Articles about Travel

Tips for Buying Your First Stand Up Paddleboard…

Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) has been one of the fasting growing and most popular outdoor activities of the last few years. In a 2013 report by “The Outdoor Foundation” stand up paddling attracted 1.2 million people participating in 9.6 million outings, the most participants in an outdoor activity in the U.S. in 2012. This included all ages from 6+ with the most participation being seen in men and women between the ages of 35-44. Wouldn’t you know it, my wife and I are smack in the middle of that demographic so it would make sense that we now own a paddleboard.

Stand Up Paddleboard Tahoe

In the 1940s, surf instructors in Waikiki like the famous Leroy and Bobby AhChoy would take paddles into the surf and stand on their boards to get a better view of the surfers in the water and incoming swells. When Bobby was injured in a car accident that prevented him from swimming or kneeling, he would stand on his board and paddle into the surf zone offering tips and advice to the younger surfers. In the 1980s popular pro surfers like Brian Keaulana, Rick Thomas, Archie Kalepa and Laird Hamilton began using SUP as an alternative way to train while the surf was down and it picked up the nickname “beach boy surfing”.

Even though stand up surfing with a paddle has a long history and has been popular in Hawaii for decades, interest in modern paddleboarding is relatively new outside Hawaii. SUP has grown considerably in the US mainland since it was transplanted from Hawaii to California in 2004 by surfer and Naval Special Forces veteran Rick Thomas. It solidified it’s place in the world of water sports in 2008 when the US Coast Guard officially classified paddleboards as a “vessel” (like a canoe or kayak) requiring use of a personal flotation device (PFD) when paddling outside of surf zones. The attraction is undeniable and the sport has near universal appeal to all demographics. There is something very seductive about the grace, strength and tranquility exhibited by skilled paddleboarders…even if reality for beginners is something very different.

My wife and I had our first SUP experience on the clear, blue waters of Lake Tahoe on her 40th birthday. That short afternoon on the water set the hook and it was only a matter of time before we invested in our own board. Having taken our time to go through the selection and purchasing process, I feel we can offer some sound advice to others looking to buy their first board.

Tips for Buying Your First Stand Up Paddleboard

1. Try Before you Buy


Once you’ve seen those sleek boards cutting smoothly through the water it’s hard not to want one. Before you run out and buy the next board you see, look for a good rental place to test a few boards out. There are multiple styles and sizes of SUPs and your ideal board will vary based on your style of paddling, your size, the type of water you’ll float as well as your skill on the board. Personally, I’m a big guy with a heavy upper body and an aggressive paddle stroke – I need a bigger, more stable board. My wife is half my size, has a Pilates-strong core and a relaxed paddle stroke. If I try to use the SUP my wife is comfortable on, I fall off pretty fast.

We rented several times trying out different board styles to figure out what we were comfortable with. Before we bought ours, my wife tried out a couple of different lengths to make sure she found the right ratio of speed, stability and manageable weight before we settled on the right one. Renting SUPs in most places is pretty affordable compared to other recreational options, so don’t be afraid to rent and rent often.

2. Do your Homework

Classic surf board construction is an art form requiring experience, skill and an instinct for hydrodynamic form. Modern paddleboards are an extension of that tradition and there are a variety of different construction methods used in making them. Just about everything out there will have an EPS foam core with sandwiched layers of fiberglass and epoxy. The number of layers and the quality of the construction materials are generally what will determine the cost of the board. Aside from the typical sandwich construction boards you will find pop-out production boards, made from mold injected polystyrene foam and heat treated epoxy and fiberglass. Pop-out boards are generally lighter and more durable and not a bad choice for the beginner. There are some really amazing custom-shaped, hand-glassed, hand-polished boards that would qualify as artwork and have the price tag to prove it. Since we’re talking about buying your first paddleboard, I would recommend going with something a little more economical that you wouldn’t mind getting a ding or scratch on.

Ultimately, you just want a board that you’re comfortable on and will hold up well as you learn to paddle. However, it is important to understand how construction effects pricing, maintenance and durability when selecting a board to purchase.

3. What Kind of Paddleboarder will you be?

SUP with dog

Stand up boards are used pretty much everywhere these days from quiet paddles on the lake to running whitewater. Different regions offer various SUP opportunities and your activity of choice will have some influence on the type of board you’ll need and how it’s set up. Many of the recreational whitewater SUPs look and ride very different than the sleek, thin boards designed for flat water. Even the paddles for whitewater paddleboarding are different. Having to carry your board into remote areas might lean you toward trying an inflatable version. Planning on boarding with your dog? You’ll want more stability and traction pads so your dog doesn’t slip and slide on the board.

Whatever you end up with should reflect the direction you plan to go with the sport. The activity defines the board type:

  • Surf: shorter boards that turn well and are naturally at home in the waves
  • Family recreation: durable boards with width for stability
  • Cruise: long boards, often with room for cargo; at home on flat water
  • Fitness and race: long, narrow boards built for speed in any water conditions
  • Yoga: wide, stable boards; often made with full deck pads for better grip in various postures

You’ll also need to make sure that your selecting the right sized board based on your experience and size. Longer, wider boards can be more stable and carry more weight, but might be too wide to paddle comfortably or too long to maneuver. Larger paddlers on smaller boards can find them pretty unstable. Think about who will be using the board and where to determine what size will work best. The chart below is a guideline used by many of the SUP dealers to determine proper board size for individuals.

Beginner Advanced
Weight: 120-150 lb.
Length: 10 ft. 6 in.-11 ft.
Width: 28-30 in.
Weight: 120-150 lb.
Length: 9 ft.-10 ft. 6 in
Width: 26-26.5 in.
Weight: 160-190 lb..
Length: 11 ft.
Width: 29-32 in.
Weight: 160-190 lb.
Length: 9 ft. 6 in.-10 ft. 6 in.
Width: 27-28 in.
Weight: 200-230 lb.
Length: 11 ft.-11 ft. 6 in.
Width: 29-32 in.
Weight: 200-230 lb.
Length: 10 ft.-11 ft.
Width: 28-28.5 in.
Weight: 240-270 lb.
Length: 11 ft. 6 in.-12 ft.
Width: 32-33 in.
Weight: 240-270 lb.
Length: 11 ft.-11 ft. 6 in.
Width: 29.5-31.5 in.
Weight: 280+ lb.
Length: 12 ft.
Width: 33 in.
Weight: 280+ lb.
Length: 12 ft.
Width: 32 in.

4. Budgeting for Accessories

As is the case with many sports, getting into SUP requires a small collection of specialized equipment. While the board itself is the most expensive item ($700 and up) it really can’t be used alone, so you’ll need to take into account all the other equipment needed when planning your budget. Many places will sell a board and paddle combo package, the bare minimum to get started, but you can’t assume your board will come with a paddle. A SUP paddle will cost somewhere between $80 and $250 with the average basic paddle somewhere in the $140 range. Other typical accessories you’ll need are a board leash ($30), a decent low-profile PFD ($80-$200) and a board bag ($150-$250) for keeping your investment protected. It’s also a good idea to make sure you have some good personal sun protection with a high UPF long sleeve shirt and a good hat, maybe even a wet suit if you plan to paddle in the winter. It adds up quick, just be prepared for it.

Once you’ve used your board for a while you might start thinking about other, more specialized accessories like a traction pad (if yours doesn’t have one or your dog needs one), gear storage, spare fins or a helmet (for whitewater).

5. Transportation

Stand Up Paddle Board on Roof Rack

Another logistic and cost to consider is how you plan to get around with your new paddleboard. Inflatables offer a nice, easy option as you can toss the rolled up board and pump in the back of your car and off you go. With a rigid board you’ll need to consider a roof rack setup, preferably with foam padding to keep the board from getting beat up. Long cam-straps work best for lashing your board down to the roof rack, look for padded cam-straps ($20 pair) to reduce the chance of scratches or gouges. If security is an issue consider buying cam-straps with an interior steel cable and locking cams ($90 pair). Having a good board bag also helps with transportation, guarding your new baby from scratches and road debris and keeping it out of direct sun.

6. Care and Maintenance

Luckily, care and maintenance on your new paddleboard is pretty easy and straight forward but there are a few key things you need to keep in mind when you’re buying a new board. Most importantly, do not keep your board in direct sunlight for extended periods of time. When you’re not using your board it really should be kept in a shady spot, or covered with a light-reflective material. The extreme heat that builds up inside the layers of your board when in direct sun can cause damage to the EPS foam core and delaminate the board. Many boards have built in valves to help mitigate gas buildup, but direct exposure should still be avoided. Extended exposure to UV rays can also ruin the finish on your board.

