Almanack Contributor Dan Crane

Dan Crane

Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Gear: Homemade Backcountry Alcohol Stove

Being handy is just not my thing. I cannot fix my car, beyond changing a tire or checking the oil. Building things out of wood or metal is as easy for me as is going to Mars. Furthermore, in any incident where pulling a MacGyver is required, I am lucky if I can manage a MacGruber.

Certainly, there is no way I could ever hope to build my own outdoor gear. Yet, I managed to build my a backpacking stove a few year ago. And, it turned out to be the best and most lightweight stove I ever used in the backcountry. Moreover, it has never exploded, or engulfed anything into flames unintentionally – yet.
» Continue Reading.


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Dan Crane: Smarter (and Larger) than the Average Bear

My two previous Adirondack Almanack articles about black bears combined with Pete Nelson’s last Lost Brook Dispatch about a black bear named Tractor, started me thinking about my own harrowing bear experiences in the Adirondacks.

Unfortunately, none of my encounters was as exciting as being yanked out of an outhouse, or reminiscent of the black knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Nevertheless, one such encounter with a monster of a bear is interesting enough worth sharing. Given the bear’s large size and craftiness, it might even be the legendary Tractor. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Dan Crane: Black Bears Attack, Or Do They?

My recent article here at the Adirondack Almanack about a man attacked on the toilet by a black bear appeared to elicit several comments suggesting that carrying firearms is a viable protective measure for possible bear attacks in the Adirondacks. It was never my intention to insinuate this; I just thought it was an amusing backcountry-related story.

Before I find myself liable for any incidents involving bears and firearms, it may be instructive to examine black bear behavior and the possibility of suffering from a fatal attack in the Adirondacks. I certainly do not want to be responsible for the backcountry becoming a new “wild west,” with everyone packing heat, and eager to use it at a moment’s notice.
» Continue Reading.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Dan Crane: Bear Attacks Man in Outhouse

Is nothing sacred? It is getting as if you cannot even take a dump in the woods in peace anymore.

A recent bear attack in Canada may have literally scared the living crap out of a man, in a story that should give every backcountry enthusiast pause before squatting in the woods again. Beware; reading further may just ruin one of nature’s most pleasurable experiences in the outdoors for evermore.

Recently, a Canadian man was attacked by a black bear, while minding his own business in an outhouse in central Canada. The bear pulled him right off the crapper by his pants, which were, naturally, down around his ankles. The man apparently fought back with nothing but his will to live, and some extra toilet paper. Luckily, his companion heard all the yelling and shot the bear before it had a chance to do any serious damage. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Dan Crane: Constructive Backcountry Convalescence

Hiking injuries happen from time to time.  That is one of the many risks of journeying into the Adirondack backcountry while carrying a heavy, bulging backpack.  The only thing worse than a hiking injury, is an unexpected and unrelated injury preventing one from the opportunity of getting a hiking injury.  Despite the source of the injury, the recovery period can be very difficult.

How should an outdoor enthusiast spend their convalescence?

Although it is easy to descend into an abyss of negative feelings, avoid this at all costs.  Instead of closing the window blinds, watching hours of Game of Thrones episodes, and listening to psychedelic Pink Floyd music, make the most of this down time and do something positive. Like preparing for future adventures, or at the very least, revisiting previous trips in an attempt to lift one’s spirits.
» Continue Reading.


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Dan Crane: Blisters Suck

Hikers’ sweaty feet are one of my favorite things.  Especially, when their hiking boots do not fit correctly or are not properly broken in.  Their soft, damp skin rubs against the sides of unyielding boots, giving birth to my nascent self.   Layers of skin separate, and the space between these layers fills with liquid.   This is when I take control.

I am a blister.  And I want nothing more than to ruin your outdoor experience.

Let’s face it, blisters suck.  There is just no getting around this fact.  Anyone who has ever suffered through a long hike with one or more on their heel or toe knows this all too well.  Once they begin to form there is almost nothing that can be done to reverse the process, short of several weeks of rest and an absolute absence of rubbing.  These conditions are nearly impossible to be had in the middle of the Adirondack backcountry, days from the nearest trailhead.
» Continue Reading.


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Gear: Credit Card Sized Backcountry Reading Glasses

Ever return from an Adirondack backcountry trip with a headache, sore eyes or a painful neck? Do you find yourself squinting while reading a map or compass? Have you ever found yourself somewhere totally different than where you thought you should be? Are you reaching, or firmly established in, middle age?

