Other Outdoorsy Stuff

How to Make Your Fall Outdoor Photography Pop

September 10, 2017
fall photography

Fall is great time for photography…but it’s hard to make images that haven’t been made a million times before.

The tricks fall into two categories: artistic and technical. As photographers, we operate gizmos with lots of buttons that connect to our computers, so it’s really easy to focus on the technical aspects: exposure, white balance, and depth of field. But at the end of the day, we’re telling stories—and that’s about creativity, meaning, and art. We’ll handle the artistic ideas first, and then the technical tricks.

Fall is More than Colorful Leaves
Everyone takes photos of colorful leaves. And that’s the signature image of the season, especially if you live in an area full of maples or Aspen. But those images have been done a million times, so if you’re going to shoot colorful leaves, do it in a creative way and make sure your images stand out. Even more importantly, don’t forget the other stories of fall. In the Pacific Northwest, fall is when salmon spawn and die in the rivers on the west side of the Cascades, when the mornings are suddenly crisp and cool, when gangs of geese form giant Vs and stage for heading south. Every region has its fall traditions, and colorful leaves are just one of them.

Tell Transition Stories
Photography is about telling stories, not just about recording what’s in front of the camera. Think in terms of transition themes: the end of summer can be about the kids going back to school, the last gasp of summer activities, a break from the humidity, or when the mountains empty out and you have them to yourselves. It could be about the mad dash to finish summer projects, or looking forward to ski season just around the corner, or brown hills turning back to green when the rain finally provides some drought relief.

fall photography

Now we go from the artistic topics to the technical ones.

Fall images call for a polarizing filter. What’s a polarizing filter? It’s a circular gray filter composed of two rings. The effect is to darken the sky, cut glare, and increase saturation slightly. The inner ring screws into the lens; the outer one adjusts the effect, which is strongest at 90 degrees to the sun. It’s great for darkening skies, making fall colors pop, and cutting the glare of light reflected off water. They’re designed to screw onto DLSR lenses, but can also be held carefully in front of the lenses of point and shoots and phone cameras.

Use Colors Wisely
Fall color is spectacular, but to be truly spectacular it has to be paired with something else. Think red leaves against the green needles of evergreens, or the yellow-blue contrast between leaves and water or sky. If you remember your art classes from middle school, these are complimentary colors that make each other look more saturated when they’re next to each other.

Move the Camera
When you’re wandering around on your two feet, it’s easy to always put the camera at eye level. This works sometimes when you’re shooting grand vistas, but it definitely doesn’t work in fall, when you’re likely either shooting up or down. Get close to the edge of leaves, the color of water at sunset, and kneel down or climb high to get a perspective other than the usual.

Get Stable
In the days of film, serious photographers always used tripods because the only way to get a decent image was to use slow-speed film. In the digital world, we have more flexibility because of adjustable ISO. But tripods—even small tabletop ones or Gorillapods help make sure your images are sharp. They let you shoot at low ISO, which means less pixelization. They also help you control focus when shooting close-up: less camera movement ensures that things close to the camera are sharp.

Control Depth of Field
Learn how to adjust the f-stop on your camera. Many point and shoots allow this, or have picture modes that have different pre-set depths of field. F-stop controls depth of field: the smaller the opening, the more of the field of view is in focus—but the harder it’s to hold the camera still, since the shutter has to be open to let more light in. Shallow depths of field are great when you want a soft background free of distracting elements. Deep depth of field is great when you want to establish a relationship between elements in a frame. Since fall photography involves lots of leaf edges, you want depth of field under your control, not the camera’s automatic settings.

Say goodbye to summer, but say hello to one of the richest photographic seasons we’ve got.

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How Camping Became Cool

August 8, 2017


When you think about it, camping is a pretty weird pursuit. We voluntarily give up creature comforts that we’ve worked hard to earn and expose ourselves to hardships like cold, heat, rain and bugs. How did this become a pastime?

Camping’s journey from an uncomfortable necessity to a hobby for millions of Americans goes back a long way. A few centuries ago, the only reason to go into the woods or hang out in the countryside was hard work—forestry, farming and herding. “Outdoor sports” like hunting, riding, and fishing were the province of the wealthy landed gentry on their estates. The outdoors wasn’t cool. Being tan meant you worked the fields. Pale and plump was in. But somehow camping became a $646 billion dollar industry and one of the most popular things to do on vacation.

A Virginia Politician Looks West
From his comfortable tidewater plantation, a young politician looked toward the Ohio Valley opening up to settlement after the British victory in the French & Indian War. He believed that the openness of land in the west would be an opportunity for independent-minded, self-governing farmers to migrate west and break the power of an aristocratic elite of bankers and merchants in cities. The politician was Thomas Jefferson. His philosophy linked open land, independence, and the American national character for centuries to come. Ironically enough, Jefferson himself never traveled west of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains: his imaginings of the west occurred entirely in his head. But by connecting independence, wilderness, and national virtue, he shaped an American identity with the outdoors at it’s core.

Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge and Shelly
The era of English romantic poets was a response to the industrialism and urbanism of the English Industrial Revolution, with its’ coal mines, steam power and “dark satanic mills.” The romantic poets promoted returning to nature for awe, inspiration, and the divine. They took long rambles in the Lake and Peak districts, and later in the Alps. Jefferson saw the west as the pressure valve for American politics: the British saw rugged nature doing the same for the human soul.

The Golden Spike and the Aftermath
On May 10, 1869, in Northern Utah, the last railroad spike was driven into the transcontinental railroad linking New York and San Francisco. In the decades that followed, the American West would be transformed from isolated frontier to urbanized society where most people lived in cities, conducted commerce with people far away, and lived lives removed from the natural world. In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner would declare the frontier “closed.” As soon as westerners moved into cities, they started to wax nostalgic for the frontier world, and that included appreciating the natural world more. Excursions to the mountains and rivers for fun, rather than to trap furs, grew in popularity.

“The Vigorous Life”
A few decades after the Golden Spike, an asthmatic New York state assemblyman was grieving from the death of his wife and mother sought rebirth in the hard work of ranching in the Dakota Territory. His name was Teddy Roosevelt. The hard work of sleeping outside and herding cattle in the Badlands cleansed him, and Roosevelt went on to popularize the “vigorous life”: hiking, horseback riding, camping, hunting and just about everything that cold be done outside, even as president. Today’s backpackers and climbers, who voluntarily sweat up mountains with a 50-pound pack, are direct descendants of Roosevelt’s idea of becoming a better person through hard work outside.

The Counterculture and the Car
Camping grew into a major pastime between the 1950s and 1970s. Climbers began gathering in Yosemite’s now-legendary Camp 4. National Parks became major destinations like never before. People started running commercial trips rafting western rivers like the Colorado, or backpacking deep into the wilderness….and, like Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner, writing about it. Two things made this possible. The first was the automobile, which, combined with the Interstate highways, made getting to the mountains and exploring off the beaten path much easier. The second was the back-to-nature ethos of the 1960s and ’70s. This massive interest in nature also led to a wide range of protecting wild places, such as the Wilderness Act and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

The Nature Health Connection
By 2005, America had urbanized even further. We started spending huge chunks of online, and smartphones were creating ever-present internet addiction. In 2005, Richard Louv published his groundbreaking book, The Last Child In the Woods, which depicted how nature is essential to the development of healthy kids, both mentally and physically. The book launched a wave of concern that kits weren’t getting enough “Vitamin N”: enough nature to stay healthy, active and smart.

Our interest in camping can seem odd: a nostalgic yearning for how it was “back then” in a simpler time. For some, it does seem odd to plan your vacation to carry your own weight on your back, sleep on the ground, and eat freeze dried food while being bitten by bugs. But if we think about it a different way—as Louv and Edward Wilson contend—nature is deep in our genes. When we’re backpacking, we’re going back to our evolutionary origins. We’re once again a small band of nomads traveling through the landscape with deep connections to nature’s rhythms. Seen in that light, it’s no wonder camping feels cool.

Camp Games and Activities

The Secrets to Spotting Wildlife

July 7, 2017


Sitting quietly lakeside, I watched a family of ducks swim into view. I knew trouble was on the way.

Not because ducks are fierce, but these ducks were about to swim below an owl perched in ambush. Moments later, there was a dive-bombing owl and a lot of fierce quacking and splashing. The ducks got away and the owl had to keep looking for dinner. During the time I’d sat there, five people had hiked down the trail, but none had noticed the owl. It’s not surprising: wildlife has to be good at hiding to either stay alive or get a meal.

And there’s a lot of wildlife out there, often hiding from us. Here are some things you can do to see more critters, more often, and teach your kids how to do it too.

Crepuscular Is Cool
First and foremost, most animals aren’t active during the middle of the day. Most are crepuscular—active at dawn and dusk—or fully nocturnal. You’ll miss most of the action if you wake up, cook breakfast, do the dishes, and then decide to go see what the wildlife is doing—they’ll already be down for their midday nap. The exceptions are hawks, which wait for afternoon thermals to form, and cold blooded critters like lizards on cool days. Wake up for sunrise and the birds’ morning chorus, go for a sunset stroll or go sit by the river after dark.

Manage Your Ripples
When humans wander through the woods, we send a wave of ripples that leads wildlife to hunker down. A bird hears us coming, chirps out a quick alarm and flies off. Another bird further down the trail hears that alarm call, chirps out their own, and flits into a hole in a tree. A fox recognizes the alarm calls and freezes right near the trail, camouflaged against the base of a tree. We walk by, thinking the woods are silent and deserted.

There are ways to limit these ripple effects we send out. The first is to sit still and be quiet. Eventually the wildlife will either forget you’re there or decide you’re not a threat and go about their business. Limit your noise. Wear minimal scents and lotions—many animals have a sense of smell orders of magnitude better than ours. And leave the pooch at home or in camp: dogs are very closely related to wolves, and wildlife will respond accordingly and get out of Dodge.

