i’m building an ewok village

Our backyard is forested and steep, making it rather difficult to do much. Sure, ziplines are rad but hiking back from the bottom up a scree slope sort of sucks. I’ve been reading up on tree houses for years and I’ve been itching to build something. I have visions in my head of a Taj Mahal type structure, maxing out the 12 feet by 10 feet structure I can build sans permit. A mini Taj Mahal, but still: something really cool.

Unfortunately for me, like most everyone else I suck at the first time I do anything. So rather than invest a ton of money into gluelams and relying on experience I don’t have I decided to start with something a little easier.

“Easier” in my case means a 6×8 platform between two trees. I started a few days ago and man oh man I have learned a lot. Much of this advice will be eye rolling for experienced construction people, so feel free to x out of this tab.

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Building the platform on the ground. 

I started with pressure treated wood and learned my first lesson: don’t expect the lumber yard to magically have all of the supplies you need. Especially if you’re planning on weird stuff, you should secure your wood weeks in advance to make sure you have it and if you don’t you can order it. Ditto for fasteners, plan that out in advance if you can.

Build your platform on the ground. The downside of building on the ground is that you need to haul it up and the more you build the heavier it is and the harder it will be to manipulate it in the air. But trying to make a level and square cut while floating in free space between trees is impossible. I did the joist installs in the air and holy crap: that’s tough. It took nearly an hour to do one. If I had done the measurements at least on the ground it would have sped things up quickly.

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My buddy guiding the platform up, a redirect on that blue carabiner, and my truck out of frame to the left doing the pull. 

Most treehouses that you see aren’t actually “tree” houses. Looking around, it’s actually pretty rare to see a structure that is entirely or even somewhat supported by a living tree. More often than not it’s just a small structure on pillars and beams, a few feet up, maybe next to a tree. Actually building in trees is harder, requires specialized tools, and is more dangerous. I’ve been through weeks of formal rescue rigging training. Raising, lowering, ascending, descending, rescuing a second, rescuing a leader, rescuing a top roper, pickoffs, and mechanical advantage: I’ve used half of those for building my tree house and I still required the skills from an arborist friend.

I’m building this first platform ~10 feet off the ground which is plenty high enough to fall down and break bones including your neck. The safety requirements get really high because a simple slip can kill. Even just getting tools back and forth from the ground or raising up lumber becomes an engineering challenge.

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Platform in place, various ropes and rigging dangling about. The bottom is about 10 feet off the ground at the shortest distance.

We used proper tree attachment bolts, but I should have used ones with a longer perch and built the platform a few inches narrower: there’s that learning thing. Even with that, I have one more on order and will be making cables to grab the far corners for extra support.

Trees are dynamic and it can be hard to do all the physics in your head as to what the movement will be once you really get your platform installed. Once I got my platform installed, I started walking around it, roped in. Pretty quickly I identified places where I need more support and how good my install job was (and wasn’t).

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First floor joist installed. 

The next phase I’m looking forward to is getting out of rope access work and having the rope merely as a safety backup. By tacking some spare lumber across the platform I’ll be able to rest my weight on those pieces and not Tarzan around the whole time.

Likewise I’ll be putting up a cargo net that drapes at a ~60 degree angle, pegged to the ground, so I can get up the tree by climbing rather than jumaring. The cautionary note with that is once I can make it easy to get up it will then be easy for neighborhood kids to get up which means I’ll need to take the net up with me when I go and rap down.

The big question mark is whether I’ll be able to get a snow-shedding roof on before winter. If I can, that’s cool. If I can’t, I have to keep the decking off so it doesn’t snow load. I’ll try to keep updating.

thoughts on one year of climbing

2018 was my second year on my search and rescue team. It was rewarding and in some areas I feel that I did the job well, but there was one area in particular I knew I was weak: climbing.

I was fortunate enough to attend the Rigging for Rescue basic course, an intensive one week field seminar where we spent a lot of time dangling by ropes, near cliff edges, and other things that would make any normal person a little …. excited. But in the course I saw that, by a country mile, I was the weakest of climbers in that course.

