All posts by jrahtz24

Solo backpacking cook sets: light or ultralight?

It’s a cold damp November morning and beyond enjoying the fire and watching the snow, I thought it would be a good time to compare a couple solo cook sets. This could considered to be a comparison between a light and an ultralight option. Specifically, I’m evaluating the GSI Pinnacle Soloist (light) and the Snow Peak Titanium Mini Solo (Ultralight).

GSI (left) and Snow Peak cook sets

I’ve used a version of the GSI soloist for several years and several through hikes. It’s definitely held up well. My only issue was a late night dinner when I forgot to remove the plastic bowl before setting it on the stove. The non-stick surface worked well when I had to remove the melted plastic.

The insulated bowl nests inside the pot

My older version does not have any volume markings so I would typically bring a “heavy” Nalgene bottle along to measure out water for cooking. The new version is made with volume markings to help with measuring water, a plus. The new model also includes GSI’s Foon, their take on the spork. (The foon is no reason to buy this kit.) The rest appears to be the same as my outfit. It weighs 10.2 oz with the included stuff sack/sink. Since the handle locks everything together, I’ve never understood the point of the sack/sink so what I carry weighs an ounce less.

The kit nests together well with a fuel canister, small stove, folding spoon and lighter. The pot holds approximately 37 oz. The lid fits well and can also be used as a strainer. The bowl is insulated and keeps oatmeal warm for a surprisingly long amount of time on a cold morning. If having a cup of coffee is important to you, you need to bring a cup. Otherwise it’s a bowl of coffee.

The aluminum construction and coatings are designed to disburse heat and eliminate hot spots. It’s better than others I’ve used in that regard, but you still need to be careful when creating meals more complicated than boiling water. The updated kit is now at REI for $54.95

A more Ultralight option is the Snow Peak Titanium Mini Solo. I’ve used this kit on a few trips now. This also packs up pretty well, though it may rattle a bit in its mesh bag. A small canister, stove and lighter also nest in the kit, though my spoon has needed to find a new home. The pot holds 30 oz. The cup can be used for either oatmeal or coffee and is well marked with volume graduations. It’s also sized pretty well, holding over 18 oz. The real selling point of this kit is weight, coming in at 6 ¾ oz. The kit is selling for $75.95 at REI.

Handy volume markings on the Snow Peak cup

In actual use, the GSI  brings water to a boil faster. The GSI took two minutes to boil 16 oz of room temperature water compared to nearly 2 ½ minutes in the Snow Peak. My only thought was the larger diameter of the GSI meant the water was shallower and thus easier to quickly heat. No big deal on a short trip, but longer trips may require carrying extra fuel, negating the Snow Peak’s weight advantage. Once the water is boiling, grabbing the handle on the GSI pot is also less risky than the Snow Peak; as it’s longer and better insulated.

Here’s my full comparison on YouTube.

Which kit is better for you? It depends on your priorities. If you’re counting every gram and resupply often enough to make sure fuel isn’t an issue, then the Snow Peak may be the best choice. On the other hand, if saving a few bucks are important, you worry about running out of fuel, you cook meals that require some time on simmer, or if you really want to use a “Foon,” go with the GSI.

Luckily, I own both kits so I can switch depending upon the trip. Actually though, My “go to” kit may just be the GSI pot with the Snow Peak cup nestled inside. The best of both worlds?

Trail Report: The Smokemont Loop

Now that Great Smoky Mountain National Park is back open, and within driving distance for so many, they are having record visitation. On a recent trip, I could have tried a more popular trail, going for big views like on Chimney tops, or Mt LeConte, but based on the packed parking lots, a quiet hike immersed in nature would have been all but impossible. Instead, I gave up iconic views and headed for the Smokemont Loop, a 6 mile circle located near the southern end of the park.

Here’s my video version of the hike.

The hike itself starts within the Smokemont Campground, near the end of Loop D. Instead of hundreds of cars filling large parking lots and lining the roads, there were just a few cars in the designated hiker lot.

The route begins right by the lot on Bradley Fork Trail,  at about 2,200 feet in elevation. Although the loop eventually climbs to over 3,500 feet, The first 1.7 miles are wide and relatively flat, following the creek. Certainly the creek is an early highlight. Keep your eyes open as the trail is also used by horses and a few had left their calling card.

I’ve read the trail can be muddy at times, but after several dry days, there were no problems in that regard. Just over a mile in, the trail hits an intersection with Chasteen Creek Trail. A very short distance up this side trail is one of the parks designated back country campsites, Number 50 for those keeping track. It’s a very nice site with water nearby, flat spots to camp, tree stump tables and even cables to hoist your food up and away from bears or any other critters that might have designs on it. As this might be the easiest back country campsite to reach in the entire park, it would be a great spot for that first time camper.

