Category Archives: Philosopher’s Guide

The 900 Miler Data Book is in the works!

This is my 2nd 900 miler and this blog was created to document the experience and to share hiking philosophy.  The site continues to evolve and has become many things as I experiment with different ways to capture this odyssey.  One of these is an online guidebook.  Another is a thorough review and index of the campsites.

AT Trail Data BookToday, I am introducing another branch of this project which is the 900 Miler Data Book.  The idea came from the Appalachian Trail Data Book, which is updated and published every year by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.  When I was a through hiker, I carried three pieces of navigation information; the section map, the Philosophers Guide to Hiking the Appalachian Trail, and the Data Book.  The Data Book is a summary of each section of trail, along with major landmarks and milestones in a small, pocket-sized book.  On long trail sections, it was indispensable because it was often the only way to gauge progress  based on mileage.

As I was “mid-map” on the last 900 Miler, I found myself wishing I had a better idea of what lied along each trail.  Just how many creek crossing are on Eagle Creek?  Where am I likely to get my feet wet?  What is the elevation gain (loss) in either direction?  What interesting landmarks should I be on the lookout for?  Where does that side trail go?

“Hiking Trails of the Smokies” (The Brown Book) is a great guidebook, but it is heavy and the narrative style is not very concise for this purpose.  The National Geographic Map is also a handy resource that I carry at all times but it lacks the details I am looking for.  Ken Wise’s book, “Hiking Trails of the Great Smoky Mountains” is excellent, especially since I can get it electronically and download it on my smart phone.  Ken has done a great job combining a trail summary with a detailed narrative of each trail.  Again, I am looking for an abbreviated trail summary.

Low Gap II Data BookSo on this 900 Miler, I have endeavored to create a Data Book in the style of the AT Trail Data Book.  You have seen a section of the specific trail included on my more recent accounts.  Having completed nearly 60 trails so far, I decided to create a PDF of my spreadsheet and make it available.  I’ll add the details of each trail as I hike them.  By the end, I hope to be able to publish the result in a small pocket-sized version.

Here is the link to the PDF:   900 Miler Data Book Rev.1

Check it out and let me know what you think.

HikerHead 2  Strider out….


Solo Hiking and the Art of Hitchhiking

Hitchiker Pic900 Milers generally prefer loops.  It makes traveling in one vehicle simple.  But some hikes simply do not lend themselves to convenient loops.  Key swaps are a good strategy for avoiding the double mileage of Yo-Yo’s and lets’ face it, a few trails are long and do not fit well into loops.  Old Settlers Trail, at nearly 16 miles, is a case in point as it traverses between Cosby and Greenbriar.  Even shorter saunters like Roundtop Trail and Cove Mountain Trail come with logistical challenges for the solo hiker.  In remote areas like Parson Branch Road, sometimes you just have to hoof a road walk to get it done (like when I planned my road walk against the one-way traffic like an idiot…).  I find two options worth consideration.

First, hitchhiking.  One should always consider their own comfort and personal safety in choosing this option but even then, there are ways to hedge your bets and leverage in favor of safety.  In my case, I am about 80% successful hitching rides along the main thoroughfares like Little River Road, Laurel Creek Road and Newfound Gap Road.  It’s usually the fishermen who are most sympathetic.  Maybe it’s because they drive pickups and they have been standing knee deep in cold water all morning.  Despite the relative high numbers, I have never been offered a ride on a motorcycle.  No judgement, just sayin’.

Here are a few tips I find helpful:

  • Position yourself near pull-overs and overlooks.  Slower traffic increases your odds and it also gives would-be angels a place to pull over for you.  Your chances of getting a ride in curvy stretches with no pull outs are about as good as finding a parking spot at Ramsey Cascade Trailhead after10:00 on a Saturday.
  • Be visible.  It sometimes takes Karma a few seconds to work on some drivers.  Find a good straight section of road.
  • Smile and wave at those who pass you by.  You’re an ambassador for your kind and while they may not stop for you, they may the next time if they find hikers to be friendly.
  • Be patient.  It often takes about 20 minutes for a connection to make.
  • You may have to ride in the back of a pickup.  Make sure you have gloves in February!
  • It behooves oneself to present in a manner as to not appear like one who refers to oneself as, “one”.  Look friendly and safe.  Smile.  No one stops for smug 900 Milers with a strong air of entitlement or for that matter, someone who looks like they have a strong air.  Try to look like you smell good!  Save the condescension for your Facebook post.

