Bargain Ultralight: Mountainsmith Mountain Shelter LT

Want to try a single-wall ultralight tent without spending a lot? How about the Mountainsmith Mountain Shelter LT, a two-person shelter that weighs less than two pounds for $100?

Mountain shelter lt 5

I used to recommend the Black Diamond Betamid for this, but BD stopped making it. Now Mountainsmith is making a very similar shelter. It sets up with two trekking poles, like a small circus tent. It is lighter than the Betamid, probably because Mountainsmith used silnylon instead of the urethane-coated ripstop in the BD shelter.

The Section Hiker review of the Mountain Shelter LT does a really good job of describing the tent. I’m seriously tempted to buy one, even though I have more than enough shelters.

The list price is $129 and it is available for a bit under $100. Links are from the Section Hiker blog.

This tent doesn’t have a floor, so you’ll need a groundsheet. My favorite thrifty and ultralight groundsheet is plastic window film. It costs five to ten dollars and weighs an ounce or two, depending on the size. For this tent, two one-person sheets might be good. Two popular products are Duck Brand and Frost King. I’ve never worn out one of these sheets, though I’ve been in danger of having them blow away. They are really, really light.

The Section Hiker blog has a nice article on ground sheets, including window film and Tyvek.

I wrote about my son’s experience with the Betamid at Philmont. He’s still fond of that tent. I hope a whole bunch of Scouts become fond of this one.

Mark Your Stuff: White Electrical Tape

Did you know they made electrical tape in white? It takes Sharpie like a boss and sticks to everything. So get a roll and start marking your stuff.

Get the best tape because it is only $6 and will last a long time. I use Scotch Vinyl Electrical Tape 35.

White tape 3M crop

Let’s mark some antennas, because all the rubber duckies look the same and they are all designed for different bands.

White tape antennas

Let’s mark my awesome insulated coffee container, a gift from my son.

White tape coffee crop

And let’s mark the very nice thermos I got at work.

White tape thermos

If you want to know the details about this tape, like being good to 105º C or having 10**6 megaohms resistance (that is a teraohm, right?), check the data sheet.

Also, if your Apple cords are getting frayed, this is a stylish way to fix them. So get some tape and mark your stuff.

$7 Stove Windscreen

A kitchen splatter guard is just the right size for a backpacking stove windscreen. It costs $7 and weighs eleven ounces. A little heavy but a good choice for Boy Scout patrols.

It is tall enough to shield the flame of a canister-topper stove and big enough to leave room around the fuel tank so it won’t overheat.

Windscreen 1

A view from the top, showing the room for ventilation or bigger pots. Back in the 1970’s, my dad made a windscreen like this by bending some tabs on thin sheets of aluminum.

Windscreen 2

The one I bought is the Norpro Nonstick 3 Sided Splatter Guard. Each panel is 10 inches wide and 9 inches tall. The Amazon price varies. It cost $5.55 when I bought it. Similar splatter guards should be available at department stores or hardware stores that sell kitchen tools.

Windscreen 3

SOTA at Philmont

There are thirteen summits inside Philmont Scout Ranch that are listed in the Summits on the Air (SOTA) amateur radio program. There are another three within the Valle Vidal region to the north of the ranch. Only two of these sixteen peaks have been activated by SOTA operators, Baldy Mountain and Shaefers Peak.

SOTA is an award scheme for radio amateurs that encourages portable operation in mountainous areas. I think it is a great match for Scouting, combining the outdoors, technology, and world fellowship. Grab a radio, hike to the top of a mountain, and talk to people.

Here is a map of the Philmont South Country, which has most of the SOTA summits.

Philmont SOTA South

Starting at the north and moving south, these are the SOTA summits. If the summit does not have an official name, SOTA uses the altitude. An unnamed summit that is 8820 feet tall will be “Point 8820”.

