Updates On Site and Off

Lots of things going on all of a sudden around here.  Seems like there isn’t as much time for posting because there really isn’t.  The snow is finally almost gone and I’ve actually managed to get the bicycle on the road a few times.  With the first time trial of the METTS season in just ten days it should be pretty amusing to see the faces as folks cross the finish line.  Time trials are always about pain, but without proper training they tend to make you wish you were dead.  Good fun!

Here on the site things are happening as well.  I have added a few more items to the Gear Review page.  It is all caught up now with my reviews over at the Trailspace site.  The latest additions include the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite pad and the GSI Tea Kettle.  That kettle takes up about half the space of my old pot and is perfect for solo trips.

I have also added a Long Trail section to the site.  Beyond a brief outline of my plans for the end to end trip this September there are also pages detailing my gear list and nutrition plan.  Both of those are works in progress and will probably continue to change.  Once I get back home the plan outline will be replaced with a report on the experience.

The big excitement this week has been the arrival of Mrs Stranger’s new backpack.  After a few trips to try on various makes and models she decided on the Osprey Ariel 65 in a pretty blue color.  Now we’re just waiting for mud season to progress so we can start putting it to use.

With the arrival of Spring there will probably be less time to spend writing here.  I’ll try to keep things active if I can, but really I’d much rather be out there than writing about being out there.  I do want to wrap up the Leave No Trace Principle articles though.  I think I may repackage them into their own section of the site so they don’t get lost in blog history.   I still have a long list of things to write about actually, but if I don’t get to them over the next few months they will still be there when the snow flies again.

Hopefully Spring has arrived where you live also.  Probably time for you folks to stop reading and get out there too.  If so smile and nod if we happen to pass on one of those paths less traveled by

madbearderIn memoriam of the Winter 2013-14 beard

Leave No Trace Principles: Limit Fire Impact

The next of the Leave No Trace Principles is about minimizing fire impact.  We’ve all seen the devastation out of control wild fires leave in their wake, but for LNT purposes we’re concerned with fire’s impact on a much smaller scale.  Even fully controlled, burning fuel has a big impact on the land under and around it.   If we want to limit the damage we do, as with most things, it starts with awareness and consciously making good choices.

The first thing to consider is whether you want to build a fire.   I know for many people it just doesn’t feel like camping without a roaring blaze to stare into.   Most all of us have great memories of warming up and drying off around a cozy fire, but the least impact would come from not having a fire at all.

Unless you are in an emergency situation being prepared should allow you to get warm and dry at the end of the day without lighting a fire.  I have made camp soaked to the skin after hiking all day in a cold rain and been warm and dry much sooner by setting up my shelter and getting into dry clothes than I would have been gathering wood and tending a fire in the rain.

Beyond eliminating the impact of the fire itself you’ll also be limiting your impact on the area around your camp.  Fuel gathering around designated sites can have a huge impact on a wide area if a  camp is heavily used.  Keep in mind that not only is there surface disruption from the gathering process, but by burning the fuel you are removing carbon from the local environment.

There are other non-LNT  benefits from not lighting a fire.  One is simply freeing yourself from the task.  Not gathering fuel, lighting and tending a fire leaves a lot more time to appreciate being where you are.  After going to all the trouble to reach some remote site I like to spend as much time as I can actually just being there.  Not destroying your night vision also means being able to enjoy the stars coming into view.

For all those reasons my personal choice is to not have a fire unless there is a good reason for one.  The most frequent reason I make a fire is to cook fresh fish.  If I catch a fresh trout or salmon I am NOT going to boil it in my kettle!  Another good reason for a fire is to toast marshmallows for my daughter on a family trip.  So I am definitely not saying you should never light a fire.  I’m just suggesting that you give some thought to whether you need a fire before lighting one.

If you have chosen to make a fire start by gathering fuel responsibly.  You can begin to collect small branches from the forest floor along the trail as you near your intended site.  This will reduce the amount of gathering you need to do in the camp area and spread the impact of gathering out over a wider area.  Use small branches you can break by hand.  Smaller diameter fuel will burn more completely and gives you better control by letting you add small amounts of fuel at a time.

