Backpacking Luxuries Turned Necessities and Other Tricks

Note:  I receive no compensation for any product mentioned in this post.  

Pack optimization through balance of needs and weight should be the goal for backpacking trips. But, too often we either try to go too light and cut out the things we actually need, or pack gear that goes underutilized.  We mourn the gear we left out of the pack in order to cut weight, and lament the things pull out at the end of the trip unused. I do love dialing in my pack, and tracking the ounces or even pounds that I’ve trimmed from my last trip. But I think I love the sneaky comfort items that I’ve muled in even more. I try to keep notes and an inventory of my most and least used gear, and here are some of my revelations from the last year.  Most of my camping was related to backcountry hunting, but I’m going to try and keep this list relatable to any backpacker (I’ll get some notes down about some hunting-specific revelations a little later).  Some of the items below are packable gear, and some are more along the lines of small hacks.  Also, keep in mind that I’m writing from the reference of my camping practices, which is generally a long hike in, setting up one or maybe two base camps, and mainly doing long hikes for 3-6 days, returning to base camp each night.  So, if you are mainly doing overnighters or loops, you may want to consider the specifics of your hike before filling up your pack.

New items that I will never leave behind again:

Camp chair/stool – For the last couple of years, I have watched in envy while my buddies have relaxed in ultralight camp chairs while I crouched uncomfortably over my stove each evening.  I was really tired of switching between crouching, sitting on uneven rocks, and eating dinner standing up, but even the best ultralight chairs weigh in around 1.5-2 lbs or more, and really don’t pack down as small as I would like.  But, this year, I finally found a stool that had the right balance of weight burden and comfort, and it was worth the weight (play on words there for you sharp ones).  So this year, I packed in the Micro Stool from Grand Trunk (10.6oz actual weight), which packs down very small and is the lightest seat I could find.  It only sets up to be about 10 inches off the ground, but I  actually found it to be quite comfortable (I’m 6’0″), and way better than log or stone Mother Nature had lying around.

Oil shooters with pepper chasers will cap off any meal

Extra food seasoning – I eat a lot of dehydrated meals when camping out.  They’re pretty good, but I think we can all agree they are not haute cuisine.  I don’t usually take a lot in the way of snacks, but try to rely on my main meals to get the nutrition I need.  To get the extra calories, and make things more palatable, I’ve been bringing along a couple ounces of olive oil and crushed red pepper flakes.  The olive oil makes the rehydrated food texture more relatable to a normal meal, and adds the healthy fats that the dehydrated meals usually lack.  Most of the major brands of dehydrated meals seem to utilize Indian and Latin flavor palates pretty heavily, so the red pepper is pretty compatible with most meal options.  For the sake of your gut, the last thing you want is to overdo the spiciness, but I haven’t run into that issue yet.  Red pepper flakes seem to be milder on the stomach than a lot of the other spices, but that may just be personal predisposition.  Pro Tip – Don’t worry about buying special containers for your seasoning, spent airline booze bottles are super light and work great.

My new favorite trick:

Mountain Coolers – aka pure, cold mountain streams.  Beer is delicious, but too heavy and bulky to pack in, right?  Well, at least too heavy and bulky to pack very far.  For reference, a six-pack of cans weighs in at just over five pounds.  This year, I implemented the system of packing a couple beers in just a couple miles, then dropping those beers in an icy mountain stream.  Then, on my way out, I’ve got some refreshingly cold daddy sodas to celebrate the last couple miles of a long trip through the mountains.  I realize that I’m probably not the first person to implement this strategy, but I felt smarter than the lovechild of Elon Musk and Adolf Coors when I cracked that first can of frosty suds while hiking out of the woods this fall.  As a side note, there are some precautions to take while leaving beers in stashed in the woods.  The unfiltered stream could pass along diseases on the top of the can, so take care with the water you stash in.  Also, bears have been known to enjoy chomping through unopened beers, so beware of the critters that may be poaching your cache.