If any of these are even remotely true, then a pair of lightweight, durable and inexpensive reading glasses is in your future. Luckily, I recently discovered just the pair of backcountry reading glasses even your ophthalmologist would approve. That is, as long as he or she is an outdoor enthusiast.

Middle-aged outdoors people often find it difficult reading maps, compasses, handheld GPSs or anything else with fine print. This is no cause for panic though. The loss of close focusing ability is a natural part of aging. Now, panicking about reaching middle-age, that is perfectly understandable, and extremely warranted.

The loss of close focusing ability is called presbyopia. This condition is caused by the hardening of the lens inside the eyes, which occurs with age, and just coincidentally begins around the time most reach their mid-life crisis.

Presbyopia results in the slow degradation of the eye’s ability to focus on things close, including unfortunately, maps, compasses, GPSs, and a whole host of other contraptions backcountry explorers relay upon during their recreational pursuits in the woods. Also, it results in backcountry enthusiasts’ sore necks when they wear contraptions on short lanyards around their necks.

Presbyopia became a real problem for me when I found myself getting a sore neck at the end of every day of bushwhacking through the Adirondacks. The frequent sore necks went without explanation, until I found myself holding my GPS and compass beyond the length of their lanyards while they were still around my poor neck.

After that, I always carried a pair of folding reading glasses to deal with presbyopia. And I obtained some longer lanyards too, since I hated constantly getting the reading glasses out to figure out where the heck I was located. The glasses were still convenient for those increasingly frequent moments when it was necessary to read fine print or almost anything this side of a billboard within dim light. These folding glasses proved useful, but they were fragile, so I always took great care not to break, and thus rarely took them out while navigating. If only there was an inexpensive pair of reading glasses that I could carry in my pocket without the risk of them breaking right when I need them.

Luckily, Christmas came early this year (or was it late?), when on a recent backpacking trip down in the Adirondack’s little sister (i.e. the Catskills), I was presented with a remarkable solution to reading glasses in the backcountry. These reading glasses are smaller than a credit card, nearly indestructible (within limits) and require absolutely no folding.

Advantage Lenses, LLC manufactures the i4uLenses credit card size reading glasses perfect for use in the backcountry. They are actually less than the size of a credit card (and just a little thicker), flexible enough to fit a wide range of noses, durable, shatterproof and highly adjustable. What else could one want in a pair of backcountry reading glasses? That is, not to have the need for them, of course.

The i4uLenses reading glasses have no frame to break of bend. They are simply pressed onto the bridge of the nose about mid-way down, where they just pinch onto the nose.

Getting used to looking through the i4uLenses may take some time. Unlike regular reading glasses, the lenses are not right up near the eyes, but are down closer to the tip of the nose, like an old person’s bifocals. Wearing them may seem even more awkward to those who were born with excellent vision for most of their life – until now.

The i4uLenses make reading maps, compasses, etc. in the dim light of a headlamp in a tent or lean-to convenient and carefree. Just do not drop them onto the forest floor, or you may just find yourself sweating through minute of searching on your hands and knees to find them, especially without your glasses to assist you.

With the i4uLenses credit card size reading glasses, fragility is no longer an issue. Their plastic nature makes them nearly indestructible (but do not try too hard). Now, they can be carried easily in the front chest pocket, and whipped out in a moment’s notice to read a map, GPS device or anything else with print ill-suited for a middle-aged person.

Careful handling of the i4uLenses is necessary when the hands are covered in bug repellent residue. The lenses are plastic, and therefore repellents may damage them. Touching the lenses is a bad idea regardless, since that is the part typically looked through.

A plastic carrying case is available to protect the lenses from scratches, dirt and other assorted ill conduct.

i4uLenses credit card size emergency reading glasses are relatively inexpensive, they retail for $6.95 here.

For those suffering through the effects of presbyopia, i4uLenses are a convenient solution. These credit card size reading glasses are lightweight, about the size and width of a credit card, and are nearly indestructible, making them a perfect optical solution for backcountry enthusiasts. The only bad thing about them – you will look like an old fogie wearing them.

Photo: i4uLenses credit card size reading glasses by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Dan Crane: Backpacking with Duct Tape

The day has been long, and the trail treacherous. Mosquitoes feast on fresh blood due to a tear in a headnet. A water bottle leaks, the dribbling down a pants leg appearing like a non-stop accident. Equipment lies strewn along the trail, spewing from a rip in a backpack. Blisters, covering each foot, scream in agony with every step.