It’s important to wash your board after every use, especially when using it in the ocean. Sea water can corrode metal parts and break down plastic seals and o-rings. Be sure to rinse with clean fresh water paying particular attention to any metal or joints in your board and paddle. Even in fresh water it is still important to wash the board down so that you don’t inadvertently carry contaminants to other bodies of water. Lakes like Tahoe have suffered from the introduction of foreign algae from recreational watercraft brought to the lake dirty.

If your board does have a vent plug, it’s important to check it often to make sure it’s working properly. Get in the habit of loosening the vent plug when the board is not in use so the board can breathe. If you store your board in it’s board bag, make sure both are bone dry before storing. Any dampness in the bag can create an environment for mold and mildew which will wreck havoc on your board.

Following these tips should minimize frustration and set you up for maximum enjoyment in your new found sport. Find a good local retailer, get the board of your dreams and get outside!

 

Sampling the AZBDR and The Art of Being in the Moment

You guys know me by now. I share most of my adventures with the public either here or via social media. I have made myself a deliberate advocate of traveling for travel’s sake and spending time outdoors to connect with nature. As with a lot of people these days I tend to get caught up in recording my excursions, sometimes to the detriment of the trip itself. I’ve found that often the act of stopping to take a quick snapshot to share on social media really disrupts the moment, it imposes on the natural flow of the experience, pulls you out of it and makes you a spectator instead of a participant. With my focus on photography I am especially guilty of this and some experiences are diminished because of it. There is something to be said for simply letting an experience happen, enjoy it, immerse yourself in it.

This would be the lost art of Being in the Moment. I recently took a day trip that was such a rich experience, for me, that I didn’t want to interrupt it. I only took three pictures in 6 hours of riding and they were all at natural stopping points, natural lulls in the experience where the action didn’t become an imposition. My mind and body were immersed in the experience and it was a wonderful feeling.

“If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.” – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

AZBDR – Just the Tip

Last weekend I had been planning on a multi-day trip but things didn’t come together and I settled for a Saturday morning ride to explore on the motorcycle. I woke up early before the valley started warming up with the morning sun, packed my camera equipment, loaded the bike and hit the road toward Payson and cooler temps. With a shiny new copy of the Arizona Backcountry Discovery Route (AZBDR) map in hand I figured I’d first check out Fossil Springs Road outside Strawberry, then see if I could find myself on some section of the AZBDR to see what it was like. After finding Fossil Springs Road closed (apparently it’s been closed for a long time due to road conditions) I turned up 87 cruising past Clint’s Well and joined the AZBDR on FSR 95 near Blue Ridge Reservoir. But not before a little detour.

When I first moved to Arizona in the mid 90s I did a decent amount of hiking and solo camping in the high country. One of the first big hikes I did was an overnight backpacking trip above the Mogollon Rim in Coconino National Forest. I had decided I wanted to hike a couple of the drainages that led to a little blob on the map called Blue Ridge Reservoir. I made it to the reservoir at it’s most southern tip and I vividly remember the water was a bright, algae-thick green and the sheer canyon edges hemmed in the water so severely it looked as though you couldn’t climb out. I thought to myself some 20 years ago, “this would be a great place to bring an inflatable kayak and explore.”

That was my first, and last, glimpse of Blue Ridge Reservoir until last weekend.

AZBDR on KLR Blue Ridge Reservoir

I have been riding without the use of a GPS or my phone maps. It’s helps me to get better about remembering my routes and it’s also led to some cool accidental discoveries. I took the wrong road off of 87 looking for 95. I saw a sign that read “Blue Ridge Reservoir Access” and mistakenly took that for my turnoff. I kinda knew I had taken the wrong road. Even as I cruised along on the smooth, redish dirt road I knew it was wrong but went anyway just to see what I could see. The road I did turn on, FSR 751, turned out to be a very nice dirt access road to an unexpected boat ramp at the northern end of Blue Ridge Reservoir. I found myself stopped above a large parking lot busy with kayaks and canoes fanning out in all directions from the narrow boat ramp at the water’s edge. I continued past the ramp and through the parking lot to a continuation of the road on the other side. This section was now more technical single-lane width, rutted and rock strewn that hugged along the edge of the wooded cliffs plunging into the reservoir. The road leads to the dam, but is gated and closed to public access, so I went back the way I came having enjoyed the detour immensely. The reservoir looks very different now, from the north end, 20 years later.

Back on pavement and a short cruise further up 87 put me at the road I was looking for. After double checking the map to make sure I was on 95 I soon found myself kicking up dust and zooming along on the KLR through the forest completely alone.

I could feel the grin on my face getting wider with every turn in the road. The scenery is spectacular through this area, something that would normally have me stopping every few minutes to haul out the gear and grab some pictures. But I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to stop moving, to break from the road, it felt like I would be interrupting something important. There are a few quick views of Clear Creek as the road descends to the narrow bridge which crosses at the confluence of two deep canyons. I considered stopping at the creek, it is absolutely gorgeous at the bottom, but there were a few small groups of people fishing there and I chose to move on.

Climbing out of the canyon, 95 cuts deep into the forest and, again, my bike and I crunched over the loose gravel road taking opportunity to open up in the few straightaways. The forest closed in a little more along this section, the roads appeared more well traveled and it was here that I finally shared the road with someone, for a short time. I quickly out-paced the SUV on the tight corners and rutted out road. Those roads are perfect for a motorcycle like the KLR.

The AZBDR route continues from 95 east on Rim Road 300 to eventually catch up with HWY 260 that runs between Payson and Heber. 300 sees a lot more weekend traffic as the main access road for all camp and recreational sites above the rim, but it still isn’t a busy road and is dirt almost all the way back to 260. It’s called the “Rim Road” because it literally follows the edge of the Mogollon Rim offering spectacular views of it’s rugged cliffs and the verdant valley below.

I came around one corner on 300, well before really seeing any other vehicles, and spooked a small group of some of the biggest, healthiest Javalina I’ve ever seen in Arizona. I tapped at the brakes as they bounded out of the wash and across the road to disappear into the thick forest. Riding on the motorcycle certainly reduces the opportunities to sneak up on wildlife, so the javalina encounter was an unexpected treat.

The weather was coming in on me and I knew I had a race on my hands if I expected to make it home before a monsoon caught me on the road. I stopped at the visitors center where 300 meets 260 for a breather and to stretch my legs. I needed to clear the euphoric clouds from my head before getting into traffic. I had originally wanted to document my first foray into part of the AZBDR with some great photos to share the experience. But I realized that some experiences are better, richer, when they are savored and consumed selfishly, gluttonously alone. It might sound stupid to some, but this ride was mine and I feel good about allowing myself to be in the moment and enjoy it. For a few blurry, sun-soaked hours I was completely free.

If this was any indicator of what the rest of the AZBDR looks like, I’m in…hook, line and sinker. I’ll be back for sure. Next time maybe I’ll actually pull out the camera so you guys can see what it was like. Or, better yet, come with me and see for yourself!

Ultimate Summer Dog Adventures

After our old Boston Terrier passed away, we started taking Wiley everywhere with us because we were worried about her being lonely. Then, when we adopted New Max we were really excited by the idea of showing this poor abused rescue dog what a good home is like. So now we travel with two cattledogs who love the outdoors and take on any adventure we throw their way. Taking our cattledogs on summer adventures in fun outdoor areas is a big focus for us as traveling dog owners. We often specifically plan trips around dog friendly locations and climates, which in the summer means getting out of Arizona.

Every summer we take a trip to Lake Tahoe to get away from the desert heat, soak up some mountain air and enjoy the beautiful lake scenery. Lake Tahoe can be challenging with dogs (it’s not a super dog friendly place), but if you do a little looking around and plan accordingly it’s manageable. We had been debating whether or not we would do the trip this year, and if we really wanted to take the dogs. Then we were contacted by Merrick Pet Care about being a part of their Backcountry Dog Food ambassador program. As part of the sponsorship not only did Max and Wiley get to try out their new food (which they really love) but Merrick also set us up with some extra funds to take the dogs on a trip.

This is their Summer Dog Adventure…

WARNING: Ridiculously adorable dog pictures ahead, totally NSFW if you actually want to be productive.

The Long Car Ride

Dogs in the Car

We took Wiley to Lake Tahoe on Merelyn’s birthday last year and had a great time. Wiley did really well hiking and swimming and was surprisingly quick at learning how to Paddleboard. Ever since bringing New Max into our family, we’ve wanted to get him out to Tahoe as well and see how he would do. It’s about 13 hours of road time between here and Lake Tahoe, mostly through the lower deserts of Nevada. There are not a lot of good places to stop with the dogs because the summer heat can be brutal. So our trip up north started with WAY too much car time, more than Max has had to deal with. He made sure his boredom was well documented.

Overall he did great, eventually settling in for the long trip but he took advantage of every opportunity to get out of that car. His relationship with the Car has been changed forever.

