios so I can chat with people using hardly any power from the backwoods :P.

The Nook eink reader is android based and has already been rooted. I might be able to do the same thing to it and have a passive display eink reader that hardly burns any power at all, especially when being used for reference material. http://www.flickr.com/photos/smalladventures/sets/72157631243912642/

Caloric density of food

I'll be honest. I've always bought backpacking food by wandering around the grocery store and grabbing anything that had a decent number of calories and a fast enough cook time. We did mail drops for the JMT though so for the first time ever I did a bunch of Kcal/oz calculations. The results were surprising enough that I made a spreadsheet of them for your enjoyment: the data

General observations

  • Breakfast flavorings have about the same caloric density as the breakfast itself. Looks like a great place to be decadent.
  • Nuts are surprisingly calorically dense. Combine this with physical density and I finally understand why I always have extra gorp. Also oh goodness the peanut butter.
  • The dinners are less dense than the lunch foods. I'd been under the impression that the weight of the cook set was justified by weight savings on food in the long run. Turns out hot dinners might be more about comfort and how much of what foods we're willing to eat in a sitting. That or dinner is secretly a conveyer of ghee.
  • Ramen deserves its popularity outside of bear canister country


  • A lot of this data is from an online calorie counting website 'cause walking around the grocery store with a laptop sounded awkward
  • Some of our favorite dinners are missing because I haven't been able to find numbers for them yet.
  • None of these weights include packaging. This is an especially big hit for the oils.
Do you have any favorite camping foods I'm missing?


Gear for the JMT

Jess and I are about to embark on a trip on the JMT with a highschool friend of Jess'.

I reworked my gear several times in the last couple of days, trying to get the weight down. I sat and weighed everything going in my pack. Here's a spreadsheet of my gear and weights: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AsHrPt9gwuHadEkwb3Y5X2ItWU9mR3pVZy1CZE1PZEE


Some interesting points of note: Jess is carrying the tarp for both of us, though I have the hiking poles (used as tarp poles) and groundcloth. We're both carrying stoves since Jess' friend isn't bringing one. I bought a rain-pancho and dropped my rain-coat, since I'm not really expecting much rain. It should be warm so I dropped my down vest, and silk bottoms. My quilt is warmer than needed so I also dropped my bivy in favor of a groundcloth. I'm also going to use a very thin sleepingpad.

In reality I've got more shelter than needed. I have a groundcloth, a poncho, and an emergency bivy. But I don't trust the poncho (it's quite fragile) so I don't want to use it as a groundcloth. I'm going a bit minimal on the warm clothing side, so I'm happy for some warmth backup with the emergency bivy. And of course, I need some rain-gear. Yeah, I'm a wuss, but I've been screwed by untested gear before.

My total weight is as heavy as it is, despite trying to drop weight, for several reasons

  1. Bear canister weighs 2.7 lbs, and because of it I need a heavier pack
  2. I wanted a fishing rod and tackle
  3. I have a woodstove
  4. my sleep-system is way overkill
  5. I want to record the trip, and want my smartphone to help with getting back
  6. I have a bit of extra gear because I don't trust some of it

All combined this brings what could easily be a 6-8 lb base-weight up to 14 lbs. I've got ~3 lbs I could scrape off easily given dropping a bit of gear I don't need. I could scrape off another ~2 lbs off my pack if I wanted to go frameless. After that it gets harder, I could get ~1 lb out of my sleep-system if I bought a 30 degree quilt. If I could get out of yosemite in the first day and camped in designated spots in some areas I could swap the bear-can for an ursack saving ~2 lbs. I could actually get away with no tarp if the poncho works out, but this'll be it's first test.

Anyway see you in 3 weeks!


review: MSR Groundhog Stakes

Simply stated: these are the best stakes I've yet tried.

If you don't know, these are actually pretty well known in backpacking circles. It *seems* like something should be better, and yet nothing arises. I've looked for a titanium alternative, but they are hard to find and I always end up back at the aluminum groundhogs.

Q: So, why do I think they are so great?

A: Well, because they are the best tradeoff.

  • They are strong enough that you can push them in with your heal, and not worry about bending them.
  • They hold well enough that you can pitch a tarp in sand with them, as long as it's not stormy, or in sandy loam if it is stormy. I've had them hold in ~50mph wind when stuck into turf (I twisted my ankle on top of a mountain on the AT), a hailstorm in Yosemite, etc. P1000376
  • They're the lightest thing with the two above properties

Q: Do they always work and always hold?

A: No, of course not, don't be ridiculous. For instance, they don't hold in sandy clay in a full downpour with no cover or rootstructure in the soil, and 40mph winds. Neither do they hold in soft-snow unless you deadman them (burry the stake sideways with the twine tied aroudn the middle). I've used them normally in shallow/stiff snow a couple of times and they worked fine.

Q: Why not these?

A: Because in practice I'd rather tie to bushes, rocks, and sticks. These are okay... but I don't trust these to hold any more than I trust a stick shoved in the ground. They bend on hard ground, they don't hold at all unless you're basically in peat. So why the heck would I bother carrying them? I did for a while... no thanks.

Q: How about these?

A: They snap in half, trying to get them to hold in sand in Joshua Tree I set rocks on them and they collapsed. The ones without the holes through them are a bit better, but still don't hold as well as the groundhogs - I currently use them for non-critical stakes. If you're gentle and a gram weenie, the ones without holes may be a good fit for you though.

Q: How about a large curved steel stake? (sadly, I can't find an image)

A: These are awesome, I might consider carrying these again even if I was the type to go up into the rockies carrying a nice big tent and set a base-camp for a long period of time. For "backpacking" though, as I think of it (that is, hiking every day, moving camp regularly, etc.) these are just WAY overkill.

