Purveyors of heavy do-dads and outdoor fashion

Until very recently, I’ve done all of my hiking alone. Over the last year or two, there has been a couple of people that would come along – most often, if I’m particularly lucky, my significant other. But by and large, the vast majority of my mileage has been solo.

On the occasion that I do hike with others, the conversation often gravitates toward gear. There’s not much interesting there – in fact after a few minutes it can become quite the opposite. As soon as the conversation turns away from that however, things can get productive.

The most recent on-trail conversation related to this web site and it’s users. We marveled at how users will ask questions – directly or publicly on social media – that have already been addressed ad-nauseum within these pages. After reading text that was written for a very specific topic, why would one turn around and ask a question that was addressed within that text?

My thought on the subject went thusly: The user simply missed the info – it was likely added after their initial visit. Changes at ECTThruHike.com happen sporadically – often on a weekly basis, but sometimes queued up for months, then suddenly… all over the pages and all-at-once. When a hiker is initially considering a thru hike, they read through the site (hopefully), and over time, a few additional questions come up. Surely they’re unlikely to re-read pages of (dry?) text to see if those answers were missed or added since that first read-through?

Long Story Short – a changelog (or list of revisions) has been added. Since my conversation mate was a software guy, in homage to him the format is very techie-isque and object oriented – it will appear at the bottom of each static page, but only as new updates are applied going forward. New items will appear on the top, and after a few months old items will drop off the bottom.

I’m under no illusions that this will fix the issue we identified during the hike. People will be people. However, at least this way, they have less reason to not inform themselves and the tools to do so effectively.

Rather than get into the most recent updates here and why the changes were made, I’ll just let you check out the bottom of the Equipment Page as an example of this new function. Hopefully the title above will then make sense. 🙂

Printing the Water Report

An aspect of the East Coast Trail that makes it particularly suited to a first time thru hike is the amount of development that can be drawn upon. There is no other trail of it’s length in the region that can boast it’s level of infrastructure, ease of route finding and availability of raw data.

When combined with some of the more unique characteristics of the ECT – specifically the frequency with which the hiker passes through small towns while en route – it’s pretty much unmatched in terms of suitability for a first-time distance hiker. Add equal parts of fitness + lightweight kit (with knowledge and experience for proper use) + a good attitude … and you’ve got an adventure perfectly suited to a distance-hiking novice.

One of the more useful types of data to have on a trip such as this is water source availability. If you’re the type of hiker that wants to minimize pack weight, the Water Report tab in the ECT Thru Hike Spreadsheet will be perhaps the most weight-friendly item you’ll carry. Those equipped with a good method of water treatment can conceivably carry as little as 1 litre (or 1 kg / 2lbs 3oz) of water at any given time. Those hydrating at water sources and sleeping near a stream can carry even less if they so choose.

You could of course access this data on your smartphone, if so equipped. While I’m all for using technology to it’s fullest potential, I’ll also readily acknowledge when “going old-school” is better. Having the Water Report at your disposal in printed form can really save screen-on time (and therefore battery) on your phone.

If you’re the type of hiker that wants to minimize pack weight, the Water Report tab in the ECT Thru Hike Spreadsheet will be perhaps the most weight-friendly item you’ll carry.

A ready-to-print PDF copy of the Water Report has been linked from the top of the tab. This copy will fit on one double sided page, but for those who’d like to do their own print formatting, the suggested settings are below. Note that you need to print using the Menu from within Google Sheets, not the one for your browser (view image).

Print: Current sheet (with the Water Report tab selected)
Paper Size: Letter (8.5 x 11)
Page Orientation: Landscape
Scale: Fit to Width
Margins: Narrow

Formatting: (select only the following, all optional)
* Document title
* Sheet name
* Current date
* Current time

Row & column headers: (select only the following, optional)
* Repeat frozen rows

Those settings, when combined with the Print: Selected Cells (Column A-Q) & Scale: ~48% can also be used to print the Camping tab on one double sided page. That’s a tonne of data on two pieces of paper.

Re-supply Updates and Sharing the Joy

While driving last weekend to hike my final mysterious non-official southern ECT sections along the coast toward Cape Race, I seized the opportunity to do some research. While a hiking buddy made pit stops for ice cream, I checked out hardware stores and post office locations.

The final post office before Cappahayden is at Fermeuse. It’s tucked away in the most unexpected of spots… on a quiet subdivision side street at the top of a steep hill. At 350 meters off the road route and 28 km from the southern terminus, it’ll probably be of more use to northbounders than southbounders.

