Couples Backpack to Mission Peak

There is a little-known campsite at Mission Peak, but it is one of my favorites. The views are wonderful and it is a perfect base camp for catching a sunset from the peak, or a sunrise, if that is your persuasion.

My wife and I restarted our backpacking with an overnight to this spot, accompanied by another couple. This was my first non-Scout backpacking in years, and it was lovely.

Mission Peak is a very popular hike—we were amazed at the number of people up there at sunset. The rest of them had to hike all the way out in the dark. We strolled back to our campsite. This photo is only a sample, we counted over fifty people. It was a party.

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Eagle Spring Backpack Camp is just north of Mission Peak at about 2100 feet (roughly 400 below the summit). Make a reservation through the East Bay Regional Parks District. The park website has a nice PDF map, though you’ll probably also need a Sunol Regional Park map (if you take my advice).

I like hiking Mission Peak from the Sunol Regional Park trailhead, especially for an overnight. Most people take the 3+ mile trail from the Fremont side, but that is steep for backpacking and the parking is problematic. Starting from Sunol adds an entrance fee and a $2/person Ohlone Wilderness access fee, but the trail is a nice, steady spread climb over five miles and the park closes at night, so your car is relatively safe. Most of the trail is a fire road, perfect for groups who like to chat on the trail. Vintage gear connoisseurs might want to check out Tina’s Lowe Alpine Systems pack.

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All of the campsites have clear views north to Mount Diablo. Three are out in the open, and one is up a rise and sheltered under a spreading California bay laurel. Tina likes trees, so we camped there.

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Climb the peak from the south side. The north approach is a too-steep, rutted mess. The southern trail to the peak is a regular trail in fine condition. Even on a day hike from the north side, it is worth going around.

And if you are still not sure about the view from this camp, here is a something from an earlier trip. Think about all those people heading home on the I-680 freeway while you are relaxing with a priceless view of Diablo. This is one of my favorite computer backgrounds. Feel free to use it.

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FInally, here is a Flickr set from the trip. It is short, less than twenty pictures. I’m a tough photo editor.

Trying Lightweight Hiking Socks

I tried lightweight socks on my most recent backpacking trip and really liked them. I’ve been wearing thick wool socks for backpacking since the 1970’s. I stopped using liner socks a decade or two ago, but I had never tried lighter main socks like the thru-hikers wear now.

The forecast was for continuous soaking rain, 48º temperatures, some steep trails, and a fair amount of idle time waiting for the next participant patrol to come to my area. That’s a good sock test, with a nice chance to have cold, wet feet, plus blisters. But less sock means less wet sock, right? And if I get a blister on a two-night outing, I can deal with that.

I grabbed some light socks at REI, Wigwam Merino Airlite Pro. They are roughly one third each of merino wool, stretch nylon, and polyester, plus a smudge of cotton. There is no cushioning, just a nice smooth fit.

Here they are with my previous socks, SmartWool Trekking, 77% merino wool and probably one of the heavier socks you can find.

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I tried out the new socks going work a couple of times and on neighborhood walks. My hiking shoes (well-ventilated trail runners) are my everyday go-to-work shoes.

They also passed inspection by Loken.

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Getting to the point, the socks were great. It did rain almost all Saturday, so they were soaked. The trail from base camp up to the ridge could use some switchbacks and general trail maintenance. It was a tougher test than expected. The trail down from the ridge needs a double black diamond sign. It goes straight down the fall line and was muddy and covered with wet leaves, perfect conditions for rubbing hot spots on your feet. I was planting my poles hard and practicing my trail glissade. In between, I spent two hours under a tarp waiting for patrols to visit my activity, and an equal amount of time in camp observing them set up and cook.

The socks slide a little bit in the my shoes, but that is OK. First, the shoes are sized for thicker socks, and second, I’d rather have the sock grip my foot and slide rather than the sock slide against my skin and cause blisters.

I wasn’t planning on saving weight in my pack, but these thin socks are meaningfully lighter. The heavyweight socks I’ve been wearing are 100 grams per pair, and these are 50g. When I carry two pair, that saves 100 grams, over three ounces.

If you haven’t figured it out, I’m now a thin sock hiker (the sock on the right). They even look good enough to be dress socks.