Another half mile or so, Bradley Fork Trail intersects with Smokemont  loop trail and immediately crosses Bradley Fork on a long log bridge, an interesting crossing.

Soon thereafter, the trail leaves the creek, cuts into the deeper woods and starts climbing. While the climb is very noticable, it remains moderate, with a few switchbacks when needed. Despite being late September, a few summer wildflowers were still hanging on to provide a bit of interest during the uphill trudge.

It is mainly a walk through a green tunnel, though there were glimpses of views. I’m assuming a winter hike on the trail would be significantly better in that regard.

After a bit over 1 1/2 miles of moderate climbing, 3+ miles total, the trail tops out at around 3600 feet. A log had been thoughtfully placed at the spot and worked out as a great spot for a break and a snack before continuing on.

Had I been a little quicker with the camera, I’d have a new bear photo to share.  I came around a corner and as soon as we noticed each other, the bear took off running.

From elsewhere in the park

As the trail drops back down, there are a few more open shots, but mostly just more pleasant hiking through a green tunnel.

Eventually, the trail winds its way back down, hits a service road and follows along Bradley Fork for a bit. Throughout the stream there were a few folks trout fishing.

Soon the service road dumps you back into the campground. Hang a left and stroll for a bit until you get back to loop D and your vehicle, just over 6 miles from when you started.

While the Smokemont loop doesn’t provide much in the way of expansive views, it’s a great break from the crowds that are rediscovering GSMNP. I saw almost as many bears as other people, and that makes for a good day in my book.

What about bears?

A variation of this article first appeared on TheTrek.co

Hiking through Glacier National Park, my wife Michelle and I had already seen multiple bears that day. Michelle had a more than healthy respect for the animals. I, on the other hand, was complaining that I still had not gotten a really good picture of one. Just then, she whispered, “Bear!” and quickly started moving away from the cute ball of fur (black bear) that had run right past us. My mind registered only, “Hey, a cub!” as I pulled out the camera.

Seconds later, from a distance I heard a shout of, “Keep walking!”

I then realized my folly and started laughing at my own stupidity. From an even greater distance I then heard, “You’re not taking this very seriously!”

I thought to myself, “No, I guess I’m not,” then finally began to leave the area.

As with most bear encounters, we lived to tell the tale, but were we really in any danger? Should backpackers and thru-hikers be worried about bears while on the trail? I resolved to find out.

Black Bear or Grizzly?

For starters, there are two very different species of bears living in the Continental United States. Much less prevalent and with a smaller range is the grizzly bear (U. a. horribilis). Grizzlies are found in the northern Rocky Mountains (Yellowstone area and north) as well as the Bitteroot Mountains. Most U.S. bears are black bears (Ursus americanus). Any bear you see on the AT will be a black bear. While in theory, Grizzlies could be at the very northern edge of the PCT, there has only been one verified sighting in the northern Cascades this century. So, it’s a safe bet that if you see a bear on the PCT, it will also be a black bear. That being the case, let’s concentrate on black bears.

Not all black bears are black

Black bears are spread throughout the U. S. with populations in 41 of the 50 states. The total population is estimated to be around 750,000 in North America. An adult typically weighs between 125 and 500 pounds, though there’s a captive male living at the North American Bear Center that tips the scales at close to 1,000 pounds.

If you’re hiking the AT or the PCT, chances are you will see a black bear at some point. There are an estimated 30,000 bears living in California and an estimated 1,500 just in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. When on these trails, you are in the bear’s home. Some of my most exciting moments on the trail involved bear sightings but, is it dangerous to share the woods with them?

Dangerous?

Statistically and relatively speaking, the answer is a resounding no. From 2000 to 2019 there have been 9 deaths by black bear attacks in the lower 48. Of those, 3 involved either feeding a bear or joining one in a cage. Counting those in the wild, it works out to roughly one death every three years.  By contrast, just last year there were 20 people killed by lightning (a low year) in the U.S.

In an average year, over 3,000 people drown.

Over 36,000 die annually in motor vehicle accidents

In 2017, 89 people were killed in the U.S. by bees, wasps and hornets.

Typically, between 30 and 50 people are killed each year by dogs. (Also known as “man’s best friend.)

Heck, according to the Washington Post, in a six year period through 2017, over 250 people had died while taking selfies. (if someone died while taking a selfie with a bear, I’m not sure which list they ended up on.)

