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 dads from broken places- dads facing custody battles over their kids. Dads who came in as a step-parent and were having a tough time connecting with their kids. Dads who worked so hard to put food on the table, they couldn't spend the time they wanted to with their kids. Even "stay at home" dads whose focus is the kids, see their spouse or children's mother 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 dads, 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 dads 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 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 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.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Backcountry on a Budget- Renting Gear, Part One

As we've gone over before, it absolutely doesn't take breaking the bank to get the equipment you need to hit the backcountry with your kids- and the right equipment, too, not Chinese-made stuff that'll break at the first opportunity. Still, it can be a pretty significant investment. Some people look at a price tag of $500 for all the gear they'd need to hit the backcountry, and go, pfft! Only $500! If you can't afford that, then why do it? But $500 is a lot of money... even half of that is a pretty significant sum for a lot of folks. And then you've got the problem that buying gear for kids necessitates constant replacement, if only because kids go and do that annoying thing called "growing up". Eventually, the gear you buy 'em won't fit anymore, for that reason if no other. And unlike other stuff, you really have to buy appropriately-sized gear if you want to hit the backcountry with your kids. Buy the wrong size hiking shoes, for instance, and I guarantee you'll be carrying your kids' gear, your kid, or both halfway across Creation, and make a miserable time for everyone involved to boot.

So, what's the answer? Well, obviously, there's some places where you can't afford to cut too many corners, like the suggestion above. There are some things you can do, though, to "Macguyver" or "lifehack" your way to a cheaper backcountry experience. Wes Siler, for those of you who follow his fantastic Indefinitely Wild blog on Gizmodo, might've seen this fancy thingamabob. It's a backpacking stove made out of an old cat-food can. A few holes with a hole punch and pretty much any kind of fuel in the bottom, and viola! You've got instant cooking heat for a buck-fifty! A great way to save the $50-100 you might spend on a backpacking stove and associated fuel otherwise.

But there's another great resource out there for first-time backcountry explorers- gear rental. Yes, that's right, there's a variety of places you can rent pretty much all the camping gear you need. The cons are, obviously, that you have to return the gear when all is said and done- but that's also one of the pros. Usually, you can pick up very high-end, high-quality gear, test it out for yourself, and decide where it is you need to splurge and save for buying your own gear once the trip is over.

Where do you go to rent this gear? There's two main choices- commercial outlets, or your local university. Today, we're going to look at that second choice.

Yes, indeed, your local college- be it a nationally-known four year institution, or a community college or technical school, often will rent exceptional gear for reasonable prices to anyone in the local community. Often you might have to pay a premium fee if you're not affiliated with the university in any way, but the prices are still pretty reasonable.

When I did research on which schools would rent gear, and which wouldn't, I presumed that public schools would be more willing to rent to anyone than private ones; that land-grant schools would be even more likely to rent to anyone; and that schools in close proximity to National Parks would be the best resources for gear rental.

All in all, the results were a bit of a mixed bag.

Private schools: It was actually about 50/50 there. Duke and Gonzaga? No such luck. BYU and Notre Dame? No problem, The Notre Dame hold music was awesome, a men's-choir version of "Victory March". The BYU folks were some of the most helpful I found.

Land Grant Schools: Again, a mixed bag. Minnesota said no problem; THE Ohio State University said "no way". The folks at Maryland sounded incredulous that any school would rent to the community at large, while Virginia Tech said no problem. Colorado State said no; Texas A&M said, and I quote, "Absolutely! We LOVE to rent to the community!"

Proximity to National Parks: Another mixed back. UVA and Virginia Tech said yes; JMU said no. I couldn't find a single college in the entire state of Tennessee or North Carolina that would let the community rent from them, private or public- that's every Directional Carolina, NC State, Duke, Wake Forest (who won't even let some of their own students rent from them), Appalachian State, Vanderbilt, UT, etc, etc. Montana said no, but Idaho said absolutely, and the gentleman I spoke to at the Idaho rental shop was incredibly helpful, even giving me tips and suggestions on what to do and how to get to Glacier, Yellowstone, etc.