Best Advice: If you meet up with other hikers, especially near the trailhead, mention you need a ride.  Birds of a feather.  This has worked twice for me in the last month.  I completed a backpacking trip at the Gregory Ridge Trailhead at the turnaround on Forge Creek Road.  It’s about 2.5 miles back to Cades Cove but that weekend, there were plenty of hikers on the trail.  I passed a couple near the trailhead, exchanged some trail intel in a polite and gentile manor.  They were happy to give me a lift back to the Cove.  The second instance came with a hiking partner who finished up on a side trail while I negotiated the arduous climb and subsequent descent of Smokemont Loop trail.  The car was several miles up at the trailhead at Kephart Prong Trail.  She met up with a hiking group, made quick friends and not only scored a ride but a cold soda to boot.  When I got to Smokemont, the car was there at the end of the trail.  Uber of the Smokies!

Recycle that ‘cycle. Another option I piloted successfully this past Memorial Day.  I needed Chestnut Top Trail and the prospects for hitching a ride from the trailhead at Schoolhouse Gap Trail back to the “Y” were pretty good given the trail’s popularity with day hikers and tourists.  But I had been itching to try a bicycle solution.  So I got a heavy cable and a good lock and stashed my mountain bike a little ways up the bank at the parking area.  Then I drove back to the “Y”, lashed my bike helmet to my daypack and had a glorious morning of hiking.  When I arrived at the trailhead, the bike was there safely cabled to a tree.  In less than 5 minutes, I was headed down Laurel Creek Road and 20 minutes later, i was on the way to the Burgermaster in Townsend.  It really helps to plan for a downhill ride.  Climbing up to Laurel Falls is a killer, even for seasoned lycra-clad cyclists on expensive road bikes.

And one more thing…

Bank your Mojo.  Karma counts! I give a ride to a fellow hiker every chance I get.  Sometimes, even when they are not hitchhiking.  Chances are, if you see someone hoofing it on the side of the road with a daypack, they are headed for their car.  If you help them out, he or she may see you the next time, or the next hiker.  Even the fishermen appreciate being asked if they need a lift.  Just remember not to blame Karma when the ride never comes.  Mojo doesn’t work that way.

HikerHead 2  Strider Out!



Agony of DeFeet

The gear question I tend to get most often is, “what kind of hiking  shoes should I get?”.  “I don’t know.  I’ve never used your feet,” is typical as my reply.  The feet are the most vital set of hiking equipment we have determining, perhaps quicker than anything else, whether a hike is ultimately remembered fondly.  It is also a defining factor for novices as to whether they stay with hiking.  Cheryl Strayed went into excruciating detail about her feet in her book Wild, ultimately leading to losing her boots over the side of a cliff.  As far as I remember, her feet were not in them at the time.

My feet are highly personal to me.  I am the only one that ever uses them.  I never loan them out.  And like most earth traversing bipeds, we have plenty of time to think while hiking. So I developed my Philosophy of Feet.  There are plenty of great websites that give all the basic advice on shoe selection.  This post is about coming to terms with our feet and and perhaps confronting a myth or two that leads to expensive purchases, and of course, extra weight.