During this drive I also passed Dalton’s Home Hardware in Cape Broyle (@ km # 218)… for once while it was actually open. As I expected, Methyl Hydrate is available in the paint department. The real surprise however came at Witless Bay Home Hardware (km # 173). Not only do they have Methyl Hydrate, but also Isobutane Canisters… in a dedicated camping section! It’s expensive @ $12 for a 220g, but it’s a second re-supply option for those using gas (the first being The Outfitters @ km # 96).

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This info has been added to the Spreadsheet and Notes & Tips page.

The #ectthruhike tag has also been suggested by thru hiker Marc Gärtner. We’d better grab it for this real trail before it’s claimed by a theoretical one. This will allow thru hikers to share info online while en-route for a variety of advantages: it will not only allow hikers to publicize themselves and their effort, but also help them identify fellow thru hikers. Sharing in this way also provides great exposure for the trail and serves to inspire next year’s group of thru hikers

Links have also been added to the Thru Hikers 2017 page for two Facebook groups; Hiking the East Coast Trail (preaching to the choir, but local hikers love following along) and Backpacking in Eastern Canada (which has a greater percentage of backpackers as well as people that are unaware of the ECT and the idea of thru hiking it).

Use the GPS that You Already Have

Viewing a Track for Picco's Ridge
Viewing a Track for Picco’s Ridge using the Canada Toporama Map Layer.

This summer I’ve been experimenting with using a Smart Phone as a full featured GPS. I’ve done some off trail hiking using Canada Topo Maps by Atlogis Geoinformatics installed on my Android handset for planning and primary navigation, and so far the results are positive. I’ve found this setup to be faster and easier to use in both the planning and real world in-the-field-use stages than either a dedicated GPS or navigation with map and compass – although I still bring map and compass as a more reliable backup while backpacking.

It may be surprising that a smart phone that many people already own could provide equivalent functionality to a dedicated consumer grade GPS, such as those from Garmin or Magellan. The hardware of a modern smart phone will in fact be more robust in terms of processing power than a GPS – with the added benefit of a larger touch screen and, with the proper precautions, longer battery life.

A section of Picco's Ridge with the older CanMatrix Data Layer
A section of Picco’s Ridge with the older CanMatrix Data Layer.

Although you won’t have a data connection (cellular or WiFi service) when in a remote location, the GPS functionality of your smart phone will still work – just as it would with a dedicated GPS – and when combined with an app such as Canada Topo Maps you can download / cache multiple map layers before heading out. With a full featured app such as this you can create and edit waypoints and routes, create tracks and import / export / share all of this data in a non-proprietary GPX format – usable on any device. Best of all, with many of these apps, and with this one in particular, multiple map layers from NRCan and other sources are included at no extra charge.

Your smart phone coupled with the right software will provide all the functionality of a dedicated consumer grade GPS with a friendlier user interface. However, please note that, just as is the case with any new equipment, there is a learning curve in advanced use. You are essentially turning your smart phone in to a new piece of equipment – these full function programs are loaded with features and data. This is not a typical “install and you’re done” procedure that you see with most mobile app purchases – these are more powerful, complex “apps” – they require time and patience to learn proper use.

I had started writing about my experience with this setup with the intention of adding it as content to ECTThruHike.com, despite the fact that a GPS is not essential on the ECT.  While doing some research however, I found that Alan Dixon had already written a very similar article.

Check out Alan Dixon’s article; How to use your Smartphone as the Best Backpacking GPS.

Alan’s article is excellent and gives a strong argument as to why one would ditch the dedicated device and instead create another use for an item that you are likely already carrying. His article is largely from the perspective of an iPhone user, so I’ll give my take on using an Android device below. Also, I’m based in Canada so my app of choice is a little different.

A list of available map layers that are included with Canada Topo Maps for Android.
A list of available map layers that are included with Canada Topo Maps for Android.

Specifically, here are a few areas in which I have something to supplement his information or where I have a different experience or point of view:

Confirm that your device has a Barometric Sensor
Some budget phones, such as the iPhone 5, iPhone SE or the LG X Power lack a Barometric Sensor. This is not a show stopper, as some popular dedicated GPS units (such as the Garmin eTrex 20x) also lack this sensor. A Barometric Sensor is used in addition to a satellite fix to more accurately determine altitude. Devices lacking this sensor determine altitude solely from satellites, which is acceptable but less than ideal.

Generally, dedicated GPS units in the sub $400 CDN range DO NOT HAVE this sensor, and flagship smart phones DO HAVE this sensor – so for many users, in terms of hardware, the smart phone they already own may actually be a better GPS than a dedicated consumer grade GPS. To determine if your device is so equipped, go to GSM Arena and search with the model name of your handset (“Barometer” or “Barometric Sensor” should be listed under “Features > Sensors” if present).

