Gathering Gear: Camp Kitchen

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The assortment of gear which I collectively refer to as my ‘camp kitchen’ is the product of a lot of trial and error, as well as the experience of decades of trips into the woods.  Some of my kitchen I already had and will keep: bowl, coffee system, spoon, mug, vacuum bottle, water bottle, and water bladder; and some is new: stove, cookware, water filter, and rodent bag.  I’ll address first why I’m keeping what I’ve kept. Then I’ll discuss the new things.

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My Camp Kitchen

 

First up is my bowl.  Though I tend toward a lot of the cook-in-a-bag meals like those from Mountain House, I still eat a lot of oatmeal, Ramen, rice, and other such foods which require a good bowl.  For those meals I use my Sea to Summit Delta bowl and lid.  It’s light, strong, holds a decent amount, and is easy to hold even when full of near boiling water.  The lid is great for things like oats which need to sit in hot water for a while to cook, and it makes a decent cutting board.  I haven’t found any I like better so I stick with it.  This is my third one:  I don’t know where the other two went, but I suspect that at least one of them was ‘borrowed’ without my consent.

The mug, spoon (not in picture), Nalgene, and bladder are like the bowl in that I haven’t found better so I keep them.  The coffee system warrants some discussion though.

Coffee is a long-standing problem with me.  I value a good cup of coffee in the morning, and, while I can drink some horrid stuff which people call “coffee”, it is sometimes hard for me to get in good mood without a truly good cup of coffee; especially if it’s cold outside or I didn’t sleep well. I’ve tried the instant coffee route, but it is relatively expensive, and never really results what I would call a “good” cup of coffee.  I don’t put creamers, sugar, or other such dilution in my coffee, so I can’t rely on that to help. I tried a french press attachment with my Jetboil, but, while it made a decent tasting cup of coffee, I could never get grounds-free coffee.  It also occupied the pot needed for cooking, and clean-up was a real hassle.  So, on my last bicycle trip I tried the Hario V60 pour over maker pictured above (the red funnel-looking thing lower right), and love it.

The V60 is plastic so weighs very little, and it makes really good coffee.  It is basically a manual drip coffee maker.  You put it over a cup, or, in my case, a Nalgene; put a filter and coffee in it, and then slowly pour boiling water through it, and, voila! 4 cups of great coffee with no grounds in it.  To keep the coffee hot I pour it into my REI vacuum bottle which will keep it hot all day, and I am a happy man with my caffeine addiction amply addressed.  I even use it at home quite a bit because of how easy it is and how good the coffee is.

The only drawback I’ve found so far for the V60 is the filters.  They aren’t a common style so can be hard to find. I currently order mine through Amazon whenever I order something else from them.  I’ve also experimented with the normal cone filters, and while they work OK it is a bit of a hassle folding them up to fit, and the coffee isn’t quite as good.  In the field I empty the grounds out of the filter and carry the used filters out with any other trash.

Now for the new stuff.

First comes the stove/cookware. I’ve been using a JetBoil for years now, and like it well enough.  As a water-boiler it is a champ, and even though the piezo went out some time ago, it has proven quite reliable. However, as a cooking stove, it leaves a bit to be desired since it is an all-or-nothing kind of thing.  You either go full blast with the heat or are constantly re-lighting it, so cooking something on a low setting, or in a pot is a real chore, and simmering is nigh impossible. So I’ve replaced it.

To replace the stove I got MSR’s Pocket Rocket.  It’s small, light, reliable, uses mess-free fuel canisters and has a good simmer setting.  I’ve had a couple of different MSR stoves over the years and they have yet to disappoint, so I feel confident with this one.

A big thing for me next to weight and reliability was fuel type. Before the JetBoil, I had the venerable Whisperlite which I used on many camping/climbing trips with my children through the 90’s and 00’s.  While it never once let me down, I really didn’t like filling and carrying the fuel bottle; mostly out of fear of the fuel getting on my ropes or slings, much less on my sleeping bag or tent.  That fear led me to the canister-fuel stoves; hence the JetBoil.  I will admit though that the empty canisters really nag at me.  I go to sometimes extraordinary lengths to recycle them; but it still bothers me.