Things I left behind and missed severely:

Camp shoes – Wet boots suck.  Tired feet suck.  Soft comfortable shoes are awesome.  Don’ get me wrong,  I’m very happy with the performance of my hunting boots from sunup to sundown.  But, after several warm days, feet get sweaty and tired.  Getting out of the boots and into fresh shoes in the evening is a guilty pleasure.  I don’t know if it’s just the feeling of the soft, forgiving, unsweated liners; or possibly the need for your feet to feet some subtle difference in support.  I used to go with the North Face tent mules, which are quite literally down sleeping bags for your feet, but I have graduated to slipper-shoe hybrids to walk around camp in the evenings.  I’ve currently got Teva Ember mocs (1lb 3.6oz actual weight), which have the coziness of slippers with the support of a lightweight shoe.  There isn’t too much in the way of tread, which helps reduce wear and tear on tent floors and sleeping bags (especially if you’re wearing them to bed on those extra cold nights).  The Merrel Barkley Moc is great if you want more of a shoe than a slipper, and they are very light (1lb 0.6 oz actual weight).

Chapstick – My September hunt was earlier and warmer than the last few years, and I definitely felt it in the intensity of the sun, and lack of hydration.  I typically don’t bring chapstick because I don’t like to use it hunting due to the scent that usually comes along with it.  But this year, my lips became chapped and cracked, and became a distracting and painful nag for most of a six-day trip.  It seems silly to leave such a small item behind that can have such an impact on part of your general comfort.

Items underutilized compared to years past:

Earbuds and extra phone batteries – In years past, I have usually used earbuds with my phone to listen to music while taking mid-day naps or podcasts after lights out each night.  This year, I found myself using the Kindle app on my phone more often, as well as the notes app to record my reflections of the day.  I like to use the ebooks for reading entertainment, but I also like to ability to reference field guides, trail guidebooks, or other articles on woodsmanship or hunting.  So, the moral of the story is, find some good ebooks and you won’t need the headphones.  Also, remember to utilize your phone’s power-saver function combined with airplane mode, keep your phone from being exposed to the cold too often, and your battery can last for days.

WWGD? (What Would George Costanza Do?) aka “The Opposite”

If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite has to be right.

What if every instinct you ever had was false?  What if every calculated action you took was actually detrimental to your happiness?  On May 19, 1994, American television viewers tuned in to witness a man brave enough to challenge his own pillars of belief, and his name was George Costanza.  On that night, NBC aired the 21st episode of the fifth season of Seinfeld, which was titled “The Opposite”.  In that episode, George comes up with a theory: What if every instinct, every decision he has ever made, has been wrong and is the source of all his life’s disappointments.  From that moment, he decides to begin an experiment to test the decisions he makes in his daily life.  For every action he is about to take, he consciously does the opposite of what he thinks is appropriate.  Over the next thirty minutes, we see George get his dream job with the New York Yankees, move out of his parents’ house and into a new apartment, and land a new girlfriend that most would agree is way out of his league.

I love “The Opposite” because I admire George’s courage and commitment to challenge his own status quo, and it provides an opportunity to play the “What If” game: What if George was an outdoorsman?  What if I have been behaving like George?

If George was a hunter prior to his “Opposite” epiphany, I like to think that he would hike out the same trail to the same clearing every year, throw out a few calls, scan the same treeline repeatedly, and call it a day once he considered the temperature to be “too hot for anything to be moving around”.  He would stick with the same old plan, which was probably never his to begin with.  It was probably passed along to him by a more experienced hunter, or maybe he overheard it one night at a local bar, and George lazily took it for gospel.  He abides by knowledge he considers to be commonly-accepted, or maybe he found success by simple luck the first time he tried it, so he sticks to it year after year hoping to recreate the triumph of his first outing.   This leads George in a continuing cycle of frustration and embarrassment.  He takes no risk by attempting anything different.

When George finally tries his “Opposite” approach, it isn’t easy.  It’s uncomfortable, and he risks public embarrassment with each new action.  But luckily for him, his instincts were so misaligned that each opposite decision is a substantial improvement to his situation.  The average person is not likely to see the same results as George, so it’s probably not the best idea to turn a full 180 degrees like he did.  But, the idea of challenging your assumptions, taking risks, and trying something uncomfortable is on point.

