Ethical Non-Monotony

Your Q's thoroughly A'ed in the inaugural ToT mailbag.

I asked for your questions and you had questions. I’m not sure whether anyone wants answers quite this detailed, but regrettably I don’t know another way to be. For the inaugural Today on Trail mailbag we’re talking about water, monotony, and miscellaneous (that’s right: the three genders). Let’s go.

Water is Life

Max asks: I want to hear all about water on your trip. What the tools are, how all the various waters taste, how you use water while hiking, how you use water while camped, how much (or little?) time you spend thinking about, manipulating, consuming and shedding water.

Water is the thing I have the most hiking-related anxiety dreams about. “Oops, I got 20 miles into the backcountry and then realized I forgot my water filter” reliably has me waking up sweaty. In reality it would be fine, I almost always have at least three options for water treatment because water is literally life. I think everyone on trail quickly develops a keen background sense of how much water you currently have and how far away the next water source is at all times.

The current state of the art in backpacking water treatment is the hollow tube filter. My personal favorite is the Katadyn BeFree, but the Sawyer Squeeze is also very popular, and there are a number of Amazon scrabble-rack branded versions of the same thing.

Hollow tube filters are a bundle of hollow synthetic filaments (a series of tubes, if you will) that are manufactured to have a lot of eensy holes in the tube wall. “Eensy” in this case is a technical term meaning 0.1 micron. Both ends of the tubes are gathered together and embedded in a sealed plastic plate, so each individual tube is bent in a U shape, with both open ends poking out on the “clean” side of the filter. Then the whole bundle is put inside a cylinder of some kind, and attached to a flexible bag of contaminated water. When you squeeze the bag, the water is pressurized against the sides of all those little U-shaped tubes, and the holes in the tubes are big enough for water molecules to pass through, but too small for bacteria, giardia cysts, mosquito larvae, pine needles, etc. So the bad stuff gets stuck to to the outside of the tubes, and the water inside flows through the tube to the ends, where it comes out of some kind of spout or nozzle in a clean (enough), drinkable (-ish) state.

The open design of the Katadyn filter makes all of this easy to see. This screws on to the top of the reservoir bag, and the blue part goes inside the bag.

Hollow tubes filter out the nasties, so the water they produce is safe to drink. But they don’t filter out leaf tannins or many of the gross flavors that can permeate less clean water sources. So it’s worth trying to find a clear, fast-flowing water source whenever possible. The old style pump filters weighed literally ten times as much but the carbon-core ceramic filters can make clear, good tasting water out of the worst mud puddle. I also find the plastic Katadyn bag gives the water that comes out of it a perceptible plastic-ey taste, which quickly becomes vaguely nauseating. So I always have plenty of drink mix powders on hand to hide the taste and make drinking water more appealing. I’ll try anything but so far the one I have never gotten sick of is Propel raspberry lemonade. Plus it’s got what plants crave.

In my pack, I carry a one liter BeFree, a one liter Smartwater bottle for my drink mix beverages, and a two liter Hydrapak Seeker, which is a lightweight soft bottle that accepts the BeFree filter nozzle. Generally while hiking I’ll have the Smartwater bottle for drinking from and sometimes the BeFree fully or partially filled as a backup. When I get to camp I fill the Hydrapak and both other bottles, and then I don’t have to be traipsing back and forth to the water source all night. Whatever’s left in the morning after dinner, breakfast, brushing my teeth, and washing my butt will get filtered into the Smartwater bottle or just dumped before I leave camp.

I’ve used and refined this system for years and it’s pretty much ingrained habit at this point, so I don’t actually spend much time thinking about it beyond considering how far the next water source is, and whether I want to stop and fill up a bottle whenever I step over a stream.

If my filter ever breaks or I lose it or something, I also have a dozen or so chemical treatment tabs. If you’re old school and remember the iodine drops or the chlorine bleach water treatments that left water looking and tasting gross, modern chemical tabs are not like that. They take about a half hour to work but they leave no taste or smell anymore. And if all else fails, I have a metal pot. It’s easy to forget that boiling is a reliable way to make water safe, so in a pinch I can pull out my stove or build a fire and put my pot on it to boil.

Some people just drink water without any treatment out in the woods, which is a good way to contract a giardia infection eventually. I have only done that a small handful of times when the risk is extremely low, such as a large fast-moving snowmelt stream high up on Katahdin, or from a spring that I can see is bubbling up from a deep bed of filtering sand. Generally I just filter everything, because giardia is no joke and it’s not worth the risk.

