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?

Moose Sightings

Last weekend, I rode the Parkbus up to Algonquin Park (more on that later) and was treated to quite a few moose sighting. For the most part, I did so from the comfort of the bus, but on one special occasion, I got a bit of a close encounter.

IMG_1513

This moose pic was taken from the Parkbus

They say that if you want to see a moose, check the highways in the spring. In fact, if you want to find them, don’t look for moose, look for the line of cars pulled over. (Thanks to Ian H. for coining the phrase for this:  “Post-modern tracking skills”.) After a long winter, they crave the salty vegetation that grows near highways because of all the salt used to clear ice and snow the previous season. Highway 60, where it crosses Algonquin Park is arguably the best place to spot a moose in the spring. With the high population of moose in the park, naturally your chances of seeing them increase. It’s super easy as well – they regularly come to you. As our bus drove along the highway, we were treated to 8 sightings in all. Each time of course came with an array of cars on each side, with tourists vying for the best place to take pictures of the great beasts. Because of this, and how nice our driver was, we slowed down and were able to snap quite a few photos.

IMG_1507

Nancy riding in the shuttle to Kearney Lake.

My route for the weekend involved a shuttle after the last Parkbus stop at Lake Opeongo. (I’d be portaging back to that spot for Monday to catch the bus back.) This gave me a chance for one more sighting, and again my driver was nice enough to slow down for more photos. I thought this was going to be the last chance until the ride back, so I took advantage. You see, I was able to bring Nancy on this trip, which I hadn’t done when riding the bus until now. I rarely see moose or deer (or wolves or bears for that matter) in the interior when Nancy’s with me. Or when I do, it’s brief. I thought the photos I got, not great having to take them through glass and while moving, were the best I’d get.

HighwayMooseSightings

A couple more shots taken from the shuttle.

However, when I got dropped off at the portage to Kearney Lake, a young male appeared. Nonchalant, he fed himself while I unpacked – and tied Nancy out of view. From a safe, respectable distance, I took the photo below (and like a hundred others), when the inevitable tourists were attracted by the site of my friend. They all started to pull over, get out of their cars and try to get closer. A little too close, actually. The moose started to retreat back into the foliage, and I expected the photographers to drive off. But the problem was, I started moving my gear off the shoulder and up the trail. They thought they’d follow my lead. I couldn’t believe how close some of them felt they could get. More importantly, at this point the lines of people coming up the trail was driving the moose towards me. I already annoyingly had to organize my gear in a crowd and awkwardly had to move through them to get to the lake. Needless to say if they weren’t giving the moose any distance-respect, they weren’t getting out of my way either.

As for Nancy, she could now see the moose, and was freaking out. I don’t know if you’ve ever had your pack on your back, canoe on your shoulders and a dog leashed around your waist who’s barking and lunging in another direction, but it’s quite a challenge to move through people.

Close encounter with this moose on the portage to Kearney Lake.

Close encounter with this moose on the portage to Kearney Lake.

No worries though. The moose moved into the woods as I made my way down the trail, each of us not succumbing to our base instincts to act against the crowd. (I may have made a sarcastic comment under my breath and the moose exhaled loudly, which I can only assume is moose-speak for the same thing.) The people were gone by the time I had come back for my second pack, with Nancy left to wait for me at the put in. As I made my way back to the lake, suddenly from behind the trees to my right, the moose snorted at me very loudly. I stopped and looked right at him. He looked at me. I can only imagine he was tired at being gawked at. I wondered just then if there must be an unwritten rule with moose. It’s okay to be watched by the road. After all, they come out knowing the privacy risks. But once back in the forest, that’s another story. I’m sure I’m projecting here, but I believe as he stared at me, checking me out, figuring out what I was doing, he was saying “Now watch it, buddy” in his own moose way. I laughed. “Oh now you’re annoyed,” I (actually) said out loud. He snorted again, raising his head slightly. I turned my shoulders towards the trail and moved on. After a few moments I heard some cracking branch sounds go off in the other direction.

Quite a beautiful moment, actually. But only so because everything turned out okay.

A Solo Trip Remembered

Some of the best moments are earned.

Some of the best moments are earned.

 

Recently I’ve been posting a lot of my photos on Flickr and when I got to this one I got a little caught up in describing the photo. So I thought I’d share the story here as well. It’s a brief story explaining what’s going on in the photo, but putting it up there was inspired by another photographer talking about how he rushed to get into the frame within the 10 second timer and how frantic that experience can be. The point I was originally trying to explain was that the urgency of doing that – setting up the camera, running to get into position – can itself make for a great photo. 

A Long Day

This self shot was taken at the end of a really, really long day, but the good kind of long day.

I was on a solo trip up through the west entrance to Killarney Provincial Park. In the weeks leading up to the trip, each person in the group that was going to be joining me had dropped out one by one. The weather was bad when I started out, some kind of crazy cold streak had arrived, and I forgot some of my rain gear. In short, I had every excuse to skip this trip. When set out into the park, the outfitter gave me one of those maternal, supportive smiles, telling me that the weather report she heard called for nicer weather tomorrow.

I accepted the cold temperatures, keeping an eye on my slowly blue-turning feet, ignored the drizzling rain coming down in an awkward horizontal direction and concentrated on navigating through the high waves and indecisive but strong winds. My route would be much longer as instead of a straight line, I had to zig-zag along the coast or hide behind islands to get out of the wind. Of course there were some spots where you just had to muscle through.

When I finally made it to camp, an hour or so before sunset, I was exhausted (and even managed to dunk my sleeping bag in the lake, but that’s another story). I cooked up some dinner and went to bed. Cold, tired and a little wet, I went to sleep crossing my fingers for better weather the next day, with the last thought before drifting off was that this had been the short day of the trip (distance wise).

Crossing my fingers worked. I woke to a completely different world outside. It was warm, sunny, with a gentle breeze. But I couldn’t stand around. I had a big day ahead, including a challenging 1700m portage just before another long 2200m. The second wasn’t particularly tough, but had a fun surprise at the end: a beaver dam to walk over like a balance beam, with your legs all rubbery from the long trail.

Great New Day

Now don’t get me wrong, I had a great day. I mentioned the weather, but the scenery I was passing through was fantastic, and I took my time to enjoy it. That’s kind of the point of these things. In fact, at one point, with a pack on my back and canoe on my shoulders, I looked to my right and saw a fantastic site: the top of the white tipped quartzite hills. If trail brought me this close, I just had to drop my gear and climb to the top. The view was amazing from up there. You might call it unnecessary energy spent, but I say it was an opportunity taken.

When I finally got back on the water on the finally stretch, the winds had arrived, and were funneling through the narrow lake, of course, in the wrong direction. All the head down, muscle through paddling distracted me from hitting a sandbar, which was tough to get the canoe back on course. When I got to camp I was once again exhausted, done.

So I found a tree to sit and lean against and made myself a tasty dinner, eating it watching the sun slowly move across the gorgeous surrounding hills. It was the most beautiful spot. Even the winds settled down a bit.

The Best Place I Could Be

I couldn’t even imagine a better place on the planet to be sitting. I was completely at peace, not to mention pretty proud of myself. I had put a lot of effort to get here, but it was worth it. This is when I took this picture. I set the camera on a rock, put the timer on and ran into place, arms raised. I’m not sure whether I had planned to do that gesture (though I repeated it for a couple more just-in-case shots), but it turned out to be my best picture of pure, spontaneous emotion. Running to get into place before the timer when off probably help create that urgency, but maybe only I can tell looking at it.

