Basic outdoor skills and tips can make camping a more rewarding experience…
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Phonetic alphabet – Rope end treatment – Fisherman’s Hitch – Basic Campfires – Sleeping pads – “Y” Sticks – Cooking fires – Dutch oven cooking – Bottles in cold weather – Base layering
Talking the Tango-Alpha-Lima-Kilo
You’re huddled in your tent, barely able to withstand the onslaught of a summer storm raging around your campsite. A serious medical emergency has arisen and your only means of calling for help is through the weakening signal of your cell phone.
“Help! We need a doctor! We are on Lime Lake!”, you bark, trying to stay calm as you struggle to enunciate each vital word. Garbled and infested with static, your call is picked up by a park ranger office. Fortunately the name of the lake comes across loud and clear on a few of the transmissions. That at least will make it easier to find you – or will it?
Turns out there are two lakes in the region with the same sounding name: “Lime” (L-eye-M) and “Lyme”, also sounding out as (L-eye-M). They are eighty miles apart: The Lime Lake you are summoning help from is 65 miles from the nearest rescue unit. Lyme lake, however, is just over 20 miles away. So which “L-eye-M” Lake is it?
Emergency locator beacons, satellite positioning units, automated rescue transmitters have truly turned telephones and radios into museum relics when it comes to calling for help in an emergency. Still there are many scenarios in which vocal communication may be vital. Knowing the phonetic alphabet could be a real life saver.
Veterans, pilots, law enforcement officers and others are usually familiar with phonetic letter sounds. The public has heard it spoken in every action film out there – “Roger That, Charlie Alpha!”. And although it’s closely associated with military jargon, the international alphabet was actually created in the late 1800s as an educational tool for learning languages across the globe.
In our example above, two lakes with the same sounding names need to be differentiated. The problem remains with “I” in Lime, and “Y” in Lyme still sounding very much alike, especially when cloaked in the buzzing static of a failing signal.
However, if you could quickly say you were on Lima-Indigo–Mike-Echo (Lime) Lake, a SAR radio person would quickly know not to send a team out to Lyme Lake which is Lima-Yankee–Mike-Echo! Each word has been selected so it can be discerned even if it comes across partly garbled or missing: “Yank-____” or “____ankee”.
Like gestures used for ground-to-air signals, rescue staff and law enforcement know and use this phonetic alphabet. If memorization doesn’t work for you, perhaps writing it down and pasting a copy on or near your phone or other voice communication device for a handy reference just might provide you with a life-saving “cheat sheet.”
Keep a rope end from unraveling – “Whip” it
Building Basic Campfires
Campfires can be constructed to direct flames upward or outward, and either provide quick heat or a slow-burning bed of coals for cooking or extended warmth. Hardwoods produce better coals (ash, birch oak, elm, sugar maples, etc.) while softwoods aspen, silver maple, etc. burn quickly producing little long-term heat or coals.
Types of Sleeping Pads and Ground Insulation
What’s beneath your sleeping bag is as important as the insulation within it, especially when sleeping on cold ground. Sleeping pads are typically one of three types of support and insulating pads: the conventional “air mattress”, the hybrid mattress (often self-inflating that typically combines insulating fibers or foam within the air chambers; and thinner, but more dense closed cell pads.
Oftentimes these pads are used in combination with each other to provide both comfort and insulating warmth:
Y-Sticks – Lift Without Length!
Getting loft or height by using a guideline from a tent or tarp usually requires a nearby tree to tie off to or else a long length of guideline secured to a stake (and creating a long, ground or neck level “trip zone”.
Using a “Y” stick or pole enables you to keep tension on a tent flap or tarp line without that lengthy extension. Like the old time grooved clothesline pole, the Y stick enables you to elevate the line to a useful pulling angle without extending it far from the tent or tarp.
Creating a Cooking Campfire
I often tell friends that the only difference between cooking at home versus during a camping trip is the height of your cooking source. Basically, a well laid out campfire presents a few different challenges than your home stove, but that just makes the experience even more enjoyable.
