A night on the trail: Lessons from a first time backpacker

Picture a stereotypical Seattle couple. They own a Subaru, use shampoo you can also eat (goodness knows why), and love the great outdoors. Well, we don’t own a Subaru, but my wife, Daniela, and I match the rest. Over the past two years, we’ve gone from poorly-prepared novice hikers, to kitted-out trail regulars.

Learnings on the trail

Over the many miles, I’ve learned some lessons about hiking. Conveniently, they are useful parables for life.

For example:

  • 1Planning ahead is crucial (know your route, pack well), but once you’re going, just focus on each forward step (to avoid a wrong one or turned ankle).
  • 2The hardest parts are often the first 100 steps (packs are heavy, loads unsettled), and the last 100 before the top (tired legs, foggy mind).
  • 3Most time on the trail blends into a blur, but certain moments will stay with you forever.

This past weekend we decided to take our regular day-hikes to the next level and stay overnight. Neither of us are campers, largely due to some light childhood trauma (sub-zero nights with the Boy Scouts for me, rain and mud-soaked trips for her). So this was a big step for both.

Like any clueless newbie, we began our journey with two places: REI (we live in Seattle, after all) and the internet.

Gear

Getting the gear together for the hike. And, no, the kitty didn't come with us.
Getting the gear together for the hike. And, no, the kitty didn’t come with.

As the Swedes say, “There’s no bad weather, just bad clothes.” As our past camping experiences showed, there’s much truth in this. We started with REI’s helpful Backpacking Checklist. It is a great overview of what you need, but leaves the specifics up to you. Here’s the gear we chose:

Tent

We tried standard two-person tents in the store and found them too short for me and too narrow for both, so we went with a two plus. Based on online reviews and a good value for money, we settled on the REI Half Dome 2 Plus. Our experience (one dry night) was positive. While on the heftier side (5lb 7oz) compared to smaller or more expensive options, it is easy to set up, seems sturdy, and kept us warm in the sub-40 temperatures late at night.

Sleeping bags

Even hot days lead to cold nights in the Pacific Northwest, so a good sleeping bag is a must. Based on REI recommendations (you’ll see a trend in this), I chose the Kelty Ignite Down 16. As a down sleeping bag, it is light and packs tightly. Daniela went with the Mountain Hardwear Laminina Z Flame, solely for the name. Joking. It was REI-recommended of course. She found it very warm, though since the filling is synthetic, it is heavier and a bit bulkier than a down bag. It includes a compression sack (straps that tighten the bag, cinching it smaller), so it ends up about the same size as mine.

In addition to her bag, Daniela also got an REI air-filled sleeping mat, while I roughed it without a mat. This was another quality idea by my wife (a second trend here), particularly since it packs small and light. Without a mat, the ground was bumpy, as expected, but was also surprisingly cold. Down provides limited insulation when compressed, so the night-chilled earth was all too noticeable. I’ll be purchasing an insulated mat by our next trip.

Backpack

Originally I argued for a jury-rigged day-pack over a proper camping backpack to save money. Intelligence (namely, my wife) prevailed. Stopping by REI, pack-expert David walked me through my options. He loaded each pack up, 15 then 25 pounds, and I walked the store to feel the fit. After some deliberation, I settled on the Osprey Aether 60 (the 60 refers to the number of liters the main pocket can hold). It fit well, has solid reviews, and the mid-range price wasn’t wallet-busting. The bag is mid-size for backpacks, and I’m a bit worried it will be tight for multi-day trips, so I may upgrade to the 70 or 80 liter version.

It was interesting moving from day-packs to a proper backpack. Instead of resting on on your shoulders, the bulk settles on your waist. Going from 10lb day-packs to 25lb backpacks wasn’t nearly the challenge I expected. It is very important to balance the weight however. Heading up, I was lucky to get the balance just right. On the way back however, the center of gravity was too high and my shoulders suffered for it. Packing remains a dark art, but YouTube videos and experience are helping me improve.

Eating

Food is one of the areas where we look forward to experimenting. The initial investment is low and each trip you get to make new choices on what to bring.

The food

For our first trip, we kept it pretty simple. ReviewOutdoorGear, a YouTube channel, has an overview on what food to bring, which we found useful. A particularly good tip is to eat sugars during the day for quick energy and fats for dinner, to burn at for warmth while sleeping. A few learnings from our first experience:

  • An age-dried salami roll was compact, delicious, and filling.
  • Mountain House dried beef stroganoff was surprisingly tasty and easy to prepare. However, despite being billed as “two servings”, it left both of us hungry. At $8 each, they’ll start getting pricey.
  • Morning tea. Perhaps a little luxury, but what’s better than waking up after a cold night to stunning natural views and a hot cup of tea?
  • For snacks, nuts, dried fruit, and Snickers bars (my fav) kept us energized while hiking.
It might not be pretty, but the makeshift tin-foil wind-shield had a cup of water boiling in about four minutes.
It might not be pretty, but the makeshift tin-foil wind-shield had a cup of water boiling in about four minutes.