As you can imagine, this photo has a lot of meaning to me. I wish I had taken it after I bought a better camera, or after I had learned all that I have about taking better pictures since, or even if I had brought a tripod. While all of that might have led to a technically better photograph, it was what I needed to do to be there at that moment that made this picture possible.

A more detailed description of the whole trip, maps and more photos can be found here

If you're not having fun, you're doing it wrong.

If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

On Love and Paddling

It’s Valentines Day today. Now I’m not all that touchy-feely, and I’m one of those people who is torn on the idea of this “holiday”. But then again, it is a good excuse to show the ones you care about how you feel. So just like any holiday where you’re supposed to do something (i.e. buy something), if done with the right intentions, why not? (Incidentally, did your mom make you give Valentines to everyone in your class? As a kid I found that weird, and embarrassing. I mean, I did NOT want to give the wrong impression – especially to that girl who always wanted to sit beside me during reading time. But at least if everyone got one, the implication of something more isn’t there. That said, I do remember making sure a couple of girls got one just slightly bigger than the others. But I digress….)

Happy Valentines Day

Happy Valentines Day

This isn’t a website about holidays or love or candy, so I’m going to talk about love from a tripping perspective. Whether it’s romantic or parental or even just a strong bond with someone – or a furry friend for that matter – there are plenty of ways love is expressed out in the back-country. Here are just some of the ways I’ve experienced, witnessed or listened to in stories:

Love Is:

  • … Quietly keeping the canoe straight for a new paddler, telling them their doing just fine when asked.
  • … Letting someone think they’re doing a great job keeping you straight.
  • … Compliments, even when “it’s not a big deal”.
  • … Sneaking some of the heavier items into your own pack.
  • … Staying up late the night before a trip to prepare some special treat.
  • … Offering up the last bit of chocolate when the treats have been exhausted.
  • … “You first.”
  • … “I’ll go first.”
  • … Slaving over a campfire to make an elaborate meal.
  • … Telling someone you like it better burnt.
  • … Offering to do the dishes.
  • … Buying someone a piece of gear that makes their trip a little more comfortable – or even fashionable.
  • … Getting into the canoe from the muddy spot.
  • … Not laughing, no matter how hard that might be, and no matter how dirty/wet/ungraceful someone got.
  • … Smiling.
  • … Bringing some things you normally might not on a portage trip.
When you see something like this, you take a quick picture, don't look around for the owners, and quickly move on.

When you see something like this, you take a quick picture (if you must), but don’t look around for the owners. Most importantly, quickly move on.

  • … Lying about how your side of the tent is soft enough when one of the sleeping pads deflate.
  • … What I got, I said remember that. (Sorry, I hate that song too, but it got in my head writing this.)
  • … Taking an extra shift driving home.
  • … Resisting every urge to fall asleep so you can keep the driver company.
  • … Asking for directions, you know, just to be sure.
  • … Telling someone they’re even prettier dirty and natural.
  • … Telling someone they don’t smell that bad at all.
  • … Making sure someone’s little face is clean the whole trip, no matter how an uphill battle it seems to be.
  • … Being vocally impressed by how someone carried that little, but obviously quite heavy bag, almost the whole length of a portage.
  • … Bringing a lot more “Gummy” food items than you would normally.
  • … Being the one who steps up and says it’s time to rest.
  • … Sharing body heat with a plugged nose.
  • … Band aids with Spiderman on them.
  • … Standing guard but out of site of the privy.
  • … Watching a sunset with an arm around the shoulders and a head against a chest.
  • … Checking to see if it was a bear, when you are certain it was a squirrel.
  • … Not saying “I told you so” and packing an extra rain coat.
  • … That look across the campfire. It’s even better when light is flickering.
  • … A welcome home hug, even when it goes against every instinct.

… And of course,  love is, most of all, wanting to share great experiences together.

Paddles Together

Paddles Together

Nancy Postscript

One of the funniest experiences I’ve had with Nancy was on our very first portage trip, shortly after adopting her from the SPCA. We had known each other for less than 10 months by this point and I think finally at a point where she truly started to trust me. It was late September and on one of those really cold spells that happen – you know the kind, where you freeze your butt off for 2 days only to be sweating (off whatever you still have of that same butt) for the next 2 days from all the extra gear you had to bring for the cold. Anyway, Nancy and I had a problem the first day getting out on the water, so we instead drove out to our property in South River to camp out the night and try again in the morning. It was freezing (!) that night. As we lied in the tent, Nancy could not stop shivering, but strangely, kept herself curled in a little ball as far as she could possibly be from me. I took my sleeping bag and spread it out more, to give a second layer for her sleeping mat that was clearly not doing a good enough job keeping the cold ground from sucking up all her heat. I tapped it, telling her to get on but she shyly stood still, probably not knowing what I was asking of her. So I picked her up and put her down on the sleeping bag. She stayed about 30 seconds before getting up and moving back to the corner. (Talk about insulting. She’d rather freeze than sleep beside me? I was certain I had put on deodorant, but then again, it was a long drive.)

I picked her up again and put her back, then pet her so she wouldn’t move, hoping she’d get a little warm and understand it’s better over here. It worked, but she was still shivering. So I unzipped my sleeping bag, wrapped what I could over myself, then took the bit of fabric left over and draped it over her. After a little while she was still shivering, and so was I. Nuts to this. I re-worked the sleeping gear, putting her mat on my sleeping pad, covered it with the sleeping bag, got in and zipped it up half way. I then lied on my side so there would be room for Nancy, grabbed her and put her right beside me and covered us both with the sleeping bag.

Well! She gave me this look that I can only describe as what someone would do when a date was being a little too forward, as if to say “Um… Yeah… I don’t think we’re really there yet.” It was polite, but clear. At this point she got up and went back to the corner of the tent. Then of course, she quickly went back to shivering.

“Fine!” I said, “let’s go.” I opened the tent, grabbed all the sleeping gear and made a crazy-cold dash towards the car. I setup up a rather uncomfortable bed in the backseat, with a little spot made up for the cold dog. It would be cramped, but I couldn’t bear the thought of her freezing on the cold ground. I don’t know if you’ve ever slept in a car, but it always seems like a better idea until you try it. When I finally found a comfortable sleeping position (legs hanging up by the window, neck twisted against the door), and saw that Nancy was comfortable in her little spot near my feet (or where they should have been), I finally dozed off. When I woke, I was pretty sore. Not a fun sleep. I was also a little annoyed, because there was Nancy, no longer in her spot, but in the front seat alone. I wonder how long she’d been up there by herself. For my own sanity, or maybe pride, I’ve chosen to believe shortly before I woke, being too hot from her comfy spot, she decided to cool down in the front. Yeah, that must be what happened.

Little did I know that only a short while later I would be complaining about a certain spotted someone always pushing up against me in bed. (Quiet complaining, mind you. Save for a few moments here and there, I wouldn’t have it any other way.)

 

Where were you planning on sleeping?

Where were you planning on sleeping?

BioLite Campstove

“Did you also bring you’re BioLite?”

“No, because I figured you would.”

— A conversation I had 3 times this year.

