We’re Already There

In the summer of 1971, my dad and I headed out on our first wilderness backpacking trip in the Pecos Wilderness. The first person we met on the trail was from our home town, Baton Rouge! Of course, we asked him how far it was to our destination, Beatty’s Cabin. He told us, but he added a bit of wisdom. When he went backpacking in the wilderness, he didn’t worry too much about specific spots. His destination was the wilderness, and he was already there. I still remember that—as soon as I leave the trailhead, I’m already there.

This was our first stop on the trail that year, before the meeting. And yes, it was at Noisy Brook Creek, an odd name.

Pecos 1971 2-11

And, if you are still thinking about destinations, this is our tent, a Gerry Year-Round, set up in the meadow at Beatty’s Cabin. I believe this area has been closed to camping due to overuse for a few decades now.

Pecos 1971 2-21

I scanned these photos from my dad’s slides.

38 gram Selfie Kit

Feel the need for more trail selfies? Instead of a heavy tripod, support your iPhone for 38g (1.3 ounces) or your small camera for 30g (1 ounce). This kit goes on top of regular bottles like the 1 liter sparkling water bottle that is always in my pack.

IMG 7175

There are two basic parts: a water bottle camera mount and a tripod adaptor for an iPhone (or other phone). If you have a lightweight camera, you can skip the phone mount and save 8 grams.

Bottle cap mount: $10, 30g. This fits on the top of a regular small mouthed bottle. I carry a one liter sparkling water bottle (stronger than still water bottles), so I always have one of these. I wouldn’t support my DSLR with this, but it is fine for a light camera or phone camera. I got my bottle cap camera support from Photojojo.

Bottle cap tripod

Glif: $20, 8g. This is how an iPhone is mounted on a tripod screw. The Glif Original is sized for a bare iPhone 4/4s or 5/5s, depending on the size you order. Mine is for an iPhone 4/4s, but fits my thinner 5s with the Apple leather case (see the photo above). If you have a different phone or want an adjustable mount, get the New Glif for $30. I don’t know how much the New Glif weighs, but I expect it isn’t much heavier than the Glif Original.

Glif crop

Here is the New Glif (adjustable).

New glif crop

The final touch is a camera app that has a self timer, unlike the built-in Apple camera app. I use Camera Plus, which costs a whopping $1.99 and adds more features than you probably need, though it does have that essential selfie feature, the self timer.

How good is it? I took this selfie during a ham radio activation on Black Mountain. Looks good to me, good enough to put on my QSL card after I cropped it a bit.

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Hand Sanitizer is not Enough

I’m seeing more and more backcountry books that suggest using hand sanitizer by itself. That does not work. Soap and water is necessary, sanitizer is optional.

The Scouts Backpacking Cookbook is one of those with that bad advice. The BSA Handbook gets it right. Wash your hands with soap and water.

Clean hands are important in the backcountry. People who know, like Tod Schimelpfenig, Curriculum Director at the Wilderness Medicine Institute of the National Outdoor Leadership School, believe that dirty hands are a bigger health risk than dirty water.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) say that hand sanitizer does not work on dirty hands. Natural oils and dirt on your hands create a barrier to the sanitizing action. The CDC procedure is to wash off visible dirt first, then sanitize. Here is a clear PDF handout about clean hands from the Connecticut Department of Public Health. This is a good thing to distribute to your troop.

How do you wash your hands well? Wash with soap and water, scrubbing for the time it takes to sing the Happy Birthday song twice (20 seconds), then rinse. That’s it.

Soap is also lighter than hand sanitizer. An ounce of concentrated soap will last for a couple of years of backpacking. I carry a basin cut from the bottom of a milk carton (33g, 1 oz.) and a small bottle of biodegradable soap (25g, 1 oz.). Again, that is a lot of soap.

If you do want to follow up with hand sanitizer, there are a few options.

