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Camp Tricks

Think Outside the Tent

May 24, 2017


While tents are the go-to camping shelter, there are many other options you might not have tried yet.

Car Camping
If you’re driving to camp, your car is the best choice for shelter. If it’s packed with stuff, take the stuff out and pile it in the front seat. Even better, carry your gear on top in a waterproof car carrier. Stash your edible and scented stuff in a bear box. If you can fold down the back seats, this will be the most comfortable option. Lying down is better for your beauty sleep than sitting up in your front seats. Crack open a window for airflow, lock the doors, and fall asleep.

Camping in a hammock is easy and relaxing. A lightweight hammock is great for backpackers who want to forgo finding level ground to set up a tent at the end of a strenuous day. Many people find sleeping in a hammock more comfortable than sleeping on the ground, and a better night of sleep allows you to hike more the next day. Sleeping under the stars is another bonus.

Roughing It
You pull into your camp spot in the late afternoon and say “hi” to your neighbors who are setting up their tent before they go for a hike. Two hours later, you return and they’re just finishing up. You pull out your sleeping mat and your bag throw it on the ground near your fire, and hunker down for the night. For extra protection from the elements, consider a mummy bag. Just lie there and watch the stars turn the night sky into a milky wonder.

National parks frown upon building a lean-to in a campground, but if you’re backpacking off the grid, this is a good way to build a shelter. All you need are the natural materials that surround you on the forest floor, but you can build one even faster if you came prepared. Look around and see if you can gather some loose branches, some leaves, and something to tie with, preferably some roots or vines of some kind. If you can find a large enough rock that can protect you from the wind, you can use that as the basis for your shelter, or you can use a downed tree that is resting on its side for a shelter for the night. Make sure to observe all park regulations when building shelters.

This isn’t the tarp someone keeps in their truck to cover the stuff in their bed from getting rained on; this is the latest thing in backpacking. Although, when it comes down to it, those types of tarps can be just as good. You will also probably have a ground cloth to put down underneath your tarp. The most common and the simplest set-up is to take each corner and tie it off to a tree or other tall structure, or use poles to elevate the corners. For other shapes of tarp shelter, you can use trees, boulders and even your car as points of attachment. Once you tie the ropes you can toss your bag under your shelter and climb inside nice and dry.

Camp Tricks

6 Tips for Packing the Perfect Backpack

May 15, 2017

BackpackBackpacking will take you to some of the most remote and beautiful places in the world—but you’re going to have to work a little to get there.

Carrying everything you need for a multi-day trek on your back is daunting to some, but backpacking doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. A properly packed backpack means that you’ll feel steady and balanced, even with a load of gear on your back.

Start With the Right Pack
Even the most efficiently packed backpack can cause a little pain if that pack hasn’t been properly fitted. Before you do anything, find a backpack that fits your frame comfortably. Learn what all those straps and buckles do, and adjust it to your body. Common pressure points include shoulders and hip bones, so ensure the pack is comfortable in those areas when weighted. Finally, after the backpack has been packed, make any adjustments needed to ensure a comfortable fit.

Distribute Weight
Many people mistakenly believe that the heaviest items should be packed at the bottom of the backpack, with lighter items stacked on top. In fact, the heaviest items should be packed toward the middle of the pack, as close as possible to your body and your center of gravity. This will help keep you stable and balanced, even when your pack is fully loaded.

Lighter, bulkier items like your sleeping bag and sleeping pad can be stored toward the bottom of the bag. Other light and medium weight items should be packed by the top and middle (further from your body than the super heavy stuff).

Equally important is the concept of distributing weight evenly from side to side. If your bag tends to topple over one way, that’s a sure sign that you’re off-balance.

Minimize Volume
Your pack’s capacity will restrict how much gear you can bring with, so be strategic when considering the volume—that is, the amount of room something takes up—of your belongings. Pots, pans, and dishes can be very bulky and take up valuable real estate in your pack. Look for a set where each component fits neatly inside another, and leave behind the pieces you know you won’t use.

Make use of every nook and cranny. For example, don’t just leave a pot empty; store your camping stove or other items inside of it while it sits in your pack.

You can also look for items that compress down to the smallest possible size in order to fit within the constraints of your pack size. Collapsible bowls and cups in flexible silicone will take up a fraction of the space of traditional dishes.

Compartmentalize and Organize
When you’re backpack is properly packed, you won’t have to empty absolutely everything to find that one item you’re looking for. Use stuff sacks or zippered plastic baggies to keep like items with like and make use of your pack’s compartments and pockets to keep items organized. Get into the habit of packing your backpack consistently—that way, when you need an item, you’ll know exactly where to go to find it.

