Top 10 Tips I Forget Not Everyone Knows

Quite regularly, I forget how much time I spend camping, canoeing and portaging compared to most other people. I want to say this in the least obnoxious way possible, but sometimes I don’t realize that certain things that are (by now) habit for me turns out to be a helpful tip to someone else. And it’s that very avoidance of being obnoxious that I don’t go around shouting all these things out at people. I mean, there’s some obvious knowledge to convey to beginners. I’m not talking about that kind of stuff. What I’m talking about is the stuff that makes some of your friends – the people with whom you’ve been on countless trips over the years – that say to you “Man that would have been helpful to know a lot sooner. Why are you holding out on us?” (While other friends might just respond with “Duh?”)

So here is a small list of random things that you may or may not know. But just in case, I’ll run them down anyway. Each of these things were realized by or conveyed to me at some point and I thought they were simple but brilliant, wondering why I hadn’t thought of that sooner. Some I’ve known for a long time, others not as long. (As much as I don’t want to be obnoxious, I don’t want to be embarrassed either, so I won’t tell you which I learned when.)

1 – Stabilize. Often.

See how the pack aligns along my back? Pull those stabilizing traps.

See how the pack aligns along my back? Pull those stabilizing traps. Most backpacks have them, not just packs with barrels.

Stabilizing straps are the little ones that are on your pack’s shoulder straps, sometimes called “load lifters”. When tightened, they pull the top of your pack closer to your back, making it vertical and so more properly able to distribute the weight on your waist and shoulders. Or to put it another way, they make your pack more comfortable to wear. These are not necessarily meant to be set once and forgotten. To allow taking your pack off and putting it back on more easily, loosen these straps before you take it off. As soon as you get it back on, connect your belt clip and whatever else you have do, then yank on those straps. (Ever wonder why they’re often a different colour than the other straps?) You’ll notice immediately that you’re much more comfortable, as most people who don’t (regularly) tighten them often hunch over, fighting the pack from pulling you from behind. Bonus tip: You know that strap that goes across your chest (on some packs)? It’s normally called a sternum strap. It’s there just to keep your shoulder straps in place. It’s not supposed to be pulled tight. That just makes it harder to breath, and so uncomfortable. (Also, if you’re helping a woman fit their pack, let them do the sternum strap themselves. Trust me, it avoids the risk of some rather awkward explanations.)

2 – Folding can stuff it!

Don't spend time folding. Stuff that sack instead.

Don’t spend time folding. Stuff that sack instead.

You can save a lot of time stuffing fabrics into bags rather than folding them neatly, especially when fighting larger items in the wind, or keeping them out of dirt. They’re called “stuff sacks” because you stuff, not because they hold stuff.* In fact, when you stuff, you’re not wasting any space in the sacks as everything will be pushed to all areas with no gaps that folding might cause. Larger items, like tents, flys and tarps can be folded once or twice for them to be manageable, then rolled. But don’t go crazy trying to be too neat in your folding. Often a good rule of thumb is to fold an item to the size of it’s bag, then roll it and stuff it. If these items don’t fit into their original bags, get a new bag that they’ll fit into properly. No sense wasting time, having sore hands from the dexterity involved, and more importantly, your losing your sanity. (Sorry to all those compulsive folders out there. If wrinkles are the worst hardship of camping, you’ve had a pretty great trip.)

*Actually, I don’t know that for sure. Maybe that was the original intended meaning, but not how we use it now.
 

3 – Pee downhill.

I don't have any pictures of me peeing, let alone downhill. You get the idea though.

I don’t have any pictures of me peeing, let alone downhill. You get the idea though.

Most people know not to pee into the wind. What’s not in songs or on t-shirts is that gravity does the same thing as wind. This advice is for keeping your shoes dry (and not gross) in the moment, but also other places. A steep hill, wet (saturated) soil and flat rocks can allow liquids to travel down enough of a distance for a surprise inconvenience. I remember once seeing a mini yellow river make it’s way right into the middle of camp that we had to deal with for the rest of our stay. Obviously, the culprit was well hydrated. There’s a chance that culprit may have been me. I don’t remember. But either way, I know not to do that now. Usually. (*Note: If you practice Leave No Trace, this shouldn’t be  much of a problem as you’re supposed to be “going” at least 200ft away from a water source, so perhaps the camp as well.)