Searing a steak over a bed of hot coals is one thing, but building and blending flavors in a one-pot meal requires more than that. It requires care and temperature control. Likewise, some foods may not need the intense heat but merely a prolonged snuggle up to the warmth to bring them up to temp. Creating a large, well laid-out campfire means it can work for both a roaring bonfire as well as a suitable cooking station for your early morning breakfasts.
The fundamental key to good campfire cooking is sustainable, controllable heat. Choosing hardwoods that produce hot, long-lasting coals means you can have a steady supply of heat throughout your cooking routine.
Your actual fireside cooking area should be away from the main body of the campfire. You want to rake over those glowing pieces of charcoal to create a bed of hot embers (this is going to be your stove-top burner element) upon which you can cook without excessive, rapid-cooking heat.
This is the part of the campfire where you position your grill so you have both a cooking and a “keeping-it-warm” space. If your grill is too small, or to avoid knocking over side-lined pots or that open can of beans, create a space away from the main fire, against the side of the fire ring where you can keep foods warm until dinnertime.
I believe having a pot of hot water handy at all times is an essential part of any campsite. It’s handy for thinning down a soup, it’s already on it’s way to boiling for a cup of java, and it may already be hot enough to be used for clean-up afterwards. Even if there’s no room along the edge of the fire ring, keep it as close to the heat of the fire as you can.
Even after your cooking fire has long burned down, you can still make use of residual heat in the dying embers. One breakfast treat that I enjoy is fried onions and potatoes. The problem is that fresh potatoes take too long to cook. So normally during dinner, I wrap a few potatoes in foil and set them aside.
Later that evening when the fire dies down to a shimmering glow, I’ll place the wrapped spuds at the inside edge of the fire ring, rake some warm/hot ashes over them and hit the sack. Those foil-wrapped potatoes have all night to slowly bake. Come morning, the spuds are at least partially cooked, and ready to be finished off along with the onions and other pot additives.
A couple of other cooking tips, especially in colder weather:
- Use lids whenever you can
- Serve/eat out of bowl instead of plates (both practices help retain heat in the food longer)
- Use wooden spoons to stir—metal ones can transfer the coldness of the metal into your warm food
Campfire cooking is one of the fundamental pleasures of camping…and cooking a hearty meal over hot coals should be a memorable part of your overall backcountry cuisine experience.
TIP: Learn your firewoods, too: hardwoods such as birch, ash, elm, oak make long-lasting hot coals, while softwoods (spruce, cottonwood, silver maple) burn faster and don’t create many coals for sustained cooking.
Cooking / Baking with a Dutch Oven
Nothing is a more classic example of campfire cooking than a cauldron of steaming stew or a mess of biscuits baking over the fire. Nothing brings that experience home more than the classic Dutch Oven!
Typically made of cast iron, but also available in thick-sided aluminum, the Dutch Oven is perfect for one-pot meal recipes such as stews, soups, some casseroles – and especially for baked goods such as biscuits and some desserts.
The key to successful Dutch Oven cooking is producing and sustaining proper temperatures throughout the cooking process. You can guess-timate proper baking temperatures fairly accurately by using this simple formula based on the size of the pot:
Seasoning Cast Iron Cookware
1 – Preheat oven to 325°F.
2 – Prep the cast iron by washing it with warm, soapy water and a sponge or stiff brush.
3 – Rinse and thoroughly dry the skillet with a clean, dry cloth or paper towels. (can place in oven for about 10 minutes to thoroughly dry.
4 – Pour a little vegetable-based oil into the skillet (some prefer bacon grease)
5 – Use a new cloth or paper towel to rub the coat of oil around the entire skillet.
6 – Coat the outside — and bottom — of the skillet. You want a thin coat of oil around the entire piece.
7 – Place the skillet upside down on the oven’s center rack. Place a sheet of aluminum foil below the rack to catch any drips. Once oven is up to temperature, bake for an hour.
8 – Turn off the heat and allow to the skillet to cool completely (1-2 hours) before removing from oven.
NOTE: Do not use soap to clean after cooking, simply rinse with water or wipe surface clean. Periodic seasoning will maintain the cooking surface.