Keep Key Items Close
Take advantage of easy-to-reach zippered pockets to stash important items like water bottles, multitool, sunscreen or toilet paper. On a backpacking trip, you probably won’t need to access your sleeping bag quickly, so it’s okay to stuff it a little deeper in your pack. On the other hand, you’ll want your trail mix to be easy to grab while you’re on the go so that you don’t have to pull over and take off your pack every time you want a handful.

Get Rid of Excess
Beware of bringing too much stuff. An overpacked bag is a poorly packed bag, so resist cramming every item you might possibly need into your pack. Overpacking will cause more wear on tear on your backpack, and it will make it much more difficult to find what you need since there will be more stuff to root through. Even more importantly, a too-heavy pack will require much more energy to carry. Have an experienced backpacker join you on your first trip—he or she can advise you on what you can afford to leave behind.

Camp Tricks, Other Outdoorsy Stuff

7 Essentials for Pacific Northwest Adventures

May 8, 2017


The Pacific Northwest is an adventurer’s mecca. Mountains to climb, dense forests to explore, sunsets over the ocean, and a temperate climate in which it can all be enjoyed —the PNW easily ticks all the boxes.

But if you’re not used to the quirks of the Pacific Northwest, you might encounter a few unpleasant surprises that, if you’re not prepared, can quickly put a damper on things.

The Pacific Northwest, as lovely as it is, can be a very wet place. Even the most optimistic adventure-lovers will have a tough time staying positive if everything they own is soaked. And while it doesn’t get as cold out here as it does in some parts of the country, the cool dampness can chill you right to your core in a way that’s hard to describe.

Don’t let a little rain ruin your adventures—just come prepared and pack these essentials.

A Backpack Fly
Nothing will ruin your trip faster than wet gear. A backpack fly will keep your clothes, sleeping bag, and other essentials nice and dry. Pop it on as soon as the first few drops start falling from the sky and keep it on well after the rain has stopped, since wet bushes and trees can quickly soak your stuff on the trails.

Pack Plastic Bags
It is virtually impossible to bring too many Ziploc-style bags on a PNW trek. Stuff wet socks in them to keep the rest of your clothes dry. Pack your food in them to prevent mold. Use them as an extra layer of waterproofing.

Invest in a Waterproof Shell
You know what they say: there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear. The rain won’t bother you if you’re wearing a truly waterproof outer shell, so be sure to pack a good one. Choose a shell that’s light and make sure that it’s also breathable.

Think Layers
Layering is not a groundbreaking concept, but the PNW’s reputation of having a mild climate often leads people to believe it doesn’t get cold. Spoiler alert: it can, especially at night. If you’re camping in the spring, the fall, or the winter, you’ll appreciate having a down mid-layer to keep you toasty.

Waterproof Hiking Boots
Wet feet are extremely uncomfortable—and they make it easier to develop nasty blisters. When picking out your perfect hiking boots, look for a hang tag saying that they are waterproof. Depending on the material of the boots, you may have to do some maintenance to keep them truly waterproof. If that’s the case, be sure to properly care for them before you set out on your adventure to keep them in tip top shape.

Be Able to Start a Fire
No matter how skilled you are at starting a campfire, it’s always tricky to get a fire going when dealing with wet wood. Ensure you have plenty of waterproof matches and maybe a full lighter to get your fire started. Consider packing along a few fire starters, which will speed up the process. Once you have a fire going, lay damp wood around the perimeter to help dry it out.

A Camera
Save room in your pack for a camera, because even though the Pacific Northwest can be damp, it is also beautiful. All that moisture makes everything look vibrant and alive, and you’ll want to capture every moment.

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.

Camp Tricks

7 Tips for a Successful Beach Camping Trip

March 3, 2017
beach camping
beach camping


If you’ve never had the pleasure of camping on a beach, then you need to plan a beach camping trip—stat! Bonfires by the water, falling asleep to the sound of crashing waves, and being treated to sunrises and sunsets like you wouldn’t believe.

There’s no doubt about it: camping on a beach is an incredible experience—yet it’s also a little different than your typical camping trip. Here are a few factors to plan for on your beach-side camping adventure.

Keep Your Eye on the Tide
If you’re lucky enough to stake out a spot by the ocean, don’t just pitch your tent anywhere—or else you risk waking up to water seeping into your tent as high tide creeps in. Look for the high tide line—debris from the ocean, like seaweed, is a telltale sign of where you can expect the water to come. Give yourself plenty of room by pitching your tent a way’s up from the high tide line to avoid surprises.