Ethical Non-Monotony

In a futile attempt at concision, let’s combine a few related questions:

Matt asks: What's your strategy for combating trail monotony? While backpacking Isle Royale a couple years ago, a friend spent an entire day summarizing everything she'd learned in PA school up to that point - hearing all kinds of poop stories really helped the miles fly by. Consider that a tip!

Jackie asks: When hiking (particularly alone) do you ever use headphones and music to reduce boredom, or do you always prefer the sounds of Mother Nature?

And Edith cuts to the chase with: What do you think about when you hike?

Edith’s question is the whole subject of this newsletter, so stay subscribed for the long answer to that one. The short(-er) answer is that when I’m hiking alone, or when I’m hiking with others but feel like being alone for a while, I absolutely do listen to music, podcasts, or audiobooks to pass the time. Generally music if I have a hard climb to do or just feel tired; a good groove can add a half mile per hour or more to my pace. The sounds of Mother Nature are lovely but they can also be boring, and on a steep uphill they’re usually drowned out by my own heavy breathing anyway. Nothing reminds me that I’m tired faster than listening to myself gasp for breath.

If it’s an easier piece of trail I might put on a podcast. I like story-telling podcasts better than interviews or conversations—something like Lore or Dirtbag Diaries, or I used to love the shows Pacific Northwest Stories made. Walking for day after day can be very meditative and sometimes I get to a state where my body handles the hiking on its own and my brain can get fully immersed in a tale. Once near the summit of Whitecap (not to be confused etc.) I got so absorbed in a podcast that I blew past a very obvious trail sign and went a mile and a half beyond my turn. Oops.

When I’m alone and not listening to anything but my own breath, I generally fall into one of three thought patterns: either I start composing an essay about something, I imagine explaining something complex in the greatest possible detail, or I have an imaginary conversation with someone who isn’t there. I think all of these are genuinely therapeutic, and part of the motivation for this newsletter is to force myself to actually write that stuff down rather than letting those ideas evaporate. I don’t think anyone can know if an idea is good without writing it down. Sometimes the best imaginary essays fall apart when I attempt to capture them in words, but sometimes they flow out onto the page like something that already existed on its own terms, something that just wants to use me to write itself into the world. That’s always kind of magical.

My brain is pretty noisy, or “entertaining” if you want to put a positive spin on it, and I don’t generally get bored when I’m alone. If I’m not alone I’m pretty picky about who I want to spend a lot of time with, and one of the reasons I love hiking with Mica is he is a natural bard. He’s always been my secret weapon as a Dad taking kids out to the woods. Mica likes folklore and story telling podcasts too, and he has a huge stock of folktales memorized. He also has enough facility with the structures of oral tradition to embroider something good on the framework of any stories he doesn’t quite have memorized. “Mica, tell us a story!” has gotten me and my family through a lot of hard days.

For example, when Mica was about twelve and my middle son Calvin was just turning ten, I took the two of them kayaking for five or six days on the West Branch of the Penobscot. Near the end of that trip we had to cover fifteen miles down the length of Chesuncook Lake, against a stiff crosswind and steep chop hitting us directly abeam. I am a whole adult with a lot of sea kayaking experience and even for me fifteen miles is a long day, and these were terrible paddling conditions. Mica was in his own kayak and I was paddling a tandem with Calvin, and I was genuinely kind of nervous. We could stay close to shore, which was nice, but once we set off there weren’t any other options but to get all fifteen miles behind us. We did it in three five mile sections, with breaks on shore to eat and rest in between. I think the only thing that got me through the day was Mica paddling along to my starboard, close enough to hear over the wind, and telling us one story after another. The idea that a bard can inspire the whole party to accomplish extraordinary feats is very real.

That day was Calvin’s tenth birthday, and we made it to the tiny island we were camping at that night just in time to see a partial solar eclipse and then surprise Calvin with a homemade birthday brownie that we had carefully packed and protected on the river for four days. He shared a little bit with us, although he didn’t want to, and we sang him the birthday song.

Lightning Round: Gear Notes

Ted asks: You're tracking with the apps, are you carrying a phone that is turned on? I guess that makes sense given the newsletter, but .. is keeping it charged a hassle?

It turns out that the two things that use most of your phone battery are the screen, when it’s on, and the networking radios. If I put my phone on airplane mode and try to be sparing with how often I turn the screen on and look at it, I can do all my GPS tracking and music listening and so forth for close to three days. So there’s more power in there than you’d think if you typically burn through a full phone charge in less than a day scrolling TikTok, like I do in normal life.

