Thursday, October 28, 2010

Some Thoughts About Hiking

Several weeks ago, a friend went on a six-mile hike that turned into a nine-mile hike. When I asked if she went alone, she replied no, she had gone with a guy. She never hikes alone because if you fall, you might not be found soon enough.

True. However, there are easy to moderate trails where I can't imagine anyone falling that are popular enough that someone in distress would soon receive help.

Setting aside the different degrees of hiking difficulty, here are additional considerations:

1. Do you have a hiking staff or trekking poles that can support your weight to help you rescue yourself? Can your companion(s) carry you out or make a travois to drag you out?

2. Does anyone in your party have a cell phone and the number to call for a rescue team, usually the sheriff's department?

3. Can your or your companion's smart phone provide a GPS fix so the rescue team can be told your location? If not, do you hike with a GPS receiver? If your electronic devices fail or if you don't carry any, is your companion skilled enough with a map and compass to give coordinates for a search unit to begin looking for you?

4. If your companion goes for help, does s/he know the way there and back? Is anyone carrying a pen or pencil and paper, preferably waterproof, to give your coordinates to the rescue unit?

5. How will you protect yourself from dying of hypothermia/hyperthermia while waiting for help that might be many hours away? Do you have insulation from the cold and protection from the sun among your personal attire and emergency sheltering gear? Do you have a fire-making kit?

6. How will you prevent yourself from dying of dehydration while waiting for help that might be days away? Did you take more water than you expected you'd need or do you have the means to collect and purify water your companion might find in the area for you before s/he goes for help?

7. If your hiking companion is the one who gets injured, are you able to do the same things that you're counting on if you were injured?

It's this last point that bothers me. Too many times, I've found that women depend on men to bail them out of trouble to the extent they're virtually helpless. What if it's the man who gets injured?

After all, I once skied with a man who hit a tree. Another man got bucked off a horse and was knocked out for about an hour.

What if a companion hiker doesn't know where they are or how to get help back to the injured party? If it's a less popular trail, it won't be like in town where you can stop at a gas station to ask for directions.

This isn't a matter of one person being more able than another solely because of sex as if it's a matter of physical strength. It's a matter of knowledge and there's no good reason for anyone of either sex not to know or be able to figure out where they are and how to get back.

This isn't about my friend hiking with a guy, either, since I know she's gone hiking with women. The same thing goes for two women hiking together, two men, or a larger group, mixed sex or not. It isn't about her at all. This post contains some thoughts about hiking that arose after my exchange with her.

My point is that more than one person needs to know how to use a map and compass. Leaving the responsibility to a single person just isn't the smart thing to do.

If you hike or want to start, please take a navigation class or teach yourself how to use a map and compass from resources online or books from the public library and PRACTICE.

If you're not interested in hiking but know someone who hikes, please challenge her or him to ensure they know how to use a map and compass and encourage them to learn if they don't.

It's a basic skill for hiking and someone's life may depend on it.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Cue Evil Laughter

All this preparedness stuff got me thinking about camping. This means I have to inventory my camping gear because a lot of things were stolen from my car when I was in San Ysidro, CA.

One of the items stolen was a BearVault. Although I'm not currently in bear country, a bear-resistant canister also protects food from being stolen by small creatures such as raccoons that are quite adept at accessing food campers thought they had secured.

Not only do I have to decide whether or not to replace the BearVault now or wait until later, I also need to decide whether to buy another BearVault or get a canister made by a different company.

Reading customer reviews, I was struck by a series of thoughts:

Considering that bears can break into cars but not into canisters approved by the Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group (SIBBG)...

Considering that BearVaults are made of super-strong polycarbonate, the same stuff used to make bullet-proof glass...

Considering that some campers were able to open their BearVaults to store food inside but missed meals because they weren't able to re-open them to get their food out...

Considering that I may have removed the label on the lid that has instructions on how to open the BearVault (I can't recall)...

Considering that San Ysidro, being a border town, has a majority Hispanic population and the thief might not have been able to read English if I left the label on (considering some restaurants there had menus only in Spanish and many business signs were in Spanish)...

Considering I had nothing worth more than US$20 stored in my BearVault (a coffee mug gift for a friend wrapped in a couple of shawls for cushioning)...

The thief likely expended great effort over a period of time to open my BearVault for very little reward, if it was ever opened at all!

Cue evil laughter.

I'm getting a kick from the thought of buying another see-through BearVault, putting a $20 bill in it, and Super gluing the lid shut just for the joy of knowing another thief will be aggravated by not knowing how to get the money out.

Except bear canisters are too expensive to buy just for the heck of it, I'd rather spend the $20 myself, and when the time comes, I've decided to try the Model 812 by Garcia Machine that can be opened, obviously, with a simple tool such as a coin.