Last notes

If you're a gear manufacturer, could you make some titanium groundhogs? PLEEASE!?

FYI: make sure you get ones with the label/stamp. There are fakes

So, what are your favorite stakes?


Things I don't carry backpacking

A lot of people post gear lists, but sometimes what's left out can be more interesting. Here's some stuff I don't tend to carry.


A GPS needs batteries, needs the right maps loaded, needs to be able to get a lock, the batteries can run down... Mostly they're heavier, more expensive and more complicated then a map and compass, which you need to know how to use anyway as backup. Only once have I gotten disoriented enough that I felt lost and that was after I'd had a major nose bleed at altitude while bushwhacking. I'm pretty sure I could have backtracked from there without major issue, but luckily I was with Brewer, so I just made him navigate.

In general having a good map, knowing what your backstops are and knowing how to orient yourself have always been enough for me. The only reason I can think of that I'd carry a GPS is if I ended up in a SAR group that used exact coordinates heavily.


In civilization underwear makes a lot of sense. You change it daily so you don't have to wash your pants quite so often while still staying clean. That kind of breaks down when you're only washing all your clothing every two weeks.

Don't get me wrong, for short trips I'll still wear it out of habit, but for a longer trip like the AT or JMT a bit more airflow seems healthier. On the AT I brought two pairs of shorts. I wore one during the day, and the other at night. It was probably overkill, but I didn't want to wear the same piece of clothing continuously for months on end and I didn't want to get my sleeping bag dirty. I could see carrying undies - especially boxers for the "night shorts", but for the AT I really enjoyed having a pair of shorts that was easy to clean and hard to stain for hiking in during my period.

TP and potty trowel

A sturdy stick can be a pretty effective digging implement. Likewise leaves, sticks, or rocks can do the wiping job pretty well. I really don't see the point carrying TP or a potty trowel, but if it's what matters to you then by all means take it along.

Water Filter

Yup, filtered water tastes better. I've also yet to be on a group trip where someone didn't ask to borrow my iodine 'cause the pump took too long. I carry Polar Pure, which is sadly not sold anymore, and really love it. Besides the weight savings of the filter itself I find that I'm much more willing to stop and refill my water because it's so fast.

What don't you carry?


Grass seeds and burs

This is a little discussed topic in backpacking/outdoorsing, and yet one of the most annoying things you can run into on a trip. We've mentioned this in passing, but never addressed it directly, so here goes...

Grass seeds.


Though I've never had grass ruin a trip, it certainly can suck the fun away to constantly have your hair pulled or be getting stabbed in the feet.

To give an idea how important/annoying this can get, on a trip in PA I wore mesh racing flats, and I had to stop once every 1/2 hour to hour to pull grass seed out of my shoes for several days of a 9 day trip. If I neglected this I'd end up with nasty sores. One actually punctured Jess' skin and started working it's way into her foot. We got to calling wild oats our "nemesis" for some time. Since then I've stopped using mesh shoes, because it's just not worth it when grass seed rears it's head.

So, lets talk in a little more detail about why it's a problem.

2 obnoxious types

Sharp grass seed that will work it's way into everything and eventually stab you. e.g. wild oats:

  • They are sharp enough to puncture things like sleeping pads, waterproof stuffsacks, etc.
  • They work their way into fabrics (e.g. blankets and socks) and take forever to pick out.
  • They work their way into your shoes and stab your feet, 'causing you to have to stop regularly to pull them out of your shoes.

Burs that will stick to *everything*:

  • They stick in your leg hairs if you have them. This can get quite painful once your leg is nearly solid burs as they are going to be pulling continuously on basically every hair.
  • They stick to your blankets and clothes and make them pretty uncomfortable
  • They stick in your hair on your head and become impossible to remove without cutting.

Obviously problems with grass seed only arise if there's grass around, and some of the seeds are ripe. So it's a limited part of the year.

It's also much more likely to be an issue when you bushwhack, as you end up walking through tall grass more often. Our first run-in, as mentioned above, was on a 9-day trip in PA where we were supposedly on trail, but some trail was very faint and rarely traveled.


Going back to the problems I listed before, some mitigation techniques should immediately come to mind. Bear in mind that some grass seed will always get through your defenses, just like rain. And like rain life is better if you resign yourself to some getting through, but keeping the levels down a little can make things a lot more comfy.

  • Wear somewhat puncture resistant and non-fuzzy clothing:
    • Gators to cover socks.
    • Nylon, canvas, or similar pants of any form (rain or wind pants work).
    • Leather or otherwise non-mesh shoes (huaraches work too).
  • Don't lay down any loose woven fabrics:
    • Tramp down the grass as much as you can before lying down to sleep.
    • A ground-cloth or bivy can help keep it out of your blanket/bag.
  • Things will get punctured:
    • Don't use your inflatable pad.
    • Recognize your groundcloth will get tiny holes in it.
    • Don't wear your waterproof socks.

The mitigations are super simple and easy... you just have to realize when you'll need them. I feel like I forget almost every year and have to be reminded by one uncomfortable trip.

As a slightly surprising note, Merrell tough gloves for instance, despite being leather, will still get a non-trivial amount of grass-seed in them (way way less than mesh though). They lack a gusset on the tongue and the laces come down farther than most gators. As a result grass seed slides down between the tongue and inside of the shoe. This isn't terrible, but does mean every couple of hours of hiking in grass you might have to pick some out.