I’ve played with the Pocket Rocket a bit at home making coffee.  While not as fast as the JetBoil, it has a good boiling time, and it has a good simmer, so check and check.  I’ll be able to give more of an informed opinion once I get a few field uses in, but so far it looks like a good, simple, replacement for my aging JetBoil.

For something to cook and boil water in, I went with a couple of new pots from Sea to Summit:  the X-Pot kettle, and the X-Pot 2.8 liter.  The kettle is for boiling water, and the pot is for everything else.

I went with the X-Pots due to their design.  They are basically an aluminum plate/cook surface with collapsible silicone walls, and plastic lids.  So far I’ve used the kettle over the Pocket Rocket to boil coffee water, and it works great.  The kettle, when collapsed, nests into the pot, and both together weigh right at a pound and take up as much space as a small dinner plate.  The drawback of this design is that they can’t be used over an open flame such as a campfire, meaning: no stove fuel, no cooking. But, since I tend to err on the side of caution with fuel and always carry no-cook foods for those times when I don’t want to/can’t cook, this shouldn’t be an issue.

Even more important than cooking, is water.  Since I am a bit paranoid about bad water, and don’t want to carry up to week’s worth of clean water, I needed a water filter.  I have an old PUR Hiker which I’ve used for years now, but I’ve opted to try something new:  the Sawyer Mini squeeze filter.

The Sawyer is tiny compared to other filters I’ve had, and at 2 ounces is definitely lighter.  To filter water you  fill one of their “squeeze bags” with water, attach the filter and squeeze the water into a container or directly into your mouth.  You can also attach it inline on a hydration reservoir or to a soda bottle; or even drink straight from the source with a straw.  According to Sawyer, it will filter up to 100,000 liters of water before needing to be replaced.  To clean it you merely back-flush it with clean water using the syringe pictured above.  It seems like a great idea, and I feel good about it, but time will tell, and I will definitely review it later after it’s been run through the ringer.

The final part of my kitchen is the chain-mail looking bag everything else is lying on in the picture.  That is a stainless-steel mesh Ratsack.

Over the years, I’ve never lost food to bears, since, when in bear country, I am always careful to hang my food, or use bear vaults or canisters.  However, I have had lots of problems with raccoons, squirrels, and mice.  While these critters can’t get into bear vaults/canisters, they are quite good at raiding food bags even when they are hanging from trees.  I’ve personally watched mice and squirrels climb down ropes to get at suspended food and have had ropes chewed through, and bags raided.  On my bicycle trips last year I lost food to raccoons and mice a couple of times, and even came close to losing my heart meds, which were packed away in my trailer, to a raccoon.

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A Raccoon Either Had a Headache or Was Out of His Heart Meds.

Since my upcoming trip involves trekking through bear country, I needed a suitable food bag to hang, so I bought the Ratsack, which when combined with a couple of odor-proof bags (not pictured), and properly hung should keep my food, toiletries, and medicine safe from creatures both great and small.  At, 10 1/2 ounces the Ratsack is heavier than a similar sized (41 liter) bag, so it’s definitely not for the ultra-light crowd, but, for me, the piece of mind it offers is worth the little bit of extra weight.

One concern that others have expressed about the bag is the chance of the mesh wearing a hole in a pack.  This bothered me as well, but I don’t intend to actually carry the food and other things in the Ratsack.  The food, toiletries, and such will be carried in the odor-proof bags, and the Ratsack only deployed in camp.  I intend to carry the bag rolled up in the heavy plastic bag it came packed in and strapped to the outside of my pack with my tent poles.

Also not pictured are a few small nalgenes which hold oil, soap, and pepper.  But these are fairly self-explanatory and common.

So, that’s everything in my kitchen minus the sink, and food of course.  I honestly can’t wait until the day comes when I will be using these things full-time instead of just playing around with them, and making coffee.

 

 

Gathering Gear: Backpack and Tent

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Since the end of my bicycle travels last Fall, my focus has been equipping and preparing for my next escape attempt this coming Spring. Seeing as how this next attempt is going to be by foot, I needed to upgrade the bulk of my gear.  The gear I already had worked fine when it was being carried on my bike and trailer, but a lot of it was way too heavy and/or bulky to carry on my back.

The first thing I needed was a backpack.  I had a couple of Black Diamond climbing packs which my son and I had used for climbing trips, and short backpacking trips, and while they worked great for such trips, there was no way they were going to cut it for an extended trip such as the one I am planning now, so I began backpack shopping for the first time in many years.