Be Mindful of Your Waste
Whether you’re camping on the ocean, a lake, or a river, the water in front you is home to some fragile ecosystems. Dumping your waste carelessly is a beach camping faux pas, so mind your manners: know how to dump essential waste correctly, and always carry out your trash. Camp toilets should be dug at least 100 feet away from the water, and the hole should be at least 6 inches deep. Avoid using dish soap—rubbing with sand usually does the trick.

Keep Your Belongings Organized
Stuff sacks and zippered plastic baggies are your best friends when it comes to camping on the beach—that’s because sand can get everywhere. To avoid the presence of sand in every single belonging that you brought with you, keep everything organized and properly stored in separate compartments. This especially applies to food: trust us, there’s nothing worse than take a big bite of oatmeal that is unexpectedly gritty.

Think Waterproof
Camping on the beach can get a little soggy, even if there isn’t a single cloud in the sky. Fog, mist, humidity, and ocean spray can dampen your stuff, so be sure to put a waterproof fly on your tent. During the day, lay damp clothes, sleeping bags, and other items in the hot sun to dry them out.

Don’t Forget Your Sleeping Pad
Sand might seem like the perfect soft surface for slumber—but its lumpiness and bumpiness can actually be quite uncomfortable if you choose to forego a sleeping pad. Remember, not all beaches are sandy—you’ll be doubly thankful to have a good sleeping pad if you happen to set up camp on a more rocky, rugged beach.

Master the Tent Take-Down Shake-Out
When it comes time to taking down the tent, pull out the pegs and unzip the doors. Lift the tent in the air, flip it on its side so one of the doors is facing down, and shake it like a Polaroid picture. You’d be amazed at how much sand can amass into all of the tent’s nooks and crannies. Have a buddy help you roll up the tent to put it away so that you don’t have to lay in down in the sand and negate the efforts of your shake-out.

Maintain a “No Shoes in the Tent” Policy
Keeping sandy shoes on the outside of the tent will make the previous step that much easier. Of course, when your campsite comprises of soft sand, it’s tempting to go barefoot. Go ahead and peel off your shoes—just be sure to dust your feet very carefully before setting foot inside the tent. Bonus: it’s an exfoliating treatment that would challenge the services of any spa.

beach camping


Camp Tricks

6 Tips for Camping in the Snow

February 27, 2017


Winter isn’t quite over yet, but that doesn’t mean you have to wait to go camping. It’s the time to whip out the parka and hand warmers. If you’re going to hit the trail this winter, remember to keep these tips in mind for a safe, fun experience.

Don’t Eat the Snow
This seems a tad silly to have to say, but if you’re new to camping you might not be aware that chowing down on cold snow is a big no-no. That’s because consuming something that cold can help cool your body down too quickly, resulting in a shock to your system. Instead, if you just can’t resist the urge or find yourself in need of refreshment, place the snow in a pot over the fire and turn it into warm water first.

Watch Your Fire
A lot of people switch to portable heaters during the winter because they view creating a fire in the snow too much of a hassle. It can be done, however, and if you’re going to go that route be sure to keep an eye on your flames. There will likely be enough dry wood and leaves around to unexpectedly catch fire, and you don’t want your campsite to go up in flames.

Don’t Hike in Low Visibility
A blustery snowstorm is difficult to camp in, and even more difficult to navigate during a hike. If the white stuff is falling down heavily enough to impede your view, then be sure to stay put until it clears. It’s incredibly easy to get lost in a white out and just as hard for emergency crews to find you in an emergency. Don’t be afraid to wait it out in your tent if need be.

Have the Right Gear
This should go without saying, but the gear you need to have on hand while camping during the winter is fairly different from what you might normally take into the woods. Be sure to dress in layers, bundle up safely at night and keep some hand warmers nearby. Trekking poles are also a great way to help you trudge through the mounds of white stuff around the campsite.

Change Your Clothes Often
One of the biggest challenges with camping in the snow is keeping yourself dry. Moisture can lead to plenty of issues out on the trail, including frostbite and hypothermia. Your first line of defense is wearing the appropriate gear and being sure to keep it as dry as possible. Be sure to hang your clothes nightly (inside your tent!) and never sleep in the same thing you hiked in that day. A lot of people have their own pair of camping pajamas, which is totally acceptable. If you have a heater that’s safe to have inside the tent with you that can help with drying your clothes and gear overnight.