The Myth of Dry Feet

Abrams Creek at Hannah Mountain Trail

Abrams Creek at Hannah Mountain Trail

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is a rain forrest.  Average annual rainfall in the park ranges from 55 inches in the lower sections to more than 85 inches atop the ridges.  To our great fortune, that water moves down the 2,900 miles of rivers and streams, over the spectacular falls and cascades that present the symphonies of water music and the lullabies that sing us to sleep.  Some trails are known for their prolific number of stream crossings; Eagle Creek (17), Beard Cane (16), Lakeshore (15), Bone Valley (5 crossings in 1.8 miles) and others.  Abrams Creek must be forded knee deep twice, at Hannah Mountain Trail and lately near the Trailhead on Rabbit Creek Trail with the bridge washed out.  Rock hopping gets you over many of the crossings but ultimately, you will either slip or find there is not a suitable dry crossing.  Rock hopping in winter is downright treacherous as invisible ice forms on rocks inviting your feet to land, only to land your bottom in the creek.

The Myth of the Waterproof Boot

Waterproof boots are better at holding water IN than they are keeping water OUT.  And unless you never hike in the rain or always wear fisherman’s waiters, water will get into your boots.

Born To Run

Born To RunChristopher McDougall’s book Born To Run was a deep dive in how humans were built for covering long distances on foot and how modern technology has actually interfered with our natural ability to do so.  He lived with the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico to learn how they can run hundreds of miles day after day wearing no more than thin leather sandals.  His hypothesis is that modern running shoe technology has provided too much cushioning and it impedes the natural movement of the foot and running gait leading to injuries.  He cites research that despite high tech shoes costing north of $150 per pair, foot and leg injuries have gone up over the years.  This has sparked a strange movement of barefoot runners and minimalist running shoes, which is a topic for another time.  But the bottom line is that over-cushioned and stiff soles, interfere with the way our feet flex and adjust to the terrain in which we walk.  Notionally, we are better off with fewer restrictions in binding our feet in shoes.

A Pound On Your Feet Adds 5 Pounds To Your Back

This axiom has been around for decades.  There’s a great article by 

Blistering Heat

The source of blisters is almost always bad fitting shoes, meaning shoes that are too small and too inflexible.  Blisters are caused by friction.  While excess movement can be a contributing factor, it’s the conditions of that movement that actually lead to the burns.  Rigid inflexible shoe soles cause the feet to move inside the shoe.  Built up moisture softens the skin and worsens the effect of excess movement.  Feet also like to move in the shoe.  Shoes that are too small restrict the natural movement of the feet (such as the toe region) and force the movement toward the pads of the feet.  Feet swell when hiking.   Tight fitting shoes displace this natural movement to other parts of the feet that are more prone to blisters.

The Water’s Fine…

West ProngIt was perhaps in the Pretty Hollow Gap area, after several unsuccessful attempts at rock hopping that an epiphany struck.  I have spent a lot of money and tried a lot of tricks (gaiters, wrapping my feet in plastic trash bags, no really) and hopped (slipped on) a lot of rocks and carried heavy sandals and expended a lot of stress and emotion… all in the quest of dry feet.  On this day, it rained and when it rains, you give up to being wet.  In that moment, I unconsciously quit worrying about getting my feet wet.  It simply didn’t matter anymore.  Then my mind played a strange trick on me.  It brought this thought to my consciousness.  When you’re not worried about getting your feet wet, rock hopping is no longer an imperative.  Then you realize that wet feet, once they’re wet, are not so bad.  It became one of those existential questions; “Why am I here?”, “Where did I come from?”, “Why am I afraid to get my feet wet?”.  Water is the stuff of life.  It’s one of those things that made life possible on this third rock from the Sun.  I was freed that day of the fear of wet feet.

And So…

When you embrace the inevitable fact that your feet will get wet when you hike 900 miles in the Smokies, it opens up new possibilities to how your dogs are shod.  You no longer require waterproofness.  In fact, you will seek a shoe that leaks like a sieve because you want the water to have an easy exit.  It’s not about the presence of moisture but the amount and where it goes.  This is a thing that will confuse the sales person at the outfitter as they try to convince you to buy expensive GoreTex; “No, please show me your lightest, most leaky shoe first.”  Chota makes shoes for canoeists who paddle the Boundary Waters of Minnesota.  The proper way to ingress a canoe is to walk into the water with the boat afloat and step into it.  Wet feet are a given.  Chota actually puts little vents on the insoles of their shoes so the water can flow right out.  I have been known to punch a couple small holes in the insole of my hiking shoes.  When I ford a creek, my feet are pretty dry within a half mile or so of hiking because the water works it’s way out of the shoe pretty quickly.  Slightly damp, yes.  Soaked no.