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2018 Rigging for Rescue training. I was probably pretty sketched out in this photo.

Then in September of 2018 I ended up going over the edge of Mt Dana’s Third Pillar (mountain project info).  My discomfort with exposure was showing as was my general lack of familiarity with rope systems. You’re good at things you do, and not at things you don’t. I didn’t climb, and it showed. So, I started climbing.

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My first time really climbing. 2018, top roped. My teammate took me up a route named after our team, which is pretty dope.

Then the winter set in which shuts down the climbing opportunities around me. Through my work I managed to find a few climbing gyms when traveling, and I stayed in Reno at a hotel that has a pretty cool outdoor wall with autobelays. There’s a rather savage indoor bouldering area in Mammoth’s industrial center that I would go into mid winter, freezing my ass off, but I made progress.

I dropped regular gym life. For those of you who know me, imagine the pain I felt walking away from barbells. I opted for more climbing and alpinist training:

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Indoor climbing (in my limited experience) seems to help make you stronger but there are skills that you just can’t really develop unless you’re on real rock.  But you can often climb alone indoors, it doesn’t snow indoors, and there’s a nice sound system.

Climbing is normally broken into three distinct components:

  1. Your fitness. This matters, but not as much as you’d think. But like most of life things will be easier the leaner and stronger you are.
  2. Your skills. These take time to develop and the types of things you climb on will require their own skills. It’s different to go up polished granite than it is to climb under an overhanging roof.
  3. Your head. It can be extremely challenging to be hundreds or thousands of feet in the air and to step from a good location towards a really sketchy and thin rock abrasion and then to keep moving towards even less positive holds.

The head-game one, unless you’re Alex Honnold with a non-functioning amygdala, is a battle you will fight non-stop. But I’ve appreciated the carryover to other aspects of my life. In Rock Warrior’s Way (a book I highly recommend) much attention is given to the very subject of attention and intention. If you can tune out your brain screaming at you that you’re going to die and instead focus and execute the placement of your foot on a pencil eraser sized rock poking out of an otherwise glass-smooth rock face as hundreds of feet of air sit under you, you’ll notice your ability to focus on a lot of other things approves as well.

I’ve actually noticed it with a lot of climbers: they can be spooky focused and attentive. In a world of multitasking, constant phone alerts, and 24 hour news, climbing is about keeping your head extremely clear of things that don’t help you and putting all of your mental capacity towards a limited set of items, sometimes just one very little thing.

This year, I’m again fortunate enough to participate in Rigging for Rescue, this time the higher up small-teams course. We’ll be going to a multipitch route somewhere in the Eastern Sierra and I’m really looking forward to it.

If you’re older (like me, past 40 I get to say that now) climbing is nice because most of the classic and super-fun stuff is not that technically difficult. There are plenty of extremely difficult climbs but maybe 3/4 of the routes that people drool about doing are fairly achievable (and safe) for a first or second year climber.

And as a forewarning, because climbing equipment is a life-safety issue feelings tend to run very strong. Also, a lot of climbers are weird. Don’t be put off by such things, I find the weird anti-social guy just as off putting as you do. There are some nice people who’d be happy to literally and figuratively show you the ropes. Your first time crag climbing start off top roping with a good belayer: you’re not going anywhere. If you “fall” you’ll go down 6 inches or so, the rope giving you a nice cushy stretch.

And lastly, wear comfortable shoes if you buy or rent some. Climbing shoes don’t stretch that much in general, especially if you’re not climbing that often. If you are climbing a lot, you’ll end up with multiple pairs anyway and having a comfy pair of go-tos will not be wasted money. I have a pair of La Sportiva Mythos that I could nearly wear as house slippers.  As much as tight shoes are important, shoes that hurt your feet make climbing suck really bad. You have plenty to focus on without needing to add in foot pain.

death, again

Last year I wrote about my first patients I couldn’t save. It’s come back again this year.

