9° of stupidity

The New Year has passed and, unfortunately, I was unable to spend New Year’s Eve as I really wanted–out on the trail. Monday brought 3 or so inches of snow and, not wanting to lose track of a trail I’m unfamiliar with, I chose to postpone the trip. Then I realized, frak, my friend Nixapotamos was headed here from the East Coast and would be here on Saturday. And the Neighbor is headed out of town on the 11th and I’ll be critter watching. Hmmm, my window of opportunity was shrinking. Quickly.

Instead of pondering this wee conundrum further, I opted for an impromptu overnighter at the Natural Bridge in Kaintuck Hollow. And when I say impromptu I mean I decided at 2:45 p.m. and was out the door by 3:30. This would work out well and be more of gear-test trip than anything. In recent weeks I’d accrued a new pack, larger cooking pot, a solid fuel stove, and a new sleeping pad. Might as well make certain everything was up to snuff, right?

I texted the Neighbor to let her know my plans and ask her to mind the critters for the evening and the following a.m. ‘Lo and behold, she was in the mood for a little light hike in the snow that evening. She decided to go with and so plans morphed from there. She would drive us (yay for AWD Hondas!) and pick me up the following morning. Perfect.

Since I’d already been prepping for several days on the trail, all I had to do was gather all the necessary things into the pack, check critter food and water, and head out the door. Sweet. Trail time!

Off we went. Kaintuck Hollow is just a few miles down the road and part of our local section of the Mark Twain National Forest. There are several trails within Kaintuck, but most online maps and information show the Acorn section located in the SE corner. The Natural Bridge is in the upper, N area about .5 miles from a small parking area. Like so much of the Ozarks, there are pine forests interspersed among predominant hardwoods. The approach to Natural Bridge is almost all pine changing to hardwoods as the trail continues on, up, and over the cave opening.

We hiked back to the Natural Bridge, but the lower area in front of it is a bit open and, at this time, was covered in snow. I wanted an easy overnight, so we hiked about halfway back down the trail to a pre-existing fire ring in amongst the pines. Nice. You could feel the temp differential between here and the front of the cave and, overall, it would be much warmer (relatively speaking) than out in the open.

Daylight was waning as the Neighbor and I agreed upon the next day’s meet-up time. I unshouldered my pack as she headed off and started in on fire making. When we’d left my place it had been about 27°F. Down in the hollow of Kaintuck the temp was probably around 24° and dropping as the sun set. We had a cold front headed in, with lows forecasted in the mid-teens. Perfect temps for testing cold-weather gear. Thankfully, in winter, there are rarely any fire bans in our area. There are some trails in the Ozarks which prohibit burning (if I recall correctly, the Ozark Trail section through Johnson’s Shut-ins is one), but for the most part you’re welcome to have a cheery fire at your campsite, even off-trail. Just don’t be stupid about it.

Problem was, it was bloody cold. Had been bloody cold, and wet, too, for several days. Mind, I’m not an amateur at fire starting and I knew I’d have a bitch of a time getting a decent blaze. But, I figured, meh, just get the frozen twigs and stuff thawed a bit and they’d burn just fine, right?


Everything was frozen.

I started off with lint soaked in hand-sanitizer and twigs. The twigs would burn for a bit, I’d add some slightly larger wood, then it’d all burn out. Damn. Next I tried dry fat wood with magnesium shavings. No dice. Finally, I tried Esbit tabs (solid fuel) and still nothing. Well, frak. Oh, well, hell with it, I had fuel for cooking, I’d just double up on hot nomz and go to bed earlier. And I turned to pitching my little solo tent before I completely lost light.

My Kelty Crestone 1 isn’t free-standing, so a bit of forethought is required when pitching it. Also, it’s small and can be a bit cramped for even my not-very-large 5’5.5″ frame–I can’t sit upright without my head rubbing the top of the tent. And it requires a number of stakes to get both the tent and the fly taut. But, I’ve had it for years, took it on The Flamin’ Texas Roadtrip of ’08, in fact, so pitching it is pretty old hat.

And I was excited, I would finally give the Big Agnes sleeping bag and pad a test-run in truly cold temps! A 15° bag, plus an insulated air core pad, and my trusty, cut-down blue foam pad.The R value of the two of them together is greater than 5! Dear Lord, I’d be sleeping in divine comfort on the trail, excellent.

So, I turned to my pack to grab the…oh.


Guess what I forgot?