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Cooking Merit Badge: Trail Cooking Fail

Cooking coverI had high hopes for the backpacking recipes in the 2014 Cooking merit badge pamphlet, but I’m deeply dissapointed. The previous edition listed a single entree with no vegetables and two dutch oven desserts. The new edition has two entrees, but neither can work as trail meals. The first recipe uses raw meat, forbidden in the requirements. The second is mostly heavy canned ingredients. Both have excess that you either toss (violating LNT) or pack out.

This pamphlet is an obstacle to a Scout working on Cooking merit badge. These recipes fail the requirements and direct the Scout towards a style of cooking which doesn’t work for backpacking. These recipes are not “quick, light, and easily stored” (page 47).

Backpacking food has moved beyond these recipes. We know how to make light, nutritious, tasty, and affordable meals. These recipes remind me of those in my first Boy Scout Handbook (7th edition, 1965).

Let’s take a detailed look at the two main dish recipes (page 88).

Sloppy Jims: This uses ground turkey, but requirement 7 says the “meals must not require refrigeration.” Even with refrigeration, ground poultry is more susceptible to bacterial contamination than other meats. I would not take it camping even if I had an ice chest. This recipe requires chopping onions and bell peppers. With a cutting board on uneven ground, it will be a challenge to chop and keep the vegetables out of the dirt. Also, why suggest half of a green pepper and half of a red? I think I would take one red bell pepper. The recipe uses half an onion—I might take a small onion instead. For equipment, you need to pack a larger knife (big enough to dice an onion), a cutting board, and a skillet. Ignoring the refrigeration issue, this is a fairly heavy meal for backpacking, when you count the extra equipment.

Southwestern Beans and Rice: This uses a can of black beans, 1.5 cups of black bean salsa, a can of V8 juice, and less than half of a can of corn. It also calls for cooked brown rice, a first for a backpacking recipe in my experience. Cooking the rice on the campout needs 45 minutes of simmering, so bring extra fuel and patient Scouts. Carrying pre-cooked rice would be heavy and require refrigeration. This recipe requires vegetable prep in the field—diced tomato and scallions, plus sliced avocado. They don’t mention draining the black beans, though I think this meal might be soupy if you did not. Bring a can opener and be prepared to pack out empty cans and unused corn. Another heavy meal, this time because of all the canned ingredients.

For a trail breakfast, they suggest peanut butter and banana on whole-grain bread (page 81). Peanut butter is great, but can be a real mess on the trail. A full jar is too heavy. Packing it in tubes works in warm weather, but it is a bear to clean up at home. Taking a banana backpacking is one of the funniest things I’ve read in a while. Clearly, the authors aren’t backpackers and the meals were not field tested.

The general discussion on trail cooking (pages 47-49) suggests MREs, which aren’t “cooking” in the sense of this merit badge. As a counselor, I would not accept a menu based on MREs.

If a Scout brought me a menu for requirement 7 that used the trail cooking recipes in the book, I could not accept it. I cannot alter the requirement, by BSA policy.

How hard is it to make a patrol-sized meal for backpacking that is “quick, light, and easily stored”? I took on that challenge and came up with something pretty quickly. Start with white rice and lentils, which both cook in 15 minutes. Add canned chicken, which is tasty, affordable, and not too heavy. Bring some carrots to peel, then slice into the pot. Season with dehydrated onion and your choice of a spice mix: Italian seasoning, curry powder, or chili powder. Mix the dry ingredients at home and pack in a ziplock bag. You could probably prep the carrots at home, but it isn’t that hard on the trail. Cook it in a regular pot. You pack out the empty chicken can and the carrot peelings.

Or make this freezer bag style beans and rice.