The BioLite CampStove

The BioLite CampStove

Must get new gadget

In December of 2011, I stumbled on a little gadget that was being introduced. It was a camping stove fueled by twigs and other small cast-off materials, used a fan to make burning more effecient, and most importantly, didn’t need installed batteries because – get this – it used the thermal energy created to charge the internal battery. AND it stored the excess power so you can even use it to charge your electric peripherals (camera, batteries, cell phone etc.). All this in a unit as big as a large water bottle. I had to get one.

I pre-ordered one immediately. They suggested it would be ready some time early in the next year’s camping season. I couldn’t wait. Then the emails started coming in. Everyone I knew it seemed, was sending me links to this camping stove that could charge your cell phone. At least 8 friends told me they ordered one, usually telling me I should get one as well. We all waited, getting the occasional teaser update by BioLite, and we got a little present for pre-ordering: a wood burned carving of the BioLite logo. What was fun about it was that they suggested that we save it to use the carving as fuel for our stove’s first use. Nice touch, BioLite.

Just how badly I wanted this stove

When it arrived in June, I was in a hotel room in Europe (Arnhem, The Netherlands). I got a voicemail from UPS, saying I owed them some customs brokerage fees (see below) before they could deliver the stove because it was being shipped to Canada from The States. Roaming charges from being in Europe did not deter me from calling them back. I wanted to make sure I got my stove, and paid them over the phone by credit card. I had it re-directed to my mother. I stressed to the lady on the phone to make sure she charges me everything now, even their elevated brokerage fees. I did this so that my non-driver mother wouldn’t need to have cash on hand. In short, I wanted to make sure there was no reason not to deliver the stove, as I was a week or so away from being home. They still wound up charging my mother more money when it arrived, but thankfully she had the extra $27 dollars lying around somewhere. In the end, I think I wound up paying for 3 stoves. This stove better be worth it! (If this is deterring you from getting yourself one, see below for good news.)

Using my CampStove on Grace Lake

Using my CampStove on Grace Lake

How it works

I was really excited about the idea behind this stove. First, it had all the advantages of being a stick-stove, so for example bringing along gas based fuel is not necessary and contains the fire in a small area to make best use of small amounts of twigs and bark or whatever else is lying around. Next, it uses a fan to make fuel use more efficient, accelerating and concentrating the heat (like blowing on the coals constantly, without loosing your breath). And of course its cylinder shape focuses the flames to your cooking surface. These are all important factors in the CampStove design, but BioLite didn’t actually set out to create a neat little gadget for campers.

“If we were to think about the three biggest problems affecting our world. Any socially conscience person would have to include poverty, disease and climate change. And yet there is one thing that causes all three of these simultaneously. That we pay no attention to, even though a very good solution exists.”

Ethan Kay, BioLite’s Managing Director of Emerging Markets at TEDx Montreal. See the full presentation here.

Originally, BioLite set out to solve a huge global issue by making home stoves in developing countries safe and efficient. The full size version of their design is called the HomeStove, and it has been nominated for several humanitarian awards because it has the potential to reduce wood consumption (50%), smoke (95%) and black carbon (source) and most importantly making it safer for cooking. Open fire cooking, which much of the world still practices – 3 Billion people –  can be dangerous and is definitely inefficient. Considering in many places how much time is spend just gathering wood to cook (not all the world has our dense supply of trees), I would imagine a stove that uses half as much would be very appealing. Add to this that the HomeStove is basically a big multi-fuel stick-stove, and so can burn smaller material, less material and even residual material, like the unconsumable  portions of crops or even cow dung.  BioLite is currently working with existing “carbon-credit off-set programs” (in Europe, for example), to make this stove affordable to the poorest of the poor.

Now add to this the fact that BioLite has included a device that converts the heat generated into powering the fan, means that no power is required to run the stove – no batteries or electric outlets required. Great idea, isn’t it? And again, any excess energy created can then be used to charge up electronic devices or stored in rechargeable batteries for later use.

This is a great, helpful idea. I’ll be honest. I would probably buy a CampStove because it stands on its own as a great idea and a helpful piece of gear and a neat little gadget to have. But knowing that by buying one I’m supporting what BioLite is trying to do in distributing HomeStoves and its helpful technology, well, that’s why I was willing to pay the price to get one.

The design makes for efficient use of fire.

The design makes for efficient use of fire.

That good news I was talking about

But here’s the thing: Now you don’t have to pay what I did, or go through the same trouble trying to import the stove. Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC) will soon be selling the CampStove, currently offering pre-orders. At $130 it’s only $1 more than I paid from BioLite, without the importation, brokerage (and apparently gratuitous UPS) fees I had to pay. AND, they often offer free shipping so watch for that as well.

Using your BioLite Campstove

The CampStove is pretty easy to use. Simply collect some fuel – whatever twigs and sticks are lying around, or even some burnable trash (though avoid anything that would gunk up your stove after burning, like plastic).  Pull out the power-pack/fan stored in the cylinder and attach it to the outside by inserting the thermal sensor first, and unfold the stove’s legs (which will also lock on the power-pack/fan). Next, throw in your twigs (or whatnot) and light your fire, and click the power button once to start the fan on low. Once the fire gets going, push the button again to set the fan on high. That’s it. Pretty easy, eh?

You’ll be amazed at how efficiently this device burns. Keep an eye on the amount of fuel you have, because you’ll want to add more well before it burns out so you don’t waste cooking time, especially if you have to re-light your fire. As for charging your device, you’ll need to wait until the energy has built up enough to the point where it has more than it needs to run the fan. A light at the front of the device turns from yellow to green when charging is possible.

***Note: Before you take it into the back-country, charge the stove’s battery (it comes with a USB cord). This conditions the battery for its full capacity. You should only have to do this once per season. I do know however, that it does work without doing this, but not optimally. (In other words, I forgot to do this, and while it’s not optimal, I didn’t have any problems.)

What I like about it

I’ve touched on it already, having the advantages of being a stick-stove, so there’s that. It also works as advertised, which we can all appreciate with other promises made by gadgets and gear. It burns well, boils water as quickly as a gas stove, it runs a fan without a battery and even charges electronics. With the folding legs it’s also extremely stable considering it’s vertical design. (Campers who use a screw-on-top of a butane canister can appreciate this point.)

It’s also relatively light at 972 g (2.14 lbs) and small, around the size of a large water bottle when stored. Is that light and small for ultra-light backpacking? Not at all. It’s only considered light because it replaces some other gear, namely your typical gas powered stove with fuel, plus a battery pack for charging your electronics. Compared to other fan-based stick-stoves, this is actually the lightest one I’ve seen. I’ve taken mine on several trips this year and it hasn’t disappointed. It’s also kind of fun to play with, and a great conversation piece. When I bring it out with a group who hasn’t yet seen the CampStove, a crowd gathers.

Not for nothing, this stove makes for a great emergency preparedness tool. Many other multi-fuel or stick-stoves advertise that, but not only will this stove work independent of power, but might even charge up a flashlight, or get you enough juice to make a call while cooking or warming you up.

Feeding the BioLite

Feeding the BioLite

What I don’t like

I found that the top of the CampStove can be a little awkward for holding smaller camping pots. You really need to make sure to set it properly because it barely fits my 1 liter cooking pots. And be careful, because once your water boils, the shaking will make it unstable. So maybe don’t leave it to boil unattended. (Also, if you’re charging a cell phone or something, if that pot falls off it could be quite costly.)

