Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Backcountry shoes, a necessary expense?

In the ongoing quest to save the money you've got to spend outfitting yourself on backcountry gear, shoes come up a lot. You see a lot of big articles on the importance of wearing the proper gear, and if you step foot into any outfitting store, you'll see dozens (if not hundreds) of shoes, all of different types and for different occasions, most inordinately expensive. Some sales people make it sound like if you don't buy this $140 pair of hiking boots or trail runners, the instant you step off the concrete, a cascade of shin splints and sprained ankles will ensue- or, even worse, it'll wait until you're exactly at the halfway point of your trip, meaning you'll have to slog back on your hands and knees!

I could pontificate about that for hours; instead, here's a great discussion on that, from the ever reliable Wes Seiler. Long story short, though, as long as you're wearing reliable foot gear and paying attention, you don't have to spend big bucks. When you have to spend the money, you'll be experienced enough to know it, so to speak.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

How young is too young for the backcountry?

This past weekend, I took the kids camping- one aged seven and a half, one aged twenty-one months. We stayed in a private "front-country" campground, with full-service bathrooms, fresh water, et cetera, but in close proximity to Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway (mere minutes from both). Even with all those lovely amenities, though, it was certainly an ordeal. Trying to wrangle two kids at home can be hard enough, but out camping brings it's own set of unique joys that can quickly turn even the nicest and most understanding parent into a gibbering mess. But, all things considered, the trip went very well, and we had a great time. We didn't get to do some of the hiking and wilderness exploring I wanted to, though, but that's the sort of thing you have to expect when you go anywhere with kids of a certain age.

So where's the sweet spot, in age versus itinerary, in what you do with your kids at what ages?

Well, that's a hard question to answer, as there are almost an infinite number of variables at play there. My almost second-grader wants to hike the Gunsight Pass in Glacier National Park. Can she do it? Probably, but it'll take everything she has, I'd imagine. Can I bring her brother? No way in h-e-double hockey sticks. There are some hardcore folks out there that WILL do stuff like that, or attempt to, but I think you really have to be realistic about those sorts of things and say, no. Unless you are particularly hardcore, that's just setting yourself up for failure.

Now, that being said, that doesn't mean you have to never venture outdoors with your kids until they're big enough to do so, you just have to do it in manageable, bite-sized chunks that they can have fun with and appreciate. You can do what we did, and stay in the front-country somewhere, and use that as a base to explore out. If things go wrong, or kids get tired, or something happens, you have an easy base nearby with all your stuff in order to manage it. It can't be far, because lots of times, you'll end up like the gentleman in the picture to the left- carrying the kids instead of a pack (great tips for doing just that, in fact, at Colorado Mountain Mom),

You won't be able to do that wicked backcountry stretch right now, but hey, that's okay. Really, it is. I know that a lot of this seems like common sense, but, unfortunately, it seems like common sense is an uncommon virtue these days. Backcountry trips can be a lot harder than they seem, which is why you need to undertake the right preparation for 'em. You don't have to be scared by it, just do it in manageable chunks like this, and you'll be able to get your kids started and ease them into getting outside, experiencing camping and the outdoors, before taking the big step and hitting the backcountry in full.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Getting into the Backcountry- While you still can

At left is a picture of Yosemite National Park's beautiful Half Dome, a granite dome that's probably the park's most recognizable feature. Beautiful, isn't it? You can see why Yosemite is one of the most popular national parks in the country, and it is- rated best for RVs overall and one of the busiest, seeing almost four million visitors in 2012. You can even hike all the way to the top of Half Dome, though it's pretty grueling and involves the use of cables and supports that have been installed there for that express purpose- or an even harder technical rock climb.

The picture looks incredible, doesn't it? I don't know about you, but it makes me want to get on a plane and fly to California right now, and hit the backcountry. But as incredible as the picture looks, there's an enormous problem also on display in it. Life-changing, as far as Yosemite National Park (and California as a whole) goes.

Can you see it? I admit, it's hard without some assistance. Let me show you a picture taken from that same camera exactly four years earlier.

And the difference is... snow. Lots and lots of snow. That's because California's been suffering under a four-year drought that looks like it won't be abating any time soon. And that's caused a cascading effect, such as the one you see there. We still don't know what the full effects will be for parks like Yosemite; according to the National Park Service, it's at a much higher risk for fires that could ravage it's natural beauty; at risk for a dramatic increase in non-native animal species, like the New Zealand mud snail, which can completely cover river streambeds, displacing native organisms and making traversing the streambed impossible; and a huge risk of allowing invasive plant species, like the Himalayan blackberry, to thrive and form impenetrable thickets that replace native vegetation.

But, still, Yosemite will exist in some form. It's not like Half Dome is going to go away anytime soon. But what about a national park who takes it's name from something it's predicted to have none of within the next twenty to thirty years?

I'm talking, of course, about Glacier National Park. No need for a long spiel; here's a picture instead.