Philmont Region Summit Name SOTA Reference Number of Activations
Valle Vidal Little Costilla Peak W5N/CM-001 0
Valle Vidal Ash Mountain South W5N/CM-005 0
Valle Vidal Point 11100 W5N/CM-007 0
North Country Baldy Mountain W5N/CM-002 2
North Country Point 8820 W5N/CM-023 0
South Country Point 8988 W5N/CM-018 0
South Country Phillips Mount W5N/CM-004 0
South Country Bear Mountain W5N/CM-011 0
South Country Schaefers Peak W5N/CM-016 3
South Country Black Mountain W5N/CM-010 0
South Country Garcia Peak W5N/CM-009 0
South Country Point 8881 W5N/CM-021 0
South Country Mesa Urraca W5N/CM-026 0
South Country Train Peak W5N/CM-013 0
South Country Burn Peak W5N/CM-014 0
South Country Lookout Peak W5N/CM-015 0

I used CalTopo.com to make maps with the Philmont boundaries and the SOTA peaks overlaid. CalTopo is a fantastic, free tool for making custom maps. For a modest subscription ($20/year), you can unlock more features. But the free version is still very useful.

The PDF maps are geospatial PDFs, so you can use them with a mapping app like Avenza Maps (free).

  • Map of all of Philmont with SOTA peaks, in PDF, JPEG, and on CalTopo.
  • Map of the Valle Vidal with SOTA peaks, in PDF and JPEG.
  • Map of Philmont North Country with SOTA peaks, in PDF and JPEG.
  • Map of Philmont South Country with SOTA peaks, in PDF and JPEG.

I don’t have a ride this year, but I want to go back to Philmont, with a radio!

Lentil-Bulgur Chili

I’ve made this on a few backpacking trips and it has always been delicious. It is several cuts above the normal dehydrated meal. It is simple to assemble at home and needs only a few dehydrated vegetables. On an overnight, it is worth carrying some fresh sourdough bread to accompany the chili.

This is from my favorite outdoor cookbook, The Back-Country Kitchen: Cooking for Canoeists, Anglers, and Hikers by Teresa Marrone, page 125. I’m reprinting it here with her kind permission.

Here we are, enjoying the chili with friends at Eagle Spring trail camp, near Mission Peak.

MG 5014

And here is her recipe.


Lentils, bulgur, and shredded cheese combine to make a complete protein in this delicious vegetarian chili. The sunflower seeds add great texture.

Serves 3-4.

Combine in quart plastic zipper bag:

1/2 cup lentils
1/3 cup bulgur
1/3 cup dried shredded carrot
2 tablespoons chopped celery (preferably de-stringed)
2 tablespoons husked, salted sunflower seeds
1 tablespoon chopped green bell pepper
1 tablespoon cornmeal
1 1/2 teaspoons dried onion flakes
1 teaspoon crumbled dried parsley leaves
1/2 teaspoon crumbled dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried garlic chips
1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon celery salt
4 sun-dried tomato halves cut in half-inch pieces (I used oil-packed)
half of the leather from an 8 ounce can of tomato sauce (I used some sun-dried tomato paste)

Carry separately:

1/2 cup cheddar cheese (I use pre-shredded cheese)

In medium pot, boil 2 1/2 cups of water. Add mix; stir thoroughly. Cover and allow to stand for 15 minutes. Stir well and return to boiling. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are tender, 15 to 20 minutes; add additional water (1/2 cup) if the chili begins sticking during cooking. While the chili cooks, shred or coarsely chop the cheese. Sprinkle each serving with cheese.


I’ve also made this at home, using fresh ingredients for the dried vegetables. It was just as tasty at home, something that isn’t always true for trail meals.

The cookbook has a handy chapter of equivalents for dried and fresh ingredients. I replaced the dehydrated vegetables with fresh and sautéed them before cooking the lentils and bulgur.

1 cup diced carrot
1 cup chopped celery (I add chopped celery leaves because I like celery)
1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper (I use poblano because my wife doesn’t like bell pepper)
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
4 ounces tomato sauce
1/4 cup chopped parsley (or to taste)
olive oil

Sauté the onion, carrot, celery, and bell pepper in one or two tablespoons of olive oil until the onion is translucent.

Add the garlic and sauté another minute (until fragrant).

Add water and all remaining ingredients except the parsley and cheese. Bring to a simmer. Cook for 15-20 minutes or until lentils are tender. Different lentils cook for different times, so check the package.
Stir in the parsley.

Serve topped with cheese.

Back country kitchen The Back-Country Kitchen is available at Amazon.