There are older people who have lived content lives and are happy, who pass away in their sleep. Or at least that’s what I’ve seen in the movies.

What I see is typically younger people in agonizing pain, perhaps only made better because they’re so brain damaged from trauma that they can’t feel anything anymore (depending on your definition of “feel”). Blood and csf leaking out of their ears. Bones shattered like a dry stick thrown against a boulder. Body parts twisted in perverse ways constricting the blood and nerves.

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Sometimes we can save people from the precipice and I have to tell you: it’s a pretty great feeling. Knowing that my team was the thing that changed the arc of events, that we kicked the grim reaper in the nuts, is a roller coaster of emotion but one that leaves you ultimately satisfied. Traumatized, sure. But satisfied.

But sometimes we can’t save people. Sometimes we have to shut down bleeds with our hands. We need to breathe for people for hours. We need to push down on their chest, manually activated the valve structures in the heart to push oxygen rich blood into their brain. We need to extricate our fellow humans from dangerous things and with steady hands pull them from the edge. But that despite all of that, they’re going to die very shortly. We have to hug them knowing that we, some random schmoe, is the last person they will see and the last voice they’ll ever hear.

It’s always particularly terrible to me that I know someone died before their family does. Somewhere there is a living room with people going about their lives unaware that a process has been put in motion to identify them as next of kin and give them a phone call that will alter their lives forever.

When I’m with a dying person in a lonely place I wonder if their family and friends are ready for that. Unfilled promises, dreams left open, and words never spoken. Disagreements and ego that seem so important until dwarfed by our own mortality.

There are people who study death and dying with substantially more insight than myself. Hell, there are people who don’t study these subjects who still have more value than me to share. The way you view it, and your experiences with death, will be different from mine. If my advice is worth anything to you, I only ask of you this simple thing. Every day (as best you can) show your friends and family that you love them.

Dying on an austere mountain side rips away all pretence and posturing. The indifference of our world and the limits of our own mortality are laid bare, connected to each other. It is in this exposed and raw moment that we can look at the love in our life and the hopeful futures of others we cherish. Our time has come to a close, and others now continue. Your connection to those others and their connections to you will be the last things thought in your mind.

I think it’s fair and somewhat expected to not achieve everything we want in our lives. Not everyone can be an astronaut, etc. But it is entirely in our power to genuinely care for others and to make sure they know we do.

lessons from the camp fire in butte county

I was on a large search a couple of weeks ago, and in the time spent wandering around the woods I had some time to think about solid ways to be found in if you’re lost or injured.

I spent 72 hours doing body search and recovery up in the Camp Fire‘s wake, and had some similar time to think about fires ripping through a town. What I would do when I got home, what I would do if a fire was coming close, and what things would look like afterwards.

campfire

To date there are 631 people missing in the Camp Fire. Our task was to search homes and vehicles for bones and bodies.

Fast Moving Fires are Faster Than You Think

What I didn’t understand about fast moving fires is that they move really fast. Not only towards your home, but also towards the road you were planning on using to evacuate. That road is also cluttered with vehicles. So are the dirt roads you’re imagining you can take to get around those other clogged roads. If thousands of people need to flee and there are 4 roads to get out on, a lot of people won’t get out in time.

With the right combination of distance, fuel, and weather, a fire 10 miles distant can be on your doorstep in a matter of hours. Like the fire could start 10 miles away while you’re buying popcorn at a movie theatre and burn your house to the ground before the credits roll.

And that assumes you were awake. If the fire is a lightning strike at night, it can move quickly before anyone spots it. Maybe you’ll have twenty minutes, maybe, if you wake up to the sounds of police PA systems announcing evacuations.

We’re Conditioned to Wait and See

Especially if you live in California, you’re used to fires burning somewhere in the distance and kicking up smoke. You know people who’ve lost homes but chances are that you’ve been fine, even when fires were a few miles away. The Lions Fire started burning about 10 miles from my house, and churned away for months. The Lost Fire showed up later in the year, also about 10 miles away, and likewise stayed put.