Cooking it up

ReviewOutdoorGear also had a review of a super-cheap ($20, as of writing) cooking stove, which was a lot less costly than most other options. The stove is light, compact, and worked well. Since it is an open flame, and highly susceptible to wind, I made a wind-shield out of tin foil. This helped concentrate the heat, speeding cooking time and saving fuel.

Everything else

To round things out, we finished off with…

  • Compass and map: Naturally.
  • Leatherman multi-tool: We probably won’t use half the features (who needs a screwdriver while hiking?), so I expect we’ll get separate tools in the future.
  • Water filter: Essential to avoid carrying 30lbs of water. I found it slow to process the water, but it is small, light, and easy to use.
  • First-aid kit: The only thing we carry which I hope to never use.
  • Headlamp: Fun and surprisingly effective when heading into dusk and darkness.
  • Paracord: We used this to hang our food to avoid bears, but is also good to have around.
  • Clothes (of course): Lots of decisions go into this which I won’t cover here. Basically I focused on: layering for the hike and plenty of warmth for the cold night.
  • And various other miscellaneous items.

The Hike

Snow Lake is one of the most beautiful and accessible hikes in the Cascades. The walk up provides sweeping views of mountains, then just over the saddleback you descend into the stunning lake basin. On a sunny weekend, it is also one of the most popular hikes in the area. To get a little distance from the crowds, we decided to continue our hike another couple miles up to Gem Lake.

The trail is well-maintained and moderate difficulty at worst. Watch for false turns since there are many well-trod spurs to look-out points which will lead you astray. Often these false trails will be marked with a small stack of rocks to encourage you to stay on track. Despite arriving close to 5PM at Gem Lake, there were several good tent spaces still available. We made camp, cooked dinner, and set about the hard work of relaxing beside the lake.

Overlooking Snow Lake.
Overlooking Snow Lake.

If staying overnight at Gem Lake, I highly recommend taking some time to explore the area. There are several promontories which provide expansive views of Snow Lake and the surrounding mountains.

Don’t over-step the small details though. Mountain flowers tuck into cracks, providing welcome splashes of color against the white snow and gray rock while waterfalls cascade through narrow cravasses, feeding the watershed below.

If you enjoy the great outdoors, it doesn
If you enjoy the great outdoors, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Our preparation and quality gear resulted in an enjoyable start to our backpacking adventures. Any good trip also brings new lessons, and there are several areas of improvement for our next trip. For one, I’ll be buying a mat for my sleeping bag.

My 2015 goals

I’ve never subscribed much to New Year’s resolutions. January commitments always seem destined for March guilt. But, if there’s anything my first year at Amazon has taught me, it is the power of setting goals and sticking to them. So, what the hell.

If there’s one thing I’ve missed the past few years, it is building web sites, from design to code. I miss this work too much to let my skills atrophy, so in 2015 I’m going to get back into the business. My work at Amazon is teaching me program management and metrics, which I hope will be an ideal match with my renewed technical skills.

Launch PeekCode.com

PeekCode.com is a new website I’m developing and plan to launch in February. On this site I will break down the design and code of interesting and clever, but also — importantly — useful, features from websites that I come across. PeekCode will be my place to experiment with marketing, advertising, and building up a subscriber base. By the end of 2015, my goal is to have 500+ subscribers and have earned $1000+ in advertising revenue.

Earn a new computer

My current computer, a 2009 MacBook Pro, has been a solid workhorse for the past 5 years. A battery replacement and new SSD in 2014 gave it a new lease on life, but it is seriously showing its age. I don’t want to just replace it though, I want to earn a new one through web work (freelancing, selling WordPress themes or graphics). While I expect a new computer to cost about $2500, my goal is to earn a $5000+ in freelance revenue.

Learn JavaScript, properly

I’ve always been good at hacking my way through actual code. I can pretty easily break things until they work, Google my way through projects, and blindly stumble my way to a functional product. But I’ve never been able to sit down, map out a set of functionality, and code it through without referencing every second function. In 2015, that will end. My wonderful wife gave me JavaScript: The Definitive Guide, and I’m going to walk the fundamentals before I run (for once).

Drive

Being a city-boy, I’ve managed to go my entire life without needing a license. I’ve been told that makes me a good European, but a poor American. Shudder. That will end in 2015.

And that’s it. We’ll see how I’m doing in 2016.

Review of The Maltese Falcon: The Quintessential Film Noir; In Book Form

Nowadays, pretty much any major movie hitting theaters comes with a novelization. Typically these are shot-for-shot, line-for-line remakes spread over a few hundred pages. They’re probably for those that think the book is always better than the movie, and a nice way to earn a little extra dough from existing properties.

If you’ve seen the movie, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett comes across as one of these books. While it preceded the Humphrey Bogart movie by 11 years, if you’ve seen the film you’ve read the book, well, nearly so. This is, by no means, a bad thing. The movie is first-rate, the pinnacle of the film-noir detective story – hard-bitten detective, damsel in distress, mysterious foreigner, and promise of riches bought at the cost of your life – it’s all here. The movie is nearly a complete recreation of Hammett’s book, making it difficult to review the one without touching on the other. So I won’t try.

