One Last Trek

During the summer of 2017 we travelled with friends just across the Alberta-British Columbia border to one of the highest peaks in Canada, Mount Robson and to climb the Berg Lake trail.

Lucky those friends came along, because they remembered to bring something we forgot: strong tape.

for whatever one photo is worth:

Good boots are one of the most important pieces of hiking equipment you can own if you are a serious backpacker.

Pictured are not my boots.

They were the boots that belonged to my wife.

And up until they crumbled on the trail they were good boots. They were, in fact, fantastic boots… when she bought them as a teenager nearly twenty years before that hike.

They were even reasonably solid pieces of equipment for the first three days of our adventure, hiking all twenty-some kilometers up the mountain, and then accumulating another twenty or so klicks on the day-hiking trails near the campsite.

The problem with old equipment though is that every day that you use it, more wear and tear accumulates, more seams are exposed to the elements, more aging glues and stitches weaken, and more chances loom for failure.

Her boots failed just as we started our downward hike back towards home.

At the top of the mountain, these boots looked like the good boots they had been for two decades. At the bottom of the mountain I took this photo and then we dropped them in a nearby trash bin.

Every couple of kilometers we would stop and I would sit at my wife’s feet wrapping them as tightly and securely as I could with a borrowed roll of tape. The glue under between the tread and toe had failed and like an ill-timed puppet show, began flapping open like a mouth at with each and every step.

The takeaway lesson of these fall-apart boots was not that equipment fails, but rather that you never know when equipment might fail, and being properly prepared means expecting failure and setting yourself up to avoid or mitigate the negative results of that failure…

…like carrying tape, or not hiking in twenty-year old boots that might fall apart.

Gear: Collapsible Cookware by Sea to Summit

This week in my Thursday Tuck & Tech post (where I’m making an inventory of the gear I use or would like to add to my collection) I’m looking at some of my essentially un-cast iron cookware.

…because apparently cast iron is too heavy to haul up onto a mountain on a four day backpacking trip.

Yet, we still gots-to-cook.

When I was in the Scouts in my youth our troop spent many weekends in the woods. Looking back we ate incredibly simply: oatmeal, sandwiches, hot dogs, and other things that could be boiled or suspended from a stick over a fire.

We had some go-to cookware that was worn and battered by years of use. It was a nesting-doll set of thin steel pots and pans that all wrapped up neatly into a pack a little smaller than a football, tucked into a mesh bag, and rattled around from the backs our packs as we hiked in and out. They were light(ish) and a simple way to get things cooked outdoors.

So, naturally, when I moved out and started buying my own camping gear, decades ago now, one of the first things added to my collection was that identical set of steel pots and pans. You go with what you know. And they followed me up more than one mountain in my twenties.

But they were pretty simple and underwhelming as far as modern backpacking technology.

We’ve since ramped up our adventure gear game and invested in a collection of much lighter, much more compact cooking pot… and matching cups, bowls, plates, and a pretty slick collapsible coffee strainer (which I’ll likely be writing about at a later date!)

This set has followed us up on a couple of long multi-day hikes. The pandemic put a cramp on our plans for 2020, but in the couple years since we built this collection I’ve had enough practice with it to give an honest evaluation.

The silicon design has a weight that is competitive with any metal pan, and while they’re not cheap, they’re not titanium-expensive either.

Our firefly stove was able to boil up a pot of cold filtered stream water in less than ten minutes (good heat retention!) though with the silicon sides not being flame friendly, I couldn’t run the stove at full blast else risk some side flames creeping up past the metal bottom plate.

One of the negatives is that it would have been nice to pick these up as a complete set instead of piece-by-piecing our set together (from three different camping shops.) Now that our set is relatively complete that was really a small thing that I won’t need to do again. I write that only because we opted not to buy the frying pan (which I assume would likely have been part of said set) as our go-to meals on multi-day hikes tend to be rehydrated food. A pot of boiled water and some bowls serve for nearly all our adventure meals. Yet, a reliable frying pan could probably inspire some backpacking-friendly ideas in those meal plans… especially for the cast iron guy.

Overall, this set can’t compare to camping with a cast iron dutch oven, but my back routinely thanks me for the lighter approach to our adventure cooking.

Cast Iron Care Checklist

Kinda surprising actually that I haven’t written on this topic yet, but here goes…

If you’ve been thinking about investing in a cast iron cookware collection, your new pans and griddles need a small collection of tools to live their best life with you.

As with many hobbies, there are expensive and cheap versions of available care accessories. Many companies will happily sell you branded tools, purpose-made implements, and specially crafted concoctions. Most of these items are important to care for your iron, but the pricy version of it is not. Cheap or free alternatives often exist. After all, cast iron cookware has been common for hundreds of years, but imported organic flaxseed oil probably has not.