Live on the Edges
Wildlife likes edges. The edges of meadows give deer cover they can bolt into if a predator shows up; raccoons feed on the edges of streams, hawks and eagles perch in trees where they can spot prey below. Sandpipers follow the tide line. Bears loiter where rivers flow into the sea or spread out into wetlands. In rivers or oceans, look where currents merge—this stirs up nutrients and insects, which attracts fish, which attracts larger fish. Find where two types of habitat meet and watch those spots.

Use Your Ears
Not everything wants to be seen, but can be heard. Birds and frogs sing—they need to defend their territories and attract mates. Skilled birders can identify birds by song, easier than getting a good look at a tiny little brown creature flitting about in the treetops.

Look Up, Look Down
We tend to look for things at eye level. But most critters will be high in the treetops, soaring in the sky or perched on telephone wires. Or they’ll be going about their lives in the leaves on the forest floor, under logs, under rocks in tidepools or any number of places where we don’t tend to look for them. I once discovered a family of adorable mosquito-eating bats living happily and undiscovered in a friend’s office. How often do you really look in the crack behind the mailbox, anyway?

The Lost Keys Trick
Sometimes sneaking up on wildlife is futile: their senses are just too sharp. When this is the case, just pretend to be interested in something else. Approaching a pair of snowy owls once, I knew there was no way a 6-foot tall human would go undetected. So I acted like I’d dropped keys somewhere in their marshy field, and walked around aimlessly, head down, looking at the ground, not approaching them directly. They decided I was just some clueless bumbler, and stayed relaxed while I got a good view before retreating.

Appreciate the Small Stuff
We tend to think of “wildlife” in dramatic terms: the grizzly pulling down an elk or the eagle snagging a fish. Don’t overlook the wildlife that’s all around you: the squirrels and jays flitting about the campground, the crows dive-bombing the hawk to get it out of their territory, the tiny crabs scurrying around in tide pools. It often packs the same drama…just at smaller scale.

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Camping During the Total Solar Eclipse

June 23, 2017


On August 21st, the sun will go out. The temperature will drop 20 degrees. Animals will think it’s night and go to sleep. Massive streamers of light will arc across the sky. It will last about two minutes and 40 seconds if you’re in the path of the last total solar eclipse in North America until 2044.

Across the American west, campers have been laying plans for watching the solar eclipse. If you haven’t made plans yet, it’s time to get on get on the ball. You don’t want to miss this.

What Is It?
A total eclipse is when the moon blocks the entirety of the sun. Unlike a lunar eclipse (where the earth’s shadow falls across the moon) in a solar eclipse, the moon simply gets in the sun’s way. It won’t last long—the whole process of the eclipse will last two hours, and the totality just under three minutes.

Eclipse Day is Monday, August 21st. The time of the eclipse depends on where you are on the planet. It moves in a West-to-East arc from the Oregon Coast to South Carolina. The eclipse path includes some stunning spots: Cape Lookout, the Oregon Cascades, Smith Rock, and Grand Teton National Park, to name a few. The time depends on where you are, beginning at 9:06 a.m. in Central Oregon, and 1 p.m. in Columbia, South Carolina.

Where to Camp?
Obviously you’ll want to camp somewhere within or near the path of the totality, and an open spot without a lot of trees or obstructions will give the best viewing. You’ll also want to get away from city lights. There are plenty of scenic spots along the path of the totality and camping is the best way to experience the eclipse.

What If You Didn’t Plan?
Many people made reservations for key campgrounds months or years ago, and reservable campgrounds along the path have been fully booked for a long time. So have motel rooms, and hoteliers have taken advantage of the demand to raise prices. Many towns have hired “eclipse coordinators” to make sure they can put up with the influx of people. Some people are renting out camp spots on their farms or in their yards. First-come, first-serve campgrounds are likely to be full of folks who are staking out their spot.

The eclipse coordinators may be able to help you find a camp spot. Another option is to drive into federal land that allows dispersed primitive camping, as is legal on much of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management Land. Just be sure to bring your own water, portable toilet system, and pack out your waste.

Avoid driving on Eclipse Day: it’s expected to be a snarl of traffic as people rush to get into position: after all, you’ll only be able to see it for a couple minutes, so don’t be late.

How to Watch It Safely
The Eclipse can blind you. Looking at the sun without some sort of Eclipse glasses—through a camera, binoculars, or with the naked eye—will damage your eyes. Solar filters should be put over telescopes and other optics. The only time it’s safe to look at it directly is during the totality.

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Is Connectedness Ruining Camping?

June 16, 2017


From my phone I can follow Dave and Karen’s journey along the rugged Brooks Peninsula of British Columbia. I get Facebook feeds from Jay and Justine’s satellite uplink while in Antarctica, literally the farthest you can get from civilization without going to the Moon.

Is this a good thing? I’m not so sure.