The only other negative things I can say would be based around the disadvantages of being a stick-stove: You have to start a fire, even in the rain. It gets a little dirty because of the residue. You need to keep feeding and managing the fire, lifting the pots off each time. I think the advantages outweigh this small problems myself, but you might feel differently. You may even considering bringing one along on trips with larger groups where multiple stoves are needed or more convenient. Take along one gas powered stove and the BioLite, each for their own advantages.

If I had to nit-pick, the only real problem I have with it is the thermal sensor. It sticks out a little when stored inside the cylinder, and I worry that it might get damaged while stuffed down in my pack. So far that hasn’t been a problem. Also, when it gets dirty from burning wood (unlike clean burning gas), the sensor gets some gunk on it making you have to force it into the cylinder a bit, though slightly, which again I worry might break the sensor in the long term.

But what I really don’t like 

I don’t like some of the things written about the energy conversion and charging. You may have even noticed I’ve been downplaying this particular feature. I’ve seen the posts and the forum discussions and I started to get a little frustrated thinking people were missing the point of this stove. Sadly, most of what’s been written about the stove promotes it primarily as a device that charges your cell phone, and incidentally cooks your food. It does do this. It can charge your devices. BUT, it’s not the best way to do it. If you need electricity, bring a solar charger. They’re way better. For instance, while boiling 2 liters of water and letting it burn out afterwards, I was able to charge a dead cell phone to barely 10%.  (The cell phone was not dead on purpose – that’s another story – but since we had it, we figured this would make for a great test subject.) That used up about five or six handfuls of solid wood (no larger than the device) and about a half an hour all told. In the same amount of time, my solar panel would create twice the energy. It can also be set and left alone to charge away, unlike a stove that requires supervision and feeding. (In an upcoming post, I’ll be talking about electric power and some of the best ways you can manage and create it while out in the woods.)

One problem some have expressed, is that with the creation of this device, people are going to be hacking down forests to charge their iPhones. These people, if they exist, are in for a disappointment. If you’re car camping, paying campground prices for wood, just to play some music or call back home, it’s going to be pretty expensive. This device might not be the best car-camping stove anyway. This device, when used and promoted properly, actually lessens your environmental impact and saves trees (and to a lesser extent, cleans up campsites) by using of all those piles of little supposedly unusable sticks and such.

I think a big problem is that BioLite’s promotional photos have an iPhone being charged. This offends a lot of campers just out of principle – the dreaded “cell phone” in the outdoors, and I guess the thinking is that this kind of device would encourage that kind of thing. Even if it did, that’s really their missed opportunity, and you’re doing it (camping) wrong if you let it bother you. And so, having a CampStove is now pulling you into the debate about being too plugged in, and how it’s all about getting away from it all. On the other hand, other people see that iPhone and don’t understand that BioLite doesn’t put up cell phone towers in the back-country. You can charge your phone all you like, but it doesn’t mean you can call anyone. Either way, I wish they’d emphasize more practical things to charge, like your emergency (weather) radio, your GPS, your flashlight/headlamp.

Let me put it to you like this: Even if this device wasn’t able to charge anything, I would still take it with me. It’s the fan and the cylinder shape that are the key to a high powered stick-stove – which leaves a lesser impact on the environment because you’re burning less material and using up material that wouldn’t normally be bothered with –  twigs, pinecones, etc. (So if you’re chopping anything down, you’re SO doing it wrong.) In other similar stoves, you need to keep batteries with you, possibly charge them, and even dispose of them. For example, the Vital Stove (which I’ll review soon) has an external plastic battery holder that is fragile, can easily be misplaced, and makes its features useless when the battery runs out. 3 times I brought the Vital Stove with dead batteries because as I packed it the “On” switch was flipped. Without the fan, it’s just a small, heavy, metal box to burn stuff in, and there are much better ones out there. The fact that I don’t have to manage that, plus all the other features I mention, make this stove worth it. The power-charging part should be looked on as a secondary, bonus feature.

I like my BioLite CampStove

I like my BioLite CampStove

Final Word

I love this stove. It works great, and lives up to my expectations. Don’t buy this stove if charging is the primary reason, because there’s better options out there. Don’t buy this stove if you either the idea of stick-stoves are not appealing to you, or if you’re into ultra-light backpacking and its advantages don’t seem to be worth the weight. (Oh, and don’t buy this stove if you believe it will somehow force you to update your Facebook status because it has an iPhone in the picture.)

Otherwise, buy this stove for a great piece of gear, a great working stick-stove, and to support a forward-thinking company. Oh, and it’s fun too.

Merry Christmas 2013

I just wanted to take a short moment and say thanks to everyone. It’s this time of year when it’s best to surround ourselves with loved ones and reflect on all the great things that we have, and especially the experiences we’ve had since the last time we got together.

Nancy running away from me trying to get her to wear Christmas antlers.

I tried to get Nancy to wear some Christmas antlers for a nice holiday picture.

2012 has been a great year, filled with some great memories for Nancy and myself. We’ve had the opportunity to have some great adventures and meet some really great people.

Nancy wearing Christmas Antlers

I managed to catch her. Now to grab the camera real quick.

All of your thoughts, comments, likes and retweets mean the world to us. We appreciate the validation and love the interaction with great paddling and portaging people.

Nancy throwing off her Christmas Antlers

Nancy would have none of this.

Nancy and I wish you and your families a sincere Merry Christmas. We hope Santa is good to you all, and maybe leaves you with some paddling and camping gear for next year’s trips!

I guess we know who is the Santa and who is the reindeer.

I guess we know who is the Santa and who is the reindeer.

So to all our old friends, new friends, even friends we haven’t yet met, cheers to a great 2012 and we know we’ll all have a great 2013!

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas and we wish you all a great new portaging year!

Portageur Gift Buying Guide

tl;dr version: Gift Cards, Toilet Paper. (And repeating Tina Fey’s name enough in the hopes she’ll read it.)

You can’t go wrong with Toilet Paper or a Gift Card

Giving gifts to anyone can be a bit of a challenge. If a camper, canoeist or any type of outdoorsy person is on your list, it might seem a little more difficult, especially if you’re not one. Not to toot my own horn, but I have been known to get a few hits now and then, and I’m proud to say even the occasional home-run. The reason is that I use a few guidelines I’ve adapted over the years. While this has been written focusing on gifts for the outdoors person, I think you’ll find that these principals are universally applicable. I’ve also decided to focus on things you can get together relatively quickly and cheaply, assuming that if you wanted to buy something fancy you’d probably have an idea of what that is, and would have got it by now.

1 – Acceptance

Accept and remember this:

  • Giving gifts is about your intent and receiving gifts is about the thought behind it. What is given, no matter what it is, is the effort thinking about the gift’s receiver, not whatever the it actually turns out to be. In other words, if you’ve put in some thought to it, there’s no such thing as a bad gift.
  • GIFT CARDS are a totally under-rated gift, when used properly.
  • A hit might not mean your gift gets used, or displayed prominently or worn all the time. Leave it at that, and don’t be giving the person an obligation on top of your gift.
  • Learn from gifts. It’s an opportunity to find out more about the gifter and the receiver, but also what works and what doesn’t, present-wise.
  • Some people don’t accept gifts well. Whether there’s a materialistic reason or an appreciation standpoint, next time, get them a GIFT CARD – or quite frankly, nothing. Which reminds me….
  • Know to whom to give gifts. A pretty accurate rule of thumb is that if you feel you have to give a gift, reconsider. If you want to give a gift, you should.
  • The same thing I constantly say about portaging is the same for gift giving: If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

Apply those lessons and you’ll be amazed at how stress free the process can be.