4 – Pillows are anything soft.

There are always alternatives to bringing pillows. Save space by thinking "multiple uses".

There are always alternatives to bringing pillows. Save space by thinking “multiple uses”.

Sure a camping pillow might be ideally designed to hold your head up in comfort, and they make some really fancy ones now. But really, anything you can stuff something soft into and keep your head a few inches off the ground can be used as a pillow. The stuff sack that holds your extra clothes is perfect for this. I keep mine in a compression bag which keeps it small but tight. Before I go to sleep I simply loosen it a bit for better comfort. In fact, I find this even more comfortable and soft than a blow up pillow. If I could find a way to stuff something big and flat enough to use as a sleeping pad, I’d do that too. The bag your sleeping bag comes in is also good, especially if you want a bigger pillow. You have to take out the sleeping bag anyway, so throw everything you have that’s soft in there until it’s comfy for you – extra tarps, rain gear, clothes, even the TP. I almost forgot about PFDs! They’re very good pillows. Turn them inside out to avoid the buckles and zippers, or just throw it in a sack. Just remember, nothing smelly should go in the tent, so avoid using those items to stuff your pillow. (Other people can be soft enough to use as a pillow as well. Just make sure you know them well enough before you try it. Or that they’re sound sleepers.)

5 – Hang Your Food In The Open.

In a dense forest, find an opening in the canopy to hang your food bag.

In a dense forest, find an opening in the canopy to hang your food bag. (It’s on an elbow, and if you look real close you’ll notice it’s upside down, but nobody’s perfect. )

They just told you that your food needs to be hung from a tree. You wander away from camp, into the forest looking for a branch but you now realize there’s no branches within a reasonable height for you to throw a rope over. All the trees in there are tall, skinny, with branches way too far up. You wander around deeper and deeper into the woods, cursing whoever is making you do this, thinking why are all the good branches back at camp, but still nothing. (It’s weird and yet instinctive, but we almost feel like we have to hide the food bag further into the forest. But that’s where the critters come from.)

Yeah… here’s the thing: Under the canopy, trees drop their lower branches as they grow taller. They’re useless to them unless they can get sunlight. With all that tree competition for light, they’re all tall and skinny – and branchless except for at the very top. To find a suitable, reasonably low branch , you need to find an opening in the forest canopy. Those trees will have lower branches. Look closer to a shore or in gaps where trees can’t grow together densely so the ones that do can spread out a bit. Wandering further into the forest is just going to find you more skinny tall trees.

Note: Ontario Parks recommends hanging your food at least 6m (20ft) above the ground.

6 – Marketing Right Side Up.

The tent, its fly, the water filter and even the camp chair all hint which side is up by whether or not you can read the logo.

The tent, its fly, the water filter and even the camp chair all hint which side is up by whether or not you can read the logo.

Ever wonder whether something is upside down or backwards? A sure-fire tip is that if you can read the manufacturer’s logo, you’ve got it right. No need to roll it all out and check which side is up. It’s not a coincidence. The tent maker’s are going to want you to recognize their tent, so if you throw the fly on and you can read it clearly, it’s on right. Same goes for bags, clothes, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, tarps, pots, or anything you have to put together or unravel.

7  – Pool the TP

With their friends off somewhere, it's safe to have some fun at their expense. With the TP in one spot, it's safe to assume their not at the privy.

With their friends off somewhere, it’s safe to have some fun at their expense. With the TP in one spot, it’s safe to assume their not at the privy.

They’re smaller and not as foolproof, but as a non-critical need or backup, ziplocs (or their generic brand equivalent) can keep things nice and dry like little, cheap dry bags. Just make sure you zip them up good. I often use double zip freezer bags, which give you a bit more reliability and are more durable so you can re-use them often. A perfect use for them: I use a big bag to hold all the group’s toilet paper. That way it’s waterproof but can be kept easily accessible. The real tip here is that in bigger or unfamiliar groups, for some people knowing whether someone’s already using the privy can be a little awkward. I’m asked about this quite a bit, and I’ve heard of several less than reliable ways of indicating “Occupied!” Think about it. You have to look, but you don’t want to see – or be seen. And some people might not want to have that conversation, especially shouting it from camp. (“Hey Dorothy! Are you putting up the bear rope or doing what bears do in the woods?”)