Pack Light
One of the most common mistakes new campers make is assuming that they should have more on hand during the winter in case of emergency. If you’re packing properly, you should actually have less. Camping in the snow, getting to your campsite in particular, is rough on the body because of the added resistance on the ground. Don’t overdo it when filling your backpack. Dry your clothes during the night rather changing daily and you’ll be able to get by with less in your bag.

Camp Tricks

What You’ll Need for the Perfect Camping Trip With the Guys

February 24, 2017


As much as we love our wives and girlfriends, sometime guys just need a little time with the boys to kick back and cut loose. Where better to have a little bro time than the Great Outdoors? The guys-only camping trip is a rich tradition and should be embraced at least once a year. If you’re going to head out into the woods with your friends, here’s what you’re going to need for a good time.

Your OWN Tent
One of the great things about having a guys’ night out in the woods is that you get to enjoy a good night’s rest to yourself. No pillow-hogging lady forcing you to the side of the bed or kids hopping between you in the middle of the night and taking up room. Now’s your opportunity to have a little peace and quiet once you settle in, so throw down a little cash for your own tent. Sleeping back to back in cramped quarters with a bunch of friends isn’t quite the vacation you were hoping for. So make sure you have your own tent.

A Grill
Forget about cooking weenies over the campfire; this isn’t a boy scout trip. Y’all are going to want to eat some real food to go along with your beer, so bring along a grill so you can effortlessly cook some steaks. Heck, you could even throw a couple of brats and some bourbon chicken on there if you feel like; throw a competition to see who can be the campsite grill master.

Trekking Poles
There’s no point in heading out in the wild if you’re just going to sit in one place. Take the opportunity to explore with your friends and do some hiking while you’re out there. Whether you’re hiking savvy or just getting older and want to protect your legs, there’s no shame in using a trekking pole to help aid your ascent. Bring a few along for the boys and you can spend hours out on the trail traveling between campsites for a few days at a time.

A Football
Sports are the metaphorical glue that binds men together. We crave the heat of competition they create but also desire a sense of unity, which is why we often find ourselves rooting for the same teams as those closest to us. Make sure to bring along a football or two on your trip to toss around with your buds. Heck, play an impromptu game if you feel up to it. If you’re not a fan of football, baseball or soccer works just as well. Even a Frisbee will do.

A Good Story
As much as guys like to pretend we don’t ever want to share our feelings, the truth is that every once in a while it feels good to let it all out. The guys-only camping trip is the perfect time to connect with your buds and catch up on what y’all have been busy during the busy year. Don’t be the guy who goes on the trip and never has anything to say. Think up so good, or even bad, things that have happened recently you haven’t told and share it with your friends. Build those bonds while you can.

Camp Tricks

A Guide to Basic First-Aid For Small Wounds

February 21, 2017


When out camping with your friends or family, it’s always important to know the basics of first aid. You never know what you might come across out in the woods and a few easy steps could be the difference between a simple scrape and a nasty infection. If yourself or someone else gets cut, here’s what you should do.

Clean Your Hands
Before touching the wound the first thing you should do is clean your hands. Soap and water is best but if you’ve got a bottle of hand sanitizer that’ll have to do in a pinch. Vigorously clean up before coming into contact with the cut or scrape in order to avoid causing an infection through the dirt on your hands.

Stop the Bleeding
If there’s a lot of blood you’re need to stop it before you can do anything else. Apply pressure with a clean cloth that should be tucked away in your first-aid kit (you’ve got one, right?) or wrap it up tightly with a bandage until it stops.

Clean the Wound
After the bleeding has stopped you need to wash the affected area with soap and water. Use a clean cloth to wipe away any debris, but try to keep the soap from getting into the wound itself as that might cause pain. If there are rocks or dirt inside the cut gently remove them with a pair of tweezers if you can. Be sure that the tweezers have been sterilized with alcohol before using them on the wound.

Use an Antibiotic
Some people make the mistake of dousing the cut with antibiotic ointment in the hopes that’ll it’ll help it heal faster or protect it from infection. All you need is a thin smear of it over the cut to help keep out bacteria. In fact, putting too much on can prevent it from healing, as it still needs a little bit of air.

Wrap the Wound
Once you’ve cleaned up the cut and used an antibiotic you simply need to bandage the wound. Minor scrapes don’t really require bandaging, only the cuts that are somewhat deep and actively bled enough that it needed to be stopped. Don’t wrap or tape too tightly, but make sure the entire cut is covered in order to keep out debris and bacteria.