Sock It To Me

The old school traditional wisdom on socks was to wear thick wool socks with thin polypropylene or silk sock liners.  This was in the era of heavy full grain leather mountaineering boots, which were about the only option available to hikers back in the day.  The wool socks were padded and insulating and the liners were for wicking moisture away from the skin.  Since the liners couldn’t absorb and keep moisture, the feet remained slightly damp rather than completely soaked.  Plus, the liners served as a second skin to guard against friction.  Some lightweight guru along the way asked a simple question.  “If my shoes drain well, why do I need the thick socks?”  Ray Jardine advocates cheap men’s dress socks which you can buy for 3/ $10 at your favorite discount retailer.

The Cold Truth

Snow on Maddron Bald Trail

Snow on Maddron Bald Trail

It’s been my experience that hiking keeps your feet warm. Even in the winter through snow. Most 900 Milers avail themselves of the off-season, especially for the more popular trails.  I hiked Maddron Bald the end of February in 8 inches of snow.  If it’s winter and you hike above 4,500 ft., you’ll hit snow.  Yes, my feet get wet and cool.  But I never have a problem with severe cold.  When my hiking is suspended for the day, I make sure to have dry warm socks and in the pack.

Soul of the Sole

Salomon XSCREAMMy ideal shoe is the lightest, leakiest, reasonably flexible, least padded, cheapest shoes I can find.  I pair them with thin ankle high merino wool socks.  I have about 600 miles on a pair of Salomon XSCREAM trail runners.  They weigh together 1 lb. 6 oz.  They only have a few miles left and I will be sad to retire them.  As far as I can tell, Salomon discontinued the model and replaced them with the X Mission 3.  One of the gripes I have with gear providers is that in order to project cutting edge design and a sense of what’s new, they tend to retire good products for no other reason than they are so last year.

My feet have never been happier since I went lightweight and free flowing.  I rarely blister and I don’t have aches and soreness from moving against rigid hard soles.  My preference is still to rock hop creeks if reasonable but a good soaking is no longer the end of my happiness.

Of course, I could be wrong…

HikerHead 2  Shalom.  Strider out…


In Search of the Optimum “Big Three” and The Impact of the Sales Pitch

A Tale of Two Hikers

The Big Three copyAny article on lightweight backpacking mentions the big three; Tent, Sleeping Bag and Pack.  Two recent experiences have led me to believe the attainment of lightweight enlightenment with regard to the Big Three is more elusive than previously credited.  In the first case, a friend is in the first couple weeks of her Mountain-to-Sea Trail thru hike across North Carolina and she is experiencing the typical break-in period most thru hikers face:  shaking down equipment, initial confrontation with less than desirable physical condition and the realization this is going to be hard.  And like most freshman thru hikers, there is the inevitable effort to lose pack weight.  I had provided some pre-hike coaching and helped her shed a few pounds but when we had a telephone catchup, she was still hauling over 30 pounds.  So we went through everything, item by item, starting with the Big Three.  She reported to me that her sleeping bag, pack, tent and sleeping pad still weighed about 17 lb. which couldn’t be true because the tent and bag were only about 5.5 lb. together.  I know because I loaned them to her.  The pad was another pound and finally we got to the root of the matter.  Her pack weighed nearly 7 lb. empty.  She bought a good pack from a reputable outfitter.  No blame here but a 7 lb. pack for someone less than 5’6″ was a bad fit.