If your camp has an existing fire ring using it will limit your impact to a previously affected area.  On the other hand if you are creating a temporary camp avoid building a fire ring so as not to disturb the local terrain.  Depending on where you travel you may want to carry a fire pan with you.  This allows you to build a small fire within a contained area.  Another option is to build a small mound fire directly on the ground using as little fuel at a time as possible.

Fuel added to the fire should be burned to ashes.  Do not add more fuel to the fire unless you are sure you have time to burn it completely.  Once the ashes have cooled they can be scattered safely which is why it is important that fuel burn all the way down.  Not only can you distribute the impact but you can be sure you are doing so safely.

Like most of the Leave No Trace Principles this really comes down to thinking about what you are doing and how that impacts the areas you visit.  Do as little as possible to disturb what you find and be thoughtful about the things you decide to do.   We can all work together to keep our favorite paths looking less traveled by

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Leave No Trace Principles: Leave What You Find

Take only pictures, leave only footprints is one of the earliest forms of Leave No Trace ideology I recall running into.  The simplicity of it made instant sense to me then, though now I try not to leave footprints either.  The next of the LNT principles I want to ramble on about is Leave What You Find.  Again, the simplicity makes this whole post sort of a waste of time if you’ve already grasped the concept.  If you log off and go for a hike instead I won’t mind.

OK, now the rest of us who are waiting for the snow to melt or the mud to dry can continue.  So far the principles I’ve talked about were mostly about not making a mess out there or tearing up trails.  This one is about trying to create as little disruption to a balanced environment as possible and about preserving the irreplaceable.

As much as possible we should leave things as we find them so choosing a camp site is a good place to start. Selecting an appropriate site rather than trying to create one works best.  As usual go for high density use options first.  If sanctioned camp sites exist use them if possible as you won’t be adding much impact to the area.

As I discussed previously if you are setting up camp in an area without an existing site the goal is to not leave something that looks like a site when you move on.  Moving logs or big rocks and making trenches are all things to avoid as they cause major disruptions to surface balance.  Avoid over grooming your tent site.  Pine cones have to go of course, but put them in a pile and scatter them back over the site when you leave.  The same with small rocks and sticks.  Sweeping an area clean of debris is not a good idea, but if you must then make an attempt to sweep material back over the area as part of breaking camp.

Another thing to avoid is the human instinct to build.  Making tables, chairs, shelters or other things from rocks, trees and bushes might look like bushcraft on TV, but it is poor stewardship of the land.  Spending a moment in Nature as pure as we can find it should be a time to marvel at what is there rather than changing it.

Plants may bounce back from being damaged, but far better to avoid the damage in the first place. Chopping or sawing standing trees, hacking away at brush, hammering nails into trees or carving into their bark are all against the LNT way of course.  Beyond that those who hang hammocks, bear bags or other things from trees should be sure to use proper equipment and know how to use it in order to minimize impacts.  If staying in one area for more than one night you may want to consider using different trees to spread the impact around.

Some folks like to harvest wild plants, berries, mushrooms and roots while on trail.  Foraging has a long history especially among nomadic people and those with the knowledge to do it safely are welcome to harvest small portions.  Avoid stripping an entire area or damaging soil and vegetation during the process.  Gathering small amounts throughout the day along the trail is much better than doing a lot of gathering all in one spot.  Even if the berries are perfectly ripe please don’t strip entire bushes.  Leave some for the local bugs and bears  or the next person coming down the trail to enjoy and look for another bush down the trail.  Flowers on the other hand should be seen and not picked.  As with hunting game only take what you will eat.

The other important category of things to leave as you found them is artifacts.  This term covers both natural and human objects you encounter.  Antlers and bones are examples of natural items while human objects may range from ancient tools and pottery to more modern objects left by trappers, miners, loggers and farmers who may have worked the land today’s trails pass through.  I have come across some surprising things along the trail and I’m always glad that those who passed before me left them for me to find.  If you take, break or even just disturb these sort of objects you are denying the folks who come after you the experience of discovery you were allowed to have.