As is the new norm, I began shopping for my new pack by consulting the Google monster.  I’ll admit, that, at first, I was a bit overwhelmed.  After all, my last good sized backpack was a Dana Designs Bridger pack that I had bought at the end of the last millennium, and not only does Dana Designs no longer exist, but the array of backpacks has grown significantly in the last couple of decades.

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My New Atmos

So, after reading every recommendation and review I could find, I headed to REI and started trying on packs.  After trying on most every 60+ liter pack in the store (a few more than once) I settled on Osprey’s Atmos 65 AG.

(This is actually the second Osprey pack I’ve bought. I already had a Talon 22 which I bought for cycling, and used as a daypack and shopping bag while on my bike trips.)

I picked the Atmos for it’s comfort, organization, and Osprey’s warranty.

As I’ve mentioned, I tried on a lot of packs, but once I tried the Atmos I found myself comparing all of the others to it.  I like the adjustability of it and the way the AG suspension wraps around my body.  The Osprey site makes the claim that this new suspension makes the pack’s load feel lighter than it truly is, and I’ll say that they are right. I can’t explain why, but with equal weight in it, the Atmos did feel lighter once it was on my back than other packs did.

I also liked the shape and size of the shoulder straps.  I have a defibrillator implanted in my left upper chest so the position of the shoulder straps was very important.  The straps on the Atmos don’t run right over my defibrillator, so don’t grind it into the underlying muscle, which, believe me, is quite painful after a while.

The next thing I really liked about the Atmos was it’s design in terms of organization.  I am a big fan of gear organization.  I hate having to dig around in the dark or during a storm for that one thing that I need, so the Atmos’ many pockets were a big draw.  It has a separate sleeping bag compartment as well as pockets on the back, hip-belt and lid which, in my opinion, is much better than having everything in one cavernous area.  The ability to put various things in separate pockets makes it easier to retrieve a water-filter, snacks, camera, rain gear, etc. without having to dig through everything else.  Very little is more frustrating than digging around in one’s pack in the dark during a rain storm to find a headlamp…been there, done that, hated it.  It also makes it easier to get to the tent and sleeping bag when setting up camp, especially if it’s dark or raining.

The final selling point of the Atmos was Osprey’s warranty.  I can be rough on my equipment sometimes, and I bought this pack for the long haul, so a no-questions-asked, lifetime warranty was quite appealing.

Next up in my overhaul quest was a new tent.  I have been using an REI ASL 3 for my bicycle trips, and love it.  It’s roomy; it sets up easily; and it’s convertible so it handles a lot of different weather conditions like a champ.  The only problem it has is with hot and humid conditions.  Sleeping in it at the height of Summer in Southern Kentucky is not recommended.  Though, to be honest, sleeping outside period in those conditions is rough.

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My ASL after a night of fending off downpours and 20 MPH winds

While perfect for my bike trips the ASL was way too heavy and bulky to carry on my back for an extended period of time.  So, once again, I consulted the Google monster, and after another round of reviews and recommendations, I got another REI tent…the REI Quarter Dome 1.

Picking a tent was an even lengthier process than had been picking a pack.  After all, this was going to be my new home.  Originally, I had been looking at a couple of Big Agnes tents, but I really wanted a side entrance, low weight, AND a tent that wasn’t going to cost a small fortune, so I opted for the QD1.  Having had good experiences with REI tents, and REI customer service I felt that I might as well go with a company I knew.

So far I’ve only set my new tent up in the living room (it’s too cold, wet, and snowy outside right now), but I feel good about the ease of set-up, and the space inside and in the vestibule, and I really love the weight.  At just over two pounds the Quarter Dome is a third the weight of my ASL, which is something that I am sure my back will appreciate this Spring.  It also packs down to about a third of the size of the ASL which makes for more room in my pack for food:  win, win.

My only fear about the quarter dome is the cold.  A few years ago my son and I spent the night in an MSR Hubba Hubba, in Ohio, in the middle of February when the temps dropped to 15 degrees. Needless to say we were quite cold all night.  But, seeing as how I don’t intend to Winter-camp with this new tent I should be OK.  Though I do have my eye on a TNF Assault 2 for a possible round of cold-weather camping next Winter.