2 – Shared interests

I very strongly believe that your gift to someone should reflect a common interest. After all it’s coming from you. It’s like two gifts in one, or a power-up, making your gift a little bit better. So if you’re not an outdoors person, consider finding another shared interest (keep reading for when to break this rule). If you are an outdoor person, then giving gifts should be easy, as you know the kind of gear they’d want and need. If you know specifically what they want, then you don’t need to be reading this. Then again, you may not know what they already have.  An even better power-up to your gift would be to give the gift of doing something with them in the outdoors.

Create a postcard and plan a trip

Create a postcard and plan a trip

Some ideas:

  • You know some things that every outdoor person uses often. Create a care package for next year’s trips with stuff like TOILET PAPER, rope, carabiners, etc.
  • Maps of places you’d recommend, that you know they’d like, or that you’ve both spoke about visiting.
  • Get a card and write in a tentative date and place where the two of you will be going.
  • Instead of a Christmas card, print out a picture of that place and write the details on the back (like a postcard).
  • A coupon, or coupon book detailing what you guys can do together. (This one’s lower on the list because it’s a bit over-done lately and runs the risk of seeming unoriginal. Besides, all the coupons for hugs I’ve given away never seem to get redeemed – I’m talking to you Tina Fey.)
  • GIFT CARD to a store you know that they’ll get something nice. Since you’re in the know, try getting one from somewhere a little less popular and specific.

3 – Avoid getting in over your head

Even if you know the person well enough, you might not know as much as them about their gear interests and preferences. If you’re not into the outdoors, or not as hard-core as your friend, you may be tempted to get them something you think they might like. But the problem is that you might not know what they have already or what they prefer (you’d be amazed at how many different types of the same gear there is out there). Sure, it’s the intent, but if you’re looking to get something that will collect some goodwill and less dust, try to avoid specific gear.

A fun backcountry dessert. It's novel, probably not something they'd buy for themselves, but it'll get used.

A fun backcountry dessert. It’s novel, probably not something they’d buy for themselves, but it’ll get used.

Some ideas:

  • Since you’re not an outdoorsy person, here’s a list of some small stocking stuffers that support their outdoor pursuits: TOILET PAPER, first aid supplies, camp meals, batteries, waterproof matches, dry bags, stuff sacks, etc.
  • GIFT CARD – it turns into a gift from a knowledgable person, the receiver.
  • There are plenty of cross-over items that you can find that you might like or recommend that can be used camping. Think trail mix, granola bars, instant breakfast, instant coffee (though this would be the only stuff I’d personally recommend), or something else that isn’t food, like TOILET PAPER, for example.
  • Books are always a great idea. You can either find one on the outdoors, nature, instruction or how-to, travel guides, survival, anything really. In fact, most campers like to have a book or two on the trail, especially for those lazy, rainy days. Even an off-topic book will do in a pinch (like a biography for example), but in any case, look for small, light paperbacks as they’ll be carrying them into the woods.

4 – Make a statement

What does a gift really say? On face value, it says “I like you enough to buy you something”, or in the worst case “I’m related to you close enough that I feel I need to buy you something”. (I’m really not that cynical, seriously.) But you also have an opportunity to say something. If you buy some camping gear, you’re telling the receiver that you both acknowledge and support their pursuits. In other words, “I know you; I’m interested in your interests, and I want you to continue to have a great time doing them”. You’d be surprised at how good that makes people feel. Note however, that if you buy something that can or should be used by multiple people, the inference might be that you want to join them (and so if that’s not the case, be careful). If you really want to make an impression, don’t leave the receiver of your gift with the job of interpreting your gift. Get a card and write your statement.

"I support your love of camping, and I give you this because want to help you do it. Also, please use before coming back home."

“I support your love of camping, and I give you this because want to help you do it. Also, please use this before coming back home.”

Some ideas:

  • Once again, stuff some stockings with the little things that show your support: TOILET PAPER, zip-lock bags, soap…
  • A compass, with a card that reads something along the lines of “Have fun out there, just make sure to come back home.”
  • Gift Card, inside a card that reads something like:
    • “To keep you paddling – and taking those great pictures.”
    • “Love your stories from the wilderness. Hope this helps making new ones.”
    • “I have no idea why you’d want to sleep on the ground in the middle of nowhere. Hopefully this might help make the experience a little more comfortable.” (Optionally ending with “You Weirdo”, depending on your level of friendship.)
  • Here’s a real novel idea: Why not give the gift of participation? If you’re not into canoeing or camping or portaging, but think you might like to try it, why not let your gift be an offer to go with you? Personally, I’d love this. I’m not sure why no one has ever thought to give me this – I’m talking to you Tina Fey!.

5 – Tell a story 

Remember that time we all … Do you remember that crazy incident involving the … I was laughing the other day about the time we …

If you share a memory with someone from a trip or an experience with someone, why not make your gift a reminder of that great time you shared? Get yourself a card, write out something about that incident, and stick it to something you should have had on the trip, or that was used for something other than it’s original purpose, or that replaces something that broke, or even something that might prevent it from happening again. Don’t worry too much about the “thing” your giving, so much as the laughs and good memories (even if they weren’t so good at the time). Just think about that-thing-that-happened-but-you-can-laugh-about-it-now, and I’m sure something will come to you.

A favourite gift given to me is a framed set of pictures of one of Nancy's first trips

A favourite gift given to me is a framed set of pictures of one of Nancy’s first trips

Some ideas (to stimulate your memory, but inspired by my own experiences):

  • Map, compass, book on orienteering or even a water-proof map holder to that someone who gets you or themselves lost.  Another idea would be to get a topographical map of an exotic, far away location, insinuating that they (or in case they ever) get you or themselves really, really lost.
  • TOILET PAPER – for (or from) that guy who always leaves it at home, or worse, out in the rain.
  • Pepto Bismal – Maybe your friend isn’t a good cook. Maybe you weren’t on one eventful night
  • Aloe, balm, burn ointment, band aids – Someone get burned, cut or pass through (or misused) poison ivy?
  • Bug spray – You have to have a story about a bad bug trip.
  • Some kind of water-proof case – To remind you of that time you donated something to the lady of the lake.
  • Bear bell – Remember that time you spent a night huddled in the tent?
  • Squirrel bell – Same as a bear bell, but you have to re-label it (masking tape will do). Do you have a (or are you the) friend who thinks everything that makes a noise in the woods is a bear?
  • Gift Card – To replace something that broke at the worst time.
  • And for less funny and more sentimental, find a nice frame and put something (or a few things) in it:
    • Pictures of your trips together
    • Pictures of places you want to go
    • The permit from your last great trip
    • Make a story from a frame with a few spots (I don’t know the technical term for the frame spots. Photo holes?), in each tear off something flat from previous trips like a piece of a rain coat, used rope, that kind of thing.
  • Less outdoorsy and more of a novelty would be to print out a fake restraining order, like the one Tina Fey sent me. It looks pretty authentic too. She’s so funny.

Any of these things remind you of a little incident or funny story from last year’s trip? Get it, wrap it, then attach a card reminiscing.