What’s Cooking on the PCT

If you’d like to eat better on the trail, you should get this book with the favorite recipes from more than forty PCT hikers. Most trail cookbooks follow a single style, but this one is a wide-ranging trip through different styles of prep (home dehydration, supermarket food, no cook) and eating (big breakfast, vegan, high protein).

What’s Cooking on the PCT 2015 is the first of a planned yearly collection from Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers.

Whats cooking 2015

Some samples: vegan bean chili stew, vegan hete bliksem (spiced apples and potatoes), big shakes or super oatmeal for big breakfast hikers, a couple of ramen pseudo-Thai meals, a Roman army lentil stew, Leebe bedouin bread baked in coals, loaded mashed potatoes, Thanksgiving in a bowl, and finally quick and dirty peach cobbler (using Louisiana Fish Fry brand cobbler mix.

There is also a recipe for Costco chocolate chip cookies with canned whipped cream and a cherry on top from the “Sonora Pass Café“. Now that sounds like Scout food.

My favorite preparation instruction is for the Leebe bread: “Take it out of the fire and beat the loaf up to break off the burnt crust and shake off the dust.” That is something I need to make on a trip.

All of this for under ten dollars, and half the profits go to the Pacific Crest Trail Association. Hard to lose with that deal.

You can get it from Amazon or the author’s website.

Philmont Pack Weights 2010

I finally found the pack weight notes that I took at Philmont base camp on the morning we started on our trek in 2010.

I’ve estimated base weights by subtracting thirteen pounds. We were carrying four days of Philfood (seven pounds), and most of us were carrying three liters of water (six pounds).

The median pack weight was 42 pounds (29 pounds estimated base weight). The average was 40.1 pounds (27.1 pounds estimated base weight). Total pack weight for the crew was 401 pounds.

Most of the time, a crew will be carrying two days or less food. Subtract three or four pounds from these numbers to get a mid-trek pack weight.

Philmont packs crop

This photo is from the “trail” up the south side of Mount Philips. That was the steepest and highest trail we hiked (11,742 feet), and we were carrying six liters of water each. The summit camp is dry, and we wouldn’t have any water sources until the next evening.

Crew Member Trailhead
Weight
Est. Base
Weight
Notes
Josh 32 19 crew leader
Derek 37 24
Jason 37 24
John 40 27 external frame pack
Michael 42 29
Mike 42 29
Robert 42 29
Walter (me) 42 29 advisor
Oliver 43 30 external frame pack
Larry 44 31 advisor, external frame pack

Next time, I’d plan the crew gear weight and distribution better. Our crew gear was pretty heavy, and I think the advisors took a little more than our share. We planned to bring a lighter tarp, but our crew quartermaster forgot it.

We had spent a fair amount of time with the crew, teaching them lightweight techniques and doing pack checks. We could have spent more. Philmont tells people to prepare for carrying packs that weight from 45 to 55 pounds, so we were much better than the typical crew. Still, we probably could have been lighter by five to eight pounds per person without spending a lot of money.

What was my pack like?

  • 17 pounds base weight, essential personal gear only
  • 23 pounds including big camera, chair, and book
  • 25 pounds with crew gear, mostly first aid
  • 37 pounds estimated with three days food

Philfood is 1.75 pounds (800 grams) per person per day, so carrying four days instead of three makes that 38 pounds. Obviously, I added another four pounds of crew gear, mostly fuel canisters. 42 pounds was a bit heavy for the Six Moon Designs Starlite pack I used, but it was comfortable after we ate the first day or so of meals. We only carried a four day load at one other time.

How important is a comfortable, light pack at Philmont? I think it means you have a much better experience. Towards the end of the trek, our crew was singing on the trail and passing other crews.

Our Ranger said we were the best-prepared crew he’d had that summer.

Every member of the crew became an Eagle Scout.

The Scout with the lightest pack loved Philmont so much that he went back for Rayado the next year, then was a Philmont Ranger for the next two years.

MSR Wins Again

The troop’s MSR WhisperLite stoves just keep going, even though the Scouts lose the windscreens. But we can buy replacements. Now, the stuff sacks are just worn out, but I e-mailed MSR and they are available as parts, though not listed on the website.