Choice of Apps and Devices
At least for my current off trail project, I found Canada Topo Maps by Atlogis Geoinformatics to be a great all-around app for planning (at home) and navigation (in the field).

Downloading CanMatrix map data for an area covering Picco's Ridge and White Horse Paths.
Downloading CanMatrix map data for an area covering Picco’s Ridge and White Horse Paths.

I disagree that an iPhone is inherently better when used as a GPS, and in general for back country use. I feel this is not the case for several reasons:

  1. Android phones often have Removable Batteries. This allows you to carry one or more spare Internal Batteries – or better yet extended Internal Batteries – that will not only be lighter, but far more efficient than carrying an External Battery (more on efficiency below).
  2. Android phones often have Removable Storage. For this application, inexpensive expandable storage will allow you download more map files / layers (as well as shoot practically unlimited pictures / video, if that’s your thing).
  3. Android phones will charge without issue directly from non standard power sources, such as a solar panel.

I also disagree that an iPhone has inherently better battery life than a comparable Android device. This is a misconception based at least partially on not so much the shortcoming of one platform, but the other. iOS versions prior to 4 did not allow third party applications (IE. apps not written by Apple) to multi-task, and as a result, iPhones seemed to have “better” battery life. In fact, iOS devices were actually crippled in software in terms of processing power, which artificially gave many users the impression of longer battery life when compared to a similarly equipped Android device. In contrast, the Android OS has had unrestricted multi-tasking since before it was publicly available (v1.6 “Donut” released fall 2009).

As Alan points out in his article however, multi-tasking can almost be considered more of a detriment and annoyance when using a smart phone for many days in the back country. My point is offered here mainly for clarity.

Alan’s article has many great tips for using an iPhone as a GPS, so I’ll offer some additional tips specific to Android users.

If you have an Android Device…

Navigating to a point at the start of Miner's Path.
Navigating to a point at the start of Miner’s Path.
  1. Check if the battery is removable. If so, consider buying one or more additional Internal Batteries, or better yet, replacement Extended Internal Batteries. While these batteries are specific to each handset, they are widely available on sites like Amazon and eBay. They are often inexpensive (less than $30) and are lighter and more efficient in use than an External Battery. For example, a large percentage of a External Battery’s capacity, measured in mAh (milliampere hour) is wasted while transferring charge to a phone. With an Internal Battery there is no loss of energy during transfer, and no weight of additional housing or electronics, making it lighter per mAh than the real world capacity of a External.
  2. If your device is more than a year or two old and you plan on relying on it’s GPS capability, consider doing a Factory Data Reset first (Settings > Backup & Reset > Factory Data Reset). This will effectively refresh and “clean” your device of old software – thereby maximizing efficiency and battery life. It will bring the handset back to it’s original state – similar to when you first acquired or bought it – but will maintain all Android system updates. All third party program data and user data (mainly photos) will be removed, so you’ll first have to confirm that the current cloud sync / backup is done. Generally on an Android Phone, Email, Contacts and Music (via Google Music) will already be cloud synced, so you’ll likely not have to worry about those – they’ll be restored when you automatically create a user account on your device and login after reset.
  3. If your device is more than a year or two old and with a non user replaceable battery, consider having a shop (or technically adept friend or relative) replace the sealed battery. These naturally deplete over time, and a refresh will give your device a new life. These devices with “non user replaceable” batteries always have a source to get a replacement online, and often require just basic tools to install.
  4. Waypoints for The Outport Trail in TNNP on the Google Sat Layer.
    Waypoints for The Outport Trail in TNNP on the Google Sat Layer.

    Finally, if you eventually upgrade to a new handset, for the practice of using it in the back country and as a GPS, look for a device with a few specific features. It’s unlikely you’ll find a single device with everything that follows, but some devices are far more suited to this use than others:
    * Barometric Sensor (aka Barometer or Barometric Altimeter).
    * Removable Battery.
    * Removable / Expandable Storage.
    * Waterproof with an IP67 or IP68 Rating (final digit denotes liquid resistance, higher = better)
    * Optionally, Quick Charge Capability.
    * Optionally, an FM Radio (not a software / streaming app – actual hardware that is part of the handset – due to carrier pressure, this feature is getting difficult to find).

YouTube Gem of the Week 6: Shug

Name: Sean Emery (aka Shug)
Site: http://www.seanemery.com/sean-the-explorer/
Content @: https://www.youtube.com/user/shugemery
KM Traveled: ??