Ten of the tools I keep handy to maintain my cast iron collection are:

Seasoning Oil – Personally, I lean heavily on canola oil for a post-cleanup wipe-down because we always have it in quantity and handy, but I also keep a bit of shortening or leftover bacon grease in the house for my purpose-seasoning efforts. There are numerous products on the market that are labeled as cast iron seasoning products (and I intend to buy some and try them) and many people online swear by flaxseed oil (but it is expensive). Whatever your oil of choice, this tool is a must for ongoing maintenance of your pans.

Heavy Duty Paper Towels – If I’m feeling flush, and I happen to be near a hardware store there is a brand of blue, commercial grade paper towels that are just about perfect for cast iron clean up. If I don’t have these around, plain old paper towels are a must for our supply closet.

Coarse Salt – The first time I tried it I was amazed by how much basic post-cooking cast iron cleanup could be accomplished with a quarter cup of water and a tablespoon of coarse salt. A few minutes of simple soaking usually means that with only salt and elbow grease I can clean up almost any pan. For anyone new to cast iron who is skeptical about the no-soap approach, try a salt scrub and your uncertainty will be alleviated.

Stiff Bristle Brush – To help with the salt scrub (as above) a good brush is also a must. We use our Lodge-brand brush so much it rarely even makes it back into the drawer.

Plastic Scraper – For slightly tougher clean-up jobs, I keep a couple of these in my collection. They are also invaluable for scraping out bits of set fat or other pan leftovers that don’t make it onto your plate, either by design or because you’re just too full to eat it.

Chainmail Scrubber – An optional big gun in your arsenal in the war on pan clean up is a heavy-duty scrub pad. I rarely use this personally but for those deeply stubborn bits (or when I’ve let my daughter cook and there are bits of burnt food clinging to the pan) a coarse, seasoning-safe scrubber is worth investing in eventually.

Heavy Duty Oven Mitt – It probably goes without saying, but the best way to use and care for your cast iron is to make it hot. Over a flame, from the oven, or atop a burner, you can neither use it nor care for it if you can’t touch it. Get yourself some serious mitts that will allow you to hold, lift, move, and carry a hot pan without grilling your digits.

Storage Rack – Sure, you could stack your pans one on top of each other — like an animal! Or you could invest in an elegant way to give those pans a way to stack or hang in style. There is probably something to be said about preserving seasoning and preventing damage this way, but the simpler reason is that if you can access them, you can use them.

Self-Cleaning Oven – A dual-purpose tool, a hot oven is vital for seasoning new pans or touching up the ongoing effort to keep your season even and strong. Additionally, a self-cleaning oven can get hot enough on the clean cycle to obliterate all the seasoning layers on a pan that needs a refresh. This is controversial and you shouldn’t do this with antiques or anything you can’t easily replace. Whenever we run the self-clean on our oven, I always toss in a pan or two that are starting to chip or build up seasoning in weird ways. This strips them clean and allows for start a fresh on bare iron.

Fire – Heat is heat, but nothing beats cooking over real fire. Plus, if your pans could talk, they would thank you for the chance to touch some real flames. Not everyone has access to daily fire in the form of a gas stove or barbecue, but taking your pan to a campout or picnic with some burning wood is what your cast iron cookware was made for.

Gear: Garmin Fenix 3

I’ve owned and used my current GPS watch for the better part of four years.

But before you read this know that the Fenix 3 is far from the latest model of Garmin’s multisport watch. Also know that I’m not a “latest and greatest” kind of guy, usually sticking with the “tried and true” until I absolutely need an upgrade.

Still, of the three models I’ve used, the Fenix has by far been my favourite.

It’s climbed mountains.

It’s competed triathlon.

It’s logged half and full marathons.

It’s plotted a thousand and more runs, rides, and other sports.

It’s been a couple years since, but I used to get pulled in to our local running clinics and asked to give a talk for new runners about effectively using technology while running.

Watches, apps, software, etc.

When I started this there were only a small number of sport tracking watches on the market and I could easily answer the question of “which one should I buy?” Today there are multiple brands and as many as a dozen current models per brand. That’s a tougher question.

I look for a few simple things, and would want similar features in an upgrade:

Fast start-to-running time. From when I turn on the watch outside to when I can start running needs to be quick. Pre-pandemic, when I still ran with a sizable group, there was a clear difference between the good watches and the cheap watches. Solo, this just means waiting around on your own to start. In a group, it could mean the group is waiting around on you.

Connectivity with my phone. I used to need to plug in my old watches to a dock and upload the tracking files to a computer. This was only something I could do at home. The Fenix has let me upload wirelessly via my phone, which is not only precious ability on those Sunday morning runs sharing our route over coffees, but while traveling the world has let me log hikes and walks and races long before coming home to rest.

Long battery life. The photo in this post was taken while backpacking near Lake Louise, Alberta, on a day hike circumnavigating Mount Skoki. If I recall, this took about six hours with breaks. I had used the watch in the days before on our fourteen hour ascent up the mountain and on another six-plus hour hike. A cheap watch will get you through the four or five hours of a slow marathon. A better watch will take you up an all day mountain climb.