STUTHETRAVELER

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Stuart Peck is a freelance writer and video producer who specializes in outdoor, travel, corporate and commercial messaging and branding.  He has written for national magazines, video copy for healthcare and other corporate videos.  He also provides production support for commercials and TV shows.  

Fall Travel Series Part 2: The road less traveled

There are a lot of cool places to see nature without seeing the crowds.  Ditch the glossy maps and dig around on the internet for those hidden treasures you'll be bragging about to your family during the holidays.

In September I started a three-part series diving into traveling this fall.  Part 1 took a look at what not to pack when planning that big trip... or that weekend getaway.  This month I want to dive into where you should go.  So that's a pretty broad subject.  Where should you go this Fall?  Like you, many MANY people are taking to the road and getting out of town now that leaves are changing and temperatures are dropping.  This is arguably the premiere time of year to head to national parks and popular leaf peeping destinations.  I live in Indiana... we have a little state park called Brown County State Park (which sits... surprise surprise in Brown County).  I wouldn't touch that park with a 10 foot pole duct taped to a 20 foot pole.  It's swarming with people stopping to peep at orange, red and yellow leaves and buying woodcarvings of Elvis and flapjacks (translation: pancakes).  If you don't find being hussled to purchase chainsaw carvings or two pounds of rocky road fudge by Jim Bob and his brothers Joe, John Boy and Sheldon relaxing what is one to do?  Easy, take the road less traveled... literally and figuratively.   

Recently during the government shutdown (don't get me started) I shook my head just a little at stories of people sneaking into national parks to hike.  I know some of it was out of defiance for the man but there were sob stories of people whose vacations were ruined by the shutdown.  There are cases that were a major bummer.  Not being able to raft through the Grand Canyon stinks, or missing out on a once in lifetime trip to climb El Cap is a major downer but if your plans consisted of going to these places to hike and see the leaves... you have other options.    

Nature Preserves: Many states have a whole slew of small, often times not advertised nature preserves.  These areas exist for the purpose of... well... preserving natural habitats.  They also make awesome day trips and come without the hoards.   

 Long Trails: Many of us have heard of the Appalachian Trail but have you heard of the Benton-Mackaye Trail, Knobstone Trail or the Foothills Trail?  There's a long Long Trails list (find it here: Long Trails courtesy of Wikipedia) and many of them have great views and even great isolation.  Lets face it.  People want to enjoy nature from the comfort of their automobile or the hot tub on the deck of their cabin... hike a few miles on one of the trails and you're bound to leave all the light weights behind.  

National Forests: I've talked about visiting these areas before.  I'm a huge proponent of national forests.  Usually they're close to identical to their national park counterpart right next door and have an intricate network of trails and camping facilities without the hoopla of the more popular and overcrowded national parks.  This isn't always a give me as people are catching onto these areas or in some cases a national forest counterpart to the park doesn't exist.  Still most states have a plethora of public land and opportunities to get out and stop and admire the changing seasons.  This is a great map that shows many of the national forests and grasslands.  

I know this post doesn't really get into other activities besides those of the outdoor genre but really the same concept holds true.  Do things that will avoid standing in line and upping the stress level.  Plan less and make sites and stops more spontaneous. Think like a tourist and act like a local.     

Fall Travel Series Part 1: What not to pack.

The less you pack the less you have to drag through security and lug through an airport.  Less really can be better.

Death, that’s the way you can sum up this time of year.  Leaves are dying, the nights are getting colder, shadows make the woods look spooky and all that is pretty much why this is an awesome time of year to get outdoors and take a trip!  There are a dozen and one blogs out there about what to pack when planning your next adventure but it’s also important to leave a few things at home.

Limit your clothes: Obviously you don’t need to pack eight t-shirts for a five day trip.  I know sometimes picking out the right shirt can be a game-time decision but use some discretion when choosing your threads.  Even better, get clothes that’ll go the distance and can be worn over and over again further cutting down on your need to pack extra clothes.  I have three t-shirts that pretty much could carry me on a weeklong trek. If you've read my reviews, you've heard me preach wool. It'll take up less space in your bag and get you further, dry quicker and won’t start to stink after one or two wears.  Check out brands like Exofficio for awesome travel clothes and Ibex for some hip yet versatile shirts that’ll keep you going without needing to stop and change.  