At least it'll make you feel better ;-)

If you have lots of grass you can make yourself a comfy bed out of just that! Gather a nice big armload. Spread half of it on the ground vertically relative to how you plan to sleep. Now spread the other half over that horizontally. Now you have a comfy mattress!

Wild oats, one of the worst offenders, are edible. So you can get them back! It also just makes me less annoyed when I know that this copious resource for annoyance is a copious resource for food as well. We're still working on how to process and eat them, I have some I'm experimenting with now, stay tuned.

Unprocessed: IMG_20120716_212115.jpg Winnowed: IMG_20120716_212134.jpg

Got any grass seed stories to share? I'm curious how common a problem this really is for other people. It sure has hit us hard a few times. What do you do to mitigate problems with grass seed?


Backpacking without backpacks

This weekend I biked up to Stanborn County Park, hiked ~13 miles, camped out and biked home without a sleeping bag or backpack. Evan kept my company. This was his second backpacking trip.

Me and all my gear

The bike ride up Saturday morning was fairly uneventful. We only got lost a few times and made it the 15 miles up to the edge of the park around lunch time. It was really hot by the time we got to the edge of the park so we elected to ditch the bikes and hike the rest of the way to the main entrance instead of biking all the way in as originally planned.

Evan on the way to the campsite

The walk in was a blast. The trails on that side of the road aren't maintained, so we got to play on the ruins of dams and bridges, rock hop, and generally navigate by intuition. Eventually the "trail" we were following dead ended by a fence so I took Evan on his first unplanned bushwhacking expedition through a steep gorge to the road. It was just a short walk from there to headquarters where we secured a campsite and considered our next move. (I know dispersed camping is more fun, but I can only get so far on a bike.)

Since it was hot we decided to ditch some of our gear before going out on a hike. I left behind the blanket, sweater and hat while Evan left everything but his water bottle and a map. We had a fun walk sharing navigation and plant knowledge before heading back to camp for dinner.

I had instant split pea soup, but no stove. The idea was to finally try making cold backpacking food. I'd read the idea on Gossamer Gear's site years ago, but hadn't actually left the stove at home before. It worked perfectly. I put in some water, closed the ziplock bag, mushed it around and let it sit a while and then ate it. It'd been a warm enough day that eating it cold didn't really feel like a tribulation.

Getting dressed in the morning

Eventually it was time for bed. I wrapped one side of me in the sarong and then the other in the wool blanket. The wool blanked actually reached most of the way around, but this way the sarong blocked the drafty spot. Evan climbed into his fleece liner and we both settled in to sleep. It was a bit hard to fall asleep because the neighbors were a bit loud at first, but eventually we managed. I woke up part way through the night covered in sweat. I was fine walking to and from the bathrooms barefoot without a sweater and then curled back up into my super toasty bed. The only issue I had was that I didn't want to shift too much in my sleep and scatter the blankets everywhere so I kept waking up to roll over.

Evan on the other hand got a bit uncomfortable. He found sleeping on his front or back to be chilly, and his side to be warm but a bit uncomfy. I probably should have lent him my sleeping pad to bring, but he slept pretty well anyway. Weather reports say the low was a balmy 58 degrees.

In the morning we had some gorp, wandered around the park a little bit and then rode home on our bikes. All around a pretty successful trip.

Here's the full list of what I brought:
  • Sarong (because the blanket itself was too bulky to tie around my waist)
  • Wool blanket (for sleeping)
  • Water bottle
  • Food (gorp, jerky, split pea soup mix)
  • Sweater (Didn't need it, hot to carry. Shouldn't have brought)
  • Warm hat (Didn't need. Easy to carry.)
  • Spork
  • Knife
  • Keys
  • Cards/Cash
  • Maps
  • Carry bag
  • Iodine (Water treatment)
  • Synthetic shirt
  • Buckskin bra
  • Synthetic shorts
  • Cotton undies
  • Bridgedale socks
  • Merrill Glove shoes
  • Salt lick (for electrolytes. Stashed in my pocket)
  • Button compass (for testing sense of direction. In pocket)

All in all the gear worked surprisingly well. Having to stop and undo the "pack" to get at the water bottle was a little bit annoying, but I didn't find myself wanting anything I didn't have. Wearing the sarong + wool blanket tied around my waist was very comfy as the blanket acted like a padded hip belt. It was, however, very warm to have all that wool around my waist. I wish I'd left the sweater at home.

To address the heat issue I want to try carrying everything in the sarong, but switch out the wool blanket for my silk bivy. I don't think it'll be as warm, but the wool blanket was much warmer then I needed for summer weather anyway.


How to make Jerky

I've been making a lot of jerky recently without a dehydrator, and it's super easy. The basic concept with jerky is that you're taking a lean meat, cutting it into thin strips and then drying it out. You want a lean meat so that the fat doesn't go rancid on you. You can add flavoring, but that's mostly a taste thing.

So first step is to pick out the meat. Flank steak is the easiest thing to buy. Sheep jerky is amazing. I bet goat would be even better. As stated before the biggest thing is that you don't want any fat marbled into the cut. (Also cubed is a pain in the butt to slice) Then take a very sharp knife and cut against the grain to make the thinnest slices you can manage. Some people suggest freezing it slightly before hand to make this easier, but I prefer to do it with fresh meat.

If you want to marinate it now's the time. I marinated my last batch using this recipe(without the liquid smoke), but it had too much Worcestershire sauce in it for my tastes. If you marinade let it soak for a few hours, then pull it out, dry it off with a towel and continue from there. In the past I've just sprinkled soy sauce, salt, pepper, and a little hot pepper on the meat strips. It's a bit blander, but way easier.