[quote position=”right”]“Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.”[/quote]

The book itself is very visual. Characters are drawn rather than expressed. Sam Spade, the smooth, calm detective at the center of the novel, is made of evocative Vs, the V of his shoulders and upper body, and particularly his cold, V-shaped smile. Hammett evocatively describes Spade as “rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.” Heck, one of the main villain’s, a rotund man of genial humor is named “Mr. Gutman”.

As you’ve guessed, this is not a subtle book. Actions are clearly defined. If a character’s motives are not, you can be sure, at the least, they’re no good. The story isn’t complex and surprises are few. Emotions are shown rather than felt: a trembling hand, a guttural swear, and, most often, a cold stare.

The book moves swiftly and the mystery easily excites attention. Honestly, if there is one failing of either, it’s that the film is not even more faithful to its source. Sam Spade in the novel is similarly smooth to Bogart’s depiction, but he’s also harsher and almost cruelly detached. The setting of the book is darker, smokier, and more sinister. Everything, and everyone, gets tied up into ominous knots. In Spade’s office, early in the book, “ashes on the desk twitched and crawled in the current.”

A general sense of malevolence permeates the pages. Without spilling the beans, the book sets up Spade’s actions in the end much better. The movie ends with everything neatly tied up, the sharp detective seeing justice is done. The book ends on a darker note. One of the last times we hear of Sam Spade: “His voice was not loud. It was bitter. Sam went out and slammed the door.”

Review of Cat Sense: Deconstructing the modern cat; with only partial success

I’m a cat owner. My little Sasha is a bundle of fur, energy, and perplexing behaviour. Cat Sense, which promised to unravel my feline friend, peaked my interest. Written by an anthrozoologist, John Bradshaw, the book covers the past, present, and possible future of the common feline. It’s a compelling read, and worth the time of the considerate cat owner, though it isn’t perfect.

The book is structured in roughly three sections: past, present, and future.

The Past

The history section is an entertaining read. In the ancient world, cats were revered as personifications of the gods, inspiring religious cults from Greece to Egypt. In the Middle Ages, they were viewed as the devil incarnate and actively persecuted. Many believe that killing cats probably helped spread the black plague since rodents, prime carriers of the disease, could reproduce unchecked. Bradshaw notes this is probably true, though likely exaggerated.

The evolutionary side is less interesting, partly because the  genetic lineage is quite muddled but also because the narrative meanders too much.

The Present

[quote position=”right” cite=”John Bradshaw, Cat Sense”]”The meow is usually directed at people… Cats need to meow because we humans are generally so unobservant.”[/quote]

The second part, looking at the present-day cat, explores everything from cat physiology, early feline development, to how cats manage manage relations with humans and other cats. It even explores the question: “Do cats have feelings?” (They do, probably.) Bradshaw supports many of these sections with his own personal cat experience, which adds levity but helps cloak one nagging issue with this book. Despite the subtitle, “The New Feline Science”, there doesn’t seem to be much depth to feline science. While the book seeks to explain many common feline behaviors with the latest research, this is often one or two studies with tiny sample-sizes. Bradshaw routinely notes there’s just not enough evidence to reach solid conclusions. While the transparency is commendable, it makes it harder to become “…a Better Friend to Your Pet” as the subtitle concludes.

Playing for cats still closely mimics hunting, unlike dogs, which have abstracted play far from the original intent.
Playing for cats still closely mimics hunting, unlike dogs, which have abstracted play far from the original intent.

This section could also be better organized. Many earlier chapters cover similar ground, so the same points are often reiterated. Nonetheless, there is some interesting content here. Particularly compelling is how significant the first few weeks of kitten-hood are on the personality and habits of a cat. Delaying human interaction with a kitten by only a few weeks can make it much less friendly toward humans for the rest of its life. Bradshaw also provides an intriguing and balanced summary of the controversial impact non-native cats have on local wildlife.

The Future

Due to breeding preferences, the future may be cloudy for our furry little friends.
Due to breeding preferences, the future may be cloudy for our furry little friends.

Lastly, Bradshaw looks into the crystal ball of human behavior and cat genetics to get a sense of where the common feline is heading. Unlike dogs, which evolved over thousands of years in close quarters with humans, cats are a recent addition to human households. As such, they’ve had less time to develop the emotional and behavioral cues that make dogs such exceptional pets. And cats may not get the chance. Bradshaw notes widespread spaying and neutering means feral cats are more likely to reproduce, selecting against traits ideal for domestication. Furthermore, human-managed breeding is often done for appearance rather than behavior. Without more pressure to select domestic-friendly traits, Bradshaw sees a cloudy future for the domestic cat.

Despite the deficiencies, if you’d like to get a better sense of where your cat is coming from, Cat Sense is worthwhile read. It may not be the manual decoding your cat’s behavior the subtitle suggests, but it will give you a better understanding of where your cat came from, and where its brethren are likely heading. Hopefully more researchers will take up the study of our inscrutable feline friends, filling in the many gaps in our understanding that Bradshaw brings to light.