So my (and probably your) experience with fires is that they kick up smoke but you can live relatively close to them without much actual damage. We wait and see, which generally works, right up until it doesn’t. Once the fire is close enough to be dangerous, there’s simply too many people that need to leave. The fire doesn’t care about the traffic jam, it’s coming regardless.

Everything In Your Home Will Be Incinerated or Vaporized

We found metal socket wrenches welded together. Cast iron pans melted (requires over 2000f temperature). Cars drooping because their frames melted. Some of the 631 missing will never be found, completely consumed by the intense heat.

For the most part, homes were either entirely fine or entirely destroyed, and destroyed buildings make up more than 90% of the town of Paradise. We often needed to use Google Street View printouts to see that a house was actually in the lot we’re looking at because now it was a 6 inch high pile of ash. The terms other searchers used were “zeroed”, “wiped out”, “vaporized”, “war zone”, “obliterated”, and “nuked”.

Safes were melted, all metal was melted, all ceramic and glass melted or shattered. Plastics, cloth, and wood were entirely absent from the scene, entirely vaporized.

paradise-cars

The shiny stuff is the aluminum from the radiator which melted and leaked like water. Note the power lines in the background, draped on a vehicle.

Defensible Space Is Not a Panacea But It Works

Some of the intact homes had burn marks from wooden fences that abutted the home, or perhaps a dead-ish bush. Things that could readily catch fire and with direct connection to the home worked like kindling to ignite the siding, deck, or roof rafters.

One thing I didn’t personally see was an intact home that had a lot of plant debris littered about in the yards. Even if the home was metal, with the heat of a burning tree or bush a few feet away, it will radiate enough heat into the metal to ignite the walls and interior.

That said, I’m sure plenty of homes with defensible space went up as well. Just because you clear around your house doesn’t mean you’re safe, but it is the law in California and seems to increase your chances.

Make a List Right Now of What To Evacuate With

Start a spreadsheet and tape it to the inside of a couple of doors. Put on there things that you can throw into a couple of backpacks. Some items from our list that might be on yours:

  • Passports, cards, cash.
  • Laptop, phone, charging cables.
  • Firearms.
  • Underwear, socks, two pairs of clothes.
  • Empty all medicine cabinets and medication areas into a bag, bring the bag.
  • Keepsakes / jewelry that fit into a shoebox.
  • Handheld 2m radios, with chargers.
  • Both cars.

It’s not hard to grab these items; you could fill two backpacks inside of five minutes provided you have made the list earlier so you’re not having to think. Thinking capacity will be in short supply, do your prepwork now.

Realize again that if your home burns everything left inside will be incinerated. When you’re sitting there on the couch relaxing, now is the time to make the list.

Make a List Right Now of Evacuation Instructions

In addition to things to-take there are things you may want to do before you go. Again, here are some things on our list that may be on yours:

  • Put propane, gas, and other containers far away from anything that can burn. The far edge of your driveway, the middle of a large parking lot, etc.
  • Turn off the gas to your home. You know how, right?
  • Run a garden hose (not on) from the spigot to the driveway (firefighters can potentially use it).
  • Turn on all lights.
  • Shut all windows and doors, leaving them unlocked.
  • Move flammable items away from windows and doors.
  • Fill water buckets and leave them in the driveway (again, a firefighter or otherwise do-gooder might be able to knock down a small fire).
  • Put one 2m handheld radio in one car, the other in the other car.

Fill Out and Carry FEMA Family Emergency Communication Plan Cards

For more than fires, these allow you to do two core things now, while you have time:

  • Plan where you’d meet up with family members. First, second, third, and fourth options.
  • Have all contact information for your family members and necessary services written down.

You can get these over on FEMA’s site. If you think it’s a pain to figure this information out now, imagine what it’s going to be like in the few minutes you have before an evacuation. Worse, imagine trying to guess at family members’ decisions as an emergency is unfolding and you’re separated from each other.