What’s easier is simply knowing that if the TP bag is missing, you know someone’s using it. The down side is when you walk away with the big bag, everyone knows what you’re doing with it. Then again, these are the kinds of things you kinda got to get over in the backcountry. Let’s call it the lesser awkward.

8 – Dry Bag = Water Bag.

A collapsible bucket is a great idea to carry water and save space. However to save even more space, use one of your dry bags.

A collapsible bucket is a great idea to carry water and save space. However to save even more space, use one of your dry bags.

And speaking of dry bags, did you know  the same premise that keeps water out of dry bags, water can also be kept in? (I know, genius stuff, right?) For example: Looking around for something to carry water to douse the campfire at the end of the night? Dry bag. Campsite pretty far away from water and don’t want to make to many trips? Dry bag. They usually even have handles to make carrying easier. (Warning: If your dry bag is made from rubbery or other smelly materiel, that will stink up your water, so don’t use it for drinking water.) I know what you’re saying: But if I’m trying to use it to keep things dry, won’t that wet the inside of the bag, defeating the purpose? Sure. But most bags are flexible enough to turn inside out. Do that before you fill it. Bonus related tip: How do you dry-out a dry bag if the insides get wet? Turn it inside out.

9 – Roll out the air.

Start from the bottom and roll your gear towards where the air comes in.

Start from the bottom and roll your gear towards where the air comes in.

I do this so often it’s second nature and forget it can be construed as a tip. If you need to get the air out of little bags, Ziplocs, airmattresses or other types of gear that might trap air, leave the seal open and roll it from the bottom towards the air opening and then seal it. This keeps air out of your gear, making them smaller and easier to pack, or fit back into their containers. (Another good reason not to fold, from point #2.) This also saves you from having to do that air-purge hug with the air mattress that we all do. For more fragile things like Ziploc bags, it also saves them from a potential pop when stuffed into your pack. Some tents can trap a little bit of air. If you roll from the back towards the door, all the air goes out. Another bonus, regarding tents in particular: If you roll from the back, holding it up with the door zipper open, often gravity can sweep some of the dirt, pine needles and leaves out.

10 – Rocks Rock.

The key to a food bag rope is bringing with you fancy rocks from home. Wait... That can't be right.

The key to a food bag rope is bringing with you fancy rocks from home. Wait… That can’t be right.

 

Another tip about hanging your food: You’re supposed to hang your food 6m high, which means throwing rope up at least that far. Being light weight, on its own, the rope rarely cooperates. You can fix that by tying a rock or stick (or something) to the end, which will give you enough momentum to get the rope over, and most importantly, back down.

I know, I know… You know that one already. Because of this, I’ll give you two bonus tips. First, when you tie your rock, criss-cross the rope around the rock before you tie it. This will keep the rock from slipping out after you’ve tossed it over the branch. This is even more important if you don’t get it over the branch on the first throw (I for one am horrible at that for some reason), and the rock rolls away out of sight.

Secondly, if you’re having a hard time finding a suitable rock, check the firepit and borrow one – just please put it back for the rest of us – and maybe not if you’ve already got the fire going. You could also use a suitable sized and weighted piece of gear as well. Just tie it well so it doesn’t go flying off where you can’t find it, and obviously choose something that is tough enough to survive the fall. (Sometimes several falls.)

Bonus bonus tip: Keep your rope away from the elbow of the branch, where it meets the trunk or where the branch splits in two. Often when you go to pull down your rope it will get caught there. Once your rope is up and over, you can move it back and forth on the branch by holding both ends of the rope rather than pulling the rope down and throwing it over again, or frustratingly trying to do that little rope flick thing with just one end (which usually pulls down the other end anyway).

Ther you have it. Some random tips that I forget that not everyone knows. Were there any surprises?