Having gotten a pack and a tent, my final item in the big three is a sleeping bag.  Still haven’t settled on one yet, but will update when I do.

What’s Next?

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The plan for Spring is set.  I’m headed back to my beloved mountains of Western North Carolina.

 

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Me on the Eastern Rim of Linville Gorge Above North Carolina Wall on One of My Many Climbing Trips Many Moons Ago.

As of today, the itinerary goes as follows:

  1. Sometime in early April take a bus from Indianapolis to Johnson City, TN
  2. Take a shuttle from Johnson City to the Appalachian Trail (AT) trailhead in Erwin, TN.
  3. Hike the AT south for 142 miles to Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.
  4. Connect to the start of the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST) at Clingman’s Dome.
  5. Hike around 300 miles of the MST north and east to Grandfather Mountain State Park and Boone, NC

Once at Grandfather Mountain/Boone, the next step is, for now, uncertain. Options include:

  • Take a shuttle back to Johnson City then a bus back to Indianapolis.
  • Continue on the MST at least to Stone Mountain State Park, NC.
  • Shuttle back to the AT and head north.
  • Go back to Asheville, NC and figure something out from there.

Right now, I’m leaning toward the Asheville option, but there are several variables to consider, not the least of which being that I may not be doing the trip alone.

In any case there is still a good bit of planning to do like establishing resupply points; and I still have a few pieces of equipment to get.  I will update as appropriate

Resignation

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The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

Henry David Thoreau

For those who don’t know it, the quote above is from:  Walden; or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau published in 1854.  Walden is a particularly dangerous book about one man’s experiment with living a plain, simple life in the woods.  Referencing this experiment is, to me, the best way to begin this blog, as it too is intended to be a record of the same type of experiment.  Though, I admit, mine will, undoubtedly, not be as well written or insightful.

I first read Walden in the mid-nineties at a time when I had begun to notice the slow agonizing death of the fabled ‘American Dream’, and had started to come to terms with having watched the slow debilitating death of my wife.  I was in my early thirties; a single father of two very young children; and was fully entangled with what Thoreau so elegantly described as the “confirmed desperation” of being resigned to a modern life.

A Life of Quiet Desperation

I was born in the mid-sixties and raised in the seventies and eighties.  Like most American kids raised at that time, I was indoctrinated with the fable of the American Dream and grew to fully believe that the constant toil to gain money and things would somehow miraculously lead me to “a better life.”

I was a prime candidate for this bullshit since I grew up in what is commonly called “poverty.”  Not the real, third-world poverty of starvation, misery, and early death, but rather the first-world poverty of occasional hunger, and constant derision by one’s peers for not “having.”  My clothes were worn and second-hand; my father didn’t wear a suit to work;  my meals, when I had them, were composed largely of oatmeal, beans, potatoes, bologna,and other cheap ‘poor-people’ foods; and I didn’t have the latest toys, or the newest bike.  As a result I felt somehow less than others, and was constantly told by them that it was true.  So, I, like most American children in such conditions, decided early that I would someday be a “have” instead of a “have not”, and thus began a desperate life of trying to buy and acquire happiness.  I had fallen into the trap, and would thrash around in it for decades.

A Nagging Call

As a child growing up in the city, my heroes were the romanticized versions of mountain men, frontiersmen, and Native Americans.  Men like Jeremiah Johnson (the Redford version),  Chief Joseph, Daniel Boone, and Cooper’s Natty Bumpo.  I wanted so badly to live what I had imagined to be a wonderful life of freedom and adventure, but also understood that such a life would not lead to being a “have” so eventually dismissed it as a silly and childish dream.

However, the pull of those early dreams never entirely disappeared.  No matter how much I vainly fought to gain my status as a have, I still felt a desire to occasionally escape back to the woods to re-energize.  Thoreau described such desires as innate and wholesome properties of being human:

Who does not remember the interest with which when young he looked at shelving rocks, or any approach to a cave?  It was the natural yearning of that portion of our most primitive ancestor which still survived in us… .  It would be well perhaps if we were to spend more of our days and nights without any obstructions between us and the celestial bodies, if the poet did not speak so much from under a roof, or the saints dwell there so long.  Birds do not sing in caves, nor do doves cherish their innocence in dovecoats.