I started camping as a kid, long before we had a newfangled piece of technology called an “answering machine.” In our daily lives, let alone in the wilderness, being out of touch was normal. If baseball practice was cancelled after school and my parents were working, I’d figure out how to let hem know and act accordingly if I couldn’t reach them. Wilderness journeys, which I started young, meant being entirely out of touch. If you had an emergency, you had to hike out.

In a few short decades we’ve gone from hiking out to cell phones, satellite uplinks, and locator beacons that notify mountain rescue at the push of a button and that can also send emails and update social media. This connectedness does strange things to both our safety and our ability to escape from the modern world—which is why we explore the wilderness in the first place, isn’t it?

Safety First
There’s no doubt that being able to communicate when you need a rescue can be critical. I remember an evacuation in the Olympic Mountains before cell phones—getting word to mountain rescue took a day and a half of hiking instead of a minute and a half of a phone call. And connectedness has a second safety benefit: access to extended weather info that can help wilderness travelers stay out of trouble to begin with.

But there may be a double-edge to that sword. Just like SatNav in cars has atrophied our ability to navigate s without a computerized voice telling us where to turn, we may not be able to use a map and compass if our GPS batteries die. And on wilderness trips, things happen. Cell phone signals are sketchy.

And technology creates a strange set of expectations. On many of my remote trips, some friend or another pulls out a satellite messenger every night and presses the “OK” button. It tells his family that he’s ok, and where he is. The nervousness beings when we pick a steep-walled canyon for a campsite where a signal can’t get out. Will his friends assume that he’s in trouble and activate a rescue? When we rely on connectedness, we need a plan for when it doesn’t work—just like we need to be able to fix leaky tent fly or start a fire if it’s colder than we expected.

Why We Go
The second challenge is a sense of security. Knowing we can dial for help can become a crutch. It can make us lackadaisical about noticing that a storm is moving in, or we might leave the serious first aid kit at home. Those are big mistakes that a rescue in the wilderness may not be able to fix. Even if you can call them at the push of a button, it will take rescuers a long time to get to you, often at risk to themselves. Emergency communications are like the airbag on your car: it may save your bacon if things get really hairy, but you still need to know how to drive.

The second reason to be skeptical about wilderness connectivity is why we go in the first place—to get away. When I’m camping, I turn my phone off and bury it deep in my pack. I don’t even use it as a camera, because I have a Pavlovian association of my phone with work and meetings and checking email. And if I wanted to do that, I would have stayed home.

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Spring Camping Spectacles in the West

May 22, 2017

As winter loosens her grip, it’s time to get out and explore. Spring moves in strange patterns across the West, and the secret is to know what’s happening where…and to get there. Here are some camping spectacles you don’t want to miss.

Skies Full of Snow Geese



Every year, millions of Snow Geese migrate up the central flyway en route to the arctic. As the name implies, they cover the ground until it’s white as snow. If that’s not enough, the Kalmath Basin is also a major wintering spot for Bald Eagles that like to chow down on waterfowl.

Where: Klamath Wildlife Refuge Complex on the Oregon-California border, and Tule Lake, CA
When: Early Spring

Playing the Slots



The Utah-Arizona border is the land of slots—slot canyons, not slot machines. These incisions in the redrock sandstone are often narrow enough that turning sideways with a pack on is a challenge. They stretch miles deep in the sandstone, and take on unbelievably beautiful sculpted forms. Options range from short to medium day hikes to backpacking trips. The slot canyons are dangerous in flash floods, and spring tends to be before the monsoon rains…but check the forecast first to be sure. Days will be warm to hot, nights cool to cold.

Where: Paria-Vermillion Cliffs, Utah-Arizona border

When: March to May

Malheur at Migration

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a sprawling array of wetlands, cliffs, rivers, and the giant escarpment of Steens Mountain south of Burns, Oregon. In spring Malheur is an oasis in the high desert of the Great Basin, and countless migrating birds stop on their way north. The menagerie includes raptors, Sandhill cranes, waterfowl, Ibis, songbirds, and everything in between. Be sure to make a detour to the Alvord Desert and the Alvord Hot Springs if you have time. The Refuge became famous for the occupation by armed privatization extremists in 2015: now’s the time to visit a treasure that belongs to all of us again.

Where: Malheur Wildlife Refuge, Harney County, Oregon
When: May

The Wildflower Explosion



Few places are as iconic for wildflowers as Death Valley National Park in the Mojave, which includes the lowest point in North America. The wildflower explosion is at it’s best when a few conditions coincide: well spaced rainfall during winter and spring, enough warmth from the sun, and mild winds. Some years, you might even see a “superbloom,” which can happen when an El Nino brings extra moisture to the Southwestern US. Blooms start in February in low elevations, and climb up to 11,000-foot mountain slopes by May and June. Go early to avoid scorching heat.

Where: Death Valley National Park, CA
When: Mid February to Mid June

Big Trees and Big Beasts

sequoia trees and gray whales

©istockphoto/lucky-photographer | ©istockphoto/Missing35mm

In spring, two very large things can be found on California’s north coast. One, which is there all year, is Sequoia sempervirens, the Coast redwood, the tallest trees on earth. The second is Escrhrictus robustus, the 35-ton Gray whales that migrate up the West coast on their way from Baja to the Bering Sea every spring. Seeing both in one trip is one of the joys of Redwood National Park, which includes both a wild coastline and forests full of massive trees.