Change the Bandage
Once you’ve covered the bandage you’ll want to leave it alone for awhile while it heals, but be sure to check and change it at least once a day. This way you’ll provide a clean area around the cut and be able to ensure that there are no signs of infection.

Cut the Trip Short
What do you do if there are signs of infection? Well, that means it’s time to cut your camping trip short. Not trip outdoors is worth losing a limb over, so head back to the car and march straight to the emergency room. They’ll provide you with the care and treatment you need in order to get things sorted out so you can be back on the trail in no time.

Just remember that no matter how long you plan on heading out into the woods on your next camping trip it’s always essential to have a first aid kit on hand in case of an accident. Never leave home without one!

Camp Tricks

5 Tips for Heating Your Campsite Safely

February 6, 2017

camp-heatFinding a safe way to heat your campsite is one of the most important parts of survival in the Great Outdoors, especially when the winter months arrive. Simply lighting a fire on the ground and letting it roll is a recipe for disaster, so here are some tips for keeping yourself warm without burning down the woods while you sleep.

Use a Heater
If you don’t trust yourself to keep a campfire under control, the best option might be remove flames from the equation completely. A propane heater is a great way to keep your campsite warm without having to worry about errant sparks igniting the forest. Just place the heater on a solid surface, like a table, so that it doesn’t come into contact with dry leaves or other flammable objects and you can feel cozy for hours on end.

Use a Metal Fire Pit
Rather than creating your own campfire you can always opt to use a pre-made fire pit. These are typically made of a metal like iron and are a great way to keep your fire from spreading. They’re a little on the bulky side and can be a pain to carry on a long hike, but they’re great if you plan on parking near your campsite for the night and only have to lug it a short distance.

Dig a Hole
Digging a hole in the ground is a much safer alternative to simply throwing some sticks on the ground and building a flame. That’s because a hole is more likely to prevent the spread of the flames into the surrounding area, especially if you build up the edges of the hole with rocks or bricks to encapsulate the fire. You’ll have create added protection from the elements and won’t have to worry as much about the wind blowing out your flames.

Use a Fire Stick
Unless you’re a boy scout or your parents took you on camping excursions when you were a child, you’re probably not an expert at building your own campfire with a stick and some rocks quite yet. That’s OK; modern technology has made the task so simple anyone can do it in seconds. A fire stick will give you the power you need to instantly create a fire to help keep your family warm, and using it will probably be safer than toying with sparks in the long run.

Keep Candles Outside Your Tent
Candles are a great way to bring light and a bit of warmth to your campsite while also keeping bugs at bay. What they’re not great for is lightning up the inside of your tent at night. Having an open flame in a small, enclosed space like a tent is just asking for trouble; as soon you accidentally knock that candle over with your foot your blankets could go up in a blaze. Keep any candles you might have outside of your tent and always remember to blow them out completely before calling it a night.

Camp Tricks

How the Outdoors Will Trap Your Brain, Part 2

January 30, 2017
©istockphoto/Todor Tsvetkov

©istockphoto/Todor Tsvetkov

Part 2 of a 2-part series by Neil Schulman

In the first article in this series we learned how we’re trained to be rational when making decisions, but that in the outdoors we tend to make decisions in the moment based on simpler rules of thumb. And because our decisions are often driven more by emotional human frailties such as excitement, fear, and the desire to save face, factors, it’s easy to ignore these rules. The first article covered the traps we fall into: commitment, scarcity, social proof, familiarity, expert halo, and so on. Now we’ll dig a bit deeper into what happens inside your brain.

What Really Happens In Our Brains
You’re leading a group down the trail in a wooded area. From off to the side you hear the unmistakable growl of a saber-toothed tiger.

You go into action in a fraction of a second. Your amygdala, the part of your brain that handles emotions, sends a distress signal to your hypothalamus, which signals the adrenal glands to flood your system with adrenaline. The adrenaline pushes oxygen to the muscles and heart, increasing your pulse rate and breathing. Sight and hearing sharpen. Glucose from stored energy enters the bloodstream, readying you for action. All this happens before the tiger is even finished growling. And your hypothalamus also presses a second button, the HPA axis. This releases cortisol, which keeps your body highly revved for a while. Long after the saber-toothed cat is gone and the group has moved on, you’re still hyper-alert and ready to flee or defend your group. To free energy for this metabolic surge, your brain had to draw energy from the cerebral cortex—the part that’s in charge of the long-term planning and thinking.

Obviously, saber-toothed cats have been extinct for 11,000 years. But our fight-or-flight response which developed in that era still works the same way. It’s triggered when we perceive immediate threats: an unseen rock in the middle of a rapid, a car that veers into your bicycle lane, and when your boss angrily calls you into their office.