And the gear available to rent is, by and large, all high-end gear; MSR, Teton Sports, Kelty, Osprey, etc. All the high-end names you've heard of. So it'll give you a good idea on whether you want to spend $400 on an MSR Hubba Hubba 2-person backpacking tent, or want to go for a more-reasonably priced but maybe heavier ALPS Mountaineering Taurus backpacking tent. This is also a great choice for traveling light- you can fly to Glacier, for instance, into Spokane, rent a car, and drive through Moscow, Idaho, to stop at the University of Idaho rental shop, rent everything you need to go to Glacier, so you don't have to pack it all with you on the flight to and from.

Stay tuned, because we're going to get a more comprehensive list with prices and types of gear in the near future, and catalog it against the nearby National Parks. We're also going to go over the commercial gear-rental sources that are available, up next, in Part Two of our Gear Rental series.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Enjoying a Campfire in the Backcountry- Glacier National Park edition, Part One

In our last post we talked about having a campfire in the backcountry, the arguments for and against it, and, mostly important, talked about the right way to do it.

So you've decided you're on board with all of that. One of the "must haves" for your backcountry trip is to be able to sit around a campfire with your kids after a long day of hiking and watch the sun set. Sweet. I can't say blame you. The thought of doing that myself gives me chills. Now, where do you go?

If you want to visit Glacier National Park at the beginning of the backcountry camping season there, which begins around mid-June, there's a number of choices partake of. Here's a partial list of the early-season backcountry campgrounds at Glacier that allow campfires in the established pits on-site.

- Adair
- Atlantic Creek
- Bowman Lake HD
- Coal Creek
- Gable Creek
- Goat Haunt Shelters
- Harrison Lake
- Lake Janet
- Kintla Lake HD
- Logging Lake FT
- Lower Quartz Lake
- McDonald Lake
- Many Glacier CG
- Ole Creek
- Ole Lake
- Park Creek
- Reynolds Creek
- Slide Lake
- Upper Kintla Lake
- Upper Park Creek
- Waterton River

Now, while this is a list of the campgrounds that are open, these aren't necessarily going to be real easy to get to. Nothing in Glacier is a bad choice; some might be better than others, but you won't miss out by choosing one over another. But early season in Glacier can involve plenty of snow still on the ground, requiring the use of ice axes to get around, fording roaring rivers from the new snow melt, and the like. For instance:

- As discussed before, Harrsion Lake is either a ten-mile hike, or requires fording a freezing and torrential river.
- Lake Janet is accessed from the Waterton Lake valley trail system, the trailhead of which is located near the Canadian Border at the Goat Haunt ranger station. Very isolated, and challenging for even experienced folks.
- Reynolds Creek campground can't be visited on the first day of your multi-day backcountry trip.

So, then- you have a list of what's open... but how do you use it? What's the right hike for you and your kids? It's hard to know, especially when you might be coming from thousands of miles away, and have to apply for a backcountry permit months ahead of time.

Stay tuned, because that's our job here at Backcountry Dad. We want to help figure that stuff out- so we can inform you properly, and you can get out there with your kids and have an outstanding backcountry trip.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Campfires in the Backcountry

"The fire is the main comfort of the camp, whether in summer or winter... it is as well for cheerfulness as for warmth and dryness." Henry David Thoreau

One of the unexpectedly-polarizing discussions on backcountry camping is that of campfires. You can't deny having a campfire is probably the stereotypical image and experience that people associate with camping. And as Mr. Thoreau notes above, even a hundred and fifty years ago when people required campfires for actual survival purposes on a regular basis, a lot of the benefit is derived from "cheerfulness".

The sides in the "campfire" argument tend to fall into two camps (no pun intended); on the one hand, you have the folks who argue that campfires have an aesthetic function only, causes undue harm to a fragile outdoor environment, and has the potential to wreak great havoc if not properly cared for. On the other hand, you have the folks who argue that aesthetic is part of the reason we hit the backcountry, and that, if done responsibly, campfires pose no problems at all.