Shoes: Just like clothes limit your shoe intake to a minimum.  As your activities start to get more diverse… so does your shoe collection on a trip.  This sounds kind of feminine but guys can be just as big a culprit as their female companions.  Go for a pair of hiking shoes, like the Merrell Moab Ventilator which are great for the trail or the town. My one exception to the one pair rule is a comfy pair of sandals.  Go for something like the Sanuk Fraid So which come in real handy if you’re getting a lot of windshield time on a road trip or when you’re staying at a hostel or roadside campground.    

Technology:  Make a choice.  Do you really need a laptop, tablet, mobile phone, ipod, camera and that fancy PSWhatever game console?  Don’t even think about cramming $2,000 worth of tech into your carry on or checked bag.  First, you’re a walking Radio Shack and are just asking to get something lifted from you.  Second, when are you honestly going to use all those devices?   For most their phone is an obvious must.  Of course that doubles as your camera and your music, probably means you don’t need your tablet and really, are you going to bust out your laptop while on vacation? Chances are you won’t need any of your gizmos outside your phone.  I’ve taken many trips where I brought my laptop, phone, multiple cameras and ipod… not using any of them save my phone.  Save your weight and your homeowners or renters insurance policy and leave the expensive toys at home.

This image was shot on my phone.  Time of day, location and composition make a picture wall worthy... not carrying 10 pounds of pro gear.  

The pro camera: I touched on this one above but trust me… you won’t use your DSLR as much as you think you will.  Take it from a guy who used to hike and travel with his Canon 40D and 20mm, 50mm, and 70-200mm lenses.  I snapped a hand full of photos with that camera before realizing that my Canon point and shoot worked just as well and wasn’t as much of a hassle to take out and put together for one shot.  I don’t consider myself to be a professional photographer but I like great photography.  I can get results without needing to pack the big guns. Try the Canon Powershot G1 X or if you’re a Nikon fan the Cool Pix line is a versatile option for whatever expedition you’re going on.  

I’ve learned about what not to pack the hard way.  Overstuffed bags, unneeded items and wasted space all can weigh you down and be a nuisance on your trip.  Be smart and be simple.  Test yourself this way... if you were told you were leaving for another country in 30 minutes and you had five minutes to pack what would your essentials be? Chances are that's probably all you need.    

What do you think should be on this list?  I know there are a lot of other things that can stay at home like a brick, three cans of baked beans, your socket wrench set...  I want to hear from you!  

 

4 Outdoor apps worth downloading

1. All Trails: Looking for a good weekend day hike or a 5-day backpacking trip in the mountains, this app provides a nice library of trails right in your pocket.  A five star system rates the quality of the hike as rated by other users and there's even a place to leave feedback about the trail to help the next person planning their trip.  This app doesn't just focus on the hiking crowd it also has destinations for rock climbers, mountain bikers and other outdoor enthusiasts.    

Pros: Easy to use, full of great destinations.  Map is an excellent feature. 
Cons: Needs more user feedback and more detail in the description of some areas.

Cost: Free

Website: www.alltrails.com 

 

2. Mountain Project: Like All Trails but with the emphasis on climbing, this app lists destinations all over the world for sport, trad, and ice climbing as well as mountaineering.  This app works in conjunction with mountainproject.com and allows for users to take beta with them on the go, downloading route lists and maps to take to the crag!  Some of the more popular routes and destinations are accompanied with photos and lots of user feedback about the climbs.    

Pros: Very well organized and the popular climbing areas have lots of beta and comments from other climbers. 
Cons: Sometimes the app has issues loading larger data sets.