That really is what Leave No Trace is all about of course.  Enjoying the experience without changing it so that others can enjoy it too.  So take pictures, leave footprints and perhaps a few leaves trodden black, but let’s all work together to make it dang hard to figure out which really is the path less traveled by

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Leave No Trace Principles: Proper Waste Disposal

It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.  Proper waste disposal is the third of the LNT Principles and it involves stuff we’d all rather not think about or bother with, but if we don’t all do our part it can really make a mess of things out there.  Preparation again is key both in terms of what you bring with you and having a plan in advance.

There are really only three categories of waste to be concerned with; human, liquid  and everything else.  Part of preparation is knowing the area you’ll be visiting.  Of course you’ll want to know if they have any specific regulations regarding waste disposal but knowing the lay of the land will help you as well.

Oddly enough the “everything else” group is the easiest to figure out how to deal with.  Pack in/Pack out and you’re done.  If you aren’t willing to carry it with you when you leave then don’t take it out there.  Again preparation comes into play as you can change your behaviors to minimize the amount of waste produced.  Meals should be sized so they can be completely consumed.  Limiting odors is highly advised to avoid attracting wildlife.

Depending on your pack you’ll have to figure out the best way to carry your trash.  The container you use may vary depending on how you’ll carry it, but I find a large, one gallon zip bag works well for even extended trips.  I carry it in an outside mesh pocket just in case but there really is nothing to leak out even if it was to come open.  My daily trash output is wrappers from food bars I eat during the day and a quart freezer bag from my dinner.   I can easily carry a week’s worth of trash so long as I can choke down my entire dinner every night.  Some times I have to force myself to eat it all but not having to carry it is a good motivator.

Liquid waste is also pretty simple to figure out a plan for.  This is just water that you are using to wash gear or yourself and water used to prepare food but not consumed.  The goal here is to avoid contaminating the watershed.  Most every place will advise you dispose of waste water at least 200 feet from lakes, rivers and even dry washes.  That’s about 70 steps but better farther than not far enough.  Try to avoid using soaps as much as possible and screen water used to clean pots and dishes for food pieces which you can add to your carry out bag or bury in a cat hole.

Planning can again help to reduce the amount of waste produced.  I only boil water in my pot so it never needs to be cleaned and I eat right out of my dinner bag so I don’t have a dish to wash either.  I do my body cleaning with sanitary moistened wipes so there is no soap or waste water issue though I do of course have to carry the used wipes out.

That just leaves the human waste issue to deal with.  Something I talked about in relation to surface preservation applies here too; if there are existing high impact sites use them, if not disperse.  In this case that means if you have access to existing latrines along a trail take advantage of them when you can.  Concentrating human impact can be a bit distasteful in this case, but it is more easily mitigated this way assuming the managing authority has planned and maintained the site well.  If your trip takes you on a trail without such luxuries or you are off trail then try to spread your impact out by not using the same location twice.  Groups should coordinate to avoid creating clustered locations.

Liquid human waste requires no special steps other than the 70 or so needed to get the 200 feet away from water, camp or trail you should be.  Unless there are any special regulations or recommendations in place a cat hole is the accepted standard for solid human waste disposal.  A shallower hole of only about 4 inches is advised in hot dry climates with a few inches deeper advised for areas with wetter soils.  TP should be carried out rather than left behind and the hole filled back in when you are done.  Some alpine areas advise leaving human waste exposed on the surface for faster break down and to minimize surface damage.   One of the many reasons to research an area before heading out.

None of this is very complicated, but thinking about it ahead of time really makes a difference.  Then when you are out there adventuring it helps to keep looking for things you could eliminate or do differently to make it easier on yourself to do the right things.   I know my garbage bags used to be a lot heavier at the end of a trip, but now they are much more manageable.

So give it some thought before your next trip.  Then give it some thought while you are out there.  How can you make it easier on yourself to do the right things.  What can you do a little differently that might make a big difference on the path less traveled by?