Both sides have points. The biggest problem is, in my opinion, that you've got a few jerks who ruin it for everyone else. They destroy sites looking for wood to burn, don't put out coals, bring in wood from outside sources (which incur fun things like the emerald ash borer), generally act like jerks and ruin things for everyone else. Human beings are bad at managing and anticipating risk, so the tendency is to think, "Well, it's just me; if I break the rules a little bit here, it's not going to hurt anything. I'm just one person. I can leave a little trace. I mean, nature is huge!" Multiply that sentiment a few thousand times, thought, and viola. Destruction on an epic scale. This goes for other things besides campfires; God Forbid that Mt. Everest ever thaws for some reason.

I'm in the latter category. I think most folks probably are, especially the more "casual" ones. I can't deny that the majority of my fondness for campfires is that psychological aesthetic that comes from it. Sitting around the campfire relaxing after a hard day of hiking, backpacking; having a warm drink, watching the stars, retreating into your tent. Waking up the next day and firing up some coffee to watch the sunrise. I think as long as you follow the principle of "Leave No Trace" and any fire restrictions in place, having a campfire in the backcountry isn't a big deal. Here's a great resource for how to have a campfire in the backcountry the right way.

Now, be aware that lots of the most popular backcountry trails and camping areas in the National Parks don't allow campfires on them. For instance, the Gunsight Trail in Glacier National Park- one of the best multi-day trails anywhere that's within the scope and capability of anyone sufficiently fit, even kids. Beautiful scenery, crossing the Continental Divide from East to West Glacier. But none of the campsites on that route allow campfires.

For that, you have to do a little more digging and hiking, to places like Harrison Lake. However, the route to that campsite requires either a ten-mile hike each direction, or a two-mile hike after fording a river that, for most of the year, is effectively impassable for casual folks, especially kids. The end reward is fantastic, of course, but the whole goal is getting you and your kids enjoying the backcountry, not enduring a 10-mile forced march each direction, or a drenching in a torrential, freezing-cold river.

These are the sorts-of considerations we plan on taking on our research trips to these national parks, to help give them the information and preparation they need to make their backcountry trip a success for them and their kids. Look for more specific information- on both Glacier National Park, as well as other National Parks- in our books.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Backcountry on a Budget- The fine line between too much and not enough

One of the things that often discourages folks from getting out and enjoying the backcountry is the perceived cost and risks of doing so. "Frontcountry" backpacking and camping is relatively easy, and almost exclusively a low-expense affair.

Now, don't get me wrong, there is something to be said for "frontcountry" camping. In fact, lots of times on our trips, we'll start out at an established or "frontcountry" campground, and then use that as a jumping-off spot to venture off into the wilderness. While staying solely in a place like that will rob you of the unique benefits of hitting the sticks and seeing a more raw side of nature, the appeal is pretty evident. You just load up your car with whatever you find cheapest at Wal-Mart, run to the store for anything you forgot once you get there, etc. Don't have to worry too much.

But once you start to consider something as simple as a day hike off the beaten trail, you start to think- is my gear going to hold up if I need it to? I don't want to be in the middle of nowhere and have something go wrong. And how much is it going to cost? This is a huge reason that folks don't hit the backcountry more often, in my opinion; they perceive that the "startup" cost and effort is more than it's worth, and just give up on it, after seeing articles like the one referenced in last week's article about how to go broke planning a backpacking trip.

Of course, there's also going too far the other direction- like the incident that made national news a few years back, when a few hikers and their kids took junk gear into the Grand Canyon's Royal Arch Loop in the middle of summer- a thirty-four mile loop that includes a technical rock climb halfway through. The one piece of junk equipment they did bring was a brand spanking new emergency GPS beacon, which they engaged not less than three times, requiring helicopter rescue crews to respond each time for such emergencies as "Our water tastes kind-of salty". When the National Park rangers finally made them board the helicopter and leave after their third false alarm, the hikers angrily remarked that if they would've known the GPS beacon wasn't meant to be operated like OnStar, they wouldn't have even gone on the hike.

Obviously, we here at Backcountry Dad don't encourage that route. Going into the backcountry does take more skill, but it's not an insurmountable amount in most cases. Even those chuckleheads could have probably done their hike if they'd undertaken a modicum of time and effort in planning and buying the appropriate gear.

And for those folks, the ones who want to do it the right way, they want to know they've got the right gear, that won't let them down if the need it, and won't make 'em break the bank. Especially when you've got your kids involved, which not only means another layer of worry, it means that you've got another set of gear to buy, pack, buy again when it gets grown out of, etc.

