Every December, I break out the Speedball italic nib and the Dr. Ph. Martin’s Bombay Red india ink. I tried a few too many inks until I found one that was Christmas red and sufficiently opaque.

Bombay red 2

My lettering isn’t great, but people give a fair amount of slack for hand-lettered gift tags.

Gift tag

Give it a try. You might have better lettering than I do. A bottle of ink is only $3 and will last a long time. I’ve probably had the nib and holder for a couple of decades. Nah, longer, they were pre-kids.

Flickery Flame Kit for Electronics Merit Badge

This looks like a great kit for Electronics merit badge. If I count correctly, it has 26 through-hole solder joints. Half the components are resistors, which work even if you put them in backwards.

The result is an LED-powered flame-like flickering light. I am pretty sure this is a “control device circuit”, as described in requirement 4a.

photo of flickery flame kit

The kit is around $6, depending on how many you order. Check out the Evil Mad Scientist Flickery Flame Soldering Kit.

There is also a Solderless Flickery Flame Kit for around $9. But where is the fun in that?

Gossamer Gear Riksak at Philmont

A daypack is pretty useful on a Philmont trek, but only if it is really light. The Gossamer Gear Riksak is 2.9 ounces and doubles as a stuff sack. It is made of silnylon and costs $30.


At $35 and 4.6 ounces, the Gossamer Gear Riksak 2 is made of tougher material and has proper shoulder straps instead of slippery silnylon sleeves. That could be a worthwhile tradeoff if your side hike is more than a mile or so.

Why a daypack on a backpacking trip? Every Philmont crew does a three hour conservation project. You could empty out your pack, but all you need for “cons” is rain gear, a first aid kit, and water, so a daypack is perfect. Side trips for peak bagging are pretty common on Philmont itineraries, so a daypack is great for those, after you bear bag the smellables, of course.

Once you have a daypack with you, it is just the thing for a the ten essentials and a camera for all the Philmont activities. It is also handy for heading across base camp, or even on the trip to Philmont.

If I was choosing the best daypack for a hike, it wouldn’t be the original Riksak and might not be the Riksak 2. But as an extra item to carry on an twelve day 50+ mile trek, they are just right.

Other Things I Learned at Wilderness First Aid

I expected to learn first aid in the Wilderness First Aid course, but I did not expect to learn so much about planning and teamwork.

I first took Wilderness First Aid (WFA) in 2009 and I’ve taken the course again three times since then to recertify. The material hasn’t changed much, but I always learn or re-learn something.

Our WFA class uses a lot of practical scenarios. All of them require teamwork, and they are planned to stretch your skills. That means that you kill the patient most of the time. We learn a lot more from failure than from success.

A lot of our older Scouts have taken WFA. They are high-achieving youth and are not used to failing, so killing the patient every time was really unsettling for them. It made them think and made them more aware about risks in the backcountry.

WFA taught me that you can always evac. If you don’t like the situation, pack up and walk out, even in the middle of the night. We’ve aborted a few outings, for example at Sky Camp in Point Reyes, an exposed location on the side of Mount Wittenberg. It was planned as a two-night outing with a hike to the summit. A storm came in during the night with 40º temps and 40 mph winds. The lighthouse recorded an 80 mph gust. We had trail food for breakfast, packed up, and headed home. Afterwards, I put a dozen patches on my Walrus Aero Tarp 150 because it had pulled out stakes and banged against the charcoal grill all night.

WFA in the field uses incident command skills—organized decision-making and teamwork in a high-stakes situation. A back-country emergency often means choosing the best among several bad options. Open communication can save lives, another important message.

A good WFA course is a great team-building course. Half of our 2010 Philmont crew was WFA-trained and it was the best shakedown we had.

I practice incident command skills in other areas. I volunteer in amateur radio emergency communication (ARES/RACES), where we are always part of an incident command structure. The Incident Command System (ICS) was developed in response to failures fighting California wildfires. It is now a national system for responding to any emergency, whether there are three or three thousand responders. Learn more with the online FEMA ICS-100 course. Hint: The person wearing the white hat is the Incident Commander.

What happens when there is an earthquake and you are at work? ICS is a good first step.

I’ve learned confidence. On a 50-mile Sierra trek, one of our Scouts had a neck injury. They’d tied a rock to a rope, thrown it into a tree for bear-bagging, and the rock got stuck. When they pulled it loose, it slammed into the neck of one Scout. The other Scout ran to me, panicked. I took time to grab the first aid kit, hustled over there without running, determined that it was a soft tissue injury (a bad bruise), and started treating for shock. I deputized the Scout’s tent-mate to watch over him while he recovered in his sleeping bag. I checked on him every 15 minutes.