MSR stuff sacks

So, for $10 each, our stoves have brand new stuff sacks to keep the soot off the rest of our gear. They don’t say “WhisperLite” like the old ones, but they are pretty obviously MSR stove bags.

The next time I need a backpacking stove, I’ll think about who might have spare parts for me twenty years from now. MSR will be high on the list.

A Gift for your Backpacking Chef

We can all find dehydrated onions, but what about dehydrated carrots or cabbage? Make sure that your backcountry chef has what they need.

The Harmony House Backpacking Kit is a collection of eighteen packages of different kinds of freeze-dried vegetables. Each package is one cup of freeze-dried vegetables in a zip-lock bag. The kit is about $50 from most sources.

Backpacking kit

I got this for Christmas a few years ago and it has been great. Whenever I want to make a backpacking meal, I just dip into the backpacking pantry.

Here is the list of the vegetables in the kit, each item is one cup of freeze-dried veg:

  • Carrots (2)
  • Diced Potatoes (2)
  • Green Peas (2)
  • Tomato Dices
  • Sweet Celery
  • Cut Green Beans
  • Sweet Corn
  • Green Cabbage
  • Mixed Red & Green Peppers
  • Chopped Onions
  • Black Beans
  • Northern Beans
  • Lentils
  • Red Beans
  • Pinto Beans

The perfect companion to this gift is a backpacking cookbook. I recommend Trail Cooking by Sarah Kirkconnell and The Back-Country Kitchen by Teresa Marrone. The first is focused on backpacking meals, the other covers the full spectrum from backpacking to cabin cuisine. Might as well get both, I can’t choose.

The Backpacking Kit from Harmony House.

The Backpacking Kit from REI.

The Backpacking Kit from Amazon.

Radio Scouting: Hike Safely

The Hiker Responsibility Code says “Be prepared..to stay together” on the trail. BSA rules require adequate supervision. But how do we stay together and be safe on a troop hike with thirty or forty Scouts? We can hike in independent groups, each with two adults and a crew first aid kit. Or, we can stay in touch with radio communications.

Crew 27 in our area has a scheme for coordination on a hike. Each independent group has a radio. The last group, “sweep”, has adults and a radio. All groups check in every 15 minutes. If a group cannot communicate with sweep, they halt and wait for the groups behind them to get closer. A hike group can relay messages to and from a forward group.

T 14 at Henry Coe 2006 crop 1

What kind of radio? FRS/GMRS (Family Radio Service, General Mobile Radio Service) radios are affordable and don’t require a license. They work over a fairly short range, maybe a half-mile in the mountains or a forest for FRS channels (0.5 Watt transmit power) or farther for GMRS channels (1 or 2 Watts).

REI has a good guide to outdoor FRS radios.

If a patrol wants to hike with more separation, each group (including sweep) can have someone with an amateur radio license. An amateur radio HT (Handheld Transceiver, often called a “Walkie Talkie”), has more power (5 to 8 Watts) and a range of one or two miles, especially with an improved antenna. Some HT’s only cost a little more than FRS radios. The least expensive models change frequently, but good models tend to cost between $30 and $70. You pay more for ease of use, ruggedness, and a better antenna.

The test for the Technician amateur radio license is not that hard. It is a 35 question test and you need to get 26 correct answers (74%). All the questions are public, so you can practice as much as you want, free. The hamexam.org site is a good place to practice. It isn’t a trivial test—even though I have the highest level of FCC amateur license, I just missed two questions on a practice test.

Try a Technician test and see how close you are. There are study programs and amateurs who are willing to help (“Elmers”). I’m willing to help.

Radio scouting

Radio Scouting: Patrol Camping

Patrols should camp out of earshot from each other and the adult leaders. But how do we provide adequate adult supervision in that situation? With radio communications, of course!

An ideal troop campout has patrols camping separately, probably 100 feet to 100 yards apart from each other. The SPL and ASPL(s) camp separately. The adults should also be at the same distance. But in that configuration, how do the adults provide “qualified supervision” as required in the Sweet Sixteen of BSA Safety? And how does the youth chain of command from Senior Patrol Leader (SPL) to Patrol Leader (PL) work?