Update Your Insurance

After the people get home to the utter and complete devastation of their physical possessions they will immediately be faced with the question of “what happens now?” Much will depend on your insurance. In particular this means:

  • If you’re going to rent an apartment or hotel in the short term, who’s paying for that? If you’re a homeowner, you’ll still be paying the mortgage on your incinerated home.
  • Does the rebuilding cost actually reflect how much you’re insuring for?
  • Have you inventoried your items? This can be a full blown app, or you just walking through your home with your phone on video, commenting on the make/model of everything that you see. Doing the app version takes more time, but it does offer the benefit of quantifying the cost of your possessions which you’re just otherwise guessing on.

None of the insurance items will take that long to complete but can be the difference between a big problem (losing everything with good insurance) versus one that you’ll never financially recover from (everything just gone).

Say it Out Loud: I Might Lose My Home and Possessions in a Fire

Death is something we intellectually know will happen to us and day by day we get a little closer to that magic day, hour, and minute when it’s our turn. But a lot of things that we could do to plan better (a will, a trust, advanced healthcare directives, etc) get punted I believe because no one wants to entertain the reality. And death is something that absolutely will happen to you.

You probably won’t lose your home and possessions in a fire, but you might. And accepting that reality, along with the few-hours of work necessary to safeguard yourself, is something that I guarantee a lot of residents of Paradise, Ca would advise.

before and if you get lost in the woods

Earlier this morning I overheard that a missing hiker we’re looking for has been found deceased. Unrelated, there’s an additional missing person we’ve spent a lot of time looking for. I got to thinking a bit about the major things that can really help if you end up in trouble, mainly from a perspective of a guy like me finding you.

searchingbrad

Me, out looking for someone, fall of 2018.

This isn’t a list a of survival items, although some things can serve a few purposes. This is the internal musings in my head and the collective wisdom of other rescuers I’ve spoken with in the many, many hours we spent looking. Often we say “you know what would make this guy a lot easier to find ….”

Cell Phone Coverage (or) A Spot/ InReach

If you have cell phone coverage or carry a Spot or InReach device, you can not only signal out but (provided sar teams know you have it) we can generally activate it from our side and get your position. Even without that, simply being able to track your device in your direction of travel can be huge. I personally use an InReach and our SAR field teams use them as well.

Someone Who Knows Where You Were Going

Be as specific as you can be. If you’re going to make choices in the field, tell them that. Whatever’s in your head, we want to know so we can try to imagine what you’re up to. Are you going to get to some particular thing come hell or high water, or do you have a backup plan? Just give us something to work with so we can tighten up our search areas and not just look at a huge forest and guess.

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Dead center is a teammate conducting a search. At barely 100 feet, in bright red with reflective stripes in mid day, he’s still not that easy to see. “Earth tones”, laying down, you look like a lump of dirt.

A mylar “space blanket”

These things are dirt cheap and somewhat useless at keeping you warm in truly cold conditions, but they have four excellent characteristics.

  1. They are noisy as hell. Secure one under some rocks and let a chunk of it blow in the breeze. The crinkle sound is distinct to other forest sounds.
  2. They are sort-of-shiny and visible to the naked eye. They stand out like a sore thumb in the sea of brown and green that is nature.
  3. Predator drones flying overhead can spot them fairly easily. Really.
  4. With half pinned to the ground with a rock with a good view overhead it makes a great eye-catcher for folks looking from the air and for ground teams crossing your area.

Whistle

Newer backpacks have crummy-but-okay whistles built into the sternum straps. Personally I carry (and put in my kid’s pack) a Fox 40 which is cheap (~$7), small, and truly loud enough to cause hearing damage so cover your ears when you blow it.

Someone who knows your shoe model and size

When you walk around, you change things. Some durable surfaces like asphalt might not take a print, but if you walk onto one from the dirt you might leave a dirt print on the roadway. When you hop across that creek and land on the soft material on the far side, chances are you’ve left a pretty decent print. But none of that matters if we don’t know what you’re wearing.

print

If you’re lost and I find this print, how do I know it’s yours? Give me a make/model/size and I can track you across a forest. Without that,  in a trafficked area your prints are in the noise of everyone else’s.