Now to the second part of the story.  Yesterday, upon returning from a day hike with a friend on West Prong Trail, I engaged in one my my favorite post hike celebrations in Maryville.  That being a stop at Little River Trading Company.  I wanted to share what wisdom I could on backpack choices.  A helpful sales guy was right there at the backpacks and was quick to engage us.  I stood back and listened to his approach to see where he would lead my friend.  He asked to typical questions like, “what kind of hiking are you going to be doing?”  At no time did the question of weight come up.  My friend’s attention was directed to a popular brand with plenty of room and would certainly meet his technical needs.  But pack weight was never discussed, even when I suggested the lighter weight brand I prefer.

Sales people are no doubt helpful but it is my contention they rarely steer the novice toward the lightweight options unless pressed to do so directly.  With packs, the thing is size and suspension technology.  With sleeping bags, it’s temperature rating and price and with tents, well I’m not sure because I’ve never bought one from a store.  And this is why my Mountain-to-Sea Thru-hiker friend is carrying over 25 lb. in base pack weight. So here are two basic rules when looking for one or more of the Big Three, or any other piece of gear.

Basic Target Weight for the Big Three

The maximum target weight for the Big Three combined is no more than 9 lb. total weight.  Breaking that down, target 3 lb. for a tent, 2.5 lb. for a summer weight sleeping bag and no more than 3 lb. for a pack.  It’s not difficult to do less weight but you start to run against cost, especially with sleeping bags.  Tent’s and packs weighing 3 lb. or less each are no less durable or more expensive than any others.  Beware the popular brands that offer a lot of features and technology.  That translates to cost and weight.  My North Face summer down bag weighs about 2.5 lb. and my Eureka one-man tent weighs barely 3 lb.  Neither came with a hefty price tag and both can be found on sale for $150 each or less.  My ULA Circuit holds 4,200 cubic inches and weighs 2.5 lbs.  It sells for $235 which is comparable to other major brands.  Total for theBig Three in this example: 8 lb.

Helpful Sales People: How to Help Them Help You

Outfitters offer a great service and they desire to get you quality gear but like any other sales person, if you go in without some prep work, they will make recommendations based on their priorities, which is to sell you the best pack in their opinion.  They may not put pack weight at the top of the list of most desirable features so you will have to.  Pack weight should be number one after good fit.  Size should be secondary.  3,500 cubic inches is plenty for week long trips as it is quite enough for through hikers.  Sales people may direct you to bigger packs so you will always have enough room for whatever but size adds weight.  Most popular brands have lightweight models at reasonable cost.  You just have to ask.

Use the same strategy for sleeping bags and tents.  If they can’t offer you a reasonably priced product under 3 lb., move on to another store.  Or find a good friend with extra gear to loan you…

Erik The Black’s Backpacking Blog has a great article with further wisdom on choosing the Big Three

HikerHead 2  Shalom.  Strider out…


Trail Names and 900 Milers

Holy Family Hiker Hostel in Pearisburg, Va.

Holy Family Hiker Hostel in Pearisburg, Va.

It was the at the Holy Family Hiker Hostel in Pearisburg Va. when it happened. It was early June and I had just arrived to find a gentleman checking out the hiker register.

“Hi, I’m Shawn.”

“I’m Warren.  When did you start?”

“May 6th”

“Wow, you’re a runner aren’t you?”

The Runner… THAT’S IT!  Some 600 miles into my AT Thru Hike and I had a trail name.  And it came from one of the folklore heroes of the AT.  Warren Doyle has hiked the AT 16 times and at one time, held the speed record.  I hadn’t chosen a trail name at that point but I was aware of the tradition.  Some chose their trail names before they begin their hikes.  Some believe it should be bestowed upon you while on the trail.  I guess in my case it was more of the latter.

Adopting a trail name is part of the long distance hiker community.  Most Thru Hikers on the AT and PCT alike take on some form of alter ego.  The name may come from a specific event or it may refer to some aspect of personality.  Mouse Slayer carried mousetraps to ward off the beasts in trail shelters. The Umbrella Lady carried, well you know.  There was The Snail, The Old Soldier, Hog, Moses, TomNBev and The Exodus and many many others.  From Pearisburg on, the thru hikers I met become known more by their trail names than their given names.  It always made introductions interesting.  A good trail name should come with a good story.  Being a fan of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, I even gave my pack a handle; The Runnership Jansport America.