To get some specifics, I spoke with Lynn Rogers, the Founder and Board Chair of the North American Bear Center. He has been studying and working with bears since 1967. It may come as a bit of a surprise to those that have grown up reading about bear attacks in outdoor magazines, but black bears are actually a rather docile species under most circumstances. In fact, Rogers stated that black bears are reluctant to even defend their cubs from people. “The greatest misconception about black bears is that they are likely to attack people in defense of cubs.  They are highly unlikely to do this. In fact, there’s never been a documented case of anyone being killed by a black bear defending her cubs”

Momma with cub waaay up a tree.

Grizzly bears react completely different to threats to their cubs and are the cause of this, and other misconceptions. The fact is that few people differentiate between the two species, but lumping them together results in unwarranted confusion and fear.

A black bear’s typical reaction to meeting a hiker on the trail is to turn and run. Even those that act more aggressively with vocalizing or slamming their paw to the ground are doing so out of nervousness. Slowly backing away will give the bear the space it wants.

So, if you see a black bear on the trail, what should you do? Per Rogers, “Basically, enjoy it.  We like to make ourselves inconspicuous to watch them longer before they discover us and run….We have seen a lot of advice to avoid eye contact and avoid running away, but we have been unable to find any instance where doing these things has precipitated an attack.  Fearful people usually tell us ‘I ran one way and the bear ran the other.’”

All that being said, there is still the rare black bear that is aggressive and will attack a human. Rogers estimates that these bears are literally one in a million. In addition, bears that are exposed to people (like those that live near trails) are even less likely to be aggressive than those that live where they rarely see a person. Despite the “one in a million” odds, attacks happen.

Dealing with that “rare” bear

If a black bear appears aggressive, the National Park Service recommends the following:

If a bear persistently follows or approaches you, without vocalizing, or paw swatting, Change your direction. If the bear continues to follow you, stand your ground. Act aggressively to intimidate the bear. Talk loudly or shout at it. Throw non-food objects such as rocks at the bear. Use a deterrent such as a stout stick. Act together as a group if you have companions. Make yourselves look as large as possible (for example, move to higher ground). Don’t run and don’t turn away from the bear. Don’t leave food for the bear; this encourages further problems.

If the bear’s behavior indicates that it is after your food and you are physically attacked, Separate yourself from the food and slowly back away.

If the bear shows no interest in your food and you are physically attacked, the bear may consider you as prey, Fight back aggressively with any available object! Do not play dead!

Rogers recommends carrying pepper spray, (The small containers designed for dog protection are plenty strong.) He has tested the spray extensively on black bears. If a bear does act aggressive around you or your food, pepper spray solves the problem quickly and safely. When hit with the spray, the bear “doesn’t go away mad, it just goes away.”

Studies have shown pepper spray has a higher success rate at stopping aggressive bears than even a gun. In addition, no one needs to make an accurate shot under duress. Just keep spraying. If you accidentally hit your fellow hiker, no permanent damage. Plus, the bear is not killed, but has learned a valuable lesson to fear humans. One note of caution, pepper spray is a chemical irritant to be used on the bear. It is not a repellent to be sprayed on yourself or your gear. Apparently bears like the smell and have been known to come into camp to roll on tents that have been sprayed.

Despite the extremely low odds of attack, it is still very important to continue to protect your food from black bears, whether through use of a bear canister, a bear locker or cables where available, or bear bagging everything that smells like it could be food. Doing so protects the bear as well as yourself. Bears are smart, resourceful animals that learn from experience. If a bear successfully gets food from a person once, it will try it again, quickly raising the odds of a conflict between the bear and people that it now sees as a food source. Bears that have been rewarded for interacting with people quickly become “problem” bears. Relocation of problem bears is expensive and has a low success rate. Quite often, the decision is made to eradicate the problem bear. As the saying goes, a fed bear is a dead bear.

NPS photo   Creating problem bears in the “old days.”

Some additional rumors to put to rest:

There is no evidence that menstruating draws any additional interest from bears.

Black bears are not always black. They can be brown, cinnamon, and rarely, even white.

There have been no studies to show that, if attacked by a bear, crapping oneself will deter the bear.

Bears will go anywhere they can find food. Don’t help them become problem bears.

Black Bears are neither the roving monsters they are often portrayed to be, nor are they cute teddy bears to attempt to feed or take a selfie with. They are wild animals trying to survive and mostly avoid humans. If we treat them as they are, both us and them can safely coexist.

Featured image courtesy of the North American Bear Center.