Non earth colored tones

My team was getting briefed the other day for a missing hiker. The guy giving the info out says “… subject is wearing olive pants, and gray shirt, and a dark green pack…. “. That’s perfect if you want to go into combat, but a searcher would basically have to walk right over  you to see you. Drop a shadow over you or some foliage and you blend in like a rock. Wear something with some color in it, a color that stands out in a shocking way. I have a light blue shirt, a bright orange CamelBack, and a bright orange beanie. My snow jacket has little neon highlights. My backcountry backpack has blue and green contrasting colors.

Try to wear something that contrasts against itself. Nature has a few bright colors but it doesn’t usually have sharp lines of bright colors contrasting against other colors.

flyboys

You don’t have to dress like this, but take a page from the book. Bright contrasting patterns really stand out.

Fire starting equipment

This doesn’t need to be much. Survivalist gear is neat but I’d trust a mini bic lighter and little fire starters all day long, wrapped in a zip lock. Yes, fires keep you warm, but they also smell. The smoke is visible from a long way off and if a chopper with a FLIR is looking for you it’s like trying to find the sun in the sky mid-day: not challenging.

Use a knife, or a sharp piece of granite if you’re really unfortunate, to scrape kindling from bigger pieces of wood.

Final Thoughts

None of this stuff (except the satellite beacons) is expensive. You could fit all of it in your hand and squeeze, and gear wise you’re out $20. So as a reminder:

  1. Text someone your plans when you go out, along with a picture of the bottom of your shoe with the make/model/size. If you’ve texted/emailed them the shoe stuff already, just stick with the plans.
  2. Bring a whistle, fire starting gear, and a space blanket.
  3. Satellite beacons are really handy not just for you but for other people in trouble you may come across.
  4. Wear something bright. You don’t need to look like a neon sign, but don’t do a great job of blending in, either.

it’s a long way down

“Down slow!” came out of my my mouth and I stepped backwards into the void with 800 feet of air underneath me. Since joining Mono SAR, I’d heard stories about Dana’s Third Pillar. It’s the name tossed around for one teammate to scare another.  The tallest climb in our county, it’s in rarified air as having exceedingly high consequences, requiring solid technical skills, and hosting weather that can change in minutes.

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That huge scary ass thing is Mt Dana’s Third Pillar.

Three hours before that, my phone rang. An automated voice recording came on going something like this:

Team, we have a callout. Report of an injured person on Third Pillar Dana. Please bring technical gear and Rescue 3. We’ll be staging at the airport for helicopter insertion.

In 21 minutes I went from sitting on my couch to being in a Ford F350 loaded with teammates and gear, barreling up the 395. Readiness and response times are critical: people call us when they’re hurt or otherwise in trouble. Getting the job done right means getting it done fast.

“Technical gear” means all the stuff for rigging. With it you should be able to lower someone, raise someone, lower yourself on a rope, ascend a rope, and create anchors. Not shown is 50′ of 8mm and 30′ of 6mm rope.

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My base technical equipment, aka my “RFR kit”, named after the Rigging for Rescue curriculum that we base our practices on.

We got to the airport and went through our briefing. How many people, who was hurt, the nature of the injuries, stuff like that. For these I always have a pencil and a pad handy because random tidbits of data fly out that you allow you to assemble a narrative, be it medical or perhaps trying to put yourself in a lost person’s mind. If they’re lost, what do we know about them and what are they inclined to do and not do?

If it’s medical, when did they get hurt? Did they report something on a 911 call that two hours later they don’t remember saying, perhaps indicating ACR or a more serious TBI? Stupid little things aren’t so stupid, and I’m not smarter than my pad and pencil so I write everything down.

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My team leader ahead, we’re on Dana Plateau headed to the summit of Third Pillar.