What I had been behaving like George?  I can admit that I have a tendency to fall into the same old routine, almost subconsciously, without taking a moment to consider a new technique.   I sometimes fail to question the actions that have become automatic.  For example, for years it was my instinct to make fun of my buddies that used trekking poles while out hiking.  Right before they became popular, a guy came rolling into town with a trunk full of “Swedish Walking Sticks”, and every blue hair in town came out to see him demonstrate how to walk while poking at the ground with those sticks.  The man sold off his walking sticks and left town, but the image of all those old timers walking around with their new trekking poles stuck with me.    That was the image I always associated with my friends carrying them in the woods.  But then, I finally tried them last year.  After a twelve-mile backpacking trip, my shoulders and upper back had never felt better.  No more knots, no pain in my scapula, no sore neck.  I now own two sets and I’m thinking about getting a third.

I have also realized that I have become so fixated on minimizing my pack weight that I have totally lost focus of what will really make my backpacking trip more pleasant.  I might save a few ounces with my ultralight sleeping pad, but the good night’s sleep that I get with heavier and more comfortable mat definitely outshines the weight burden.  Also, I will no longer go on a multi-day hunting trip without camp shoes again.  If I’m hunting for five or six days and spending countless miles in heavy boots, the joy of soft camp shoes at the end of a long day cannot be matched.  They definitely contain more body-rejuvenating power than the one and a half pound weight savings from leaving them back at the truck.

So, we all experience the plateau-effect from time to time.  Maybe taking some risk by trying “The Opposite” may help you get to the next level.

 

What will ruin your next hunt? (Feet Edition)

20180701_170202I am embarrassingly close to making an appointment for a pedicure. I am not usually one to partake in such indulgences, and I think my slight uneasiness with physical contact would restrict me from enjoying it (I’m not a hugger).  But, I would be willing to put all my predispositions aside if it would help me be a better hunter.  There are dozens of ways for your feet to betray you when you’re out on the trail for a week, so you should do what you can to head off those issues before they start.  Pedicures have become a common maintenance technique for professional athletes and other manly types, so I assume I could see some benefit from it as well.  Blisters, calluses, nail issues, and calf-down muscle tightness can be addressed in a 30-minute appointment.  I do suffer from some frequent ingrown toenails, so I’m curious to see what those nail-clippers could do in the hands of a real pro.

So while I go through several iterations of dialing up the local pedicurist and shyly hanging up the phone as soon as they answer, take a minute to read through some of these tips below.

Insoles

I have gone through some minor obsessions with aftermarket insoles.  I don’t know why, but even high-end boots come with a flimsy sliver of foam as the first line of contact for your feet.  For some, this minimal amount of cushion directly underfoot may be enough, but others may want more.  Insoles are pretty cheap when compared to a pair of boots, but they can make a significant difference in the way your boot feels and performs.  They can reduce foot fatigue and keep you going hiker longer.  Generally speaking from experience, as the weight of the boot increases, the need for a more substantial insole increases as well.  With a taller heeled boot, more pressure is going to be transferred to the balls of your feet, which will benefit from more cushion.  I’ve actually found that a little thicker insole can add noticeable insulation to lighter boots, keeping your feet warmer in cold conditions.  After trying out dozens of pairs of insoles looking for something to keep my feet going longer each day, I usually look for an insole with some arch support structure (my feet are generally classified as “normal arch”), medium cushion, and some ability to form-fit to my feet.  Make sure your boot has enough room in the toebox before adding a thicker insole, as crammed toes are not going to make your feet happy.  Take notice of the top surface of the footbed that will be contacting your foot.  Sometimes they can be too silky, and become irritating once your merino wool socks get a little sweaty and start sliding around.  The best bang-for-buck insoles I have found are the Columbia Enduro Soles.  They are thermo-molding, so pop it in the oven at

20180601_191252
Columbia Enduro Soles (Columbia has bought out Montrail)

200 degrees for 2 minutes, throw them in your boots, and slip your foot in for 5 minutes to create a custom foot cast.  I usually wear my hiking boots to the store so I can check fit before I purchase.  You should least take the factory insoles of the boot with you for fit comparison.  Most aftermarket insoles are made to be cut down to fit, and the original insole is usually a perfect template.