This was a case in point as I prepare for our trips this year; a part of the books and reviews we write will be to help set up a much more reasonable "list of essential items" that are affordable, field-test them, and demonstrate the results. I was comparing an age and size appropriate backpack for her, and I was looking at two main choices.

The first, pictured at left, is a 15-liter "Naturehike Outdoor Backpack Climbing Backpack Sport Bag Camping Backpack". If you think that's a mouthful, then you should read the very helpful product description:

"With unique helmet net which is a good helper for outdoor cycling."

"The waterproof nylon fabric,provent (sic) the items inside from being wet."

Charming, isn't it? But the price can't be beat. As of right now, it's listed for $23, and has a star rating of 4.5 out of 5 on 51 reviews. Not too shabby. It's the right size for her, lightweight; it's got a mesh "helmet net" for biking, but it also works for a variety of other equipment, and I think would be well suited to hold her backpacking pillow.

Looking deeper at the reviews, lots of them note, effectively, you get what you pay for- this backpack won't last forever, but for someone starting out and needs to equip their kids without breaking the bank, it's probably not too bad a way to start, hmm?

Of course, I wouldn't be doing my due diligence if I just went off of what Amazon.com reviews say, and while Amazon is an outstanding resource for getting reasonably priced equipment, the problem is you just can't see the product in person- test it, put it on, feel it.

So I went into the local REI store- Recreational Equipment, Inc, a sort-of... hmm... call it the Whole Foods of sporting goods stores. I think that's a pretty apt comparison. They have great stuff there, and you could spend hours just looking at all the cool gear- but oof, the hit on your wallet. However, much like Whole Foods, you don't have to break the bank to shop here. It just requires a bit of patience and some judicious decision making; and knowing where to spend and where to save.

This is the REI version of almost the same sort-of backpack, the REI Tarn 18, which retails for $39.50; I always try to compare apples-to-apples as much as possible. It's slightly bigger at an 18-liter capacity, It has some extra doo-dads the other pack doesn't, like front pockets where you can stash things you want to be easy-to-reach, like snacks or an activity/nature booklet. It's also got the ability to add a two-liter CamelBak water reservoir in with it, though

When I arrived at the store, I hunted an associate down and briefly explained my purpose, and he showed me this backpack. I told him I was a budget shopper and was skeptical of the price difference. Now, $39.50 doesn't seem like too much more than $23, but that's an easy way to nickel-and-dime yourself to death- it's not quite double the price. Extrapolate that across all the equipment you have to buy, and soon you run out of money. So maybe this is the place to splurge- but how d'you know for sure?

To his credit, the sales person handled this with aplomb, and only smiled. Having worked in retail myself, and dealing with people coming in waving Consumer Reports printouts or a hundred pages of notes printed off, trying to make it sound like they knew what they were talking about, I certainly respect that he could do that. He invited me to test the backpack out, feel it for myself, and compared it to an adult backpack of a considerably higher price point. My casual test in the store gave me the feeling this was a pretty solid backpack, and seems quite functional. The ability to add a Camelbak pouch is also nice, but that in and of itself is an extra $33, so again you have the problem of price multiplication.

So, I did the only thing I could do in this circumstance; I got both. The only way to truly find out the answer to the question of which to buy is to field test them heavily to determine the answer for sure. If I had to say now, I'd probably lean in the direction of the REI backpack, though. Side-by-side, it DOES feel much more "heavy-duty", and the weight difference between the two is pretty negligible.

Trips through Shenandoah National Park and Glacier National Park ought to determine that pretty effectively.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Why the "backcountry"?

I've had a lot of people ask me, why the backcountry? Even we're said repeatedly that "nature's right outside the front door," so, what's up with this "backcountry" stuff? What does "backcountry" even mean?

Backcountry hiking, camping, fishing, etc, is all "off the beaten path". I think it evokes the sort-of romantic styling of early American life- the pioneers that drove west in wagon trains, shooting every buffalo they could and losing all their oxen fording the river. Or maybe that was the "Oregon Trail" game I used to play on an Apple IIE.