Cost: $7.99

Website: www.mountainproject.com 

3. Yonder: This app is a new player in the outdoor tech game but definitely has the potential to hit a home run with it's user interface and functionality.  A cross between Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare this hybrid allows users to upload photos and post on their own profile about an outdoor & travel experience.  The post is uploaded to a map where other users can find treks near them complete with photos and comments about the destination.  While it's still a new app with few users, it's gaining traction and made a big splash at this year's Outdoor Retailer Show in Utah. 

Pros: Unique app not like any other travel and outdoor apps available.  Allows for a very social element to hikes, climbs, rides, etc. 
Cons: New app so relatively few users right now.  Not available for the Android platform.

Cost: Free

Website: www.yonder.it

4. Backpacker GPS Trails/ Trimble Outdoors Navigator: These two apps are pretty much one in the same when it comes to features and user interface.  Trimble's software powers the Backpacker app and in exchange Backpacker brings the brand power of being one of the most recognized names in outdoor sports media.  Both apps offer both a 'Lite' (free) and 'Pro' (paid) version.  These apps will be as close as you come to an actual GPS unit on the trail and can be really great for shorter trips.  The topo maps have extreme detail and multiple layers give you the ability to even input the National Weather Service radar over your hike to see when it's time to put on the rain gear. 

Pros: Excellent for trip planning and full of bells and whistles for the avid adventurer and the weekend warrior.
Cons:  Unfortunately cellphone battery technology has not caught up with these apps and it truly would suck juice to run these for many hours on end using the GPS function on your phone.

Price:  
Free & 4.99 (Backpacker GPS Trails) 
Free & 4.99 (Trimble Outdoors Navigator)

Website: www.backpacker.com & www.trimbleoutdoors.com

 

Fine dining: 5 foods great for hiking

If you've read my blog before or follow me on Twitter (ahem... you really should follow me on Twitter) you may know I'm all about the creature comforts.  While I do believe in efficient packing, I don't adhere to the ultra-light mantra.  Because of that I like to bring some tasty foods along on any trip.  To me one of the things that keeps me going while on the trail is knowing I'm going to pitch my tent someplace with a great view and be rewarded with a hot meal at dinner time or wake up with the sun and enjoy a nice hot cup of coffee.  I've compiled a list of five foods great for taking along on your next hiking trip.    

1. Coffee Creamer  
I know some prefer to drink their coffee like Fess Parker as Daniel Boone but for the rest of us who prefer a little added sweet taste, individual creamer packets are the ticket.  They're light and don't need to be refrigerated and come in a variety of flavors.  Add one or two to your coffee and it's like you're at a mountaintop Starbucks and there's a 600 pound black bear sitting at the table next to yours instead of that guy talking business on his cell phone real loud.  You can find a box of 20 at most grocery stores.  My preference is the liquid creamer over the powder.  Powder tends to get clumpy when mixed in and just doesn't taste the same.  

2. Tuna or Chicken
I know cans of tuna are nothing new but with the invention of the tuna or chicken packets it has opened up a whole new world for the dinner table of a backpacker.  You will pay a little more in the weight department for carrying meat but in my opinion it's worth it.  I've cooked tuna into my ramen noodles, made a tuna melt and stuffed it in a tortilla (see above) and made a burrito out of it.  And if you're feeling real tired at the end of the day, crack one of those packets open, throw in a little hot sauce and eat it by itself.   

3. Cheese
High in fat and a refreshing change from all the freeze dried and salty foods, cheese is a great snack during a rest stop on the trail or as a side dish with dinner.  You'll be surprised just how long cheese will keep without being refrigerated.  My personal favorite, goat cheese medallions.  You can also buy a small block of cheddar or get cheese sticks.  The nice things about the medallions and sticks is they're usually individually wrapped which means you're only opening what you're going to eat and that keeps the shelf life even longer.  Still my moto with meats and cheese on the trail... if it looks questionable don't eat it.      

4. Tortillas 
Man should not live by bread alone... tortillas are very versatile and keep very well in a tightly packed backpack.  In addition you can throw just about anything inside a tortilla shell and boom goes the dynamite, you've got an instant burrito.  I've seen people pack in tuna, ramen noodles and even smear peanut butter all over them.  I prefer to get the smaller shells as they tend to fit better than the larger ones do.  Tortillas are also great because you can get them in a variety of "flavors" such as corn, flour, wheat even spinach shells.