We decided we could beat the chopper if we headed in on foot so we packed up and drove to the trailhead. The folks on my team move fast. No matter how fast you’ve ever seen me move, I have to use everything I’ve got to keep up with a few folks in particular. They kick my ass on the way up and can standing glissade on the way down.

3rdpillar

Me, going down. Someone was hurt about a 100′ below me. The boulders and snow are about 800′ down.

I balked at the idea of being litter attendant, which is the job shown above. You go over the edge, find the person, treat their injuries, attach them to our rescue system, and guide the whole thing back up again. I’m well trained on all of that, but the “going over the edge” for lack of a better term is just scary as hell.

On the walk up though I did the math. I had the most medical training, held the highest license, and had the most patient time. I had gone through five days of professional rescue rigging taught by the best of the best barely two months before. I practice this stuff. Two days before when camping with the kids we rigged a mechanical advantage system to pull a snag widowmaker down.

I stepped through every component of the rigging systems in my mind. What they should and would look like. I knew the people who’d be running them, and I have and would again trust them with my life.

I re-volunteered for attendant. I had a teammate who’ve I’ve done a lot with double check me. I double checked him. We do it in silence because solid systems setup correctly don’t need explanations.

The screaming in my head before I went over the edge was loud: neurons were ganging up like angry peasants with pitchforks and torches. Fortunately, all I had to eek out was, “Down slow” and my team lowered me where my own nerves probably wouldn’t. Once over the edge it was game time.

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My team on top of 3rd pillar, I’m over the edge coming up. Mono Lake and the 395 in the distance.

I’ve told my daughters that when things get hard you need to listen to that part of you that won’t quit, and tell all the other parts to shut up. The original line was “…the patient is the one with the disease…”.  In emergency medicine, you can say “The patient is the one with the emergency.” At that moment there’s someone hurt that needs help, I get to have my emergency later.

I stopped by Vons at midnight after I got back, bought a pack of frozen yogurt popsicles, drove home, and hopped back on my couch and ate the whole box. My PS4 game was still waiting for me where I left off.

electricity and plumbing for car camping

I’m a big fan of making lists in the middle of some endeavor rather than afterwards. On a mountain, when traveling, or when otherwise outside your normal day-to-day your priorities change. It’s important that in the middle of that new world you jot down the things you care about because upon returning to your normal grind you can start to forget the realities that you just experienced.

Marketing and consumer culture in general has made most of us fall victim to buying things with the anticipation that we’ll use it one day, only for it to collect dust. Unless you’re going to die from it I’d recommend starting simple and then complicate further based on what you’ve proven to be necassary.

In no particular order, here are the things that I’ve wanted to improve when car camping with my family.

My Redneck Sink

sink

Shade tree mechanic work, right there.

All of my pans are cast iron which never see water let alone soap. But I also got tired of paper plates and plastic cutlery, so now everything is reusable and needs to be washed. Coming from boat land, I used foot pumps which keep your hands free and sparingly uses the very limited fresh water on most vessels.

I now have a place to wash dishes, wash hands, wash faces, and spit toothpaste. When half-full (or as full as you want to carry), I take the faucet off and walk the bucket somewhere to dispose of the contents (typically at the edge of the campsite somewhere).

To construct this epitome of modern engineering, I used:

  • Enough stuff from the hardware store to make a “faucet”. A 5/8″ barb to 1/2″ NPT, then 1/2″ pipe from there. Cost: $11.
  • A piece of scrap wood to ziptie the faucet to with a slot in it to hang over the edge of the bucket. A second small scrap of wood to jam in there to make it more secure. Cost: $0.
  • A big bulb pump with 5/8″ hose. There are better foot pumps out there that cost 3x the amount, and maybe I’ll do something like that one day. In the meantime this is fine. Cost: $30.
  • A bucket: $0.
  • 5 gallon water jug. You can also use another bucket, but for camping it’s handy to have the ability to store water if you’re going somewhere dry. Cost $15.