But seriously, I think the concept of "backcountry" experiences these days conjures up people like Bear Grylls, where you see him dropped into some remote and desolate location with nothing but a knife and his wits and come out having survived on bugs and his own urine. You think of people like Christopher McCandless, who struck out to try and eke out a living in the Alaskan wilderness before starving to death. Or maybe someone like Wes Seiler, who runs the 'Indefinitely Wild" blog over at Gizmodo, who spends half his time out in the boonies, from Death Valley to the Himalayas.

My interest in the backcountry started when I was in high school, and a good buddy of mine and I drove from the small town in northeast Wisconsin we lived in to Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, to get "out and explore the wilderness." When we checked into the chain campground we'd found, we had to wait patiently behind a gentleman complaining loudly and very angrily that the cable input for his 40' motorhome wasn't working right, and it was going to ruin his whole vacation if they didn't fix it or compensate him immediately.

The appeal to backcountry camping is pretty obvious to me, then- I don't have to deal with jerks like that. I get to see things that, potentially, nobody else has ever seen. Looking up at a carpet of stars in the sky above you, to see the splendor that God blessed us with. Coming around a curve in the trail and seeing a waterfall right in front of you, so up close and personal you can touch it, and knowing you're the only one around to see it... I couldn't find the words for it if I tried. The solitude of being just you or the people you're with. And it certainly doesn't take being an ex-SAS member to go those sorts of things, it really doesn't; it's something anyone can enjoy.

And that's what we're here to prove.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Announcing the launch of the Backcountry Dad Kickstarter

In the next thirty days, we're hoping to raise enough money to fund our beginning operations on the Backcountry Dad project, all towards our goal of getting as many dads and their kids bonding and interacting in the great outdoors as we can.

With $4500, we think we can fund everything we need to put together our book. Available both on the Kindle Store on Amazon.com, and as a hardcover version in your local bookstore, it will cover everything a dad who wants to take his kids on a backcountry trip to one of America's beautiful National Parks needs to know and do to make the trip. Along the way, and as a part of the project, we want to test and review the equipment that people really need, and show definitively that you don't need to break the bank to have an awesome time in the wilderness with your kids, no matter where you go.

If we raise all the money we need to, we intend to visit the following parks this year:

- Shenandoah National Park
- Smokey Mountain National Park
- Glacier National Park
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- Big Bend National Park
- Dry Tortugas National Park

As a thanks to anyone who donates, we're going to give right back to you- whatever equipment we buy in the course of our reviews, we're gonna give right back to ya'll, based on donation level. This includes the high-end camping equipment we intend to test alongside "normal" equipment. Biggest donor gets first pick, and we'll go in descending order until everything's gone.

Join us in our goal to get dads and their kids together exploring nature; to show them it's not intimidating, and that anyone can do it.

Everything You Need to go Broke for a 4-day Backpacking Trip

 You want to take your kids backpacking in the Tetons for four days; fantastic! One of the less trafficked national parks, it features beautiful scenery, and within easy driving distance of Yellowstone, it's a great place to go. The problem is, you don't have the right gear. Well, my friend, you need worry no longer because the good folks at Men's Health have you covered. With the help of their outdoor experts, they:

"...pored over our extensive backpacking gear coverage to come up with the bare minimal list for a four-day backpacking trip. Here are the 25 items you shouldn't leave without."

The list is pretty straightforward as it goes along; tent, backpack, sleeping bag, et cetera. What isn't so straightforward is the price. I got halfway through the list and stopped in amazement. Tallying up only the least-expensive options they list (which, they note very helpfully, are often of lower quality than the more expensive stuff they recommend), I was at a total of $1554- and that was only half the list!

Are you telling me that, in order to equip someone with a "bare minimal" list that contains the twenty-five items you simply cannot leave with it, it costs over fifteen hundred dollars for half the stuff to go backpacking?

What really did it for me was when they listed the $190 pair of sunglasses you needed to take along. Now, you might think, heck, I can just get a pair of throwaway sunglasses. I don't need to spend $190 on them- but that's a dangerous assumption to make, because "even four days on the trail can put you at a higher risk for retina cancer."

Yes. That's right. Buy a $190 pair of sunglasses, or else you'll get retinal cancer. 