If only there was some product that could fix all these problems and save this trip from certain disaster. Something like, duct tape, for instance.

Duct tape is one of those universal, jack-of-all-trades tools, like the hammer and the crowbar. Since the 1940’s, this tape has had more uses than any other invention known to man, with the exception of fire, the internal combustion engine and the Internet. This wondrous invention is not only useful at home though, but in the backcountry as well.

Duct tape has a myriad of uses for backcountry enthusiasts. These range from the practical to the down-right zany. It can be used to repair damaged equipment, prevent frequent hiking injuries and even, in some cases, cure sleepless nights.

Duct tape can often be used to fix equipment in the field. A leaking water bottle? Slap on some duct tape over the hole. Ripped stuff sacks? Tape it up. A rip in some insect netting of a shelter? What could mean a very uncomfortable night in the Adirondacks, can be easily repaired with a little duct tape when needle and thread are just not plausible.

Duct tape is a great addition to even a well-stocked first aid kit. Although it can be used as a bandage, its greatest utility is in preventing blisters. Covering “hot-spots” on the feet with duct tape can forestall a painful blister from forming. And if the preventive care is not taken, covering a broken blister with a bandage followed by some duct tape creates an effective barrier that might just be still on the feet a week after returning home.

In addition to the conventional uses of duct tape, there are some more inventive uses.

For those in tick country, duct tape makes a useful way of neutralizing these disease-carrying parasites. Since the exoskeleton of ticks makes them nearly impossible to crush, sticking them on duct tape is an effective way to remove them from the field. Just stick their backs on the tape and watch their legs continue to wiggle, sometimes for months afterwards. The same can be done for fleas too, but taking a bath once in a while is probably just as effective for these little pests.

Under some circumstances, duct tape is useful when sharing a lean-to with someone who snores. If yelling, stamping your feet or poking the offender fails to bring the desired results, then a small piece of duct tape just might do the trick. Just do not tell the irate snorer where this idea was obtained upon their awakening.

Even equipment and clothing can be made with duct tape. These are inexpensive, waterproof and somewhat durable. In an emergency, wrapping duct tape around oneself can result in a fully insulted and waterproof barrier to the environment. Those of Italian decent or others with lots of body hair should refrain from this except in the most dire emergencies though.

Plans for equipment can be found on the Internet, such as this one for a backpack. Despite the stated advantages, I think I will stick to a store bought backpack, just to be on the safe side.

Carrying duct tape is always an issue. Some throw lightweight hiking to the wind and simply toss a whole roll into their backpack. This is pure folly; I have never heard of anyone so unlucky to require an entire roll on a single trip. Carrying only the amount likely to be used is a better strategy. But, where to put it?

In the past, I use to wrap some duct tape around my Nalgene water bottle. When I abandoned the use of these water bottles, wrapping duct tape around collapsible water bottles became impractical. And wrapping the tape around sport drink bottles led to the tape picking up dirt and other particles due to the bottles unsmooth surfaces.

These days, hiking poles make convenient places to wrap a sample of duct tape. Just wrap some tape up as far on the pole as possible below the hand grip. Placing the tape higher on the pole prevents it from getting dirty and insures it is ready to use should it be needed.

Duct tape is one of the few inventions whose brilliance suggests divine inspiration, like Velcro and Gore-Tex. No backcountry adventure should head out on the trail without some duct tape squirreled away, just in case it comes in handy. And I assure you, it will eventually.

Photos: Backpack, with duct tape on hiking poles, at the intersection of the Five Ponds and Sand Lake Trail in the Five Ponds Wilderness by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Great Adirondack Backcountry Invasion

A war is raging in our wilderness areas, and the Adirondack Park is slowly becoming ground zero. Invaders from faraway lands are gaining a foothold in the Park’s interior, where the native inhabitants are woefully unprepared for the coming onslaught. Unfortunately, backcountry enthusiasts are the unwitting foot soldiers for these invaders.

Exotic invasive plants are sprouting up far away from their usual haunts on lawns and along roadsides. Exotic invasive species are non-native species, typically introduced to an area by humans, either purposely or accidently. These species exhibit traits allowing for fast growth, rapid reproduction, swift dispersal and tolerance of many different habitats. These traits facilitate colonization and eventual subjugation of much of the native vegetation. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Dan Crane: Licensing Adirondack Hikers

Adirondack backcountry rescues have been in the news lately. From the Saratoga man lost during a descent of Mount Marcy to the three different people requiring searches in a single day, the New York State search and rescue personnel are keeping busy. All this activity has renewed the controversy on whether those rescued should pay some or all of the cost of their rescues.