Why the Plan Approach Doesn’t Work
This fight-or-flight response makes it impossible to make plans under stress. All that “assess the situation/develop alternatives/make a plan” stuff has to have happened beforehand and everyone needs to know it. And even then it can still go out the window when fear sets in.

Rules of Thumb Make Sense, but…
Rules of thumb work better in the moment because they fit the tiny amount of brain space we have under stress. Stay to the inside of bends in whitewater. When in doubt, scout. But as we now know, we’ll still likely to ignore those rules when the scarcity, social proof, commitment, and familiarity traps set in. We’ll even ignore long years of training. So what do we do?



What Really Works
It’s time to look at what the real experts do. Highly trained firefighters, EMTs, high-risk investors, pro athletes, and whitewater and mountain rescue pros all do something very different from either slow methodical planning or keep-it-simple rules of thumb. It’s called “recognition-primed decision-making”, or as it’s called more commonly, pattern recognition. As a situation evolves, experts can very quickly and intuitively recognize a situation from a set of cues, tap into a massive data bank of situations from training, practice, and experience, and respond. It often happens quickly, without them even really knowing what they were doing. And it works far better than anything else.

A common examples of pattern recognition would be your friend who does a lot of birdwatching and now instinctively knows a bird’s species just by its silhouette; he doesn’t know why exactly he can recognize it, but he just knows it to be true. Another example would be when a group of kayakers are river playing in some eddies when one of them starts struggling. Without even thinking, the leader drifts downstream and yells at everyone to group up; everything is still organized, but that calm response was a predictive action to prevent impending disaster.

We’ve all heard the saying “judgment comes from experience, but experience comes from bad judgment.” This is a risky and painful way to build long judgment. While there aren’t many shortcuts to developing the knowledge base for pattern recognition, there are ways to move it along—or at least make sure you actually do learn from the experiences you have.

Reflection: The Best Way to Learn
Reflect on outdoor adventures, both yours and others’. When something goes wrong, step back from the tendency to defend, blame, or attribute it to uncontrollable factors. Spend some time with your buddies figuring out what happened, why, if and how it could have been prevented, and most importantly, why it wasn’t. Resist the urge for simple answers. Most outdoor accidents are the accumulation of small factors that built to a crescendo.

But even more importantly, debrief when things go fine. What made them go well? How can you replicate that? Did risks exist that simply never came to a head? Remember, if you drive without a seat belt, you’ll still be fine if you don’t crash that day, but that doesn’t make it smart. When a friend leads a trip, debrief with them and vice versa. That way you both add data to your pattern recognition bank.

©istockphoto/Todor Tsvetkov

©istockphoto/Todor Tsvetkov

Keep a Logbook
Keeping a logbook gives you a place to put all this information. You can go back to our notes if you need to. And writing it down helps it stick in your memory. Keep more information than just miles hiked or river flows, but what happened.

When you create your original plan, before you leave, conduct a “pre-mortem”. What could go wrong? Does your plan still hold water? The pre-mortem hinges on two scenarios:

  1. Imagine that your plan was implemented just like you intended, but still failed.
    Why did this happen? Did the weather move in earlier than forecast? Was a key campsite already taken, so you had to go further?
  2. Imagine that the easy parts of your plan were implemented fine, but the challenging parts were a mixed bag.
    You may make slower time along a ridge, or may or may not be able to make the crux move in one rapid, which led to a swim, which cost time. Then what happens to the rest of your plan?

The Pre-Mortem does two things. First, it helps you spot the weakness in your plan. Second, it reminds you that we’re dealing with both environmental unknowns and human unknowns. Everyone in the group should participate in the process, even though the leader may have final say.

It’s Teachable and Learnable
Pattern recognition can be taught, and not just by bad experiences. Other people’s experiences, scenarios planning, peering over the shoulder of people with decades of experience, and a planned cycle of prediction—experience—reflection accelerate the learning process. It will still take time, but not as much.

Thanks to Karl Andersson and Ian McCammon for informing the thought process of this article.

Camp Tricks

How the Outdoors Will Trap Your Brain, Part 1

January 23, 2017

Part 1 of a 2-part series by Neil Schulman



In a crowded room, we’re all listening to my friend and fellow kayak instructor Paul talk about a kayaking accident that separated his shoulder and smashed his kayak. For dramatic effect, his broken boat is out in the parking lot. But Paul’s purpose isn’t to recount his dramatic misadventure or caution us against the ocean’s power. We’re there figure out out how an accident could happen to a group five highly trained instructors in a place they knew well. Four words leaped into my brain: scarcity, commitment, familiarity, and social proof. They were followed by one other word: Trap.