Still, it's good to laugh at the idea.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Preparedness 2010 - Testing

After we make our plans and collect supplies for our various preparedness kits for home, workplace, school, and vehicle; testing is the next logical step.

For a test to be realistic, it needs to be conducted under as similar conditions as possible to those you're likely to encounter.

For example, during winter, it's easy enough to turn down the heat and forbid everyone from using water from a faucet for the weekend of the test. I wouldn't actually turn off the heat or water for a winter power outage and water shortage scenario because I wouldn't want the pipes to freeze. Turning the thermostat down to 45° F and letting a faucet drip slowly should prevent a weekend adventure from turning into a bona fide emergency.

The trick is to pick a weekend that's good for your scenario and unlikely to become a real event.

Another option is to test while the weather's still warm enough for you to shut off the gas and water, which you need to know how to do anyway, without the risk of your pipes freezing except then you wouldn't know if you're able to stay warm enough or will have to evacuate to a motel which you may not be able to do if an ice storm covers the roads with ice for several days.

Also, you'd have to restock supplies soon after so the test doesn't leave you unprepared for the real deal.

Testing a car survival kit realistically is easy enough since all you'd have to do is get a camp site then spend the entire weekend in or near your vehicle. For the sake of the camp ground and other campers, I'd use the camp ground's toilet facilities, but figure out the wheres and hows as if there wasn't a restroom because there probably won't be one when you're out stuck somewhere in your car.

The more kinks you can identify during a trial run and work out will make a real event less stressful but if the nearby camp grounds are closed for the winter, you might have to spend the weekend in your vehicle in your own driveway which will make the neighbors think you're very odd. Plus, there will be the temptations of getting things from the house and spending more time indoors than using the bathroom warrants.

Think of the emergency situations you're preparing against, then put your preparations to the test over a weekend for each scenario. Of course, unexpected situations such as reuniting with your family after something like 9-11 or a tornado that hits while you're at work and the children are at school won't need the entire weekend unless you combine testing your Get Home kits with the power outage and water shortage test at home.

Some situations I can think of testing are:

1. Sheltering in place with a power outage and water shortage at home or wherever you might be when conditions prevent you from reaching a community shelter.

2. Evacuating your home because of a fire, flood, tornado, or hurricane.

3. Reuniting with your family at home after a common disaster disables public transportation and closes major roads.

4. Reuniting with your family after a common disaster but at a different predetermined location.

5. Surviving in your vehicle because you can't reach your destination due to being lost or impassable road conditions such as a mud slide, snow, or ice.

People are advised to have various kits ready for their workplace, vehicle, and home to meet the events likely for their locale. For traveling, I'm thinking my Grab & Go bag should be modified into an I'm Already Gone bag or I need to make other provisions since I'm used to leaving such things as important documents at home when I travel. While not valuable to anybody else, the destruction of insurance policies, shot records, home inventory, and family photos could range from terribly inconvenient to emotionally devastating.

Practice not only highlights the rough spots, giving the opportunity to smooth them out prior to an actual emergency situation, but also builds confidence by letting everyone get acquainted with their part and the equipment through testing the plans.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Preparedness 2010 - Stoves

Instead of a camping canister stove costing US$25 - $295, here are some low-cost, low- or no-maintenance alternatives to see you and your family through an emergency situation:

1. Esbit Emergency Stove, $2.99, comes with three hexamine fuel cubes. A flat piece of steel you bend to form a pot stand, it is ideal for day hikers, travelers, and vehicle survival kits for one to two persons. Best use is to boil water for safe drinking, hot beverages, instant foods, freeze-dried meals, and preparing Ramen and soups. Natural fuel can be used to supplement or as an alternative to the fuel cube which also is an excellent fire starter.

Needing to be lit by a flame, such as from a match or cigarette lighter, each cube burns for about 13 minutes. It takes about 8 minutes to bring 16 oz. (.5 L) of cold tap water to a full rolling boil, less if you have a windscreen (recommended). Cover the vessel, however, as an uncovered vessel gets merely steamy. If you want to light it with a sparker such as a Spark-Lite or Swedish FireSteel, place some tinder on or next to it and light the tinder, instead. Only a small bit is necessary; it took only a few strokes of my FireSteel to light about a quarter of a square of toilet tissue moistened with hand sanitizer that I set on top of the cube.

If you want to conserve fuel, and as fuels go, hexamine tabs are expensive so should be conserved, simply blow it out like a birthday candle as soon as you don't need the flame anymore and save what remains for future use. Since it will stick to the stove's fuel platform, you may want to set the cube in an Altoids Smalls tin before lighting it to make it easier to store after extinguishing it. You can make the lid removable by simply pushing out the tabs forming the hinges to release the lid from the bottom of the tin, then pushing the tabs back so they won't catch on anything.