IMG_1393aEn plein air is not just for painting as this beauty shows.  Building it facing the camp site might have taken things too far though.

Leave No Trace Principles: Use Durable Surfaces

The second of the Leave No Trace principles is all about minimizing our impact on the surfaces of the areas we pass through on our adventures.  This would seem to be the most obvious of considerations when thinking about reducing our mark on the land.  Often there is actual visible evidence that is left behind, but there are a lot of other things to keep in mind which you might not have thought about before.

Preparation before you go is as always important and it plays a big role again here.  Knowing as much as possible about your intended route, what environments you’ll pass through both generally and any especially sensitive, will help you plan ahead to minimize your impact.   You’ll definitely want to be aware of any local regulations.  The gear you bring and how you use it come into play so you need information to make the right choices.  I guess that is why the first LNT principle was Preparation.

Impact while traveling is important to think about even on a day hike, but when backpacking becomes even more important.  The heavier load means every step has greater potential to do damage.  If at all possible it is better to follow existing trails.  By concentrating activity to a smaller area the over all impact is lessened and can be mitigated.  Conversely when a trail is not available it is better to spread out and disperse your group’s impact.

When on a trail you should stick to the trail as closely as possible.  Things like cutting corners on switchbacks or walking on banks to the side of a trail to avoid a wet center not only create damage as you pass, but the trace of your passing will encourage others to follow you off trail.  If bog boards are available they should be used even when the ground is dry unless a well worn path exists beside them.  Even when hiking on rock above the treeline sticking to the trail is best as lichen and other organisms living on alpine rocks grow very very slowly.

Only when an area does not already have trail access should you consider traveling off trail. If you are hiking off trail you now have an extra task to be mindful of.  Being off trail means making an effort not to create a new trail.  Your goal should be to leave so little sign of your passing that another person would not be drawn to follow your path. If traveling in a group dispersing and avoiding following the same exact path helps.  Never slash or paint blazes and if using so called “eco” tape to mark a return path take the time to remove it on your way out.

Impact when you stop needs to be considered as well.  This includes breaks along the trail, nature calls and overnight camps.  The same basic  concepts above apply here.  If there are existing areas of high impact use them.  If there are none then leave so little trace of your use that another passing by would not be drawn to choose this spot over any other.  High use areas often have designated campsites and while they are often less than pristine they do focus the damage in areas that can best be maintained.   Some areas require you to only camp in designated sites for this reason and if such rules exist should always be followed.

Again, if you are camping in totally unimproved areas your goal should be to leave no sign of your campsite when you leave so that others would not be drawn to use the same spot.  This starts with choosing a good spot with more durable surfaces preferred.  If rock, dirt or sand are available such surfaces should be your first choice.  If you must camp on vegetation, grasses are usually the most resilient.  When staying in an area for more than one night it can help to relocate your camp each day.  As you break camp a fallen branch or trekking pole can be used to help flattened vegetation start standing back up.

In lesser used areas you’ll really want to consider how you use your camp, especially as group size expands.  Nature calls, wood gathering, water collecting and just general puttering around camp can lead to a lot of footsteps.  Dispersing again is very useful so try to spread your impact out.  Try not to take the same path each time you are headed to the same place and think about how you can reduce trips.  Water collection is a good example.  You can make one trip and fill a large reservoir rather than multiple trips for smaller amounts or if making multiple trips then try taking a different route each time.

So much depends on exactly where you are headed that these basics are enough to get you started, but if you really want to get serious about LNT expect to do a little extra research before you head out on a day hike or extended trip.  Some places are so fragile that a footstep’s damage can take 100 years or more to repair so knowing whats out there before you go is vital.  Get out there, enjoy all nature has to offer and give a little thought to leaving your path looking a little less traveled by

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Leave No Trace Principles: Preparation

Preparation is the first of the seven principles of Leave No Trace for a reason.  What you do before you head out into the wilderness sets the stage for what you will do when you are out there.  This extends far beyond LNT.  All aspects of an adventure are impacted greatly by what we have or haven’t done before we left home.  Being prepared leads to having a better and safer experience so even if you aren’t that concerned about LNT it’s still a pretty good idea.