In total it’s about $55 worth of gear, although only $40 if you have your own water jug already.

Electricity

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85 watt flexible/foldable panel charging a battery/inverter.

 

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That speaker is loud, but if you look carefully the volume is set almost to zero. I am *not* that annoying guy blasting tunes from the neighboring campsite. 

There are electronics that have made my car camping life demonstrably better, and they probably will make your life better too. I have a bluetooth speaker that cannot be heard at other campsites but is just loud enough for us to hear in our cooking / eating / card-games tent.

My oldest daughter has a Kindle and on one trip she showed up with it near dead. Once on a trip when the kids are good I like to hang out in the tent with them and watch a movie on our iPad. My own cell phone is playing music, getting used for photos, and suffering from high power consumption from the low signal strength.

  • Roughly 1.5 times the size of a child’s lunchbox, the yellow box is basically a battery with an inverter. It can accept a charge via solar, AC outlet, or vehicle 12 volt. It can provide power to AC devices via three outlets and has USB outlets for four devices. It’s got a display to show its battery capacity and has a lamp for no particularly valuable reason.
  • A 70 watt panel is big enough to put some charge into the battery but small enough that you don’t need to deal with a charge controller for most uses. It’s also light, easy to fold flat and get into the truck, and has little pop out legs so it sits happily at a 30 degree angle.

Dutch Oven Dome

I’ve eaten enough freeze dried food to raise the stock prices of mountaineering food vendors internationally. I have a dehydrator and make own backpacking meals. On SAR calls I just eat gross Cliff bars and deal.

But cooking when camping is something I’ve started to focus on which means I need tools that don’t suck.

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Blueberry breakfast cake, baked in my Dutch oven on a grill, with the dome.

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There’s a Dutch oven in the dome there.

One of my favorite camping recipe books for Dutch oven cooking uses the charcoal technique. I’m supposed to bring charcoal, light them, and then carefully place x amount below the oven and y amount on top, and ensure that I replace them as they burn out.

Nope.

My incredibly awesome stove is where things get cooked, minus some stick-over-fire nonsense primarily for the kids. Depending on the recipe, you may not actually need to bake in a Dutch oven (think stews, chilis, etc). In those cases just toss the thing on the burner and cook away.

But if (a) you need equal heat distribution all around (ie: baking) and (b) don’t want to use charcoal, the Dutch oven needs a dome and heat diffuser.

Shower

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Shower enclosure, orange rope hanging in holding the shower bag, and rubber mat to keep some of the dirt off you.

I’ve backpacked for days without cleaning myself. I’ve washed myself in Alpine creeks. I’ve used wet wipes on the critical parts and tried to call it good. I’m not a fan of trying to be as squeaky clean while camping as I might be at home.

But a day spent sweating, kicking up dust, and being covered in bug/sun lotions will leave you gross at the end. Two or three days and you’re totally disgusting. Worse, you’re taking all that filth into your sleeping bag and shortening its life. If it’s just some piece of crap then no big deal but I happen to like my 700 fill down bag and want to keep it clean. I have a liner for it, but I also just try to be non-disgusting when possible.

Sailors are fond of the black bug sprayer models, and if you’re stationary with trees abound the gravity fed bags are pretty cool. You can spend hundreds of dollars for a rack mounted version, and even more if you want a base camp version capable of near continuous use and bulk propane tanks.

Whichever you pick, consider the drawbacks. Gravity fed solar bags are the cheapest and simplest, but you must provide the gravity. 40 pounds of water (5 gallons) is no joke to haul into a tree, or to build some type of bracket for a roof cargo basket. The electrical/propane versions are great but create more expense, weight, and potential failure points.

Whichever you pick, get an enclosure (or build one from tarps/vehicles). It’s not just about privacy and modesty: even a relatively warm day will feel like the North Pole if you try to shower in all but the calmest of wind.

postpile

The result: two washed kids with a belly full of blueberry breakfast cake. Devil’s Postpile.