Thursday, February 25, 2021

This blog is not necessarily directed at older backpackers like myself. It can apply to anyone, at any age. At 71 I am less bulletproof than I was fifty years ago, but I still find I can get up at dark-thirty and walk until sunset without too much discomfort. This comes from a constant effort to stay healthy, stay in hiking shape, pinpoint problem areas and work on them, and embrace common sense, lightweight backpacking methods, and gear. My biggest problem over the years has been a nagging pain on my left side, upper trapezoid muscle. Occasionally, it feels like a hot poker branded into my shoulder blade. I can relieve it in a matter of seconds by stopping, dropping my pack, and massaging the trigger-point. This lasts about an hour until I have to go through the whole process again. I’m not real big on doctors. I know I could spend a lot of money getting several medical opinions and sorting out the quacks from the real deal, but I decided to work on it myself using Dr. Google. I fix my car by watching YouTube, why not my body? I am not trying to impugn all doctors, but as I said, I’m 72, so I have had some experience with them. The old joke is “What do you call a doctor that finished last in his class in medical school? Answer: DOCTOR! Before I tell you what I discovered to solve my condition, let me give you an example of how going to a doctor may not be your solution. I took a bad fall when I was 43 doing something really stupid. I was hiking at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. At a steep dune leading down to Lake Michigan, there was a sign that said, “480-foot drop, do not run down.” I ran down. Late that day I ended up in the emergency room, meeting doctor No. 1. Besides extreme pain, I explained to him that my collar bone was sticking out about an inch on my right side. Now, I admit I have never been to med school, but that seemed to me to be a good clue that something was off-kilter. Dr. No. 1 had them X-ray me, prescribed pain pills, and sent me home to suffer. The pain subsided in a week or two, but I had the weirdest symptoms. I had no strength in my right arm, I couldn’t lift anything over my head. Also, my shoulder blade would not stay in place, it would wing out instead of lying flat. It didn’t hurt so I let it go for a year or so. Enter Dr. No. 2. I eventually sought a second opinion because of the lack of strength in my right arm. I went to a specialist. He explained that I had a “winged scapula.” He also diagnosed me with “Long Thoracic Nerve Palsy.” He said, “It’s like a drunk that falls asleep with his arm over a chair all night. It kills the nerve. It may regenerate itself, or it may not.” He then took an X-ray and sent me on my way. Seven years after my fall, I was preparing to hike the Continental Divide Trail. I met a Chiropractor at a dinner party and he offered to sponsor my hike by giving my whole family 3 months of Chiropractic care. I showed up at his office the next day. I didn’t even get out of his lobby before he completely cured me. He asked if I had any particular issues. I said, “Ya, I have no strength in my right arm.” He cocked my arm up across my stomach, had me make a fist, stepped behind me, reached around, grabbed my fist, and adjusted me right there. I heard a pop and immediately had all the strength back in my right arm. He said my shoulder was out of joint. Which means my shoulder had been out of joint for seven years. So did Dr. No. 1&2 sleep through Shoulder Anatomy 101, or does M.D. stand for MisDiagnostics? The moral of the story is “save some money and go to Dr. Google. So how did I fix my burning upper trapezoid sensation? It took a few hours of sorting through YouTube quacks to pick out people who seemed to make sense in pinpointing my problem. As it turns out it wasn’t “Old Man Neck Arthritis.” It wasn’t misspent youth running down dunes. It turned out to be a very common problem that even young people suffer from, “Bad Posture.” I spent 25 years as a writer hunched over a keyboard. It was a silent invasion of discomfort that slowly changed the muscle memory in my neck and back. The good news is, it didn’t take 25 years to retrain those same muscles. I found dozens of simple exercises to stretch and strengthen those muscles. Once conscious of the problem the solution was easy. At an average base weight of 15 pounds, my pack with good food and water management seldom weighs over 25 pounds. Once I cured the upper trap burning sensation I could truly hike all day without stopping if I cared to. I am not suggesting you hike all day without a break, I am simply implying that getting to that point physically will make your backpacking so much more enjoyable. If you have gnawing little muscle or joint grievances, don’t ignore them, tackle them immediately. There is always an underlying reason for every pain. Often there will be a simple solution. —Keep Smilin’

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Pulling the Trigger on a New Tent


 Lightening a backpack should include methodology as much as material. At 71, I am as old as some of the rock layers you find at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. In the realm of backpacking, I come from the age of “canvas and canned goods.” They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but that is not true in my case. To extend my long-distance hiking years I have eased into the ideas of “Ultralight” to some degree. I’m a gear-head, gram-weenie, long-trail addict, that reads every new gear review and follows well-produced YouTube Channels. 


But, I’m a hard sell. I’ve spent too many nights in extreme conditions to fall for some false prophet on the internet who is tent reviewing in the backyard, or stove testing in the kitchen. 

As much as I appreciate many of the cottage industry products and designs that have enabled decent shelters to tip the scale under a pound, I haven’t been able to bring myself to pull the trigger and buy one.

I have been a long time Hilleberg fan. I have been using their products for the past twenty years. Most of that time using the Akto which tipped the scale at just under 4 lbs. Five years ago I switched to the Enan. Mine is one of the originals using 600 Kerlon. It comes in at 37 ounces the way I use it. That includes the outer tent, inner tent, 6 pegs, and center pole. There have been a couple of nights I wished I had the two-pole guy outs and pegs, but the tent survived the blow and kept me warm and dry without them.

Never say never. Being a hopeless gear-head, I can’t help myself from watching YouTube reviews of Dyneema tents. I like the Zpacks Altaplex. Tipping the scale at under 20 oz. it seems well designed. Experience is my problem. I have witnessed many trekking pole tents blown down along the PCT, while I slept through the whole wind event. To save a pound of tent carry I would give up double-wall warmth, zippered vestibule, low profile, and narrow footprint. I often stealth camp and would also give up my dark, forest green silnylon. A lot of new hikers do not realize how often and difficult it is to find a large enough tent site to park your gear for the night. 

In my case, I often hike until dark and deal with a limited choice of tent sites. A small tent footprint gives more options to late hikers. The zipper-less vestibule allows wind to penetrate the tent and cause it to fail. You can watch all the YouTubes you want, but you will not realize the power of wind until you spend all night a ripstop away from chaos. Any tent I carry will have zippered openings. 

Some would argue that there is little difference between a single and double-walled tent. I beg to differ. As crazy as it sounds, I can feel a huge temperature drop when I reach out into my vestibule in the middle of the night. I also notice a huge difference in being able to keep condensation at bay using a double-walled tent.  

At this point, water management will be a better way to save weight than buying a new $600 tent. That’s right, we are talking about a half-liter of water. That is the difference between my proven bomb shelter tent and one of the new Dyneema models floating around the backpacking world.

Recently, Tarptent has introduced a tent that seems to check all the boxes for me. There may just be a new tent in my future. It is called the Notch LI. It is almost a knockoff of my Enan using Dyneema and trekking poles instead of Kerlon and 9mm center pole.

It comes in at about 22 ounces, is double-walled, low profile, dual vestibule with waterproof zipper openings, small footprint, double-end ventilation, and easy setup. 

If you are looking for a more spacious tent there are better options. Personally, I eat, sleep, hike. I do not need a Taj Mahal when I stop for the day. 

So, the bottom line for me is the reliability of Dyneema. It seems like a very interesting material that I should experiment with before I pass any judgment through inexperience. I would guess that a Dyneema tent will not take the beating that my Hilleberg Kerlon has. 

The only problem I have had with tents in the past 60 years of backpacking have involved critters. Mostly guy lines chewed by rodents during the night. But, there have been other situations. I have had rodents chew the actual tent and pack material, I have had a bear stick his head through my closed zippered vestibule, and I have had raccoons claw and puncture my fly material. These are situations you cannot predict, but you can prepare for. 

No matter what shelter option you choose, be as careful as possible with site selection and carry a few repair items. My first night on the PCT I slept near an underpass about 24 miles up the trail. It was close to the road, but a little forested area with a soft duff ground cover. I thought it was the perfect tent site. In the middle of the night, I woke up and my NeoAir XLite pad was completely deflated. Beneath the soft forest duff was an ancient barbed wire fence hidden by time and debris. During the night it worked its way through my tent bathtub floor and into my pad, leaving an L-shaped gash in both. Carrying a bit of repair tape and patch material will solve these unforeseen circumstances and keep you making forward motion.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020



Food is a constantly evolving issue when deciding what to take on a long hike. Most hikers have to decide if they are going to send themselves resupply boxes, buy food along the trail, or a combination. 

From my experience, buying food on the fly takes much less forethought, but turns out to be much more expensive and less nutritious. 

I have hiked with many people who lived on total junk food for months and still successfully finished a trail. Food is only one cog in the wheel of thru-hiking success, but putting some thought into eating nutritiously will amplify your chances of staying healthy, and finishing strong.

My personal journey continues to push me into trying new varieties of food. I want nothing more complicated than adding hot water to a meal. I continue to experiment with “No-Cook” options. It has to be so appetizing that I look forward to eating. This may sound strange, but I have carried many meals in the past that were nothing more than fuel, entrees to be forced down, with little or no enjoyment. Those days are over. Everything that goes in my food bag today has earned its right to be there. 

When I say buying food on the fly is expensive, you might argue the point. Sending resupply is not cheap, but wait until you see the price of food along the trail in small convenience stores with few choices. 

Making a town stop is already busy enough. You want restaurant food, a room, a shower, laundry, gear repair and replacement, and probably beer. If you have to add shopping, it is just another chore you could to without. Plus, you will never find the same things you are used to eating. Every store and local will have different brands, selections, and pricing.

Filling a resupply box with exactly what you want and picking it up at the local post office is one-stop shopping at its best. Whatever you have paid for shipping has been more than paid for in content priced savings. Finding items at home in big box stores, especially on sale, beforehand is a huge saving. 

At this point, I only have one hot meal per day at the most. The majority of those meals are freeze-dried entrees. I constantly shop online and brick and mortar shops for bulk freeze-dried meals in #10 cans. These cans typically have a dozen single serving size meals in them. I also buy #10 cans of freeze-dried meat, vegetables, cheese, and fruit. Example of a typical dinner for me: A single serving portion from a freeze-dried entree can. To that, I would build a second portion using meat, veggies, and cheese from the additional cans. To that, I would add Nido powdered milk, spices, extra pasta or rice. I also freeze 1-ounce packets of olive oil to add to each meal. Just fill your ice cube tray with olive oil, each cube will be approximately an ounce. It freezes to the consistency of wet soap. This will allow you to vacuum seal the oil. Another method that has evolved for me is to make up the vacuum seal packets, add the olive oil and prop them up in the freezer. This method eliminates the messy step of placing each oil cube into a packet before sealing. It only takes a few minutes at room temperature for each packet to become liquid again. 

I am not big on “cold soaking” food. Most hikers tire of this method quickly. So before you plan a whole season around this food prep option, make sure you experiment plenty. 

A better option is to mix and match food and methods. Finding “No-Cook” favorites will save you time and fuel weight. 

You could never have convinced me I would love cold coffee before I hiked the PCT, but it turned into a routine I still look forward to today. Not a straight shot coffee, but a mixture. Before turning in at night I add a package of Carnation Instant Breakfast (Strawberry) and one packet of Starbucks VIA instant coffee to a one-litre bottle of water. In the morning it is cold and delicious. My hiking habits consist of getting up a half-hour before the sun and hiking into the dawn. When the sun pops over the horizon, I sit down and have a Poptart and drink my breakfast coffee. I then hike for another couple hours and eat breakfast, which consists of a Ziploc bag full of Bear Naked granola, freeze-dried blueberries, and Nido powdered milk. Add water and eat. Doesn't get much simpler than that. 

Snack during the day consist of tortillas with PB2 and bacon jerky or cheese and pepperoni or refried beans, Trader Joe dried mango, almond/M&M trail mix, Clif Bar, Propel, and string cheese. 

All these items come close to meeting the dense caloric mark of 100 calories per ounce. I only carry about a pound and a half of food per day. I more than makeup for the shortfall when I reach a town stop. Although I carry less food per day than many hikers, I am usually carrying more food than they are. How so? I do much fewer town stops than the average hiker. I town has to be very convenient to reach from the trail for me to give it any consideration. On the PCT, for example, many hikers would get resupplied at Kennedy Meadows, then Lone Pine, and some even Bishop. I resupplied at Lake Isabella, CA. and carried enough food to reach Mammoth Lakes. Everyone thought that was insane. But I thought hiking out over a pass and then a long hitch to town was insane. While they were expending all that energy to reach a resupply and BEER, I was making forward progress. Every day my food weight was dropping, I ate like a pig at VVR and ended up at Mammoth Lakes with food to spare. 

One mistake most new hikers make is carrying too much food. Your eyes will often be bigger than your stomach. You won’t starve to death if you run out of food occasionally. If you carry food that turns out to be unappealing, you won’t eat it. You will be carrying dead weight. You may be slower than anticipated and run short of food, or you may run into a lot of trail magic and have too much. Just concentrate on planning the best you can and everything else will fall into place. 

Put a lot of time and study into food prep, budgeting, and experimenting. It will pay off handsomely in the long run (hike).  

Sunday, December 27, 2020



These opinions are based on boiling 2 cups of water. I have never been a backcountry chef. My hiking style has always been high mileage days. I am always looking for the lightest, fastest, cheapest method of getting 2 cups of water to a boil in the late afternoon so that I can quickly refuel and continue hiking until dark. 

Over the past 50+ years, I have tried dozens of stoves. They come in all shapes, sizes and fuel types. Liquid fuels were always a pain, alcohol especially slow and inefficient. I loved my wood burning zip stove, but it had its drawbacks and now with fire season lasting most of the year, many jurisdictions have banned wood, alcohol, even solid fuel, open flame methods of cooking.

For me, it came down to a stripped-down jetboil stove/pot combo which weighs in at about 9 ounces or an Esbit Fuel Tab setup that weighs in at about 4 ounces. 

Again, I am only trying to boil 2 cups of water. I have been able to drop my fuel weight by changing my menu. I am not interested in “cold soaking” all the time and not carrying a stove at all. But, I have experimented with many tortilla combinations that are appetizing, easy, and require no water boiling. This stretches out the fuel I carry.

So let’s go over the pro and con features of these to methods. Many people will tell you that a 14g Esbit Fuel Tab will give you 15 minutes of flame and boil water at around the 8-minute mark. This is possible in ideal conditions, with the ideal stove/windscreen setup. If you watch enough YouTube videos you would be convinced this is a great method of boiling water with very little in the way of equipment. The problem is most of these boil test take place in someone's kitchen, garage or basement, not outside in a windy canyon, exposed ridgeline or beach. I found several reasons that were deal breakers with fuel tabs. First, they stink. Second, they are expensive. Even on sale, it would cost fifty to seventy cents every time you boil two cups of water. If you actually get the water to a true boil it is going to take an average of 10 minutes, and when you are done you will most likely have residue on the bottom of your pot to deal with.  

I really wanted fuel tabs to work for me, but there are just too many inconveniences. 