Towns without People

One of our few Day 1 stops to let our two and four legged passengers stretch their collective limbs was a small ghost town in the Nevada desert. Gold Point is a working town with a population of a couple dozen semi-permanent residents. Even so, there were no people to be seen while we were there and we had the entire old western mining town to ourselves. Luckily it wasn’t too terribly warm there as we were starting to gain some elevation, so the dogs got to walk around with us for a while sniffing at old wreckage, cows skulls, dead snakes and abandoned buildings all while trying to avoid random bits of broken glass. There were a couple of old rickety houses they seemed especially interested in sniffing around the front porch and front doors, but I’m sure the only scent they were getting was rodent.

Dogs in a ghost town

Dogs in a ghost town

Camp Bug Bite

After a LONG, less than exciting day in the car we finally made camp just above Mono Lake at the edge of treeline. Wiley and Max were overjoyed at the prospect of some actual freedom and immediately set about exploring their new territory. The gnats were pretty thick and the longer we hung out, the thicker they got. We all got doused with a generous dose of bug spray (pet friendly stuff) and tried to go about our business cooking dinner, setting up the tent and sniffing random logs (we each had a job to do). The dogs got their Backcountry dinner then we took them for a nice walk to burn off some energy letting the dogs sniff and explore on their own while we waited for sunset to color the darkening sky.

Mono Lake Camp with dogs

Mono Lake Camp dinner

Dog walk at Mono

Mono Lake Camp with dogs

Sunset was no disappointment and both of the dogs seemed very at home following me as I wandered around in the fading light with my camera. I really enjoy watching our dogs play with their natural instincts in nature. Without the restrictions of home, civilization and city life they get to experience being free for a while. They get to play, run, jump, sniff, scratch and chase without hearing “NO” all the time and we’ve found they’re both really good about coming back to us with not much more than a little whistle or name call. Wiley was finally showing that relaxed, contented look she gets when we travel and spend time outdoors, we’ve come to refer to it as Wiley’s “Vacation Eyes”. Vacation Eyes are the sure sign that we are finally settled in to a trip and doing things right, we adore Wiley’s Vacation Eyes.

As much fun as we all had at camp, the bugs were still thick and we noticed both dogs were taking a pretty good beating around their ears. So we socked in early and hid in the tent. Max has grown very fond of the tent and will often ask to be let in early…probably to claim HIS spot before the rest of us get in there.

The New Kid Visits Tahoe

Max at Lake Tahoe

The next morning we finally reached Lake Tahoe and the very first thing we did was get the dogs on one of the few dog friendly beaches. Reagan Beach is where Merelyn and I got married and it also happens to be a decent little dog friendly beach, so that’s where Max got his first introduction to Lake Tahoe. Being a rescue, we have no idea if he’s ever even seen water like that, so expansive you can’t see the other side. He definitely acted like it was a new thing to him and he was bounding through the small waves joyfully and barking at us to play with him (as he often does when we aren’t playing right).

Sticks at the Lake

We set up camp at Fallen Leaf Lake Campground and then hiked up the road to check out Fallen Leaf Lake itself. Colder water, rock beaches and small driftwood sticks everywhere made this lake a bit different than Tahoe. The dogs had less interest in swimming and running than chewing every piece of wood they could get their mouths on. Max has a toy fixation that we avoid by not having a lot of toys around for him, we have to keep him occupied in other ways. But this was an entire beach covered in tasty toys and he was a little out of his mind. Every time I would pick up a stick, or take one from him, he would target on it with laser focus and bark at me if I didn’t throw it soon enough. He gets a little mouthy at times if you’re not playing the way he wants you to.

focused on sticks at Fallen Leaf Lake

Merelyn Fallen Leaf Lake-9

New Dog, New Tricks

We had a lot of activities planned with the dogs but the big one we were looking forward to was paddleboarding. Last year Wiley proved to be an amazing paddleboard partner and my wife has been obsessed with SUP since. We were dying to get our new guy out on the water and see how he would do. He doesn’t swim well in the pool, but was enthusiastic about swimming in the lake so we got him a life jacket and picked up our rentals.

Max learning to paddleboard

Max was very anxious about paddleboarding at first. He wasn’t sure why we were all separated and wanted to swim between my wife on the paddleboard and me and Wiley in the kayak. This proved difficult until we showed him that we weren’t going to be very far apart. He still fidgeted and paced back and forth anxiously most of the time on the board and did only slightly better in the kayak with me. But we were able to happily spend the better part of an entire day on the lake with small breaks at the shore occasionally for the pups. This also proved to be a lot of adventure for one day and once we made it back to camp, both dogs sacked out next to the campfire for the rest of the evening with little interesting in anything but their dinner. They both have really become great camp dogs and settle in well without the need for restraints or constant commands. It makes traveling and camping with them so much more relaxing for us as well.

Max learning to kayak

Running Water

Our stay in Tahoe at Fallen Leaf Lake was awesome, it’s a great campground and we managed to get a spot that was on the edge so we backed up to forest land and had quiet neighbors. We left Fallen Leaf Lake having (luckily) never encountered the bear they said had been using our camp site as it’s access route from the forest. We headed down into Nevada to visit with some good friends and spend the night there. Finally some other dogs to play with! Running, playing and lots of introductory sniffing before settling down for the night. It was a great visit for dogs and humans alike.

The next day we took a new route home after chasing down some more Backcountry food from the local Petco in Carson City. Knowing we had another long drive ahead of us we took our time, made plenty of stops and let the dogs out as often as we could. We found a nice quiet road-side river stop off of 395 where we had a good time chasing sticks in the current and digging up river rocks, dunking our heads to pull them up. Lots of action along the river with bugs to chase, water to splash in, sticks floating by and lots of new interesting sniffs.

Dogs Exploring River

Dogs Exploring River

Along the way we explored some back roads in the Inyo National Forest and Max and I hiked to a couple of cool spots while Wiley and Merelyn hung out at the car pouring over maps and discussing our route home. Then we moved on to check out Mammoth Lakes since we were so close and none of us had ever been through that way. I don’t think Max or Wiley had near the level of appreciation we did coming into Mammoth. The lakes are gorgeous and the mountains up there are amazing. They look to have an extensive, well maintained trail system around Mammoth and a lot of camping options. We’ll have to do our research about how dog friendly it is there, but I could see Mammoth becoming our Lake Tahoe substitute on occasion.

The view over Twin Lakes

We found some great dispersed camping on the way home but heavy summer storms kept us moving through the evening. We finally had to call it quits outside Vegas and rolled into a campsite on Mount Charleston around 11PM. We quickly set up camp in the dark and everyone crashed in the tent, wrapped in our sleeping bags, weary from a very long day on the road. We woke to a very non-desert view of pine trees and granite. Mt Charleston is one of the Sky Islands of the southwest, unusually high with an isolated ecosystem nothing like the desert that surrounds it. Who knew you could spend a night at nearly 10,000 ft surround by high alpine vegetation within an hour of Las Vegas?

Waking up in the tent

Home

We returned home to the heat and the city, summer dog adventures were over…for the time being. Max and Wiley were momentarily happy to be home and out of the car for a while where they could harass the cat and cuddle in their comfortable beds. Both dogs slept soundly, beat from a week’s worth of fun in the outdoors and ridiculously long car rides. Traveling with our cattledogs brings us a tremendous amount of joy. Even though it limits our vacation options a little and can become a hassle at times, they are so worth the effort and we know they appreciate the time with us as well.

We always expect some recovery time after a trip like this one, so much time in the car you’d think the dogs would be content to sit at home for a while. But the next day both dogs shot outside and jumped in the back seat of the Subaru with that “Where to now?” look on their faces. I guess it’s time to start planning the next trip.

- – -

This trip was partially sponsored by Merrick Pet Care as part of their #Wild4Backcountry campaign. To read more about Merrick’s Backcountry line of dog food, check out our review.

The Teardrop Trailer Decision…

teardrop trailer camping

Two years ago today my wife and I were setting out to spend our first night of her birthday trip to Grand Canyon in a rented Teardrop Trailer. It was a small, bare-bones Little Guy trailer rented from a local guy who is no longer in business. The trip lasted 6 days and we had plenty of time with the teardrop to determine that we wanted one.

We’ve done plenty of camping together, sleeping in the car, sleeping in tents and couch surfing but we had just come back from a weekend at Overland Expo and the Teardrops had sparked our interest. We have looked at dozens of different trailer configurations and designs, some more “classic teardrop” than others. All had pros and cons that we discussed at length. Like, unreasonable amounts of conversation about this…you have no idea.

