Western Traveler

Tips and Tricks

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PLANT COMPASS – When visiting the backcountry it’s always recommended that you carry a compass to help you navigate. If you’ve forgotten yours, and if you’re in mountain country, you’ll find that Mother Nature has provided a crude navigational tool for you. Deciduous trees like; Gamble Oak and Mountain Mahogany prefer the hotter and drier Southern-facing slopes, while conifers such as pines and spruce are happier on the Northern-facing slopes where they’ll find cooler and wetter conditions.

EMERGENCY LIGHT PROTECTION -There are a thousand things that can go wrong in the backcountry, and one of the worst is to have your trusty flashlight die on you in the middle of a downpour while trying to navigate around after dark. Even though many lights claim to be “waterproof” or “water resistant” they may, or may not be. Do yourself a favor and carry an appropriate-sized Ziploc® bag with you (one your flashlight will fit into easily). If the weather starts to break, grab your light, slip it into the bag, seal it up completely and march on. The bag, properly sealed will be 100% waterproof.

FIRE WITHOUT MATCHES – One of the great things about the outdoor experience is learning new ways to do things. Most folks use matches or lighters to start fires, which are the easiest methods. If you’re feeling more adventurous, then try using the bow method, or sparks from a flint and steel. I’ve begun carrying a magnesium stick which has a flint strip attached to it. The magnesium, when shaved off burns very hot and is easily ignited by the sparks off the flint. In all cases make sure to prepare a tinder bundle suitable for easy ignition.

WATER BUCKET – Without question, the most important element to a successful backcountry experience is having adequate water available for proper hydration. I’ve found it very helpful to carry a collapsible water bucket with me to fill from waterfalls, springs or old hand pumps sometimes found in remote areas. There are two basic types, one plastic the other waterproof fabric. I prefer the fabric type because it weighs considerably less than all the plastic models I’ve found. If you do collect water in the wild, ALWAYS make sure to filter or boil it before consumption.

SUNSCREEN CONTAINER – No outdoor activity should be attempted without taking adequate safety precautions. I’m a firm believer in the use of sunscreen (SPF-30 or higher). The problem is that most products come in bottles too large to comfortably haul into the backcountry. I’ve found that there are several over-the-counter products that work well as containers. My favorite are the mini-Nalgene® containers you can buy through camping outlet stores. They’re durable, lightweight and allow you to carry in only what you’ll need for your excursion.

PACK PILLOW – A good night’s sleep is essential to backpacking success. One important factor is comfort while sleeping. In order to maximize my comfort level, I use a pillow of some sort to insure a deeper, more restful sleep. You can purchase a camping pillow, or simply carry in a pillow case and stuff it with clothing items like fleece. Either way, you’ll be glad you did, especially the next morning.

WHEN NOT TO LAYER – In almost every outdoor magazine you’ll find authors touting the importance of “layering” when in the backcountry. Where clothing is concerned, this is a great idea; however there is at least one time that this isn’t good. While camping in very cold weather I made the very bad decision to throw a wool blanket over my sleeping bag to help offset the cold intrusion brought on by a malfunctioning zipper. The end result, the weight of the blanket compressed the bag, causing it to lose its “loft” making things much worse. If you do have to layer, make sure to put additional layers inside the bag, not on the outside.

FREEZING HANDS – An easy mistake to make in the backcountry is to take your gloves off, AT THE WRONG TIME!! My friend Jeff relayed an experience he had in the high country of the Wasatch Mountains, which is worth passing on. He had been on a hike, wearing his trusty gloves when he decided to take them off to eat. The gloves were very good and had actually gotten his hands sweaty during his climb. When he removed them in the super-cold weather, his hands were assaulted by the wind and cold. The end result was extreme pain from the freezing of the moisture on his skin. Bottom line, keep your gloves on, even to eat when the temperature is dangerously low.

HYDRATION HOSE FREEZE – One of the greatest inventions for hikers is the hydration pack, which most of the time performs like a champ. However, if you’re hiking in extremely cold conditions you may find your drinking hose is frozen solid, preventing you from getting much-needed water. If you’re going to hike in these conditions it may be a good idea to slip the hose back into the pack where your body heat can help keep if from freezing up, as well as keeping it out of frigid winds. Simply remove it when you need a sip.

SHOOT WIDE – I’ve always prided myself on being a decent photographer, but on occasion I’ve gotten home and noticed that I didn’t compose a photo as needed, in effect losing the primary point of interest in the image. The cure for this goof-up is fairly simple; shoot everything wider than you think you want it. With the advent of digital photography and a plethora of software to manipulate images, you can easily crop the image on your PC when you get home. It’s a lot better to waste a bit of the image area than to lose the shot you really wanted. If you’re still shooting with film, your lab can do the same thing for you, usually after having you mark the desired area on a proof photo.

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Last modified on: May 13th 2017.
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