Preparation begins with knowing the area you will be traveling in.  That knowledge needs to extend far beyond just the trail names or camp site locations.   Only by knowing the details of the terrain, elevation and water courses can you determine what equipment will be needed, what pace can be expected along with primary and alternate camp sites.   Being aware of who controls the area and what regulations are in place is a must.

Another very important feature of a location is its weather.  While you can’t bank on a long range forecast studying up on what is considered normal and recent history will give you some insights into what you may run into.  It is a good idea to also get some idea of the possible extremes because weather is rarely normal heh.

Knowing your gear on a detailed level is another cornerstone of preparation.  It helps you decide what to bring on a trip and how to use it when you are out there.  You don’t want surprises in the back country and certainly not in the form of broken gear or worse, injuries.  Being very familiar with your gear has other benefits as well.  If you read about my recent overnight in the snow you may have noticed that I made it through the entire night without breaking out my lantern.  I knew where all of my gear was stored, how to unpack it and set up my camp and get ready for bed all pretty much by feel.  When I go to get something out of my pack I rarely use my eyes even in daylight as my hands know where to “look”.

The semi-official Leave No Trace folks over at lnt.org include concepts like smaller group sizes and trying to travel during off season dates in their preparation focus.  I don’t travel with large groups and am always trying to get away from where the people are so these don’t really come into play for me, but they may for you depending on who you go with and where you go.  More people traveling the same area means not only more impact on the land but less time for it to recover.

One thing they don’t seem to stress enough I feel is fitness though they do mention assessing skills during planning.  No amount of research and planning can make up for a body that isn’t up to the requirements of a trip.  If you’ve got money to throw around you can always get better gear but that doesn’t work for fitness.  The only way to be sure your body will be ready when you need it is to train it in measure with what you expect to ask of it.  This becomes ever more important as you age, trust me heh.

Now other than the obvious part about group sizes you might be wondering what all of this preparation has to do with Leave No Trace.  Yes, it is all good common sense advice but how does it lessen the impact we have on an area?  By being prepared for what you encounter you greatly reduce the risks of making mistakes which can lead to  damage to vegetation and terrain, injuries or perhaps worst of all a search and rescue operation.

When people are cold, wet and/or hungry they can make poor choices which can result in needless damage.  Harming vegetation to create emergency shelter and fire damage are big noticeable forms of impact but there can be many smaller ones as well.  Once people begin to lose control of their situation they are less likely to focus on their impact as survival becomes the imperative.  Being prepared is a big help for both staying in control and surviving with the happy by product of helping us to keep our impact to a minimum on the path less traveled by.

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I have added a “Leave No Trace” category to make it easier to locate posts in this series via the menu at the right.

Leave No Trace Philosophy 2

Going over my first post on this subject in my mind I keep feeling that more needed to be said about why I think this is important.  The question I keep asking myself is “Would someone who doesn’t get it before they read my post get it after they read it?”  So either to quiet the voices in my head or to perhaps explain on a more personal level why I consider the subject worth thinking about, writing about and most importantly keeping in mind when spending time out in the wide world…

When leaving the “civilized” world behind and traveling off into nature there is a very special moment that occurs when you realize there are no more footprints in front of you.  If you have yet to experience this I highly suggest making it a goal in your life.  To know that no one has passed farther in sufficient time that nature has reclaimed their mark is a sign that you have gone beyond the range of others.  The path is now yours alone unless you should happen upon another headed the opposite way.

There are few things more jarring to me than one moment being alone in nature like that and then in the next see some horrible sign that others of a less caring nature have passed before and left their mark in ways that long outlasted their footprints.  Trees hacked apart for sport, garbage left behind, fire damage and poopblossoms on the side of the trail will quickly remind you that nature can only do so much to wipe away the marks humans make.