Okay! Hard part over, now it's just time to hang it up in the backyard to dry. Any dry, warm day should do it. I kind of squish any thick pieces a little thinner as I'm hanging it up, but I don't know how much it matters.

I make sure to pick a sunny spot where the sun hits it full on for the initial part of the drying process. Later on it doesn't mater, but when the meat's wet the flies will be interested in it. Once a crust forms on the outside they can't get at it. I haven't hand any problems with flies ruining the jerky though - only with the neighbor's dog stealing a few pieces.

How long the jerky will have to dry depends on your preferences and your climate. Generally I dry it for two days in the sun (I have to take it in at night so the sprinklers don't get it wet), though this last time I put it up on the balcony after the first day and just left it for three days. I like mine dried to the point where it will snap if you bend it.

That's it! I tend to store mine tied up in a bandana, but a paper bag should also work fine. If your climate is particularly cold or humid this might not work as well, but it works wonders even in May in California.

  • Beef in particular seems to get a slightly sour flavor partway through the aging process. If you let it age longer (at least a month or two) it appears to go away again, but this is probably why people flavor their jerky so much.
  • These pictures are all of about a pound of flank steak. More are here


Review: Feathered Friends Lark Sleeping Bag

Feathered Friends 10F Lark Sleepingbag

Advertised specs

  • Weight: 2lb 3oz
  • Rated temp: 10F
  • Cost: $499.0

Back Story

In 2008 I'd just moved to CA and after a trip to the desert in a 20F rated REI sub-kilo I decided I wanted a warmer sleepingbag, knowing I'd want to explore the high Sierra. I got a Feathered Friends Lark sleepingbag. I got a custom 5'6" bag (they come in 4" increments, I'm 5'6"). Full-length zipper, epic for the shell, pertex for the inner layer. I had intended to get a half-zipper and eVent shell, but the salesman talked me out of both on the phone. I'm still not sure about the shell, but I'm *really* glad I got the full zipper.

I used it for a while and loved it so much that when Jess and I started dating in 2009 I talked her into getting one. I payed for half of it as a gift. She went to the actual store in Seattle and they spent the time to make sure her 6' bag would zip to my 5'6". After a couple of other trips that year we carried them on the AT. I carried mine for all 1500 miles I did and Jess for her 1000. CIMG0463

I'm writing this because I finally gave up the poor beaten bag as it's lost too much loft. I recently got a down quilt that so far I'm in love with. This seemed like the perfect time to write a review of my old trusty sleepingbag

Things We've done to our bags

  • In 2009, a while before the AT I decided to go up into Humboldt Toyobe wilderness. The second night I was at ~9600ft, and the temperature plummeted. I slept behind a giant boulder to break the wind and the venturies behind it were still enough that if I rolled off my pad it would blow away. I didn't use a tent. I was a bit on the cool side until I remembered the bag had a neck baffle, I fell asleep staring at the beautiful stars, otherwise naked in the bag.

    The next morning I woke up and the ground had grown crystals up, it was rock hard. The lake had frozen over. This means it was no warmer than ~20F that night. I was perfectly comfy.

  • On a trip to silver-peak wilderness I camped on a ridgeline one night near the ocean. I didn't yet know this was a bad idea. The fog blew over me FAST the whole night. It was a pretty cold and uncomfortable night, but I was okay. When I got up in the morning I went to pack my sleepingbag and I literally rung water out of it. I packed it anyway not having much choice.

    Later that day I stopped in a field in the sun and lay it out to dry for a while. I unzipped it all the way and spread it out. As it got towards evening I zipped it up and crawled in. By the time I went to sleep it was just damp, and by morning it was basically dry and fluffy again.

  • In 2010 we decided to go snowcaving . The temperatures dropped to 7 outside that night. I soaked my bag by accident with my tights. THIS night I slept in a lot of extra clothing (tights and jacket), due to exhaustion and soaking the bag.
  • We carried these bags for the whole time we were on the AT, despite them being "warmer than needed" we were *extremely* happy we had them when in the smokies.
  • In 2010 in Yosemite I had gotten soaked due to a failed raincoat experiment. Jess barely got a fire started to cook dinner. I was going hypothermic and had soaked my vest. I crawled into my bag, and after a bit of shivering was just fine.
  • A couple other snowshoe trips. Trips with heavy dew. Jess got her bag damp many many nights on the AT as she would slide out of the tarp while sleeping. 9 days of rain in the Smokies near freezing. 5 days of rain just crossing freezing at night with my parents in the whites. etc. With all of that I've always been fine, the snowcaving trip was the only time I needed clothing with it.

Discovered properties

  • Jess and I both put off a fair amount of heat while sleeping, we can dry these bags after a normal natural soaking (I.E. not a full long-duration dunking) in 1 day in the sun, and 1 night sleeping.
  • The 5'6" model fits in a 3 liter eVent drysack (my favorite sacks), if you're a bit talented.
  • The 6' model needs the larger 6 liter compression sack.
  • I've slept in this bag ~10F with no additional clothing. New, I'd trust it to 0F. This is in contrast to an REI sub-kilo 20F, which I'd be confident with down to ~25F.
  • It depends on the person how much it loses loft as it ages. My sweat is very caustic. I wear out a set of sheets in ~1 year, but now (2012) my bag is relegated to being a 30F bag. Washing only helps it a little for me. Jess' bag is still going strong. With a washing it returns almost to new condition each time. We've been following the manufacturers recommendations including mostly their soap, it does seem not all soaps are created equal. Jess' washed her bag twice, mine has been washed maybe 4 times or so.
  • Jess' bag formed one hole in it in it's whole lifetime. This was due to a hot ember, not a flaw. Remember that we (especially Jess) often sleep directly on the ground and are generally pretty hard on gear. She stitched it up no problems.
  • The baffles are circular. When the bag is new this doesn't matter, but when the down is less fluffy then optimal, you'll find yourself shifting the down around on a cold night. It also slows down drying more if the down starts clumping, since it makes bigger clumps. Personally I do NOT see this as a feature, and other things being equal would prefer a full box baffle.
  • In practice we don't zip them together. Jess sleeps curled up. We tried zipping them together a couple of times and it didn't go well :P.
  • A full zipper is really really nice, as it can reduce drying times and allows it to work better as a quilt.
  • Simple neck baffles are the bomb.
  • It will shed light dew relatively well, but only light dew.
  • The grey color disappears in a field (great for stealthing).