Where: Trees: Redwood National Park, CA. Whales: Klamath Overlook or Crescent Beach Overlook.
When: March to May

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What Backpacking Taught Me About Adulthood

May 17, 2017

BackpackingI grew up a few short miles from a small island wedged between two rivers and the sea, surrounded by the swirl of fast ocean currents and intense rugged winters. The island, of course, is Manhattan. Looking back, it strikes some as odd that I became the outdoor-centric Western conservationist I am, more comfortable identifying birds than subway stations.

When I think about all aspects of the transition from youth to young adulthood—living on your own, moving to a different town, managing your own time and money, and the life lessons learned along the way—one had a special power in teaching me about adulthood: Backpacking.

In in my mid-teens, I made the jump into backpacking deep into the wilderness. It was the ideal age to be moving under one’s own power through a rugged and beautiful but also indifferent landscape. It was the perfect transition from teenage angst into action. I’d been hiking, camping, and canoeing plenty of times, but this was different.

The scale was different. My first backpacking trips were in the rugged mountains of Wyoming, far more imposing than the landscapes of the East. No round forest-covered hills here; these were granite spires complete with lighting storms and grizzly bears.

Carrying everything you need across a landscape is a great way to understand simplicity. Pack the minimum, know where everything is, and bring tools that have multiple purposes. The less baggage you carry, the more you’ll enjoy the experience, and the farther you can go in a day. The life metaphors are obvious.

The Hill Is the Hill
Climbing up a 12,000-foot pass in the Wind River Range, one thing became blatantly obvious: no matter how tired I was, and how much I bellyached or procrastinated, the pass was still 12,000 feet high and I was going to have to haul myself up it. There’s no substitute for persistence. Much of backpacking, like life, is the simple and unglamorous act of putting one foot in front of the other, and no amount of waiting, whining or wondering why will make it happen. Ultimately, it’s just you.

Pick Your People Carefully
I started backpacking in the age before cell phones. That meant if something went wrong, someone was hiking out to get help…which could take days. Trust in the judgment, skill and endurance of your fellow adventurers was at a premium. They also needed to be good companions, the kind you’d be willing to share a tent with if the weather turned bad for days, and whom wouldn’t complain about cooking in the rain when there was no way to just pack up and head home. No wonder outdoor adventurers are so tribal. When I started doing conservation work, I realized the same guidelines applied: find people you can rely on when the going gets rough, who can manage their own issues, and help the group first. Expedition Behavior rules can apply beyond expeditions.

Be an Experience Connoisseur
The other lesson was to value experiences, not things. Things only slow you down when you’re backpacking, but experiences grow deeper and more valuable. Simple food tastes better in the backcountry. Watching shooting stars and listening to coyote pups yowl, even if you’re cold, is an experience to be savored. So is morning coffee listening to the birds, even it’s not the fancy latte you’re used to at home. Days go slowly in the backcountry, as they should.

Things Are Better With Effort
When you’re backpacking, one rule seems contradictory: the harder you work for something, the better it is. That cobalt blue lake that you’re camped at may not actually be any bluer or prettier than the one at the trailhead—but the fact that you hiked two days to get there makes it seem bluer, clearer and better to swim in. Effort makes us treasure things. When they come without effort, we take them for granted.

As I grew older, I realized I’d taken a lot of what I learned as a 15-year-old backpacker and translated it into my adult life. If you want to teach a teenager some fundamental lessons about life, get them to load up their pack and hit the trail for a few days.

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What’s Your Camping Personality?

May 12, 2017


Every camper is different, as campgrounds are booked, backpacks loaded down, meals planned, buddies carefully selected. What kind of camper are you? See if you can spot yourself among these outdoor personalities.

The Vagabond
For the Vagabond, camping is just a place to sleep, because the destination is the journey. Found in the remote corners of backcountry and high in the mountains, all the Vagabond needs is a small flat spot close to some dramatic place: a peak, a deep canyon, or a trail along a knife-edge ridge. They may or may not have a tent: hammocks or high-lightweight tarps with trekking poles may do the trick.

You’re one if: You usually pitch your tent after dark and are gone early in the morning.

The Architect
While the vagabond moves light and fast, the Architect uses ingenuity to create a bombproof lair and hub of operations in the wilderness. They’ll use a combination of tarps and sailor-quality knots, carefully move rocks and logs, make driftwood structures, and soon they’ve got a full-on fortress complete with elaborate camp kitchen. Their thoroughness in construction is matched only by their skill at deconstruction: they take Leave No Trace seriously.

You’re one if: You don’t go camping without three tarps and an axe.