In addition to defraying the cost, the frequent rescues have spurred some interesting ideas from no-rescue zones to backcountry rescue insurance. While some ideas are intriguing, others border on the bizarre. A few of these ideas might even create new industries, such as body retrieval for the many cadavers littering the new no-rescue zones. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dan Crane: The Art of the Adirondack Dump

Imagine hiking for hours, and the nearest thing passing for a restroom is miles away. And then you feel it. Some call it the spike, others the turtlehead. It means one thing; it is time to answer nature’s call and there is no other choice but to poop in the woods.

One of the most awkward aspects of enjoying the Adirondack backcountry, and consequently one that elicits the most curiosity, is just how does one poop in the woods. My answer is always the same with regards to the Adirondacks: very carefully and as quickly as possible.

Pooping in the woods can be a dangerous endeavor, as it leaves one vulnerable to a whole host of possible attacks. A mischievous fellow hiker with a camera, a black bear with poor judgment in search of something good to eat or even an innocent snake minding its own business but in the wrong place at the wrong time. Worst of all, and probably the most common hazard, is a horde of any of the assortment of biting flies.

A bare butt hanging out as one takes care of business is like a giant bull’s-eye in the forest to a hungry female mosquito, black fly or deer fly. For that reason alone, it is of the utmost importance to get through the entire process as quickly as possible. Always wait until the very last minute before going, as this minimizes the amount of time where one’s butt, and other stuff, is exposed for as little time as possible. Prevent any possible biting by waving a free hand around the more sensitive parts to scare off any hovering flies. Take it from experience; getting bit on one’s privates is definitely something to be avoided!

The mechanics of taking a poop in the Adirondacks are pretty clear. If an outhouse is available then do your business there; it is way more comfortable and a lot more convenient. Keeping the door open while going may be necessary given the popularity of the area, and the time and potency of the last occupant. Afterwards, throw a handful of leaf litter onto your deposit to facilitate decomposition and control the aroma.

When no facilities are available, find a private place 150 feet from water, trail or campsite, and dig a cat-hole 6-8 inches deep. Do your business, throw a few leaves on it and then bury it with the soil from the hole.

Throwing leaves in the hole helps to aid decomposition, especially in the slight case where the mineral soil may be close to the surface. This is usually not likely within the Adirondacks unless you happen to be in an area where the mineral soil is located near the surface (e.g. an old tip-up mound or near a rockslide).

Luckily, no special equipment is necessary for pooping in the Adirondacks backcountry. Some outdoor enthusiasts swear by using a plastic trowel for digging the cats-hole, but this is usually unnecessary with the deep, damp organic layer typically found in the Adirondack soils. A nice sturdy branch, located as I scramble to find an adequate place, always works well for me, except for the few times they break during the my furious digging.

Once the wiping is finished, the toilet paper can be tossed in the hole with your waste. Following strict leave no trace guidelines, the toilet paper should be packed out. In the Adirondacks, I find carrying out the toilet paper to be unnecessary with the moist conditions present in the Adirondacks; toilet paper should decompose rapidly. It is best to use white, cheaper, 1-ply paper, preferably without all the added chemicals of the popular brands. Peeing on the used toilet paper afterward, or poking it with the digging stick, helps to compact it and prevent it from working itself up to the surface.

The best place to deposit your waste is a raised area with little vegetation in an upland habitat. A raised area avoids the possibility of the waste sitting in a pool of water after a heavy rain, and therefore retarding decomposition. Digging your cats-hole in an area devoid of vegetation reduces the amount of disturbance, which is always a good thing in the backcountry.

Positioning during the dirty deed is crucial. There is nothing worse than getting waste on yourself, or falling back into it. My preferred position is the traditional squat. This position requires strong ankles and a good sense of balance. Without those two, there can be some disastrous results. For those needing additional support can position themselves in front of a small tree, holding the tree’s stem for added support. Unfortunately, this limits the number of possible sites. Using hiking poles, stuck in the ground, can be substituted for the tree stem and therefore providing my choice in locating an adequate place.

Some people swear by using a log as a seat, with their butt sticking over the log and the cats-hole dug below. This really limits the number of possible places to go, and in an emergency situation could be a real problem. Sitting on a wet log or having the log break or fall apart in the middle of your bathroom break are just two of the additional hazards that could possibly upset what should be a relieving experience.