Alcohol hand sanitizer: This is the most common kind. It must be 60% alcohol or more to be effective. It can dry out your hands and increase the chance of skin cracks on a long trip. Bacteria hide in skin cracks.

There is enough alcohol in hand sanitizer to make it flammable. I haven’t seen boys figure this out yet, but they will. One could make a good argument that alcohol hand sanitizer is a chemical fuel and should be handled according to the Guide to Safe Scouting rules on chemical fuels. When I teach Introduction to Outdoor Leader Skills to Scoutmasters, I demonstrate alcohol hand sanitizer on toilet paper as an emergency fire starter.

Amk sanitizer mdBenzalkonium chloride (BAK): Non-alcohol sanitizers use BAK, the same thing used in Bactine (which also has lidocaine, an anesthetic). BAK is effective and also useful as part of a first aid kit. Adventure Medical makes a nice 0.5 ounce spray bottle of non-alcohol sanitizer. That is what I carry.

Herbal sanitizers: Or, ineffective hand sanitizers. Concoctions like lavender oil may kill some bacteria, but they are not a reliable sanitizer. They are also “smellables”, and go up in the bear or raccoon bag, along with anything they have been spread on. If you want to keep your Scouts in their tents rather than in the bear bag, stick with an alcohol or BAK hand sanitizer.

If you are up for a longer article on this, with references, read Ryan Jordan on hand sanitizers.

BSA One Pot Stew

If you want to get started on trail cooking, turn to page 336 of The Boy Scout Handbook. Choose one ingredient from each column, scale the amounts, and you are on your way.

Since the 11th edition Scout handbook in 1998, the cooking chapter has included a great “choose your own stew” recipe. It might have been in the 10th edition, but I don’t have one of those handy.

The 11th and 12th edition have slightly different lists, so I’ve combined both to make one table. I’ve also split vegetables out into their own column, since they are not really the same thing as cheese or nuts.

Choose one item from each column. The amounts are for a single serving.

Onions and/or peppers

Starch Protein Sauce Vegetables Extras
3 oz. 3 oz. can or packet According to package 3+ oz. 1-2 oz.
Spaghetti Chicken Gravy mix Broccoli Cheese (2 oz.)
Macaroni Tuna Spaghetti sauce Green beans Nuts (1-2 oz.)
Noodles Tofu Stroganoff sauce Corn
Ramen TVP Pesto sauce Peas
Rice

General cooking approach:

Before you put the pot on the stove, put in all the ingredients. Add enough water to cover the ingredients, plus a little bit more water, about an inch. Some ingredients will float, so add water slowly until the level reaches the top of the ingredients, then put a spoon against the side to mark than and add an inch more above that level. You can always add more water later as things cook.

Bring to a boil, them simmer as long as the instructions say for the starch.That will be enough to heat the other ingredients and meld the flavors. Add cheese and/or nuts at the end.
Elbows

How do you bring vegetables? For a weekend trip, buy bags of frozen vegetables and keep them frozen until you pack up. Put them inside a fleece cap or jacket to keep them cold. If you will be building a campfire, wrap them loosely in newspaper and use the newspaper as firestarter. You can add the vegetables to the pot still frozen. Try broccoli, peas, green beans, corn, spinach, beets (my favorite), or mix them up. It is hard to go wrong with vegetables.

When you get tired of pasta and rice, try lentils. Those are tiny beans that cook quickly. Red or yellow lentils will cook in 10-20 minutes and make a very filling stew. A rice and lentil stew does not need meat to be a nutritious meal, so try that combination, too. Or you can get wild and use filled pasta, like tortellini.
Sc chunk white dark

Let’s use this method for a dinner where six people from your patrol are on the outing. We will multiply each single serving size times six.

Macaroni: 3 oz. × 6 = 18 oz. Macaroni comes in one pound (16 oz.) portions, so we’ll use one pound. We will use some starchy vegetables (peas or corn) to fill in the extra carbs.
Lawrys crop

Chicken: 3 oz. × 6 = 18 oz. Canned chicken comes in several sizes: 3, 4.5, 9.75, and 12.75 ounces. Two 9.75 ounce cans would be just right, but buy a combination of cans that is pretty close. Choose cans that have a pull tab, so that you don’t have to carry a can opener.