Retinal cancer. Really. Really, retinal cancer? REALLY? They might as well have said, "even four days on the trail can put you at a higher risk for underpants gnome theft." It'd make about as much sense. In a country of 318 million people, the American Cancer Society estimates there'll be a total of 2,500 new cases of eye cancer overall. Even worse, despite rigorous searching through the CDC and American Cancer Society websites, associated journals, and other scholarly work, I can't find a single place where it references any adult cases of retinal cancer whatsoever. The only thing I found said that:

"...the link between sunlight and eye melanomas is not proven, but some doctors think that sunglasses might also reduce eye melanoma risk (emphasis mine)."

It's no wonder that we can't get more dads out enjoying nature with their kids. This is the sort of thing we have to contend with. And I'm lucky I know enough to research these things, that I've worked with kids who actually had retinal cancer, and that I know just how exceedingly rare it really is. Because if I didn't know better, I'd probably do one of two things.

1) I actually blow $190 on pair of sunglasses because the outdoor experts at a supposedly reputable publication told me I could raise my risk of getting RETINAL CANCER, or

2) I take a look at the sticker shock of that, and the other items on their list, and simply give up in frustration, since there's no way I can afford half a month's salary on these supposedly "essential" items for the trip I want to take.

Which of those two outcomes do you think is more likely?

This is exactly what Backcountry Dad is here to fix. We're in the business to show folks that you don't have to break the bank to get outdoors with your kids. You don't have to spend hundreds of dollars to get reliable gear. Anyone with the drive and willingness to do it can. 

And we aim to show you how.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. Backcountry Dad, huh? So, what's the deal?

A. We're on a mission to get kids connecting with their dads by way of seeing the Great Outdoors.

If you've ever read the book The Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, Mr. Louv postulates that "nature-deficit disorder" is a condition at a level that would make it belong in the DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that doctors use to diagnose psychological problems.

Now, Mr. Louv has written a great book- if you have the chance to read it, I'd highly recommend it, as I believe it speaks to a very real problem in our society- but I think he misses the point a bit. I'm not sure that you can lay that "nature-deficit disorder" at the feet of our children. Because it's not their fault they aren't interacting with nature. It's ours. We, as adults, as dads, are the ones with nature deficit disorder.

We're the ones failing our kids, not the other way around.

I don't know about you guys, but- and not to sound curmudgeonly or cantankerous- when I was a kid, in the summer I'd be kicked outside and told not to come back until it was dark. I'd run all over the countryside with my dog, getting dirty, exploring everything I could. At night, we'd go outside and look up at the night sky and see the stars laid out above us, the white band of the Milky Way.

Q. How'd you come up with this idea?

A. I'd like to say it came to me in a brilliant flash of inspiration, a veritable light bulb above the head- but it didn't. There's no fancy story. It's been a process years in the making, until it finally came to a head recently.

A few things contributed to that. My daughter turned seven; I turned thirty; and, most importantly, I realized how much I'd failed her. She can swim laps for an hour, but can't fully ride a bike. She knows the names of the constellations, but has never seen the night sky away from the city lights. She can explain photosynthesis to me, but has barely experienced any more nature than you find in a postage-stamp sized communal grassy area in an apartment complex.

People tell me that you haven't failed your kids if you've been there for them, and, despite a number of challenges, I have been there for her. I know that she could be much worse off; I've worked in Pediatric Acute and Intensive care settings, in school systems, in emergency departments, and I've seen the life some kids lead, what they have to go through.

But there's no doubt in my mind that if my daughter's suffering from "nature deficit disorder", then I'm the cause of it. And I want to fix that- but I want to help enable dads everywhere to be able to do the same.

Q. Very emotional, but how do you plan to get that done?

A. Well, this website for one- but more importantly, the book we're writing, hopefully in conjunction with our Kickstarter project. We'd like to eventually visit every single National Park and National Forest in the country, and do the following:

- Give a brief rundown on what's there for dads and their kids.

- How to plan a trip there, with an eye to hitting the backcountry and seeing things that are normally off the beaten path.

- Giving a detailed explanation on how any dad can get that done, regardless of their past outdoors experience, fiscal or time limitations, distance needed to travel, et cetera.

- And finally, in the process of doing that, help enable these dads connect with their kids in a meaningful way.