Focus on your weak points

Listen to your feet while you’re out in the field.  There was a survey for marathon runners several years ago, where they were asked how they coped with pain while running races.  The survey revealed that the more successful runners did not try to block out nagging pain, but focused on it.  By focusing on it, they were able to make adjustments to their running stride to make sure the discomfort did not become an injury that impacted their race.  Be aware of your body out in the field, and make decisions that are ultimately going to keep you out on the trail.  Be mindful of how your feet perform in the offseason, and make adjustments to ensure they are ready to perform when it counts.

Break-In (For boots and feet)

Wear your boots in the offseason, but don’t wear them out.  I had a buddy that wore his hunting boots all summer for work, only to discover the waterproofing had failed once we got into the backcountry during a snowy, wet September.  Everyone knows that you’ve got to break in your boots.  I like to take new boots, immediately oil them, and wear them laced up moderately loose (The loose lacing will help from pressure points forming between the tongue overlap and your lower shin).  I’ll wear them loose around town for a couple days before tightening them up to break-in in the field.   Depending on the boots, the field break-in period can be a couple days or a couple weeks.  Part of this is getting your boot to flex around your foot, and part of this is getting your foot used to your boot.  It can be subtle, but your foot will “get used” to your boots as well.  If you’re using custom insoles, it can be good to throw them into your everyday shoes for a couple weeks before you plan to be out in your boots.  Ultimately, you want to have confidence in your gear, so try and simulate your activities before you find yourself in a situation where poor boot performance will ruin your hunt.

Don’t let your feet get soft

Do your foot strength conditioning while relaxing.  I used to have discomfort in the joints of my big toes when on hunts where I was hiking off trail in steep terrain.  One day I made the correlation between the pressure points in my toes and the curl of the toes of the slippers and flip-flops that I’d been wearing around the house.  I decided to stop wearing any footwear when I was at home.   I began going barefoot on solid surfaces like wood floors, concrete slab, and laminate.  Big difference made!  It only took a couple weeks until I noticed an improvement in my feet.  I realized I had been making my feet into a couple of major-league wussies while sporting comfort footwear for evenings and weekends.  I guess the bigger point from this small experiment was: My feet could get tougher by adding some moderate minimalism.  I didn’t go wild and begin running marathons barefoot, and I didn’t begin preaching to my friends about how humans were meant to walk without footwear and that modern shoes were changing our musculature and posture.  But, I was wearing silly foot-cushions too much, and I believe it was detrimental to my feet.  More importantly, it was affecting how well I could perform in the woods.

 

What will ruin your next hunt?

A quick overview of things to consider in the offseason.

20180513_125309.jpgAlright, GO!  Lack of preparation, lack of skill, misunderstanding the terrain, misunderstanding your quarry, poor woodsmanship, lack of mental toughness, poor physical conditioning, equipment failure, laziness?  How about several of those problems, to some degree. I like to consider it a “smattering” of inefficiencies, and it’s basically my list of focus points.  Maybe this list of issues could simply fall under the heading of “A Lack of Honest to Oneself”.  I have gone into more than one hunting or backcountry situations (or daily life situations, really) feeling totally prepared, at least until I reached the point where I realized I was totally unprepared.  It can have real consequences, too.  I almost missed out on a great bull on my first backcountry solo hunting trip, simply because I had not given enough consideration to my mental conditioning.  Prior to the hunt, a week without human contact or personal interaction was not something that I expected to have any trouble with.  As it turned out, the solitude was miserable, and I chose to end the hunt a couple days early.  I lucked out by filling my tag the morning I had decided to pull out and head for home.  If it weren’t for luck, all those months of preparation for the hunt may not have added up to much more than a very long and drawn out learning experience.  Prior to that hunt, I had considered myself a rather socially independent and stoic person, but I had to immediately reevaluate my condition.