Not all the damage is done by uncaring people.  Some folks would never guess at the damage they do because they never think about it.   That is my point, on many subjects heh, but especially this one; People should think more about what they are doing and what the impact of that act might be.  Only by being self aware can we recognize the marks we’re leaving in our wake and do something to lessen them.

Now I don’t expect people to be perfect saints.  In my mind it isn’t how close to perfect you can be but how far from perfectly awful you can get that matters.   I’m always trying to be aware and do a better job of that myself.

Last October I found myself finishing setting up my camp on the shady side of East Baldpate off the Grafton Loop late in the afternoon. Returning from the creek after filtering water for the evening and next day I noticed the easily identifiable rubber bands from my tent pole laying in the dirt next to my pack. Kicking myself for being so sloppy I quickly picked them up and was about to stuff them back in the pole sack when I noticed my bands were where they were supposed to be.  Someone else had dropped and left the identical bands in the campsite previously.  If only I’d been paying more attention I could have picked them up earlier and avoided that thirty seconds of feeling guilty for being such a slob heh.  Of course it would have been better if the person who dropped them had done their part in the first place.

I didn’t let that episode ruin my trip and really being thoughtful about our impact on nature doesn’t have to ruin anyone’s trip.  It is the not being thoughtful that can really do a lot of damage.  Next time I return to this topic I’ll start getting more into detail about the principles and simple ways you can leave your trails looking a little more less traveled by.

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Leave No Trace Philosophy

Leave No Trace is a concept originally developed in a collaboration of the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the US Forest Service.  Their goal at the time was to teach visitors to respect the natural areas they traveled through and to minimize the impact their visits had there.  The USFS went on to create an education and training program with the National Outdoor Leadership School to promote the concept to ever broader groups.  Scouting and nature conservancy groups also have played a big role in spreading the word.  Those beginnings led to the creation of the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the concepts and giving educators the skills needed to train others on the subject.

Since this is a subject that I find very important in a number of ways I intend to do a series of articles on the subject.  For today I’m more interested in the philosophy behind the concept, but if you are unfamiliar with the subject there are seven basic principles that form the foundation of the practices

  • Preparation
  • Use durable surfaces
  • Proper waste disposal
  • Leave things as found
  • Minimize fire impact
  • Respect wildlife
  • Respect others

Much could be written on each of these and I hope to visit each of them later.   I’ll include some links to more information at the end of this piece if you would like to do some more reading on the subject now.  As I said, I’d prefer to focus on the “why” behind the whole concept today.  Why should people bother to care about the impact their existence in a particular spot has on that spot?  Why make an effort to preserve something we don’t own and may never visit again?  I think the answer starts with the reasons we head out into nature in the first place or even with the definition of the word nature itself.

Nature: The physical world and everything in it (such as plants, animals, mountains, oceans, stars, etc.) that is not made by people

To me that means the marks of humankind are not apparent.  If we strive to go beyond the range of human development and to what extent we can visit a world untouched by man it seems we should have an obligation to leave no mark of our existence there after we’ve passed.  The travelers who follow the same path should be greeted with nature as it exists when we arrived leaving as little evidence that others have gone this way before as we can manage.

Some justify the effort in terms of preserving natural spaces for future generations.  Others are more self serving, being primarily concerned that they might lose access to lands if human impact there is deemed too destructive.  I agree with those reasons, but long before my logical mind can mull the concepts my instinctive mind has already loudly answered the question of “Why?” with a resounding “Why would you do anything else?”  To move through nature with as little disturbance as possible has been a life long avocation of mine.  When I first heard about Leave No Trace much of it was already how I did things. Improving on those instinctive skills is something I continue to work on.

If we really have an appreciation for natural experience and recognize the value of that experience then it seems imperative that our actions are respectful.  Easily enough said, but putting these principles into action requires more than just good intentions.  I’ll be visiting this subject periodically to focus on each of the seven principles in detail, covering some techniques, but also exploring them from a philosophical standpoint.  If we all do our part then most every trail can take on the appearance of the one less traveled by!

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Appalachian Trail Conservancy Leave No Trace Practices

Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics