Western Traveler

Tips and Tricks

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MAKE A FEATHER STICK – Fire starting in the backcountry is an art.  There are several techniques available; one is making a feather stick.  Start with a 2-foot length of softwood (pine, cedar, juniper, etc.) and place one end on the ground, the other against your knee.  Put one hand on the handle of your knife, the other on the spine and CAREFULLY shave the stick away from you, creating thin wood curls to be used as fire starters.  Pile up the slivers and lay the remainder of the stick on top.  Use a match, flint & steel or magnesium striker to ignite the pile.  Practice at home before you need to do this in the field.

DRINKING WATER FROM DEW – One of the coolest things I’ve come across is an easy way to collect safe drinking water in the backcountry.  Get up early, take a clean cloth and wipe the dew from grasses and leaves.  Then, wring it out into your water bottle.  Though the water may be a bit cloudy, it’s safe to drink “as is”.  Just be careful what plants you wipe down, you don’t want to be drinking from any poisonous plants such as ivy or sumac.  It’s a good idea to keep a specific cloth, say a bandana for this purpose.

A CHEESY FIRESTARTER – As a backpacker I’m always looking for innovative things to use as fire starters.  While visiting http://www.backpacker.com/, I came across a neat idea.  One of the editors showed a way to use the wax cover on cheese to make a fire starter/candle.  All you do is to fold and roll the wax covers with a piece of paper in the core for a wick.  She indicated that you can get about 20 minutes of burn time out of this contraption.

SOLAR STILL – Getting water in the desert is almost impossible, the operative word being “almost”.  A well-known technique for getting water is the use of a solar still.  All you have to do is to place a piece of plastic over a container which has been placed in a dug-out pit in the dirt.  Make sure it is sealed along the edges, and that you have a stone placed over the container, making a small nipple.  The water condenses under the plastic, flows downhill to the nipple and drips into the container.  To have best results here’s a few things to factor in.  First, the larger the plastic the better, larger condensation area.  Second, try to find an area with plants growing nearby, indicated higher water content in the soil.  Lastly, a larger pit area is helpful as well.  Several ounces of water can be collected in just a few hours.  Yet another reason to always carry trash bags!

WINTER FOOD – There are both advantages and disadvantages to camping in the winter.  Personally, I like it as the crowds on the trails are non-existent, no bugs, no sweating while backpacking, etc.  With all that said, you need to plan your food carefully.  Make sure to take in high-calorie items, ones that can be made into tasty meals with minimal cooking and most-important, don’t try new food on the trail.  Eat things you know you like, and things that will travel well on the trail.

ALTITUDE ADJUSTMENT – One of the hardest things to get used to can be adjusting to high altitude.  This is of course a relative term, depending on where you live.  If you already live in a high-altitude area (like Denver, Colorado) you have a great head start on your climbing task.  For those of us who live much closer to sea level, it’s not so easy.  Experts recommend that you limit you vertical gain to no more than 2,000 feet per day to give your body time to adjust.  Most of us take a full 10 days to an 85% adjustment to levels over 8,000 feet above sea level.

PICKING THE RIGHT WINTER CAMPSITE – Camping in the middle of winter can be a great experience, but it also brings with it some dangers you may not be aware of.  While camping under the forest canopy in warm weather can be fine, in cold weather you may be directly underneath icicles which can fall like a spear right through your tent’s rain fly, and you.  Also be careful not to place your tent in an avalanche chute, which is pretty obvious to the experienced eye.  Look for large, fan-shaped areas downhill from large, vertical walls.  Another clue to look for are trees laid down, aiming away from a rock face.

OATMEAL MADE EASY – One very common food used for backpacking is instant oatmeal.  It’s a great breakfast food as it’s easy to prepare, allows for the addition of just about anything to make it tastier, and you can actually cook and eat it right out of the pouch it comes in.  Just add whatever flavors you want, pour in the hot water and enjoy.  By doing it this way you’ll avoid having to scrape it off of your cookware.

DRINKING WATER FROM SNOW – This sounds so simple it hardly justifies a TIPS & TRICKS note, right?  Wrong.  There are a couple of important steps in doing this right.  First, always use clean, WHITE snow, avoid snow with any coloration whatsoever, especially yellow.  Second, to avoid scorching your snow when putting it into a hot cooking pot, pour an inch or two of water in the pot first.  One more thing, bring lots of fuel if heating with a stove, you’ll need it.

KEEPING YOUR TENT DRY – One of the worst things you can do while camping is allowing water to get onto your tent floor.  This can be especially hard to avoid when snow camping.  It’s a good idea to take a few simple steps to reduce this as a problem.  First, if you have any snow on your clothing and/or boots, knock it off before entering the vestibule.  Second, back in slowly and knock your boots against each other to remove any remaining snow and lastly carry a small towel to mop up any water that does show up after entry.  The main reason to be so careful is that water in the tent can get your sleeping gear wet, reducing it’s ability to keep you warm.

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Last modified on: September 27th 2023.
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