So, what do we think?

Is it expensive? Yes. Is it worth it? That depends. Note my temperature commentary above (good too 0F for me). Now look at the weight of the bag at the top. Now try and name another bag that can do that temperature in < 1 KG and 3 liters. THAT is what this bag is for.

I figure the single piece of gear most likely to save my life is my sleepingbag. For me the weight and volume means there's rarely a reason not to carry this bag. I don't worry where I'm going or what I'm doing. 12,000ft on whitney? used it. A weekend with a tiny little daypack in mendocino? Yup, used it there too.

If that's worth paying double the price of some other bags to you? That's the decision. This is a great bag. It's well made, and absolutely is as warm as advertised. You're getting at least what you think you're paying for. Jess thinks it's like sleeping in a cloud, so there's always that too :). If you don't need it though, there's numerous cheaper solutions.

There are of course other options in this category as well. This is the 3'rd decent sleeping-bag I've owned. All have been down. I've heard great things about several other brands, and so far I'm loving my new overstuffed 10F down quilt. YMMV as always.


New Webstore/Gearlist!

So, we've made several changes to the site that you might have noticed:
  1. We've removed the random and irrelevant ads.
  2. We've added amazon links where relevant from some of our blog posts. We're only putting them at the END of the post, and we're going to make sure they are very obviously advertising.
  3. We've put up a store on amazon, linked from the blog. This contains only gear we've actually used fairly extensively, and liked (or at least gear nearly identical to such). Each product also has a short blurb about what we think of the gear, and links back to our reviews where relevant. Hopefully this will prove useful to our readers as much as helpful to us.
So, the goal is to make the advertising less obnoxious, and more helpful. Please let us know if you think we did otherwise!


On T-shirts

A short story

At some point while in college I got annoyed at dealing with clothing. I played a little with washing things by hand and then decided to try an experiment.

I decided to go with only one set of clothing. That is: one pair of boxers, one pair of shorts, 1 pair of socks, and 1 t-shirt. At the time I never wore long-pants (I used warm tights and/or wind-pants in the winter), so this sufficed for all of my first-layer needs.

Well, it worked, I went a year this way, and I actually *liked* it. Every night I would wash my clothing by hand using Dr Brauners and baking soda, and hang it up to dry. As a bit of a cheat I had a sorong I would wear for the short remainder of the evening. In the morning I'd put the same clothes back on. The only thing that particularly annoyed me was washing socks.

I continued the experiment but with multiple socks for another year. More recently I've switched to having more like 3 shirts and 2 pairs of shorts and boxers - so I don't have to do laundry quite as often. I've gone kinda crazy/lazy, think I own 5 shirts now!

I also hiked the Appalachian trail with Jess, when I did so I used one pair of women's running shorts (for decency), one pair of compression shorts, and 1 t-shirt.
(Ice-breaker 200 weight tech-t)

An opportunity

In this time I had a rather unique opportunity to evaluate clothing. Wearing the same shirt every day you become keenly aware of how fast they wear out. It turns out that most t-shirts won't even last a year. In fact, some will barely last a couple of months!

I also got an opportunity to find out exactly how well different clothing dried overnight, and as I softened my initial experiment, how long they took to start to smell. So, here's some of what I learned.

The T-shirts!

First, material:
  • Plastics: Plastics can be the most durable option. Surprisingly, they can also be the least durable. The longest I ever had a shirt last was a bit over year. This was a Columbia shirt designed to dry quickly. The shortest I ever had a shirt was ~1 month, I forget the brand but it was also plastic. The key is that the first one was a very dense weave, the second felt almost like a sponge. The first shirt didn't ever snag on anything, the second snagged on everything, and each time pull a fiber out into a little loop that stuck out off the shirt. This meant the shirt looked absolutely terrible in NO-time. Be careful of the weave! Note that silver stitched in does help keep odor down, but it only gets it marginally better than cotton. The one like a sponge dried *okay*, the other dried as well as any shirt does.
  • Cotton: Again, it's all about the weave. A waffle-weave cotton shirt lasts fairly well (~6-8 months). It looks a bit hippy for some people's tastes, but works well for me. Surprisingly, a waffle-weave cotton will actually dry over night no problem, as well as many plastic shirts. Note that a waffle weave cotton is approximately the worst option for cold, and approximately the best option for the desert. A more normal weave shirt won't dry overnight, as a result I've never done more extensive testing on them.
    (Standard T-shirt, not waffle)
  • Marino Wool: This is my favorite option because it's the most flexible. The number one advantage is smell. Marino beats every other option for smell hands down. The biggest downside is lifetime. It loses to the good plastics, and it loses slightly to the waffle-weave cotton. Other great feature though is it's wicking properties, and the fact that it's warm and comfy when wet. It will keep you a touch warmer than some options, but regulates to that temp extremely well. On the AT I wore an icebreaker marino wool t-shirt, it was a bit used at the start. 1500 miles later I'd torn out both shoulders and sewn them back up. Overall the shirt performed beautifully.