5. Oil
This isn't really a food (please don't try and eat this straight unless you're on day 23 of being lost in the wilderness and this all you've got) but adding a little oil can really take a dry stale meal and make it moist and taste more like something you cooked at home.  I've used oil in ramen, when making pancakes and tuna melts over my camping stove.  Get a little squeeze bottle and fill it with a few ounces of vegetable or olive oil and use it liberally.  Just don't use it in your coffee...    

What foods do you take with you on a hike?  Any cooking secrets from the trail you're willing to share?  I'm a backpacker... not a chef so I'm game for trying something new! 

 

Life lessons in backpacking: 4 things I've learned from the trail

I've come a long long way in my "trail smarts" from the first bushwhacking, backpacking trip (if you can call it that) my brother and I took to the Land Between the Lakes in southwestern Kentucky.  Sitting on the banks of Kentucky Lake with our campfire two feet from my brother's Walmart tent, we thought it didn't get much better than that.  We were hikers, no better than that, we were backpackers.  Along the way I've learned just how clueless I was then and I've picked up some valuable life lessons and morsels of advice since.  Here are four things I've learned from the trail.    

My brother preps to start a hike in Great Smoky Mountain National Park in 2007.  We hiked the Big Creek Loop in the western portion of the park.  Some of the steep trail has since been abandoned due to erosion and mud slides from heavy rainfall. 

1. Take it one step at a time: It might sound cliche' and predictable but it's one of the most important things I've learned from the trail.  In our lives often times we make a habit of looking way up the road, squinting, even straining to see what's around the bend when really what we should be focusing on is that root right in front of us that we're about to trip over.  I've been on several trips where you get so exhausted you can't do anything but think about putting one foot in front of the other.  Twenty one miles, in one day, on the Buffalo River Trail in Northern Arkansas was excruciating but I had to take it just one step at a time, because each step got me closer to camp that night.    

2. Say hello to every hiker you come in contact with: You never know when you might call upon that fellow hiker to save your butt way out in the backcountry.  I can remember doing a 22 mile loop in the western part of Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  My brother and I, still green horns in the backpacking scene, each one of us carrying about 50 pounds of gear on that overnight trek... to a shelter.  Almost none of the gear essential and we had the grand idea that we were going to boil our water over an open camp fire... it had rained hard the night before and everything was doused.  If it hadn't been for the kindness of a small group of hikers we had met earlier that day we would have been very thirsty or sick.  Instead they let us filter water with their pump and even offered us some amazing dinner they cooked up that night at camp.  Hiking and backpacking is a community and we're all at different stages of the journey.  I only hope I can return the favor to some newbie one day.

3.  Get up to watch the sunrise: It's a must do for me on every trip.  It doesn't matter if I'm in the densely wooded mountains or the wide open desert I want to be up to greet the sun and enjoy the awe inspiring view.  Too often in our lives we don't stop to take in the little things, the formalities that occur around us everyday.  We're too plugged in, too unaware to realize that we're just a small cog in this big blue spaceship orbiting the sun.  

4. Don't shower while on the trail: There are few better pleasures in life than that first shower after five days and four nights hiking in the hot desert.  Endure the smell, disregard the stickiness and dirt caked in your hair until you hit the hotel room and it's all worth the wait.  In addition, few things taste better than that first big, greasy burger once getting off the trail.  It's the small things... 

What are some things you've learned from your backpacking and hiking experiences?   

 

 

REI reevaluates its return policy

REI revises return policy.  You can no longer return your 10 year old pair of underwear because you don't like the style.  

Ok, so we all have that old piece of gear which we've worn to death for the better part of five, 10, maybe 15+ years.  Maybe it's an old puffy down vest that served us well as a mid layer on many winter hikes.  Perhaps a stove, charred black on the burner from years of flames and use.  Maybe even a pair of tattered hiking boots with a missing shoe lace from when you had to strangle a bear with your bare hands because it tried to steal one of your kids.  Whatever the gear, It has seen better days and for whatever the reason REI, arguably the largest and most popular outdoor retailer in the world has taken it back.  That's because until recently REI's return policy has been return any merchandise, anytime, no questions asked.  However now the retailer is calling foul on the more than generous policy.    