Domestic travel in the US has increased significantly in the last 5 years so it’s no surprise that campers, trailers and RVs are selling like crazy. Teardrop Trailers seem to be especially popular with their compact, efficient, lightweight design and nostalgic throw-back sensibility. With barely enough room for sleep space and storage, the teardrops encourage “outside camping” unlike the larger trailers with couches, chairs and TVs. The teardrop is a nice, seamless bridge between car camping RV camping.

It suits our style of travel.

Two years ago the process started. The idea was seeded in our imaginations and we fostered it diligently, letting it blossom into determination. This May we spent a cold, soggy, muddy weekend at  Overland Expo West meeting folks and checking out the newest Teardrops and compact trailers for more ideas and inspiration. The unseasonably cold weather and ankle deep mud turned some folks away as the Expo pushed on. Vendors huddled under their canopies and fought back the mud and rain to engage with the thinning crowd of outdoorsmen and travel enthusiasts. On our second or third pass through the vendors (likely on our way to get coffee) my wife spotted a teardrop vendor we hadn’t met yet and we stopped to say hi.

TC Teardrop booth - photo by Exploring Elements

TC Teardrop booth at OX2015 – photo by Exploring Elements

TC Teardrops had made the trek all the way from Wisconsin to show their products at Overland Expo West. They’ve been hand-building custom teardrop trailers since 2008 in a small shop in Wausau. Each teardrop is made to order, though they do occasionally have pre-loaded trailers for sale. The trailer we got to see at the Expo was nice, appeared to be well made, had all the amenities we had been looking for and none of the excessive stuff we didn’t need. It’s not the biggest, baddest trailer in town but it’s no bare-bones weakling either. The more we looked, the more we thought this might be a good option to consider so we asked about pricing. With base models starting out around $5k they are very reasonable and allow you to customize your way into something to fit almost any budget.

We left the Expo and my wife started doing her research.

Today, we put a down payment on our new Teardrop. TC Teardrops should fit us into one of their build slots later this year. I hope to keep everyone updated on the progress of the build, the options we chose and why. We are really excited about this new move. The trailer should allow us greater travel freedom and the ability/desire to extend our trips.

2016 will be the Year of the Teardrop.

Merrick Backcountry | Fuel for Your Adventurous Dogs

We’re not the kind of over-the-top dog owners that (unnecessarily) carry our dogs in strollers or provide a plate for them at the dinner table, but we do love our dogs as family and we treat them well. Part of treating them well is feeding them well and worrying about their diet and nutrition. We’ve struggled with maintaining Wiley at a decent weight, dealt with allergies and digestion issues. But these guys are super important to us so we do our best. When Merrick Pet Care contacted us to be a part of their Ambassador Program associated with the launch of their new Backcountry line of food products, I had to really consider how it would effect our dogs before I agreed.

Cattle Dogs exploring the river

Wiley has some food sensitivities that started causing problems with her skin and coat a few years ago. We moved her through a few products that our vet suggested and eventually landed on feeding her Wellness Simple diet dog food which is really basic and very expensive. But it worked and Wiley’s issues, for the most part, have gone away. She still seems to get seasonal allergy problems which, from part of what I’ve read, could be related to substandard nutrition. We’ve toyed with the idea of introducing a raw component to her existing diet…but just don’t know where to start.

Max also has some challenges. He was a rescue and had come in to the rescue with some injuries suffered after a “fall” from a moving vehicle. He was patched up pretty well, but he still has some issues with his jaw and damaged teeth. We spent a fortune making sure he got to keep his canines and now have to be cautious about what he eats and how much he chews on his toys.

Nutrition is so important for these guys. Not only for their overall health but as fuel for our play time at home and away. A friend said once, “Your dogs get more adventure than most people!” and he’s right. We often take our dogs camping, hiking, kayaking, paddleboarding, backpacking or on long road trips with adventure destinations in mind. We try to feed them well to insure they have the fuel to keep going as long as we do.

You can search #CattledogAdventures on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook to follow their adventures.

Merrick Backcountry dinner at Mono Lake

Merrick Backcountry Product Trial

Merrick Backcountry product

When Merrick Pet Care contacted us about trying this new line of food and being a part of their #Wild4Backcountry promotion I had some reservations and a lot of questions. With Wiley’s history of food sensitivities and Max’s teeth problems I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a waste of time having them try this new product. I asked about the ingredients, the processing, where the food was made and where the ingredients are sourced. My worry is always about food processed where regulations are loose and sourcing isn’t a concern. I also look for grain-free products after our experiences with Wiley’s reactions to other commercial dog food. Merrick was great about answering all of my questions and I was impressed with their answers.

Backcountry: About the Product

The food industry for a long time has agreed on the benefits of freeze-dried foods. It is a way to create shelf-stable food products without overprocessing or bastardizing the ingredient. The Merrick Backcountry RAW Infused dry kibble has good sized whole pieces of freeze-dried meat. We opted to try the dogs on the Game Bird Recipe kibble which is made with turkey, duck and quail and has freeze-dried whole pieces of chicken. It’s grain-free (no corn, soy or wheat), processed and packaged here in the states, has 38% overall protein, no artificial colors or preservatives and has nothing sourced from China (seriously, why is anyone eating anything from China?).

We also got to try a variety of the wet canned food options available in the Backcountry line. These include some different meats than normally seen in dog food like rabbit and venison. I was especially impressed with the Chicken Thigh Stew recipe that actually includes whole bone-in chicken thighs, cooked to make the bone safely digestible for the dogs so they can get the additional nutrition it provides.

The Backcountry kibble products are available in 4, 12 and 22-pound bags and range from $19.99 to $69.99 per bag which is comparable to what we were paying for the Wellness Simple Diet we had the dogs on before. The 12.7 oz cans retail at a competitive $2.99 per can.

Some of the Benefits:

  • Merrick Backcountry recipes include healthy ingredients that make dogs healthier and happier companions.
  • Quality proteins support growth and development in dogs and lead to increased energy levels.
  • Grain-free ingredients avoid issues like gluten intolerances, chronic skin conditions and stomach distress.
  • Fats and amino acids contribute to a healthier skin and coat.
  • This nutrient dense formula allows for smaller servings and helps to optimize weight management.

Merrick Backcountry on the road

Max and Wiley have never really been casual about feeding time, they love to eat. But their excitement level has definitely gone up a couple of notches since we put them on the Backcountry product. Wiley (our oldest) is much more energetic about meal time and Max is much more focused and attentive. They are pretty crazy about their new food and they both have done well on it.

The transition from their old food to Backcountry was pretty quick, we’ve seen no negative reactions in them and they seem very satisfied. We expected to see Wiley show signs of some reaction within the first few weeks if it was going to happen, but she is doing great.

We’ll continue to watch both dogs for reactions or sensitivities to the food. But so far, we are happy to keep them on the Backcountry food from Merrick and the dogs are pretty happy about it too.

What others have had to say:

“Dogs need high-protein foods to repair muscles, and foods dense in calories – specifically fats. The Great Plains Red Meat recipe has a whopping 38% protein and 17% fat. This is an optimal ratio for hard-working dogs. This particular recipe also includes 1200 mg/kg of glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate – two ingredients I’ve found help my older dog from getting too sore after a day in the field.  A thoughtful addition.  These fats and amino acids also contribute to a healthier skin and coat – which I noticed within one week of switching to Merrick Backcountry.” – Lowell Strauss

“My once slow and picky eater (Yuri) is finally finishing dinner every night. Just showing him the food is enough for him to go flying to his food bowl. We even had to swap him to a slow feed bowl because he is that excited.”Jillian Bejtlich

“I scoop a half of a can onto her dry food for breakfast, and she is *literally* besides herself with joy. It even led to a new phrase in our household: All I have to say is, “Tals, do you want some Beef Stew?!” and it’s game over. She will launch up, run downstairs and stand by her food bowl, prancing and leaping in circles. She even throws a few 360s and a shoulder slide in for good measure.”Heather Balogh

“Labs are prone to hip dysplasia and I’m doing what I can to help Sprocket maintain his mobility for as long as possible. Backcountry promises 1200 mg/kg of (Glucosamine & Condroitin) which is a 200% increase over his previous food.” – Beth Lakin (and Sprocket)

- – -

Disclosure: We were provided product and compensation by Merrick Pet Care for this review. But, as always, I wouldn’t endorse, support, or write about anything I don’t love. All opinions are honest, unbiased, and mine (and the dogs’) alone.

Gold Point: Photographing a Ghost Town

Known originally as Lime Point, this area was first settled about 1880. The early camp was abandoned by 1882. In March 1908, a silver strike brought a new camp into existence. Called Hornsilver, it flourished for about a year, boasting about 800 residents, at least 11 saloons, a post office, telephone service and a newspaper. Most of the businesses closed the following year. After a number of small booms and busts, the town was renamed Gold Point in 1932. Two local residents eventually served in the Nevada State Senate, Harry DeVotie and Harry Wiley, whose wife, Ora Mae served as postmistress from 1942 until 1967. The post office closed in 1968, and in 1979 stabilization of the town was started by Herb Robbins.