7 – And finally, know when to throw out the rules

As you shop around to fulfill any of the guidelines listed  above, you might come across something and be suddenly hit with the realization that you’ve found the perfect gift. If there’s no doubt, just get it. When you know, you know. And don’t forget, if you find something but it’s too late to get it, you can always get a card and include a picture of what they’ll eventually be receiving. You might seem reluctant to do this because of the impression of giving an IOU, but if you write up your intentions, you’d be surprised at how much that makes up for it. People like to hear you’re thinking about and care for them, and the empty gift might be just the excuse you need to express that.

You know what Johnnie needs: A water proof toilet paper holder! ( http://www.seatosummit.com/products/display/32 )

You know what Johnnie needs: A water proof toilet paper holder! ( http://www.seatosummit.com/products/display/32 )

Some  other, random ideas:

  1. Buy a large can of beer (or any other beverage that would be appropriate for the receiver like those big ice tea things), attach a card with this link: http://youtu.be/JoR5VI5QS1I – or choose from any other beer can stove instructions. Alternatively for a group gift, you can buy a six pack, attach a bow and a card that tells the recipients when to come over to help you empty and recycle the cans.
  2. Order up a box of Altoids and include a link in the card on creating a survival kit. Alternatively, if you have the time, purchase all the items in the kit, and wrap them all separately. Make sure they open the altoids first, then the contents of the kit, then finally give them the card with the link.
  3. For the Christmas theme: Get some Gold Duct TapeAction Wipes and Tom’s of Maine toothpaste. Given together, they’re getting something made with Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.
  4. Get a paddle sock (here or here) and stuff it like a stocking (on the chimney with care) with a whistle, small compass.
  5. Get a dry bag, compression sack or a stuff sack and either wrap up little gifts in it or use it like a stocking.
  6. Get a paddle sock (here or here) and wrap it like a scarf around a stuffed animal or other similar gift.

GIFT CARD ideas:

  • Canadian Outdoor Equipment Co. – Neat, unique outdoor items. (This card will make you seem like an outdoor expert, and can even be sent electronically.)
  • MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op) – Practically everything an outdoor person needs, plus they have a policy that donates “1% of gross sales to environmental causes”.
  • SAIL – They also have plenty of outdoor gear to choose from, constantly having sales, but it also has an in-store or electronic version that you can even customize.
  • Canadian Tire – For all those little things I mentioned above, in particular, they often have deals on TOILET PAPER.
  • Bass Pro – Not my favourite store, but if you’re in a bind and need a gift card quick, you can buy these all over the place, and you can even get one sent electronically.
  • For my American friends:
    • Consider Rutabaga. They sell great stuff and you’ll be supporting small business as well as a fun business. This gift card is promoting an added benefit: “the person you give it to can shop any time, anywhere (as long as they have an internet connection) and they can be wearing anything they want!”
    • REI, The North Face, Campsaver, and Campmor all have gift card options, most with in-store or electronic versions.

I hope you can use some of these ideas, or that they might spark some ideas of your own. Of course if you’ve got some better ideas, I’d love to hear them.

Bragging Postscript

A particular hit I had this year was for a birthday/Christmas gift for the Portaging Niece. I’ve been trying to get her set up with her own equipment the last couple of years and thought it time to she had her own paddle. I contacted Fiona, from Badger Paddles, in hopes we could create a custom paddle made for a 16 year old girl. I wanted her name on it, and something else, though I didn’t know really what that was. Her (properly spelled) name is Saffyre Peace, so we talked about a gem or something blue (to represent “Sapphire”) and a peace symbol, but I left it with her to come up with something. I trusted her as she’s done a bunch of neat things in the past. Also, I have no creative or artistic talent, so I was kind of leaning on her to come up with something. What she did was amazing. First, she came up with a water-styled blue peace symbol on one side, and an Ambigram spelling out her name. If you look at it one way it spells “Saffyr”, but turn it over and it says “Peace”. (It’s a long story, but I’ve been purposely mis-spelling her name since she was born, over a dispute over how to spell her name. It’s now an ongoing, inside joke. Just as all the nieces and nephews call me “Uncle Pest” because of how hard it is for young kids to pronounce my name. The name’s stuck, and I even get called that by many people, even older, unrelated people.)

Fiona is very talented. She even had a personal touch, having me sign the paddle before it was oiled (“From Uncle Pest”), which I sweated over when doing it, filled with anxiety that my poor handwriting and lack of artistic co-ordination would ruin an otherwise amazing work of art. Oh, and if that wasn’t special enough, Fiona included a blue paddle necklace. I knew the Portaging Niece would love it, so I decided to get her reaction on video. In order to keep it a surprise, I tricked her, telling her I needed to take a video of my new paddles, but needed to work the camera. Her reaction is priceless.

Here’s the video:

On Barrel Packs

Barrel Pack - Climbing the portage

Climbing the portage wearing my barrel pack

Barrel packs are a relatively new phenomenon, compared to canoe packs, wanigans and such, but they’ve become an extremely popular choice among canoe campers and portagers. It’s got to the point where those blue barrels are referred to as “Canoe Barrels”, even though a lot of them may have been used for some other reason before they reached the lakes. Strap one on your back and people know right away that you’re going canoeing, and not backpacking or just off car camping somewhere. (Often people who are unfamiliar with them will call them “Bear Barrels”, implying keeping your food safe from bears. They’re not. See below.)

Why so popular? That’s a good question. I’m glad you asked.

What are they?

Really? You’ve never seen one before? Okay, well Barrel packs are basically a harness that is designed to hold a barrel like you would a backpack. The harnesses have evolved over the years with added features available that make carrying a barrel on your back almost as comfortable as a regular backpack. You can find harnesses with padding for your back and shoulders pads, hip belts as well as load adjuster and sternum straps.

Generally, they’re designed for the 30L or 60L that a lot of food companies use to transport their goods with either a metal sealing ring, tight snap or screw on lid. Someone – I have no idea who – decided these water-tight, food grade barrels would make for great storage in the canoe, and people used to actually carry them without the harness for years. The appeal was that you could find these barrels for practically nothing, getting them from grocery stores or restaurants (hopefully after careful cleaning). Now however, most people it seems prefer to buy a new, never used barrel, specifically designed for canoe camping. What’s the difference between the outdoor store version and the re-purposed food barrels? The new ones usually have a more sturdy metal sealing ring, and often are thicker and durable than a food barrel, which can make them slightly heavier but definitely more expensive. A new 60L barrel can cost you $60-$80, whereas a used barrel can be acquired for $10-$20. If you’re resourceful, or know someone, that can even be free if you’re willing to wash it out yourself.

I used to think people who paid for their barrels were being very silly considering the other options. However I’ve since found out that some barrels have been used to store some strange stuff, and it’s been suggested to me that some have even tested for small amounts of mercury. This is why if you do go with a used one, make sure you know – for sure – what the barrel was used to transport before you got it, and wash it thoroughly.

Barrel pack at rest in Killarney Provincial Park

Barrel pack with padded shoulder straps and hip belt

Water Tight

The barrel’s primary advantage is that it’s water tight. Close the lid and nothing’s getting wet. Often, the last thing I do at camp before I go to bed is to throw in all the precious stuff that doesn’t take well to rain – electronics, but more importantly, toilet paper – just in case. Originally, people found that these barrels were great for food storage because they could keep the food away from all the elements, and can even contain heat (in and out) extremely well. I’ve heard of many people storing meat between layers of ice. With the lid on, that ice can stay frozen a surprisingly long time. Remember though, the same principle that keeps water out, also keeps it in.