The 900 Miler community hasn’t seemed to embrace the tradition, perhaps because most of us are not Thru Hikers.  Furthermore, there is no system of communication like the shelter registers in which to document our experiences through our chosen identities.  We tend not to congregate at campsites and hiker hostels.   Becoming a 900 Miler does not involve a full-time commitment like being a Thru Hiker.  We don’t leave behind our civilian lives for the duration of the trek, which diminishes the need for an alter ego.

And yet, there were 30 who became 900 Milers in 2015. There are more than 475 900 Milers registered with the 900 Miler Club.  Maybe there is a critical mass necessary to ignite the use of trail names in the 900 Miler community.  If you track the list of AT Thru Hikers over the past several decades, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that trail names started to show up at all. The critical mass seemed be reached in the 1990’s and by 2000, it was unusual for a Thru-Hiker not to have one.

This is not a call for the 900 Milers of the world to adopt trail names.  That said, it’s not a bad idea and I think I’m going to go there.  Perhaps the 900 Miler Club should include a column for trail names like the ATC and the PCTA and see what happens.  To this end, I have narrowed down to three possibilities:

Saunter – John Muir rejected the notion that he was a hiker.  Borrowing an idea from H.D. Thoreau, he explained that saunterers were spiritual pilgrims who traveled by foot and he preferred the term.

Wayfarer – is a person who travels rather leisurely by foot.  Plus, the name reflects my chosen form of protective eyewear.

Strider – reflects one who travels by foot but more swiftly.  It is the nickname used by Aragon in the Lord of the Rings while he was a Ranger of the North.  Mysterious! 

Let’s see which one takes…

HikerHead 2



The 10 Essentials

Every year, there is a least one story that makes the local press about an individual who got lost in the Smokies for a day or two until the park service found them, cold and hungry.  Recently, there was a family of four who spent a miserable cold night up on Mt. Le Conte.  It seems despite the fact that the trails are well marked and the availability of good maps, people still manage to venture out in street shoes with a small water bottle and little else.

In full disclosure, I must admit that I have been lost once.  The map I had was several years old and the Lakeshore Trail had more recently been rerouted.  The campsite we were bound for did not materialize within the expected timeframe and the topography on the map indicated a much different terrain than what we were currently hiking.  We were supposed to be on the Lakeshore Trail and the last sign we passed confirmed that in fact we were… on the Lakeshore Trail.  We were just on the wrong Lakeshore Trail according to my obsolete map.  Fortunately, we encountered a fellow wayfarer who was in possession of a newer and more accurate map.  Given that we were backpacking, we were never really at risk and we were soon properly oriented and back on track.  The point is, everyone gets lost, sooner or later.

Much of my hiking is done solo for personal and spiritual reasons and 900 milers hike trails that are in the far reaches of the park where the maintenance crews rarely visit.  The possibility for an obscure trail without a sign is there.  Even with a hiking companion, water bottles are lost and food is forgotten.  And in the case of injury, one of the party may have to get help while the other party hunkers down to wait for rescue.  With proper planning, the folks at home should know where you are going and when you plan to return.  So if you are somehow lost or injured, you need to be prepared to survive a night in the backcountry.

The concept of the Ten Essentials was originally developed and published in the book, Mountaineering, Freedom of the Hills in 1974.  The idea was to develop a fundamental list of gear one should always have in the outdoors to facilitate a night’s survival in the wilderness in the case of injury or disorientation.  Bearing in mind, the list was developed well before the advent of the smart phone, it is understandable that the device failed to make the list:

The Classic Ten essentials

  1. Map
  2. Compass
  3. Sunglasses and sunscreen
  4. Extra clothing
  5. Headlamp/flashlight
  6. First-aid supplies
  7. Firestarter
  8. Matches
  9. Knife
  10. Extra food