The town of Gold Point currently claims a population of 27…

Gold Point Ghost Town

Street view of Gold Point main road

Gold Point Ghost Town street sign

desert scene with old outhouse in Gold Point

old rusty antique truck wreckage in Gold Point

Old gas station pump and yucca at Gold Point

Rusty bathhouse at Gold Point Ghost Town

abondoned house in Gold Point Ghost Town

old skull and rusty junk at Gold Point Ghost Town

front of abondoned home in Gold Point Ghost Town

old gallows with noose at Gold Point Ghost Town

Backcountry Navigation: Map Reading Basics

Old World Map

Art from 1562 World Map by Diego Gutiérrez.

I have always liked maps of all kinds from hand-drawn treasure maps you scrawled out on the back of your ruled notepad paper as a kid to professionally crafted cartographer’s world maps. I have a significant map collection myself. There are some maps that have practical purpose and get used often (like local trail maps) and there are others I have just to have them (like my shaded relief map of Antarctica). Historically, cartography was an important art form and maps were an ever-changing representation of our knowledge of the physical world we lived in. The words “Terra Incognita” on a map have been the inspiration for many an expedition. The progression of the complexity and accuracy of maps throughout history is a direct link to our technological advancement as a culture.

My love of maps has carried over into my professional life. I create and use maps, primarily topographic maps, every day and my work depends on my ability to interpret them accurately. Learning how to read a map is not terribly complicated, more like learning another language..a visual language that uses graphics to communicate. Once you know what you’re looking at, reading a map is pretty straight forward. So let’s dig in…

Types of Maps

Maps are used to present information about a place, therefore, there are as many different kinds of maps as there are data to study (weather, geology, geography, traffic, population density, flora and fauna, water distribution, zoning, political, etc). For our purposes we are more concerned with the typical maps we would use for travel and navigation. There are four primary styles of maps typically used to supply road and trail information for would-be travelers.

Simple Line Maps

simple line map

Most basic type of navigational map.

This is the most basic of maps we can use. Typically it has little or no data regarding terrain and is often not drawn to any definable scale. Named roads and marked trails are illustrated and labeled, maybe some key features of the area are called out and there might be some trail distance data. Most of the time these maps will also label North for reference and even if they don’t, it is normally safe to assume that North is toward to the top of the page. You’ll find these maps printed for use in smaller local parks where “navigation” is not considered necessary. These are not the best maps to use for navigation but in a pinch, they can still be better than nothing.

Detailed Road Maps

detailed road map

Road Atlases and National Forest Maps are typically little more than detailed road and boundary maps.

Your typical state maps you can pick up at any gas station or thick road Atlas used for cross country travel are pretty common road maps. The focus is on known, paved roads with some information on maintained dirt roads and trails. These are great maps for traveling long distances by vehicle and tend to have relevant data for that type of travel. These emphasize main highways, towns and state boundaries, popular areas of interest and note road distances between towns and cities. Very popular and very useful when travelling by road and planning long distance trips but of little use in the backcountry.

Shaded Relief Maps

shaded relief map

Pre-color base shading for a shaded relief map.

Shaded relief maps are visually stunning and some of my favorite maps to look at. They beautifully represent land contouring and geological features through detailed shading giving an almost 3D effect to the map. On their own, they are little more than works of art but when combined with detailed road and topographical data they are incredibly useful and actually make topography easier to read. They also use a more real-world color palette to represent the land (i.e. browns for desert, greens for alpine and wetlands, white for snow, blue for water, etc.). By using shaded relief techniques on top of road, trail and topo data, map reading can be much easier and more intuitive for the average user.

Topographic Survey Maps

shaded relief topo map

Multi-layered map data with accurate topography is ideal for backcountry navigation.

For backcountry navigation, nothing beats an accurate and up-to-date detailed topographic (topo) map. It is the best map for accurately reading terrain and land forms in the field. When layered with road and trail data, boundary information and shaded relief graphics these maps create a very complete picture of the physical world around you. Topo maps use contour lines at set intervals to illustrate relief (see below for more on contour lines and reading topography). For the most part, these are the maps you want to have in the field when trying to navigate. These maps show not only the contours, but also any significant streams or other bodies of water, forest cover, built-up areas or individual buildings (depending on scale), and other features and points of interest. Landmarks and landforms on topographic maps are easily recognizable and make navigation much easier.

Map Components

Map Developer

Map Developer

If you have a lot of maps, or a lot of experience with maps, you’ll learn to place your trust in certain cartographers and map developers. This can vary locally as some small producers are responsible for fantastic local maps but don’t offer anything outside that region. For example, here in Arizona there is a set of trail maps produced by Emmett Barks Cartography for Flagstaff and Sedona. That’s all they do, but they do it really well and produce really nice maps based on up to date information (they generally update there maps every couple of years). I’m also a fan of the trail maps produced by Beartooth Publishing and have grown to trust their products as well. National Geographic maps are widely known and respected as well and most of the printed 7.5-minute maps I buy here are National Geographic publications. This is also where most maps will list their source material which can be important for determining accuracy of information. One Emmett Barks map I have lists USGS, Forest Service Maps, City maps and county GIS data as their primary source information with trail routes and distances provided by multiple GPS tracks compiled and edited. Maps using a single source of data are less likely to be completely accurate. The United States Geological Survey (“USGS”) is a federally chartered organization charged with providinggeologic, topographic, and hydrologic information that contributes to the wise management of the Nation’s natural resources.” Nearly all published topo maps will use USGS information as their primary basis.

The developer will generally provide the basis data for their maps including the reference datum and projection method. This is important to know if you are comparing multiple maps or if you need to communicate your position. There are generally two different datum references in use in North America and they differ slightly so it’s good to know what you’re working with. NAD27 is a North American based geodetic reference system established in 1927 and is wide use across North American maps, the other is NAD83 and is a based on a global reference. The two can be off by a handful of meters from each other. The most common is NAD27 and my preference for North American maps.

Also of some importance here is the projection method used to lay out the map. The large majority of North American maps will be Mercator projection maps, which uses a straight line grid making navigation easier but becomes extremely distorted toward the poles. I’ll cover the Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) grid a little more in a minute.

Interesting Note: Google Maps uses a projection method called Web Mercator (or Spherical Mercator) which is a variation of the UTM projection method and is not recommended for accurate navigation.

Map Title

This is pretty straight forward but, again, important if you have to communicate your location to someone. Forest Service maps, city maps, trail maps and USGS 7.5-minute maps all vary slightly in assumed accuracy. It won’t really matter while it’s in use, but could be valuable information when passing on your location so that everyone is on the same page. The map name will be on the cover of folded maps or in the lower right corner of USGS 7.5-minute maps.

The Legend

The Symbols Legend is the Rosetta Stone of the language of maps. How do you know if that squiggly line you are headed to is a paved road, dirt road or primitive trail? That blue line, is it a seasonal wash or permanent water source? Is that green shaded area supposed to be forest, grasslands or a swamp? It sure would be nice to know before you get there…

symbols legend

Most detailed maps will include at least a basic symbols legend to let you know how they mark specific areas and features on a map. Some symbols are pretty universal like a tent-shape denoting campsites, or a picnic table denoting day-use picnic areas. But all maps have their own vernacular that varies slightly from the others. The USGS has standardized their symbols library for use across their collection of topographic maps but the legend is not generally printed on individual 7.5-minute topo maps, so you would need to download the USGS Symbols Legend and familiarize yourself with their standards or risk a misunderstanding in the field.

New Shaded Relief mapping is changing some of the traditional color representations to make them more intuitive, but there is still the need of a legend to clarify and define the language used for each map. Some maps use color to represent elevation instead of land character which can get very confusing if you don’t know that from the beginning. Before heading out with any map you may have to rely on, be sure you are at least partially familiar with what the lines, shades, symbols and numbers all mean.

Scale

map scale

Two of the biggest pieces of information for active navigation using a topographic map is the contour interval and the map scale. You’ll rarely see a scale note on simple line maps, but all others should offer a graphic scale (like the one shown above) for measuring distances on the map. Most compasses will have common scales printed on their edges for use while navigating and you can purchase map rulers at different scales which can be useful if you do a lot of land navigation. Scale should be one of the first things you look at when using a new map, and take some time to get sense of how that scale relates to your map. Why is this such a big deal? If you’re low on resources and need to get to a road, camp or water source on the map and you get the scale wrong you could be in a world of hurt. Or say you want to summit a peak and you misread the scale and misinterpret the contour interval you could have a really bad day.