Preparing for a hunt should be fun (mostly).  But what happens when that sensation of enjoyment gives way to feelings of tedium, or futility, or obligation?  There is a lot of talk of “focus” while on the hunt, but I believe most of the focus begins during the summer well before you head out in the fall.  I’m going to hit on some more specific elements in the next couple weeks, but here are a couple overarching thoughts to put in the old brain bank for next time you’re prepping for the early season.

Know yourself, and be honest with yourself.  Not many people realize this little secret, but the beauty of being honest with yourself… is that it doesn’t require you to be honest with others!  You can still talk a big game to your buddies and partake in all the obligatory self-aggrandizing!  Believe me, this is something I know very well.  But all half-joking aside, it is a lot harder to make improvements if you don’t start with a solid understanding of your own limitations.  Sometimes you have to challenge your own beliefs and self-image to improve.  Truly acknowledging your limitations and weaknesses can be tougher than it sounds.

Aim for skilled balance.  We have a finite amount of time each day, so focus on the weak points that will bring you the most improvement.  Don’t fall into a trap of focusing on one thing and honing it down to perfection, while neglecting other areas.  An example would be archery skills.  I know a lot of guys that want to deck out their equipment to the point where they can stand at the range and shoot a golf ball-sized group at 60 yards, when grouping a paper plate at 60 yards is plenty accurate for hunting deer-sized animals or larger.  If you’re trying to reach perfection, you’ve likely reached a point of diminishing returns, and it may be time to look for other areas where you may have more glaring weaknesses.  Maybe focus on draw hold time, quick shots, shooting while winded, shooting on cross-slopes, or put the bow down and pick up your pack for a scouting trip to the woods.  Focus energy on the weaknesses, and you’ll find more success.

What do you hate to work on?  Do that one first.  I kind of alluded to this a couple times above.  If you find something you enjoy, you’re more likely to strengthen it to the point of unbalance.  Everything needs to fall into place for a successful hunt:  Know where the animals are, be fit enough to get after them, understand how they behave, be able to go through all the steps of an ethical harvest, and have the ability to get back home with the meat.  Lacking ability or knowledge in any of those areas will result in a failure.  If there are areas for you to improve, rank them in the order you want to do them, and complete the list from bottom to top.  This will help you touch all the bases, and also motivates you to complete your least favorite tasks in order to get to the ones you enjoy.

Daydreaming with purpose. I prefer the term ‘daydreaming with purpose’ over ‘visualizing’.  Regardless of what you want to call it, this can really help prepare.  Take some time to focus, and walk yourself through a full day of the hunt.  Imagine the steps you’ll be taking in the field, the experiences you’ll be taking in with all five senses, and especially the challenges you will likely face.  Imaging yourself facing a challenge and calmly addressing it with a confident solution.  You’ll find that you’re actually training your brain for success, and will be less prone to frustration and negative thoughts.

 

Economy of Elk Hunting Calories

It cannot be argued that wild elk meat is one of the most delicious and nutritious meats available to Americans.  But, it can come at a cost.  I’m not talking about the financial cost (hunting tags, equipment, travel, lost wages from bailing from work for a week, divorce settlements, etc.), I’m referring to cost in the form of calorie burden.  Elk meat is chock full of nutrition, but we put forth a lot of energy trying to harvest it.  But, before I dive into the calorie economics of hunting, let me just throw out this obvious disclaimer: I am not trying to say that any hunter looks to harvest animals with any one single goal in mind.  We hunters are all complex creatures, and the reasons we hunt are abundant and diverse.  But regardless of individual motives, if you’ve ever partaken in a multiday backcountry elk hunt without spotting game or hearing a single bugle, you may have found yourself questioning many of the reasons you choose hunting as a recreation and lifestyle.  It’s also important to consider our motivations compared to those of our ancestral hunters.  To them, calorie burden was their primary concern.  They were obviously not able to comprehend or quantify energy to units of such as calories (Quick high school chemistry review: One calorie represents the energy required to raise one liter of water by one degree Celsius, and one degree Celsius is equal to blah, blah, blah, blah…). They really only understood that they needed meat to keep themselves and their families alive, and that the more effort they put into an activity, the more nourishment they would need to survive another day.

