Knowledge from Storms: Wheel Book May 2022 Entry

Training: Go Backpacking

I dropped my ruck in the dirt, tired from the three-mile hike. My navigation was crude, and I’d felt lost a few times but eventually found the old campsite I was seeking. I was anxious to get set up for the night and start a fire before dark because the flashlight I carried had burned out the night before, and I hadn’t brought spare batteries.

I found a comfortable-looking depression for my a-frame tent that would, to my surprise, become a puddle overnight during a thunderstorm. Sitting on the cold ground, I pulled the black watch cap farther over my ears and zipped up the insulated duck hunting jacket I’d inherited from my father. 

Hearing the chorus of crickets and hum of mosquitos made me wonder what other wildlife may be awakening for the night. A teenager’s imagination can conjure up all sorts of threats, and trying not to freak out wasn’t easy as I drank the last of my water from the aluminum Coleman canteen. 

Opening a can of Dinty Moore stew with the military P-38 opener, I wondered if I’d be able to sleep even though I was physically exhausted. I hoped I’d make it back to the trailhead in time the following day so that my mom would not be left waiting and wondering.

If climbing, skiing, or hunting in the wilderness is something you’re interested in, backpacking needs to be a central component of your preparation. It’s the core competency and foundational to all backcountry endeavors. 

Backpacking, for this discussion, is an extended hike of two or more days and at least one overnight carrying all the supplies to sustain yourself in a backpack. Backpacking allows you to focus on your “Care and Feeding” without the added distractions of a climb or high-stakes hunt. Shooting prowess, technical clothing, calling skills, and fitness amount to nothing if we can’t feed and care for ourselves and our partners in the wilderness. 

Backpacking allows us to gain experience in the backcountry without the added pressure of a tag in our pocket. It’s an excellent way to exercise new gear, break in boots, try different foods or supplements, train for more demanding trips, and even vet potential partnerships. It’s also a good way to become proficient at navigation and living unsupported out of a pack. Plan backpacking trips to areas you plan to climb, ski, and hunt, developing intel for later for follow on trips. 

It’s easy to dismiss fundamental training amid the new gear drops, summer shooting events, and calling practice but don’t lose focus. Without solid backpacking experience, you’ll not be able to sustain yourself adequately enough in the places where opportunities and adventure exist.

Backpacking is still relevant, and it’s how I started getting miles under my boots and nights under the stars. As a teenager, I had some epic failures but those trips spark fond memories and lessons, which I now realize laid the foundation for future expeditions.

I still remember the almost uncontrollable excitement of sitting in the classroom on a Friday afternoon as I anticipated the adventure on one of these weekend excursions. Plan summer backpacking trips with family and friends, creating lifetime memories of your own. Go backpacking this summer, enjoy the great outdoors, and become comfortable living in it to help find more success this fall.

Gear Locker: Chota Hip Waders & Danner Wading boots

Spring presents us with several challenges not seen as prevalently in other seasons. These challenges must be understood and planned for to hike cross-country safely. Aside from the annoyance of insects and hungry, fluctuating water levels in rivers, creeks, and flooded areas can quickly shut down a trip. 

As overnight temps bottom out in the mornings, water runoff from snowmelt is reduced, making stream crossings more manageable. However, as temperatures rise during the day, the snow and ice that froze overnight begin to melt, increasing the water volumes. This contribution can result in rapidly rising water levels and the real possibility that a small stream crossed in the pre-dawn may become impassable by evening. 

Significant spring storms are common, and a river crossed the day before can rise to a flood stage, which can be impossible to cross after overnight rain. These issues are not specific to just spring, but deep snowpacks and heavy afternoon thunderstorms pose dangerous conditions in spring if you’re not prepared.

Dynamic water levels also pose the logistical challenge of what to wear for crossing these hazards. If there’s only one small creek to cross or a sturdy log to bridge it, the issue is easy to resolve. The problem is more complex when multiple streams or hundreds of yards of flooded valleys are present, or the sturdy log gets swept downstream.

I’ve carried heavy-duty contractor bags that I’d pull from the exterior pocket of my pack, pull over my boots and pants, and slowly wade across small water. This method is cheap and efficient for slow-moving creeks and streams where you don’t require both hands for balance. However, this method does not work in fast-moving water where trekking poles or hanging onto a buddy is necessary. 

I’ve used these compact waders on Alaska caribou and spring bear trips and to remote public land Whitetail set-ups. I also have friends who are hunting guides that often use the Chota wader. These waders take up little room in the pack and can be worn all day if necessary due to their unique design.

The Chota Hip wader rolls down and stows easily around the top of a wading boot providing good ventilation, access to pant pockets, and limiting the abuse the wader takes when not deployed. When needed, the wader is conveniently unrolled and secured at the belt-line to cross water up to crotch level, leaving both hands accessible. 