The most important place in the outdoors is between our ears. What happens there? Some strange stuff, to be sure. This article will cover with some common traps and how we can avoid them. The second in the series. will focus on how we can make better decisions..

Here are a few situations you might recognize:

  1. A group of backcountry skiers is skiing familiar terrain in their home mountains. On a route they’ve done many times before, they cross a steep slope as the weather warms.
  2. Four experienced kayakers drive to the coast to paddle to some scenic islands the last weekend before the islands are closed for the summer. The conditions are slightly larger than forecast. After assessing conditions, they decide to proceed with their plan.
  3. Three mountain bikers come to a steep descent and scout it. The least experienced rider considers walking it. The two more experienced riders suggest that they ride the hill. They think that it’s within his ability and that it will build his skills. They decide to ride it.

While you might not have been in one of these exact situations, you might be able to imagine yourself there. They all contain different mental traps, but first let’s step back and think about how we really make decisions. It’s not how we think we do.

Plans? Our Brains Can’t Make No Stinkin’ Plans!
We’re all taught to “assess the situation”, “brainstorm alternatives”, “develop a plan”, “execute the plan,” and “evaluate”. This looks good on paper, but it rarely happens in reality. This type of analysis takes a lot of time and requires a lot of information. When a storm is moving in and you’re cold, it’s not going to happen. And this approach assumes that we’re rational people weighing probability, reward, and risk; but human decisions are as much driven by our desire to catch the perfect surf wave, fit into a group, save face, and other motivations. It’s easy to rationalize decisions to fit these goals. The rational plan works great when you’re choosing a new washing machine, but not while you’re on a knife-edge ridge and a storm is moving in.

Rules of Thumb
When the situation is fluid and we’re under pressure, we typically do something else. We use what outdoor leadership nerds call “domain heuristics”, or rules of thumb. Heuristics are simple principles that we can remember in the heat of the moment that help us most of the time. We use them semi-consciously: think of sayings like “measure twice, cut once,” (carpentry), “when in doubt, scout” (whitewater), “be off the peaks before noon” (climbing in thunderstorm country), “avoid steep wind-loaded slopes” (skiing in avalanche country), and “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” (conversation/life).




These rules of thumb are can guide us well much of the time. Thunderstorms in the Rockies are a regular event, and a simple rule is one way to avoid a lot of risk. But there are also problems which all outdoor adventurers must guard against. They’re called “heuristic traps”: situations where even trained people repeatedly ignore obvious clues to danger and proceed when the signs are screaming at them to scout, stop, or turn back.

1.The Familiarity Trap
Like car accidents, more accidents happen in familiar territory than new frontiers, and not just because we spend more time there. Familiar territory triggers a combination of relaxation and reliance on past conditions, even when it’s obvious that conditions have changed and are more dangerous than usual.

2. The Commitment Trap
Humans will go to great lengths to appear consistent. Once we take a small action in one direction, we want to keep going that way. It’s the virtuous trait of “keeping our promises” run amok. We’ll be tempted to run a river we told friends we’d run even if it looks higher than is safe. Many outdoor accidents involve continuing with a plan because that was the plan, even when it’s obviously no longer smart.

3 .The Scarcity Trap
The rarer something is, the we value it. The first untracked powder bowl of the season, a tough-to-get river permit, or the last free weekend before you buckle down at work will all create an urge to push on when we shouldn’t.

4. The Social Proof Trap
We take more risks when surrounded by others. Peer pressure and the feeling of safety provided by others makes us more aggressive. That’s why police departments have gone from the “partner” model (the staple of buddy-cop movies) to solo officers. Other people can provide a safety margin, but in many objective risk situations like avalanche zones, the risk is the same whether you’re alone or in a group. Risk rises when group size gets to 3-4 people and is heightened after encountering other groups, because we want to keep up appearances.

5. The Expert Halo Trap
We’ve all followed the advice of someone else who has more experience. This makes sense—as long as their experience is real, applicable, and they’re not falling into one of these s traps themselves. Experts just as likely as novices to be suckered by the scarcity, social proof, or familiarity traps. We often ascribe greater ability to judge risk to the expert in one field (say rock climbing) to another field where their knowledge doesn’t apply (navigation). Nobody in their right mind would say that a surgeon’s medical training qualifies them to fly a jetliner. The same is true in the outdoors.