To fix the Cooking merit badge pamphlet:

  1. Choose recipes that meet the requirements.
  2. Publish approximate weights for the meals.
  3. Discuss nutrition and weight with ppppd (pounds per person per day)—see NOLS Cookery for details. This is fundamental for planning backpacking food.
  4. Explore a few styles of backcountry cooking: from scratch (NOLS), freezer bag, simmer on the trail (like the rice and lentils), freeze-dried augmented with supermarket favorites (Philmont).
  5. Test these recipes with real Scouts on the trail. Hand them the recipe and walk away. Don’t answer any questions. Take notes on what they do, how long it takes, and how many times they drop diced onion in the dirt.
  6. For clarity, update the requirement to say “backpacking” rather than “trail hiking and backpacking”. I don’t understand how a trail hiking meal would be different from a backpacking meal.
  7. Require that the menu comply with Leave No Trace. The pamphlet already reprints the Outdoor Code in the trail cooking section, so move this from a guideline to a requirement.

If you are a counselor for Cooking merit badge, you will need to do your own research. You cannot teach requirement 7 from the book. The food section in the Backpacking merit badge pamphlet is pretty good, so start with that.

Finally, why should you believe me about this? I love good food, I’m known among my friends and the Scouts in our troop as one of the top cooks, and I teach a University of Scouting course on backpacking cooking. But most importantly, I was the regular cook for the Raccoon Patrol for at least two years. I’ve dropped Canadian bacon in the dirt and burned biscuits as much as any of our Scouts, maybe more.

To the BSA publications department, I’m glad to contribute to or review a corrected edition.

Trail Cooking — Homemade Backpacking Meals

Prepackaged backpacking food is often blah and expensive. If you’ve thought “I could do better than this”, start with this book, Trail Cooking: Trail Food Made Gourmet. This is the brand-new cookbook from Sarah Kirkconnell, who writes at trailcooking.com.

The meals I’ve made from this book and it’s predecessor, Freezer Bag Cooking, are easy to make, cost half as much as pre-made backpacking meals, and are bigger portions, that is, enough food.

I made “Cheese Steak Mashers” (page 171) for a weekend backpack that was forecast to be wet and cold (it was). Here is the ready-to-pack meal (the bag in the center) along with the ingredients.

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The ingredients are:

  • instant mashed potatoes
  • dried milk (I had some dried buttermilk, yum)
  • parmesan cheese (I put it back in the fridge)
  • dehydrated bell peppers (from Harmony House)
  • dried onions
  • red pepper flakes

Simple, right?

The recipe calls for beef jerky to be simmered for a while, but I substituted a small can of chicken, which was easier and tasty.

If you think you can’t find some of the ingredients, check out Sarah’s guide to the less-common ingredients.

I highly recommend this style of backpacking meals and Sarah’s cookbook. Give it a try, and have some tasty days on the trail.

Streamlight Nano Review

I bought my Streamlight Nano flashlight on a whim (Amazon link). My other Streamlight flashlights have been great (except for the Stylus, kinda flaky). One penlight went through the washer with no ill effects, and my big “cop flashlight” continues to be impressive.

The Streamlight Nano is $7, 10 grams, and more weather resistant you’d expect in an ultralight flashlight. Plus, it has a really nice clip, which is good, because you’d lose it without that.

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You turn it on by screwing the front down until it makes contact. This is the single fault with this flashlight — there isn’t enough resistance as you turn it on and off. The light can turn on in your pack and run down the batteries, or more annoying, unscrew and scatter four tiny batteries amongst your gear.

I fixed this by wrapping quarter-inch teflon plumbing tape on the threads to increase the resistance. This works great, and probably increases the water resistance, too.

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There is one other problem, replacement batteries cost almost as much as a new flashlight. More, if you don’t shop around. But it is an LED flashlight, so they last a long time.

Mine is black, but they come in other colors, even pink. They are small enough to be a zipper pull, if you like that. So get a few, distribute them as Christmas stockings, party favors, rewards for the patrol with the lightest packs, whatever. It is a pretty fun little light.

Wet High Adventure Training at Cutter Scout Reservation

This was my first time staffing our council’s High Adventure Training (HAT) course. We recommend this course for any adult leading a backpacking trip of more than a few miles or more than a weekend. With three long weeknight sessions and a two night backpacking outing, we go into a lot more detail on risk management, navigation, weather, lightweight gear, and so on.

Our course director was hoping for rain, not because he enjoys it, but because it puts the participant’s skills under additional stress, allowing them to learn more. Some lessons are straightforward, like learning that your jacket leaks. Others are more subtle, like using a map in the rain or cooking and eating dinner in the rain.