Most of these suggestions are only applicable during the warmer months of the year; a winter dump is a whole new ballgame. With the ground usually frozen, and most likely buried under feet of snow, makes a different method of fecal disposal necessary. And unfortunately, it requires packing out the poop.

A good choice for packing out your fecal material is a commercial product such as a WAG bag. These kits are often required in very high use areas where rich, moist soils are rare or nonexistent. The kit consists of an outer, puncture resistant zip-closed plastic bag, a poop bag with a gelling substance for those runny occasions (it also facilitates decomposition and reduces odor), toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

Another option is to make your own waste disposal system. Sometimes this method is referred to as a poop burrito. Twenty inch square pieces of waxed paper and brown butcher paper are placed on the ground with the waxed paper between yourself and the butcher paper. After doing your business, roll up the paper burrito style and place the burrito in a paper bag.

A perfect container for this fecal package is a piece of PVC pipe, threaded at both ends with screw-on caps. Just screw off one cap, place the fecal bag inside and screw the cap back on. This prevents the contents from coming into contact with any other equipment. The PVC pipe can be carried strapped onto the outside of one’s backpack too. The contents can be conveniently disposed of upon returning to civilization.

There is no denying that pooping in the woods is one of the least appealing aspects of spending time in the backcountry. But, unfortunately, it is a biological necessity that must be attended to and planned for if civilization is to be left behind for a few days. Instead of dwelling on the negative, imagine the sweet relief afterwards, not to mention it is the only time it is socially acceptable for an adult to play with their own waste.

Photos: Shoulder of Greenfield Mountain in the Five Ponds Wilderness by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.


Thursday, February 9, 2012

Five Ponds Wilderness: The Robinson River

What is eight miles long, black as ink, wet all over, rarely seen and present in the northwestern Adirondacks? The Robinson River, of course!

This narrow river snakes its way through the middle of the Five Ponds Wilderness Area, stretching from Crooked Lake and flowing into the East Branch of the Oswegatchie River, well upstream from High Falls. It is rarely visited by people, due to its remote location and distance from any trail. Scattered pockets of blowdown, from the 1995 Microburst, guard much of the river, increasing the effort required to reach its border and appreciate its beauty.

The Robinson begins its life as a narrow, rocky stream, where it acts as the main outlet of Crooked Lake. From its headwaters, the river undulates north alternating between being surrounded by forests and beaver meadow for about half its length before making a sudden turn east. Eventually the river reaches its inevitable destination at the Oswegatchie River.

Along the river’s first half it flows through several features of interest. It flows just south of Toad Pond, through an open shrubby area where once a single engine plane crashed back in the 1940’s. Just north of Toad Pond the river flows through Sliding Falls, where near-impenetrable blowdowns surround on both sides. Between the falls and its sharp turn east, an extensive forested swamp straddles the river.

I feel fortunate to have encountered the Robinson River several times over the past couple years. Given my typical mode of transportation through this area, the river is often perceived as either an obstacle to cross or a feature of the landscape to follow to an eventual destination. Conveniently, the river flows through many narrow, rocky drainages allowing for some relatively easy crossings. The beaver dams, old and new, lies along its run when a rocky-hop is not available.

While traveling to Stillwater Reservoir during the summer of 2010, I rock-hopped what was just a stream, mere feet from its source at northern tip of Crooked Lake. The river is narrow and bordered by thick conifers on both sides here. The shallow, rocky stream near its headwaters fails to foreshadow the larger and darker river it becomes further north.

During the same trip, I again crossed the river on a shabby beaver dam a quarter of a mile downstream from its headwaters. From here, I intermittently followed the river upstream all the way to Toad Pond, as it alternated between flowing through forest and open, wet meadows. Often the open grown vegetation was so high and dense as to almost completely obscure the river.

The river flows through a large, open meadow surrounded by several towering, guardian white pines mere yards south of Toad Pond. An cursory search along the western and northern borders of this meadow for evidence of the crashed plane proved unsuccessful during my visit; undoubtedly it is overgrown by now and impossible to find without some knowledge of its general location.

During last summer, the northern portion of Robinson River provided a convenient route on my return trip from Cracker, Gal and West Ponds. A beaver dam acted as a timely bridge immediately upon my arrival where the river leaves a wide, wet and open floodplain and enters the forest for its final mile before flowing into the Oswegatchie. Aerial photographs suggests several beaver dams along its length as it undulates through its northern floodplain, but good luck locating them given the floodplains uneven and densely vegetated border.