Repelling Bugs

It may be great advice to avoid bugs, doing whatever you can not to attract them, but just like those boring chatty guys at parties, some of them will eventually find you. Basically biting bugs are attracted to carbon dioxide and heat, both of which you expel regularly and by necessity. So often your only choice is to bring out the big guns and find some way to repel them. So let’s discuss some of the ways to keep those bugs away. Read more

Avoid Attracting Bugs

There isn’t much you have to do to attract bugs. They like you just the way you are, and they’ll find you. What makes you particularly attractive, aside from your bubbly personality, is the indicators that you have tasty warm blood running through you: Warmth and carbon dioxide. You give off those signals all the time. You can’t help it. When you speak, sweat, or just stand there, you’re emitting CO2. When you’re active, out in the sun, or again just standing there, you’re emitting heat. Unfortunately there’s no real safe way to stop being so attractive (e.g. not breathing) there are some ways to minimize just how attractive you could be to bugs.

Read more

Keeping Away From Bugs

If you’re out there in the woods, there’s going to be bugs. (Sorry, but it’s true.) Your first step in dealing with bugs is to be away from the areas they like best. Basically, they like to be damp and cool (but not wet and cold). It’s all about knowing your enemy and its likes and dislikes.

Bugs Like It Damp

Stay away from swampy areas, or places with a lot of wet vegetation. When making camp, choose sites away from these areas for sure, but because they like standing water, make sure to get rid of any standing water left in rocks, logs or anything else that might hold a puddle. For ticks in particular, stay away from areas with tall vegetation and anywhere known to attract birds (they like them). You’ll also find that camping along the river or on the lake, obviously you’ll find a lot of wet areas that soak up and hold water. Check for sites that border the water with sand or rocks. These areas either won’t hold water or will at least drain it away a lot easier than soil and vegetation. Sites that are raised well above the water level are also a good idea.

Bugs Like It Cool

Conversely, they don’t like heat – they dry out. If you can, stay in sunny areas. In the heat of summer, this might not seem like a great alternative, but it’s one of the great outdoor dilemma: Bake in the sun bug free (relatively), or cool down in the shade while the pests snack on you. If you can, make camp somewhere that has some open areas, so even if you don’t want to hang out in the sun, you can at least step out and get a bit of a reprieve.

Good Excuse to Stay in the Boat

One of the reasons I like to keep moving when I go out tripping is that the bugs don’t usually follow you (as much) onto the lake. I mean, if they’re bad, they’re all over the place, but generally this rule holds true. Why? I’m not sure whether it’s because they can’t get out there and back to shore without rest, but part of the reason is that the breeze from an open area like lakes and rivers keeps them at bay. Either way, while I can’t guarantee a bite free boat ride, I have often found an excuse to paddle around when the bugs are at their worst.

So when it comes to dealing with bugs, your best defense is what Mr. Miyagi suggested: The best defense no be there. Now of course, that doesn’t mean they won’t come get you though.

Read more about dealing with bugs

You’re Warm When Your Head’s Warm

A very simple trick to keeping warm in those chilly nights is to bring a toque with you. You can stuff it in the bottom of your sack and it doesn’t cost much weight, but it can be very useful for keeping warm on those unexpectedly cold nights. See if you can find a light weight skull cap style to save even more space. You’d be amazed at how much warmth you can save by keeping your head covered, because of just how much heat you lose through your head. My grandfather spent a lot of winters in the freezing bush, and would often tell me that he’d rather wear pajamas and a warm hat than a snowsuit without one. That’s probably a bit extreme, but you get the idea.

Any time you find yourself suddenly cold, whether it’s because of unexpected weather or an unwanted dip in the lake, break out the toque and put it on because it will also help raise your body temperature relatively quickly. In extreme situations the toque can be used as a supplemental first aid tool for this reason.

Basically, a toque will help maintain your body heat better and be much more comfortable hanging around the campsite – especially if you find yourself somewhere with a fire ban. I don’t know how many mornings I found myself wasting time, refusing to get out of my tent because of how much I hated the idea of getting out of my nice warm sleeping bag. Slap the toque on and it makes things much easier, and even get out on the lake a little sooner.