Supermarket Backpacker

I came for the flannel, but I stayed for Harriett. I didn’t see this book in 1977, but I’m glad I found it now.

I bought a used copy of Supermarket Backpacker by Harriett Barker and I love it. This sentence starting at the bottom of page one may be the truest thing ever written in a cookbook: “Don’t forget that water is the only thing you can cook really well when backpacking in the high mountains.” I have proved that it is true in the flatlands, too. Ask the other members of the Raccoon Patrol.

How many cookbooks have an intro with more information than the four pages in this book? Not many. Perhaps more trail cookbooks should be written by “an avid outdoorswoman as well as a trained home economist.”

For the perfect icing on the cake, a friend wrote haiku for each chapter.

Backpacking for days.
Found! New evidence of man…
Plastic container.

Also, lovely pen and ink illustrations from two other friends. We should all be so lucky in our friends.

This book has a huge amount of information. Brand names, vegetarian meals, kosher meals, a Mexican sopa seca recipe. You could camp for years on just this cookbook.

One more quote from page 86, in the dehydrating section:

A good rule to follow when making any leather…if it tastes good in the blender, it will taste twice as good at camp. Before drying, sample and make additions until the combination pleases you.

There is only one thing that makes me sad from this book. We can no longer buy a Wilson’s bacon bar. Dang, I miss those.

The Wrong Map

I found this great story while researching our tendency to be optimistic in estimating work. There is a Scoutmaster Minute or three in this, for sure.

There is a story told by Albert Szent-Györgyi […]. A platoon of soldiers during World War II was lost in the Alps. Overcome with fear and despair, they did little until an officer found a map. Then they rallied, worked and finally found their way to safety. Only later did they learn that the map was of the Pyrenees, not the Alps.

This is great news for those brand-new to leadership, like Patrol Leaders. Even if your information is wrong, it may be enough to make the group more confident and pull everyone together.

It also shows the difference between being lost and merely not knowing your location. Without the map, they were truly lost. With the map, even the wrong map, they now had a goal and a plan and were no longer lost.

Finally, we are who we think we are, especially in groups. Believing we will succeed is critical to getting to the goal.

I found this in Taking Myths Seriously: An Essay For Lawyers by Donald C. Langevoort. A PDF copy is here. His source was Sensemaking in Organizations by Karl E. Weick, page 54, 1995.

For the original story, as far as it can be traced, check pages 16-17 in Any Old Map won’t Do, a study of the origins and mutations of the story.

The Sense of Style

The best book I read in 2014 is a book about writing and grammar. You are justifiably skeptical, but Steven Pinker is a graceful, funny writer with something important to say—good writing is both natural and organized, at every level.

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker obsoletes all those prissy style guides, including the overrated “Strunk & White”. The only guide that can stand is Joseph M. William’s Style: Towards Clarity and Grace, a detailed carpenter’s manual to writing clear, descriptive prose.

Steven Pinker’s book dives deeper, building on what we have learned about how the mind processes language. This is not just how language works, it is also why language works. How many linguistic balls do we need to juggle in the air until we find the key to the sentence? How deep a grammar tree can we comfortably process? How many times does Pinker revise? [Hint: At least five or six times, with different reviewers.]

The last part of the book, after we have been given the linguistic tools, walks through a laundry list of writing rules, evaluating each one and skewering the unfounded prejudices.

This book will be in print for a long time, but read it now. Then read it again.

Rite in the Rain Notebooks

My favorite hiking notebook is the Rite in the Rain 391-M. It weighs 20 grams, fits in my shirt pocket, and works fine when soaked with rain (or sweat).

Here are a couple of them that have been on a few treks.

Notebook 1a

I keep pretty basic notes: times, weather, campsites, and so on. If you write a lot, you might want more than 24 pages and maybe bigger pages. I use an official Rite in the Rain pen, but the paper is fine with most ballpoints. Pencils work, too. Sharpie pens smear, for some reason.

Pen and paper is one of the essentials, part of a first aid kit. If there is a serious incident, you’ll need to keep vital signs and notes. Those notes will go with the patient when they are evac’ed. You may also want to post a note at a trail intersection for directions.

Philmont encourages each participant to keep a journal. I bought a stack of these notebooks and gave one to each crew member. My son’s trail journal is almost all quotes, odd or funny things that other people said.

Notebook 4a

Right now, Rite in the Rain has them on sale, a dozen for just over $10.