Nothing but uninterrupted mature forest borders the Robinson as it follows the southern base of Partlow Mountain. The terrain varied greatly along the river’s northern shore. Along the eastern portion, the landscape rises only several feet from the floodplain before remaining flat for as far as the eye could see; covered in tall mature hardwoods with less understory than typically expected in the Adirondacks.

Along the middle portion there are numerous tendrils of the floodplain, winding their way into the surrounding uplands separated by a steep slope. The contrast between the large, lowland softwoods and the massive hardwoods upslope is striking. From the top of the slope, safely surrounded by hardwoods, it was possible to look directly into the canopy of the softwoods below; obtaining a view seldom seen except by red squirrels and pine martens. The regularly spaced softwoods were surrounded by a dark, green carpet of Sphagnum on the ground, interspersed with shallow open pools of water and clusters of tall ferns. A long-extinct dinosaur would barely look out of place in such a landscape.

The Robinson River offers a convenient avenue for journeying through some of the most remote portions of the northwestern Adirondacks, but if you plan on visiting the way is not easy by any means. The least arduous approach is via a canoe trip up the Oswegatchie River. The easiest route from trail is either from the south terminus of the Red Horse Trail or from the west via either the Sand Lake or Five Ponds Trails. Whichever route taken, bring plenty of bug repellant, plenty of supplies and a whole lot of patience, you will need every bit of it.

Has anyone else had encounters with the Robinson River worth noting? Has anyone ever been to Sliding Falls? Is it worth the effort of the struggling through the dense blowdowns? Have you ever searched the large swamp south of the river’s sudden turn east for boreal bird species? If so, share your observations in the comments below.

Photos: Robinson River’s northern portion, near headwaters and south of Toad Pond by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Lightweight Backpacking: Sweat the Big Stuff

Reducing the weight of one’s backpack is essential for journeying into the depth of the Adirondack backcountry, where trails are nonexistent and obstacles plentiful. This is especially true as time passes and endurance of youth gives way to the slower plodding of middle age and beyond. Shouldering less of a burden reduces the stress on the legs resulting in more comfortable hiking, healthier joints and blister-free feet.

Although endlessly counting ounces may be tedious, there is no other way to effectively reduce the weight of a backpack. The simplest solution is carry less stuff. Discard the superfluous, such as a large bowie knife, a cast iron frying pan, or a square egg maker (this is no jest, I witnessed all of these articles packed into the backcountry during my backpacking career). Think small when it comes to those essential items.

When going lightweight is in its nascent stage, initially concentrate on the biggest and bulkiest items. A shelter (e.g. tent), sleeping bag and backpack form a triumvirate of heavy equipment typically carried into the backcountry. Therefore, these big boys are where one should start to shave off the pounds.

Making the switch to lightweight is easier today since most manufacturers appear to be making equipment out of lighter material. Unfortunately, many of them are simply playing lip service to this effort. The majority of their products continue to contain numerous unnecessary “bells and whistles.” Keeping the ounces off one’s back requires jettisoning all but the essential amenities.

The best method for getting exactly what one desires in a piece of backpacking equipment is to make it yourself. Although this notion seems unthinkable to some (at least that’s what the major manufacturers are counting on), it is not as difficult as first imagined. Unfortunately, not everyone has the skills or patience to make their own homemade equipment.

The best alternative for those without the skills or inclination to make their own is to modify manufactured equipment after purchasing it. Since it requires steely nerves to start ripping apart a brand new product to remove unwanted bells and whistles, this option may be just as unrealistic as producing equipment from scratch.

For those unwilling to make their own and unable to disassemble newly purchased manufactured products, the only viable alternative remaining is carefully shopping around to find manufactured equipment that comes as closely to meeting ones needs as possible. Just think small and keep it simple.

The shelter is a great place to start reducing the weight of a fully packed backcountry backpack. The bountiful options available makes it easier than ever to lug around more shelter than absolutely necessary. The tent is the most conventional choice in a portable shelter but often other options (e.g. tarp) weigh less and offer better ventilation.

Avoid carrying more shelter than necessary, if possible. Carrying a three-person tent for a single person results in a heavier burden and a lot of unoccupied and thus unnecessary space at the end of the day. The smaller the shelter, the less weight on one’s back. Think small and save potentially a few pounds.