The point I'm trying to get at here is that there isn't a better time than now for getting into the Backcountry and enjoy it with your kids. My daughter wants to hike Glacier, as I've said many times, and if we don't get out there, she might not be able to. It's incredibly unlikely that she'll be able to hike it with her kids- well, I take that back. Glacier National Park isn't going anywhere; it'll always be Glacier National Park. But the Glaciers that give it it's moniker will be gone forever. The thousands of years it took to form them, and they'll be gone before our kids can take their kids to see them.

We can bicker and argue about climate change and global warming and whatnot, I'm not sure how that got to be such a huge, partisan issue in this country, but the bottom line is that if you want to see it and enjoy it, you better get your butt out there. Don't put that off any longer- and don't be intimidated by it! It might be a big jump, but you can get it done- and we're here to help you.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Tackling Backcountry Anxiety Syndrome- Ticks!

Backcountry Anxiety Syndrome is a condition where things that aren't as scary as they seem to the uninitiated conspire to keep people from enjoying nature. Recently, I was chatting with an acquaintance of mine, and this came up. He said:

"I'm not scared of much. Heights, snakes, tight spaces, whatever..... but ticks..... those things give me the mega-creeps. Tiny little disease vectors that suck your blood. Ugh."

It's true. Ticks are a kind-of bugaboo for a lot of people, especially in the last twenty years with the resurgence of Lyme's Disease and other fun things like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and the newest and fun-est one of the bunch, Alpha-Gal allergies. That one comes from the Lone Star tick. For those of you who don't know, Lone Star ticks- with a distinctive dot on their back- are the ones that pass on the alpha-gal allergy, which makes you unable to eat any non-primate mammalian meat potentially ever again. No beef, no pork, no venison, mutton, game meat, etc.

In fact, recently I had a person come into the emergency department I work at with a full-blown anaphylactic reaction; turns out he'd picked the pepperoni off a slice of pizza his family had ordered and even the residual amount of grease or whatever left sent him to the ED via ambulance.

So, the right thing to do is panic- stay indoors, carpet bomb your property with pesticides, wear a human tick collar- right? Nah. You definitely need to watch out for ticks if you're out and about, but with a little vigilance, you don't have much to worry about.

Some things to remember- ticks generally crawl from the ground. They don't usually attach from brushing up against something or dropping onto you, but it's not impossible for that to happen. They don't seek out prey this way, though. Their instinct is to crawl from the ground and up as far as they can, lots of times in the hair, behind the ear, etc.

Wear long pants and tuck them into your socks if you're in a high-density tick area, and stay to the trails- you shouldn't be bushwacking too much anyhow, which can destroy delicate environments. Check yourself frequently in tick country, and remove ticks early- earlier the better. When you do remove ticks, don't squeeze their bellies, you need to grab them by the head with tweezers and gently pull until they pop off. Might pull skin up, too, when you do that, but that's okay. Steady backwards pressure, they'll come off. Don't use matches or anything like that, makes it more likely they'll regurgitate their stomach contents- especially if they're distended.

You can also buy sprays you can put on your clothing that'll instill them with insecticide; apparently, they work pretty good, but I'm not 100% sold on that. Also, it goes without saying maybe, but make sure you use plenty of insect repellent! Take this advice, and don't let ticks keep you from getting out in the backcountry!

If you want the full run-down, see the Centers for Disease Control's excellent website on ticks and tick prevention.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A great article from the famous Wes Siler

"If you're new to camping, the best advice I can give you is to visit a National Park. No matter which one you go to, you'll find beautiful views, clean facilities and an accesible, safe experience. As an experienced outdoorsman, I like knowing that National Parks have consistent rules and policies across the country; if I need a place to camp a the last minute, late at night, I know I can find that at a National Park and I know what to expect. The Parks Service charges a $10-25 entrance fee per car, an amount that can be paid upon departure if you arrive after the gate closes for the night and which is reinvested in maintaining and preserving the park. Or, do what I do and buy an annual pass for $80. That's a good deal and supports a good cause."

Couldn't have said it better myself. Read the whole article here.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Backcountry Backstory- Where our dads come from

Backcountry Dad started as a resource for parents from broken places- dads facing custody battles over their kids. Who came in as a step-parent and were having a tough time connecting with their kids. Who worked so hard to put food on the table, they couldn't spend the time they wanted with their kids. Even "stay at home" parents whose focus is the kids, see their spouse or children's other parent infinitely less than the kids themselves- but always seem stuck in the house or running errands.

Since then, we've wanted to open up and make this a resource for all parents, everywhere, no matter their background or circumstances. But we don't want to ignore where we came from; we want to reach out to those who, for whatever reason, need a hand up in these sorts of endeavors the most. Limited time, limited budget, limited knowledge- those don't have to be barriers to getting outside and having an epic backcountry trip with your kids.

If you're reading this, trying to cope with how to make the most out of twenty weekends a year and a couple weeks in the summer- we're here for you.

If you've just had another round of "You're not my real mom/dad!"- we're here for you.

If you've just put in your sixth twelve-hour day in a row, and are so exhausted you can hardly move- we're here for you.

If you've just had another round of shuttling between mindless extracurricular activities and haven't been out of the house for anything not errand-related in weeks- we're here for you.