The 5-Star
For the 5-Star, camping doesn’t mean the comforts of home have to stay home. Wall tents, cots, lanterns, camp showers, and Bluetooth speakers are among the ten essentials. More suited to front-country camping or raft-supported river trips, the 5-Stars also tend to make up for the comfort of home in camp with high-octane rugged adventures that burn a lot of calories during the day.

You’re one if: You own a camping cot but not an ultralight stove.

The Paul Prudhomme
What the 5-Star is to accommodations, the Paul Prudhomme is to food. Camping is about elaborate meals; the joy of food with friends in the outdoors. Early morning hiking departures are second to a delicious breakfast. If you’re camping with a Paul Prudhomme, expect impressive culinary one-upmanship and competition on multi-day trips. Anyone who shows up with freeze-dried food will be mocked…and then fed real food. Expect to gain weight.

You’re one if: A two-burner stove and pots and pans from your kitchen go camping with you.

The Visual Connoisseur
Camping is all about stunning scenery. Craving an escape from roads, people and the mundane, the Visual Connoisseur will invariably pick camp spots for the views, photographic opportunities, or the wildlife that’s likely to wander by. Then they’ll orient the tent carefully to have the most dramatic peak in their tent door. If the stars are out, they’ll skip the tent entirely. The good news is that you’ll camp in the most beautiful spot around. The bad news is that the Visual Connoisseur won’t notice if they’re windy, exposed, buggy or far from water.

You’re one if: You sleep facing the sunrise with a camera next to you.

The Socialite
The socialite makes camping an opportunity to meet interesting people. While the Vagabond will often slip out of camp while others are still waking up, the Socialite will have already met the neighbors in the next campsite and invited them over for coffee. Their wilderness diplomacy makes them a source of good relations with neighbors and inside info from locals. The price is that they’ll keep you up late chatting around the fire.

You’re one if: Your whiskey ration includes enough for those you meet along the way.

The Guerilla
An iconoclastic and thrifty subspecies of the Vagabond, the Guerilla looks for places other people don’t camp, often because they’re not allowed to. For the Guerilla, this is a challenge as well as a convenience. The Guerilla avoids anything that involves registration and fees. Look for them driving down remote roads on public lands. They have their secret spots, but they’ll never, ever share them.

You’re one if: You chose your tent’s color to blend in to the landscape.

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The Most (Unexpectedly) Dangerous Camping Critters

May 3, 2017

Some people are afraid of the outdoors. I’ve often looked nervously over my shoulder or woken in the middle of the night to strange noises. In Alaska, we listen for something crashing through the brush, fearing a Grizzly bear. In the desert we shake out our shoes for scorpions; in the south we keep our eyes open for Rattlesnakes and Cottonmouths. The California coast is famous for sharks.

But when it comes to camping havoc, those are the amateurs. When we really count what causes outdoor risk, it’s not the usual suspects.




Bambi is dangerous. Not because he’s going to stampede your tent like an enraged mama Grizzly, but because he (or she) is prone to standing in the road while you’re driving fast at dusk or dawn. Deer-involved car accidents are the biggest statistical risk in the outdoors. Drive with care and put a deer whistle on your car.




Bullwinkle isn’t as common as Bambi, but where there are Moose they’re more dangerous for two reasons. The first, like deer, is car accidents. Of course, Moose are much bigger and hitting one is far more likely to result in injury. The second reason is that Moose are often actually dangerously aggressive, especially during rutting season in fall or when mommas have calves nearby. Rangers in Yellowstone and Grand Teton claim that Moose are a bigger threat to hikers than Grizzlies. Don’t let the fact that they eat plants fool you.

Wasps, Hornets, Bees and Yellow Jackets



The denizens of Order Hymenoptera are second only to deer in the number of animal-related trips to the ER that they inspire. Being stung is no fun…especially if you have an allergic reaction to stings, when it can be downright life threatening. Epi-pens, Benadryl, and caution around nests should be a component of any outdoor first aid kit.




Malaria, Yellow Fever, Zika…the diseases spread by mosquitos are no picnic. Fortunately for most of us in North America we’re far enough north that we don’t have to worry about Malaria, the most serious malady. Yellow Fever was a scourge until a vaccine was developed in the 1930s. Zika has made some appearances of in southern corners of North America. In most places mosquitos are just a nuisance, although climate change may drive a northward migration of the more problematic skeeters and diseases.




Like mosquitos, ticks are small and annoying. Also like mosquitos, they can be a vector for disease: the most dangerous is the Deer Tick, a tiny critter that can carry Lyme disease. The highest-risk areas for Lyme disease are the northeastern states and upper Midwest.




By a wide margin, the creature most likely to send you to the emergency room from your outdoors adventure is you. You’re far less likely to get stung or run into a deer driving than you are to whack yourself chopping firewood, cut yourself in the camp kitchen, or take a tumble on the trail. When it comes to outdoor injuries, klutziness is king.

Notice a pattern here? The things we fear are big, scary carnivores or serpents that bring us back to the days of the Garden of Eden. The first are rare. The second are easy to avoid. In the meantime, actual risk is posed by what’s around us on a regular basis. Be careful out there.