My first encounter of the Ten Essentials was through the Boy Scouts.  Every checklist of camping gear starts with the Ten Essentials and their list is quite similar:

The Boy Scout Ten Essentials

  1. Pocket knife
  2. First aid kit
  3. Extra Clothing
  4. Rain gear
  5. Flashlight
  6. Food
  7. Water
  8. Matches
  9. Sun protection
  10. Map and compass

New developments in gear and the movement toward lightweight have refined the concept into more of a systems approach and the list is now a set of categories rather than 10 specific pieces of equipment.  Also, there are seasonal and geographical considerations.  Here are the updated 10 Essential Systems along with some personal commentary:

  1. Navigation – To date, the National Geographic map of the Smokies has proven to be a stellar method.  I also carry a compass although it is rarely consulted.  My watch has an altimeter feature and a compass so with the map, I can usually locate my position within a quarter mile or so.  I have yet to be enticed to acquire GPS systems.  Cell phones can work but they cannot maintain a battery charge for very long.
  2. Sun Protection – Hat and sunglasses.  If I anticipate spending an afternoon on a bald, I may carry sunscreen as well.
  3. Insulation – At the very least, even in summer, I take a fleece and my rain jacket.  In the winter, I add layers, gloves, a warm hat (beanie, toboggan, ski cap, skull cap, or touk, eh?), rain pants and a down jacket.
  4. Illumination – Headlamp, always.
  5. First Aid Supplies – The outfitters have small lightweight individual first aid kits with all the essentials.  I typically add Vitamin I (ibuprofen), a small tube of Neosporin, and a chaffing cream of some sort.
  6. Fire – Waterproof matches in a plastic waterproof case. I also cary a lighter but the matches are lightweight and a good failsafe.  i also carry a couple sticks of fire-starter material.  It rains all year in the Smokies.  Scoutcraft aside, it helps to have a quick way to start a fire.
  7. Repair Kit and Tools – A lightweight pocket knife and a small bit of duct tape.
  8. Nutrition – I always throw in extra granola bars and plenty of GORP and nuts.
  9. Hydration – a water bottle and a Sawyer filter.
  10. Emergency Shelter – Interestingly enough, this list did not specifically call out rain gear, which is a serious oversight.  Although I included rain gear in the insulation discussion, I always carry a rain jacket.  In cooler situations, I’ll throw in the rain pants.  The advice here also calls for a light tarp, something which I rarely have carried on day hikes but I do have silnylon rain poncho that could serve as a tarp.
  11. Knowledge – There is always the “plus one”.  In this case it’s knowledge.  a compass won’t do you any good if you don’t know how to use it.  Starting a fire in a fireplace with dry newspaper and a lighter is easy at home, but in the rain with wet wood is a whole other matter.  Setting up a tarp in the wind requires some skill. Proper planning identifies routes and return times.

All of these items stay in my day pack or in close proximity.  The list helps to make sure the down jacket makes it in the pack.  There are most certainly other items you may consider essential so feel free to modify the list to include those.  And lightweight considerations need not be sacrificed.  My day pack rarely weighs more than 7 lb., even with water and winter gear.

Shawn's 10 Essentials

Shawn’s 10 Essentials


Stove Boil-Off

You cannot walk far in the way of Ultralight Backpacking without running across those who are passionate about their alcohol stoves.  And why not?  They are extremely light and you can make your own at very minimal cost.  What’s more, there are many websites dedicated to showing you how to make and use your own stove.  One in particular is  This site has great instructions on how to make different stoves and it has a well done comparison between all the main types of cooking methods including open fire, wood stove, canister and liquid fuel, alcohol and solid fuel.  One thing that most of the websites I have seen are lacking is how the alcohol stove compares with others in terms of how much time it takes to boil water.  As you will see, this amounts to a significant omission.  In full disclosure, I am no where near achieving Zen status when it comes to the alcohol stove.  There are a lot of designs and I am sure some are more efficient than others.  However, the few videos I observed on the topic confirmed my results as being in the ball park.  For this test, I chose the popular cat food can design.  The website shows you how to make one.  They are really easy.