They also float. This might be the aspect most worth the investment in a barrel pack: In the worst case scenario of a swamping or a full on canoe dump, your pack is safe, and you can concentrate on keeping you and your party safe, not rescuing your stuff. It’ll float and not slowly sink to the bottom of the lake. Sure, it may head down river, but you can always go get it; it’ll be somewhere. I can’t tell you what a great piece-of-mind you have knowing your water or impact sensitive stuff is safe. That’s what you’re really paying for when you buy a barrel pack.

Barrel pack full of stuff

Spacious, and keeps all your stuff safe

Hard round shell

Another huge appeal is the protection you get with the rigid shell of the barrel. For me, this is important because I am not nice to my gear. (Not fair, really, because my gear is so nice to me.) Mine has seen numerous drops, slammed down countless times, floated down a river, rolled down a hill hitting rocks along the way like a pinball – then floating down a river of course – and has even survived the grueling punishment of airplane luggage. Even with all that, none of my gear has been damaged or fallen out. My current $10 barrel has lasted the last 5 years and shows no sign of breaking down. Where you do want to take care is with the metal sealing ring, as many of the barrels will not close properly without it.

What’s really great, is that even if your barrel gets damaged – the way I used it, I should probably say when it gets damaged – you can simply replace the barrel with a new one, keeping the usually more expensive part, the harness.

Though not a huge deal-breaker, barrels also fit perfectly into the rounded hulls of canoes when placed horizontally. With concentrated weight, positioning them makes a great trimming tool to distribute the canoe’s load.  Alternatively, they can also be stored vertically to use up less space. Just make sure to pack them stably.

Barrel pack in the canoe

Not only does the barrel fit well in the canoe, it helps trimming by shifting the weight, in this case to the front of the canoe while paddling solo

Compared to a backpack, point-counterpoint 

Unfortunately, they’re a little heavier than typical backpacks and the inflexibility of the hard plastic shell makes packing slightly more difficult (i.e. the fabric doesn’t expand or shift). Then again, cleaning is much easier, just turn it over to dump whatever’s in there and spray it with a hose. Unlike a fabric backpack, you’re not going to constantly find little pieces of the all the forests you’ve traveled, nor will you smell them. Barrel packs also won’t have a lot of pockets or pouches or ready-made tie-ons. Then again, depending on the harness you buy, a couple of carbiners or rope will easily tie things to the simple harness structure. Some companies, like Ostrom Outdoors, design specific add-ons like their Barrel pouch. Generally though, you’ll find you can carry a less quantity of bulky items unless you pack well and jam them in real good. Then again, you can really jam things in. It won’t tear or re-shape. With the hard shell, just keep pushing, slam the lid down and you can really stuff your barrel pretty packed. Of course, obviously don’t do this if what your carrying is fragile. (Fun irony would be to crush the very things you’re putting in the barrel for protection.)

Of course the biggest difference is the comfort. Some of the lower end models (polite way of saying cheap) can be night and day compared to a proper hiking backpack. (Though the same is also true for a cheap backpack, but nevertheless…)  If you can do it, put the money into a comfortable, well made harness. It’ll be worth it in the long run. Not that any backpack isn’t cumbersome, but the barrel pack does tend to extend further behind you, making for some inadvertent, 3-stooge-esque bumping into things when travelling in closer spaces.

Barrel pack about to take off

So comfy, I used my barrel pack to travel to Holland

Secondary Purpose

Then again, barrels can also double as other items to varying degrees of success. It can be a camp chair, though the rounded bottom of most make it a bit unstable.  With a big enough flat lid, they also make great tables for dining or playing cards. It’s a great step-stool, to reach high places like when tying up a tarp – but learn from my fail here: If your barrel has a rounded bottom, they’re not too stable on rough ground. Turn them upside down because often the lid is more flat. Either way they’re quite slippery when wet. You know what, nevermind, don’t do that. It hurts… I mean, it could hurt when you fall. Not that that’s ever happened to me. And it certainly hasn’t happened twice. Some other uses:

  • Bath, for a child or dog (or a really small or flexible adult)
  • Water retrieval (maybe before someone’s bath)
  • Dish washing tub (when you’ve brought really large pots for some reason)
  • Soap Box (to sermonize to the group about the benefits of barrel packs)
  • The maturation of bush wine (for your really, really longer trips)
  • Camp games (basketball, log rolling, leap frog when solo camping*)
  • Gatorade dumping (for winner of camp games)
  • Camp prison for a child or small flexible adult (especially when they’re giving you lip about not wanting to be cramped in a small bath)
*This is usually a clear sign that you’ve been soloing too way too long.
Barrel pack and butterfly

Another alternative use: Butterfly rest stop

Hard candy shell

Okay, now this is serious: Many people have the mistaken belief that the plastic barrel is critter proof. Depending on the fabric of your backpack, barrels might make gnawing into it a bit more of a challenge for the smaller critters, and you could argue that because they are sealed they would give off less scent to attract said critters – though not if you’re using it as a dining table, as that would have the opposite effect. This is why it’s super important to wash your used barrel to remove any and all scents from whatever food it was used to carry (and so another advantage to buying a new barrel.) So I’d say yes, they’re better for the smaller animals, so long as they’re not tempted into putting in the effort. I have heard stories, though never experienced anything like this myself, of raccoons popping off the lids when they’re not locked.

As for bears, they can and do get into the standard blue barrel. Most parks now showcase that by having an example in the office of what a bear has done to them. These and these are real bear resistant barrels (note that they avoid the term “proof”). In fact, park staff tell me that in popular areas, bears and other food mooches are now associating any blue barrel as a food source. A funny conversation I had once involved someone suggesting that the standard blue barrel could still be considered bear resistant, in that they would be harder, and so take longer to get into than a regular back pack. Sure, you could argue that, I suppose, but what does that mean exactly? What are you going to do, exactly, with that extra time it take the bear to get into your barrel? Sure, I suppose it might give some people the chance to scare it off. But then again, if that doesn’t work it means you’re not only dealing with a bear but a frustrated, hungry bear. Ever get mad at food packaging that just won’t open? Do you remember those pudding tins when the little tab came off? We all had a good laugh at some of these scenarios, and as you can imagine it was a pretty fun conversation.

My point is, don’t think the barrel will make your food safe without taking the same precautions you should normally. All said, hanging it up a tree is your best defense against furry food thieves.

Carrying over a beaver dam

My barrel pack with the optional barrel pouches from Ostrom Outdoors

Final Word

When you’re in a group, I usually recommend taking advantage of different types of packs. Think of it this way: Every job has its tool. This means I definitely suggest having at least one barrel pack along if you don’t normally. Conversely, I’d also recommend not going out exclusively with barrel packs if you can. Either way, you can store everyone’s fragile or water-sensitive items in the barrel, or to keep the whole group’s food preserved better, then use the other packs features to store all the other gear. I’d also avoid the 30L model, unless used as a secondary pack, as it seems like a waste of a back that could have been carrying more gear.