Some typical map scales: 7.5-minute quadrangle maps (1:24,000 and 1:25,000 scale) and 15-minute quadrangle maps (1:50,000, 1:62,500, and standard-edition 1:63,360 scales)

On the right side of the image above you’ll also see the Key Map which shows where in the state this map section represents.

Declination

Declination-1

We covered how declination works in the Compass Basics lesson. Most topo maps that would be used for backcountry navigation have a specific declination and it will be noted or illustrated somewhere on the map. The typical declination graphic (shown above) will illustrate the differential angle between True North (TN) and Magnetic North (MN). Sometimes there is also notation of Grid North (GN) if the map’s grid differs from both TN and MN. As I mentioned in the Compass Basics, it is important to pay attention to the date the declination was noted on the map. Older maps will likely have outdated information and can throw off your navigational readings. Some maps will state the declination adjustment for that area so you can calculate the current declination with a little math. My suggestion: for local navigation, just keep yourself up to date on the declination in your area and ignore the printed data.

Grid Units

To simplify the use of maps and to avoid the inconvenience of pinpointing locations on curved reference lines, cartographers superimpose on the map a rectangular grid consisting of two sets of straight, parallel lines, uniformly spaced, each set perpendicular to the other. This grid is designed so that any point on the map can be designated by its latitude and longitude or by its grid coordinates and a reference in one system can be converted into a reference in another system. Such grids are usually identified by the name of the particular projection for which they are designed. So, Grid Units are a method of segmenting a map for easy reference and is typically related to the form of projection used. In most cases when a map uses UTM projection, the grid units will be based on the UTM grid (Lat and Long may be shown as well as a secondary grid).

Longitude and Latitude

Longitude and Latitude is an older, slightly outdated, mapping grid system that is still in use and still represented on most maps (even if UTM projection is used). Most of us learned about Long and Lat in elementary school and have noted the iconic lines on the typical classroom globes.

Latitude and longitude

From Wikipedia:

The “latitude” of a point on the Earth’s surface is the angle between the equatorial plane and the straight line that passes through that point and through (or close to) the center of the Earth. Lines joining points of the same latitude trace circles on the surface of the Earth called parallels, as they are parallel to the equator and to each other. The north pole is 90° N; the south pole is 90° S. The 0° parallel of latitude is designated the equator, the fundamental plane of all geographic coordinate systems. The equator divides the globe into Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

The “longitude” of a point on the Earth’s surface is the angle east or west from a reference meridian to another meridian that passes through that point. All meridians are halves of great ellipses, which converge at the north and south poles. The meridian of the British Royal Observatory in Greenwich, a little east of London, England, is the international Prime Meridian although some organizations—such as the French Institut Géographique National—continue to use other meridians for internal purposes. The Prime Meridian determines the proper Eastern and Western Hemispheres, although maps often divide these hemispheres further west in order to keep the Old World on a single side. The antipodal meridian of Greenwich is both 180°W and 180°E. This is not to be conflated with the International Date Line, which diverges from it in several places for political reasons.

The combination of these two components specifies the position of any location on the surface of the Earth, without consideration of altitude or depth. The grid thus formed by latitude and longitude is known as the “graticule”. The zero/zero point of this system is located in the Gulf of Guinea about 625 km (390 mi) south of Tema, Ghana.

UTM

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) adopted a special grid for military use throughout the world called the Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) grid. In this grid, the world is divided into 60 north-south zones, each covering a strip 6° wide in longitude. These zones are numbered consecutively beginning with Zone 1, between 180° and 174° west longitude, and progressing eastward to Zone 60, between 174° and 180° east longitude. The contiguous 48 States are covered by 10 zones, from Zone 10 on the west coast through Zone 19 in New England (Arizona is zone 12S). In each zone, coordinates are measured north and east in meters. The northing values are measured continuously from zero at the Equator, in a northerly direction. To avoid negative numbers for locations south of the Equator, NIMA’s cartographers assigned the Equator an arbitrary false northing value of 10,000,000 meters. A central meridian through the middle of each 6° zone is assigned an easting value of 500,000 meters. Grid values to the west of this central meridian are less than 500,000; to the east, more than 500,000.

Virtually all NIMA-produced topographic maps and many aeronautical charts show the UTM grid lines.

UTM Grid Map

The UTM grid is shown on all quadrangle maps prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). On 7.5-minute quadrangle maps (1:24,000 and 1:25,000 scale) and 15-minute quadrangle maps (1:50,000, 1:62,500, and standard-edition 1:63,360 scales), the UTM grid lines are indicated at intervals of 1,000 meters, either by blue ticks in the margins of the map or with full grid lines. The 1,000-meter value of the ticks is shown for every tick or grid line. The actual meter value is shown for ticks nearest the southeast and northwest corners of the map. Provisional maps at 1:63,360 scale show full UTM grids at 5,000-meter intervals.

Understanding Topography

Alright then! All the basics aside, let’s get into the nuts and bolts of understanding topography. We’re going to try to keep this really simple and once you understand how it works, it’s fairly intuitive to read. You really just have to remember that we’re reading a 3-dimensional object in 2-dimensional space.

Three Dimensional Space

Working on flat paper it’s easy to graphically represent the two dimensions of length and width. The challenge then, for a 3-dimensional surface, is to graphically show height as well. Throughout the history of cartography, 3-dimensional relief has been illustrated in a variety of ways, few of which were accurate. Most of the representations were simply graphic indicators of mountainous regions, canyons or river valleys to communicate the rough character of the terrain. Today, accurate presentation of height and depth on maps is illustrated using topographic contour lines.

Contour Lines

Height and depth on maps and charts is referred to as relief and is represented by imaginary lines called contours. Contours, or isolines, represent the physical intersection of the bounding edge of a 3-dimensional object when sliced through at set intervals parallel to a given reference. The image below is the best representation of the way I was taught to view contour lines.

contours

 

The dashed lines (shown at 25 unit intervals) represent the horizontal slices through the object. The intersected edge at each interval is then projected onto the 2-dimensional map giving us a fairly clear graphic representation of the 3-dimensional object’s shape and height. As the diagram notes, the tighter the contour lines are the more steep the slope and the more spread out they are the more shallow the slope. The tighter the interval between contour lines, the more accurate the representation.

Intervals

The contour interval is the vertical distance between two adjacent contour lines. The tighter the interval, the more relief detail can be illustrated. Working with smaller maps of individual properties I am used to seeing one-foot intervals which provide a pretty clear picture of how the land is shaped. At larger scales, this tight interval is not practical and would render the map unreadable. For larger scale maps, intervals of 10-foot, 20-foot, 40-foot or 50-foot are common. This is extremely important when estimating slopes and identifying potential routes on a map. The trade-off for better readability is less fine detail of relief elements.

contour map intervals

Section of 7.5-minute USGS map showing a 40-foot contour interval.

Index lines on a map are heavier (thicker) contour lines every 4th or 5th contour and are usually labeled with the elevation reference. So, for example, on USGS 7.5-minute maps the interval is 40 feet. So all contour lines represent a difference of 40 feet in elevation and every 5th line is emphasized as an Index line so the interval between Index lines is 200 feet. Index lines will also be labeled with an elevation number allowing you to quickly reference your vertical position. With few exceptions, elevations will be noted in feet or meters from sea level.

Take some time to look over your maps and get to know how they’re put together: Who made them, how they’re projected, the basis for the data as well as the age and accuracy of the information presented.

Next we’ll put the Compass Basics and Map Reading Basics together and work on some real-world navigation exercises.

Backcountry Navigation: Compass Basics

I grew up in a time before GPS. I learned how to use a compass in Cub Scouts and learned how to navigate with one as I grew older. I think I got my first GPS system sometime in my late 20s and never really used it for much beyond tracking my route, I still always preferred a map and compass. Knowing how to use a compass is one of those things that seem unnecessary and archaic until you find yourself in a situation where your life depends on it. Knowing some compass basics should be a part of everyone’s skill set if you spend any amount of time outdoors, on the trail, on backroads or anyplace where accurate use of a map can mean the difference between making it home and not making it home.

A recent article pointed out that most people are “too reliant on technology, expecting smartphones and satellite navigation systems to do the hard work for us” when it comes to map reading and navigation. It’s true that we rely too heavily on technology. This can be exceptionally dangerous when we put ourselves in risky situations. What happens when that technology doesn’t work? Batteries die? Signal is lost?

Right. So go grab your dad’s old compass, dust that thing off and let’s start developing some of those life skills you’ve been hearing so much about.

Anatomy of a Compass

Before you try using your compass in the field, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with it’s basic anatomy. Read through the instruction book that came with it and identify it’s components. There are a lot of different compass designs out there with different ways to adjust and read them. This old Brunton Elite of my Dad’s is a pretty basic model to learn with.