This is the supervision requirement from the Sweet Sixteen:

Every BSA activity should be supervised by a conscientious adult who understands and knowingly accepts responsibility for the well-being and safety of the children and youth in his or her care. The supervisor should be sufficiently trained, experienced, and skilled in the activity to be confident of his/her ability to lead and to teach the necessary skills and to respond effectively in the event of an emergency. Field knowledge of all applicable BSA standards and a commitment to implement and follow BSA policies and procedures are essential parts of the supervisor’s qualifications.

The major part of that is training and experience, so the adult needs to be comfortable with their level of oversight while leaving room for a boy-led troop.

With FRS hand-held radios, the Patrol Leaders can communicate with the Senior Patrol Leader, and the adults can monitor the discussion. FRS radios are quite effective at 100 yards, even through trees.

Patrol Leaders can report back to the SPL, or can ask questions. The adult leaders can listen to the traffic. If quick intervention is needed, adults can break in on the discussion. If the SPL needs mentoring, the Scoutmaster can walk over, perhaps with an announcement on-frequency that they are visiting the campsites.

Radio communication should always be backed up with “management by wandering around”, as I learned at Hewlett-Packard. A casual stroll through the campsites with a few questions can uncover a lot of information.

What does this cost? Good quality FRS radios are available in the $20-40 range. A troop with four patrols would need six radios, one for each PL, one for the SPL, and one for the Scoutmaster.

If the youth leadership has amateur radio licenses, they could use hand-held radios with greater range. Amateur hand-helds (HT’s) start around $50.

Radio scouting pin

Bacon Jerky!

Bacon is magic in food but a problem on the trail—refrigeration, skillets, grease, etc. Shelf-stable bacon makes tons of trash with strips wrapped individually. Bacon jerky to the rescue!

IMG 1093 crop

On a recent visit to Walgreens, I spotted bacon jerky and immediately bought it. It does not seem to have a lot of preservatives. It isn’t overly salty (beyond its bacon-ness) or smoky. It should be eaten within three days after opening the package. With Scouts, it would last three minutes, so that is not an issue.

$5.99 for 3 ounces. That is a decent amount of cooked bacon, so a fair deal.

When my dad and I backpacked in the Pecos Wilderness, we took Wilson’s bacon bars to crumble into our morning oatmeal. The bacon bars disappeared decades ago, but we finally have a good replacement.

I have only seen this as a Walgreens brand. It will probably spread, but pop into your local Walgreens and give it a try.

Petzl Zipka Headlamp

When my first Petzl Zipka headlamp finally broke, I bought another one. That is a sure indicator of the right gear for my style. Enough light, light enough (69g), and it fits in my pocket.

IMG 8840

The Petzl Zipka is a different headlamp. Instead of a wide elastic headband, it has a thin, retractable Dyneema cord. The cord disappears into the the headlamp. It seems like the skinny cord would be uncomfortable against your head, but it never has been for me.

One hint–when taking it off, pull the cord out farther, then lift it off your head. If you just pull it off, the cord will wind up bits of hair into the spring-loaded reel. Ouch!

It is also easy to put on non-head objects. I’ve put it around my wrist, hanging on the underside and lighting my cooking. I’ve put it around the top of a water bottle to elevate it as a lantern. I’ve hooked it to a clip on my tent as a reading light.

The button behavior is pretty straightforward. I don’t find myself confused and swearing at the flashlight trying it to get stop flashing or whatever. That problem is surprisingly common with modern LED flashlights.

It takes AAA batteries, which isn’t optimal, but they last a really long time, so whatever.

I’m pretty sure I’ve bought three different versions of this headlamp. One of them broke, I bought one for my wife’s pack, then I got tired of moving mine back and forth between my backpacking gear and my amateur radio emergency communications gear. Will I find an excuse to buy another one? Probably.

They keep tweaking the name, adding a “Plus” or a “2” or both. For the latest version (newer than my red one), it is back to just Petzl Zipka. They are also back to the Bondi Blue color, which is nice because the shape reminds me of the original iMac.

Whatever, buy the latest Zipka. It has always been around $40.

As the sun goes down, I drop my Zipka in my pocket. When I need light, I’ll have it.

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.