I first read these words, and the rest of Walden as part of an assignment.  In an attempt to escape from pain and what had become a miserable life after losing my wife, I quit my job; cashed in my retirement; and became a full-time college student/father.  I studied history and writing, and was eventually given Walden as an assignment for a course in American Literature.  The book as a whole had an effect on me which I wouldn’t understand for years, but I did understand the passage above, and it set a spark in me that would, in time, become the driving force in my life.  I realized that being in nature was more than just a craving:  it was a necessity.

As I was still entangled in my desperate resignation, my escape was slow and peppered with setbacks.  I began spending my free time taking my children camping, hiking, rock climbing, and any other activity that I could find which took me away from the city and back to nature.  Eventually, I even moved my family to Asheville in the mountains of Western North Carolina to make such forays easier.  However, while my surrendering to the innate need for freedom became more frequent, I still made decisions about my life with the notion of becoming a ‘successful have’.  I was happy in the mountains when sleeping in a tent, but was still driven by the need to acquire more when sleeping under a roof.

This self-imposed mental slavery eventually led me to leave the mountains which I had grown to love for the plains of Indiana wherein I would finally be jolted awake.

Sawing at the Chains

The job I had while in Asheville, like so many others, was taken out of the country so that the haves at the top could have even more. Instead of holding onto my beloved mountains, I grabbed for the nearest chance at having, which was in Indianapolis.

As I generally do, I managed to establish a place for my children and me in our new home, and eventually worked my way up the ladder to having.  I fell back into the pit, and everything became the norm of working to have.  Then came Mother’s Day weekend 2012.  It was during that weekend that I suffered a series of heart attacks which left me hospitalized and nearly dead.

Over the next few months I began to heal physically, as best I could, and change spiritually.  While lying in bed in the hospital I technically died a half-dozen times, and by the time I got home, I had decided that I needed to actually live before I died for the final time.  Another quote from Thoreau kept coming to me:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

So, I began working not to have but to let go of things and be free.

The process has been tedious, and at times very hard, but over the last three and a half years I have let go of most of my possessions and ties which could not contribute in one way or another to living a life free of the things; things which we call “necessities” or “luxuries”, but which Thoreau so aptly described as “hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

“Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”  HDT

I made my greatest steps to date toward freedom last Spring.  On the 20 April 2015, what would have been my 24th wedding anniversary I rode out of Indianapolis on a bicycle pulling a trailer loaded with food and camping gear with the intention of riding to Portland, OR.  I didn’t make it to Portland, nor even west of the Mississippi River, largely because I let the trappings of the life of a have stop me.

It is too long a story to get into, but after a few weeks of freedom, I found myself in Bowling Green, KY pursuing a new life surrounded by those still chained to the idea of materialism as a means to happiness.  During this pursuit I found myself continually feeling trapped, and alone, whereas just weeks before while alone pedaling away toward the next campsite, I had felt free and among friends.  I had started buying new clothes so I would fit in to the crowd; new tools with which to make a living and was continually having to hide my thoughts and opinions.  I was once again trapped in the pit.

By the time I realized what a tragic mistake I had made in letting go of my freedom I was once again shackled to that most terrible slave-master of our modern world:  the need for money.  So, I reluctantly headed back to Indianapolis, resigned to the fact that I would have to start again on my quest for freedom.

Since being back I have made one attempt to start again which was rash and soon foiled by my aging body and the master I spoke of above.  However, I have also learned that the changes in me which led to the attempts to break free are permanent, and welcome.  I still have to occasionally fight back the urge to give in to the pull of the great lie of materialism, in much the same way a long time addict has to fight the impulse to have that one little taste.  But, every time I fight off the urge to buy some shiny new piece of technology, or acquire some new comfort, the longing for the simplicity I had on the road with the World and everyone and everything in it as my companions grows.

(For an account of my previous escape-attempts you can go here and here)

So, here I sit, dreaming and preparing once again.  Gathering my stores not for a winter to come, as it is Winter already, both in season and in my mind, but rather for the Spring when I intend to try once again to escape back into simplicity.

And so ends the introduction for this journal/blog.  I have no doubt that much of what will be recorded from here out will be nowhere near as extensive or introspective as this introduction.  Nonetheless, I Hope it will be useful, at least in part, to the reader in one way or another.

So…let us begin.