As for the other stoves in the test, they are from my own personal collection.  While there are many designs and technologies deployed today, I believe these models exemplify each type of stove sufficiently for this purpose.  They all have their advantages and disadvantages, which are pretty well known with minimal research.  The main purpose of this test is to compare boiling times, weight and general cost of each stove type.

The Setup

IMG_1592The test was conducted in my garage with the door open.  There was a bit of a breeze but not significant. The ambient air temperature was 63.7 deg.  The altitude of my garage is 1337 ft. above see level and the barometric pressure at the time of the test was 30.05 in. of mercury.  These parameters are significant in that they affect the actual boiling temperature and the time to boil the water.  In order to make sure I had a solid reference, I heated some water and tracked the temperature until it stopped at 208 deg. at a full boil.


IMG_1594I used my trusty flat scale to insure I used a constant amount of water for each test.  I chose 12 oz. of water because that is typical for a single serving of freeze dried foods.  I used a typical digital oven thermometer to track the temperature of the heated water.  I used a two gallon bucket to hold plenty of water and the temperature of the water from the tap was 62 deg.  For timing, I used the stopwatch function of my wristwatch.  The container I used was my 16 oz. titanium cooking pot.

Testing Method

IMG_1595For each test, I dipped the pot in the bucket of water to make sure it started at the same temperature. The I used the scale to measure exactly 12 oz. of water.  After lighting each stove, I adjusted to full flame.  In the cases of the liquid fuel stove and the alcohol stove, I gave each enough time to warm up to the point of vaporizing the fuel.  I set the pot on the stove and started to watch, tracking the time until the moment the thermometer read 208 degrees.  It should be noted that I did not use a windscreen for any of the tests.  They are discouraged in the use of canister stoves for safety reasons.  For liquid fuel and alcohol, they can provide improvement but I decided to remove it as a variable.

The Stoves

MSR Pocket Rocket

This is my current go-to model and I love it.  It is a canister type and it is very small, compact and lightweight.


  • Type:                                                 Canister
  • Stove Weight:                                  3.0 oz.
  • Fuel and Canister Weight:             8.0 oz. (4 oz. fuel)
  • Total Weight:                                    11.0 oz.
  • Cost:                                                  $39.95

MSR WindPro

I have been a white gas devotee since my Boy Scout days and I have used the MSR Whisperlite for many years.  It remains a great stove choice for extended trips, colder temperatures and higher altitudes.


  • Type:                                                 Liquid Fuel
  • Stove Weight:                                  6.4 oz.
  • Fuel and Canister Weight:             9.8 oz. (4 oz. fuel)
  • Total Weight:                                    16.2 oz.
  • Cost:                                                  $99.95

Cat Food Can Alcohol Stove

It took about 15 minutes to make this stove with the can and a paper hand punch. The cat food, alas, was not necessary for the test and consequently, it was not spared nor donated for the benefit of any feline.


  • Type:                                                 Homemade Alcohol
  • Stove Weight:                                  0.2 oz.
  • Fuel and Canister Weight:             5.0 oz. (4 oz. fuel)
  • Total Weight:                                   5.2 oz.
  • Cost:                                                 $1.98 for the cat food

The Results

  Model   Type Boil Time Weight Cost
  MSR WindPro   Liquid Fuel 2:15.40 16.2 oz. $99.95
  MSR Pocker Rocket   Canister 2:19.59 11.0 oz. $39.95
  Cat Food Can   Alcohol 11:32.10 5.2 oz. $1.98


It should be noted that the 1 oz. of fuel ran out during the alcohol stove test but I was able to refuel and relight within 15 seconds or so.  I left the total time because in the end, it did not seem to be significant.

There is a clear advantage in weight and cost of the homemade alcohol stove but a significant price is paid for boiling time.

For 6 oz. in exchange for 9 minutes, I think I’ll stick with the Pocket Rocket!