Butane is clean-burning, fast boiling, wind-resistant, quick and easy starting, cheap if you refill your used canisters, compact, stable and efficient. Buying a tiny refill adapter on eBay or Amazon you can add as much or as little fuel as you need for a particular trip. The stove/pot combination cools quickly. I can put it all away before I even cool my food enough to eat. The small 100g fuel canister nest into my pot with my stove. I can buy a butane refill canisters for two or three dollars which will refill two 100g canisters. A 100g canister will bring 42 cups of water to a full, rolling boil. For me, that is 21 hot meals. I often extend this measure because I don’t often need a full, roiling boil to add to my freeze-dried meals. With enough practice, you will become familiar enough with gas weight to fill only what you will need for a particular trip or trail section.

The refill canisters are readily available in most hardware and big-box stores. On long trails, I usually refill my 100g canister and then look for another empty canister to fill and leave in the hiker box for someone else. Even after giving one away, my fuel cost is half what it would be if I bought a new 100g canister in a trail town. 

If you compare needs to wants in the backpacking stove category it is hard to argue that any other water boiling method is superior to a gas canister stove. 


100g gas canister 7 ounces, empty approx. 2 ounces, fuel 5 ounces.

Capability: Twenty-one, 2-cup rolling boils in most conditions.

14g Esbit Tabs 1/2 ounce each. Equivalent to gas weight would be 14 fuel tabs. This equals fourteen, 2-cup boils in ideal conditions, with ideal tab stove setup. 

For me, NO CONTEST! 

Besides heating 7 cups more for the same weight, gas is ten times cheaper. If you refill your own canisters your cost would be seven cents per 2-cup boil at the most. I look for sales on refill canisters and my cost is less than five cents. Even if you find a fuel tab sale, you will be spending fifty cents for less efficiency and more hassle. 


Friday, November 1, 2019

 FREE on Amazon 
 Starting MARCH 8th thru MARCH 12th

    This book is written with the thru-hiker in mind. It might help those interested in a leisurely weekend backpacking trip, but it is meant to be a mental checklist of hundreds of considerations when contemplating a thru-hike. 

    This thru-hiking handbook is not designed to give you all the answers, but to prompt you to ask all the right questions, help you imagine the effort a journey on foot demands, and consider gear choices.

    There is not one size fits all in thru-hiking. I have tried to craft a checklist of things you should consider when contemplating a thru-hike. The conclusions you come to will ultimately be your own. This tome is meant to introduce you to all the questions you need to ask. 

    I have included 100s of ideas, considerations, tips, and personal experiences that will give you some insight into tackling a long trail. 

Spending a few months traipsing through the wilderness will probably be life-altering, but you will have more blisters than epiphanies. The only way you are going to discover what it is really like along the worlds great trails, on a day-to-day basis, is to put boots on the ground—or trail runners.
    The information in this book will not prevent you from prematurely quitting a month’s long thru-hike, but it will help you understand the challenge so that you can approach this adventure realistically. 
Some long trails will still allow you to get away from it all, but the popular trails today will have you hiking in bubbles of backpackers. You will find yourself in a slow-moving current of people. No matter how hard you try to keep to yourself, a thru-hike will become a social adventure. It’s a great way to escape the mundane, switch gears in your life, or simply challenge yourself. 
    I have tried to condense my thru-hiking thoughts into short bits of information that will tease readers into imagining themselves in each situation and entice them to think their way through.
    You will find no clear picture here, but perhaps it will help you focus on what is important, for you personally, to complete a successful thru-hike.
Fully immersing yourself into the wilderness is not a Thoreau prose experience for the majority of thru-hikers. If you are considering a thru-hike and picture yourself cross-legged in transcendental meditation on a ledge overlooking a spiritual sunset—great. I hope this happens for you. But unless you learn to deal with simple trail day realities, you won’t make it to sunset.
    I hope the following information helps you dissect the intricacies of pulling off your dream. See you on the trail. 
                                 —Keep Smilin’, Packtoter