Thus far in the YouTube Gem of the Week series I’ve highlighted videos from a variety of people promoting a variety of methods to make your pack lighter, and by extension, your hike more enjoyable. In a general sense you’ll see that there is a massive shift in the full spectrum of self propelled outdoor enthusiasts toward pack weight reduction. If the primary message is weight reduction however, the underlying message would have to be that this is a grass roots movement – many manufacturers and retailers have yet to fully catch on to the idea.

Shug’s Hammock Hangin How-To Part 1

This week’s author marks a departure from that theme. Shug is a crazy Robin-Williams-esque-cica-1990’s character that promotes the use of one very specific type of equipment – the Hammock. A performer by trade, it’ll take just a couple of seconds before a viewer realizes that Shug has a weird sense of humour – but several complete views before realizing he has a wealth of knowledge. Shug’s 12 Part Hammock How-To for Noobs playlist is a great place for a user to start and learn at their own pace about a totally different method of sleeping in the forest, even in cold temperatures. (Keep in mind… quoted temperatures in Shugs videos are in Fahrenheit – bbrrr!).

It may seem odd that hammocks have gone largely unmentioned in this highlight Video of the Week series so far – there’s a couple of very simple reasons why that’s the case. Many of the previously featured authors – while not even remotely old school – have been doing their own thing for quite a few years. For many of these people, hammocks are still a new area that has never been fully explored. The fact is very few backpackers, once starting as ground sleepers, will evolve to hammock use. It takes a very specific personality type, as well as a very specific terrain, to consider hanging as a better option.

This is also very much a product category occupied exclusively by cottage manufacturers – there are no big names with any “street cred”. Some of the original innovators in the field, such as Tom Hennessy, have recently been successful in getting their products into the retail channel. It’s too soon to tell if the products will sell themselves in an environment where salespeople are not well versed in the strength and weakness of this vastly different shelter.

YouTube Gem of the Week 2: Andrew Skurka

Name: Andrew Skurka
Site: http://www.AndrewSkurka.com
Content @: http://www.AndrewSkurka.com
KM Traveled: 48,000

This is my favorite video on YouTube, and I’ve watched it more than a couple of times over the last few years. Andrew is known worldwide as a long distance hiker that travels far and light while blazing new trails. In this presentation he explains how many of the techniques and skills he’s honed over time can be utilized by the average backpacker to make their own trips more enjoyable.

Although this was shot in 2012, many of the ideas still challenge the conventional wisdom practiced by many backpackers today. Andrew does not use a double wall shelter, does not wear heavy hiking boots and in general minimizes everything he carries – and he hikes through areas far more remote and rugged than our ECT. This of course requires that the hiker have a good assortment of skills and, most importantly, an extremely through understanding of environmental conditions.

The trade-off for hiking long days in relative comfort with such a lightweight kit is a very barebone camp setup… that’s when you eventually do stop for the night. 🙂

Lightweight Cooking with Grocery Store Trail Food

8 minutes + 1 cup of milk...? Well, we'll see about that.
8 minutes + 1 cup of milk…? Well, we’ll see about that.

Deciding what type of Stove System to use for meal preparation on an ECT Thru Hike has some unique challenges – challenges that are closely related to your Food Resupply options.

You can resupply at grocery stores on route – you’ll pass one either on trail, or very close to the trail, about every 60km or less – there’s a tab in the Spreadsheet covering Resupply. You could also resupply via maildrops that you’ve prepared / packaged / sent before hitting the trail. With post office hours being more limited than grocery stores, and the sheer amount of planning and work that goes into maildrops, you may be better off just sticking to the on trail sources. In terms of specialized backpacking food, your options are even more limited – you’ll walk past just one retailer that carries these meals on route – The Outfitters on Water Street in St. John’s.

In terms of other longer trails, the techniques practiced are a combination of on route and maildrop resupply – prepackaged dehydrated backpacker food is rarely used as a long term solution for someone who will be on a trail for weeks or months. For this article, we’ll assume that grocery store resupply is one of the better options for a self supported thru hiker. The question then turns to Stove Systems – how will you actually prepare the food?

Perhaps the most common stove systems in use by backpackers today are ones based on the isobutane canister – used with small stoves such as the MSR Pocket Rocket for example. Unfortunately, you’ll walk past just one store on route that carries isobutane canisters – again, its The Outfitters on Water Street in St. John’s. Another problem with canister stoves is the weight of the canister itself – 13oz full, but more importantly about 5oz empty. If you’re stuck with one or two empty canisters, that’s a lot of dead weight.