(200 weight icebreaker tech-t)

Further notes:

Notes on wool: I wore smartool marino shirts for a little while, and then stopped. These do NOT last long enough, these would live 3-months or less and then get so full of holes I couldn't wear them in public. For wool t-shirts the best I've found are icebreaker 200 weight shirts. Note that the tech-t is the best looking as a normal t-shirt, but for backpacking it has those shoulders that I tore out on the AT. Icebraeaker makes raglan sleeve shirts, which should help the shoulders last a lot better when under the stress of a backpack.
(Smartool T-shirt)

Backpacking: For serious backpacking, a discussion of t-shirts is a little silly. A shirt serves to keep bugs and brush off your skin, block sun, and be decent for town. Maybe you might need it occasionally 'til you get calluses on your shoulders. IMHO, if you need it for bugs, brush, or sun, you need a long-sleeve shirt. For the AT you can easily tan enough to just go shirtless whenever you're on the trail for sun purposes. More and more I've been moving towards this model - and thus thinking of t-shirts as something for society. When you think this way things like raglan sleeves are for fashion, since you won't have it on most of the time with a pack anyway. I will say that wool makes a nice base-layer.
(really bad gnats while on the AT)

Edit: Sadly, it appears the Tech-T is no longer made, only the Tech-T lite, which is 150 instead of 200 weight - so the wear lifetime will be somewhat shorter, though it is cooler.


Super simple tarp pitch

This is the fastest and easiest pitch I know. It requires a tarp, a tree, and three stakes (optional) A flat 8'x10' tarp is pictured here, though a 6'x8' would also work.

First find a tree with a nice spot to one side of it. The space needs to extend a fair distance from the tree, about ten feet.

Tie one corner of your tarp to the tree at about head height. Then, grab the diagonally opposed corner and stake it out as far away from the tree as you can. If you don't have any stakes just hold it down with a log or rock, or even tie it to some bushes. This is a low tension pitch so it's fairly forgiving. Then take the two remaining corners and stake or tie them to the ground so everything is taut.

Voila! You have a shelter that will comfortably sleep two. An yes, that's a very car shaped tree... it's just the picture I had laying around.

Note: Your head will be at the tree side of the shelter, so make sure that side is up hill unless you like inversions.

Unfortunately side blown rain will still get you wet in this shelter, and a heavy wind from the tree side of the shelter would put a lot of strain on the pitch and possibly collapse it. I've never had that happen, but I don't use this pitch in storms.

This shelter works best in the same weather where an umbrella would keep you dry. That is to say it's useful for rain in still air, and for keeping off heavy dews. I learned this pitch in Seattle, where the weather is almost always perfect for it. It's also great for dealing with fog coming off the ocean, which is key down in California. In general the openness makes it ideal to cook under and it's tall enough to sit up in, but my favorite thing about this pitch is that almost half the setup time is pulling the supplies out of my pack.


Foraging in June

Gathering season is getting rolling. Wild oats, and doc seeds are both in. Elderberry and walnuts coming soon. Cattail pollen is in depending on location, cattail shoots are delicious right now.

Here's a great list of plants and uses

Here's a pretty complete list, but not very trustworthy (good for ideas though). At a glance Jess and I saw a couple of flaws.


Tips for spinning up fire

We're not experts yet, but we've gathered quite a lot of tricks from various people, and we have succeeded in spinning up a few fires now, so I wanted to share some of those tips. P1000861 Regardless of other details what we're talking about here is starting a fire by creating heat via spinning a stick against a board. As you spin the stick you create a fine powder, the goal is to get this powder to compact into a nice little block right where all the heat is, so that that block of powder will ignite (at this point smoke will pour out if it, even once you stop, blowing on it lightly will show a bit of hot red). You then take this block, drop it into a tinder bundle, and blow that very slightly glowing little pack of powder into igniting the tinder around it. Now it's just a matter of basic fire skill to turn that burning tinder into a full fledged fire.

The stick that you spin is called a "drill" or sometimes "spindle" and the board you spin it against is called a "hearth" or "hearth-board".

Selecting wood type

So, How do you make this happen? You need to create a powder, usually you want this powder to come from the hearth-board. This means you usually want the hearth board to be a bit softer than the drill. Here's some of the easier woods to use:
  • Hand Drills:
    • Seep willow (tried)
    • Thick walled elderberry (seen it used)
    • Buckeye sucker (tried)
    • Sojaro rib (seen it used)
    • Ceder (tried)
  • Bow Drills:
    • Sotol (tried)
    • Yucca stalk or root (tried)
    • Seep willow (tried)
  • Hearths:
    • Sojaro cactus root or rib (tried)
    • ceder (tried)
    • buckeye (tried)
    • cottonwood root (tried)
This is absolutely a partial list. With enough skill almost any wood can be used, but as a rule soft woods (woods you can press your fingernail into) that aren't pitchy are good candidates for easy starts. At a gathering I was at recently, I heard that 3 ripped and skilled guys managed to start a hand-drill fire with ironwood, so "works" is all relative. I also know a guy who can start a fire in one pass down the drill with oak on oak. But... presumably since you're reading this, you want the easier methods.