So let’s get into it: How much energy do you expend while on a backcountry elk hunting trip?  Now, I’m admittedly trying to put a pin in a very broad question, so some assumptions must be made first.  Size of person, difficulty of terrain, load carried, fitness (or fatness) level, environmental conditions, and level of effort (intensity) all play into the calorie burning rate equation.  For this broad stroke, non-scientific article, I am making the assumption that (1) our hunter is 180 lbs, (2) he hikes in five miles into the mountains to camp, (3) he hikes several miles each day hunting, (4) he spends the majority of the day glassing or still-hunting, (5) he harvests a bull elk on the fourth day, and (6) he makes three strenuous trips packing gear and meat out of the woods by the end of the fifth day.

I have interpolated some calorie burning rates for a 180 lb hunter based upon information I have gathered from Nutristrategy.com and the Mayo Clinic.  Here are my estimates for calorie burn rates in calories/hour.

Activity Calories/hour
Orienteering 735
Climbing hills, carry over 42lb 735
Climbing hills, carrying daypack 600
Spotting, glassing 175
Packing meat out downhill 620
Bowling 245
Ballroom dancing 245

 

Below is an estimation in time spent at each activity on a hunt. The “Calories Over Baseline” estimates below are representative of the net, or additional calories that would be expended on an elk hunt, as opposed to calculating the total calories burned on the hunt.  This is based on premise that you would be doing some calorie-burning activities while hunting that are similar to your daily routine, such as preparing food, organizing sundries, and sleeping.  So, the calculations below subtract out the calories that would be spent if you lived out your normal day (about 120 calories/hour) and acquired meat from a more convenient and mundane source such as a grocery store.

 

5 Day Hunt Hours
Activity Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Total
Climbing hills, carrying over 42 lb 3 3
Spotting 3 7 7 4 21
Climbing hill, carrying daypack 5 5 5 3 7 25
Orienteering 2 2
Packing meat 4 7 11
Calories Over Baseline 4410 2785 2785 5130 6860 21970

 

By these calculations, you would be expending approximately 22,000 additional calories in order to harvest a mature elk over a five-day hunt.  My first impression is that this is a lot.  Way more than I expected.  But, I feel it is representative of the strenuous aspects of elk hunting.  Elk live in tough country, and a single person has to carry a serious payload of gear in order to get into elk country and live with them for a week.  You may take an established trail in and out of the woods, but much of your hunt is likely going to be cross-country.  There is a reason why hunting boots are built differently than hiking boots.

Given that elk roaming public land are naturally grass-fed, their muscle is generally much leaner that beef, and therefore has much fewer calories per pound.  Yet it somehow remains equally, nay, superiorly delicious.  If lean elk muscle contains about 33 calories per ounce, and you are able to retrieve 200 pounds of boned-out meat from your hunt, you are harvesting 105,600 calorie units of energy.  So, in our 5-day solo backcountry mountain hunt scenario, if our hunter burned 22,000 additional calories on his trip and harvested 105,600 calories worth of elk meat, he was still able to return with his meat payload at 80% efficiency.  For our ancestral hunter, that 200 pounds of meat would equate to over 50 total person-days of sustenance.  Plus, it would be a welcome change from the roots and possum and snow or weird mushrooms or whatever else they had found lying around.  In order to equate the total energy stored in that elk meat to something to which a more modern human can relate, 105,600 calories are about equivalent to each of the following: 2,300 strips of bacon, 320 avocados, 324 ground beef tacos, 51 gallons of Rockstar® energy drink, or 66 gallons of Coors Banquet® beer.  Although calorically equal, by no means am I suggesting that any of these items are nutritionally equal.

Now you may ask yourself, “What am I going to do with all these calories now that I’ve got them?”.  The Mayo Clinic offers energy burning options such as ballroom dancing or bowling (About 431 hours for either based on my conversions from their website).  But that’s a lot of time indoors, plus you’re probably going to take in a lot more calories from that Coors Banquet in order to participate in either of those.  My recommendation? Use those calories to Hunt Harder.