Q. None of that information is out there already?

A. No; a lot of it is. But that's part of the problem.

Let's say you want to take your kids to Glacier National Park. It's a beautiful place, the "Crown of the Continent," and some of the best backcountry camping and hiking to be had in the world, hands down. They say the Glaciers that give the park it's name are receding, and might be gone entirely by 2030. You want to spend a few days there hiking, fishing, camping, and spending time with your kids, showing them a million acres of pristine wilderness, of ten-thousand foot peaks that mark the backbone of the country, the Continental Divide.

But that means getting to northwest Montana; knowing when to go, how to get there. What to pack, and what to buy once you get there. If you're going backcountry camping or hiking, you'll probably need a permit, which can be a byzantine process in and of itself. Where to go once you get there; there's hundreds of miles of trails, which is great, but which ones are the right ones for you and your kids?

And if you're like most folks, the amount of outdoor equipment you have is probably negligible as well. You've got a thirty-dollar tent from Wal-Mart, and the only sleeping bags you have feature princesses or ninja turtles. You've got one pair of sneakers you wear pretty much every day, and a backpack that's been stuffed in your closet since high school.

When you start to add all the logistical challenges together, tallying price tags, your eyes can start to glaze over. For instance, you know you'll probably need a new tent, but the websites you visit, the reviews you read, talk about multi-hundred dollar tents tested at one of the Base Camps on Mt. Everest. It's like reading a review of a Bugatti Veyron instead of a Toyota Corolla; cool, but it has no bearing on you, what you need, or what's feasible.

So it's easy to just simply give up. I had friend who grew up in the Midwest; his dad talked for years about taking him to see Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas, as something he'd wanted to do his entire life. But his dad kept hitting the same stumbling blocks described above- going hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from home, not knowing what to buy, where to go once there. And as a result, they never went- and now can't go.

We want to break that vicious cycle. We want to make a repository of knowledge for these dads and their kids. We want to show them it doesn't have to break the bank, it doesn't have to take a month, it doesn't matter how much experience you have going in- you can do it with your kids.

We want to show you the best way to get there. We want to test and review the $75 tent that is the right one for you for that trip to Glacier. Or the $50 backpack that'll work just fine, just as well for what you want to do as the $300 one you saw on your favorite outdoors blog. Or the trail to take, and the permit to get, for the perfect overnight hike for you and your kids, challenging enough to make it worthwhile but not backbreaking. What to cook (and how to cook it) when you get set up for the night.

Q. Isn't part of the adventure figuring this stuff out on your own?

A. Absolutely, and we don't want to take away from that. We want to get folks started; we want to show that any dad can do this, and how to do it for the first or second time. We're the training wheels, and once we get folks set up, we want to watch them kick those training wheels off and soar on their own.

It's always been my opinion that the highest level of success one can attain is training someone to be better at something than you are. Getting these folks up and running, and then watching them exceed all expectations. And that's exactly what we hope to see here.

Q. So, you think forcing your kids out into the woods is going to fix all your custody/divorce/parenting/etc problems in one fell swoop?

A. Nope; hardly. Emily Guss, who's a Park Ranger at Great Smokey Mountains National Park, said it about as well as I've seen anywhere:

"We have a nature deficit among kids in this country... but kids will be excited by nature, if we only let them see it and touch it and be in it."

And anyone who's been a parent knows the innate ability for passive-aggressiveness, stubbornness, and general heel-digging-ness kids seem to be born with. So no- a ten-mile forced hike into the wilderness isn't going to magically make your kids love you more, or make you into a better parent, and it's surely not going to happen overnight no matter what you do.

This has to be just one part of a process, a lifetime commitment to yourself and your kids, that extends beyond this. We want to be the gateway to enabling dads to be able to successfully get their kids to "see it and touch it and be in it". It's not magic. It's not a magic thing, there's no "get rich quick" scheme here. This is just helping folks take those first few steps, showing them how, and that they can do it, that there's no need to be intimidated.

Q. Why not moms?

A. Heh, only because we're not moms. While part of our mission is to address this to dads who have limited time with their kids for whatever reason, we're not here to denigrate or diminish anyone or anything. We want to be a positive force for change for dads and their kids. "Backcountry Mom" would be an amazing idea, too- and our info can be used regardless of gender!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Here goes nothing...