Sauce/seasoning: Lawry’s Spaghetti Spice and Seasoning is widely available. It says it serves 5, which is pretty close. The package says to add a can of tomato paste. That is kinda heavy and needs a can opener. You could use the spices without tomatoes, or get a tube of concentrated tomato paste (about $5), or bring a can and a can opener. I think any one of those would taste good.
Peas and onions

Vegetables: 3 oz. × 6 = 18 oz. Frozen vegetables are in 14 or 16 oz. bags, so you might want to add two bags. Maybe a starchy vegetable like peas plus a green vegetable like broccoli or green beans. Spinach is surprisingly good in a stew, try it. Sliced bell peppers can be tasty. You can also find tasty vegetable mixes, like peas with pearl onions.
Peppers

Cheese or nuts: We already have a pretty good stew, but if you want to add cheese, I’d choose some aged hard cheese that keeps well on the trail, like parmesan or asiago. 6 ounces of grated cheese should be fine for the patrol. For nuts, choose between sweet nuts like pecans or savory nuts like pine nuts. Peanuts go with everything.

What does it cost (A Scout is Thrifty)? Let’s check out the Safeway website and see.

Ingredient Amount Cost
Golden Grain macaroni 16 oz. $1.00
canned chicken 25 oz. (two 12.5 oz. cans) $10.78
Lawry’s seasoning one packet $2.19
C&W Peas with Onions 14 oz. $3.09
C&W Sliced Peppers 14 oz. $3.09
Total $20.15
Total plus tax $21.76
Cost per serving $3.63

That is pretty cheap, even including a lot of extra chicken (A Scout is Hungry). If you added a $5 tube of fancy tomato paste it would still be about $4.50 per person.

Now let’s cook. Here are the detailed steps for feeding your patrol:

  1. Shoo all of the non-cooks out of the kitchen. The only thing they can do is distract you or knock over the pot (I’ve seen it happen, it isn’t pretty). Ask your Patrol Leader to keep them busy and out of your hair. This is a good time for a game.
  2. Wash your hands with soap and water. Keep scrubbing for the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.
  3. Put all the ingredients except the cheese or nuts into a large pot. Empty the juice from the chicken into the pot, too. That is tasty and you carried it to the camp. Use it.
  4. Add water to cover, then about another inch.
  5. Put it on the stove and wait until it boils.
  6. After the water comes to a boil, reduces to a simmer (slow bubbles), and start a timer. Cooking time for the macaroni should be 9-11 minutes, which is enough to heat everything else. If you don’t have a timer, taste every couple of minutes to see if the macaroni (or rice) is tender. The frozen vegetables will be thawed as the stew is brought to a boil and the canned meat is already cooked.
  7. Stir occasionally. If the stew is hard to stir, add more water, about a cup at a time. A juicy stew is better than a scorched stew.
  8. Call the patrol to dinner.
  9. Everyone washes hands, cooks wash again.
  10. Say grace; I prefer the Worth Ranch Grace.
  11. Serve up and dig in.

That sounds good to me. Make it your own and eat well on the trail.

The Scout’s Backpacking Cookbook

I was excited when I heard about this cookbook. We need a Scout-friendly backpacking cookbook and I like the idea of contributed and trail-tested recipes. Unfortunately, I have some reservations recommending this book to Scouts. Good information is buried in boring text and only some of the recipes are Scout-ready.

Scout s Backpacking Cookbook

The Scout’s Backpacking Cookbook was written by the authors of Lipsmackin’ Backpackin’. They worked with Scouting Magazine to collect trail recipes. I even know one of the contributors—Hi, Gordon!