Compass-Basics-text--2

360 Degrees

Compass BasicsYou remember basic geometry, right? A full circle is represented by 360 degrees (with Zero and 360 being the same point). The four cardinal directions (North, South, East and West) are located exactly 90 degrees from each other (360 degrees divided by 4) and are read clockwise from North (North is always Zero/360). So when reading a compass we universally recognize North as Zero, East as 90 degrees, South as 180 degrees and West as 270 degrees. Remembering to read clockwise from Zero is probably the most important part of reading a compass (otherwise you’ll end up heading the wrong direction).

From there, further refinement is pretty easy. General directional headings are usually given using a set of 8 (45 degree increment) or sometimes 16 (22.5 degree increment) standard directions. How does this work? If we are told to follow a Northeast heading we are looking for an angle halfway between North (0 degrees) and East (90 degrees) which would be 45 degrees. So what would a Southwest bearing be? Halfway between South (180 degrees) and West (270 degrees) we would have 225 degrees. Easy enough, right? Breaking our directions down even further we can provide more accurate headings. Dividing 45 degrees in half we end up 22.5 degree increments and a set of 16 standard directions. Given a bearing of East-Southeast we would look for the point between due-East (90 degrees) and Southeast (135 degrees) which would be 112.5 degrees on the compass.

Now that we understanding the traditional directions and how they relate to each other (in degrees) we can start navigating.

Getting your Bearings

Navigation is all about getting from point A to point B. Accuracy is important otherwise you will just be getting from point A to somewhere-kinda-near-point B. Taking and following a bearing is a key component of using a compass for navigation. So what is a bearing? A bearing is the directional heading between two points, measured in degrees and using North (0 degrees) as a reference. To take a bearing, hold the compass in front of you with the direction of travel arrow pointing at the object of interest. Hold the compass level and steady, and rotate the housing dial, until the orienting arrow lines up with the red end (north end) of the magnetic needle, all the while keeping the direction of travel arrow pointed at the object. Read the number indicated at the index line, and that is your bearing.

Finding a bearing using a map is not terribly difficult either. First, identify your current location on the map, this will give you your point A. Next, identify your destination on the map (point B). Assuming your path is a straight line between these two points you can line up the edge of your compass so that it passes through each point on the map. Turn the housing dial until the arrow points the same direction as North on the map. Read the number aligned with the directional arrow, that is your bearing. In the example below, I want to get from Columbine Campground (point A) to Webb Peak (point B). I line up the edge of my dad’s old compass with the two points and then turn the orienting arrow until it lines up with the map’s North. This gives me a bearing of 290 degrees (just shy of West-Northwest). See below for adjusting for declination.

compass basics

Following that bearing becomes relatively easy. Set your compass to the bearing of your heading, then, holding the compass level, turn your whole body with the compass until the magnetic needle lines up with the small orienting arrow. Now walk straight forward keeping the arrows aligned and you are following a set bearing. As long as you keep the dial set to your correct bearing and the magnetic needle aligned with the orienting needle, you should travel in a straight line to your destination. But how often can you really travel in a straight line?

compass basics

Using Visual Landmarks

It’s much easier to follow a bearing if you don’t have to keep looking down at the compass and no one walks holding the compass out in front of them as they travel. The easiest thing to do is to identify a landmark along the direction of your heading and walk toward that. Using visual landmarks along your path you can easily travel along a bearing for great distances only having to check your bearing on the compass once you reach each landmark. If visibility is good, you can also take note of a landmark behind you to help insure that you are traveling in a straight line. Using both the forward and rear landmarks you can double check yourself regularly to make sure you haven’t wandered off course. It may also be useful to draw a crude map noting landmarks and bearings as you go, it will help you keep track of your path even if you don’t have a map to reference.

Declination

Magnetic declination is where a lot of people start to get confused about navigating by compass. Declination is only important when using a map to get your bearings.

There is a difference between Magnetic North (where your compass wants to point) and True North (geographical north used on most maps). The difference between magnetic north and geographical north is measured in degrees of correction and is referred to as Magnetic Declination. There are places where the two norths are the same, these places fall on the so-called Agonic Line. In areas to the left of the agonic line the magnetic compass needle points a certain number of degrees to the east of true north, and on the other side of the line the magnetic needle points a certain number of degrees to the west of true north (in other words the magnetic needle points toward the agonic line). We say areas to the left of the line have east declination and those to the right have west declination. It’s important to know which side of the line you’re on.

compass basics - declination 2015

Depending on where in the world you and your compass are determines your declination adjustment. If you use maps often, it’s a good idea to know the declination in your area. Since the Earth’s magnetic field is not constant, declination is not a constant either. Many maps will tell you what the declination is for that area (bottom center of all USGS maps), but older maps could have outdated information. In the US between 2005 and 2015 the Agonic Line (0 declination) has moved from east of New Orleans to West of New Orleans. In 1975, the year I was born, New Orleans was at 4 degrees east. Unless you’re using 20+ year old maps, the information should be “close enough” to get by for backcountry navigation.

The good news is that you don’t have to know anything about declination to adjust for it, you just need to do some simple math. Here in Arizona I know that the eastern part of the state currently has a 10 degree declination and the western part has an 11 degree declination. I also know that I am west of the Agonic Line so I am adjusting to the east. So as long as I know where I am in the state, I can figure out how to adjust my map bearing for magnetic north. Using the example from above, if I wanted to get a true magnetic bearing on Webb Peak I would have to adjust my compass bearing 10 degrees to the east making my revised bearing 280 degrees (east declination subtract, west declination add).

Most compasses you will use for navigating in the backcountry can adjust for declination on the compass itself, allowing you to offset the declination and use the compass without having to do the math in your head for declination. Just make sure it is set properly or you’ll be off in all your bearings.

Compass Dip

We know magnetic needles are affected by the horizontal direction of the Earth’s magnetic field, that’s how we are able to reliably use them for navigation. Knowing this, you might not be surprised to learn that they are also affected by the vertical pull as well. The closer you get to the magnetic north pole, the more the north-seeking end of the needle is pulled downward. Whereas, at the south magnetic pole the north-seeking end of the needle is deflected upward. Only at the equator is the needle unaffected by vertical magnetic forces.

earth-magnetic-field-poles

To overcome magnetic dip manufacturers must design compasses that have the needle balanced for the geographic area in which they will be used. A compass built for use in North America, will not work in South America. The North American compass will have the pivot point the needle rests on slightly into the north half of the needle thus offsetting the downward pull. When the compass is taken to South America, the imbalance will work in the same direction as the vertical pull and the needle could very well rub against the roof of the housing making the compass unusable. In other words you will need a compass manufactured for use in the part of the world you intend to use it. As a result of these magnetic variances, the compass industry has divided the earth into various zones. Make sure your compass is compatible with your area or look for a global compass that can be used internationally.

Clinometer

Some compasses will also be outfitted with a Clinometer. The Clinometer is a simple mechanism for measuring angles and slopes. Using a compass clinometer requires sighting the point you’re measuring down the length of the compass housing which means you can’t read the face while your taking your measurement. You will need a mirror (built into some compasses) or another person to actually see the clinometer reading. The clinometer will tell you the vertical angle, measured in degrees, from your eye to a given target. How is this useful? Well, aside from letting you know how punishing that trail up the mountain might be it can also allow us to measure height or elevation if we also know the distance to the object. It’s handy, but unless you are a surveyor you will probably never really need to use this.

Beware False Readings

Magnetic compasses are influenced by any magnetic fields, not just Earth’s. Local environments may contain magnetic mineral deposits and artificial sources such as MRIs, large iron or steel bodies, electrical engines or strong permanent magnets. Any electrically conductive body produces its own magnetic field when it is carrying an electric current and can easily exceed the Earth’s comparatively weak magnetic force. Keep your compass away from all metal objects since these can result in false readings by deflecting the magnetic needle. Common objects to avoid include wristwatches, keys, tables with metal legs or steel screws, mobile telephones and even heavy framed eyeglasses. Many geological formations, and for that matter, many rocks, are magnetized and can affect compass readings, as can electricity power lines.

Best advice is to check and double check often. Learn to recognize the potential influences and avoid taking bearings when near them (rock outcroppings, vehicles, power lines, etc). Don’t store your compass near computers or speakers at home, keep it away from your phone when traveling with. When using it in the field, be sure you’re clear of any metal or electronics you might be wearing when taking a reading and hold the compass in your hand, don’t set it on large rocks, tables, car hoods or other flat areas you might be using to read your map.

Go Practice!

There’s really no substitute for practice in building your navigation skills and compass basics. Get out to your favorite park or wilderness area with a good map and do some basic orienteering. Follow one of your favorite trails and take bearings at each turn in the trail, find a landmark and see if you can reach it only using a compass bearing, whatever you do have fun with it and practice.