Any shelter with optional poles is an excellent choice for a lightweight shelter. The backcountry has an almost infinite variety of poles, ripe for the using, if one knows where to find them. Standing trees and their fallen limbs make outstanding poles, and they add nothing to the weight of a backpack. Just take care not to damage any living trees in the process.

My shelter preference is for a modular tarp system; I have not seen the inside of a tent in a decade. The tarp system was manufactured by Golite using Ray Jardine’s designs. The system consists of a tarp (the Cave) and a hanging insect netting interior (the Nest). Trees or sticks function as poles, though sometimes in a pinch I will use my hiking poles. Unfortunately, Golite no longer offers this product (although a tarp kit is available directly from Ray Jardine’s website), though they do have many other lightweight tents currently available.

The sleeping bag is another one of the more weighty backpacking essentials. Its bulk and weight is mostly due to the insulating material that keeps one comfortable and warm on a chilly Adirondack night. Enough insulation is necessary for the lowest potential temperature encountered on a trip but going overboard in this regard can be costly weight-wise. If it gets colder than anticipated long underwear, coats and rain gear may be worn as pajamas.

Choosing down over synthetic insulation is the best way to reduce the weight of a sleeping bag. Down insulates better, is more compressible and weighs much less than the synthetic alternatives. Some may find such a notion complete lunacy in the temperate rainforest known as the Adirondacks, since wet down offers little insulating ability. A waterproof stuff sack, backpack liner and/or pack cover insures a dry down sleeping bag, even in the Adirondacks.

For the last half dozen years, I have almost exclusively slept in the Western Mountaineering’s Highlite sleeping bag during the warmer months of the Adirondacks. It is engineered to be as lightweight as possible, with such features as down insulation, lightweight fabrics and a reduced sized half zipper. Unfortunately, it is offered in only a few sizes and I had to settle for the 6 feet length option. At around 5’8” (and that is with my boots on), this sleeping bag is much too long but I lack the nerves of steel required to do something about it.

Shaving off weight by replacing the backpack with a lighter equivalent is best saved for last. Since the backpack must offer enough support to comfortably carry all the equipment, it is best to pare down the weight of its contents before making the leap to a lightweight equivalent.

Some features to avoid in a backpack are a top pocket, side pockets, metal or plastic stays and even a highly cushioned hip-belt. Although these features might appear essential, they are easily abandoned with some planning. The extra support provided by the stays and highly cushioned hip-belt is unnecessary when the weight of the contents of the backpack is reduced sufficiently.

Golite’s Pinnacle is my primary backpack during the summer months in the Adirondacks. It is extremely lightweight but roomy enough to carry over a week’s worth of supplies and is highly durable. Over the years mine has traveled from Cranberry Lake to Stillwater Reservoir (and back), through some horrendous recovering blowdown along Oven Lake, and deep into the interior of the Pepperbox Wilderness.

Reducing the weight of one’s backpack allows for more comfortable hiking and a more enjoyable backcountry experience. Concentrating the initial effort on the larger equipment lays the groundwork for reducing the weight on the less substantial gear. Think small, keep it simple and enjoy a renewed spring in the step on the trail.

Photos: Cave/Nest tarp at Moshier Reservoir, Highlite sleeping bag on Cat Mountain and Pinnacle backpack at Streeter Fishpond by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Dan Crane: Backpacking Through Middle Age

Facing middle-age is a traumatic prospect for many people, more so for those who enjoy exploring the Adirondack backcountry. During this period of life, the wear and tear of many decades begins to erode the physical abilities of youth. This physical erosion puts increasing demands on the body from backpacking, making enjoying the backcountry more arduous, but not impossible.

Backpacking, with its heavy lifting, long hikes over aggressive terrain and precarious stream crossings, is typically regarded as an activity of youth. There is no reason this must be the case though. With a little determination, some minor adaptations and a sizable portion of luck, it should be possible to continue exploring the backcountry throughout middle-age and beyond.

Many changes within the aging human body negatively impact the ability to backpack through the backcountry. Collagen fibers within muscles and tendons become less supple, cartilage in the joints wears down and becomes more brittle, and back issues, such as degenerating disc disease, are just a few of the changes brought on with age. Although it may be impossible to reverse these negative changes (for now), there are steps that can be taken to mitigate the effects.