Lovely. I am an idiot. Oh, freakin’ really? REALLY?! I’d have called the Neighbor but guess what? NO. CELL. SIGNAL. So I didn’t bring the phone. I brought the SPOT locator in order to let the Better Half know that I’m ok–but it only sends pre-designated messages. Ergo, nothing doing but staying put.

Ok, it was going to be stupid cold in a few hours. The ground was already cold. I couldn’t get anything to burn, but I had plenty of stove fuel and plenty of water and plenty of things to put in hot water to consume. In addition to the base layer and wool sweater I was wearing I had a polypro layer in my pack and–miracle of miracles–I’d grabbed both a package of hand warmers and a package of toe warmers. Also, extra wool socks. And a down jacket. And a wool beanie and puffy gloves. And a TurtleFur neck gaiter. I was stacked for cold weather. Except for getting up off of the ground.

Wait a minute. Ha! Garbage bag!

Ok, so many of you know I’m a survival skills nut. I’ve written before about Mors Kochanski, Les Stroud, and Cody Lundin–thing is, you don’t learn just from reading their books or watching their films. You have to get outside and practice the skills they discuss, using the items they recommend having with you, when you don’t need them. The which of the why, despite trying to be as lightweight as possible, I still carry an axe and multiple fire tools. And then other things–a mylar blanket, an emergency candle, and a 55 gallon trash bag.

I spent the next 20 minutes crawling around stuffing a 55 gallon garbage bag full of leaves and pine needles. It wouldn’t be as cozy as an insulated sleeping pad, but it would insulate me from the ground and provide some cushioning.

Now, Big Agnes bags do not have  fill in the bottom, logic being that you’re going to be laying on it and crushing the loft of the fill material. No loft equals nothing to hold in heat, therefore you’re lugging around unnecessary weight. Of course, this makes it extra important to remember your goram sleeping pad, but we’ve covered my idiocy already.

Mylar blankets can save your hide, but they don’t breathe. Meaning moisture that you perspire and respire gets trapped. Over a shockingly short period of time you’ll find a remarkable amount of water dripping onto you from the mylar. So, to combat cold transference and puddling, I put the mylar blanket in the bag, but under me.

The last trick involved the hand and toe warmers. Key to staying warm is keeping your core and extremities warm. I layered the toe warmers between two pairs of wools socks. Holy cow that worked incredibly well! Toasty toes, oh yes. The hand warmers went between the baselayer and the polypro layer at my kidneys. Throughout the night, before I really fell into good sleep, I moved them back and forth between my kidneys and spine.

I crawled out of a very icy tent around 8 the next morning, the sun just then peaking over the ridge to the east and shedding some sunshine onto my campsite. It’s amazing how much moisture the human body sheds and I discovered, very quickly, that my little tent did not vent very well. Of course, it most likely would have helped had I openend the vent tunnel, but the dewfall had been heavy, even with the sub-freezing temps. Needless to say, there was a wedding cake crust of ice crystals all over the rainfly.

The Neighbor showed up about 9:30 looking amused at my camping hair; then stunned when I mentioned that I had managed to forget the sleeping pad. Apparently, the temp had dropped into the high single-digits and while I can’t say it was the most comfortable overnight I’ve ever spent in a tent, it certainly wasn’t the worst. That’s another story for another time.

So, to recap, I am, in fact, a dumbass who managed to leave the house without a sleeping pad for an overnight that got down to 9°F. Because of survival skills and survival gear, I was able to make the best out of a potentially dangerous situation and stay warm, if not comfortable.

Now, may the snarky comments and heckling commence.

A little John Muir time is in order

Oh, the joys of camping and hiking. I’m a sucker for being out of doors, for cooking with fire, and not seeing another human being for days on end. The better half, on the other hand, thinks it’s silly to sleep outside: “I live in the country; why would I sleep outside when I have a perfectly comfortable bed in my house?!” Fortunately, she both indulges and accepts my odd need to be outside.

Yesterday REI had their big “winter sale”. For those of you unfamiliar with why this is any sort of a big deal, REI sells a lot of their returned merchandise at very steep discounts. Reason being, REI has an incredible return policy. You can return pretty much anything, even if it’s been used. For example, I purchased a not inexpensive pair of hiking boots a couple of years ago. Due to my rather serious orthopedic issues, the boots became almost impossible for me to walk in about a month after they were purchased. I was able to return them and use the credit for a different pair of boots–a pair, I might add, that have remained comfortable and usable.