Chota waders feature a water-proof laminate with a neoprene bootie and require a boot. Although hiking boots can work if sized correctly, they won’t drain or dry in the field. A sturdy wading boot is a better option for the job, but the problem is finding one suitable for hiking. Over the years, I’ve tried several wading boots, military amphibious boots, and even plastic mountaineering boot shells. 

Today’s best wading boot to me for backcountry applications is the Danner River Salt boot sold by Patagonia. It features an aggressive Vibram sole and durable leather & synthetic upper. I’ve also used the Simms G3 Guide wading boots, which provide good ankle support, but the sole is not as aggressive. 

This “wet hiking” set-up provides adequate comfort for trips with lots of water crossings or one significant obstacle to navigate like a river. It certainly won’t be as comfortable as hiking boots, yet it provides a workable solution for specific trips and environments.

When required for a single large crossing, I’ve stowed this set-up under a rock or bush, switching to hiking boots for the remainder of the trip until needing to cross back. If moving up a valley bottom with a braided river, I’ve chosen to wear this set-up the entire trip, providing me with endless navigation options and better hunting opportunities. 

Spring is a great time to hike, hunt, and forage, but the season provides logistical challenges that you must consider and factor into planning. If not, you may unexpectedly be exercising your system or be stranded high and dry.

Chota Hippies, $142.00

River Salt Wading boots, $299.00

M’s G3 Guide Wading boots, Vibram sole, $279.95

The Closet: Base Layers – The Foundation of A Clothing System

The base layer is foundational to any technical clothing system serving the vital purpose of managing moisture to help regulate the body’s temperature. Sometimes referred to as the next-to-skin layer, the base layer is a constant in a system no matter the temperature or pursuit. This layer, worn directly on the skin, should be as thin as possible to dry quickly and efficiently move moisture away.

In hot weather, the base layer pulls sweat and body heat off the skin, helping regulate temperature to stay cool via evaporative cooling. The base layer pulls moisture off the skin in cold weather, moving it to other clothing, keeping us dry and warm. The better the base layer performs, the more efficiently the body can thermoregulate, burning fewer calories and allowing us to focus on the tasks at hand. 

A base layer should not be too loose or too tight. The goal is to find a size that achieves a form-fitted result. A loose base layer doesn’t leverage maximum surface contact with the skin, inhibiting efficient moisture transfer. A tight-fitting base layer constricts capillaries, limiting blood flow to the extremities. 

Mid and heavyweight active fleece layers are not next-to-skin base layers and don’t provide the versatility or dry as quickly as a lightweight base layer. Wear heavier fleece layers on top of a base layer to provide additional warmth to a clothing system in cold weather, leaving the lightweight base layer next to your skin to perform its critical role. 

The great debate is over whether a wool or synthetic base layer is better. They both have pros and cons, and depending on the trip, individual physiology, and personal preference, the answer may change. 

Here’s a link to a video I recently did on this topic with Black Ovis. 

Synthetic vs. Merino Wool Baselayers with John Barklow

Wool has natural anti-microbial properties and manages odor better than synthetic base layers. Wool, on average, takes longer to dry than synthetics, and the wearer can feel like they’re steaming themselves dry. This clammy feeling may be uncomfortable to some, and you may find yourself chilled longer. 

Synthetic base layers manage moisture better than wool and dry quickly. Some synthetic base layers are so efficient that the wearer may feel a cooling effect as sweat evaporates from the skin. This feeling is appreciated in hot weather but may be uncomfortable for a short period in cold weather. Synthetic base layers don’t manage odor as well as wool and depending on the person, the odor-reducing treatments applied to synthetics may not work. 

Choosing which base layer to wear is Shooters Choice and comes down to personal preference. The critical point is that a base layer is the foundational component of a technical clothing system no matter the time of year or activity.


Elk Talk Ep 89: Hunting & Surviving – Knowledge Weighs Nothing

John talks with Randy & Corey about the Lesson Learned from Corey’s recent Alaskan elk hunt. We dig deep into all the things needed to survive and thrive in very dynamic and dangerous environments.

Below is a link to the Alaskan elk hunt. It’s a great film to learn from and take notes for training and future adventures.

Harvest Holliday Podcast: Land Navigation Basics

John talks with Jason Holliday about land navigation basics and how to train in the spring to prepare for fall adventures

The Word: Backcountry Partners – A Shared Trust

I looked over my shoulder as a massive avalanche exploded from the icy summit picking up huge rocks and snow as it plunged 5500′, wiping the face clean. Upon impacting the glacier, a massive powder cloud erupted and sped towards our small camp half a mile away. The snow crossed crevasses, consumed our base camp, and raced toward the mountain I was climbing with two friends.

