Some friends have asked questions about my trip, and I’ve thought up a few other things since last we met, so consider this a Part 2 to my earlier post.

Heat and Light

A friend asked if I had a campfire; I did not. Although open-flame fires were allowed in the area I was in I prefer the simplicity of a stove of some sort. But I should distinguish between campfires and wood-burning stoves:

  • Everyone knows what a campfire is, I suspect. You’ve got a fire-ring, probably made of stones, and you put wood in the middle, and you burn it. Building a campfire either requires newspaper or other starter, or else mad skillz. Cooking over a campfire requires some extra gear, as you probably don’t want to put your pot right in the middle (and even if you do, you’re going to need some way to get it out again). And, of course, you need some way to put your fire out when you’re done; lots of water, followed by dirt and stirring, is the traditional method.

Note that you should never build a fire ring where there isn’t one. Find an established site that already has a ring if you want a fire. If you simply must build a new ring, try to tear it down as completely as possible when you’re done. Put the rocks back where you found them, scatter the ash around, and cover it up with duff.

A campfire requires you to collect firewood, build a fire, cook over it, and then put it out when you’re done. Personally, I find that too much trouble for a solo trip, except possibly in emergencies (if you need heat, a campfire will do a much better job than a stove, though in that case you should try to build your fire so that you can sit facing it, with your back to a large rock or cliff-face, to reflect the heat). It’s worth noting that in his tale of hiking in the Sierras1, Clarence King tells of finding a fallen tree every night and just setting it ablaze. How times have changed.

  • A wood-burning stove is a portable, generally cylindrical thing that you can load twigs, pine pine needles, pine cones, etc. into and set them on fire, and it will act to contain and concentrate the heat, so you can set your pot on top and cook. Some backpackers swear by W.B. stoves, as they allow you to completely eliminate the weight of fuel that you would otherwise need to carry. They still require you to collect wood, as with a campfire, but the wood that they burn is small, and can generally be scavenged while you are hiking (Colin Fletcher mentions2 filling a bag with twigs and the like while walking, so that it would be full by the time he stopped for dinner). So for a bit of inconvenience while you are hiking, you can cut back on the weight of your fuel (my small fuel canister was 7.1 oz) entirely. Of course, you have to make absolutely sure you have enough fuel to cook with, and once you’ve “turn on” a stove like this you can’t just turn it off.

(It occurs to me that, even with a wood-burning stove, you still have to carry your fuel; you just don’t have to carry more than one or two meal’s worth. A small, but possibly significant, distinction.)

(Fletcher mentions a thing called a Sierra Stove, a wood-burning stove that uses a battery-powered fan to kick the fire into high-gear. Apparently the newest model weighs 10 oz, less than my stove and fuel, and, of course, does not require you to carry fuel, except for the battery. Solar charger, anyone?)

Note that neither option is really suitable for alpine hiking, above the tree-level, where, as the name implies, there are few-to-no trees. Often, campfires are prohibited at high elevations anyway, for various reasons.

For a group, a campfire is a jolly thing to gather ‘round, I won’t argue with that. But for an individual, or two people, it seems like more effort than it’s worth (again, excepting emergency situations).

More on cooking and food

Some people go without stoves or fires completely, preferring the simplicity of going “no-cook”. Almost any pre-cooked, dehydrated-or-freeze-dried food will rehydrate slowly with soaking, and freeze-dried vegetables can be eaten “raw”, if you don’t mind the rather strange crunch. For a longer trip, where the weight of the required fuel starts to add up, I could see the appeal.

It’s worth noting, however, that hot food is more than just a luxury. If you are cold and trying to warm up, hot food actually has more calories than the equivalent cold food, because your body doesn’t have to do the work of converting the food to energy, and then using that to warm you up. It can just draw on the heat of the food directly. So it’s worth considering the “caloric deficit” you will be incurring by not having that extra source of calories to draw on in the evenings, when it’s cold and you’re getting ready for bed, or mornings, when it’s cold and you’re trying to wake up.

(You could probably rig up some kind of black “solar heating” pouch in which rehydrating food could be placed, and attach it to the outside of your pack while you walked in the afternoon and evening. That would give you some warmth at the end of the day.)