There are a lot of properties that matter, frictional coefficient, fire hardening, oilyness, and ignition temperature are some examples. A major factor in my experience is whether the hearth board will be worn away by the drill, and maybe a bit of the drill worn away, or whether one or both the drill and board will basically just polish each other. This seems to be why oak, maple, or other hardwoods are so hard to use. Basically, getting the powder is a heck of a lot more work , and getting enough friction to build heat is hard to do before it's too polished, you need crazy downforce to make it work.
Remember that you're making fire, everything has to be dry. If you cut a fresh sucker of buckeye you'll have to dry it before it'll be easy to use. I've been told that wood that dies on the plant will be weaker than wood that's cut or broken - because the plant pulls all of the stuff out of it. I've also heard this matters particularly for the already week woods like elderberry. Be aware that sticks in shade grow differently than those in the sun, even on the same plant. Plants with water grow differently than those without, sticks growing up grow differently than those growing outwards, etc. So pay attention not just to the type of plant, but everything else about the environment the specific stick you're using came from.

Okay, so you've found some sticks that you think are good potentials. You can dig your fingernail into it. Now you want to decide if you're doing a hand-drill or a bow-drill. Bow-drill is easier for most people, but to use a bow-drill you need some good solid twine, a curved stick, and a hub to spin the drill in. Vegetable twine can work, but unless you're super good it'll need to be decent quality (think yucca, redwood cambium, or dogbane). I've read of using a strip of rawhide off a squirrel but it barely worked before breaking.

Selecting materials

Tinder: I'm not going into detail in THIS article on tinder. I highly recommend learning to start a fire with a sparker of some kind *before* trying to spin up a fire. The long and short of it is, get the best stuff you can, and surprisingly quantity CAN help if your quality is low. But if your quality is high get quantity anyway. The last thing you want is to do all that work and get a cinder just to fail at the "easy" part of turning that cinder into a fire. When it comes to tinder do it once, do it big, and do it right. 

Drill: If you're making a bowdrill, grab something around the size of your thumb or a bit larger. It's easiest if it's straight for 6-9 inches, cut it to this around length. You want it to come ~1/2 of the way up your lower leg. If you're using a handdrill grab something the size of your pinky or a bit smaller. (I'm 5' 6" and have large hands, but midsized fingers - adjust as needed for other sized hands). It should be at least 2 ft long.

Hearth: I'd aim for a minimum width of about twice the diameter of the drill you're using. You'll want it to be a good 8" long or more, so you have some space to put your foot on one end and drill on the other. Note that you'll need to flatten the hearth on BOTH sides,. Flattening the bottom as well as top is really important because if you can't get it to sit totally stably you'll repeatedly disturb the powder you've built up losing both the heat and the powder.

Bowdrill specific stuff: 

For bowdrill you need 3 more components. You'll need a knuckle for the top of the spindle to spin in, you'll need a nice length stick with a curve in it about the length of your arm, and you'll need twine to attach to the bent stick to make a bow.

Twine: need something thick and not too smooth that will grip the spindle. If it's too slick it will slide on the spindle cutting into it.

knuckle: It makes absolutely no difference what you use for this, it just shouldn't have much friction. A rock with a dent in it is great. If your rock doesn't have a dent you can make one given an hour or so of pecking. The knuckle-bone from a ruminant is also a popular choice and a bit easier. Supposedly roots or knots from some trees work well. If worse comes to worse you can just use another chunk of wood, you'll just want to really sharpen the spindle on this end to reduce friction.

Making components

You have all your materials. Now to make them into the components you need - note that you'll probably reshape several times again while trying to spin it up as you realize things are slightly off Drill: Now sharpen the bottom point of the drill a little. You want a pretty shallow point, at probably 140 degrees or shallower. Jess says sharper points work for the earlier steps, so as with all of this stuff experiment. For bowdrill sharpen the other end at a much steeper angle, something that will help it spin smoothly in the knuckle. You can also take a little oil from behind your ear or the side of your nose and rub that onto that end of the spindle. Do NOT put this on the bottom! we want friction and thus heat at that end!

Hearth: Take the hearth board and place your spindle on the board just a bit in from the edge. You probably want the edge of the spindle about 1/8" or so from the edge of the board. Wherever this places the tip of your spindle, drill a small hole with your pocket knife or stone blade.

Bowdrill technique:

Bow: For a bowdrill you'll want to make a bow with the twine. Use a clove hitch to tie the twine to the drill, this will let you adjust tension, if it slides too much you can use a constrictor hitch or something else instead, a timber hitch might also be a good choice.

Take the drill and push it against the bow-string. With a bit of a spinning motion you should be able to wrap the twine around the spindle one round. The twine should be taught at this point, but not SUPER tight. Note that if it's just a touch loose that'll be *okay* in another minute.

Stance: If you are right handed get down on your right knee and place your left foot on the hearth board with some weight on it. Get yourself up and *over* the hearth. Take the knuckle with your left hand and lock it up under your left shinbone (arm coming around from the outside). This will keep it stable so the spindle doesn't wobble all over the place.

Place the drill in the hole with the whole setup and start it spinning with the bow. Do this smoothly and slowly, don't worry about speed at all. The spindle will no doubt shoot away from you a good 5 feet in no-time. Go get it and try again. Be patient and keep reshaping things. You may need to tweak the shape of the tip, the hole in the board, the back of the board, or maybe dig a bit in the dirt or similar to get the hearth to be really stable and the drill to stay in there. Note that if you are rocking around as you move your spindle will end up shooting out. If your twine is sliding on the spindle you have more friction in the spindle than you do in the twine against the spindle. You can increase the twine friction by holding it so you push a bit on the twine with your right hand. If the spindle isn't spinning check your knuckle, make sure the spindle is straight, oil the top again with nose or ear wax/oil. Use the bow in *long* strokes. Every time you switch direction you stop, which will let it cool down, so a long stroke will involve a lot less work. Keep at it reshaping and tweaking until everything is comfortable and smooth. If you can't get it check your stance from the last paragraph - it really really matters, lock that hand under the shinbone.