We were amazed at the magnitude and violence of the spectacle and wondered if our camp had survived. Hanging from the anchor, we got a drink and tried to focus on the next steep rock and ice pitch above. Minutes later, as we racked up, the snow settled, and we were relieved to see our bright orange and yellow tents still standing.

Three of us had flown into the Alaska range on a two-week climbing and skiing trip a few days prior. We’d known each other for many years and shared adventures, but this expedition was the first we’d all partnered together. Massive glaciers, towering peaks, marginal satellite communications, and arctic temperatures added an increased level of commitment we’d not experienced before.

The trip was successful in many respects. We climbed two of our three objectives, skied dozens of glaciated miles pulling sleds, validated our technical proficiencies in an unforgiving environment, and pushed ourselves past previous limits. However, we lacked a love for each other and a shared commitment to sacrifice for the team’s sake. When the stakes are high, this is what’s required to succeed and often survive.

The expedition changed each of us in ways none could communicate at the time. Flying back to Talkeetna, I believe we each privately knew the partnership had run its course. We weren’t stronger together than we were individually, and each was moving into different growth phases.

Great backcountry partnerships bring out the best in each person, allowing the group to perform at a higher level than each individual could on their own. Don’t mistake partners with friends. Friendship is not necessarily an indicator of a reliable partner or strong team member. I have some great friends, but that alone is not enough to assume a fruitful partnership in the mountains.

Talents, desires, and life circumstances may conspire against a friendship to achieve specific goals. Partners must be committed to the same style, willingness to suffer, and exposure to dangers. Great partners trust each other with their lives.

The Alaska trip marked the end of one friendship and laid the foundation for the destruction of the other. Processing my inadequacies and failures later, I reassessed my motivations and goals, embarking on many years of solo endeavors. This cathartic and successful, albeit dangerous, period allowed me to process my bullshit and come to terms with my shortcomings. I’d been a shitty partner on numerous trips, letting my petty issues conspire to limit the group’s potential.

Some partnerships are best for specific trips based on individual talents. I’ve had great success with partners I didn’t like. We used each other to achieve individual goals, but those trips always felt hollow.

Healthy, successful, long-term partnerships are rare. Aligning talents, goals, personalities, and available time is a substantial challenge. Similar commitments to training, ethics, and standards are difficult to find. Poor teams drag each individual’s performance down, making for a miserable experience. If you find a great partner, consider yourself lucky and enjoy the ride.

Aligning goals reduces frustration, arguments, lost time, and opportunities. There will be arguments if one person’s looking for any decent opportunity while the other seeks only a particular age, class, or size of animal. I’ve had partners who were completely selfish and incorrigible if they didn’t kill their target buck, making everyone around them suffer.

Understanding the shared commitment to the cause is essential. How far is the group willing to push for success? Is each committed to looking over the next ridge or missing a meal at camp? I’ve been upset with partners because they’d not trained with the same commitment and couldn’t sustain the grind. I’ve also been the weak link vowing it would never happen again.

A partner who’ll give up an opportunity at success to help the other achieve their goals demonstrates a strong bond. A few years ago, I passed a bull early on a hunt to help a friend kill a bull ending his six-year drought. I may have been happier than he was at that moment. He then gave up an additional week of work to call for me and help me fill my tag.

A solid partnership leverages each person’s strengths acting as a force multiplier. One person may be a better caller for locating and set-ups, and another may be more experienced in a particular environment to plan the trip. A friend of mine is incredible at land navigation, seeing things on the map that I can’t. When we’re on a trip, he’s the default navigator. This approach is not an excuse to train less but to leverage the natural abilities of the partnership.

The dynamics of individual personalities sometimes don’t align for success. An all-star baseball team has many talented players, but that doesn’t necessarily make them great. Does the partnership have a natural leader, or does each person step up to lead when required? Are decisions made as a team, or is a dominant personality getting their way? Using peer pressure to force your partner into doing something you want at his expense is not a sign of a healthy partnership.

We all need encouragement, but the team’s well-being should outweigh individual agendas in the backcountry. Admitting you’re not feeling well and require more rest breaks is critical to health. We’ve all had miserable days in the wilderness suffering from the altitude, dehydration, or sickness. A partner who’d dismiss these issues for personal goals is dangerous.

I’ve had to help several partners out of the mountains, ill from altitude sickness, render medical treatment to wounds and sit in camp tending them when sick. I’ve also relied on partners to help me when injured and cook food when ill with the flu.

We all seek different experiences as we go through various phases of life. Partnerships can grow stale and fade, and that’s ok. The best thing to do is to be honest, as there’s a good chance that each person is feeling the same way.

I’ve had a few great partners, but it took time to nurture and years of investment before they paid off. If you find a great partner, consider yourself lucky as they are the red thread that ties wilderness experiences together, making them memorable and rewarding.