©istockphoto/Oktay Ortakcioglu

©istockphoto/Oktay Ortakcioglu


1. Be Vigilant
Start seeing these traps. Re-read the scenarios from a few paragraphs back. Recognize anything? If you spotted the Familiarity Trap in Scenario 1, the Commitment and Scarcity Traps in Scenario 2, and the Social Proof and Expert Halo Traps in Scenario 3, you’re on the right track.

2. Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence
Most of the time, when we ignore warning signs we still come home OK—but that doesn’t make we didn’t take foolish risks. It just means we got lucky. If you drove without a seat belt, most of the time you would still be ok because you don’t crash most of the time you drive a car. But it’s still foolish. Ignoring these traps works the same way.

3. Reassess
Establish times on your hike, ski, climb, or paddle to reassess your plan. There still will be energy pushing you on when you shouldn’t, luring you with the ability to rationalize your decision afterwards. But it will help keep you honest.

In the next article, we’ll dive further into how to make better decisions in the backcountry. In the meantime, stay out of the traps!

Thanks to Karl Andersson and Ian McCammon for informing the thought process of this article.

Camp Tricks

A Guide to Winter Camping Survival Gear

January 16, 2017


Winter is upon us, and for many people that means it’s time to pack up the tent. But for many hardcore campers, this just means it’s time to pull out the cold-weather camping gear. If you’re the type who can’t resist the call of the Great Outdoors and are still willing to hit the woods when the snow starts falling, here is some gear you can’t camp without.

Survival Blanket
A strong, comfortable sleeping bag is a necessity for winter camping, but you also need to have an emergency sleeping bag on hand in case on inclement weather. A survival sleeping bag is made of reflective material that bounces your own body heat right back at you so you stay warm throughout a harsh winter night. It’s also great for providing ground cover and, if properly made, helps keep water and wind from invading your quarters. The Emergency Survival Sleeping Bag from Stansport is a must-have tool for cold-weather camping.

Emergency Radio
Anyone who lives in an area prone to wintery conditions knows that a small snowstorm can turn into a blizzard in an instant. Always check the weather before heading out on a camping trip, but you also need to know about any changes that are occurring while you’re out in the woods. An emergency radio with keep you up to date on any sporadic shifts or approaching storms and can even help you keep in contact with family and local authorities in case you get stuck out in the wild. Opt to a crank-powered tool like the Dynamo Multi-Function Emergency FM Weatherband so you can call for help in a pinch.

Thermal Undies
This might seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be amazed by the amount of people who head out into the wild in winter without properly bundling up. Thermal underwear should always be worn underneath your regular camping clothes when the temperatures drop below freezing. Keeping your body heat regulated is essential to avoid hypothermia and other illnesses out on the trail and a thick jacket isn’t enough. Also, make sure you wear something on your head to keep heat from escaping.

Making a fire in the middle of winter often a difficult endeavor, if not downright impossible, so your best option is to bring along a portable heater. An outdoor propane heater can help warm you up in just a few moments and eliminate the need for hovering over a campfire that you may or may not be able to get lit in the first place. It’s a safer option for many people and will greatly help if you find yourself trapped in a snowstorm and needing heat. Just be careful not to burn your tent down if you try and use it inside.

Extra Food
When a blizzard sets in you could find yourself trapped for days. If you haven’t got enough food on hand to last you can’t expect to go out and hunt while the snow is pouring down. Make sure to always have extra calories that you can consume in an emergency. Survival foodbars could mean the difference between life and death in an emergency situation.

Survival Whistle
Sometimes the smallest items that we don’t even think about can end up saving our lines in a bad situation. That’s why you should never head out into the woods without a whistle. That’s a right, a whistle. If you’ve done your due diligence your family and friends should know when you’re out in the wilderness. If you become trapped you might have to rely on them to report you missing and often emergency crews will be trying to find a needle in a haystack out there in a blizzard. Having a whistle on hand you can blow on throughout the day and night could alert them to your presence and help get you home.

Safety Light
Even when trapped in a blizzard you’ll still need to sleep. But how are emergency crews going to find you if you’re not awake to alert them to your whereabouts? That’s when a safety light comes in handy. One of these can provide a light for up to 12 hours so it’s a good idea to have a few on hand. They’re safe to leave glowing through the night in your tent and can help you stand out against the darkness.

While these tools are the minimum pieces of gear you should have on hand there are plenty of other items that could help you stay alive in an emergency. If you’re unsure of what all you should take along on your winter camping trip, Stansport has a variety of emergency preparedness kits that are equipped with most of what you need.