Two Strikes and You're Out

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Camping Special, April 1997

Two Strikes and You're Out

Screwing up in the woods is unavoidable--but repeating your mistakes is something else entirely
By Brad Wetzler

To err is human. but according to NOLS's Tom Reed, it's not always excusable. "Our goal at NOLS," says Reed, "is to see that campers make mistakes just once." Choosing the wrong place to camp tops the list of most offensive backwoods malfeasances, he says (see "The Right Duff," page 99). But plenty of other crimes and misdemeanors are committed--and repeated--far too often. As documented by NOLS, here are the most common ways in which campers screw up out there.

Behaving as if you live in a barnyard. You may be sleeping on the ground, but that's no excuse to act like a pig. Before preparing a meal, remember to wash with a small amount of biodegradable soap, and then scatter the suds over a wide area far removed from your water source. The same goes for daily hygiene: Never wash your body in the stream or lake.

Wearing the wrong boots. Hiking boots come in three basic types: lightweight, medium-weight, and heavyweight. Needless to say, if you mostly stick to day hikes and short overnights, you'll regret lugging three pounds of leather, steel, and rubber at the end of each leg. Conversely, if you plan to carry 50 pounds over all 2,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail, your feet will require added protection. Just as crucial as selecting the right boot is making sure that it's properly broken in before you take to the trail. Though they may not rival those Bruno Maglis when it comes to style, consider wearing your hikers to work every day during the week preceding your outing.

Ignoring the pain while it's trying to tell you something. Even the most well worn boots can chafe if not snugged just right. Yet a lot of folks, with boot rubbing against heel as if it were low-grade sandpaper, keep hiking anyway. "I'll readjust my sock at lunch," you say. Nope. Stop now, while your heel merely sports a hot spot, not a full-blown, somebody-carry-me blister. Treat the abrasion with antibiotic ointment and cover with moleskin and medical tape. Failure to do so will result in an oozing bubble that'll hurt like Texas. Before a long descent, stop and retie your boots, since hiking downhill causes more friction on both heel and toe than hiking uphill.

Wandering around in circles when lost. Not sure where you are? You have two choices: stay put or move on. There's a lot to be said for the former--namely that you can't get any more lost--but only if you've informed someone of your itinerary and can withstand the climate for a night or two. If you do decide to try to find your way out, do so with a strategy. First, do you recognize any landmarks? If you're near running water, following it downstream should lead you to civilization. Also, pay attention to the natural signposts. Willows and poplars generally lean to the south, while moss grows on the north side of trees. Of course, just as much can be determined by nonnatural features: A fence in Rhode Island, for instance, probably indicates a nearby home, whereas in Oregon it may well delineate a township-size ranch and be six miles to a side. Finally, and most important, keep track of where you've already been by scattering markers en route, and always return to your starting point before trying an entirely new tack.

Not drinking enough water. Campers should drink two to four quarts of water a day--more in cold climes and at higher altitudes. If the skin on the back of your hand stands up when pinched, it's time to rehydrate. If you start running out of water, compensate by limiting your food intake, since the digestion process uses up quite a bit of the body's fluid stores.

Insisting that cotton is king. It's old news, but cotton has virtually no heat-retaining qualities when wet. Which means that there's still no good reason why cotton T-shirts or sweats should find their way onto your packing list. A foolproof layering combo includes a lightweight T-shirt of wicking polyester or nylon (such as Capilene, CoolMax, or Transport), a heavier polyester sweater or overshirt, and a fleece jacket. Keep this rule in mind: Bring enough clothes so that you could survive one night's bivouac--without tent or sleeping bag--in case of emergency.

Boiling the coffee. The finest camp java is steeped, never boiled. Food scientists say that the beans' flavorful oils are released just below boiling, at 205 degrees Fahrenheit. At just above boiling, by contrast, bitter acids are produced, making even the finest Kona taste like Quickie Mart swill.

Bringing fear of fat out on the trail. Worried that adopting the Hickory Farms diet plan will add pounds to your middle while you're out on the trail? Get over it. "You're working hard out there, burning close to 4,000 calories a day," says Reed. "Lighten up, will you?"

Illustration by Ross MacDonald

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