Other Outdoorsy Stuff

7 Organizations that Make Camping Better

April 28, 2017


Believe it or not, camping is a new thing. Yes, it’s a glorified approximation of how nomadic humans lived around for eons. But as a recreational activity, it was a fringe thing practiced by a few strange people who wanted to live like vagabonds. It’s only in the past century that camping has been loved by millions of people.

These seven organization play a big role in making camping possible. They’re usually operating behind the scenes, so let’s shine some light on them.

The Wilderness Society
Wild places don’t preserve themselves, especially in a country with a skyrocketing population. The Wilderness Society keeps swaths of land preserved from development and in their natural, wild state. The Wilderness Society is most known for shepherding the landmark Wilderness Act through Congress, along with subsequent additions to wilderness in the decades since. They also do the less glitzy but essential work of making sure the protections stick.

The Trust for Public Land
One way to get more public land is to buy it and make it public. Not easy or cheap, but simple in concept. The Trust For Public Land buys land that’s at risk and transfers it to public ownership. Much of their land is near urban areas, forming new state, and county parks and trails. Chances are you’ve already camped in a park that the Trust for Public Land has helped create, but never knew it.

The Access Fund
If you want to go climbing, you need to be able to get to the rock. The Access Fund works to maintain that access: partnering with landowners, government agencies, and climbers to make sure that there’s access and that climbing areas are well-cared for. As climbing becomes more popular, they’re helping instill leave-no-trace ethics to keep climbing areas healthy.

The Outdoor Alliance
The Outdoor Alliance is a coalition of camping, skiing, mountain biking, climbing and paddling organizations that push for wild places, clean water, and the funding for trails, campgrounds, and environmental stewardship that make these activities possible. They’ve also drawn attention to the fact that outdoor recreation is a huge economic driver. Outdoor recreation in the U.S. provides more jobs that Apple, and an economic impact greater than the GDP of Switzerland.

No Child Left Inside Coalition
When your mom told you to go outside and play, she was right. In recent years, we’ve accumulated medical evidence that playing outside isn’t just fun. It’s essential to every kid’s mental, physical and emotional development. People recover from injury faster when we spend time outside, and exercise is better for us outside than an identical workout inside. But technology, transportation issues, fear of the unknown and crunched schedules have kept kids inside more. Enter the No Child Left Inside Coalition, dedicated to reviving the simple ideas of getting kids outside to have fun more often.

Student Conservation Association
For decades the Student Conservation Association has given young people exposure to jobs in the outdoors: building trails, studying wildlife, and working with visitors to national parks and national forests. Working with youth and young adults, the SCA has been a career pathway for many of the people who are now in charge of the places we camp.

Friends of ______________
I’m sure you have a place you love: a favorite park, campground, river, or mountain. Chances are, there’s a local “friends,” “riverkeeper” or “watershed council” type group that keeps it great. These local groups tend to be small, and many are run entirely by local citizen volunteers. They do everything from pulling noxious weeds and planting trees, making sure that the local government allocates enough funds to keep the campgrounds open, and bringing other people out to experience the area. Join them.

Other Outdoorsy Stuff

Why Camping Makes You Healthier

April 4, 2017
healthy camping

healthy camping

You wake up in a tent, unzip your sleeping bag, and step outside. Your kids rub their bleary eyes and follow you out and you start the process of making pancakes. Suddenly you and the kids are smarter, have better concentration skills, will heal faster from injuries, and you’ve slowed the pace of your aging, all before breakfast is over. Camping is good for us, medically speaking. The evidence is piling up like a stack of firewood next to a campfire.

Stronger Immune Systems
Medical research studied recovery times from people in windowless rooms compared to windows looking out over trees. Patients who could look at trees recovered faster and needed fewer painkillers.

Better Memory and Concentration
University of Michigan researchers tested people’s memory retention and then divided them into two groups. One group walked through an urban setting for an hour. The other walked through the University arboretum. Then they re-tested. The urban group’s memory was the same afterwards, but the arboretum walkers increased their memory and attention span 20 percent. In 2004, a study replaced 69 after-school activities for kids diagnosed with ADHD with time in nature. They found that being outside was equal or better than the effects of Ritalin.

Stress, Mood, and Anxiety
In 2015, a researcher did a similar study to the Michigan study, having a group of people walk through downtown Palo Alto and another group walk through a forest near campus. Before and after, he measured their brain activity. The nature group had less blood flow to the sebgenual prefrontal cortex (try saying that a few times fast), a part of the brain associated with a tendency to dwell on negative thoughts.