At any rate, lots of good things are returned, many not even out of the original packaging. So, usually, the big REI sale is a fun party if you like or need gear. Unfortunately, yesterday’s sale was, initially, a bit of a bust. The neighbor and I rolled out of the boonies at 6:30 a.m. in order to make it to St. Lousy by 8:00 a.m. The roads were slick and snowy, so we arrived late. Not a big deal, right? Meh. Apparently there had been 200 people queued up before the store even opened. And all of the good used stuff wasn’t in bins–it was simply scattered throughout the various departments. Ugh. And who the hell do manufacturers base the cut of their pants on? Really? Not everyone is a 5’8″ skinny/muscled Amazon. Hiking pants SUCK for this very reason.

After wandering about looking for a good deal and not really finding anything (I was looking for a watchband and an altimeter), I was ready to head out with just a couple of items: Esbit tabs, a neck gaiter, and a spare compass. However, the neighbor says, “Hey, did you see that Osprey pack that’s half off?” Oh, crapapotamos. Of course it was a medium, of course it was a 50L bag. And, of course, there was actually NOTHING wrong with it–it had been returned because of a “broken zipper on the inside”. Turns out, the zipper wasn’t broken, it just didn’t have a pull–and it’s not supposed to have a pull. My other Osprey bag, a Manta 30, has the identical zipper with no pull. Duh. So, yeah, I left with a new pack.

Now, reasonably speaking, I did, in fact, want a larger bag for winter camping. The Osprey Manta 30 is positively perfect for most of my camping because I carry a hammock, tarp, RayWay quilt, TiCup, and SuperCat alcohol stove in warm weather. Super, super-light gear. But in winter, well, staying warm simply requires more stuff. More stuff just won’t fit in the Manta. Ergo, new bag.

Last night turned into a “gather all the things!” kind of evening. Out came the 15° BigAgnes and 2.5″ insulated core sleeping mat. The REI Halfdome 2 was packed in and, ugh, just too heavy. Called the neighbor, “hey, you coming down tonight? Would you bring the Kelty?” The neighbor had been experimenting with it over the summer and turns out she didn’t much care for it. Ok, so the Crestone 1 was packed in. Ahhh, much better. Drybag of spare winter clothes (wool socks, base layer, down booties), first aid kit, hiking kitchen, weather radio, SPOT locator, map, compass, beanie, neck gaiter, etc. It holds ALL THE THINGS!

Today has been “reducing all the weight”. For those of you who hike and camp in multiple seasons and for multiple reasons, y’all know how varied some of your kit may be packaged. But for three or four days of rough backcountry you really want to keep your gear as light as possible. Honestly, the vast majority of my hiking and camping has been either car or scooter based. Car camping means you can carry all sorts of comfort items: chairs, coolers, etc. Scooter camping has to be light, but not ultralight. There’s room for a dual fuel stove and a 2-person tent and a camp chair and decent groceries. But on foot? Nope, you cannot carry all the things. You have to reduce things down to the barest minimum. Add in cold weather and that task becomes even more challenging.

Now, so many people seem to equate GEAR with SKILLS. Allow me to scream at you this simple fact: GEAR ≠ SKILLS! SKILLS > GEAR. Period. Bear with me for a moment as this is my most favorite rant. Skills keep you alive. But acquiring skills requires practice. Bear Grylls may have been a boon for testosterone induced reality TV, but much of what he does on camera would result in most of us being either very, very injured or very, very dead. So, no, Bear Grylls isn’t teaching anyone about skills. You want to watch skills in action, watch Les Stroud (Survivorman). To learn what skills you need, you really need to read. Yet there are so many survival skills books out there that you’d be crazy to try and read all of them. But, I will recommend two:

Mors Kochanski’s Bushcraft 

Cody Lundin’s 98.6 degrees: the art of keeping your ass alive

These are two very different books written by men with vastly differing viewpoints, the which is the why of the recommendation. I enjoy Lundin because he emphasizes not relying on specialty gear and Kochanski is all about practicality. What they both emphasize, however, is the importance of a) knowing yourself and b) knowing your environment. You have limits that your hiking partner or buddy or life partner does not and vice-versa. But understanding your limits is of utmost importance.