An alternative to the fuel cubes is an alcohol burner made of an Altoids Smalls tin (see 6. Alcohol Burners below for instructions). Be aware, however, that since the slits for the hinges won't permit you to completely fill the tin with your liquid fuel, you may not be able to attain a boil.

By bending the stove to support my 18 oz. stainless steel backpacker's mug (the handles fold in for easy packing), I can store it in the mug along with 11 fuel cubes (four go in the stove and one in the Altoids Smalls tin), an Altoids Smalls tin, a disposable cigarette lighter, and one of those tubular orange, waterproof match boxes that can be found online, in camping stores, and Wal-Mart's camping department for about $2.

Having both wooden matches and a lighter is better because matches may fail or break and butane lighters don't work when cold or at higher elevations. If using safety matches, be sure to tuck the striker strip from the original box into the waterproof match box or you won't be able to get the matches to light.

2. Esbit Pocket Stove, $9.99 although it may sometimes be found it in military surplus stores for as low as $3. The website says, "Includes 3 large solid fuel cubes." Mine came with six and the steel isn't pliable like the description states. (Frankly, I think they put up the same description as the Emergency Stove instead of the description for the Pocket Stove.) Four cubes store neatly in the stove when it's closed.

Popular for its small size by outdoors people, military forces, and expeditions since 1936, the Pocket Stove is more robust than the Esbit Emergency Stove and more versatile in fuel options. As well as a Kiwi alcohol burner (see 6. Alcohol Burners below), natural fuel or two charcoal briquettes will fit and may be continually added if you want to keep the fire going outdoors.

Since there's no heat control other than the two positions in which it may be set, the Pocket Stove is better for simple cooking like frying bacon or burgers or boiling water for one to three people. Substituting a tealight candle allows simmering.

Because hexamine fuel cubes, a safe fuel, aren't always available in local stores, it's best to stock up on Esbit tabs (12 for $5.95) and/or make an alcohol burner. Trioxane tabs are available, usually through military surplus stores, but need to be used outdoors carefully because they're toxic. The advantage of trioxane tabs is they can be lit with only a spark, not requiring a direct flame as do hexamine tabs.

3. Coghlan's Folding Stove, $8.98, is limited to canned fuel such as Sterno, the Nuwick 44-hour candle (the 120-hour Nuwick candle doesn't fit), or an alcohol burner such as a Trangia or a DIY project, although I don't see why natural fuel or charcoal briquettes can't be used as long as it's set on the ground outside with a foil pan underneath so nothing will be harmed when hot embers and ashes fall off the fuel platform. Hexamine tabs might be used if an empty can is put on the platform upside down to boost the height.

Because it's rather large when compared the Esbit stoves and is heavier, being made of steel, than the Sterno Portable Folding Stove (next), the best use is for a family at home if you have only heavy pots or for car camping. I don't like it for a car survival kit because it's heavy for lugging around should you have to leave the car; rarely advisable but a possibility.

4. Sterno Portable Folding Stove, $9.75, uses 7 and 8 oz. Sterno canned fuel that will simmer but might not boil water depending on conditions, as well as 44-hour and 120-hour Nuwick candles that can have the heat output regulated according to the number of wicks lit. It is also available in a Stove Kit that includes two cans of Sterno fuel and in the Sterno Emergency Kit that includes the stove, cans of Sterno, and candles.

When I tested it with a can of Sterno, I got 16 oz. of water, uncovered, to a slow, gentle, boil in 25 minutes. I quit ten minutes later when there was no change.

Because the fuel platform is only a couple of wire supports instead of being solid, using a Trangia alcohol burner is too close to being a balancing act for my comfort so I set my Trangia burner into an empty, clean, 5 oz. chicken can to make it stable. With the Trangia filled with 91% isopropyl alcohol, my uncovered stainless steel mug with 16 oz. of cold tap water took 5.5 minutes to reach a full, vigorously rolling boil.

To make your own alcohol burner that fits the fuel platform, I suggest using up a can of Sterno, and then making an alcohol burner with the empty can (see 6. Alcohol Burners below). Not having an empty Sterno can, I used a 1.76 oz. (50g) Altoids tin with a thin layer of 0000 steel wool and 91% isopropyl alcohol and got a full boil in 6 minutes. The flame went out nine minutes later making 15 minutes the total burn time for the Altoids burner.

Using a 120-hour Nuwick for cooking that needs high heat isn't feasible; after an hour with three wicks, I didn't get anything more than steamy water. Starting over, reducing the water from 16 oz. to 8 oz., I got some steam at 30 minutes and gave up knowing it's much faster for me to use an alcohol burner if I need to boil water.

Like the Coghlan's stove above, I don't know of any reason natural fuels or charcoal shouldn't be used as long as the stove is set on the ground outdoors with a foil pan underneath to catch the ashes.