Better Exercise
Researchers at Yale and Oxford had people exercise in a gym. They moved the equipment outdoors and repeated the exercises in a natural setting. The same exercise, done outside, resulted in a greater reduction of oxidative decay of mitochondria—a primary aging process. Exercise of any kind is good, but it’s better outside. Blood pressure dips lower than it does indoors, and the unpredictable nature of running on trails instead of treadmills makes workouts more energy intensive and people feel more relaxed afterwards. Contrary to assumptions about the effects of bad weather, a 2014 Canadian study indicated that people who exercise outdoors tend to stick to their regimens more, and are also more active outside their scheduled workout time, although this may reflect the personalities of outdoor exercisers as well.

healthy camping

Executive Function
“Executive function” is the term for a kid’s ability to initiate, organize, plan, prioritize, influence the actions of others, and in general get things done. It’s a key predictor of success in life, and one of the biggest elements of early childhood development. Richard Louv, in the landmark book The Last Child In the Woods, noticed how kids were being shuttled from structured activity to structured activity instead of being given free reign to invent their own games. Organizing your pals to build a campground stick fortress is a perfect example of executive function. The combination of outdoor time and unstructured time to roam (ideally free of electronic screens) is a great builder of executive function.

Of course, if you’re reading this article on a blog dedicated to the outdoors, most of this may not seem surprising—you’re already interested in the outdoors. You go camping because it works, even if you don’t know exactly why it works. But scientific evidence has another impact. We’re an evidence-based society, and the evidence is now catching the attention of doctors, hospitals, health insurance companies and law makers.

Of course, camping has only been called camping for a few centuries. Before that, it was called life. We lived outdoors for the million or so years from Olduvai Gorge until the Agricultural Revolution. Camping only became a recreational activity when we moved into cities in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and suddenly realized that we missed nature. It’s been programmed deep into our evolutionary origins since forever.

Your mom knew that intuitively when she told you to go outside and play.

Camp Tricks

7 Photos to Take On Your Next Trip

March 30, 2017
trip photos
trip photos


Most trip photos are the same: smiling people on mountain summits, canoes in smooth water, a tent in an alpine meadow. These are great shots, but they’re the expected postcard moments. We’ve all seen them a million times. To get photos that tell a genuinely interesting story, it’s time to branch out into new territory.

Photo assignments are a way to help ourselves out of our photographic routines, refresh our creativity, and find the stories that are happening around us unnoticed.

Let’s break the routine. Here are 7 ways get your creative juices flowing and take photos that stand out.

Fear and Tension
Fear and stress are an inherent part of outdoor adventures, whatever our particular sport may be. We all know the gut-clenching feeling when we’re about to drop into a big rapid or the “here it goes” deep breath before a crux move. This tension is usually when we put our cameras away. Don’t. It’s a core part of our story.

Work and Hardship
Even when we’re not doing high-risk activities, the irony of outdoors is voluntarily hardship. A grueling climb uphill with a heavy pack, paddling into a gusting headwind, or a cramped campsite in the rain may not induce fear, but certainly involves discomfort compared to sleeping in our bed. Why we do this and what it brings out is a key part of our lives. Take photos when people are showing the strain or enjoying the adversity.

Group Dynamics
Photograph how your group works together. Sometimes we work together well—we’re drawn to the outdoors because we love the people we climb, camp, paddle or ski with. The nights of laughter around the campfire are easy stories to tell with images. But don’t stop there. What about making tough decisions about route, deciding to turn around before the summit, reassuring the person who’s not sure they’re up to the challenge? They’re less postcard-y, but equally common, just as true, and stronger images.

The Substrate
Every sport has a substrate we obsess over. How clean the rock is, how much flow is in the river, the shape of the wave, the condition of the snow. Since it matters so much, make the substrate your subject. This will be a challenge to convey to people who aren’t part of your sport, because non-climbers don’t pay such close attention to the texture of rock and non-paddlers don’t obsess about currents. Find a way to convey it anyway. It is your obsession, after all.

Photograph your gear. This may sound odd, but gear is a worthy story. Not because we’re a bunch of gearheads (which is possible), but because our equipment is a fundamental conduit for our experiences. Without skis, there’s no skiing, and our skis control how we feel the snow. Our packs ride heavily on our shoulders all day. We all spend hours waxing skis, coiling rope, and repairing tents and jackets. This wear and tear has it’s own story to tell.

Something You Do Every Day
Photograph something you do every time you go out. Pick any part of your routine: morning coffee, filtering water, collapsing tents, packing a kayak, listening to the forecast, hanging food. Tell this story in multiple images rather than just one. This brings the viewer deeper in. Instead of simply knowing that you do, they’ll get a feel for what the ritual feels like.

Sounds or Smells
This is the hardest assignment. We have five senses, but cameras only capture one. One of the greatest pleasures of the wilds are the sensory cues: the smell of the sea, the crisp morning mountain air, the heat of the desert, being lulled to sleep by a rushing river. Your task is to convey this in a creative, evocative, even abstract way. A photo of the beach won’t necessarily trigger the smell of the sea in the viewer’s mind unless you think hard about how to tell the story.

If all this sounds like you’ve got a fair amount of thinking and shooting ahead of you, you’re right. Remember that photography, like all our outdoor adventures, is a mix of challenge and reward. The ability to distill a complex story into a sequence of a few images is tough…but it also helps us feel the deep richness of our experiences and what ties them all together. That’s why photography is so powerful, and so much fun.