Lipsmackin’ Backpackin’ and some of the recipes in this book use a home-dehydrator approach. Food is cooked at home, dried in a dehydrator, then rehydrated on the trail. This opens up a lot of options, but it requires buying a dehydrator ($100-300) and also requires starting meal prep two or three days before you leave. I’m learning this method using our oven’s dehydrator setting, but I can’t see your average patrol cook doing this, maybe not even the top 2% of patrol cooks. I sure wouldn’t have done that for the Raccoon Patrol when I was their regular cook.

The book starts with a fifty page introduction that has great information (I learned a couple of things), but is much too wordy and text-heavy. I wanted to get out my red pencil and shorten sentences while I was reading it. There are some photos, roughly one every other page, but too many of them are a pot on a stove and don’t illustrate anything. The illustrations in NOLS Cookery are line drawings, but much more effective than these photos.

How wordy? Here is one example from the introduction, chosen solely because of my pet peeve about hand sanitizer recommendations:

Certain elements of backpacking, especially when answering nature’s call, require fastidious attention to the cleanliness of one’s hands. Each member of the group should carry a small container of hand sanitizer, enough to last the trip, for thoroughly cleansing their hands before handling food at mealtime. This is particularly needed when water for cleaning is in short supply.

And here is my rewrite, which follows CDC guidelines for hand sanitizer use:

Dirty hands are the main cause of sickness on backpacking trips. Before cooking or eating, wash with soap and water until there is no visible dirt, then use hand sanitizer, if you want to carry that.

I’ve cut it from 60 words to 36, half the syllables, and included more information. The book excerpt has a readability score of grade 13.3, mine grade 8.9. Clearly, my first draft needs more work to be ready for Boy Scouts, a program targeted at 6th through 8th graders. The book paragraph is written for college sophomores.

The introduction needs a thorough rewrite with half as many words and twice as many illustrations. Some lists and charts might be good, too. Again, see NOLS Cookery for effective lists and charts. There is great info there, but Scouts will never see it.

The last three pages of the introduction are a detailed, step-by-step walkthrough of preparing a recipe. This is great, and would make a fine patrol meeting.

Recipes are the next section, followed by some appendices with excellent references. The recipe pages are color coded by meal type, with icons for difficulty and perishable items. The icons are not as clear as those in The Back-Country Kitchen and are barely visible on the breakfast pages.

Each recipe lists the packed weight for the meal. This is great. It is a lot of work to compile, but a backpacking cookbook should always include the weight. That is the fundamental challenge, eating well and packing light.

If I counted correctly, there are 102 recipes (including the demonstration recipe, “Rayado Rice and Chicken”):

  • 18 breakfasts
  • 26 lunches
  • 40 dinners
  • 5 breads
  • 16 snacks and desserts
  • 9 drinks

I’ve never used a recipe for a trail breakfast, lunch, snack, or drink, and I’ve rarely made breads, so that leaves about 40 dinner recipes that I might use on a regular outing. Let’s break down the dinner recipes.

  • 10 require a home dehydrator
  • 18 only require rehydrating on the trail
  • 12 need multiple cooking steps, frying, or baking on the trail

Now we are down to 18 recipes appropriate for beginners and 12 for more advanced cooks. I don’t expect the patrol cook to go buy a dehydrator, so I’m ruling those out. Roughly 20 dinner recipes seems like a small payoff for a 180 page cookbook.

None of the dinners are sized to feed 6-8 boys, the expected patrol size. Five are sized for six, but none of them help the beginning patrol cook feed everybody. They are: home-dehydrated ground beef (just that ingredient), home-dehydrated venison and beans, fresh fish caught on the trail, pan-fried hush puppies (should be a bread), and dates stuffed on the trail then fried. I did not see any discussion of scaling up recipes. There are some tricky spots there, for example, a quart freezer bag only holds two servings.

Some of these do look tasty, and I’m sure I’ll try them. I might even branch out into some breakfast or lunch recipes. But I’ll pick and choose when recommending recipes to Scouts.