I’m a gimp. I possess a number of physical limitations. I was a gimpy kid, too. Surgeries with the Shriner’s Hospitals, braces, special shoes. Bladder surgery for double-collecting ureters. Then a spinal stroke in 2002. Being able to walk, much less hike, is a proverbial miracle–one that I am quite thankful for each and every day, btw. But physical motion, the conscious effort of watching where each and every step goes, takes its toll. And so an ideal hiking day for me tops out between 5-7 miles on rough trails. You may be a 20 miler on a bad day, but I have to work with my limitations rather than against them–and that enables me to get out there and DO. So, self-awareness, understanding personal limitations, and skill acquisition have been crucial to my ability for enjoying the outdoors.

With all this in mind I’ll quote Mr. Kochanski, “The more you know, the less you carry.”

Which brings us back around to my previous blog post, Going light, even in winter sharing PMags’ Lightweight Backpacking 101 post.

It’s easy to cut down the heavy weight items: smaller tent, lighter sleeping pad, smaller hiking kitchen. Shedding ounces, however, can be difficult and oftentimes expensive. But ounces add up quickly. So, since I have ALL THE THINGS right in front of me, I’ll go through and provide an overview of what I carry. Mind you, there are a couple of items I carry that most may not: a SPOT locator and a weather radio. For me, adventuring alone especially, these are indispensable safety tools.



Weight (lbs.)

Pack Osprey Aura 50 3.000
Tent + poles Kelty Crestone 1 4.000
Sleeping bag Big Agnes Lulu 15° Petite 3.200
Sleeping pad Big Agnes Insulated Air Core 20x66x2.5        R-4.1 1.500
Ground insulation Blue close-cell foam, cut down                            R-1.4 0.400
3L hydration bladder Osprey Hydraform reservoir 0.560 empty2.800 full


Cup SnowPeak 600 Ti Cup w/silicone HotLips 0.200
Pot SnowPeak Trek 1400 sans skillet lid 0.300
Stove Esbit Ti folding stove 0.025
Fuel Esbit solid fuel cubes3pk x 4
Silverware LightMyFire Spork Little 0.017
Tea/coffee infuser TheTeaSpot Tuffy silicone tea infuser 0.125
Bowl Guyot silicone 500mL 0.170

First Aid

Meds, Ibuprofen, Super glue, 2% iodine tincture, VetWrap, 4×4 gauze, band-aids, Moleskin, Q-tips, Neosporin ToGO, QuikClot, Dental floss (floss only), Hand sanitizer, WetWipe, Toothbrush & paste 0.210


Shovel Army surplus folding pocket shovel w/case 0.250
Axe Gerber Gator Axe II w/Saw 1.625
Trekking poles Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Fiber poles 1.075
Knife Morakniv Companion Heavy Duty MG 0.250

Fire Starter

Lint based Drier lint + hand sanitizer (highly flammable!) 0.250
Fat wood based Fat wood shavings + magnesium shavings 0.125
Matches Strike anywhere matches in waterproof container 0.125
Fire starter Magnesium + striker 0.125


Radio Eton FR160B solar/handcrank weather radio 0.700
Emergency locator SPOT satellite GPS messenger 0.325


Columbia hardshell, Marmot 800 fill down jacket, Sierra Designs wool turtleneck, Polartec base layer, wool socks, quick-dry undies, Wrangler rugged wear ripstop cotton cargo pants, insulated rubber palm gloves, Columbia winter gloves, Bula wool beanie, TurtleFur neck gaiter, Sierra Designs down booties, Patagonia P26 hiking boots. 6.000 total2.000 in pack

Total Pack weight

22.800 less food & clothing on person

And a word about “brand names”. In the course of determining the weight of various items, it’s very helpful to know exactly what an item is, who makes it, etc. In order to comprise this list I was able to Google most of my gear and find the manufacturer’s listed weight. Which was helpful since my kitchen scale is off in the better half’s kitchen and not here. Also, I’m really not much of a brand whore, more an incredibly cheap heifer. Over time, though, I’ve become rather talented at buying things on clearance and post-season and used.

Mind, companies who make outdoor gear, most of the time, really do make good, quality stuff that’s suited to a particular activity. So, if you can find what you need on clearance, who cares if it’s from two seasons ago? Lighter is lighter and it’s good to find the right item for a given task. I’ll probably write more on this particular topic when I get back, in addition to a trail report and a discussion of FreezerBagCooking.

I’ve not spent nearly enough time out and about the Missouri backcountry of late–ready to get out, get on the trail, and enjoy the flora and fauna. And ignore people for bit.

Until the future, there is a mess in my living room!

Assorted gear before packed into backpack.

Click image for larger view.