Cold Weather Bottle Tips…
(L) Snow melts in water, no need for external heat source; (C) Water in bottle freezes from top down, nozzle in an inverted bottle doesn’t freeze shut; (R) Duct tape around cold metal bottles protects fingers.
Base Layer Clothing
Our skin is our body’s largest organ, the ultimate “base” layer of protection. It only makes sense then to protect it from the elements, and to do so without interfering with its external functions in the process. Ideally anything covering nature’s layer of protection should at least, in some form or another, either enhance that performance or limit it in the least way possible.
Base layer clothing attempts to do both. As one’s first underlayer of clothing, a base layer should allow the skin to do its work, sometimes even enhancing a basic function in the process – while not critically preventing that process from working most effectively.
Base layer clothing is part of the overall layering process we humans have learned to use to keep us protectively warm (or cool) and dry against the elements of the environments in which we are actively (or sometimes passively) engaged. We wear clothing in a series of layers, from undies to overcoats, dressing up or down depending upon the conditions of the moment.
Layering works on the concept that we help regulate our body’s thermal and perspiration functions by adjusting our clothing appropriately to augment what our body, via our skin, is doing as it performs its functions. A good layering system beginning with the proper combination of fabrics that are then used to make well-designed, functional clothing, is the key to staying healthy and comfortable in extreme outdoor situations.
First and foremost, a base layer functions by managing moisture against your skin. Moisture management is key to regulating your body temperature by moving the perspiration you generate up and away from your skin, through a layer of fabric that then wicks away moisture, dispersing it through outer layers and ultimately to the outside air where it can evaporate. This process keeps you, and your mid/outer layers, drier.
Layering also describes the way in which clothing is combined to achieve and maintain this ongoing process. When you are too hot, remove or ventilate a layer; too cold, add a layer. By wearing a series of garments all designed to effectively manage layers that can be added or removed as needed, we become a garment-based de-humidifer and thermostat of our own body.
Because it is clothing, the base layer should be comfortable, good-fitting, and since it is a protective shell over your skin, provide a bit of insulation as well. Layering garments are available for your entire body, from head to toe: lightweight balaclavas for sleeping or cap liners, short and long-sleeve shirts (regular and turtlenecks), briefs and full pants, glove liners and socks.
Developing an effective base layering collection of clothing will depend upon your physique, the level of activities you’ll be engaged in, as well as the conditions/elements you’ll encounter while doing so. A skinny, stationary ice fishing angler and a stout cross-country snowshoer can both utilize layering procedures, but using different “weights” of clothing, and even different fabrics for those layers.
As the foundation of an effective layering system, base layer clothing is categorized by progressive “weight” classes:
• Ultralight/microweight – Milder conditions; typically used more for moisture wicking and comfort rather than insulation properties
• Lightweight – Cool to moderately colder; wicking and some insulation
• Midweight – Moderately cold to cold; wicking and more insulation; a good choice for alternating activity and rest/casual interludes
• Heavyweight – More extreme cold. Sometimes referred to as expedition weight. It’s best used in sub-freezing temperatures and stationary activities.
The challenge in many outdoor scenarios is the transition between milder, warmer weather and colder, more challenging weather (drops in temperature, increased wind, rain, etc.). Looser layers are more comfortable in warmer weather, while snugger fitting layers retain insulating qualities better as temperatures decrease. The level and type of activity also determines the most effective “weight” of layering to wear – thinner base layers will do a better job of wicking away moisture during heightened activity.
Two natural fibers and an array of synthetic fibers are the primary materials used to make the preferred fabrics that are then made into base layer clothing:
Wool – traditionally known to keep you exceptionally warm, “even when wet”, today’s standard quality wool comes from the merino sheep. It’s softness, comfort, and the fact that it isn’t itchy, makes it universally popular as a premier wool. Merino wool is naturally odor-free. Dual functioning, it both traps air for heat insulation in cold weather, and its breathable fibers offer skin buffering relief from air heated by the sun. It offers more insulation than synthetic fibers of the same thickness, but will take longer to dry. Wool is often blended with synthetic fibers to enhance it with key properties of the synthetic fiber such as better wicking, stretch and durability.