The advantage the Sterno stove has over the others is that the pot support portion of it is made of wire that campers have used for toasting bread and grilling. However, it is faster to toast more than one or two slices at a time by using a stove toasting rack.

Because of its size and being made of aluminum, this is a good choice for a family at home, for a family's Grab & Go bag, as well as for a car survival kit, and car camping.

5. UCO Candlelier, $36.95. Not readily apparent as a stove, the flat heat shield top has been used for years by campers and backpackers to boil water. The amount of heat may be lowered by extinguishing one or two of the three 9-hour candles. Although it's more expensive than the cheapest canister stove, it provides light, heat, and a stove in a single unit making it as good for a car survival kit or an individual's Grab & Go bag as for backpacking. If bugs are a problem, 9-hour citronella candles are available.

6. Alcohol burners or stoves might be the least expensive option of all since the majority of them are DIY projects. Known as a "Cat stove," "Super Cat stove," "Pepsi stove," "Penny stove," or by whatever container or design is used, alcohol burners are popular for their reliability, ease of use being practically maintenance-free thus no hard-to-find parts to break or buy when access to camping stores is limited, and use inexpensive denatured or 90+% isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol that's available practically everywhere, from marine stores, hardware and home improvement stores, service stations and automotive parts stores, to drug stores, and doesn't require special fuel bottles. In a pinch, more expensive alcohol is available from liquor stores.

I made my first Kiwi burner back in 2006 by cleaning out all the residue from a 1-1/8 oz can of Kiwi shoe polish that fit perfectly into my Esbit Pocket Stove, then filled it with fine steel wool (recommended grades are 0000 or 000). When I was ready to cook my scrambled eggs and sausage, I filled it with 91% rubbing alcohol and lit it with a match.

Unfortunately, after my last meal was eaten and the stove cooled off ready for storage, I stored the steel wool in the Kiwi can which corroded during the three years I didn't use it. As a result, next time, instead of steel wool, I plan to use perlite with a piece of aluminum screen cut to fit inside the container to keep the beads from scattering when the lid's off or I'll store the piece of steel wool separately.

The best-known of the commercially-made alcohol stoves is the Trangia that's been used since 1925 by military forces and outdoors people. Available in cook sets for one to four people, with accessories to use other fuels, the alcohol burner is available separately for about $14.95. Made of brass so it's a lot sturdier than any DIY burner, the best features of the Trangia burner are the adjustable simmer ring that allows you to regulate the flame or extinguish it by moving the damper (Caution! Hot! Use something like the pliers of your multitool to lift the simmer ring off the burner and protect your fingers from being burned while adjusting the hot damper), and the cap that lets you store unused fuel in the burner which can't be done with others.

As with my Kiwi burner, all that's needed to operate a Trangia is to pour in the fuel and light it. When done, close the damper on the simmer ring and set the simmer ring on the burner to smother the flame.

If the burner is filled to capacity, it will cook at full blast for 30-45 minutes depending on wind and outside temperature. The only cautions are to set it on a stable surface so the fuel won't spill, don't check the difficult-to-see flame by passing your hand over it (Duh!), don't refill the burner while it's still warm - avoid a flare-up by using a second burner if you need to continue cooking longer - and avoid ruining the O-ring by waiting for the burner to cool before capping it. Also, it's better to coat the O-ring with silicone grease when you first get it and occasionally after so it doesn't dry and crack.

Detractors claim alcohol stoves are slow, but it's significantly true only for making coffee or hot cocoa for a crowd of eight which seems like it takes forever. Breaking the task down into two to four cups at a time will get it served a lot faster. Parties of only a few people won't notice a difference between a canister stove and a Trangia because of the pre-cook fiddling and priming that canister stoves require and the Trangia is sometimes even faster. Besides, what else are you going to be doing that's making you impatient over so very few minutes other than wait for your situation to improve?

For winter conditions, there's a Winter Attachment set ($26) that comes with a burner, a pre-burner to warm the burner so it starts easily in cold temperatures, and a pan so the burner won't sink into melted snow and disappear from sight.

In addition to the pot stands mentioned here, there are others made by other companies specifically for the Trangia burner. I favor the Westwind, available with a Trangia burner ($29.95) or without ($17.95), because it's lightweight and can be taken apart and easily stored flat in your pot or a Grab & Go bag.


Accessories for whichever type of stove you choose for your preparedness kit should include a windscreen for cooking outdoors or with adequate ventilation and a pot cozy.

While a windscreen may be fashioned from heavy-duty foil doubled and wrapped around your pot stand, it might be easier to use one made of aluminum with accordion folds available for about $11.

A pot cozy is recommended to conserve fuel. When instructions say to simmer for n minutes, you can remove the pot from the stove after the water's boiled and set it in a pot cozy to continue cooking for the remaining time using residual heat.