But I also have a Garmin inReach, a headlamp, a portable keyboard for writing this newsletter, and some audio recording devices to recharge, so I have an Anker 20k mAh battery bank, and a good fast wall charger. The plan is to keep everything alive from the battery bank, and recharge that when we hit town. I may not really need a whole 20k mAh, and the battery is pretty heavy (again, all my gear is listed in my LighterPack) so if I find it’s not getting below 50% between recharges I may switch to a smaller battery down the trail.

Incidentally I tried the ultralighter’s current favorite battery, the Nightcore NB 10k, and it’s very sleek and light but I don’t think it has more than 6k mAh of actual capacity. I can’t even get two full recharges out of it for my iPhone 13, so I guess that’s why it’s so lightweight. I wasn’t impressed. The Anker I have now is about two ounces heavier, but has way more than the total power capacity, of two of the Nightcores.

Julia asks: You mentioned in passing a few months back that you wouldn't be caught dead in hiking boots and I was like whaaaaaa. Why? I still use them for ankle support bc I've had a lot of rolled/turned/broken ankles in my life. Would welcome further thoughts at some point.

I should clarify:

1. I do own and use boots! I have a slightly older version of these La Sportivas for winter mountaineering, where boots are the only option because they work in a system with crampons and snowshoes and stuff. And I have a pair of Keens that I use for search and rescue work and anything that’s likely to involve off-trail travel, where the ground might be rocks or tree limbs or mud or water or just about anything, and the protection and sturdiness of a boot is required.

2. I have opinions about shoes based on my own experiences, but they are only opinions. I’m not a podiatrist, and I am not your podiatrist. Please consider the following merely as ideas to think about and maybe experiment with, to see how they work for your body. They are absolutely not rules that everyone must follow.

That said, for anything on-trail I vastly prefer trail runners. I am actually kind of a barefoot-style/zero-drop sicko, although those are getting harder to find, and my reason is exactly the same as yours: I tend to roll ankles in some shoes. What I’ve found, via experimentation, is that the lower the underfoot stack height of my shoes the less I tend to roll my ankles. At this point I can hike five or six miles in a new pair of shoes and know whether I’m going to roll my ankles in them or not, because with the wrong shoes it happens almost immediately. I also simply don’t believe that the ankles of virtually any hiking boot are meaningfully capable of giving support to the weight of a human being? There just isn’t enough height or structure to them. They definitely can help protect you from poking sticks and rocks, and they may serve as a kind of reminder to keep yourself stable, the way an Ace bandage or a stretchy knee sleeve does for your knees. But I don’t think they’re actually contributing very much to anyone’s ankle stability.

Besides that, I favor trail runners for the same reasons as most long distance hikers do. They’re very light, they dry much faster than boots, and they allow a better feel for the ground and more precise foot placement, which makes for more efficient walking. I personally like Inov8 shoes, which have the best grip on bad trail surfaces of anything I’ve tried and usually fit me well. But they did stop making the shoe I’ve hiked in for years, and I don’t like the replacement as much so that may change. Common brands out on the trail include Brooks, Altra, Salomon, Saucony, and many more. I can’t recommend a specific one, it really depends on your particular feet, you just have to try different brands and see.

One last thought: whether you wear sneakers or boots, at least don’t get waterproof ones if you’re going to be out for more than one day. Your shoes will get wet and waterproof boots are waterproof in both directions. Once they get wet inside, they stay wet inside for a long time. A lightweight trail runner with mesh uppers can easily dry out over a day of hiking, just from the warmth of your feet.

That’s me in the orange coat. Look, I do wear boots! This is low on the Pamola ice cliffs, below Pamola peak on Mt. Katahdin.

And finally, this isn’t really gear but:

Lindsay asks: What are your trail names?

And the same Matt as above asks: Why do backpackers choose trail names? What are yours and Mica's trail names?

Trail names are honestly something I have never understood that well. They seem kind of dumb, but it’s a longstanding tradition, and when you’re actually on the trail, they’re normal to everyone so it’s kind of whatever. Neither of us have one yet… unless? I’ve hiked a couple sections of the A.T. and spent time with thru-hikers, and haven’t been given a trail name, but it occurred to me that it’s possible they thought “Rusty” was my trail name? Maybe I was just born with a trail name?? Who can say.

This post on The Trek is pretty accurate, and says everything I would have said about trail names and more. I think Mica and I are both unconcerned about it—if trail names find us, cool. If not, I guess we already have them? I’ll let you all know if it happens.

If you sent a question and I didn’t answer it yet, stand by for the second mailbag, coming soon. If you have a question I haven’t answered yet, by all means hit reply and ask.

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