While there's been a lot of progress made in the last few years advocating for the rights of fathers in regards to their children, there's still a long way to go to normalize them. And, unfortunately, there's an even longer way to go with addressing the emotional health of the fathers out there coping with the effective loss of their children. How they can cope with it in a healthy way, how to survive it, and how to become better people- and better dads- in the process. 
As men, we're often just expected to "tough it out", internalize it, ignore it- but that just doesn't work. It's throwing the rug over a mess and trying to forget about it; eventually, the mess will come back out, and always worse than it was to begin with. I know that's what I was told; my ex told me I should be just fine with going from having de facto primary custody of my daughter to 26 partial-weekends a year, because "It's a lot easier for men to be away from their kids, anyway". 
People would raise eyebrows at me, assuming I must have "done something wrong" for such a thing to have happened, and that wanting to spend more time with my daughter was more a function of "getting back" at her mother, or "just wanting to spend less in child support". Or remarked how lucky I was I only had to be a "part-time" dad, which gave me plenty of time to have lots of fun, right?
I'd like to say the idea for this project came to me in a brilliant flash of inspiration, a veritable light bulb above the head- but it didn't. There's no fancy story. It was a process years in the making, until it finally came to a head recently. My daughter turned seven; I turned thirty; and I realized how much I'd failed her. She can swim laps for an hour, but can't fully ride a bike. She knows the names of the constellations, but has never seen the night sky away from the city lights. She can explain photosynthesis to me, but has barely experienced any more nature than you find in a postage-stamp sized communal grassy area in an apartment complex.
And my story is far from the only one- on another side of the spectrum, for instance, I've got a friend who's going through similar struggles in a different way. He's trying to be a stepdad to a teenage daughter- in lots of ways, he's got it harder than I do/did. Struggling to gain respect in his role, to exert the fine balancing act between going too far and not far enough.
We could simply give up, and use the weight of the limited amount of time I'm able to spend with my daughter be the excuse for that, railing against the injustice for the rest of my life. It'd be easy to do- for me, I've got two jobs now, a wonderful wife and beautiful baby boy, volunteering, house work, all the things that conspire to suck up all of one's free time. But even not having those things, even when I was still a single dad with a (relative) excess of free time, it can be tempting to just give up- the way dads are often marginalized and rendered powerless, with how the child custody system is set up, it's easy to simply throw your hands up in the air and say, "I give up". Being a "Disneyland Dad" is a hell of a lot easier than being just "Dad".
But that's not what my daughter needs; it's not what any kid needs. Kids need an engaged and positive role-model. Someone who won't wilt in the face for adversity. Kids need dads. 
So instead of taking the easy route and just accepting that, my friend and I decided to take our girls, this summer, to one of the jewels of our country- one or more of our national parks. That's something every American citizen should do, in my opinion- a rare bit of unspoiled wilderness, amazing sights that you can't see anywhere else in the world.
It's a big undertaking; we're not experienced woodsman or people who can rappel naked down the side of El Capitan, or be dropped into the Sahara desert with a bowie knife and some fishing line and come out wearing North Face fleeces knitted from poison ivy, and cargo pants made from reptile skin. People like Bear Grylls or Wes Seiler, who can do that sort-of thing in their sleep. But for most people, even a cursory visit to a national park can sound like a great idea, until you realize you have no idea what you're doing, and the enormity of what you want to undertake hits you! 
To compound this, a lot of the wilderness, camping, and survival blogs are filled with preppers planning for the revolution, or reviews of equipment more at home at Base Camp on Mount Everest. Yeah, it's cool to read, but it's like watching the folks on Top Gear discuss driving a Bugatti Veyron. It's nothing I'm ever going to experience myself. It doesn't help 
As I was discussing this plan with my friend, and he was talking about his struggles as well, I though, wow- that'd be an incredible thing to share with other people, other dads- our personal journey of fatherhood, and the trials of two normal dads planning and executing this trip for our kids and ourselves. A resource for other dads, something I wish I would have had in the same circumstances.
And so that's what we're going to do. This one's for all the dads out there who know there's no such thing as a part time dad.