Really?  You can take in a five year old pair of gaiters because you no longer like the style and some green vested kid behind the counter will give you store credit (which is worth its weight in gold to the avid gear junkie)?  Recently I popped into my local REI during one of their garage sales they do semi-frequently and watched the feeding frenzy.  This sale is member exclusive and offers patrons the chance to buy returned merchandise at deeply discounted prices.  What I saw reinforced why REI has changed its policy.  Boots from circa 1995 that looked like they had hiked around the world several times, jackets and shirts with stains (from your camping trip dinner... not from the factory) and underwear... yes... underwear.  Reading some of the tags with descriptions on why these items were returned was rather amusing.    

"Customer didn't like the color" 

 "Not the right style"

And my favorite...  

"Nothing wrong with the item" 

Now I understand that sometimes you get something home, pull it out of the box, try it on and think... this isn't what I had in mind.  That's when it goes back to the store, NOT FIVE YEARS LATER!  How do you buy a jacket in 2010 and in 2013 decide you don't like the color?  Sure that pair of whitey tightey technical underpants was in style... in 1995... what'd you expect 10 years later and who wants your decade old briefs anyway?  

Talking to one of the employees he said there have been several people upset by REI's decision to be more conservative about the policy change.  I for one think it's disappointing that some people would take advantage of this policy and ruin it for the masses.  This is a store which already strives to treat customers (and its members especially) pretty awesome with deals throughout the year.  Its new more "conservative" return policy is one year.  Compare that time limit to most stores which vary from 30 to 90 days. Why getting sweet gear at competitive prices isn't enough... I don't know.  I for one like to see how long I can keep my gear before it absolutely disintegrates.    

What are your thoughts?  Are you ok with REI's new return policy?   

 

Five things every backpacker needs that they don’t know they need.

The greatest backpacking book of all time.  

Every trek I take, into the woods, usually begins with me remembering that one item I left off my pre-hike check list.  That one item I wish I was carrying.  That one item I’m going to think about the entire trip.  Gear lists can be thorough but I’ve compiled a few things often overlooked on most lists.  I hope this helps as you plan your next backpacking trip.    

  

1. Two tents, three sleeping bags or five jackets

When hiking you can only use one tent and one sleeping bag at a time, but multiple jackets (see layering), so it only makes sense to have a couple spare laying around.  You’ll be glad you did... especially as you get into camp and decide you want to use the green sleeping bag with the yellow tent.  Having color coordinated gear in the middle of no where is like having many leather bound books.    

2. Those little clippy things climbers use

I would recommend carrying at least five or six to be on the safe side.  They only add a couple pounds to your pack weight and you just never know when you’ll need to clip something to the outside of your pack or climb a cliff face on your trip.  Actually bring closer to 10...

3. A hand gun

Only the most serious of backpackers carry one of these when they go into the woods for a weekend outing or a two week expedition.  The space and extra weight it takes up in your pack will be well worth it when you need it to kill your dinner or a questionable “hiker” in the shelter during the night.  Carry one when you complete your through hike of the Appalachian Trail because it only takes two clips of direct hits to take down an 800 pound grizzly.  

4. Camping chair

After a long day of hiking in the wilderness, you want to be comfortable at night... right?  The more extravagant the better.  Honestly, if it doesn’t have an extendable foot rest what’s the point of bringing it.  One of those chairs with a little roof over it to keep you dry during a driving rain is also convenient.  

5. War and Peace (first edition)

After dinner but before bed there is usually a little time to get in some reading inside one of your many tents.  No one just wants to stare at the stars or watch the sunset before going to bed.  If War and Peace isn’t your thing a brick is just as interesting.      

If I’ve left off any vital items, please list them below... I want everyone to have the most extensive list possible.