Training is important for anyone engaging in strenuous exercise, and especially important for older hikers. Preparing the muscles for the arduous physical activity accompanying backcountry exploration is a necessity for exploring the backcountry, as much as map and compass skills, properly fitting hiking boots and prodigious amount of mosquito repellant.

Regular aerobic exercise (such as running, cycling or swimming), combined with weight training (especially those strengthening the core and legs), should be performed for months before lacing up the hiking boots. Although these activities prepare the muscles for physical activity, there is no substitute for getting on the trail and doing some day hiking. If coming off a long down period, start out slow with shorter distances and lower backpack loads, working up to farther distances and heavier loads over time.

Stretching before exercising is increasingly important as the years advance. Stretching prepares the less supple muscles and tendons for the rigorous activity required on the trail. It is especially important after spending hours riding in a car before reaching the trailhead. Concentrate the stretching effort on the legs but do not forget other important area such as the back, neck and arms.

Another important way to deal with the negative physical effects of middle-aged involves reducing the weight of the backpack. The weight of a backpack places an enormous amount of stress on the joints of the hips and legs. By reducing its weight it is possible to reduce the amount of stress placed on these joints so they stay healthier over the long haul. Plus, a lighter pack is a major advantage when trying to outrun a hungry bear.

We are living in an age of technological proliferation, and the backcountry products industry is not immune. Many of the improvements include a reduction in weight, due to stronger and more advanced materials. Anyone who owned a backpack from the 1980’s and 1990’s can attest to their impenetrable yet weighty materials, like carrying a tank on one’s back. Although these heavy materials prevented the occasional rip or tear, they put a lot of stress on the back and knees. Today, the trend is using more advanced materials to reduce the weight of equipment including clothes, sleeping bag, tents, and backpacks.

Despite the best effort to train, stretch extensively and reducing backpack weight, issues pertaining to middle-age can persist. Middle-age is accompanied with some inevitable slowdown, which can manifest itself in a slower speed on the trail, a reduction in the distances traveled per day or greater weakness in carrying heavier loads.

All the squatting, stooping and crawling associated with backpacking takes a serious toll on the back and joints of middle-aged backpackers. Crawling in and out of a tent or other shelter, cooking hunched over a small stove and squatting while answering natures call are just a few of these activities leading to back, neck or leg strains. And there is nothing worse than losing one’s balance due to a muscle cramp while squatting over a cat hole.

Sleeping on hard surfaces such as hard-packed ground found in heavily used areas and inside lean-tos becomes more difficult with age. Anyone waking after a restless night without the ability to stand up straight is familiar with this pain. Thankfully, this pain can be ameliorated with the addition of a couple different sleeping pads. Camping in areas rarely (or never) used by others may be helpful in providing a more comfortable sleeping experience due to thick layers of leaf litter and other detritus not highly compacted by many years of use.

In addition to the physical changes accompanying middle-age, there is the inevitable decrease in eyesight. This decrease in performance due to age is called presbyopia. Presbyopia is a perfectly normal loss of close focusing ability due to hardening of the lens inside the eyes and usually begins occurring around age 40. Just in time to accompany the other physical limitations brought on by middle age.

Presbyopia can be compensated for by initially holding reading material further away but over time requires wearing reading glasses.

Presbyopia affects backcountry enthusiasts mostly through the reading of topographical maps. The faint print on these maps, especially the elevation numbers, are often difficult for even youthful eyes in the best lighting, let alone those in middle-age. The print on many handheld GPS units often proves difficult to read as well.

Reading glasses are useful for compensating for the effect of presbyopia. Unfortunately, transporting reading glasses through the backcountry is often difficult due to their fragility. Folding reading glasses are useful in compensating for this fragility.

Middle-age is definitely a difficult time for backcountry enthusiasts with its many physical changes. If you are dreading the coming of middle-age or frustratingly dealing with its impact on the ability to enjoy the backcountry, take heart, there is some hope as backpacking during old age is going to be much more challenging.

Photos: Middle-aged trees at Sand Lake by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Dan Crane: Solo Backcountry Exploration

One of the central tenets of backcountry exploration is never venture out on your own. The conventional thinking is hiking/backpacking is a group activity, where individual achievement must take a backseat to safety. This remains a well-held belief, but is it valid? Do the risks of solo backcountry travel outweigh the benefits?

There are many reasons for traveling through the backcountry in a group. Communal meals, sharing equipment, division of camp duties and basic human companionship are just a few advantages of trekking through forests and over mountains with other individuals. » Continue Reading.



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