Alcohol Stoves are by far the lightest and the easiest stoves for which to find fuel along the length of the trail. There are at least two stores that carry Methyl Hydrate that you’ll walk right past, and many more with various other usable denatured alcohols on or slightly off trail.  The main drawback with these stoves is the lack of flame control – they’re really only designed for boiling water. As such, for warm meals, you’d have to carry dehydrated backpacker food – or other boil only options – from your starting point all the way to St. John’s, then resupply there for the rest of the trail.

You’ll find a breakdown on all types of modern backpacking stoves at the ECT Thru Hike Equipment page. There’s a link to simple DIY instructions for making your own alcohol stove, along with details on lesser used options such as solid fuel and liquid fuel stoves, plus info on Cook Sets.

It’s also worth noting that, like most things “lightweight”, alcohol stoves require more skill and care for safe and effective use. If you’re not going to devote some effort and practice to proper use of this system before hitting the trail, then you’re really better off just sticking to a fool proof (and heavier) isobutane based system. See the Alcohol Stove section of the Equipment page for more info.

I’ve struggled with this food / fuel resupply and weight problem myself, and have developed my own technique to prepare what is perhaps the most common and widely available food for the distance hiker – precooked pasta or rice sides (such as the Knorr Brand sides) – on an alcohol stove, all while using a minimum amount of fuel. In a nutshell, the technique involves 3 steps…. presoak the pasta or rice in cold water, quickly bring it to a boil over the intense flame, then remove / cover allowing it to cool while cooking naturally finishes.

The complete cook system can weigh from just 4 to 6oz, depending on the pot size and if a dedicated windscreen is used – at the lighter end it’s just the aluminum can burner, a small titanium pot and foil tray. This single meal uses about 30ml of fuel, which weighs about 0.6oz. In short, the following process utilizes:

– The most common Food available along the length of the trail.
– The easiest to find Fuel available along the length of the trail.
– and the lightest Stove.

The meal used in this example and in the photo is an 8 minute Pasta side – the type of thing you’ll find in many flavor varieties even at the smaller grocery stores. The process works equally well with Rice sides.

  1. Pour the package contents into your pot and add water. Forget about the package instructions – add just enough water to cover the package contents – we’re trying to minimize fuel usage in this step. Let that sit for 10 minutes, perhaps while you setup your shelter. After 10 minutes, give it a good stir. At this point you may want to add a little more water… basically you want the contents to be immersed before you start cooking.
  2. Add about 30ml of fuel to the burner and light. Once the flame stabilizes, place the pot on, and keep stirring while scraping the bottom… paying particular attention to the perimeter. When you’re not stirring, cover the pot with your lid / tin foil. This takes about 4 minutes, and pretty much needs your full attention, as these alcohol stoves have just one setting when lit – full inferno. Note that the food will burn and stick to your pot if you leave it for more than 20 or 30 seconds at a time.
  3. The flame will go out after about 4 minutes. Place the pot aside and cover the top with lid / tin foil. If using foil, place something on top – your spoon perhaps – or the foil will blow away and the food won’t finish cooking. After about another 5 minutes, it’s time to eat.

Note that this makes an al dente meal, but it’s also facile da trasportare. 🙂  If you’d like your resulting “dish” to be a little more cooked through / softer, add about 10ml more fuel (for a total of 40ml) before lighting your burner. Depending on environmental conditions, 40ml will burn for about 5 minutes. Never, never, ever add fuel to a lit alcohol stove.

The only problem with perfecting this type of thing during a day off / at home is… now I have to eat it.

YouTube Gem of the Week 1: Joe Brewer

Name: Joe Brewer
Site: http://backcountrybanter.com/
Content @: https://www.youtube.com/user/Biophthera
KM Traveled: 13,000

In the last few years videos on YouTube have come a long way in terms of quality of information. In fact, for a niche activity like lightweight backpacking, there’s almost too much information, making it difficult to discern if any one particular author is someone to which you should be listening.

Last weekend’s trip was a bit of an eye opener for me. There seems to be a disconnect between the wealth of info that’s online and how prepared people are when it comes to actually moving along the trail.

It’s basically down to thinking about what can be left behind while still remaining safe – that’s what backpacking today is all about. In the end, what’s usually sacrificed is at the expense of camping comfort, to benefit walking comfort.

First up is Joe Brewer. He has nearly 200 videos covering his Triple Crown Hikes, Ultralight Tips and DIY Projects. His first video covers a topic that I was asked specifically about a few times last weekend – Pack Size.