Everyone has their own carrying preferences, and will like one pack over another for whatever reason. If you don’t use a barrel harness, I’d recommend trying one to see how you like it. There are several styles and at least one might be appealing to you. If you get a chance, borrow a friends and try it for a whole trip. If you’re like me, you’ll find that the many advantages outweigh (as it were) the few disadvantages.

So what do you think? Have you tried one, and if so, do you prefer them over backpacks?

Take The Parkbus Thanksgiving Weekend

How would you like to spend this Thanksgiving in the Killarney back-country? You’ll experience the cool crisp air, the bright colours, the off-season solitude along with all the benefits that a fall trip offers, and get this: You don’t even have to drive. That’s what I’m doing this Thanksgiving Weekend – taking a ride on the Parkbus up to Killarney on its last trip of the season.

Checkout the sites of Killarney, full of fall colours, riding up in style

Benefits of Riding the Parkbus

I’ve been allowed to volunteer as a Parkbus Ambassador for the trip. I’ve ridden the Parkbus once before, and it was a great experience, something I think everyone should try. In a nutshell, the Parkbus provides both an eco-friendly way to get to Ontario Parks, and/or an opportunity for those without their own cars to still be able to access a great camping trip. With stops at campgrounds, outfitters and interior access points, you can have the same experience drivers would get, but without the worry of fatigue, traffic or gas bills. (I’ve written about the benefits in more detail here.)

The fun of riding the Parkbus

Parkbus began by taking passengers from Toronto into Algonquin Provincial Park, but after a couple of pilot trips, now offers the trips to the Bruce Peninsula (including Bruce Peninsula NP, Lion’s Head Beach Park Campground, Tobermory and the Chi-Cheemaun Ferry that can take you over to Manitoulan Island), and Killarney (with stops at the Grundy Lake PP, French River Supply Post, Bell Lake Access Point, the Town of Killarney, and of course the George Lake campground/access point). Like it did with Algonquin, Parkbus has designed stops to make sure you can access all the activities available in each area, and get you whatever equipment and gear you’d need to take advantage. Take a look at their map of all stops available, including the pickup locations.

Support the Bus

This is a service that I feel very strongly about, and want to support as much as I can, which is why I’ve been trying to volunteer for a while now. Scheduling conflicts prevented me up until just recently, when I reached out in the hopes they needed someone for Thanksgiving. Thankfully, there was a volunteer spot open and I grabbed it. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we could fill this last trip of the season? So that’s why I’m writing this.

This is how I like to roll

Wanna go?

Why not join Portageur on a Thanksgiving Day trip to Killarney? What a great way to take advantage of me. I know it’s short notice, but that’s why I’m offering up to anyone with a ticket for the the October 5th-8th Parkbus trip to Killarney any advice and help with planning – at no cost of course – assuming time allows (so take advantage, and do so as early as possible). I can even offer to help with organizing gear and reservations if wanted/necessary at a minimal cost above the price of permits, rentals etc. – but again, only if time allows. In fact, to make this a bit more enticing, I may even offer up some neat extra raffle draw prizes. (If you’re reading this and want to get on board this prize giveaway, please feel free to contact me!)

Also, this will be a 7 hour trip up to the park with a group of campers and canoeists, offering up a great opportunity to chat about our favourite subjects on the way, and share our experiences on the way back. Best of all, I’ll be “on the clock”, working for Parkbus, so you might be able to boss me around a bit. (Note: I’m a very poor singer, and I only dance when the tips are large enough.)

If there’s enough interest, we can even organize some group activities while at the park. We could get together for some paddling, maybe take a hike or see some of Killarney’s sites.

So get your ticket while they’re still available!

Or you can nap. Napping’s good. I suppose I cant do that while working.

How to Join Us

  1. Figure out your preferred pickup location and time (York Mills, 30 Carlton St or Dufferin and Bloor).
  2. Get yourself a Parkbus ticket (Choose the October 5th trip, with October 8th for return, then click the “Reserve Ticket” button).
  3. Join the Facebook event to keep up with the latest information. Please feel free to post questions, comments, or suggestions.
  4. Figure out what you’d like to do while at the park.
  5. Either:
    1. Contact me or post within the Facebook event’s wall if you need any help organizing your trip or renting any gear.
    2. OR call the Park and Outfitters (here or here for George Lake and Bell Lake access) and make the necessary reservations.
  6. Get a good night sleep and get ready for a fantastic Thanksgiving weekend!

This should be fun. Hope to see you there!

Hiking up to The Crack might be a fun activity

5 Reasons Paddling Is Better In The Fall Than The Summer

I’ve had a few conversations with Fiona from Badger® Paddles… for those who dig the water, and I’ve found that we share a lot of the same opinions, whether it be about wolves, the need for your own paddle, and even camping in the fall. It definitely has it’s advantages over the cold, wet spring and the hot, busy summer – not to mention the really slow canoeing of the winter (I mean, along with the complete lack of a current, it can be really tough getting your paddle stroke right when it’s clanking off the ice all the time). On that note, Fiona was gracious enough to share with us her 5 Reasons Paddling In Algonquin Is Better In The Fall Than Summer.

If you have never thought of saving a few vacation days for a short September or October canoe trip in Algonquin Park, here are 5 reasons why you should:

1 – PEAK SEASON IS OVER

You do not have to travel far or portage in to find a quiet secluded spot. Short distance trips are more private and enjoyable. The big crowds are gone, the line ups have disappeared, and all is quiet again.

Vibrant colours dazzle the eyes during the Fall season.

2 – BEST CAMPSITES ARE AVAILABLE

During the summer the best sites always go first. During the Fall season, the best sites are usually open/vacant.

We didn’t have to paddle far to find a secluded bay all to ourselves this September. View from our tent – Rock Lake, Algonquin Park.

3 – WARM DAYS, COOL NIGHTS

The weather is perfect for travelling by canoe at this time of year. Not overly hot during the days, you are also treated to cool nights – for better sleeping – as the humid days of Summer are now fewer and farther between. Some may even find that swimming conditions are still quite tolerable (for those who don’t mind the cooler waters).

A nice chill in the air can be quite pleasant.

4 – NO BUGS, NO FIRE BANS

This time of the year there is usually enough rain so as to not have to worry about campfire legalities. Fire bans are not usually a problem in the Fall months. Also, there are very few biting insects left during this time of year.

Big, warm fires, without the bugs!

5 – MOST PICTURESQUE CANVAS

While the summer months give us lush and beautiful forests, the Autumn season brings us Nature in all of her glory. Breathtaking views come alive with colour – a true delight the eye and senses. Seeing the colours of Fall reflected like fire in the still waters of an Algonquin lake or northern river is a mesmerizing sight. One you will definitely be grateful to have witnessed in your life (for those Bucket List enthusiasts).

Fall colours.

Stanley Horowitz once wrote, “Winter is an etching, Spring a watercolor, Summer an oil painting and Autumn a mosaic of them all.”. And the north, by canoe, is definitely the means by which to experience the colourful magnificence of this annual Fall collage. Some may even say, the trip of a lifetime!

 

Campology About Fiona:

Fiona Westner-Ramsay is the proud mother of Makobe, the owner of Badger® Paddles… for those who dig the water along with her husband Mike Ramsay, and also the author of www.autismzeitgeist.com: Practical Information about IBI/ABA for Ontario Families.

Read more about Fiona, her outdoor adventures and all things paddles at www.badgerpaddles.com

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