One small annoyance—could cookbook authors please list every recipe in the table of contents? To see how it is done, look at The Greens Cookbook from 1987. That allows me to scan a couple of pages and immediately find that recipe I’m looking for.

I’m still looking for a backpacking cookbook that I can hand to a Scout and expect them to successfully feed their patrol. This is a step in the right direction, but we aren’t there yet.

What am I looking for? A backpacking cookbook accessible to 7th graders, because not all our Scouts read at grade level. Half the recipes must be achievable by unassisted 7th graders and half can be more challenging. Meal portions are designed for 6-8 Scouts, with smaller plans written out (no arithmetic). Ingredients are affordable and available at supermarkets (A Scout is Thrifty). It needs substantial vegetarian and vegan options. It covers backpacking and food planning skills that are not in The Boy Scout Handbook or the Cooking merit badge pamphlet. That’s a tall task, but totally achievable. If it was just the recipes, that would be OK, too.

Don’t Know Trees? Try Leafsnap

Leafsnap is an iPhone tree identification app. It works for trees when you have internet service, but you might want to carry some paper backup. Luckily, it’s free.

The Leafsnap iPhone app recognizes tree leaves from phone photos. It does a good job, but there are some limitations. You need to shoot a leaf against a white background, and it has to be a tree leaf. I tried it on some shrubs (Western Azalea and Fuchsia-Flowered Gooseberry), but they were not recognized. Yes, we have both of those in our back yard. Lovely plants.

Then I tried it on the mystery tree leaning over our fence from our neighbor’s yard. It has little cherry-like fruit and a simple, broad lanceolate leaf with a toothed edge. The app really wants you to shoot the leaf against a white background, which might take more than two hands. I had to download the high-resolution photos to definitively identify the tree. That was slow. And I took apart one of the fruits to check it against the photo of the pit for the final ID.

IMG 0721

Yes, I really believe that this tree is a Tea Crabapple. I even tasted the fruit, not all that flavorful, but a believable small crabapple. We might make some jam one of these years. And now we don’t have to worry about the dog eating them.

I’d give this a thumbs up for trees, if you have good internet connectivity. It isn’t a general purpose crutch for a plant-ignorant Scoutmaster, more something to check in the parking lot or at home after the hike. Tree coverage seems good, but it doesn’t cover shrubs.

If you want a quick ID on the trail, I’m still a fan of the Nature Study Guides, like the Pacific Coast Tree Finder and the rest of their books.

BSA Incident Reporting

I’m excited about the incident reporting that the BSA requires now, but there may be a few kinks to work out.

How are they going to handle the volume with paper reporting? Using the back of a virtual envelope, we have 40,000 troops and five reports/year from each one. That is 200,000 reports. They’ll be lucky to get a few thousand this year, but on-line reporting is a must.

Any “first aid” is a Marginal incident, which must be reported within five days. That means a report for every blister. With about 900,000 Scouts and Venturers, 100% reporting could mean a million reports per year.

Obviously, there will be massive under-reporting, so the BSA should do something to estimate the true rates. Perhaps a sampling survey, or at least a re-charter checkbox on whether you are participating in the incident reporting program.

Many of these reports are going to be injuries or illnesses (property damage is also reported), and that is personal medical information. I’m not a HIPAA expert, but I doubt that leaving names out of a report is sufficient anonymization to protect health information. The BSA needs to provide some guidance on this. Perhaps they could update the release on the annual health form to cover incident reporting.

A quarterly or yearly report would be wonderful. I’m sure that would give the PR department the willies, but it has to be better than the current ostrich approach.

This is a gold mine for outdoor safety studies. It might become the largest database of such data. NOLS Wilderness Medicine Institute has done some great work with their stats, so the BSA should partner with them.

Is this being piloted at Philmont? I’m sure the staff reports incidents that they know about, but I don’t see anything about crew reporting in the Council and Unit Planning Guide or the Guidebook to Adventure for the 2014 season.