Rain started after bedtime Friday and continued until early Sunday morning. It was 48º straight through, ideal hypothermia weather if we’d had wind. The rain let up a few times in the afternoon, I even took off my rain shell for a bit, but it was mostly a rainy, cold weekend. If you haven’t been in a redwood forest, the tree drip continues long after the rain has stopped. Half of the precipitation in a redwood forest is tree drip. You can’t tell whether it has stopped raining until you step into the open. We camped under trees, of course.

Luckily, it was dry and sunny at home, so I could dry out my gear.

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Like the participants, I found a few holes in my planning and skills.

  • The rain skirt is only useful when it is with me. That thing is so small that I don’t notice when it is not packed. I need a way to always bring it.
  • GPS is not magic. When I emerged on Butano Fire Road, I got turned around and took the scenic route about 1.5 miles the wrong way. Then back. I sorted it out with the map and landmarks. Time to acquire more competency with GPS.
  • Having a single destination GPS waypoint seems like a weak approach. It was very hard to keep context when zooming or panning. With two or more, I think I would have a sense of scale on that tiny screen.
  • Hike in groups when you can. I hiked an unknown trail solo when I could have gone with two other staffers. Pretty sketchy trail, too. I took a wrong turn and hiked an extra three miles. The buddy system is a Tenderfoot requirement, and this is why. Rookie mistake.
  • Take David and Gordon’s advice about shedding layers for the steep trail out of base camp. I overdressed and my base layers got sweaty and stayed like that all day. There ways no way to dry out in 100% humidity.
  • Bring a couple of Esbit tabs as firestarter. I don’t make a campfire on my own, but an evening campfire was part of this course and all the wood was wet.
  • Take the Gerber LST lock blade knife next time. I left it at home to save weight. It would have been handy for shaving some dry kindling. The tiny Swiss army knife did not work for that, it kept trying to fold back on my fingers (scary!). The LST is 36 grams that is going back into my pack.
  • Consider bringing a small camera. Some photos of a rainy HAT course would be good.
  • Think about bringing my ham radio transceiver and working the world, if I’m going to have that much spare time.

Some of my decisions were just right. It is a bit of a relief that I’m not completely hopeless in the woods.

  • I’m still very happy with my shelter combination: Mountain Laurel Designs Speedmid, Gossamer Gear polycyro ground sheet, and Titanium Goat Ptarmigan bivy. It has been great in every kind of (three season) weather. With eight titanium stakes, that is two pounds of awesome. Most people would not use the bivy, but breezes across my face keep me awake, so I snuggle down in that.
  • The 8×10 flat tarp was an excellent addition. At my station, I spent most of three hours under it rather than sitting out in the rain. Nice.
  • The White Box alcohol stove was my backup while I was trying out the Solo Stove. That was good, because I really did not feel like building a wood fire in the rain for breakfast. Maybe next time.
  • The cup of instant black bean soup was great while dinner was rehydrating. I used that paper cup as my dinner bowl, too.
  • Leaving the big digital SLR at home was fine. It would have been a worry keeping it dry.
  • Freezer bag cooking is still working for me, especially with a new cookbook. First time with a potato meal, but that is another post.
  • The Crazy Creek chair is still a good idea, taking a book was good, too (read 200+ pages).
  • I decided to try lightweight socks instead of thick wool socks. Total win. No blisters even from a downhill with a lot of skidding on leaves, and not as much wool to get soaked.
  • My Six Moon Designs Starlite pack is a good size. I’ve been thinking of getting a smaller pack, but I took fleece insulating layers on this trip and packed some extra instructional material. My pack wasn’t full, but this is probably too much volume for a smaller pack.

If you are a dedicated lightweight packer, you’ll see a lot of extra stuff on this list. That stuff is part of being a trainer or a Scout leader. I can set up or break camp quickly, but I might spend a lot of time sitting around while the rest of the troop does it. Or I might spend a long time waiting for a patrol (adult or youth) to navigate and hike to my location. Or I might be hanging around a campfire for Thorns and Roses. That means more insulation, a chair, some daytime shelter, and maybe a book.

Overall, it’s hard to complain about a two day trip where I learn that much, even if it was miserably wet and rainy.