If you're just a mom or dad on a budget who wants to get out and explore the great outdoors with your kids- we're here for you, too.

Keep your chin up, whoever you are, and stay tuned, because we're going to have the gear review, trip planners, and general advice you need to get into the backcountry and have a great time.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Preparing your kids for your backcountry adventure

You're embarking on your backcountry journey for yourself, in some part, it's true- it has to be true. Discovering yourself in the untamed wilderness of the backcountry, and seeing things you can't see anywhere else. But the biggest part about it is letting your kids have that experience- give them the opportunity to enjoy the things we enjoyed when we were kids.

But how do you prepare for and choose the right trip for your kids? That's probably one of the most important questions. Now, I'm not saying you've got to micromanage every single aspect of the trip to the tiniest detail. Part of the fun is experiencing the unique and random stuff that happens along the way, and some of the best stories I have today are about when things went horribly wrong, and how we dealt and coped with that. But you do have to embark on some preparation, or else your goal of getting your kids to enjoy nature with you could backfire spectacularly.

My daughter is probably at an average fitness level for her age group. She swims laps every week for forty-five minutes at her swimming practice, and, if she keeps it up, will soon be a better swimmer than I am. She plays soccer every weekend in the spring. We often go for family walks around the neighborhood, where she'll alternate between pulling the dog on the leash and having the dog pull her. She's got it in her head she wants to hike the Gunsight Pass trail at Glacier National Park this August. Now, that's a hell of a trail; some of the best scenery and beauty of any in the entire world. But it's twenty-miles long, and even on the "easier" east-to-west route, it's got elevation gains of up to five hundred feet a mile. Five hundred feet a mile? Doesn't sound so bad, does it? Consider that in three miles, you'd have walked up from the ground floor of the Empire State building to the top of the tallest radio spire- not the observation deck, the top of the spire. To give you an idea on that, get on a treadmill, set it to an eight-degree incline, and walk that for three miles without stopping.

Doesn't sound like something for the faint of heart now, does it? Or something you want to set your kid on without getting an idea of theirs, and your, capabilities? Pushed too hard, and at the very least, you're liable to get an overdose of resentfulness. At worst, you could potentially endanger your child's health.

Last weekend, I had my daughter load her school backpack up with her sleeping bag, a couple bottles of Gatorade, a few books ("Junie B. Jones" and "My Little Pony" chapter books), and a journal she could write in, a total of about seven or eight pounds of weight, and we set out from our house to walk to the "end of the road and back". The trip is about two miles in total, with elevation gains and drops of 40-60 feet along the way. My daughter, who's almost eight, and has never been on a serious hike before did pretty good. Just before the turnaround point, she mentioned she was tired, and her back hurt a little. We took a short break to re-hydrate, make sure her pack was tightened appropriately, and headed back.

Along the way, when she'd mention being tired, we'd play games or sing songs; I asked her which grade she liked the best so far, she made me sing "Frozen" songs with her (she said my singing would scare away any bears), we played "I spy". She would occasionally complain about being tired or her back hurting; I acknowledged her concern and told her not to worry, and then did my best to distract her. I got her to do a dissertation on how to bake a cake in Minecraft and her plans for building New New York City before, about a quarter-mile from home, her voice croaked and she said, "Daddy, are we going to stop? I'm tired."

That was the key- I could tell she had gone about as far as she could. I showed her how close we were to home, and asked her if she thought we could make it the rest of the way- she took a deep breath and said, yes. In fact, she even raced me when we got into sight of the house, winning handily. All in all, the trip had taken about forty-five minutes or so, so a pace of just over two miles an hour, with a total of 200 feet of elevation gain (and loss).

Then I told her that the hike she wanted to do at Glacier was four times that long- per day, for three days. It didn't dissuade her even so, and she might have been able to do eight miles that day if I pushed her- but that's the point. A little pushing might be okay, but you have to be able to recognize what's getting over a psychological hump, and where the real physiological limits for your child is. And since most people are pediatric medical experts, you need to make sure you're erring on the side of caution. If it's not fun for your kids, then it defeats the whole purpose! If you endanger their health or well-being, it completely defeats the purpose of what you're trying to do.

Try to make it a once a weekend thing, to take your kid(s) out just walking for an hour or so, Try to go a different route each time, to give everyone something new to see. Make sure you plan lots of games and side activities, even if it does involve you singing "Love is an Open Door" in front of some raised-eyebrow onlookers. Eventually, add a pack; first with light stuff, then replicating what you're going to take on your trip (at least the approximate weight). Work your way there, and enjoy the time with your kids.

And don't be disappointed if you can't do what you want, if the romanticized vision in your head doesn't come true. If we can't do Gunsight Pass this year, because we don't get a permit, or because we feel like it's too much for her physically, it's not a big deal! The folks at Glacier will tell you there are no bad adventures at Glacier, and it's true! If you can't do the "famous" stuff, there is plenty of other stuff you can do. That's why we're here. We're going to help identify that, so you and your kids have plenty of great options for stuff to do together.