Alright, so you've got the right wood, you've got the right sizes and shapes, you've got it spinning nicely, and if it's spinning nicely then by now incidentally you've burned a nice circle into the hearth board. The next step then is to make the powder we need. Take a knife and cut a notch into the hearth right next to the hole you burned. There's a lot of debate about this, so try various differences, but cut a narrow notch going almost but not quite half-way across the hole you burned. Several people have told me to make this notch wider at the bottom than the top - I suspect though that this only matters for hand-drill (where the drill is thin), not so much for bow-drill where you have plenty of space.

If your spindle is pointy, cut the tip of the point off (so it will rub on the edges more instead of sitting on the tip. The wood is moving faster at the edges). If the wood of the spindle is starting to fire-harden and shine, cut it off and reshape the tip again. If you had any issue at all with fire-hardening, take a pinch of gritty soil (preferably silt) and drop it in the hole in the hearth, this will let you wear off the shiny layer as you go.

Now get a surface of some kind. A rock or a leaf works well. Carefully place this under the hearth board where the notch is. This will catch the dust and let it build up in the notch into a packed pile ready to ignite. Make sure you get the hearth-board stable again so that it doesn't rock at ALL. This is *really really* important. If your hearth moves, you basically start over (you will start over a few times, but keep that in mind).

Get back in the stance and start back at it with slow long even strokes, As you go you should be building up powder in the notch. If it squeaks push a touch harder. Keep it easy and slow, but try not to stop. That powder is already warm, and if you lose that warmth you have to get it back, why do that? If you take off now though you'll probably wear out before you have a fire, or more likely not move smoothly enough and all your drill will go flying again. Only speed up if you go for a couple of minutes and are getting no powder, no smoke, no burn-in, and no squeak.

Once you see you have good powder buildup, it should mostly fill the notch, try and speed up a little. Keep it smooth and even with long strokes, but try and get a little more speed without losing that smoothness. Think about form not about power. About now you'll start to see smoke coming from the board. That's AWESOME! Don't STOP! Also, don't breath out really deeply looking at the board, you'll blow all the powder away! Keep breathing, and keep it going, don't speed up, don't go crazy, don't use up all your energy. Now you've got a continuous stream of smoke coming out the whole time. Keep going! At some point you'll have a significant amount of smoke coming out and hopefully you will even start to see red.

Once you see a bit of red in the powder... stop. Very very carefully take the board and lift it off your catching surface. flick the board with your finger to get it to drop the cinder you've made.

Take the cinder and drop it in the center of the best tinder bundle you could possibly have gathered (which I'm sure you were meticulous about with wonderful fluff in the center and maybe some good dry grass or shredded dry inner cambium etc.) Take the tinder bundle and hold it *tight*. You want to make sure a decent amount of material is touching the cinder in the middle. It should be just starting to smoke. Blow on it very lightly but with a thin stream of air. As more smoke comes out blow harder on it (still with the thin stream). At some point you'll start to see flames, you may want to put it down somewhere now before you burn yourself :). CONGRATULATIONS, you've just made fire from nothing but some wood and twine!

If you fail (and you will, if not now than later), don't throw it all away. That powder is a damned good start. If your last hole is going to wear through make a new one, and stick the old powder into the new notch yourself. This may save you a lot of extra work. Go back to all the checks you did before, check your technique, make it smooth and comfortable.

Handdrill technique

Hand drill is all of the same concepts, except now you don't get the mechanical advantage that the bow gave you. Why would someone do this you ask? With bowdrill you need a bow, you need twine, and you need a knuckle. That's a lot of extra complexity. Twine isn't always easy to make everywhere you go. A hand-drill requires 2 sticks, and that's all.

A few tips for handdrills though.
- Before you start, try clapping your hands until they are both slightly red. This sounds silly, but many find that it helps stave off blisters... others find it makes no difference. Personally it seems to work for me.
- you'll want to put the skinny end on the bottom, DON'T! The reason we're using a skinny drill is actually a matter of gear ratios basically, you want your hand on the skinniest part of the drill, as the same motion will then move the wider part of the drill farther.
- As you spin the drill notice the downforce you create on the spindle. You'll need quite a bit of pressure. If you focus on pushing down your hands will slide down the stick. Focus on form and push *in* pretty hard, this will let you slide downwards less for the same downwards force. Use as much of your hand as you can, as again this is less work. Some people find they can do it with just their palms, but just like the longer stroke with the bow-drill, you get more cooling time this way. Note that the bottom of the palm continuing into the pinky is the easiest place for most people to get the needed friction ('cause of the muscle structure there).
- Finding a sufficiently straight stick of the right wood is extremely difficult in modern times. Natives used to coppice buckeye and other plants to get straighter sticks, but we don't do that these days. So, find something relatively straight, preferably with a fairly simple bend (not many small bends). If you have a fire already (it's not like you're trying to start one or anything :P) hold the spindle over the fire (preferably coals) and warm it up. With it pretty warm try bending the wood straight. Keep bending and warming. Surprisingly the wood will actually straighten this way.

In closing

One last note for all of this. Don't rush. Spend the time to get the right materials, this makes all the difference. Spend the time to flatten the hearth properly. Spend the time to find a straight spindle, and straighten it more if you can. Make sure to get a spindle that's long enough in either case. Take all the little knobs off it so you can work it smoothly and not hurt your hands. Keep trying and keep experimenting.