Selecting a site

Selecting a campsite is half science, half art, and one that has to be at least partly learned through experience. I’ve done it exactly twice, so bear in mind that everything I’m about to say is the product of book-larnin’ rather than real-world experience.

At a minimum, a campsite should be flat, reasonably far away from surface water, and “durable”. Durable here means, able to survive your camping on it without undue damage. Solid granite is durable, although you need a free-standing tent; sand is durable, as is forest duff. Grass and moss are not durable; they’ll start to suffer from being trod upon and smothered under your tent even after just one day.

Whether to reuse an established campsite is an interesting dilemma. Ideally there would be no “established” campsites in wilderness areas. Everyone would camp on durable surfaces, and would take care to restore their sites when they broke camp. But that doesn’t happen, either because of carelessness, or sometimes necessity. So the question becomes, do you reuse an established campsite, and possibly add to the damage to the wilderness it is causing, or do you strike out on your own, and risk spreading the damage?

  • If you feel confident in your leave-no-trace skills, you can safely find your own unused site. It’s just a matter of how good you are at selecting a site that won’t suffer from your presence, and how well you can put it back to the way it was (move any rocks you pushed aside back where they were, etc.). And avoiding the use of an established site will possibly give the site a chance to heal and return to what it was.

  • On the other hand, Forest Service research has found that an established site does all the damage it will do after very few repeated uses: around six, I believe. So while using a well-established site won’t make things better, it also won’t make things any worse. This is probably the best choice in high-traffic areas; better for a few localized sites to bear the brunt of the human impact, than for it to be spread around a huge area, in a misguided attempt to “be kind to Nature”.

I camped in a “pristine” site my first night, partly because none of the established sites in the area were particularly established, and partly because I was confident that I could leave it the same as I found it. I camped in an established site my second night, although that was partly on accident: after hiking up the hill, away from the trail, I “discovered” a fire ring. I partly dismantled it before I left (to make a wind shield for my stove).

There are a few other concerns when selecting a site: don’t camp directly under a tree (falling branches), or a the base of a cliff (at night, in the high country, you can hear boulders calving off the mountains and crashing down the slopes). Avoid the edges of meadows, as animals tend to skirt around meadows rather than walking through them. Don’t camp in anything that looks like a drainage: ask yourself what a spot would look like in a downpour, and if the answer is “a river”, look somewhere else. Don’t camp too near the trail, but also don’t camp too far away from it. (One evening, coming back from a walk, I had the panic-inducing experience of not being able to find my campsite for five minutes or so. This kind of high-cardio “exercise” can be avoided by making good mental notes of how to get to your site from all directions.) If you’re planning to stay awhile, easy access to water is probably worth thinking about (obviously, if you’re packing up first thing in the morning, this is not so much of a concern).

Particular areas may have additional regulations about where you can and can’t camp: distances from trails and streams, below or above certain elevations, etc. Obviously you want to know these before you set out, and not find out about them when a ranger comes a-knockin’ at your site.

CalTopo and PDFMaps

If you do any kind of outdoorsy stuff, you should know about CalTopo. CalTopo is, like all great things, full of features hidden under an obscure interface. Some of the things you can do with it include

  • Layer together any number of maps, with varying opacities. (I like to use USFS topo maps as a base layer, with a semi-transparent normal relief layer above it.) Layers include various kinds of maps (satellite, topo, Google Maps, etc.) but also things like land management (BLM, FS, NPS, etc.), recent fire activity, etc.

  • Draw paths and shapes on your maps, and save them to your Google/Yahoo account. Tracing trails allows you to get an elevation profile.

  • View a “summit view” from any point, showing you the horizon with major peaks labeled.

  • Share maps with others, or make them publicly available.

  • “Print” maps, with all their layers and shapes, as geo-referenced PDFs, which you can then load onto your phone and follow with your GPS.

The last bit is accomplished via PDFMaps. The app itself is free; they have a “map store” where you can buy maps, but if you’re creating your own, why would you?

  1. Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, Clarence King 

  2. The Complete Walker IV, Colin Fletcher and Chip Rawlins; A.A. Knopf, New York, 2002