This could have been a lot worse if the rock had hit somewhere else on his neck or head. Even so, we had a shocky Scout for the evening and he couldn’t turn his head for a couple of days. Later, the injured Scout (now a Philmont Ranger) told me how impressed he was with my calm response. Of course, I had been full of adrenaline, but I had practiced what to do, so I could go down the checklist.

The scariest part about the first course was being retroactively terrified at how unprepared I had been for previous outings. Please, take WFA as soon as possible to spare yourself this grief.

Any time that I did the right thing, I owe it to the course. We usually don’t perform up to our potential, but rather down to our training. Get trained.

Mushroom Spaghetti (Vegitarian)

OK, so I broke our Vegan September by adding (excellent, imported) Parmesan, but this was a tasty backpacking meal and still vegetarian. I’d use fresh mushrooms and spices for guests at home, but this is a tasty, filling meal on the trail.

IMG 7737

This recipe is from Teresa Marrone’s The Backcountry Kitchen.

Mushroom spaghetti is not tomato spaghetti sauce with mushrooms. It is a mushroom sauce over pasta, in this case, spinach pasta.

For two people, I used six ounces of pasta, half the box. This is a pretty light meal, because the dried mushrooms are only an ounce. Add an ounce or so of parmesan and you are at nine ounces for two people. Because of the pasta box size (12 oz.), this is a slightly better meal scaled up to four people.

Because it is so light (about four ounces per person), it would be a great meal towards the end of a longer trek. Everyone is hungrier later in the the trek and this is a filling meal.

It does require two pots, one for the mushroom sauce and one for cooking the pasta. That is extra weight, but on a longer trip a second pot is handy, since you’ll be washing dishes every night. I hope you rinse them with boiling water, since I would hate for you to get the runs on the trail.

But back to the positive: tasty, light, and nutritious. Hint: if you are serving linguine, bring forks.

Tina was reading the first Longmire book, so I forgive her for reading during dinner. Also, that really is a kids cereal bowl with the alphabet all around. Lightweight and nearly indestructible, so a great choice for backpacking.

How I Pack

I feel more relaxed at the trailhead when I pack in a methodical fashion. I use our bed. The pack goes at the head, empty, and everything that will go into it is laid out in front of it.

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This gives me an overview of what I’m taking and lets me run through the whole checklist.

This is also the time for a last-minute weather forecast check, eyeballing the amount of food, and one more thought about the goals for the trip. Do I take the big camera? Are we teaching plant and animal identification.

Today’s overnighter includes a fancier meal than usual, so I need two pots. I chose my ancient Evernew set. It is soft aluminum, but it is a lot lighter than the Sigg cookset. It is plenty big enough to make mushroom spaghetti for two. I’m also packing the crew-sized first aid kit, which weighs two pounds. I need to make a smaller first aid kit.

This is my first trip with my Gossamer Gear Mariposa, and Tina is taking my old Six Moon Designs Starlite. It is also the first trip with the Big Agnes Slater UL2+.

I’m pretty happy with the pack weights. Including extra pots, the heavier tent, the bit first aid kit, and with all the food packed (no water), my pack is 20 pounds and Tina’s is 15.

Solo Stove Campfire

This looks really interesting as a patrol-sized wood-fueled backpacking stove. I have the smallest model, which is great for one or two people. This is sized for more people and should work great for a Boy Scout patrol (around eight).

The design is about 7″ in diameter and about 9″ tall. That is roughly the size of a squared-off gallon milk jug, if you make a cylinder around the outside edges. It weighs two pounds, which is substantial, but not bad for a stove to feed a patrol. Remember, no fuel weight, only firestarter material.

If the milk jug analogy doesn’t work for you, it is smaller and lighter than most bear canisters. It would almost certainly fit inside a BearVault BV500.

It is also smaller and lighter than any synthetic sleeping bag. For example, the Cat’s Meow from The North Face is 2 pounds 10 ounces, and packs down to 8″ in diameter and 17″ long. The Solo Stove Campfire is an inch smaller in diameter and half as long when the fire ring is inverted for packing.

This is a “wood gasification” stove, with air feeds at two levels to promote secondary combustion and efficient use of the wood. It can be a real blowtorch if you need that, or you can moderate the heat by limiting the fuel. You get it started, then keep feeding it small stuff. The shell and bottom stay cool because there is outside air drawn in at the bottom. No scorched fire rings, and just ashes to dump out after it is done.

The Solo Stove Campfire Kickstarter level to get a stove is $99. Very tempting. I’m guessing it will be about $120 once they get to full production.