Ten Essential Skills

Gear without skills is dead weight. In 2010, The Mountaineers revised the Ten Essentials for a list of items to a list of functional systems. What skills are needed to actually use these essentials?

The New Ten Essentials—A Systems Approach was published in Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, 8th Edition. The list was first formulated in the 1930’s as a tool to increase safety for climbers on Mount Rainier.

Why carry the essentials? According to The Mountaineers:

The point of the Ten Essentials list has always been to help answer two basic questions: First, can you respond positively to an accident or emergency? Second, can you safely spend a night—or more—out?

So let’s walk through the ten essential systems with that in mind. When things go wrong, are you ready with both gear and skills?

Navigation: You need to be able to use the navigation gear you choose, whether it is map & compass, GPS, or both. Last March, I took a fine three-mile “scenic route” in the rain because I misread my GPS. Do you know where you are? Do you know where you are going? Can you use maps, GPS, and landmarks? What does the trail junction look like as you leave it (always look back)? Where is the next water source? Where are potential good spots for lunch or camping? Here is an exercise: lay out a (paper) topo map and throw a dart (or toss a pebble), then find the route from that spot to a campsite or to a road (for an emergency evac). Extra points for safe helicopter landing zones.

Sun Protection (sunglasses & sunscreen): This is basic risk management for sun exposure. I’ve seen people with sunburn blisters on the top of their ears, which is one reason I wear a broad-brim hat instead of a ball cap. I’ve also had a sunburn on the back of my neck, not fun. Are you ready for high-altitude sun? Do you remember to reapply sunscreen mid-day?

Insulation (extra clothing): I carry extra, but how much extra? Did you check the weather forecast before going out? I check several different forecasters, and see if they agree. If they don’t agree, plan for a wider range of conditions. If the forecasts keep changing, plan for a wider range. When the forecasts don’t converge, there is extra uncertainty. Plan for it.

Illumination (headlamp/flashlight): Always check your lighting before you leave civilization. With LED headlamps and flashlights, batteries last a long time, but still check. Know the limits of your lighting. Try night hiking with your headlamp. Even better, try it in fog or snow. Are you ready to walk out an injured crew member at night, in bad weather?

First-Aid Supplies: This and navigation are the deepest skills. You can get better over years and years. For anyone 14 or older, I strongly recommend taking a Wilderness First Aid course. For first aid, if I had to choose between skills and gear, I’d choose skills every time. If you don’t know how to use something in your first aid kit, leave it at home. Know the skills of everyone in your crew, because in an emergency, you all need to work as a team.

Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candle): Fire-starting takes practice. Do it again and again in dry weather, then move on to wet weather. When you really need a fire, it won’t be in nice weather. Hint: your toilet paper is probably dry, and Chapstick is 44% petroleum jelly.

Repair Kit and Tools: This isn’t just duct tape. Can you sew? If not, learn. I don’t carry duct tape, I carry medical tape (3M Micropore), Tenacious Tape, and a few feet of Leukotape P on long trips, for blisters. I’ve seen a lot of people carrying huge, heavy multi-tools, but I’ve never seen a Phillips head screw in the backcountry. Bring appropriate, lightweight tools.

Nutrition (extra food): What is your worst case estimate for extra time in the back country? If a crew member is injured, you send for help, then wait for rescuers, how long is that? Or how long does a slow self-evac take? I throw in three extra bars, figuring I’ll be hungry by the end of the second day, but still thinking straight. Also, extra tea and fuel, gotta have the caffeine.

Hydration (extra water): It is surprisingly hard to get information on how much water you should carry. The only reference willing to commit is The Backpacker’s Field Manual. That is not an exciting read, but it is clear and comprehensive on nearly every subject. Short version: six to seven liters per person per day for most treks—more in the desert or snow, or with heavy exertion (climbing and so on). Navigation skills come into play here, knowing your next reliable water source and the expected time to that source, plus a safety factor.

Emergency shelter (tent/plastic tube tent/garbage bag): Where are you hiking and what is the forecast? If you are above timberline, a saw won’t help. Trash bags are light and useful in most situations. Have you built a shelter with a trash bag? Can you stay warm insulated with dry leaves? Maybe you should try that.

By now, you may have gathered that we are talking about risk management. Know the specific risks of each outing and plan for them. This is not throwing stuff in “just in case”. More gear does not make a trek safer, it just makes your pack heavier. As you get more information about the risks for your trek, you can tune the gear and the skills to make it safer.