Silk – although it’s considered a natural insulator, it is usually selected for its softness and comfort without the bulk. It’s most effective as a wicking fabric (though not as fast as synthetic fabrics) when worn during moderate cold weather activities. It’s downsides include it being less durable, expense and the special care it may need for cleaning (must be washed after every use to avoid odors).
Synthetics – a variety of chemically created fibers including polypropylene, polyester, nylon, rayon and spandex. Often used in combination with each other or wool to create blends of the most desirable characteristics of each particular fiber: ease of care, softness and lightness, abrasion and wrinkle resistance and comfortable stretch. Synthetics are prone to odor build-up.
Polypropylene has been the standard underlayer fabric of choice for decades (quick drying, breathability). More recently polyester, alone or in blends, is most often used in base layer clothing; nylon is often selected to add durability while spandex enhances stretch.
One of the more recent innovations in base layering are garments designed and constructed based on the technology of thermo-regulation through a process called “comfort mapping”. Simply put, it’s based upon our body’s control mechanisms triggered by cold/heat that are set into motion at varying degrees throughout different regions of our bodies (for example:- different levels of sweat production in different areas).
Comfort mapping can be applied to the design/fabrication process: a windproof textile material can be designed to cover the chest and back area to prevent wind from penetrating the clothing while a particularly breathable and moisture-wicking textile panel would be used to keep the underarms dry.
Another technology applied to base layer is fabric that literally warms up when it comes into contact with the skin. WSI Sports, a leading producer of cold weather clothing for the professional sports industry (as well as outdoor recreation) integrates their proprietary HEATR® process into the fibers – it won’t wash out, yet retains its moisture wicking and warming characteristics. WSI incorporates body mapping technology by applying their warming material onto a piece of clothing wherever extra warmth is needed most.
Personally, I consider socks to be one of the most critical components of base layering. There is nothing worse than cold, clammy feet! By function, socks play two distinct, interconnected roles as an under-layering garment: as a thin liner for heavier socks, and as a single insulating layer inside footwear. Socks typically incorporate synthetic blends to enhance the wicking capability of the sock.
In addition to moisture wicking and insulation, socks also provide cushioning for the feet. Cushioning is achieved by selectively increasing the density of the weave or adding specific materials into specific areas of the sock. To help the sock hug the foot better, spandex and stretch nylon are typically added.
Again, because of its properties, merino wool is the material of choice, either alone or in combination with synthetics, for most quality socks on the market. And, like other under-layering clothing, socks come in a variety of “weights” and fabric combinations to provide the best layering possible. Moisture wicking is the primary function of thinner socks; insulation and cushioning capabilities increase as the socks get heavier; thicker.
The marketplace for socks is as broad and diverse as any segment of the undergarment clothing industry. Many offer proprietary fabrics, unique cushioning patterns and other special features. For example: Wigwam’s lightweight Portland Pro features a seamless toe in a sock that combines polyester, nylon, merino wool and spandex together; its Ultimax Base Camp Fusion is a heavyweight merino sock and liner, featuring an inner wicking layer of Olefin with a 55% merino wool outer layer.
Terramar “Hiker” series uses several combinations of merino wool and synthetics to fine-tune its weights in socks, some of which are thin/light enough to serve as either the main stocking or as a liner for thicker socks in extreme cold conditions.
Thorlo has taken its footwear to a new level by emphasizing key padding and cushioning concerns to create what could be called a therapeutic outdoor sock. Their clinically-tested padded socks are designed and targeted specifically at wearers who are prone to suffering from blisters, foot pain, pressure and moisture issues.
Being next to your skin, your base layer can set the tone for comfort and safety that your entire layering system will provide. Some base layers function as the outermost garment during leisure time. A separate set of underlaying clothing can be stuffed into sleeping bags and used as camp ‘pajamas’.
Base layers are just that, a base upon which all other clothing is added as part of a complete body moisture/heat regulating layering system. Clearly high-tech under-layers and liners have come a long way since the days of ineffective cotton long-johns and scratchy wooly underwear.