In the next installment of Backcountry Navigation I’ll get into some map reading basics and talk about grid projections and topography…

Solo Travel: How Far Will You Go?

Bush Highway into Superstitions

The open road is calling. Can you hear it?

I can hear it loud and clear. It calls to me from every book, blog, map, photo and travel show I see. It speaks to me through Google Maps quite often showing me skinny, scrawling ribbons of dirt in lonely places I would love to visit. I think of all the great things to see along the way, all the unique places to stop, all the promises of adventure and I just want to get out and drive. But how far am I willing to go on my own?

My wife and I like the road. We’ve put nearly 30,000 miles on our Subaru since we got it just over a year ago. Not drive-around-the-world mileage but still quite a bit. We love to pack up the dogs and some camping gear and go see what we can find, always making sure we’re open to surprises and plan changes (Bedrock, New Orleans). But I have more flexibility in my schedule than my wife does, more opportunity to get out (usually) and the road calls to me more often. That was part of the reason I got the KLR, to increase my enjoyment of the solo travel I end up doing sometimes.

Solo travel has some inherent dangers above and beyond the potential pitfalls associated with travel in general. And when alone in the middle of nowhere, the “usual issues” can have more severe consequences. Simple things like injury, mechanical problems, running out of fuel, dehydration and getting lost all become just a little more worrisome if you’re going solo. You’re out there without a net, without a ready support system. Help can be hours away sometimes and getting to that help can be problematic. But is solo travel really more dangerous that traveling in a pair? In a group? Aside from a rescue scenario where more hands make the work possible, I would argue it’s really not that much more dangerous. You really just have to be more aware of your limitations and be better prepared to handle situations that can come up. But how far should you push your limits?

motorcycle on Arizona backroad

The allure of traveling to far off places, of exploring the unknown, is nothing new. Humans are a species of curious and creative explorers that find great satisfaction and reward in seeking out the wonders of the world. We are seekers by nature, travelers by consequence and explorers at heart. The sedentary nature of our recent domestication is not normal for us, and many of us refuse to live that way. That’s why travel is so important. By foot, peddle, paddle, four wheels or two we need to get outside and seek the dusty, quiet corners of the map where human voices are rare and alien.

These places challenge us. They challenge who we think we are, what we think we can (or can’t) do, what we think is possible.

large saguaro stand in Arizona

Often it’s these remote places that can pull us out of our comfort zones. Comfort is a four-letter-word that breeds complacency, stagnation and mediocrity. Life should not be comfortable, clean, easy, or safe. There’s no room to grow, improve or develop yourself in the confining space of comfort. That only happens when you can face challenges, push past your pre-conceived limitations and explore your potential…all things that take place outside your comfort zone. So how far is too far? When does challenging yourself become putting yourself in danger? Where do we draw the line?

The reality is that you will never know where your limits are unless you go beyond them now and again. You should push your boundaries occasionally, draw those lines and then choose wisely when to cross them. There is a difference between taking calculated risks and acting recklessly. Reckless action is taking unnecessary risk without caution or thought to the consequences. We have to understand the difference, especially when traveling alone. Because that’s where we draw the line, somewhere between risk and recklessness.

So traveling alone, how far will you go?

I look for that shaky ground just on the other side of comfortable and just shy of dangerous. The trick is to venture cautiously into new territory without getting in over your head.

Solo Travel on the Beeline Highway

Tools For Solo Travel

Probably the single greatest tool a solo traveler can possess is the ability to constantly practice solid Risk Assessment. Risk assessment is about situational awareness. It’s about understanding where you are, identifying potential hazards, evaluating the risk associated and then determining how to eliminate, avoid or manage that risk to keep yourself safe. Ask yourself, “If this goes bad, how bad will it be?”.  The US Military uses an “Individual Travel Assessment Worksheet” for assessing risk whenever personnel are to travel alone. It allows them to document the departure and destination points, the state of the driver and their ability, the state of the vehicle and it’s ability, when the trip is to occur and how long it should take, possible stops/breaks and a list of potential hazards that may be encountered. All important things to consider AND communicate to those that will be expecting your return.

And that leads to the second greatest tool for solo travelers: Communication. As a hiker and backpacker that has often gone out on the trail alone, I have learned the value of communicating your travel plans with someone back home. Making sure you tell someone where your’re going and how long you expect to be gone is important but there’s a lot more valuable information to pass on. I found a great form online for providing detailed information about your backcountry travel plans [download here] that is designed specifically to provide key information to rescue services in the event that something really does go wrong. It includes things like vehicle identification, clothing, supplies you’ll have with you, purpose of the trip, proposed check-in times, and a lot more that can be used by rescue personnel to trace your whereabouts. Going out on longer trips I will fill out this Trip Plan Form, attach a copy of the planned route and leave this on my desk at home for my wife. Handing this form over to rescue can easily and quickly clear up an hours worth of questions that she’ll likely not have the answers to.

Last, but not least, in this list is Preparedness. Simply stated, have the skills and tools in place to manage the risks associated with your chosen activity. Most of this is pretty basic and universal like first aid, repair kits, etc. but if you are traveling someplace where help is less available you might consider some basic survival gear as well like firestarters, flashlight, knife, and whatever else is appropriate where you are. Be familiar with your gear…practice with it, know how to use it, know how to fix it, replace it when it’s worn out. Sharpen your skills…practice, study, take some classes. Have the right mindset…part of your preparedness is being in the right mindset, keep a good attitude, stay positive and stay focused. All skills in the world will do you no good if you give up.

Solo Travel into the backcountry Sheeps Bridge

Solo Travel really is not much more dangerous than traveling with partners, except that the responsibility is all on you. There is no back up, help is not necessarily close by and you are at the mercy of your own resourcefulness. But if you can pay attention, avoid reckless behavior, leave your plan with someone at home and prepare yourself for the challenges of the road then you have all the pieces in place to come home from your solo trip safe and sound.

The Crossroads at Teakettle Junction

Originally written for ParksFolio.com

Teakettle Junction- Death Valley National Park

The sturdy truck rolled to a stop, dragging with it a cloud of dust and the last crunch of rock under our tires.  Sliding out of the cab and stretching, I walked around the faithful rig as the dust settled again on the old road.  The three of us were seemingly alone under the clear blue sky as we walked toward the lonely wooden signpost where the two rocky dirt roads met.  In the distance a small dust cloud tracked the progress of another vehicle further down the road approaching us, the faint rev of it’s engine breaking the dry silence.  We gathered around the signpost, inspecting the various pots and kettles strung from the structure with rope and twine hanging lifelessly in the still morning air.  The dry, cracked wooden gallows supporting the abandoned ornaments read in bold lettering, “Teakettle Junction”.

Teakettle Junction

Scrawled on the outside of many of the kettles left dangling here are messages, names and dates of the travelers who have passed through this remote place.  We soon discovered there were further messages left inside some of the pots, some with stories of their travels and some with messages or poetry for their would-be readers.

The whine of the distant engine grew louder and soon the motorcycle weaved to a stop at the crossroads next to us, the driver climbing gingerly from his abused seat, stripping off his helmet and expertly lighting a cigarette.  Conversation began, as it usually does between travelers crossing paths in the middle of nowhere.  He was from Portland, riding support for a group of mountain bikers trekking through the backroads of Death Valley National Park.  They had overnighted in the backcountry and were making the arduous journey over the pass on these rocky, uneven roads that had proved challenging even for the motorcycle, let alone the adventurous souls peddling through the wilderness.

Our new friend asked some questions about road conditions and travel suggestions.  Luckily, we had a companion with experience on these roads in Death Valley and experience on a motorcycle and could offer valuable information.  We made sure he had enough water and supplies, offering him whatever he might need.  But like many people you will meet in hard, lonely places he was happy and content with what he had with him and graciously declined our offers.

Crossroads throughout the world are like this, the unofficial and impromptu meeting place of adventurers.  If you want a chance to meet interesting, confident, capable people with unique stories…the kind of people who seek out enriching experiences…travel.  Travel to places few people go, and at every crossroads, like Teakettle Junction, you will find them. ~

After this story  was published on ParksFolio.com, we began receiving comments. One of the comments was from a traveler who had left their kettle at the junction…

Hi!,
My name is Evelyn and I’m from Barcelona, Spain.
I was travelling around the world with my fiancé (we got engaged during our trip, in Sedona), and one of our stops was this Teakettle Junction. When we saw it, there were’nt as many teakettles as we thought there would be. But anyway, we left ours and continued with our journey.
The thing is, after our trip, once we got home, we started googling for pictures made after our visit, to see if we could find our teakettle in someone’s picture… And voilà!, you took that picture, our teakettle is the one with the initials K & E. (Kenneth and Evelyn). So thank you for taking that photo, it made our day! :)

Keep shooting,
Kind Regards,

K & E